Tag Archives: French Art

James Tissot – Young Lady In A Boat

9 Jan

James Tissot, Young Lady In A Boat, 1870

James Tissot, the painter of the idle and glamorous lives of the wealthy Parisians, was popular and received critical acclaim in his time but today he is in the shadow of the more revolutionary painters from his time such as Monet or Degas. Tissot was extremenly prolific and left us many, many wonderful genre paintings of people enjoying everyday life; going for walks, sipping tea, going on balls, gossiping, children playing, reading books and lying in a hammock, spending afternoon gliding on boats or enjoing a picnic under a grand old chestnut tree… All of his paintings are very meticulous and detailed and just a joy to gaze at. Tissot put a particular emphasis on the clothing the figures in his paintings are wearing and that is no surprise, for his father was a succesful drapery merchant and his mother designed hats.

My favourite Tissot painting at the moment is “Young Lady In a Boat”, painted in 1870, just a year before Tissot’s departure for London following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. It shows a pensive young woman dressed in a sumptuous white dress with ruffles and a hat with striped ribbons. A fan in her hand. A flower bouquet in front of her and a little pug behind her. I particularly love her pose; she is holding her chin with her hand and gazing into the distance. Her pinkie finger is touching her lip, what a dainty pose. You can see it also in the drawing bellow which is one of the studies for the painting that Tissot made. Is she sad or just bored? Or both. Is she suffering from ennui? The pug on the other hand looks not pensive but perplexed and he certainly adds to the charm of the painting with his humorous face expression, the face which a critic at the time compared to a monkey. The lady’s hat with those striped ribbons and her hair bring to mind the portraits of the Directoire period (1795-1800) and this was no accident, for Tissot had purposefully tried to emulate the styles of the period and this is evident in a few of his paintings from that time period. Directoire period was a glamorous time of frivolity after the terrors of the revolution and perhaps this is why Tissot decided to emulate the style.

James Tissot, Study for Young Lady in a Boat, c.1869–70. Graphite on buff wove paper, 25.3 x 24.3 cm

Tissot’s paintings are really like a dream; beautifully dressed women lazing around in splendid gardens, gliding on boats, sipping tea in warm salons whilst the children are playing hide and seek. These are people, mostly women, that seem to have everything but there is always a hint of sadness in their faces, as if despite having everything they aren’t fully happy. There’s always a sense of something missing from their lives, perhaps they feel the weight of the contraints on them, both of their corsets and of their society, maybe too much idleness brought too little to fight for or desire, maybe they don’t know what they want but just feel a certain void inside. A void that perhaps a little pug could solve.

Manet and Emile Durkheim- The Suicide

23 Nov

the best often die by their own hand
just to get away,
and those left behind
can never quite understand
why anybody
would ever want to
get away
from
them.”

(Charles Bukowski, Cause and effect)

Edouard Manet, The Suicide, 1877-81

Painting “The Suicide” is an unusual one in Manet’s oeuvre. Scenes of murder and violence do appear here and there in his paintings, for example in the paintings “The Dead Toreador” (1864), “Bullfight – The Death of the Bull” (1865-66), and “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” (1868). What makes the painting “The Suicide”, just like Degas’ painting “Interior” (1868-69), stand out is its lack of context which makes it intriguing. We don’t know who the man in the painting is, and we don’t know why he decided to kill himself, nor what led up to that moment. We are brought to this tragic scene without knowing what had happened before. We are confused, bewildered, shocked, and saddened. The closely-cropped scene shows an interior with a bed, a painting (or half the painting) hanging over the bed and some furniture. The man’s lifeless body is lying on the bed; a gun in his hand, a bloody stain on his white shirt, and the puddle of blood on the floor are visual hints at what has happened. “Different colours, different shades/ Over each mistakes were made/ I took the blame/ Directionless so plain to see/ A loaded gun won’t set you free… so you say”, the lyrics (and the music) from Joy Division’s song “New Dawn Fades” instantly comes to mind.

