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Fragonard, Kundera and the Pleasure of Slowness

22 Apr

“Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? All, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor: “They are gazing at Gods windows. A person gazing at God’s windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do. which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.”

(Milan Kundera, Slowness)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Reverie, 1771

Milan Kundera’s novel “Slowness”, his first novel written in French and not in Czech, was published in 1995. Like all of Kundera’s work, “Slowness” is a philosophical novel. The plot line and the characters serve only as a starting point for the exploration of topics such as slowness, pleasure and hedonism as things of the past, and how the modernity, speed suppress sensuality; modern people have no time for idleness of conquests of love, everything is about the goal and not about the process. To contrast the motifs of slowness vs speed, slow seduction vs rash conquest, Kundera combines two plot lines set in different times. One follows a couple driving in a car to a countryside chateau in France, and the other goes back in past, Kundera takes us back to the wonderful 18th century by retelling a story originally written by Vivant Denons in which the two lovers have a night of slow seduction full of secret symbolism and love language. This is how the novel begins:

We suddenly had the urge to spend the evening and night in a chateau. Many of them in France have become hotels: a square of greenery lost in a stretch of ugliness without greenery… I am driving, and in the rearview mirror I notice a car behind me. The small left light is blinking, and the whole car emits waves of impatience. The driver is watching for his chance to pass me; he is watching for the moment the way a hawk watches for a sparrow. (…) I check the rearview mirror: still the same car unable to pass me because of the oncoming traffic.Beside the driver sits a woman: why doesn’t the man tell her something funny? why doesn’t he put his hand on her knee? Instead, he’s cursing the driver ahead of him for not going fast enough, and it doesn’t occur to the woman, either, to touch the driver with her hand; mentally she’s at the wheel with him, and she’s cursing me too.

And I think of another journey from Paris out to a country chateau, which took place more than two hundred years ago, the journey of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier who went with her. It is the first time they are so close to each other, and the inexpressible atmosphere of sensuality around them springs from the very slowness of the rhythm: rocked by the motion of the carriage, the two bodies touch, first inadvertently, then advertently, and the story begins. Then begins their night: a night shaped like a triptych, a night as an excursion in three stages: first, they walk in the park; next, they make love in a pavilion; last, they continue the lovemaking in a secret chamber of the chateau.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Pursuit, 1771-72

I read “Slowness” five years ago, but this philosophical discussion is something that comes to my mind often and it dawned on me now how connected the slow seduction from Kundera’s novel is with the French Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s series called “Progress of Love” which was originally commissioned by Louis XV’s mistress Madame Du Barry for her pleasure pavilion designed by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Despite the beauty and vivacious nature of these canvases, they weren’t displayed for a long time in the pavilion, Du Barry soon ended up returning them to the painter. The reason behind her odd dissatisfaction with the master pieces is unknown, perhaps the resemblance between the young lad and the king Louis and the girl and Du Barry was too strong, or perhaps the Rococo spirit of the paintings was going out of fashion and she wanted something less kitschy, more elegant and simple.

I certainly don’t share Madame Du Barry’s opinion. If I could travel in time, I would have persuaded Fragonard to sell the paintings to me and then I would hang them in my luxurious countryside castle and gaze at them and daydream all day long. I just love the elegance and romance in these artworks, the secrecy and the innocence of this love chase. In “The Pursuit” the young lad is handing her a rose, like a true romantic and cavalier. “It’s thy love I want, don’t run away from me!”, his lovely face seems to say. Her answer to this flirtatious proposal is a ballerina-like pose. Kundera directly mentions Rococo art and Fragonard in “Slowness”: “The art of the eighteenth century drew pleasures out from the fog of moral prohibitions; it brought about the frame of mind we call “libertine,” which beams from the paintings of Fragonard and Watteau, from the pages of Sade, Crebillon the younger, or Charles Duclos. It is why my young friend Vincent adores that century and why, if he could, he would wear the Marquis de Sade’s profile as a badge on his lapel. I share his admiration, but I add (without being really heard) that the true greatness of that art consists not in some propaganda or other for hedonism but in its analysis.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Secret Meeting, 1771

Despite faking fear and disinterest in the first canvas, there is our love heroine again, pale and delightful, dressed in a white silk gown. The place of their secret meeting is part-Rococo and part-Romantical; statues and vases are man-made ornaments, but the trees and the mood are summery and romantical. Pink fragrant roses everywhere, birches, serene blue sky and all those tiny light green leaves on the trees. I love the special shade that appear often in Fragonard’s trees, this turquoise, teal shade, the love-child of green and blue. The girl’s face shows concern, as if she had perhaps heard someone’s footsteps approaching. And he had just climbed up the overgrown ladder to the secret walled garden. Can this get more romantical?

I love to enjoy all the little details of the painting such as this letter the girl is holding in her hand. It seems this is the love letter from the young cavalier, filled with sweet words of seduction and details about the secret meeting in the garden which is now taking place.

First stage: they stroll with arms linked, they converse, they find a bench on the lawn and sit down, still arm in arm, still conversing. The night is moonlit, the garden descends in a series of terraces toward the Seine, whose murmur blends with the murmur of the trees. Let us try to catch a few fragments of the conversation. The Chevalier asks for a kiss. Madame de T. answers: “I’m quite willing: you would be too vain if I refused. Your self-regard would lead you to think I’m afraid of you.”

Everything Madame de T. says is the fruit of an art, the art of conversation, which lets no gesture pass without comment and works over its meaning; here, for instance, she grants the Chevalier the kiss he asks, but after having imposed her own interpretation on her consent: she may be permitting the embrace, but only in order to bring the Chevalier’s pride back within proper bounds.

