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Josip Račić – Watercolours: Paris Through the Eyes of a Stranger

3 May

We begin a new month – the pink, flowery and sweet May – with a new artist; Croatian painter Josip Račić (1885-1908) and the watercolours he painted during his brief stay in Paris in 1908.

Josip Račić, Park Luxembourg, 1907

On 10th February 1908, young Croatian artist Josip Račić arrived in Paris. Five months later he was found death in his room. A suicide. A mystery which gave birth to the romanticised myth of this tortured genius’s life. In his short yet turbulent artistic career, from humble beginnings to education in Munich and lastly, his short Parisian period, Račić, having died at the age of twenty-three, managed to create enough works to become a crucial figure for the development of Croatian Modern art and to pave way for the artists who followed.

Račić was born in a village near Zagreb in 1885 and attended grammar school for a short period after deciding to fully delve into lithography. In 1904 he was already studying in Munich with a well known professor Anton Ažbe, an eccentric yet generous man fighting his own demons whilst always willing to help a student in need; both financially and in motivation. While there, he became a part of the “Croatian School” formed by three fellow art students from Croatia who would later become renewed artists in the early twentieth century. Račić’s family, especially his father, never supported his artistic ambitions so we can guess that his time in Munich was a time of freedom.

There was always an air of mystery around his persona; moody and sensitive, brutally honest with himself and others, he found it hard to develop deep and sincere friendships. He undoubtedly felt misunderstood, and many have for sure mistaken his honesty with arrogance. It wasn’t long that he started being bored with Munich and longed to get acquainted with the art of Paris, to broaden his views, to learn and to create. Determined that his art will thrive if brought in contact with the new currents, in autumn of 1907 Račić decided to go to Paris.

Josip Račić, Café on the boulevard, 1908

In February 1908 he was in Paris and the world of art was opening before his eyes. A boy from the provinces lost in the light and shine of the big city; wandering the wide boulevards, observing people, instantly finding inspiration for his paintings. It’s interesting that he chose the medium of watercolours to portray this fascinating new world that was opening before his eyes, because the paintings he made in Munich and Zagreb were mostly oil on canvas works. Perhaps it’s only the watercolour that can truly capture the light of the street lamps as it spills on the dark dirty pavements, the gloominess of parks and mask-like faces of strangers. Indeed, something that connects all of Račić’s works from his Parisian phase are the shadowy figures of passers-by, often in dark colours with faces that show no individualistic characteristics, but this isn’t Kirchner’s frenzy and anticipation of catastrophe, there is more subtlety and lyrical beauty about these street scenes. There is often a voyeuristic touch to his watercolours; people chatting in parks and being watched by a pair of artistic eyes.

Josip Račić, In the Park, 1908

“In the Park” is a bit merrier than the other watercolours, in terms of colour palette. In a vertical composition, a few closely-cropped female figures are shown in middle of a conversation in the park. The perspective almost looks like photography. Underneath shades of red, light green and yellow, which are refreshingly vivid for a change, we can see Račić’s pencil sketch. How exciting! Račić often seems to ignore all the dreamy and lyrical abilities of watercolour as a medium and still retains his figures painted with stability and volume, he is still hesitant to free with brushstrokes even more. Paris is inviting him to surrender, in colour and in form, and this gives birth to a certain agitation, hopelessness, anxiety….

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Both watercolours “One the Boulevard” are interesting street-scenes with people sitting on benches and chatting. Figures in both paintings are painted in simplified forms, dark and shadowy, and compositions are horizontal with diagonal lines on the left that divide the areas of light and shadow. People are sitting in the shadow, and just a step away from their gloomy little worlds there are vivid lights of street lamps.

Josip Račić, On the Seine, 1908

Painting “On the Seine” is such a lyrical little masterpiece; a large portion of the painting is devoted to the bridge which is painted in murky shades of blue, green and brown, and then underneath the bridge we see two human figures by the shore, painted like blots, and behind them the Seine stretches on and on, sorrowful and tired. Račić’s watercolours all have melancholy woven through them, in colours and in compositions. Scenes of isolation where people are presented but are distant, unapproachable, strangers because he was a stranger; distant because he felt distant from everyone. No place was a home and Paris didn’t offer the magic potion of happiness and artistic inspiration that he sought. These street scenes and landscapes with lonely human figures are paintings which show the interior of his soul; this was his vision of Paris because he felt that way. No trace of Fauvism or Cubism; art movements that were all the rage in Paris at the time. Just coldness, loneliness, sorrow.

