Tag Archives: art

John Singer Sargent: Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife

19 Apr

John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889

I discovered this gem of a painting two months ago but I decided to save it for April because plein air paintings with such lush greenness just scream April and springtime to me. The man with a straw hat, long sharp nose and a beard is the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul César Helleu. His canvas sits in the grass, framed by noisy blades of grass. The long thin fingers of his right hand are not so dissimilar to the brushes he is holding in his left arm, and if you look at it closely, you will see that the brush is nothing more than a stroke of paint, confident and carefree. Whatever he is painting, and it must be the nature that is in front of him, is it for sure keeping him completely absorbed. Behind him, in the shadow of this great artist, is a seemingly disinterested auburn haired woman with greyish complexion; that is Helleu’s wife Alice Guérin.

The couple met in 1884 when Helleu was commissioned to paint a portrait of this graceful young lady with long red hair. They quickly fell in love and married two years later, on 28 July 1886 when she was sixteen years old and he was twenty-six. She was his favourite model, but in this painting painted by Helleu’s life-long friend John Singer Sargent, she is sitting wistfully in the grass behind him; lost in daydreams, listening to birds or just following a butterfly in its flight with her eyes. He seems so stern and so absorbed in his work, I wonder: was she bored just sitting there useless, like a captive bird, dressed in an almost matching grey jacket to that of her beloved husband? Or did she enjoy being his passive companion? Or perhaps he just seems serious, but we don’t see the jokes he might have cracked or smiles he might have sent to her in times of  little painting breaks. One thing I do know for sure: the grass in this painting is something out of this world! In so many different shades of green, from the proper grass green to being and brown tones… it is a joy to soak my eyes in this greenness! Sensuality of nature comes through in these colours. Every blade of grass has a unique life of its own. This isn’t some neat, tamed lawn, no, this is a sweetly wild grass that grows on its own accord, without man’s laws.

Bellow you can see a similar painting that John Singer Sargent painted four years before the Helleu one, and in this painting it’s the famous Impressionist Claude Monet who is shown painting plein air on the edge of the wood. Sargent sort of strikes me as a voyeur of a sort… I know that they knew they were being painted but still, it seems that Sargent was quick to capture them in their pursuit.

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood, 1885

Maurice Prendergast: Mothers and Children in the Park

13 Apr

“The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”

(William Morris)

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: Mothers and Children in the Park, watercolor over pencil, 1895-97

This is not the first and probably not the last post I wrote about Maurice Prendergast. I already wrote about his dazzling and vibrant watercolour beach scenes and about his dreamy and radiant La Belle Epoque portrait of the Lady with a Red Sash. Today, let us take a look at this beautiful watercolour “Mothers and Children in the Park” which was painted around 1895-97, right after his return from Paris. It’s part of Prendergast’s “Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook”.

Maurice Prendergast studied in Paris from 1891 to 1895 at the Académie Colarossi (Modigliani’s lover and muse Jeanne Hébuterne also studied at this academy, though many years later) and Académie Julian. In Paris he met Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Sickert, Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard with whom he shared artistic ideas and these friendships inspired him to experiment with compositions and formats of his paintings. Along with these progressive artistic ideas of Pointilism, Japonism and rudiments of Art Nouveau (through Aubrey Beardsley’s art), Prendergast was naturally introduced to the wonders of Impressionism and the theme of this watercolour is very Impressionistic: a carefree, lazy, sunny day in the park. The world “impression” was originally used pejoratively to describe a sketchy, carefree style which differed greatly from the precise, no-brushstroke-seen style of the Academic art. In that sense, this lovely watercolour is a true “impression” of a sunny, warm, radiant afternoon in a park. A moment of quiet joy captured in a dazzling harmony of pinks, greens and yellows. Everything looks trembling and alive and colours fully contribute to this mood.

Bellow I have included an array of details of this watercolour and these details really show the true beauty of this artwork. You can see the pencil appearing under the watercolour, the soft transitions and mingling of the watercolour. Something about two different shades of watercolour mingling together in a kiss and creating another shade gives me such a thrill. Such radiance and vivacity! A watercolour “impression” of such a simple, everyday motif as is a day in the park gives an even greater immediacy and liveliness to the motif than the usual oil on canvas that the Impressionist were painting. I especially love the detail of the little girl in pink dress with puffed sleeves and wheat-coloured hair. Her lovely oval face is but a few strokes of pencil and dashes of blue for eyes, so simple and effortless, yet so lovely.

