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J.M.W.Turner – Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff

3 Sep

“Autumn approaches and
The heart
Begins to dream.”

(Bashō, from The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets)

J.M.W.Turner, Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff, 1835-39, bodycolour on paper

The last true month of summer – August – has not even passed yet and already my end-of-summer-blues has started sinking in. I awoke the other day not welcomed by golden rays of sweet sunshine but with a gust of colder breeze. I sneezed… And I realised at that moment that summer is fleeing. A succesion of rainy days is a further reminder and now I cannot escape the realisation. Surely there will be more sunny days in September, but it is inevitable: the clock is ticking the last minutes of the summer of 2022. It’s back to scarves and jackets, cloudy skies, lighted candles, hot teas, wet streets and falling leaves. I feel a huge wave of blue sadness overwhelming me… A poetic kind of sadness and the only way to soothe it is to immerse myself in all things beautiful, poignant, melancholy and with a touch of the sublime.

It’s a wonderful thing then that I recently discovered yet another painting by J.M.W. Turner which I adore. This one is called “Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff” and it was painted between 1835 and 1839 in the medium of bodypaint on paper. Just the title alone catapults me into mad romantic reveries! The words such as “sunset”, “ruined castle” and “cliff” are enough to start the wildfire in my imagination. So so romantical! And the lyrical beauty of the painting perfectly justified the beauty of the title. It’s not a clickbait for sure, you know, a pretty title but a boring painting. Turner has painted many and many sketches and watercolours of castle, some half-ruined and some still intact, but this painting is something else. The rich and warm colours of the painting are warming my soul in a way only beautiful things can. I love the gradient way the colour go from the lavender sky to the pinkish-red-wine coloured ruins of the castle perched on top of the hill, over to the warm orange and yellow shades. The depths of the landscape bellow the castle with a lake I believe are painted in cooler blue and grey tones.

Considering just how abstract this painting is; the castle is not painted in a detailed manner, and there is no clear, strict, defined space such as we may find in some of Turner’s other paintings, the soft, gradient flow of colours really creates a certain vague, dreamy magic. I love how the yellow light appears out of nowhere in the middle of the lavender sky, right above the ruined castle’s highest tower. The light of the sunset is at once illuminating the castle in its warm, almost redish glow, and covering it with a veil of vagueness, mystery and dreams. Just like the castle of the Sleeping Beauty is covered with a veil of brambles, ivy and thorns, the castle in Turner’s vision is covered in a veil of sunset dreams. All of Turner’s watercolour sketches of castles have a vague, dreamy quality to them, but this one is something special or at least it fits my mood at the moment because it’s dreamy, impalpable and … just as all that is happy and beautiful, it is just beyond reach. I feel that if I stretched my arm and tried to touch the castle it would disappear, crumble into dust like a dry moth on the windowsill.

And something else crumbling into dust these days is my summer castle made out of poetry, wildflowers, moonlight and dreams. Just like the roots of a tree are encroaching the pavement or growing under the house, the cold and crooked fingers of the approaching autumn are slowly encroaching my summer castle. Soon the branches will break the windows, the winds blow off the rose wallpapers, and autumn rains soak in the soft carpets, the moss will grow over the birch hardwood floors, and the fog will hide the castle away from me forever… I need something beautiful to cling to and Turner’s paintings of castles and ruins are a wonderful choice.

But the last day of summerNever felt so coldThe last day of summerNever felt so oldNever felt so…
All that I haveAll that I holdAll that is wrongAll that I feel for or trust in or loveAll that is gone

(The Cure, The Last Day of Summer)

John Constable – Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea)

22 Aug

“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.

