Tag Archives: Landscape

Beach Scenes in Art: Maurice Prendergast, Winslow Homer, Berthe Morisot, Munch, Boudin, Joaquin Sorolla

29 Aug

“I am longing to be with you, and by the sea, where we can talk together freely and build our castles in the air.”

(Bram Stoker, Dracula)

Maurice Prendergast, Revere Beach, 1897, watercolour

These days my thoughts, like birds flying south, are going out to the sea – the wonderful blue sea that Rimbaud wrote about:

It has been found again.
What? – Eternity.
It is the sea fled away
With the sun.

I dream of pebbles on the beach, waves caressing my feet and sunsets so bright and orange that they leave me blind. Memories of past summers fill my mind; I see the wonderful blue sea trembling before my eyes, the steady yet wild waves, the silvery-white seafoam shining in the rays of sun, the salty scent of the sea tickling my nostrils and the sun warming my skin, a plethora of pebbles and parasols in many vibrant colours, the line which separates the sky and the sea is faraway and out of reach. Filled with all these memories, I thought I would write a little overview of some lovely beach scenes in art, mostly the art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. When I say “beach scenes” I mean scenes of people enjoying their time by the sea, scenes of fun, games and leisure, not the melancholy scenes of beaches by the Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable, or those seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed the sea and ship in all their moodyness and wildness.

Winslow Homer, Beach Scene, circa 1869

Winslow Homer was a very prolific American painter whose watercolours of orchards and Caribbean seas I adore. In this oil on canvas painting called “Beach Scene” Homer combines his usual realistic style with some playful Impressionistic touches, especially in the way he explores the natural elements such as the sky, the sea, the seafoam… What I like a lot about this painting is the way the grey colour scheme is combined with the liveliness of the children playing; it’s a contrast which works wonderfully.

Berthe Morisot, At the Beach in Nice, 1882

The second artwork I’ve chosen is this lovely watercolour sketch by the French Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. “At the Beach in Nice” shows a mother and a child under a blue parasol enjoying the vague sketch of what we assume is a beach by the title alone. This watercolour is more like a sketch; it seems to have been painted quickly, it’s more an impression of a moment rather than a contemplative study. There is a sand colour in the lower half of the painting and some blue in the upper half, indicating the sand and the sea. The mother and the child have almost matching blue bonnets, but they seem otherwordly in a way, like a memory or a dream, ghostly a bit.

Eugene Boudin, On the Beach, Trouville 1887

Now, it would be impossible to write a post about beach scenes and the sea without including a painting by the French marine painter Eugene Boudin. This time his painting “On the Beach, Trouville” from 1887 caught my eye. It doesn’t seem to be a sunny, hot day in this scene. The tones and styles of the ladies’ dresses are almost autumnal and the sea in the background is covered in a mist.

Philip Wilson Steer, Young Woman At The Beach, 1887

Philip Wilson Steer has many wonderful beach scenes and seascapes but the one I’ve chosen to include today is a painting called “Young Woman at the Beach”, painted in 1887. I love the lyrical simplicity of this painting: a girl seen from the profile, dressed in a lovely light pink gown, her dark hair flowing in the wind, looking out towards the sea – daydreaming or reminiscing about the gone by days… Her elegant silhouette is set against the background of the glistening sea and the soft vanilla sky. The way the light is painted here, the way it blinds the eyes and makes the waves sparkle with magic is something incredible. When I gaze at the girl in this painting, I can imagine her fantasising about some dream-lover far away and thinking: “I am longing to be with you, and by the sea, where we can talk together freely and build our castles in the air.”

William Merritt Chase, On the Beach, Shinnecock, 1895, watercolour

William Merritt Chase’s lovely watercolour “One the Beach, Shinnecock” from 1895 shows two girls playing in the sand. I love the way their dresses and bonnets are painted, so intensely delicate, like butterfly’s wings. The lonely landscape behind them stretches on and on, made out of sand and grass, making it seem that the girls are all alone in the world, building their castles in the sand, until the gust of September wind blows them away and destroys the fleeting fantasy forever.

