Tag Archives: John William Waterhouse

Claude Monet – Poppies

9 Jun

They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odour is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever.”

(The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – L.F. Baum)

1873. Claude Monet - Poppies 2Claude Monet, Poppies, 1873

Claude Monet, a painter whose name is inseparable from Impressionism, painted landscapes, water lilies, poplars, ladies in garden, women with parasols, Rouen Cathedral, London Parliament, boats, leisure activities, coast of Normandy, and – poppies. He captured these exciting red meadow treasures in single brush strokes of magnificent red colour, so rich and decadent against the endless greenness of the field.

Nature and its changeability was something that really fascinated the Impressionists; their aim was to capture the change of light, the rain, the sunset, the wind and the dew – capture the moment in all its beauty and splendor. Although born in Paris, Claude Monet, like many other Impressionists, made frequent trips to French countryside, in search for inspiration. Such trips brought him, among other places, to Argenteuil which was, back then, a rural escape for many Parisians. There he painted the gleaming surface of the river Seine and those famous fields dotted with exuberant poppies and other wildflowers.

1875. Claude Monet - Poppy Field, ArgenteuilClaude Monet, Poppy Field, Argenteuil, 1875

Claude even lived in Argenteuil for some time in the 1870s, and that’s when he painted the interesting painting you can see all the way up, titled simply ‘Poppies’. It is a very simple scene, a beautiful sunny moment captures on canvas. A scene of poppies is framed by a dash of trees and a few peaceful clouds on a bright blue sky. The painting is somewhat symmetrical; motif of a woman and a child is repeated, one time in the background, one time in the foreground, and we can see a diagonal line which separates two colour zones – a vivid red one and a more gentle one, mottled with blue-lilac flowers. As is typical for Impressionism, colours and lines are blurred, and the woman’s dress in the foreground almost seems to be blended in with the poppies and the grass. The figures are painted dimly, and the overall simplicity rules the scene, but the universal feeling that it projects is what attracts viewers the most; a vivid atmosphere of a summer’s day, a stroll in the meadow, sun shining bright, buzz in the air, the intoxicating redness of the poppies, no worries, no fears when one is surrounded by such beauties.

As you can see in the examples below, motif of poppies and meadows never failed to capture Claude Monet’s attention and he seemed to be enjoying his stays at the countryside. After spending time in Argenteuil, Monet moved to Vétheuil, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. In Vétheuil, Monet found peace of mind after the death of his first wife Camille by painting his garden and the nearby meadows.

1879. Poppy Field near Vétheuil - Claude MonetClaude Monet, Poppy Field near Vétheuil, 1879

1880. Claude Monet - View of VétheuilClaude Monet, View of Vétheuil, 1880

Poppy is a beautiful flower just for itself, but its symbolic meaning is something that’s fascinating to me even more. Poppies are often seen as symbol of sleep, peace, and death, and poppies on tombstones symbolise eternal sleep, how very romantic! Vision of death as an eternal sleep was typical for Romanticists, especially Percy Bysshe Shelley who became more and more obsessed with death as the years went on. Romanticists considered death to be a state in which all desires of a soul are fulfilled at last. Shelley’s verses from ‘Mont Blanc’:

'Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.'

Vision of poppy as a symbol of sleep was further emphasised in the novel Wonderful Wizard of Oz in which a magical poppy can make you sleep forever if you smell its odour for too long. Poppy is also used for the production of opium, and morphine and heroin. Opium was a well known wellspring of inspiration for the Romanticists such as Coleridge who wrote his ‘Kubla Khan’ one night after he experienced an opium-influenced dream. Shelley also used opium to free his mind, so did Edgar Allan Poe and Baudelaire. It’s not a coincidence that ‘morphine’ borrowed its name from the Greek god of sleep Morpheus who slept in a cave full of poppy seeds. Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse seemed to have had similar ideas in mind when he painted one of his early works Sleep and his Half-Brother Death in 1874, in which he portrayed the mysterious connection between sleep, dreams and death.

Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.‘ (Edgar Allan Poe)

1874. Sleep and his Half-brother Death - John William Waterhouse1874. Sleep and his Half-brother Death – J.W.Waterhouse

Poppies are also seen as symbol of beauty, magic, consolation, and fertility. In China, they represent the loyalty and faith between lovers. According to the Chinese legend, a beautiful and courageous woman named Lady Yee was married to a warrior Hsiang Yu and she followed him on many battles. During one long war when the defeat seemed imminent, Lady Yee tried to cheer him up and boost his spirits by dancing with his sword. She failed in her mission, and committed suicide. Beautiful red poppies grew on her grave in abundance. Petals of the poppy flower reflect her spirit as she danced in the wind.

Poppies in Sussex, photo found here.

poppy 2Photo found here.

1967. Scene from Far from the Maddening Crowd1967. Scene from Far from the Maddening Crowd

poppy 1Photo found here.