Alfonse van Besten: Two Girls Picking Cornflowers

8 Apr

Today I wanted to share a few of these wonderful, dreamy photographs by a Belgian painter Alfonse Van Besten (1865-1926) whose curious, inventive spirit prompted him to experiment with photography as well. In one of these photographs, you can see Van Besten painting in his beautiful garden full of flowers and greenery. Painting in one’s garden is the kind of idyll that Claude Monet knew all too well. These autochrome photographs are a real delight to gaze at, they are like nostalgic windows to a secret lost world of eternal spring, meadows with cornflowers and gardens in bloom, the kind of place that I often daydream about. “Two girls picking flowers” is my favourite photograph out of all these, there’s just something so innocent about it and I can imagine the mood of a warm, fragrant summer day, bees buzzing, crickets chirping, long thin stems of the cornflowers swaying in the soft southern breeze, the girls pick flowers oblivious to everything else. Only the cornflowers exist, nothing else matters.

“Spring comes quickly: overnight
the plum tree blossoms,
the warm air fills with bird calls.”

(Louise Gluck, Primavera)

Alfonse van Besten, Two girls picking cornflowers, c 1912

Alfonse van Besten, Young girl amidst marguerites, c 1912

Alfonse van Besten, Van Besten painting in his garden, 1912

Alfonse van Besten, Children at play, c 1912

Alfonse van Besten, Youth Idyll, 1914

Autochrome photograph by Alfonse Van Besten, “Modesty”, 1912

Alphonse van Besten, Mime in love, c 1912

Alphonse van Besten, Mime in love, c 1912

Girl with a Hat – Hommage à Renoir by John Corbet

6 Apr

“Upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his marvelous sense of unreality and he ended up recommending to all of them that they leave, that they forget everything he had taught them about the world and the human heart, (…), and that wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

(Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

John Corbet, Hommage à Renoir, watercolour on paper, 2020

This lovely watercolour has been haunting me ever since I first laid my eyes on it. The warm vibrant colours and all the swirls and free, playful and spontaneous brushstrokes touch my heart. Like opening a box in the attic filled with trinkets and toys from childhood or listening to a song that brings a world back to life, this watercolour awakes all these rich feelings and memories. At once bitter and sweet, like a memory that aches and warms your heart at the same time but you can never relive it, memory of flowers and sunsets, laughter, birdsong and sea waves, the distant dreamy world that is beyond reach, the paradise lost, now only the echoes of laughter and songs remain, the memory of sunbeams dancing on the sea waves but not the hot, burning sun itself. Almost tangible, but still a memory. Memories always have that dim, rosy, foggy quality, that warmth and sugary sweet essence with just a tinge of peppermint-flavored sadness. In your thoughts, you run and run through colourful hazy corridors of memories, you follow the music that awakes them, you want to live in the chambers of happier times, but you cannot. A dried flowers cannot bring the spring back, and the old theatre ticket cannot bring back that performance. And you live and you walk and you talk in this real tangible life, but all around you the memories float like symbols, like shells and flowers in Odilon Redon’s paintings, mystic and dreamy, it touches something inside you that reason wants to suppress.

These are the thoughts that flood my mind as I gaze at this watercolour inspired by Renoir’s lovely paintings of girls in hats, but this watercolour has more ecstatic colours, more grooviness, something dreamy that Renoir’s girls do not possess. Look at her rosy face, rosy because it’s coloured by the last rays of sun in the dusk of the day, the dreamy hour of the day when shadows and colours tremble and breathe. Her eyes are closed to the real world around her, she wants to forget, she wants to be the part of the Dream world that is alive all around her. I imagine her spinning and floating on the breeze of that dreamland, rising from the ground and traveling, like Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to that distant place of poppies and cactuses, warm sands and fragrant flowers, winds that whispers poems in your ear, and pink sunsets skies that are infinite and promising…

Something about this watercolour makes me feel so nostalgic… for everything. It makes me feel deeply the line from Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”: “the past was a line, memory has no return, and every spring gone by could never be recovered.” Bring me violins that makes the heart bleed, a sad accordion that makes the tears flow, because when I gaze at this watercolour I feel melancholy for what was and will never be, I think of blooming apple trees that suddenly lose their blossom and turn all green, magnolia blossoms and freshly cut grass, crickets chirping and seasons passing, changes that cannot be stopped, words that cannot be unspoken, escapism into domains of one’s dream and memory land. The way she closes her eyes and sensually allows herself to be kissed by the sun, there’s something so innocent and indulgent about allowing oneself such simple pleasure. Close your eyes to the world, look within and another world awaits you, one which is infinitely better. The colours have something sixties about them, orange and mauves. A touch of violet and orange on her shirt, her rosy face and wine-coloured hair, moss green painted in swirls in the background, I am seduced by these colours. This watercolour has the Beauty that makes my heart burst like a ripe fig in the Mediterranean sun.