Edvard Munch, Young Woman on the Beach, 1896

The wistful and melancholy vibe of Munch’s painting “Young Woman on the Beach” reminds me more of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. I mean, there is certainly no playfulness, leisure or joy here, but I still decided to include it because it shows that the sea can be a vessel not only for merriness but also for contemplation. The sea, with its eternal, never-changing, song of the seawaves, its persistence and its moodiness and changeability can awake all sorts of emotions inside of us. No words are needed to understand how this young woman feels because the painting says it all. The young woman’s back is turned against us and we can’t see her face, but we can feel what she is feeling and thinking, whilst standing here all alone by the sea, her silhouette in a white dress set against the infinite blueness of the beach.

Maurice Prendergast, Children at the Beach, 1897, watercolour

The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

(Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls)

Now, another cheerful watercolour by Maurice Prendergast! The watercolour shows exactly what the title straightforwardly says: “Children at the Beach”. In Prendergast’s watercolour figures are often just blots of colour but this is what . No other painter can make the blue colour look so warm and cheerful; Prendergast’s blue is like yellow, it’s a sunflower or a ray of sun, he infuses it with a playful, carefree, childlike energy. I especially love the playful way the sky and the clouds are painted in this one, truly stunning way with the brush.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Niña (Girl), 1904

Joaquin Sorolla is known for his playful and realistic beach scenes were children are seen running around, chasing each other and playing, but something about his painting “Girl” from 1904 spoke to me more. While the children in the background are playing and running into the waves, she is standing in wet sand, the waves caressing her feet, and looking out to the horizon. Is she gazing at the clouds, or is a distant ship passing by? We will never know, but her dreaminess tingled with wistfulness is very poignant to me.

Denman Waldo Ross, The Beach, about 1908

The most interesting thing about Denman Waldo Ross’s painting “The Beach” is, for me, the composition: the way the sandy beach takes up most of the space on the canvas and that line of turquoise in the background indicating the sea. The figures on the beach, the ladies in white gowns, with their parasols and bonnets, are all placed in a cascade manner and this pattern is repeated in the turquoise and lilac-blue lines of the sea and the sky.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

(KIate Chopin, The Awakening)

John Constable – Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea)

22 Aug

“My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.

(Mary Shelley, Mathilda)

John Constable (1776–1837), Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-28), oil on paper, 22.2 × 31.1 cm

English painter John Constable painted many interesting landscapes but the most beautiful, the most majestic and awe-inspiring, to me, are his seascape studies painted in Brighton around 1824-28. The most dramatic of these seascape studies is the painting you see above called “Seascape Study with Rain Cloud” or sometimes simply called “Rainstorm over the Sea”. The painting shows the sea and the vastness of the sky above it in the moment of a rainstorm. The rough, sketchy look of the sky attests to the quick manner in which the painting was executed, but still there is precision and confidence in the way the dark, threatening clouds were captured so as to inspire awe and the feeling of the sublime. The sea here takes up very little space of the canvas while almost the majority of it is dedicated to the portrait of the roaring clouds heavy with anguish and rain. It is in these moments, very much loved by the Romantics, that nature reveals its raw power. The clouds are black at parts and the vertical motion of the brushstrokes helps to convey the wildness of the transient moment of the summer rainstorm over the sea. Constable had a particular penchant for observing and portraying clouds, in all their shapes, colours and moods, and this is evident in these seascape studies.

John Constable, Seascape Study: Brighton Beach Looking West, ca. 1824-28

Another seascape study painted in the 1824-28 period is the painting called “Seascape Study: Brighton Beach Looking West” which shows two tiny female figures standing on the desolate beach and looking out at the sea. Their dresses are windswept as they admire the breaking of the waves. Our eye stretches from the soft seafoam in the shallow sea in the foreground all the way to the dark blue deep sea in the background. The diagonal line which visually separated the beach from the sea slightly curves in the background and, again, more than the half of the canvas is occupied by the sky with the delightful white clouds. Their whiteness is echoed by the whiteness of the sea foam and it is just so exciting to see touched of white colour here and there, they enlived everything. These beach scenes make me think of the film “Me Without You” (2002) which is set in Brighton in the early 1980s, in some scenes the girls are seen walking on the Brighton pier or walking by the sea.

John Constable, Seascape Study: Boat and Stormy Sky, 20 July 1828

Above we can see yet another wild and untamed portrayal of a stormy sky over a raging sea. This is a little less known painting by Constable but interestingly we know the exact date it was painted, the 20 July 1828, which is amazing.

