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Souvenir of Velázquez: John Everett Millais, James Jebusa Shannon and Joaquín Sorolla

13 Sep

Today let’s take a look at three gorgeous portraits of little girls by John Everett Millais, James Jebusa Shannon and Joaquín Sorolla inspired by the paintings of Diego Velázquez’s, mainly the painting “Las Meninas” from 1656 but also some of his other portraits of Infanta Maria Teresa.

John Everett Millais, Souvenir of Velázquez, 1868

Just like Infanta Margaret Theresa from Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas” (1656), the girl in Millais’ painting is a serious young lady. Two centuries divide the lives of these two moody girls, yet I am sure they would understand each other and could gleefully spend many idle hours giggling and chatting. Millais’ sweet, round faced girl has a pale skin and masses of strawberry blonde hair that are a stark contrast to the darkness of the background. Unlike Infanta Margaret Theresa, this girl is all alone on the canvas. Her face looks like many other from Millais’ canvases, yet her attire is noticeably different from that of any other Victorian girl. This was Millais’ homage to a very famous Baroque painting made by Diego Velázquez, the court painter of Philip IV, in 1656. But Millais used a Pre-Raphaelite colour palette and the brush strokes on the hair and details of the dress are particularly loose, unrestrained and confident. Millais was apparently so skillful a painter that he was able to paint a leaf in a few brushstrokes and achieve the liveliness and accuracy. I think these strokes are a proof of that.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, detail

Velázquez’s position as a court painter clearly placed him in a subservient position to the members of the royal family. In his time, he was just a painter and they were the grand and powerful Habsburgs and yet, looking back in time, it is Velázquez who is famous and praised now for his art and little Infanta is just one in a row of royal princesses who would scarcely be remembered today if she wasn’t captured on canvas so many times and in such beautiful and memorable paintings. It is a good thing that Velázquez painted so many beautiful portraits of her as a child because those were her glory days in a way; she married at the age of fifteen to Leopold I, and she was both his niece and his first cousin, and died at the age of twenty-one, after giving birth to four children and being pregnant with the fifth. So, if it wasn’t for these glorious portraits and especially the very much loved and enigmatic “Las Meninas” where she is the central figure, she would have been forgotten in history, she would have been just another pale sickly girl who died very young from this illness or another, childbirth or smallpox, nothing special. But because of art, she is eternal. Even now, four centuries later, she is the blue eyed girl looking back at us, with her hair combed on the side and adorned with a bow, in her wide dress, so large for her small fragile body.

Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Infanta Margarita Teresa in silver dress, 1656

James Jebusa Shannon, Portrait of a Little Girl Holding a Toy (Kitty in a fancy dress), 1895

Next example is James Jebusa Shannon’s lovely portrait of his daughter Katherine Marjorie known as Kitty who was eight years old at the time this was painted. The portrait is beautifully cropped and focuses on the little girl in the moment of childlike playfulness; she is holding a doll in each hand. Still in the world of dreams and make-beliefs, her dolls are her friends. Loose brushstrokes and a colour palette of subtle colours such as white and grey, with touches of pink and red perfectly fit the at once playful and dreamy mood of the painting. Maybe Kitty is lost in the dreamland playing with her dolls and she can scarcely notice that her father is painting her once again, for she was his dear model, but her cheeks are rosy and she is smiling and we can tell she is a happier girl than Velázquez’s Infanta Margaret Theresa was in her constricted dress and constricting environment of the Spanish court. The dress Kitty is wearing resembles the one Velázquez painted, but it is only a fancy dress and life is still a game for Kitty as well.

Joaquín Sorolla, María Figuero dressed as a menina, 1901

And the last example I will be talking about in this post is an unfinished work by a Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla which shows a girl dressed in an attire of the Infanta Margaret Theresa and the kind of dress that would be worn by other noble girls at the court. Just like Kitty in the previous picture, María was eight years old when this was painted and she was not just any child; she was the daughter of Sorolla’s friend Rodrigo de Figueroa y Torres, Marquis of Gauna and later a Duke of Tovar also. Inspiration for this painting was not Velázquez himself, but his pupil Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo’s portrait of Infanta Margaret Theresa in a pink dress from 1660. Just like in the portrait of Infanta, María Figuero is wearing a very wide dress which fills the canvas horizontally, the sleeves are equally puffy and there is a pink decoration on the bodice. Her hair also resembles the hairstyle Infanta Margarita wore in some of her other portraits, for example the portrait in blue by Velázquez painted in 1659.