When by an intellectual maneuver she transforms a kiss into an act of resistance, no one is fooled, not even the Chevalier.

Jean-Honorá Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Lover Crowned, 1771-72

The third painting of the series “The Lover Crowned” shows the girl crowning her lover with a crown of pink roses. A crown for the man of her dreams who managed to seduce her. The may be the most vibrant painting out of the series, the colours are just wild; look at all that red and pink of the flowers, the red attire of the lad who seems to be painting a portrait of them, and then the lovely mustard yellow dress the girl is wearing. There isn’t a direct connection between Fragonard’s series “Progress of Love” and the 18th century couple in “Slowness” in terms of content, the story line is different, but it is the element of slow seduction, slow approach to pleasure that unites these two eighteenth century arts. Kundera describes the slowness of one summer night’s seduction, with every detail carefully planed and the pleasure delayed, and Fragonard’s approach is even broader because it portrays the slowness not only of one night’s seduction in a pavilion, but a carefully planned, romantic and innocent game of love which ultimately brings sweet, ripe fruit. Here are some passages from “Slowness”:

The end of the first stage of their night: the kiss she granted the Chevalier to keep him from feeling too vain was followed by another, the kisses “grew urgent, they cut into the conversation, they replaced it. …” But then suddenly she stands and decides to turn back.

What stagecraft! After the initial befuddlement of the senses, it was necessary to show that love’s pleasure is not yet a ripened fruit; it was necessary to raise its price, make it more desirable; it was necessary to create a setback, a tension, a suspense. In turning back toward the chateau with the Chevalier, Madame de T. is feigning a descent into nothingness, knowing perfectly well that at the last moment she will have full power to reverse the situation and prolong the rendezvous. All it will take is a phrase, a commonplace of the sort available by the dozen in the age-old art of conversation. But through some unexpected concatenation, some unforeseeable failure of inspiration, she cannot think of a single one. She is like an actor who suddenly forgets his script. For, indeed, she does have to know the script; it’s not like nowadays, when a girl can say, “You want to, I want to, let’s not waste time!” For these two, such frankness still lies beyond a barrier they cannot breach, despite all their libertine convictions.

“I see her leading the Chevalier through the moonlit night. Now she stops and shows him the contours of a roof just visible before them in the penumbra; ah, the sensual moments it has seen, this pavilion; a pity, she says, that she hasn’t the key with her.

As she converses, Madame de T. maps out the territory, sets up the next phase of events, lets her partner know what he should think and how he should proceed. She does this with finesse, with elegance, and indirectly, as if she were speaking of other matters. She leads him to see the Comtesse’s self-absorbed chill, so as to liberate him from the duty of fidelity and to relax him for the nocturnal adventure she plans. She organizes not only the immediate future but the more distant future as well, by giving the Chevalier to understand that in no circumstance does she wish to compete with

They approach the door and (how odd! how unexpected!) the pavilion is open!

Why did she tell him she hadn’t brought the key? Why did she not tell him right off that the pavilion was no longer kept locked? Everything is composed, confected, artificial, everything is staged, nothing is straightforward, or in other words, everything is art; in this case: the art of prolonging the suspense, better yet: the art of staying as long as possible in a state of arousal.”

By slowing the course of their night, by dividing it into different stages, each separate from the next, Madame de T. has succeeded in giving the small span of time accorded them the semblance of a marvelous little architecture, of a form. Imposing form on a period of time is what beauty demands, but so does memory. For what is formless cannot be grasped, or committed to memory. Conceiving their encounter as a form was especially precious for them, since their night was to have no tomorrow and could be repeated only through recollection. There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Love Letters, 1771-72

The last painting of the series “Love Letters” shows the lovers in a happy union. Again in some beautiful garden with roses and statues. A little dog is lying near the roses, perhaps hinting at the fidelity of the love union, or perhaps just enriching the painting with his cuteness. The girl’s rosy cheeks and pink dress are cuteness overload, and the way the young cavalier is gazing at her is of equal sweetness. Red parasol is a nice Chinoserie hint. But now, to end, I would like to share another quote from the novel “Slowness” about hedonism:

In everyday language, the term “hedonism” denotes an amoral tendency to a life of sensuality, if not of outright vice. This is inaccurate, of course: Epicurus, the first great theoretician of pleasure, had a highly skeptical understanding of the happy life: pleasure is the absence of suffering. Suffering, then, is the fundamental notion of hedonism: one is happy to the degree that one can avoid suffering, and since pleasures often bring more unhappiness than happiness, Epicurus advises only such pleasures as are prudent and modest. Epicurean wisdom has a melancholy backdrop: flung into the world’s misery, man sees that the only clear and reliable value is the pleasure, however paltry, that he can feel for himself: a gulp of cool water, a look at the sky (at God’s windows), a caress.

Modest or not, pleasures belong only to the person who experiences them, and a philosopher could justifiably criticize hedonism for its grounding in the self. Yet, as I see it, the Achilles’ heel of hedonism is not that it is self-centered but that it is (ah, would that I were mistaken!) hopelessly Utopian: in fact, I doubt that the hedonist ideal could ever be achieved…

I think the whole philosophy of slowness, pleasure, idleness and hedonism is something we could all use in our hectic, fast modern lives over-bombarded with information and changes, just take things slow and enjoy them.

Louis-Léopold Boilly – Two Young Women Kissing

19 Feb

Today I want to share with you all a dazzling painting by a not-so-famous French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly.

