Tag Archives: Nature

Autumn in Art: Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it!

22 Nov

“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”

(Letter to Miss Lewis, Oct. 1, 1841, George Eliot, George Eliot’s Life, as Related in Her Letters and Journals)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George – Autumn, 1922

Two Octobers ago I wrote a post called “Different Faces of Autumn” and it was a little selection of autumn themes in art. This year I decided to do something similar. I gathered a few intersting paintings by different painters and all of them have something autumnal in them whether it’s the autumn foliage or pumpkins, autumnal colours, word ‘autumn’ in the painting’s title etc. The first painting here is Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Lake George – Autumn” from 1922. The painting shows the Lake George in Warren County, New York. O’Keeffe’s husband, the famous artist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, had a family house by the Lake George and that is why Georgia had an opportunity to spend her holidays by the lake. The horizontally elongated shape of the canvas is further emphasised by the composition which consists of four horizontal layers of motives; the thin layer of the sky in the far distance, the mountains, the blue lake and the lush trees with autumnal foliage in the foreground. Every motif is simplified and almost abstracted because O’Keeffe never wanted to portray reality or nature realistically with all its details.

Jean-Francois Millet, Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys, 1872-73

From O’Keeffe’s vibrancy through Millais’ melancholy, in this next painting called The gloomy and foreboding mood of Jean-Francois Millet’s painting “Autumn Landscapes with a Flock of Turkeys” is a stark contrast to O’Keeffe’s playful, nearly abstract, and vibrant portrayal of the Lake George in autumn and Millais’ lyrical and melancholy mood in “Autumn Leaves”. Millet painted this during his stay in the village of Barbizon. He wrote to his patron Frederic Hartmann on the 18 February 1873 that his painting for the dealer Durand-Ruel was almost finished, and he even included a brief description of the painting: “It is a hillock, with a single tree almost bare of leaves, and which I have tried to place rather far back in the picture. The figures are a woman seen from behind and a few turkeys. I have also tried to indicate the village in the background on a lower plane.” The tall tree with bare branches, its last leaves being carried off by the wind of change, turkeys walking aimlessly around the field, a mysterious shrouded figure of a woman, the bleak, earthy brown tones; all of this gives a heavy, autumnal mood to the painting. There is a slight worm’s eye view so the gloomy sky and the tree appear even more threatening and sublime.

Winslow Homer, Pumpkin Patch, 1878

Winslow Homer’s watercolour “Pumpking Patch” is a simple scene from everyday life which shows children in a pumpkin patch. Homer painted many watercolours with scenes from countryside life and these artworks bring to life the day to day activities; women gathering eggs or picking apples, milk maids, shepherdesses, reapers, or just children playing. In this watercolour we see a similar composition to O’Keeffe’s painting; the painting is composed of three horizontal layers; the sky, the haystacks and grass. There is a young boy carrying a pumpking across the pumpkin patch and some children on the left are seen sitting down and chatting. One bird in the sky. Just a peaceful countryside scene from a watercolour master that Homer was.

Camille Pissarro, Autumn, Poplars, Éragny, 1894

Pissarro’s painting “Autumn, Poplars, Eragny” brings to mind the views that I see from the window of the train when I am going to my university lectures. Landscapes of meadows, woods, fields, houses and villages, all pass by my eyes swiftly but they awaken artistic feelings inside me because they bring to mind all the simple yet delightful landscapes painted by Impressionists. The clouds in the baby blue sky are smiling and the sun is casting its warm lightness on the trees and the grass. The green leaves on the branches seem to be competing with the yellow and brown ones. Some trees are completely covered in yellow leaves while some are still green; nothing speaks more of autumnal transience than seeing the leaves on the trees change colour until there are no more leaves left on the branches.

