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Henry Wallis – The Death of Chatterton

23 Sep

Today we’ll take a look at a painting which I loved recently; “The Death of Chatterton” painted in 1856 by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. The painting’s romantic, melancholy mood and vibrant colours are perfect to celebrate the first day of autumn; the most romantical of all the seasons.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Tate Britain version

Pale rays of the morning sun are coming in through the window of this shabby little garret. A young man is lying on the bed, but he isn’t in the world of dreams, in the usual slumber we mortals are well acquainted with. His pale grayish skin and hand hanging limply and touching the floor tell us that his soul is now wandering the dark avenues of the world of the death; no bird song, no caress or soft whisper of a loved one’s voice shall ever awaken those eyes to see and mouth to speak again. Through the window stretches a view of London; a city of possibilities, a city of despair, a city which brought nothing but disappointment and misery to this poor red-haired sleeping angel. Not many possessions he had in his poorly furnished attic room; a box lies next to his bed full of papers, some torn to pieces and some survived with words full of secrets. A chair with a red coat on it. Dark dirty wall full of cracks and a round little table. One can imagine the eerie silence hanging in that room like a cloud.

The dead young man here is the eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton who died in London in 1770 at the age of seventeen by poisoning himself with arsenic in the fit of despair. Although poor, he was very clever and not only ambitious, but, unfortunately for him, quite romantic too; when his idealism was shattered, the pink clouds of his dreams tainted by reality’s grey long-fingered nails, he saw death as the only escape. He is now considered an early romantic, and with his interest in Medieval literature and his short life laced with mysteries, Chatterton was admired by Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. And yet, no one glamourised his life with such intensity as Wallis here in this painting. Victorian group of painters, the Pre-Raphaelites were visual continuators of the idealism and dreaminess of the Romantic poetry; not in the form of beautiful and sensuous language but in vibrant colours and intricate detailing. Not only the subject alone, that of a Romantic martyr for art, but the method and style of the painting with its emphasis on details and usage of vibrant colours connect Wallis to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Can we take a moment to appreciate just how gorgeous and vivid these colours are, and how beautiful his corpse looks dressed in those lapis lazuli coloured trousers and masses of auburn hair. How serene he looks after a life of suffering in this cruel world. His shirt is unbuttoned, one shoe fell on the floor, and there is a bottle, presumably of arsenic that rolled out of his hand. In the Birmingham version of the painting, his trousers appear more violet in colour, which makes a tremendous difference 馃槈 .

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Birmingham version

The dazzling chiaroscuro, a method which Wallis loved, with the lightness falling on the body while the rest of the garret is in half-darkness only intensifies the emotional dimension of the painting. It is impossible not to feel gentleness, empathy, and also a sense of sacredness. The model for Chatterton was George Meredith, a poet and a novelist whose wife had an affair with Wallis just two years after this was painted, ouch, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. The Christ-like pose of the cadaver has since brought comparisons to religious art, such as Michelangelo’s “Piet脿”. For Romanticists and Pre-Raphaelites, the artist was a secularised Christ-like figure, a dreamer, an idealist and a lover of beauty tortured by the unkind world. Therefore, Henry Wallis’s painting of Chatterton holds a deeper significance and meaning than a usual historical painting would; it isn’t just a portrait of a poet who had died the century before, it is an icon for all who believe in the religion of Art and Beauty.

There is an interesting anecdote from Chatterton’s life which occurred three days before he died; he was walking with his friend along the St Pancras Churchyard (the same one where Percy Shelley had nocturnal love meetings with Mary), lost in his thoughts the young poet fell into an open grave. His friend joked about it by saying he’d be delighted to help resurrect a genius from the grave, to which Chatterton replied: “My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now.” Just three days later, on 24th August 1770, he was dead.