(Mary Shelley, Mathilda)

John Constable (1776–1837), Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-28), oil on paper, 22.2 × 31.1 cm

English painter John Constable painted many interesting landscapes but the most beautiful, the most majestic and awe-inspiring, to me, are his seascape studies painted in Brighton around 1824-28. The most dramatic of these seascape studies is the painting you see above called “Seascape Study with Rain Cloud” or sometimes simply called “Rainstorm over the Sea”. The painting shows the sea and the vastness of the sky above it in the moment of a rainstorm. The rough, sketchy look of the sky attests to the quick manner in which the painting was executed, but still there is precision and confidence in the way the dark, threatening clouds were captured so as to inspire awe and the feeling of the sublime. The sea here takes up very little space of the canvas while almost the majority of it is dedicated to the portrait of the roaring clouds heavy with anguish and rain. It is in these moments, very much loved by the Romantics, that nature reveals its raw power. The clouds are black at parts and the vertical motion of the brushstrokes helps to convey the wildness of the transient moment of the summer rainstorm over the sea. Constable had a particular penchant for observing and portraying clouds, in all their shapes, colours and moods, and this is evident in these seascape studies.

John Constable, Seascape Study: Brighton Beach Looking West, ca. 1824-28

Another seascape study painted in the 1824-28 period is the painting called “Seascape Study: Brighton Beach Looking West” which shows two tiny female figures standing on the desolate beach and looking out at the sea. Their dresses are windswept as they admire the breaking of the waves. Our eye stretches from the soft seafoam in the shallow sea in the foreground all the way to the dark blue deep sea in the background. The diagonal line which visually separated the beach from the sea slightly curves in the background and, again, more than the half of the canvas is occupied by the sky with the delightful white clouds. Their whiteness is echoed by the whiteness of the sea foam and it is just so exciting to see touched of white colour here and there, they enlived everything. These beach scenes make me think of the film “Me Without You” (2002) which is set in Brighton in the early 1980s, in some scenes the girls are seen walking on the Brighton pier or walking by the sea.

John Constable, Seascape Study: Boat and Stormy Sky, 20 July 1828

Above we can see yet another wild and untamed portrayal of a stormy sky over a raging sea. This is a little less known painting by Constable but interestingly we know the exact date it was painted, the 20 July 1828, which is amazing.

The reason behind Constable’s constant visits to Brighton was the frail health of his wife Maria. They all hoped she would find peace and serenity in the melliflous music of the sea waves and the fresh, salty sea air. Maria and their six children stayed in Brighton for lenghtly periods of time on and off in the period from 1824 to 1828; she gave birth to their seventh and last child in January that year and finally succumbed to consumption in November. Constable would split time between London and Brighton and, interestingly, he had mixed feelings about Brighton. At times he wrote that Brighton was “perhaps no spot in Europe where so many circumstances conducive to health and enjoyment are to be found combined“, and other times he complained at how touristy and hectic it was, offering no serenity for his artistic endeavors: “Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London. The magnificence of the sea, and its (to use your own beautiful expression) everlasting voice is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stage coaches – gigs – ‘flys’ etc – and the beach is only piccadilly …. By the sea-side … in short there is nothing here for the painter but the breakers – & the sky – which have been lovely indeed and always [various].

John Constable, Brighton Beach, 1824, oil sketch

The third seascape study I’ve chosed fro this post is this simple but fascinating oil sketch called “Brighton Beach”, painted in 1824. The canvas is distinctly elongated which gives the painting a panorama-like view of the beach. The mood is definitely daker in this painting than in the previous one; the sky and the clouds are a much darker shade of blue and this stormy mood brings to mind the hypnotic sounds of the Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is my go-to rainy day album.

Caspar David Friedrich – On the Sailing Boat

17 Dec

Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on…”

(Alphonse de Lamartine, The Lake, translated by A.Z.Foreman)

Caspar David Friedrich, On the Sailing Boat, 1818-20

Friedrich, the melancholy misanthrop and loner of Greifswald, had finally tied the knot on the 21 January 1818, just a few months after his fourty-third birthday. His young bride was the twenty-five year old Caroline Bommer whose elegant figure in a red dress we can see in a few of his paintings from that time period. Friedrich’s friend, and a fellow painter, Carl Gustav Carus noted that the marriage didn’t leave a trace on Friedrich, but there is a subtle yet notable shift in Friedrich’s work after the marriage; the colours are softer, the overall mood lighter, and human figures appear more often. In fact, his famous and perhaps even the most beautiful painting “Moonrise Over the Sea” was painted in 1820. Nothing compares the pink and purple sky in that painting, it’s something most dreamy and romantic. But this uplifting, lighter phase of his career was, sadly, only a short Nordic summer; as he was getting older his gloominess prevailed and he started returning to his moody, isolated landscapes.

