Tag Archives: 1890s

Maurice Prendergast – Two Women Crossing a Field

18 Jul

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing”

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook – Two women crossing a field, 1895-97, watercolour

Two ladies in white dresses are walking through a yellow field. With their dainty parasols and elegant hats they almost look like porcelain dolls. The scene is closely cropped and we don’t get to see much of the nature around them. We don’t even see the sky the way we do in similar paintings by Claude Monet. Instead of a detailed portrayal of clouds and grass, Prendergast focuses on the intense yellowness of the field and offers us a sketchy but joyous scene in nature. The summer’s ripeness and vibrancy are at their peak. The lady’s red sash is dancing in the wind and its vibrant red colour contrasts beautifully with the yellow and white. Prendergast wonderfully masters the colour scheme where each colour brings out the vibrancy of the other. All of Prendergast’s watercolours have an uplifting effect on me and I really love how he wasn’t shy about using all the rich shades of colours. His love of raw, bright colours and flatness comes from his years of working in commercial arts. The watercolour sketches in the Boston sketchbook were all made after his return from Paris where he was introduced to the art of Aubrey Beardsley, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, but despite all these influences Prendergast returned to America with a vision of art that was playful, childlike, vibrant and completely his own. He took the Impressionist motives of leisure and nature but decided to portray them in the medium of watercolours instead of the traditional oil on canvas. This particular sunny, summery watercolour has been on my mind for a long time now and I thought what better time to write about this lovely watercolour than in the warm, yellow month of July? To end, here is a very fitting poem by Arthur Rimbaud called “Sensation”:

On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.

Japonism in Claude Monet’s “On the Boat”

27 Apr

Claude Monet, On the Boat, 1887

Japanese artists regularly used all sorts of unusual perspectives and compositions to enrich the artwork and excite the viewer. In ukiyo-e prints we can often see a figure or an object cut out in a strange way, but our eye instantly fills in the part that is missing, we are instantly engaged and we build the rest of the scene with our imagination. This artistic technique was normal in the art of Far East but was perceived as something most unusual and outrageous in European art circles. German painter Franz von Lenbach in particular expressed his intense dislike of the cut-off technique, he wrote: “The Impressionists – those choppers-off of necks and heads – despise the closed form of the human body which has been taught to us by the Old Masters.” In retrospective it is almost amusing how such a little thing would be so provocative. The train of art was moving fast, vanishing in a cloud of smoke and Franz von Lenbach was still on the train station, completely stuck in the dusty, old and boring art routines. The western art traditions favoured symmetry and harmony and the ideal placement of the object portrayed was the centre of the painting. More conventional nineteenth century painters such as Alexandre Cabanel or Adolphe William Bouguereau followed this traditional composition but the Impressionists, and the art movements that followed, were a rebellious bunch who liked to do things their way and didn’t care about anyone else’s approval or praise.

Mizuno Toshikata, 36 Beauties – Viewing Snow, 1891

One of the most popular cut-off objects in the last nineteenth century and early twentieth century art was the boat and we can find many interesting examples of this in the art of the Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot, amongst others. A beautiful example of this is Monet’s painting “On the Boat” from 1887. The dreaminess of the painting is almost unbearable, overwhelming to say the least. Gazing at those soft, airy shades of blue feels like gazing at the clouds on a lovely spring day – ethereal. The rich colouration of the water surface and the reflection of the two figures in the water is splendid. The atmosphere is beautifully conveyed. Two ladies seen sitting in the boat in the middle of the river Epte are Suzanne and Blanche, the daughters of Mrs Hoschedé.

They are dressed in white gowns but it seems the colour of the river is reflected on the dresses and vice versa. The boat is cut-off but as you can see, this composition works beautifully because we don’t need to see the whole boat for the scene to be beautiful and also, this cut-off composition may sound harsh and dynamic but it can actually work well in serene scenes such as this one. In a way it almost looks like a dreamy film scene, as if the camera is just capturing the boat slowly gliding down the river. It feels like a moment captured in time, rather than a staged scene. Bellow you can see other examples of cut-off boats which are interesting but not as dreamy; Monet used darker shades of green and blues in those paintings and the white dresses of the girls contrasts more strongly with the colour of the surrounding nature.

