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Birth Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe – The Oval Portrait

19 Jan

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809. It must have been a cold and dreary winter’s day in Boston when his parents, traveling actors, welcomed him into this sad world. If he had been a girl, he would have been named Cordelia because his mother was a fan of William Shakespeare and often played roles from his plays. But he was a boy and they named him Edgar instead, again a theatre-inspired name from the play “King Lear”, more about it here. Now is as good opportunity as ever to indulge in his poetry or prose, and I decided to remind you all of his perhaps the shortest short story called “The Oval Portrait” (1842) which lingers in the memory long after one reads it; the shortness and the vague ending leave one wanting more, and the complex ideas about the conflict of life vs art, reality versus the world of imagination, and the idea of art feeding on life and ultimately destroying it. These ideas carried within them a seed which, long after Poe’s death in 1849, traveled over the ocean and blossomed into sumptuous flowers; the “l’art pour l’art” philosophy and later Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray”.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), there is a scene where a young man is reading a fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time. Their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

“The Oval Portrait” starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator coming into a strange castle and becoming enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall, but the plot soon jumps from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride and her half-mad artist husband. Here is the entire story accompanied by some portraits of pretty women painted around the same time the story was originally published:

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Bildnis eines Mädchens (Portrait of a Young Girl), 1840

THE CHATEAU into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

Henry Mundy, Martha Kermode, c. 1840

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!

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George Stubbs – A Horse Frightened By A Lion

29 Oct

George Stubbs, A Horse Frightened By A Lion, 1770

Clearly separating the art of Classicism and that of Romanticism is hard, but tracing the early occurrences of romantic tendencies in visual arts is, on the other hand, an easier pursuit. I always saw Henri Fusseli’s painting “The Nightmare” from 1781 as one of the earliest examples of Romanticism in the visual arts because both the mood and the theme show the artist’s exploration of darker topics; dreams and the irrational, something which would scarcely be interesting to painters from previous generations and even to his contemporaries. Still, there is another eighteenth century painter, George Stubbs, who imbued two of his works with a Romantic taste for wild, untamed nature and strong emotions and thereby exhibited what were to become the tendencies of Romanticism. The romantic pathos in his painting “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” is hard to ignore.

Stubbs was an Academic painter who specialised in animal painting, horses in particular, and even published a work called “Anatomy of the Horse” (1766) which is a result of his meticulous study of the anatomy of that fine elegant animal and shows his natural precision and dedication to study from nature directly, not from copies of others. He was also one of the first painters to paint animals that were exotic and therefore fascinating to the English audience and Europe in general, such as zebras and kangaroos. Stubb’s two paintings; “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” and “A Lion Attacking a Horse”, from 1770, were imagined as a pendant and show a distinctly romantic mood which was a great shift stylistically and arises directly from Edmund Burke’s theoretical work “On the Sublime and Beautiful”, first published in 1756. Criticism towards Burke tend to claim that he merely observed the direction of the art towards a new style, but Stubb’s example shows us how an artist was inspired by theory.

George Stubbs, A Lion Attacking a Horse, 1770

Here is an interesting fragment from the third part of Burke’s work, from the essay “Proportion not the cause of beauty in animals”: “Turn next to beasts; examine the head of a beautiful horse; find what proportion that bears to his body, and to his limbs, and what relation these have to each other; and when you have settled these proportions as a standard of beauty, then take a dog or cat, or any other animal, and examine how far the same proportions between their heads and their necks, between those and the body, and so on, are found to hold; I think we may safely say, that they differ in every species, yet that there are individuals, found in a great many species so differing, that have a very striking beauty.” So, Burke even mentions a horse in particular, an animal which had already been of great interest to Stubbs, and connects its proportion-less appearance with the aesthetic of sublime.