Juan Bautista del Mazo, Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Pink Dress, 1660

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John Everett Millais: Early Years of Married Life and Pre-Raphaelite Gems

3 Sep

I have written a lot about the Pre-Raphaelites on this blog over the years and I don’t wish to be repetitive but at the same time there there is always something new to learn and focus your attention on. So, in this post we’ll take a look at John Everett Millais’ early years of married life and the art he created at that time, with a special focus on three beautiful painting “The Blind Girl”, “Autumn Leaves” and “Peace Concluded”, all painted in 1856.

John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl, 1856

On 3rd July 1855, twenty-six year old Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais finally married Effie Gray. They were overjoyed about the prospect of finally being together, but also emotionally exhausted after years of dealing with the struggles; for Effie the struggle was her previous unhappy marriage with the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, and for Millais it was the anguish at having to suppress his love for Effie during the time she was still married or just recently divorced. The irony is that it was through John Ruskin that the couple got acquainted in the first place. They did meet once before, on a ball, but it wasn’t a memorable event for either of them. Ruskin was a huge supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites and one of the first critics who praised their style. In 1853, Ruskin proposed that John Millais and his brother William join him and Effie on a holiday in the emerald green wilderness of Scotland.

John Everett Millais, Waterfall or Effie at Glenfinlas, 1853, 11.5″ (29.2 cm) x 15.4″ (39.1 cm) 

While there, Millais worked on his painting “The Order of Release” and Effie posed for the female figure. They grew fond of each other’s company and Effie soon started opening up about her life; about her loving parents, childhood spent in Scotland, her siblings, but also about the sad truth of her marriage with Ruskin. Naturally, this was a delicate topic and she must have had great trust in him to share such a thing. Millais as absolutely shocked that Ruskin could be so cold and disinterest in his young beautiful wife, and he was also overwhelmed with a feeling of futility and empathy. He wanted to help Effie but didn’t know quite how, and his own feelings of affection towards her added an even greater torment. In his letters home during that trip he writes of Effie “She is the most delightful unselfish kind-hearted creature I ever knew, it is impossible to help liking her…” And also he started giving her drawing lessons and she proved to be a very dutiful pupil, Millais writes “She has drawn and painted some flowers in oil (the first time she has ever touched a brush) almost as well as I could do them myself.” Millais also painted this charming and very detailed little painting of Effie on the rocks by a waterfall.

John Everett Millais, A portrait of Effie Gray, 1853

Let’s skip the part about the sad and bitter marriage annulment between Effie and Ruskin and focus on the young newlyweds in the summer of 1855. After the wedding ceremony, they sat in a train and were on their way to spend a five week honeymoon in the west coast of Scotland. Millais was very nervous but Effie cheered him up and they had marvelous time together. Since Effie had horrible experiences with the London life, the couple decided to live in Scotland, near to her parents’ house. The letters both wrote to their families show the joy they experienced, Effie wrote to her mother saying “I am so happy with him. You can imagine how much I appreciate his natural character. (…) he is so kind and nice and easy to be with.” She also wrote to her brother George “He diverts me beyond everything. I don’t think I have laughed so much since I was Alice’s age.” (Alice was ten years old at the time.) As they settled into their home, Effie tried to do everything in her power to make their life revolve around his art. She was very practical and nurturing, and offered both her help and compassion when his painting drove him crazy; she would urge him to take a rest when he was working to hard and was very successful in finding local young girls to pose for him. And if he needed a historical costume for his painting, she would do the research and sew it for him.

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856

In 1856 Millais had three remarkable paintings to show; “The Blind Girl” where he portrayed two child beggars one of whom is blind, resting after a rainstorm before they continue their journey to another town. The sad fate of the blind girl and their destitute situation is in contrast with the vibrant and warm colours; that overwhelming warm green-yellow of the endless field behind them, the orange of her dress, the coppery orange-red of her cloak and her hair, and even the blue sky in the upper part of the painting seems so warm. It’s very detailed; just look at the grass and the ground in the lower left corner, and all the birds and the animals, the glistening magical rainbow, and the town in the distance. All this beauty of nature around her, but the poor blind girl cannot see it. But she is able to enjoy other sensations; smell of fresh grass and summer’s day, and song of birds.