Louis-Léopold Boilly, Deux jeunes femmes s’embrassant (Two Young Women Kissing), 1790-1794

This painting, despite being painted in the late eighteenth century, is so Rococo; naughty yet innocent, provocative yet delicate. In the age of Terror, Revolution, guillotine, rage and chopped heads, the sweet spirit of Rococo, rose-scented and dressed in cotton-candy pink is fighting to survive, fighting against the changes and the steel coldness of David and Neoclassicism. All the frivolities, intimacies and secrets from the grand canvases of Boucher and Fragonard have come alive in this simple yet delightful interior scene. Two young women are portrayed in a kiss, their arms wrapped around one another, their eyes open. The white under-dress of one girl is naughtily exposing her white shoulder and some of that cleavage. The other girl is dressed in a sumptuous green, seemingly iridescent gown. I just love how the folds and creases were painted; the shine of the fabric seems so vivid, and the fabric so tangible and crunchy. I can imagine the soft echo of it rustles down the corridor after the visit is over and the lady gone. I am assuming that the chamber belongs to the girl in white, and that the girl in green is a secret visitor, a very dear friend.

Other details in the room also bring to mind the delicate rose-perfumed interiors from the age of Madame Pompadour. Simple furniture, descending into darkness on the left half of the canvas, serves like a background on a stage for the one-act play of this sweet, short, playful kiss exchanged by two girls. A bonnet with blue ribbons, an empty glass bottle, a yellow glow, silks and a pink rose are seemingly casually placed on the little desk. On the mantle, a clock and two candles are seen. The interior is adding to the mood conveyed by the sweet kiss and all the other details around the girls are here to emphasise the softness, delicacy, and femininity. The style of the interior isn’t that Rococo, but the mood definitely is. Does it seem to me, or do I see a faint reflection of the bed in the mirror above the mantle?

Boilly (1761-1845) was popular and praised in his time, he was no stranger to portrait commissions and exhibitions, but sadly he isn’t that well remembered in the art history. His art is all but dull and boring, so the lack of talent or creativity certainty aren’t the reasons behind it. I think it has more to do with the art history’s emphasis on dates, art period, and what-influenced-what mentality. Boilly’s paintings don’t usually reflect the spirit of his times, perhaps if he had been born earlier his paintings would have been as appreciated now as those of Boucher are. Looking back on past times, an artist who doesn’t match in a dominant movement of his time is an oddball, the books don’t know where to place him so it’s easier to just ignore such an artist and focus on the ones who started a new art movement or reflected the spirit of their times in their works. I know a thing of two about being an outsider and a dreamer, so Boilly and this painting appeal to me, he was clearly portraying a dream-world in his canvases, in turbulent times, daydreaming of the past elegance that he had witness.

Pietro Longhi – Scenes from Everyday Life

12 Jan

Pietro Longhi is a wonderful Venetian eighteenth century painter who, unlike some of his contemporaries in Venice, devoted himself to portraying the simple beauties of everyday life. These days I enjoy gazing at his genre scenes and let’s take a look at a few interesting ones.

Pietro Longhi, The Painter in His Studio, 1741, oil on canvas, 41 × 53.3 cm (16 1/8 × 21 in)

A painting is a finished work, but in Longhi’s painting “The Painter in His Studio” we see the hidden, mysterious aspect of art and portrait painting; we see what happens behind the curtains, a sweet secret that only the artist, the sitter or the model know. In this work, a painter is painting an oval portrait of a Venetian noblewoman. Her clothes speak of her wealth and importance. I deserve to be captured for eternity on canvas, her gaze seems to say. Her hair is powdered and short, her stays laced, and a little dog is peeking under her lace sleeve. Considering how wide her sumptuous dress is, perhaps there is another dog hiding in there. Their carnivals and their masques, one never knows with these Venetians, what are they hiding, what is real and what a mirage. The man beside her; is he her husband, her brother, a father or a friend, we don’t know. But he also has a Venetian masque on his face, moved to the side though. Maybe he is telling the painter something really important. And look, his hand is about to pull something out of his inner pocket, what is it, a dagger? In case he is displeased with the painter’s work. Or some gold coins, if he thinks the likeness of the two faces, the one on canvas and the one in reality, is astounding. On the left of the painter, we see his painting equipment. The background is painted in muted brownish tones and is empty of details and ornamentation, we don’t see the continuation of rooms or space, which makes these three characters seem like actors on the stage, but then again, aren’t we all?

Pietro Longhi, Fainting, 1744, 50×61.8 cm (19 11/16 × 24 5/16 in)

From a calmness of a portrait sitting painting we are moving on to a more dramatic scene, painted around the same time, 1744, when Longhi was about forty-two years old; it is unsure whether he was born in 1701 or 1702. A lady dressed in a pastel pink gown, deadly pale and weak, is just opening her eyes. Quick, quick, someone call the doctor! The lady had fainted. Oh, she is opening her eyes slowly now. Her one hand is on her breast, the other is hanging limp. A soft pillow was brought so she can lay her head on it, and smelling salts are offered to her delicate nostrils. Do not let this pastel pink sweetness fool you, for this scene is not as innocent as it may seems at first.

