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Frank W. Benson – Children in Woods

12 Apr

“Saturday proved an ideal day for a picnic. . .a day of breeze and blue, warm, sunny, with a little rollicking wind blowing across meadow and orchard. Over every sunlit upland and field was a delicate, flower-starred green.” (L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea)

Children in Woods, Frank W. Benson, 1905

The painting shows three female figures in nature; three girls in white and pink gowns with ribbons in their soft hair are enjoying a warm sunny day of late spring or early summer. The figures are closely-cropped and take a lot of space on the almost square-shaped canvas. This enriches the scene with an intimate mood; we feel that we are close to the girls, part of their summery picnic in the woods; we can almost hear their giggles and whispers as they confide their secrets to each other. The limited colour palette of white, pink and green lulls us into this sweet and serene summery mood where the innocence of childhood, indolence of summer and freedom of the woods all become intermingled.

In this simple and lovely outdoor scene Frank Benson, an American Impressionist who was born and died in Salem, Massachusetts, managed to capture the fleeting mood of a summer day. Gazing at the painting takes you there to those woods; just look how beautifully he painted the play of sunlight on their white gowns, the trembling of the evergreen trees in the background, the breeze that plays with the girls’ soft honey-coloured hair. You can almost smell the pine and fir trees. Benson was an active, outdoorsy person, particularly in his youth; loved wildlife and sports. Many of his paintings feature wildlife themes such as birds and woods, but Benson was a family man too. When his career was established he married Ellen Peirson who appears in some of his paintings. The couple had a son George and three daughters: Eleanor (born 1890), Elisabeth (born 1892) and Sylvia (b. 1898).

Painting “Children in Woods” isn’t just a charming Impressionist scene but a work of a loving father; a memory of his girls growing up, a window to his private life. It shows his daughters in the woods near their summer retreat in North Haven, Maine. Eleanor remembers: “When we were in North Haven, Papa would often have us put on our best white dresses and then ask us to sit in the grass or play in the woods. We thought it was silly and the maids made such a fuss when they saw our clothes afterwards.” Benson’s paintings are sometimes compared to Claude Monet’s outdoor scenes, and it’s true that he was inspired by Monet, but the genteel intimate mood of this painting reminds me more of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot’s paintings of family and children.

This beautiful summery painting reminded me of a scene from the novel “Anne of Avonlea” by L.M.Montgomery where Anne and her friends go for a picnic in the woods and here is a fragment of their delightful dreamy conversation:

“I wonder what a soul. . .a person’s soul. . .would look like,” said Priscilla dreamily.

“Like that, I should think,” answered Anne, pointing to a radiance of sifted sunlight streaming through a birch tree. “Only with shape and features of course. I like to fancy souls as being made of light. And some are all shot through with rosy stains and quivers. . .and some have a soft glitter like moonlight on the sea. . .and some are pale and transparent like mist at dawn.”

“I read somewhere once that souls were like flowers,” said Priscilla.

“Then your soul is a golden narcissus,” said Anne, “and Diana’s is like a red, red rose. Jane’s is an apple blossom, pink and wholesome and sweet.”

“And your own is a white violet, with purple streaks in its heart,” finished Priscilla.

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John Singer Sargent’s Watercolours – Ladies with Parasols

9 Apr

It so happens that most of the paintings I talk about here on the blog are oil on canvas, but deep down in my heart I am an ardent lover of watercolours. I think it’s a medium full of spontaneity and feelings. So, let’s take a look at some beautiful watercolours with a mood of spring and indolence by an American Impressionist John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, detail

A beautifully dressed woman with a parasol, in nature, enjoying the sunshine and summer breeze; not quite a foreign subject to the artists, especially not to the Impressionists; Claude Monet for one painted plenty of such scenes. Still, I feel that John Singer Sargent’s explorations of this theme are particularly interesting. Firstly because they are made in watercolours, and secondly they were made in moments when Sargent was taking a break from his highly appraised oil-on-canvas portraits of Victorian and later Edwardian nobility, therefore they are more experimental and more intimate. These show Sargent’s heart, not his business.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911

