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Winter in Art

21 Dec

A little review of winter scenes in art history.

1610. Winter Landscape - Denis van AlslootWinter Landscape, Denis van Alsloot, 1610

1826. Graveyard under Snow - Caspar David Friedrich Graveyard under Snow, Caspar David Friedrich, 1826

1824-25. Johan Christian Dahl - Megalith Grave in WinterJohan Christian Dahl, Megalith Grave in Winter, 1824-25

"Gebirgsschlucht im Winter" Mountain Gorge in Winter (Gebirgsschlucht im Winter), Carl Blechen, 1825

1900s Charles Bridge in Winter - Tavík František Šimon (1877 - 1942)Charles Bridge in Winter, Tavík František Šimon (1877 – 1942)

1857. Dutch winter landscape with skaters and a horse-sledge - Andreas Schelfhout (Dutch, 1787-1870)Dutch winter landscape with skaters and a horse-sledge – Andreas Schelfhout (Dutch, 1787-1870), 1857

1861. The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church demonstrates the aesthetic of the sublime. The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church demonstrates the aesthetic of the sublime, 1861

1870. Cliffs by the Sea in the Snow, Gustave CourbetCliffs by the Sea in the Snow, Gustave Courbet, 1870

1870. St. Petersburg, The Ferry Across the River - Ivan AivazovskySt. Petersburg, The Ferry Across the River – Ivan Aivazovsky, 1870

1870s Gustave Caillebotte - snowy roofsGustave Caillebotte, Snowy roofs, 1870s

James M. Nairn, Winter morning, Wellington Harbour, 1900

1907. Budapest, Hungary 1 1907. Budapest, Hungary 2 1907. Budapest, Hungary 3 1907. Budapest, Hungary 4 Budapest, Hungary, 1907

1903. Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935), The Shortening Winter’s Day is near a CloseJoseph Farquharson (1846-1935), The Shortening Winter’s Day is near a Close, 1903

Frederic Chopin – A Portrait by Eugene Delacroix

20 Sep

”Music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.” (Musik ist der Mondschein in der düsteren Nacht des Lebens.) – Jean Paul

1838. Chopin by Delacroix aFrederic Chopin by Eugene Delacroix, 1838

When Frederic Chopin first met the French Romantic novelist George Sand, he considered her ugly and unattractive; she was short, dressed as a man and smoke pipe, but two years later he fell in love with her despite her ‘repulsiveness’. Around that time, in 1838, Eugene Delacroix, a close friend of both Chopin and Mrs Sand, decided to paint a joint portrait of the two lovers. However, the portrait was never quite finished for it remained in Delacroix’s studio until his death, and cut into two separate works so we do not know exactly how it looked like, though there are some assumptions about the composition.

The more interesting part of the joint-portrait is, for me, definitely Chopin’s portrait painted by his dear friend Eugene Delacroix, there’s something very special about it. I see in this portrait everything that Chopin’s life and soul were filled with; a romantic longing, sadness and adoration, yearning for his fatherland, love towards everything that is ‘beautiful’ and noble, fragile health and a certain dose of bitterness, I see all of these things in the portrait of a young composer. After reading Chopin’s biography written by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, I, being already deeply fond of Chopin’s music, his beautiful and mystical Nocturnes, discovered a different side of Chopin. He is mostly remembered as a posh and elegant young man who wore a new pair of white gloves every day, drank champagne, and traveled in his own carriage through the streets of Balzac’s Paris, but Iwaszkiewicz’s biography reveals a gentler and deeper side of him; young Chopin who spent his days chatting with Polish friends, improvising on piano, cheerful and innocent days before his arrival in Paris. Chopin’s love towards Polish countryside is particularly fascinating to me. The secret of his music lies in his travels during which he discovered the mystique of Polish landscape and the secret of its melancholy, dreary mood of the fields he wondered through. After the Fall of Warsaw in 1831, Chopin’s soul closes and we see him very soon in Paris, an elegant dandy who seems to have forgotten everything about his early days in Poland and nostalgic mood that overcame him in Vienna. But the same passions and rebellion still lies in Chopin’s soul, the same longing to escape the banalities of everyday life. He still laments, suffers and grieves – but only on the piano. Maybe that’s the reason his despair and pain seem even larger. His sense of humor and wit concealed his hard feelings and thoughts that he expressed only musically.

