Tag Archives: American expatriate

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

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Harmony in Grey and Green

6 Feb

“A fallen blossom
Returning to the branch?
It was a butterfly.”

(Moritake)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, 1872-1874

Whistler painted quite a few ladies in white gowns, but those ladies usually have a look of melancholy or wistfulness on their gentle faces. The little girl appears to be showing off her clothes, her white stockings, her black satin slippers, her hat with a large feather, all the way to her dazzlingly white muslin gown, but as our gaze slowly moves up, we see a pale face with pouting lips and a distant gaze that doesn’t speak of joy or rapture. This little girl however looks rather moody, hiding her anger because she isn’t allowed to express it. But how can someone dressed in such a pretty gown be so moody? How can someone posing for an artist not have cheeks blushing from thrill and rapture? This dolly isn’t a typical melancholy muse as Joanna Hiffernan was; Whistler’s lover and companion who posed for his Symphony in White no 2 and some other paintings. This little girl is Miss Cicely Alexander, a daughter of a banker that Whistler met because of their mutual interest in Oriental art, and she was eight years old when this unfortunate sitting took place. More than one sitting naturally. It took the pedantic Whistler more than seventy sittings to paint everything just as he had envisioned it. He didn’t seem to take Miss Cicely’s feelings into consideration and despite the lyrical beauty of the portrait, it didn’t remain in good memory for the little girl. This is what she had to say about the sittings: “I’m afraid I rather considered that I was a victim all through the sittings, or rather standings, for he never let me change my position, and I believe I sometimes used to stand for hours at a time. I know I used to get very tired and cross, and often finished the day in tears.

That’s why she looks moody! Why, wouldn’t you be moody and angry yourself, if you had to stand still for a long time and not be able to play with dolls or joke around with your friends or siblings. Sitting for Whistler surely made her feel like Sisyphus carrying that huge stone to the top of the hill over and over again; a never ending pursuit…  which did have its ending after all. And the result is a very dreamy painting that continues Whistler’s tradition of portraits of wistful ladies inspired by Japonism. In this portrait, hints of Japan come in form of bright curious daisies on the right and a few butterflies that desperately want to escape the canvas. I really love how the tall daisies seem to be leaning towards the girl, as if they are trying to comfort her; “shhh little girl, don’t cry, that Mr Whistler may be awfully demanding but the painting will be a dream once finished”. The daisies are such prophets and they were right. Whistler’s eccentricity, love for l’art pour l’art philosophy and his pedantic approach to his art truly shine through in this portrait. He paid meticulous attention to all the aspects of the setting, especially the colours because he wanted to achieve a palette of muted shades, white and greys. The carpet and the walls are in many shades of grey while Miss Cicely shines in white like a resplendent white flower. The carpet was order made and that gorgeous muslin dress was designed by Whistler and made especially for Miss Cicely to wear in this portrait. He even made sure the family find the right muslin, as a dandy he would know the fabrics!

I really love all of Whistler’s harmonies and symphonies and their balanced colour palettes, dreamy ambients and pretty wistful sitters. For a long time my favourite was The Little White Girl, and perhaps it still is, but I feel that in this portrait Whistler achieved the minimalism of colours and space that he so loved in Japanese art; the background isn’t cluttered with fur carpets or fireplaces, it is just that meditative grey that stretches on and on, the mood of infinity broken only by that black line which somewhat reminds me of a canvas by Rothko, and the canvas is a little bit elongated which brings to mind the ukiyo-e prints and the formats they used. When I look at this portrait for a long time, at first I hear silence but then I hear quiet music emerging, an echo of the daisies’ laughter, and a sound of flute carried on by the butterflies chasing each other around the moody girl in white… Oh, how she wishes she could join them!