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Arnold Böcklin – Isle of the Dead

14 Jun

The title of this painting was apparently coined by the art dealer, while the artist himself referred to the painting only as “a picture for dreaming over”. A fascinating detail to be aware of because the morbid and mysterious allure of the painting lies half in its symbolist-laden title. I didn’t know for the painting before I discovered Rachmaninov’s composition of the same name a few years ago. The title is bewitching, and yet the painting itself looks like the world of nightmares which I inhabit in my slumber. I am drawn and repulsed by it, I fear being engulfed in its darkness, and yet I crave to unravel the mystery of those tall cypress trees.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, ‘Basel’ version, 1880

“Under ancient cypress trees, weeping dreams are harvested from sleep.” (Georg Trakl, tr. by Jay Hopler, from “Year,” published c. October 1912)

The painting shows a seemingly uninhabited little island, composed from strange massive yellowish rocks and built in classical style architecture, the purpose of which is unclear. The centre of the isle is occupied by tall and shadowy cypress trees which look, to me, as if they are corpses standing upright and decaying slowly. Their darkness exudes a nauseating scent and the way they loom over the isle silently gives their presence an ominous character. This is a place from the artist’s imagination, and all elements are subordinated to the mood which is one of dreams and death, some even say the mood is that of ‘withdrawal, of rejection of reality’ which makes sense in the context of Symbolism. Death dreamily hangs over the isle as a dark cloud heavy from rain; death hides in the soft trembling of the tired cypress trees; death lingers in the air in the rich and heavy scent of the Mediterranean. But the isle is not alone; a little rowboat is slowly gliding through the dark and still waters. On the boat we see an oarsman, a figure shrouded in white veils, resembling a statue or a mummy, and a coffin. Now, just when you thought things couldn’t get more symbolist if they wanted to! There are dozens of interpretations of this painting and its every detail offers many explanations. Some suggest the oarsman represents Charon, the boatman from Greek mythology who led souls to the underworld over the river Acheron. Perhaps defining the painting would mean stealing its richness of vague dreaminess and confining it to the genre of mythological scenes, and it’s much richer than that because its layers and layers of mystery serve to awaken the subconsciousness.

Island of Saint George

This painting is one of three versions or variations of a same theme that Böcklin painted. Even though the isle is the artist’s little fantasy, a dream-world and not a real place, it was inspired by a real place, and again, there are a few possibilities. One of them points to the islet called “Sveti Đorđe” (“Island of Saint George”) in Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. The only building on the islet is a Benedictine monastery from the 12th century and the abundance of tall and dark cypress trees are reminiscent of Böcklin’s paintings. It really is a dead isle; no one lives there apart from the wandering souls of the dead, and tourists are not allowed. Böcklin could have seen the islet on one of his travels to Italy. I am certain that in twilight it holds the same eerie spell on the observer as the isle in the painting does. Another possible inspiration is the Pontikonisi islet in Greece, again with plenty of cypress trees and a Byzantine chapel from the 12th century. I personally feel that there is a clear resemblance between the Island of Saint George and the third version of the painting “Isle of the Dead”, from 1883, where the rocky formations are sharp and grey, almost enveloping the isle, and the colour of the sea blends with that of the sky.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, The Third Version, 1883

What draws us to the painting is the eerie atmosphere, the irrational composition of the isle and its dazzling dream-like beauty, and the mystery which doesn’t have an answer. Surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico loved the painting, precisely because of those qualities, and the similar mood of silence, eeriness and mystery pervades many of his paintings. A reference to the past might be the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich which have the same mute stillness and a spiritual mystique.

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Victorian Photography: Girls in Silk Cages, Pale and Fragile as Lilies

10 Jun

A friend recently reminded me of the photograph of Ellen Terry that you see below and its mood of sadness and wistfulness struck a chord with me. Naturally, I thought of many other Victorian photographs of girls in contemplation so I decided to share them all in this post; they are perfect for daydreaming.

Sadness (Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen), photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864

All of the photographs here were taken by female photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) who is perhaps a pandan to the Pre-Raphaelites in the field of photography because of her inclination toward the Arthurian world and medieval romances, and Clementina Maude Hawarden (1822-1865) who often took photos of her daughters and is sometimes called “the first fashion photographer” because many of her photos feature the lovely crinoline gowns from the era, full of ribbons and flounces.

