Tag Archives: American artist

Andrew Wyeth – Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939

3 Sep

“Set sail in those turquoise days…”

(Echo and the Bunnymen, Turquoise Days)

Andrew Wyeth, Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939, watercolour and pencil on paper

This gloomy watercolour by Andrew Wyeth instantly struck a chord with me because it brought to mind the solitary landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and the moody music of Echo and the Bunnymen’s second album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is an all time favourite of mine, and I especially savour it in this time of the year. As someone who is continually seeking the connections between painting and rock music, literature and art, music and literature etc, this is a perfect match in mood, for the sounds of the “Heaven Up Here” transport me to a wet, solitary beach where the sea and the sky meet in a kiss while the dusk is slowly taking over… Wyeth’s watercolour strongly conveys a similar mood, at least to me because the colours are beautifully chosen.

Wyeth, who usually had a penchant for taking an ordinary motif and transforming it into an extraordinary one, took a simple motif of a three master or a ship with three masts and painted a stunning watercolour using a palette of only a few colours, but visually strong and captivating ones. The ship is leaning on its right, the sea waves are strong, they are cradling the ship as if it were a baby in the crib. The nature can easily destroy something man-made, even if it is as big as the ship, and it’s easy to see just how powerless and meaningless the small human figures are compared to the vastness of the sea. The figures here almost appear to be melting into the rest of the scene and they bring to mind the figures in Caspar David Friedrich’s melancholy seascape painting though Wyeth’s watercolour is more dynamic and expressive than meditative and dreamy. The combination of the dark colours and the whimsical, playful way the watercolour seemed to be painting itself creates a contrast that stimulates and excites our eyes.

The liquid and often capricious medium of watercolour is perfect for this kind of a scene because it vividly portrays the sea waves, better than a dry medium of pastel would, for example. When you gaze at these dark and murky waters you know they were painted with water, you can imagine the brush heavy with drops of rich colour hitting the surface of the paper and leaving a rich, dense trace which grows paler as the stroke gets longer… The greedy paper takes in the colour just as the sand on the beach drinks in the water of the sea. I feel that watercolour can translate the mood of melancholy, isolation and gloom better than other mediums. Wyeth was only twenty-two years old when he painted this watercolour; the same age as Echo and the Bunnymen’s singer Ian McCulloch when he sang the lines “set sail in those turquoise days…” from the above mentioned album. In 1937, at the age of twenty, Wyeth had his first one-man exhibition of mostly monochromatic watercolours. Seeing the gorgeous “Three Master Aground” we needn’t be surprised that the exhibition was a huge success and that all the watercolours were sold.

John Singer Sargent: Watercolours of the Gardens of Villa di Marlia in Tuscany

3 Jul

It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time.

John Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca – A Fountain, 1910

American painter John Singer Sargent was one of the many American and British artists who was seduced by the spirit of Italy. The Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and John Keats, and Victorian era writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Robert Browning all marvelled in the charms of Italy. Still, Sargent, having been born in Florence, had a special connection to Italy; the romance of Ancient ruins, the beauty of Renaissance palaces, the majestic paintings by Titian and Tintoretto, the lush splendour of gardens and parks, the warm sunlight and golden air woven with dreams and nostalgia, were things that Sargent was familiar with but that also excited him and inspired him.

It was the mixture of age and cultivated Beauty which made the landscape of Italy so enchanting and alluring: “The artists’ love affair with Italy had this need for an understanding not possible in the raw New World Story had found prosaic. It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time. Time, in Italy, must have seemed universal and mythic. After a sufficient number of histories, after Etruria, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, time underwent a curious compression which was also an infinite extension.” (Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture – American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875) Even though Sargent is mostly known for his glorious oil on canvas portraits, he was also immensely prolific in watercolours, having painted more than two thousand of them. The watercolours capture a wide range of motives, from the alligators of Florida, gondolas of Venice, to the beautiful gardens of Italian villas.

