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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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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.

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

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

Ghostly Pastel Portraits by John Corbet

2 May

These ghostly pastels by a contemporary artist John Corbet recently caught my attention. I was speechless at first and captivated by these eerie and mysterious portraits which kept haunting me until I felt compelled to write about them. Their faces seem mute and haunting, but if you look at them more closely, you will know that each has a story to tell.

Pastel Ghost Bearing Flowers

In Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human”, which is one of my favourite books ever, the main character Oba Yozo revels in secretly making ghostly self-portraits which he doesn’t show to anyone, except in that one rare occasion when he shows it to his friend Takeichi, the only person he thinks could possibly understand the strangeness of his art. It was Takeichi who started the topic of “ghost pictures” in the first place:

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. (…) I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

Ghost Portrait: The Monk

The idea of “ghost pictures” immediately struck me and long after I had finished reading the novel it lingered on my mind. Since that moment, I have been searching for art that has the same ghostly quality and mood. I found it in the elongated melancholic faces of Modigliani’s women, George Seurat’s conté crayon shadowy figures, and now again in these pastel portraits by John Corbet. The pastel above called “The Monk” instantly captivated me because the face is so shadowy and undefined; it looks haunting and mute, and yet, when I gaze in those eyes and that mouth, so black and small against the yellowish face, I have a feeling that he longs to speak and that if I gazed at his face long enough, I would hear the words in a hushed lonely voice coming from some other realm, in a language unknown to my ears. Notice the soft thrilling touches of blue on his face. This deliberate vagueness of expression and the soft undefined contours give these portraits their allure and the ghostly quality because one can tell they are not just ordinary portraits of people. Unmistakably they belong to some other world, whether it’s the invisible world of the spirits all around us, or the realm of dreams. Theme of ghosts or otherworldly creatures is dear to my heart. I often have nightmares, and the world I inhabit there is dark, chilling and filled with shadowy ghostly creatures whose faces I have never seen, but something tells me they would look similar to these pastels, especially the first one.

The thing that connects the “ghost pictures” discussed in the book with these pastels is the deep and profound way in which both artists see and feel the world around them and their willingness to see beyond the borders of this visible, material world, and the ability to transcend it with the help of their imagination and come back with art that is woven with mystique and secrets. A ghost picture needn’t always be a portrayal of someone departed, it is more about the ghostly quality in a portrait; a face which appears ethereal and slightly eerie to our human eyes, a face which brings inside us the feeling of transience and the fragility of life, a face which fills us with an inexplicable melancholy and reminds us of the mysteries of the spiritual world, and ultimately, a face which haunts us, shakes us and stirs something inside us which we cannot rationally explain. Ghostly faces on John Corbet’s pastels, whether it’s the melancholy monk or the spooky girl holding flowers above, or the lavender-haired lady and the sad-eyed messy haired girl bellow, all awake these feelings inside me when I look at them.

Pastel Ghost No 2: Mama

I love the way these pastels seem to have been drawn, in a spontaneous and intuitive way, as if led by an invisible hand – a ghostly hand. My initial impression isn’t so far from the truth and the way Corbet actually created these pastels; in semi darkness, near a dim candle, in a kind of trance; letting his soul guide his hand and his pastel, not the eyes alone. I also love the dreamy softness of these faces, especially on the pastel called “Mama”. It makes the face seem as if it is seen through a veil, a flimsy curtain, or a foggy window on an autumn twilight. These languid ghostly creatures seem as if they are slowly passing through our world, unnoticed by most and captured in art by those with sharper senses. These were my impressions of these ghostly portraits, but I suggest you check out the artist’s short and lyrical posts written in a form of letters to Edgar Allan Poe which further explore the personal meaning and inspiration behind these artworks. I am sure Mr Poe himself would love these portraits and would recognise their mysterious quality, he did after all discuss one painting and the artist’s quest for perfection in his short story “The Oval Portrait”. Here is an excerpt from the post about the pastel “The Monk”, you can read the whole post here:

As you so wisely suggested, I took my box of pastels and a few sheets of paper and visited the graveyard. I sat there for sometime from twilight to midnight, but nothing appeared. I was tired so finally I decided to go back. (…) As I quickened my pace I saw a figure in a black coat, walking towards me on the other side of the bridge. It was a fine coat he wore, he was no beggar, yet his face seemed like an old tree beaten by years and years of storms. As he passed by me he did not look at me, but I saw his eyes, and in them was the poetic wisdom of sorrow and loss. He was either a monk, or a poet. I turned to watch him leave, and once he crossed the bridge the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and like magic the fog cleared and the wind calmed – and he was gone.

As soon as I got home I opened my box of pastels and got to work on drawing the ghostly apparition and the wind and rain which pursued him. For the first time, it was like the pastels took on a life of their own, as though my hand were guided by a spirit – could it have been, Mr. Poe, the spirit of the monk? It was dark for I had but one candle lit, therefore I could just barely see what I was doing; the painting seemed to paint itself. The experience brought me such peace within, as though I were bringing consolation to the sorrow within his eyes. This, in turn, brought consolation to me.

I especially like this line: the painting seemed to paint itself.