The evidence of the crime lays open to our eyes in the bottom left corner; an overthrown little table with a notably Rococo playful and flamboyant chinoserie pattern, cards and a little velvet purse full of coins are scattered on the floor. People have gathered sympathetically around her, but this lady has a card or two up her sleeve. The reason she fainted is not the lack of fresh air, or the stays laced too tight, but rather the fact that she was loosing in the game. What else can she do but stage this silly little incident. Ha, but the man dressed in a long blue cloak and a long dark grey wig on the right doesn’t seem to believe her. His hand is stretched towards her as if he’s asking for the money. Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni praised Longhi’s portrayal of truth on his canvases, portrayal of the real world around them, and the painting “Fainting” most likely inspired Goldoni’s comedy “La finta ammalata or “The Fake Patient Woman” (1750–1751); there’s a scene in which the main character Rosaura had just fainted and she is surrounded by her friend, her suitor, her father and her doctor.

Pietro Longhi, The Game of the Cooking Pot, 1744, 49.8 × 61.8 cm (19 5/8 × 24 5/16 in)

Another charming and slightly confusing scene is presented in the painting “The Game of the Cooking Pot”. The lady in the gorgeous white gown is a sight to behold; her delicate pale face, her tiny pearl earring, a subtle pink flower in her powdered hair, her little white shoe peeking under the dress, all so dainty and doll-like in the typical Rococo way. But then there’s a guy on the right, holding a stick, his eyes tied with a handkerchief so he cannot see, and he is about to hit … the pot? The Game of pentola or The Game of the Pot is yet another one of strange Rococo games played by adults and not children which includes a person who has to strike the pot and smash it in order to find a pleasant surprise underneath. In a fancy Rococo interior carefree and pretty young people are indulging in lighthearted fun, and why would they not? Life is to be enjoyed. In the background, on the left, there’s some wine in jugs and some biscuits, little details that Longhi painted to add his scenes some warmth and domesticity.

What were the Venetians up to in the 1740s. This is sort of like an Instagram of their day and age; everything is smooth and perfect, there’s no smallpox, pimples, sadness or a bad hair day. Everyone is “caught” on the canvas having so much fun, like in a group selfie, a big smile everyone! And of course they are having much more fun than you are. Pietro Longhi’s focus on painting genre scenes led the art critics to compare his work to that of his English contemporary, the famous brutally satiric William Hogarth. This comparison isn’t true at all. They both placed their focus on the everyday life on their age and area, but Hogarth’s work tends to be harsh, his wittiness turns to sarcasm, whereas Longhi’s world is delicate and dainty, and figures in his paintings look like actors on stage, their face expressions and movements carefully devised to tell the tale. Pastel colours, fine brushstrokes, Longhi shows both the refined and frivolous past times of Venetians around him; gambling, playing games, sitting for portraits, reading letters, dancing, taking music lessons, receiving visitors. Every canvas is a scene from life. Also, the notable small size of these interior scenes is another thing which connects Longhi’s art with that of Vermeer and other seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed daily life, though with more modesty, mystery and coldness, they are after all people from the dark, rainy, and gloomy North.

Pietro Longhi, The Letter, 1746, oil on canvas, 61 x 49.5 cm (24 x 19 1/2 in)

In this painting I love the detail or a washing line with the white garments painted in such loose, feathery soft, almost ghostly strokes, it just looks so delicate, and adds to the aura of gentleness which matches the pale pretty girl’s pastel pink gown and a sweet round face.

Pietro Longhi, The Music Lesson, 1760, oil on copper, 44.6 x 57.6 x 0.2 cm (17 9/16 x 22 11/16 in)

Since when is holding hands crucial for learning the notes? Hmmm…. The music teacher’s profile alone, with the wide wicked smile and those eyebrows indicates a lecherous Faun-like nature. And look at the way the little dog is observing it all, with his paw in the air.

Jean-Antoine Watteau – Satyr Pouring Wine

29 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

Fragonard and Goya: The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure?

9 Dec

Jean-Honore Fragonard, A Game of Hot Cockles, 1775

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a master when it came to turning fantasies into realities, in the realm of his canvas at least, he wasn’t a magician or a magic fairy. Fragonard, a pupil of Boucher, brought elegance and youthful playfulness into Francois Boucher’s sumptuous and slightly erotic compositions. Whereas Boucher intertwined mythological scenes with the unrestrained lives of the wealthy nobility, Fragonard painted worlds which are neither real nor mythological, but his own dreamy havens. His is the world where love never dies and sun never sets. The painting “A Game of Hot Cockles” isn’t even the finest example, his series called “Progress of Love” is the height of romantic escapism in that fanciful kingdom of love and dreams.

In the painting above the figures occupy just a small portion of the canvas, while the tall trees stretch on and on. He paints trees in a variety of shades, from the warm green-yellowish leaves in the foreground to the gentle hazy blue-greens in the background. The mysterious park is like a theatre stage where games take place. The inspiration for the dazzling landscapes in the background of his painting came from his travel to Rome in 1756, and so does the vibrant colour palette. In contrast to the greenness, the figures are dressed in vibrant jewel coloured clothes; ruby red, sapphire blue, amber yellow, pink as rose quartz.

Detail of Fragonard’s painting

In a dreamy park surrounded by woods a dreamy group of silk-clad figures are enjoying their leisure time and playing a game, and not just any game, but a very Rococo one called “game of hot cockles” which was a popular game for the Christmas time even in the nineteenth century. The game includes one person placing their head in someone’s lap while a third person is hitting their bottom, and the person has to guess who spanked them. A man had a unique opportunity to place their head in a pretty woman’s laps, and ladies had a chance to do the same. Such a silly and naughty game with an erotic undertone instantly became a hit with the indolent French nobility. One could intentionally name the wrong person so that this “wicked game” continues. The group is playing the game, but what are the lady in a red dress and the man in blue doing in the far left corner? Perhaps he’s telling her ‘Hey, I would like to spank you, but it needn’t be part of the game.’ To which she disapprovingly replies ‘Oh, please, can’t you see my dog is listening’.

