Tag Archives: 18th century

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Complain of the Watch

29 Jul

The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went.” (Virginia Woolf)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Complain of the Watch, 1770

In a sad room a sad faced young thing is sitting on a chair. Indulged in a wistful reverie, she looks as ethereal and pale as a ghost, so lost in her thoughts that if someone happened to walk into her room, she’d probably seize to notice him. Behind her a bed and a barren wall as grey as her thoughts. Dressed in a loose white dress, an undergarment or a nightgown, the blonde girl is gazing in the distance with a pensive face expression. She’s holding a watch in her hand. Thin rays of sun coming through the small window provide the light in this poorly furnished attic room. Every night when the bells of a near-by church announce midnight, thin-legged spiders walk up and down the walls of her sad abode, greenish from the mould, weaving webs in the corners of the room, weaving webs in every corner of her heart. How could someone so young look so sad? Who dared to fill those blue eyes with tears and burden those slender white shoulders with woe?

Next to the girl is a small table, and on it a basket, some flowers and a letter. A letter which must hide all the secrets of her aching heart, a letter which hides the mystery behind her wistful reverie. I don’t know what the letter says, neither do you, but a little blackbird which sat on my windowsill today knows all the secrets from centuries gone by: he is a time travelling bird. It is a long tale of woe which I hesitate to retell, but I will tell you this: the lover loved and went, leaving nothing but a watch as a memory and empty words of goodbye; I can only assume it took more time for ink to dry than it did for his feelings of affection to cool down. Poor, poor girl, with her Rococo face and her Rococo sadness, what is she to do with her life now? Abandoned, alone, breathing in the perfume of lost hopes and sadness, while her wedding gown is being slowly eaten by moths in the wardrobe, her bouquet of flowers slowly withering as hours linger.

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Jean-Honoré Fragonard – The Swing

4 Apr

Painting The Swing is Fragonard’s most well-known work, and the epitome of Rococo; it’s a fun, frivolous, hedonistic painting imbued with erotic insinuations and painted in rich colour palette full of lightness and vivacity. To most people, and myself included, it is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Rococo and today would have been Fragonard’s birthday, so it’s a perfect day for this painting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767

Painting The Swing shows a young woman sitting on a swing and two male figures lazing around in a pastoral setting. The woman holds a central position and she is a true eye-candy; dressed in a silk gown in a peachy-pink colour, her head adorned with a straw hat. Rosy cheeked and laughing, she’s dangling her legs in white stockings and playfully throwing one of her pink shoes in the air. Her flat straw hat is a fashionable style of the time, called ‘bergeré’ which means ‘shepherdess’, and can be seen in many Rococo paintings, in particular those of Fragonard and Gainsbourgh. The man in the background, a layman, is pulling her swing, while the one on the left, resting amidst delicate pink roses, gets to have all the fun, gazing mischievously at the legs of this gorgeous girl, and not just legs – women of Rococo didn’t wear knickers.

Fantasies, flirting, and debauchery are all intermingled in this voyeuristic scene placed in an idealised setting of lush nature, marble statues and roses, all painted in soft fluttering brushstrokes and bathed with luminosity and lightness which Fragonard took from the Italian masters such as Corregio, who is sometimes considered the forerunner of Rococo, and Tiepolo. The scene is painted so beautifully that one can feel the mood of that carefree afternoon, smell the flowery sweetness that lingers in the air on this late spring or early summer day, you can heard their laughter and a peaceful birdsong.

Sensuality of this erotic reverie is emphasised by the vibrant, lavishing glistening pastel shades, from her pink dress to the gorgeous hazy background painted in the most exquisite shades of green; notice the gradation from the gentle light green where the rays of sun fall to darker greens which exceed into a mystical turquoise mist on the right part of the painting. And then the soft, dreamy blue sky with delicate clouds: the perfect background for us to notice the little pink shoe flying in the air. Sculptures of Cupids, Venuses and angels are popping up everywhere in Rococo art, and this painting is no exception. There’s a sculpture of Cupid on the far left; his finger is pressed on his lips, suggesting secrecy and conspiracy of this naughty game. But will the roses keep their little dirty secrets safe, or will they maliciously whisper them to the moon when the night falls?

