Tag Archives: 19th century art

Pretty Girls Make Graves – Beautiful Corpses in Art: Part I

25 Oct

“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world – and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Paul Delaroche, The Young Martyr (La jeune martyre), 1853

American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”, and no one other writer devoted himself to writing about pale, ghostly maidens and beautiful dead women with such a feverish passion. When I think of Beauty, Love and Death in literature, I instantly think of Poe, but what about the visual arts? I envisaged this post as a part one of a little overview of dead or dying women captured not with ink on paper, but in colour on canvases. The first example I’ve chosen of a girl – beautiful, young and dead, the winning combination for the utmost beauty, is the painting “The Young Martyr” by a French painter Paul Delaroche. This is probably his most famous work and it is easy to see why; the painting’s romantical and mystical flair is just mesmerising. A young Christian martyr is floating on the surface of the river, her halo shines so strongly with such pure golden light that the gentle ripples of the water of Tiber are painted in its yellow glow. Her hands are bound with a rope and only a flimsy white gown is covering her body. Her hair looks like that of a mermaid, and as we gaze at her lovely pale face, we might believe for a moment that she is still alive. She looks angelically beautiful, without a doubt. Delaroche’s beloved, adored wife Louise died in 1845 at the age of thirty-one and the artist was deeply miserable about it, so there is a personal connection there as well.

John Everett Millais, The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl, 1847

The next example is very different in colours and style. “The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl” is a very early work by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. His famous “Ophelia” was painted only two years later and there is a stark contrast between those two artworks. This painting doesn’t have the intricate, lush details nor the gentle melancholy of Ophelia, and the colours are not vivid and clear but toned down. The shades of black and grey, along with the simple, almost bare composition, add to the realism of the painting. The now lost inscription on the back of the painting said: “The painting represents an incident in Millais’s own life when he was sent for by people unknown to him, but who knew him to be a young artist, to draw a portrait of a girl in her coffin before her burial. The scene moved him so much that when he got home he made this sketch showing himself being asked to draw the girl’s portrait.” This could explain the sketchy style of the painting; it was done from the memory, unlike Ophelia which was carefully and patiently crafted. The dead girl’s face looks like that of a doll; pale, sad doll wrapped in flimsy veils.

Found Drowned, George Frederic Watts, 1850

While Delaroche’s “The Young Martyr” was painstakingly romantical and mystical, this painting by George Frederich Watts, “Found Drowned” is all but romantic. Watts is sometimes associated with the Symbolist movement, but in this painting he focused on a social realism genre because this dead, young girl washed ashore on the murky waters of the Thames is clearly a working class girl who had committed suicide because life’s prospects were bleak and it seemed like the only option. Is she not a working class martyr then? The painting was inspired by the poem “The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, published in 1844 and here are a few appropriate verses:

One more Unfortunate
Weary of breath
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Millais’ painting “Ophelia” is perhaps the visual archetype of a young and beautiful dead woman in art. No other painting quite surpasses the vibrant and melancholy beauty, intricacy and magic of Millais’ Ophelia. Even though the painting is static and flat, I can really see her sinking gently into the water, as in a dream, while the moss is sighing and the reed is murmuring. Ophelia is becoming one with nature, her hair will mingle with the river, tangle with the reed, and flowers all around her speak of bloom while she is experiencing her death. The model for Ophelia was Elizabeth Siddal, the moody anorexic redhead lover and muse of a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her red hair, the gesture of her hands, that shimmering white dress, and not to mention the expression of ecstasy on that face and those slightly parted lips, it all adds to the ethereal magic of the painting. Ophelia’s beauty is captured forever on this canvas; she will never grow old and have wrinkles, her cheeks are feverish and rosy from the eerie and hot kiss of the Death and she longs for nothing no more.

Walter Crane, Lady of Shalott, 1862

The last example for the Part One of this post is a painting “Lady of Shalott” by a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter Walter Crane. Seen from the profile, lying in the boat, dressed in silvery robe, her long wavy brown hair spread around her, Lady of Shalott looks like the dreamiest corpse. Her face is so pale and her eyelids closed so tenderly, as if a gentle kiss from her beloved closed them, and not death. One can almost envy her serene peacefulness. Would you not to glide down the river, towards eternity, not seeing the tree tops and birds above you, but feeling them and hearing them as if through a mist, because your senses are fading and this world means nothing to you no more.