Poppy is one of my favourite flowers out of many reasons. Firstly, their vivid red colour makes them stand out amidst all the greenery. Secondly, dreams, opium and Morpheus are some things that fascinate me, especially their connection with Romanticism. Poppies always seem to remind me of solitude since they often grow on isolated place. My memory places them by the railway, lost and forgotten, beautiful and fragile, gently dancing on the wind, in an eternal state of waiting, full of secrets, whispers and mystery, like some sad and lost souls that came out of Kerouac’s novel.

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci – Pre-Raphaelites and John Keats

11 Oct

In this post we’ll take a look at a very popular topic for the Pre-Raphaelite painters: the heroine of John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. At once beautiful and cruel, this damsel enchants the poor naive knight and brings him to his doom.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893

The most beautiful, the most captivating portrayal of the beautiful and cold-hearted lady from John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is, for me, the one painted by John William Waterhouse in 1893. The warm rich colours, her languid pose and the way she gazes at the poor knight linger in the memory. Winterhouse wasn’t particularly faithful to Keats’s vision of the setting; Keats described the scene of their doomed encounter as taking place in a desolate wintry landscape where no birds are singing. Waterhouse and other artists before and after him had envisaged the scene differently, which shows that sometimes motifs from poetry don’t translate well into visual arts. Still, the warm colours and details such as red leaves in the foreground suggesting that it’s late summer or early autumn, add to the sensuality of the theme. The autumn is not much different to the merciless lady; nature in autumn charms us with her richness, giving promises it won’t fulfill; the crimson leaves speak of luxury, yet they shall wither and fall in decay.

This is how the knight in the Keats’ poem describes the lady:

“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”

Most unusually, but very fitting for the rest of the painting’s colour palette, Waterhouse painted the lady’s dress in a beautiful warm shade of purple, in a seductive and illusive colour of wine. And look at the heart on her sleeve. Her long auburn hair is falling down her back as she gazes transfixed at the knight, in the same way that the nymphs in Waterhouse’s other painting “Hylas and the nymhps” are gazing at the poor Hylas. Her ruby red lips, her long hair and sweet-scented air all lie; for it is not love that lies on her heart but deceit! And it is only the poor naive knight who is blind to it. And the nature is lying with her; white briar-roses bloom and the trees in the background, reminiscent of the early Renaissance painters, are silent and many dark things they wickedly withhold. The dense row of tall trees reminds me of the trees in Botticelli’s paintings from series “The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti”, part one and two.

Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1902

Frank Dicksee was another painter who painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, but just like Waterhouse he wasn’t the member of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There is something sentimental about his version which I don’t like, but I do love the lady’s long flowing red hair with a crown of white flowers on it. Here is John Keats’s poem, it is too beautiful not to be included:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1863

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1926

At last, the knight is defeated and the lady arises like a phoenix from the ashes with a victorious glow on her cheeks, hair even shinier and more beautiful – she is ready to strike again. Wild red poppies are swaying in the wind, dancing and whispering passionately of the poor knight’s death. Her dress is intricate and ornate, and, similar to Klimt’s designs, almost has a life of its own. Her hands are seductively placed above her head, while the knight is lying dead in the grass, poppies and a few dandelions around him make for a very striking and powerful scene. Whereas Waterhouse opted for a dreamy idyllic version of the theme, focusing on the lady’s intense seductive gaze, Cowper here isn’t shy at portraying her as a merciless vixen.

John William Waterhouse and John Keats – Isabella and the Pot of Basil

31 Oct

John William Waterhouse’s portrayal of John Keats’s poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”, is dreamy, which is typical for his oeuvre, and, following the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is rich in details, but the seemingly innocent scene hides a darker theme. In this painting, Waterhouse beautifully unites the Medieval macabre imagination of Boccaccio with the sensuous imagery created by Keats in his poem.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907

In a secluded spot of a beautiful garden somewhere in Florence, a damsel known by the name of Isabella is kneeling beside a pot of basil, embracing it with her gentle white arms and “gazing amorously upon it with all her desire”. The air is warm and fragrant, but laced with sadness. The spot seems secretive and the path that leads to it is rarely used. With no living soul around her, she must have whispered the woes of her heart to the greenery around her: the grass, the ivy, the hedge, have all become friends. The fragile red poppy that grew next to her white gown, along with a skull on the pedestal of the basil pot, could be interpreted as signs of the other world. Poppy is a flower connected to dreams, sleep and death. She is dressed in a long white gown that touches the ground with intricate Medieval-style sleeves. Her auburn hair falls on her back as she tilts her head and sighs at the inequity of her destiny. How can a maiden so young and so pretty be so sad?

Ahh, but poor Isabella is ill from sadness. In a feverish state her gaze turned blurry from tears, and yet, with wild perseverance she wraps her weak arms around the pot, pining and weeping, day upon day, night after night. Her heart aches for something she can never have, and not even a thousand tears would bring the dear face of Lorenzo back to life; the anguish that sits on her chest is heavier than a stone, and yet her face shows longing rather than pain, as if her devotion, her pining and daydreaming upon that pot of fragrant basil bring her serenity. For, what else can she do but weep her days away?