Photograph of Frédéric Chopin, 1849

Compared to the only known photography of Chopin, taken the year he died, the painting seems richer and warmer, painted in soft brown shades by a composer’s dear friend Delacroix, the portrait shows a younger and stronger Chopin, though a bit wistful and moody. On the other hand, photograph of Chopin shows a thirty-nine year old artists already fading away, suffering from consumption, tired, weary and physically weak. His last concert was held in London, in honour of Polish immigrants. He played so softly and gently that his performance was completely overshadowed by the murmurs of the arriving guests and reporters. They barely noticed the great virtuous that was playing piano, the Chopin himself.

Chopin died on 17th October 1849, among people dear to him, not among strangers as he often feared. Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ played on his funeral which was attended by his friends and artists such as Delacroix, Theophile Gaultier, composers Pleyel and Franchomme and Alexander Czartoryski.

Sadness that he suppressed during his life was interwoven in all of his compositions; ecstatic and idyllic beauty, pathos, landscapes, strange night scenes, mystique, anger and despair, doubts and fear, gentle love songs, gallantry – all found their place in Chopin’s compositions.

La Castiglione, Demi-Monde and Second French Empire

3 Aug

A vain and eccentric woman of mystery – Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione arrived in Paris in 1856, at the peak of Second French Empire. She was a rose of the Second French Empire garden, a rather exotic and extravagant rose that withered too quickly. She shone briefly, like a shooting star, but soon crashed into the darkness of her Place Vendome abode where she spent her last days in rooms without mirrors or daylight, mentally unstable and lonely.

1863. Photographie de la comtesse de Castiglione, dite à l'éventail, sous le titre de Elvira en1863 Photographie de la comtesse de Castiglione

La Castiglione, as she was later called, was born on 22 March 1837 in Florence. Her full name is legen (wait-for-it) dary: Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni. Before she arrived in Paris, La Castiglione was trapped in a loveless marriage to Francesco Verasis, conte di Castiglione, twelve years her senior. She was sent to Paris in 1856 to bolster the interest of Napoleon III in the cause of Italian unification. Her cousin, the minister Camillo Cavour, instructed her to ‘succeed by whatever means you wish—but succeed!

Succeeded she did, her beauty and extravagant clothes soon caught the Emperor’s eye, and she became his mistress, but not for long. Their love affair lasted only two years, and in 1857 it was all over. She was determined not to be forgotten nor by the Emperor, nor his poor wife Eugenie de Montijo, nor by the courtiers who were very much amused by the scandals, gossips and intrigues. By then, she was separated from her husband and bankrupted by her glamorous lifestyle. She returned to Italy in self-imposed exile in 1858. But, restless and mischievous as she was, she returned to Paris in 1861 and once again shook up the conventional nineteenth century society.

1862. Portrait of the Countess di Castiglione painted in Paris by Michele Gordigiani1862 Portrait of the Countess di Castiglione painted in Paris by Michele Gordigiani

Virginia was famous for her beauty as well as her extravagant lifestyle. Her long, wavy blonde hair, pale skin, and delicate oval face with eyes that constantly changed colour from green to an extraordinary blue-violet must have sparked the Emperor’s imagination when she was first presented at the court on 9 January 1856 at the ball. La Castiglione was two months short of her nineteenth birthday, the Emperor was forty-seven. They expressed their love in June 1856 in Parc de Saint-Cloud; the park that contains one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe: Marie Antoinette’s rose garden, English style garden and Le Notre’s French style garden designed for Louis XIV.

The Princess Metternich described her as having ‘wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph, and a complexion the color of pink marble!  In a word, Venus descended from Olympus.  Never have I seen beauty to rival hers, not shall I see her like again!‘ In the portrait above, painted in 1862 by Michele Gordigiani, we see La Castiglione at the age of twenty-five, her beauty already fading (the contemporaries have said), but her cheeks are as rosy and fresh as ever, while her eyes radiate confidence, disinterest and a slight coldness.

