Gustave Courbet and the Romantics: Chateau de Chillon

18 May

The rain had been falling incessantly these past few days and it truly makes me feel as if I were a heroine in a Gothic novel, roaming the dark corridors of some castle dressed in a long Regency white gown, or exploring the dusty old chambers with a candle in my hand, admiring the old portraits and hearing echoes of music reverberate in the spiderwebs.

Gustave Courbet, Chateau de Chillon, 1873

I thought of a painting which befitted the mood of this strange and gloomy spring weather and the Gothic-novel mood that I am in right now: Chateau de Chillon by Gustave Courbet. To paint a castle seems like an oddly romantical choice of motif for a Realist painter, and yet Courbet painted many different versions of this scene in the 1870s. That was during his time spend in Switzerland on a self-imposed exile to avoid bankruptcy, near the end of his life; he died on the last day of 1877. Courbet’s Realism wasn’t only about portraying reality exactly as it was, it was more about being directly inspired by the world around him, by the things he saw with his own eyes and not things conjured by his imagination. All sorts of romantic scenarios and fantasies are born in my mind as I gaze at this castle, but to Courbet it was simply a delightful scene that he saw and decided to capture on canvas. In this case, it is on the viewer to add a dreamy context to the scene, while the painter stayed rather objective.

Chateau de Chillon is a Medieval island-castle situated on the lake Geneva in Switzerland. Its rich history and sublime beauty made it a popular tourist destination in the nineteenth century as well as today. Aesthetically it is very happily situated: just imagine gliding down the lake’s smooth surface and seeing this sight: an old castle with many towers and dungeons, where every stone tells a story and literally so: (upon visiting the castle, Lord Byron carved his name on one of the pillars in the dungeon, and he did the same thing in Greece, talking about arrogance), situated on the shore of the glistening lake, with the Alps in the background…

My favourite Courbet’s rendition of the castle is the one above, perhaps because it was the first one I have seen, but also because out of all the versions it looks the least picturesque and it is the most expressive and vivid; the brushstrokes seem less fine and everything is more pronounced, more wild; the water of the lake is hitting the shore in maddening waves, the brown stone on the shore looks tangible and rough, the thin bare trees are carried away by the wild wind, Alps in the background have a serious stoic face of someone old and righteous, the dark troubled clouds are a dazzling play of white and grey, a storm is coming and the rains will once again wash the old stones of Chateau de Chillon which have seen and heard things unimaginable.

Gustave Courbet, The Château de Chillon, 1874

Gustave Courbet, The Château de Chillon, c. 187477

Now, as I am taking more time to gaze at other versions, I am also loving the one right one, from 1874-77, because of its subtle lyrical beauty. The castle seems very accurately portrayed here and looks like something out of a romantic fairy-tale and less like a place with a dark history, and also, the lake looks ethereal and you can even see the reflection of the castle in the water. This version is musical and gentle, calm and idyllic. Still, Courbet wasn’t the first artist who discovered the castle’s charms; more than half a century before Courbet, the Romantics travelled the continent and explored interesting places. Castles, ruins overgrown with ivy and all sorts of abandoned places captures the imagination of the Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary. The three visited the castle in Visiting the castle, especially its dungeons inspired Lord Byron to write “The Prisoner of Chillon”, first published in 1816, and observations of the castle appear in the travel narrative called History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni” written by Percy and Mary Shelley and published in 1817. Here are some fascinating passages from Mary’s letters:

On my return, after breakfast, we sailed for Clarens, determining first to see the three mouths of the Rhone, and then the castle of Chillon; the day was fine, and the water calm. We passed from the blue waters of the lake over the stream of the Rhone, which is rapid even at a great distance from its confluence with the lake; the turbid waters mixed with those of the lake, but mixed with them unwillingly. (…)

Map of two trips described in “History of a Six Weeks’ Tour”, from 1814 and 1816

Mary continues with descriptions of darker aspects of the castle:

We passed on to the Castle of Chillon, and visited its dungeons and towers. These prisons are excavated below the lake; the principal dungeon is supported by seven columns, whose branching capitals support the roof. Close to the very walls, the lake is 800 feet deep; iron rings are fastened to these columns, and on them were engraven a multitude of names, partly those of visitors, and partly doubtless of the prisoners, of whom now no memory remains, and who thus beguiled a solitude which they have long ceased to feel. One date was as ancient as 1 670. At the commencement of the Reformation, and indeed long after that period, this dungeon was the receptacle of those who shook, or who denied the systeA of idolatry, from the effects of which mankind is even now slowly emerging.