John Keats’s narrative poem “Isabella” is adapted from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (IV day, 5th story) which tells the tale of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. (A note: Keats changed the setting of the story from Messina to Florence, and the name from Lisbetta to Isabella.) In Decameron, Lisbetta is a fair and well-manered maiden who lives in the town of Messina with her three brothers who want her to marry a rich and respectable man, but Lisbetta falls in love with Lorenzo, the dashing young employee of her brothers. After enjoying the delights of each other’s company, the young lovers are discovered and the brothers decide to take things into their hands. On day they take Lorenzo into the deepest darkest forest and murder him. Lisbetta, not hearing from Lorenzo for so long, grows impatient and worried until one night he appears in her dream and tells her what had happened and where his body lies. After that “she awoke and giving faith to the vision, wept bitterly.” Lisbetta finds his body in the forest, and despite her woes remains cool-headed and knowing that she can’t take the whole body, she cuts his head off and wraps it in a napkin and:

“…returned home, where, shutting herself in her chamber with her lover’s head, she bewept it long and bitterly, insomuch that she bathed it all with her tears, and kissed it a thousand times in every part. Then, taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.”

To rest your eyes from Waterhouse, here is another version: Arthur Nowell, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1904

She sits and weeps over that pot of basil with mad devotion, adoringly wrapping her arms around it, as is she was enchanted or cursed like the Lady of Shalott. It arises suspicion in her brothers and one day they turn out the pot and find a head, not yet rotten, of Lorenzo. In fear that things might get revealed, they move to Naples and Lisbetta is once again separated from her lover, or this time, from his head. It is indeed a pity that they moved Lorenzo’s rotting head because it fertilised the soil in the pot and the basil grew ever so lush and fragrant. Every good gardener knows this is the secret to a healthy plant!

Lisbetta eventually dies from sadness: “The damsel, ceasing never from lamenting and still demanding her pot, died, weeping; and so her ill-fortuned love had end.”

Poor, poor Isabella! Waterhouse must have thought that too, when he chose to portray the scene of a sad tale of love first written by Boccaccio and later sang by Keats whose eloquence and melancholic disposition added the lyrical and sensuous dimension. Who knew better than Keats the ache of wanting so desperately something you cannot have? Did he not yearn for the sweet nectar of life, and was denied to taste the very drink? Having died so young from consumption, did he not feel on his own skin the transience of everything which hurts like knives piercing your chest, and therefore nurtured beauty in his verses. Her is what his beautiful poetic vision tells us of Isabella and Lorenzo falling in love:

“They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

With every morn their love grew tenderer,

With every eve deeper and tenderer still…”

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he, like many other artists, accepted their style and subject matter. He too dipped his paint brush into the paint of dreams, and painted scenes from mythology, Medieval romances, love and longing. Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from poetry and even though for Rossetti Dante was God, we could rightfully say that John Keats was placed on a pedestal. Out of all English poets of Romanticism, Keats was the most lyrical, the one who emphasised the greatness of beauty. This ideal brought him together with the Pre-Raphaelites. It is very likely that Waterhouse had Keats’s and not Boccaccio’s version of the story in mind when he painted this painting. A tale of sad love was perfect for a Pre-Raphaelite canvas; before Waterhouse, both Rossetti with his infatuations with Dante’s Beatrice and her death, and Millais’ with his paintings such as ‘A Huguenot’ tackled the subject.

Keats’s poem “Isabella” is absolutely beautiful, but these verses are perhaps my favourite and tell us about the growing love between Isabella and Lorenzo:

“Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,

 Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart

Only to meet again more close, and share      

 The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair

 Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart…”

Keats’s verses and the Pre-Raphaelite canvases both possess sensuality in abundance: Keats’s rich, delicate yet passionate descriptions match perfectly with the vibrantly coloured, richly textured and emotionally charged paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Out of all the stories I’ve read from “Decameron” this one is my favourite because underneath the sad tale of love scenario, which always appeals my romantic whimsy, it has a strong dark and macabre mood. I mean, the girl weeps and adoringly gazes at the pot of basil, knowing that the head of her lover is buried in it. Can you imagine the head which used to belong to a beautiful man she loved slowly rotting in the pot, his hair mingling with the roots of basil… It’s eerie and kind of revolting, and I say this with a creepy smile on my face because it appeals to me at the same time. John Keats, on the other hand, focused on the sensuality of the story and its melancholy, veiling it in beauty: rose petals, zephyrs, soft lips and sad gazes, everything is ripe, warmth, fragrant, in bloom. And this is how he ends the poem:

“And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,

Imploring for her Basil to the last.

No heart was there in Florence but did mourn

In pity of her love, so overcast.

And a sad ditty of this story born

From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:

Still is the burthen sung—“O cruelty,

“To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”

So, happy birthday, John Keats!