Another memorable masterpiece is “Autumn Leaves”. I don’t even know how to do justice to the painting’s beauty with my words. I adore the mood and the colours so much, it’s full of feelings and at the same time beautiful and tinged with melancholy and transience, and it so vividly captures the moment, the twilight of the autumn day. The warmth of the colours, the details of the leaves, the faces of young girls, the sensitivity to capturing the atmosphere so well, it’s just stunning and it’s easy to see what all these paintings where a huge success in London in 1856. Despite the bitter feeling of betrayal, Ruskin still managed to be objective when analysing Millais’ art and he praised this picture saying that it is “by much the most poetical work the painter has yet conceived; and also, so far as I know, the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight. It is easy, as it is common, to give obscurity to twilight, but to give the glow withing its darkness is another matter; and though Giorgione might have come nearer glow, he never gave the valley mist. Note also the subtle difference between the purple of the long nearer range of hills and the blue of the distant peak.

John Everett Millais, Peace Concluded, 1856

The Last picture of the 1856 trio is “Peace Concluded”, also known as “The Return from Crimea” which shows a wounded officer who had recently returned from the war and is now resting in his family nest, surrounded by his loving wife and rose-cheeked children. The foliage behind them looks as if it came from Millais’ painting “Ophelia” while the garish carpet looks like it belongs to the interior from William Holman Hunt’s painting “Awakening Conscience”. A dog curled on the sofa overlooks the scene. Effie Millais posed for the central figure of the wife, and the husband and wife are presented as very close to each other; her arms are wrapped around him comfortingly and this could be related to Millais’ personal life and his joy and closeness with Effie because the date of the picture matched the date of their first year marriage anniversary.

I felt it was important to discuss this short period in Millais’ life because his style changed a lot after he got married; being the man and the bread-winner for an ever growing family (he and Effie ended up having eight children) he was strained by responsibilities and chose to paint with less emphasis on details and focusing on themes that he knew the audience would love and approve, and people would want to buy. Some, like William Morris for example, have commented that he had sold out and that he didn’t stay true to the original aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Brootherhood; he certainly didn’t spent as much time studying nature attentively or painting in a very detailed style like he did early in his career, and he didn’t stay true to the original aim of originality. Still, that’s not to say all his later work is bad, not at all, there are many interesting paintings in his oeuvre but I feel that these paintings from mid 1850s are some of his last Pre-Raphaelite gems.

John Everett Millais, Sophie Gray, 1857

John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-59

John Everett Millais, The Martyr of the Solway, 1871

John Everett Millais, Portrait of Alice Gray, 1858

John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1859

This is how Millais defended himself in a letter to William Holman Hunt: “You argue that if I paint for the passing fashion of the day my reputation some centuries hence will not be what my powers would secure me if I did more ambitious work. I don’t agree. A painter must work for the taste of his own day. How does he know what people will like two or three hundred years hence? I maintain that a man should hold up the mirror to his own times. I want proof that the people of my day enjoy my work, and how can I get this better than by finding people willing to give me money for my productions, and that I win honours from contemporaries. What good would recognition of my labours hundreds of years hence do me? I should be dead, buried, and crumbled into dust.

I think it’s fascinating to actually hear an artist make such a statement, and show that he does care about getting praise and approval from his time and people of his time.

Arthur Hughes – April Love

26 Aug

Let’s take a look at some very romantical paintings by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes.

Arthur Hughes, April Love, 1855-56

On 19th May 1855, Edward Burne-Jones, English painter associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, took his beloved girl Georgiana “Georgie” MacDonald to the Royal Academy Exhibition and proposed marriage to her in front of the painting “April Love” by Arthur Hughes. What a romantical gesture!? I have always been fond of this painting because of its dreamy and romantic mood and the gorgeous indigo-purple dress that the girl is wearing. Purple dresses are somewhat rare in art history, and interestingly Arthur Hughes’s canvases are full of them. Sweet and wistful coppery-haired maidens in purple gowns, against a background of lush green nature. Very romantic and very Pre-Raphaelite. Hughes is famous for making paintings of lovers, influenced by a painting that he himself admired, “The Huguenot” by John Everett Millais, but he is also somewhat ignored, perhaps because his life wasn’t rife with scandals, lovers or travels to exotic places. He led a quiet, but joyous and serene life with his wife Tryphena Foord ‘his early and only love’ and they married in 1855, so around the time “April Love” was painted.

