Tag Archives: French Art

Rainy Day Scenes in Art: Renoir, Prendergast, Constable, Bonnard, Childe Hassam, Henri Riviere

16 Sep

“My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the moldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.”

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Rainy Day)

Maurice Prendergast, Ladies in the Rain, 1894

In this post I wanted to make a little selection of some lovely rainy day scenes in art, mostly from the nineteenth and early twentieth century art. The first painting of my selection is a dazzling watercolour by the American painter Maurice Prendergast which shows two ladies strolling in the rain. The watercolour has a distinct vertically elongated shape which gives the painting a touch of Japonisme and this shape fits the scene perfectly because it provides space for the two figures of the ladies descending small stairs in some park and for a tree in the background. The colour of their dresses fits the overall mood of the rainy day and yet Prendergast manages to make even the dark blues, black and greys so fun and exciting.

John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-28), oil on paper

Constable’s seascape study “Rainstorm Over the Sea” painted between 1824 and 1828 is a long time favourite of mine. It shows a beach in Brighton in rainy, stormy weather. I love how dramatic and spontaneous the painted clouds are, so mad and so full of rain, ready to pour down all over the beach pebbles and the sea. Interestingly, the sea takes up little space on the canvas while the sky dominates the scene and rightfully so because that is where the sublime moment of nature, the rainstorm, is occuring.

 

Childe Hassam, Rainy Midnight, 1890

Again we have Childe Hassam who seems to have enjoying portraying rain scenes in urban environment, as you may have seen in my last post about his gorgeous watercolour “Nocturne, Railways Crossing, Chicago” (1893). The streetscene is a blurry harmony of blues from the rain and pale yellow of the streetlamps and the only motif here is a carriage by the side of the road; is it waiting for a rich party-goer to leave the party at midnight, or is it already carrying their drunken passangers home after a ball or a theatre evening? Whatever the situation, Hassam creates a stunning play or blues and yellow and paints the excitement of the night life in a big city, even in rainy weather.

Henri Riviere, Funeral Under Umbrellas, 1895, etching

I already wrote a long post about this etching here. In short, what I love about this etching is its strong influence of the Japanese ukiyo-e prints which reveals itself in the diagonal composition, the flatness of the figures and the way the rain, carried by the strong wind, is painted in many thin lines that indicate the direction of it.

Childe Hassam, A Rainy Day in New York City, c 1890s

Another painting by Hassam! “A Rainy Day in New York City” shows an elegant lady dressed in a yellow-beige gown rushing home because of the rain. She has an umbrella, but still she must lift her dress to avoid the puddles. And how will the damp weather affect her hairstyle, ahh…. so many troubles! Her little black boots are stepping on the pavement glistening in blues, yellow and oranges, the puddles reflecting the big city lights. Again, we have the vertically shaped canvas and the figure of the woman is cut-off a little bit, both reveal the influence of Japonisme.

Pierre-August Renoir, Umbrellas, 1883

Renoir’s painting “Umbrellas” always brings to mind the video of the song “Motorcycle Emptiness” by the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers. The video was short in Tokyo in 1992 and in many scenes people are seen walking down the street in the rain, many colourful umbrellas filling the horizon. For some reason, Renoir’s street scene, almost cluttered with umbrellas, not so colourful though but mostly blue and black, always brings to mind that video and the music which matches the sadness of the rain.

Childe Hassam, Rainy Day, 1890

Another fun rainy day scene by the American painter Childe Hassam called simply “Rainy Day”, painted in 1890. The effect of rain is beautifully captured here and the composition is very interesting. The house on the right is visible, but the church with its tall tower in the background on the left is shrouded in the mist. People are rushing down the street, eager to get home fast and escape the rain, notably the two figures of ladies with their umbrellas, which remind me of the ladies in Prendergast’s watercolour.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Rue Tholozé (Montmartre in the Rain), 1897

Bonnard’s painting “Montmartre in Rain”, painted at the very end of the nineteenth century, shows a different view of the rain. Here the rain is seen through the window, and it isn’t a grey and dreary rendition of the rain scene but rather the scene shows the beauty of a rainy night when the yellow light of the lanterns is reflected in the wet pavements dotted with puddles. Black figures with black umbrellas are strolling around and everything is lively and magical.

Otto Pippel (German, 1878-1960), Street in rainy weather, Dresden, 1928

German painter Otto Pippel shows us a chaotic rainy day scene in his painting “Street in Rainy Weather, Dresden”, painted in 1928. At first sight the painting is a mess of greys and blues because Pippel painted the scene as if it was seen though a window covered in rain drops and this is really interesting. Everything; buildings, streets, street lamps and people, are painted in a blurry, vague manner.

