Tag Archives: gouache

Jean-Louis Forain – Ballerinas and Their Admirers

22 Feb

Jean-Louis Forain, Intermission on Stage, 1879, watercolour, gouache, india ink and pencil on wove rag paper

Jean-Louis Forain’s watercolour “Intermission on Stage” is a wonderful example of the artist’s fascination with ballerinas; a fascination which he inherited from his friend and protégé Edgar Degas: the ultimate painter of ballerinas. Degas even invited the eighteen years younger Forain to participate in the Impressionist exhibitions that were taking place at the time, from 1879 to 1886. Even though both artists chose to portray the same motifs of Parisian nightlife; the balls, theatres, and cafes, they focused on completely different things. While Degas used ballerinas merely as a beautiful motif to further explore the problems of composition and perspective, Forain found good material for social satire whilst observing the social dynamics of the world of dancers, the harsh and ugly reality of their off the stage life.

“Intermission on Stage” is a great example because it shows the ballerinas and their admirer. It is easy to see why the critics at the time praised Forain’s work for its vibrant colour and vigour, I mean, just look at the ballerinas in their vibrant emerald tutus which are painted in swift, quick strokes and thus give the impression of something sketchy, immediate and exciting. A rich, older gentleman is seen eyeing the ballerina in the foreground who is adjusting her shoe, or rather, he is eyeing her perky white breasts peeking from her revealing dance costume. The gentleman is an abonné; a well-off older gentleman who can afford to pay a subscription which would allow him to spend time with the ballerinas behind the stage and enjoy their beauty and charms from close up. He almost looks like a caricature, his big nose, mustache hiding his mouth, his protruding belly, well certainly it isn’t his looks that the turquoise ballerina is after.

Jean-Louis Forain, The Admirer, 1877-79, oil on canvas, mounted on wood

Painting “The Admirer” shows the same thing, just this time the setting is a well-lit cozy spot with red velvet sofa and the gentleman is handing out a big, lush bouquet of red roses to the ballerina who doesn’t look too receptive of his offers. Her gaze seems to say “Oh dear…”, her hands aren’t stretched out eagerly to take the splendid gift. Hmm I guess money cannot buy everything now, can it? That is certainly how the gentlemen in Forain’s paintings felt when they used their money and status to gain access to young ballerinas who otherwise wouldn’t have even glanced at them. Forain was very observant of what goes on society around him and that is what the satire and caricatures interested him so much.

And even when he is not drawing a caricature, he is still imbuing his paintings with some satire and mockery, but there is also a pinch of moralizing here too which reflects his fight for justice and hatred for hypocrisy. It is easy to see why he was such good friends with the poet Arthur Rimbaud with whom he almost shares a birthday; Forain was born on 23th October 1852, and Rimbaud on the 20th October 1854. The two free-spirited men, both young and full of life, even shared a room for a few months and their bohemian lifestyle was certainly a slap in the face to the proper society and its values, or lack of thereof. Forain’s chatty and witty nature easily made him a friend of other writers and poets as well, such as Paul Verlaine and Joris-Karl Huysmans. He seems to have been a vivacious and important part of the artists group at the time and it is a shame that he isn’t more popular today.

Jean Louis Forain, Dancer in Her Dressing Room, c.1890

Jean Louis Forain, In the Wings, 1899

J.M.W. Turner – Romantic Watecolours of German Castles

23 Jul

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Klotten and Burg Coraidelstein from the East, 1840

The great British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner was not content with just painting the green English meadows and cathedrals like John Constable, or Welsh castles and mountains like Paul Sandby. His visions were grander and his spirit more insatiable for the new landscapes and new skies. Led by romantic wanderlust, Turner traveled to Germany, and visited the area of Middle Rhein ten times in years from 1817 to 1844. The area was famous even then for its pictorial and spiritual beauties; lush green hills surrounding the river were littered with castles and ruins of castles, remains of monasteries and churches which had been demolished in political wars following the Reformations and in later centuries as a result of Napoleon’s quests. And then there is the golden-haired siren, made famous through Heinrich Heine’s poem “Die Lorelei” written in 1824, who sits on the Lorelei rock, combs her long hair and with her voice alone leads wanderers and sailors to their doom.

J.M.W. Turner, Lorelei Rock, c. 1817

I know not if there is a reason
Why I am so sad at heart.
A legend of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.

The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening’s final ray.

The fairest of maidens is sitting
So marvelous up there,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She’s combing her golden hair.

(Read the rest of the poem here.)