The reason behind Constable’s constant visits to Brighton was the frail health of his wife Maria. They all hoped she would find peace and serenity in the melliflous music of the sea waves and the fresh, salty sea air. Maria and their six children stayed in Brighton for lenghtly periods of time on and off in the period from 1824 to 1828; she gave birth to their seventh and last child in January that year and finally succumbed to consumption in November. Constable would split time between London and Brighton and, interestingly, he had mixed feelings about Brighton. At times he wrote that Brighton was “perhaps no spot in Europe where so many circumstances conducive to health and enjoyment are to be found combined“, and other times he complained at how touristy and hectic it was, offering no serenity for his artistic endeavors: “Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London. The magnificence of the sea, and its (to use your own beautiful expression) everlasting voice is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stage coaches – gigs – ‘flys’ etc – and the beach is only piccadilly …. By the sea-side … in short there is nothing here for the painter but the breakers – & the sky – which have been lovely indeed and always [various].

John Constable, Brighton Beach, 1824, oil sketch

The third seascape study I’ve chosed fro this post is this simple but fascinating oil sketch called “Brighton Beach”, painted in 1824. The canvas is distinctly elongated which gives the painting a panorama-like view of the beach. The mood is definitely daker in this painting than in the previous one; the sky and the clouds are a much darker shade of blue and this stormy mood brings to mind the hypnotic sounds of the Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is my go-to rainy day album.

Alfred Sisley – Fog, Voisins

13 Jan

Every day the fog gets thicker and thicker around the house. It has now covered the trees whose branches brush against the edge of the terrace. Last night I dreamed that, through the cracks of the doors and windows, the fog was slowly leaking into my room, diminishing the color of the walls and the furniture, filtering into my hair, and sticking to my body, as it dissipates everything, absolutely everything…

(María Luisa Bombal, The Final Mist)

Alfred Sisley, Fog, Voisins, 1874

What a drab month January is! These lonesome and cold winter days I find myself captivated by Alfred Sisley’s dreamy and atmospheric painting called “Fog, Voisins”, painted in 1874.

In 1871, Sisley settled in the little village of Voisins which is situated near Louveciennes which, interestingly, is the place where Anain Nin had lived with her husband at the time she met Henry Miller in 1932. “Fog, Voisins” has none of the love and drama that is found in Anais Nin’s life and diary, for Sisley wasn’t the painter of intense emotions and dramatic scenes. Instead, he devoted his life to portraying landscapes in all their changing beauty. This dreamy landscape shows a garden in fog; trees, bushes and flowers all arising from the veil of mist that covers everything. The contours of objects conceal more than they reveal, they are merely hints of what is there, ghostly and ephemereal. The colours Sisley uses here are a harmony of greys and blues, with only the pink and yellow flowers in the bushes in the foreground being the only exception. The tree on the right is painted in dark grey tones but the trees on the left are painted in even paler shades of grey, fading away even more, escaping our sight, vanishing into the fog… The figure of a woman working in the garden probably wasn’t something that Sisley saw directly that day in the garden. It’s more likely that the figure was taken from his other sketches of peasants working in nature.

Fog transforms even somehing as mundane as a garden into something poetic and profound. Even in real life, walking through the fog and seeing the distant treetops or a road disappearing, adds a mystical elements to otherwise boring scenery. Bellow you can see some details from the painting. I am continually amazed how just a few careful brushstrokes can create a figure or a tree; a few simple strokes and instantly something very recognisable. Sisley here presents us a typical Impressionist motif; nature, garden, trees, but the real protagonist of this painting aren’t the trees of the peasant woman but the fog itself which envelops the garden with its silvery-blue gauzy veil, hides and distorts, coats the everyday into the magic of dreams. Alfred Sisley, the somewhat neglected Impressionist, stayed true to the spirit of the Impressionism and didn’t stray away like other Impressionists (I’m looking at you, Renoir). This painting is a wonderful exercise in capturing the atmosphere and Sisley did a great job at capturing something as vague as fog. I’m sure it’s hard to paint the effect of fog but Sisley makes it look effortless. Sisley painted many wintery snow scenes, as did other Impressionists, but paintings of fog are perhaps more rare.