Arthur Hughes, Study for April Love, 1855

It’s interesting to note that Arthur Hughes’ own love life was happy and seemingly ideal, and yet the romantic scenes on his canvases are tinged with melancholy and unrequited feelings; transient nature of love and life are in opposition with the lasting character of nature, old oak trees and ivy with its steady and persistent growth are in contrast with the changing nature of human feelings. Maybe in his real life, love was as strong as an oak trees and could resist winds and storms, but in the gentle, dreamy and wistful world of his paintings, love is a light pink rose whose delicate petals are easily scattered by a gentle breeze, as we can see in the bottom left part of the painting “April Love” where a girl is standing by an ivy-overgrown tree trunk and looking down in disappointment and sadness, while a gentleman whose head is hard to even notice on canvas is kissing her hand and perhaps reassuring her that she is wrong in her doubts and that he does love her. The model for the lad was the sculptor Alexander Munro who shared a studio with Hughes from 1852 to 1858, and the model for the girl was originally a girl from the countryside who refused to pose for Hughes after she saw the way he had drawn her. Hughes then used his wife as a model and it is her face that we see on the canvas, so gentle and so suitable for a romantic scene. The painting was exhibited in 1856 and accompanied with these verses from Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Miller’s Daughter”:

Love is hurt with jar and fret,
Love is made a vague regret,
Eyes with idle tears are set,
Idle habit links us yet;
What is Love? For we forget.
Ah no, no.

Arthur Hughes, Amy, 1853-59

Arthur Hughes was not an official member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his paintings clearly exhibit the Pre-Raphaelite style and preference of themes. Another painting, “Amy”, is also a beautiful example of Hughes’ use and choice of colours; how radiant and vivacious is the purple of her dress?! Especially in the contrast with the many shades of green of the ivy, moss and fern all around her. The rosy-cheeked Amy with a flower in her hair could be mistaken for a forest fairy. Her eyes are worryingly set on the name “Amy” freshly carved on the tree trunk. Youthful love is fragile and somewhere deep in her heart she can sense it. In a follow-up painting “Long Engagement” we see the same girl, this time with a far sadder look on her face, disappointment and pleading are in her gaze. His eyes are directed somewhere else, perhaps he doesn’t have the heart to break hers and shatter her hopes, or there is reluctance which keeps him from fulfilling his promise. Meanwhile, the carved name on the tree trunk is getting more and more overgrown with ivy. Ferns and moss have grown in abundance, and white roses with their thorny stems have started to smother the paths of the forest. The lovers’ love is lulled to everlasting sleep. Despite the sad element of Hughes’ paintings, they are still a definite proof that broodiness and melancholy are cool, and happiness is not. Also, it’s interesting to note that the couple mentioned in the beginning, Edward Burne-Jones and Georgie, also had a long engagement which made Georgie’s heart ache, but in 1860 they finally married, and luckily avoided the fate of the couple bellow.

Arthur Hughes, Long Engagement, 1859

Jean-Antoine Watteau – Satyr Pouring Wine

29 Jul

A very interesting drawing of a Satyr by a Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Satyr Pouring Wine, 1717, Black, red, and white chalk

Awhile ago I stumbled upon this interesting drawing of a Satyr pouring wine. It looks sketchy and unfinished, but the male nude is certainly striking and a bit mysterious. Robust body captured in the movement, pouring wine but the wineskins in his hands are left undefined. Some parts of the body are very detailed and precise, such as the torso and the shoulders with generous strokes of black and some red on the hands, while other parts like legs just simply vanish. And notice the playful swirls of black for the hair. The face expression looks focused, the gaze intense, looking downwards. It looks swift and energetic, the artist really had a hard job capturing that satyr pouring the wine before the action was completed and the satyr wandered off not wishing to be the star of the canvas. Being fond of Satyrs, Fauns and other wild creatures from Greek and Roman mythology, I was instantly taken by this drawing. What a robust male nude, what a determination in the drawing, especially considering the limited colours.

