Tag Archives: British Art

William Dyce: Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858

5 Nov

William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858, painted in 1858-60

Autumnal evening. Victorian ladies wrapped in their warm shawls, wearing their bonnets and crinolines are collecting pretty pebbles and seashells on the beach. There is one dreamy little boy there too, holding a spade and gazing into the sea. The ladies are in fact Dyce’s wife and two sisters, and the little boy is his son. It’s early October and the sun is setting earlier. The plain grey sky is tinged with lilac and pink. The tide is low, revealing many treasure otherwise hidden by the sea. The cascading row of rocks formations and water pools creates a visual rhythm which brings our eye from the distant place where the sky and the sea meet, all the way to the ladies occupied with finding shells. There are many other figures in the background; some collecting rocks and some doing other things; one man is keeping a donkey for the popular donkey rides. Visually, the painting is divided in three zones; the foreground with the figures, the area with the sea and the cliffs, and then the monotonous sky. All together, the nature occupies the majority of space and people are nothing but small blots compared to its vastness.

Although Dyce originally supported the Pre-Raphaelites and encouraged them in their art revolution, especially William Holman Hunt in his student days, in this painting he exhibits their influence by using a refined, precise and detailed way of painting and using warm colours. One of the aims of the Pre-Raphaelites was “to study the nature attentively” and that is exactly what Dyce had achieved in this painting. He made a few en plein air sketches in preparation for this large canvas painting, so this isn’t a fanciful scene created in the studio; the beach was observed and portrayed just as it had looked that day. And he wasn’t just meticulous with his brush in this instance, he also used the painting as an opportunity to show his interest in geology and his knowledge of the field: the cliffs behind the beach are painted with accuracy. But still, the choice of the scene from nature that he chose to portray isn’t as romantic as the background to Millais’ “Ophelia” is, for example. This painting is a visual splendour and Dyce has captured the moment perfectly; by using the subtle shadings of colours and being attentive to details he managed to paint a scene that lingers in the memory because it is vivid with life and detail. Dyce takes us there: we can almost see all the pretty pebbles, hear the soothing sound of the waves and the chatter of the women, we can feel the mood of the moment, feel the slightly chill and damp air…

Still, this isn’t a transcendent landscape such as Caspar David Friedrich would have painted at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Dyce also included the human figures, but they are not wistful or dreamy; they are occupied with their fun pursuit of finding beach treasures, they are chatty and cheerful, and very small compared to the grandeur of those old and wise cliffs that hold many secrets. The cliffs are stable and permanant, the man is weak and transient, and yet Dyce’s figures aren’t amazed by this fact, why for would they be when there is a cute seashell glistening just right over there!?

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George Stubbs – A Horse Frightened By A Lion

29 Oct

George Stubbs, A Horse Frightened By A Lion, 1770

Clearly separating the art of Classicism and that of Romanticism is hard, but tracing the early occurrences of romantic tendencies in visual arts is, on the other hand, an easier pursuit. I always saw Henri Fusseli’s painting “The Nightmare” from 1781 as one of the earliest examples of Romanticism in the visual arts because both the mood and the theme show the artist’s exploration of darker topics; dreams and the irrational, something which would scarcely be interesting to painters from previous generations and even to his contemporaries. Still, there is another eighteenth century painter, George Stubbs, who imbued two of his works with a Romantic taste for wild, untamed nature and strong emotions and thereby exhibited what were to become the tendencies of Romanticism. The romantic pathos in his painting “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” is hard to ignore.

Stubbs was an Academic painter who specialised in animal painting, horses in particular, and even published a work called “Anatomy of the Horse” (1766) which is a result of his meticulous study of the anatomy of that fine elegant animal and shows his natural precision and dedication to study from nature directly, not from copies of others. He was also one of the first painters to paint animals that were exotic and therefore fascinating to the English audience and Europe in general, such as zebras and kangaroos. Stubb’s two paintings; “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” and “A Lion Attacking a Horse”, from 1770, were imagined as a pendant and show a distinctly romantic mood which was a great shift stylistically and arises directly from Edmund Burke’s theoretical work “On the Sublime and Beautiful”, first published in 1756. Criticism towards Burke tend to claim that he merely observed the direction of the art towards a new style, but Stubb’s example shows us how an artist was inspired by theory.

