Tag Archives: Landscape

John Constable – Romantic Ruins of Hadleigh Castle

6 May

Sublime landscapes with romantic ruins are what fills my heart with delight, for nature by itself is plain and mundane. Ruin of a Medieval castle or an abbey overgrown with ivy, lovers sitting in forest glades bathed in silvery moonlight, rivers whose calm flow brings forgetfulness, sight of a lonely figure amidst wild nature; a landscape unadorned with any of these things seizes to excite me. And is there a better age in art for all these qualities than Romanticism?

John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9, London, Tate Gallery

John Constable’s aim in painting landscapes was to capture the nature with honesty, to capture its beauty and simplicity without showing off in an arrogant Turner way. He is not the representative in portraying nature with passion, lyricism or melancholy; you should seek those qualities in paintings of Turner, John Martin or Caspar David Friedrich, but at one point, in 1828, he felt that his life and art were in a state of ruins and he sought in nature a vision of his own soul and he found it in a desolate scene of a Hadleigh Castle in Essex.

The brooding tower is a sinister sight indeed, seen after a stormy night; wrapped in dark thoughts, breathing in the air of decay, its glory days forgotten and only a corpse of stone walls remains, the crows flying by its only friends in centuries of solitude… The sky is a commingled mass of whites and blues, and the marshlands are drowning in darkness. A vague figure of a shepherd with his dog in the left corner, and cows and cliffs painted carelessly. The most peculiar thing about this oil sketch is the way it is painted; almost expressionistic with those thick, careless brushstrokes, heavy, thickly impasto way of applying colour with no constraint. And it’s sublime and sombre mood has since drawn comparisons to Rembrandt’s “The Mill” (1645-48). The scene seems so out of place in Constable’s usual peaceful countryside scenes painted in a very detailed way with fine brushwork, that one can’t help but wonder about this strange change of style and theme.

John Constable, Maria Bicknell, 1816

This peculiarly dark mood of the painting is caused by the events in Constable’s private life. His dear wife Maria, who was of fragile health, fell ill after giving birth to their seventh child in January 1828, and in November the same year she died from consumption. Constable was devastated; he started dressing in black and  succumbed to melancholy. The death of his angel, as he called her, changed everything. They married in autumn of 1816, when he was forty years old, after their friendship grew into deep love. But now, after only twelve years of happiness, Constable was a lonely, depressed figure, wrapped in gloomy thoughts, tormented by anxiety and brutal self-questioning of his life and career. Nothing made sense any more, and he wrote in a letter to his brother Golding “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me“.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, sketch, 1814

As you can see from the rather small pencil sketch, about 8 x 11 cm, Constable had visited the sight way before he decided to fully devote to it and paint it on a large, six foot canvas in oils. It seems to me that the distance between two towers is bigger in the drawing than it is in the paintings. Perhaps the reason why he returned to the subject of the Hadleigh Castle after fourteen years lies in the fact that while he visited it for the first time, in 1814, he rapturously wrote to Maria of its beauty. This is what he wrote, on 3 July 1814: “At Hadleigh there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is a really fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland & looking many miles to sea.” After she died, he may have revisited their correspondence, and with tears glistening in his eyes remembered the happier times, and he may have seen the castle as a symbol of those times.

I love the sketch, specially the birds flying around the tower and the clouds, and something about it appeals me more than the finished painting. I know what it is; in the drawing there is no figure of a shepherd and the cows; a motif so utterly Constable and so unfitting for the Gothic mood of the sublime. As much as I like the painting, I would have preferred to see it painted as a nocturnal scene, in dark magical blues with large moon shining on the horizon and a distant figure of a horseman, and the moonshine peeking through the old ruin of a tower, but that wouldn’t be Constable any more.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night, 1828-29

Now you can see what an impact personal life and tragedies can have on an artist, and that even a simple landscape is filled with secrets that leads us to the artist’s soul. Constable’s saddest state resulted in what is perhaps the most poetic, the most ‘sublime’ out of all his paintings, but the wild and gloomy sketch version from the Tate Gallery isn’t the only one. He painted another version of the same scene, pretty much the same, which is more in tune with Constable’s typical refined, sleek style; gloom is subtler, brushstrokes are more controlled, and you can see the details more clearly, such as the shepherd and his dog, and the cows, even the sky looks softer and less threatening. So there is a ‘passionate’ version and a ‘tamed’ one. Needless to say which one I prefer.

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Claude Monet – Ode to Water Lilies

28 Mar

I am following Nature without being able to grasp her… I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.

