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Ode to Indolence – Dolce Far Niente – Sweet Doing Nothing

10 Apr

Indolence, thou art the sweetest, most delightful thing on earth!

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente (Sweet Idleness) (or A Pompeian Fishpond), 1904

‘Dolce far niente’ is a wonderful Italian expression meaning ‘sweet doing nothing’, and it illustrates the dreamy, hedonistic, self-indulgent nature of indolence, and the enjoyment of it. In art, such paintings are rare prior to the nineteenth century, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the artistic climate influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic movement with its ‘cult of beauty’, their popularity grew. Artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Godward and John William Waterhouse dared to tackle the subject and they painted numerous vibrant and beautiful paintings of this theme.

There’s a certain pattern of beauty in all of these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings: a beautiful idle woman dressed in her finery, lazing around in sumptuous surroundings, doing nothing, gazing in the distance or at the viewer. Usually they’re presented in luxurious and idealised settings, aesthetically inspired by the Roman empire, lounging on animal skin, wearing gorgeous diaphanous fabrics, perhaps holding a flower in their hand or teasing a kitten with a peacock feather, and in one painting, two women are even shown gazing at a snail and feeding it, what a way to spend an afternoon! Certain motifs appear in all of these paintings: finely painted marble balustrades or just marble in general, balconies overlooking the sea glistening underneath a perfectly blue sky with a few clouds, animal skin, clothes and hairstyles inspired by the styles of the Ancient world, flowers and flower pots, lush Mediterranean vegetation and plants such as oleander, lavender, cypresses, orange trees, even poppies, thyme, basil etc.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Silver Favourites, 1903

Godwards was the protégé of Alma-Tadema and their styles hold similarities; they both drew inspiration from the imagined luxury of the Ancient Roman Empire and the warm, rich, fragrant, mood of the Mediterranean, they both painted in a Neoclassical style with fine, elegant brushwork resembling that of Ingres, especially when the subject is that of a female body; both made paintings full of light and vibrancy. And now a glimpse of sadness in all this beauty; Godward committed suicide on 13th December 1922, at the age of 61, falsely believing that the idealised, dreamy style of his art will fall out of style with the arrival of new painters such as Picasso. In his suicide note he allegedly wrote: “the world is not big enough for myself and a Picasso”. I wonder just how many lives that devilish painter known as Picasso has ruined, having in mind the awful way he treated my poor, darling Modigliani.

These paintings exude beauty, but that is their only purpose. Well, the purpose of all art should be to present us mortals with an ideal of beauty we’ll never be able to achieve, to move our hearts and souls to react, to elevate us. But the beauty of these paintings really is all that they possess; they have no moral or social message, they are not portraits, they don’t show a mythological scene or tell a story in some way.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1897

Also, despite the fact that these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings were at the height of their popularity in the late 19th century, the mood of indolence and hedonism can be traced in earlier art as well, especially the Rococo. If you take a look at some paintings of Fragonard or Boucher, you’ll see that most of them show pretty women doing nothing; reading love letters, waiting for a lover, daydreaming; lavishly dressed in gorgeous surrounding of eternal spring with tamed nature and marble statues. Also, the famous Winterhalter’s group portrait of the French Empress Eugenie and her ladies in waiting; technically, yes, it is a portrait – it has a purpose, but come on, doesn’t the setting and their faces evoke nothing but sweet enjoyment of indolence? Gustav Klimt’s beautiful and sinister nude femme fatales shown in a lesbian embrace, adorned with flowers, with intricate backgrounds, are also pretty indolent. My point is that it’s not necessary for a painting to bear a name ‘dolce far niente’ to be one, it’s more about the mood and the setting.

John William Godward, Summer Idleness: Day Dreams, 1909

Despite their popularity in the age of the Aesthetic movement, there’s nothing really decadent about these painting. Their lack of purpose, or a social or moral message, might have infuriated Ruskin. The dreamy, escapist nature of these paintings struck a cord with the audience of the time. Victorians were huge escapists and their tendency to be easily carried away by daydreams and fantasies about a perfect fairytale world enabled them to appreciate works of painters such as Waterhouse, Alma-Tadema and Godward who never painted reality, but instead dipped their brushes into a paint of magic and dreams and created innocent, idealised, brightly-coloured reveries which continue to capture the imagination of people today.