George Stubbs, A Lion Attacking a Horse, 1770

Here is an interesting fragment from the third part of Burke’s work, from the essay “Proportion not the cause of beauty in animals”: “Turn next to beasts; examine the head of a beautiful horse; find what proportion that bears to his body, and to his limbs, and what relation these have to each other; and when you have settled these proportions as a standard of beauty, then take a dog or cat, or any other animal, and examine how far the same proportions between their heads and their necks, between those and the body, and so on, are found to hold; I think we may safely say, that they differ in every species, yet that there are individuals, found in a great many species so differing, that have a very striking beauty.” So, Burke even mentions a horse in particular, an animal which had already been of great interest to Stubbs, and connects its proportion-less appearance with the aesthetic of sublime.

I already wrote a detailed post about the opposing aesthetics of the Beautiful and the Sublime, based on Immanuel Kant’s work, here. In short, the Sublime is that which inspires awe, fear and strong emotions. For example: thunderstorms, a very tall and strong oak, wild waves, volcano eruption, strong wind, ruin of a castle perched on top of the hill, a big mountain or a steep cliff. Here is what Burke said: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.” (Of the Sublime)

In “A Horse Frightened by a Lion”, our eye is captivated by the glistening whiteness of the poor frightened horse in the dark forest where all sorts of ominous things might occur. How strongly his whole body reacts to the grim encounter with the lion; his wide-opened eye shows how startled he is, his muscles are emphasised and animated, his mouth open in despair, his fine light hair is blown away by the wind of fear. Lion’s patient face emerges from the darkness. Stubbs purposefully chose to portray a frightening sight from nature to stir the viewer’s feelings and awaken his empathy. In the second scene, “A Lion Attacking a Horse“, the poor horse is already attacked by the cruel lion in the mute darkness of the landscape full of rocks and shrubbery. The horse’s mouth, neck and feet are all contorted from the pain and fear. The figure of the lion is disappearing into the darkness and blending in with the wild nature, both are overpowering and sinister for the white fragile horse. On the left part of the painting, dark clouds are gathering, ready to wash the blood that is to flow with fresh rain drops.

George Stubbs, A lion attacking a horse, 1765

Stubbs painted an entire series on lions and horses, starting from the early 1760s, I’ve put two examples bellow, but they have certainly changed as decades passed. His focus shifted from the anatomy of the horse and the act of attack itself to the sublime mood and the horse’s reaction. The landscape grew darker and bigger, the horse is left nothing but a small white figure in the foreground while nature domineers. Compositions are similar, and the figure of the lion attacking the horse are nearly identical in two different versions from 1765 and 1770, but the mood differs greatly. The landscape is light and classical in the earlier paintings, whereas the later ones show the kind of melancholy beauty that later romantic landscapes are praised for. This series of paintings is a result of three things: Stubbs’s lifelong fascination with horses and study of anatomy, influence of Burke’s idea of the Sublime, and also Stubb’s visit to Rome in 1754 where he must have seen and memorised the Capitoline sculpture which shows a lion attacking a horse.

George Stubbs, Horse Frightened by a Lion, exhibited in 1763

Henry Wallis – The Death of Chatterton

23 Sep

Today we’ll take a look at a painting which I loved recently; “The Death of Chatterton” painted in 1856 by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. The painting’s romantic, melancholy mood and vibrant colours are perfect to celebrate the first day of autumn; the most romantical of all the seasons.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Tate Britain version

Pale rays of the morning sun are coming in through the window of this shabby little garret. A young man is lying on the bed, but he isn’t in the world of dreams, in the usual slumber we mortals are well acquainted with. His pale grayish skin and hand hanging limply and touching the floor tell us that his soul is now wandering the dark avenues of the world of the death; no bird song, no caress or soft whisper of a loved one’s voice shall ever awaken those eyes to see and mouth to speak again. Through the window stretches a view of London; a city of possibilities, a city of despair, a city which brought nothing but disappointment and misery to this poor red-haired sleeping angel. Not many possessions he had in his poorly furnished attic room; a box lies next to his bed full of papers, some torn to pieces and some survived with words full of secrets. A chair with a red coat on it. Dark dirty wall full of cracks and a round little table. One can imagine the eerie silence hanging in that room like a cloud.

