Tag Archives: grass

John Singer Sargent: Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife

19 Apr

John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889

I discovered this gem of a painting two months ago but I decided to save it for April because plein air paintings with such lush greenness just scream April and springtime to me. The man with a straw hat, long sharp nose and a beard is the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul César Helleu. His canvas sits in the grass, framed by noisy blades of grass. The long thin fingers of his right hand are not so dissimilar to the brushes he is holding in his left arm, and if you look at it closely, you will see that the brush is nothing more than a stroke of paint, confident and carefree. Whatever he is painting, and it must be the nature that is in front of him, is it for sure keeping him completely absorbed. Behind him, in the shadow of this great artist, is a seemingly disinterested auburn haired woman with greyish complexion; that is Helleu’s wife Alice Guérin.

The couple met in 1884 when Helleu was commissioned to paint a portrait of this graceful young lady with long red hair. They quickly fell in love and married two years later, on 28 July 1886 when she was sixteen years old and he was twenty-six. She was his favourite model, but in this painting painted by Helleu’s life-long friend John Singer Sargent, she is sitting wistfully in the grass behind him; lost in daydreams, listening to birds or just following a butterfly in its flight with her eyes. He seems so stern and so absorbed in his work, I wonder: was she bored just sitting there useless, like a captive bird, dressed in an almost matching grey jacket to that of her beloved husband? Or did she enjoy being his passive companion? Or perhaps he just seems serious, but we don’t see the jokes he might have cracked or smiles he might have sent to her in times of  little painting breaks. One thing I do know for sure: the grass in this painting is something out of this world! In so many different shades of green, from the proper grass green to being and brown tones… it is a joy to soak my eyes in this greenness! Sensuality of nature comes through in these colours. Every blade of grass has a unique life of its own. This isn’t some neat, tamed lawn, no, this is a sweetly wild grass that grows on its own accord, without man’s laws.

Bellow you can see a similar painting that John Singer Sargent painted four years before the Helleu one, and in this painting it’s the famous Impressionist Claude Monet who is shown painting plein air on the edge of the wood. Sargent sort of strikes me as a voyeur of a sort… I know that they knew they were being painted but still, it seems that Sargent was quick to capture them in their pursuit.

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood, 1885

Henri Rousseau – The Dream

12 Aug

I recently watched the film “Love in the Time of Cholera” (2007) and I really liked the title sequence with a jungle-inspired animation, it reminded me of Henri Rousseau’s imaginative paintings.

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

Henri Rousseau’s life and paintings are equally fascinating. They are fascinating because he wasn’t a typical bohemian artist living in Montmartre and in fact started painting rather late in life when he was in his early forties and worked as a tax collector. He at last decided to fully devote himself to art at the age of forty-nine. Another thing which makes him fascinating as an artist is his subject matter; jungles and strange dream-like exotic places filled his canvases. Can you fathom the scope of his imagination when he conjured up such vivid and almost surreal scenes even in the greyness of Parisian winters. Cafes, boulevards, bridges, the Seine, dances and cocottes and dandies, such subjects were all right for Impressionists and Post-Impressionist, but Rousseau followed his own path.

Painting “The Dream” is perhaps Rousseau’s most famous work and an excellent representative of his style. In the middle of a jungle a nude lady is lying on a read couch, surrounded by many different trees and plants, each overshadowing the other with its intricate green colours and fine shadowing. The details seem realistic, while the composition all together is everything but. It is clear this isn’t a faithful portrayal of a jungle or a forest, but a place of Rousseau’s Parisian reveries, but nonetheless it is striking how he captured the mood of a place he never even visited. But perhaps I am wrong, for I have never visited a jungle myself! Anyhow, the nude long-haired lady is not alone. The place is bursting with life, from all corners some strange creatures are breathing, hearts are beating and wild eyes as yellow as amber are glistening strangely. Two lions are lying in the grass; both with mad stares, one is looking at her, and the other at us. Behind the lions stands a dark-skinned flautist, a motif which some art historians have interpreted as being erotic. Around the lady large blue flowers are protruding their petals, and birds are sitting on tree branches. An orange snake in the grass, you can really imagine its moist cold body moving quickly through the grass, hidden from the moonlight. The moon is white and full, and things are not as they seem.

Henri Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, 1907

Another interesting painting is “The Snake Charmer”. A nude dark-skinned woman is playing a flute and, well, charming the snake as the title suggests, but visually her dark horizontal figure is dividing the space on two different places, the lake on the left and the dark impenetrable jungle forest on the right. Three black snakes arise sinisterly from the grass, awaken to the beautiful mystical sounds of the flute which, I am sure, makes the leaves and flowers sigh with delight too. I am constantly amazed at how detailed Rousseau was with painting grass and trees, and how diligent, painting each one with care. Look at each leaf individually, the shape and dark matte colour makes it appear so unnatural, and when observed all together they appear even more surreal. Again, a full moon is shining low on the horizon, over the lake, but its silvery shine doesn’t reach the darkness of the forest.

Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891

Painting “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is just amazing! Just look at the tiger’s face, full of expression, his mouth in a grin, his eyes wide open. And how vividly Rousseau has portrayed the tropical storm, the pouring rain that could drain you to the bone, the silver thunders, the swaying branches of trees and dancing leaves in many shades of green and yellow. There’s one chapter in Irving Stone’s book about Vincent van Gogh called “Lust for Life”, which is amazing by the way, where Vincent visits Henri Rousseau in his studio in a poor part of Paris. There they find the artist’s room full of jungle scenes on the walls and four boys with their violins waiting for the lecture to begin because Rousseau often gave violin lessons to earn extra money, and plus he loved playing the instrument as well. He is portrayed as someone very humble and detached from the world around him, in a good way, living in his imagination and not very worried about the things around him.