Also, I’ve chosen a few examples of cut-off boats in ukiyo-e prints and, as you can see from the dates, some date back to the eighteenth century and some were created even after Monet’s paintings which shows that Monet and the Impressionist bunch were not only inspired by the Japanese art of the past but that both the artists of the West and of the East were creating exciting new artworks at the same time. Scenes of two lovers in a boat and Ariko weeping are particularly lovely to me. These examples all show that an ordinary object such as a boat can be visually exciting if seen and portrayed in a new and different way; it’s all about how something is painted and now what is painted, I feel.

Claude Monet, The Pink Skiff, Boating on the Epte, 1887

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Ariko weeps as her boat drifts in the moonlight, Print 38 from A Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1886

Claude Monet, In Norway The Boat at Giverny, 1887

Okumura, Masanobu, Two Lovers in a Boat, 1742

Berthe Morisot, Summer’s Day, 1879

Henri Rivière – Funeral Under Umbrellas

6 Mar

“Rain down alienation
Leave this country
Leave this country….”

(Manic Street Preachers, Love’s Sweet Exile)

Henri Rivière, Funeral Under Umbrellas, 1895, etching

Rain has many faces. It is different in every season and in every place; spring rain is exhilarating, summer rain can be exciting and when you get drenched to the bone in July there is nothing that makes you feel more alive, whilst rain in November makes you wanna be – not alive anymore because it’s so depressing. Spring rain in the countryside can be so dreamy, when afterwards the grass is wet and the blossoms of the apple trees are dotted with rain drops and the air smells divine. Rain in the city can be depressing on a grey February day, but it can be also be magical in April when the pavements at night glisten in the light of streetlamps and streets are empty. Rain is two-faced and tricky because it can convey so many different moods and is equally hard to capture it in art, for how do you capture something quick and fleeting? A rain drop falls on the ground before you know it and how do you capture its fall. Other motifs can indicate its presence in the painting, such as umbrellas, puddles and ripples one the surface of a puddle, river or a lake, but rain itself is tricky to paint and throughout art history it wasn’t such a common motif.

At last, in the second half of the nineteenth century, led by the Impressionists’ desire to capture the nature and the fleeting moment, rainy days have found their place in paintings. Renoir’s painting “The Umbrellas” is the first that comes to mind when I think of rainy days in art and it is my favourite by Renoir, I just love the bustle of the street and all the blue umbrellas, and also it reminds me of the video for the song Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manic Street Preachers shot in rainy streets of Tokyo with many colourful umbrellas. Another stunning example of rainy day in art is Henri Rivière’s etching “Funeral Under Umbrellas”, c 1895, which was heavily influenced by Japanese art and when I first saw it, for a second I thought it was indeed a Japanese print. It is simple but atmospheric.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Umbrellas, 1883

There are three key artistic elements borrowed from Japanese prints that Rivière used in this painting; firstly the obvious flatness of the surface, secondly, the use of diagonal composition which makes the painting seem dynamic and it beautifully takes our eyes on a trip from the first dark silhouette with an umbrella all the way to the carriage in the background, there’s also a dynamic play of empty space on the left with the space full of figures on the right half of the painting, thirdly the way rain is painted in diagonal lines falling from right to the left part of the painting, that is exactly how rain is depicted in so many Ukiyo-e prints and it is really stunning. I like the philosophy behind such portrayal of rain; real world is one thing and art is another world for itself and so why portray something exactly like it is in nature if you can come up with a new pictorial language for the world of art.

Rain looks one way in real life, but in Ukiyo-e prints rain is a bunch of diagonal lines and it works wonderfully. You can see that in Utagawa Hiroshige’s print “Mimasaka Province: Yamabushi Valley”; the lines representing rain are even thicker and stronger than Riviere dared to make them. In Ando Hiroshige’s print you can see the diagonal composition similar to the one in Riviere’s etching. Also, the fact that Riviere didn’t paint this oil on canvas but made an etching also shows an interested in Japanese art because the effect is similar whereas oil on canvas is something Japanese artists wouldn’t use.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Mimasaka Province: Yamabushi Valley (Mimasaka, Yamabushidani), from the series Famous Places in the Sixty-odd Provinces [of Japan], 1853

