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Prostitutes, Drunkards and Drug-Addicts in Fin de Siecle Art

7 Dec

“Shamelessness is really a virtue, like the lack of respect for many respectable things.”

(Kees van Dongen)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Sofa, 1894-96, Oil on cardboard

The idea for this post came to me spontaneously. I just happen to have noticed a few recurring motives in the art of the late nineteenth century; the motif of prostitutes, people drinking or being drunk, and drug-addicts. The fact that these motives are recurring motives is a reflection of the spirit of the times but it also shows that the artists had gained freedom from the restrictions of society. Fin de siecle or “end of century” in English is a term which simply describes a time period, that is, the end of the nineteenth century, but in a deeper, cultural, literary and artistic sense, it implies a certain mood, a spirit of the times. Fin de siecle is a strong scented nocturnal flower that is quickly rotting. The spirit of the era is a spirit of ennui, pessimism, cynicism, decadence and also, especially connected to the topic of this post, it is seen as an era of degeneracy.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Woman Pulling up her Stockings, 1893, oil on cardboard

The themes of prostitution, alcoholism, drug usage that the fin de siecle painters explored so readily and with such inspiration, have all existed before, but for some reason in fin de siecle they took the centre stage. Perhaps, in some sense, there is a parallel between the degeneracy of the fin de siecle and our times; I mean, just take a look at the pink or green haired gender non-conforming weirdos on Tik Tok and such stuff. And if Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec wanted to paint female body today, he would not need to visit the brothel and hang out with the prostitutes, he could just hop on Instagram to feast his eyes on bosoms and behinds. But I digress. Point is that the element of social degeneracy in relation to fin de siecle is an important element for this post. The question is; did the artists suddenly a surge of bravery when they decided to capture these themes, or were these phenomenons such as alcoholism and prostitutions, just so pervading that it was impossible to ignore them?

Edgar Degas, Waiting for a Client, 1879, charcoal and pastel over monotype on paper

Courtesans and female nudes have been present throughout the art history but never was the ugliness of flesh and ugliness of desire captured so vividly than in the artworks of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted between 1892 and 1896. The pioneer of the motif was Edgar Degas in his wonderful but little less known charcoal and pastel drawings of brothel scenes such as the pastel here called “Waiting for a Client.” Women, naked save for their garish stockings and perhaps a ribbon in their hair, occupy the canvases of Degas and Lautrec, lounging on sofas, chatting with one another or just relaxing in between the visit of the clients. Thick thighs, saggin breast and stomach, morbidly pale complexions, tired eyes and faces ladden with disappointment or apathy, these are Odalisques stripped of the aura of Romantic glamour of the past eras. What you see is what you get with these women. There are no carefully thought-of poses, coy looks over the shoulder while the derriere is being shown in full view, as was the case with nudes from the previous eras. These women don’t look like they are posing. Even though Lautrec often painted them in his studio rather than in the real brothel where the light was bad, the appearance is that of spontaneity and honesty.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Prostitutes, 1895

Drunkards

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover (Portrait de Suzanne Valadon), 1888

In both of these portraits by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec he paints his sitters in the setting of a pub and seen from the profile. It is fascinating to imagine Lautrec sitting in the cafe or wherever with these people, such as Van Gogh himself, and just casually capturing them. Just wow. Painting “The Hangover” is actually a portrait of Suzanne Valadon and it brings to mind Edgar Degas’ painting “The Absinthe Drinkers” painted in 1876. Both paintings ooze a sense of desperation and halloweness, the true hangover mood. In the portrait of Vincent van Gogh, shown bellow, the mood is a that of fun, vibrancy and frenzy. The colours are exciting and warm; red, yellow, orange, electric blue. This is the excitement of the night one, the excitement of absinthe coloured Parisian nights when everything can happen. But after the excitement, hangover follows, as the previous painting shows.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1887

James Ensor, The Drunkards, 1883

Now, we have two interesting examples of drunkards in fin de siecle art, James Ensor’s “The Drunkards” from 1883 and Kees van Dongen’s “Absinthe Drinker in the Street” from 1901. The latter is a year too late for the end of the century and the former a tad too early, but time periods are not as strict and it is the spirit of the times that matters. In Ensor’s painting two men are sitting at the table. One is looking at us with a crazy-eyed expression while the other burried his head on his hands. One bottle of alcohol on the table. Empty glasses. Crazy eyes and a drab interior. This place reeks of desperation.


