Tag Archives: France

Absinthe Faces: Louis Anquetin and Matisse

21 May

“Seek for the boldest colour possible, content is irrelevant.”

(Henri Matisse)

Louis Anquetin, Girl Reading a Newspaper, 1890, pastel on paper

These two paintings, Louis Anquetin’s pastel “Girl Reading a Newspaper” and Henri Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” were painted by different artists and are fifteen years apart, but both show the same thing; a half-length portrait of a woman wearing a hat. A portrait of a woman, even a woman wearing a hat, is not an uncommon things in the art, but the thing that connects these two paintings and makes them so unique is the colour. And not just any colour, but one colour in particular: the vibrant, radiant, glowing turquoise shade which, even if present in smaller quantities on canvas, nonetheless seduces the viewer and blinds him with intensity.

Anquetin’s pastel shows a fashionably dressed woman seen from the profile reading the newspapers. Thin lips pressed together and a slightly long, pointed nose give a disdainful, uninterested appeal to her face; her newspapers are more interesting than whatever else is going on around her. Her auburn hair and eerily pale skin, almost glowingly white like moonlight are contrasting beautifully with the domineering shades of turquoise and teal. The colour seems so unbelievably radiant and glowing, like some strange tropical flower or a bug with an iridescent hard shell. When I first beheld this portrait, I thought: this seems like a world seen through an absinthe glass! Even her eyelids have a turquoise shade, her skin is slightly blueish, her newspapers are vibrantly turquoise and there’s even some turquoise on the ribbons of her hat. Interestingly, this pastel was known for many years by the title “The Absinthe Drinker” which has proved to be incorrect, but the colours would surely justify such a title. This painting was shown at the exhibition in 1906. Anquetin’s paintings usually feature scenes of night life, the wild, gaudy and gay underground of fin de siecle so the connection of this particular colour with absinth is very suitable.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905

Nothing I have seen can surpass the vibrant, absinthe-coloured radiance of this pastel by Anquetin, but this well-known painting by Henri Matisse called “Woman with a Hat”, exhibited infamously at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, has the similar shades of untamed pure colour which doesn’t match the reality. Matisse’s wife Amélie posed for the painting and in real life she was wearing a black dress, but in the mind of her painter husband, the simple black dress was transformed into a jungle of colours which uplift the soul and excite the eyes and among them are the turquoise and teal shades which we’ve seen in Anquetin’s portrait. Matisse is dear to me and that is mostly due to his attitude towards colour. I just love to see an artist being untamed when it comes to colours; no lines, no shading, no imitating the colour in nature, just wild colours on canvas, colour for the colour’s sake. There is something so liberating about that. I love how the face, the dress and the hat in Matisse’s portrait of his wife are all just patches of colours, an expressive and exciting mosaic of shapes. There is a turquoise line contouring the woman’s nose and one on her forehead, how exciting is that!?

Marie Laurencin: More Than Dead – Forgotten

16 May

Last week I wrote about the wonderful French painter Marie Laurencin and her paintings of wistful, dreamy girls in soft pastel colours. Today I thought I’d share a poem that Laurencin wrote in 1917 and it’s called “La Calmant”, translated in English as “The Sedative”. To go with the melancholy verses I chose Laurencin’s painting of a girl called Valentine. I love her face expression, the way she placed her head on her hand, and again, those gentle, pastel shades of pink, lavender and yellow typical for Laurencin’s artworks.

Marie Laurencin, Valentine, 1924

The Sedative (La Calmant):

More than annoyed
Sad.

More than sad
Unhappy.

More than unhappy
Suffering.

More than suffering
Abandoned.

More than abandoned
Alone in the world.

More than alone
Exiled.

More than exiled
Dead.

More than dead
Forgotten.

Marie Laurencin: Wistful Waifs in Pink and Greys

6 May

Why should I paint dead fish, onions and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier.

(Marie Laurencin)

Marie Laurencin, Woman with dog and cat (Femme au chien et au chat), 1916

As it is usually the case with female artists, Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was partly forgotten and partly misremembered. She is mostly remembered as a part of the French avant-garde, muse to Guillaume Apollinaire who poetically bestowed the name “Our Lady of Cubism” upon her. A female Cubist, a muse, just another figure in the modernist Parisian art circles. But all of these titles, as flattering as they sound, do not do the justice to the lyrical, gentle beauty of Laurencin’s paintings. Born on the last day of October in Paris in 1883, Laurencin moved to Sèvres at the age of eighteen to study porcelain painting. After that, she returned to Paris and pursued studying oil painting at the Académie Humbert. Her work stretched from the early twentieth century up until her death. She was especially successful in the 1920s, but in 1930s, due to the economic crash, besides painting she also worked as an art instructor in a private school. While it is easy to noticed the changes and developments of her style and themes, her paintings always have that certain beautiful quality that makes them so wonderful and unique, and it makes you think that no one else could have painted them but Marie Laurencin herself.

These days I am particularly captivated by the beautiful harmony of pinks and greys in Laurencin’s paintings. So many enchanting shades of grey! Grey like the sky on an autumn day, grey like the fluffy lead-coloured springs clouds full of rain, grey like a soft bunny’s fur, grey like the waters of Seine that Apollinaire mentions in one of his poem called “Marie” written for Laurencin, grey as something gentle, fading and romantical.

I was walking along the Seine

An old book under my arm

The river is like my sorrow

It flows and does not end

So when will the week be done.

(last stanza from “Marie” by Apollinaire, translation found here.)