This painting with the theme of suicide reminded me of the Manic Street Preachers’s song “Suicide is Painless”:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless
….
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And you can do the same thing if you please…
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Peder Severin Kr酶yer – Summer Evening on the Skagen Beach

9 Sep

“I鈥檓 the lonely voyager standing on deck, and she鈥檚 the sea. The sky is a blanket of gray, merging with the gray sea off on the horizon. It鈥檚 hard to tell the difference between sea and sky. Between voyager and sea. Between reality and the workings of the heart.” (Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore)

Peder Severin Kr酶yer, Summer Evening on the Skagen Southern Beach with Anna Ancher and Marie Kr酶yer, 1893

What I love about this painting is that it reminds me of music, an echo of soft fairy whispers mingled with fading notes of the piano… and then silence. It has a gentleness and stillness that sends our mind into a reverie, or inspires us to contemplate on eternity in a similar way that Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes do. Here Kr酶yer painted the most melancholy and profound moment of the day: twilight with its endless dreamy blueness. The soft meandering line which separates the world of sea waves with the white sand of the coast is very dreamy because it suggest infinity and leads the viewer’s eye towards unknown distances. Two ladies are walking slowly right near that dreamy line, one can feel the water touching their dresses when the wave comes or see their footsteps appearing after each step in the wet sand. The colour palette is particularly dreamy as well, aerial, soft and gentle with plenty of white, grey, blue and hints of toned yellow in the sand and on the dresses. They are walking arm in arm, in intimate conversation, just two figures walking towards infinity. Without the figures, this painting would be yet another landscape, but with the figures added in, the painting gets an emotional depth, ironically, the inclusion of figures reminds us of the loneliness of the beach. Two lone figures, might as well be ghosts in white gowns, for their faces we cannot see, walking slowly and leaving barely a trace of their existence.

Skagen is Denmark’s northernmost town and is closer to the coast of Sweden than to Copenhagen. In Kr酶yer’s time it was a remote fishers village whose understated beauty is revealed through the eyes of the group of painter appropriately called “The Skagen Artists”. Nowadays, Kr酶yer is the most well-known from this group, but they were all interested in similar themes; the beauty of the cold northern sea, fishers and harvests, and, in a manner similar to the Impressionists, they meticulously devoted themselves to portraying the effects of sunlight and people having fun, mostly their families and friends. Below we have a similar painting by Michael Archer, a fellow painter from the Skagen group of artists. Again, it has that gorgeous immeasurable lightness and a long clear diagonal line between the sandy beach and the sea, how romantically it stretches on and on. Lonely mood is toned down because of the five female figures in pastel coloured dresses, but a hint of melancholy is left in the face of the girl who treads the beach first, gazing down at the sand, lost in thoughts, following the shadow that falls in front of her.

Michael Ancher, A stroll on the beach, 1896

I imagine that the seaside looks exquisite this time of the year; I imagine the soft sand untainted by human footsteps, the sky clear and grey-blue, not even a seagull is flying by. Smell of salt hangs in the melancholy air. When I gaze at these paintings, I can almost hear the waves playing Debussy’s “La Mer”, soothing my soul with each passing note… And there in the distance, the sky and the sea are becoming one in a kiss.

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai – Haunting Faces

6 Sep

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai is considered one of the finest Hungarian painters and yet his paintings in garish colours with flat treatment of the surface cease to keep me interested. I could see them and forget them in the matter of seconds. His pastel portraits, on the other hand, are absolutely captivating and they have a rare haunting beauty.

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai, Woman’s Head with Red Bun, 1891

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai was born in the town of Kaposv谩r in the southern Hungary on the 23 May 1861. He attended grammar school and later, most unusually for someone who would went on to become such a fine painter, studied pharmacology. From 1881 he worked in an apothecary in his home town and as a private tutor for the family of count Zichy. He only casually attended some drawing classes, and once in a while travelled to Vienna to copy the works of old masters. In 1884 he was awarded a scholarship to study art in Munich, at last! It was common for the aspiring artists from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to study in Munich, or, if fate dealt them better cards, even in Paris; the place where everything was.

Rippl-R贸nai was among those lucky students and after just two years in Munich, he got the opportunity to study in Paris with a fellow Hungarian artist Mih谩ly Munk谩csy who painted realist style genre scenes and whose influence, thank the providence, would not have an impact on Rippl-R贸nai’s art. After settling in the big bustling city of boulevards, tree avenues, cafes, city of light and hope, he moved to Neully and briefly studied in Academie Julien. In Paris he met a lady who was to be his future wife, Lazarine, and, even more importantly for his art, he met and befriended a few progressive artists, 脡douard Vuillard and later Paul Gauguin as well. In 1894, after his painting “My Grandmother” was exhibited in Parisian Salon Champ-de-Mars, the art group Les Nabis recognised him as one of their own. From then on, his artistic career only blossomed.