Close to this long and lofty dungeon was a narrow cell, and beyond it one larger and far more lofty and dark, supported upon two unornamented arches. Across one of these arches was a beam, now black and rotten, on which prisoners were hung in secret. I never saw a monument more terrible of that cold and inhuman tyranny, which it has been the delight of man to exercise over man. It was indeed one of those many tremendous fulfilments which render the “pernicies humani generis” of the great Tacitus, so solemn and irrefragable a prophecy. The gendarme, who conducted us over this castle, told us that there was an opening to the lake, by means of a secret spring, connected with which the whole dungeon might be filled with water before the prisoners could possibly escape!

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Francoise Hardy – Waiting for the Muse

16 May

I recently stumbled upon these photographs of Francoise Hardy taken by Jean-Marie Périer in 1964 and I wanted to share them because they are interesting. I love the sixties, I love some of her music that I’ve listened to, but also these five pictures on their own are fascinating because they show a creative process that an artist goes through; from feeling bored and uninspired, to writing and trying and being disappointed and giving up, and trying again, until that something you are working on feels right. I am sure anyone reading this and seeing these pics who is also an artist in one way or another can relate.

Giorgio de Chirico – Melancholy and Mystery of a Street

14 May

In this post we’ll take a look at Italian Metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico’s perhaps most well-known painting called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street” and the way its portrayal of space and mood connect to some scenes from Vítězslav Nezval’s Surrealist novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders”.

Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

When we think of melancholy, mysterious and lonely streets and squares in art, Chirico must be the first painter to come to mind. He painted many such scenes with cold sharply precise architecture and a strange almost sinister mood, and a well known example is the painting above called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”. I hesitate to call it an urban scene, even though it is a city and not countryside, because it belongs completely into a world of its own, with unique logic and moods which have nothing in common with our world. At first sight, his paintings look similar to the world we live in, but then the strangeness start lurking from the shadows and we cannot help but notice the isolated and creepy mood of the street. A white building with a repetitive row of arches, disproportions, shadows… One can almost feel a deep layer of silence and then a strange giggle coming from afar, as the shadow starts growing bigger until it covers the whole square. And yet, Chirico’s paintings manage to stay lyrical despite their coldness. Another work of art which has a world of its own is Vitezslav Nezval’s novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1934, at the height of Surrealist movement in Czechia, and published a decade later. Partly inspired by Surrealism and the dream theory, and partly by the tradition of the Gothic novel, Nezval’s novel is a beautiful contradiction in mood and themes. While some motifs are ever so romantic and gloomy such as the vault, long corridors, crypts, burial sights, others brings an anxious mood of dreams that is more reminiscent of Chirico’s paintings, especially the beginning of the Chapter V called “Losing the Way”:

Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted. When she glanced at one of the locked gates, a missionary appeared to her standing in front of it. She left the square and entered the square. Her legs were tired and were leading her on her own, while her spirit wandered like that of someone sleeping. Over one doorway she noticed a cluster of grapes held in the beak of a dove. Then she was alarmed by four windows that seemed to have been forged from a storm. She thought she heard a groan. Her eyes settled on a tall gas lamp with moths fluttering around it. But the groan came again. Having circled the square, she suddenly found herself just a few steps from the lamp and saw to her amazement a terrifying image: tied to the lam’s base was a girl, emitting plaints from deep in her throat. As Valerie stepped up closer, she recognised her clothes, which were torn in several places.

Scene from Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

Naturally, the small square of a picturesque Czech village that Valerie has found herself on has nothing to do architecturally with Chirico’s classical and monumental Italian squares. It’s Valerie’s inner state, her emotions, fear and curiosity which give the square a slightly nightmarish mood. It’s not what she sees in front of her, it’s how she feels within that is projected on on the outside. Space in Chirico’s paintings is illogical to the eyes of grown ups, but to Valerie it isn’t unusual because she still sees things from children’s point of view, or rather, she is in the middle; just like the girl in the painting, childhood is behind her and she is walking slowly towards the shadowy figure; the adulthood. This connects to something that Chirico himself said: “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Alas, So long!