1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 51858-62 Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione

La Castiglione couldn’t have chosen a better moment to arrive on the scene for the splendor and opulence of Napoleon’s court seem to have been created for her. Second French Empire (1852-1870) was a culturally interesting era in French history. After decades of turmoils and revolutions, the court shone again like it did once before in times of Napoleon Bonaparte. Forty years later, Napoleon III made sure that his reign becomes a synonym for extravagances and opulence. It was in these two decades that many works of art and literature were created: Edouard Manet painted his scandalous masterpieces Olympia and Dejeuner sur l’herbe, Gustave Flaubert published his notorious novel Madame Bovary, and Baudelaire Les Fleurs du Mal – the two literary masterpieces were published the same year (1857), but the latter proved to be a tad too modern for the audience. Haussmann rebuilt Paris, and created all the boulevards, parks and avenues that the Impressionists have later captured on canvas, and which gave the city its current appearance.

1855. fashion empress eugenie and the ladies in waiting1855 The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting – Winterhalter

Still, the Napoleon III had a quite conservative taste in art, preferring the works of Franz Xaver Winterhalter and Alexandre Cabanel to decadent and fluttery brush strokes of Manet and Whistler. Winterhalter was a German painter famous for his court portraits such as the portrait of Austrian Empress Elisabeth Sissi. One of his lovely, lovely paintings shows Empress Eugenie and her ladies in waiting. Painted in bucolic, 18th century manner, it displays the opulence and stability of Napoleon III’s reign.

Just like Napoleon Bonaparte’s Josephine, Napoleon III had Eugenie by his side. She faithfully performed her duties as an Empress: organised balls, parties, accompanied the Emperor to the opera, advocated equality for women, and turned her court into a never ending fashion show, instead of Dior or Chanel’s creations, the courtiers admired her dresses made by Charles Frederick Worth, a very popular 19th century designer.

1858. une robe de taffetas et la même robe de bal Victoria et Elizabeth1858. evening and day dress, Magasin des Demoiselles, December

Fashion at the time seems to have been created for the Countess of Castiglione for it is truly the most extravagant period in Victorian fashion. Crinoline was all the rage, and evening dresses were a little masterpieces, in pastel colours with countless flounces, lace decorations, carefully arranged with roses or other flowers. The neckline was open, revealing the shoulders. Sleeves were short and usually puffed but came in variety of shapes; petal, puff, flutter, bell, cap, basic short, gathered, petal and puffed combination, cap and puffed combination.

Neckline was usually decorated with lace, flower bouquets, jewels or single flowers; roses were quite popular. Little bouquets were often asymmetrically placed on the skirt. Most used fabrics were silk, taffeta, moire, organdie, muslin, tulle and lightweight brocade. Dresses created by Charles Frederick Worth were known for their lavish fabrics and trimmings and for incorporating elements from period dress. He was the dream of every Victorian woman and his individualistic approach gained him many faithful customers.

1857. evening dresses, Le Bon Ton, November

1858. evening fashions, Le Bon Ton

Upon arriving to Paris the second time, in 1861, the Countess of Castiglione transformed herself into a mysterious femme fatale and formed numerous liaisons with notable aristocrats, financiers, and politicians. She is said to have charged a member of the British aristocracy one million francs for 12 hours in her company. All she had was beauty, and when it faded, the her admirers and lovers abandoned her.

La Castiglione was almost pathologically vain and narcissistic. Not only did she arrange photo shoots with a prominent Parisian photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, but she also sent her friends photo albums filled with photos of her in different poses and dresses. Today, in ‘era of selfies’, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but back then it was considered almost deranged. Her sessions with Pierson produced more than 400 photos that were created in three specific periods: her glorious first years in French society, 1856-57; her reentry into Parisian life, from 1861 to 1867; and toward the end of her life, from 1893 to 1895.

1870s Virginia Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione (1837-1899), was an Italian courtesan who achieved notoriety as a mistress of Emperor Napoleon III of France, Pierre-Louse Pierson 21862 Virginia Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione

In the photos, La Castiglione is seen wearing extravagant and luxurious dresses, in different poses and face expressions. Not only did she pose as her glorious self, but she also transformed herself into many different characters from The Queen of Hearts, Medea, and Nun, to exotic Queen of Etruria.