What draws me to these photographs is their dream-like quality; they are like windows to the long lost worlds, they evoke as much feelings from me as a poem can, they portray beautifully the inner world of Victorian girls and young women. Gorgeous fashions and delicacy of the fabrics, dazzling play of light and shadow, a tinge of melancholy and wistfulness. In this long lost world from the other side of the mirror long haired dreamy maidens in their dazzling silk and tulle cages are shown reading or praying, or travelling the landscapes of their thoughts, sitting by the window and gazing into the outside world of freedom and strangeness; girls as fragile as lily flower, with faces pale from the moonlight, yearning hearts and silent tears that smell of jasmine, trapped in claustrophobic interiors of damask and daydreams, touching life only through veils, “seeing it dimly through tears”, drunk, not from cherry cordial, but from the heavy fragrance of roses in their vases. Caught between girlhood and adulthood, in their dreamy interiors, with mirrors and books, they are gazing through the glistening bars of their cages, in silence, for the captive birds sing no ditties.

“I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there: not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart: but really with it, and in it.” (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights)

Watercolours of the Caribbean by Winslow Homer

27 May

Last summer I fell in love with Winslow Homer’s watercolours so I thought now is the right time to finally write about them.

Winslow Homer, Rest, 1885

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was an American painter from the East coast, famous for his Realist style landscapes and scenes of turbulent blue seas. He started his artistic career by studying lithography for two years, and he made illustrations for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly but this didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream of being a real artist and he made a successful transition from illustrator to oil-on-canvas painter. In 1859 he moved from Massachusetts where he lived with his family to New York City where he opened a studio and started taking classes at the National Academy of Design. He first started using the medium of watercolours in 1873 and he was instantly good at it; he successfully sailed the seas of watercolours. His mother was an amateur water-colourist so it is possible she inspired him to take up watercolours, since the two were close throughout his life.

In this post we’ll take a look at Homer’s watercolours that capture the beauty of the south and the mythical tropical lands that are perpetually so dazzling to the imagination of the Western people; a place where rains don’t fall down hard and sad, the sky isn’t a monotonous grey, a place where pink and golden sunsets play Apollonian melodies and love lingers in the air; the Caribbean. Homer was nor the first nor the last Western artist to take inspiration in lands that were exotic to them; Albrecht Durer travelled to Italy, Delacroix’s travels to Morocco changed his colour palette and brought a whole new set of subjects, Paul Gauguin’s well-known Odyssey to Tahiti resulted in many vibrantly coloured canvases. And what an experience it must have been for Homer who was so used to the grey sky and green meadows to come to a world of sunshine, light breeze and glistening blue ocean, inviting and warm. Homer travelled to Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas in winter of 1884-85 to paint the tropical heaven scenes commissioned by the Century Magazine.

Winslow Homer, Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

“Sponge Fisherman” has such a meditative vibe, perhaps it’s because of the horizontal composition, or the dreamy way in which the sky and the ocean meet, both so serene and blue. Even though the painting shows workers and it’s probably very hot, something about it makes me so relaxed. The palm trees here look as if they are carried by a gentle breeze and the workers seem bubbling and chatty, not exhausted or sad.

The sponges in this painting reminded me of something from Márquez’s novella “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother” which I was just reading. In one scene the grandmother is talking in her sleep and she mentions sailors from foreign lands who brought sponges that were alive and crying and made children in the house cry just so they could drink in their tears! Ha ha. That wonderful magic realism.

Winslow Homer, Along the Road, Bahamas, 1885

“Along the Road” is a rather interesting example because we have a human figure again; a dark-skinned beauty dressed in white walking down the street. it seems to me that she is holding her headdress with her hand so the wind doesn’t blow it off. Behind her we see a row of houses and the ocean is glistening in the distance. The palm tree swaying its branches wildly and the sky both indicate the weather condition of strong winds and an approaching storm possibly. I hope this lady got home before rain. Homer managed to create a sense of depth in the sky and the rest of the painting despite using a limited colour palette of greys and muted tones.