Ando Hiroshige, Ama-no Hashidate in the province of Tango, 1853-56

Pierre Bonnard – Street Scene

16 Feb

Pierre Bonnard, Street Scene, 1899, four panel screen, colour litograph

Pierre Bonnard was fascinated by the liveliness and vibrancy of Parisian streets and parks where nannies, dogs and children play in sunny spring days and he painted many such vibrant street scenes, but this “Street Scene” (also known as “Nannies Promenade, Frieze of Carriages”) is a special street scene because the common Impressionist and Post-Impressionist motif of a street scene is inspired by the Japanese art and it also exhibits the philosophy of the Nabis group that art should be present in everyday life, in everyday objects such as tapestries, fans, posters and decorative folding screens. A century and a half before Bonnard, the art of Rococo had already shown a fondness for folding screens which were painted in the spirit of chinoserie, but the artists who painted the screens were always anonymous and unimportant, but in the late nineteenth century the artists of Post-Impressionism and Nabis found a tremendous source of inspiration in Japanese art and works such as this street scene by Bonnard are a delightful mix of Post-Impressionist European art and the influence of Japan.

Bonnard, a young artist at the time, first painted the screen in distemper (pigment in glue) on canvas with carved wood frame in 1895. In 1894 in a letter to his mother he spoke about the idea for the painting: “I am working on a screen […]. It is of the Place de la Concorde with a young mother walking with her children, with nannies and dogs, and on top, as a border, a carriage rank, and all on a light beige background which is very like the Place de la Concorde when it’s dusty and looks like a miniature Sahara.” And in 1895-96 around a hundred and ten colour lithographs were made and the one you see here is one of them. Half of those lithographs were destroyed in a flood in Paris in 1940. They were sold either individually or in a set and could either be mounted on the screen and served as a decoration in the room, or they could have been framed and placed on the wall as a panting. It is beautiful to see it flat like a painting and also beautifully folded in zig zag way, each vertically enlongated screen is an artwork for itself and yet it created a scene for itself. This narrow vertical canvas is called “kakemono” in Japanese art, and the action in the painting is suppose to be read in Japanese way, from right to left.

Bonnard showed a great interest in the folding screens and the first one he created was “Women in the Garden” in 1891 but in that folding screen every part of the canvas was filled with pattern and colour. In contrast, “Street Scene” is beautifully empty and there is an intricate visual play between groups of figures and the empty space. The figures are flat and simple. The placement of figures seems spontaneous but is actually carefully planned and it looks beautiful when the screen is opened or flat. The group of figures in the foreground are a fashionably dressed mother with her two children who are playing with sticks and hoops, a game seen often in the art of the Impressionists. A little black dog is here too. In the background three almost identically dressed nannies, and a row of carriages with horses behind them.

 

Marianne Stokes – The Queen and the Page

22 Dec

“…the woman is seen as unattainable, the more the desire she has aroused grows, and her Beauty is transfigured.”

Marianne Stokes, The Queen and the Page, 1896, oil on canvas, 101 x 96 cm

Marianne Stokes’ painting “The Queen and the Page” has been haunting me for weeks now. As soon as I read the painting’s title I was, in my imagination, transported to some enchanted, far-away, Medieval fairy tale land, to some white castle with many many narrow towers and spiraling staircases; a castle with knights, troubadours and damsels. The painting has a distinctly Medieval mood which shows Marianne Stokes’ interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. The composition and the colour palette both contribute to the gentle beauty and the bittersweet mood of the painting. The focus is solely on the two figures of the Queen and her Page who are seen walking through a forest. The space around them is painted in soft, tender shades of blue, grey and green, and it looks very dreamy and remote from the stifling life at the court. The woodland, with the tall elegant tree trunks and the mushrooms springing from the ground, is a beautiful setting for the scene.