Sir Muirhead Bone, Rainy Night in Rome, 1913, drypoint

Sir Muirhead Bone’s drypoint “Rainy Night in Rome”, painted in 1913, shows the people leaving the church, I assume after the evening mass. There are rushing with their umbrellas and there is even a carriage waiting for someone too rich to experience a walk in rain. The vertical form of the drypoint where the upper half show the sky and the church and the bottom part shows the church entrance, the street and the people, is great because it shows the flow of the rain, painted in vertical lines.

Felix Vallotton – Yellow and Green Sunset – 800th Post!

12 Jun

“A sunset so beautiful that the rest of your life will seem anticlimactic.”

(Disenchantment, S1 E2 )

Felix Vallotton, Yellow and Green Sunset (Coucher de soleil jaune et vert) 1911

The vibrant colours of Felix Vallotton’s painting “Yellow and Green Sunset” from 1911 immediately spoke to me. I am just mesmerised by these rich lavender, yellow and turqouise shades! How dreamy is this purple!? How vivacious and magical this yellow!? This painting is surely one of the most magical depictions of a sunset that I have seen in art. The motif of the painting, that of a beach in the sunset of the day with two small human figures walking by, brings to mind the beautiful and melancholy landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, but the mood and the colours that Vallotton here uses are completely different. Whereas Friedrich would have been subtle and paid attention to shades and tones of colours, Vallotton paints almost as if he trew a bucket of purple, yellow, blue and green onto the canvas. The intense, almost garish colours cover huge portions of the paintings and it is a delight for the eye. The painting is almost made of different horizontal stripes of colour; from the sky to the sea to the beach, but if one looks more closely, one will notice the details such as the purple sky that is made out of pink lines, or the rocks on the beach in the shallow water, colored gold by the light of the fading sun. A few days ago I was sitting by the river and I wittnessed a sunset very similar to the one portrayed in this painting and this connection is something that I cherish. Also, this is my 800th post and I decided to write about this painting because it holds a special meaning for me now. The quote in the beginning of the post comes from the second episode of the first season of the show Disenchantment where the main character Bean and her friends Elfo and Luci are on the Party Barge and the sailor makes a comment on the sunset, that it is “(sunset) so beautiful that the rest of your life will seem anticlimactic,” and for some reason this line stuck with me… The sunset I had seen the other day was indeed mesmerising and its colours were so strong that I felt them impressing themselves upon my soul, the yellow of the sun tastes like sweet mellon… but I do hope the rest of my life will not be anticlimactic now, hehe.

Voyage of Delights: Fragonard – Alcine Finds Ruggiero in His Chamber

26 May

“….now that nothing restrains
his ardor he gathers her into his arms to begin
their voyage of delights.”

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Alcine finds Roger in his bedroom, c. 1780, black stone and brown sepia wash, 38,5 x 23,5

I discovered Fragonard’s drawing “Alcine finds Ruggiero in his bedroom” a few months ago and was instantly smitten by it. And now every time I see it again, I find myself overwhelmed by delight. I just love it! I think it is now, if not the favourite, then at least one of the favourite works by Fragonard. Both the style and the theme appeal to my tastes. The drawing shows lovers in an embrace and the background indicated that the setting is – appropriately – the bedroom. Motif of lovers in the privacy of their chamber, giving kisses freely or stealing them, is something we stumble upon often in Fragonard’s work; “The Stolen Kiss” (1788), “The Useless Resistance” (1764-68), “The Lock” (1777), “The Stolen Kiss” (1769), just to name a few. So, the motif of lovers isn’t something new, neither in art in general, nor in Fragonard’s art specifically. Then what is it that appeals to me so strongly about this particular drawing? Ahh… where to start…

Firstly, let us delve into the literary inspiration behind the drawing; the Italian epic poem “Orlando Furioso” written by Ludovico Ariosto and published in its complete form in 1532. Fragonard enjoyed creating works inspired by literature and he made 179 sheets of drawings for the poem “Orlando Furioso” around 1780. The drawing above is just one of those sheets and it shows one scene from Canto VII where Ruggiero succumbs to the love charms of the sorceress Alcine on her love island. The poem described him waiting anxiously in his chamber for Alcine while she, in her chamber, is slowly getting ready for their love union. She knows that in the other chamber Ruggiero is burning with passion for her, but she also knows that that is the part of the thrill of love; waiting will only intensify their “voyage of pleasure”, as the poem says. We must bear in mind that Alcine is a witch of sorts and that Ruggiero is under her spell, so perhaps these kisses are stolen too? Nevertheless, here is the scene as it is described in the poem:

…he leaps from the bed, and now that nothing restrains
his ardor he gathers her into his arms to begin
their voyage of delights. Nothing remains
but for Alcina to take off all that pretty
lace and silk. to tear it would be a pity.