In “The Lady with the Umbrella”, a beautiful woman dressed in a beautiful white gown is lying on the grass; her umbrella has just rolled over and she has to hold it gently with her hand, lest the summer’s breeze might blow it away. There is an air of sweetness and delicacy about her, she looks like a large white anemone flower, but there is a hint of sensuality as well; her flushed cheeks and direct gaze, the way her little hand is holding the umbrella, the S-silhouette of her body, so typically Edwardian, clad in soft whiteness. The sitter is actually Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond. I like how closely cropped her body is; look how her dress and the umbrella are delightfully ‘cut-off’. The artist hesitates to show us all of her charms, but rather invited us to daydream of the nature surround this beauty and makes us believe her dress is indeed a flowing sea of white silk that goes on and on, lavish and soft. The painting reminds me of a scene you’d find in Merchant-Ivory films such as “A Room with a View” (1985) or “Howards End” (1992) with the beautiful Helena Bonham-Carter. Also, because of the woman’s gaze, pose and the way she’s closely-cropped, it almost reminds me of fashion photography, from the sixties and seventies as well as now. Example of what I mean is right below:

John Singer Sargent, Madame Roger-Jourdain, 1883-85, watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 55.8

Still, “The Lady with the Umbrella” isn’t the first painting of this kind that Sargent made. After 1900, Sargent often used the motif of woman lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but when he painted Henriette, this was a new thing for him. His watercolour portrait of Madame Roger-Jourdain made decades earlier is perhaps the painting that started it all. Henriette Roger-Jourdain was a daughter and the wife of two artists; her father was Henri Moulignon, and her husband was the artist Joseph Roger-Jourdain. Henriette was not just a society hostess but also a friend and a muse to many artists; composer Gabriel Fauré dedicated his composition “Aurore” to her in 1884, Paul Albert Besnard and Sargent both painted her. Sargent became acquainted with the Roger-Jourdain family because they were neighbours in the boulevard Berthier in Paris.

The painting is similar to the one we’ve seen above; a lady lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but here her body isn’t closely cropped and she is surrounded by grass; freedom all around her. One can imagine her laughing when tickled by the grass, stretching her arms and breathing in the fresh air, laughing at the tree tops that open before her eyes, wishing she could fly with the birds and be one with the baby blue sky… Dressed in a white dress, lying on that dark green grass she looks like a lotus flower on the flickering emerald green surface of a lake. The portrait oozes that fantastically indolent and sensuous “dolce far niente” mood.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Parasol, 1888, watercolour on paper, 17.2 x 24.1 cm

Now, this third example is a tad different; the colours are darker and the woman appears more demure. She is depriving the viewer of her coquettish gaze, choosing rather to stay hidden underneath her gauzy white scarf. I really appreciate the sketch-like brushstrokes here; look how the parasol was painted with its taupe brown shadings and details in white, then the grass in a strange moss-green colour, perhaps it was an autumn day. Again, the woman’s hat and her parasol are slightly closely-cropped which helps us imagine that we are there with her, it gives an immediacy to the scene.

All painting/drawing techniques have their strengths and beauties. Drawings with pencil exude sincerity, those with charcoal possess the gloom and the strength of a tall oak. Pastels are raw pigments and their vibrancy is so psychedelic and childlike. All yet, I adore watercolours! Painting with them is such a thrill; you dip your brush in that watery paint, press is gently to the paper and let is either sink in or mingle freely with the colour next to it… and you feel like a magician, like a witch over her cauldron creating a love potion. Pure magic! Everyone should try it, it’s really therapeutic, it feels like travelling on a rainbow and making friends with each colour. I feel that, with watercolours, the painting almost creates itself; you can make a brushstroke in blue and add a mere drop of red, when water touched the two, you’ll see purple. You can play with it and see where it takes you.