Winslow Homer, A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Winslow Homer, Orange Tree, Nassau (also known as Orange Trees and Gate), 1885

The two paintings above both show gardens in Nassau and here Homer had wonderfully achieved the mood of a hot summer day. Many and many shades of green and blue seem to be playing a sonata in “A Garden in Nassau”. The tree looks ever so grandiose with those large leaves painted in intensely vibrant shades of green. A little boy stands in front of the gates and a tall white stone wall. Half-frightened, half-curious. The little red flowers in the right part giggle with curiosity as he bows his head down. The palm tree is silent, casts its shadow in the midday heat instead of a respond. Its leaves don’t sway, for the wind is having a siesta. In the painting “Orange Trees and Gate” it is the orange tree which got Homer’s spotlight. Again, everything is so luminous and bathed in lightness. Thousand little brushstrokes of green colour make an orange tree and dots of orange stand for the fruit which weighs the tree down. Ground is left in white but a sad dark shade of blue is coming from the lower right corner, from the space unknown to us.

Winslow Homer, Shark Fishing, 1885

Winslow Homer, After the Hurricane, Bahamas, 1899

Two paintings above, “Shark Fishing” and “After the Hurricane” shows us that Homer didn’t just capture the idealised notion of the Caribbean world and presented it as a world of sunshine and magic, as Gauguin had perhaps done in his Tahiti paintings. Homer didn’t hesitate to paint the everyday reality and people doing what they normally would, whether it’s a brave and dangerous act of fishing a shark, or capturing the sad reality of the fragile Caribbean world after the hurricane. Notice again what a virtuoso he is with watercolours, how gracefully he painted the transitions of colours, how he created a dynamic mood; that threatening dark cloudy sky, that unforgiving sea, the blades of grass so thin and vibrant, and the figure of a man washed up on the shore, a poignant focus of a painting that we can all empathise with. Nature is interesting, yet wild. As you may have noticed by the dates, some of the watercolours were made a decade later, in 1899, and not in 1885. It’s because Homer visited Florida and Nassau again in winter and stayed there from December 1898 to February 1899. His very colourful and vibrant watercolour “Flower Garden and Bungalow” was also painted during that trip. I didn’t even notice the bungalow at first because my eyes were so captivated by the sea of tropical red and yellow flowers in the foreground. And the view of the dreamy blue sea in the background is just mesmerising.

Winslow Homer, Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda, 1899

My infatuation with the Caribbean and Latin America started last summer when I read Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I thought was absolutely fabulous and I intend to reread it this summer. To feed my Caribbean infatuation I read poems by Cuban authors, Latin American writers, Reinaldo Arenas, listened to Omara Portuondo and Agustin Barrios, gazed at Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and so when I discovered these gorgeous watercolours by Winslow Homer it was love at first sight. This is how I imagine the sea when Reinaldo Arenas writes about it in his memoir “Before Night Falls”. Sandy beaches, pink skies, a breeze through the palm trees, rare birds with colourful feathers, a world of exoticism and vibrancy comes to mind when I gaze at these watercolours and daydream of the Caribbean islands and seas.

Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

20 Apr

I have just finished reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The House of the Seven Gables” and even though the first chapter bored me, I ended up loving the book and I couldn’t resist writing a little book review!

Cliff House, San Francisco, USA, 1906

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Gothic novel “The House of the Seven Gables”, first published in April 1851, is set in a small town in New England and follows an old family Pyncheon. The first chapter is set in Puritan times and tells us about the witch trials and the beginning of the family feud between the rich Pyncheon family and the Maule family. We find out that the now dark, gloomy and decaying house with seven gables was built on ground wrongfully taken by Colonel Pyncheon from Matthew Maule, after the latter was accused of practising witchcraft and therefore executed. All other chapters are set in the mid nineteenth century and follow the house and the family in their not-so-glory days. The only resident is an old spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon who, due to financial problems, decides to open a shop in the spare room in the house. This causes her great anxiety and aggravation because she has led a reclusive life and is now forced to get in touch with the world. She says: “The world is too chill and hard, – and I am too old, too feeble, and too hopeless!” She has a stern and serious personality but is good at heart. Here are more quotes about her:

…here comes Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon! Forth she steps into the dusky, time-darkened passage; a tall figure, clad in black silk, with a long and shrunken waist, feeling her way towards the stairs like a near-sighted person, as in truth she is.” (ch 2)

So–with many a cold, deep heart-quake at the idea of at last coming into sordid contact with the world, from which she had so long kept aloof, while every added day of seclusion had rolled another stone against the cavern door of her hermitage–the poor thing bethought herself of the ancient shop-window, the rusty scales, and dusty till.” (Ch 2)