MY FAVOURITES:

John William Godward, When the heart is young, 1902

All of these paintings are quite similar, but still there were three which captivated me the most. The first one is When the heart is young. If you enlarge the painting, you’ll see how exquisitely the scene is painted, how detailed. I just love her face expression, and the way her hair falls and the lavishing, soft folds of her dress in colour of rose quartz. And she is one absolutely gorgeous woman; there’s a dreamy, sensual aura around her face with lips as pretty as rosebuds, cheeks blushed and eyes so dark, velvety and dreamy, gazing in the distance. Another detail which dazzles me is the fine thin yellow line above the sea, and the poppy flowers in the background.

John William Godward, Mischief and Repose, 1895

Here, I love the title Mischief and Repose, isn’t it cunning? There’s no glistening sea or trees in the background, but I think these two indolent, red-haired beauties in diaphanous dresses are eye-candies for themselves. They’re shown lazing around in an opulent interior of fine marble and animal skin. While the woman wearing a delicate gown made out of a gauzy baby blue material, I suppose the overindulgence in the sweetness of doing nothing has made her tired, I sympathise because it happens to me often, the one on the right is the epitome of mischief, teasing her friend as she sleeps. They remind me of Sappho and her ladies on the isle of Lesbos. Let’s also take a moment to appreciate the great hairstyle of the ‘mischief woman’; voluminous curly hair in a low bun with shiny ribbons. And these gauzy long gowns which reveal more than they hide are so alluring, especially on the woman on the right; how softly and gently the fabric covers her body, how delicately painted. I hope it’s not just my imagination that’s intrigued by this illusive mysteriousnesses.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1906

In Dolce Far Niente from 1906, the rich purple and red colour of her flimsy dress really appealed to me, but also the composition: she is painted reclining on a tiger skin, on some marble balustrade, with her hand above her head, her dark hair falling in cascades, and you can’t help but notice the sensuality of her pose; you can follow the curve of her body against the background of oleander trees with lush blossoms and serene sea in the distance. I don’t know why, but it reminded me of a sentence from Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human: “I could see through the tall windows behind my bench the evening sky glowing in the sunset. Seagulls were flying by in a line which somehow suggested the curve of a woman’s body.” Another thing I love is the sky; vanilla coloured sky, and the lush Mediterranean vegetation; the gorgeous pink oleander blossoms and cypresses in the background. Sun is slowly setting in the distance, rich fragrances colour the air…

John William Godward, Idleness, 1900

I have been dazzled by these paintings for some time, and my thoughts upon gazing at these idle women are a mix of empathy and envy. I am their equal in indolence, it is my most beloved pursuit: doing nothing and doing it sweetly. I am a connoisseur in indolence! Dolce far niente should be written on my gravestone. My idea of a perfect afternoon is to wear something outrageously gorgeous, lie on my bed, listen to music and gaze at the pictures on my wall, the blue sky or tree tops through the window or flip through my art books, and then drift into daydreams. For me, a day of indolence is a day of happiness! This is how I find inspiration, then I write a post, and voila!

I shall finish the post with a great quote by the writer Jerome K. Jerome, who obviously understand indolence very well:

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

John William Godward, Tranquillity, 1914

John William Godward, In the Days of Sappho, 1904

John William Godward, An Idle Hour, 1890

John William Godward, The quiet pet, 1906

John William Godward, Summer Flowers, 1903

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, 1855

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Reverie, 1771

John William Godward, Playtime, 1891

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, In the Tepidarium, 1881

Charles Edward Perugini, Dolce Far Niente, 1882

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente (The White Feather Fan), 1879

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente, 1880

William Holman Hunt, ‘Il Dolce far Niente’, 1859-66

Auguste Toulmouche, Dolce Far Niente, 1877

What are your thoughts on indolence? Was there a dolce far niente painting that particularly dazzled you?

Claude Monet – Ode to Water Lilies

28 Mar

I am following Nature without being able to grasp her… I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.

1915. Water Lilies (fr.Nymphéas) - Claude MonetClaude Monet, Water Lilies (fr.Nymphéas), 1915

Surface of the pond is flickering in mystic blue and dreamy green shades, flickering gently as if it was a garment woven from blue topaz and emerald gemstones. These opulent jewel colours could only be compared to the magical silks and velvets that Paul Poiret used in his lavishing, oriental designs. Perhaps the same muse seduced both artists – a muse called ‘Nymphaea’ or ‘Water Lily’. Perchance it’s not a coincidence that these beautiful flowers share a name with Greek divine spirits – Nymphs; nude beauties observed by the Greek god of the wild – Pan. The pond is rustling a silver watery hymn, while the blades of grass, resembling long peridot-green locks of hair, are humming the sweetest notes of spring. Cerulean blue surface, slippery like silk petticoats of a duchess. Rhythmical water rippling. Quiet and deep mystic waters resonate with musical tunes.