1915. Water Lilies (fr.Nymphéas) - Claude MonetClaude Monet, Water Lilies (fr.Nymphéas), 1915

Surface of the pond is flickering in mystic blue and dreamy green shades, flickering gently as if it was a garment woven from blue topaz and emerald gemstones. These opulent jewel colours could only be compared to the magical silks and velvets that Paul Poiret used in his lavishing, oriental designs. Perhaps the same muse seduced both artists – a muse called ‘Nymphaea’ or ‘Water Lily’. Perchance it’s not a coincidence that these beautiful flowers share a name with Greek divine spirits – Nymphs; nude beauties observed by the Greek god of the wild – Pan. The pond is rustling a silver watery hymn, while the blades of grass, resembling long peridot-green locks of hair, are humming the sweetest notes of spring. Cerulean blue surface, slippery like silk petticoats of a duchess. Rhythmical water rippling. Quiet and deep mystic waters resonate with musical tunes.

Petal by petal, lush white flowers are awakening, their whiteness encrusted with amethyst pink tulle-like skirts. Water lilies are breathing the vivacious air, and exhaling the luscious flowery scents, their petals rustling like delicate silks of Paul Poiret’s divine oriental dresses. Sapphire blue leaves are emerging from the water like dozens of eyes. Sweet scents are pervading the air of this mystical haven. Every brushstroke reveals Monet’s enchantment with his Water Lilies, and the impossibility of discovering their secrets. For Monet, it seems, they were more than just flowers, but muses whose silent whispers he interpreted as invitations to paint them, in the same way he would paint an extravagant woman. And he always satisfied their vanity.

He painted them in all occasions: in morning freshness, just waken up and sleepy. In all their glory of colours when the sun of June hits their petals with its shine. He painted them distressed by the raindrops. Fragile and pale, flickering, in the morning dew. In the evening gatherings when the moon slowly appears in the sky, and they crowd round in the middle of the pond, sitting on their leaves like noblewomen of Venice in their gondolas, instead of masks their faces covered with the veil of night. He painted them surrounded by mystic purple waters, their petals like silvery veils, luscious white flowers resembling Ophelia’s white dress spread on the water in the last moment.

Due to their seductive beauty, it’s hard to tell whether these water lilies are indeed pure botanical creatures or real Nymphs, transformed by some strange spell into static flowers; sleeping beauties on the water. In 1896,  J.W. Waterhouse painted the scene of poor Hylas being abducted by the Nymphs; he portrayed Hylas as powerless against the charms of the Nymphs, and Monet did a similar thing. The massive amount of Monet’s Water Lily scenes serves as an evidence of his lifelong fascination with these serene flowers.

I hope you enjoyed the lyrical mood of this post.

J.M.W. Turner and John Constable’s Approach to Landscapes

15 Oct

The importance of landscape painting changed under the influence of the Romantic movement in the late 18th century, and great artists took the job of elevating this genre of painting to new dimensions as their life goal. Tradition was both an obstacle and help. Two English artists of Romanticism approached this problem differently, though equally interesting and inspirational for generations to follow, those were J.M.W. Turner and John Constable.

Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851Peace – Burial at Sea – J.M.W. Turner, 1842

Turner was a successful artists whose paintings often caused sensation on the Royal Academy. His ambition in life was to reach, if not surpass, the glory of Claude Lorraine’s landscapes. When he died, Turner left all his paintings, drawings and sketches to the English nation, under one condition – that his painting Dido building Carthage (1815) is always exhibited next to the paintings of Claude Lorrain. His comparison is a bit unfair; while the world of Lorrain’s paintings is a world of dreams, undisturbed serenity and simplicity, Turner’s painting, which also reflect fantastical worlds bathed in gold lightness and shining with beauty, radiate not serenity but motion and excitement, his worlds are not those of simple harmonies but of astonishing grandeur. Turner deliberately painted with an aim to captive and amaze the viewer, and his landscape of turbulent seas, storms and fires imply the romantic sumptuousness of nature.

If we take a look at Turner’s painting above ‘Burial at Sea’ the sense of excitement and movement is evident, and limited amount of colours – black, yellow, white and blue were quite enough for Turner to create this dynamic rapture. Objects in Turner’s art are usually shapeless, but as Stephane Mallarme said “To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.” Turner’s sea scenes of boats, storms and waves are here to fulfill the needs of our imagination, not to teach us about boats and boat equipment. Turner’s paintings always portray an emotion.