Painting “On the Sailing Boat” shows a couple, that is, the painter and his wife, sitting at the prow of the ship, hand in hand, gliding towards the infinity of their love. Typical for Friedrich, the figures are seen either from behind or in profile, which definitely adds to the mysterious appeal. The tender purple and blue waves are cradling the lovers’ boat and above them the yellow-tinted vanilla sky is smiling with promises of future joys. In the distance the shadowy contours of a townscape appear as if they are seen through the mist, or – seen in a dream. The vastness of the sky and the sea further intensifies the dreamy, almost mystical aura of this painting which correlates to the Romantics’ view on love, or a cult of love we might even say, as a union of souls. This solemn seriousness towards the matters of love was a far cry from the frivolous and playful attitude of the Rococo generation. Just how different is this dreamy painting to something painted by Boucher or Fragonard. The subtle melancholy which permeats Friedrich’s paintings, even the seemingly joyful ones, brings to mind the work of Watteau. It seems the two painters have more in common than one would initially assume. Their work, although so dreamy and charming, holds a deeper truth about life: that all human experiences are bitter-sweet and transient: “Upon the sea of time can we not ever/ Drop anchor for one day?” (de Lamartine, The Lake) Another interesting thing about this painting is the viewpoint; while gazing at the painting we feel as if we too are on the boat and that makes us closer to the scene in the painting, but two is a company, three’s a crowd, we better leave them alone to enjoy the hours of bliss until they pass…

Eugene Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People!

20 Nov

“When injustice becomes law, resistence becomes duty.”

(Thomas Jefferson)

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, September – December 1830

When the French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix started working on his famous masterpiece “Liberty Leading the People” in autumn of 1830 he was already a well-established painter in France and a leader of the French Romanticism. Even though this painting seems historical and monumental, it actually depicts what was in Delacroix’s time a resent, fresh and new event. On 21st October 1830, Delacroix wrote to his brother: “My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subject – a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her.” The event shown in the painting was the July Revolution of 1830 when the King Charles X (1824-1830) abdicated and the King Louis Philippe came in his place. The peace didn’t last long and in June 1832 the angry Parisian republicans, resenting the replacement of one king with another, had an uprising and, sadly, lost. This event – the June Uprising – is the main event described in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables”, published decades later, in 1862.

The most memorable figure in the painting is surely the bare-bosomed lady in a yellow dress; the figure of Liberty, also seen as Marianna, the symbol of France and the French Republic. She is holding a tricolour flag in one hand and a bayonetted musket in another. Of course, Delacroix didn’t mean to imply that an actual half-naked woman was leading the Parisian rebels, this is an allegorical representation of Liberty, or the spirit of Liberty that is inspiring people, giving them the fire to keep on fighting for what they believe to be right. White the Liberty is allegorical, the rest of the people in the painting, some dead and most alive, are real. At first sight this painting may seem chaotic, and it surely is vibrant and bursting with energy, but it is also carefully crafted and that is what gives it its ultimate power. Delacroix was an amazing painter and he knew how to translate even a scene as this one into a painting that will be astonishing even centuries later. In the foreground we see the dead rebels, the people whose lives were sacrificed at the altar of freedom, the centre is occupied by the figure of Liberty who is looking over her shoulder to make sure that the people are following her. Beside her is a young boy who is believed to have been an inspiration for the character of Gavroche in Victor Hugo’s aforementioned novel. Behind the figure of Liberty we see the angry mob arising from the big cloud of smoke, they have swords and bayonettes and they aren’t afraid to use them. Anarchy is in their blood, everyone on barricades! The rebels came from all different classes but most of them were urban workers, such as construction workers. In the right corner of the painting is a symbol of Paris – the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Delacroix presented the painting at the Salon in 1831 and it was quickly bought by the government, but quickly the political tides changed and after the June Rebellion of 1832 the painting was returned to Delacroix. It was originally meant to be displayed in the Palais du Luxembourg but the idea was discarded in fear that it might inspire people to rebel. We see the same thing happening today; the mass media is reluctant to show the protests, or it downplaying their size and importance, in fear of encouraging people to keep fighting because the battle of freedom is not lost. This is also the reason why I chose to write about this painting at this particular moment in time, as a way of expressing reverence for all those people out there, all over Europe and the world, who are defying the tyrannical measures and protesting against them. Long Live Freedom!