Lyrics from the Gang of Four’s song ‘Natural’s not in it’ come to mind:

“The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses….
Renounce all sin and vice
Dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraine”

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Blind Man’s Buff (La Gallina Ciega), 1788

The works that Goya is known for today, the imaginative, but dark and disturbing “Los Caprichos” are in the start contrast to his earlier works painted for the court. “Blind Man’s Buff” belongs to Goya’s court phase or his Rococo phase. Both the theme and the colour palette are lighter, and he was influenced by Watteau in this period. It is part of the series that Goya painted for the Royal Palace of El Pardo in Madrid. The painting shows a group of young people playing the game of blind man’s buff.

The man in the middle is blindfolded and trying to touch the other players with a long wooden spoon. I remember playing that game when I was little, but we never used a spoon, how funny! One man, the one on the right, is dressed in an elegant French attire while the other three men and the women are all showing off their vibrant Spanish costumes which they chose to wear in order to emphasise their nationality and culture. In this detail you can see the wonderful vibrant colours, that red and that yellow are so eye catching! It all looks so dreamy and naive, which goes in tune with the spirit of Rococo and its never ending pursuit of pleasure and love for enjoying life.

The Straw Manikin (La Marioneta) by Francisco Goya, 1791-92

Here is another painting from the same royal series by Goya, painted a bit later though, called “The Straw Manikin”. I already wrote about it here. Times are getting darker and Rococo is in demise, and here an innocent outdoor game is taking a twisted touch. Girls are throwing a straw doll in the air, but look at his face expression; so passive, so resigned, they can do whatever they want with him. He is powerless in the hands of females.

Pietro Longhi – Clara the Rhinoceros

15 Oct

Many famous and refined beauties lived in the eighteenth century, but none possessed a beauty so striking and none kept the entire Europe fascinated as much as Clara, the rhinoceros. Her exotic beauty and chiseled features caught the eye of many artists of the day, Pietro Longhi and Jean-Baptiste Oudry to name a few. Clara loved being a part of the art world, but she never allowed the fame to get to her head and stayed humble to the end.

Pietro Longhi, Clara, the rhinoceros in Venice, 1751, oil on canvas, 62×50 cm

Clara (1738-1758) was an absolute Rococo sensation; orphaned at a very young age after her parents were allegedly killed by Indian hunters she was brought to Europe, in Rotterdam, and afterwards continued traveling the continent and bringing delight wherever she went. She had the life of a rock star two centuries before the rock stars; common folk admired her and talked about her, authors wrote about her in the encyclopedia, and painters painted her. In January 1751, she found herself in Venice right in the carnival time and she caused quite a sensation in the ever so inquisitive Venetian society. This was about time when Longhi painted her. In his painting, a small crown of eight figures has gathered to see Clara. The composition is very interesting; the wooden fence visually divides the canvas in two parts; the foreground where Clara is languidly eating hay, and the foreground where the figures of the observers are. Some of the curious Venetians are wearing masks, it was the carnival time after all, and why not.

Some men in the first row are wearing white masks which are called “bauta”. The female figures behind them are dressed in shining silks, woman in the blue gown is wearing a black “moretta mask” which is held by the teeth and the wearer is prohibited to speak while wearing it, but this also enable the silent language of seduction to develop; a bat of the eyelashes, a wink, a nod suddenly got intense meanings. The woman in green silk cloak is holding the same mask in her hand, but showing her pale oval face. The man on the far left, the arrogant laughing chap without the mask, is holding Clara’s horn which she had either rubbed off while in Rome, or it was cut off, but anyhow a new one later grew. Longhi’s painting is, common for his work, rather small. French painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry, on the other hand, had painted her two years prior to Longhi, in 1749, in full size. How monumental and regal she looks, big and shining against the landscape, one can really imagine her wearing a red velvet cloak and a crown with rubies.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Clara the Rhinoceros, 1749, oil on canvas, 310×456 cm

Pietro Longhi is renown for his intimate portrayals of the Venetian society in the mid eighteenth century or the settecento. While Antonio Canaletto focused on grandiose vedute, and Givanni Battista Tiepolo on dramatic religious paintings; Pietro Longhi offered a glimpse of what goes on “behind the closed doors”, literally and figuratively because he not only painted the witty interior scenes, but also gave us an insight in the frivolous and decadent Venetian society just before its final fall at the end of the eighteenth century.

Francois Boucher – Resting Maiden

17 Dec

Today we are going to take a look at a famous Rococo painting by Boucher; a painter that is almost synonymous with the era. The painting of a nude girl unites luxury and eroticism, is painted in sensuous pastel shades of yellow, pink and blue, and it epitomises Rococo’s pursuit of pleasure and hedonism.

Francois Boucher, Resting Girl (also known as:L’Odalisque blonde), 1751

Plump nude beauty. Seashell pink skin. Sumptuous interior. A rich and mesmerising amber-coloured fabric: yellow was a beloved colour for Rococo artists. All these things you are likely to find in any Rococo painting, especially if the painter is Francois Boucher himself. His painting “Resting Girl” is one of the first things that come to people’s minds when they think about Rococo. I know it was for me; this painting, Fragonard’s The Swing and portraits of Madame Pompadour. In this simple interior scene with a horizontal composition details are limited and everything draws the eye to the focal point and that is the girl. The gorgeous yellow fabric surrounds her like the green leaf surrounds the fragrant white lotus flower. She is lying on a sofa; her one leg rests on a pillow whose crisp whiteness you can almost feel, the other on the yellow fabric. On the floor are two elegantly discarded pink roses. There is an open book in the lower left corner, but she doesn’t seem to be reading it. We see her only from the profile, and yet we can sense her mood. She looks a bit startled, surprised, slightly worried. She is holding her hand under her chin, her lips are just slightly parted. Perhaps she saw someone she wasn’t expecting?…

Note: There are two different versions of this painting, but I think the one above is the prettier one and I am referring to that one. Still, the blue ribbons in the painting below do entrance me. The second version was made for Madame de Pompadour’s brother.