Kees van Dongen, Absinthe Drinker on the Street, 1902

I have always loved Kees van Dongen’s painting “Absinthe Drinker in the Street”. There is just something so playful about the lady falling down in the street and a skull with a black top hat. I mean, what a combination!? Skeletons and skulls are a recurring motif in Kees van Dongen’s art, and there is always something a bit comical about it, at least to me. The crimson colour of the woman’s hat and dress are a gorgeous pop of colour in the otherwise drab, grey setting. What is the skull really? A product of the woman’s drunken imagination? Or is it a real living and talking skull whose main goal is to be a devil on the woman’s shoulder and force her to drink? This really makes my imagination go wild.

Drug Addicts

Eugène Grasset, La Morphinomane [The Morphine Addict], 1897, color lithograph

When it comes to the topic of drug addiction in the late nineteenth century art, Eugene Grasset’s painting “The Morphine Addict”, painted in 1897, is the first that comes to mind. I have indeed already written a longer post devoted to that painting alone, here. There are so many things that I love about that painting but let me name a few; firstly the Japanese influence which can be seen in the woman’s face expression, the grimace which accurately captures the pain that she is experiencing, the intimate setting of a bedroom further emphasised by the fact that she is dressed in a nightgown and also the closely cropped composition. Soon the pain will turn into a sweet state and this transition is beautifully captured by the Spanish painter Santiago Rusinol in his two paintings, “Before the Morphine” (1890) and “La Morphinomane” (1894) painted, interestingly, fours years apart even though the theme is the same. Both paintings shows a bedroom interior with a black haired woman in her nightgown; in the first paintings she is about to take morphine while in the second painting she is lying as though lifeless, enjoying the sweet ecstasies of the state.

Santiago Rusinol, Before the Morphine, 1890

Santiago Rusiñol, La Morphinomane, 1894

Season of the Witch – Frederick Sandys: Morgan-le-Fay

29 Oct

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Morgan-le-Fay, 1863-64

Morgan le Fay is a beautiful and seductive enchantress, a witch we might even say, from Arthurian legends whose only purpose in life is to destroy King Arthur and his wonderful castle of Camelot.

I really liked the portrayal of Morgana in the series “Merlin” where she is played by the Irish actress Katie McGrath. Not only is she gorgeous with her pale skin, black hair and grey eyes, dressed in long, flowing purple, blue and green gown, but I also like the development of her character throughout the series. At first she is this slightly naive young woman and King Uther’s ward who is disturbed by the appaling treatment of druids and other people who practice magic, but over time, as she discovers her own magical powers and as she experiences betrayals from people she trusted, she develops a deep hatred for Camelot and everybody there, including King Arthur of course. Her thorny path from innocence to evil is symbolically represented in her departure from the civilised and beautiful environment of the castle of Camelot to the lonely wilderness of the Isle of Avalon. There Morgana can devote herself to things that she is most passionate about; destroying Camelot, taking over power from King Arthur and hurting him in every way possible. And that is something she is doing in this painting.

Frederic Sandys’ depiction of Morgana is perhaps the most famous one from the Victorian era and it certainly struck the imagination of the Victorians because he portrays Morgana as a dangerous femme fatale. In the painting Morgana is seen in her chamber overlooking the lake, as we can see the glistening blue lake through the window in the upper right corner. She is holding a lamp and passing it over the robe and chanting her spells over the robe that she had just woven for King Arthur on her loom. The enchanted robe is suppose to set King Arthur’s body on fire as soon as he puts it on, but that doesn’t happen, of course, because a messanger had tried the robe before him. Sandys’ depiction of Morgana truly sets a tone for her image as a dangerous and alluring femme fatale; her loose auburn hair is seen cascading down her back, the jewel like colours of her robe certainly don’t speak of modesty, and that animal skin really adds a wild touch. The face expression and the gesture of her hands are both very expressive. She seems very caught in the moment, completely consumed with hatred for King Arthur. The robe she is wearing was actually a kimono and the model for Morgana was Sandys’ lover Keomi Gray. Gazing at the Lady Morgana here made me think of another witch I love; Elaine, also known as the Love Witch from the film “The Love Witch” (2016). Elaine is also an example of a wild and dangerous woman, but she is not consumed with hatred and jealousy but rather with a desire for love. Here are some pictures from the film bellow, along with a painting by another Pre-Rapahaelite inspired painter John William Waterhouse because it’s similar in style and pose.