I already wrote a detailed post about the opposing aesthetics of the Beautiful and the Sublime, based on Immanuel Kant’s work, here. In short, the Sublime is that which inspires awe, fear and strong emotions. For example: thunderstorms, a very tall and strong oak, wild waves, volcano eruption, strong wind, ruin of a castle perched on top of the hill, a big mountain or a steep cliff. Here is what Burke said: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.” (Of the Sublime)

In “A Horse Frightened by a Lion”, our eye is captivated by the glistening whiteness of the poor frightened horse in the dark forest where all sorts of ominous things might occur. How strongly his whole body reacts to the grim encounter with the lion; his wide-opened eye shows how startled he is, his muscles are emphasised and animated, his mouth open in despair, his fine light hair is blown away by the wind of fear. Lion’s patient face emerges from the darkness. Stubbs purposefully chose to portray a frightening sight from nature to stir the viewer’s feelings and awaken his empathy. In the second scene, “A Lion Attacking a Horse“, the poor horse is already attacked by the cruel lion in the mute darkness of the landscape full of rocks and shrubbery. The horse’s mouth, neck and feet are all contorted from the pain and fear. The figure of the lion is disappearing into the darkness and blending in with the wild nature, both are overpowering and sinister for the white fragile horse. On the left part of the painting, dark clouds are gathering, ready to wash the blood that is to flow with fresh rain drops.

George Stubbs, A lion attacking a horse, 1765

Stubbs painted an entire series on lions and horses, starting from the early 1760s, I’ve put two examples bellow, but they have certainly changed as decades passed. His focus shifted from the anatomy of the horse and the act of attack itself to the sublime mood and the horse’s reaction. The landscape grew darker and bigger, the horse is left nothing but a small white figure in the foreground while nature domineers. Compositions are similar, and the figure of the lion attacking the horse are nearly identical in two different versions from 1765 and 1770, but the mood differs greatly. The landscape is light and classical in the earlier paintings, whereas the later ones show the kind of melancholy beauty that later romantic landscapes are praised for. This series of paintings is a result of three things: Stubbs’s lifelong fascination with horses and study of anatomy, influence of Burke’s idea of the Sublime, and also Stubb’s visit to Rome in 1754 where he must have seen and memorised the Capitoline sculpture which shows a lion attacking a horse.

George Stubbs, Horse Frightened by a Lion, exhibited in 1763

La Belle Dame Sans Merci – Pre-Raphaelites and John Keats

11 Oct

In this post we’ll take a look at a very popular topic for the Pre-Raphaelite painters: the heroine of John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. At once beautiful and cruel, this damsel enchants the poor naive knight and brings him to his doom.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893

The most beautiful, the most captivating portrayal of the beautiful and cold-hearted lady from John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is, for me, the one painted by John William Waterhouse in 1893. The warm rich colours, her languid pose and the way she gazes at the poor knight linger in the memory. Winterhouse wasn’t particularly faithful to Keats’s vision of the setting; Keats described the scene of their doomed encounter as taking place in a desolate wintry landscape where no birds are singing. Waterhouse and other artists before and after him had envisaged the scene differently, which shows that sometimes motifs from poetry don’t translate well into visual arts. Still, the warm colours and details such as red leaves in the foreground suggesting that it’s late summer or early autumn, add to the sensuality of the theme. The autumn is not much different to the merciless lady; nature in autumn charms us with her richness, giving promises it won’t fulfill; the crimson leaves speak of luxury, yet they shall wither and fall in decay.

This is how the knight in the Keats’ poem describes the lady:

“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”

Most unusually, but very fitting for the rest of the painting’s colour palette, Waterhouse painted the lady’s dress in a beautiful warm shade of purple, in a seductive and illusive colour of wine. And look at the heart on her sleeve. Her long auburn hair is falling down her back as she gazes transfixed at the knight, in the same way that the nymphs in Waterhouse’s other painting “Hylas and the nymhps” are gazing at the poor Hylas. Her ruby red lips, her long hair and sweet-scented air all lie; for it is not love that lies on her heart but deceit! And it is only the poor naive knight who is blind to it. And the nature is lying with her; white briar-roses bloom and the trees in the background, reminiscent of the early Renaissance painters, are silent and many dark things they wickedly withhold. The dense row of tall trees reminds me of the trees in Botticelli’s paintings from series “The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti”, part one and two.

Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1902

Frank Dicksee was another painter who painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, but just like Waterhouse he wasn’t the member of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There is something sentimental about his version which I don’t like, but I do love the lady’s long flowing red hair with a crown of white flowers on it. Here is John Keats’s poem, it is too beautiful not to be included:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1863

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1926

At last, the knight is defeated and the lady arises like a phoenix from the ashes with a victorious glow on her cheeks, hair even shinier and more beautiful – she is ready to strike again. Wild red poppies are swaying in the wind, dancing and whispering passionately of the poor knight’s death. Her dress is intricate and ornate, and, similar to Klimt’s designs, almost has a life of its own. Her hands are seductively placed above her head, while the knight is lying dead in the grass, poppies and a few dandelions around him make for a very striking and powerful scene. Whereas Waterhouse opted for a dreamy idyllic version of the theme, focusing on the lady’s intense seductive gaze, Cowper here isn’t shy at portraying her as a merciless vixen.

Wuthering Heights Illustrations: He Is More Myself Than I Am…

6 Oct

This is the perfect time of the year to reread your favourite Victorian novels, and Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” is definitely one of my favourites. Here are the illustrations for the novel by a contemporary Australian artist Rovina Cai. They really fit the mood of the book and linger in the memory, especially the first and the second illustrations here below; they are so dreamy, just look at the subtle shadowy ghost of Cathy above Heatcliff, and Cathy standing by the water and the reflection in the water is of Heatcliff because “she is Heatcliff”, their souls are the same.

“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

“I’m tired, tired of being enclosed here. I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there; not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart; but really with it, and in it.”

“I have not broken your heart – you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.

You said I killed you – haunt me then. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! I cannot live without my soul!

Henry Wallis – The Death of Chatterton

23 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glencoe, Scotland, photo found here.

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

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

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

And now plenty of beautiful quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland Fog, photos by Skyler Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eugene Delacroix – Orphan Girl at the Cemetery

26 Apr

A French painter of Romanticism, Eugene Delacroix, was born on this day, 26th April, in 1798 and today we’ll take a look at one of his early works, the “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery”.

Eugène Delacroix, Orphan Girl at the Cemetery (Jeune orpheline au cimetière), 1823-24

A young girl alone at the cemetery looks up towards the sky, with a prayer mounting in her heart and not yet spoken on her lips. She sees the large white clouds moving monotonously, slowly, tiredly; she wishes to talk to God but the sky is empty, to quote Sylvia Plath. The girl is painted from the profile, with large eyes turned upwards and mouth slightly open. Her left shoulder is left bare and her right arm is resting lifelessly on her knee; all suggesting resignation and vulnerability. The graveyard in the French countryside, as it is suggested, with its wooden crosses, forgotten names, mud, flowers and candles, is a vision of loneliness. As dusk descends, not a soul is around. Her eyes and her pose tell us so much. She is seeking answers, she is unloved and confused, and contemplating over her life she sees nothing but poverty and uncertainty. Look at her eyes. This is sadness beyond tears and meaningless words. Tombstones and the trees in the background all look tiny in comparison with her rather closely-cropped figure. Mournful murmur of the distant cypress trees mingles with the heavy silence of the wooden crosses.

Since this is one of Delacroix’s early works, the colours are not of the warm and glistening kind that he used after his trip to Morocco in 1832. The limited colour palette of murky browns, greens and yellowish-white serves here to intensify the gloomy mood, and yet on her skin colour the real dynamic dance of colours begins; the warm brown base takes over red, pink and greenish shades in places. The dimly-lit vanilla coloured sky in the background is painted as romantically as it is possible and brings to mind the melancholy sunsets and skies in paintings of a German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. As a true Romanticist, Delacroix approached the subject with a lot of subjectivity, compassion and a depth of feelings. In a harmony of colours and a wonderful composition, he brought the emphasis on what is important; the girl with her pain and her solitude, successfully avoiding the sentimentalising of her position.