The Queen of Heart is probably her most interesting costume. The photo shows La Castiglione dressed in the very same costumes that she wore on a costume ball years earlier. It was the ball held on 17 February 1857 in honour of Ministry of foreign affairs. The splendid ball had an aura of nostalgia for the Marie Antoinette and Petit Trianon, peaceful days before the revolution. Also, Empress Eugenie was a big fan of the 18th century and she adored Marie Antoinette, even dressed like her on one occasion. As always, La Castiglione outshone everyone on the ball when she arrived wearing her ‘heart dress’.

The Countess is not lavish of herself. She seldom appears in society. Whenever she does so it is an event. Behold her entering the salons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the middle of the ___ She is dressed as the queen of hearts, a symbolic costume, for it is an allusion to the innumerable hearts which the Countess “draws after her,” as

Racine would have said. On her head glitters a crown formed of hearts. Her marvellous hair ripples around her forehead and falls in cascades on her neck. Her skirts and corsage are laced with chains composed of hearts. Her train is caught up on the hip. ‘Tis a bewitching costume.’‘(source)

1863. La comtesse de Castiglione en Dame de Cœur vers 1863, par Pierre-Louis Pierson à Paris.1863. La comtesse de Castiglione en Dame de Cœur vers, par Pierre-Louis Pierson à Paris

As to the Countess, she carried the weight of her beauty insolently. The proud Countess does not wear corsets ; she would willingly be a model to a Phidias, if there were one, and she would pose clad only in her beauty. La Castiglione is a courtesan like Aspasia ; she is proud of her beauty and she veils it only as much as is necessary to be admitted into a drawing-room.

1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 4 1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 7 1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 8 1858-62. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 101861-67. Dress that belonged to the Comptesse De Castiglione1861-67. Dress that belonged to the Comptesse De Castiglione

La Castiglione was a true demimondaine. With her extravagant lifestyle, hedonism, dependance on lovers, unusual demands, theatrical life choices she fully embodies the term demi-monde which was commonly used in the 19th and early 20th century Europe. According to the dictionary the meanings of this word are ‘(in 19th-century France) a class of women considered to be of doubtful social standing and morality‘ and ‘a group of people on the fringes of respectable society.

As most demimondaines, La Castiglione ended up as a victim of her own lifestyle. She spent all her money, she lacked charms and her beauty faded. In the last years of life, after the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, she lived a reclusive and eccentric life in the Place Vendome. She decorated her abode with black curtains which hid her from daylight. She smashed the mirrors for they revealed her true age and looks, a face that was once beautiful but isn’t anymore. Furthermore, she left her flat only at night when she wondered the streets of Belle Epoque Paris shrouded in a long black veil. We can draw paralells between La Castiglione’s lifestyle and photo shoots and those of Luisa Casati, an eccentric Italian heiress, muse, and patroness of the arts in the early 20th century.

1893. La comtesse de Castiglione, enveloppée de voile et châle en crêpe noirs1893 La comtesse de Castiglione, enveloppée de voile et châle en crepe noirs

Her final photos show the mental instability that led her lead that kind of lifestyle. She still dreamt of having her photos shown at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in a retrospective titled ‘The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century‘. This never happened and she died on 28 November 1899 at the age of sixty-two. Her life caused admiration and curiosity among the aesthetes of fin-de-siècle Paris. Among them was Robert de Montesquiou, a symbolist poet and a dandy, who spent thirteen years writing her biography La Divine Comtesse. It is also said that he was the inspiration for the character Jean des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel A Rebours (Against the Nature) and for the Baron de Charlus in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

 

Collage – ‘Growth and Decay’

21 May

Indeed I could have written this post earlier, but I couldn’t decide what to write about, so I wasted two hours of my life on deciding. Now I understand Helena Bonham Carter when she says ‘I’m a Gemini, I can’t decide.‘ I’m a Gemini, I know what she’s talking about.

Lately, collage artworks have caught my attention, which is rather weird for I’m not usually fond of contemporary art. However, I saw a peculiar mix of collage, drawings, textiles and photographs that really impressed me. These mixed media artworks were made by Halima Akhtar while she was a student at Woldingham School, Caterham, Surrey. You can see her sketchbook and read the article HERE.

