Tag Archives: American painter

Theodore Butler: Lili Butler in Claude Monet’s Garden

7 Apr

“Some long-forgot, enchanted, strange, sweet garden of a thousand years ago…”

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Interim“)

Theodore Earl Butler, Lili Butler in Claude Monet’s Garden, 1911, oil on canvas, 81.3 x 81.3 cm (32 x 32 in.)

This magical garden scene inspired me for the ending of my newest story, and whenever I gaze at it, even for a few seconds, I instantly hear the first sounds of Claude Debussy’s “Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp” (1915). At once I am transported into the realm of dreams, I am threading the paths of a garden in bloom, stepping through the soft grass and hearing the distant mingled murmurs of many flowers. Sweet fragrance of the lilac tree hangs in the air like a cloud. In a dream, the flowers speak in a language I can understand. The tales they tale, I dare not repeat. I am only in this magical garden as long as the music lasts, I can only observe but never truly belong; listen but not speak, see but not be seen. The girl in white in the painting is Lili, Butler’s daughter, seventeen years old at the time. but Lili is trapped there forever, and she doesn’t mind it at all. The roses told me so. Lili lives in a dream and all the flowers bloom just for her. In the sea of intense greenness, woven with white, painted all in short quick brushstrokes and dots, the whiteness of her figure stands out. I love the curvy, S-silhouette of her body against the green background. She seems to be picking a flowers, roses perhaps. Her hair is brown, but if you take a better look, you’ll notice it’s painted in a really deep nocturnal blue, which also appears in the grass growing around her feet. The dreamy, magical mood of this garden scene reminds me of John Singer Sargent’s painting “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”. Everything is so mysterious and lively in Lili’s dream garden. Every little detail here, every blade of grass and every flower look like they are flickering and bursting with excitement.

Turn around Lili, so I may see your face! Oh, please! Let me come closer so I can see your pretty white dress. I saw your white hair ribbon, do you know? It fell on a lotus flower in the pond, it must have been when you were crossing the bridge down by the weeping willow tree. Lili? Lili! …. Oh, I am afraid I cannot tell you more, for the music is fading and with it the garden’s magic is slowly disappearing for me. The greenness takes on paler shades, Lili’s figure is blurrier and I don’t feel the soft grass under my feet anymore. Flute is in the air no more, the harp’s strings are silent too… In the last seconds, Lili turned around and said that I cannot stay there because it is her magical garden, and I must find my own. And again I am in my room, the air is stale and heavy from memories, but infused with sweet scent of hopes. The afternoon is rainy and the skies are dark and low.

Monet’s garden, Giverny, France by Rick Ligthelm.

Butler was an American painter who first studied in New York City at a progressive art school Art Students League, and then, in 1885, like many American artists, he came to Europe, Paris to be more precise: the place to be for an artist. In 1888 he was fortunate enough to meet Claude Monet in his famous splendid gardens in Giverny. Meeting Monet changed two things in Butler’s life; firstly, he started painting garden scenes, or outdoor scenes, with lose brushstrokes and vibrant colour, and secondly, he met and married Suzanne Hoschedé in 1892, one of Monet’s stepdaughters and his favourite model who posed for the lovely painting “The Girl with the Parasol”. The couple had two children; Jimmy, born in 1893, and Lili, born in 1894, but sadly Suzanne died in 1899. Butler travelled to New York City to cure his sad heart, and six months later, in 1900, he married Suzanne’s younger sister Marthe who helped take care of his children. Although initially inspired by Monet, Butler developed his own style which is just a continuation of Impressionism. Flatness and vibrant colours are more similar to the works of Vuillard and Bonnet.

J. A. M. Whistler – Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl)

16 Feb

It’s impossible not to love this painting; it has a meditative, dreamy aura, wistful lady wearing a beautifully painted white dress, and delicate pink flowers, hinting at Whistler’s appreciation of Japanese art and culture.