Vincent van Gogh’s Birthday – The Prettiest Star

30 Mar

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Vincent van Gogh; a passionate and eccentric individual in his time, and a well-known and beloved artist today, was born on this day, 30th March, in 1853. The date of his birth seems so fitting; it’s the time of the year when pink and white blossoms of cherry, pear and apple trees grace the landscape and invite us to dream, it’s the moment of the year when nature shows its strength by winning a battle against winter, the sun shines on the frozen soil, melts the snow and invites the little snowdrops and primroses to bloom, the birds are returning from foreign lands…

Vincent, I know you were not appreciated in your time, but I look at your paintings with ardour, I feel them; I feel rapture from those intoxicating yellows and playful blues, I love your mischievous cypresses, starry nights, blossoming trees, and lonely wheat fields, I love your letters – the windows to your soul, and above all, I love the “lust for life” energy that emerges from the canvases and speaks to my heart and soul, and to many and many hearts out there. Thank you for existing and painting, even if it was such a short time, but aren’t we all here on earth for such a short time, compared to eternity?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the beauty that Vincent has created in his short life; gaze at his paintings, read his letters, daydream about his starry skies and trees in bloom, feel the ecstasy that he has created in those vibrant colours and think of him because his soul is the prettiest star!

Happy birthday, Vincent van Gogh!

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, repetition of the 4th version (yellow background), August 1889

Vincent, you are not forgotten!

Gustav Klimt – Birch Trees: dancer of the wood

25 Mar

In his portraits of trees and flowers, Klimt conveyed a sense of lyricism and mystery that nature possesses in abundance, but holds it secret to most, choosing rather to reveal her charms to the eye capable of recognising her Beauty.

Gustav Klimt, Farm House with Birch Trees, 1900, 81 x 80 cm, oil on canvas

These four damsels on the meadow in Klimt’s painting are so beautiful and so silent. Never eager for a conversation, they hesitate to speak to me, but they are not proud, but shy, or so the swallows have told me. And how white their gowns are, how fragile their frames; eastern breeze carrying the sound of a distant flute might blow them away! What mythical land have these enchantresses escaped from, I wonder. The gentle grass is swaying on the melody of Debussy and little blue flowers are batting their eyelashes vivaciously, all that is alive and breathes is awaken at the arrival of the mischievous Faun. Oh, yes, the Faun must wander these paths for sure. The birches’ entire bodies tremble, the little green leaves sigh, as they hear the Faun approaching, for they know that, once again, his flute playing will send them into the wildest dream. Dewdrops on the grass are trembling as the sun starts shining slowly and shyly through the woods announcing the day. The birds awaken as the dawn gives birth to morning; fresh, green and glorious. In a step or two, the wild Faun leaves, biding farewell to the birches as they descend into sweet dreams. Tired from their dancing in the dawn, they enjoy indolence during the day, and so a wandered through the woods might assume that they are serious by nature.

Here is a lovely poem by Arthur Ketchum called “The Spirit of the Birch”:

I am the dancer of the wood —
I shimmer in the solitude;
Men call me Birch Tree, yet I know
In other days it was not so.
I am a Dryad slim and white
Who danced too long one summer night,
And the Dawn found and prisoned me!
Captive I moan my liberty,
But let the wood wind flutes begin
Their Elfin music, faint and thin,
I sway, I bend, retreat, advance,
And evermore — I dance! I dance!

In Vienna, Klimt’s artistic focus was on humans as he diligently painted lavish nudes and portraits for rich aristocrats, but in summer months spent in Litzlberg at Lake Attersee he gave himself to nature and painted rich orchards with apple trees, farm houses and chickens, plain and pretty garden flowers, and trees. On his holiday, Klimt would arise early in the morning, around 6 o’clock, and indulge in long walks through the meadows and nearby woods. Were the nymphs the ones to lure him, or was it the smell of wild flowers? So, just like Faun, Klimt tastes the sweetness and secrets of nature at dawn, and these moments became a part of his art. The locals there called him “Waldschrat”: “someone who lives in the woods on his own”. It seems that Klimt and I share the same idea of indolence; for me it isn’t about doing nothing, it’s to stop and ponder, gaze and breathe.