Josip Račić, Pont des Arts, 1908

A curiosity amongst these delightful and sombre watercolours is this oil on canvas work “Pont des Arts” which has a mood of sadness and fatigue; a tired river that flows slowly, a bridge that leads nowhere, a shadowy figure by the shore, empty sky… Then, out of nowhere, the end of this little watercolour-Parisian Renaissance; Račić is found dead in his room in Rue abbé Gregoire number 48. That day, 20th July 1908, Račić was suppose to meet his two Croatian friends, painter Paola Broch and her friend Mrs Schmidt, for dinner. A revolver which he used was a gift from his friend in Munich and it was brand new. Ruby red roses were found still sitting languorously on the fireplace, spreading a dazzling perfume around the room, wrapping the dead body in a veil of dreams.

The reasons for this remain unclear, for at the time of his suicide his career was going well; he had just been given a scholarship, had sold a few paintings and was just about to go to a painting-trip to Brittany. However, there are many suggestions from his painter colleagues and writers of the time. The most notable suggestion being that he was in a artistic-spiritual crisis when he realised how belated his art was and how he was to old to change the course of his art, a feeling of arriving to late to Paris. Some suggested it was connected with his love life, or that he had syphilis. I certainly don’t know, but the first suggestion seems the most obvious to me; a moment of despair taken too far. He was just twenty-three and everything was in front of him.

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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.

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!

Paul Cézanne and Katherine Mansfield: I, myself, am changing into an apple, too

19 Jan

Paul Cézanne was one of those painters who are here to show us that sometimes what is painted is less important than how something is painted. Cézanne is our birthday boy today, he was born on this day in 1839.

Paul Cezanne, Four Apples, 1881

The simple, yet striking composition you see above with four apples, ripe and idle, gracing the table, is typical for Cézanne. Unlike some Dutch Baroque master who wanted to show his skill in painting with perfect accuracy or displaying wealth symbolised by flowers and fruit, Cézanne’s motifs were of an entirely different nature. He used every motif to explore colours and shapes. Here we see four apples in different sizes and colours, we see the brushstrokes that created them but we can also feel how real and touchable they are, their red and green colours oozing life. They are placed on a grey surface, the edges of which are left unfinished, exposing the canvas and the thick brushstrokes of grey paint, leaving visible this pulsating line which visually divides the painting or “the illusion” and the bare canvas or “the reality”.

And now a small digression, since the motif of apples is present here, I will use the opportunity to share with you a very interesting fragment from a letter by Katherine Mansfield to her painter-friend Dorothy Brett.

What can one do, faced with this wonderful tumble of round bright fruits, but gather them and play with them—and become them, as it were. When I pass the apple stalls I cannot help stopping and staring until I feel that I, myself, am changing into an apple, too—and that at any moment I may produce an apple, miraculously, out of my own being like the conjurer produces the egg. When you paint apples do you feel that your breasts and your knees become apples, too? Or do you think this is the greatest nonsense. I don’t. I am sure it is not. When I write about ducks I swear that I am a white duck with a round eye, floating in a pond fringed with yellow blobs and taking an occasional dart at the other duck with the round eye, which floats upside down beneath me. (…) There follows the moment when you are more duck, more apple or more Natasha than any of these objects could ever possibly be, and so you create them anew.

What a beautiful, delightful and psychedelic idea; to imagine yourself turning into an apple, becoming the apple that you see in front of you!? But let’s get back to Cézanne. What he wanted to achieve was the illusion of depth without sacrificing the luminosity of colours. In a way, his ambivalence towards the art of proper drawing opened a gateway for many artists who followed. His brushstrokes, palette of colours and relentless interest in portraying similar scenes make Cézanne’s paintings highly recognisable. He was often repetitive in the choice of subjects and he was mainly concentrated on still lives and numerous landscapes with Mount Sainte-Victorie, but he also painted many interesting portraits of his family and imaginary figures. Unlike his contemporaries, the young bohemian artists who arrived to Paris to struggle and thrive in creating their art, Cézanne was from a well-off family and later even inherited a little fortune which allowed him to entirely devote his life to art, without any sacrifices, and to really explore his artistic visions without worrying about pleasing the possible buyers or earning for bread.