And yet there was nothing fierce in Hepzibah’s poor old heart; nor had she, at the moment, a single bitter thought against the world at large, or one individual man or woman. She wished them all well, but wished, too, that she herself were done with them, and in her quiet grave.” (ch 3)

A tenant lives in the house as well, a young daguerreotypist called Holgrave: In the second chapter he is introduced as a “… respectable and orderly young man, an artist in the daguerreotype line, who, for about three months back, had been a lodger in a remote gable.” Even though he is quite young, twenty one or twenty two, he already had many experiences in life, worked different jobs, studied different things, from dentistry to photography! And he has secrets of his own… One day Hepzibah’s brother Clifford returns after serving thirty years in jail for the murder of his uncle; don’t worry, he isn’t a murderer, he was wrongfully convicted. Clifford’s character is a mix of childlike naivety and cheerfulness, and dandyish sophistication and a great love of beauty. Then, Hepzibah’s young, pretty and hard-working cousin Phoebe arrives from the countryside. Her vivacious and cheerful personality brought smiles to people’s faces, and flowers started blooming in their hearts, as well as in the garden behind the house. Suddenly, the house isn’t so gloomy and solitary any more!

Photo found here.

A lot of things happen in the novel, and yet the story is developed slowly, intensifying the intrigue and bringing in mysteries about the house and making you think about the layered personalities of the characters, and the big role that the past plays in their lives. There is a contrast between the oppressive atmosphere of the house and the freedom of the garden with roses and sunshine, idyllic scenes take place there; just like in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The house is almost a character for itself; it’s practically the only setting and the characters seem to be drawn to it by some strange power. Old portraits on the walls seem alive and the spirit of Alice Pyncheon, a pretty girl who lived there and died, haunts the old chambers. It is said that the flowers growing on the roof of the house grew there because Alice threw some seeds in the air just for fun. It’s the details like these that made me fall in love with the story. So, in short, the things I loved about the book, and what I think you might enjoy too; dark atmosphere with lots of secrets, eccentric characters, the house, mingling of past and present… Also, the story about a family’s past and connected to one house, reminded me of Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Isabel Allende’s book “The House of the Spirits”. I love novels like that, and if you know any that are similar, do tell!

Roses, photo found here.

And now some lyrical passages that I loved:

Phoebe Pyncheon slept, on the night of her arrival, in a chamber that looked down on the garden of the old house. It fronted towards the east, so that at a very seasonable hour a glow of crimson light came flooding through the window, and bathed the dingy ceiling and paper-hangings in its own hue. (…) The morning light, however, soon stole into the aperture at the foot of the bed, betwixt those faded curtains. Finding the new guest there,–with a bloom on her cheeks like the morning’s own, and a gentle stir of departing slumber in her limbs, as when an early breeze moves the foliage, –the dawn kissed her brow. It was the caress which a dewy maiden–such as the Dawn is, immortally–gives to her sleeping sister, partly from the impulse of irresistible fondness, and partly as a pretty hint that it is time now to unclose her eyes.

(…) When Phoebe was quite dressed, she peeped out of the window, and saw a rosebush in the garden. Being a very tall one, and of luxuriant growth, it had been propped up against the side of the house, and was literally covered with a rare and very beautiful species of white rose. A large portion of them, as the girl afterwards discovered, had blight or mildew at their hearts; but, viewed at a fair distance, the whole rosebush looked as if it had been brought from Eden that very summer, together with the mould in which it grew. The truth was, nevertheless, that it had been planted by Alice Pyncheon,–she was Phoebe’s great-great-grand-aunt…” (Chapter 5)

Alice Pyncheon and her piano, perhaps? Photo found here.

Perhaps my favourite quote from the book, about Alice Pyncheon, which also shows the lyrical beauty of Hawthorne’s writing: “As he stept into the house, a note of sweet and melancholy music thrilled and vibrated along the passage-way, proceeding from one of the rooms above stairs. It was the harpsichord which Alice Pyncheon had brought with her from beyond the sea. The fair Alice bestowed most of her maiden leisure between flowers and music, although the former were apt to droop, and the melodies were often sad. She was of foreign education, and could not take kindly to the New England modes of life, in which nothing beautiful had ever been developed.” (Ch 13)

I hope I’ve managed to intrigue you to read the book. Oh, and by the way, this is my 400th post!