Some art critics thought the painting represents Manet’s assistent who had killed himself some years before the painting was painted, and others, not knowing how to interpret the painting, simply concluded that it has no meaning, that it is merely an exercise in colour and light. I am of an opinion that even if we can’t decipher the painting, interpret it and pinpoint its symbolism or meaning, it doesn’t mean the painting has no meaning. I definitely don’t think this is just a painterly exercise. When Impressionists wanted to play with colours, and with the effect of light and shadow, or simply use the left-over paint from their palettes, they painted gardens and flowers, just like Klimt did, not suicide scenes. There are many reasons why someone might commit a suicide, but this painting made me think of the sociologist Emile Durkheim’s book “Suicide: A Study in Sociology”, published in 1897, just twenty years after this painting was painted.

In the book Durkheim explains his theory that all suicides fall under four categories: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic. Looking at the time when the painting was painted, the French society at the time, and thinking of the books which I’ve read from that time period, I would say that the motif of the man’s sucide was either egoistic or anomic. The reason for egoistic suicides is that the person is overly individualised and is not connected to any social group, not tied to it by well-established social values, traditions and norms. The lack of integration leads to a state of apathy, pointlesness and melancholy, and this type of suicide, according to Durkheim, is most common in umarried men. Anomic suicide comes in times when society is in disorder and hence a lack of social direction, a lack of moral regulation is present. This leaves the person feeling unsure of where they belong or how they should act, they are carried by the wind of life in all directions, scattered, confused and lost. This type of suicide also occurs when a great change happens, whether in society or in the person’s personal life, and the person just cannot adapt to the new situation.

Now, just to mention the other two types of suicides: altruistic suicides happen in societies which are too integrated and the collective openly demands from the individual to sacrifice its individualism, its rights and freedoms, even to die for the collective (something we are sort of experiencing nowadays, this raging collectivism). And fatalistic suicide, according to Durkheim, exists only in theory, only as a concept. It is a type of suicide that happens when the society is so oppresive and has such control over the individual that the person feels as if his passions and his future are destroyed and he would rather die than live on. Durkheim may have thought this type of suicide exists only in theory, but later on dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s “1984”, or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, have shown that the types of societies that oppressive actually exist and our own times are revealing to us the same thing. Our world is indeed becoming more and more a place from which the only escape is death because all joys and freedoms are being crushed to dust. Now, I don’t know what the man in the painting was feeling or what was going on in his life, but I thought it was interesting to connect the painting’s theme with the sociological perspective on it.

Eugene Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People!

20 Nov

“When injustice becomes law, resistence becomes duty.”

(Thomas Jefferson)

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, September – December 1830

When the French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix started working on his famous masterpiece “Liberty Leading the People” in autumn of 1830 he was already a well-established painter in France and a leader of the French Romanticism. Even though this painting seems historical and monumental, it actually depicts what was in Delacroix’s time a resent, fresh and new event. On 21st October 1830, Delacroix wrote to his brother: “My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subject – a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her.” The event shown in the painting was the July Revolution of 1830 when the King Charles X (1824-1830) abdicated and the King Louis Philippe came in his place. The peace didn’t last long and in June 1832 the angry Parisian republicans, resenting the replacement of one king with another, had an uprising and, sadly, lost. This event – the June Uprising – is the main event described in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables”, published decades later, in 1862.

The most memorable figure in the painting is surely the bare-bosomed lady in a yellow dress; the figure of Liberty, also seen as Marianna, the symbol of France and the French Republic. She is holding a tricolour flag in one hand and a bayonetted musket in another. Of course, Delacroix didn’t mean to imply that an actual half-naked woman was leading the Parisian rebels, this is an allegorical representation of Liberty, or the spirit of Liberty that is inspiring people, giving them the fire to keep on fighting for what they believe to be right. White the Liberty is allegorical, the rest of the people in the painting, some dead and most alive, are real. At first sight this painting may seem chaotic, and it surely is vibrant and bursting with energy, but it is also carefully crafted and that is what gives it its ultimate power. Delacroix was an amazing painter and he knew how to translate even a scene as this one into a painting that will be astonishing even centuries later. In the foreground we see the dead rebels, the people whose lives were sacrificed at the altar of freedom, the centre is occupied by the figure of Liberty who is looking over her shoulder to make sure that the people are following her. Beside her is a young boy who is believed to have been an inspiration for the character of Gavroche in Victor Hugo’s aforementioned novel. Behind the figure of Liberty we see the angry mob arising from the big cloud of smoke, they have swords and bayonettes and they aren’t afraid to use them. Anarchy is in their blood, everyone on barricades! The rebels came from all different classes but most of them were urban workers, such as construction workers. In the right corner of the painting is a symbol of Paris – the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Delacroix presented the painting at the Salon in 1831 and it was quickly bought by the government, but quickly the political tides changed and after the June Rebellion of 1832 the painting was returned to Delacroix. It was originally meant to be displayed in the Palais du Luxembourg but the idea was discarded in fear that it might inspire people to rebel. We see the same thing happening today; the mass media is reluctant to show the protests, or it downplaying their size and importance, in fear of encouraging people to keep fighting because the battle of freedom is not lost. This is also the reason why I chose to write about this painting at this particular moment in time, as a way of expressing reverence for all those people out there, all over Europe and the world, who are defying the tyrannical measures and protesting against them. Long Live Freedom!

