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Marie Spartali Stillman – Brewing The Love Philtre

3 Nov

Marie Spartali Stillman, Pharmakeutria (Brewing The Love Philtre), 1870

Samhain may be over and we have entered the dark part of the year, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot find beauty, love and magic in the days of darkness; death of nature need not signify soul’s slumber. And do not assume that witches are on holiday now. Nay, they are as busy as ever, preparing the love potions, jotting down new magic spells, singing and selling their new books, flying on brooms, you know, the normal stuff. And here we have two witches-wanna be ladies who are brewing a love potion for some dashing haughty man out there who just refuses to return their affections. It is the dusk of the day; an owl is heard and November’s soft pinky fog is slowly descending. Tired forlorn sunflowers are blooming sweetly. The branches on the trees are bare, but there are some red leaves left, giving the tree trunk a soft autumnal embrace and shielding the bark from the cold winds of change.

Hidden behind the tree and the bushes, two ladies clad in long heavy purple and orange gowns are brewing the love potion in a little cauldron over some playful flames. Still and captured in the moment, the lady in orange had just opened the bottle of wine. The lady in purple seems to be asking “More wine? Are you sure we need more wine?” – “Why, yes, a few more drops”, the lady in orange replies. “Let me see what the book says.” An open book of magic spells lies open next to the lady in purple. The recipe says for a love potion one needs some sweet red wine, fresh basil leaves, red rose petals, cloves, apple seeds, three tears from the lovelorn maiden, a dried carnation, a dash of apple juice, some rosemary and thyme… So, why not, let us add more of this sweet red wine! Bur hurry, my dearest, for the night is approaching and soon the dusk’s pink veil will turn into the dark blue cloth of midnight and only our eyes, shining with yearning, and the flames of the fire will shine. The owl will tell us the time. The potion is brewing and the ladies are singing a soft song to pass by the time…

“Let the one who drinks this wine,
Shower me with love divine…” (*)

Marie Spartali Stillman as Memory (Mother of the Muses), by Julia Margaret Cameron, September 1868

Marie Spartali Stillman was one of the rare females in the Pre-Raphaelite circle who had established an art career for herself and who remained known as an artist in her own right, and not just a muse and a model, although she was a model as well. She was prolific and talented and, unlike Elizabeth Siddal whose art career was cut short by her laudanum overdose and we are left wondering what she could have accomplished, Marie left many beautiful vibrant and exuberant oil on canvases for posterity. This Grecian goddess in Victorian London quickly caught the eye of the writers and artists of the day, such as Swinburne, Whistler and Ford Maddox Brown, and she became Brown’s pupil in. In 1870, the year this painting was painted, Stillman exhibited in the Royal Academy in London for the first time. Becoming an artist or at least being in some way connected to the world of art almost seems like the most natural step to take for Marie because she grew up in an affluent family who praised the arts and was acquainted with people from the art world. Her father, Michael Spartali, was a wealthy merchant who moved from Greece to England in 1828, and her mother, Euphrosyne, known as Effie, was a daughter of a Greek merchant from Genoa. On one occasion, on a party of another Greek businessman, Marie met the poet and playwright Swinburne who was so overwhelmed with emotions upon meeting her, almost bewitched one might say, that he later said for Marie “She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry”.

Marie Spartali Stillman, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868

And of course, since this is the middle of the Victorian era, we are talking about the Pre-Raphaelite circles; if there is a beautiful young woman then Dante Gabriel Rossetti must also be involved in the story. And so he was. Very soon after Marie started taking drawing lessons from Ford Maddox Brown, Rossetti heard about this exotic Greek beauty and wrote to Brown on the 29th April 1867 saying: “I just hear Miss Spartali is to be your pupil. I hear too that she is one and the same with a marvellous beauty of whom I have heard much talk. So box her up and don’t let fellows see her, as I mean to have first shy at her in the way of sitting.” Marie indeed sat for Rossetti very soon but her head proved to be a hard one for portraying, as Dante had confessed later in a letter to Jane Morris. Still, the tall, melancholy, serious exotic Marie does seem to have the kind of beauty that Rossetti would appreciate; long necked, tall and regal, with a mass of long thick hair, pouting lips.