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a pupil of another famous Rococo master – Francois Boucher who painted many portraits of Madame Pompadour, the one of many mistresses of Louis XV, including my favourite one where she’s shown wearing a peachy coloured dress and standing next to an old statue. Fragonard continued his tradition, but the vivacious brushwork is entirely his own. As a marvellous colourist, Fragonard won an award in 1752 which enabled him to spend five years, from 1756, in Rome to study painting, and he returned to France with a rich luminous colour palette. There’s an interesting anecdote about this painting; it’s said that Baron de Saint-Julien asked another painter, Gabriel-Francoise Doyen, to make a painting of him and his mistress on a swing in which he would be portrayed looking at her legs. Doyen wasn’t really impressed with the frivolous nature of this commission and passed it on to Fragonard who made a painting so memorable that I can’t help it wonder what Doyen’s version would have looked like. Small dimensions of this painting emphasise the intimate nature of Rococo art which was meant to be enjoyed in privacy of one’s home, whereas the grand Baroque art was meant for showing off. Rococo is dreamy, intimate chatter in saloons, and Baroque is pompous swaggering in long halls with mirrors and candles, like that of Louis XIV.

And now the Swinging sixties version of The Swing:

Rococo art has many aspects, this ‘frivolous and hedonistic’ one is just one of them, and these days it’s all I need; rose gardens, dreamy blue skies, gorgeous dresses. Titles of the paintings, e.g. Boucher’s The Secret Message, Dreaming Shepherdess, or Fragonard’s The Stolen Kiss, The Love Letter, The Souvenir, The Secret Meeting, Progress of Love and Confession of Love are just adorable. And so are all those ladies painted in gorgeous silk gowns with flowers on their bosoms and lace around heir necks, with straw hats or love letters in their hands, captured for eternity with porcelain white skin and rosy cheeks, daydreaming in parks and forest glades by the statues of angels and Roman goddesses, or having their kisses stolen in luxurious salons by naughty noblemen with powdered hair; in short, doing nothing, doing it sweetly, and doing it in style – Rococo!

Witches Round the Cauldron by Daniel Gardner (1775)

5 Nov

When shall we three meet again,

In thunder, in lighting or in rain.‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene I)

by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

‘…something wicked this way comes.’

As the eighteenth century slowly approached its end, things were getting darker on the artistic scene. Ghosts, vampires and witches suddenly appeared on canvases of painters such as Henry Fuseli, Goya and William Blake. Dark side of the imagination began to shape works of art as well as literature, and the aesthetic of sublime slowly crept in. This was the answer to the excessive coldness, lightness and rationality of Classicism. In times when this was painted, public tastes were inclined towards the supernatural and Gothic, especially with theatre-goers who loved scenes from Macbeth. ‘Paint the witch!‘ replaced the more barbaric ‘Burn the witch!’.

Although the subject of this scene hints at the later developments of Romanticism, its execution is true to the styles of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, two artists whose style Gardner emulated, and often borrowed ideas for composition and arrangement of figures. This is an utterly charming and dreamy portrayal of three witches from Macbeth. There’s nothing scary or disturbing about it, and these three ladies are certainly prettier than Shakespeare had intended his witches to be, but these are not just three witches, oh no, Gardner actually portrayed three friends, society hostesses, art lovers and supporters of Whig party in this portrait.