12 May

Half-Italian and half-mad, the Pre-Rapahelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born on this day in 1828 in London, and here is one of his poems called “Alas, So Long!”. I felt the mood of John William Waterhouse’s painting “Miranda” carries the same melancholy mood of longing and hope.

John William Waterhouse, Miranda, 1875

Alas, So Long!

AH! dear one, we were young so long,
It seemed that youth would never go,
For skies and trees were ever in song
And water in singing flow
In the days we never again shall know.
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, I’ve been old so long,
It seems that age is loth to part,
Though days and years have never a song,
And oh! have they still the art
That warmed the pulses of heart to heart?
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, you’ve been dead so long,—
How long until we meet again,
Where hours may never lose their song
Nor flowers forget the rain
In glad noonlight that never shall wane?
Alas, so long!
Ah! shall it be then Spring weather,
And ah! shall we be young together?

George Hitchcock: An American in Tulip Land

9 May

One of the most thrilling sensations I have experienced this spring was falling in love – with tulips. And today, here is a painter who painted tulips: George Hitchcock.

George Hitchcock, Holland, Hyacinth Garden, 1890

One of the most thrilling sensations I have experienced this spring was falling in love – with tulips. Never before had I seen them in all their beauty and splendour. Tall, slim, and lonely, each growing on their own stem, yet very near to each other. Thick, lush, juicy petals. Their heavy velvet attire comes in all sorts of colours; red, pink, yellow, orange, white, dark purple which almost looks black. They look equally lovely regardless of where they grow, in elegant parks or simple gardens in the suburbs. My heart ached for tulips the whole April! Their absence from my life, and my vase, tinged my days with sorrow and yearning. My tulipless existence was unbearable. Then at last, two gorgeous crimson red tulips found a new home in my vase. And what a thrill to gaze at them, their bright uplifting colour, their dance of petals, opening and closing, opening and closing, as if they were dancers on stage practicing choreography. What else to say – a tulip, isn’t the word itself just beautiful on the tongue. Tuuulip.

Like many other nineteenth century American artists, George Hitchcock (1850-1913) also traveled to Europe and took full advantage of the beautiful scenery that was around him. Unlike others who found a new home in Paris, Hitchcock moved to the Netherlands – the land of tulip fields and crazy artists who cut their ear off – as we all know, and was very inspired by the beauties of cultivated nature around him and the slow and peaceful everyday life in the countryside. He did study in Paris for awhile, but the calling of his muse to come to the Netherlands proved to have been hard to ignore. Hitchcock’s portrayal of flower fields shows his Impressionist fascination with nature and also his great observations of the place. Fascination with flowers, their vibrancy and beauty, is present in all his painting, whether it’s a landscape where there the flowers occupy the central place or just a genre scene from everyday life. We have a painting of a bride in a traditional attire, and behind her yellow and purple tulips are fighting for attention. She is even holding pink tulips in her hands. Portrayals of flower girls dressed in sombre grey dresses, and carrying flowers on their shoulders, with a background of a windmill or nature, are equally charming and bring to mind the idyllic atmosphere that must have ruled the countryside. And ending with the painting “Vanquished” where the principal figure is a defeated knight, with his head down and his flag touching the ground, but again the flowers are overwhelming with their beauty and bright colours.

George Hitchcock, Tulip Culture, 1889

And here is a little poem by Emily Dickinson, a friend and a lover of flowers who loved tending to her garden and pressing flowers. I especially like the line “I touched her cradle mute”, how very haunting!

The Tulip

SHE slept beneath a tree

Remembered but by me.

I touched her cradle mute;

She recognized the foot,

Put on her carmine suit, —

And see!

George Hitchcock, Dutch woman in a garden, c.1890

George Hitchcock, Bloemenveld, 1890

George Hitchcock, Dutch Bride, 1890

George Hitchcock, Flower Girl In Holland, 1890

George Hitchcock, A Dutch Flower Girl, 1890

George Hitchcock, Vanquished, 1890

My Favourite Books Ever

7 May

One of the most asked questions I get here on the blog is about my reading tastes and books that I can recommend, so I decided to make a list of my favourite books to satisfy your curiosity once and for all. My reading tastes are somewhat eclectic, I am aware of that, and even though I don’t read that many books I tend to enjoy most of them so it was quite hard to chose the most beloved ones. If I don’t like a book, I will just stop reading it and it’s that simple. So when I do proceed with reading the book, that is already a sure sign I enjoy it. Also, I’ve put links to the posts which are either book reviews or something similar connected with the book. If you’ve enjoyed any of these books, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Ivan Kramskoy, Books Got Her, 1872