What impressed me the most about her mixed-media art work called ‘Growth and decay‘ was not just the aesthetic appeal, but the idea behind it and all the exploration. In her own words: ‘With the title ‘Growth and Decay’, the main thing that struck me was the concept that fungi grows as a process of decay and degeneration. I went looking around forests and outdoor areas to find examples of fungi in the natural setting. The tremendous scale, smell and slime that I often saw growing around these forms – observations I could not have made through photographs – inspired my work greatly as I experimented with material qualities.

Collage is an interesting art technique which can be conducted on many different ways, from Matisse’s simple cut and paste works such as ‘The Snail‘ to fantastic Pop-Art works of Warhol and Richard Hamilton. The latter is the most interesting type of collage to me, but Halima’s creations have certainly broadened my horizons when it comes to mixed media works.

In my opinion, collage is a powerful medium but easily exploited at the same time. It’s easy to make a collage, but it’s very hard to make a good one. Anyone can cut a few pieces of paper and glue them together, but it takes vivid imagination to create a new, surrealistic dimension, or an intellectual statement, or at least something new, fresh and interesting. Also, may I add that the music video for Franz Ferdinand’s song ‘Take me out‘ features some mental Dadaist and Terry Gilliam style animations.

Here are some other collage artworks that I find interesting: (I don’t know who created most of them, I have simply stumbled upon them on Pinterest)

collage 1

collage 4

collage 6

 

Source.

1919. Hannah Hoch – Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, collage of pasted paper

collage common people pulp

Mary and Percy Shelley – ‘A Gothic Romance’

9 May

Yesterday’s tranquil afternoon filled my soul with excitement and overwhelming joy for it rained heavily and dark clouds pervaded the sky. I was listening to Chopin and reading Shelley’s poems by candlelight, relishing in the sounds of wind whispering through the trees, and a peaceful birdsong. I couldn’t have hoped for a more atmospheric afternoon! Then suddenly, the sky turned golden, mottled with purple, like in one of Turner’s paintings. After a picturesque storm, all was calm again. The love story of Mary and Percy Shelley, one of the wildest and most interesting romances in history, was on my mind the entire afternoon.

1830s mary shelley

Mary Shelley was born on 30 August 1797. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a philosopher and the founder of feminism, and died ten days after the birth of her daughter Mary. Mary’s father was William Godwin, a fellow philosopher and a prominent thinker, and the first modern proponent of anarchism. As she grew up, Mary accepted her mother’s liberal attitudes and outspokenness, and soaked up her father’s ideas like a good pupil. She was eager for knowledge from a young age, and growing up in an intellectually fruitful environment had served only to increase her intellectual curiosity. She met Wordsworth and Coleridge as a child, for they had been her father’s guests, and, along with excessive reading, she was taught by her father a great variety of subjects.

1797. Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie                                     1797. Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

All in all, she had received a sophisticated, the least to say,  an unusual education for a girl at the time. Her father described her at fifteen as ‘singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.‘ Still, Mary’s childhood had a dark side too. Firstly, she was aware that no matter how innocent she may be now, she had caused her mother death, and this thought seemed never to have left her. Secondly, her father remarried in 1802 to Mary Jane Clairmont who brought her own two children into the marriage. Mary never got along with her stepmother.

1775-1800. A Welsh Sunset River Landscape by Paul Sandby, showing rather better weather than most 'sublime' landscapes1775-1800. A Welsh Sunset River Landscape by Paul Sandby, showing rather better weather than most ‘sublime’ landscapes

Lonely and isolated, young Mary could often be found reading by her mother’s grave, relishing in the tranquility, in the behold of her mother’s spirit. She also liked to daydream, escaping the difficulties of reality into a world of imagination. It was during her two stays in Scotland in the summer of 1812 and 1813 that her imaginings turned into profound stories. Namely, Mary stayed with the family or a radical thinker William Baxter in Scotland, where she revelled in the magnificent landscapes and in the companionship of his four daughters. Mary later recalled: ‘I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.