Edgar Allan Poe: Annabel Lee, Eulalie and Ideal Beloved

7 Oct

Edgar Allan Poe died on this day in 1849. Oh, it was a sad Sunday in Baltimore! The moss on the graveyard’s oldest tombstones sighed with lament and even the ravens cried! Poe is one of my favourite writers and these days I was intensely immersed in his poems and short-stories, particularly those which deal with his favourite topic: death of a beautiful young woman. I have an obsessive interest in Poe’s feminine ideal and two poems that I am sharing here today, “Annabel Lee”(published posthumously near the end 1849) and “Eulalie” (originally published in July 1845) feature a type of heroine which Poe loved. Poem “Eulalie” deals with the narrator’s past sadness and rediscovery of joy; both in love itself and in his object of love and that is a beautiful yellow-haired beloved whose eyes are brighter than the stars. Poe’s poems and short stories feature two very different types of female characters; first is the learned type, intellectually and sexually dominant, dark-haired, slightly exotic and mysterious woman such as Ligeia and Morella, who are in minority.

And then there’s the second type; Poe’s idealised maiden whose only purpose is to be beautiful, love the narrator and die… Poe’s ideal beloved is a beautiful tamed creature; young, often light haired with sparkling eyes and lily white skin, cheeks rosy from consumptive fever which will eventually bring her doom, passive, frail and vulnerable, romantically submissive girl who, just as in the poem “Annabel Lee”: “lived with no other thought/ Than to love and be loved by me.” A very young girl is more easily shaped to be what the narrator desires, and greater is the chance of her being a perfect companion; she can be subsumed into another’s ego and has no need to tell her own tale. (*) The maiden’s love has the power to transform the narrator’s miserable, doomed life, as is the case with the blushing and smiling bride Eulalie, but her death can be of an equal if not greater importance. Such is the fate of the characters such as Annabel Lee, Morella, Eleanora and Madeline Usher. In death, their singular beauty is eternally preserved. Death fuels the narrator’s art and is a starting point to contemplation.

I will devote a moment today to Poe’s poetry and maybe even reread some of my favourite stories. I feel that it’s just nice to remember birthdays of your favourite artists and poets, it gives more meaning to my otherwise meaningless existence.

Alex Benetel, “Chronicles at sea” ft. Madeline Masarik

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,

   In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

   By the name of Annabel Lee;

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

   Than to love and be loved by me.

 

I was a child and she was a child,

   In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love—

   I and my Annabel Lee—

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

   Coveted her and me.

 

And this was the reason that, long ago,

   In this kingdom by the sea,

A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling

   My beautiful Annabel Lee;

So that her highborn kinsmen came

   And bore her away from me,

To shut her up in a sepulchre

   In this kingdom by the sea.

 

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,

   Went envying her and me—

Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,

   In this kingdom by the sea)

That the wind came out of the cloud by night,

   Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

 

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

   Of those who were older than we—

   Of many far wiser than we—

And neither the angels in Heaven above

   Nor the demons down under the sea

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

 

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams

   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side

   Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,

   In her sepulchre there by the sea—

   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Stephen Mackey (b. 1966), Bride of the Lake

Eulalie

I dwelt alone

In a world of moan,

And my soul was a stagnant tide,

Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride—

Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.

 

Ah, less, less bright

The stars of the night

Than the eyes of the radiant girl!

And never a flake

That the vapor can make

With the moon-tints of purple and pearl,

Can vie with the modest Eulalie’s most unregarded curl—

Can compare with the bright-eyed Eulalie’s most humble and careless curl.

 

Now Doubt—now Pain

Come never again,

For her soul gives me sigh for sigh,

And all day long

Shines, bright and strong,

Astarté within the sky,

While ever to her dear Eulalie upturns her matron eye—

While ever to her young Eulalie upturns her violet eye.

Poe, The original manuscript, 1845

*”Poe’s Feminine Ideal”, from Cambridge Companion to Poe

Stanhope Alexander Forbes – The Orchard

24 Sep

“In her eyes shone the sweetness of melancholy.”

(Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out)

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857—1947), The Orchard (Breton Children in an Orchard – Quimperlé), 1882

Autumn is coming slowly to this orchard in the little village of Quimperlé in Brittany. One by one, the large brown leaves that now appear here and there will very soon cover the green grass where dew used to shine in the first light of summer dawn. The wind of change is dancing among the apple trees, whispering secrets of things yet to come and barring their once exuberant tree tops, stealing their little leaves and carrying them softly somewhere else. The treetops are still a harmony of greens and yellow, but the branches which are already bare are revealing the contours of buildings behind the orchard. Melodies of summer tunes still linger in the orchard’s quaint hours, dancing between the trees, competing with the rustle of falling leaves. The children in the orchard sense the change, but cannot put the name on it. Their idle chatter is interrupted by the first soft drops of autumn rain. But the girl in the front knows much more than other children do, just look at her face, how sweetly it shines with melancholy glow. She is dressed in a traditional attire, with a white headdress and a pair of clogs on her feet, and she is looking somewhere in the distance. Her large round eyes seem sad and her thoughts are somewhere else.