Watercolour “Villa di Marlia Lucca – Fountain” is one such work which beautifully captures the fragment of a carefully cultivated garden of the Renaissance villa di Marlia in Lucca in Tuscany where Sargent stayed at the time these watercolours were created. Sargent chose to portray the old parts of the garden which were not renovated but rather showed the true spirit of the times in which they were created. In this watercolour you can almost hear and feel the water of the fountain refreshing the garden, the scent of lemons and thyme colouring the air, the patches of muted yellow on the balustrade are the moss that speaks of the longevity and tradition of the garden; it wouldn’t be there if it was freshly built. The two sculptures in the fountain are the river gods representing the rivers Arno and Serchio. Sargent beautifully captures the play of lights on the water and the lush scenery in the background. The scene is also skillfully cropped, almost like a photographs; the horizontal line of the balustrade in the foreground beautifully frames the painting. Another lyrical watercolour that pays tribute to the past shows the statue of Daphne in the garden of the Villa Varramista. With her hands reaching towards the sky, Daphne looks vivid and almost alive.

John Singer Sargent’s Villa di Marlia, Lucca – The Balustrade, 1910

John Singer Sargent – Villa di Marlia, Lucca, 1910

John Singer Sargent, Daphne, 1910

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.

Harry Shokler: Waterfront – Brooklyn

13 Dec

The skyscrapers were beautiful. They did not seem like mere corporate shells. They were monuments to the arrogant yet philanthropic spirit of America. The character of each quadrant was invigorating and one felt the flux of its history. The old world and the emerging one served up in the brick and mortar of the artisan and the architects.”
(Patti Smith, Just Kids)

Harry Shokler, Waterfront – Brooklyn, ca. 1934

A big city is never as dreary, lonely and miserable as in winter months, and yet, in those desolate times, some artists are capable of finding a certain magic and these paintings of New York City in snow by American painter Harry Shokler are an example of such beauty. “Waterfront – Brooklyn” shows a Brooklyn port, busy despite the cold weather and snow. I bet there was nothing poetic about this scene in real life, just coldness and misery, but through the eyes of the artist the scene is transformed into a harmony of white, greys and browns. The drab industrial part of the city becomes a place where all hope is placed because the workers and the industry will pull the country out of the economic depression of the thirties. Streets, rooftops and cars are all covered with a layer of snow, but the workers are threading their way through the snow and the work has to continue despite the weather conditions. In the distance, through the fog and over the water, the skyscrapers of Manhattan look upright and elegant, at once their elongated form appears ghostly and intimidating. They can be see as visual symbols of hope and progress, they are like lighthouses in the depression, signaling the better times that are surely to come. Surely, I say, because hope stays the last. In Shokler’s another artwork called “Skyline” the skyscrapers appear again and this time they are the stars of the show. Again, in the foreground of the painting we see the snow-capped roofs of vibrantly coloured buildings of the industrial part of town, and then, over a visual layer of water, the skyscrapers appear, so otherworldly and awe-inspiring, like mirages almost, seen through the snowflakes that further brings a hint of magic into an otherwise drab scene.

Harry Shokler, Skyline, 1942

Charles Burchfield: Catalogue of Tattered Dreams

5 Jul

“Burchfield’s paintings in the years between the wars are a catalogue of tattered dreams: abandoned towns with their false-fronted ramshackle facades, sitting on the edge of vast prairies, decrepit Victorian rowhouses, resembling tooth-less old women, the barren wastes left by industries once robust.”

(American Encounters: Art, History and Cultural Identity)

Charles Burchfield, Promenade, 1927-28, watercolour on paper, 31 5/8 x 42 1/2 inches (80.33 x 107.95 cm)

Charles Burchfield’s watercolours of streets, houses, lonely barns and fields all have a particularly haunting and captivating lyrical beauty, but his watercolour “Promenade” painted in 1927-28 seems to be my favourite because it is at once so whimsical and poetic and tinged with a certain melancholy of grey and brown shades. Abandonment and decay are motives which linger throughout Burchfield’s artworks. He gave a new life to motifs that Modernism had ignored; in times when other painters, such as Charles Sheeler, George Ault and Max Weber, glorified speed and modern architecture, Burchfield returned to the past, in a poetic and not sentimental way and portrayed all the lonely, forgotten corners of the town. This watercolour may not be the best example of Burchfield’s fascination with the motif of decay and abandonment that linger throughout his work, but it is incredibly poetic and shows how Burchfield gave personalities and unique quirks to buildings and places rather than people.