Egon Schiele, Autumn Tree, 1911

Schiele’s approach to painting nature was similar to his approach when it came to painting portraits. For him painting a tree was not just painting a portrait of a tree, painting nature was a way of capturing emotional states. The trees, so thin and so fragile, and almost bare, with their long almost skeletal branches, growing from the wet, barren soil, standing still againsts the gusts of the cold autumn wind, they are symbolic of human isolation and loneliness. Schiele’s portrayal of autumn is this drab, cold November autumn when things are staring to be sad and grey. I wrote more about Schiele’s autumn trees in the post here.

Eliot Hodgkin, Large Dead Leaf No. 2, 1966

Eliot Hodgkin, a less known English artist, painted this interesting painting called “Large Dead Leaf No. 2” in 1966 and I think it fits nicely into this little selection of autumn themed paintings. The date is pretty recent considering the nineteenth century paintings in this post. Hodgkin loved to paint still lives of objects from nature such as fruit, vegetables, flowers, and leaves, and he approached his motives in the similar way that Georgia O’Keeffe did; he noticed the little things that most people wouldn’t and his painting style shows this precise observation and curiosity. Just look at how he approached this dead leaf, which some have suggested is a sycamore leaf but I am not sure. The dead autumn leaf is twisting from dryness and Hodgkins captures all its nuances of brown colour and tiny veins. It’s almost an exercise in mindfulness. Here is what the artist said about his approach in 1957: “In so far as I have any conscious purpose, it is to show the beauty of natural objects which are normally thought uninteresting or even unattractive: such things as Brussels sprouts, turnips, onions, pebbles and flints, bulbs, dead leaves, bleached vertebrae, an old boot cast up by the tide. People sometimes tell me that they had never really ‘seen’ something before I painted it, and I should like to believe this… For myself, if I must put it into words, I try to look at quite simple things as though I were seeing them for the first time and as though no one had ever painted them before.

I hope you enjoyed this little selection of autumn in art! Naturally, there are many many other autumn themed paintings which are gorgeous and interesting but this is just my selection for this year.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Canyon with Crows and Other Watercolours

15 Nov

“I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown—no one to satisfy but myself.

(Georgia O’Keeffe)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Canyon with Crows, 1917, watercolour

A few posts ago I wrote about Georgia O’Keeffe’s watercolour “Morning Sky With Houses” (1916) and now I found myself in love with many more of O’Keeffe’s watercolours and I really want to share them with you all. “Canyon with Crows” is my second favourite these days, right after the “Morning Sky With Houses” because I cannot resists purple and orange together. In Georgia O’Keeffe’s vision the canyon is a groovy spectacle, a technicolor dream. In the background the pinks and blues are melting into purple, while the rich river of ruby red is paving its way through the fields of greens. Fields and patches of different colours and a canyon is created. Another wonderful detail here are the crows flying through the sky in a slightly ominous way, as if they warning us of an impending danger.

Georgia O’Keeffe arrived to Canyon, Texas in September 1916 to work as the head of the art department at the West Texas State Normal College. The vastness of the blue sky, the wildness of nature, the red sunsets and red soil, the hot winds blowing across the Texas prairie. The town of Canyon was named after the Palo Duro Canyon which means “hard wood”, referring to the juniper and mesquite trees that grow in that area. The wild, untamed nature of Texas proved to be very inspiring to O’Keeffe. The vibrant contrast between green foliage and red sandstone is stunning. Always adventurous, free and wild at heart, Georgia would spent many Saturdays hiking the risky steep and narrow paths of the canyon. The little town of Canyon with its structured pattern of streets and repetitive rows of houses was not something that O’Keeffe found particularly inspiring. In fact, she not only found it dull but also confusing. On one occassion she went out to mail a letter and she had trouble finding her way home because the streets looked so similar. Her love of wilderness and open spaces will be even more prominent later in life, especially when contrasted with Alfred Stieglitz’s love for the safety and predictability of urban spaces.