1838. Ovid Banished from Rome - J.M.W. TurnerOvid Banished from Rome – J.M.W. Turner, 1838

Tradition was always a burden for Constable. It’s not that he lacked the admiration for old masters, but he simply wanted to paint what he saw in front of him, not what Claude Lorrain saw centuries ago. To Constable ideas weren’t of much importance, all that mattered was the truth. Fashionable landscape painters of the time admired painters such as Lorrain and invented a whole set of techniques which allowed them to easily create such works for their bourgeois customers. The formula was simple: a tree in the foreground as a contrast to the vast nature scene in the background, soft brownish and golden shades in the foreground, and the background was suppose to turn pale from blue to white shades. Constable despised all those tricks. And really, where are all those imitation of imitations of landscapes, while Constable remains an important painter of his generation.

It is said that a friend objected to Constable for not using the usual soft ‘violin’ brown shades in the foreground of his paintings, to which Constable replied by taking a violin outdoors and comparing its soft brown shade to the radiant green colour of the grass; the real colour instead of the conventional shades of brown that the audience was accustomed to. But Constable didn’t want to shock the audience, he simply wanted to paint what he saw. Green grass, such a ‘radical move’. His perhaps best known painting ‘The Hay Wain’ shows exactly what Constable wanted to achieve: paint nature with honesty and simplicity by refusing to paint landscapes more impressive than nature itself.

1821. John Constable - The Hay WainJohn Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

Breaking with tradition left the landscape artists with two paths embodied in Turner and Constable. Painters could either become ‘poets’ in painting in search of wild, touching and dramatic effects, or, they could hold onto the real motif and explore it with all their persistence and honesty. Another representative of the first group is my darling Caspar David Friedrich and his poetic, melancholic scenes of forests at night or lovers by the shore. Camille Corot is a good example of the second path: he studied nature attentively and infused his painting with honesty, that way influencing the development of Realism in France.

Which path is more appealing to you? I know some art historians think that the second path achieved something of long-lasting value, but I support the first path because romanticised nature in art appeals to me more.

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.

Romantic Welsh Landscapes – Paul Sandby and Richard Wilson

29 May

I feel as old as the Welsh hills that I love
And yet as empty as the sky above
I am as mournful as the stillness of the sea
I am so full of sorrow
Can something set me free?‘ (Nicky Wire)

1775-1800. A Welsh Sunset River Landscape by Paul Sandby, showing rather better weather than most 'sublime' landscapes1775-1800. ‘A Welsh Sunset River Landscape’ by Paul Sandby

Wales, Romanticism and Nicky Wire’s lyrics; three things that I love finally amalgamated! Did I really need another reason to write this post?

The first thing one can notice in the painting A Welsh Sunset River Landscape is a rather different atmosphere than in the usual ‘romantic landscapes’. Romanticists were infatuated with sublime; wild landscapes, storms, mists, mountains and old ruins; anything unusual and unexplored fascinated them. This painting, however, shows a rather better wetter; Sandby beautifully captured the end of a sunny day – golden sky, mountains and a castle in the background, boats sailing out of the harbour and a dash of trees in the foreground; a scene awfully picturesque but not even a tad bit sublime.

The already mentioned fascination with wildernesses along with a typical romantic wanderlust, prompted British artists to travel to wild and unexplored areas, such as Wales which was discovered by artists and wanderers even before the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands became hot-spots of Romanticism. Spirit of Romanticism first came to the fore in landscape painting and British artists became infatuated with untamed scenery as early as in the 1760s. The situation was different in France where the Neoclassical style was dominant.

1808. Paul Sandby - Pembroke Castle

1808. Paul Sandby – Pembroke Castle

Paul Sandby, an English painter, made his first recorded visit to Wales in 1770. He made three trips to Wales all together; in 1770 and 1771 he visited North Wales and painted the famous Caernarfon Castle, and in 1773 he toured South Wales in the company of Joseph Banks, an English botanist and naturalist. His three short journeys resulted in many pencil sketches, watercolours and oil paintings.

Sandby’s paintings represent the very essence of what the artists found inspirational in Wales and its magnificent nature. From castles and old ruins, sublime mountains and lakes of the north, to the splendid coastline, picturesque hills, the meandering waters of the River Wye and the famous Tintern Abbey; the seductive beauty of Wales compelled artists to capture it on canvas. I already wrote a post about Tintern Abbey – ‘Romantic and Picturesque Tintern Abbey – Its Effect on Art and Poetry‘, so don’t be shy, check it out as it is connected with the topic of this post.

1800. Paul Sandby - Pont-y-Pier near Llanroost, Denbighshire1800. Paul Sandby – Pont-y-Pier near Llanroost, Denbighshire

In Romantic art, nature—with its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes—offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought.