The dead young man here is the eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton who died in London in 1770 at the age of seventeen by poisoning himself with arsenic in the fit of despair. Although poor, he was very clever and not only ambitious, but, unfortunately for him, quite romantic too; when his idealism was shattered, the pink clouds of his dreams tainted by reality’s grey long-fingered nails, he saw death as the only escape. He is now considered an early romantic, and with his interest in Medieval literature and his short life laced with mysteries, Chatterton was admired by Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. And yet, no one glamourised his life with such intensity as Wallis here in this painting. Victorian group of painters, the Pre-Raphaelites were visual continuators of the idealism and dreaminess of the Romantic poetry; not in the form of beautiful and sensuous language but in vibrant colours and intricate detailing. Not only the subject alone, that of a Romantic martyr for art, but the method and style of the painting with its emphasis on details and usage of vibrant colours connect Wallis to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Can we take a moment to appreciate just how gorgeous and vivid these colours are, and how beautiful his corpse looks dressed in those lapis lazuli coloured trousers and masses of auburn hair. How serene he looks after a life of suffering in this cruel world. His shirt is unbuttoned, one shoe fell on the floor, and there is a bottle, presumably of arsenic that rolled out of his hand. In the Birmingham version of the painting, his trousers appear more violet in colour, which makes a tremendous difference 😉 .

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Birmingham version

The dazzling chiaroscuro, a method which Wallis loved, with the lightness falling on the body while the rest of the garret is in half-darkness only intensifies the emotional dimension of the painting. It is impossible not to feel gentleness, empathy, and also a sense of sacredness. The model for Chatterton was George Meredith, a poet and a novelist whose wife had an affair with Wallis just two years after this was painted, ouch, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. The Christ-like pose of the cadaver has since brought comparisons to religious art, such as Michelangelo’s “Pietà”. For Romanticists and Pre-Raphaelites, the artist was a secularised Christ-like figure, a dreamer, an idealist and a lover of beauty tortured by the unkind world. Therefore, Henry Wallis’s painting of Chatterton holds a deeper significance and meaning than a usual historical painting would; it isn’t just a portrait of a poet who had died the century before, it is an icon for all who believe in the religion of Art and Beauty.

There is an interesting anecdote from Chatterton’s life which occurred three days before he died; he was walking with his friend along the St Pancras Churchyard (the same one where Percy Shelley had nocturnal love meetings with Mary), lost in his thoughts the young poet fell into an open grave. His friend joked about it by saying he’d be delighted to help resurrect a genius from the grave, to which Chatterton replied: “My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now.” Just three days later, on 24th August 1770, he was dead.

This painting with the theme of suicide reminded me of the Manic Street Preachers’s song “Suicide is Painless”:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless
….
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And you can do the same thing if you please…

John Constable – Romantic Ruins of Hadleigh Castle

6 May

Sublime landscapes with romantic ruins are what fills my heart with delight, for nature by itself is plain and mundane. Ruin of a Medieval castle or an abbey overgrown with ivy, lovers sitting in forest glades bathed in silvery moonlight, rivers whose calm flow brings forgetfulness, sight of a lonely figure amidst wild nature; a landscape unadorned with any of these things seizes to excite me. And is there a better age in art for all these qualities than Romanticism?

John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9, London, Tate Gallery

John Constable’s aim in painting landscapes was to capture the nature with honesty, to capture its beauty and simplicity without showing off in an arrogant Turner way. He is not the representative in portraying nature with passion, lyricism or melancholy; you should seek those qualities in paintings of Turner, John Martin or Caspar David Friedrich, but at one point, in 1828, he felt that his life and art were in a state of ruins and he sought in nature a vision of his own soul and he found it in a desolate scene of a Hadleigh Castle in Essex.

The brooding tower is a sinister sight indeed, seen after a stormy night; wrapped in dark thoughts, breathing in the air of decay, its glory days forgotten and only a corpse of stone walls remains, the crows flying by its only friends in centuries of solitude… The sky is a commingled mass of whites and blues, and the marshlands are drowning in darkness. A vague figure of a shepherd with his dog in the left corner, and cows and cliffs painted carelessly. The most peculiar thing about this oil sketch is the way it is painted; almost expressionistic with those thick, careless brushstrokes, heavy, thickly impasto way of applying colour with no constraint. And it’s sublime and sombre mood has since drawn comparisons to Rembrandt’s “The Mill” (1645-48). The scene seems so out of place in Constable’s usual peaceful countryside scenes painted in a very detailed way with fine brushwork, that one can’t help but wonder about this strange change of style and theme.

