Tag Archives: art

Laurits Andersen Ring – Young Girl Looking Out a Window

4 Dec

“City of swarming, city full of dreams
Where ghosts in daylight tug the stroller’s sleeve!
Mysteries everywhere run like the sap
That fills this great colossus’ conduits.

One morning, while along the sombre street
The houses, rendered taller by the mist….”

(Baudelaire, Seven Old Men)

Laurits Andersen Ring, Young Girl Looking Out a Window, 1885

A young girl is standing by the window and looking out at the urban grey cityscape; grey skies and old roofs gradually disappearing in the mist. Their brown and fading brick red shades are the only colour in this sea of greyness. Then there’s also the soft pink of the girl’s cheek, perhaps from the cold winter air, or perhaps thoughts of distant beloved someone have turned her cheek into a summer’s garden of pink roses. She is dressed in simple, somber attire, and we see so little of her face that it is hard to tell what she is feeling, but we can imagine. She’s clearly a poor, working class girl, yearning for more. Perhaps she moved from the countryside as many have at the time, including the painter himself, and now, looking out of her small attic window at the “swarming city, city full of dreams” she doesn’t see the things that were promised to her. Even though it isn’t shown on the painting, we can imagine the rest of the scene; a poorly furnished cold little room, with old wooden floor, a tattered worn-out wooden furniture, little comfort and little brightness and little warmth, a perfect background for a Joy Division song to play in the background and flood the space and the girl’s life with an even greater sea of misery. It must be a singularly dreary late autumn day, for if it was a winter day, the roofs of Copenhagen would have probably been covered in a layer of snow. These verses seem as if they were directed to this girl looking out of her window:

Tell me, does your heart sometimes fly away, Agatha,
Far from the black ocean of the filthy city,
Toward another ocean where splendor glitters,
Blue, clear, profound, as is virginity?
Tell me, does your heart sometimes fly away, Agatha?

(Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, translated by William Aggeler, 1954)

Born as Laurits Andersen in 1854 in a little village of Ring, as a carpenter’s son, the ambitious Danish painter added “Ring” to his name as a way to differentiate himself from a fellow painter Hans Andersen Brendekilde (who added Bredenkiled himself out of the same reason) because they both exhibited their paintings at a joint exhibition in 1881. Ring began his art journey as a painter’s apprentice in his village, took some private classes in painting while working in Copenhagen in 1873, until he was accepted as a student at the Danish Academy of Arts and for a while studied under Peder Severin Krøyer, but he never liked the discipline and themes promoted by the Academy. You know someone is a great painter if they rebel against the Academy. The painting “Young Girl Looking Out a Window” is a fairly early and a fairly unknown work, at least compared to his more famous paintings, such as his Northern landscapes and village scenes which tackle the difficult aspects of poor people’s lives. Ring was very interested in the social justice and portraying realism in art, real things and real people, and not mythological fantasy themes. He didn’t want to escape reality, he wanted to tame it and transform it into colours and forms on his canvases. And this painting of a sad-looking girl gazing out the window was painted at the time when Ring himself was struggling financially and artistically, and spent a winter in an attic room in Copenhagen, living more on his ambitions than on bread and butter. Also, the way she was painted, seen from the profile and crammed into the very corner of the canvas, is something he typically did.

Love, Blood and Savagery in Botticelli’s The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti

10 Nov

These four canvases by Botticelli hide a strangely dark and cruel tale inspired by a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part one: Nastagio meets the woman and the knight in the pine forest of Ravenna, 1483, tempera on wood

Tormented by unrequited love, a young nobleman by the name of Nastagio Degli Onesti flees his hometown of Ravenna searching for some faraway place where he wouldn’t be thinking and dreaming of her – the beautiful haughty damsel who rejects him so cruelly over and over again. She enjoys rejecting him and seeing him suffer, and he tried suicide on a few occasions but all the attempts were all unsuccessful. Nastagio is tired from the unending blows of rejection and not even wanderlust can stir his dead, tired, lovelorn soul and his travel stops in a little place called Chiassi, a seaport a few miles away from Ravenna. It was the beginning of May and evening was approaching when Nastagio wandered into the dark mystic pine woods: “It chanced one day, he being come thus well nigh to the beginning of May and the weather being very fair, that, having entered into thought of his cruel mistress, he bade all his servants leave him to himself, so he might muse more at his leisure, and wandered on, step by step, lost in melancholy thought, till he came [unwillingly] into the pine-wood. The fifth hour of the day was well nigh past and he had gone a good half mile into the wood, remembering him neither of eating nor of aught else…” (*)

