Tag Archives: George Frederick Watts

Paolo and Francesca: The Passion of Lovers is for Death

15 Nov

“The passion of lovers is for death said she
Licked her lips
And turned to feather”

(Bauhaus, The Passion of Lovers)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca, 1819

Kisses

It is easy to envelop the distant, mythical past in many veils of dreams and poetry. Romantics loved romanticising and the subject of doomed thirteen century lovers which charmingly unites the themes of love and death, was a perfect fuel for the artists’ fantasies from Ingres all up to now probably. Even the embraced couple, carved in splendid white marble, in Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss” shows Paolo and Francesco, though the title of the work wouldn’t reveal it instantly. Different artists chose to portray different moment in Paolo and Francesca’s doomed love life; some portrayed them as innocent love bird sharing a coy kiss or two, others painted them in the moment of their deaths, and some focused on their buzzing afterlife in Inferno.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is considered a Classicist and still elements of Romanticism, both stylistically and thematically, often pop up in his work; from the vibrant exoticism of his harem ladies and dark archaic touch of the Northern art in some of his portraits, to his portrayal of Medieval lovers caught in their forbidden earthly love. In his painting from 1819, he presented the two lovers enjoying each others company in a small elongated chamber the walls of which are covered in wood panels which makes the room resemble a box, perhaps suggesting the oppressive environment of their household. Francesca is painted in archaic robes and resembles a character from a painting of Northern Renaissance. Paolo, in his tights and a sword, is kissing her cheek as she turns her oval face away from him. As the old saying goes: “Two is a company, three is none”; the seeming peace of their love is interrupted by a figure in the background. It’s Giovanni, slowly drawing the curtain away only to see a shocking sight. The scene all together resembles a theatre scene and the narrative aspect is very strong, Ingres is leading us thought the story with little details and gestures. The very moment Giovanni is about to raise his sword, Francesca’s book is caught in its fall to the ground.

William Dyce, Francesca da Rimini, 1837

Francesca was born in 1255 in Ravenna, her father was the lord of Ravenna; an Italian town on the Adriatic coast with a strong Byzantine influence, and the last place to be the centre of Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Around the age of twenty she married Giovanni Malatesta, the wealthy yet crippled lord of Rimini, sometimes also known as “Gianciotto” or “Giovanni the Lame”. Similarly to the story of Tristan and Isolde, Francesca wasn’t in love with Giovanni, it was just an arranged marriage after all, but her eyes soon took notice of Giovanni dashing younger brother Paolo. Gaze turned into a conversation, and words into kisses and caresses… Paolo was also married, and yet the two managed to keep their love a secret for ten years. William Dyce portrayed the couple as sitting on a balcony; Francesca is reading a book while Paolo is rushing to kiss her. Behind them is a serene verdant landscape, the moon shines in the right corner, and next to Francesca’s feet is an instrument, I am guessing, a lute which might add a sensuous touch to the scene. The scene is all together a bit too sentimental. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, hailing from Italy himself and an ardent admirer of Dante’s poetry and his life, envisaged the scene differently. In his watercolour, he portrays the couple as sitting in a chamber; pink roses are blooming, fresh air is coming in through the window, and, distracted from whatever they were reading, the couple share a passionate kiss. The book, half on his lap and half on hers, is about to fall down on the thorns of some more pink roses.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1867, watercolour

Death

The secret kisses turned out to be not so secret after all, for one day, around 1285, Giovanni caught them off guard, in Francesca’s bedroom. His blood fueled from rage and jealousy, and without much thinking Giovanni yielded the sword and deprived them both of life. Well, unfortunately, it wasn’t so dramatic in reality. What really happened was that Giovanni had heard some rumours about his wife cheating on him, and he rushed to her chamber. Francesca let him in because she was certain that Paolo had managed to escape through the window, but what she didn’t know was the he got stuck. Giovanni then tried to kill his brother, but Francesca tried to defend him, and was killed instead. Giovanni then proceeded to kill Paolo as well. Later they were buried in a single tomb; how devastatingly romantic is that!?