The figure on the left, with long brown hair, is Elizabeth Lamb (nee Milbanke), Viscountess Melbourne. Witch on the right, dressed in splendid, sparkly black robe with zodiac symbols on it and tiny golden details, is Anne Seymour Damer (nee Conway) who was also an amateur sculptor. She has a typical black ‘witch’ hat and holds a magic wand in her right hand. In the middle is the most extravagant and well remembered out of all three; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her beauty, bold fashion statements, gambling and partying (much like Kate Moss today), her affair and an unhappy marriage. Along with a hat, her beautiful head is covered with gauze veil, and while she holds the sumptuous white silk fabric of her dress with one hand, she uses other to throw some herbs or blue flowers in the cauldron. Despite portraying a Shakespearean scene, which is a great task for the imagination, Gardner didn’t really use it, but rather chose to follow the fashion of the day; both in clothing the ‘witches’ wear and the style and composition of the painting itself.

High society lady, writer and diarist Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811) wrote in her diary of ‘the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Melburn, and Mrs Damer all being drawn in one picture in the Characters of the three Witches in Macbeth … They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches‘. (*)

Although I find the whole painting aesthetically pleasing, and very fitting for the mood of these post-Halloween days, I must say a thing or two about the brushstrokes and the play of light. Gardner beautifully portrayed their dresses, painting in soft, playful and refined strokes, using gouache and chalk. And the light; see how the bronze cauldron glistens, smoke arises like in a dream, and the reflections of the fire on the gorgeous silk dresses of the witches. I should also mention the possible allegorical meaning of the painting; since all three women were interested in politics and publicly supported the Whig party, it is possible that Gardner painted the cauldron as a symbol of ‘shadowy political machinations as leading members of the Devonshire House circle.’ (*)

Pre-Romanticism: Ruined Abbeys, Erotic Dreams and Strange Visions

29 Oct

In this post we’ll explore Pre-Romanticism through its main themes and occupations; ruined abbeys, erotic dreams and strange visions. There’s a strong Gothic vibe in early Romanticism; dreams, visions, vampires and hallucinations, and artists sought inspiration in myths and ballades of the past, Celtic and Germanic fairy tales, and everything that evoked the spirit of the Middle Ages. Compared to the flashy second generation of Romanticism, art of Pre-Romanticism is shrouded in thousands of veils, in it an insurmountable mountain, a misty lake in a desolate countryside, it’s a dream of Albion. Pre-Romanticism is a gentle plant that grew from the imagination of the people of the North; from their gloom soothed by the roaring of the sea and their melancholy which enabled them to look within and to transcend the darkness of their surroundings.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794

Romanticism developed very early in British art and literature. In the same years when fashion and interior design were ruled by Rococo exuberance, and visual arts were dominated by Classical ideas imposed by the French painter David, a new sensibility was arising from the mists of Albion. Strongly opposing the cold and rational age of Enlightenment, artists of the new generation, represented by Thomas Gray, James Macpherson and Ann Radcliffe in literature, and Henry Fuseli, Turner and William Blake in visual arts, praised imagination and strong feelings, and advocated the return to nature. ‘Sturm und Drang’ in German literature and writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also very important in creating the new spirit.

These artists found inspiration in everything otherworldly, dreamy and shrouded in mystery. All of a sudden, the artistic and literary stage of Europe was swamped with vampires and other ‘dreadful creatures’ (a tendency further developed by Mary Shelley). Proneness towards melancholy, strange visions, thoughts of death and transience, sleep and dreams, old ruins, long forgotten castles – all these themes suddenly pervaded the artistic landscape. Interest in the cold and gloomy North revealed to early Romanticists the beauty of old Icelandic sagas, the charms of the Scottish bard, the allure of dark Germanic, Celtic and Scandinavian legends and fairy tales, and drew their attention to everything ‘Gothic’; sombre, gruesome, frightening, because that’s how the folkloric and historical legacy of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages was perceived as.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794

Old ruins

As I’ve already mentioned, old ruins were an interesting subject for painters to incorporate in their sublime landscapes, and for poets they served as starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that this ‘old ruin’, a symbol of some other times, was a muse for early Romanticists. You can easily picture a young man resting in the shadow of the Abbey, thinking of his lovely maiden, treasuring a lock of her hair, and thinking of the day they will finally be together. You can also imagine the Abbey in the stillness of the night, above it the shining full moon and stars. Ruins were popular because they were perceived as ‘pictures of despair and destruction’, further developing the sensibility of sublime.

