Tag Archives: 1846

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.

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Virginia Poe’s Valentine Poem for Edgar Allan Poe

14 Feb

Here is an acrostic poem that Edgar Allan Poe’s darling little wife Virginia wrote to him for Valentine’s Day in 1846. Less than a year later she was dead.

Virginia Poe’s handwritten Valentine poem to her husband Edgar Allan Poe, Feb 14th 1846; what a beautiful handwriting!

Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife – Konstantin Danil

27 Jan

I stumbled upon this painting somewhere in the hazy depths of Tumblr, and its aura of gentleness, tenderness and lightness immediately attracted me.

1846. Portrait of the Artist's Wife (Portret umetnikove žene) by Konstantin DanilKonstantin Danil, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (Portret umetnikove žene), c. 1846

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife by Serbian painter Konstantin Danil remained unfinished. It wasn’t the artist’s death that stopped him from painting his wife’s delicate pale hands, it was probably the sense of completeness, the impression that every succeeding brushstroke would be overindulgence. Danil (1798-1873), was a renowned Serbian painter of the 19th century, born in a family with Serbian and Romanian roots. His father was a Russian officer who eventually settled in Banat (now western Romania). Fate dealt Danil such cards that he travelled too, and his artistic career stretched through different countries. He studied painting in Temișvar, Munich and Vienna, and also travelled throughout Banat and Transylvania, capturing the scenery along the way. Although he painted almost every subject there is to paint, he was most proficient in portraits such as the one above.

In a plain white dress, with bare shoulders, Danil’s wife Sofia Dely, who belonged to the impoverished Hungarian aristocratic family, sits leaned on the arm of the chair, gazing mournfully into the distance. Gathers on her thin white dress are painted beautifully, the dark parts being carefully accentuated with grey and soft pink tones. Technique chiaroscuro (light-dark) gives the sense of volume and emphasises the woman’s lightness against the vast dark background. Her loose white garment, bare shoulders and soft curls are evocative of the seventeenth century portraits by French and English masters, such as one of the portraits of Nell Gwyn.

Still, the focus is on the woman’s face; rosy cheeks, sad light blue eyes, thin lips, soft under chin, and thinning hair that once shone in abundance of golden curls all suggest a withered woman. This, along with a peculiar plaintive glance, gives the portrait a psychological depth; it was painted by someone who knew her well and had been married to her almost twenty years at the time. The vague definition of her right hand gives the portrait its magic. Because of this vagueness everything else looses its distinction, and the figure becomes translucent and decadently delicate. In this portrait, naturalism typical for Biedermeier gave way to truthful romantic sensibility.