I was quite surprised to learn that the author of this drawing was none other that Watteau. I usually connected Watteau with more delicate, gentle and dreamy works of art; paintings where refined, elegant couples spend idle hours in the forest, a world of silk dresses and celebrations of love, a world where a pale melancholy Pierrot dressed in an oversize clothes is the true tragical hero… I don’t see how a drawing of a nude Satyr would fit into this elegant world laced with sweet sadness that Watteau had created in his short life but I guess I know nothing of Watteau’s imagination! In Greek mythology Satyrs were presented as wild creatures of the forest with mane-like hair, faces like beasts, and similar to Faun, they love to indulge in drinking wine, dancing, chasing local beauties, most often unsuccessfully. In my humble opinion, Watteau could have added a few more touched to this mane-like hair, make it look more like Jim Morrison’s hairstyle, but that’s just my opinion. In this drawing Watteau used his beloved trois crayon technique (“three chalks”) using three colours; red, black and white chalk on paper. But it isn’t really three colours but four, because there is the colour of the paper which in this case perfectly matches the skin tone of the Satyr. This study is connected to the lost painting “Autumn” which was part of the cycle commissioned by the banker Pierre Crozat.

Circle of Watteau, Head of a Satyr, no date, Black and red chalk, heightened with yellow chalk with traces of white chalk on brown paper

Lizzie Siddal – A Mysterious Muse

25 Jul

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

(Elizabeth Siddal, “Love and Hate”)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Portrait Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1850s

Elizabeth Siddal, a famous and doomed Pre-Raphaelite muse and a lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was born on 25th July 1829 in London. She died in February 1862 at the age of 32, but had she been a vampire, which I suspect she might as well be, she would have been 190 years old today, a fairly young age for a vampire. I am thinking about her these days; about her beauty, her poems and paintings, and also about the exhumation of her body led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti who wanted to get back the poems he had buried with her. An image of her coffin being opened, and her long red hair revealed by the moonlight, silence of the graveyard, the eeriness…. It is easy to imagine why this event inspired young Bram Stoker for his character Lucy in “Dracula”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’, 1853

Nonetheless, the main thing on my mind these days is how mysterious the person of Elizabeth Siddal actually is. Who was she really? How little we know of her and how the rest is painted in our imaginations. When I first read about her years ago, I was met with a very idealised image of a beautiful, quiet and melancholy young woman who modeled for the Pre-Raphaelites, used laudanum and was plagued with sadness and Rossetti’s infidelities; she seemed almost like a martyr, the one who suffered, the one who was tormented. I think part of it was true, she was a struggling working class girl who wanted more from life, materially and spiritually; she wanted to rise above the circumstance that she was born into, she wanted to learn and grow intellectually, but also she wanted a finer, more comfortable life; “a servant to lay the fire in the morning, theater tickets, a paisley shawl.” (Gay Daly, Pre-Raphaelites in Love)

The promises that Rossetti gave, he did not fulfill; he was impulsive, careless with money, had a wandering eye and was strangely very hesitant to marry her, and it is easy to understand why it brought her so much anguish, especially in the Victorian era when her status of artist’s model and a lover closed many doors for her and gave her an unenviable place in society. Artistically, she was always in Rossetti’s shadow and she could never have dreamed that her paintings of her poems would be as appreciated as his were. All these things indeed make her a sufferer, but I feel like there is another side of her that no one tends to talk about, for it would ruin her untainted image of a martyr and an angel. She may be a mysterious muse, but she is not a perfect one for sure.

Regina Cordium – Rossetti’s Marriage portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1860

Blinded by her beauty; her long coppery red hair, pale complexion, fragile frame, and eyes that changed colour from green to grey, Rossetti was bewitched at first sight by this strange girl who worked in a hat shop. She was equally charmed, but as ideal the start of their relationship was, its course was a turbulent one with lots of drama, anger, tears and manipulation. Lizzie was known for her frail health, but it is very interesting how her health changed according to the occasion. She could feel perfectly well in the morning, but as soon as Rossetti was getting ready to head into town, hang out with other people, she would suddenly feel unwell and if she would get him to stay at home that day, her health was fine.

She was emotionally manipulative without a doubt and, to me, she seems like a very moody and miserable woman and I am not surprised that Rossetti would want to go out and spend time with merrier, more carefree women. In her book “Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel” Lucinda Hawksley writes that “both shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any relationship.” And also: “When one – or both – of them was unhappy, ill, depressed or jealous, they made one another’s lives hellish. (…) Self-destructive and self-loathing at times, as well as being arrogant about their abilities, both must have been extremely difficult to live with.” She was happy at the beginning of their relationship, in times when Ophelia was painted but as their life went on, she started using her frail health as a way of getting things she wanted, mostly from Rossetti but also from other people. Again, here is an interesting passage from Lucinda Hawksley’s book: “It is interesting to see how often Lizzie’s health coincided with Rossetti’s affections being taken up by other woman. By his refusal to marry her, Rossetti had forced her to blackmail him emotionally and she used every opportunity to do so. At the start of their relationship it seems the balance of power was very much in his favour as she struggled to prevent him from tiring of her, but by the end of her life she had become overtly manipulative and controlling, to the point that his friends claimed he shrank when she spoke to him, always expecting a rebuke or for her to sink dangerously into illness, blaming him wordlessly for its onslaught.