1790-91-henry-fuseli-the-nightmareHenry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Erotic Dreams

Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote that ‘Gleams from remote world visit the soul in sleep’, and the main focus of Fuseli’s art lies in dreams. He believed they were the most unexplored areas in art, which isn’t really a surprise because, firstly – how do you paint dreams, and secondly – until Romanticism there wasn’t really a concept of artist as a genius, a visionary, and because they were considered mere craftsmans, themes of their artworks were limited.

This isn’t the original version of this painting. Due to the popularity of the original, painted in 1781, Fuseli painted a few more versions and this is one of them. It shows a young woman sleeping and experiencing a nightmare. In a restless sleep, her arms are stretching, her golden ringlets falling down. Poor maiden, as helpless in her sleep as a virgin from one of Hammer production vampire films. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. Fuseli took inspiration from Germanic folkloric beliefs that demons and witches posses people who sleep alone. Lady’s pose was considered rather erotic when it was painted, but Fuseli was known to have had a collection of erotic drawings that might have served as an inspiration.

Still, what’s so appealing about this painting isn’t the composition or the colours, but its ability to anticipate the hidden and restless world of nightmares and the unconscious.

1790s ‘The Wandring Moon.’ Watercolour by William Blake (1757-1827).

William Blake (1757-1827), The Wandering Moon, Watercolour, 1816-20

Strange Visions

Eternity is in love with the creations of time.‘ (W.Blake)

Ah, finally, the visionary, the revolutionary-mystic, the rebel, the pot-head of Romanticism – William Blake, important for poetry and paintings alike.

Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine),writes that people living in the North were more prone to melancholy, at the same time naming it as the reason that made their imaginations more vivid, more restless than it was with nations in the South. I’ll quote the book: ‘The people of the North were less engaged in pleasure than in its opposite sensation; and this rendered their imagination more fertile: the prospects of nature had almost unbounded influence over them; but it affected them as it appeared in their climate, always dark and gloomy.‘ (Madame de Staël, The Influence of Literature Upon Society, Volume 1, page 271)

William Blake is one of the finest examples of fertile imagination of the people of the North, as his poems and drawings were not only original and unique, but also very strange, mystic and flamboyant in terms of colours and ideas. His lonely and unreachable imagination produced drawings and watercolours that perfectly combine themes from Milton, Dante and the Bible, made with a prophetic vigour in strong and bitter colours. As an example of Blake’s wonderful imagination I’ll mention his portrayal of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, Canto V, where he shows two sinful lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, painted in deep blue and luminous white greyish shades. Namely, Dante reserved the second circle of hell for sinful lovers; Cleopatra, Paris, Helena, Tristan, Paolo and Francesca, who are carried away by the wind as a symbol of passion that guided them during their lives. Blake here used the motif of wind and created the composition as strange as it is imaginative.

1824-27-william-blake-the-lovers-whirlwind-francesca-da-rimini-and-paolo-malatestaWilliam Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

I love Pre-Romanticism, the mystic gloominess of it, and I have to stress this point again – it is characteristic for Northern nations; mainly England and Germany. While the playful, sweet and flowery aesthetic of Rococo ruled the court of France, British artists had already dipped their fingers in the sea of Pre-Romanticism, and later elaborated it to the finest detail because they naturally had an eye for wild and untamed nature, picturesque seashores, lovely gardens lush with greenness. Even Thomas Gainsborough added a slight romantic sensibility in his portraits by painting nature as a background, whereas his French peers preferred a salon to showcase their wealth and luxury. Even with painters such as John Constable who are a tad more traditional with landscapes, you see that romantic spirit. In his painting ‘Stonehenge’ he chose to capture the old, mysterious pagan ruins, and the wild majestic sky over them. I think with Romanticism and British art and literature, it was just a question of time when it would raise to the surface, but it was a sensibility deeply woven into the art of the island. I’ll quote Madame de Stael again, it’s a bit long citation, but I couldn’t resists adding it because it perfectly captures the spirit of Pre-Romanticism.