1819. Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint1840. mary shelley

Portraits of Percy Shelley (1819) and Mary Shelley (1840)

Indeed, Mary was familiar with many philosophers of the time through her father, but one lad, one passionate, eloquent and rebellious young poet had caught her eye – Percy Bysshe Shelley. On 5 May 1814 Percy visited Godwin’s bookshop in London’s East End in hopes of meeting Mary; a lady he had previously heard of, but had never laid his eyes on. He had just been expelled from Oxford for an independent mind is a dangerous thing, and, bored with his wife Harriet, he sought for a more intellectual female companionship. Percy first befriended Godwin with promises of financial help, but later snatched his darling Mary from his arms. Seems like this was a lose-lose situation for Gowdin for he could have known better; never trust a young man’s promises.

Godwin–Shelley family treeGodwin-Shelley Family Tree

Percy Bysshe Shelley was an exciting adventure and a passionate love that Mary had so anxiously expected. A vegetarian, an advocate of free love, and a man married to Harriet Westbrook with whom he had eloped only three years earlier. ‘The son of a man of fortune in Sussex‘ and ‘heir by entail to an estate of 6,000 £ per an‘ was how he informed Godwin, and offered himself as a devoted disciple. Still, Percy had difficulties gaining access to money until he inherited his estate because his family disapproved of his engagements in projects of ‘political justice’. His inability or unwillingness to pay off Godwin’s debts infuriated Godwin. The subsequent elopement with Mary served only to deepen Godwin’s sense of betrayal.

Harriet Westbrook, who was the passionate love of his life merely a year ago, had by now bored him to death. He accused her of marrying him for money, and abandoned both her and their daughter Elizabeth Ianthe (born in June 1813) before their second child was born. Harriet was devastated.

1827. On 26 June 1814, Mary Godwin declared her love for Percy Shelley at Mary Wollstonecraft's graveside in the cemetery of St Pancras Old ChurchCemetary of St Pancras Old Church in central London

The church was restored in c.1850, and after. I visited late in a winter afternoon and it felt lonely, separated from city life; the atmosphere was curiously quiet, almost countryside.‘ (source)

St Pancras Old Church 2St Pancras Old Church today

Percy’s affection towards Mary blossomed and he lavished her with attention, joyful that he had finally found a lady intellectually equal to him. They soon began meeting each other secretly at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard. London has greatly changed since Romantic era and St Pancras Church was, in those times, an isolated place; an oasis of tranquility by the River Fleet. On 26 June 1814 Mary declared her love for Percy Shelley at her mother’s graveside, under a starlit sky. Tombs glistening in the moonlight witnessed the endearments the two lovers whispered through the night.

Mary was nearly seventeen, and Percy nearly twenty two. William Godwin disapproved their relationship and Mary was confused. She could not apprehend her father’s worries for she saw both Percy and their love affair as the embodiment of her parents’ liberal ideas of the 1790s. Despite being a good daughter, Mary rebelled against her father’s advice and continues the love affair of her life.

Shelley's travels in 1816Map showing Shelley and Byron’s travels in 1814 and 1816

On 28 July 1814, the couple eloped to France, taking Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, with them. Mary’s older half-sister, eighteen year old Fanny Imlay was left behind, to her great dismay, for she too had fallen in love with Percy. While traveling, the trio amused themselves by reading, mostly works of Shakespeare, Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. They also kept a joint journal, and continued writing works of their own. Traveling by donkey, mule, carriage, and foot through a a France recently ravaged by war, brought them to Switzerland.

At Lucerne, however, the lack of money forced them to turn back. Mary Shelley later recalled ‘It was acting in a novel, being an incarnate romance.‘ The trio allegedly visited ‘Frankenstein Castle’ in the Odenwald, on their way to Lake Geneva. It was during that trip that Mary became acquainted with the story of Conrad Dipper, an anatomist and a former resident of the mentioned castle, and a possible prototype for Doctor Frankenstein.

‘Lord Byron and his physician settled themselves in Villa Diodati; mysterious place hidden in the trees, in the darkness of the large pines, while the Shelleys rented a smaller, less sumptuous villa nearby.’

In 1815 Mary faced the loss of her first child, a girl named Clara who died thirteen days after birth. In May 1816, Mary, Percy and their son William, born the same year, traveled to Geneva where they spent the infamous ‘summer without sun‘ in the company of Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori, Byron’s physician. I have already written a post about this event, ‘Year without a Summer – Its effect on Art and literature‘ in detail, here.