Eugene Delacroix – Horse Frightened by Lightning

22 Oct

Eugene Delacroix, Horse Frightened by Lightning, 1825-29, watercolour

The spirit of Romanticism is alive and intense in this wonderful and expressive watercolour by Delacroix. The simplicity of the composition contrasts the intense and dramatic mood that is conveyed. Using the combination of simple visual elements; a wild horse, a desolate landscape, and a gloomy sky with a lightning, Delacroix created a painting that encapsulated the aesthetic of the Sublime. The face expression of the horse and his pose convey his torment and fear at the sudden lightning and thunder that have appeared in the sky. He seems truly unsettled and his feelings seep into the lonely landscape around him and his fear touches the viewer too; our sympathy for the poor frightened animal mingles with the feeling of awe at the nature’s unpredictability and power. This scene seems like something I would imagine whilst reading a Gothic novel.

Delacroix inherited his love and admiration for horses from another master of French Romanticism; Theodore Gericault, who was only a few years older than Delacroix but at the time this watercolour was painted, Gericault had already been dead. But despite his short life and even shorter career his dramatic art full of feelings and dark passions set the standard for the French Romanticism. Wild and untamed, or tamed but still very beautiful, strong and awe-inspiring, horses are a motif we find often in the art of Romanticism; in Fuseli’s Nightmare, in the art of Sawrey Gilpin, Gros and Gericault. A century later Franz Marc painted vibrant and expressive paintings of horses as well. For Romanticists a horse was a symbol of something wild and unstoppable, of the fire of youth, of passion for exploration, of bravery and Delacroix chose to portray this majestic animals in numerous occasions.

In this watercolour the horse is clearly not representative of something strong and wild, but rather the opposite. Panicked and red-eyed, the horse exhibits his more emotional, vulnerable side, something one wouldn’t expect to see portrayed and this strange constrasts adds to the painting’s stunning beauty; it is not just aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but poingnant and strange all at the same time. The reason why I love this painting so much is firstly because it is a watercolour and I love watercolours, and secondly because of its simplicity, passion and expressiveness, and the colour scheme where the mystical deep shades of blue present in the sky and also as subtle touches on the horse add to the mood of the sublime. A brown colour scheme would have muted the effect of terror, strangeness and drama. Blue is the colour of the deep sea and the sky, of things infinite and mysterious. The landscape around the horse thus gets a mystical air and we might wonder whether the horse itself is but our vision or a fancy…

Henri Matisse – Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading)

13 Aug

“Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

(Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art)

Henri Matisse, Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading), 1904–05