Carl Spitzweg – The Intercepted Love Letter

22 Oct

Carl Spitzweg, The Intercepted Love Letter, 1855

Carl Spitzweg is a very underrated German painter of Biedermeier period. His canvases are filled with the strangest people; from fiddlers, butterfly hunters and poor poets, to hermits, gnomes and bookworms, it is as if he had an eye for the strange and the eccentric individuals. “The Intercepted Love Letter”, painted in 1855 when Spitzweg was in his late forties, shows a comical romance scene in a picturesque little town. A young student on the second floor is using a thread to lower the sealed love letter to a young maiden on the floor bellow. He reminds me of the student in Oscar Wilde’s tale “The Nightingale and the Rose”, desperately in love with a haughty young girl, prepared to sacrifice everything to have her, only to conclude in the end that love is a miserable lie, and return to science, logic and his studies. This girl bellow doesn’t seem haughty though; she is lost in her needlework, oh the tragedy, and she doesn’t even notice that the letter is arriving her way! But the older woman who is beside her is clearly shocked by what she is seeing before her eyes. She’s probably an old spinster who hasn’t received a love letter in her life, and how could she understand the young student whose heart aches with love? Two pigeons on the roofs are also there to further remind us of the love that is in the air.

Carl Spitzweg, The Garrett, 1849

Spitzweg clearly had a sense of humour and knew how to transfer it into a painting. A Romantic painter would have painted two lovers throwing themselves off of the cliff, or dying from love, but Spitzweg sees the comical side of the situation. In another painting, “The Serenade”, painted in 1854, we see a romantic scene infused with humour again. I wrote about that painting already here. It shows a man climbing up the ladder to play violin to serenade the woman he loves, but he isn’t a young raven-haired Latino lover, he is just an average guy and the setting if far from romantical. Painting “The Garrett” shows a pompous looking old man watering his plants. A young girl on the other window bellow is eyeing him with curiosity. I bet he is the kind of strange eccentric neighbour that everyone has in their street. And I don’t think I really need to point out what is particularly humorous in the painting “The Poor Poet”; everything about that painting is comical. What I am trying to show here is that Carl Spitzweg’s art may appear as “nothing special” at first, it has a humorous touch that makes it stand above the average genre scenes and sentimental Biedermeier paintings.

 

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet, 1839

Carl Spitzweg, The Serenade, 1854

Ernst Ferdinand Oehme – Hohnstein Castle in Saxon Switzerland

2 Oct
"I wandered under the branches 

Alone with my despair; 
Touched with a host of memories 

I fell to dreaming there."
(Heinrich Heine)
Ernst Ferdinand Oehme, Hohnstein Castle in Saxon Switzerland, 1827

This painting by a German Romantic painter Ernst Ferdinand Oehme looks so dreamlike and unreal that one would assume it is a mirage or a scene from one’s reverie, but no, it indeed shows a real castle splendidly situated on the top of the hill, vast woodland bellow it and only sky stretching on and on above it. The castle seems dream-like, and yet its forms are vividly clear and tangible. Towers and roofs stand out clear and sharp against the dreamy yellow dusk sky tinged with lavender and soft blue. The Hohnstein castle is stretched playfully over the huge rocks and the scene looks like something out of a fairy tale. One can easily fall into wild and romantical reveries about knights, damsels and troubadours. The fairy tale beauty of the castle contrasts with the rugged, raw beauty of the large rocks; man’s made architecture meets the untamed beauty of nature. In March 1825 The Crown Prince Friedrich August of Saxony informed the painter that he had bought a little property near Dresden and that he wished to fill his gallery with patriotic landscapes that encapsulate the beauty of German nature and castles. The painting was exhibited in 1827 and was criticised for its “picturesque” quality. Certainly compared to Caspar David Friedrich’s sublime landscapes that capture a whole scope of feelings, from loneliness to transience, this simple painting by Oehme isn’t so special, but I love it. Something about it makes me daydream and I think that a painting that can make you daydream is a good painting.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – To Define Is To Kill, To Suggest Is To Create

11 Jun

“To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.”

(Stéphane Mallarmé)

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Southampton Water, 1872

The more I gazed at these near abstracts paintings by the American expatriate painter Whistler, these dreamy and vague river-scapes of the Thames, the more this quote by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé kept coming to my mind: “To name an object is to do away with three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem which is derived from the satisfaction of guessing little by little; to suggest it, that is the illusion. It is the perfect handling of the mystery that Constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little in order to show a state of mind or inversely to choose an object and to disengage from it a State of mind, by a series of unriddlings.