Renoir, Etude de femme avec chapeau – fragment, date unknown

John Corbet is a contemporary artist whose wonderful, whimsical and dreamy pastels and watercolours you should definitely check out here. We are so fortunate that he is sharing these beautiful artworks, sharing little fragments of his imagination and beauty with the word. I have already written about his ghostly pastels last year, but his work continues to surprise me, it’s getting more vibrant and more lovely and I am delighted to see that he is doing more and more watercolours, exploring and experimenting without neglecting his love for pastels. Formally, this is a Hommage to Renoir, but on a spiritual level, the mood of Corbet’s watercolour is more dreamy and mystical and it brings to mind the mood of Odilon Redon and Gauguin’s paintings.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Girl with Hat (Jeune fille au chapeau), c. 1883

Renoir, Young Girl in a Flowered Hat, 1900-05

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Young Girls Reading, 1890-91

Renoir, Two Sisters, 1890

Renoir, The Little Reader (Little Girl in Blue), 1890

John William Waterhouse – The Naiad

3 Apr

Wonderful and well-loved painter of dream-like mythology scenes, John William Waterhouse was born on 6th April 1849 in Rome. So his birthday is coming up in a few days and I think his paintings with nymphs and enchanting woodlands are perfect scenes to gaze at in these times of spring’s awakening.

John William Waterhouse, The Naiad (Hylas with a Nymph), 1893

A nymph gazes wistfully at a handsome sleeping lad. “How handsome he is!”, she must be thinking, and what thoughts arise in her mischievous naiad mind as she gazes at his slumbering body covered only with a patch of animal skin… Drops of water are dripping from her long weed-like hair and rippling in the river, a twig snaps in her hand, she holds her breath, but alas the young slumbering lad awakes! Dazed and confused, he rises his body and sees the beautiful naiad, her naked body as pure, white and alluring as a lily flower in moonlight. I hear Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun coming from afar, every leaf, every moss and every blade of grass are echoing the sounds and bringing it closer, it flies through the air, the enchanting melody which sings of awakening. Two hearts beating loudly in the loneliness of the woods. Doomed is the moment when Hylas awoke and saw this naiad, this child of nature and sweet water nymph with ruby lips and wistful gaze.

Waterhouse’s depictions of mythology scenes are very dreamy and romantical, but at the same time they are incredibly realistic because they perfectly convey the mysterious and magical mood of nature. Just look at the dense row of thin trees of very soothing brown bark, grass and the billowing river, painted in soft blue zig zag brushstrokes, which gives the painting a sense of depth and seems to reflect the sky. It doesn’t look as idealised or grandiosely beautiful as J.M.W. Turner or Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings do, no, the way Waterhouse paints nature as a setting for his romanticised mythological scenes is realistic enough to make you believe that when you go for a stroll in the woods or sit by a lake that you could actually encounter a nymph or step into the world of dreams. I never actually saw a satyr or a nymph in the woods, but I know that it was a case of bad timing, different schedules, you know how it is in life.

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896

Painting “The Naiad”, painted in 1893, is like a prelude to the more famous one “Hylas and the Nymphs” painted a few years later, in 1896. Hylas was asleep. Hylas awoke, the nymphs wanted him and the nymphs got him. How magnetically handsome he is, they sigh… Their hearts ache with a desire to draw him deep into the moist depths of their lake, deep under the water lilies and those big flat floating leaves which serve as beds to water lilies.

Nymphs are female creatures in Greek and Latin mythology. They are usually depicted as beautiful and fatal maidens who love to sing, dance and hang out with satyrs in forest groves and lakes. They are also notorious for being naughty as one can see in the story with Hylas. They represent power of nature. Name “nymph” comes from Greek word “nymphē” which means “bride” and “veiled”, referring to a marriageable young woman. One of the meaning is a “rose-bud”, perhaps indicating the beauty all the nymphs possess. By choosing nymphs as subjects and portraying this tragic story of love, seduction and doom, Waterhouse fully expressed his romantic sensibility, and revealed his fascination with strong and beautiful female figures. Nymphs are presented as sweet and alluring, and Hylas is powerless against their charms.

Vincent van Gogh – Explosion of Colours in Arles

30 Mar

Van Gogh, born on 30 March 1853, is a painter whose works I greatly admire, whose letters I consider an endless source of inspiration, whose paintings are one of my dearest subjects to write about. He managed to passionately and eloquently express his deep sadness, loneliness and despair and turn them into the most magical, most captivating and intriguing paintings ever painted. With those brush strokes of magical blues and ecstatic yellows, Van Gogh is saying to us that despite all misery, poverty and painful solitude ‘…there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.’

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationVincent van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888

“The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting.” (Van Gogh)

Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888, ill, tired and weary, with hopes of founding an utopian art colony where artists would paint side by side, in harmony and serenity.