John Constable, Maria Bicknell, 1816

This peculiarly dark mood of the painting is caused by the events in Constable’s private life. His dear wife Maria, who was of fragile health, fell ill after giving birth to their seventh child in January 1828, and in November the same year she died from consumption. Constable was devastated; he started dressing in black and  succumbed to melancholy. The death of his angel, as he called her, changed everything. They married in autumn of 1816, when he was forty years old, after their friendship grew into deep love. But now, after only twelve years of happiness, Constable was a lonely, depressed figure, wrapped in gloomy thoughts, tormented by anxiety and brutal self-questioning of his life and career. Nothing made sense any more, and he wrote in a letter to his brother Golding “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me“.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, sketch, 1814

As you can see from the rather small pencil sketch, about 8 x 11 cm, Constable had visited the sight way before he decided to fully devote to it and paint it on a large, six foot canvas in oils. It seems to me that the distance between two towers is bigger in the drawing than it is in the paintings. Perhaps the reason why he returned to the subject of the Hadleigh Castle after fourteen years lies in the fact that while he visited it for the first time, in 1814, he rapturously wrote to Maria of its beauty. This is what he wrote, on 3 July 1814: “At Hadleigh there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is a really fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland & looking many miles to sea.” After she died, he may have revisited their correspondence, and with tears glistening in his eyes remembered the happier times, and he may have seen the castle as a symbol of those times.

I love the sketch, specially the birds flying around the tower and the clouds, and something about it appeals me more than the finished painting. I know what it is; in the drawing there is no figure of a shepherd and the cows; a motif so utterly Constable and so unfitting for the Gothic mood of the sublime. As much as I like the painting, I would have preferred to see it painted as a nocturnal scene, in dark magical blues with large moon shining on the horizon and a distant figure of a horseman, and the moonshine peeking through the old ruin of a tower, but that wouldn’t be Constable any more.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night, 1828-29

Now you can see what an impact personal life and tragedies can have on an artist, and that even a simple landscape is filled with secrets that leads us to the artist’s soul. Constable’s saddest state resulted in what is perhaps the most poetic, the most ‘sublime’ out of all his paintings, but the wild and gloomy sketch version from the Tate Gallery isn’t the only one. He painted another version of the same scene, pretty much the same, which is more in tune with Constable’s typical refined, sleek style; gloom is subtler, brushstrokes are more controlled, and you can see the details more clearly, such as the shepherd and his dog, and the cows, even the sky looks softer and less threatening. So there is a ‘passionate’ version and a ‘tamed’ one. Needless to say which one I prefer.

Witches Round the Cauldron by Daniel Gardner (1775)

5 Nov

When shall we three meet again,

In thunder, in lighting or in rain.‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene I)

by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

‘…something wicked this way comes.’

As the eighteenth century slowly approached its end, things were getting darker on the artistic scene. Ghosts, vampires and witches suddenly appeared on canvases of painters such as Henry Fuseli, Goya and William Blake. Dark side of the imagination began to shape works of art as well as literature, and the aesthetic of sublime slowly crept in. This was the answer to the excessive coldness, lightness and rationality of Classicism. In times when this was painted, public tastes were inclined towards the supernatural and Gothic, especially with theatre-goers who loved scenes from Macbeth. ‘Paint the witch!‘ replaced the more barbaric ‘Burn the witch!’.

Although the subject of this scene hints at the later developments of Romanticism, its execution is true to the styles of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, two artists whose style Gardner emulated, and often borrowed ideas for composition and arrangement of figures. This is an utterly charming and dreamy portrayal of three witches from Macbeth. There’s nothing scary or disturbing about it, and these three ladies are certainly prettier than Shakespeare had intended his witches to be, but these are not just three witches, oh no, Gardner actually portrayed three friends, society hostesses, art lovers and supporters of Whig party in this portrait.