His watercolours such as “Promenade” look as if they arose from a puddle of rain; watery, grey and dipped in wistfulness and nostalgia. My eye wanders from one corner of the painting to the other and every bit of this artwork delights my eyes; the gloomy and mysterious houses have windows which resemble eye sockets, like something from Edgar Allan Poe, and so are the almost bare treetops with grey masses of leaves and long, dark and thin branches which stretch out like long shadowy arms ready to snatch you and take you down to the underworld. You can imagine the sad autumnal wind playing its mournful tunes and making the leaves dance between the street lanterns, wooden fences and trees. Once shining roofs and freshly painted facades now appear as if the whirlwind of change and decay had left its irreparable mark. The melancholy appeal of trees and houses is broken by the action in the street; cars are driving up and down the street, a plump old lady is walking her dog and three other dog are running after it, and this really adds a touch of liveliness to the mood. Still, the liveliness in the street doesn’t reflect itself on the old Victorian facades.

Watercolour “In a Deserted House” is a better example of Burchfield’s poetic enthusiasm for decaying places where spiders weave their webs in the corners of once dear and sunlight rooms, once cheerful wallpapers are now flaking, old fireplace is now cold, laughter is heard no more, and who lived there, no one knows any more. You can really feel that Burchfield felt the beauty and sadness of those places.

Charles Burchfield, In a Deserted House, ca. 1918-1939

Charles Burchfield, The Abandoned House, 1959

Frederick Carl Frieseke: Lady in the Garden in June

27 Jun

What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade.”

(Gerture Jekyll)

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Lady in the Garden in June, 1911

Painting “Lady in the Garden in June” and many other paintings by the American Impressionist painter Frederick Carl Frieseke perfectly encapsulate the lazy and indolent mood of a summer garden. Female figures in their pretty dresses and fashionable hats serve to beautify the scenes of gardens in bloom, but Frieseke paints both the flowers and the ladies with equal attentiveness and vibrancy, they seem to be a part of the landscape. Gertrude Jekyll, a British Victorian era horticulturist, writer and garden designer perfectly described this transient and illusive, yet magical and captivating mood of June when summer has revealed to us all its charms and we feel the dream will never end. John Singer Sargent encapsulated this same ethereal and dreamy mood in his painting “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose“, but with Frieseke it’s not just a single painting which speaks of summer delights, but many.

On these canvases Frieseke translates the charms of summer into an oasis of joyous, vibrant colours and countless little dabs, dots and dashes of paint. In the painting “Hollyhocks” from 1911 you can really see how a few dabs of light pink or red can create a whole hollyhock flower. The painting looks pulsating and alive with all these trembling brush strokes and all these colours and it is easy to see why a critic had referred to Frieseke’s style as “Decorative Impressionism” because he uses the same motives as the Impressionists, the wonderful outdoors with flowers and sunshine, but fills his paintings with details, patterns and shapes and some paintings, such as the one called “Hollyhocks” from 1912-13 reminds me of Gustav Klimt’s landscapes which never feature human figures but are instead made out of garish colours and filled with details leaving no space free of shapes and dabs of rich colour.