Gustav Klimt, Farm Garden (Flower Garden), 110 x 110 cm, oil on canvas

For nearly all of these “nature-paintings” he did during his holidays, Klimt chose interesting canvases; nearly all are perfectly square shaped. Usually, we tend to think of landscapes painted on rectangle shaped-canvases, with an emphasis on the horizontal line, but Klimt’s landscapes are something entirely different. He doesn’t paint nature from a viewer’s perspective, he walks right into its world, he paints it whilst surrounded by it. For this artist-Faun, nature is sensuous and alive, covered with veils and veils of mysteries… This vision of nature reminded me of a poem in prose called “Dawn” by Arthur Rimbaud:

I have kissed the summer dawn. Before the palaces, nothing moved. The water lay dead. Battalions of shadows still kept the forest road. (…) My first adventure, in a path already gleaming With a clear pale light, Was a flower who told me its name. I laughted at the blond Wasserfall That threw its hair across the pines: On the silvered summit, I came upon the goddess. Then one by one, I lifted her veils. In the long walk, waving my arms. Across the meadow, where I betrayed her to the cock. In the heart of town she fled among the steeples and domes, And I hunted her, scrambling like a beggar on marble wharves. Above the road, near a thicket of laurel, I caught her in her gathered veils, And smelled the scent of her immense body. Dawn and the child fell together at the bottom of the wood. When I awoke, it was noon.”

In “Farm House with Birch Trees” Klimt created a sense of depth; the meadow seems to stretch endlessly upwards, the birches are not painted with their tree tops and leaves but left as slim white lines, slightly crooked, and creating a rhythm in the way they are placed in a diagonal line, surrounded with different layers of flowers, reminiscent of some of Hiroshige’s plum orchards. Klimt is meticulously focused on details and his landscapes have little in common with the sketch-like laid-back styles of Monet. At the same time this painting seems to me like a moment frozen in time, still and ornamental, flickering with details and colours; and at the same time it is a portal to the world of dreams, a world where the Faun, nymphs and flowers await you to join their celebration of indolence and taste the never ending flow of honey, music and laughter. Oh, how I wish to go there! Wait, I can hear the music, how it lures me: Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun“.

Richard Redgrave – The Sempstress

19 Mar

Work — work — work!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

In a modest interior, on a light of a single candle a poor girl is wasting her precious hours, days and nights, labouring over a blouse she will never wear, or a dress for a dance she’ll never attend. Outside the last breath of twilight colours the sky in sad streaks of yellow. Lights on the windows appear one by one. The hour is merry. The night murmurs of dreams and far-off lands, it speaks to the poets and dreamers across the grey cityscape, and softly knocks on this poor needlewoman’s window… The night invites her eyes for a dream, distant trees are whispering gentle lullabies, but she knows she cannot leave her needle and rest her hands… The work needs to be done, the bills paid, warm bread on the table would be heaven… And yet her gaze is directed upwards; tired of the wordly misery, she longs for the stars. Her own shadow on the wall is her only companion; her kindred-spirits are the birds that sing cheerfully in spring, and white snowflakes in winter. She is yearning not for idleness and luxury but rather a heaven up there with all its promised delights, for this earth is unkind. Exhausting work day by day, night by night, have coloured her young oval face in paleness of sorrow, as she daydreams of the sweetness of the countryside:

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet —
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet.

She might be poor and starving in the countryside, but at least she would have fresh air, brooks and flowers that ease the life’s hardships in ways that the grey city cannot. In the early Victorian era, the newspapers were informing their readers about the exploitation of workers in the factories, often in the clothing trade. Still, when Richard Redgrave painted “The Sempstress”as a part of the wave of sentimentalised portrayals of working-class life, he was inspired by a poem he had read earlier, Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt“, which I already quoted above, first published on 16th December 1843. Here are some more lines that go well with the painting:

In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own —
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!