The second version: Francois Boucher, Resting Girl, 1752

You must all be wondering right now, who is the owner of this cute Rococo ass? I shall gladly tell you: Marie-Louise O’Murphy; one of the mistresses of Louis XV. She was the youngest of the O’Murphy sisters and her family was of Irish origin, but lived in Normandy. The story goes that one day Louise was at her sister’s house and Casanova himself happened to be there and he saw her stark naked. The image of her pretty teenage body left him so entranced that he demanded a nude portrait of her to be made. Of course the painter was Boucher, for who else painted such openly licentious and unashamedly erotic scenes? Casanova wrote this about the finished portrait: “The skilled artist had drawn her legs and thighs so that the eye could not wish to see more. There I write below: O-Morphi wasn’t a Homeric or either Greek word. Was simply mean Beautiful.” Greek word for beauty, “Omorphiá” is similar to Louise’s surname “O’Murphy”. Having been born in October 1737, Louise was very young when she posed for this painting and her body does look more developed, and yet, when the king Louis XV himself demanded to see her, he concluded that she is even better looking than in the painting.

Francoise Boucher, A Female Nude Reclining on a Chaise-Longue (Graphite, red and white chalk on paper), Sketch for the painting

Louis XV’s reign practically coincides with the existence of Rococo era in art, and he himself led a life full of extravagances and many love affairs so he is a good person to represent the mood of this art movement. His most famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour, is knows as “the Godmother of Rococo” and Boucher was her official portrait painter. Pink was her favourite colour and champagne glass was allegedly made according to the shape of her breasts. Need I say more: the woman loved the art of her time. No other era in art displayed such straightforward eroticism as Rococo, in no other era did the sexual conquests fill the canvases, the novels, the gossips. After centuries of religious art holding dominance, the 18th century brought a liberation, just like the 1960s did in a way.

In art before Rococo, nudity or half-nudity was justifiable and acceptable only if it served a purpose, if it was part of a religious (St Sebastian) or mythological scene (Venus). In Rococo an artist was finally allowed to paint a nude without putting it in a context. Still nature with jugs and apples needs no context, why would a nude body need one? In “Resting Maiden”, the subject is not another Venus; it’s just an everyday girl called Louise and her adolescent beauty captured for eternity. In the 1740s, Boucher painted a similar scene, this time using his wife as a model. Diderot was particularly disgusted with the painting and Boucher was accused of “prostituting his own wife”:

François Boucher, Brown Odalisque (L’Odalisque Brune), 1740-49

These paintings by Boucher can be seen as epitomes of the Rococo spirit because they are straightforwardly hedonistic and light-hearted, sensuous and pastel coloured but things didn’t stay so pink and light-hearted for a long time. As the century progressed, things changed, flirty and frivolous guests of the Rococo party were facing a hangover; dreams and escapism gave way to reality. Pinkness and liberation descended into decadence and the French Revolution of 1789, sharp like a guillotine, cut Rococo’s timeline in a second. It seems that every pleasure has its consequence. I feel that there is such fragility and silent wistfulness hiding underneath Rococo’s shiny pink exterior. On the inside, Rococo is as gentle as porcelain or antique lace; it idealises, it fuels daydreams, it yearns for an eternally lovely world with baby blue skies, it tried so passionately to avoid reality that it got swallowed by it.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Girl with a Dog, 1770

Fragonard’s painting above is yet another example of Rococo’s naughtiness. To end the post here are a few verses from Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Spleen” that perfectly capture that fragile appeal of Rococo:

I am an old boudoir full of withered roses,

Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses,

Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers,

Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.

***

Je suis un vieux boudoir plein de roses fanées,

Où gît tout un fouillis de modes surannées,

Où les pastelliste plaintifs et les pâles Boucher,

Seuls, respirent l’odeur d’un flacon débouché.

Working Class Heroines of the Rococo

4 Dec

Earlier this year I wrote a post about Dolce Far Niente and the paintings which feature pretty girls doing nothing. Well, in this post we’ll take a look at some 18th century paintings where pretty girls are not daydreaming and lounging around in flimsy dresses but ironing, doing the laundry, carrying tea, soaping linen…

Philip Mercier, Girl with a Tray, c. 1750

Rococo is an often overlooked era in the history of art. It’s deemed as kitschy, pink and frivolous, but if you scratch the surface you’ll discover many wonderful artistic inventions. After the extravagances of Baroque which favoured sacral themes, dramatic lightning and chiaro-scuro, in Rococo painters shifted their attention from saints and kings to everyday life with its everyday pleasures and pursuits. If Baroque is a dark night with blazing thunderstorms, then Rococo is a quiet morning full of lightness and possibilities. If Baroque is a turbulent stormy sea, then Rococo is a serene lake whose surface reflects the blueness of the clouds. Baroque is extravagant, grandiose, serious; Rococo is lighter, gentler, simpler. Rococo brings as in intimate spheres of people’s lives, but at the same time it’s not realistic, it doesn’t portray the harsh reality, the hard working conditions of the underprivileged and poor. Rococo idealises and lies, it doesn’t mirror the truth but instead offers a world of dreams and escapism. There is such a fragility about Rococo and especially about the paintings of Antoine Watteau which started the movement in the first place: it is so beautiful that it cannot last. Dreams always end.