John William Waterhouse – Lady of Shalott: I am half-sick of shadows

3 Sep

English painter John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849; the same year the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in London. So, he wasn’t a member of the original Brotherhood, but his style and subject matter show that he embraced their aesthetic and continued the themes ranging from Shakespeare to Arthurian romances and mythology. He created a world of beauty and dreams that served as a refuge from grey and harsh reality for Victorians who were such escapists. Waterhouse portrayed the legend of the Lady of Shalott three times, in 1888, 1894 and 1916. Although the version from 1888 is by far the most popular, today we’ll take a look at the other two.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, 1894

“Who is that?”, Elaine stood up quickly, abandoning her tapestry, and in two-three steps approached the window of her lonely tower, with long curious, thirsty glances soaking up the beauty of the sights never before seen directly. Her long velvety hair spilt in dozens of cascades on her back, like a shimmering murmuring waterfall, reaching her waist. Yearning, fear and gentle admiration coloured her pale, beautiful face. Never before have the beams of sun, nor the moon, drops of rain or spring zephyrs caressed it. Her white gown, its flimsy sleeves and dozens of silk petticoats, shines like the moon on the night sky against the darkness of her tower, but its gentle rustling is too far from the ears of a lovely knight who happened to be passing by. “Who is he?”, wonders Elaine, stepping forward with one leg, but leaning on the chair with her hand as soon as the words of the ancient curse run through her mind. Golden thread that wrapped itself like a snake around her dress seems to warn her too about the consequences of her actions… but Elaine can’t resist! She resisted gazing for so long, relying on shadows, pale reflections of the world in her mirror, but today the temptation to look was too irresistible, for she saw a knight riding from Camelot, passing her tower by, his armour glowing in the sun, his coal-black curls flowing underneath his helmet; it was none other than Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
       She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
       The Lady of Shalott.” (*)
***

One sight was enough for this beautiful, naive, vulnerable lily-maiden to fall in love. Her heart ached not solely for the handsome and distant knight who innocently passed by her tower, unaware of her sad destiny, but for the music, lights and liveliness of Camelot, for people and their chatter, but her curse was never to feel the world, but to gaze at it passively in the mirror, a stale reflection was to replace the vibrancy of reality. The moment she left her tapestry, drawn to the window like a moth to the light, she felt her soul overwhelmed with love and the same moment her world fell apart for the curse has come upon her, and she cried.

 As I’ve already said in the introduction, Waterhouse painted three different portrayals of the sad life of the Lady of Shalott, but thematically and chronologically they go into different directions; the first painting, from 1888, shows Elaine floating to her death while the last one, from 1916, shows her contemplating over her life of isolation. I am certain that, had he painted three more, they would all be as imaginative, dreamy and original. This is the first, and the most famous 1888 version of which I wrote about here. It is a true gem indeed and a symbol of Pre-Raphaelite artistic vision:

So, in the last painting of the series, we see Elaine before her downfall; she’s sitting above her tapestry, taking a rest, her hands behind her head, staring dreamily into the void, while through the window we see the magnificent grey towered castle of Camelot whose red roofs shine in glory. Elaine looks wistful, but not determined, she’s lost in thoughts but not yet ready to act, with her rosy cheeks and rosy dress she looks like a lonely rose in a long-forgotten garden, and I can see a spider weaving a veil of silver and dew around her gentle petals, hushing her heart, lulling her to sleep and forget reality. This is what Lord Tennyon, a beloved poet of the Victorian era, tells us of Elaine’s life of isolation and longing:

She hath no loyal knight and true,
       The Lady of Shalott.
 
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
       And music, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
       The Lady of Shalott.
***
Loneliness is making her tired and restless, her eyelids grow heavy, her gaze weary, while the pale face reveals that she is curious, impetuous, nervous…. but she is naive and knows nothing of the world, and yet she longs for something she can’t describe and pines for memories that not belong to her, sighing and whispering to the stale air of solitude “I am half-sick of shadows!” Oh, poor little maiden, will her life be wrapped in a pensive veil of gloom forever?

John William Waterhouse, I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott, 1916

“I watched life and wanted to be a part of it but found it painfully difficult.” (Anais Nin)

Everyone speaks of an unlived life, and through reading Jack Kerouac’s novels of wild adventures, drinking, promiscuity, and also of self-indulgences and extremes of rock stars, I’ve created in my imagination this glamorous, yet false, vision of a life lived to the fullest, but as I grow older I am more of an opinion that adult life is very sad, and that world is a confusing and scary place, one I’d rather not venture. While gazing at Elaine in her lonely tower, I can’t help but think “Don’t gaze through the window, don’t long for Camelot, there’s nothing for you there!” So, for me, the legend of the Lady of the Shalott brings to mind the conflict between living life and daydreaming. I am so fond of daydreams because they are so sweet, and life is so often so unfulfilling and sour. How to live and be truly happy when life crushes all your ideals just like the sea waves crush the rocks on the shore? And is a life spent in daydreaming a wasted one? “To be or not to be?”, Hamlet asked himself. To live or to daydream, that is the question!