Alexandre Cabanel, The death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1870

Alexandre Cabanel was a French Academic painter and the way he envisaged the scene of Paolo and Francesca’s death is very theatrical. They are both dressed in splendid clothes, their pale faces are full of pathos, their gestures tell a story of their agony. Francesca is lying on something which looks more like a sarcophagus than a bed, and the ornamental marble floor further emphases the mood of coldness and death. Meanwhile, Giovanni is checking behind the curtain one more time to be sure they are indeed dead. Previati portrayed the scene of their death in a very dramatic way, using an elongated canvas and focusing on the figures themselves and not so much on the interior. Our eyes are focused on the bodies and the agony and pain of their sudden death. The painting is striking; there is still a sword in Paolo’s back, and his arm is limp, and Francesca’s hand is on her chest while her mouth are still slightly open as if she’s still catching her breath.

Gaetano Previati, Paolo e Francesca, ca. 1887

Wind of Passion

Death is no the end, as Nick Cave says in one of his songs. Almost a thousand years had passed from their deaths, but Paolo and Francesca are still embraced and carried away by the wind of passion. It is almost hard to imagine that before their eternity of damnation they were of mortal flesh just as we are now. Dante shows both disapproval of their life choices and a sympathy when he finally meets them in Inferno. I am thinking: wow, what a way to spend eternity! Being carried by the wind, safe in the arms of the one you love. Sounds like heaven, not hell.

George Frederic Watts, Paolo et Francesca, 1872-75

When Dante met Paolo and Francesca in Hell, this is what he said:

And I began: “Thine agonies, Francesca,
Sad and compassionate to weeping make me.
But tell me, at the time of those sweet sighs,
By what and in what manner Love conceded,
That you should know your dubious desires?”

And Francesca responds:

And she to me: “There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.
But, if to recognise the earliest root
Of love in us thou hast so great desire,
I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.
One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.
Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o’ercame us.
When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.

William Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

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‘Found Drowned’ by George Frederick Watts

19 Dec

One more Unfortunate
Weary of breath
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!‘ (The Bridge of Sighs, by Thomas Hood, 1844)

1850. Found Drowned is an oil painting - George Frederic WattsFound Drowned, George Frederic Watts, 1850

Painting Found Drowned was painted in c. 1850 by the famous Victorian painter George Frederic Watts, who is usually associated with the Symbolist movement. In this case however, he employed his talents in social realism genre. The painting depicts the dead body of a woman washed up beneath the arch of Waterloo Bridge, her body still immersed in the cold, dirty water of the River Thames. She is presumed to have drowned after throwing herself in the river in despair, trying to get away from the stigma of ‘fallen woman’: a term used in Victorian era to describe women who had lost their innocence. The painting was inspired by Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs‘, published in 1844. The poem tells a story of an anonymous young woman, desperate and abandoned by her lover, pregnant and thrown out of her home, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

In the foreground we see her dead body, her torso and arms in the shape of a cross. The simplicity of her orange-coloured gown suggests that she belonged to the lower class, perhaps she was a servant. Some parts of the poem directly describe her appearance: ‘Look at her garments/Clingling like cerements; /Whilsts the wave constantly/drips from her clothing…‘ and ‘Loop up her tresses/Escaped from the comb,/Her fair auburn tresses…‘ and ‘And her eyes, close them,/Staring so blindly.‘ As a contrast, the background is painted in dark shades of blue and grey, portraying the gloomy London night sky and industrial cityscape. City sleeps, and so do the people, in their quiet and cozy homes, sitting by the fireplace; chatting or reading. Questions arise: Will she be missed? Will anyone even notice that she’s gone? What will they say when they find her body in the morning? Will anyone’s heart be filled with regret? And yet there’s a star in the sky, could there be hope? Hardly, I’d say.