The watercolour “Red Mesa” is perhaps the most similar in theme and style to the “Canyon with Crows” but all of O’Keeffe’s watercolours painted in the short time period from 1916 to 1917 have that playfulness and vibrancy which I adore so much. O’Keeffe was particularly fascinated with sunrises. She loved the way the first rays of the sun would come into her room and paint it in soft vanilla yellow shades. Her watercolour “Sunrise” bellow is spectacular, painted in bright red and magenta pink shades. The colours look like they are melting into one another. While this watercolour isn’t realistic, the depiction of the intensity of the sunrise is realistic. Sunrises and sunsets are very strong in colour. Also, today is Georgia O’Keeffe’s birthday so why not enjoy her watercolours!

Georgia O’Keeffe, Canyon with Crows, 1917, watercolour, details

Georgia O’Keeffe, Sunrise, 1916

Georgia O’Keeffe, Pink And Blue Mountain, 1916, watercolour

Georgia O’Keeffe, Sunrise and Little Clouds No. II, 1916, watercolor on paper

Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Mesa, 1917, watercolour

Georgia O’Keeffe – Lake George with White Birch

6 Nov
From 1918 to 1934 the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, the established New York photographer, artist and art-promoter Alfred Stieglitz would spend some time every year, mostly summers, in Stieglitz’s family house north of the Lake George Village in Warrren County, New York. With few interesting exceptions (such as her paintings of the New York Skyscrapers in her Precisionist phase), O’Keeffe’s oeuvre consists mostly of paintings of nature and motives from nature. It is easy to see why she would find inspiration in the trees, the sky, flowery meadows, mountains, hills and barns, and the lake George itself.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George with White Birch, 1921

My favourite painting from her Lake George series is the one above called “Lake George with White Birch”, painted in 1921. I love it so much that I even have a print of it on my wall. The colours are so groovy and autumnal to me. I also love the composition; even though the Lake George is the main motif, it is actually hidden. Every other motif in the paintings takes our focus away from that little area of blue water. The purple mountains in the background and the rolling blue skies above them are so vibrant and exciting. The tall tree in the foreground is painting in a very beautiful, warm shade of green, and then there is the birch tree from the title; a delicate white creature with orange-yellowish leaves. All the colours blend out softly and yet stand out at the same time. To me, this painting, these colours, represent the groovy aspect of autumn when nature is screaming with vibrancy and abundancy. Only in autumn leaves on the same tree can be yellow, orange, red and green all at once.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George – Autumn, 1927

The other paintings from the Lake George series are all vibrant and beautiful, each in their way. “Lake George – Autumn”, painted in 1927, shows an array of truly autumnal colours. The trees in the foreground are painted in fiery shades of red, yellow and orange hues. My other favourite is the painting “Lake George – Autumn” from 1922. I love its deep, rich yet subtle autumnal shades; the red, brown and dark green foliage on the trees in the foreground appears as soft and feathery as a cloud. The blueness of the lake stands as a beautiful contrast to these deep burgundy shades. “Lake George Reflection”, painted in 1921-1922, shows a whole different side to the Lake George. It is hard even to tell in which season it was painted because the candy-like colours look out of this world. It’s almost hard to tell which side is showing the real lake and which the reflection, what is real and what is not.

O’Keeffe was a Mid-West girl, having been born in Sun Prairie, Winsconsin, but her life path took her to both to the Wild West and to the East Coast, and everywhere she went O’Keeffe found motives worthy of exploration. A simple flower would be of much inspiration to O’Keeffe, how inspiring then would a whole lake be and the surrounding landscape and the trees with the changing foliage throughout the seasons.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George – Autumn, 1922

The encounter between Georgia O’Keeffe and Stieglitz happened almost as an accident. Early in 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe sent a letter accompanied with ten of her charcoal drawings to her friend and former classmate Anita Pollitzer who then, without Georgia’s permission, proceeded to share these with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at the time also known for being the promoter of modern art. Stieglitz was amazed by O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings and he instantly wanted to share them with the world. And he did, by ehxibiting them in his famous avant-garde gallery. O’Keeffe was living in Canyon, Texas at the time and the two started exchanging letters.