Petal by petal, lush white flowers are awakening, their whiteness encrusted with amethyst pink tulle-like skirts. Water lilies are breathing the vivacious air, and exhaling the luscious flowery scents, their petals rustling like delicate silks of Paul Poiret’s divine oriental dresses. Sapphire blue leaves are emerging from the water like dozens of eyes. Sweet scents are pervading the air of this mystical haven. Every brushstroke reveals Monet’s enchantment with his Water Lilies, and the impossibility of discovering their secrets. For Monet, it seems, they were more than just flowers, but muses whose silent whispers he interpreted as invitations to paint them, in the same way he would paint an extravagant woman. And he always satisfied their vanity.

He painted them in all occasions: in morning freshness, just waken up and sleepy. In all their glory of colours when the sun of June hits their petals with its shine. He painted them distressed by the raindrops. Fragile and pale, flickering, in the morning dew. In the evening gatherings when the moon slowly appears in the sky, and they crowd round in the middle of the pond, sitting on their leaves like noblewomen of Venice in their gondolas, instead of masks their faces covered with the veil of night. He painted them surrounded by mystic purple waters, their petals like silvery veils, luscious white flowers resembling Ophelia’s white dress spread on the water in the last moment.

Due to their seductive beauty, it’s hard to tell whether these water lilies are indeed pure botanical creatures or real Nymphs, transformed by some strange spell into static flowers; sleeping beauties on the water. In 1896,  J.W. Waterhouse painted the scene of poor Hylas being abducted by the Nymphs; he portrayed Hylas as powerless against the charms of the Nymphs, and Monet did a similar thing. The massive amount of Monet’s Water Lily scenes serves as an evidence of his lifelong fascination with these serene flowers.

I hope you enjoyed the lyrical mood of this post.

Albrecht Dürer’s Watercolours

17 Jun

Extremely versatile and prolific artist, Albrecht Dürer was born in Nürnberg – one of the artistic centres of Europe in the Renaissance. Durer was a true Homo Universalis, one of the first artists that showed interest in Italy and its art developments, and also one of the first painters to use watercolours and popularise the use of that medium. I wanted to share these beautiful watercolour painting of flowers, trees, some birds, and his famous painting ‘Young Hare‘ because I think it’s fascinating how someone would even be interested in painting simple things from nature. Durer’s wide range of interests, and his enjoyment and study of everything around him could be compared only to Leonardo da Vinci. Themes of his paintings expressed his wide range of interests; fragments of nature, watercolour landscapes, portraits and self-portraits and paintings of religious content.

Since I am trapped in the nineteenth and early twentieth century art, Munch’s Scream, Van Gogh’s starry skies, and Modigliani’s melancholic nudes have become my reality, and it utterly fascinates me that something as simple as grass could capture the artist’s attention. Durer must have possessed a calmness of mind. No despair or anger in these serene watercolours.

1510-20. Albrecht Dürer, ‘Eight Studies of Wild Flowers’, Watercolour1510-20 Albrecht Dürer, ‘Eight Studies of Wild Flowers’, Watercolour

1526. Albrecht Dürer - Study of Lilies, watercolour on paper, Musee Bonnat, France1526 Albrecht Dürer – Study of Lilies, watercolour on paper, Musee Bonnat, France

1503. Albrecht Dürer - The Large Piece of Turf1503 Albrecht Dürer – The Large Piece of Turf

1545. Albrecht Dürer, Turk's Cap Lily (Lilium Martagon)Albrecht Dürer, Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium Martagon)

1526. Albrecht Dürer - Primula1526 Albrecht Dürer – Primula

The Tuft of Grass Minor, watercolour by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1521)The Tuft of Grass Minor, watercolour by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1521)

1494. Linden Tree on a Bastion - Albrecht Durer1494 Linden Tree on a Bastion – Albrecht Durer

1495. View of the Arco Valley in the Tyrol - Albrecht Durer1495 View of the Arco Valley in the Tyrol – Albrecht Durer

1500. Peonies - Albrecht Durer1500 Peonies – Albrecht Durer

1543. Albrecht Dürer ‘Three Studies of a Tree Bullfinch‘  watercolorAlbrecht Dürer ‘Three Studies of a Tree Bullfinch‘ watercolor

1512. Wing of a Blue Roller - Albrecht Durer1512 Wing of a Blue Roller – Albrecht Durer

1508. Albrecht Durer - An Owl1508 Albrecht Durer – An Owl

1502 Albrecht Durer – Young Hare

Arcimboldo – A Genius of Mannerism

6 Jun

Giuseppe Arcimboldo is one of the few artists that I truly admire. His paintings are overwhelmingly whimsical, daring and original, bizarre and fascinating even after more than four hundred years. There’s no doubt that these richly individualistic paintings are works of a Genius of Mannerism.