John Singer Sargent’s Watercolours – Ladies with Parasols

9 Apr

It so happens that most of the paintings I talk about here on the blog are oil on canvas, but deep down in my heart I am an ardent lover of watercolours. I think it’s a medium full of spontaneity and feelings. So, let’s take a look at some beautiful watercolours with a mood of spring and indolence by an American Impressionist John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, detail

A beautifully dressed woman with a parasol, in nature, enjoying the sunshine and summer breeze; not quite a foreign subject to the artists, especially not to the Impressionists; Claude Monet for one painted plenty of such scenes. Still, I feel that John Singer Sargent’s explorations of this theme are particularly interesting. Firstly because they are made in watercolours, and secondly they were made in moments when Sargent was taking a break from his highly appraised oil-on-canvas portraits of Victorian and later Edwardian nobility, therefore they are more experimental and more intimate. These show Sargent’s heart, not his business.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911

In “The Lady with the Umbrella”, a beautiful woman dressed in a beautiful white gown is lying on the grass; her umbrella has just rolled over and she has to hold it gently with her hand, lest the summer’s breeze might blow it away. There is an air of sweetness and delicacy about her, she looks like a large white anemone flower, but there is a hint of sensuality as well; her flushed cheeks and direct gaze, the way her little hand is holding the umbrella, the S-silhouette of her body, so typically Edwardian, clad in soft whiteness. The sitter is actually Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond. I like how closely cropped her body is; look how her dress and the umbrella are delightfully ‘cut-off’. The artist hesitates to show us all of her charms, but rather invited us to daydream of the nature surround this beauty and makes us believe her dress is indeed a flowing sea of white silk that goes on and on, lavish and soft. The painting reminds me of a scene you’d find in Merchant-Ivory films such as “A Room with a View” (1985) or “Howards End” (1992) with the beautiful Helena Bonham-Carter. Also, because of the woman’s gaze, pose and the way she’s closely-cropped, it almost reminds me of fashion photography, from the sixties and seventies as well as now. Example of what I mean is right below:

John Singer Sargent, Madame Roger-Jourdain, 1883-85, watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 55.8

Still, “The Lady with the Umbrella” isn’t the first painting of this kind that Sargent made. After 1900, Sargent often used the motif of woman lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but when he painted Henriette, this was a new thing for him. His watercolour portrait of Madame Roger-Jourdain made decades earlier is perhaps the painting that started it all. Henriette Roger-Jourdain was a daughter and the wife of two artists; her father was Henri Moulignon, and her husband was the artist Joseph Roger-Jourdain. Henriette was not just a society hostess but also a friend and a muse to many artists; composer Gabriel Fauré dedicated his composition “Aurore” to her in 1884, Paul Albert Besnard and Sargent both painted her. Sargent became acquainted with the Roger-Jourdain family because they were neighbours in the boulevard Berthier in Paris.

The painting is similar to the one we’ve seen above; a lady lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but here her body isn’t closely cropped and she is surrounded by grass; freedom all around her. One can imagine her laughing when tickled by the grass, stretching her arms and breathing in the fresh air, laughing at the tree tops that open before her eyes, wishing she could fly with the birds and be one with the baby blue sky… Dressed in a white dress, lying on that dark green grass she looks like a lotus flower on the flickering emerald green surface of a lake. The portrait oozes that fantastically indolent and sensuous “dolce far niente” mood.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Parasol, 1888, watercolour on paper, 17.2 x 24.1 cm

Now, this third example is a tad different; the colours are darker and the woman appears more demure. She is depriving the viewer of her coquettish gaze, choosing rather to stay hidden underneath her gauzy white scarf. I really appreciate the sketch-like brushstrokes here; look how the parasol was painted with its taupe brown shadings and details in white, then the grass in a strange moss-green colour, perhaps it was an autumn day. Again, the woman’s hat and her parasol are slightly closely-cropped which helps us imagine that we are there with her, it gives an immediacy to the scene.