Vladimir Varlaj – Red House

10 Oct

Vladimir Varlaj, Red House, 1923

A lonely and mysterious pink house with red windows. Tall crooked trees. A passing train. There is an inexplicable loneliness about this autumnal scene which is very captivating to me. The loneliness is combined with vibrant, almost cheerful colours and this combination gives a sense of strangeness, uneasiness even. The contrast confuses and charms both at once. Strangeness is seeping from all sides of this canvas. Even the viewpoint is strange; we are seeing the scene as if we were standing on the hill, above the railway and the house, hidden behind the trees, or maybe we are one of them. The bare crooked trees come alive in the autumn wind, contorting and stretching their thin branches in all directions, their branches are like long arms trying to grab the stars. The soft gradience of the colours, pink mixing with orange and purple, is flying through the canvas from the unknown misty distances to the foreground, and it looks as if the colour is being carried by the wind. Varlaj transformed what might have otherwise been a drab, depressing scene into an almost magical realism landscape which is more a landscape of the soul than that of nature. The ecstatic pink colour is unsettling, like the laugh of a madman. It has the opposite effect than we might expect from dainty color pink. The red windows on the house are a nice contrast against the pink walls, but the place where the doors ought to be are a hollow space that will suck you in if you come too close, like the mouth opened in a scream in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. And the motif of a train at night passing by without stopping through the strange landscape is perhaps a symbol of the man’s transience, of the passing of life, of the arrival of death.

Vladimir Varlaj (1895-1962) was a Croatian painter and a member of the Group of Four or the Prague Four; the four artists who worked and lived in Prague for a while during and right after the First World War. I have already written about another artist from this group Vilko Gecan here. In 1911 Varlaj started studying in the private school of the Croatian painter and graphic artist Tomislav Krizman, then he studied at the college of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb. In 1915 he was sent to the Russian front and in 1918 he was in Prague. In the 1920s he was back in Croatia, working with passion and eagerness, but sadly, after 1933 he was no longer able to paint because of his illness. The critics and art historians have had a hard time placing Varlaj into a distinct art movement, for his landscapes at times have elements of Expressionism and other times of magical realism. There is an influence of the German New Objectivity painter Alexander Kanoldt whose landscapes had a similar unsetting and strange appeal, but also, without a doubt, Varlaj was painting the state of his soul when he was painting a landscape which is something that the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich was a big proponent of. Some of Varlaj’s landscapes are more tame, continuing the tradition of Croatian landscapes. But other, such as the “Red House” are more moody and romantic, and filled with visual elements that add to the drama such as the nocturnal setting, lonely house by the railway, a passing train, bare trees; the desolation of late autumn is perfectly encapsulated in this painting, and so is the desolation of the artist’s soul. Varlaj was known for destroying his artworks in moments of depression and disillusionment so we are lucky that this amazing painting survived the painter’s madness.

Andrew Wyeth – Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939

3 Sep

“Set sail in those turquoise days…”

(Echo and the Bunnymen, Turquoise Days)

Andrew Wyeth, Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939, watercolour and pencil on paper

This gloomy watercolour by Andrew Wyeth instantly struck a chord with me because it brought to mind the solitary landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and the moody music of Echo and the Bunnymen’s second album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is an all time favourite of mine, and I especially savour it in this time of the year. As someone who is continually seeking the connections between painting and rock music, literature and art, music and literature etc, this is a perfect match in mood, for the sounds of the “Heaven Up Here” transport me to a wet, solitary beach where the sea and the sky meet in a kiss while the dusk is slowly taking over… Wyeth’s watercolour strongly conveys a similar mood, at least to me because the colours are beautifully chosen.

Wyeth, who usually had a penchant for taking an ordinary motif and transforming it into an extraordinary one, took a simple motif of a three master or a ship with three masts and painted a stunning watercolour using a palette of only a few colours, but visually strong and captivating ones. The ship is leaning on its right, the sea waves are strong, they are cradling the ship as if it were a baby in the crib. The nature can easily destroy something man-made, even if it is as big as the ship, and it’s easy to see just how powerless and meaningless the small human figures are compared to the vastness of the sea. The figures here almost appear to be melting into the rest of the scene and they bring to mind the figures in Caspar David Friedrich’s melancholy seascape painting though Wyeth’s watercolour is more dynamic and expressive than meditative and dreamy. The combination of the dark colours and the whimsical, playful way the watercolour seemed to be painting itself creates a contrast that stimulates and excites our eyes.