By 1918 Stieglitz had arranged for O’Keeffe to come and live in New York; he would take care of the financial aspects and O’Keeffe could simply focus on her art. Stieglitz was married and more than twenty years her senior but that didn’t stop their relationship from blossoming. They eventually married in December 1924 and O’Keeffe, as expected for her independent and strong-willed character, didn’t utter the customary “love, honor and obey.” O’Keeffe was a strong and independent person and a true individualist, but her artistic career and her relationship with Stieglitz are interconnected and it is hard not to talk about it while talking about her art. After all, he is the person who recognised her talent and the first person who exhibited her artworks publically. After Stieglitz’s death in 1946 Georgia visited the place one last time to bury his ashes under a pine tree near the shore and this shows just how significant and imbued with symbolic meaning the place and the summers spent there were for the couple.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George Reflection, 1921-1922

There are different ways to look at O’Keeffe’s hollidays in the Lake George Village. Some might look at it as a tedious while others think the quiet, peaceful times spent there helped in shaping her as an artist. In was during those fleeting summer hollidays, in the quietness of the meadows, orchards, in the serene presence of the velvety blue Lake George that O’Keeffe started to be more attuned to the colours, sounds and scents of nature and this is when she first started trying out her later famous closely-cropped portraits of large flowers. In a letter to her friend Sherwood Anderson in 1923 O’Keeffe wrote: “I wish you could see the place here – there is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees – Sometimes I want to tear it all to pieces – it seems so perfect – but it is really lovely – And when the household is in good running order – and I feel free to work it is very nice.

Camille Pissarro – Harvesting Potatoes

13 Oct

Camille Pissarro, Harvesting Potatoes, 1884-85

Danish-French painter Camille Pissarro painted many countryside scenes of peasants working in fields, harvesting hay, tending to their cabbage crops and harvesting potatoes. I have seen at least five different paintings by Pissarro of peasants harvesting potatoes, but the one I chose for this post, painted in 1884-85, is my personal favourite. The playful brush strokes and vibrant primary colours, are captivating to me. Intertwined motives of peasants and potatoes have already found their place in the canvas of another famous nineteenth century artist; in Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Potato Eaters”, which was painted around the same time as Pissarro’s painting, in April of 1885. Van Gogh’s painting shows a group of poor farmers eating their potato supper. It is a dark and depressing work, so dense with brown colour that it looks like it was painted with the very mud from which the potatoes were picked in the first place. The faces of those farmers are so ugly and grotesque, or perhaps I should say ‘realistic’ because that is the way that Van Gogh had intended it, that it brings to mind the paintings of the German painter George Grosz. The damp, claustrophobic, and overcrowded room they live in looks like it never sees the light of day.

Pissarro’s painting, on the other hand, offers a much lighter, merrier version of the countryside life. First of all, the scene is set in the open air, in a garden, with grass and trees. Vast sky is above them and there is plenty of fresh air to breathe. Three farmers, a man and two women, are harvesting their precious goods; potatoes. Well, it looks more like the one women is picking the potatoes and that the man and the other woman are just observing or maybe supervising, looking down at her with their hands on their hips. I can imagine that laughing or having a fun conversation, or maybe complaining about the weather or how poorly the crops have grown. There is also another figure in the background on the left but she isn’t the main focus of the painting. I love how an otherwise boring or drab scene turns out so playful and carefree in Pissarro’s canvas. The landscape and the figures in the painting are painted in little dots and dashes. The colours of the women’s aprons and bonnets are painted in blue, yellow and red which are all primary colors. While most of the canvas is painted in browns and greens, these little pops of bright colour are all that is necessary to excite the eye. There are two lines giving some definiton to the otherwise square-shaped canvas; the vertical line of the tree on the left and the diagonal line that stretches on in the background.

Vincent van Gogh, Potato Eaters, April 1885

J.M.W.Turner – Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff

3 Sep

“Autumn approaches and
The heart
Begins to dream.”