Rococo is typically full paintings that present luxury and pleasure; handsome men and charming women in silk gowns lounging in gardens of everlasting spring, nudes, “fete galante”, Venuses and angels, painting such as Fragonard’s The Swing… The paintings in this post are something different. My fascination with the subject started when I saw Mercier’s girl bringing tea on Pinterest. I liked it a lot and I noticed a series of paintings from the same time period which feature the similar theme: girls doing a domestic work such as ironing, bringing tea or washing the laundry. These ladies are maids and not duchesses and yet they are worthy enough to occupy a canvas. This intrigued me. So, I envisaged this post as a brief overview of eight paintings by four different French and British painters, not as a detailed study of each painting. Also, I have to say that there is a parallel between these Rococo paintings and Dutch Baroque art of Vermeer: he also painted everyday women in simple interiors. Nothing posh, nothing luxurious.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, 1761

Greuze shows us a rosy-cheeked Rococo maid who happens to be washing the laundry but has lifted her gaze towards us. One can sense a quiet curiosity in her eyes. And look at her mules; they were a very popular form of shoes for women in the eighteenth century. The wall behind her is grey, in the upper left corner red bricks are seen. From 1759 to about 1770s, there was a craze for Greuze’s genre paintings in the Parisian art circles.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Wool Winder, c. 1759

Another painting by Greuze shows a very young girl dressed in gentle blue and white gown winding wool. She looks so young and dreamy with her pale face and fine blonde hair hidden underneath a white cap. The gentleness of her face reminds me of Raphael’s faces. She looks as if her skin was silky soft and her neck smells of lily of the valley. I sense wistfulness, a quiet melancholy in her blue eyes. The cat, on the other hand, seems amused by the thread of wool, you can tell just by looking at its eyes and the tail turned upward. As I gaze at the girl who, to me, exudes such chastity and naivety, I am thinking about her name; for me it’s Justine. It just dawned on me that perhaps she is the same girl who is sitting in her attic flat abandoned by a lover in Greuze’s painting The Complain of the Watch of which I’ve written earlier this year. I will imagine that she is. This painting is becoming dearer and dearer to me.

Philip Mercier, Portrait of a young woman, 1748

Philip Mercier was a French painter who was born in Berlin and died in London and he is well-known for making some portraits of the royals. This is the painting that started my fascination in the first place and it is my favourite painting out of all that I’ve presented here, and a rather simple one too; just a girl with porcelain skin and large dark eyes holding a tea tray. She is dressed in a light green dress. The model was possibly the artist’s maid Hannah. I like her straightforward gaze. Now something that I am interested in: who is the lucky person to be served by this beauty?

The painting below is Mercier’s work again and its dramatic light reminds me of Baroque. It shows two girls, perhaps sisters; one is sewing and the younger one is sucking her thumb.

Philip Mercier, A Girl Sewing, 1750

Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Woman peeling turnips, 1740

Chardin’s portrayal of the working class life is perhaps the most realistic, both in terms of style and content. Painted in dark, muted colours and earthy tones and presenting a gritty image of reality instead of silk-clad idealism of the previous paintings, and it lacks the glamour and sparkling colours of Mercier’s girls bringing tea. In “Woman peeling turnips”, Chardin presents us with an intimate and realistic scene of a woman sat on a chair, peeling turnips in her kitchen, dressed in simple garments. The wall behind her is bare and grey, and she is surrounded by things you’d normally find in a kitchen, pots and a pumpkin. Something distracted her for a moment and she is looking to the right. It looks as if Chardin really was in her kitchen. Chardin was a keen observer of everyday life and his paintings emphasise the values such as industriousness, loyalness to ones family and honesty, and this struck a cord with the middle-class buyers. Speaking of turnips, whoever is a fan of Blackadder will know that Baldrick loved them. Ha ha.

Henry Robert Morland, A Laundry Maid Ironing, c. 1765-82

A London-based painter of genre scenes, Henry Robert Morland, presents us here with two pretty ladies dresses in sumptuous silks perhaps too sumptuous for the position of a maid, but then again all these paintings, apart from Chardin’s woman peeling turnips are just dreamy idealised portraits of domestic scenes, and why portray reality when it was so gritty? The girl above is shows ironing and is very focused on her task, while the girl doing laundry in the painting below had to stop for a moment to show us her smile.

Henry Robert Morland, Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen, c. 1765-82

Although artistically these paintings hold importance within their art movement, thematically we should embrace their light-heartedness. Unlike similar genre paintings of Victorian era, these Rococo portraits of beautiful working class heroines were not meant to convey a social message or serve as a social critique.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Complain of the Watch

29 Jul

The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went.” (Virginia Woolf)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Complain of the Watch, 1770

In a sad room a sad faced young thing is sitting on a chair. Indulged in a wistful reverie, she looks as ethereal and pale as a ghost, so lost in her thoughts that if someone happened to walk into her room, she’d probably seize to notice him. Behind her a bed and a barren wall as grey as her thoughts. Dressed in a loose white dress, an undergarment or a nightgown, the blonde girl is gazing in the distance with a pensive face expression. She’s holding a watch in her hand. Thin rays of sun coming through the small window provide the light in this poorly furnished attic room. Every night when the bells of a near-by church announce midnight, thin-legged spiders walk up and down the walls of her sad abode, greenish from the mould, weaving webs in the corners of the room, weaving webs in every corner of her heart. How could someone so young look so sad? Who dared to fill those blue eyes with tears and burden those slender white shoulders with woe?