An artist living in Romanticism, an era which praised nature, imagination and the past simply couldn’t have visited the Rhine area without being captivated by the eerie legends and poems surrounding the Lorelei rock. In 1817, when Turner first visited the area, he made the painting of the Lorelei rock that you can see above. As interesting this painting is, and similar to many romantic landscape paintings that I like, I much prefer Turner’s more spontaneous works made in graphite, watercolour and gouache, painted during his travels to Germany in 1839 and 1840. His focus clearly shifted from the river and the Lorelei rock to the castles on the hills around the Rhine. The sketches are less theatrical than Turner’s famed earlier seascapes glistening in yellow and gold, and the atmosphere is gentler than that of his wild shipwrecks and seas under the moonlight’s glow. As much as I enjoy those paintings for their romantic exaggeration and dramatic flair, gazing at these dreamy watercolours is perfect for drifting into a reverie.

The softness and vagueness of these castles and landscapes appears as if it was designed to be completed in one’s imagination. Here and there you can see the traces of the pencil showing under the faint layers of warm dusky colours. It seems like the sunset is colouring the castles in orange and yellow shades, while in some drawings pops of blue and sharp white awake our eyes. Vague and dreamy, somewhere rich layers of brown and yellow form the mountains, and at other places, the contours of towers and roofs simply fade… Vague, loose brushstrokes, almost Impressionistic. I think we could rightfully call these watercolours “Turner’s impressions” of old castles, hills, skies and ruins. This vagueness is precisely what draws me to these drawings, and it was the same quality that made these artworks unpopular in his times, especially in Germany. I like all of these watercolours because they make me daydream, but the one called “Burg Thurandt” from 1839 interests me especially because it’s so abstract.

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Eltz and Trutz Eltz from the North, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Bischofstein, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Eltz and Trutz Eltz from the North, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Hals from the Hillside, 1840, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Alken and Burg Thurandt, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Klotten and Burg Coraidelstein from the East, 1839

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Thurandt, 1839

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Bischofstein, 1839, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Alken and Burg Thurandt from the South, 1839

Witches Round the Cauldron by Daniel Gardner (1775)

5 Nov

When shall we three meet again,

In thunder, in lighting or in rain.‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene I)

by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

‘…something wicked this way comes.’

As the eighteenth century slowly approached its end, things were getting darker on the artistic scene. Ghosts, vampires and witches suddenly appeared on canvases of painters such as Henry Fuseli, Goya and William Blake. Dark side of the imagination began to shape works of art as well as literature, and the aesthetic of sublime slowly crept in. This was the answer to the excessive coldness, lightness and rationality of Classicism. In times when this was painted, public tastes were inclined towards the supernatural and Gothic, especially with theatre-goers who loved scenes from Macbeth. ‘Paint the witch!‘ replaced the more barbaric ‘Burn the witch!’.

Although the subject of this scene hints at the later developments of Romanticism, its execution is true to the styles of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, two artists whose style Gardner emulated, and often borrowed ideas for composition and arrangement of figures. This is an utterly charming and dreamy portrayal of three witches from Macbeth. There’s nothing scary or disturbing about it, and these three ladies are certainly prettier than Shakespeare had intended his witches to be, but these are not just three witches, oh no, Gardner actually portrayed three friends, society hostesses, art lovers and supporters of Whig party in this portrait.

The figure on the left, with long brown hair, is Elizabeth Lamb (nee Milbanke), Viscountess Melbourne. Witch on the right, dressed in splendid, sparkly black robe with zodiac symbols on it and tiny golden details, is Anne Seymour Damer (nee Conway) who was also an amateur sculptor. She has a typical black ‘witch’ hat and holds a magic wand in her right hand. In the middle is the most extravagant and well remembered out of all three; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her beauty, bold fashion statements, gambling and partying (much like Kate Moss today), her affair and an unhappy marriage. Along with a hat, her beautiful head is covered with gauze veil, and while she holds the sumptuous white silk fabric of her dress with one hand, she uses other to throw some herbs or blue flowers in the cauldron. Despite portraying a Shakespearean scene, which is a great task for the imagination, Gardner didn’t really use it, but rather chose to follow the fashion of the day; both in clothing the ‘witches’ wear and the style and composition of the painting itself.

High society lady, writer and diarist Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811) wrote in her diary of ‘the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Melburn, and Mrs Damer all being drawn in one picture in the Characters of the three Witches in Macbeth … They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches‘. (*)

Although I find the whole painting aesthetically pleasing, and very fitting for the mood of these post-Halloween days, I must say a thing or two about the brushstrokes and the play of light. Gardner beautifully portrayed their dresses, painting in soft, playful and refined strokes, using gouache and chalk. And the light; see how the bronze cauldron glistens, smoke arises like in a dream, and the reflections of the fire on the gorgeous silk dresses of the witches. I should also mention the possible allegorical meaning of the painting; since all three women were interested in politics and publicly supported the Whig party, it is possible that Gardner painted the cauldron as a symbol of ‘shadowy political machinations as leading members of the Devonshire House circle.’ (*)