In short, the tranquil, bleak and desolate atmosphere was inspiration for a group of young poets and writers. What started as a challenge to write a ghost story, turned into a hauntingly magnificent novel Frankenstein. Mary was just nineteen years old when she wrote the novel, but in the companion of such geniuses as were Byron and Shelley, she had not dared to present them with a less haunting story. This group of ‘Romantic era hippies’ returned to England in Autumn of 1816, where Percy and Mary would be greeted with sad news. Fanny Imlay, Mary’s older half-sister, born illegitimately to Mary Wollstonecraft before she met Godwin, had committed suicide 9 October 1816 by taking an overdose of laudanum at an inn in Swansea, Wales. She was twenty-two years old, and already so unbearably depressed, lonely and neglected. Motivation for the suicide remains unclear; some suggest it was her unrequited love for Shelley.

Shelley’s verses for Fanny:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery—O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.

1816. Evening Dress, Ackermann's Repository, June 1815. Walking Dress, Ackermann's Repository, May

Fashion 1814-16

In December, another sad event happened, Shelley’s wife Harriet had committed suicide too. Still, Percy and Mary got married shortly afterwards. The marriage denoted Mary’s reconciliation with her father, for she had not spoken with him since her elopement. Although W. Godwin detested marriage in theory, his opinion was different when it came to his daughter. Although devoted to her husband, their marriage had not been the easiest. Wherever Shelley went, the children seemed to follow. Free love had its price.

In 1818, the couple went to Italy with no intentions of returning. Once there, they never settled in one place for too long. Time was spent in socialising, writing, reading, learning and sightseeing. However, their ‘Italian adventure‘ was overshadowed by personal tragedies and infidelities. Mary, who had inherited her mother’s melancholic streak, became depressed and isolated after the loss of her children, William and Clara. Percy sought happiness outside the family home, and in December 1818 Shelley’s daughter was born by an unmarried woman. Still, Shelley expressed Mary’s isolation from him:

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,

And left me in this dreary world alone?

Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—

But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road

That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.

For thine own sake I cannot follow thee

Do thou return for mine.

1889. The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier

Years spent in Italy were the most creative and intellectually active period in their lives. In the Summer of 1822, the couple moved to isolated Villa Magni, in San Terenzo in the Bay of Lerici. On 8 July the same year, Mary’s life was struck by a sad event, again – Percy drowned while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici after meeting with Leigh Hunt and discussing their newly printed journal, The Liberal. Mary dedicated the rest of her life to preserving Shelley’s poems from falling into oblivion.

Claude Debussy – The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

9 Apr

1875. Miranda,  J.W. Waterhouse1875. Miranda – J.W.Waterhouse

La fille aux cheveux de lin or ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ is a musical composition by French Composer Claude Debussy. The piece was written between late 1909 and early 1910, and it is known for its simplicity. It was first published in April, and premiered in June 1910.

The title was inspired by Leconte de Lisle’s poem La fille aux cheveux de lin, which is part of his Chansons écossaises (Scottish songs) published in 1852. Still, inspiration for this short composition is unknown. Some suggest that Claude Debussy had ‘Scottish beauties’ in mind. At the same time, the girl with the flaxen hair was always seen as a symbol of innocence, gentleness and naivety in fine art. Therefore the simplicity of the composition and the motif go hand in hand. Debussy once said ‘I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!‘; even though he disliked the term ‘Impressionism’, his music today is recognised as Impressionistic. All of his compositions are like impressions, of night skies, beautiful landscapes, reveries, and charming ladies.

The impression of the composition is an individual thing. ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ is a very dreamy composition, and yet very short. When it ends, I always have the feeling that the beautiful dream is gone, that the sweet and flowery moment has vanished. There’s a melancholic air to the composition as well, air of loneliness and longing. Every time I listen to this piece, I have the girl with the flaxen hair in mind; she’s not there anymore, except in the memories of the one who loved her. Her flaxen hair is now unattainable. Still, the memories of the romance are fresh and sweet. Something like in Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem ‘The Lake’.

I’ve heard many, many different impressions; the amount of emotions and memories that can arise from music is magical and unbelievable at the same time. Perhaps you should spare two minutes of your time and listen to this composition again to get your impression.