Matisse’s girl in the painting is a quiet little girl, completely absorbed in the book that she is reading. She is seated at the table, perhaps in the dining room. We are somewhat able to decipher the space around her. A bowl of fruits at the table alongside a jug of water. Clearly it wasn’t Matisse’s intention to portray this interior scene in a realistic manner. So what was his intention; playing with colour and appealing to our senses? Perhaps. Matisse is not one of my favourite painters, but when I need my dose of colours and vibrancy I go to Fauvists and their leader Matisse just as the junkie goes to his dealer at the streetcorner. Colour truly has power to uplift us; just look at all the gorgeous, vibrant shades of yellow, red, turquoise, pink, blue and green. So much life and vivacity going on in a single canvas! It’s so childlike and unpretentious. The girl in the painting is Matisse’s ten year old daughter Marguerite who was the daughter of Matisse’s model Caroline Joblaud. Portrait of a girl reading brings to mind the many portraits of children by Renoir who was Matisse’s friend and an artist he looked up to. But in Matisse’s painting the little girl isn’t just a pretty girl in a cozy bourgeoius interior, no, it seems that the colourful patchwork interior composed of contrasting and complementing pathes of colour is actually the interior of Marguerite’s playful, imaginative mind. I imagine that, as she is reading the book, the world around her is transformed accordingly and all the magic of the words and scenes described therein suddently come to life because Marguerite has the power of imagination; she has the power to transcend the ugliness of reality, its dullness and lifelessness, and paint it in all the colours her heart desires, to make it whimsical. And clearly Matisse nurtured his inner child throughout his life, for even his collage cut-outs which he was making in his old days are totally child-like and playful. Matisse transformed the ordinary into extraordinary in this painting. A simple interior scene which might have been boring if painted realistically in shades of brown and beige, is a landscape of vivacity. The space in the painting appears flat but highly decorative and buzzing with excitement. The energy of the painting, and we cannot deny that paintings have energies that directly speak to us, is that of a child’s laughter and play, bright pink ice cream melting in a summer’s day, jumping on trampoline, ribbons, bonbons and candy-floss, the world of fairy tales and make-believe. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I gaze at this painting, I feel rejuvenated. This just might be one of my favourites by Matisse.

Pierre Bonnard – Street Scene

16 Feb

Pierre Bonnard, Street Scene, 1899, four panel screen, colour litograph

Pierre Bonnard was fascinated by the liveliness and vibrancy of Parisian streets and parks where nannies, dogs and children play in sunny spring days and he painted many such vibrant street scenes, but this “Street Scene” (also known as “Nannies Promenade, Frieze of Carriages”) is a special street scene because the common Impressionist and Post-Impressionist motif of a street scene is inspired by the Japanese art and it also exhibits the philosophy of the Nabis group that art should be present in everyday life, in everyday objects such as tapestries, fans, posters and decorative folding screens. A century and a half before Bonnard, the art of Rococo had already shown a fondness for folding screens which were painted in the spirit of chinoserie, but the artists who painted the screens were always anonymous and unimportant, but in the late nineteenth century the artists of Post-Impressionism and Nabis found a tremendous source of inspiration in Japanese art and works such as this street scene by Bonnard are a delightful mix of Post-Impressionist European art and the influence of Japan.

Bonnard, a young artist at the time, first painted the screen in distemper (pigment in glue) on canvas with carved wood frame in 1895. In 1894 in a letter to his mother he spoke about the idea for the painting: “I am working on a screen […]. It is of the Place de la Concorde with a young mother walking with her children, with nannies and dogs, and on top, as a border, a carriage rank, and all on a light beige background which is very like the Place de la Concorde when it’s dusty and looks like a miniature Sahara.” And in 1895-96 around a hundred and ten colour lithographs were made and the one you see here is one of them. Half of those lithographs were destroyed in a flood in Paris in 1940. They were sold either individually or in a set and could either be mounted on the screen and served as a decoration in the room, or they could have been framed and placed on the wall as a panting. It is beautiful to see it flat like a painting and also beautifully folded in zig zag way, each vertically enlongated screen is an artwork for itself and yet it created a scene for itself. This narrow vertical canvas is called “kakemono” in Japanese art, and the action in the painting is suppose to be read in Japanese way, from right to left.

Bonnard showed a great interest in the folding screens and the first one he created was “Women in the Garden” in 1891 but in that folding screen every part of the canvas was filled with pattern and colour. In contrast, “Street Scene” is beautifully empty and there is an intricate visual play between groups of figures and the empty space. The figures are flat and simple. The placement of figures seems spontaneous but is actually carefully planned and it looks beautiful when the screen is opened or flat. The group of figures in the foreground are a fashionably dressed mother with her two children who are playing with sticks and hoops, a game seen often in the art of the Impressionists. A little black dog is here too. In the background three almost identically dressed nannies, and a row of carriages with horses behind them.

 

Gustav Adolf Mossa – Symbolist Phase

7 Feb

“Then, O my beauty! You will say to the vermin,
Which will devour you with kisses,
That I have preserved the form and essence divine
Of my decayed loves!”