Léon Cogniet – Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter

16 Nov

Léon Cogniet, Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter, 1843

William Michael Rossetti, the brother of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, wrote an essay about Tintoretto in 1911 in which he mentions a well-known tale about the great painter and his beloved daughter. The Italian Renaissance painter Tintoretto absolutely adored his daughter Marietta who was also known as Tintoretta and when she passed away at the age of thirty in 1590 the great painter was so grief-stricken, tormented to the point of delirious, that he decided to paint her portrait as she was lying dead in bed. He couldn’t part with her so he captured her delicate features for the last time. This dramatic, eerie scene, which may or may not be true, fired the imagination of many Romantic painters and the version that I love the most is this one by the French painter Léon Cogniet. He was also an art teacher and he even married one of his students, furthermore both his father and his sister were also painters and it is a shame that this painter from such an artistic family stopped painting in 1855 at the age of sixty-one and died practically forgotten in 1880.

As a romantic painter it is easy to see why this sublime scene captivated him so much. Tintoretto is presented as a stern and grief-stricken father who gazes at his beloved daughter’s pale face, oh how lovely she is in death. I can imagine what beautiful verses Edgar Allan Poe would have written had he seen the sight of a famous painter painting the last portrait of his daughter. Surely, the pale face of Marietta is the same face that we see in many portraits of dead women of which I have written about here and here, it’s almost a face of a martyr, pure and tender. Marietta was her father’s pupil and she painted in his workshop, she was also a great singer and played lute, harpsichord and clavichord. Tintoretto simply couldn’t part with such a treasure and so he didn’t allow her to marry far away. Instead, he arranged a marriage for her with a local jeweler and silversmith so she would always stay close to him in Venice. You can only imagine then how sad he was when death took her away, knowing how desperately he tried to keep her by his side when she lived.

I won’t comment much about the colours in the painting because both versions I have been able to find are not that great. Also, bellow you can see another version of the same scene by a British Victorian painter Henry Nelson O’Neil. In that version the dead Marietta, with flowers in her red hair, looks like a Pre-Raphaelite maiden and brings to mind the frail and ill Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal; Dante Gabriel Rossetti didn’t paint her as she lay on her deathbed but he did bury a book of sonnets with her.

Henry Nelson O’Neil, Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter, 1873

Sándor Petőfi: Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose, not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

27 Oct

Today I wanted to share my new poetic discovery: Sándor Petőfi, a Romantic Hungarian poet and a revolutionary whose national fervour and patriotism eventually led him to his doom, but also to his glory. Romanticism arrived a bit late to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was closely tied to patriotism and national revival; each country in the vast empire sought to define its individuality; its national history and traditions. Petofi fits the theme of central European Romanticism and the two of his main poetic themes are romantic love and love for his country. He was of Slovak or Serbian ancestry, but he wrote in Hungarian and fought for the Hungarian language to be the language of the theatre and literature instead of German. As a true Romantic hero, he led a short and turbulent life and went missing at the age of twenty-six after the Battle of Segesvár in 1849; he was presumed dead but who knows when he actually died… His poems are the mirrors of the politically turbulent times he lived in and he died in the very manner he wished, as expressed in his poem “The Thought Torments Me”:

When every nation wearing chains
Shall rise and seek the battle-plains,
With flushing face shall wave in fight
Their banners, blazoned in the light:
“For liberty!” Their cry shall be;
Their cry from east to west,
Till tyrants be depressed.
There shall I gladly yield
My life upon the field;
There shall my heart’s last blood flow out,
And I my latest cry shall shout.