I don’t know why, but this girl, and the scene alone with its melancholy and passing of seasons, reminded me of teenage Emma Bovary, in the orchard of the convent where she was educated. She was just like this girl; never content with being where she is, blind to the beauties of the orchard, her soul craved smells and sounds of the south, or some Gothic castle, or a wild sea, anywhere, anywhere, but not where she is. She kept herself to herself, indulged in daydreams and read romance novels in candlelight, and rarely played with other girls during recreation hours. Emma, like the girl in the painting, knows the boring aspects of countryside life all too well to romanticise it; “… she might perhaps have opened her heart to those lyrical invasions of Nature, which usually come to us only through translation in books. But she knew the country too well; she knew the lowing of cattle, the milking, the ploughs. Accustomed to calm aspects of life, she turned, on the contrary, to those of excitement. She loved the sea only for the sake of its storms, and the green fields only when broken up by ruins.” (Madame Bovary, chapter 6)

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, The Convent (Quimperlé), 1882

Also, here is another passage which comes to mind as I gaze at the painting “The Orchard”:

“Through Walter Scott, later on, she fell in love with historical events, dreamed of old chests, guard-rooms and minstrels. She would have liked to live in some old manor-house, like those long-waisted chatelaines who, in the shade of pointed arches, spent their days leaning on the stone, chin in hand, watching a cavalier with white plume galloping on his black horse from the distant fields. At this time she had a cult for Mary Stuart and enthusiastic veneration for illustrious or unhappy women. Joan of Arc, Heloise, Agnes Sorel, the beautiful Ferroniere, and Clemence Isaure stood out to her like comets in the dark immensity of heaven….”

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, A Street in Brittany, 1881

This painting is a recent discovery for me, but its melancholy autumnal mood and the girl’s gentle wistful face captivate me immensely. Oh, I am there in that orchard! I hear their incoherent babble in French and I do not understand it, but the song of the leaves speak so much to me. Maybe the reason for her somewhat sad or awkward looking face is because she felt awkward posing, as natives in those little villages did. They felt weird and somewhat embarrassed just standing there for this painter, for all the village to see them. Stanhope Forbes was a British painter born in Dublin, but lured by the Impressionistic vibes from the Continent, her traveled to Paris in 1880 and studied in the atelier of Léon Bonnat until 1882, and then he traveled to Brittany with a desire to paint en plein air, just like many artists did before him. Brittany was a particularly interesting area for a painter at that time, even Paul Gauguin went there also in the 1880s, probably for the same reasons and Vincent van Gogh too painted the Breton women in 1888:

In that most beautiful and interesting portion of France, there seemed to be found everything that an artist could desire. Inhabited by a race of a distinct and marked type, wearing still the beautiful national costumes which had been handed down from bygone ages, and retaining the old language of their forefathers, each village followed religiously the old traditions which ordered the fashion of their dress and the conduct of their lives. Here was a country dear to all who love that which is old and quaint, time-honoured, and reminiscent of past ages.” (Mrs Lionel Birch; “Stanhope A. Forbes, A.R.A., and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, A.R.W.S.”)

When Stanhope returned to England, he settled in a beautiful region of Cornwall, married a fellow painter Elizabeth Forbes and became a founder of Newlyn School which focused on portraying rural scene, people and landscapes, and the plein air technique which brought sincerity and freshness to their canvases.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, Preparations for the Market, Quimperlé, 1882

I also decided to include some of his other painting painted in Brittany at the same time which are not as romantically wistful as “The Orchard” is, but the still show the Forbes’s aim to capture the living pulsating life of the village, its people and its mood. They are all dressed in traditional clothes and are seen doing day to day chores, girls on the street in the painting above are knitting and the older women in the last painting are on the market, and just look at the cute hens in the basket.

Souvenir of Velázquez: John Everett Millais, James Jebusa Shannon and Joaquín Sorolla

13 Sep

Today let’s take a look at three gorgeous portraits of little girls by John Everett Millais, James Jebusa Shannon and Joaquín Sorolla inspired by the paintings of Diego Velázquez’s, mainly the painting “Las Meninas” from 1656 but also some of his other portraits of Infanta Maria Teresa.