1591. Arcimboldo - Vertumnus, a portrait depicting Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor painted as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons1591. Giuseppe Arcimboldo – Vertumnus

Originality and whimsicality of Arcimboldo’s paintings have ensured him the title of the most interesting Mannerist painter. Admired by his contemporaries, Arcimboldo’s paintings remained puzzling even to the cynical and skeptical audience of the twenty-first century. His imaginative portraits such as ‘Summer‘, or ‘Vertumnus‘ shown above, all posses an unexplainable enigmatic power which leaves the viewers overwhelmed with thoughts and questions. What kind of person painted such marvelous paintings, especially if we consider the time period? And what an imagination?

‘Portrait’ above shows Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor as Vertumnus, or the Roman God of seasons. Rudolf was a peculiar ruler; a King of Hungary and Croatia who at one point decided to move his court from Vienna to Prague and focus on art, science and other hobbies rather than wasting time on dull state affairs. Who has time for politics and wars when there’s art and all sorts of life mysterious waiting to be discovered? Rudolf never married, and his sexuality was the subject of whispers at court, many believed that he was homosexual. Instead, he went on to become a patron of arts, showing a particular fondness for Norther Mannerism.

1563. Giuseppe Arcimboldo - Spring1563. Giuseppe Arcimboldo – Spring

Rudolf’s other interests varied from astronomy, botany and science in general, all the way to alchemy. His court was an abode for all sorts of weirdos and individual minds of Europe at the time; along with a Flemish botanist Charles de l’Ecluse and astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, there was also a female creature at his court, quite unusual for the time, a poetess, Elizabeth Jane Weston, known for Neo-Latin poetry. Themes of her poems varied between idyllic reveries, odes to Rudolf and odes to herself.

Did I mention that Rudolf also kept a menagerie of exotic animals and botanical gardens? Though, that’s not so unusual for the Habsburgs. Rudolf was also fascinated with clocks, telescopes, musical instruments, water works, astrolabes and compasses; all of which he had specially made by the finest European craftsmen. He also had a ‘cabinet of curiosities‘ (Kunstkabinett); ‘encyclopedic collection of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined’; in short, a collection of different things belonging to natural history, geology, art, archeology, antiquities, relics and all sorts of things that would be interesting for a Renaissance man. Considering the variety of his interests, I doubt that he would even have time for a wife. Free from chains of marriage, he had plenty of time for exploration. As a person, Rudolf seems like a strange mixture of Homo Universalis of Renaissance and a rather odd individual.

1640s Wenceslas Hollar - Landscape shaped like a face (date unknown)Wenceslas Hollar – Landscape shaped like a face (date unknown) – 17th century

Fantasy or insanity? Now that’s a debate that could refer to both Arcimboldo and his patron Rudolf. Art critics have many times questioned Arcimboldo’s work, treating his ingenuity as a deranged mind. We can observe Arcimboldo’s painting style from two main aspects. Firstly, the enigmatic mood of his paintings is something that was very popular in Renaissance, it questioned one to think and use its reason to solve the problem. Secondly, the nature of Arcimboldo’s paintings reflects the atmosphere of the time; Renaissance world of harmony was slowly fading away, replaced by doubts and fear – that’s the spirit of Mannerism.

Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf is perhaps the most vivid out of all his imaginative paintings. By skilfully arranging different vegetables, fruits and flowers from all seasons such as cherries, wheat, grapes, corn, plumes, olives, pumpkins, cabbage, apples, pears, onions, chestnut, figs etc, Arcimboldo created a portrait of an Emperor and a perfect personification of a Roman God Vertumnus. Arcimboldo used this formula of ‘portraits-allegories’ many times, one of my favourite renditions of this method is his painting ‘Spring’ which is composed entirely of flowers and leafs. Hidden-faces were quite a popular thing back then, as we can see in the engraving Landscape shaped like a face by Wenceslas Hollar. At first sight it’s a landscape, on the other it’s definitely a face. Landscape, face, landscape, face…

Although Arcimboldo had no direct followers, his work was hugely influential on Surrealists and Dadaists such as Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst. This is the third time I’m writing about Arcimboldo as he seems to be a popular subject, both for me and my readers – I’ve written about his painting The Librarian and about the connection between his painting and Syd Barrett’s Vegetable Man.