The liquid and often capricious medium of watercolour is perfect for this kind of a scene because it vividly portrays the sea waves, better than a dry medium of pastel would, for example. When you gaze at these dark and murky waters you know they were painted with water, you can imagine the brush heavy with drops of rich colour hitting the surface of the paper and leaving a rich, dense trace which grows paler as the stroke gets longer… The greedy paper takes in the colour just as the sand on the beach drinks in the water of the sea. I feel that watercolour can translate the mood of melancholy, isolation and gloom better than other mediums. Wyeth was only twenty-two years old when he painted this watercolour; the same age as Echo and the Bunnymen’s singer Ian McCulloch when he sang the lines “set sail in those turquoise days…” from the above mentioned album. In 1937, at the age of twenty, Wyeth had his first one-man exhibition of mostly monochromatic watercolours. Seeing the gorgeous “Three Master Aground” we needn’t be surprised that the exhibition was a huge success and that all the watercolours were sold.

Vincent van Gogh – Die in the Summertime

29 Jul

“Every time I stare into the sun
Trying to find a reason to go on
All I ever get is burned and blind…”

(Chris Cornell, Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart)

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, July 1890

Exhausting heat of summerr day. Golden wheat against the electric blue sky. A crooked, brown path through the wheat that leads to nowhere. Crows flying aimlessy, low above the wheat field – without direction, without control. Their hoarse cawing disturbs the otherwise heavy silence in the field. No trace of wind. The sky is turning a darker shade of blue with each passing moment. This is not the tender, soft baby blue sky from a Monet painting. This is not a tame wheatfield. These wild, energetic, passionate brushstrokes are not for the faint of heart. Thick, quick, short strokes are a work of an artistic maniac who is led by emotions that arose from a soul as troubled and dark and deep as a waterwell. Dark clouds are pressing down down to the ground and it all feels dense and claustrophobic.

This very dramatic painting was painted on the 10th July 1890, and is, unfortunately, not the last painting Vincent van Gogh painted, although it is one of his best and one of his most emotionally raw. Vincent died on the 29th July 1890 and there is a tendency to see this painting as Vincent’s suicide note because of the obvious ominous, disturbed mood, and while I agree with that I think it also shows the very thing that Vincent strove to capture on his painting; all the life, energy and vibrancy that was inside him, despite the depression, in his own words: “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. (…) Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners…”

This brooding wheatfield was a visual expression of a huge stream of feelings swelling up inside the artist; the feeling of enormous, incurable loneliness and immense sadness. It might be unusual to use yellow to portray sadness, but this is not the cheerful, harmless yellow we might find in a painting by Fragonard. The ripeness of the field may also symbolise the ripeness of the artist’s life and after ripeness comes either death or decay. The crows add to the ominous feeling of dread and the arrival of death, or the end. As is typical for the paintings he made in the summer of 1890, he used a double-canvas and this horizontally elongated canvas helps in creating the dramatic mood because the sky is pressing down to the field whereas in a vertically elongated painting the sky would have much more space to breathe and shine. It is also important to note that the unusual long form of a painting was typical for the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints which Vincent loved, admired and took inspiration from. This form was just one of the many ways in which he experimented with his art and used the Japanese influence. The final days of Vincent’s life were days of extreme sadness and extreme creativity and this painting, although not his last one, is the explosion of this creativity.

The title of the post comes from the Manic Street Preachers’ song “Die in the Summertime” from their third album “The Holy Bible” (1994):

“Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals
Colour my hair but the dye grows out
I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal
Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene
See myself without ruining lines
Whole days throwing sticks into streams
I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I want to die, die in the summertime, I want to die”

Maurice Prendergast – Two Women Crossing a Field

18 Jul

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing”

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook – Two women crossing a field, 1895-97, watercolour