John Everett Millais, Souvenir of Velázquez, 1868

Just like Infanta Margaret Theresa from Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas” (1656), the girl in Millais’ painting is a serious young lady. Two centuries divide the lives of these two moody girls, yet I am sure they would understand each other and could gleefully spend many idle hours giggling and chatting. Millais’ sweet, round faced girl has a pale skin and masses of strawberry blonde hair that are a stark contrast to the darkness of the background. Unlike Infanta Margaret Theresa, this girl is all alone on the canvas. Her face looks like many other from Millais’ canvases, yet her attire is noticeably different from that of any other Victorian girl. This was Millais’ homage to a very famous Baroque painting made by Diego Velázquez, the court painter of Philip IV, in 1656. But Millais used a Pre-Raphaelite colour palette and the brush strokes on the hair and details of the dress are particularly loose, unrestrained and confident. Millais was apparently so skillful a painter that he was able to paint a leaf in a few brushstrokes and achieve the liveliness and accuracy. I think these strokes are a proof of that.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, detail

Velázquez’s position as a court painter clearly placed him in a subservient position to the members of the royal family. In his time, he was just a painter and they were the grand and powerful Habsburgs and yet, looking back in time, it is Velázquez who is famous and praised now for his art and little Infanta is just one in a row of royal princesses who would scarcely be remembered today if she wasn’t captured on canvas so many times and in such beautiful and memorable paintings. It is a good thing that Velázquez painted so many beautiful portraits of her as a child because those were her glory days in a way; she married at the age of fifteen to Leopold I, and she was both his niece and his first cousin, and died at the age of twenty-one, after giving birth to four children and being pregnant with the fifth. So, if it wasn’t for these glorious portraits and especially the very much loved and enigmatic “Las Meninas” where she is the central figure, she would have been forgotten in history, she would have been just another pale sickly girl who died very young from this illness or another, childbirth or smallpox, nothing special. But because of art, she is eternal. Even now, four centuries later, she is the blue eyed girl looking back at us, with her hair combed on the side and adorned with a bow, in her wide dress, so large for her small fragile body.

Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Infanta Margarita Teresa in silver dress, 1656

James Jebusa Shannon, Portrait of a Little Girl Holding a Toy (Kitty in a fancy dress), 1895

Next example is James Jebusa Shannon’s lovely portrait of his daughter Katherine Marjorie known as Kitty who was eight years old at the time this was painted. The portrait is beautifully cropped and focuses on the little girl in the moment of childlike playfulness; she is holding a doll in each hand. Still in the world of dreams and make-beliefs, her dolls are her friends. Loose brushstrokes and a colour palette of subtle colours such as white and grey, with touches of pink and red perfectly fit the at once playful and dreamy mood of the painting. Maybe Kitty is lost in the dreamland playing with her dolls and she can scarcely notice that her father is painting her once again, for she was his dear model, but her cheeks are rosy and she is smiling and we can tell she is a happier girl than Velázquez’s Infanta Margaret Theresa was in her constricted dress and constricting environment of the Spanish court. The dress Kitty is wearing resembles the one Velázquez painted, but it is only a fancy dress and life is still a game for Kitty as well.

Joaquín Sorolla, María Figuero dressed as a menina, 1901

And the last example I will be talking about in this post is an unfinished work by a Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla which shows a girl dressed in an attire of the Infanta Margaret Theresa and the kind of dress that would be worn by other noble girls at the court. Just like Kitty in the previous picture, María was eight years old when this was painted and she was not just any child; she was the daughter of Sorolla’s friend Rodrigo de Figueroa y Torres, Marquis of Gauna and later a Duke of Tovar also. Inspiration for this painting was not Velázquez himself, but his pupil Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo’s portrait of Infanta Margaret Theresa in a pink dress from 1660. Just like in the portrait of Infanta, María Figuero is wearing a very wide dress which fills the canvas horizontally, the sleeves are equally puffy and there is a pink decoration on the bodice. Her hair also resembles the hairstyle Infanta Margarita wore in some of her other portraits, for example the portrait in blue by Velázquez painted in 1659.

Juan Bautista del Mazo, Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Pink Dress, 1660

John Everett Millais: Early Years of Married Life and Pre-Raphaelite Gems

3 Sep

I have written a lot about the Pre-Raphaelites on this blog over the years and I don’t wish to be repetitive but at the same time there there is always something new to learn and focus your attention on. So, in this post we’ll take a look at John Everett Millais’ early years of married life and the art he created at that time, with a special focus on three beautiful painting “The Blind Girl”, “Autumn Leaves” and “Peace Concluded”, all painted in 1856.