The figure on the left, with long brown hair, is Elizabeth Lamb (nee Milbanke), Viscountess Melbourne. Witch on the right, dressed in splendid, sparkly black robe with zodiac symbols on it and tiny golden details, is Anne Seymour Damer (nee Conway) who was also an amateur sculptor. She has a typical black ‘witch’ hat and holds a magic wand in her right hand. In the middle is the most extravagant and well remembered out of all three; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her beauty, bold fashion statements, gambling and partying (much like Kate Moss today), her affair and an unhappy marriage. Along with a hat, her beautiful head is covered with gauze veil, and while she holds the sumptuous white silk fabric of her dress with one hand, she uses other to throw some herbs or blue flowers in the cauldron. Despite portraying a Shakespearean scene, which is a great task for the imagination, Gardner didn’t really use it, but rather chose to follow the fashion of the day; both in clothing the ‘witches’ wear and the style and composition of the painting itself.

High society lady, writer and diarist Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811) wrote in her diary of ‘the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Melburn, and Mrs Damer all being drawn in one picture in the Characters of the three Witches in Macbeth … They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches‘. (*)

Although I find the whole painting aesthetically pleasing, and very fitting for the mood of these post-Halloween days, I must say a thing or two about the brushstrokes and the play of light. Gardner beautifully portrayed their dresses, painting in soft, playful and refined strokes, using gouache and chalk. And the light; see how the bronze cauldron glistens, smoke arises like in a dream, and the reflections of the fire on the gorgeous silk dresses of the witches. I should also mention the possible allegorical meaning of the painting; since all three women were interested in politics and publicly supported the Whig party, it is possible that Gardner painted the cauldron as a symbol of ‘shadowy political machinations as leading members of the Devonshire House circle.’ (*)

Pre-Romanticism: Ruined Abbeys, Erotic Dreams and Strange Visions

29 Oct

In this post we’ll explore Pre-Romanticism through its main themes and occupations; ruined abbeys, erotic dreams and strange visions. There’s a strong Gothic vibe in early Romanticism; dreams, visions, vampires and hallucinations, and artists sought inspiration in myths and ballades of the past, Celtic and Germanic fairy tales, and everything that evoked the spirit of the Middle Ages. Compared to the flashy second generation of Romanticism, art of Pre-Romanticism is shrouded in thousands of veils, in it an insurmountable mountain, a misty lake in a desolate countryside, it’s a dream of Albion. Pre-Romanticism is a gentle plant that grew from the imagination of the people of the North; from their gloom soothed by the roaring of the sea and their melancholy which enabled them to look within and to transcend the darkness of their surroundings.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794

Romanticism developed very early in British art and literature. In the same years when fashion and interior design were ruled by Rococo exuberance, and visual arts were dominated by Classical ideas imposed by the French painter David, a new sensibility was arising from the mists of Albion. Strongly opposing the cold and rational age of Enlightenment, artists of the new generation, represented by Thomas Gray, James Macpherson and Ann Radcliffe in literature, and Henry Fuseli, Turner and William Blake in visual arts, praised imagination and strong feelings, and advocated the return to nature. ‘Sturm und Drang’ in German literature and writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also very important in creating the new spirit.

These artists found inspiration in everything otherworldly, dreamy and shrouded in mystery. All of a sudden, the artistic and literary stage of Europe was swamped with vampires and other ‘dreadful creatures’ (a tendency further developed by Mary Shelley). Proneness towards melancholy, strange visions, thoughts of death and transience, sleep and dreams, old ruins, long forgotten castles – all these themes suddenly pervaded the artistic landscape. Interest in the cold and gloomy North revealed to early Romanticists the beauty of old Icelandic sagas, the charms of the Scottish bard, the allure of dark Germanic, Celtic and Scandinavian legends and fairy tales, and drew their attention to everything ‘Gothic’; sombre, gruesome, frightening, because that’s how the folkloric and historical legacy of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages was perceived as.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794

Old ruins

As I’ve already mentioned, old ruins were an interesting subject for painters to incorporate in their sublime landscapes, and for poets they served as starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that this ‘old ruin’, a symbol of some other times, was a muse for early Romanticists. You can easily picture a young man resting in the shadow of the Abbey, thinking of his lovely maiden, treasuring a lock of her hair, and thinking of the day they will finally be together. You can also imagine the Abbey in the stillness of the night, above it the shining full moon and stars. Ruins were popular because they were perceived as ‘pictures of despair and destruction’, further developing the sensibility of sublime.