Two ladies in white dresses are walking through a yellow field. With their dainty parasols and elegant hats they almost look like porcelain dolls. The scene is closely cropped and we don’t get to see much of the nature around them. We don’t even see the sky the way we do in similar paintings by Claude Monet. Instead of a detailed portrayal of clouds and grass, Prendergast focuses on the intense yellowness of the field and offers us a sketchy but joyous scene in nature. The summer’s ripeness and vibrancy are at their peak. The lady’s red sash is dancing in the wind and its vibrant red colour contrasts beautifully with the yellow and white. Prendergast wonderfully masters the colour scheme where each colour brings out the vibrancy of the other. All of Prendergast’s watercolours have an uplifting effect on me and I really love how he wasn’t shy about using all the rich shades of colours. His love of raw, bright colours and flatness comes from his years of working in commercial arts. The watercolour sketches in the Boston sketchbook were all made after his return from Paris where he was introduced to the art of Aubrey Beardsley, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, but despite all these influences Prendergast returned to America with a vision of art that was playful, childlike, vibrant and completely his own. He took the Impressionist motives of leisure and nature but decided to portray them in the medium of watercolours instead of the traditional oil on canvas. This particular sunny, summery watercolour has been on my mind for a long time now and I thought what better time to write about this lovely watercolour than in the warm, yellow month of July? To end, here is a very fitting poem by Arthur Rimbaud called “Sensation”:

On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.

Johan Christian Dahl – The Eruption of Vesuvius

8 Jul

“a smoke by day and a fire by night”

Johan Christian Dahl, The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1824

The ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered with a thick layer of volcanic ash after the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Covered in ash, forgotten and asleep for more than a thousand years Pompeii was rediscovered in the mid eighteenth century and very soon many artists, wanderers and explorers started visiting the area. One of such curious wanderers who visited the Mount of Vesuvius was the Norwegian Romantic painter Johan Christian Dahl. In 1820 the prince Christian Frederik invited Dahl to join him in Naples and Dahl, despite being busy courting a young lady called Emilia, joyously agreed. He quickly married Emilia and travelled to Italy the next day and stayed there for the next ten months. In Italy Dahl finally discovered the vibrancy of colour and the light that would forever change his approach to painting. And he arrived just in time to see the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius on Christmas Day in 1820. This must have been an awe inspiring sight, just on the edge between danger and excitement, and Dahl quickly captured what he saw in an oil sketch, a sketch he would later use to paint the big painting you can see above.

The volcanic eruption is exactly the kind of wild, raw energy of nature which the Romantics loved and Dahl beautifully captures this energy in his painting. A dull, brown rocky scenery takes up almost half the painting, but then in the upper left corner the big explosion of colours makes up for the dullness of the rocks. Hot, thick red lava and smoke are portrayed with such quickness, rapture and immediacy, even though the painting was finished four years after Dahl had actually seen the volcano erupting. The smoke is built of feathery soft shades of white and grey with a few touches of blue. In the upper right corner we see the bay of Naples, so serene and safe compared to the erupting volcano. Two men are portrayed observing the eruption, and three other, along with donkeys, are waiting on a distance. The appearance of human figures isn’t something we see often in these types of romantic landscapes but they are visually useful because they show us just how small and insignificant man is compared to the wild, and often fickle nature. Dahl’s painting is just one of many Romantic landscapes which express the sublimity of nature. A raging volcano with smoke and lava brings out that wonderful feeling of awe and terror that the romantics loved so much. One such romantic couple who also visited the Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii in 1819 were Mary and Percy Shelley:

Mary, Shelley, and Claire arrived in Naples in December, they moved into one of the most beautiful houses in the city, No. 250 Riviera di Chiaia, which Shelley had rented with the hope of pleasing Mary. It was rumored that the ruins of Cicero’s villa were right under their window. To both Shelleys, the grand old senator stood for the freedom of the Roman republic and was an icon of hope. Nestled below the slopes of Vesuvius, which, as Shelley said, was “a smoke by day and a fire by night,” Naples had public gardens and boulevards lined with palm trees. Across the sea, they could see the outline of a mysterious island drifting in and out of the mist. This was the isle of Circe, as local lore had it, the beautiful temptress who lured Odysseus into her bed and kept him there for seven years. Another legend was that Virgil had composed his gentle, pastoral poems here, The Georgics. Mary delighted in “looking at almost the same scene that he did— reading about manners little changed since his days.” Together, she, Claire, and Shelley explored the famous sites: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Lake Avernus, and the Cumean Sybil’s cave. (…) The trio climbed Vesuvius and gazed out over the city’s steeples and red roofs to the sea. “A poet could not have a more sacred burying place [than] in an olive grove on the shore of a beautiful bay,” Mary wrote in her journal that winter, looking out at the pale blue water.” (Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws)

Maybe at first sight this painting isn’t that exciting, but just look at all these details! This red, although not used in abundance, is so vivid I can just feel it.