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai, My Grandmother, 1894

What amazes me is the fact that Rippl-R贸nai’s well-known paintings are those influenced by Les Nabis, with flat space and bold colours, while his shadowy and ethereal pastel portraits are left in the shadow. A contemporary critic described his already mentioned painting “My Grandmother” as “a poem about the profound sadness of old age”, and he was very right in comparing it to a poem. All of Rippl-R贸nai’s pastels have this quality of transcending the borders of arts; at times they reminds me of some Swinburne’s verses, at times they make me think of wistful violins in candle lit chambers. Undeniably, they posses a striking lyrical beauty and an eeriness that would interest even the great Edgar Allan Poe himself. Perhaps Rippl’s painting “Woman’s Head with Red Bun” shows the kind of face that Poe had in mind in his short story “The Oval Portrait”. They have a musical element about them, lyrical too, a string of a lyre, a soft hush of a violin, a fragrance of withering roses, delicacy of something passing and transitory, unearthly beauty, verses written in ink and slowly fading, these are the faces of women you see once, only for a moment, and spend your entire life fantasising about.

A little digression here. In his essay on Beethoven, E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German Romantic author, described music as “the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus鈥 lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm鈥攁 world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing…” Likewise, Rippl-R贸nai’s pastel portraits stand on the border of different arts, soaked in music notes, whispering verses…

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai, Red-haired Parisian Girl, 1891, pastel

These pastels are something extraordinary in Rippl-R贸nai’s oeuvre, the farthest he went from his Realist beginning, the closest he got to Symbolist tendencies, to aestheticism and l’art pour l’art philosophy of the late 19th century. In “Woman鈥檚 Head with Red Bun”, this delicate oval face seems to arise from darkness and appear in its smooth as ivory, pale as milk and moonlight colour just for the viewer. Distant, untouchable, delicate as a lily, she oozes fragility and gentleness, and soft perfumes and sounds of wistful violins, her lips are two rose petals, her large blue eyes, watery and soft even without the drops of belladonna, are two wells that reflect the languorous world of dreams. The transition between the strongly contrasting colours, black and white, are ever so soft, and give the appearance of something that is slowly vanishing, as if every time you blink and then open your eyes again she will be gone; she isn’t really here anyway, she is just passing through this material world without touching it, without being tainted by it.

Painting “Red-haired Parisian Girl” resides in an equally dreamy other-world as the previous maiden, but hers is the kind where you leave all your hopes before your enter. If the previous pastel showed a ghostly maiden, this one then is surely a lesbian vampire or a muse gone mad, laudanum addict, the face of Elizabeth Siddal from the other side of the grave. Distant gaze of those aqua blue eyes that also match the colour of the background are as eerie as they are fatal and inviting. Masses of her fiery red hair overwhelm the bounds of the canvas, There’s a certain masculinity in her face the strong jawline and neck, along with coppery hair, bring to mind Rossetti’s somnambulist femme fatales, beautiful and cruel, irresistible and cold. This is a face from a dandy’s opium dream.

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai, Lili Darvas Playing Lonti, 1922, pastel

The mystic shadowy beauty of these pastels reminds me of one poem in prose written by a Croatian Symbolist poet and writer Antun Gustav Mato拧 (1873-1914) called “Shadow”, these paintings, to me, seem to match Mato拧’s lyrical dream-like visions:

I love the mournful shadow, the dozing light: light which dreams of the night. I love the shadow, twin sister of the warm sun and of the cold moon. I love the shadow, my eternal adopted sister and companion which slumbers beside me, walks near me, my dark picture and my caricature. Yes, I love the shadow, yellow, grey, black; the shadow, sad and silent as death….

O, Shadow, child of the day and the night! Shadowy morning and purple evening! Shadow, child of darkness and light, pale daughter of enigma, opening melancholy silent weary eyes, and through them life peers wonderingly into mysterious death! Last night, my love, you were trembling against my breast with the moist eyes of affection and happiness. I named you beauty, happiness, and woman, but there remained a handful of ashes in place of honey. Love, you also are a shadow….