  1. Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

2. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez

3. Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

4. No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

5. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

6. Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez

7. Tristessa, by Jack Kerouac

8. Journal of Love: Henry and June, also the second part called Journal of Love: Incest, by Anais Nin

9. Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas

10. Prozac Nation, by Elizabeth Wurtzel

11. Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

12. Girl, Interrupted, by Susana Kaysen

13. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

14. Novel with Cocaine, by Mihail Ageyev

15. Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky

16. Naomi, by Junichiro Tanizaki

17. The Three-Cornered World, by Natsume Soseki

18. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

19. Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

20. Love in the Times of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez

21. Norwegian Woods, by Haruki Murakami

22. Mathilda, by Mary Shelley

23. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

24. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

25. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

26. Letters to Milena, by Franz Kafka

27. The Fall of the House of Usher, and other stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe

28. Short story “Broken Blossoms” by Thomas Burke

Rogelio de Egusquiza – The End of the Ball

5 May

“I am like a winged creature who is too rarely allowed to use its wings. Ecstasies do not occur often enough.”

(Anais Nin)

Rogelio de Egusquiza, The End of the Ball, 1879

Dear diary,

All was quiet in the salon, but laughter, loud voices of drunk guests and music were coming from the ballroom. I had too much champagne and my cheeks were burning so I retreated to the salon for a while. The enveloping silence seemed strange after the noise in the ballroom. My heart was beating loudly under the corset laced so tightly that it made me wonder how it would beat at all. I reclined on the sofa and laid my head on my hand. Warm orange light from the lamp on the end table cast a warm glow on the chamber and I easily sank into reverie. The gorgeous pink tulle dress adorned with crimson red roses that I had made especially for the occasion made me feel as if I were a capricious butterfly flying from flower to flower, dancing with one gentleman and then with the other. But now its stiffness made it hard to breathe and I couldn’t wait to take it off. The roses which were fresh and fragrant just this afternoon were now withered. The soft fabric was now soaked with my sweat and heavy perfume. My aching feet longed to walk freely on the fur carpet, their silk confinement was tormenting, but how they made me dance with Julio but moments ago! I knew he would come, even though mama hoped he wouldn’t.

My heart was beating so fast when I saw him approaching me; so tall and slim, dressed in a dark suit in the latest fashion, with his silky chestnut hair and dark eyes that seemed to look through me. He took my hand and the orchestra started playing again a beautiful tune which brought tears to my eyes, for it filled me with ecstasy and melancholy at the same time. I felt Julio’s warmth so close to my body, and yet I could feel his absence as well. I was too aware that the music would stop, the dance end and we would part until… who knew? Julio was unpredictable with his travels, I never knew when and if his next letter would arrive, and what other ladies held his attention. I longed to join him in his travels, but I knew I was too weak, weak and scared of life I would be no companion. I felt his strong arm around my waist as the music carried us in swirls across the room. The scent of flowers in the air mingled with the rich manly smell of Julio’s body. Minutes felt like a dream. I followed his steps and laid my head on his shoulder. I wondered whether he would inhale the scent of my hair.

I wondered what he was thinking, but dared not assume that this moment held as much importance to him as it did to me. Julio was a man that didn’t belong to anyone, and I was but a girl who longed for the ecstasies in life; a winged creature who was too rarely allowed to use its wings. These kind of ecstasies did not occur often enough. I knew that the very next day I would be sitting in the drawing room and doing embroidery under mother’s watchful eyes, and I felt tears swelling in my eyes when I compared the endless rapture of the moment with the boredom that awaits me, from dawn to dusk. Such was my life, perhaps one day I would dare to sail the seas that I dream of and that Julio had told me about. But at that moment, breathing the same air as Julio, nothing else existed for me but the pure delight of his presence. I softly sank my nails into the fabric of his coat and sighed: I wish this moment would never end… But I could hear the orchestra’s playing was getting quieter and the enchanting tune was slowly drawing to an end. I closed my eyes and…

Your Isabel

Rogelio de Egusquiza, A reverie during the ball, 1879

Here is a photograph that Rogelio de Egusquiza used to paint the painting