The figures of the Queen and the Page are elegant and gently elongated, beautifully clad in sumptuous fabric, both are wearing a similar pair of pointy shoes, and their paleness and some sort of frail elegance brings to mind the elegant figures from the fourteenth century illuminations by the Limbourg Brothers. The Page is carrying her train; it’s a sacred duty to him, a privilege to touch the silk train of her dress when the fate is so cruel that he may not touch her lips of soft blonde hair. Without a word being spoken we can feel the mood between the young and beautiful Queen and the blonde Page; there’s a quiet yearning and tenderness in the air. Their faces are especially interesting in conveying the feelings; her downward gaze seems wistful and passively surrendered to her faith, the Page’s eyes glisten with yearning and his cheeks, rosy as rosebuds, speaks of sweetness that mount in his soul while he is breathing the same air as his beloved. But, alas, bittersweet is the tale of their romance!

The inscription written in German in the upper part of the canvas speaks of the story of an old grey-haired King who was married to a young, beautiful Queen, and there was also a Page who had blonde hair and who carried the Queen’s silk train. The Queen and the Page loved each other too much and they both had to die. This vision of love, exceedingly idealised and romantic, tinged with melancholy, tender and – tragical – is typical for the late Medieval age of romance, damsels and troubadours that Marianne Stokes is clearly trying to evoke: “That new romantic code so sweetly celebrated in ‘Le Roman de la Rose’ and the ideal of “courty love” sung by the troubadours governed the relations between the sexes. The lover was expected to show delicate attentions and pay respectful hommage to the lady of his heart. This new culture, worldly no doubt but full of smiling grace, did much to shape the course of the 13th century life.” (Gothic painting, Jacques Dupont)

And here is something very interesting that Umberto Eco says on the same topic in his book “On Beauty”:

…the development of an idea of female Beauty, and of courtly love, in which desire is amplified by prohibition: the Lady fosters in the knight a permanent state of suffering, which he joyfully accepts. This leads to fantasies about a possession forever deferred, in which the more the woman is seen as unattainable, the more the desire she has aroused grows, and her Beauty is transfigured. (…) …all these stories of passion contain the idea that love, apart from the ravishment of the senses, brings unhappiness and remorse in its train. Consequently, as far as regards the interpretation of courtly love in the centuries that followed, the moments of moral weakness (and of erotic success) undoubtedly took second place to the idea of an infinitely protracted round of frustration and desire, in which the dominion the woman acquires over the lover reveals certain masochistic aspects and, the more passion is humiliated, the more it grows.

Marianne Stokes, Aucassin and Nicolette, date unknown

Marianne Stokes (born Preindlsberger) was an Austrian painter who married the British landscape painter Adrian Scott Stokes. They had no children and they were both devoted to their art and travelled Europe extensively. These travels fueled their inspiration and Marianne’s oeuvre, very thematically diverse, reflects this. Painting “The Queen and the Page” is a very beautiful example of Stokes being inspired by the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Another beautiful and romantic example of this is the painting “Aucassin and Nicolette”.

Eugène Carrière – The First Communion

17 Dec

Eugène Carrière, The First Communion, 1896

Eugène Carrière’s painting “The First Communion” is the most haunting painting of a little girl dressed for her First Communions that I have seen. Quite a few examples of this motif can be found in the late nineteenth century art, but no painting I’ve seen is this ghostly. The gentle figure of a young girl arises from the surrounding darkness. All of Carrière’s paintings have this distinct atmosphere and the figures in them seem to emerge from the brown-grey fog or a muddy swamp. The girl’s hands are clasped in her lap and she seems so sombre and wraith-like; her white formal gown and veil are transformed into a sea of greys by Carrière’s brush, as if they’re made of ashes. Usually the girls painted in their white First Communion dresses look angelic, smiling and lively, but Carrière’s portrayal of this motif instantly takes away the little girl’s angelic, innocent appeal because she seems more like a ghost than a real girl; no smile, no rosy cheeks on that face.

As I gaze at the girl’s face more, a scene from the film “The Others” (2001) comes to mind; a very devout Catholic woman (played by Nicole Kidman) lives alone in a lonely, forgotten mansion surrounded with constant fog with her two children and servants, desperately awaiting her husband’s return from the war. In one scene she lets her daughter try on the new snow-white dress and veil for her First Communion. The mother leaves the room for awhile and when she returns, she finds her daughter playing with a doll, but her face isn’t her own: it’s a horrible and frightening face of an old woman. Of course, it was only an illusion, but Carrière’s girl seem to me capable of transforming into something else, it isn’t static and final in my eyes, it moves and changes; I can imagine the girl’s dress changing from perfectly white to this shade of grey; I can imagine her eyes losing shine and her face loosing form; this is but one state of melancholy decay, she will sink even more into the darkness that surrounds her.