All painting/drawing techniques have their strengths and beauties. Drawings with pencil exude sincerity, those with charcoal possess the gloom and the strength of a tall oak. Pastels are raw pigments and their vibrancy is so psychedelic and childlike. All yet, I adore watercolours! Painting with them is such a thrill; you dip your brush in that watery paint, press is gently to the paper and let is either sink in or mingle freely with the colour next to it… and you feel like a magician, like a witch over her cauldron creating a love potion. Pure magic! Everyone should try it, it’s really therapeutic, it feels like travelling on a rainbow and making friends with each colour. I feel that, with watercolours, the painting almost creates itself; you can make a brushstroke in blue and add a mere drop of red, when water touched the two, you’ll see purple. You can play with it and see where it takes you.

Turgenev’s Maidens: Natalya and Asya

2 Apr

In this post we’ll take a look at “Turgenev’s Maid”; a type of female character typical for Turgenev and often found in his novellas and novels.

Nicolae Grigorescu, A Flower Among Flowers, 1880

Although equally important for Russian Realism, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev is often overlooked when it comes to Russian writers, somewhat overshadowed by the more famous Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Out of those three writers, Turgenev was the one influenced by the progressive ideas and philosophy of Western Europe and even spent majority of his life in France where he died too. His mother was a tyrannical woman and his parents’ marriage an unhappy one, so Turgenev decided to stay a bachelor. There’s elegance in his writings and an emphasis on nature and its lyric beauty. There’s nothing dramatic about his writing, but somehow it lingers in the memory and you find yourself pondering over some things that meant very little the moment you were reading it. Also, his words leave some kind of quiet sadness and a sense of futility against life, love and nature. Can you stop the flower from withering, sun from setting, springs from lingering one after another and passing?

Turgenev’s first novel was “Rudin”, first published in 1856 in a literary magazine “Sovremennik” (“The Contemporary”). In this novel, he laid a foundation for his future characters and themes by introducing a female type of heroine which came to be called “Turgenev’s Maid” and a hero who is a young superfluous man. Turgenev is continuing and developing the types of characters that Pushkin had started in his novel “Eugene Onegin”. Characters follow the similar pattern in his novella “Asya”, published in 1858. Turgenev’s odes to failure in love.

Photo by Frieda Rike.

A typical Turgenev’s maiden is a girl whose introverted, reserved, modest and shy exterior hides a passionate and poetic soul that only few people see, but is hidden to the rest. She is romantic and dreamy, but not in a delusional Emma Bovary kind of way, but rather this romantic nature arises from idealism and life spent in the idyllic countryside isolation which can sometimes make her inexperienced in society. She is educated, both in history and geography as in daydreaming, and often speaks several languages. She possesses a gentle, girlish, unassuming beauty and is modest in behaviour and the way she dresses. Turgenev’s maiden often falls in love with man unworthy of her; weak and passive idealists who are excellent in conversation but incapable of doing something with their life. As I already said, Turgenev’s heroines draw heavily on Pushkin’s wonderful Tatyana Larina from “Eugene Onegin” and here is what D.S. Mirsky says about it in his discussion about Turgenev: “The strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced in literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the work of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev’s.”

William Powell Firth

Natalya Alexyevna Lasunskaya

Natalys is a shy seventeen year old girl who lives in the countryside with her mother. On the outside she seems reserved, very secretive and cold, but that is just her way of hiding her feelings from the world and her dominant mother. She is introduced in the story in the fifth chapter with these words: “Darya Mihailovna’s daughter, Natalya Alexyevna, at a first glance might fail to please. She had not yet had time to develop; she was thin, and dark, and stooped slightly. But her features were fine and regular, though too large for a girl of seventeen. Specially beautiful was her pure, smooth forehead above fine eyebrows, which seemed broken in the middle. She spoke little, but listened to others, and fixed her eyes on them as though she were forming her own conclusions. She would often stand with listless hands, motionless and deep in thought; her face at such moments showed that her mind was at work within.

But further quotes reveal to us that Natalya’s feelings are strong and that her mother doesn’t understand her personality at all: “But Natalya was not absent-minded; on the contrary, she studied diligently; she read and worked eagerly. Her feelings were strong and deep, but reserved; even as a child she seldom cried, and now she seldom even sighed and only grew slightly pale when anything distressed her.