Stephané Mallarmé’s poems are full of complicated and unique symbols which leaves the reader the space for interpretation, and he used music as inspiration and a role model because music is the most irrational and also most romantic of all the arts, as E.T.A. Hoffman said in the early nineteenth century. I see a direct parallel with this Mallarmé’s thought and these landscapes that Whistler painted in the 1870s are a visual portraits of that thought; the little boats and the setting sun in the painting “Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Southampton Water” just like the lights in the “Nocturne” bellow are more suggestive than direct, accurate, realistic portrayals of the scene. This vague interpretation of the scene Whistler saw before him gives these paintings a poetic flair, these are the kind of artworks one can gaze at for a long time and daydream. Reveries come easy when we gaze at something undefined and ready to be expanded with our imagination.

James Abbott McNeil, Nocturne, 1870-1877

James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American artist, but after coming to England in 1859, he never returned to his homeland again, but instead divided his time between London and Paris, and nurtured friendships with other artists and writers on the each side of the Channel; Gaultier, Swinburne, Manet and Courbet to name a few. Whistler is famous for promoting ‘art for art’s sake philosophy’, and enraging Ruskin who emphasised the social, moralistic role of art. He was also known for giving his paintings musical names, such as “Symphony” or “Nocturne”, which sometimes enraged the critics, but still fascinates the lovers of his art, myself included.

I really love the idea that the title Nocturne can be given to a painting as well, not just to a piece of classical music as is mostly the case. The title alone can the suggestive and influence our perception of the painting and a title such as “Nocturne” certainly directs my perception into a mystical, dreamy direction. In 1872, he wrote to Frederic Leyland, an amateur musician who inspired Whistler for his musically inspired titles: “I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me—besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish.” These Nocturnes are pure poetry on canvas. One would think that covering an entire canvas in monotonous shades of blue and grey would make a dull painting, but the effect is the opposite.

In 1877, Whistler exhibited his “Nocturne” series of the river Thames at the Grosvenor Gallery in London and these paintings truly enraged the art critic and writer John Ruskin who wrote of the exhibition that Whistler was “asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face“. This just show how scandalous these half-realistic and half-abstract paintings were to Victorians. Today, after all that art has gone through, the good and the bad, our eyes are so desensitised that these paintings could hardly be considered outrageous.

James Abbott McNeil, Nocturne: Blue and Silver, Chelsea, 1871

John Anster Fitzgerald – Fairies and Victorian Escapism

12 Mar

It turns out that escaping reality and harsh truths of it is not a new phenomenon at all; it is as old as society itself but no one escaped the grim, gruesome and gray daily life in a more imaginative, whimsical and colourful way than Victorians and they sure had a lot to escape from.

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat, c 1860

Fairy art in the Victorian era developed directly as a result of all the realism that was going on at the time; Industrialisation, child labour, poor living conditions, poverty and prostitution, Positivism, science and Darwinian theories, invention of photography, add to all that the climate of restrictions and (fake) morality and it was just too much for any normal individual to process. Jeremy Mass, the author of the book “Victorian Fairy Painting” (1997) recognised the genre as being reactionary rather than revolutionary. “No other type of painting concentrates so many of the opposing elements of the Victorian psyche: the desire to escape the drear hardships of daily existence; the stirrings of new attitudes toward sex, stifled by religious dogma; a passion for the unseen; the birth of psychoanalysis; the latent revulsion against the exactitude of the new invention of photography.” Dionysian energies need an outlet, and too much Apollonian clarity and ratio cripples the imagination. The sea of reason and harsh truths was overwhelming and the imagination had to find its way in the arts and in people’s life. Dreams, laudanum, local legends and mythology, Shakespeare, and Victorian fairy scenes were born.

While writers such as Charles Dickens chose to write about the horrible conditions, thieves, orphans and the poor, other artists chose to dip their quills and brushes into the colour of fairies and dreams and see where this new genre can take them. Through the fairy and fantasy genre they could express the inexpressible; a fairy isn’t a woman so a nude fairy in a painting isn’t really a nude, as is the case with Paton’s painting “The Quarrel of Titania and Oberon” (1849) that Queen Victoria loved and admired. John Anster Fitzgerald, mostly self-taught and no stranger to opium dens, was one such artist who provided an escape for Victorians through his whimsical paintings filled with strange looking and often grotesque tiny creatures, half-mythical half-imaginary, birds, bats, fairies and flowers. These paintings, full of details and painted in vibrant colours, appear very innocent and childlike at first glance, but their whimsicality was fueled by laudanum and chloral; Victorian drugs of the moment. He was also known as “Fairy Fitzgerald” to his friends because he painted the fairy world so obsessively, and in my opinion, the most beautifully. I prefer his work over the similar works made by other fairy painters who created at the same time such as Richard Dadd and Sir Joseph Noel Paton. Sometimes the titles of Fitzgerald’s paintings alone give me a thrill, “Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat”, for example.