1790-91-henry-fuseli-the-nightmareHenry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Erotic Dreams

Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote that ‘Gleams from remote world visit the soul in sleep’, and the main focus of Fuseli’s art lies in dreams. He believed they were the most unexplored areas in art, which isn’t really a surprise because, firstly – how do you paint dreams, and secondly – until Romanticism there wasn’t really a concept of artist as a genius, a visionary, and because they were considered mere craftsmans, themes of their artworks were limited.

This isn’t the original version of this painting. Due to the popularity of the original, painted in 1781, Fuseli painted a few more versions and this is one of them. It shows a young woman sleeping and experiencing a nightmare. In a restless sleep, her arms are stretching, her golden ringlets falling down. Poor maiden, as helpless in her sleep as a virgin from one of Hammer production vampire films. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. Fuseli took inspiration from Germanic folkloric beliefs that demons and witches posses people who sleep alone. Lady’s pose was considered rather erotic when it was painted, but Fuseli was known to have had a collection of erotic drawings that might have served as an inspiration.

Still, what’s so appealing about this painting isn’t the composition or the colours, but its ability to anticipate the hidden and restless world of nightmares and the unconscious.

1790s ‘The Wandring Moon.’ Watercolour by William Blake (1757-1827).

William Blake (1757-1827), The Wandering Moon, Watercolour, 1816-20

Strange Visions

Eternity is in love with the creations of time.‘ (W.Blake)

Ah, finally, the visionary, the revolutionary-mystic, the rebel, the pot-head of Romanticism – William Blake, important for poetry and paintings alike.

Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine),writes that people living in the North were more prone to melancholy, at the same time naming it as the reason that made their imaginations more vivid, more restless than it was with nations in the South. I’ll quote the book: ‘The people of the North were less engaged in pleasure than in its opposite sensation; and this rendered their imagination more fertile: the prospects of nature had almost unbounded influence over them; but it affected them as it appeared in their climate, always dark and gloomy.‘ (Madame de Staël, The Influence of Literature Upon Society, Volume 1, page 271)

William Blake is one of the finest examples of fertile imagination of the people of the North, as his poems and drawings were not only original and unique, but also very strange, mystic and flamboyant in terms of colours and ideas. His lonely and unreachable imagination produced drawings and watercolours that perfectly combine themes from Milton, Dante and the Bible, made with a prophetic vigour in strong and bitter colours. As an example of Blake’s wonderful imagination I’ll mention his portrayal of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, Canto V, where he shows two sinful lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, painted in deep blue and luminous white greyish shades. Namely, Dante reserved the second circle of hell for sinful lovers; Cleopatra, Paris, Helena, Tristan, Paolo and Francesca, who are carried away by the wind as a symbol of passion that guided them during their lives. Blake here used the motif of wind and created the composition as strange as it is imaginative.

1824-27-william-blake-the-lovers-whirlwind-francesca-da-rimini-and-paolo-malatestaWilliam Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

I love Pre-Romanticism, the mystic gloominess of it, and I have to stress this point again – it is characteristic for Northern nations; mainly England and Germany. While the playful, sweet and flowery aesthetic of Rococo ruled the court of France, British artists had already dipped their fingers in the sea of Pre-Romanticism, and later elaborated it to the finest detail because they naturally had an eye for wild and untamed nature, picturesque seashores, lovely gardens lush with greenness. Even Thomas Gainsborough added a slight romantic sensibility in his portraits by painting nature as a background, whereas his French peers preferred a salon to showcase their wealth and luxury. Even with painters such as John Constable who are a tad more traditional with landscapes, you see that romantic spirit. In his painting ‘Stonehenge’ he chose to capture the old, mysterious pagan ruins, and the wild majestic sky over them. I think with Romanticism and British art and literature, it was just a question of time when it would raise to the surface, but it was a sensibility deeply woven into the art of the island. I’ll quote Madame de Stael again, it’s a bit long citation, but I couldn’t resists adding it because it perfectly captures the spirit of Pre-Romanticism.