she has neither robe nor petticoat but merely
a filmy peignoir over a filmier gown
so that Ruggiero is able to see clearly
what he has only imagined. he can drown
in loveliness such as this (or very nearly).
he has long ago removed his own
garments, and, as ivy clings to a tree,
they cling to one another and try to be

a single being, straining to touch and taste
such spices and perfumes as do not grow
in india or Arabia’s sandy waste.
who but the two of them can tell of so
sweet an encounter? there, as they embraced,
neither of them could with certainty know
whose tongue was in whose mouth…

(translated by David R. Slavitt)

Isn’t this a perfectly romantic and libertine scene for Fragonard to capture? His drawing has that wonderful, flowing, almost sketchy style which, in my view, perfectly matches the mood of the scene and the motif in question. It makes it seem as if the artist was there, hiding behind the curtain, witnessing the sweet-as-honey moments of lovers’ delights, and capturing the scene immediately with his pencil. The drawing has immediacy and spontaneity; we can imagine that the very next moment the lovers would be in another position; their kisses would fall too fast for Fragonard or any artist to capture. The lines are confident, energetic and expressive; faint and subtle in some places, fading like a movement in a composition, and strong, bold and loud like a bang in other. Their wild passion of the lines matches the palpable passion that can be felt between Ruggiero and Alcine. Still, there is so much tenderness present in the drawing too. Fragonard perfectly balances the two; passion and delicacy.

Ruggiero is sitting on the bed, ecstatic that Alcine has finally arrived to his chamber. He is embracing her sweet body with eagerness, his arms wrapped around her waist, going down… His eyes, although mere dots of colour, have a lovelorn look in them as he gazes up towards her and she, in turn, is gazing down at him. Her beautiful bosom is exposed and her wavy hair is loose and free. In this drawing you can really feel the lines described in the poem: “she has neither robe nor petticoat but merely/ a filmy peignoir over a filmier gown/ so that ruggiero is able to see clearly/ what he has only imagined. he can drown/ in loveliness such as this”. Behind them we see only the contours of the bed and pillows; detailed enough to suggest the setting but it is obvious that Fragonard’s focus was on other things. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about this drawing is its universal language of love; even if we didn’t know the literary background of the drawing, and if we didn’t know the lovers are Alcine and Ruggiero, the drawing would still speak the same language spoken by Klimt’s golden lovers in a kiss, Chagall’s flying blue lovers, and Brancusi’s statue “The Kiss”. The utmost loveliness of this drawing comes from its simplicity and spontaneity, and its expressive and untamed portrayal of love.

Eugene Grasset – Young Girl in the Garden

12 May

“Let it pass; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.”

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Sensible Thing)

Eugene Grasset, Young Girl in the Garden, date unknown, watercolour

I recently stumbled upon this gorgeous watercolour by a Swiss turn of the century decorative artist Eugene Grasset (1845-1917) and I was instantly captivated by its lyrical beauty and the ever so slight tinge of melancholy seen in the girl’s downward gaze and the setting sun in the distance, a sense of finality and regrets.

A young brunette in a garden of orange and green tones is casting her gaze down to the pond. She is deep in her thoughts. Spring is passing and the sunset song of the birds speaks of warm summer days which are soon to come; heavy with heat and rich scents of awakened flowers. The lush, elegant garden with its marble staircases and statues brings to mind John Singer Sargent’s vibrant watercolours of the gardens of the Italian villas painted around the same time as Grasset’s watercolour or a little later. The figure of the girl, and the scenery around her and behind her, work in a beautiful harmony; our eye is not distracted by the natural setting of a garden, but the scenery isn’t too simplistic either. Just notice and admire the details on the trees in the background; how lively and wild their branches that stretch towards the heavy orange sunset clouds! With its cascade of statues and flower bushes the scene of a garden acquires a depth which makes the scene more realistic. The girl’s appearance seems to belong to two different ages; at first glance she is the turn of the century young lady, with her dress with slightly puff sleeves and her flowing hair, but also her attire makes her look like a princess from some distant time, from some far-away, enchanted land… Time has stopped; the garish orange sun is captured in its flight, but the tender breeze caressing the trees whispers of changes that are to come. The rosebud of spring is blooming into a summer rose and in this painful transience some things must be left behind. What could I have done differently, or, how fast have the spring days gone by, the young girl seems to be asking herself, in the sunset of a beautiful warm day.

Motives of girls and flowers are common in the art of the La Belle Epoque and indeed, Grasset’s own oeuvre is littered with illustrations that feature a figure of a beautiful girl in a natural setting. Usually, in those kinds of illustrations, everything is so decorative and flowery that it might be hard to tell which is the flower and which – the woman. Visually, this watercolour fits into the same type of paintings, but its mood is more lyrical and it conveys more emotions. It is not emotionally flat and merely decorative, and that is what kept luring me to this watercolour. It speaks to my soul, for sure.

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.