John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl, 1856

On 3rd July 1855, twenty-six year old Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais finally married Effie Gray. They were overjoyed about the prospect of finally being together, but also emotionally exhausted after years of dealing with the struggles; for Effie the struggle was her previous unhappy marriage with the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, and for Millais it was the anguish at having to suppress his love for Effie during the time she was still married or just recently divorced. The irony is that it was through John Ruskin that the couple got acquainted in the first place. They did meet once before, on a ball, but it wasn’t a memorable event for either of them. Ruskin was a huge supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites and one of the first critics who praised their style. In 1853, Ruskin proposed that John Millais and his brother William join him and Effie on a holiday in the emerald green wilderness of Scotland.

John Everett Millais, Waterfall or Effie at Glenfinlas, 1853, 11.5″ (29.2 cm) x 15.4″ (39.1 cm) 

While there, Millais worked on his painting “The Order of Release” and Effie posed for the female figure. They grew fond of each other’s company and Effie soon started opening up about her life; about her loving parents, childhood spent in Scotland, her siblings, but also about the sad truth of her marriage with Ruskin. Naturally, this was a delicate topic and she must have had great trust in him to share such a thing. Millais as absolutely shocked that Ruskin could be so cold and disinterest in his young beautiful wife, and he was also overwhelmed with a feeling of futility and empathy. He wanted to help Effie but didn’t know quite how, and his own feelings of affection towards her added an even greater torment. In his letters home during that trip he writes of Effie “She is the most delightful unselfish kind-hearted creature I ever knew, it is impossible to help liking her…” And also he started giving her drawing lessons and she proved to be a very dutiful pupil, Millais writes “She has drawn and painted some flowers in oil (the first time she has ever touched a brush) almost as well as I could do them myself.” Millais also painted this charming and very detailed little painting of Effie on the rocks by a waterfall.

John Everett Millais, A portrait of Effie Gray, 1853

Let’s skip the part about the sad and bitter marriage annulment between Effie and Ruskin and focus on the young newlyweds in the summer of 1855. After the wedding ceremony, they sat in a train and were on their way to spend a five week honeymoon in the west coast of Scotland. Millais was very nervous but Effie cheered him up and they had marvelous time together. Since Effie had horrible experiences with the London life, the couple decided to live in Scotland, near to her parents’ house. The letters both wrote to their families show the joy they experienced, Effie wrote to her mother saying “I am so happy with him. You can imagine how much I appreciate his natural character. (…) he is so kind and nice and easy to be with.” She also wrote to her brother George “He diverts me beyond everything. I don’t think I have laughed so much since I was Alice’s age.” (Alice was ten years old at the time.) As they settled into their home, Effie tried to do everything in her power to make their life revolve around his art. She was very practical and nurturing, and offered both her help and compassion when his painting drove him crazy; she would urge him to take a rest when he was working to hard and was very successful in finding local young girls to pose for him. And if he needed a historical costume for his painting, she would do the research and sew it for him.

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856

In 1856 Millais had three remarkable paintings to show; “The Blind Girl” where he portrayed two child beggars one of whom is blind, resting after a rainstorm before they continue their journey to another town. The sad fate of the blind girl and their destitute situation is in contrast with the vibrant and warm colours; that overwhelming warm green-yellow of the endless field behind them, the orange of her dress, the coppery orange-red of her cloak and her hair, and even the blue sky in the upper part of the painting seems so warm. It’s very detailed; just look at the grass and the ground in the lower left corner, and all the birds and the animals, the glistening magical rainbow, and the town in the distance. All this beauty of nature around her, but the poor blind girl cannot see it. But she is able to enjoy other sensations; smell of fresh grass and summer’s day, and song of birds.

Another memorable masterpiece is “Autumn Leaves”. I don’t even know how to do justice to the painting’s beauty with my words. I adore the mood and the colours so much, it’s full of feelings and at the same time beautiful and tinged with melancholy and transience, and it so vividly captures the moment, the twilight of the autumn day. The warmth of the colours, the details of the leaves, the faces of young girls, the sensitivity to capturing the atmosphere so well, it’s just stunning and it’s easy to see what all these paintings where a huge success in London in 1856. Despite the bitter feeling of betrayal, Ruskin still managed to be objective when analysing Millais’ art and he praised this picture saying that it is “by much the most poetical work the painter has yet conceived; and also, so far as I know, the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight. It is easy, as it is common, to give obscurity to twilight, but to give the glow withing its darkness is another matter; and though Giorgione might have come nearer glow, he never gave the valley mist. Note also the subtle difference between the purple of the long nearer range of hills and the blue of the distant peak.