As if her “illnesses” weren’t enough, Lizzie would stop eating to get her point across, or sink into periods of depression and self-loathing. Mrs Siddal was also known for being aloof and quiet when in company with other people, and I can well understand that because I am somewhat similar, but I think it was just a means for her to show her disdain and disinterest, and to emphasise the mysteriousness about her that she loved nurturing. She was known for petty jealousies and acted as if she were better than other working class models who might have been prostitutes also, for example Hunt’s model Annie Miller.

John Everett Millias, Ophelia, 1852

With all that said, I will also add that I love Lizzie and I am not being hateful here, I am in fact endlessly captivated by her short tragical life, her mysteriousness, and her connection to the Pre-Raphaelites. I love her poetry and empathise with her verses. But I have to say that she is no angel and I hate people idealising her while at the same time bashing on Rossetti for being this or that. She was manipulative, jealous, strategically ill when necessary, miserable, depressed, perhaps impossible to satisfy at times, and I don’t see why that is not mentioned so often. She was an artist’s muse and a model, that position alone ought to have made her feel like she were the luckiest girl in the world. Just think of Poe’s submissive little wife Virginia and her perfect adoration for the doomed poet. I think Lizzie didn’t need an ancient curse like the Lady of Shalott to bring her death because Lizzie seems capable enough of bringing her own doom.

Now, I don’t want to judge her harshly because I have not met her, but no matter how much I read about her, I am still left with a feeling of mysteriousness. All the words said are not her own, comments from observers are still not her own. We can never know what was truly in her heart, though maybe her poems are a good clue, being so direct and so melancholy. I wonder, were her manipulative ways a character trait or just a way of getting even with Rossetti. Why was she so miserable and what could have stopped that? I honestly can’t imagine her ever being perfectly happy. I think of her often, and yet she is still mysterious to me. Maybe one night, in a dream, I will meet her and find out all that I was curious about.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1860

And for the end, here is one of her poems which I love:

Worn Out

Thy strong arms are around me, love

My head is on thy breast;

Low words of comfort come from thee

Yet my soul has no rest.

 

For I am but a startled thing

Nor can I ever be

Aught save a bird whose broken wing

Must fly away from thee.

 

I cannot give to thee the love

I gave so long ago,

The love that turned and struck me down

Amid the blinding snow.

 

I can but give a failing heart

And weary eyes of pain,

A faded mouth that cannot smile

And may not laugh again.

 

Yet keep thine arms around me, love,

Until I fall to sleep;

Then leave me, saying no goodbye

Lest I might wake, and weep.

J.M.W. Turner – Romantic Watecolours of German Castles

23 Jul

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Klotten and Burg Coraidelstein from the East, 1840

The great British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner was not content with just painting the green English meadows and cathedrals like John Constable, or Welsh castles and mountains like Paul Sandby. His visions were grander and his spirit more insatiable for the new landscapes and new skies. Led by romantic wanderlust, Turner traveled to Germany, and visited the area of Middle Rhein ten times in years from 1817 to 1844. The area was famous even then for its pictorial and spiritual beauties; lush green hills surrounding the river were littered with castles and ruins of castles, remains of monasteries and churches which had been demolished in political wars following the Reformations and in later centuries as a result of Napoleon’s quests. And then there is the golden-haired siren, made famous through Heinrich Heine’s poem “Die Lorelei” written in 1824, who sits on the Lorelei rock, combs her long hair and with her voice alone leads wanderers and sailors to their doom.

J.M.W. Turner, Lorelei Rock, c. 1817

I know not if there is a reason
Why I am so sad at heart.
A legend of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.

The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening’s final ray.

The fairest of maidens is sitting
So marvelous up there,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She’s combing her golden hair.

(Read the rest of the poem here.)