Her face expression, with large eyes turned upwards, and the way her figure is lighted in a dramatic way are reminiscent of the baroque paintings of female saints. Redgrave here portrays a realistic subject and offers a social criticism to eyes that wished to see it, but for the majority of Victorian viewers this painting offered a sentimentalized portrayal of working class reality; a life of sorrows, poverty and longing, with hope directed towards god. Is not this poor girl a martyr then? A martyr of a society blighted by the blossoming industrialisation and exploatation of cheap labour in factories.

Egon Schiele – Edith In a Striped Dress

13 Mar

This is a post from last spring, but many of my new readers probably haven’t read it yet so I decided to share it again because these paintings are dear to my heart.

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Egon Schiele’s portrait of his wife Edith in a colourful striped dress is something quite unusual and new in his art, and her face, full of naivety, sweetness and innocence seems so out of place amongst his usual female portraits, nudes and half-nudes, with a decaying heroin chic appeal. Where did this change of style come from?

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele, the artist’s wife, 1915

When I first saw this portrait, I loved the stripes on the dress for they seemed so alive, so intricate and colourful, and yet the quality of the colour is murky and earthy, as usual in Schiele’s palette. I was also amused by her face expression, but my interest quickly turned to Schiele’s alluring nudes. What can this portrait show us, apart from the fact that Edith loved wearing striped dresses? Well, it’s a psychological study which shows us Edith’s true personality. Let’s say that her true colours shine through. Look at her – she looks awkward and artless, she is clumsy and doesn’t know what to do with her hands, her eyes are wide open and eyebrows slightly raised, her lips are stretched in a weird, shy smile, as if she’s in the spotlight but wants to get away, she’s pretty but not exceptional, timid but not gloomy. Prior to marrying Schiele, Edith led quite a sheltered life, with her sister Adele and her conservative parents.

In Spring of 1914, Schiele noticed that there were two pretty young girls living just across his flat. Naturally interested, he started thinking of ways to meet them which was hard because the girls lived under the watchful eyes of their mother. They started waving each other through the window, and sometimes Schiele would paint a self-portrait and show it to them through the window. Surely by now, both Edith and Adele had dreamt of meeting that cheeky, arrogant but charming artist across the street. Schiele started sending them little notes, the content of which must have made Edith and Adele blush and giggle, but they never replied to any of them for a year. They met with Wally’s help, and all four went to the theatre or cinema together. Needless to say that the cynical Schiele was interested in both girls, in fact, for some time he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to marry Edith or Adele. Crazy situation, but luckily for him, it turned out that Adele wasn’t really interested so he settled on Edith and they got married, despite the strong disapproval of her parents, on 17 June 1915, which was the anniversary of the marriage of Schiele’s parents.

Scenes from ‘Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment’ (1981)

I can understand why Edith liked Schiele, women always go for the bad guys; he was an artist, straightforward about what he wanted, he had a bad reputation and was once imprisoned for pornographic art, and, admit it or not, there’s something romantic about criminals. What remains a mystery to me is why Schiele liked her? What could this timid, shy, proper and frightened girl had to offer him? Most importantly, what was it so appealing about Edith that the witty, funny street-wise, experienced Wally didn’t have?

We sense here the conflicting emotions that Edith must have caused in Schiele: a quiet pleasure in her innocence, a satisfaction with her selfless loyalty mixed with frustration at her lack of of sexual energy. Schiele makes her seem passive and whilst he found vulnerability attractive he must also have longed for those quite different qualities which Wally possessed in abundance: the kind of temperament and aggressive eroticism which made Schiele himself feel vulnerable.“*

Edith was portrayed well in the film Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment (1981). If I remember well, in one scene she’s sitting in Schiele’s lap and he shows her some of his erotic drawings, and she throws a quick shy glance, giggling and blushing, and you can see that she’s at unease with the nude models in his studio, stretching in different poses. She wanted to pose for him so he wouldn’t look at other women, but she just couldn’t satisfy his artistic demands. Again, that’s something that Wally did more than well.

