Tag Archives: French painter

Eugène Delacroix – Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard

13 Oct

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839, Oil on canvas, 29,5 x 36 cm

Eugene Delacroix’s temperament, lifestyle and interests made him the perfect Romantic artist. Delacroix travelled to hot, vibrant, exotic places such as Morrocco, but he also travelled in his imagination to the romantic and alluring, dark and dramatic past eras. He was also an avid reader; words of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and others fed his soul and fired his imagination. His ardent love of literature came with a knack for illustrating the scenes that he was reading about, he was prolific at it, and he was great at it. A theme that he found himself returning to often throughout the years was Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and especially the scene where Hamlet and Horatio are at the graveyard. Delacroix made different litographs and watercolours of the scene, but his most well-known depiction of the scene is the painting from 1839. The scene shows four figures; Horatio and Hamlet standing by the grave and two gravediggers digging the grave for Ophelia who had recently perished. This is a rather morbid, depressive chore but the gravediggers are so used to it that they are unphased. They are capable of digging a hole and talking about decomposing bodies and death as if they are exchanging recepies over tea. This makes it almost grotesque, but for Hamlet the discovery of the skull of Yorick leads to deeper thoughts, pensiveness and introspection; how transient and meaningless life is, how it passes and means nothing, how every corpse here on the graveyard was once a person with wishes, yearnings, loves. The personalities of gravediggers and Hamlet could not be more different. Here is an excerpt from their dialogue from Act V, Scene I:

Gravedigger: This skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years.
Hamlet: Whose was it?
Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet: This?
Gravedigger: E’en that.
Hamlet: Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, watercolour, 1827-28

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet Contemplating Yorick’s Skull, litograph, 1828

In his litographs Delacroix had depicted the scene with more details, in composition and in the clothes of the figures, everything feels more ornate and Baroque-like. The painting is stripped of all unnecessary details and ornaments. Only four figures set against a distant landscape and the stormy sky with dark clouds. This allowed Delacroix to place his focus on the analysis of the characters and the drama that is going on in the scene. The bare-chested gravedigger holding a skull is quite a sight, but all eyes are on Hamlet. Delacroix saw him through the lenses of Romanticism and he depicted him as a pale, melancholy, frail and gentle looking man dressed in black. His pale and small, almost feminine looking hands, stand out against the darkness of his clothes. His hair is flying in the wind and the stormy clouds seem to echo the stormy state of his soul. Pale and withered, in a pensive mood, reflecting on matters of life and death, and anticipating the burial of Ophelia, Hamlet is like a frail lily-flower just plucked from the ground. The watercolour version of the scene shows an equally frail, melancholy Hamlet and the whole mood is lyrical and wistful in a way that can only be accomplished with the medium of the watercolour.

Greuze and Diderot – Innocence Lost

27 Jun

My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her.

(Diderot)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird, 1765

It is no secret that I have a soft spot in my heart for the wistful, pale, delicate and gentle ingénues that inhabit the canvases of Jean-Baptist Greuze. This eighteenth century painter is often overlooked and misunderstood, his paintings are often brushed off as sentimental and silly which is not true. Although, ironically, these paintings are the embodiment of the spirit that swept Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century: the Sentimetalism; a movement that emphasises the emotional appeal of art over cold reason and logic. Greuze’s girls have a way of moving the viewer and making him sympathise with their sorrow. In some paintings, the girl’s eyes are large and turned upwards, expressing sorrow and yearning, and other times, their face expressions are almost blank, and they captivate the viewer because we want to know the secret behind their face expression. The sweet oval face of the girl with a broken pitcher seems expressionless, and yet the aura around her is tinged with melancholy.

One such viewer who was very moved by a particular Greuze’s painting was the writer, philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot, who, I must add, also wrote the wonderful novel “The Nun”. On the salon of 1765, Diderot saw Greuze’s painting “The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird”; an oval portrait of a girl lamenting the death of her beloved little bird. The girl is dressed in white, as Greuze’s girls usually are. The life of the pretty white bird surrounded by blue flowers is gone – never to be returned. Still, the subject of a painting isn’t as simple as it seems at first sight. It isn’t just about the dead bird, just as it is not about the broken eggs and broken mirrors and broken pitchers; these are the motives that you will see in the paintings bellow. Different motives here serve as metaphors that the viewers of the time surely understood. Diderot and some other critics saw these paintings as symbolic representations of the loss of innocence; a motif which had a great appeal to the buyers and collectors at the time. I can just imagine one of these girls as Marquis de Sade’s Justine, naive and easily exploited and abandoned, just like the girl in the painting “The Complaint of the Watch”; I already wrote a post about that painting which you can read here.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Dead Bird, 1800