In all of Carrière’s paintings, I feel like his figures are transitioning from the palpable, material world to a mystical, airy one, their forms are distilling, they are fading away… Odilon Redon, a fellow Symbolist artist who used colour and shapes very differently though, wrote this of Carrière’s art: “…opaque limbos where pale, morbidly human faces float like seaweed: that is Carrière’s painting. It does not have the flavor of solid reality, but remains in the muted regions of the first elaboration, which are favorable to visions, and never appears or flowers in the shining brightness of the solar prism.” My view of Carrière’s paintings varies from day to day, from painting to painting; sometimes the haunting and ghostly mood of his portraits really captivates me, and other times, his colour palette is devastatingly depressing and monotonous. Carrière’s dislike, or mistrust, of colour is truly remarkable. I really love this painting “The First Communion” because of its motif really, but some of his other paintings tend to drain me due to their lack of vibrant colour. And now, here are some other examples of the same motif but in a very different mood and style. With their white gowns and veils, the First Communion girls look like little brides.

Sir John Lavery, Eileen, Her First Communion, 1901

Elizabeth Nourse, The First Communion (La Première communion), 1895

Henri Martin, First Communion, 1891

Jules Bastien-Lepage, First Communion, 1875

Carl Frithjof Smith, After first Communion, 1892

Emile Claus, First Communion, 1893

Camille Pissarro – Impressions of Parisian Streets

27 Nov

Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint Lazare, 1893

Pissarro is a somewhat neglected Impressionist and understandably so; his private life wasn’t rife with scandals and excesses, and his art wasn’t scandalous and fleshy either. It’s easy to see why the dandyish Monet, Degas; the painter of ballerinas, or Renoir with his pretty girls are more popular, but Pissarro’s oeuvre shows both steadiness and experimentation. Pissarro lived in the countryside most of his life and thus most of his paintings are scenes from the countryside. Still, due to health reasons, he moved to Paris near the end of his life and there he continued paintings plein air but his motifs weren’t the meadows, trees and haystacks of his beloved countryside, but the bustling streets of a big city. These delightful urban landscapes are the crown of Pissarro’s painterly career. These paintings remind me of that wonderful feeling; when you find yourself in the midst of a bustling city, on a square or walking on the pavements, and suddenly feel yourself detaching from all the noise and bustle, and simply observing it all. Seeing the people, walking fast or walking slow, cars and trams gliding down the streets, show windows and neon shop signs.

I named this post the “Impressions of Parisian Streets” because this series of paintings that Pissarro had painted throughout the winter of 1897/1898 marks not only the end of Pissarro’s oeuvre but also his final return to a more free, sketchy Impressionist style after he spent a few years flirting with pointillism and learning from Signac and Seurat. These urban landscapes are Pissarro’s “impressions” of the streets he saw from the window of the hotel in the place du Théâtre Français. Seen from afar, these impressions of Parisian streets look like a vibrant and bustling place, but if you look at the paintings from up close you see that the carriages, trees and people have all turned into blurry dots, dashes and dabs of colours. The Impressionist desire to paint plein air and to paint the real world around them reminds me so much of sociology because both basically observed society and world around them. Pissarro basically sketched what he saw in these urban scenes, and even though the style is very free and subjective, he pretty much portrayed the objective truth that was before his eyes.

Camille Pissarro, La Place due Théâtre Français, 1898

Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of rain, 1897

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, 1897

Camille Pissarro, Place du Théâtre Français, Paris – Rain, 1898

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, Morning Mist, 1897

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873-74

I also decided to include this painting by Monet just because it’s so beautiful and captures the same motif.