John William Waterhouse, The Crystal Ball, 1902

Samantha Robinson as Elaine aka “The Love Witch” in the film “The Love Witch” (2016)

Thus Perish the Memory of Our Love – John George Brown, Fragonard, Winslow Homer, Marcus Stone

17 Oct

Heart, we will forget him!

You and I, tonight!

You may forget the warmth he gave,

I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me

That I my thoughts may dim;

Haste! lest while you’re lagging.

I may remember him!

(Emily Dickinson)

John George Brown, Thus Perish the Memory of Our Love, 1865

Carving names, initials or symbols into barks of the trees is a thousands of years old practice that is popular among lovers. The mention of the practice dates back to the writings of Callimachus who was a librarian in the famous library in Alexandria, the writings of Virgil and is even mentioned later in works of Shakespeare. The indiginous Moriori people of New Zealand also practiced the carving of the tree bark. But in this post we will take a look at some examples of love-related tree carving in the art of four artists; John George  Brown; Jean-Honore Fragonard, the Rococo master of frivolity and carefreeness; Winslow Homer and Marcus Stone.

The first painting in this post is a visually beautiful and striking one, but its title alone is alluring; “Thus Perish the Memory of Our Love”, painted in 1865 by the American painter John George Brown. The painting shows a young girl in the lush, vibrant yellow forest. She is turned towards us, but her downward gaze is hiding her eyes, probably glistening with tears. With her left hand she is holding onto the soft tree trunk whilst her right hand is carefully tearing away the love carving which says “W&Mary”. The light falling on her snow white skin and bare shoulders makes her seem almost angelic and pure, all alone in that soft, dreamy birch forest. The detailing on that birch bark is wonderful and birches are one of my favourite forest beauties. Their whiteness, gentleness and delicacy are in accord with those same qualities that the young lady seems to be exuding. But perished have the memories of her love. It’s over between she – Mary – and the mysterious Mr W. (perhaps William?) Oh, William, he must be thinking that it was really nothing! Nothing for him and everything for her. Now this tree is the last memory of the transient ardour shared by those two souls. From sweet hopes to bitter disillusionment, such is the trecherous, thorny path of love.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Souvenir, 1775

Fragonard’s painting “The Souvenir” is a sweet little Rococo reverie with touches of the upcoming Romanticism in the flutter of the leaves and delicacy of the trees. A young girl in a salmon pink gown with a matching pink ribbon in her hair is seen carving something into the tree. Her faithful companion, a cute little dog, is observing her all the while. The opened letter is lying on the ground; presumably from her beloved. And the words he wrote must be bursting with unbearable honey-and-ripe-fig sweetness and juicy with promises because she is enthusiastically carving her and her lover’s initials into the tree, to symbolically represent their love. The 1792 catalogue from the exhibition says that the girl in the painting is the lead character of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel “Julie or the New Heloise” (titled at the time as: “Letters from two lovers living in a small town at the foot of the Alps”) The background is painted in a very delicate and gentle manner with detailing of the tree branches typical for Fragonard. The way he paints trees makes them seem otherworldy, the only other example for this comes to mind in some artworks of Camille Corot. Anyhow, Fragonard’s painting is sweet and slightly sentimental, but definitely shows the merry side of love and so does our next rendition of the motif by the American painter Winslow Homer.

Winslow Homer, The Initials, 1864

Winslow Homer’s painting “The Initials” is an interesting romantic digression in his otherwise nature oriented oeuvre. The painting shows an elegant Victorian lady dressed in her beautiful blue walking attire. She is standing very near the tree and carving something into it, judging by the title, she is carving the initials of herself and her beloved. The blueness of her dress is in contrast with the almost garish orange-brownness of the woods. Visually the painting is similar John George Brown’s painting “Thus Perish the Memory of Our Love” because it shows a girl and a tree upon which something is being carved or taken down and the scenery of the backdrop is a lush forest, but Homer’s painting shares its mood of hope and romance with Fragonard’s “Souvenir”. Homer and John George Brown’s paintings are both painted around the same time, in the mid 1860s, but their ladies are dressed very diffently in these paintings. Homer’s lady seems to be dressed more appropriately for a walk in the woods, but Brown’s is more visually striking for the centre of the painting.