Conté crayon ghostly portrait

William James Grant – The Bridge of Sighs

28 Apr

Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

William James Grant, The Bridge of Sighs, mid 1850s, oil on panel, 5 inches in Diameter

If a woman succumbs to society’s condemnation and feels that she cannot live with herself and her shame any longer… then drowning in the Thames is the only option. This is exactly what is portrayed in Grant’s painting “The Bridge of Sighs”. Pale young woman was found drowned, washed on the shores of the Thames, just near the bridge but moments ago. And now the man who found her is holding her frail pale body in his arm and taking her out of the water. Colourful shawl and the white dress are heavy and wet, but not heavier then her heart must have been before she made this decision. Look how lifelessly her arm, head and hair are hanging. The sad heart beats no more. Here is what the same-named poem says of the moment:

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

The theme of a fallen woman was very popular in the Victorian era, especially in the 1850s and 1860s. All members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhod; Rossetti, Millais and Hunt explored the theme, each in his own way, and many other artists followed their example and painted a theme which included exposing the hypocrisy of the Victorian society. It was very easy to be a fallen woman in Victorian era: “Fallen” was therefore an umbrella term that was applied to a variety of women in a variety of settings: she may have been a woman who had had sex once or habitually outside the confines of marriage; a woman of a lower socio-economic class; a woman who had been raped or seduced by a male aggressor; a woman with a shady reputation; or a prostitute. Furthermore, prostitution was defined in a range of ways and the “reality was that hard economic times meant that for many women, prostitution was the only way to make ends meet. Many … were only transient fallen women, moving in and out of the profession (of prostitution) as family finances dictated.’(*)

So this woman wasn’t necessarily a prostitute, she could have also been a working class girl whose lover abandoned her. Or, she could have been a shop worker whose destitute situation compelled her, maybe even once, to prostitution. Once or ten times, she is fallen nonetheless and tainted in the eyes of the respectable world. This painting is the most recent example of this theme that I stumbled upon, and it instantly appealed to me. It’s apparently very small, just little less than 13 cm in diameter. The round shaped canvas with closely cropped figures of the woman’s poignantly painted dead body, two men, and the sinister bridge in the background, along with the frame inscribed with a stanza from Thomas Hood’s poem “The Bridge of Sighs” is just striking. All these artworks are poetic and empathetic views of a bleak theme, and that brings to my mind the kitchen sink drama films which I love so much. In such films, the protagonist is faced with a huge life dilemma. The theme was equally explored in Victorian era literature; we have Charles Dickens’s kind-hearted prostitutes and most importantly Thomas Hood’s poem “The Bridge of Sighs”, published in 1844. The poem tells a story of an anonymous young woman, desperate and abandoned by her lover, pregnant and thrown out of her home, who committed suicide by jumping of off a bridge. Here is the whole poem:

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve’s family—
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God’s providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

In she plunged boldly—
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran—
Over the brink of it,
Picture it—think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro’ muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix’d on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr’d by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.—
Cross her hands humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behaviour,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope: Thoughts of the Past

24 Apr

“Roxanne, you don’t have to wear that dress tonight, walk the streets for money, you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right…” (The Police)

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, 1859

A sad-eyed red haired young woman is standing by the window in her shabby room overlooking the harbour and the grey waters of the Thames. Space around her is dark and cluttered, and it’s hard to distinguish all the details. The window to her right is overlooking the dark murky waters of the Thames, but the colours and style of the painting might lead us to assume the window is overlooking the gloomy canals of Bruges; it has a touch of Northern Renaissance and especially Van Eyck’s tall lean figures in strange cluttered spaces. Stanhope actually painted this in the studio at Chatham Place by the Thames just bellow the studio where Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal spent many happy hours in love. The woman’s face with those large very sad eyes and ruby red lips pressed together reveals her inner drama and tells us into her story. She is holding her long hair with her right hand, and she’s holding the brush in the left, but it’s looks more like she is clutching them both. There’s uneasiness about her gestures and face expression; one can sense something isn’t quite right. A cloud of heavy silence and the anticipation of the inevitable downfall hangs above the room.

This is Stanhope’s first exhibited painting and he is considered the second generation Pre-Raphaelite. The style, the theme and the mood of the painting are indeed very Pre-Raphaelite. Also, a typical Pre-Rapahelite painting with all its details and layers of symbolism allows us to read it almost like we would a book; gazing, investigating, and interpreting. A motif of a sad woman deep in her thoughts reminds of Millais’ Mariana although in that painting the inspiration was taken from Shakespeare’s work and in this painting by Stanhope the motif is taken directly from their day to day Victorian reality. This red-haired woman in the painting is a prostitute contemplating her life so far; reeking of sin and immorality, and feeling turmoil that seemingly has no answer. She is dressed in an informal clothes, there’s money and jewellery on her dressing table and in the lower left corner we see a man’s glove and a stick, part of it. The curtains are torn in one place, and the plant under the window looks sickly, striving for light and fresh air but never reaching it. The view from her window, looking on the dirty waters of the Thames indicate the only destiny suitable for a fallen woman such as herself: suicide by drowning. Living is no option because in the eyes of the respectable Victorian society, she is already tainted, and suicide would be the only path to redemption.

As you can see in the study bellow, Stanhope originally intended to paint the woman with eyes looking upwards, just like in Baroque painting of female saints. The model was Fanny Corthforth who was also Rossetti’s lover and, in 1858, also posed for his painting “Found”, another fallen-woman theme painting. As effective as that face expression is in some paintings, I am glad Stanhope discarded the idea because it can seem overly sentimental, even pathetic. Instead, he portrayed her gazing straight at us and by doing that he involved us, the viewer, and drew us into her world of indecision, moral quandary and despair. I think it also brought the fallen woman and her problem down to an earthly realm; her gaze condemns society she lives in here on earth, instead of seeking help from the heavens above. It isn’t God who judges her, it’s society. Her struggles are much more than sugary sentimentalism that Victorians loved.

A study for the painting