Warm melodies of the south have lured artists from the North for a long time, ever since Albrecht Dürer traveled to Italy in Renaissance. It wasn’t just the architecture, or the art of Quattrocento; monuments of old glory which longed to be discovered. It was something higher, something more powerful; warm sun of the south that spoke to the soul, not the mind. Artists were attracted by the sublime sense of entering the historic land, fascinated with Mediterranean landscape and its warm climate, created for idle time and pleasure. Effects of this ‘art tourism’ were especially evident on the colour palette which became lighter, more vivid, and more passionate, enriched by golden rays of the sun and rich fragrances of the South. For Vincent van Gogh, Arles brought explosion of colours; mauve, ultramarine and yellow, and, in addition, he found the landscape enchanting and inspirational.

In Arles, Van Gogh was able to live out his visions of Japan by simply gazing at the sunbathed meadows and delicate trees in bloom, while in Paris he needed to get absorbed in Hiroshige’s wood-cuts in order to feel that way. His paintings of Flowering Orchards painted in spring of 1888, symbolise this optimism, sudden outburst of joy, a sense of all the wishes becoming true. It was enough for him to open his eyes and feel alive, caressed by the soft southern breeze, kissed by the rain drops, and mesmerized by the beautiful landscapes, interesting people of Arles; beauty of life opening right in front of his eyes. These months were rather happy for Van Gogh, which is not something that can easily be said, as sorrows in his life followed one another.

1888. Vincent van Gogh - Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-MayVincent van Gogh, Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-May, 1888

Paul Gauguin arrived in Arles on 23 October 1888, and the two very different painters painted together during November. Van Gogh’s utopian dream of an art colony seemed to be realized, at least for a month. However, the differences between these two painters were insurmountable. Van Gogh was, in comparison with Gauguin, a tactic rationalist, too impulsive, too intrusive, and he indulged himself in wistfulness of his imagination a tad too much. Van Gogh was a romantic, and Gauguin was prone to primitivism, Van Gogh loved thick layers of colour, and Gauguin hated disorder. For some time the two got along, but their relationship was beginning to deteriorate as early as in December 1888. In addition to Gauguin’s arrogance and domineering behavior, Vincent van Gogh, who longed to be treated as Gauguin’s equal, had an enormous fear of being deserted, doomed to solitude and sadness again. Their quarrels ended in that infamous ear incident which happened in December 1888, after which Gauguin left and never saw Van Gogh again.

Van Gogh was a fragile person, full of love and sympathy for everyone around him, and along with his own fears, destitution and self-criticism, Gauguin’s patronising behavior had certainly not helped matters. I prepared for this post by reading his letters from Arles again, and it is clear to me, now more than ever, how every word he wrote expresses optimism and silent but profound hope, and how all poverty and lack of understanding had not hardened his feelings, and how in deepest sorrow he found beauty everywhere he looked. I feel in love with Van Gogh’s soul after reading his letters. They are more beautiful than any book because they are real.

I already mentioned this, but I’ll mention it again. In an episode of Doctor Who, the Eleventh Doctor traveled to past and met Vincent van Gogh. After spending some time with him, the doctor took him to a present day gallery. After Van Gogh saw his paintings and the popularity of them, tears of joy came down his cheeks. I confess it made me cry from happiness too! Too bad Amy Pond rejected his offer to stay with him; they could have gazed at the sunflowers all day surrounded by their red-haired children.

1888. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Gauguin’s ChairVincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s Chair, 1888

As a vision of loneliness, Van Gogh painted his and Gauguin’s chairs in December 1888. Both of them are painted as empty; metaphors for artists that are not there anymore, but once shared their thoughts and feelings; friends have vanished but the chairs are here, empty. Van Gogh’s chair is a modest wooden chair with a tobacco pipe which Van Gogh smoked because Dickens had advised it as a cure for melancholy. On the other hand, Gauguin’s chair is lavishing with books and a candle, indicating education and ambition.

Van Gogh painted his own chair in yellow and blue tones, symbolising light and hope. In the painting with Gauguin’s chair he used red-green contrast which, just like in the painting The Night Cafe, gives a sinister feel to the painting, witnessing darkness and lost hopes of their friendship. The message is clear; Gauguin had brought night and darkness into Van Gogh’s idealistic world. These chairs are portraits in alienation in which Van Gogh expressed ‘…not sentimental melancholy, but serious sorrow.

With the help of art, the world that seemed threatening and unfriendly was suppose to become his world too. Van Gogh did not want to repress reality, neither did he want to renounce it; he wanted reality to become understandable and accessible. Was this simple desire too much for the harsh world? With these painting Van Gogh proved the audience that ‘Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul.’

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.