1875. Miranda,  J.W. Waterhouse, Detail

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair – Leconte de Lisle

Sitting amidst the alfalfa in flower,

Who sings in the cool morning hour?

It is the girl with the flaxen hair,

The beauty with cherry lips so fair.

        Love, in the summer sun so bright,

        Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

 

Your mouth has colours so divine,

it tempts a kiss, o, were it mine!

Come chat with me in the flow’ring grass,

Girl with the long lashes, silken tress.

        Love, in the summer sun so bright,

        Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

 

Do not say no, o cruel girl!

Do not say yes, far better still

To read your large eye’s longing gaze,

Your rosy lips which I so praise!

        Love, in the summer sun so bright,

        Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

 

Farewell to deer, farewell to hare!

And to red partridges! I shall dare

a kiss of your crimson lips to steal,

your flaxen locks to caress and feel!

        Love, in the summer sun so bright,

        Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

Rimbaud – Sensation

21 Mar

Spring has finally sprung! Every daisy in the grass, every drop of spring rain, every velvety breeze promises excitement! My days will soon be filled with laughter and colourful clothes, reading on the window sill, daydreaming to the sounds of Psychedelia or Madchester music, ‘Lazing in the foggy dew‘, and endlessly strolling around.

1872. springtime - claude monet1872. Springtime – Claude Monet

Arthur Rimbaud’s poem ‘Sensation‘, written in March 1870 when he was just sixteen years old, perfectly expresses a sense of freedom, excitement and being young. Along with Kerouac’s On the Road, this poem is the epitome of freedom, at least for me.

Sensation is Rimbaud’s rapturous dream of escaping into nature which was his main inspiration. Nature represented a wellspring of freedom and inalienable love at the same time. In Rimbaud’s eyes Nature was Venus, his love inspiration to whom he dedicated his poem Sun and Flesh (Credo in Unam). Poem ‘Sensation’ evokes sensuous freshness of Rimbaud’s early verses which were written while he still lived in a small town of Charleville. Life in the province suffocated Arthur Rimbaud, an intelligent and eloquent young man, with eyes that a childhood friend described as ‘pale blue irradiated with dark blue—the loveliest eyes I’ve seen‘.

His father had already left the family, and his mother, Vitalie, was a dominant and pious woman, patronising young Arthur and depriving him from his freedom. In all of his early poems there’s a sense of longing for freedom, an enormous wish to fly away, venture into the unknown; a typical teenage rebellion and yearning for excitement. His poems are marked by revolt against traditional values; family, patriotism and Christianity. For young Rimbaud the only escape from that bleak world of tradition was to wander off into the woods, and idle in the shadow of trees, imagining Venuses, Nymphs and fatal women, while still as inexperienced as a sixteen year old lad can be. Fruit of his musings were poems such as Sensation, A Dream for Winter and Nina’s Replies (‘Seventeen! You’ll be so happy!/Oh! the big meadows/The wide loving countryside! – Listen, come closer!…‘), all of which have an aura of dreamy and idle afternoons. A woman is an adventure, an escape into solemnity of senses, and a realised love equals liberation from all constraints of society.

Strong desire to escape boredom which pervades Rimbaud’s early poems, and their mystical quality is a combination which makes them popular today still. Rimbaud’s poems were read and admired by many different artists, from Amedeo Modigliani to Richey Edwards. I can’t even put it in words what this poem means to me, how it enlightened me, inspired me! Memories of reading Rimbaud’s poems for the first time are still vivid in my mind. I remember the thrill, the passion, the tremble, the rapture I felt upon reading ‘Sensation‘ for the first time, then Season in Hell and Illuminations. I was reborn after discovering Rimbaud!

Ever since I read ‘Sensation’ for the first time, these verses stayed etched in my head (‘I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:/But endless love will mount in my soul’). I know the poem by heart, and do not hesitate to recite it during one of my long, long walks, in the rain, in the sun, in the dusk; those are the moments when I really feel free, like a bird released from its cage.

Sensation

On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.

1873. Reading by Berhte Morisot1873. Reading by Berthe Morisot

His ‘genius, its flowering, explosion and sudden extinction, still astonishes‘.