Marcus Stone, Love’s Daydream End, 1880

Marcus Stone’s painting strikes me as fascinating by the title alone; “Love Daydream’s End” because it implies that there is a (day)dreamy aspect to love that will inevitable fade away; wither like a flower, turn to dust like a dry moth… The girl in the painting, dressed in an elegant, white dress which brings to mind the Regency dresses from the first quarter of the century, is experiencing the same sadness and disappointment as the girl in the first painting by John George Brown. And how sombre her furrowed brow appears, how unconsolable and broken. Two hearts are seen intertwined together, carved in the tree against which the lady is leaning her sad little head, silent like a Greek muse. She experienced the very thing that The Shirelles famously sang about. One day you are carving initials or hearts in the tree and exchanging lovelorn glances, and the other you are weeping over the loss of something which but yesterday was the source of all your delights… Ah, love, what a fickle thing!

“Tonight you’re mine, completely
You give your love so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow
Is this a lasting treasure
Or just a moment’s pleasure
Can I believe the magic in your sighs
Will you still love me tomorrow?”

(The Shirelles, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow)

Lovers are Strangers: John Atkinson Grimshaw – Lovers on a Moonlit Lane

2 Aug
“Expressing your uncertainties
Through years of anniversaries
Then five years down the line
You’ll say: she was never my type
Lovers are strangers
There’s nothing to discuss
Hearts will be faithful
While the truth is told to someone else”

(Michelle Gurevich, Lovers Are Strangers)

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Lovers on a Moonlit Lane, 1873

John Atkinson Grimshaw was a Victorian era artist who is mostly remembered for his captivating and atmospheric paintings of nocturnal urban scenes. The pompous American expatriate Whistler said: “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures”, and this is a true testament which reveals just how captivating Grimshaw’s nocturnal paintings were back in his day. Whistler wasn’t the type of person who would give praise or credit lightly. A few years ago I wrote a post about Grimshaw’s Dreary Victorian Streets where I connected the desolate, urban mood of his paintings with the music of Joy Division, but today I want to tackle a painting which is nocturnal but less urban and more romantic than his other ones.

Painting “Lovers on a Moonlit Lane” was painted in 1873, which is a decade earlier then his more famous masterpieces, though he was already thirty-seven at the time. The painting shows two lovers meeting in the moonlit lane near a forest. The tree branches point the way and the glowing full moon casts light on the face of two beloveds. The vertical canvas suits the nocturnal foresty scene because it gives space for the trees to stretch their branches into the night sky. The night scene with the hauntingly dark and tall trees brings to mind the setting of a poem or a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, but also the motif of nature in moonlight and the figures of lovers irresistibly reminds one of the painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The muted colours, blues and greys, are helpful in conveying the mood. Romanticism, like the ghost of the past, haunts this painting and gives it beauty. Distant fog and unknown paths, uncertainty of love, like frost, bites the hands and cheeks… The motif of the trees which are mostly bare, the leaves that have fallen on the frozen muddy ground and the path leading nowhere all indicate a sense of ending. Autumn is giving way to winter, the vibrant leaves of autumn have rotten and fallen on the ground, a question lingers in the air: will the flame of their love survive the winter frost, or will it perish and be forever lost?

The painting has the Tim Burtonesque “Corpse Bride” aesthetic and that is why it came to my mind when I was listening to Michelle Gurovich’s song “Lovers are Strangers” which I recently discovered. I love the lyrics of the song, but also, the music sounds like something that belong to a macabre carnival, the film “Coraline” or that fits the imagination of Tim Burton. In my mind, all of these are connected together.