The shade told me, the shade which grew larger and larger behind the old oak beneath the moonlight whilst awaiting the dew and the dark song of the nightingale under the shrubbery of the hawthorne and brier rose, such shady, foggy and grey fables. The shade was whispering to me this morning as well, as it walked under the fleecy cloud across the field of stubble, caressing the larks’ and the quails’ nests, and kissing the quivering tops of the field flowers.

Shadow, thou soft pillow of light: Shadow, thou black bed of life! And when once the planets extinguish, you will remain the empress of life.

I love you, Shadow, pure silent goddess: lift up your soft mantle of fog streaked with golden secrets, and cover my weary eyes, to close them to embrace my shadow.(Antun Gustav Mato拧, Shadow)

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai, Woman with Red Hair, c. 1890s

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai, Green-Eyed Woman, 1901, pastel

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai, Girl on Blue Background, date unknown

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai, Sitting Nude with Red Hair, 1891, pastel

J贸zsef Rippl-R贸nai, Parisian Woman, 1891, oil on canvas

Mary Shelley’s Mathilda: A Maiden in Love with Death

28 Aug

Ahh, gothic maidens, incest and death; three things I love in a novel! I am in such a Gothic mood these days and how convenient that Mary Shelley will be celebrating her birthday soon; this Thursday, 30th August, marks the 221st anniversary of her birth. Did you not get the invitation to her graveyard-party in your mailbox? I know I did. Percy wrote it in his gorgeous handwriting. So sweet of him.

Walking dress, Ackermann’s Repository, July 1818; a perfect attire for a Gothic heroine

Mary Shelley’s epistolary novel written in first person is a dark little masterpiece. The story starts with the heroine Mathilda who is in her early twenties lying in bed and awaiting death. What we are reading is a long letter to her friend Woodville in which she reveals to him, and to us, the sad course of her life and dark secrets that she had kept concealed while she was alive: “You have often asked me the cause of my solitary life; my tears; and above all of my impenetrable and unkind silence. In life I dared not; in death I unveil the mystery.” We find out that her mother and father were madly in love with each other, and that her mother Diana died shortly after Mathilda was born. Her father, heartbroken and mad with sadness, set off to travel to distant lands in a self-imposed exile.

Mathilda is brought up by her father’s older sister. Deprived of love and affections, she grows into a dreamy forest-maiden whose friends are birds and flowers, and whose pursuits are long walks over the moors and indulging in reverie. I enjoyed the tempo of her storytelling; little by little she is introducing us to her life and explaining her character and emotions with brilliant vibrancy of expression and elaborate language. Growing up, Mathilda idealises her father and indulges in frequent and long reveries of how her ideal life would be. One day when she is sixteen she receives a letter from her father telling her that he is returning. She is ecstatic beyond belief, and on their first meeting their get along very well and their souls connect. Months of bliss are in front of them.

Photo by Laura Makabresku, “She is dead but lately started to blossom”

鈥淚n truth I am in love with death; no maiden ever took more pleasure in the contemplation of her bridal attire than I in fancying my limbs already enwrapt in their shroud: is it not my marriage dress?鈥

Glencoe, Scotland, photo found here.

The plot is simple and has all the typical components of Gothic literature; an innocent maiden, loneliness and isolated setting of the Scottish castle, darkness looming over the heroine’s life… Still, the ending is very untypical of a Gothic novel of Romanticism; death beats love in this story and there is no knight to save the damsel from death’s sweet embrace. I see it as a rather sophisticated and lyrical exploration of a very dark topic, and one which could easily be tasteless. Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin didn’t enjoy the manuscript which Mary had sent him from Rome, and the novella wasn’t published until 1959.

I particularly loved the way Mary Shelley explored the themes of yearning for love, and self-imposed life in isolation; both are very dear to my heart. Mathilda’s childhood is lonely and instead of receiving love she is compelled to give it: “By degrees I became reconciled to solitude but no one supplied her place in my affections. I lived in a desolate country where there were none to praise and very few to love.鈥 That doesn’t turn her into a cold distant individual, quite the contrary, she gives love freely to all things of nature around her, and caries a hope in her heart that one day she would be given an opportunity to bestow these affections on her father. Apart from a short-lasting joy when her father returns, Mathilda spends nearly her entire life in isolation, but Shelley makes a distinction here; isolation doesn’t mean loneliness.