An artist living in Romanticism, an era which praised nature, imagination and the past simply couldn’t have visited the Rhine area without being captivated by the eerie legends and poems surrounding the Lorelei rock. In 1817, when Turner first visited the area, he made the painting of the Lorelei rock that you can see above. As interesting this painting is, and similar to many romantic landscape paintings that I like, I much prefer Turner’s more spontaneous works made in graphite, watercolour and gouache, painted during his travels to Germany in 1839 and 1840. His focus clearly shifted from the river and the Lorelei rock to the castles on the hills around the Rhine. The sketches are less theatrical than Turner’s famed earlier seascapes glistening in yellow and gold, and the atmosphere is gentler than that of his wild shipwrecks and seas under the moonlight’s glow. As much as I enjoy those paintings for their romantic exaggeration and dramatic flair, gazing at these dreamy watercolours is perfect for drifting into a reverie.

The softness and vagueness of these castles and landscapes appears as if it was designed to be completed in one’s imagination. Here and there you can see the traces of the pencil showing under the faint layers of warm dusky colours. It seems like the sunset is colouring the castles in orange and yellow shades, while in some drawings pops of blue and sharp white awake our eyes. Vague and dreamy, somewhere rich layers of brown and yellow form the mountains, and at other places, the contours of towers and roofs simply fade… Vague, loose brushstrokes, almost Impressionistic. I think we could rightfully call these watercolours “Turner’s impressions” of old castles, hills, skies and ruins. This vagueness is precisely what draws me to these drawings, and it was the same quality that made these artworks unpopular in his times, especially in Germany. I like all of these watercolours because they make me daydream, but the one called “Burg Thurandt” from 1839 interests me especially because it’s so abstract.

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Eltz and Trutz Eltz from the North, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Bischofstein, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Eltz and Trutz Eltz from the North, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Hals from the Hillside, 1840, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Alken and Burg Thurandt, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Klotten and Burg Coraidelstein from the East, 1839

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Thurandt, 1839

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Bischofstein, 1839, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Alken and Burg Thurandt from the South, 1839

Frida Kahlo – Love, Flowers, Pain

6 Jul

Frida Kahlo was born on this day in 1907. Happy birthday Frida! Feliz cumpleaños!

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937

In 1938 French Surrealist poet André Breton visited Mexico and upon seeing the paintings of the young artist Frida Kahlo he classified them as works of surrealism which is something she herself denied by saying: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” And indeed, by looking at her paintings and following the events in her life, the parallel is unmistakable. Frida used art as a diary; she used brush and paint instead of a pen and jotted down her feelings, her anguish, her memories, her sense of identity in a similar way that Anais Nin did in her diaries, and Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath did in their poems. Looking at Frida’s paintings inevitably draws us into her inner world because the two are inseparable; the viewer yearns to know more about her life and the meaning behind the symbols and motifs she painted. I see her paintings as poetic scenes, verses in vibrant colours, and although they may seem surreal, they are always sincere and woven with depths of her feelings.

Frida Kahlo With Classic Magenta Rebozo, Nickolas Muray, 1939

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Two things that shaped the life and art of Frida Kahlo were her love for a fellow painter Diego Rivera and “the accident”. Love and pain; two sensations so intermingled that the first one can’t possibly live without the other. In her own words: “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Pain and love followed her like shadows. When she was six years old, she contracted polio and that left her with one leg shorter than the other; she would later hide this defect by wearing man’s clothes or long traditional Mexican gowns. The illness helped to create a strong bond with her father Guillermo who was also of poor health. Although her relationship with her mother was somewhat strained and distanced, Frida loved her father and described him as being tender and understanding. Guillermo was a photographer and not only did he take pictures of his daughter and talked to her about philosophy, nature and literature, but he also encouraged her to practise sport as a way of regaining her health and he inspired her artistic explorations. Little Frida filled notebooks with sketches but never considered art as a profession until “the accident” occurred: on 17 September 1925 she was riding a bus home from school with her boyfriend and the bus collided with a streetcar. A few people died and Frida suffered nearly fatal injuries; she fractured several bones and was confined to bed for three months. Her dreams of being a doctor crashed, and, in solitude, pain and fatigue, She found comfort from solitude, fatigue and pain in painting. An easel was placed specially so that she would paint laying in the bed and she had a mirror so she could see herself.