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks, by 1911

There is little difference between the figure of a lady and the figure of a flower in Frieseke’s garden scenes, both are here for their beauty, colour and shape, and we can see that in the painting “Hollyhocks” above, from 1911, where the woman is seen from the profile in her garden in bloom and, seen from afar, her lean, upward figure would resemble a tall, lean hollyhock flower. In “Lady in Garden” the domineering pattern are vertical dashes which linger on and on over the canvas creating a rhythm and we can hardly see the line which separates the tall, sharp blades of grass from the stripes on the fabric of the woman’s dress. Although Frieseke was an American artist, in 1898, at the age of twenty-four he moved to France and studied art at Academie Julian. He regularly spent his summers at Giverny and in 1906 he moved into a house there, previously owned by another American painter Theodore Robinson, and found himself being a neighbour of none other but the Father of Impressionism: Claude Monet. Despite this lucky coincidence, Frieseke and Monet didn’t develop a friendship. Frieseke found Renoir to be his inspiration instead, inspired by Renoir’s voluptuous women, vibrant colours and a sense of joie de vivre and sensuality lingering through his canvases. And now, speaking of flowers and lovely gardens in summer reminded me of this passage from Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women”:

As spring came on, a new set of amusements became the fashion, and the lengthening days gave long afternoons for work and play of all sorts. The garden had to be put in order, and each sister had a quarter of the little plot to do what she liked with. Hannah used to say, “I’d know which each of them gardings belonged to, ef I see ’em in Chiny,” and so she might, for the girls’ tastes differed as much as their characters. Meg’s had roses and heliotrope, myrtle, and a little orange tree in it. Jo’s bed was never alike two seasons, for she was always trying experiments. This year it was to be a plantation of sun flowers, the seeds of which cheerful land aspiring plant were to feed Aunt Cockle-top and her family of chicks. Beth had old-fashioned fragrant flowers in her garden, sweet peas and mignonette, larkspur, pinks, pansies, and southernwood, with chickweed for the birds and catnip for the pussies. Amy had a bower in hers, rather small and earwiggy, but very pretty to look at, with honeysuckle and morning-glories hanging their colored horns and bells in graceful wreaths all over it, tall white lilies, delicate ferns, and as many brilliant, picturesque plants as would consent to blossom there. Gardening, walks, rows on the river, and flower hunts employed the fine days, and for rainy ones, they had house diversions, some old, some new, all more or less original.

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Lilies, 1911

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Lady in a Garden, 1912, oil on canvas, 81 x 65.4 cm

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks, 1912-13

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Grey Day on the River (Two Ladies in a Boat), c 1908

Maurice Prendergast – Vibrant Watercolour Beach Scenes

16 Feb

American Post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast seems to be my favourite painter at the moment. After sharing his beautiful painting “The Lady with a Red Sash” with you, I simply must share these vibrant, dazzling watercolours of beach scenes, bursting with life and vivacity.

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, Beachmont, 1900-05, watercolor over graphite and coal on off-white wove paper

A single glance at any of Maurice Prendergast’s delightful watercolours of beaches and the sea is enough to send me into a state of reverie. Memories of past summers fill my mind; I see the wonderful blue sea trembling before my eyes, the steady yet wild waves with a golden shine sparkling in the sun, salty scent tingling my nostrils and sun warming my skin, a plethora of pebbles and parasols in many vibrant colours, the line which separates the sky and the sea is faraway and out of reach. The seaside was a lingering theme in Prendergast’s career, and watercolour appears to have been his favoured medium for these scenes, although he did paint many traditional oils as well.

His watercolour “Low Tide, Beachmont” (the title was given posthumously) seems to be my favourite at the moment. I love the vibrancy and liveliness of the scene, not just the mood of a carefree, idle, leisure day spent at the beach, collecting pebbles, jumping around and laughing, and inhaling the fresh salty scent of the sea carried by the soft western breeze, but also the liveliness of all the elements on the paper. Women and children are enjoying a day at the beach. Little boats are sailing in the distance. Skirts are billowing in the wind, and some hats are eager to fly away; the little in the foreground is holding her hat with both hands. Their reflections appear in the surface of the water which the waves had brought to fill the empty space between the rocks.