John Everett Millais, Peace Concluded, 1856

The Last picture of the 1856 trio is “Peace Concluded”, also known as “The Return from Crimea” which shows a wounded officer who had recently returned from the war and is now resting in his family nest, surrounded by his loving wife and rose-cheeked children. The foliage behind them looks as if it came from Millais’ painting “Ophelia” while the garish carpet looks like it belongs to the interior from William Holman Hunt’s painting “Awakening Conscience”. A dog curled on the sofa overlooks the scene. Effie Millais posed for the central figure of the wife, and the husband and wife are presented as very close to each other; her arms are wrapped around him comfortingly and this could be related to Millais’ personal life and his joy and closeness with Effie because the date of the picture matched the date of their first year marriage anniversary.

I felt it was important to discuss this short period in Millais’ life because his style changed a lot after he got married; being the man and the bread-winner for an ever growing family (he and Effie ended up having eight children) he was strained by responsibilities and chose to paint with less emphasis on details and focusing on themes that he knew the audience would love and approve, and people would want to buy. Some, like William Morris for example, have commented that he had sold out and that he didn’t stay true to the original aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Brootherhood; he certainly didn’t spent as much time studying nature attentively or painting in a very detailed style like he did early in his career, and he didn’t stay true to the original aim of originality. Still, that’s not to say all his later work is bad, not at all, there are many interesting paintings in his oeuvre but I feel that these paintings from mid 1850s are some of his last Pre-Raphaelite gems.

John Everett Millais, Sophie Gray, 1857

John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-59

John Everett Millais, The Martyr of the Solway, 1871

John Everett Millais, Portrait of Alice Gray, 1858

John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1859

This is how Millais defended himself in a letter to William Holman Hunt: “You argue that if I paint for the passing fashion of the day my reputation some centuries hence will not be what my powers would secure me if I did more ambitious work. I don’t agree. A painter must work for the taste of his own day. How does he know what people will like two or three hundred years hence? I maintain that a man should hold up the mirror to his own times. I want proof that the people of my day enjoy my work, and how can I get this better than by finding people willing to give me money for my productions, and that I win honours from contemporaries. What good would recognition of my labours hundreds of years hence do me? I should be dead, buried, and crumbled into dust.

I think it’s fascinating to actually hear an artist make such a statement, and show that he does care about getting praise and approval from his time and people of his time.

Arthur Hughes – April Love

26 Aug

Let’s take a look at some very romantical paintings by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes.

Arthur Hughes, April Love, 1855-56

On 19th May 1855, Edward Burne-Jones, English painter associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, took his beloved girl Georgiana “Georgie” MacDonald to the Royal Academy Exhibition and proposed marriage to her in front of the painting “April Love” by Arthur Hughes. What a romantical gesture!? I have always been fond of this painting because of its dreamy and romantic mood and the gorgeous indigo-purple dress that the girl is wearing. Purple dresses are somewhat rare in art history, and interestingly Arthur Hughes’s canvases are full of them. Sweet and wistful coppery-haired maidens in purple gowns, against a background of lush green nature. Very romantic and very Pre-Raphaelite. Hughes is famous for making paintings of lovers, influenced by a painting that he himself admired, “The Huguenot” by John Everett Millais, but he is also somewhat ignored, perhaps because his life wasn’t rife with scandals, lovers or travels to exotic places. He led a quiet, but joyous and serene life with his wife Tryphena Foord ‘his early and only love’ and they married in 1855, so around the time “April Love” was painted.

