Tag Archives: 19th century art

Eugène Grasset – La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict)

23 May

“Well it just goes to show
Things are not what they seem
Please, Sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams
Oh, can’t you see I’m fading fast?
And that this shot will be my last…”

(The Rolling Stones, Sister Morphine)

Eugène Grasset, La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict), 1897, color lithograph

In one of my previous posts I wrote about Eugene Grasset’s lovely watercolour “Young Girl in the Garden”, but today I am presenting a very different work of the same artist. The heroine of the artwork is again a woman, but not a dreamy, romantic young woman standing in her garden, surrounded by flowers and birds in the sunset of the day, oh no, the heroine of this colour litograph is a morphine addict. The figure of the addict woman is portrayed from the head to the knees and this closely cropped composition makes the mood more intimate, more immediate. The fact that she is dressed in her undergarments contributes to the intimate, secretive mood. After all, injecting morphine is a private thing to do so the bedroom setting and the clothes she is wearing are both more than appropriate. We hold our breath as we watch the woman inject the morphine into her thigh. The transient pain of the needle will soon melt into sweet nothingness that the Sister Morphine offers…

“Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town
And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds
And everybody puttin’ everybody else down….
Then thank God that I’m good as dead
Then thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess I just don’t know.“

(Velvet Underground, Heroin)

All details are eliminated; we can partly see the green chair behind the woman and the table on the left is cut off from the space of the artwork because neither are necessarry. Even the colour scheme is simplified; yellow, white, black and green, and thus all our focus goes straight to the woman and in particular to her face which is definitely the most interesting aspect of this litograph. The painful grimace on her face, with its teeth showing and eyebrows clenched is animalistic, primal, without contraints, and how different in that regard to the reserved aloofness and coldness of the elegant upper class ladies with their stiff corsets and fixed smiles.

The injection of morphine brings a rush of pleasure, followed by a drowsiness, sleepiness and dreaminess. We are witnessing this very journey; from the initial almost orgasmic pleasure to the realm of dreams where reality can’t hurt her anymore. Pleasure and dreams as means to forget it all. The flat surface and the woman’s grimace both show the Japanese influence on Western artists.

Paul Albert Besnard, Morphine Addicts or The Plume, 1887, etching, drypoint and aquatint

Grasset was just one of the fin de siecle artists who peeked behind the velvet curtains of the supposedly respectable society and painted the garish and ugly reality that was hiding there; alcoholism, prostitution, debauchery, drug use. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Kees van Dongen, Paul Albert Besnard and many others portrayed scenes of the seedy Parisian underbelly; the world of bohemians, outcasts and degenerates. The woman in this litograph -a prostitute and a morphine addict – is a stark contrast to the elegant upper class ladies seeping tea or strolling around which can be found in the art of Mary Cassatt. Paintings by Cassatt portray the visible reality, but Grasset is the voyeur who is peeking at the hidden, forbidden aspects of the late nineteenth French society.

James Tissot – Young Lady In A Boat

9 Jan

James Tissot, Young Lady In A Boat, 1870

James Tissot, the painter of the idle and glamorous lives of the wealthy Parisians, was popular and received critical acclaim in his time but today he is in the shadow of the more revolutionary painters from his time such as Monet or Degas. Tissot was extremenly prolific and left us many, many wonderful genre paintings of people enjoying everyday life; going for walks, sipping tea, going on balls, gossiping, children playing, reading books and lying in a hammock, spending afternoon gliding on boats or enjoing a picnic under a grand old chestnut tree… All of his paintings are very meticulous and detailed and just a joy to gaze at. Tissot put a particular emphasis on the clothing the figures in his paintings are wearing and that is no surprise, for his father was a succesful drapery merchant and his mother designed hats.

My favourite Tissot painting at the moment is “Young Lady In a Boat”, painted in 1870, just a year before Tissot’s departure for London following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. It shows a pensive young woman dressed in a sumptuous white dress with ruffles and a hat with striped ribbons. A fan in her hand. A flower bouquet in front of her and a little pug behind her. I particularly love her pose; she is holding her chin with her hand and gazing into the distance. Her pinkie finger is touching her lip, what a dainty pose. You can see it also in the drawing bellow which is one of the studies for the painting that Tissot made. Is she sad or just bored? Or both. Is she suffering from ennui? The pug on the other hand looks not pensive but perplexed and he certainly adds to the charm of the painting with his humorous face expression, the face which a critic at the time compared to a monkey. The lady’s hat with those striped ribbons and her hair bring to mind the portraits of the Directoire period (1795-1800) and this was no accident, for Tissot had purposefully tried to emulate the styles of the period and this is evident in a few of his paintings from that time period. Directoire period was a glamorous time of frivolity after the terrors of the revolution and perhaps this is why Tissot decided to emulate the style.