The distance, the change of scenery, nought could stop him from thinking of his cruel-hearted damsel in Ravenna; instead of beauties of nature, he only sees her pretty countenance, instead of the scent of the fragrant pine trees, he only breathes in her name from afar and breathes out desperation and longing. Ahhh…. Deep in mournful reveries that tear his heart even further, Nastagio “heard a terrible great wailing and loud cries uttered by a woman; whereupon, his dulcet meditation being broken, he raised his head to see what was to do and marvelled to find himself among the pines; then, looking before him, he saw a very fair damsel come running, naked through a thicket all thronged with underwood and briers, towards the place where he was, weeping and crying sore for mercy and all dishevelled and torn by the bushes and the brambles. At her heels ran two huge and fierce mastiffs, which followed hard upon her and ofttimes bit her cruelly, whenas they overtook her; and after them he saw come riding upon a black courser a knight arrayed in sad-coloured armour, with a very wrathful aspect and a tuck in his hand, threatening her with death in foul and fearsome words.” This is the scene from Boccaccio’s “Decameron” (fifth day, eighth story) which Botticelli has depicted in the first panel of the four-part series. I love the different phases of narration depicted in a single painting; in the background on the left we see Nastagio’s servants and then the tent, then we see Nastagio walking alone in the woods, and then right in the centre is the horrid encounter between Nastagio and the poor naked damsel. Having no sword or other weapon in hand, Nastagio picked up a branch, trying to defend the lady.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part two: Killing the Woman, 1483, tempera on wood

And now, in the background of the second panel, we again see the scene that had happened but minutes before; the woman being chased by an evil knight on a white horse. Now, the woman is killed and her body lies on the grass and the knight, angry faced but also seemingly accustomed to the actions, is tearing her flesh and ripping her organs out. Nastagio looks away in horror and the gesture of his arms shows how horrified and disgusted and bewildered he is by the strange scene that awoke him from his meditative reverie. Boccaccio writes: “This sight filled Nastagio’s mind at once with terror and amazement“. Dogs are eating her organs and now, on a moist grass of a dark pine forest, lies the naked dead body of a beautiful woman whose last breaths and words he had witnessed, and yet he was unable to save her from “anguish and death.” You would think that Renaissance was all about harmony and elevated themes, or so we were taught in grammar school, but what Botticelli has depicted here is a wild, untamed flow of savagery, the Dionysian element trying to stir the perfect Apollonian world of Renaissance; world of knowledge and reason is now tainted with blood, screams and torture.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part three: The banquet in the forest, 1483, tempera on wood

The knight then explains to Nastagio the strange, barbarous scene that Nastagio had witnessed. Once upon a time, in days when Nastagio was but a child, the knight, whose name is Guido degli Anastagi, also lived in Ravenna and was also suffering from unrequited love. He loved a damsel who was as cruel and haughty as Nastagio’s beloved is, and who also enjoyed tormenting him, enjoyed to see him suffer from rejection. Unable to take it anymore, death seemed dearer to Guido then such a miserable, lovelorn existence, and he took his life. The damsel was pleased that such was the power of her beauty and charm, and she shed not a tear, but very soon she fell ill and died. Having no remorse before her death for her cruel behavior towards Guido, she was condemned to eternity in hell. Guido is also there, having committed the sin of suicide. And their punishment is intertwined; every Friday he has to chase her through the forest with the dogs, kill her and rip out her heart and feed it to the dogs. A cruel, cold, little heart which was incapable of love; that is her sin.