Arthur Hughes, Study for April Love, 1855

It’s interesting to note that Arthur Hughes’ own love life was happy and seemingly ideal, and yet the romantic scenes on his canvases are tinged with melancholy and unrequited feelings; transient nature of love and life are in opposition with the lasting character of nature, old oak trees and ivy with its steady and persistent growth are in contrast with the changing nature of human feelings. Maybe in his real life, love was as strong as an oak trees and could resist winds and storms, but in the gentle, dreamy and wistful world of his paintings, love is a light pink rose whose delicate petals are easily scattered by a gentle breeze, as we can see in the bottom left part of the painting “April Love” where a girl is standing by an ivy-overgrown tree trunk and looking down in disappointment and sadness, while a gentleman whose head is hard to even notice on canvas is kissing her hand and perhaps reassuring her that she is wrong in her doubts and that he does love her. The model for the lad was the sculptor Alexander Munro who shared a studio with Hughes from 1852 to 1858, and the model for the girl was originally a girl from the countryside who refused to pose for Hughes after she saw the way he had drawn her. Hughes then used his wife as a model and it is her face that we see on the canvas, so gentle and so suitable for a romantic scene. The painting was exhibited in 1856 and accompanied with these verses from Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Miller’s Daughter”:

Love is hurt with jar and fret,
Love is made a vague regret,
Eyes with idle tears are set,
Idle habit links us yet;
What is Love? For we forget.
Ah no, no.

Arthur Hughes, Amy, 1853-59

Arthur Hughes was not an official member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his paintings clearly exhibit the Pre-Raphaelite style and preference of themes. Another painting, “Amy”, is also a beautiful example of Hughes’ use and choice of colours; how radiant and vivacious is the purple of her dress?! Especially in the contrast with the many shades of green of the ivy, moss and fern all around her. The rosy-cheeked Amy with a flower in her hair could be mistaken for a forest fairy. Her eyes are worryingly set on the name “Amy” freshly carved on the tree trunk. Youthful love is fragile and somewhere deep in her heart she can sense it. In a follow-up painting “Long Engagement” we see the same girl, this time with a far sadder look on her face, disappointment and pleading are in her gaze. His eyes are directed somewhere else, perhaps he doesn’t have the heart to break hers and shatter her hopes, or there is reluctance which keeps him from fulfilling his promise. Meanwhile, the carved name on the tree trunk is getting more and more overgrown with ivy. Ferns and moss have grown in abundance, and white roses with their thorny stems have started to smother the paths of the forest. The lovers’ love is lulled to everlasting sleep. Despite the sad element of Hughes’ paintings, they are still a definite proof that broodiness and melancholy are cool, and happiness is not. Also, it’s interesting to note that the couple mentioned in the beginning, Edward Burne-Jones and Georgie, also had a long engagement which made Georgie’s heart ache, but in 1860 they finally married, and luckily avoided the fate of the couple bellow.

Arthur Hughes, Long Engagement, 1859

Lizzie Siddal – A Mysterious Muse

25 Jul

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

(Elizabeth Siddal, “Love and Hate”)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Portrait Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1850s

Elizabeth Siddal, a famous and doomed Pre-Raphaelite muse and a lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was born on 25th July 1829 in London. She died in February 1862 at the age of 32, but had she been a vampire, which I suspect she might as well be, she would have been 190 years old today, a fairly young age for a vampire. I am thinking about her these days; about her beauty, her poems and paintings, and also about the exhumation of her body led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti who wanted to get back the poems he had buried with her. An image of her coffin being opened, and her long red hair revealed by the moonlight, silence of the graveyard, the eeriness…. It is easy to imagine why this event inspired young Bram Stoker for his character Lucy in “Dracula”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’, 1853

Nonetheless, the main thing on my mind these days is how mysterious the person of Elizabeth Siddal actually is. Who was she really? How little we know of her and how the rest is painted in our imaginations. When I first read about her years ago, I was met with a very idealised image of a beautiful, quiet and melancholy young woman who modeled for the Pre-Raphaelites, used laudanum and was plagued with sadness and Rossetti’s infidelities; she seemed almost like a martyr, the one who suffered, the one who was tormented. I think part of it was true, she was a struggling working class girl who wanted more from life, materially and spiritually; she wanted to rise above the circumstance that she was born into, she wanted to learn and grow intellectually, but also she wanted a finer, more comfortable life; “a servant to lay the fire in the morning, theater tickets, a paisley shawl.” (Gay Daly, Pre-Raphaelites in Love)

The promises that Rossetti gave, he did not fulfill; he was impulsive, careless with money, had a wandering eye and was strangely very hesitant to marry her, and it is easy to understand why it brought her so much anguish, especially in the Victorian era when her status of artist’s model and a lover closed many doors for her and gave her an unenviable place in society. Artistically, she was always in Rossetti’s shadow and she could never have dreamed that her paintings of her poems would be as appreciated as his were. All these things indeed make her a sufferer, but I feel like there is another side of her that no one tends to talk about, for it would ruin her untainted image of a martyr and an angel. She may be a mysterious muse, but she is not a perfect one for sure.