This watercolour excites me not merely because of its content, the wonderful portrayal of a fun day at the beach, but also because of the way it was executed. The repetition of elements such as those brown-grey rocks creates a rhythm which is soothing and exciting both at once. It almost creates a tapestry of shapes, swirls and colours makes the painting so playful, vivacious and alive. It makes the painting appear as a decorative ornamental surface and everything seems to be trembling and breathing. In all of his watercolours, but in this one especially, the world appears as if it was painted from a child’s point of view; it’s just so very playful. Before travelling to Paris in 1891 to study in well-respected academies, Prendergast (1858-1924) was apprenticed to work in the commercial arts, and hence he grew to like the flatness and the bright colours. He painted coastal scenes in Brittany during his four-year stay in France and after returning from Paris in 1895 he settled in Boston and often ventured to the beaches north of Boston, Revere Beach and Beachmont to name a few.

As I have already stated on this blog many times, I absolutely adore watercolours. Anything painted in that medium never fails to look lively, immediate and spontaneous. This effect of watercolours being “spontaneous” and “effortless” is very deceiving because this watery medium tends to have a mind of its own; it spills, stains the paper and goes in directions one has not planned. Dates for this watercolour vary a lot; some sources state it was painted between 1902 and 1904, some state the year as 1905, and yet in the bottom right corner there is the painter’s signature and the year 1897. Strange indeed. Now, here are a few more of Prendergast’s wonderful beach scene. While I adore the playful visual rhythm of “Low Tide, Beachmont”, I also enjoy the way the colours in the painting “Children at the Beach” (1897) melt so lyrically, especially around the figures of children. And that serene blue! Ahhhh…

Maurice Prendergast, Ladies with Parasols, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, 1897

Maurice Prendergast, Children at the Beach, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Revere Beach, 1897, watercolour

Andrew Wyeth – Winter Corn Fields

21 Jan

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.

(Andrew Wyeth)

Andrew Wyeth, Winter Corn Fields, 1942, tempera on board

Despite having been born in July, in 1917, the American artist Andrew Wyeth wasn’t a child of summer’s warmth, flowers and golden sunlight. Winter was the season his soul felt most drawn to, as he said himself: “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” Wyeth mentions autumn as well, but the richness, colours and vibrancy of autumn haven’t truly found their way to his canvases. Instead, a lot of his landscapes, such as “Winter Corn Fields”, painted early in his career, when Wyeth was twenty four or twenty-five years old, show the gentle and whimsical beauty that hides under the seemingly harsh, bare and dead winter landscape. I love all the interesting layers in this painting that create a sort of visual rhythm that is thrilling and clearly comes from the artist’s deep dive into nature and attention to details. The fields are not entirely covered by a dreamy, serene, white veil of snow. It seems like the snow, kissed by the rare pale rays of winter sun had partially melted and then froze again. Hidden under the snow, the richly coloured reddish-brown chunks of wet soil are appearing, and so is the lush dark green grass. The colour palette is so minimal; lots of white, dark green, brown, pale beige and yellow; such earthy, subtle colours and yet so much vibrancy and life is portrayed with it. In the background, we see a rusty red shed and a grey house on which only one little attic window is seen. Who lives there, and do they miss seeing the fields around their house vibrantly green and alive, littered with yellow and silver dandelions, I wonder.

Andrew Wyeth, The Granary, 1961, watercolor on paper

Another beautiful, very dreamy painting by Wyeth, a watercolour this time called “The Granary”, which I recently discovered, shows a winter countryside scene with the granary during a full-blown snow blizzard. This is the kind of scene which is dreamy to gaze at, but only through the window, while one is cozy and warm inside, sipping tea and reading a book. No bird, or mouse or a bird would be out here in this magical yet horrible weather condition. But in the artwork such as this one, it simply looks mesmerising and unreal, and this is something that so much of Wyeth’s art has in common, with his poetic painterly vision he successfully transformed trivial, mundane, even boring everyday scenes into something lyrical and hauntingly beautiful.

George Hitchcock: An American in Tulip Land

9 May

One of the most thrilling sensations I have experienced this spring was falling in love – with tulips. And today, here is a painter who painted tulips: George Hitchcock.