Ford Madox Brown – Capturing the Atmosphere: Walton-on-the-Naze and The Hayfield

29 Aug

Ford Madox Brown, Walton-on-the-Naze (1860)

The final days of August are always tinged in melancholy. Summer is not yet gone, and autumn has not yet arrived. The rich and vibrant facade of summer is slightly cracking and a yearning for what once was fills the cracks, and even a sunny, warm day or the beauty of a blooming rose are haunted by a feeling of nostalgia for the passing summer. The first rain, or a gust of wind, the first sight of yellow leaves on a chestnut tree all seem ominous of what is to come. This mood inhabits some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and two of such examples are landscape scenes by Ford Madox Brown. His paintings “The Hayfield” and “Walton-on-the-Naze” both possess that rich yet wistful ambience. Most of the painting “The Hayfield” was painted slowly and patiently during a period of time from late July to early September and, following the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy of painting directly from nature, Brown would walk miles and miles from his house two times a week to a spot where the scenery was the most delightful. Waiting for the perfect light, he would start painting at 5 am. The twilight scene shows the end of a working day; the moon had just risen but there is still enough daylight to reveal the scene to our eyes. The farmers are slowly getting ready to go home, there are children sittin in the haycart and one man is gazing up at the moon. You can feel the chill in the air, the slightly damp, cold grass, children’s cheerful chatter… The colours of the painting proved to be controversial, just as was the case with John Constable’s landscape some years before, but Brown stated in the catalogue for the painting that: “the stacking of the second crop of hay had been much delayed by rain, which heightened the green of the remaining grass, together with the brown of the hay. The consequence was an effect of unusual beauty of colour, making the hay by contrast with the green grass, positively red or pink, under the glow of twilight”. This shows us that the Victorian audience had a perception of reality and nature different to what it really was and they didn’t want to see the reality in art, but rather their dreamy vision of the world around them.

The painting “Walton-on-the-Naze”, painted during Brown’s visit to this small coastal town in Essex in August 1859, again features the motif of a rising moon and the gorgeous effect of light. This might be his most beautiful landscape because the ephemeral light and the effect of depth are just mesmerising. The air seems soft, rosy and palpable and the rainbow in the sky adds a whole new dreamy dimension to the scene. I had had the luck of seeing the rainbow but a few weeks ago and its beauty still charms my memory. The male figure is the portrait of Brown himself and the female figure is Brown’s wife Emma. The little girl is their daughter Catherine. The beautiful visual rhythm of the stacks of wheat in the foreground may reminds us of the harvest time and the work that is to be done, but this painting isn’t the harvesting type like the previous one, but a touristy type because Brown and his family were on holiday in that coastal town when he painted it and this reflects the Victorian discovery of coastal towns and the sea as places for leisure, rest and fun. Londoners could have easily reached the coast via a steamer train and one is seen in the background of this painting. Even Elizabeth Siddal and Rossetti stayed on the sea for her health around the same time. The layers of depth in this painting are superb, I mean just look at the ship disappearing on the horizon, a pink sky behind it, how utterly dreamy.

Ford Madox Brown, The Hayfield, 1855-56

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Elizabeth Siddal Having Her Hair Combed

25 Jul

Earlier this year, on the 12th May, I wrote a post to celebrate the birthday of the great artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and I think it would only be fair to celebrate Elizabeth Siddal’s birthday as well. She was born on this day in 1829 in London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Having Her Hair Combed, c. 1855, brown ink on paper, 153 x 115 mm

Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti is mostly remembered for his richly coloured, dense and detailed close-up portraits of languid and beautiful women that bring back the spirit of the High Renaissance portraits by painters such as Titian and Veronese, but his pencil and ink drawings show a completely different side to the artist.

“Elizabeth Siddal Having Her Hair Combed” is an ink drawing made sometime in 1855, as stated on the back of the drawing by Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti. The drawing shows Rossetti’s lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal who is having her hair combed by a maid while she is reading a book, maybe a book of Keats’ poetry. The drawing doesn’t do justice to Elizabeth’s long, lush, coppery red hair, but it gives us a glimpse into the intimate world of two bohemian lovers. Rossetti met Elizabeth in 1850 and she quickly became his favourite thing to paint. At first she posed for other artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, but very soon Rossetti made sure she posed for him only. Rossetti’s brother commented once that the walls of Rossetti’s studio were filled with drawings of Elizabeth; Elizabeth combing her hair, Elizabeth having her hair combed, Elizabeth reading or just sitting in a chair and daydreaming. Such was the extent of Rossetti’s passion and obsession for his melancholy girl. This might seem a bit extreme, even creepy, but in Rossetti’s case it shows just how much Elizabeth fueled his art and how, at last, in Elizabeth’s face and person, he found a perfect muse. The small drawing executed in brown ink is a glimpse into their everyday life, almost like a photograph, it captures the moment in a quick and sketchy manner. It must be noted how stylised Elizabeth’s face is and how skillfully executed the drawing is. The ink drawing above and the pencil sketch bellow unite two of Rossetti’s lifelong obsessions; Elizabeth Siddal and lush, long woman’s hair.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Plaiting her Hair, c. 1850s, graphite on paper, 117 x 127 mm

John William Waterhouse – Ariadne

2 Sep

“In relation to the labyrinth of her heart, every young girl is an Ariadne; she owns the thread by which one can find one’s way through it, but she owns it without herself knowing how to use it.”

