Tag Archives: 1865

Eastman Johnson and Hasui Kawase: Gathering Lilies

10 May

Eastman Johnson, Gathering Lilies, 1865

With one elegant gesture this lady in Eastman Johnson’s painting is ready to pick a lily flower. Two water lilies are already in her left hand but she desperately wants to pick the third one and, balancing on a thick moss-coated log, she shows not the slightest trace of fear. In one second she could lose her balance and fall into the murky waters of the pond and become the Victorian Ophelia. The water lily – precious and pretty – is worth the risk. Something very interesting about this painting is the perspective; it almost seems like the focalisator of the painting is a frog, like the scene of the lady picking a lily flower is seen from the frog’s point of view and this is very fitting because a frog could likely be enjoying the water and resting on a big lily flower leaf. This way, Eastman made the scene look neverending, the pond fills the space in the painting and disappearing in greenery in the background.

There is no sharp line dividing the pond from the blue sky and the figure of a woman is beautifully situated in the middle of the painting. When compared to Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies, the colours in Eastman’s painting are terribly dull and brown, but they actually match the real colour of nature better. Brown and green shades dominate the canvas with only a touch of blue where the water is reflecting the sky. That is another interesting thing, because of the perspective we don’t see the sky in the distance but we see the reflection of it in the water. The lady’s clothes perfectly match the colour scheme and she blends into the surroundings. Perhaps a white gown would be a beautiful option as well, and it would then match the whiteness of the water lilies but ah well, I wasn’t around back then to give Eastman my suggestion. It is what it is now.

Hasui Kawase, The Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba, 1929

It would be fun to compare Eastman Johnson’s painting “Gathering Lilies” with Hasui Kawase’s print “The Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba” from 1929 because they both portray the similar scene; lily pond and women. As typical for Japanese art, elements in the print are simplified and stylized. The colours and shapes don’t blend here naturally and softly as they do in Eastman’s painting but instead the scene is visually divided into three spheres; green background of trees, the bridge with the ladies observing the water lilies, and the layer of water lilies in the foreground; very simple and very captivating. The leaves of the water lilies here are huge and they seem to grow and expand before our eyes, ready to take over the entire space of the print. They even conceal parts of the bridge and fill the distance as well. Here and there soft pink flowers show through and nowhere is the surface of the water visible. So interesting. Usually the water lilies scenes show the surface of the water and only here and there beautiful flowers and leaves are seen, but here they are so domineering and wild.

Edgar Degas – Lost in Reveries

27 Jul

Again Degas. Again one of his lesser known works which I’ve chosen just to prove that even the most ordinary paintings have a story of their own and a deeper meaning.

1865. Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers - Degas1865 Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers

In this very interesting painting, the woman and flowers are competing for the viewer’s attention. Well, ‘competing’ is maybe a harsh word because the woman seems utterly uninterested in anything and she’s in fact looking into the distance, focused on something we cannot see, though I wonder what could it be. On the other hand, flowers, beautiful chrysanthemums if I’m not mistaken, have taken most of the space on canvas, totally pushing the woman out of the focus. Conventionally, we are taught to look at a human figure in art as the centre, but here the chrysanthemums serve as a central part of the painting, and this is not Degas’ mistake or miscalculation, it holds a significance.

By placing the woman on the side Degas actually directs our thoughts towards the true meaning and idea behind the, at the first sight, ordinary scene and subject. In addition to her corner position, the woman also hides her face with a hand. This asymmetrical composition contributes to the directness and strong impact the painting leaves on the viewer. Equalisation of woman and flowers provides an opportunity for us to compare the physical presents of chrysanthemums and the spiritual absence of the woman. This painting is a simple scene from everyday life. The woman is lost in her reveries, most likely bitter and disappointed with the banalities of everyday life, just like the tragic heroine of Flaubert’s novel ‘Madame Bovary’. She doesn’t appear to be as romantic as Emma Bovary or as idealistic, but after looking at this painting, this agonising detail of everyday life, the boredom and despair is becoming more and more visible. Look at the colours; brown, orange, grey and utterly boring. Woman’s dress and the tablecloth are almost the same colour. Everyday life is coloured in boredom. If this would be a scene from the film, you could here the monotonous clock ticks, soft light of the day on the wane, attention-seeking chrysanthemums could be a gift from a lover just like in Madame Bovary’s case. But the flowers wither, the lover is far away, and days go by nevertheless.

Degas’ portraits in general are all witnesses to the impossibility of conjuring any kind of individuality in the changeable environment of modern life.