(Charles Baudelaire, Carcass)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, The Dead Women (Les Mortes), 1908

Gustav Adolfo Mossa, a French painter born in Nice in 1883 to an Italian mother and an artist father, spent his late teens and most of his twenties painting in a Symbolist style and so that first artistic period in Mossa’s oeuvre is called the “Symbolist period” and it lasted from about 1900 to 1911. Later, upon moving to Bruges, he discovered Flemish paintings and his art drifted in another direction. In his Symbolist phase Mossa created a macabre and disturbing yet vibrant world littered with femme fatales and saints, heroes and heroines from Shakespeare, and just random skeletons. Mossa was introduced to the Symbolist art at the Exposition Universelle which he visited in 1900 and after that moment all the inspiration that was mounting in his teenage soul, taken from Art Nouveau and the literary works of Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Mallarmé, suddenly flourished in these watercolours which are all so captivating and full of interesting details. I always felt drown to the spirit of Symbolism, and yet the way these ideas were manifested in the visual arts wasn’t very appealing to me. Now, in the art of Mossa, I found what I was looking for. I love how the classic, well-known themes in art are transformed by Mossa into a festival of blood, bones, lust and roses. The delicacy of watercolour mixed with somewhat gruesome or eerie themes is especially entrancing. The beauty of the Symbolist phase of Mossa’s art is that it both disturbs and bewilders the soul. In “The Dead Women” we see the faces of fashionable ladies after the vermins had devoured them with their kisses; the velvet smooth skin, the rosy cheeks are now all eaten away and the grey skull appears – what a contrast to the radiant blueness of their dresses and the elegance of their hats. Tall and dark cypress trees in the background look gloomy and foreboding, as they do in real life.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Salome, 1901

In the watercolour “Salome” the severed, bloodied heads spring from the most fragrant and delicate pink roses, Salome seductively licks the blade of the very sword which had severed them. Dressed in a loose white nightgown with one breast exposed, her pale flesh is revealed, her hand adorned with rings, not a trace of remorse colours her face.

Gustave Adolphe Mossa, Hamlet and the Skull, 1909, Black chalk, pen and ink, watercolour and gouache on paper, 46.2 x 28 cm

Hamlet, a solitary figure under a grey sky and clouds as heavy as lead, his figure is elongated like the figures in early Renaissance art, he is holding an exaggaretedly large skull in his hands, a cup next to his feet with spilt wine – or is it blood? The town is sleeping in the distance, the tower looming as a threat, hundreds of little windows are like dark empty eye sockets ready to swallow who ever dares to gander upon them for too long.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, La chasse de Sainte Ursule, date unknown

Saint Ursula standing on the shore of a river with snow-white swans next to her feet. Dozens or arrows are flying her way, ready to pierce her virginal flesh, but her face reveals not a sign of worry, it is as serene and pale as can be, her golden hair makes one think more of a fairy than of a saint; she is above it all, shielded from the arrows by her heavy robe, nothing can touch her.

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, Valse Macabre, 1906

In “Valse Macabre” the fin de siecle fascination with Eros and Thanatos are united, a skeleton and a femme fatale with fashionably voluminous hair are locked in a kiss, their bodies intertwined, the breath of the death coming from the graveyard in the distance has extinguished the tall white candles, the lady’s gaze seems to say:

It is eternity when your kiss grazes me,

My heart, my heart rises,

ah! so high that it flies away.

(Remy de Gourmont, Hieroglyphs)

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Pierrot, 1906

Pierrot is wandering the old rotting town with a dagger in his hand and a mad look in his eyes, a face of sleepless night and madness, his under eye circles darker than the dark waters of the canals in Bruges. St Sebastian looks less like a saint and more like a charming boy, his poor, tortured body is convulsing in pain from the arrows while the crow is feasting on his eyes.

 

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Sebastian Martyr, 1907

Eugène Carrière – The First Communion

17 Dec

Eugène Carrière, The First Communion, 1896

Eugène Carrière’s painting “The First Communion” is the most haunting painting of a little girl dressed for her First Communions that I have seen. Quite a few examples of this motif can be found in the late nineteenth century art, but no painting I’ve seen is this ghostly. The gentle figure of a young girl arises from the surrounding darkness. All of Carrière’s paintings have this distinct atmosphere and the figures in them seem to emerge from the brown-grey fog or a muddy swamp. The girl’s hands are clasped in her lap and she seems so sombre and wraith-like; her white formal gown and veil are transformed into a sea of greys by Carrière’s brush, as if they’re made of ashes. Usually the girls painted in their white First Communion dresses look angelic, smiling and lively, but Carrière’s portrayal of this motif instantly takes away the little girl’s angelic, innocent appeal because she seems more like a ghost than a real girl; no smile, no rosy cheeks on that face.