Diderot, who was a friend of Greuze and loved his art, wrote a lenghtly monologue about the girl and the dead bird in his critic of the Salon of 1765 and here is what he wrote:

When one sees this piece, one says: Delightful! If one stops, or that one returns, one says Delightful! delightful! Soon one is surprised to find oneself speaking to the child, consoling her. This is so true that this is what I remember saying to her at dif-ferent times. “But my little one, your pain is very deep and thoughtful! What does this dreamy sadness mean! What! For a bird! You aren’t crying, you are deeply wounded; and the thoughts carry your wounds. There my little friend, open your heart, open up your heart to me; tell me the truth, is it really the death of this bird that forces you to retreat into yourself? You’ve lowered your eyes; you’re not answering me. Your tears are ready to flow. I am not a father; I am neither indiscreet nor punishing… Ah! So, I realize that he loved you, he swore his love to you and he swore it a long time ago. He suffered a great deal: the way to see suffering of those we love… Let me continue; why are you closing my mouth with your hand? … Unfortunately, that morning your mother was absent. He came; you were alone; he was so handsome, so passionate, so tender, so charming! He had so much love in his eyes! So much truth in his expressions! He spoke those words that go straight to the heart! And while saying them, he was on his knees: I can still believe it. He held one of your hands; from time to time you felt the warmth of some tears which fell from your eyes and which ran the length of your arms.

Greuze, The Complaint of the Watch, 1770

Still your mother did not return. It is not your fault; it your mother’s fault… He doesn’t want your pretty tears… But what I am saying to you is not to make you cry. Why are you crying? He made you a promise; he will not allow anything to happen to what he promised you. When one has been given the happiness to meet a charming child like you, and become one, so as to please him; it is for life…- and my bird?…- You smile”. (Oh! My friend, how pretty she is! Oh if you only could have seen how she laughed and cried!). I went on. “So! As for your bird! When one loses oneself, does one remember one’s bird? When it came time for your mother to return, the one you loved left. How happy he was, contented, and transported; how difficult it was for him to tear himself away from you! How you stare at me! I know all this. How many times he stood to leave and sat down again! How many times he said goodbye without leaving. How many times did he go only to return! I just saw him at his father’s: he is overwhelmingly happy, a happiness in which everyone participates, without putting up any resistance….”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Broken Eggs, 1756

“And my mother? – Your mother? He had just left when she returned; she found you entranced, as you were a little while ago. One is always that way. Your mother was speaking to you, and you were not listening to what she was saying; she told you to do one thing and you did another. A few tears welled in the corners of your eyes; or you held them back, or you turned your head away to wipe them away furtively. Your unending daydreams made your mother impatient, and she scolded you and that gave you the opportunity to cry without restraint and to relieve your heart… Shall I continue, my dear? I fear that what I will say will continue your pain. You want me to? Your mother was upset with herself for making you unhappy; she came to you and took your hands, she kissed your forehead and cheeks, and you cried even more.”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Head of a Young Woman, c 1780s

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Mirror, 1763

“Your head fell onto her and your face which continued to blush, there just as it is doing now, was hidden in hers. How many calming things your mother said to you, and how much these kind words hurt! Furthermore your canary wanted to screech, to warn you, to call you, to bat its wings, to complain of your forgetfulness, you didn’t see him, you didn’t hear him; you were thinking other thoughts. His water or feed went unfilled and this morning the bird was no more… You are still staring at me; is there anything left for me to say? Oh, I hear, my sweet thing; that bird, it is he who gave him to you; oh well, he will find another just as beautiful… That is not all: your eyes are fixed on me, and are filling again with tears; what else is there? Speak I can’t guess…- What insanity. Don’t worry about anything, my poor girl; it can’t be; it won’t be!”

Greuze, The Broken Pitcher, 1771

What! My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her. In spite of that, it will not displease me to be the cause of her pain.The subject of this poem is so refined, that many have not heard it; they thought that this young girl was crying because of the canary. Greuze has already painted the same subject; he had placed a tall girl in white satin in front of a cracked mirror who appeared deeply saddened. Do you think that there will be as much gossip spoken about the young girl and her tears at the loss of a bird, than the sadness of the girl in the broken mirror in the last Salon? I am telling you that this child is crying over a different cause. First, you heard her, she agrees and her thoughtful pain says the rest. This pain! At her age and for a bird…

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.