1864-james-abbot-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-2-the-little-white-girlJames Abbot McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl), 1864

Model for this ‘little white girl’ was an Irish beauty Joanna Hiffernan, a muse, model and a lover not only to Whistler but to Gustave Courbet as well, most famously in his painting ‘Sleep.’ Whistler’s biographers wrote of her: “She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.” Here, in Symphony in White no 2, Whistler painted her leaning against the mantelpiece in their love nest; a house they shared in Lindsey Row in Chelsea. She’s holding a Japanese fan in her hand. It’s interesting to note the ring on her left hand, but they were not married. There’s something ethereal about her; dressed in white gown that touches the ground, with long hair and a sad look in her eyes; she seems melancholic and detached from everything at the same time, as if she’s not really here, but is just passing through life without touching it, not allowing the harshness of reality to taint that beautiful whiteness of her muslin dress. If you close your eyes, you can imagine her slowly and elegantly walking across the room, then standing by the fireplace, her small hand barely touching the mantelpiece, while the other gently holds a fan. She is a silent Victorian woman living on the border of dreams and reality, like Millais’ Mariana, wrapped in the loneliness of her birdcage, longing for the imagined excitement of the real life out there. Or not. Perhaps she’s so engulfed in the sweetness of her daydreams and contemplation and doesn’t even walk to live the ‘real life’. At the same time, she knows that ‘dreams always end, they don’t rise up just descend’*, and this thought is the source of the wistfulness of her gaze that Whistler has so beautifully captured.

Here we see the typical elements of Japanese culture that can be found in many 19th century paintings; pink flowers, a fan, porcelain vase. Influence of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, which were immensely popular at the time, is visible in the composition as well; you see how the picture looks like it’s cut on the ends, her wide sleeve on the left, pink azaleas at the bottom and her hand and the vase in the upper part of the painting. That’s something you don’t see in paintings of Academic Realism. Whistler is even said to have introduced Rossetti to Japanese art as a matter of fact.

Beautiful delicate pink azaleas are almost protruding into the composition, leaning their pink blossoms and delicate little leaves, as if they’re ready to listen to her sorrows and comfort her. ‘Don’t be sad, spring will soon come, and your woes will be gone‘, they seem to whisper. Joanna ignores them, her face turned away from the viewer. It’s the mirror which reveals the sadness and wistfulness of her gaze, and also the seascape that’s opposite the fireplace. She seems to be thinking:

I am weary of days and hours,

Blown buds of barren flowers,

Desires and dreams and powers,

And everything but sleep.” (Swinburne)

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the painting, besides the flowers, is her dress which is painted in soft, almost transparent brushstrokes. Its gentle, dreamy appeal is contrasted with the strict, geometrical line of the fireplace. White is the hardest colours to paint, but Whistler shows a complete mastery over it, and the painting deserves its title ‘symphony’, for it is indeed a symphony in whites. In one painting below, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, whose beauty arrives from the subtlety of colours, you’ll see that mastery of white again, and the dress seems to flow effortlessly, like a river, decorated with the flowers that also serve as an interior decoration; it’s hard to say where reality ends and dream start because the more I look at these gorgeous studies in white, the more I am drawn into this ethereal, delicate world that Whistler has created, using just his brush and colours, not magic.

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.

This painting, with Joanna’s ghost-like reflection in the mirror, inspired Swinburne to write these verses:

Glad, but not flushed with gladness,

Since joys go by;

Sad, but not bent with sadness,

Since sorrows die;

Deep in the gleaming glass

She sees all past things pass,

And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.

The critics have drawn a parallel between this painting and Ingres’ Portrait of Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville from 1845, which also has a lady standing by the mirror. Similar meditative mood, delicate whiteness, and touch of the East, can be found in many of Whistler’s paintings, here are a few:

1862-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-1-the-white-girl-girl-is-joanne-hiffernanJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862 (Note: model is Joanna again)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873 oil on canvas 77 1/8 in. x 40 1/4 in. (195.9 cm x 102.24 cm) Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1916.1.133James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873

1863-65-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-le-princesse-du-pays-de-la-porcelaineJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

My interest in these paintings arose because of my longing for Spring, so here’s a beautiful haiku poem for the season that’s upon us. Spring, I am anxiously awaiting you, please come quickly!

In these spring days,
when tranquil light encompasses
the four directions,
why do the blossoms scatter
with such uneasy hearts?” (Ki no Tomonori, c. 850-c. 904)