James Tissot, Study for Young Lady in a Boat, c.1869–70. Graphite on buff wove paper, 25.3 x 24.3 cm

Tissot’s paintings are really like a dream; beautifully dressed women lazing around in splendid gardens, gliding on boats, sipping tea in warm salons whilst the children are playing hide and seek. These are people, mostly women, that seem to have everything but there is always a hint of sadness in their faces, as if despite having everything they aren’t fully happy. There’s always a sense of something missing from their lives, perhaps they feel the weight of the contraints on them, both of their corsets and of their society, maybe too much idleness brought too little to fight for or desire, maybe they don’t know what they want but just feel a certain void inside. A void that perhaps a little pug could solve.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Elizabeth Siddal Having Her Hair Combed

25 Jul

Earlier this year, on the 12th May, I wrote a post to celebrate the birthday of the great artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and I think it would only be fair to celebrate Elizabeth Siddal’s birthday as well. She was born on this day in 1829 in London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Having Her Hair Combed, c. 1855, brown ink on paper, 153 x 115 mm

Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti is mostly remembered for his richly coloured, dense and detailed close-up portraits of languid and beautiful women that bring back the spirit of the High Renaissance portraits by painters such as Titian and Veronese, but his pencil and ink drawings show a completely different side to the artist.

“Elizabeth Siddal Having Her Hair Combed” is an ink drawing made sometime in 1855, as stated on the back of the drawing by Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti. The drawing shows Rossetti’s lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal who is having her hair combed by a maid while she is reading a book, maybe a book of Keats’ poetry. The drawing doesn’t do justice to Elizabeth’s long, lush, coppery red hair, but it gives us a glimpse into the intimate world of two bohemian lovers. Rossetti met Elizabeth in 1850 and she quickly became his favourite thing to paint. At first she posed for other artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, but very soon Rossetti made sure she posed for him only. Rossetti’s brother commented once that the walls of Rossetti’s studio were filled with drawings of Elizabeth; Elizabeth combing her hair, Elizabeth having her hair combed, Elizabeth reading or just sitting in a chair and daydreaming. Such was the extent of Rossetti’s passion and obsession for his melancholy girl. This might seem a bit extreme, even creepy, but in Rossetti’s case it shows just how much Elizabeth fueled his art and how, at last, in Elizabeth’s face and person, he found a perfect muse. The small drawing executed in brown ink is a glimpse into their everyday life, almost like a photograph, it captures the moment in a quick and sketchy manner. It must be noted how stylised Elizabeth’s face is and how skillfully executed the drawing is. The ink drawing above and the pencil sketch bellow unite two of Rossetti’s lifelong obsessions; Elizabeth Siddal and lush, long woman’s hair.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Plaiting her Hair, c. 1850s, graphite on paper, 117 x 127 mm

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.

Đorđe Krstić – Skull Tower

7 May

The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs.….”

Đorđe Krstić, Ćele kula (Skull Tower), 1883

Serbian painter Đorđe Krstić’s painting “Skull Tower” is a mass of heavy, earthy brown shades. The tower portrayed is a vague looking building and without knowing the history behind it, we might not even sense the eeriness that is hidden behind a drab, brown facade. The Skull Tower portrayed here is a stone structure embedded with human skulls in the town of Niš, Serbia. It dates back to May 1809 when the First Serbian Uprising took place and the Serbian rebels fought the Ottoman Empire, and, sadly, lost, but not without heroism and bravery. The Serbian leader of the battle, Srđan Sinđelić, realising his side would lose, killed himself and his fellow soldiers by creating a massive gun powder explosion. After the battle, the Ottoman soldiers took the heads of the Serbian men, skinned them and sent them to the Ottoman Sultan who, after viewing them, sent them back to Niš and then the Ottoman side built this tower as a warning to all other Serbs who may be contemplating an uprising. This was a known method for the Ottoman Empire, but still, after some time had passed, they realised that the tower served only to create resentment and not fear with the locals.