I can easily say that “Mathilda” is one of the best books I’ve read this year, a true hidden gem and the beauty lies in many reasons; throughout exploration of complex themes, beautiful elaborate language, the character of Mathilda and the fact that it’s written in the first person which gives it an extra emotional depth and intimacy.

And now plenty of beautiful quotes:

“I know that I am about to die and I feel happy–joyous.”

“I cannot say with what passion I loved every thing even the inanimate objects that surrounded me. I believe that I bore an individual attachment to every tree in our park; every animal that inhabited it knew me and I loved them. Their occasional deaths filled my infant heart with anguish.”

I wandered for ever about these lovely solitudes, gathering flower after flower, singing as I might the wild melodies of the country, or occupied by pleasant day dreams. My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.”

“I had acquired in my harp a companion in rainy days; a sweet soother of my feelings when any untoward accident ruffled them: I often addressed it as my only friend; I could pour forth to it my hopes and loves, and I fancied that its sweet accents answered me.鈥

“I was a solitary being, and from my infant years, ever since my dear nurse left me, I had been a dreamer. (…) Then I wandered from the fancies of others and formed affections and intimacies with the aerial creations of my own brain–but still clinging to reality I gave a name to these conceptions and nursed them in the hope of realization. I clung to the memory of my parents; my mother I should never see, she was dead: but the idea of [my] unhappy, wandering father was the idol of my imagination. I bestowed on him all my affections; there was a miniature of him that I gazed on continually; I copied his last letter and read it again and again.鈥

Scotland Fog, photos by Skyler Brown

“As I came, dressed in white, covered only by my tartan rachan, my hair streaming on my shoulders, and shooting across with greater speed that it could be supposed I could give to my boat, my father has often told me that I looked more like a spirit than a human maid. I approached the shore, my father held the boat, I leapt lightly out, and in a moment was in his arms.”

“Life was then brilliant; I began to learn to hope and what brings a more bitter despair to the heart than hope destroyed?

“I had no idea that misery could arise from love…”

“I was always happy when near my father. It was a subject of regret to me whenever we were joined by a third person, yet if I turned with a disturbed look towards my father, his eyes fixed on me and beaming with tenderness instantly restored joy to my heart. O, hours of intense delight!鈥

“Like Psyche I lived for awhile in an enchanted palace, amidst odours, and music, and every luxurious delight; when suddenly I was left on a barren rock; a wide ocean of despair rolled around me: above all was black, and my eyes closed while I still inhabited a universal death.鈥

“The few weeks that I spent in London were the most miserable of my life: a great city is a frightful habitation to one sorrowing. The sunset and the gentle moon, the blessed motion of the leaves and the murmuring of waters are all sweet physicians to a distempered mind.”

“…when I saw the wild heath around me, and the evening star in the west, then I could weep, gently weep, and be at peace.”

“Love! What had I to love? Oh many things: there was the moonshine, and the bright stars; the breezes and the refreshing rains; there was the whole earth and the sky that covers it: all lovely forms that visited my imagination, all memories of heroism and virtue. Yet this was very unlike my early life although as then I was confined to Nature and books. Then I bounded across the fields; my spirit often seemed to ride upon the winds, and to mingle in joyful sympathy with the ambient air. Then if I wandered slowly I cheered myself with a sweet song or sweeter day dreams. I felt a holy rapture spring from all I saw. I drank in joy with life; my steps were light; my eyes, clear from the love that animated them, sought the heavens, and with my long hair loosened to the winds I gave my body and my mind to sympathy and delight. But now my walk was slow–My eyes were seldom raised and often filled with tears; no song; no smiles; no careless motion that might bespeak a mind intent on what surrounded it–I was gathered up into myself–a selfish solitary creature ever pondering on my regrets and faded hopes.”

“My heart was bleeding from its death’s wound; I could live no otherwise – Often amid apparent calm I was visited by despair and melancholy; gloom that nought could dissipate or overcome; a hatred of life; a carelessness of beauty; all these would by fits hold me nearly annihilated by their powers. Never for one moment when most placid did I cease to pray for death.”

“I had already planned the situation where I would live. It should be a solitary house on a wide plain near no other habitation: where I could behold the whole horizon, and wander far without molestation from the sight of my fellow creatures. I was not mysanthropic, but I felt that the gentle current of my feelings depended upon my being alone. I
fixed myself on a wide solitude.”