In 1846, in Transylvania he met an eighteen year old maiden Júlia Szendrey and, charmed by the beauty of her countenance which matched the beauty of her mind and soul, Petofi instantly fell in love and they married the same year. His parents didn’t approve and their marriage was short anyway. Like her husband, Júlia was also a poet, and a writer and translator. She spoke a few foreign languages, loved the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the writings of George Sand, loved dancing and playing the piano but she was also a private and modest person who didn’t like sharing her talents with the world. They seem like a perfect Romantic couple, with the perfectly short, intense and tragic marriage ended by a mysterious disappearance in battle and probable death. It sounds like a story one would read in a work of Schiller or Lermontov.

Giuseppe Molteni, Desolate at the Loss of her Lover, 1850

Poem “At the End of September” is written in a truly Romantic manner because it ties the themes of love and death that all Romantics loved so much. In the first stanza Petofi slowly introduces the theme of transience through a visual imagery of the changing of seasons, and even compares the arrival of winter to his hair slowly turning grave. The transience of spring and summer goes hand in hand with the passing of his youth, and the arrival of winter is tied with the impedimence of his death. I love how melancholy and melodramatic he is, wanting to know whether his beloved will weep over his grave, but then the poetic imagery turns a darker mood and we see the poet returning from the death’s vale at midnight… These poems satisfy all my poetic needs. Just seeing the words and expressions in the poem such as “broken heart”, “bleeding heart”, “tomb”, “weep”, “tears”, “death”, “mournful”, makes me swoon!

At the End of September

The garden flowers still blossom in the vale,

Before our house the poplars still are green;

But soon the mighty winter will prevail;

Snow is already in the mountains seen.

The summer sun’s benign and warming ray

Still moves my youthful heart, now in its spring;

But lo! my hair shows signs of turning gray,

The wintry days thereto their color bring.

This life is short; too early fades the rose;

To sit here on my knee, my darling, come!

Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

O, tell me, if before thee I should die,

Wilt thou with broken heart weep o’er my bier?

Or will some youth efface my memory

And with his love dry up thy mournful tear?

 

If thou dost lay aside the widow’s vail,

Pray hang it o’er my tomb. At midnight I

Shall rise, and, coming forth from death’s dark vale,

Take it with me to where forgot I lie.

And wipe with it my ceaseless flowing tears,

Flowing for thee, who hast forgotten me;

And bind my bleeding heart which ever bears

Even then and there, the truest love for thee.

Matthew James Lawless, Dead Love, 1862

“Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?”

Petofi’s poems often bring to mind romantic imagery, typically romantic themes of love and death mingle freely in his verses and I decided to illustrate the poem with the drawing “Dead Love” from 1862. Victorian era artist Matthew James Lawless is little known today because he died young, at the age of twenty-seven, and his career never had a chance to take off. The drawings that he left definitely show a talent and a romantic imagination which ties him to the Pre-Raphaelites, and therefore I think the mood of his drawing fits the mood of Petofi’s poem. And now a poem which continues with the theme of love but here love is tied with another motif Petofi loves: fighting for liberty.

My Wife and My Sword

Upon the roof a dove,
A star within the sky,
Upon my knees my love,
For whom I live and die;
In raptures I embrace
And swing her on my knees,
Just as the dewdrop sways
Upon the leaf of trees.

But why, you’ll surely ask,
Kiss not her pretty face?
It is an easy task
To kiss while we embrace!
Many a burning kiss
I press upon her lip,
For such a heavenly bliss
I cannot now let slip.