John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906), The Stuff Dreams are Made of, 1864

In Fairy Fitzgerald’s paintings, flowers, leaves and mushrooms seem large in comparison with the small fairies who bodies have luminous glow and strange attire. Dense with details and rich with colour, these paintings were really made to be gazed at for a long time, preferably right before bedtime so all these cheerful and surreal scenes can blend into ones dreams just like in the painting bellow called “The Stuff Dreams are Made of” where the sleeping girl is dreaming of her real or imagined beloved but all of a sudden these strange creatures crash the dream like uninvited party guests. The also surround her bed and play all sorts of instruments, but her rosy cheeks and closed eyes speak of undisturbed sleep.

In another painting, “Nightmare”, a similar young Victorian girl is having a nightmare, tossing and turning in her bed all because the strange beings from the fairy lands have visited her sleep, which brings to mind Fusseli’s The Nightmare painted in times when the Gothic wave swept European art in the last quarter of eighteenth century. In yet another painting, “The Artist’s Dream”, now it is the artist himself who is having strange dreams whilst dreaming about a painting a portrait. Dreams and reality mingle in these artworks and the fantasy finds a way to enter the everyday life, no matter how narrow the path for dream may be. These dream-works are often seen as portrayals of his laudanum-induced hallucinations and they just might be that, but how fun to imagine that these things go on while we are asleep.

These paintings were made to be gazed at and daydreaming over so tune in to these vibrant sparkling colours and drop out of the boring real world.

John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906), Nightmare, c 1860s

John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, The Intruder, 1865

John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, The Artist’s Dream, 1857

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Captive Robin, 1864

 

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Fairy’s Lake, c. 1866

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Faerie’s Funeral, 1860

John Anster Fitzgerald, In Fairy Land, date unknown

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy Lovers in a Bird’s Nest watching a White Mouse, 1860s

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Marriage of Oberon and Titania, unknown date

John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, The Concert, c 1860s

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairies in a bird’s nest, 1860

Maurice Prendergast – Lady with a Red Sash

9 Feb

“…I’m looking forward to the dusk with great excitement.”

(Zelda Fitzgerald in a letter to F.Scott Fitzgerald, April 1919)

Maurice Prendergast, Lady with a Red Sash, 1897

As I gaze and gaze at this gorgeous painting, I cannot pinpoint it clearly what is it about it that I love more; the wonderful dusky and dreamy colours, those shades of purple, so ephemeral, and that warm pulsating yellow of the street lamps, the rich vibrant cherry red of the lady’s sash. The yellow circles of the lantern’s glow remind me of the full yellow moon I gazed at this evening. And I love the lady in white who appears so fleeting and mysterious, with her back turned against the viewer. She is passing through the crowd, mingling with the people for a moment but remaining firmly in the rich world of her own. This very narrow canvas is only a part of her fascinating nocturnal world. This might likely be the most vertically elongated artwork that I’ve featured here on the blog. Such a strange canvas isn’t typical for Western art and it clearly shows the influence of Japanese art and Ukiyo-e prints on the Western artists in the late nineteenth century. I wonder, did the lady wait for the dust with anticipation; the sweetest moment of the day when the day surrenders to the night, the lanterns lighten, flowers are drunken with wild scents and the music colours the air in the cafes of La Belle Epoque Paris? It’s wonderful how the shape of the dress fits the narrow canvas so well, if the fin de siecle ladies wore crinolines, this kind of painting would have to be a triptych.

Maurice Prendergast studied in Paris from 1891 to 1895 at the Académie Colarossi (Modigliani’s lover and muse Jeanne Hébuterne also studied at this academy, though many years later) and Académie Julian. In Paris he met Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Sickert, Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard with whom he shared artistic ideas and these friendships inspired him to experiment with compositions and formats of his paintings. The vertically elongated shape of this painting could have been take from one of Bonnard’s paintings. Despite returning to Boston in 1895, Prendergast’s four year stay in Paris certainly left a huge impact on his art and inspired him in many ways. After all, which artist could leave Paris and not be touched by its magic or be transformed by it completely?