How do you feel about Elaine’s destiny, and the conflict of life vs daydreams. Share your thoughts with me.

Ode to Indolence – Dolce Far Niente – Sweet Doing Nothing

10 Apr

Indolence, thou art the sweetest, most delightful thing on earth!

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente (Sweet Idleness) (or A Pompeian Fishpond), 1904

‘Dolce far niente’ is a wonderful Italian expression meaning ‘sweet doing nothing’, and it illustrates the dreamy, hedonistic, self-indulgent nature of indolence, and the enjoyment of it. In art, such paintings are rare prior to the nineteenth century, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the artistic climate influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic movement with its ‘cult of beauty’, their popularity grew. Artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Godward and John William Waterhouse dared to tackle the subject and they painted numerous vibrant and beautiful paintings of this theme.

There’s a certain pattern of beauty in all of these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings: a beautiful idle woman dressed in her finery, lazing around in sumptuous surroundings, doing nothing, gazing in the distance or at the viewer. Usually they’re presented in luxurious and idealised settings, aesthetically inspired by the Roman empire, lounging on animal skin, wearing gorgeous diaphanous fabrics, perhaps holding a flower in their hand or teasing a kitten with a peacock feather, and in one painting, two women are even shown gazing at a snail and feeding it, what a way to spend an afternoon! Certain motifs appear in all of these paintings: finely painted marble balustrades or just marble in general, balconies overlooking the sea glistening underneath a perfectly blue sky with a few clouds, animal skin, clothes and hairstyles inspired by the styles of the Ancient world, flowers and flower pots, lush Mediterranean vegetation and plants such as oleander, lavender, cypresses, orange trees, even poppies, thyme, basil etc.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Silver Favourites, 1903

Godwards was the protégé of Alma-Tadema and their styles hold similarities; they both drew inspiration from the imagined luxury of the Ancient Roman Empire and the warm, rich, fragrant, mood of the Mediterranean, they both painted in a Neoclassical style with fine, elegant brushwork resembling that of Ingres, especially when the subject is that of a female body; both made paintings full of light and vibrancy. And now a glimpse of sadness in all this beauty; Godward committed suicide on 13th December 1922, at the age of 61, falsely believing that the idealised, dreamy style of his art will fall out of style with the arrival of new painters such as Picasso. In his suicide note he allegedly wrote: “the world is not big enough for myself and a Picasso”. I wonder just how many lives that devilish painter known as Picasso has ruined, having in mind the awful way he treated my poor, darling Modigliani.

These paintings exude beauty, but that is their only purpose. Well, the purpose of all art should be to present us mortals with an ideal of beauty we’ll never be able to achieve, to move our hearts and souls to react, to elevate us. But the beauty of these paintings really is all that they possess; they have no moral or social message, they are not portraits, they don’t show a mythological scene or tell a story in some way.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1897

Also, despite the fact that these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings were at the height of their popularity in the late 19th century, the mood of indolence and hedonism can be traced in earlier art as well, especially the Rococo. If you take a look at some paintings of Fragonard or Boucher, you’ll see that most of them show pretty women doing nothing; reading love letters, waiting for a lover, daydreaming; lavishly dressed in gorgeous surrounding of eternal spring with tamed nature and marble statues. Also, the famous Winterhalter’s group portrait of the French Empress Eugenie and her ladies in waiting; technically, yes, it is a portrait – it has a purpose, but come on, doesn’t the setting and their faces evoke nothing but sweet enjoyment of indolence? Gustav Klimt’s beautiful and sinister nude femme fatales shown in a lesbian embrace, adorned with flowers, with intricate backgrounds, are also pretty indolent. My point is that it’s not necessary for a painting to bear a name ‘dolce far niente’ to be one, it’s more about the mood and the setting.

John William Godward, Summer Idleness: Day Dreams, 1909

Despite their popularity in the age of the Aesthetic movement, there’s nothing really decadent about these painting. Their lack of purpose, or a social or moral message, might have infuriated Ruskin. The dreamy, escapist nature of these paintings struck a cord with the audience of the time. Victorians were huge escapists and their tendency to be easily carried away by daydreams and fantasies about a perfect fairytale world enabled them to appreciate works of painters such as Waterhouse, Alma-Tadema and Godward who never painted reality, but instead dipped their brushes into a paint of magic and dreams and created innocent, idealised, brightly-coloured reveries which continue to capture the imagination of people today.

MY FAVOURITES:

John William Godward, When the heart is young, 1902

All of these paintings are quite similar, but still there were three which captivated me the most. The first one is When the heart is young. If you enlarge the painting, you’ll see how exquisitely the scene is painted, how detailed. I just love her face expression, and the way her hair falls and the lavishing, soft folds of her dress in colour of rose quartz. And she is one absolutely gorgeous woman; there’s a dreamy, sensual aura around her face with lips as pretty as rosebuds, cheeks blushed and eyes so dark, velvety and dreamy, gazing in the distance. Another detail which dazzles me is the fine thin yellow line above the sea, and the poppy flowers in the background.