(Soren Kierkegaard)

John William Waterhouse, Ariadne, 1898

The rich and vibrant colours and the sensual, indolent, Mediterranean mood of Waterhouse’s painting “Ariadne” are very aesthetically pleasing and captivating, but the resplendent beauty of this canvas hides a fascinating story from Ancient mythology and a deeper meaning. The lady lounging idly by the azure blue sea in the distance is Ariadne, the daughter of the Cretan King Minos and Pasiphae. Her flowing rusty red gown speaks of blood, passion and courage. And how beautifully the redness of her dress contrasts the purple and matches the red poppies sprouting from the grass. Waterhouse’s Ariadne is as lovely as all the other maidens that inhabit the dreamy, mythology-inspired world of his canvases; she is slender and pale, with budding bosom and masses of soft brown hair. The pose of her arms and the whiteness of her bosom exposed adds a sensual mood to the painting, reminiscent of the dolce far niente genre of paintings.

Ariadne is captured by the painter’s brush in a dreamy, idle state, but if we imagine the thread of the story unraveling, we would see the arrival of Theseus, as perhaps hinted by the ship arriving to the island, and their encounter. The myth of Ariadne is very old, and has many variants, but generally the story goes that she assisted Theseus, the handsome hero whom she instantly fell in love with, to enter the labyrinth and kill the Minotaurus. She was also his savior, for she saved him from the horrid death which usually awaited everyone who tried to slay the beast in the middle of the labyrinth built by King Minos. Ariadne gave Theseus a sword to fight, and a ball of string which she was given to by Daidalos, the builder of the labyrinth.

After he slays the beast, Theseus finds his way out of the labyrinth using the ball of string and, fearing the revenge of her father, Ariadne and Theseus escape the Crete and  “During the voyage north, Theseus called in at the island of Naxos (or Dia), where he abandoned Ariadne. An early tradition suggested that he did so deliberately because he was in love with another woman, namely Aigle, a daughter of the Phocian hero Panopeus; but it was commonly agreed in the later tradition that he was obliged to leave Ariadne behind because Dionysos wanted her as his wife.” (The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology) Poor Ariadne, the lonely girl on the island of Crete who helps a hero only to be abandoned by him, stretched between passion and duty. While the tales of mythology focus on the action, the labyrinth and the Minotaurus, Waterhouse, the Victorian escapist and dreamer, focused on a dreamy moment in Ariadne’s life, the serenity before the struggle and haste, and, as always, has succeeded in beautifully capturing a female figure from mythology, just as he did with many others.

William Quiller Orchardson – Le mariage de convenance

22 Jun

“Mariage de Convenance” and “The First Cloud” are two out of three painting that William Quiller Orchardson painted on the subject of an unhappy marriage.

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, Mariage de Convenance, 1884

A quiet family drama is taking place in these sumptuous Victorian interiors. Nothing is as it seems in the posh circles of the two-faced Victorian society. Secrets are hidden behind the red-brick facades, glass windows and thick crimson red damask curtains. A rich and disillusioned old husband is sitting at the head of the table in an elegant dining room. His bored and miserable young wife is sitting across the table. While the servant is serving the husband, the wife seems uninterested in the dinner. Her pose makes her seem wistful and emotionally distant and her thoughts are far away from the content of that fancy porcelain plate. The table is filled with food and drink, she is dressed in the latest fashion, her husband is clearly wealthy and she could have anything her hearts desires, but she is not happy. No laughter or chatter colour the evening, no smiles or traces of intimacy. Boredom is hanging like a cloud over their dining room table and neither of the two know how to connect with the other.