This painting was painted in 1897 which means Prendergast wasn’t living in Paris anymore, but the painting definitely has a Parisian feel to it and reminds me a lot of the scenes in Woody Allen’s film “Midnight in Paris” (2011) when Gil and Adriana returns to the “glory days” of Paris, as Adriana sees it, the La Belle Epoque.

Georg F. Kersting – Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio

8 Nov

Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes are very loved and appreciated nowadays for their dreamy, dusky and contemplative beauty, but how did they came to be? Where did Friedrich find his inspiration and what was the mood in which he created his beautiful artworks?

The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him.

(Caspar David Friedrich)

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1811

In this portrait by his friend Kersting, the Romantic painter Friedrich is seen painting in his studio; a loner in his lonely cell. And look how bare, clean and ascetic the room seems, with bare wooden floors, a single window which lets in plenty of light which is important for painting, and nothing but the necessary furniture; a chair, a desk and an easel. There is no view from the window save for that of the sky. But that doesn’t even matter for this painter because his inspiration doesn’t come from gazing at nature and quickly sketching exactly what is in front of him. The way Friedrich’s landscapes came to be was firstly through walks in nature, with deep immersion into its mood and state; the way the clouds are, the very shade of pink the sky is, the way the air smells and feels.

In artist’s own words: I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full; I have to surrender myself to what encircles me, I have to merge with my clouds and rocks in order to be what I am. Solitude is indispensible for my dialogue with nature. And then, the painting arises on canvas after a long, solitary artistic meditation over the canvas, gathering what he had seen in nature and merging the visions of the reality with his imagination. Oh, I can so imagine Friedrich, the solitary man (not like in Johnny Cash’s song though), with his blonde sideburns and piercing gaze walking broodingly on the damp shore of the dark and cold Baltic sea, wearing a navy coat and a face expression which says ‘don’t come near me’. Despite his well-known isolated nature, Friedrich had friends, many of whom were fellow painters, but as he grew older, as times were changing and the style of his art was slowly but surely falling out of fashion, his early natural-born shyness and melancholy gradually turned to bitterness and isolation.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, 1822

His landscapes are not portrayals of nature as he saw it, but rather – as he felt it, and that gives them their lyrical gentle beauty, the soft gradations of colours, the dusky shades, pinks, purples, dreamy blues. There is not rushed, harsh sketchiness of the plein air paintings that Impressionists painted. Each of his landscapes carries a different mood, and is open to many different interpretations because it is imbued with so much feeling and depth. Friedrich’s landscapes are particularly dreamy and some have the element of sublime, and that makes them different from the landscapes painted around the same time by the English painters J.M.W.Turner and John Constable. John Constable’s landscapes and nature studies, in contrast, are plain and simple what they are; the green meadow, the strong brown tree trunk, there’s isn’t plenty of dreaming and symbolism involved. Near the end of Friedrich’s life Romanticism and its worldviews were on the wane, and more realistic approach to things replaced the dreaminess. Ideas and movements such as positivism and Naturalism couldn’t appreciate the dreaminess of Friedrich’s landscapes and they were forgotten up until the late nineteenth century when the Symbolists, who were also more interested in the transcendent rather than material aspects of life, rediscovered them and saw in them the kind of Beauty that they also proposed. People nowadays seem to truly appreciate Friedrich’s paintings, his art is certainly more than just rediscovered, maybe it’s because it is so full of dreams and while we gaze at it, it resonated with the slumbering dreams that lie within us.

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1819

And here we have another version of Kersting’s portrait of Caspar David Friedrich painting in his studio. Kersting apparently thought that the image of Friedrich painting in his simple, bare, ascetic cell was so fascinating that eight years later he just had to paint it again. In this version, Friedrich is not actually shown painting, although we can assume that would be the next step. Here he is in a state of artistic meditation over his canvas, waiting for the perfect vision to clarify itself in his mind, waiting for the colours to pick themselves from the palette.