This repetitive punishment occurs every Friday and will repeat every Friday for as many years as there were months that the lady rejected Guido. Fascinated by this discovery, the following Friday Nastagio invites his family and friends for a little gathering, a party, and the cruel damsel whom he loves is also there. This is the third scene. Party is disturbed by the same savage ceremony of damned lovers and all the guests see the lady die again and her heart being ripped out. The Knight Guido again tells the crowd of their punishment in hell and it makes an impact on people, especially the females who teary eyed suddenly feel more loving and gentle. Nastagio’s beloved, the daughter of Paolo Traversiari, suddenly feels guilt and regret for her past actions and decides to marry Nastagio, fearing the same destiny might await her in case her cruel rejection of his love perseveres.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part four: Marriage of Nastagio degli Onesti, 1483, tempera on wood

The fourth panel, perhaps the dullest one, shows Nastagio’s wedding to the once haughty pretty wealthy maiden. Well, she is still pretty and wealthy, but more down to earth and perhaps more afraid of hell’s flames. She sends her maid to tell Nastagio that “she was ready to do all that should be his pleasure“. The scenery and its connection to the story is fascinating; in first two panels the setting is the wild, dark, mysterious pine forest where Nastagio wanders into because he is daydreaming and not paying attention to where he is going, so he walks into the woods as in a dream. The third panel is half-half; woods are still present in the background behind a long white-clothed dinner table. And then, after the moment of cruelty – the killing – is over, the setting goes to a more classical, polite, rational space; a banquet celebrating the marriage. Dense, repetitive row of trees gives a sense of depth and, along with the figure of the knight, and the emphasised narrative element of the painting, are all reminders of the Gothic art of the previous centuries, but it strangely fits the mood of the story.

Boccaccio’s tales from “Decameron” were suppose to carry a wise, education message to them and in this story the message is not to reject love because everyone deserves to be loved and have the right to love. Women should learn from the cruel damsel’s behavior and not follow in her footsteps. It is a sin not to love. Nastagio and his lady live happily ever after, but this isn’t the only positive outcome of the event, oh no, suddenly “all the ladies of Ravenna became so fearful by reason thereof, that ever after they were much more amenable than they had before been to the desires of the men.” Did no one found it strange that the only reason to return someone’s affection was the fear of suffering the same damnation? It’s interesting how some things sound so normal in these old tales, while they are utterly bizarre in our day and age.

The four pictures were commissioned in 1483 by Antonio Pucci, a wealthy merchant from Florence, for the occasion of the wedding of his son Giannozzo with Lucretia Bini. The theme was most likely chosen by Pucci himself and the paintings were intended for the bedroom of the newlyweds. Why, yes, a nude lady being killed by a knight and having her heart ripped out… quite a soothing, romantical scene to gaze at before bedtime and to see the first thing in the morning. An applause please, for Antonio Pucci’s wonderful aesthetic sense. The theme was chosen for its happy ending, I mean, they do get married in the end, but still. Now the paintings are, luckily, not gracing the walls of any poor couple’s bedroom, they are in Museo del Prado.

 

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.

Andrea Kowch – I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers

27 Oct

October is nearing its end. One more beautiful October leaving us slowly, leaf by leaf, sunset by sunset, until November replaces it in the calendar. November will turn the dazzling October’s glowing leaf carpets of orange and gold in parks and woods into a gloomy mass of rotting brown leaves, and even the pink sunsets will turn an ominous shade. But while the wonderful October – a time of witches, ghosts, pumpkins, ravens, haunted castles is still here, I will be so self-indulgent and take a moment to celebrate it with a few beautiful magic realism paintings by a contemporary artist Andrea Kowch.