All Souls’ Day: Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller and Franz Skarbina

2 Nov

Franz Skarbina, All Souls’ Day (Hedwig Cemetery), 1896

The graveyard comes alive on All Souls’ Day, candles and flowers for sure brighten up the otherwise grey and lonely landscape of the graveyards. I like to visit the graveyard these days, not for tradition but to enjoy the magical mood where the vibrancy of pink, orange and yellow chrysanthemums and the flickering light of the candles create a unique atmosphere which is half-eerie and half-carnival like. Carnival of souls, I can almost imagine them dancing ethereally between the tomb stones, and the last yellow leaves falling from the trees and joining them in their macabre dance. I found two interesting, but very different examples of this motif in art history; Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s painting “On All Souls’ Day”, painted in 1839, and Franz Skarbina’s more atmospheric portrayal of the theme painted in 1896.

Waldmüller’s painting shows two ladies, probably mother and daughter, dressed head to toe in black. Their pale round faces looks almost identical and doll-like, peeking under black bonnets adorned with black lace. The mother’s hands are clasped, as in a solemn prayer, while the daughter is reading a book, probably some verses from the Bible. The grave they are visiting, I assume it is that of the daughter’s father, is adorned with flowers, there’s even a flower wreath on the wooden cross. In comparison, the graves in the background appear cold and grey, like a modern apartment complex, alienated and somber. The ground around the graves is bare, no time had passed for new fresh grass to grow, and the mud everywhere is suffocating. The painting appears static and somewhat sentimental, the emphasis is on the women and their feelings, not on the overall graveyard mood.

Skarbina’s painting is much more vibrant and lively, the flickering candles and the murmuring trees, here and there a white cross arises from the background but it doesn’t appear eerie. The graves speak of eternity while the candles remind us of transience; their fragile lives can stop at each blow of the wind or a drop of rain. The little girl in black is using one candle to light the others while her mother is watching. The yellow light of the candles is warming their faces. The painting has depth and dynamics; we can see other people in the background, other graves are lively and candles are lighted everywhere, whereas in Waldmüller’s painting the focus is solely on that one grave and the others don’t matter. I’m not going to lie, Skarbina’s painting is the one I love more because it has that touch of magic and dreaminess. The mud on the Waldmüller’s painting seems ready to swallow another corpse and that horrid realism unsettles me. Skarbina’s painting is more romantic in spirit.

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, On All Souls’ Day, 1839

Philip Wilson Steer – Girl in a Blue Dress

9 Sep

Philip Wilson Steer, Girl in a Blue Dress, c. 1891

I have recently written about Philip Wilson Steer’s vibrant and unique beach scenes, but today I would like to focus on these lovely portraits of his model, muse and girlfriend Rose Pettigrew. Little is known of their relationship, but we do know that Rose posed for him for eight years and on one occasion said: “I love posing for Philip; and first of all posed for little money as I thought he was very poor, and child as I was, wanted to help him”. This dim lit interior is a harmony of browns and blues; the limited colour palette and the girl’s pose reminds me of some of Whistler’s portraits. Also, I would never assume that a simple combination of brown and blue could create such an aesthetically pleasing painting. This is no luxurious salon, the girl is sitting on a simple hard wooden chair and only a window showing the night sky is seen behind her. We don’t see her face because she is focused on the little book of pictures that she is holding in her hand. This makes the painting appear casual and intimate, this isn’t a formal sitting with the girl staring straight at us, trying to hold a feign smile, but rather Steer portrayed this lovely girl while she was amused by something else. He gazed at the object of his fascination and affection as one would a bird in its cage; we see less of Rose’s character and more of Steer’s perception of her. In a humble interior, Rose shines nonetheless because Steer’s brush is tinged with sensuality and melancholy. When the lights are dim, the barriers fall down. Her gorgeous blue dress with white dots here and there looks like a night sky littered with sparkling, silvery stars. In “Girl on a Sofa”, it’s the girl’s slender little hand that is the most sensual detail to me. Her blushing cheeks and gaze hidden from us speak of her girlish shyness. These verses from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “Jenny” come to my mind as I gaze at these paintings:

“All golden in the lamplight’s gleam,—
You know not what a book you seem,
Half-read by lightning in a dream!
(….)
And I should be ashamed to say:—
Poor beauty, so well worth a kiss!
But while my thought runs on like this
With wasteful whims more than enough,
I wonder what you’re thinking of.”

Philip Wilson Steer, Girl on a Sofa, 1891

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.