This tower built of limestone and sand originally contained more than 900 skulls, but not all are there anymore. In 1878 the Ottomans left the area and a baldachin-type structur was made over the tower and eventually a chapel was made and the tower is now inside it. Đorđe Krstić’s painting doesn’t do justice to the truly eerie and disturbing sight that the tower full of skulls must have been in those days, and probably still is, but French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine left us a better, more vivid and haunting description of the tower. In 1833 the poet visited the wilderness that eastern Europe and the Balkans must have been in his eyes and he saw the Skull Tower. His impressions of it are more atmospheric and eerie than Krstić’s painting:

I saw a large tower rising in the midst of the plain, as white as Parian marble … Raising my eyes to the monument, I discovered that the walls, which I supposed to be built of marble or white stone, were composed of regular rows of human skulls; these skulls bleached by the rain and sun, and cemented by a little sand and lime, formed entirely the triumphal arch which now sheltered me from the heat of the sun. In some places portions of hair were still hanging and waved, like lichen or moss, with every breath of wind. The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs. My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it.

Alphonse de Lamartine’s fascination with that area of Europe and with the tower shows the wild craving and yearning of the Romantic era for all things exotic, unexplored, dark and mysterious, and also touches on the Romantic love of heroism and fight for liberty.

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

Et in arcadia ego: Guercino and Gauguin – 700th Post!

14 Apr

Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892

Paul Gauguin’s painting “Spirit of the Dead Watching” and Guercino’s painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” have much more in common than one might assume at first sight. Guercino’s painting is a strange mix of the pastoral idyll and the dark motif of memento mori. The dark and foreboding spirit of the Baroque is seeping its darkness into the Arcadian landscapes of Giorgione. Two shepherds are seen gazing at a skull placed on a cippus. A little mouse is seen next to a skull and under it we see the words which also give the painting its enigmatic title “Et in arcadia ego” which means “Even in paradise I am”. The skull is a harrowing, spooky sight and its presence in the calm greenery of nature disturbs the peacefulness. The face expressions of the shepherds reveal their feelings; their easy going attitude was tainted by the sight of the skull which brings thoughts of transience and decay which is inevitable for all that is alive; a flower withers and so will the man. Even visually the composition is divided between the shepherds on one side and the skull on the other and between them is a thin line which they don’t want to cross, as if coming nearer to the skull will somehow taint their carefree existence.

In Gauguin’s painting a lush female nude and warm, vibrant pinks and purples serve as a cheerful facade for the dreary existential motif that lies underneath. The girl’s youthful, sensual body is contrasted with Tupau, the spirit of the dead, which is lurking from the background dressed in a black cloak. The girl can feel its presence and she feels uneasy. The young girl in the painting is Tehura, Gauguin’s thirteen year old Tahitian wife, and according to his letters one evening he came home and found her “immobile, naked, lying face downward flat on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear (…) Might she not with my frightened face take me for one of the demons and specters, one of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights?” Some art critics have interpreted her fear as the fear of Gauguin’s voracious, aggressive sexuality, but I will not go into that theory right now. Instead, I will focus on the spirit of the dead as a foreboding, eerie element in the vibrant, cheerful, hot, tropical world which is almost like a heaven on earth in some ways. The presence of Tupao is the infiltration of death and transience in this tropical paradise of vibrant colours, juicy fruit and eternal summer, it is as if his presence calmly says “Et in arcadia ego” and sooner or later, you will all die.

Also, as you can see from the title as well, this is my 700th post!

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri also known as Guercino, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1618-22

Calcedonio Reina – Love and Death

25 Feb

Calcedonio Reina, Love and Death (Amore e morte), 1881

A couple locked in a kiss and a background of mummified corpses behind them; this strange combination of motifs of love and death is what makes this painting so eerie and so unforgettable. This painting is full of contrasts of mood and colour; love and death, passion and transience, life and decay, white and black; that is, the man is dressed in dark clothes, the woman in a splendid white gown. Calcedonio Reina was both a painter and a poet and he seems to have been a strange, melancholy individual. He was born in Sicily in 1842 and the plaque on the house in which he lived and died states that he was “a poet in painting, and painter in poetry.” In 1864, at the age of twenty-two, his artistic career took him to Naples and later to Florence.