Melancholy poetry is that which accords best with philosophy. Depression of spirits leads us to penetrate more deeply into the character and destiny of man, than any other disposition of the mind. The English poets who succeeded the Scots bards, added to their descriptions those very ideas and reflections which those description ought to have given birth to: but they have preserved, from the fine imagination of the North that gloom which is soothed with the roaring of the sea, and the hollow blast that rages on the barren heath, and, in short, every thing dark and dismal, which can force a mind dissatisfied with its existence here, to look forward to another state. The vivid imagination of the people of the North darting beyond the boundaries of a world whose confines they inhabited, penetrated through the black cloud that obscured their horizon, and seemed to represent the dark passage to eternity.‘ (page 271)*

1835-stonehenge-john-constable-1John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

If you survived reading this very long post, I congratulate you!

Antoine Watteau – The Love Lesson

8 Oct

In this post we’ll take a look at Antoine Watteau’s painting The Love Lesson and explore its world of fragile elegance and melancholic serenity.

1700s-antoine-watteau-the-love-lessonJean-Antoine Watteau, The Love Lesson, 1716

A picture of a gentle, innocent afternoon; sky is clear blue with a few clouds that are as threatening as a little dog in the right corner. Sunlight gently hits the sleeping trees in this grove filled with laughter, music and leisure. Trees are captured in flickering, playful brushstrokes. Three ladies in pastel coloured dressed seem to be amused by a piece of paper, most likely a love letter. Two lads are keeping them company; a musician and the other one, with little moustaches, dressed in a blue cloak, pointing at a letter with amusement. The lightness and the seemingly easy-going nature of this painting is typical for Watteau’s style.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, the master of ‘fetes galantes’, was born on 10th October 1684 in Valenciennes but soon settled in Paris where he painted genre scenes for rich bankers and dealers. Today his paintings are considered not only as little masterpieces but also as the pioneers of Rococo style that would rule the majority of 18th century, but during his lifetime they were praised merely for their ornamental, decorative value. Rococo is not my cup of tea because it is a bit too decorative, too flamboyant, and, let’s be frank – too kitschy. Still, Watteau’s paintings are lighter, gentler and a certain melancholic serenity dominates their mood.

Perhaps Watteau deliberately painted the simple pleasures of life and created a world that was so different to the mundaneness of his everyday worries; a world where shepherds hold hands with their shepherdesses, sweet scents and music are always in the air, a world of picnics in magical parks where it never rains, a world of cavaliers and pretty ladies in shiny silks. His reality was so much different; he lacked aristocratic clients and he was of fragile health, dying of consumption at the age of thirty-seven, just five years after The Love Lesson was painted. Still, in his visions of beauty there’s a hint of sadness that’s hard to define. Watteau knew the sweetness and the pleasures of life, but he also knew their short lasting nature. Love that is here today, may be gone tomorrow, beauty that charms the eyes of the beholders may soon vanish, and happiness rarely lingers. Awareness of the transience of beauty gave his art a certain intensity that’s lacking in other Rococo artworks.

Yellow Stands for the Sun: Vincent van Gogh – The Sower

25 Jul

My life project is making my Mondays happy. Well, one of my life projects. Yellow is a cheerful colour and lately I’ve been fixated on artworks with yellow colour, and of course Vincent van Gogh was the first artist that came to my mind.