John William Godward, Mischief and Repose, 1895

Here, I love the title Mischief and Repose, isn’t it cunning? There’s no glistening sea or trees in the background, but I think these two indolent, red-haired beauties in diaphanous dresses are eye-candies for themselves. They’re shown lazing around in an opulent interior of fine marble and animal skin. While the woman wearing a delicate gown made out of a gauzy baby blue material, I suppose the overindulgence in the sweetness of doing nothing has made her tired, I sympathise because it happens to me often, the one on the right is the epitome of mischief, teasing her friend as she sleeps. They remind me of Sappho and her ladies on the isle of Lesbos. Let’s also take a moment to appreciate the great hairstyle of the ‘mischief woman’; voluminous curly hair in a low bun with shiny ribbons. And these gauzy long gowns which reveal more than they hide are so alluring, especially on the woman on the right; how softly and gently the fabric covers her body, how delicately painted. I hope it’s not just my imagination that’s intrigued by this illusive mysteriousnesses.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1906

In Dolce Far Niente from 1906, the rich purple and red colour of her flimsy dress really appealed to me, but also the composition: she is painted reclining on a tiger skin, on some marble balustrade, with her hand above her head, her dark hair falling in cascades, and you can’t help but notice the sensuality of her pose; you can follow the curve of her body against the background of oleander trees with lush blossoms and serene sea in the distance. I don’t know why, but it reminded me of a sentence from Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human: “I could see through the tall windows behind my bench the evening sky glowing in the sunset. Seagulls were flying by in a line which somehow suggested the curve of a woman’s body.” Another thing I love is the sky; vanilla coloured sky, and the lush Mediterranean vegetation; the gorgeous pink oleander blossoms and cypresses in the background. Sun is slowly setting in the distance, rich fragrances colour the air…

John William Godward, Idleness, 1900

I have been dazzled by these paintings for some time, and my thoughts upon gazing at these idle women are a mix of empathy and envy. I am their equal in indolence, it is my most beloved pursuit: doing nothing and doing it sweetly. I am a connoisseur in indolence! Dolce far niente should be written on my gravestone. My idea of a perfect afternoon is to wear something outrageously gorgeous, lie on my bed, listen to music and gaze at the pictures on my wall, the blue sky or tree tops through the window or flip through my art books, and then drift into daydreams. For me, a day of indolence is a day of happiness! This is how I find inspiration, then I write a post, and voila!

I shall finish the post with a great quote by the writer Jerome K. Jerome, who obviously understand indolence very well:

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

John William Godward, Tranquillity, 1914

John William Godward, In the Days of Sappho, 1904

John William Godward, An Idle Hour, 1890

John William Godward, The quiet pet, 1906

John William Godward, Summer Flowers, 1903

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, 1855

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Reverie, 1771

John William Godward, Playtime, 1891

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, In the Tepidarium, 1881

Charles Edward Perugini, Dolce Far Niente, 1882

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente (The White Feather Fan), 1879

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente, 1880

William Holman Hunt, ‘Il Dolce far Niente’, 1859-66

Auguste Toulmouche, Dolce Far Niente, 1877

What are your thoughts on indolence? Was there a dolce far niente painting that particularly dazzled you?

Claude Monet – Poppies

12 Jun

They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odour is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever.‘ (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – L.F. Baum)

1873. Claude Monet - Poppies 21873. Claude Monet – Poppies

Claude Monet, a painter whose name is inseparable from Impressionism, painted landscapes, water lilies, poplars, ladies in garden, women with parasols, Rouen Cathedral, London Parliament, boats, leisure activities, coast of Normandy, and – poppies. He captured these exciting red meadow treasures in single brush strokes of magnificent red colour, so rich and decadent against the endless greenness of the field.

Nature and its changeability was something that really fascinated the Impressionists; their aim was to capture the change of light, the rain, the sunset, the wind and the dew – capture the moment in all its beauty and splendor. Although born in Paris, Claude Monet, like many other Impressionists, made frequent trips to French countryside, in search for inspiration. Such trips brought him, among other places, to Argenteuil which was, back then, a rural escape for many Parisians. There he painted the gleaming surface of the river Seine and those famous fields dotted with exuberant poppies and other wildflowers.

1875. Claude Monet - Poppy Field, Argenteuil1875. Claude Monet – Poppy Field, Argenteuil

Claude even lived in Argenteuil for some time in the 1870s, and that’s when he painted the interesting painting you can see all the way up, titled simply ‘Poppies’. It is a very simple scene, a beautiful sunny moment captures on canvas. A scene of poppies is framed by a dash of trees and a few peaceful clouds on a bright blue sky. The painting is somewhat symmetrical; motif of a woman and a child is repeated, one time in the background, one time in the foreground, and we can see a diagonal line which separates two colour zones – a vivid red one and a more gentle one, mottled with blue-lilac flowers. As is typical for Impressionism, colours and lines are blurred, and the woman’s dress in the foreground almost seems to be blended in with the poppies and the grass. The figures are painted dimly, and the overall simplicity rules the scene, but the universal feeling that it projects is what attracts viewers the most; a vivid atmosphere of a summer’s day, a stroll in the meadow, sun shining bright, buzz in the air, the intoxicating redness of the poppies, no worries, no fears when one is surrounded by such beauties.