1859. found - Dante Gabriel RossettiFound, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859

Subject of ‘fallen women’ was particularly popular in Victorian art and literature, and, I’d have to say it’s a rather compelling subject to write about. As you will see later, many artists such as John Everett Millais, Augustus Egg, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Richard Redgrave decided to portray the sad and hopeless circumstances that tormented those fallen women after their innocence was lost. As expected, moral authority was almost always limited to women, nobody questioned the chastity of men. This is just one of many hypocrisies of Victorian society.

Fallen” was therefore an umbrella term that was applied to a variety of women in a variety of settings: she may have been a woman who had had sex once or habitually outside the confines of marriage; a woman of a lower socio-economic class; a woman who had been raped or seduced by a male aggressor; a woman with a shady reputation; or a prostitute. Furthermore, prostitution was defined in a range of ways and the “reality was that hard economic times meant that for many women, prostitution was the only way to make ends meet. Many … were only transient fallen women, moving in and out of the profession [of prostitution] as family finances dictated.’(*)

Rossetti’s painting ‘Found’ (unfinished) was inspired by fallen women, and he also wrote a poem on that subject:

There is a budding morrow in midnight:’ –
So sang our Keats, our English nightingale.
And here, as lamps across the bridge turn pale
In London’s smokeless resurrection-light,
Dark breaks to dawn. But o’er the deadly blight
Of love deflowered and sorrow of none avail,
Which makes this man gasp and this woman quail,
Can day from darkness ever again take flight?

Ah! gave not these two hearts their mutual pledge,
Under one mantle sheltered ‘neath the hedge
In gloaming courtship? And, O God! today
He only knows he holds her; – but what part
Can life now take? She cries in her locked heart,-
‘Leave me – I do not know you – go away!’

Picture 920The Bridge of Sighs, Sir John Everett Millais, 1858

Millais’ etching truly captured the alienation of the individual in the big city, a sense of hopelessness, while the question of ‘what shall I do next?’ lingers in her mind. Even though its colourless, it holds a certain warmth and vividness; city lights and the bridge seem so lively, the river glitters. Woman’s weary body is tightly wrapped in a shawl, her eyes tired, her face gloomy. A feeling of destitute pervades the atmosphere. She reminds me of Lou Reed’s Femme Fatale: ‘Where shall she go, what shall she do…’ There is no turning back, and yet the future brings nothing but uncertainty. A chance of finding a decent job was unlikely. Fantine, a character from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, is a good example of the poor treatment of fallen women. She was left with a small child, Cosette, after her lover abandoned her. Initially she worked in the factory, but lost her job after everyone found out she is an unwed mother.

For me, Millais’ visual interpretation of Hood’s poem really captured these verses:

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery
Swift to be hurl’d–
Any where, any where
Out of the world!

1879. George Elgar Hicks, On the Seashore,1879George Elgar Hicks, On the Seashore, 1879

The lady above is undoubtedly facing completely different problems and dilemmas than the unfortunate woman in Millais’ etching or Hood’s poem. Her gown is black, but opulent, her hair lush and restless, her gaze wistful. All together she seems groomed and proper, on her face life has not yet left any traces of sadness and disappointment, everything awaits her, unlike Millais’ heroine who was forced to encounter the ‘real world’.

Augustus Egg’s triptych ‘Past and Present’, 1858, shows the downfall of a bourgeois family, the effects of adultery not only for the ‘guilty’ woman but for the children as well, and the whole reputation of the family. Third painting, Past and Present, No. 3, Despair’, is the most interesting one because it shows the same motifs as Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts. Woman, who had played he cards wrongly, now sits under the bridge, and, helpless and alone, oh, completely alone, gazes at the moon, as if expecting salvation from the stars. One wrong step gambled away her future. Was it worth it?, she asks herself, but the night doesn’t respond. All is silent, and Thames is asleep. The scene again leads me to Hood’s poem:

Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
Oh! it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

1858. Augustus Leopold Egg, 'Past and Present, No. 1, Misfortune'Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 1, Misfortune’, 1858

Past and Present, No. 2 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 2, Prayer’, 1858

Past and Present, No. 3 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 3, Despair’, 1858

1851. Richard Redgrave - The Outcast Richard Redgrave – The Outcast, 1851