Tag Archives: British artist

Ford Madox Brown – Capturing the Atmosphere: Walton-on-the-Naze and The Hayfield

29 Aug

Ford Madox Brown, Walton-on-the-Naze (1860)

The final days of August are always tinged in melancholy. Summer is not yet gone, and autumn has not yet arrived. The rich and vibrant facade of summer is slightly cracking and a yearning for what once was fills the cracks, and even a sunny, warm day or the beauty of a blooming rose are haunted by a feeling of nostalgia for the passing summer. The first rain, or a gust of wind, the first sight of yellow leaves on a chestnut tree all seem ominous of what is to come. This mood inhabits some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and two of such examples are landscape scenes by Ford Madox Brown. His paintings “The Hayfield” and “Walton-on-the-Naze” both possess that rich yet wistful ambience. Most of the painting “The Hayfield” was painted slowly and patiently during a period of time from late July to early September and, following the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy of painting directly from nature, Brown would walk miles and miles from his house two times a week to a spot where the scenery was the most delightful. Waiting for the perfect light, he would start painting at 5 am. The twilight scene shows the end of a working day; the moon had just risen but there is still enough daylight to reveal the scene to our eyes. The farmers are slowly getting ready to go home, there are children sittin in the haycart and one man is gazing up at the moon. You can feel the chill in the air, the slightly damp, cold grass, children’s cheerful chatter… The colours of the painting proved to be controversial, just as was the case with John Constable’s landscape some years before, but Brown stated in the catalogue for the painting that: “the stacking of the second crop of hay had been much delayed by rain, which heightened the green of the remaining grass, together with the brown of the hay. The consequence was an effect of unusual beauty of colour, making the hay by contrast with the green grass, positively red or pink, under the glow of twilight”. This shows us that the Victorian audience had a perception of reality and nature different to what it really was and they didn’t want to see the reality in art, but rather their dreamy vision of the world around them.

The painting “Walton-on-the-Naze”, painted during Brown’s visit to this small coastal town in Essex in August 1859, again features the motif of a rising moon and the gorgeous effect of light. This might be his most beautiful landscape because the ephemeral light and the effect of depth are just mesmerising. The air seems soft, rosy and palpable and the rainbow in the sky adds a whole new dreamy dimension to the scene. I had had the luck of seeing the rainbow but a few weeks ago and its beauty still charms my memory. The male figure is the portrait of Brown himself and the female figure is Brown’s wife Emma. The little girl is their daughter Catherine. The beautiful visual rhythm of the stacks of wheat in the foreground may reminds us of the harvest time and the work that is to be done, but this painting isn’t the harvesting type like the previous one, but a touristy type because Brown and his family were on holiday in that coastal town when he painted it and this reflects the Victorian discovery of coastal towns and the sea as places for leisure, rest and fun. Londoners could have easily reached the coast via a steamer train and one is seen in the background of this painting. Even Elizabeth Siddal and Rossetti stayed on the sea for her health around the same time. The layers of depth in this painting are superb, I mean just look at the ship disappearing on the horizon, a pink sky behind it, how utterly dreamy.

Ford Madox Brown, The Hayfield, 1855-56

John William Waterhouse – Apollo and Daphne

8 Jun

“Hardly had she ended her prayer, when a heavy torpor seizes her limbs; and her soft breasts are covered with a thin bark. Her hair grows into green leaves, her arms into branches; her feet, the moment before so swift, adhere by sluggish roots; a leafy canopy overspreads her features; her elegance alone remains in her.”

John William Waterhouse, Apollo and Daphne, 1908

As the title itself suggest, a motif of transformation, of metamorphosis, lingers throughout the tales from the Roman poet Ovid’s narrative poem “Metamorphosis”. Along with the motif of love, of course. A tale of Apollo and Daphne is perhaps the most explored one in the arts because the poem is filled with imagery which is easy to translated into the visual language of painting and sculpture. Bernini’s beautiful sculpture certainly comes to mind, along with many Renaissance paintings, but when I think of mythology scenes in art, I think of the prolific, imaginative, well-known and well-loved British painter born in Rome; John William Waterhouse. I am not saying that his version is the best, but it is the first one that came to my mind because I am a fan of his dreamy paintings woven with romanticism and filed with intricate details and vibrant colours. His art is always so beautiful, there is no other word for it. The tale of Apollo and Daphne is that of pursuit and lust. Daphne is an athletic, free-spirited virgin just like Diana, and she isn’t the one who falls in love easily, but she is very beautiful and Apollo simply cannot contain himself. Here is a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which describes Daphne’s personality. I really love her rebellious, independent nature:

Many a one courted her; she hated all wooers; not able to endure, and quite unacquainted with man, she traverses the solitary parts of the woods, and she cares not what Hymen, what love, or what marriage means. Many a time did her father say, “My daughter, thou owest me a son-in-law;” many a time did her father say, “My daughter, thou owest me grandchildren.” She, utterly abhorring the nuptial torch, as though a crime, has her beauteous face covered with the blush of modesty; and clinging to her father’s neck, with caressing arms, she says, “Allow me, my dearest father, to enjoy perpetual virginity; her father, in times, bygone, granted this to Diana.” (read the entire tale here)

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25. Picture found here.

Led by the most primal urges, Apollo, the God of Lightness and Clarity, chases the beautiful, free-spirited and wild nymph Daphne through the forest. He is holding a lyre in his hand in Waterhouse’s painting, perhaps wooing Daphne with his mellifluous music, but to no avail, for she is determined to remain free and untouched. The painting depicts the moment of climax in the story; the moment when Daphne, having had cried out for help to her father Peneus, is being transformed into a laurel tree. Notice how sensually the soft blue fabric is wrapped around her, and how she is covering her bosom with her arm and with the fabric. Her gaze shows her fear, and Apollo’s hand is stretched because he greedily desires to touch her soft pale skin before it turns to bark:

Yet he that follows, aided by the wings of love, is the swifter, and denies her any rest; and is now just at her back as she flies, and is breathing upon her hair scattered upon her neck. Her strength being now spent, she grows pale, and being quite faint, with the fatigue of so swift a flight, looking upon the waters of Peneus, she says, “Give me, my father, thy aid, if you rivers have divine power. Oh Earth, either yawn to swallow me, or by changing it, destroy that form, by which I have pleased too much, and which causes me to be injured.”

Hardly had she ended her prayer, when a heavy torpor seizes her limbs; and her soft breasts are covered with a thin bark. Her hair grows into green leaves, her arms into branches; her feet, the moment before so swift, adhere by sluggish roots; a leafy canopy overspreads her features; her elegance alone remains in her. This, too, Phœbus admires, and placing his right hand upon the stock, he perceives that the breast still throbs beneath the new bark; and then, embracing the branches as though limbs in his arms, he gives kisses to the wood, and yet the wood shrinks from his kisses.

Even though the poor nymph Daphne had transformed into a laurel tree just to escape his lustful embrace, Apollo still doesn’t give up and kisses the tree bark where her skin used to be and promises to celebrate the laurel tree from that moment on:

To her the God said: “But since thou canst not be my wife, at least thou shalt be my tree; my hair, my lyre, my quiver shall always have thee, oh laurel! Thou shalt be presented to the Latian chieftains, when the joyous voice of the soldiers shall sing the song of triumph, and the long procession shall resort to the Capitol.