As you can see in the examples below, motif of poppies and meadows never failed to capture Claude Monet’s attention and he seemed to be enjoying his stays at the countryside. After spending time in Argenteuil, Monet moved to Vétheuil, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. In Vétheuil, Monet found peace of mind after the death of his first wife Camille by painting his garden and the nearby meadows.

1879. Poppy Field near Vétheuil - Claude Monet1879. Poppy Field near Vétheuil – Claude Monet

1880. Claude Monet - View of Vétheuil1880. Claude Monet – View of Vétheuil

Poppy is a beautiful flower just for itself, but its symbolic meaning is something that’s fascinating to me even more. Poppies are often seen as symbol of sleep, peace, and death, and poppies on tombstones symbolise eternal sleep, how very romantic! Vision of death as an eternal sleep was typical for Romanticists, especially Percy Bysshe Shelley who became more and more obsessed with death as the years went on. Romanticists considered death to be a state in which all desires of a soul are fulfilled at last. Shelley’s verses from ‘Mont Blanc’:

'Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.'

Vision of poppy as a symbol of sleep was further emphasised in the novel Wonderful Wizard of Oz in which a magical poppy can make you sleep forever if you smell its odour for too long. Poppy is also used for the production of opium, and morphine and heroin. Opium was a well known wellspring of inspiration for the Romanticists such as Coleridge who wrote his ‘Kubla Khan’ one night after he experienced an opium-influenced dream. Shelley also used opium to free his mind, so did Edgar Allan Poe and Baudelaire. It’s not a coincidence that ‘morphine’ borrowed its name from the Greek god of sleep Morpheus who slept in a cave full of poppy seeds. Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse seemed to have had similar ideas in mind when he painted one of his early works Sleep and his Half-Brother Death in 1874, in which he portrayed the mysterious connection between sleep, dreams and death.

Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.‘ (Edgar Allan Poe)

1874. Sleep and his Half-brother Death - John William Waterhouse1874. Sleep and his Half-brother Death – J.W.Waterhouse

Poppies are also seen as symbol of beauty, magic, consolation, and fertility. In China, they represent the loyalty and faith between lovers. According to the Chinese legend, a beautiful and courageous woman named Lady Yee was married to a warrior Hsiang Yu and she followed him on many battles. During one long war when the defeat seemed imminent, Lady Yee tried to cheer him up and boost his spirits by dancing with his sword. She failed in her mission, and committed suicide. Beautiful red poppies grew on her grave in abundance. Petals of the poppy flower reflect her spirit as she danced in the wind.

Poppies in Sussex, photo found here.

poppy 2Photo found here.

1967. Scene from Far from the Maddening Crowd1967. Scene from Far from the Maddening Crowd

poppy 1Photo found here.

Poppy is one of my favourite flowers out of many reasons. Firstly, their vivid red colour makes them stand out amidst all the greenery. Secondly, dreams, opium and Morpheus are some things that fascinate me, especially their connection with Romanticism. Poppies always seem to remind me of solitude since they often grow on isolated place. My memory places them by the railway, lost and forgotten, beautiful and fragile, gently dancing on the wind, in an eternal state of waiting, full of secrets, whispers and mystery, like some sad and lost souls that came out of Kerouac’s novel.

Syd Barrett – See Emily Play

26 May

Pink Floyd’s second single, See Emily Play, allegedly told a story of a young aristocrat, known as the psychedelic schoolgirl. Mystical, whimsical and childish, verses of ‘See Emily Play‘ contain a deeper meaning than you’d expect. By reading this post further, you’ll discover the influences that created this beautiful and strange psychedelic gem; from Shakespeare and Romantics to Pre-Raphaelites and Pagan festivals.

pink floyd early posters 1

Recorded on 23 May 1967, and released on 16 June, the song instantly became a hit and struck a chord with the public, preparing the youth for a vivid and mind expanding atmosphere of, what was later known as, the summer of love. It was Pink Floyd’s second single which paved their way to success. Interviews and performances at the Top of the Pops soon followed. At that point Syd had already started struggling with the concept of being a commercial rock musician rather than being an artist.

Still, the lyrics of the song represent the very best of Syd’s writing; witty, childish and whimsical, they are the testimony to the spirit of the 1960s, and yet some of the verses posses a certain mysticism. It is impossible to pinpoint precisely what inspired Syd to write this song for its verses are engulfed in mystery, as is the case in most of Syd’s songs. Syd himself had many versions, one of it was that he feel asleep in the woods after taking LSD and saw an unusual girl.