Where did this wish to settle down, this wish for security come from? It seems like he wanted to indulge in a bourgeois life all of a sudden. Also, his decision to marry Edith and not Wally shows the double standards typical for men of his time; Wally was an artist’s model, a position practically equal to that of a prostitute, and as much as he loved her aggressive eroticism, he still wanted his wife to be modest and chaste. In the portrait of Edith in a striped dress from the same year, again her shyness shines through. Look at her eyes, frightened like that of a delicate fawn in the forest glade, and her sloping shoulders, almost crouching under the weight of the artist’s gaze, her hands in her lap; she looks like a child forced to sit still against its wish. Schiele always painted his middle-class wife modestly dressed, with a stiff collar and long sleeves, whereas looking at the pictures of Wally we know only of her petticoats, lingerie and stockings, not of her hats and dresses. Without a doubt, Edith loved Schiele, but she couldn’t understand his art.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele with striped dress, 1915

Their marriage didn’t last long for they both died in that sad autumn of 1918. First World War had just ended, Spanish flu had taken many lives, amongst its victims were Edith who died six months pregnant on 28th October, and Schiele who died a few days later, on 31st October.

Everything that is sad, and occurs in autumn, gets imbued with an even greater sadness, but Autumn was Schiele’s favourite season, he wrote ‘I know there is much misery in our existence and because I find Autumn much more beautiful than every other season…. It fills the heart with grief and reminds us that we are but pilgrims on this earth…’ He also wrote in his short lyrical autobiography: ‘I often wept through half-closed eyes when Autumn came. When Spring arrived I dreamed of the universal music of life and then exulted in the glorious Summer and laughed when I painted the white Winter.’ The fresh, new, dreamy Spring of his art is forever tied with the image of cheerful Wally in her stockings, forever smiling from the canvas, and so the Autumn of his art is tied with Edith’s timid half smile and her striped dress. Rapture and gloom, life and death, Eros and Thanatos; all intertwined in Schiele’s paintings.

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*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

Edvard Munch – Spring

10 Mar

Edvard Munch, Spring, 1889

At last spring has won the battle against winter and now the soft breeze and mellow sunlight are coming through the open window, flowers started blooming and a little sparrow is ready to sit on the windowsill and sing a little ditty to brighten up the lonely days of this weak and ill young girl. In this simple, almost genre-scene, Edvard Munch managed to convey so much depth and emotion. The most poignant detail in the painting is the girl’s mute ghost-like pale face with eyelids almost closed. While the sun bathes the room in warm yellowish glow, she is turning her head away from it, symbolically turning away from the life and lightness, gazing in the distance with watery eyes that saw the other side of the grave. Her small head, with that sad and gentle face, resting on the white pillow awakens empathy and compassion in the viewer because you get the sense that death has started living inside her, just the same as spring has started being alive outdoors. Her face radiates calmness and spiritual beauty, but the stillness that envelops the room is illusive, for the moment of death is yet to come and the scene we are looking at is merely the calm before the storm. The end of the long struggle and pain is near, and her soul will soon be dancing with the pure white daisies in the meadow. Stylistically, it is not Munch is his full Expressionist frenzy, but thematically, his obsession with death and the awareness of it is prevalent.

Death was Munch’s silent bride and his most faithful companion since his childhood; his mother died from tuberculosis when Munch was only five years old, his dearest sister Johanne Sophie died from same malaise in 1877 at the age of fourteen, and he himself was of frail health. The death of his sister affected him deeply and he returned to this sense of loss and tragedy numerous times in his artistic career, making many versions of the painting “The Sick Child”. Here, in “Spring”, he portrayed the same event.

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1885-86, the original version

It was with this painting, “The Sick Child”, that Munch departed from Impressionism and for the first time painted in a style which would later be called Expressionism. The theme was such that is needed depth and emotions, and a new style. It’s interesting that in “Spring”, which was painted a few years later, he returned, for a moment, to a more Realistic style of painting which looks more similar to some Victorian genre-scenes than the art Munch is known for. Where did this artistic “regression” arise from?