(Bashō, from The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets)

J.M.W.Turner, Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff, 1835-39, bodycolour on paper

The last true month of summer – August – has not even passed yet and already my end-of-summer-blues has started sinking in. I awoke the other day not welcomed by golden rays of sweet sunshine but with a gust of colder breeze. I sneezed… And I realised at that moment that summer is fleeing. A succesion of rainy days is a further reminder and now I cannot escape the realisation. Surely there will be more sunny days in September, but it is inevitable: the clock is ticking the last minutes of the summer of 2022. It’s back to scarves and jackets, cloudy skies, lighted candles, hot teas, wet streets and falling leaves. I feel a huge wave of blue sadness overwhelming me… A poetic kind of sadness and the only way to soothe it is to immerse myself in all things beautiful, poignant, melancholy and with a touch of the sublime.

It’s a wonderful thing then that I recently discovered yet another painting by J.M.W. Turner which I adore. This one is called “Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff” and it was painted between 1835 and 1839 in the medium of bodypaint on paper. Just the title alone catapults me into mad romantic reveries! The words such as “sunset”, “ruined castle” and “cliff” are enough to start the wildfire in my imagination. So so romantical! And the lyrical beauty of the painting perfectly justified the beauty of the title. It’s not a clickbait for sure, you know, a pretty title but a boring painting. Turner has painted many and many sketches and watercolours of castle, some half-ruined and some still intact, but this painting is something else. The rich and warm colours of the painting are warming my soul in a way only beautiful things can. I love the gradient way the colour go from the lavender sky to the pinkish-red-wine coloured ruins of the castle perched on top of the hill, over to the warm orange and yellow shades. The depths of the landscape bellow the castle with a lake I believe are painted in cooler blue and grey tones.

Considering just how abstract this painting is; the castle is not painted in a detailed manner, and there is no clear, strict, defined space such as we may find in some of Turner’s other paintings, the soft, gradient flow of colours really creates a certain vague, dreamy magic. I love how the yellow light appears out of nowhere in the middle of the lavender sky, right above the ruined castle’s highest tower. The light of the sunset is at once illuminating the castle in its warm, almost redish glow, and covering it with a veil of vagueness, mystery and dreams. Just like the castle of the Sleeping Beauty is covered with a veil of brambles, ivy and thorns, the castle in Turner’s vision is covered in a veil of sunset dreams. All of Turner’s watercolour sketches of castles have a vague, dreamy quality to them, but this one is something special or at least it fits my mood at the moment because it’s dreamy, impalpable and … just as all that is happy and beautiful, it is just beyond reach. I feel that if I stretched my arm and tried to touch the castle it would disappear, crumble into dust like a dry moth on the windowsill.

And something else crumbling into dust these days is my summer castle made out of poetry, wildflowers, moonlight and dreams. Just like the roots of a tree are encroaching the pavement or growing under the house, the cold and crooked fingers of the approaching autumn are slowly encroaching my summer castle. Soon the branches will break the windows, the winds blow off the rose wallpapers, and autumn rains soak in the soft carpets, the moss will grow over the birch hardwood floors, and the fog will hide the castle away from me forever… I need something beautiful to cling to and Turner’s paintings of castles and ruins are a wonderful choice.

But the last day of summerNever felt so coldThe last day of summerNever felt so oldNever felt so…
All that I haveAll that I holdAll that is wrongAll that I feel for or trust in or loveAll that is gone

(The Cure, The Last Day of Summer)

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.

Eugene Grasset – Young Girl in the Garden

12 May

“Let it pass; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.”

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Sensible Thing)

Eugene Grasset, Young Girl in the Garden, date unknown, watercolour

I recently stumbled upon this gorgeous watercolour by a Swiss turn of the century decorative artist Eugene Grasset (1845-1917) and I was instantly captivated by its lyrical beauty and the ever so slight tinge of melancholy seen in the girl’s downward gaze and the setting sun in the distance, a sense of finality and regrets.