And thus we pass our day,
I and my pretty wife,
Beyond all rare gem’s ray
Is our gay wedded life.
A friend, my sword, it seems,
Does not like this at all,
He looks with angry gleams
Upon me from the wall.

Don’t look on me, good sword,
With eyes so cross and cold,
There should be no discord
Between us, friends of old.
To women leave such things,
As green-eyed jealousy:
To men but shame it brings,
And you a man must be!

But then, if you would pause
To think who is my love,
You’d see you have no cause
At all me to reprove.
She is the sweetest maid,
She is so good and true;
Like her God only made,
I know, but very few.

If thee, good sword, again
Shall need our native land,
To seek the battle-plain
Will be my wife’s command.
She will insist that I
Go forth, my sword, with thee,
To fight, if need to die,
For precious liberty!

Sandor’s wife Julia Szendrey (1828-1868).

Eugene Delacroix – Horse Frightened by Lightning

22 Oct

Eugene Delacroix, Horse Frightened by Lightning, 1825-29, watercolour

The spirit of Romanticism is alive and intense in this wonderful and expressive watercolour by Delacroix. The simplicity of the composition contrasts the intense and dramatic mood that is conveyed. Using the combination of simple visual elements; a wild horse, a desolate landscape, and a gloomy sky with a lightning, Delacroix created a painting that encapsulated the aesthetic of the Sublime. The face expression of the horse and his pose convey his torment and fear at the sudden lightning and thunder that have appeared in the sky. He seems truly unsettled and his feelings seep into the lonely landscape around him and his fear touches the viewer too; our sympathy for the poor frightened animal mingles with the feeling of awe at the nature’s unpredictability and power. This scene seems like something I would imagine whilst reading a Gothic novel.

Delacroix inherited his love and admiration for horses from another master of French Romanticism; Theodore Gericault, who was only a few years older than Delacroix but at the time this watercolour was painted, Gericault had already been dead. But despite his short life and even shorter career his dramatic art full of feelings and dark passions set the standard for the French Romanticism. Wild and untamed, or tamed but still very beautiful, strong and awe-inspiring, horses are a motif we find often in the art of Romanticism; in Fuseli’s Nightmare, in the art of Sawrey Gilpin, Gros and Gericault. A century later Franz Marc painted vibrant and expressive paintings of horses as well. For Romanticists a horse was a symbol of something wild and unstoppable, of the fire of youth, of passion for exploration, of bravery and Delacroix chose to portray this majestic animals in numerous occasions.

In this watercolour the horse is clearly not representative of something strong and wild, but rather the opposite. Panicked and red-eyed, the horse exhibits his more emotional, vulnerable side, something one wouldn’t expect to see portrayed and this strange constrasts adds to the painting’s stunning beauty; it is not just aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but poingnant and strange all at the same time. The reason why I love this painting so much is firstly because it is a watercolour and I love watercolours, and secondly because of its simplicity, passion and expressiveness, and the colour scheme where the mystical deep shades of blue present in the sky and also as subtle touches on the horse add to the mood of the sublime. A brown colour scheme would have muted the effect of terror, strangeness and drama. Blue is the colour of the deep sea and the sky, of things infinite and mysterious. The landscape around the horse thus gets a mystical air and we might wonder whether the horse itself is but our vision or a fancy…

Eugène Delacroix – Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard

13 Oct

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839, Oil on canvas, 29,5 x 36 cm