Melancholy poetry is that which accords best with philosophy. Depression of spirits leads us to penetrate more deeply into the character and destiny of man, than any other disposition of the mind. The English poets who succeeded the Scots bards, added to their descriptions those very ideas and reflections which those description ought to have given birth to: but they have preserved, from the fine imagination of the North that gloom which is soothed with the roaring of the sea, and the hollow blast that rages on the barren heath, and, in short, every thing dark and dismal, which can force a mind dissatisfied with its existence here, to look forward to another state. The vivid imagination of the people of the North darting beyond the boundaries of a world whose confines they inhabited, penetrated through the black cloud that obscured their horizon, and seemed to represent the dark passage to eternity.‘ (page 271)*

1835-stonehenge-john-constable-1John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

If you survived reading this very long post, I congratulate you!

Ladies in Sweet Melancholic Contemplation

3 May

A few eighteenth century paintings caught my attention recently, mostly works of Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney. The thing that connects these portraits is a distinctly contemplative and melancholic mood.

1785-86. Thomas Gainsborough - Mrs. Richard Brinsley SheridanThomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1785-87

I am mesmerised by Gainsborough’s flickering brushstrokes every time I gaze at this painting. Every detail of it exudes movement, certain sweet turmoil, a sense of anticipation and sadness that something so anxiously awaited might never really occur.

The first thing one notices in this painting is the mood of exuberant restlessness: lush and unbridled tree branches dance in the wind, tiny leaves rustle a melancholic hymn in the solitude of the forest glade, her hair and translucent gauze kerchief flutter in the wind. Seems like Gainsborough painted a romantic heroine rather than a bourgeois lady. Well, the mood of this painting is distinctly romantic and sublime, but the lady is not a virginal maiden from Horace Walpole or Ann Radcliffe’s novels, but a prominent Georgian era musician Elizabeth Ann Linley.

Captured for eternity wearing a salmon coloured dress with muslin sleeves and a blue sash, this pretty, talented and wistful lady died of consumption a few years after this was painted. She was only thirty-eight years old. Not knowing her story, but simply looking at her sad gaze and untamed nature around her, awakens the imagination. A thought occurs: All things must pass (George Harrison). Only art is capable of rising above transience, and Romantics knew it. Still, intricate fashion is one of the reason why Gainsborough’s portraits are so beloved and aesthetically pleasing.

Note the importance of nature in this painting. Yeah, British portraits of the time usually had trees and clouds as a backdrop (unlike French who preferred being painted indoors to showcase their fine furniture) but here nature is almost as important as the lady. ‘Nature’ meant many things to the Romantics. As suggested above, it was often presented as itself a work of art, constructed by a divine imagination, in emblematic language. (source) This emphasis on nature is reminiscent of a literary movement that was just at its beginning at the time this was painted – Romanticism.

To put this painting in the historical context and connect it to Romanticism: Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther were published in 1774 and Rousseau’s Confessions in 1782, Wordsworth would have been a mere 15-17 year old lad, William Blake published his Poetical Sketches in 1783, and Lord Byron, being born in 1788, wasn’t even alive at the time. This painting is a slight contrast to Gainsborough’s more Neoclassical-style paintings of the previous years. One could argue that he captured the sensibility of the time, or he simply indulged his love of painting countryside scenery.

For me, this painting evokes the mood of Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. Elizabeth Ann Linley painted with hair untamed and eyes full of sorrow, reminds me of the ‘free-spirited and beautiful’* Catherine Earnshaw. In my imagination, that’s Catherine sitting on a stone, waiting for Heathcliff, and the wind is whispering her name throughout moors ‘Catherine, Catherine’…

Verses from Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem ‘Lake’, which remind me of this painting as well:

”(…) Eternity, naught gulfs: what do

You do with days of ours which you devour?

Speak! Shall you not bring back those things sublime?

Return the raptured hour?

 

O Lake, caves, silent cliffs and darkling wood,

Whom Time has spared or can restore to light,

Beautiful Nature, let there live at least

The memory of that night…

More portraits with a same mood:

1776-78. Lady Elizabeth Hamilton (1753–1797), Countess of Derby by George Romney

Lady Elizabeth Hamilton (1753–1797), Countess of Derby by George Romney, 1776-78

1777-78. Thomas Gainsborough - Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield

Thomas Gainsborough – Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield, 1777-78

1783. Thomas Gainsboroguh Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, 1783

George Romney, Mrc Crouch, 1793

George Romney, Portrait of Mrc Crouch, 1793

1795. Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner 1

John Hoppner, Frankland Sisters, 1795