A young brunette in a garden of orange and green tones is casting her gaze down to the pond. She is deep in her thoughts. Spring is passing and the sunset song of the birds speaks of warm summer days which are soon to come; heavy with heat and rich scents of awakened flowers. The lush, elegant garden with its marble staircases and statues brings to mind John Singer Sargent’s vibrant watercolours of the gardens of the Italian villas painted around the same time as Grasset’s watercolour or a little later. The figure of the girl, and the scenery around her and behind her, work in a beautiful harmony; our eye is not distracted by the natural setting of a garden, but the scenery isn’t too simplistic either. Just notice and admire the details on the trees in the background; how lively and wild their branches that stretch towards the heavy orange sunset clouds! With its cascade of statues and flower bushes the scene of a garden acquires a depth which makes the scene more realistic. The girl’s appearance seems to belong to two different ages; at first glance she is the turn of the century young lady, with her dress with slightly puff sleeves and her flowing hair, but also her attire makes her look like a princess from some distant time, from some far-away, enchanted land… Time has stopped; the garish orange sun is captured in its flight, but the tender breeze caressing the trees whispers of changes that are to come. The rosebud of spring is blooming into a summer rose and in this painful transience some things must be left behind. What could I have done differently, or, how fast have the spring days gone by, the young girl seems to be asking herself, in the sunset of a beautiful warm day.

Motives of girls and flowers are common in the art of the La Belle Epoque and indeed, Grasset’s own oeuvre is littered with illustrations that feature a figure of a beautiful girl in a natural setting. Usually, in those kinds of illustrations, everything is so decorative and flowery that it might be hard to tell which is the flower and which – the woman. Visually, this watercolour fits into the same type of paintings, but its mood is more lyrical and it conveys more emotions. It is not emotionally flat and merely decorative, and that is what kept luring me to this watercolour. It speaks to my soul, for sure.

Camellia: the most deceitful of all flowers (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

15 Mar

My go-to book for the late winter and early spring days is Natsume Soseki’s novel “The Three-Cornered World”; it is soothing, meditative, lyrical and inspiring. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The novel is filled with the narrator’s observations on nature, art and life. Every time I read the novel, something new catches my attention and this time it was this passage on the topic of the camellia flower so I decided to share it today. The narrator talks about the shape, the red colour of the camellia flower, the way it withers, how seductive it is… I never spend much time thinking about camellias, but now I cannot get them out of my mind! Still, there is another reference to camellias in the novel “The Lady of the Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas fils so we can conclude that camellia is a naughty flower. Enjoy the passage bellow from the novel!

Cao Jianlou, Camellia, 1981, ink and colour on paper scroll, 95.2 x 44 cm

“I was now standing beneath the spreading branches of a large tree, and suddenly felt cold. Over on the far bank camellia bushes bloomed among the shadows. Camellia leaves are too deep a green, and have no air of lightheartedness even when seen in bright sunlight. These particular bushes were in a silent huddle, set back five or six yards in an angle between the rocks, and had it not been for the blossoms I should not have known that there was anything there at all. Those blossoms! I could not of course have counted them all if I had spent the whole day at it; yet somehow their brilliance made me want to try.

The trouble with camellia blossoms is that although they are brilliant they are in no way cheerful. You find that in spite of yourself your attention is attracted by the violent blaze of colour, but once you look at them they give you an uncanny feeling. They are the most deceitful of all flowers. Whenever I see a wild camellia growing in the heart of the mountains, I am reminded of a beautiful enchantress who lures men on with her dark eyes, and then in a flash injects her smiling venom into their veins. By the time they realise that they have been tricked it is too late.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858), Camellia and Bullfinch, c 1833

No sooner had I caught sight of the camellias opposite than I wished I had not done so. Theirs was no ordinary red. It was a colour of eye-searing intensity, which contained some indefinable quality. Pear blossoms drooping despondently in the rain only arouse in me a feeling of pity, and the cool aronia bathed in pale moonlight strikes the chords of love. The quality of camellia blossoms, however, is altogether different. It speaks of darkness and evil, and is something to be feared. It is, moreover apparent in every gaudy petal. These blossoms do not give the impression that they are flattering you, nor do they show that they are deliberately trying to entice you. They will live in perfect serenity for hundreds of years far from the eyes of man in the shadow of the mountains, flaring into bloom and falling to earth with equal suddenness. But let a man glance at them even for an instant, and for him it is the end. He will never be able to break free from the spell of the enchantress. No, theirs is no ordinary red. It is the red of an executed criminal’s blood which automatically attracts men’s gaze and fills their hearts with sorrow.