The allegorical cloud I just mentioned shows up in the title of the next painting, “The First Cloud”, painted in 1887. Once again we see the perfectly elegant and sumptuous Victorian interior with two elegant figures; the husband and his young wife. But the evening must be a miserable one indeed, for they are as distant emotionally as they are on the canvas. He is standing on the carpet by the fireplace, gazing out longingly at her, as if he is hopeful for some kind of connection, a glance from her pretty eyes, a sweet word or two. But the lady in an elegant evening gown isn’t the least bit interested in him; she is standing by the window and looking out, at the world, at the bustle of the streets, at the passing carriages, for everything is more interesting than day to day life with her husband. Her silhouette in that pale pink gown looks graceful, but instead of a sensual mood she seems cold. The fancy chambers feel like silk cages and a captive bird does not sing.

It’s hard not to sense a certain tension and unease between the pair. The dull palette of beige, rusty red and brown colours seems to mirror the dullness of their lives, and the vastness of their elegantly decorated rooms and the empty space between them is purposefully here to accentuate the loneliness and distrust that has grown and is growing between them. Orchardson used his friend, a fellow artist, Tom Graham, for the figure of the man. Orchardson painted many scenes set in Regency era and some previous eras, but the canvases on which he depicted his own time have proved to be his most popular works because they reflect the spirit of the times and the contrast between the outward appearance of things and the true essence; loveless marriages and unhappiness behind a facade of wealth.

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, The First Cloud, 1887

Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away

28 Apr

The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

I found myself thinking about death these days, and naturally the first things that came to my mind were the poems, the paintings and this Victorian era photograph taken by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858. “Fading Away” is a very romantical and elegantly sad photograph which shows a pale and frail young girl dying from consumption, or perhaps from a broken heart. She is surrounded by her a family members, all of which play a different role in the composition of the photograph and also in expressing emotion. The male figure, presumably the father, turned his back towards the girl, unable to face the painful truth; death of his beloved daughter. Perhaps he is trying to suppress his tears, and perhaps he feels powerless because he failed to protect her from the ultimate enemy: death.  This photograph perfectly encapsulated the morbidly romantical fascination with death which came to define the Victorian era. For modern viewers the aesthetic conveyed is very Victorian, but the Victorians felt very differently about Robinson’s photograph. It received mixed reviews from the public; some found it shocking that the photographer would invade such an intimate, private moment. The Victorians knew the distinction between the private life and the outside world. And also, the photograph is actually an early example of photomontage and Robinson. was a pioneer of that. I am as shocked as the Victorians were because the final result is so realistic and I would never have assumed that these individuals weren’t in the same room at the same moment together.

Poets of Romanticism expressed an inexplicable longing for death because every day life, with its struggles and ugliness, was far from their ideal of Beauty. “Transient pleasures as a vision seem, and yet we think the greatest pain’s do die”, wrote John Keats in his poem “On Death”. Percy Bysshe Shelley was equally dramatic, utterly obsessed with death, he saw it as the state of ultimate happiness and perfection. The Victorian era romanticised death, especially the slow, staged, almost theatre-like moment of death. And what actress to play the role of a person soon to be departed than a beautiful, pale, virginal girl who had tasted none of life’s sweetness and joys and already at such a tender age death was to take her away. It’s like a rose forever preserved in its loveliest stage of bud! Never blooming fully, and thus never withering either. Poe was right: death of a young girl is indeed the most beautiful topic for art. And here is John Keats’ poem “On Death” written in 1814 in a letter to his brother Thomas who was, just like the poor girl in the photograph, suffering from consumption which would ultimately be Keats’s end as well:

On Death

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.

Henry Peach Robinson, She Never Told Her Love, 1857

“She never told her love,

But let concealment,

like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek”

(Shakespeare, Twelfth Night II,iv,111-13)

Robinson’s photograph “She Never Told Her Love”, taken in 1857, served as a study for the girl in “Fading Away”. Resting on soft big pillow, the girl truly does appear to be fading away. Her hair is spread on the pillow, her hands clasped on her lap, her lips ever so softly parted. This study’s focus is on the girl, she is alone in her pictorial space, alone with her woe, illness and that poor broken heart. In “Fading Away” she is surrounded by family, and even though the study has the intimacy of the girl alone, I feel like the characters add to the drama and the story behind the photograph.