Frida Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931

By 1927 Frida’s health was recovered and she reconnected with her old school friends and joined the Mexican Communist Party. An old school friend introduced her to a group of artists and activists who were gathered around the Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella. On a party held in June 1928 by Mella’s lover Tina Modotti, an Italian-American photographer, Frida met Diego Rivera who was a well-known artist by that time. She had met him once before when he worked on a mural in her school “Escuela National Preparatoria”. Frida wanted to show him her paintings and longed to hear his opinion. Rivera liked what he saw and he encouraged her to pursue career as an artist, stating that her work possessed: “an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist”.

Diego and Frida married on 21 August 1929: she was twenty two years old, he was forty-two. Their love story is one of the most well known in the world of art and the double-portrait above is actually their wedding portrait made by Kahlo. It looks almost grotesque and deliberately exaggerated in proportions, but it presents the truth. Rivera, a tall and over-weight artist and a womaniser with his feet strongly on the ground is shown holding a tiny hand of his petite and fragile artist-wife; his doll, his little girl; his “muñeca”, his “niña”.

Frida painted Diego with a palette and brushes in his right hand, and herself merely as a companion to the artist. Looking at the portrait, one would never guess that this fragile, timid, gentle looking thing in a dark green dress and a long red scarf, looking so small and gentle compared to the robust and grandeurs artist, was actually an artist herself whose fame today exceeds that of her husband. It might be hard to understand what exactly Frida liked about Rivera; his temperament, his physical ugliness, his eyes that easily wandered to other women (including her younger sister), his age, and yet she adored him, worshipped him. She once wrote: Diego era todo: mi niño, mi amor, mi universo.(Diego was my everything: my child, my lover, my universe.) Frida’s parents referred to the union as the “marriage between an elephant and a dove”. Judging by the portrait and the photographs below – they were right.

“I love you more than my own skin and even though you don’t love me the same way, you love me anyways, don’t you? And if you don’t, I’ll always have the hope that you do, and I’m satisfied with that. Love me a little. I adore you.” (Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.” (Letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), 1939

Frida and Diego’s marriage was turbulent to say the least. In 1939 their divorce was being finalised. It was Diego who wanted a divorce, and Frida was very melancholic and very lonely. To hush the anguish in her heart, she drank alcohol and painted furiously because she resolved never to be financially depended on a man again. This fruitful artistic period resulted in a series of self-portraits. Painting “Two Fridas” was also made around the time they divorced and it is perhaps the most symbolic of that period in her life and her feelings at the moment. It unites the subjects of love and pain, and it’s also a psychological study of her identity and ancestry. It shows just how childlike, deep and sincere her art was because it deals with her feelings directly, without hesitation or tendency towards snobbish avant-garde, her style is at the same time inspired by naive art, and self-invented and her own.

On the left we see the European Frida: dressed in a white Edwardian gown with lace on her bodice and collar, and a living pulsating wounded heart; she has a pair of scissors in her hand. On the right we see the Mexican Frida: dressed in a traditional Tehuana dress; in her hand she’s holding a little portrait of Diego as a child. The European Frida shows her father’s ancestry who was a German Jew. The Mexican Frida shows the culture that Frida embraced and the Frida that Diego loved. The hearts of two Fridas are connected by one artery and the heart of European Frida is aching, bleeding, falling apart, dying. Diego has rejected the European Frida and she is dying. He thought that: “Mexican women who do not wear [Mexican clothing] … are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong.” And so Frida loved to emphasise her mestiza ancestry by wearing traditional Mexican peasant dresses, traditional elaborate hairstyles with braids and flowers and adorn herself with jewellery. Her exotic appearance showed quite a sensation when she was in New York in October 1938. Frida’s exoticism in the eyes of western people, her peculiar expressive self portraits with eyebrows that meet and flowers in her hair are things that first come to mind to people when they think about her.

Still, with paintings as personal as these, I feel it is almost a sacrilege to butcher their meanings and make one’s own assumptions of their meaning. Frida said for this particular painting that it represents her and her imaginary childhood friend. It is this emotional and diary-like aspect of her art that appeals to me, but the overall style and colours are not really my taste.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

Painting “Memory (The Heart)”, painted during Diego’s affair with Frida’s younger sister, also shows her pain inflicted by love. Her heart is painted disproportionally large and shown bleeding.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in My houghts), 1943

In the painting above, Frida shows us that Diego was always on her mind, literally so – he is tattooed on her forehead! Could it be more direct?

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1940

“I am that clumsy human, always loving, loving, loving. And loving. And never leaving. (Fridas’ diary entry)