1789. Paul Sandby - Conway Castle1789. Paul Sandby – Conway Castle

1800-1809. Paul Sandby - Welsh Mountain Study1800-1809. Paul Sandby – Welsh Mountain Study

Apart from artists that found inspiration in Welsh landscapes, there was an artist native to Wales who decided to capture its historic and natural beauties – Richard Wilson. Although tremendously influential in his time, even awarded with the title ‘the father of British landscape painting‘ by John Ruskin, painter Richard Wilson and his beautiful landscape paintings have largely been forgotten. Wilson was born in 1714 in Penegoes, Powys, Wales, as a son of a clergyman. He lived in Italy from 1750-57 and that’s when his interest for landscapes blossomed.

Inspired by the Baroque artists Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, Wilson painted Italian and later Welsh landscapes, in turn inspiring many young artists such as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner who later formed the core of Romanticism in British art. Young Turner searched for the exact spots Wilson had painted from so that he could recapture Wilson’s dramatic work. Constable copied Wilson’s technique of moving focus from the building to the scenery.

1770s Richard Wilson - Caernarvon Castle1770s Caernarfon Castle – Richard Wilson

1770-71. Richard Wilson - Dinas Bran from Llangollen1770-71. Dinas Bran from Llangollen – Richard Wilson

1766. Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, Richard Wilson1765-67. Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle – Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson’s painting ‘Snowdon from Llyn Nantille’ is particularly interesting to me, not as much aesthetically as symbolically. In the foreground we can see three boys, three meaningless figures compared to the vast landscape surrounding them, but the background brings us something lavishing – Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. The clouds are drifting around its snow-capped peak, while the lake surface reveals to us the reflection of the mountain. The summit of Snowdon is said to be the tomb of a giant Rhitta Gawr in Welsh folklore. Also, in Arthurian legends, Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur into a lake identified by some as Glaslyn on the slopes of Snowdon. Arthur’s body was later placed in a boat in the same lake to be carried to Avalon.

Another Wilson’s painting, Dinas Bran, shown above, is interesting because it shows the medieval castle Dinas Bran. Again, in Arthurian legends castle Corbenic, the domain of the Fisher King, is identified with a number of places, one of them the Dinas Bran castle itself. If you like the TV series ‘Merlin’ you must have seen the Fisher King’s castle in the episode ‘The Eye of the Phoenix’, one of my favourite episodes. I’m certain that this is not something Wilson had in mind when he painted Snowdon but I just wanted to include these little details because Welsh folklore and Arthurian legends are something that I’m interested in.

1774. The Bard - Thomas Jones1774. The Bard – Thomas Jones

And finally, one peculiar painting that fully embodies the spirit of Romanticism – ‘The Bard’, painted in 1774 by Thomas Jones, another native Welsh artist. Once a pupil of Richard Wilson, Jones became a respectable landscape painter in his own right. The Bard is described as a ‘prophetic combination of Romanticism and nationalism‘ as it shows the emerging combination of the Celtic revival and Romanticism. The painting, inspired by Thomas Gray’s poem of the same name, brilliantly captures the mood of the poem. The poem and the painting make a great pair, combining elements of sublime, picturesque and Gothic, they foreshadowed the Romantic movement.

John Constable – Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows

22 Apr

1829-30. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows - John Constable1829-30. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows – John Constable

The beauty and value of this painting were overlooked because it was thought that a fan had painted it in homage to the celebrated landscape painter John Constable. However, it was revealed only a few months earlier that this painting was indeed painted by Constable. This is certainly not the reason why this painting allured me, I’d love it even if it was painted by a fan and not Constable himself.

Despite the fact that Constable was a Romantic painter, he did not strive to paint from his imagination which was a habit of all Romanticists, he always painted what he saw but his visions of sweet little cottages, trees, skies and the Salisbury Cathedral which he had painted so many times obviously posses a certain charisma because they haven’t been forgotten even after two centuries. Constable said ‘The world is wide, no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.

First glance at this painting filled me with excitement. I have a great deal of affection for powerful and tranquil landscapes; storms, wild trees, mystical buildings in the background, old ruins… Sky plays an important role in all of Constable’s paintings. Here, it is painted in wild and energetic brushstrokes. Dark and massive clouds seem threatening. Trees look so crooked and strange and the mysterious cathedral in the background, painted in sharp lines and grey tones, only adds to the overall gloomy atmosphere. I started writing my story again and this painting is my main inspiration for describing landscapes.