Regina Cordium – Rossetti’s Marriage portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1860

Blinded by her beauty; her long coppery red hair, pale complexion, fragile frame, and eyes that changed colour from green to grey, Rossetti was bewitched at first sight by this strange girl who worked in a hat shop. She was equally charmed, but as ideal the start of their relationship was, its course was a turbulent one with lots of drama, anger, tears and manipulation. Lizzie was known for her frail health, but it is very interesting how her health changed according to the occasion. She could feel perfectly well in the morning, but as soon as Rossetti was getting ready to head into town, hang out with other people, she would suddenly feel unwell and if she would get him to stay at home that day, her health was fine.

She was emotionally manipulative without a doubt and, to me, she seems like a very moody and miserable woman and I am not surprised that Rossetti would want to go out and spend time with merrier, more carefree women. In her book “Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel” Lucinda Hawksley writes that “both shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any relationship.” And also: “When one – or both – of them was unhappy, ill, depressed or jealous, they made one another’s lives hellish. (…) Self-destructive and self-loathing at times, as well as being arrogant about their abilities, both must have been extremely difficult to live with.” She was happy at the beginning of their relationship, in times when Ophelia was painted but as their life went on, she started using her frail health as a way of getting things she wanted, mostly from Rossetti but also from other people. Again, here is an interesting passage from Lucinda Hawksley’s book: “It is interesting to see how often Lizzie’s health coincided with Rossetti’s affections being taken up by other woman. By his refusal to marry her, Rossetti had forced her to blackmail him emotionally and she used every opportunity to do so. At the start of their relationship it seems the balance of power was very much in his favour as she struggled to prevent him from tiring of her, but by the end of her life she had become overtly manipulative and controlling, to the point that his friends claimed he shrank when she spoke to him, always expecting a rebuke or for her to sink dangerously into illness, blaming him wordlessly for its onslaught.

As if her “illnesses” weren’t enough, Lizzie would stop eating to get her point across, or sink into periods of depression and self-loathing. Mrs Siddal was also known for being aloof and quiet when in company with other people, and I can well understand that because I am somewhat similar, but I think it was just a means for her to show her disdain and disinterest, and to emphasise the mysteriousness about her that she loved nurturing. She was known for petty jealousies and acted as if she were better than other working class models who might have been prostitutes also, for example Hunt’s model Annie Miller.

John Everett Millias, Ophelia, 1852

With all that said, I will also add that I love Lizzie and I am not being hateful here, I am in fact endlessly captivated by her short tragical life, her mysteriousness, and her connection to the Pre-Raphaelites. I love her poetry and empathise with her verses. But I have to say that she is no angel and I hate people idealising her while at the same time bashing on Rossetti for being this or that. She was manipulative, jealous, strategically ill when necessary, miserable, depressed, perhaps impossible to satisfy at times, and I don’t see why that is not mentioned so often. She was an artist’s muse and a model, that position alone ought to have made her feel like she were the luckiest girl in the world. Just think of Poe’s submissive little wife Virginia and her perfect adoration for the doomed poet. I think Lizzie didn’t need an ancient curse like the Lady of Shalott to bring her death because Lizzie seems capable enough of bringing her own doom.

Now, I don’t want to judge her harshly because I have not met her, but no matter how much I read about her, I am still left with a feeling of mysteriousness. All the words said are not her own, comments from observers are still not her own. We can never know what was truly in her heart, though maybe her poems are a good clue, being so direct and so melancholy. I wonder, were her manipulative ways a character trait or just a way of getting even with Rossetti. Why was she so miserable and what could have stopped that? I honestly can’t imagine her ever being perfectly happy. I think of her often, and yet she is still mysterious to me. Maybe one night, in a dream, I will meet her and find out all that I was curious about.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1860

And for the end, here is one of her poems which I love:

Worn Out

Thy strong arms are around me, love

My head is on thy breast;

Low words of comfort come from thee

Yet my soul has no rest.

 

For I am but a startled thing

Nor can I ever be

Aught save a bird whose broken wing

Must fly away from thee.

 

I cannot give to thee the love

I gave so long ago,

The love that turned and struck me down

Amid the blinding snow.

 

I can but give a failing heart

And weary eyes of pain,

A faded mouth that cannot smile

And may not laugh again.

 

Yet keep thine arms around me, love,

Until I fall to sleep;

Then leave me, saying no goodbye

Lest I might wake, and weep.