Eugene Delacroix’s temperament, lifestyle and interests made him the perfect Romantic artist. Delacroix travelled to hot, vibrant, exotic places such as Morrocco, but he also travelled in his imagination to the romantic and alluring, dark and dramatic past eras. He was also an avid reader; words of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and others fed his soul and fired his imagination. His ardent love of literature came with a knack for illustrating the scenes that he was reading about, he was prolific at it, and he was great at it. A theme that he found himself returning to often throughout the years was Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and especially the scene where Hamlet and Horatio are at the graveyard. Delacroix made different litographs and watercolours of the scene, but his most well-known depiction of the scene is the painting from 1839. The scene shows four figures; Horatio and Hamlet standing by the grave and two gravediggers digging the grave for Ophelia who had recently perished. This is a rather morbid, depressive chore but the gravediggers are so used to it that they are unphased. They are capable of digging a hole and talking about decomposing bodies and death as if they are exchanging recepies over tea. This makes it almost grotesque, but for Hamlet the discovery of the skull of Yorick leads to deeper thoughts, pensiveness and introspection; how transient and meaningless life is, how it passes and means nothing, how every corpse here on the graveyard was once a person with wishes, yearnings, loves. The personalities of gravediggers and Hamlet could not be more different. Here is an excerpt from their dialogue from Act V, Scene I:

Gravedigger: This skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years.
Hamlet: Whose was it?
Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet: This?
Gravedigger: E’en that.
Hamlet: Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, watercolour, 1827-28

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet Contemplating Yorick’s Skull, litograph, 1828

In his litographs Delacroix had depicted the scene with more details, in composition and in the clothes of the figures, everything feels more ornate and Baroque-like. The painting is stripped of all unnecessary details and ornaments. Only four figures set against a distant landscape and the stormy sky with dark clouds. This allowed Delacroix to place his focus on the analysis of the characters and the drama that is going on in the scene. The bare-chested gravedigger holding a skull is quite a sight, but all eyes are on Hamlet. Delacroix saw him through the lenses of Romanticism and he depicted him as a pale, melancholy, frail and gentle looking man dressed in black. His pale and small, almost feminine looking hands, stand out against the darkness of his clothes. His hair is flying in the wind and the stormy clouds seem to echo the stormy state of his soul. Pale and withered, in a pensive mood, reflecting on matters of life and death, and anticipating the burial of Ophelia, Hamlet is like a frail lily-flower just plucked from the ground. The watercolour version of the scene shows an equally frail, melancholy Hamlet and the whole mood is lyrical and wistful in a way that can only be accomplished with the medium of the watercolour.

Johan Christian Dahl – The Eruption of Vesuvius

8 Jul

“a smoke by day and a fire by night”

Johan Christian Dahl, The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1824

The ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered with a thick layer of volcanic ash after the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Covered in ash, forgotten and asleep for more than a thousand years Pompeii was rediscovered in the mid eighteenth century and very soon many artists, wanderers and explorers started visiting the area. One of such curious wanderers who visited the Mount of Vesuvius was the Norwegian Romantic painter Johan Christian Dahl. In 1820 the prince Christian Frederik invited Dahl to join him in Naples and Dahl, despite being busy courting a young lady called Emilia, joyously agreed. He quickly married Emilia and travelled to Italy the next day and stayed there for the next ten months. In Italy Dahl finally discovered the vibrancy of colour and the light that would forever change his approach to painting. And he arrived just in time to see the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius on Christmas Day in 1820. This must have been an awe inspiring sight, just on the edge between danger and excitement, and Dahl quickly captured what he saw in an oil sketch, a sketch he would later use to paint the big painting you can see above.

The volcanic eruption is exactly the kind of wild, raw energy of nature which the Romantics loved and Dahl beautifully captures this energy in his painting. A dull, brown rocky scenery takes up almost half the painting, but then in the upper left corner the big explosion of colours makes up for the dullness of the rocks. Hot, thick red lava and smoke are portrayed with such quickness, rapture and immediacy, even though the painting was finished four years after Dahl had actually seen the volcano erupting. The smoke is built of feathery soft shades of white and grey with a few touches of blue. In the upper right corner we see the bay of Naples, so serene and safe compared to the erupting volcano. Two men are portrayed observing the eruption, and three other, along with donkeys, are waiting on a distance. The appearance of human figures isn’t something we see often in these types of romantic landscapes but they are visually useful because they show us just how small and insignificant man is compared to the wild, and often fickle nature. Dahl’s painting is just one of many Romantic landscapes which express the sublimity of nature. A raging volcano with smoke and lava brings out that wonderful feeling of awe and terror that the romantics loved so much. One such romantic couple who also visited the Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii in 1819 were Mary and Percy Shelley:

Mary, Shelley, and Claire arrived in Naples in December, they moved into one of the most beautiful houses in the city, No. 250 Riviera di Chiaia, which Shelley had rented with the hope of pleasing Mary. It was rumored that the ruins of Cicero’s villa were right under their window. To both Shelleys, the grand old senator stood for the freedom of the Roman republic and was an icon of hope. Nestled below the slopes of Vesuvius, which, as Shelley said, was “a smoke by day and a fire by night,” Naples had public gardens and boulevards lined with palm trees. Across the sea, they could see the outline of a mysterious island drifting in and out of the mist. This was the isle of Circe, as local lore had it, the beautiful temptress who lured Odysseus into her bed and kept him there for seven years. Another legend was that Virgil had composed his gentle, pastoral poems here, The Georgics. Mary delighted in “looking at almost the same scene that he did— reading about manners little changed since his days.” Together, she, Claire, and Shelley explored the famous sites: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Lake Avernus, and the Cumean Sybil’s cave. (…) The trio climbed Vesuvius and gazed out over the city’s steeples and red roofs to the sea. “A poet could not have a more sacred burying place [than] in an olive grove on the shore of a beautiful bay,” Mary wrote in her journal that winter, looking out at the pale blue water.” (Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws)

Maybe at first sight this painting isn’t that exciting, but just look at all these details! This red, although not used in abundance, is so vivid I can just feel it.

Đorđe Krstić – Skull Tower

7 May

The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs.….”

Đorđe Krstić, Ćele kula (Skull Tower), 1883

Serbian painter Đorđe Krstić’s painting “Skull Tower” is a mass of heavy, earthy brown shades. The tower portrayed is a vague looking building and without knowing the history behind it, we might not even sense the eeriness that is hidden behind a drab, brown facade. The Skull Tower portrayed here is a stone structure embedded with human skulls in the town of Niš, Serbia. It dates back to May 1809 when the First Serbian Uprising took place and the Serbian rebels fought the Ottoman Empire, and, sadly, lost, but not without heroism and bravery. The Serbian leader of the battle, Srđan Sinđelić, realising his side would lose, killed himself and his fellow soldiers by creating a massive gun powder explosion. After the battle, the Ottoman soldiers took the heads of the Serbian men, skinned them and sent them to the Ottoman Sultan who, after viewing them, sent them back to Niš and then the Ottoman side built this tower as a warning to all other Serbs who may be contemplating an uprising. This was a known method for the Ottoman Empire, but still, after some time had passed, they realised that the tower served only to create resentment and not fear with the locals.

This tower built of limestone and sand originally contained more than 900 skulls, but not all are there anymore. In 1878 the Ottomans left the area and a baldachin-type structur was made over the tower and eventually a chapel was made and the tower is now inside it. Đorđe Krstić’s painting doesn’t do justice to the truly eerie and disturbing sight that the tower full of skulls must have been in those days, and probably still is, but French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine left us a better, more vivid and haunting description of the tower. In 1833 the poet visited the wilderness that eastern Europe and the Balkans must have been in his eyes and he saw the Skull Tower. His impressions of it are more atmospheric and eerie than Krstić’s painting:

I saw a large tower rising in the midst of the plain, as white as Parian marble … Raising my eyes to the monument, I discovered that the walls, which I supposed to be built of marble or white stone, were composed of regular rows of human skulls; these skulls bleached by the rain and sun, and cemented by a little sand and lime, formed entirely the triumphal arch which now sheltered me from the heat of the sun. In some places portions of hair were still hanging and waved, like lichen or moss, with every breath of wind. The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs. My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it.

Alphonse de Lamartine’s fascination with that area of Europe and with the tower shows the wild craving and yearning of the Romantic era for all things exotic, unexplored, dark and mysterious, and also touches on the Romantic love of heroism and fight for liberty.