Next to the girl is a small table, and on it a basket, some flowers and a letter. A letter which must hide all the secrets of her aching heart, a letter which hides the mystery behind her wistful reverie. I don’t know what the letter says, neither do you, but a little blackbird which sat on my windowsill today knows all the secrets from centuries gone by: he is a time travelling bird. It is a long tale of woe which I hesitate to retell, but I will tell you this: the lover loved and went, leaving nothing but a watch as a memory and empty words of goodbye; I can only assume it took more time for ink to dry than it did for his feelings of affection to cool down. Poor, poor girl, with her Rococo face and her Rococo sadness, what is she to do with her life now? Abandoned, alone, breathing in the perfume of lost hopes and sadness, while her wedding gown is being slowly eaten by moths in the wardrobe, her bouquet of flowers slowly withering as hours linger.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard – The Swing

4 Apr

Painting The Swing is Fragonard’s most well-known work, and the epitome of Rococo; it’s a fun, frivolous, hedonistic painting imbued with erotic insinuations and painted in rich colour palette full of lightness and vivacity. To most people, and myself included, it is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Rococo and today would have been Fragonard’s birthday, so it’s a perfect day for this painting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767

Painting The Swing shows a young woman sitting on a swing and two male figures lazing around in a pastoral setting. The woman holds a central position and she is a true eye-candy; dressed in a silk gown in a peachy-pink colour, her head adorned with a straw hat. Rosy cheeked and laughing, she’s dangling her legs in white stockings and playfully throwing one of her pink shoes in the air. Her flat straw hat is a fashionable style of the time, called ‘bergeré’ which means ‘shepherdess’, and can be seen in many Rococo paintings, in particular those of Fragonard and Gainsbourgh. The man in the background, a layman, is pulling her swing, while the one on the left, resting amidst delicate pink roses, gets to have all the fun, gazing mischievously at the legs of this gorgeous girl, and not just legs – women of Rococo didn’t wear knickers.

Fantasies, flirting, and debauchery are all intermingled in this voyeuristic scene placed in an idealised setting of lush nature, marble statues and roses, all painted in soft fluttering brushstrokes and bathed with luminosity and lightness which Fragonard took from the Italian masters such as Corregio, who is sometimes considered the forerunner of Rococo, and Tiepolo. The scene is painted so beautifully that one can feel the mood of that carefree afternoon, smell the flowery sweetness that lingers in the air on this late spring or early summer day, you can heard their laughter and a peaceful birdsong.

Sensuality of this erotic reverie is emphasised by the vibrant, lavishing glistening pastel shades, from her pink dress to the gorgeous hazy background painted in the most exquisite shades of green; notice the gradation from the gentle light green where the rays of sun fall to darker greens which exceed into a mystical turquoise mist on the right part of the painting. And then the soft, dreamy blue sky with delicate clouds: the perfect background for us to notice the little pink shoe flying in the air. Sculptures of Cupids, Venuses and angels are popping up everywhere in Rococo art, and this painting is no exception. There’s a sculpture of Cupid on the far left; his finger is pressed on his lips, suggesting secrecy and conspiracy of this naughty game. But will the roses keep their little dirty secrets safe, or will they maliciously whisper them to the moon when the night falls?

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a pupil of another famous Rococo master – Francois Boucher who painted many portraits of Madame Pompadour, the one of many mistresses of Louis XV, including my favourite one where she’s shown wearing a peachy coloured dress and standing next to an old statue. Fragonard continued his tradition, but the vivacious brushwork is entirely his own. As a marvellous colourist, Fragonard won an award in 1752 which enabled him to spend five years, from 1756, in Rome to study painting, and he returned to France with a rich luminous colour palette. There’s an interesting anecdote about this painting; it’s said that Baron de Saint-Julien asked another painter, Gabriel-Francoise Doyen, to make a painting of him and his mistress on a swing in which he would be portrayed looking at her legs. Doyen wasn’t really impressed with the frivolous nature of this commission and passed it on to Fragonard who made a painting so memorable that I can’t help it wonder what Doyen’s version would have looked like. Small dimensions of this painting emphasise the intimate nature of Rococo art which was meant to be enjoyed in privacy of one’s home, whereas the grand Baroque art was meant for showing off. Rococo is dreamy, intimate chatter in saloons, and Baroque is pompous swaggering in long halls with mirrors and candles, like that of Louis XIV.

And now the Swinging sixties version of The Swing:

Rococo art has many aspects, this ‘frivolous and hedonistic’ one is just one of them, and these days it’s all I need; rose gardens, dreamy blue skies, gorgeous dresses. Titles of the paintings, e.g. Boucher’s The Secret Message, Dreaming Shepherdess, or Fragonard’s The Stolen Kiss, The Love Letter, The Souvenir, The Secret Meeting, Progress of Love and Confession of Love are just adorable. And so are all those ladies painted in gorgeous silk gowns with flowers on their bosoms and lace around heir necks, with straw hats or love letters in their hands, captured for eternity with porcelain white skin and rosy cheeks, daydreaming in parks and forest glades by the statues of angels and Roman goddesses, or having their kisses stolen in luxurious salons by naughty noblemen with powdered hair; in short, doing nothing, doing it sweetly, and doing it in style – Rococo!