As I stood watching, a red flower hit the water, providing the only movement in the stillness of spring. After a while it was followed by another. Camellia flowers never drift down petal by petal, but drop from the branch intact. Although this in itself is not particularity unpleasant since it merely suggests an indifference to parting, the way in which they remain whole even when they have landed is both gross and offensive to the eye. If they continue like this, I thought, they will stain the whole pond red.

Already the water in the immediate vicinity of the peacefully floating blossoms seemed to have a reddish tint. Yet another flower dropped and remained as motionless as if it had come to rest on the bank. There goes another. I wondered whether this one would sink. Perhaps over the years millions of camellia blossoms would steep in the water and, having surrendered their colour, would rot and eventually turn to mud on the bottom. If that should happen, then they might imperceptibly build up the bed of this old stagnating pond until in thousands of years time the whole area would return to the plain it had been originally. Now a large bloom plunged downwards like a blood-smeared phantom. Another fell, and another, striking the water like a shower of pattering raindrops.”

Edgar Degas – Russian Dancers

6 Mar

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel

Without a doubt the motif of a female body, nude or dressed, in various different activities, was Degas’ favourite motif to paint. He made series of paintings portraying ballerinas, laundresses, miliners, women bathing themselves, but a very interesting little series is his pastel drawings of Russian dancers made in 1899.

These pastels are characterised by vibrancy and liveliness and that is exactly what instantly appealed to me about the pastels. The colourfully clad figures of these Russian dancers contrast strongly with the dainty and ethereal figures of ballerinas that Degas had painted previously. In all three of the pastels that I have chosen to present here we seen three or more dancers caught in the movement, dressed in their traditional Eastern European garments. The dancers are situated against a background of nature in verdant greens and yellows so it almost seems as if the dancers are peasant girls dancing on a field, or a meadow in the countryside, naturally and spontaneously, stomping on wildflowers and breathing in the fresh spring air while nearby a brook is murmuring and birds are singing. So convincing is Degas’ portrayal of the dancers that we might almost forget that he saw them at the theatre in Paris. The Eastern European dancers had an exotic appeal to Parisians who, instead of actually travelling there, could simply go to the theatres and cabarets and enjoy the vibrant costumes, strange rhythms and majestic dancing. Even though these pastels are named “Russian Dancers”, the dancers were actually from Ukraine which was at the time under the Russian Empire and Tzar Alexander II had a policy of Russification at the time. Also, to fin de siecle Parisians it was probably all the same so the generic title “Russian Dancers” stayed.

Degas does a wonderful job at both capturing the dancers in movement, and also capturing the subtle details of their wonderful and intricate exotic costumes; white blouses, skirts in orange, pink, yellow, lavender and green, their flower crowns and necklaces. We are truly able to observe the details and feast our eyes on them while at the same time feeling as though we are witnesing the dancers in action. Their volumionous skirts are swirling, their legs kicking in the air; what wild energy these pastels exude! Degas called these pastels “orgies of colour”, and it is easy to see why. I mean, just soak in the colours in the pastel bellow; the green and purple skirts, the lobster-pink of the flowers, the orange beads or the necklace, then the soft pink-yellowish tinted sunset sky in the background. The colours are so well-chosen and spectacular. It is truly a colour study of these dancing girls. In the last pastel there is a lovely contrast of the blue trimming on the pink and orange skirts. Not to mention the dazzling colourful ribbons in the dancers’ hair in the first pastel which also features a lovely, clear blue spring sky.

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, charcoal and pastel, on tracing paper, mounted on cardboard, 62.9×64.8 cm

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel

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.