“But your sad mien never alters; your pulses beat and you breathe, yet you seem already to belong to another world; and sometimes, pray pardon my wild thoughts, when you touch my hand I am surprised to find your hand warm when all the fire of life seems extinct within you.”

“You turn from me; yet before you deny me reflect, Woodville, how sweet it were to cast off the load of tears and misery under which we now labour: and surely we shall find light after we have passed the dark valley. That drink will plunge us in a sweet slumber, and when we awaken what joy will be ours to find all our sorrows and fears past. A little patience, and all will be over… Behold, my cheek is flushed with pleasure at the imagination of death; all that we love are dead. (…) Cast off this blank look of human melancholy. Oh! that I had words to express the luxury of death that I might win you. I tell you we are no longer miserable mortals; we are about to become Gods; spirits free and happy as gods. What fool on a bleak shore, seeing a flowery isle on the other side with his lost love beckoning to him from it would pause because the wave is dark and turbid?”

“Do you mark my words; I have learned the language of despair: I have it all by heart, for I am Despair; and a strange being am I, joyous, triumphant Despair…. We lie down, and close our eyes with a gentle good night, and when we wake, we are free.”

“In solitude only shall I be myself; in solitude I shall be thine.”

“I now behold the glad sun of May. It was May, four years ago, that I first saw my beloved father; it was in May, three years ago that my folly destroyed the only being I was doomed to love. May is returned, and I die.”

Henri Rousseau – The Dream

12 Aug

I recently watched the film “Love in the Time of Cholera” (2007) and I really liked the title sequence with a jungle-inspired animation, it reminded me of Henri Rousseau’s imaginative paintings.

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

Henri Rousseau’s life and paintings are equally fascinating. They are fascinating because he wasn’t a typical bohemian artist living in Montmartre and in fact started painting rather late in life when he was in his early forties and worked as a tax collector. He at last decided to fully devote himself to art at the age of forty-nine. Another thing which makes him fascinating as an artist is his subject matter; jungles and strange dream-like exotic places filled his canvases. Can you fathom the scope of his imagination when he conjured up such vivid and almost surreal scenes even in the greyness of Parisian winters. Cafes, boulevards, bridges, the Seine, dances and cocottes and dandies, such subjects were all right for Impressionists and Post-Impressionist, but Rousseau followed his own path.

Painting “The Dream” is perhaps Rousseau’s most famous work and an excellent representative of his style. In the middle of a jungle a nude lady is lying on a read couch, surrounded by many different trees and plants, each overshadowing the other with its intricate green colours and fine shadowing. The details seem realistic, while the composition all together is everything but. It is clear this isn’t a faithful portrayal of a jungle or a forest, but a place of Rousseau’s Parisian reveries, but nonetheless it is striking how he captured the mood of a place he never even visited. But perhaps I am wrong, for I have never visited a jungle myself! Anyhow, the nude long-haired lady is not alone. The place is bursting with life, from all corners some strange creatures are breathing, hearts are beating and wild eyes as yellow as amber are glistening strangely. Two lions are lying in the grass; both with mad stares, one is looking at her, and the other at us. Behind the lions stands a dark-skinned flautist, a motif which some art historians have interpreted as being erotic. Around the lady large blue flowers are protruding their petals, and birds are sitting on tree branches. An orange snake in the grass, you can really imagine its moist cold body moving quickly through the grass, hidden from the moonlight. The moon is white and full, and things are not as they seem.

Henri Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, 1907

Another interesting painting is “The Snake Charmer”. A nude dark-skinned woman is playing a flute and, well, charming the snake as the title suggests, but visually her dark horizontal figure is dividing the space on two different places, the lake on the left and the dark impenetrable jungle forest on the right. Three black snakes arise sinisterly from the grass, awaken to the beautiful mystical sounds of the flute which, I am sure, makes the leaves and flowers sigh with delight too. I am constantly amazed at how detailed Rousseau was with painting grass and trees, and how diligent, painting each one with care. Look at each leaf individually, the shape and dark matte colour makes it appear so unnatural, and when observed all together they appear even more surreal. Again, a full moon is shining low on the horizon, over the lake, but its silvery shine doesn’t reach the darkness of the forest.

Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891

Painting “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is just amazing! Just look at the tiger’s face, full of expression, his mouth in a grin, his eyes wide open. And how vividly Rousseau has portrayed the tropical storm, the pouring rain that could drain you to the bone, the silver thunders, the swaying branches of trees and dancing leaves in many shades of green and yellow. There’s one chapter in Irving Stone’s book about Vincent van Gogh called “Lust for Life”, which is amazing by the way, where Vincent visits Henri Rousseau in his studio in a poor part of Paris. There they find the artist’s room full of jungle scenes on the walls and four boys with their violins waiting for the lecture to begin because Rousseau often gave violin lessons to earn extra money, and plus he loved playing the instrument as well. He is portrayed as someone very humble and detached from the world around him, in a good way, living in his imagination and not very worried about the things around him.

Wladyslaw 艢lewi艅ski – Orphan from Poronin

2 Aug

Wladyslaw 艢lewi艅ski, Orphan from Poronin, c. 1906

One gaze at Wladyslaw 艢lewi艅ski’s painting “Orphan from Poronin” is enough to make it stay etched in the memory forever because the face he painted is unforgettable, even though it didn’t belong to a person extinguished by wealth or importance in society. Gentle face of this poor orphan boy touches one right in the heart. Just look at him; in that worn-out coat which might have fitted him years before and trousers ever so slightly ripped at the knee, and that odd hat. He looks ill at ease seating at that chair, his fright and anxiety captured for eternity on canvas. The drabness of the wall behind him seems to mirror his thoughts. Upright and stiff he appears, so much so that you can imagine drops of sweat sliding down his forehead and a lump in his throat, preventing him to speak or even move.

The most interesting part of this portrait is the face because it speaks of so many feelings and gives the painting a psychological depth which separates it from a simple social realism style paintings. Firstly, that strange sickly yellowish coloured skin, hair hidden under the hat, no eyebrows, thin lips tightly together, and a pair of large grey-blue eyes, bordering on tears, which radiate fear, desperation and panic. It lingers in the memory because it touches what is human in all of us. The form of his body, that clear fluid outline of his coat, the shape of his face with a thick black line contouring the jaw, that strange sick yellowish colour of his skin, and the formless way the hands were painted reminds me so much of Edvard Munch which is somewhat strange because 艢lewi艅ski’s artistic style was often compared to that of his friend Paul Gauguin. The two met in 1889 and spent some time painting together in Brittany. Wladyslaw 艢lewi艅ski (1856-1918) was a Polish painter who was educated in Paris and spent most of his life in France. Still, this painting during his stay in Poland from 1905 to 1910, before returning to Paris again. The awkwardness of the pose also reminds me of Munch’s painting “Puberty” where a girl is sitting on the bed with an equally haunting face and doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself.

Amedeo Modigliani, The Little Peasant, c. 1918

Wladyslaw 艢lewi艅ski’s painting irresistibly reminded me of one painting by Modigliani, which might sound strange since Modi is known for his sensuous nudes. Nonetheless, the same year that 艢lewi艅ski died, Jewish-Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani who would himself be dead in two years, painted his painting “The Little Peasant”. Stylistically it is instantly recognisable as Modigliani’s work; a sad looking elongated figure in a sombre interior. This little peasant boy has the same sadness, but his gaze possesses none of the eloquence of 艢lewi艅ski’s orphan boy. He has a similar hat and his suit is equally worn out, bursting at the buttons, and look how clumsy his hands are. His motionless and mute expressionless statue-like rosy-cheeked face and his distant gaze don’t have the psychological strength as the orphan’s blue eyes have, but it has an incomparable silent and haunting beauty.

Gerard ter Borch – Love Letters and Glistening Satin Gowns

2 Jul

In this post we’ll take a look at some pretty women dressed in splendid white gowns by a Dutch Baroque painter Gerard ter Borch.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Reading a Letter, 1660-62

Out of the darkness that lures in the background, a genre scene full of intrigues and turmoil arises. A table, two chairs and three figures hold a story. A pretty young lady is reading a letter, most likely a love letter. Her raised eyebrows and slightly parted pink lips reveal her thoughts and feelings; she’s surprised, confused, a bit saddened by the words of the letter. An older female figure dressed in a fur-lined dress is sitting at the table, above an unfinished letter, she’s resting her head on one hand, and holding a quill in the other. Her gaze tells us about the seriousness of the situation. Even the young long haired servant boy glances at her worryingly! Meanwhile, a little dog is sleeping on the other chair.