Andrea Kowch, Soiree, 2019

Love of the countryside is something that connects the paintings of Andrea Kowch and the literary character of Anne Shirley Cutberth, the chatty red-haired freckled orphan heroine of L. M. Montgomery’s novel “Anne of Green Gables”; the first of the series of novels about Anne. There’s a slight difference though; Anne’s idyllic sunny Avonlea is transformed, through Anne’s vivid imagination, to an almost fairy tale place, whimsical, innocent and full of wonders to be discovered, with weeping willows, a shining lake, dreamy ethereal apple blossoms white as the bride’s attire on her wedding day, golden birches, meadows and woods, whereas the countryside world in Kowch’s paintings is always tinged with mystery and eerie foreboding, there are secrets and tales yet to unravel hidden behind the static frozen moments captured in her paintings. Imagination is what connected these different visions of the countryside life and scenery. Kowch’s paintings are painted realistically, but have a dreamlike quality and that’s something I adore. Space and figures in her artworks are painted in a detailed, precise way and every motif is carefully planned to symbolise something and combined all together the story is woven. In the artists own words: “There’s a subtle tension that I like to create in my work, that leaves things open to interpretation, for viewers to attribute their own unique experiences to it. (…) Each image is a story that I just want people to delve into.“(*)

My appreciation of Kowch’s paintings definitely doesn’t stop at their aesthetically pleasing nature, their physical beauty which comes from colours and compositions that appeal to my eyes, no, the appreciation goes way deeper when it comes to her art. There is definitely a sense of mystery, a subtle tension as she calls it, and there is plenty of room for interpretation. Since the artist herself allows interpretation, I will gleefully accept this opportunity. Kowch’s recent work “Soiree” caught my attention a few weeks ago. A pale, auburn haired girl dressed in old-fashioned vintage clothes is sitting on a blanket on a meadow and having a picnic by herself… well, she isn’t all alone, though she has no human company, there are crows and a little dog to share the moment and the delicious food with her. cookies, grapes, a pie. Porcelain dishes clanking. Clouds are thick and heavy, getting darker as they float the sky slowly. The trees and the dark house in the background look unwelcoming.

Crows are such mischievous wild things! They have no sense of decorum, is this the way one behaves at a picnic? It seems like the girl is in her element, for the strangeness hasn’t written the look of surprise on her calm face. She is holding a cup and looking ever so slightly reproachfully at the crow standing at the cherry pie. This could be Anne Shirley, not at her real picnic, but at the imaginary one. I can see her; baking the pie, in the kitchen, apron tied around her dull grey dress without puffed sleeves and she is looking at the dark and rolling skies in the distance, above the chicken coop and the cheery tree and this is what she is daydreaming about; a picnic with crows. Oh, the stories she could tell them! And how they would laugh, and how they would understand all the big, pompous words that adults around her do not.

Andrea Kowch, In the Hollow

Here is a beautiful and fun passage from “Anne of Green Gables” which shows Anne’s love of nature in autumn and her enthusiasm for nature and everything around her in general, from chapter sixteen:

OCTOBER was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.

Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs” ‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

“Messy things,” said Marilla, whose aesthetic sense was not noticeably developed. “You clutter up your room entirely too much with out-of-doors stuff, Anne. Bedrooms were made to sleep in.”

“Oh, and dream in too, Marilla. And you know one can dream so much better in a room where there are pretty things. I’m going to put these boughs in the old blue jug and set them on my table.”

Andrea Kowch, On the Point, 2010

And to continue the Anne-theme, here is another passage from the Chapter five where Anne speaks ecstatically about seagulls which are also on Andrea Kowch’s painting above:

Isn’t the sea wonderful?” said Anne, rousing from a long, wide-eyed silence. “Once, when I lived in Marysville, Mr. Thomas hired an express wagon and took us all to spend the day at the shore ten miles away. I enjoyed every moment of that day… I lived it over in happy dreams for years. (…) Aren’t those gulls splendid? Would you like to be a gull? I think I would–that is, if I couldn’t be a human girl. Don’t you think it would be nice to wake up at sunrise and swoop down over the water and away out over that lovely blue all day; and then at night to fly back to one’s nest? Oh, I can just imagine myself doing it.

Viktor Vasnetsov: Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf

17 Oct

Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf, 1889

A brave Prince and a tired, frightened Princess are riding the grey wolf through the dark and mysterious Slavic woods where the trees grow so close together, their branches entwined, that not even a ray of moonlight can shine through, illuminate the darkness and make the journey less eerie for the Prince and the Princess. Shining yellows eyes are staring at the them from the heights. Strange whispers linger in the air… or is it just the wind, singing its lonesome song. “Worry not, my Princess, the journey won’t be long,” Ivan Tsarevich, the youngest and perhaps the bravest son of the King whispers to the Princess, but she is silent, too afraid to speak, but her attire speaks for itself; her jewellery is jangling, her heavy brocade dress rustling, her long wavy hair flying as if enchanted, for the wolf is riding through the forest with such an unearthly speed that his paws barely touch the leaf-littered and moss coated ground of the dark woods where a weak soul will not wander.