‘How lovely yellow is, it stands for the sun.’ (Vincent van Gogh)

1888. Vincent van Gogh, The SowerVincent van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

Vincent van Gogh loved yellow colour. He adored it. He worshipped it. After all, he said that yellow stands for the sun, and, like many artists before and after him, Vincent found his artistic haven under the sun of Provence, in Arles, where he would paint some of his most famous works such as The Sower. Whether painting stars, wheat fields or sunflowers, Vincent used yellow in abundance, but this painting in particular has that pure, intoxicating, magnificent shade of yellow that makes it so special. The painting shows a sower as a small blue figure against the vast field and sky that surrounds him. There’s a narrow path in the foreground that leads nowhere. A few crows are present. Van Gogh will reprise both of these elements in his beautifully intense and sinister painting Wheatfield with Crows, which was to be one of his last works. Mood of The Sower is different however – there’s still hope.

Vincent’s joy and ecstasy for living is woven into every tiny detail of this painting; from the soil, painted in warm brown tones with dashes of blue to the row of bright orange wheat behind the sower, crowned with magnificent, protruding amber yellow – the sun. Rays of sun are so pervading that the sky lost its blueness and became a golden oriental rug or a dress on one of Klimt’s ladies. Such is the beauty and importance of the sun in this painting. Whenever van Gogh painted in yellow or orange colour, he used blue as well. Blue and yellow were a match made in heaven according to Vincent, and you’ll see this in many of his paintings. In this painting, van Gogh switched the natural colours with his own expressionistic vision; blueness of the sky wowed itself into the soil, and the sun coloured the sky with such intensity that it seems to be burning rather than shining.

In the book Lust for Life, Irving Stone vividly describes Arles and Vincent’s thoughts upon arriving at that hot, incredibly and unbearably hot place where cruel sun and mistral drive people to madness. He describes the architecture of the town, river Rhone, and how the houses were all made with bright red tiles but their redness exceeded into light lavender, orange or brown colours under the strong rays of Provence sun. May I add that Vincent spent hours painting outdoors, in wheat fields often not even wearing a hat. The sun eventually drove him crazy too but for some time it was simply a muse that helped him create some of his finest paintings.

And now some beautiful paintings with yellow colour from various art periods:

1888. Summer Evening, Wheatfield with Setting sun, Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Summer Evening, Wheatfield with Setting sun, 1888

1839. Mary Ellen Best - Self-portrait

Mary Ellen Best, Self-portrait, 1839

1899. Max Kurzweil, Dame im gelben Kleid

Max Kurzweil, Dame im gelben Kleid, 1899

1908. The Kiss (Lovers) by Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers), 1908

1821. Portrait of Henrietta Shuckburgh Provenance by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Margaret Sarah Carpenter, Portrait of Henrietta Shuckburgh Provenance, 1821

1823. Amalie Auguste, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony

Joseph Karl Stieler, Amalie Auguste, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony, 1823

1781. Thomas Gainsborough Mrs. Peter William Baker

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Peter William Baker, 1781

1778. Lady Grace Elliot mistress to George IV, by Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough, Lady Grace Elliot mistress to George IV, 1778

1854. L'impératrice Eugénie à la Marie-Antoinette

Winterhalten, L’impératrice Eugénie à la Marie-Antoinette, 1854

1647 Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orangea

Gerard van Honthorst, Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, 1647

1635. Anthony van Dyck - Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria

Anthony van Dyck – Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, 1635

1705. Anne, Queen of Great Britain 1

Michael Dahl, Anne, Queen of Great Britain, 1705

1833. Evening Dress, Bright Yellow, La Belle Assemblee

Evening Dress, La Belle Assemblee, 1833

1917. Starlight by Emile Vernon

Emile Vernon, Starlight, 1917

1665. Peter Lely - Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford

Peter Lely, Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford, 1665

1665. Mary Parsons later mrs Draper perh PL ely 1665

Peter Lely, Mary Parsons, 1665

1863. Helen of Troy - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model - Annie Miller)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy – (model – Annie Miller), 1863

1867. In The Country by Alfred Stevens

Alfred Stevens, In The Country by Alfred Stevens, 1867

Ladies in Sweet Melancholic Contemplation

3 May

A few eighteenth century paintings caught my attention recently, mostly works of Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney. The thing that connects these portraits is a distinctly contemplative and melancholic mood.