John Singer Sargent: Watercolours of the Gardens of Villa di Marlia in Tuscany

3 Jul

It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time.

John Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca – A Fountain, 1910

American painter John Singer Sargent was one of the many American and British artists who was seduced by the spirit of Italy. The Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and John Keats, and Victorian era writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Robert Browning all marvelled in the charms of Italy. Still, Sargent, having been born in Florence, had a special connection to Italy; the romance of Ancient ruins, the beauty of Renaissance palaces, the majestic paintings by Titian and Tintoretto, the lush splendour of gardens and parks, the warm sunlight and golden air woven with dreams and nostalgia, were things that Sargent was familiar with but that also excited him and inspired him.

It was the mixture of age and cultivated Beauty which made the landscape of Italy so enchanting and alluring: “The artists’ love affair with Italy had this need for an understanding not possible in the raw New World Story had found prosaic. It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time. Time, in Italy, must have seemed universal and mythic. After a sufficient number of histories, after Etruria, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, time underwent a curious compression which was also an infinite extension.” (Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture – American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875) Even though Sargent is mostly known for his glorious oil on canvas portraits, he was also immensely prolific in watercolours, having painted more than two thousand of them. The watercolours capture a wide range of motives, from the alligators of Florida, gondolas of Venice, to the beautiful gardens of Italian villas.

Watercolour “Villa di Marlia Lucca – Fountain” is one such work which beautifully captures the fragment of a carefully cultivated garden of the Renaissance villa di Marlia in Lucca in Tuscany where Sargent stayed at the time these watercolours were created. Sargent chose to portray the old parts of the garden which were not renovated but rather showed the true spirit of the times in which they were created. In this watercolour you can almost hear and feel the water of the fountain refreshing the garden, the scent of lemons and thyme colouring the air, the patches of muted yellow on the balustrade are the moss that speaks of the longevity and tradition of the garden; it wouldn’t be there if it was freshly built. The two sculptures in the fountain are the river gods representing the rivers Arno and Serchio. Sargent beautifully captures the play of lights on the water and the lush scenery in the background. The scene is also skillfully cropped, almost like a photographs; the horizontal line of the balustrade in the foreground beautifully frames the painting. Another lyrical watercolour that pays tribute to the past shows the statue of Daphne in the garden of the Villa Varramista. With her hands reaching towards the sky, Daphne looks vivid and almost alive.

John Singer Sargent’s Villa di Marlia, Lucca – The Balustrade, 1910

John Singer Sargent – Villa di Marlia, Lucca, 1910

John Singer Sargent, Daphne, 1910

Vincent van Gogh – Orchard in Provence

11 Apr

“Trees should be allowed to grimace.”

(Vincent van Gogh)

Vincent van Gogh, Orchard in Provence, 1888, pencil, pen and reed pen and ink, watercolour, on paper, 39.5 cm x 53.6 cm

This seemingly simple, spontaneous and even impulsive little pen and ink sketch by Vincent van Gogh is actually a very important and very beautiful portrait of trees which are all part of the orchard in Provence and yet they are also individual creatures with their uniquelly twisting, contorting branches and leaves. Vincent van Gogh always painted directly from nature and he was a very passionate and observant individual, but this way of seeing and portraying the trees came from the artists of the Far East. Their philosophy, when it came to portraying a tree, was that it was not enough to paint a tree as it was before your eyes, but to capture its essence, its uniqueness, its spirit. The tree had to resemble a real tree, but the artist had to transform the physical appearance of a tree into a poetic portrait of a tree which would speak to the viewer of its character. European tradition of copying from nature and achieving perfection was the complete opposite to the philosophy behind the art of the Far East. The Chinese painter and poet Su Tung-po who lived in the 11th century wrote “Above all, trees, bamboo, and so on, possess a constant, characteristic form, and furthermore express a principle, which it is possible to offend gravely against; if the artist falls short of it, the transgression is far worse than if he fails to render the external form adequately.” I think we can all agree that this is true, how often have you seen something that is painted correctly, without a flaw, and yet is has no soul? Vincent’s sketch is soulful and rich in expression and you can tell he drew it with ease and confidence, there is no hesitation there; his twigs and swirling tree tops look almost like some beautiful, strange calligraphy. Also, it is important to note that the patches of white watercolour that you see stand out against the tan colour of the paper but that is because the paper changed colour over the years.