It is interesting to think of the way poets and artists of Romanticism and the Victorians saw death, and how our culture sees it. The Victorian era attitude towards death is seen as “morbid” nowadays and I don’t quite see why. Every living thing on earth is bound to die one day, so why is death such a taboo topic, such a shocking morbid “Gothic” thing? It seems like everything is so sugarcoated nowadays; idealised, filtered, posed, set-up, and artificial and hence such a pure, dark truth such as death is hard to digest. Death comes without invitations, it cannot be ignored, postponed, sugarcoated, it changes everything, it is beyond our control. Perhaps we are too entitled today and we subconsciously feel that, along with our generally good standard of living (at least in the Western countries), immortality is also our god-given right, and it isn’t. Can’t we go back to times when death was romanticised and one could truly die of a broken heart!? I feel like I can relate to Romantic visions of the death much more, and also this beautiful poem “Goodbye, my friend, goodbye” by the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) who ended his life not by consumption or broken heart, but by suicide:

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.

Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let’s have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

The poem was written in the poet’s own blood and found in the hotel room where he had committed suicide. Still, despite the tragical ending, the poem carries a seed of hope, like a silver dandelion seed floating aimlessly in the wind, because dying is nothing new and living no newer, and the sad parting brings reunion, and could there be a more hopeful thought? Death is not the end, not the end…

John William Waterhouse – The Naiad

3 Apr

Wonderful and well-loved painter of dream-like mythology scenes, John William Waterhouse was born on 6th April 1849 in Rome. So his birthday is coming up in a few days and I think his paintings with nymphs and enchanting woodlands are perfect scenes to gaze at in these times of spring’s awakening.

John William Waterhouse, The Naiad (Hylas with a Nymph), 1893

A nymph gazes wistfully at a handsome sleeping lad. “How handsome he is!”, she must be thinking, and what thoughts arise in her mischievous naiad mind as she gazes at his slumbering body covered only with a patch of animal skin… Drops of water are dripping from her long weed-like hair and rippling in the river, a twig snaps in her hand, she holds her breath, but alas the young slumbering lad awakes! Dazed and confused, he rises his body and sees the beautiful naiad, her naked body as pure, white and alluring as a lily flower in moonlight. I hear Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun coming from afar, every leaf, every moss and every blade of grass are echoing the sounds and bringing it closer, it flies through the air, the enchanting melody which sings of awakening. Two hearts beating loudly in the loneliness of the woods. Doomed is the moment when Hylas awoke and saw this naiad, this child of nature and sweet water nymph with ruby lips and wistful gaze.

Waterhouse’s depictions of mythology scenes are very dreamy and romantical, but at the same time they are incredibly realistic because they perfectly convey the mysterious and magical mood of nature. Just look at the dense row of thin trees of very soothing brown bark, grass and the billowing river, painted in soft blue zig zag brushstrokes, which gives the painting a sense of depth and seems to reflect the sky. It doesn’t look as idealised or grandiosely beautiful as J.M.W. Turner or Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings do, no, the way Waterhouse paints nature as a setting for his romanticised mythological scenes is realistic enough to make you believe that when you go for a stroll in the woods or sit by a lake that you could actually encounter a nymph or step into the world of dreams. I never actually saw a satyr or a nymph in the woods, but I know that it was a case of bad timing, different schedules, you know how it is in life.

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896

Painting “The Naiad”, painted in 1893, is like a prelude to the more famous one “Hylas and the Nymphs” painted a few years later, in 1896. Hylas was asleep. Hylas awoke, the nymphs wanted him and the nymphs got him. How magnetically handsome he is, they sigh… Their hearts ache with a desire to draw him deep into the moist depths of their lake, deep under the water lilies and those big flat floating leaves which serve as beds to water lilies.

Nymphs are female creatures in Greek and Latin mythology. They are usually depicted as beautiful and fatal maidens who love to sing, dance and hang out with satyrs in forest groves and lakes. They are also notorious for being naughty as one can see in the story with Hylas. They represent power of nature. Name “nymph” comes from Greek word “nymphē” which means “bride” and “veiled”, referring to a marriageable young woman. One of the meaning is a “rose-bud”, perhaps indicating the beauty all the nymphs possess. By choosing nymphs as subjects and portraying this tragic story of love, seduction and doom, Waterhouse fully expressed his romantic sensibility, and revealed his fascination with strong and beautiful female figures. Nymphs are presented as sweet and alluring, and Hylas is powerless against their charms.