Heinrich Vogeler, Spring (Portrait of Martha Vogeler), 1897

Life in the beautiful countryside amongst family friends has made her inexperienced with the ways of the world and she is a perfect pray for Rudin, a poor intellectual unsure of what he wants from life or love, indulging himself in shallow melancholy and praising highly the courageous heroes of literature and history while he himself is beneath them, both in spirit and intellect. He takes a pleasure in seducing Natalya because his feelings aren’t as deep or as pure as hers are, and since he had many failed loves in the past, he doesn’t take the relationships seriously. For him, it’s just a past time, but in Natalya he has awoken a whole new set of feelings, ones that she only read about in literature. After Natalya admits her love for Rudin to her mother, and is met with mother’s disapproval, she meets Rudin secretly at the brake of dawn somewhere in the meadow to tell him the sad truth, expecting him to fight for their love.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

This is their poignant, sad and bitter dialogue from chapter IX:

“‘What do you think we must do now?’

‘What we must do?’ replied Rudin; ‘of course submit.’

‘Submit,’ repeated Natalya slowly, and her lips turned white.

‘Submit to destiny,’ continued Rudin. ‘What is to be done? I know very well how bitter it is, how painful, how unendurable. But consider yourself, Natalya Alexyevna; I am poor. It is true I could work; but even if I were a rich man, could you bear a violent separation from your family, your mother’s anger? . . . No, Natalya Alexyevna; it is useless even to think of it. It is clear it was not fated for us to live together, and the happiness of which I dreamed is not for me!’

All at once Natalya hid her face in her hands and began to weep. Rudin went up to her.”

What you have just read is a typical Turgenev-style ending; the heroine is too passionate and her feelings too strong for the passive hero. It’s not that Rudin doesn’t love Natalya, it’s more that he is incapable of being himself, living his own life, to commit to someone. Once rejected, Natalya doesn’t go on daydreaming of Rudin or returning to him. Instead, just like Pushkin’s Tatyana, she walks away with dignity and self-respect.

William Dyce, Portrait of Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert, 1848

Asya

In “Asya”, the narrator, a lonely forty year-old bachelor named N.N. tells us the sad love story of his youth. His memory sets the novella in a small and picturesque town on the Rhine, whose shore is littered with romantic Medieval castles and emerald green hills; a perfect setting for a fleeting, ephemeral romance. The narrator comes there on a holiday and meets two fellow Russians, a brother and a sister; Gaguine and Asya. Since they are the only Russians in town, they soon befriend. The narrator develops an intellectual bond with Gaguine but is soon enamoured by his strange and pretty younger sister Asya who is very shy around him at first.

This is what Turgenev tells us of their first encounter: “My presence appeared to embarrass her; but Gaguine said to her, “don’t be shy; he will not bite you.” These words made her smile, and a few moments after she spoke to me without the least embarrassment. She did not remain quiet a moment. Hardly was she seated than she arose, ran towards the house, and reappeared again, singing in a low voice; often she laughed, and her laugh had something strange about it—one would say that it was not provoked by anything that was said, but by some thoughts that were passing through her mind. Her large eyes looked one in the face openly, with boldness, but at times she half closed her eyelids, and her looks became suddenly deep and caressing.

And this is how Turgenev imagined her to look like. Again, she has a very girly appeal, just like Natalya and other Turgenev’s maidens: “The young girl whom he called his sister at first sight appeared to me charming. There was an expression quite peculiar, piquant and pretty at times, upon her round and slightly brown face; her nose was small and slender, her cheeks chubby as a child’s, her eyes black and clear. Though well proportioned, her figure had not yet entirely developed.

Photo by by SophieKoryn. “You consider my behaviour improper,” her face seemed to say; “all the same, I know you’re admiring me.” (Asya)

Asya can be rapturous and wild at one moment, without any regard for social conventions, only to become shy the next moment, wistful and lost in her thoughts. Here is an example to illustrate the point: on one occasion, Asya breaks a branch from a tree and plays with it as if it was a gun. When they encounter a group of shocked English tourists, she starts singing in a loud voice just to spite them. But later in the evening, she is the epitome of elegance and demureness: “When we arrived, she immediately went to her room, and did not reappear until dinner, decked out in her finest dress, her hair dressed with care, wearing a tight-fitting bodice, and gloves on her hands. At table she sat with dignity, scarcely tasted anything, and drank only water. It was evident she wished to play a new rôle in my presence: that of a young person, modest and well-bred. Gaguine did not restrain her; you could see that it was his custom to contradict her in nothing. From time to time he contented himself with looking at me, faintly shrugging his shoulders, and his kindly eye seemed to say: “She is but a child; be indulgent.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in “Victoria” (2016)

Here is a little conversation from the ninth chapter which also reveals Asya’s lack of feeling for proper behavior:

And what is it that you like about women?” she asked, turning her head with a childlike curiosity.