Paul Gauguin – Nevermore (O Taiti)

25 Nov

In this post we’ll take a look at one of Paul Gauguin’s famous nudes of Tahitian girls and search the deeper meaning of the painting beside the, at first sight obvious, alluring exoticism and eroticism.

Paul Gauguin, Nevermore (O Taïti), 1897

A nude woman is lying on a bed. Just another one of Gauguin’s exotic island girls, you might think, but her face expression and the mystic mood compels you to take another look. The horizontal composition of the painting is subordinated to the voluptuous body of this chocolate-skinned Tahitian girl. All of Gauguin’s island girls have this interesting skin colour: brown accentuated with green and hints of salmon pink. Her black hair is spilt on the bright lemon yellow pillow. She looks bored at first sight, her head is resting on her hand. Her lips are turned upwards, perhaps she is sulking? And how delightfully the outline of her body separates the foreground from the background. Nocturnal, dreamy mood where every colour holds a secret; browns, pale purple, green and blue. Silence of the night. In the background we see two women, a big bird and a series of abstract decorations. Notice the distinct colour palette that Gauguin uses; mostly muted tones with pops of bright colour, usually purple, pinks and aqua blues. The girl you see in the painting is Pahura, Gauguin’s second vahine (Tahitian word for ‘woman’). But why is she so sad?

Let me tell you something about Gauguin’s travels. After living a bourgeois life as a salesman and being married for eleven years to a Danish woman, he felt suffocated by this existence and, at the age of thirty seven, finally decided to devote himself to painting. But soon the escape into the world of art wasn’t enough and he felt a need to physically escape the western world which he deemed as materialistic and decadent. He first sailed to Panama, then to the Caribbean, to a little island called Martinique, then he spent some time with Vincent van Gogh in Arles which ended in the famous ear incident, from then to Brittany, then Paris again, until one day, in 1891, on a suggestion of a fellow painter Emile Bernard, he decided to sail to Tahiti, a French colony which seemed like a paradise in his imagination. In 1893 he returned to France, but in 1895 he visited Tahiti again, this time for good : he died there too. When he returned to Tahiti in 1895, he found his old wife married to a fellow native, and was looking for another wife and he soon found her. Her name was Pahura and she was fifteen years old, although Gauguin himself claimed she was thirteen, perhaps in a desire to spark more outrage. Pahura was his greatest muse and she stayed with him, on and off, for six years. Soon enough Pahura was pregnant and the baby was due around Christmas 1896. A little girl was born, which delighted Gauguin, but sadly she died soon afterwards. Gauguin’s respond to this sad situation was the painting “Nevermore” where we see Pahura in a state of sadness after the loss of her first child, her eyes are soft with sorrow, to quote Leonard Cohen. The title itself is taken from the famous poem “Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. In the poem, as you all know, a raven visits a sad lover who laments the death of his beloved maiden Lenore. The only word that the Raven ever says is “Nevermore”. And indeed, both the poem and Gauguin’s painting have a nocturnal ambience imbued with feelings of mystery and loss.

Joan Miró – Blue Is the Colour of My Dreams

20 Aug

Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró (1893-1993), whose work is usually classified as Surrealism, painted many beautiful paintings that show the vividness of his imagination, bursting with bold colours and intricate shapes. Still, his painting This is the color of my dreams has a special place in my heart: it is simple, just a blue fleck on white background, and underneath it Miró elegantly wrote the words that serve as the title of the painting, in French. Those words, the idea behind them, gives this simple blue a poetic, dreamy, mystical dimension.

Joan Miró, This is the color of my dreams, 1925

Isn’t it just a beautiful idea, to paint the colour of your dreams? And different dreams come in different colours, shades, different fragrances, melodies and moods. Miró dreamt in blue. And here’s what Jean Cocteau had to say about blue colour in “The Secret of Blue”:

The secret of blue is well kept. Blue comes from far away. On its way, it hardens and changes into a mountain. The cicada works at it. The birds assist. In reality, one doesn’t know. One speaks of Prussian blue. In Naples, the virgin stays in the cracks of walls when the sky recedes. But it’s all a mystery. The mystery of sapphire, mystery of Sainte Vierge, mystery of the siphon, mystery of the sailor’s collar, mystery of the blue rays that blind and your blue eye which goes through my heart.