This dark, dreamy and romantic painting is a scene from a Russian fairy tale called “Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf” which was collected by a Russian Slavist and ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev in “Russian Fairy Tales” (1855-1863), modeled after Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The fairy tale has a crazy and complicated plot, and, as with many fairy tales, there are different versions of it. The base of the fairy tale is that a King had a garden with a golden apple tree and every night one apple would go missing, and naturally he assumed it was the Firebird who stole them. I would assume the same! Only the Firebird would be wicked enough to do such a thing. The King had three sons; the oldest two tried to stay awake all night and catch the Firebird but fell asleep and failed, and then the third and the youngest son Ivan Tsarevich begged to try and the King finally permitted him. He stayed up all night and saw the bird, even nicked its red feather but failed to catch it.

Viktor Vasnetsov, Knight at the Crossroads, 1882

Again, the two oldest sons ventured out bravely to find the Firebird, but quickly found themselves confused because they came to a stone that gave them three choices; the first path would bring the knight hunger and cold. The second path meant the knight would live, but his horse died. And whoever took the third would die, but his horse would live. They couldn’t decide what to chose, so they gave up and returned to their idle lives. Vasnetsov portrayed this moment in the fairy tales as well, in three versions in fact, and above is the one from 1882, possibly the most beautiful with vibrant colours and a beautifully captured atmosphere. Look how sinister the crossroad is, with the crows and skeletal remains of the previous knight who hath failed in his quest…. Lavender sky in the background is tinged with melancholy and the last rays of sun are casting a warm orange glow on the stone. Ivan Tsarevich took the second road and a wolf ate his horse. This is where the story gets bizarre, and complicated so I won’t go into the details. The wolf takes on the form of a horse, then of a princess… But in the end, Ivan Tsarevich returns to his kingdom with a Firebird and a Princess, but the jealous brothers kills him and slice his body into pieces. Later the Grey Wolf finds him and a water of death restores his body. And on the Wolf, Ivan Tsarevich rides back home and marries Princess Helen at last.

The moment of the fairy tale that Vasnetsov decided to portray, Ivan Tsarevich and the Princess riding the Grey Wolf, is a thrilling one because it is during that strange ride through the dark and mystic woods that Ivan and the Princess fall in love; look how his arms provide a shelter for her, and how her head is almost resting on his chest. Viktor Vasnetsov became famous for his folklore and fairy tale inspired paintings, which went well with the second wave of Romanticism that flooded Europe and inspired artists to find inspiration in folklore and fantasy. This isn’t the only fairy tale scene that Vasnetsov has painted, he painted many in fact, so it’s interesting to know that he began his career as a genre painter and was part of the Russian realist art group called Peredvizhniki, known in English as “The Wanderers” or “The Itinerants” who rebelled against the Academy’s strictness and narrow view of the world. Vasnetsov joined the Peredvizhniki colony while in Paris in 1876, and he became acquainted with Impressionism while there. Leaving the realism behind, Vasnetsov took an interest in painting fantasy and fairy tale motives and began working on the painting “Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf” in 1877, while in Paris, before returning to Moscow the same year.

A doll copy of an original art “Ivan Tsarevich Riding a Grey Wolf” by Viktor Vasnetsov

I found a doll version of the painting and I thought it would be interesting to share it too because it is just wonderful! I love all the detailing on the Princess’s dress, her soft hair and tired face. And the Prince, looking in the distance, hoping he will succeed in his quest, slightly worried. They both look charming together on that wolf. But the wolf in the doll version though, he looks dead tired, drunk and worn out, not like the brave, determined and strong wolf in Vasnetsov’s painting. No, this is a Capitalist wolf who works nine to five and is in desperate need of a vacation.

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.