Tag Archives: Alphonse de Lamartine

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

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Caspar David Friedrich – A Vision of Eternity

2 Oct

”So driven onward to new shores forever,
Into the night eternal swept away,
Upon the sea of time can we not ever
Drop anchor for one day?

O Lake! Scarce has a single year coursed past.
To waves that she was meant to see again,
I come alone to sit upon this stone
You saw her sit on then. (…)

Pause in your trek O Time! Pause in your flight,
Favorable hours, and stay!
Let us enjoy the transient delight
That fills our fairest day.

Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on…

(The Lake – Alphonse de Lamartine, translated by A.Z.Foreman)

1822. Moonrise over the Sea - Caspar David FriedrichMoonrise over the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich, 1822

Caspar David Friedrich, although a famous German painter of Romanticism today, was pretty much neglected as an artist until the painters of Symbolism discovered the connection between his paintings and their own ideas. Friedrich’s paintings reflect the mood of Romantic poetry of his times, which is also the mood of Schubert’s music, and some unjustly criticised his art as being to literary. His painting above Moonrise over the Sea, perhaps his most famous work, is a typical Friedrich’s landscape: dreamy but emotionally charged, it shows the sea without the line of horizon which leaves the impression of something infinite.

As usual, we don’t see the faces of his characters, two women and a man in this case, contemplating on a desolate beach, admiring the moonrise perhaps. The colours are exquisite, as I’ve seen the painting in Berlin – now I can die happily. While the stones and the shore in the foreground may seem repulsive in their dark brownness, the sea and the sky are absolutely stunning; lavender shades softly reveal the golden setting sun, then the boats sailing on that magical blueness of the sea… Perhaps the solid brown rocks symbolise stability of his family life, the merging sea and skyline freedom, and the setting sun lost hopes and a feeling of helplessness against transience.

A hint of mystery and infinite is present in this painting as well, some interpret his paintings as portrait of human alienation and solitude. Namely, Caspar was born and grew up in Greifswald, a university town and a seaport on Baltic coast. He remained closely connected to the town even as an adult, and most likely admired the sea himself, for he did say ‘I have to stay alone in order to fully contemplate and feel nature.‘ However, he had experienced a several traumas in his childhood which may had left him with a bleak and melancholic view on life; deaths of people close to him: his mother and sister had died when he was very young, and at thirteen he witnessed his brother drowning while ice-skating.

As I’ve already said, Friedrich’s paintings have often been perceived as highly poetic and connecting them to poetry then seems quite right, don’t you think? Well, as a fan of poetry of Romanticism, I’ve noticed how longer gazing at this painting reminds me of Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem The Lake. The story behind that poem is very sad, but also a material for a novel. In 1816 Lamartine met a young girl by the lake Bourget. The following year he returned to the lake, expecting to see her again, but she wasn’t there. At first he thought that she had stood him up, only to find out later that she had taken ill and died… Still, to him she remained a symbol of platonic, unearthly love.

echo and the bunnymen heaven up hereEcho and the Bunnymen ‘Heaven up Here’, 1981

Art always reinterprets itself and I see a connection between Caspar David Friedrich’s wistful and dreamy, yet lonely landscapes with the cover of the album Heaven up Here by the Echo and the Bunnymen, a great post-punk band from Liverpool. I’ll quote Wikipedia: ‘The photograph used on the front and back cover of the album was taken by photographer Brian Griffin. The picture shows the band on a wet beach in the south of Wales; there are dark clouds in the sky and the sun is low on the horizon causing the band to be silhouetted. The original album’s cover art was designed by Martyn Atkins. Reynolds said that the band’s manager Drummond saw them as representing “cold, dampness, darkness“.‘ I fully recommend the album by the way, as it is perfect for Autumn, the melodies remind me of exactly of Friedrich’s damp and solitary landscapes, but rich in colours, and atmospheric just like songs on Heaven up Here (1981). Song Over the Wall is the one I’ve listened to the most, so I recommend you to check it out if you like.

Claude Debussy – The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

9 Apr

1875. Miranda,  J.W. Waterhouse1875. Miranda – J.W.Waterhouse

La fille aux cheveux de lin or ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ is a musical composition by French Composer Claude Debussy. The piece was written between late 1909 and early 1910, and it is known for its simplicity. It was first published in April, and premiered in June 1910.

The title was inspired by Leconte de Lisle’s poem La fille aux cheveux de lin, which is part of his Chansons écossaises (Scottish songs) published in 1852. Still, inspiration for this short composition is unknown. Some suggest that Claude Debussy had ‘Scottish beauties’ in mind. At the same time, the girl with the flaxen hair was always seen as a symbol of innocence, gentleness and naivety in fine art. Therefore the simplicity of the composition and the motif go hand in hand. Debussy once said ‘I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!‘; even though he disliked the term ‘Impressionism’, his music today is recognised as Impressionistic. All of his compositions are like impressions, of night skies, beautiful landscapes, reveries, and charming ladies.

The impression of the composition is an individual thing. ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ is a very dreamy composition, and yet very short. When it ends, I always have the feeling that the beautiful dream is gone, that the sweet and flowery moment has vanished. There’s a melancholic air to the composition as well, air of loneliness and longing. Every time I listen to this piece, I have the girl with the flaxen hair in mind; she’s not there anymore, except in the memories of the one who loved her. Her flaxen hair is now unattainable. Still, the memories of the romance are fresh and sweet. Something like in Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem ‘The Lake’.

I’ve heard many, many different impressions; the amount of emotions and memories that can arise from music is magical and unbelievable at the same time. Perhaps you should spare two minutes of your time and listen to this composition again to get your impression.

1875. Miranda,  J.W. Waterhouse, Detail

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair – Leconte de Lisle

Sitting amidst the alfalfa in flower,

Who sings in the cool morning hour?

It is the girl with the flaxen hair,

The beauty with cherry lips so fair.

        Love, in the summer sun so bright,

        Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

 

Your mouth has colours so divine,

it tempts a kiss, o, were it mine!

Come chat with me in the flow’ring grass,

Girl with the long lashes, silken tress.

        Love, in the summer sun so bright,

        Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

 

Do not say no, o cruel girl!

Do not say yes, far better still

To read your large eye’s longing gaze,

Your rosy lips which I so praise!

        Love, in the summer sun so bright,

        Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

 

Farewell to deer, farewell to hare!

And to red partridges! I shall dare

a kiss of your crimson lips to steal,

your flaxen locks to caress and feel!

        Love, in the summer sun so bright,

        Sang with the lark for sheer delight.