The main inspiration for the song was, in fact, a fifteen year old girl Emily Young, who skylarked across Holland Park to the London Free School with her friend Anjelica Huston. Emily was nicknamed ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ at the UFO club. Intellectual curiosity prompted Emily to visit the Free School and educate herself beyond school curriculum. Her private ‘evening classes’ consisted of reading William Blake, existentialists and Romantic poets, dressed at the same time in a noticeable long Victorian style gown ‘that touched the ground’.

Pete Brown said that ‘See Emily Play‘ was based on this schoolgirl.

This English cult of the schoolgirl in fetish uniform has always been around – the more dubious side of English culture, allied with British repression and fetishism. Emily was someone I went out and about with. I was friends with her because Anjelica Huston was at the same school, and hung out with Emily as well. I met them walking down to Portobello Road. I did poetry gigs in schools. I was young, in my twenties. These girls were seventeen or eighteen. I went out with them. English schoolgirls in the sixties were forward-looking, discovering their own sexuality.‘ (Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe by Julian Palacios)

1960s Emily Young - Syd's Muse                      Emily Young in the 1960s

Syd’s young muse blossomed into a notable sculptor whose aim is ‘to tell a truth about the origins of human life and consciousness.‘ In a way her sculptures remind me of Gauguin’s work, at least in approach. Like Gauguin, Emily believes that the truth about life lies in primitive and archaic, and that art is hidden in the forces of nature, not in Western world galleries. I’m delighted to see that despite her progression from a confused 1960s schoolgirl to a prolific artist, she hasn’t lost the open-minded attitude towards life. Her worldview is still psychedelic.

LYRICS:

Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh
She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Soon after dark Emily cries, ah ooh
Gazing through trees in sorrow hardly a sound till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play.

1852. Ophelia by John Everett MillaisMillais’ ‘Ophelia’

The story of Emily Young is, however, merely a segment of Syd’s fantastical song. The opening verses of the third stanza can instantly be connected to Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece – Ophelia. It is impossible to believe that the whole century separates these two maidens in long flowing gowns! ‘Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh, Float on a river forever and ever, Emily…’ Emily’s graceful figure full of calmness in a flowing white gown that touched the ground, so brilliantly white against the darkness of the dance hall in All Saints, caught Syd’s eye while he wailed ‘I’m high, Don’t try to spoil the fun‘ into the microphone.

Beautiful and complex, strange as the mists of Avalon, this pop gem is at once intelligible and psychedelic all the way. It simultaneously unites all the elements that Syd’s fantasy world was made of; May Queens and Green Man, psychedelic drugs, tragic heroines, mysterious world of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, children’s stories, Romantic poems along with bright and innocent childish visions. See Emily Play is, at the same time, a hymn to the English woods, willow branches, rivers and pagan festivals, as well as the embodiment of dozens of archetypes of European literature – tragic and innocent maidens such as Ophelia. We know that Barrett was familiar with John William Waterhouse’s rendition of Ophelia who is painted in a long flowing gown, surrounded by the magnificent and mysterious woods and deep sinister water. Flowers, mystery, lost maidens, muses; all amalgamated in the mind of a psychedelic Mad Hatter of rock ‘n’ roll – Syd Barrett.

1894. John William Waterhouse's Ophelia1894. John William Waterhouse – Ophelia

Influence of a great Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, can also be traced in Syd’s writing. Shelley’s poem ‘The Song of Asia‘ was printed in Syd’s copy of ‘The Cambridge Book of Poetry‘. Specific verses evoke both the spirit of the song, and the ones of the Pre-Raphaelites masterpieces.

Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing.
It seems to float ever, for ever,
Upon that many-winding river,
Between mountains, woods, abysses,
A paradise of wildernesses!
Till, like one in slumber bound,
Borne to the ocean, I float down, around,
Into a sea profound, of ever-spreading sound.

1910. Ophelia - John William Waterhouse1910. Ophelia – John William Waterhouse

Final stanza of ‘See Emily Play‘ offers the listener a feeling of isolation; floating forever on a river, in loneliness and sorrow. Tragic destiny awaits Emily, as it awaited other innocent heroines before her; Ophelia, Lady of Shallot, Lavinia… At the same time, these verses may suggest a more personal subject, the one that never stopped occupying Syd’s mind; the end of childhood, days of innocence and playfulness are gone forever. Still, the usage of the same subject, by artists centuries apart, from Shakespeare, Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites to Syd Barrett, shows us that themes in art are eternal, whether it’s a poem, a painting or a rock song.

And what did Emily had to say about the song? ‘Floating forever on a river is a perfect dream image of the soul moving through time and space, through eternity. Of the world at peace in its place in the cosmos. Individual and universe flowing in perfect order with nature at one.

syd 118

I decided to write about this song because it’s beautiful and lyrical, thematically rooted in nature, folklore and other artworks that I love, and most importantly – it is a song I can identify with. In fact, it is the only song I can identify with, especially with the verse ‘She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow’. Then the ‘free games for May’ and I was born in May. For an unknown reason, I’ve felt like a ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ for a long time. One cannot be sad when one is immersed in psychedelia.