1785-86. Thomas Gainsborough - Mrs. Richard Brinsley SheridanThomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1785-87

I am mesmerised by Gainsborough’s flickering brushstrokes every time I gaze at this painting. Every detail of it exudes movement, certain sweet turmoil, a sense of anticipation and sadness that something so anxiously awaited might never really occur.

The first thing one notices in this painting is the mood of exuberant restlessness: lush and unbridled tree branches dance in the wind, tiny leaves rustle a melancholic hymn in the solitude of the forest glade, her hair and translucent gauze kerchief flutter in the wind. Seems like Gainsborough painted a romantic heroine rather than a bourgeois lady. Well, the mood of this painting is distinctly romantic and sublime, but the lady is not a virginal maiden from Horace Walpole or Ann Radcliffe’s novels, but a prominent Georgian era musician Elizabeth Ann Linley.

Captured for eternity wearing a salmon coloured dress with muslin sleeves and a blue sash, this pretty, talented and wistful lady died of consumption a few years after this was painted. She was only thirty-eight years old. Not knowing her story, but simply looking at her sad gaze and untamed nature around her, awakens the imagination. A thought occurs: All things must pass (George Harrison). Only art is capable of rising above transience, and Romantics knew it. Still, intricate fashion is one of the reason why Gainsborough’s portraits are so beloved and aesthetically pleasing.

Note the importance of nature in this painting. Yeah, British portraits of the time usually had trees and clouds as a backdrop (unlike French who preferred being painted indoors to showcase their fine furniture) but here nature is almost as important as the lady. ‘Nature’ meant many things to the Romantics. As suggested above, it was often presented as itself a work of art, constructed by a divine imagination, in emblematic language. (source) This emphasis on nature is reminiscent of a literary movement that was just at its beginning at the time this was painted – Romanticism.

To put this painting in the historical context and connect it to Romanticism: Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther were published in 1774 and Rousseau’s Confessions in 1782, Wordsworth would have been a mere 15-17 year old lad, William Blake published his Poetical Sketches in 1783, and Lord Byron, being born in 1788, wasn’t even alive at the time. This painting is a slight contrast to Gainsborough’s more Neoclassical-style paintings of the previous years. One could argue that he captured the sensibility of the time, or he simply indulged his love of painting countryside scenery.

For me, this painting evokes the mood of Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. Elizabeth Ann Linley painted with hair untamed and eyes full of sorrow, reminds me of the ‘free-spirited and beautiful’* Catherine Earnshaw. In my imagination, that’s Catherine sitting on a stone, waiting for Heathcliff, and the wind is whispering her name throughout moors ‘Catherine, Catherine’…

Verses from Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem ‘Lake’, which remind me of this painting as well:

”(…) Eternity, naught gulfs: what do

You do with days of ours which you devour?

Speak! Shall you not bring back those things sublime?

Return the raptured hour?

 

O Lake, caves, silent cliffs and darkling wood,

Whom Time has spared or can restore to light,

Beautiful Nature, let there live at least

The memory of that night…

More portraits with a same mood:

1776-78. Lady Elizabeth Hamilton (1753–1797), Countess of Derby by George Romney

Lady Elizabeth Hamilton (1753–1797), Countess of Derby by George Romney, 1776-78

1777-78. Thomas Gainsborough - Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield

Thomas Gainsborough – Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield, 1777-78

1783. Thomas Gainsboroguh Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, 1783

George Romney, Mrc Crouch, 1793

George Romney, Portrait of Mrc Crouch, 1793

1795. Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner 1

John Hoppner, Frankland Sisters, 1795