When Friedrich painted his wonderful landscapes everything but the Imagination was a distraction. A fellow painter of the time, Karl von Kügelgen wrote about Friedrich’s studio: “Even the things most necessary to painting – the box of paints, the bottles of linseed oil, and the oil-rag – were moved to the adjoining room, because Frederick was of the opinion that any objects would disturb his inner world of imagination…” I think I can understand things and clutter being distracting, but an empty bare room would disturb me I feel. Yet another painter and Friedrich’s pupil, Carl Gustav Carus, commented that Friedrich never made sketches: He never made sketches, cartoons, or color studies for his paintings, because he stated (and certainly he was not entirely wrong), that such aids chill the imagination somewhat. He did not begin to paint an image until it stood, living, in the presence of his soul…

Marie Spartali Stillman – Brewing The Love Philtre

3 Nov

Marie Spartali Stillman, Pharmakeutria (Brewing The Love Philtre), 1870

Samhain may be over and we have entered the dark part of the year, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot find beauty, love and magic in the days of darkness; death of nature need not signify soul’s slumber. And do not assume that witches are on holiday now. Nay, they are as busy as ever, preparing the love potions, jotting down new magic spells, singing and selling their new books, flying on brooms, you know, the normal stuff. And here we have two witches-wanna be ladies who are brewing a love potion for some dashing haughty man out there who just refuses to return their affections. It is the dusk of the day; an owl is heard and November’s soft pinky fog is slowly descending. Tired forlorn sunflowers are blooming sweetly. The branches on the trees are bare, but there are some red leaves left, giving the tree trunk a soft autumnal embrace and shielding the bark from the cold winds of change.

Hidden behind the tree and the bushes, two ladies clad in long heavy purple and orange gowns are brewing the love potion in a little cauldron over some playful flames. Still and captured in the moment, the lady in orange had just opened the bottle of wine. The lady in purple seems to be asking “More wine? Are you sure we need more wine?” – “Why, yes, a few more drops”, the lady in orange replies. “Let me see what the book says.” An open book of magic spells lies open next to the lady in purple. The recipe says for a love potion one needs some sweet red wine, fresh basil leaves, red rose petals, cloves, apple seeds, three tears from the lovelorn maiden, a dried carnation, a dash of apple juice, some rosemary and thyme… So, why not, let us add more of this sweet red wine! Bur hurry, my dearest, for the night is approaching and soon the dusk’s pink veil will turn into the dark blue cloth of midnight and only our eyes, shining with yearning, and the flames of the fire will shine. The owl will tell us the time. The potion is brewing and the ladies are singing a soft song to pass by the time…

“Let the one who drinks this wine,
Shower me with love divine…” (*)

Marie Spartali Stillman as Memory (Mother of the Muses), by Julia Margaret Cameron, September 1868

Marie Spartali Stillman was one of the rare females in the Pre-Raphaelite circle who had established an art career for herself and who remained known as an artist in her own right, and not just a muse and a model, although she was a model as well. She was prolific and talented and, unlike Elizabeth Siddal whose art career was cut short by her laudanum overdose and we are left wondering what she could have accomplished, Marie left many beautiful vibrant and exuberant oil on canvases for posterity. This Grecian goddess in Victorian London quickly caught the eye of the writers and artists of the day, such as Swinburne, Whistler and Ford Maddox Brown, and she became Brown’s pupil in. In 1870, the year this painting was painted, Stillman exhibited in the Royal Academy in London for the first time. Becoming an artist or at least being in some way connected to the world of art almost seems like the most natural step to take for Marie because she grew up in an affluent family who praised the arts and was acquainted with people from the art world. Her father, Michael Spartali, was a wealthy merchant who moved from Greece to England in 1828, and her mother, Euphrosyne, known as Effie, was a daughter of a Greek merchant from Genoa. On one occasion, on a party of another Greek businessman, Marie met the poet and playwright Swinburne who was so overwhelmed with emotions upon meeting her, almost bewitched one might say, that he later said for Marie “She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry”.

Marie Spartali Stillman, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868

And of course, since this is the middle of the Victorian era, we are talking about the Pre-Raphaelite circles; if there is a beautiful young woman then Dante Gabriel Rossetti must also be involved in the story. And so he was. Very soon after Marie started taking drawing lessons from Ford Maddox Brown, Rossetti heard about this exotic Greek beauty and wrote to Brown on the 29th April 1867 saying: “I just hear Miss Spartali is to be your pupil. I hear too that she is one and the same with a marvellous beauty of whom I have heard much talk. So box her up and don’t let fellows see her, as I mean to have first shy at her in the way of sitting.” Marie indeed sat for Rossetti very soon but her head proved to be a hard one for portraying, as Dante had confessed later in a letter to Jane Morris. Still, the tall, melancholy, serious exotic Marie does seem to have the kind of beauty that Rossetti would appreciate; long necked, tall and regal, with a mass of long thick hair, pouting lips.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes – The Orchard

24 Sep

“In her eyes shone the sweetness of melancholy.”

(Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out)

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857—1947), The Orchard (Breton Children in an Orchard – Quimperlé), 1882

Autumn is coming slowly to this orchard in the little village of Quimperlé in Brittany. One by one, the large brown leaves that now appear here and there will very soon cover the green grass where dew used to shine in the first light of summer dawn. The wind of change is dancing among the apple trees, whispering secrets of things yet to come and barring their once exuberant tree tops, stealing their little leaves and carrying them softly somewhere else. The treetops are still a harmony of greens and yellow, but the branches which are already bare are revealing the contours of buildings behind the orchard. Melodies of summer tunes still linger in the orchard’s quaint hours, dancing between the trees, competing with the rustle of falling leaves. The children in the orchard sense the change, but cannot put the name on it. Their idle chatter is interrupted by the first soft drops of autumn rain. But the girl in the front knows much more than other children do, just look at her face, how sweetly it shines with melancholy glow. She is dressed in a traditional attire, with a white headdress and a pair of clogs on her feet, and she is looking somewhere in the distance. Her large round eyes seem sad and her thoughts are somewhere else.

I don’t know why, but this girl, and the scene alone with its melancholy and passing of seasons, reminded me of teenage Emma Bovary, in the orchard of the convent where she was educated. She was just like this girl; never content with being where she is, blind to the beauties of the orchard, her soul craved smells and sounds of the south, or some Gothic castle, or a wild sea, anywhere, anywhere, but not where she is. She kept herself to herself, indulged in daydreams and read romance novels in candlelight, and rarely played with other girls during recreation hours. Emma, like the girl in the painting, knows the boring aspects of countryside life all too well to romanticise it; “… she might perhaps have opened her heart to those lyrical invasions of Nature, which usually come to us only through translation in books. But she knew the country too well; she knew the lowing of cattle, the milking, the ploughs. Accustomed to calm aspects of life, she turned, on the contrary, to those of excitement. She loved the sea only for the sake of its storms, and the green fields only when broken up by ruins.” (Madame Bovary, chapter 6)

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, The Convent (Quimperlé), 1882

Also, here is another passage which comes to mind as I gaze at the painting “The Orchard”:

“Through Walter Scott, later on, she fell in love with historical events, dreamed of old chests, guard-rooms and minstrels. She would have liked to live in some old manor-house, like those long-waisted chatelaines who, in the shade of pointed arches, spent their days leaning on the stone, chin in hand, watching a cavalier with white plume galloping on his black horse from the distant fields. At this time she had a cult for Mary Stuart and enthusiastic veneration for illustrious or unhappy women. Joan of Arc, Heloise, Agnes Sorel, the beautiful Ferroniere, and Clemence Isaure stood out to her like comets in the dark immensity of heaven….”

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, A Street in Brittany, 1881

This painting is a recent discovery for me, but its melancholy autumnal mood and the girl’s gentle wistful face captivate me immensely. Oh, I am there in that orchard! I hear their incoherent babble in French and I do not understand it, but the song of the leaves speak so much to me. Maybe the reason for her somewhat sad or awkward looking face is because she felt awkward posing, as natives in those little villages did. They felt weird and somewhat embarrassed just standing there for this painter, for all the village to see them. Stanhope Forbes was a British painter born in Dublin, but lured by the Impressionistic vibes from the Continent, her traveled to Paris in 1880 and studied in the atelier of Léon Bonnat until 1882, and then he traveled to Brittany with a desire to paint en plein air, just like many artists did before him. Brittany was a particularly interesting area for a painter at that time, even Paul Gauguin went there also in the 1880s, probably for the same reasons and Vincent van Gogh too painted the Breton women in 1888:

In that most beautiful and interesting portion of France, there seemed to be found everything that an artist could desire. Inhabited by a race of a distinct and marked type, wearing still the beautiful national costumes which had been handed down from bygone ages, and retaining the old language of their forefathers, each village followed religiously the old traditions which ordered the fashion of their dress and the conduct of their lives. Here was a country dear to all who love that which is old and quaint, time-honoured, and reminiscent of past ages.” (Mrs Lionel Birch; “Stanhope A. Forbes, A.R.A., and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, A.R.W.S.”)