George Hitchcock, Holland, Hyacinth Garden, 1890

One of the most thrilling sensations I have experienced this spring was falling in love – with tulips. Never before had I seen them in all their beauty and splendour. Tall, slim, and lonely, each growing on their own stem, yet very near to each other. Thick, lush, juicy petals. Their heavy velvet attire comes in all sorts of colours; red, pink, yellow, orange, white, dark purple which almost looks black. They look equally lovely regardless of where they grow, in elegant parks or simple gardens in the suburbs. My heart ached for tulips the whole April! Their absence from my life, and my vase, tinged my days with sorrow and yearning. My tulipless existence was unbearable. Then at last, two gorgeous crimson red tulips found a new home in my vase. And what a thrill to gaze at them, their bright uplifting colour, their dance of petals, opening and closing, opening and closing, as if they were dancers on stage practicing choreography. What else to say – a tulip, isn’t the word itself just beautiful on the tongue. Tuuulip.

Like many other nineteenth century American artists, George Hitchcock (1850-1913) also traveled to Europe and took full advantage of the beautiful scenery that was around him. Unlike others who found a new home in Paris, Hitchcock moved to the Netherlands – the land of tulip fields and crazy artists who cut their ear off – as we all know, and was very inspired by the beauties of cultivated nature around him and the slow and peaceful everyday life in the countryside. He did study in Paris for awhile, but the calling of his muse to come to the Netherlands proved to have been hard to ignore. Hitchcock’s portrayal of flower fields shows his Impressionist fascination with nature and also his great observations of the place. Fascination with flowers, their vibrancy and beauty, is present in all his painting, whether it’s a landscape where there the flowers occupy the central place or just a genre scene from everyday life. We have a painting of a bride in a traditional attire, and behind her yellow and purple tulips are fighting for attention. She is even holding pink tulips in her hands. Portrayals of flower girls dressed in sombre grey dresses, and carrying flowers on their shoulders, with a background of a windmill or nature, are equally charming and bring to mind the idyllic atmosphere that must have ruled the countryside. And ending with the painting “Vanquished” where the principal figure is a defeated knight, with his head down and his flag touching the ground, but again the flowers are overwhelming with their beauty and bright colours.

George Hitchcock, Tulip Culture, 1889

And here is a little poem by Emily Dickinson, a friend and a lover of flowers who loved tending to her garden and pressing flowers. I especially like the line “I touched her cradle mute”, how very haunting!

The Tulip

SHE slept beneath a tree

Remembered but by me.

I touched her cradle mute;

She recognized the foot,

Put on her carmine suit, —

And see!

George Hitchcock, Dutch woman in a garden, c.1890

George Hitchcock, Bloemenveld, 1890

George Hitchcock, Dutch Bride, 1890

George Hitchcock, Flower Girl In Holland, 1890

George Hitchcock, A Dutch Flower Girl, 1890

George Hitchcock, Vanquished, 1890

Ghostly Pastel Portraits by John Corbet

2 May

These ghostly pastels by a contemporary artist John Corbet recently caught my attention. I was speechless at first and captivated by these eerie and mysterious portraits which kept haunting me until I felt compelled to write about them. Their faces seem mute and haunting, but if you look at them more closely, you will know that each has a story to tell.

Pastel Ghost Bearing Flowers

In Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human”, which is one of my favourite books ever, the main character Oba Yozo revels in secretly making ghostly self-portraits which he doesn’t show to anyone, except in that one rare occasion when he shows it to his friend Takeichi, the only person he thinks could possibly understand the strangeness of his art. It was Takeichi who started the topic of “ghost pictures” in the first place:

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. (…) I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