Marie Laurencin, The Fan, 1919

“The masks are silent

And the music so distant

That it seems descended from heaven

 Yes, I want to love you, but love you barely

And my disease is delicious.”

(“Marie”, Apollinaire, found here.)

All the feminine gentleness of Laurencin’s work lies in those soft shades of grey. The girls in all these paintings, dreamy Parisian waifs, with elongated, thin, mask-like faces bring to mind the slender, gaudy ladies from Kees van Dongen’s canvases. Their skin is grey, their eyes large, silent, poetic and deep, their gazes wistful and inviting. Strange doll-like stillness, paleness, quietness lingers through these canvases. And when the soft grey shades meet the more vibrant, almost garish shades of pink, purple, blue, turquoise, then the true magic occurs. Softness, gentleness, sweetness prevail in these portraits, these girls in pinks and greys are girls seen through the feminine lens of a female painter. To call Laurencin “a female Cubist” is almost an insult to these charming, delicate paintings which posses none of the mathematical, objective, steel-coldness of the Cubist artworks. Laurencin’s portraits are like pages from a young girl’s diary, lyrical and coated in sweetness, but not shallow or sentimental because they have that something, a touch of mystery, secrecy and silent which makes one wonder. She even said herself: “Cubism has poisoned three years of my life, preventing me from doing any work. I never understood it. I get from Cubism the same feeling that a book on philosophy and mathematics gives me. Aesthetic problems always make me shiver. As long as I was influenced by the great men surrounding me I could do nothing.

Laurencin was a part of the Cubist circles but her work is certianly not. Her exploration of colours is, to me, more reminiscent of Fauvism. Look at that turquoise and bright pink the painting “Woman with Dog and Cat”! I don’t understand why the feminine element is often overlooked in her art. She is not less of an artist if she painted pretty girls in pastel colours. She is mostly remembered as just a Cubist muse, but at the same time Picasso’s Cubist guitars and violins, broken to pieces canvases, that is seen as avant-garde and revolutionary, and I don’t see why. Laurencin said something interesting about women and painting: “I conceive of a woman’s role to be of a different nature: painting to be essentially a “job” for a woman (one who sits so long quiet on a chair); and a painter’s inspiration to be life and that of natural sensibility rather than the outcome of intellect or reason. There is something incongruous to me in the vision of a strong man sitting all day… manipulating small paint brushes, something essentially effeminate.

Marie Laurencin, Femme à la colombe (Marie Laurencin et Nicole Groult), 1919

Marie Laurencin, Woman with Dog (La femme au chien), c. 1924

Marie Laurencin, The Kiss, 1927

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

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.’

Louis-Léopold Boilly – Two Young Women Kissing

19 Feb

Today I want to share with you all a dazzling painting by a not-so-famous French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly.

Louis-Léopold Boilly, Deux jeunes femmes s’embrassant (Two Young Women Kissing), 1790-1794

This painting, despite being painted in the late eighteenth century, is so Rococo; naughty yet innocent, provocative yet delicate. In the age of Terror, Revolution, guillotine, rage and chopped heads, the sweet spirit of Rococo, rose-scented and dressed in cotton-candy pink is fighting to survive, fighting against the changes and the steel coldness of David and Neoclassicism. All the frivolities, intimacies and secrets from the grand canvases of Boucher and Fragonard have come alive in this simple yet delightful interior scene. Two young women are portrayed in a kiss, their arms wrapped around one another, their eyes open. The white under-dress of one girl is naughtily exposing her white shoulder and some of that cleavage. The other girl is dressed in a sumptuous green, seemingly iridescent gown. I just love how the folds and creases were painted; the shine of the fabric seems so vivid, and the fabric so tangible and crunchy. I can imagine the soft echo of it rustles down the corridor after the visit is over and the lady gone. I am assuming that the chamber belongs to the girl in white, and that the girl in green is a secret visitor, a very dear friend.

Other details in the room also bring to mind the delicate rose-perfumed interiors from the age of Madame Pompadour. Simple furniture, descending into darkness on the left half of the canvas, serves like a background on a stage for the one-act play of this sweet, short, playful kiss exchanged by two girls. A bonnet with blue ribbons, an empty glass bottle, a yellow glow, silks and a pink rose are seemingly casually placed on the little desk. On the mantle, a clock and two candles are seen. The interior is adding to the mood conveyed by the sweet kiss and all the other details around the girls are here to emphasise the softness, delicacy, and femininity. The style of the interior isn’t that Rococo, but the mood definitely is. Does it seem to me, or do I see a faint reflection of the bed in the mirror above the mantle?

Boilly (1761-1845) was popular and praised in his time, he was no stranger to portrait commissions and exhibitions, but sadly he isn’t that well remembered in the art history. His art is all but dull and boring, so the lack of talent or creativity certainty aren’t the reasons behind it. I think it has more to do with the art history’s emphasis on dates, art period, and what-influenced-what mentality. Boilly’s paintings don’t usually reflect the spirit of his times, perhaps if he had been born earlier his paintings would have been as appreciated now as those of Boucher are. Looking back on past times, an artist who doesn’t match in a dominant movement of his time is an oddball, the books don’t know where to place him so it’s easier to just ignore such an artist and focus on the ones who started a new art movement or reflected the spirit of their times in their works. I know a thing of two about being an outsider and a dreamer, so Boilly and this painting appeal to me, he was clearly portraying a dream-world in his canvases, in turbulent times, daydreaming of the past elegance that he had witness.