Still, his native Sicily seems to have lingered in his mind because the macabre background of the painting “Love and Death” shows the Catacombs of Cappuccini in Palermo, Sicily. The last friar to be interred in the catacombs was Brother Ricardo in 1871, and the catacombs were closed for the public in 1880 but nonetheless tourists still continued visiting it. The loving couple in Reina’s painting seems to have been such a touristy couple and I imagine them walking around, arm in arm, a mere glance at the creepy corpses fill the lady with horror, the long sleeves of her silk gown hiding the goosebumps of horror, and her smile hiding the fear she feels. Ah, how the warmth of her lover’s arms contrasts with the cold, stale air of the catacomb! And perhaps, whilst strolling down the corridor filled with the odour of death, this loving pair felt the ache of their own mortality and the short-lasting nature of everything in life and – when faced with transience – their clung to life and love even more, their lips meeting in a kiss, her arms wrapped around his neck seeking a safe haven from the claws of death ever so gently clutching at her silk white dress.

The painting was Reina’s response, or rather, a comment on the more famous painting “The Kiss” (1859) by a fellow Italian painter Francesco Hayez. It can be seen as a slight mockery as well because Hayez’s painting is devastatingly romantic, and there is a very thin line between romantical and sentimental. His loving couple looks like a pair of actors on stage, their kiss theatrical, the space behind them perfectly clean of any unnecessary details and clutter. All focus is on them. Their clothes appears archaic; the lady’s dress is blue as the bluest sky and the man is wearing a pair of red tights like some Renaissance hero. It’s a beautiful painting, but maybe too much perfection and sugary sweetness is making it seem a bit over the top. In contrast, Reina’s painting has a completely different mood and his choice of the catacombs for a setting and corpses for the background give the painting more than a tinge of the Symbolist macabre mood. By comparing these two examples of the same motif of a kissing couple we can see the huge role the background plays in conveying the mood of the painting.

Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859

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.

 

Nicolaas van der Waay’s Orphan Girls and Jane Eyre

4 Jan

Nicolaas van der Waay, Orphan girls from the Burgerweeshuis, Amsterdam, c. 1900, Black and red chalk and pencil on paper

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century portraits of orphan girls from Amsterdam are the most interesting and unique works of Nicolaas van der Waay’s oeuvre. He painted other things as well but these orphan girls, recognisable by their wistful faces and matching uniforms in traditional Amsterdam colours; black, red and white, are really interesting. This drawing of the orphan girl made in black and red chalk was just a sketch for other paintings of the same motif that van der Waay painted, but I prefer this drawing to other paintings because it seems so immediate and alive. The two colours of the chalk, plus the white paper, go perfectly well with the colours of the girls’ attire, which is a fortunate coincidence. I like how the girls are sketched in their everyday activities; two are chatting, one is holding a bucket of water, one is wistfully staring in the distance, perhaps daydreaming of a better life. These drawings and paintings reminded me of Jane Eyre’s life at the Lowood Institution and the uniform she had to wear there. Jane was an orphan but that school wasn’t an orphanage, but still the cold, unloving atmosphere, the strictness and deprivation of the school isn’t so unlike that of an orphanage. Here is a passage from chapter five where Jane gives her first impressions of the school and she also describes how the girls there are dressed:

Ranged on benches down the sides of the room, the eighty girls sat motionless and erect; a quaint assemblage they appeared, all with plain locks combed from their faces, not a curl visible; in brown dresses, made high and surrounded by a narrow tucker about the throat, with little pockets of holland (shaped something like a Highlander’s purse) tied in front of their frocks, and destined to serve the purpose of a work- bag: all, too, wearing woollen stockings and country-made shoes, fastened with brass buckles. Above twenty of those clad in this costume were full-grown girls, or rather young women; it suited them ill, and gave an air of oddity even to the prettiest.

Jane Eyre (2011)

When I gaze at these paintings I am not just thinking of their aesthetic beauty but also of the conditions in which these girls lived which, I am pretty sure, weren’t the greatest. Jane Eyre, in chapter 6, also mentions the freezing winter cold, which is very familiar to me in these dreary January days, and the bad conditions in general:

The next day commenced as before, getting up and dressing by rushlight; but this morning we were obliged to dispense with the ceremony of washing; the water in the pitchers was frozen. A change had taken place in the weather the preceding evening, and a keen north-east wind, whistling through the crevices of our bedroom windows all night long, had made us shiver in our beds, and turned the contents of the ewers to ice. Before the long hour and a half of prayers and Bible-reading was over, I felt ready to perish with cold. Breakfast-time came at last, and this morning the porridge was not burnt; the quality was eatable, the quantity small. How small my portion seemed! I wished it had been doubled.

Nicolaas van der Waay, Amsterdam Orphan Girl, c. 1890

Nicolaas van der Waay, Les Orphelines d’Amsterdam, 1900