When Stanhope returned to England, he settled in a beautiful region of Cornwall, married a fellow painter Elizabeth Forbes and became a founder of Newlyn School which focused on portraying rural scene, people and landscapes, and the plein air technique which brought sincerity and freshness to their canvases.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, Preparations for the Market, Quimperlé, 1882

I also decided to include some of his other painting painted in Brittany at the same time which are not as romantically wistful as “The Orchard” is, but the still show the Forbes’s aim to capture the living pulsating life of the village, its people and its mood. They are all dressed in traditional clothes and are seen doing day to day chores, girls on the street in the painting above are knitting and the older women in the last painting are on the market, and just look at the cute hens in the basket.

Arthur Hughes – April Love

26 Aug

Let’s take a look at some very romantical paintings by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes.

Arthur Hughes, April Love, 1855-56

On 19th May 1855, Edward Burne-Jones, English painter associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, took his beloved girl Georgiana “Georgie” MacDonald to the Royal Academy Exhibition and proposed marriage to her in front of the painting “April Love” by Arthur Hughes. What a romantical gesture!? I have always been fond of this painting because of its dreamy and romantic mood and the gorgeous indigo-purple dress that the girl is wearing. Purple dresses are somewhat rare in art history, and interestingly Arthur Hughes’s canvases are full of them. Sweet and wistful coppery-haired maidens in purple gowns, against a background of lush green nature. Very romantic and very Pre-Raphaelite. Hughes is famous for making paintings of lovers, influenced by a painting that he himself admired, “The Huguenot” by John Everett Millais, but he is also somewhat ignored, perhaps because his life wasn’t rife with scandals, lovers or travels to exotic places. He led a quiet, but joyous and serene life with his wife Tryphena Foord ‘his early and only love’ and they married in 1855, so around the time “April Love” was painted.

Arthur Hughes, Study for April Love, 1855

It’s interesting to note that Arthur Hughes’ own love life was happy and seemingly ideal, and yet the romantic scenes on his canvases are tinged with melancholy and unrequited feelings; transient nature of love and life are in opposition with the lasting character of nature, old oak trees and ivy with its steady and persistent growth are in contrast with the changing nature of human feelings. Maybe in his real life, love was as strong as an oak trees and could resist winds and storms, but in the gentle, dreamy and wistful world of his paintings, love is a light pink rose whose delicate petals are easily scattered by a gentle breeze, as we can see in the bottom left part of the painting “April Love” where a girl is standing by an ivy-overgrown tree trunk and looking down in disappointment and sadness, while a gentleman whose head is hard to even notice on canvas is kissing her hand and perhaps reassuring her that she is wrong in her doubts and that he does love her. The model for the lad was the sculptor Alexander Munro who shared a studio with Hughes from 1852 to 1858, and the model for the girl was originally a girl from the countryside who refused to pose for Hughes after she saw the way he had drawn her. Hughes then used his wife as a model and it is her face that we see on the canvas, so gentle and so suitable for a romantic scene. The painting was exhibited in 1856 and accompanied with these verses from Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Miller’s Daughter”:

Love is hurt with jar and fret,
Love is made a vague regret,
Eyes with idle tears are set,
Idle habit links us yet;
What is Love? For we forget.
Ah no, no.

Arthur Hughes, Amy, 1853-59

Arthur Hughes was not an official member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his paintings clearly exhibit the Pre-Raphaelite style and preference of themes. Another painting, “Amy”, is also a beautiful example of Hughes’ use and choice of colours; how radiant and vivacious is the purple of her dress?! Especially in the contrast with the many shades of green of the ivy, moss and fern all around her. The rosy-cheeked Amy with a flower in her hair could be mistaken for a forest fairy. Her eyes are worryingly set on the name “Amy” freshly carved on the tree trunk. Youthful love is fragile and somewhere deep in her heart she can sense it. In a follow-up painting “Long Engagement” we see the same girl, this time with a far sadder look on her face, disappointment and pleading are in her gaze. His eyes are directed somewhere else, perhaps he doesn’t have the heart to break hers and shatter her hopes, or there is reluctance which keeps him from fulfilling his promise. Meanwhile, the carved name on the tree trunk is getting more and more overgrown with ivy. Ferns and moss have grown in abundance, and white roses with their thorny stems have started to smother the paths of the forest. The lovers’ love is lulled to everlasting sleep. Despite the sad element of Hughes’ paintings, they are still a definite proof that broodiness and melancholy are cool, and happiness is not. Also, it’s interesting to note that the couple mentioned in the beginning, Edward Burne-Jones and Georgie, also had a long engagement which made Georgie’s heart ache, but in 1860 they finally married, and luckily avoided the fate of the couple bellow.

Arthur Hughes, Long Engagement, 1859