As I gaze at the girl’s face more, a scene from the film “The Others” (2001) comes to mind; a very devout Catholic woman (played by Nicole Kidman) lives alone in a lonely, forgotten mansion surrounded with constant fog with her two children and servants, desperately awaiting her husband’s return from the war. In one scene she lets her daughter try on the new snow-white dress and veil for her First Communion. The mother leaves the room for awhile and when she returns, she finds her daughter playing with a doll, but her face isn’t her own: it’s a horrible and frightening face of an old woman. Of course, it was only an illusion, but Carrière’s girl seem to me capable of transforming into something else, it isn’t static and final in my eyes, it moves and changes; I can imagine the girl’s dress changing from perfectly white to this shade of grey; I can imagine her eyes losing shine and her face loosing form; this is but one state of melancholy decay, she will sink even more into the darkness that surrounds her.

In all of Carrière’s paintings, I feel like his figures are transitioning from the palpable, material world to a mystical, airy one, their forms are distilling, they are fading away… Odilon Redon, a fellow Symbolist artist who used colour and shapes very differently though, wrote this of Carrière’s art: “…opaque limbos where pale, morbidly human faces float like seaweed: that is Carrière’s painting. It does not have the flavor of solid reality, but remains in the muted regions of the first elaboration, which are favorable to visions, and never appears or flowers in the shining brightness of the solar prism.” My view of Carrière’s paintings varies from day to day, from painting to painting; sometimes the haunting and ghostly mood of his portraits really captivates me, and other times, his colour palette is devastatingly depressing and monotonous. Carrière’s dislike, or mistrust, of colour is truly remarkable. I really love this painting “The First Communion” because of its motif really, but some of his other paintings tend to drain me due to their lack of vibrant colour. And now, here are some other examples of the same motif but in a very different mood and style. With their white gowns and veils, the First Communion girls look like little brides.

Sir John Lavery, Eileen, Her First Communion, 1901

Elizabeth Nourse, The First Communion (La Première communion), 1895

Henri Martin, First Communion, 1891

Jules Bastien-Lepage, First Communion, 1875

Carl Frithjof Smith, After first Communion, 1892

Emile Claus, First Communion, 1893

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: Mademoiselle Rivière

6 Oct

I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.”

(Baudelaire)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière, 1806

By the time this portrait of Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière was finished, she had already ceased to be. Some say it was soon after the portrait was finished, but nonetheless Mademoiselle Caroline was of tender age when this portrait was painted, just blooming into womanhood; in her white muslin gown she reminds me of a tender white autumnal rose killed by the first frost. Her youth, paleness and delicacy would have surely inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write his tales of death and romance. Caroline’s eyes are dark and clear and she is gazing directly at us. But still a certain shyness has coloured her cheeks in a soft pink shade. Her slightly elongated neck looks swan-like. Her figure stands out sharply against the serene landscape behind her, painted in muted tones. Even though the landscape shows nature in spring, the gentle greenness show the awakening of nature, Caroline herself possesses the eerie calmness and stillness of a winter landscape of frost and whiteness. The river in the landscape is meandering steadily and the flow of water can remind us of the flow of time and transience. The thinness and fragility of her white muslin gown, easy to tear and easy to decay in the grave, are contrasted with the strong mustard yellow colour of her gloves and the sensuous white fur. All this is suggestive of Caroline, whom the young painter called “the ravishing daughter”, blooming like a flower into womanhood, and yet this solemn coldness around her speaks of other things. And can we blame Ingres’ for being so captivated with Caroline? The painter was in his early twenties and why should he not feats his eyes on this delicate object of his painting. Caroline’s paleness and stillness of her pose is reminiscent of some older portraits, such as Parmigianino’s painting “Portrait of a Young Woman” (“Antea”) and this “Gothic”; slightly static and elongated portrayal of Caroline’s figure has also drawn comparisons to the art of Jan van Eyck and also to Piero di Cosimo’s portrait of Simonetta Vespucci who is painted with a snake wrapped around her. In the age of Neo-Classicism, the young Ingres received negative criticism for this style because Gothic revival wasn’t in style yet, but looking from our perspective today we know that this was just the beginning of Ingres’ success in the world of portraits.

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!?