“What a singular question!” I cried.

“I shouldn’t have asked you such a question, should I? Forgive me; I am accustomed to say whatever comes into my head. That is why I am afraid to speak.”

“Speak, I beg you! Fear nothing, I am so delighted at seeing you less wild.

Juliette Lamet by Melanie Rodriguez for Melle Ninon.

The narrator seems more interested in the mysterious aura around her, than actually in love with her, he says himself: “Oh! that little girl—she is, indeed, an enigma.”

Here are a few more quotes to get you interested:

I understood what attracted me towards this strange young girl: it was not only the half-savage charm bestowed upon her lovely and graceful young figure, it was also her soul that captivated me.

I do not know what womanly charm suddenly appeared upon her girlish face. Long afterwards the charm of her slender figure still lingered about my hand; for a long time I felt her quick breathing near me, and I dreamed of her dark eyes, motionless and half closed, with her face animated, though pale, about which waved the curls of her sweet hair.” (Chapter IX)

William Powell Frith, The Proposal, 1856

The end of their love, again the hero suddenly turns cold and steps back from the affections that he himself started in the first place:

“So all is at an end,” I replied once more; “at an end—; and we must part.”

“There was in my heart,” I continued, “a feeling just springing up, which, if you had left it to time, would have developed! You have yourself broken the bond that united us; you have failed to put confidence in me.” (chapter XVI)

To end the post I would like to quote a fellow blogger at “A Russian Affair” who focuses on Russian literature. Here are her brilliant observations on Turgenev’s themes and style from the post “Typically Turgenev“:”Not a lot happens in Turgenev’s works. The situation at the beginning is more or less the same as the one in the end. All that remains is memories and what-ifs. The reader has to content himself with plenty of beautiful atmospheric scenes and contemplations. (…) You read Turgenev with your heart.

And a beautifully put thought regarding love from her post “Love in Turgenev’s work“: “It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.

I hope you decide to read some of Turgenev’s work, if you still haven’t and that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Richard Redgrave – The Sempstress

19 Mar

Work — work — work!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

In a modest interior, on a light of a single candle a poor girl is wasting her precious hours, days and nights, labouring over a blouse she will never wear, or a dress for a dance she’ll never attend. Outside the last breath of twilight colours the sky in sad streaks of yellow. Lights on the windows appear one by one. The hour is merry. The night murmurs of dreams and far-off lands, it speaks to the poets and dreamers across the grey cityscape, and softly knocks on this poor needlewoman’s window… The night invites her eyes for a dream, distant trees are whispering gentle lullabies, but she knows she cannot leave her needle and rest her hands… The work needs to be done, the bills paid, warm bread on the table would be heaven… And yet her gaze is directed upwards; tired of the wordly misery, she longs for the stars. Her own shadow on the wall is her only companion; her kindred-spirits are the birds that sing cheerfully in spring, and white snowflakes in winter. She is yearning not for idleness and luxury but rather a heaven up there with all its promised delights, for this earth is unkind. Exhausting work day by day, night by night, have coloured her young oval face in paleness of sorrow, as she daydreams of the sweetness of the countryside:

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet —
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet.

She might be poor and starving in the countryside, but at least she would have fresh air, brooks and flowers that ease the life’s hardships in ways that the grey city cannot. In the early Victorian era, the newspapers were informing their readers about the exploitation of workers in the factories, often in the clothing trade. Still, when Richard Redgrave painted “The Sempstress”as a part of the wave of sentimentalised portrayals of working-class life, he was inspired by a poem he had read earlier, Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt“, which I already quoted above, first published on 16th December 1843. Here are some more lines that go well with the painting:

In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own —
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!

Her face expression, with large eyes turned upwards, and the way her figure is lighted in a dramatic way are reminiscent of the baroque paintings of female saints. Redgrave here portrays a realistic subject and offers a social criticism to eyes that wished to see it, but for the majority of Victorian viewers this painting offered a sentimentalized portrayal of working class reality; a life of sorrows, poverty and longing, with hope directed towards god. Is not this poor girl a martyr then? A martyr of a society blighted by the blossoming industrialisation and exploatation of cheap labour in factories.