Ghost Portrait: The Monk

The idea of “ghost pictures” immediately struck me and long after I had finished reading the novel it lingered on my mind. Since that moment, I have been searching for art that has the same ghostly quality and mood. I found it in the elongated melancholic faces of Modigliani’s women, George Seurat’s conté crayon shadowy figures, and now again in these pastel portraits by John Corbet. The pastel above called “The Monk” instantly captivated me because the face is so shadowy and undefined; it looks haunting and mute, and yet, when I gaze in those eyes and that mouth, so black and small against the yellowish face, I have a feeling that he longs to speak and that if I gazed at his face long enough, I would hear the words in a hushed lonely voice coming from some other realm, in a language unknown to my ears. Notice the soft thrilling touches of blue on his face. This deliberate vagueness of expression and the soft undefined contours give these portraits their allure and the ghostly quality because one can tell they are not just ordinary portraits of people. Unmistakably they belong to some other world, whether it’s the invisible world of the spirits all around us, or the realm of dreams. Theme of ghosts or otherworldly creatures is dear to my heart. I often have nightmares, and the world I inhabit there is dark, chilling and filled with shadowy ghostly creatures whose faces I have never seen, but something tells me they would look similar to these pastels, especially the first one.

The thing that connects the “ghost pictures” discussed in the book with these pastels is the deep and profound way in which both artists see and feel the world around them and their willingness to see beyond the borders of this visible, material world, and the ability to transcend it with the help of their imagination and come back with art that is woven with mystique and secrets. A ghost picture needn’t always be a portrayal of someone departed, it is more about the ghostly quality in a portrait; a face which appears ethereal and slightly eerie to our human eyes, a face which brings inside us the feeling of transience and the fragility of life, a face which fills us with an inexplicable melancholy and reminds us of the mysteries of the spiritual world, and ultimately, a face which haunts us, shakes us and stirs something inside us which we cannot rationally explain. Ghostly faces on John Corbet’s pastels, whether it’s the melancholy monk or the spooky girl holding flowers above, or the lavender-haired lady and the sad-eyed messy haired girl bellow, all awake these feelings inside me when I look at them.

Pastel Ghost No 2: Mama

I love the way these pastels seem to have been drawn, in a spontaneous and intuitive way, as if led by an invisible hand – a ghostly hand. My initial impression isn’t so far from the truth and the way Corbet actually created these pastels; in semi darkness, near a dim candle, in a kind of trance; letting his soul guide his hand and his pastel, not the eyes alone. I also love the dreamy softness of these faces, especially on the pastel called “Mama”. It makes the face seem as if it is seen through a veil, a flimsy curtain, or a foggy window on an autumn twilight. These languid ghostly creatures seem as if they are slowly passing through our world, unnoticed by most and captured in art by those with sharper senses. These were my impressions of these ghostly portraits, but I suggest you check out the artist’s short and lyrical posts written in a form of letters to Edgar Allan Poe which further explore the personal meaning and inspiration behind these artworks. I am sure Mr Poe himself would love these portraits and would recognise their mysterious quality, he did after all discuss one painting and the artist’s quest for perfection in his short story “The Oval Portrait”. Here is an excerpt from the post about the pastel “The Monk”, you can read the whole post here:

As you so wisely suggested, I took my box of pastels and a few sheets of paper and visited the graveyard. I sat there for sometime from twilight to midnight, but nothing appeared. I was tired so finally I decided to go back. (…) As I quickened my pace I saw a figure in a black coat, walking towards me on the other side of the bridge. It was a fine coat he wore, he was no beggar, yet his face seemed like an old tree beaten by years and years of storms. As he passed by me he did not look at me, but I saw his eyes, and in them was the poetic wisdom of sorrow and loss. He was either a monk, or a poet. I turned to watch him leave, and once he crossed the bridge the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and like magic the fog cleared and the wind calmed – and he was gone.

As soon as I got home I opened my box of pastels and got to work on drawing the ghostly apparition and the wind and rain which pursued him. For the first time, it was like the pastels took on a life of their own, as though my hand were guided by a spirit – could it have been, Mr. Poe, the spirit of the monk? It was dark for I had but one candle lit, therefore I could just barely see what I was doing; the painting seemed to paint itself. The experience brought me such peace within, as though I were bringing consolation to the sorrow within his eyes. This, in turn, brought consolation to me.

I especially like this line: the painting seemed to paint itself.

Conté crayon ghostly portrait