Let us take a moment to appreciate her gorgeous satin gown. It is painted so beautifully and so skilfully that it looks, to me, as if it was a ball gown woven from moonlight and dandelion seeds for a forest fairy and by some magical mistake it ended up in the wardrobe of a seventeenth century lady. By painting the dress so shining and white, Ter Borch not only emphasised the rich status of the lady wearing it, and showed the elegance and sophistication of the latest fashions, but he also used it as a dazzling contrast of light and darkness. The background and the other figures are painted in dark sombre tones, and the spotlight is on her, the lady reading a letter whose words and emotions will remain forever mysterious to us. In that splendid whiteness the woman looks like a fragrant white lily blooming in the darkness of her beautiful cage.

Gerard ter Borch, Lady at her Toilette, 1660

In “Lady at the Toilette”, we have a somewhat similar scene. Again a woman dressed in a gorgeous white satin gown with details in gold and blue takes the central position. Our eyes are on her, but where is she looking? Both her clothes and the interior signify her high status, and are surely more sophisticated than Vermeer’s are. The interior with a fireplace, Oriental carpet, a mirror, and candlesticks shows luxury. The mirror shows the woman’s profile, but it doesn’t quite make sense. A figure behind the woman is perhaps a maid helping her with her gown, or a seamstress taking a measure or putting finishing touches to the dress. There is a richly dressed servant boy again. A little dog is present as well, not sleeping this time, but stretching with curiosity on the chair.

Ter Borch always lets the long skirt touch the floor and stay there in movement, creating shadows and depths, and you can almost hear its rustle, imagine its softness and shine. With his emphasis on elegance and splendour, Ter Borch partly announced the art of the eighteenth century.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter, 1655

And now a lady not reading a letter but writing one. Take a look at her pearl earring, and look how concentrated she looks, as if she doesn’t know we are gazing at her. And what is she writing, I am bursting with curiosity to find out!

These days, Jan Vermeer is perhaps the most well-known out of the genre-scene painters from the Dutch Golden Age of painting but Gerard ter Borch has painted his fair share of everyday people in everyday situations and he went even further than Vermeer and Jan Steen by adding the glamour and stylishness to everyday life; he transformed middle class ladies into belles of the ball. There is a simple reason why genre painting flourished in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century: there was a free art market and painters weren’t restricted by the demands of the church as they were in the neighbouring Flanders or Southern Netherlands, then controlled by Spain. The artists naturally shifted their focus from the pompous religious subjects full of pathos and flair, which dominated the Spanish and Flemish Baroque, to humble beauties of everyday life. Genre-scenes were a popular option, but still lives and landscapes were common too. This shift seems all to natural to me, for, if a king or a court lady deserves to have her portrait painted, if she is worthy of being captured on canvas for eternity, why wouldn’t a middle-class lady from Utrecht or Amsterdam be a worthy subject for a painting?

Gerrit ter Borch, Messenger, 1650

Painting “The Messanger” is very interesting because the mood of mystery that lingers throughout Ter Borch’s paintings reaches its peak here. A lady in a shining white satin is reading a letter brought by a messenger merely a moment ago. But she turned her back on us, so not only are the words of a love letter concealed from us, so is her face expression. Is she smiling sweetly and trying to prevent herself from giggling, or is she standing in that dark room with a furrowed brow, trying to prevent tears from obscuring her vision, in case the messenger had brought sad news and is waiting for a quick reply. We will never know.

In all these paintings, Ter Borch presents us with a gentler, more intimate, softer side of Baroque; a world of silence and stillness, eloquent glances and glistening fabrics, letters being written and letters being read, letters full of secrets; a world we can relate to and which intrigues us. Jan Vermeer’s genre scenes have a similar mood, and the emphasis is, in both artists, on intimacy and silent drama that takes place behind closed doors.

Gerard ter Borch, An Officer Making His Bow to a Courtesan, 1660s

I decided to add the painting you see above just because of the ethereally beautiful white fabric. It looks so light and airy as it touches the floor. Also, I recently wrote a short post about Victorian photography where girls are dressed in splendid gowns and reside in chambers of silences and dreams, and looking at Gerard ter Borch’s paintings now reminds me of those photographs.

Also, I already wrote about Jan Vermeer’s similar genre scenes here.