Tag Archives: Neoclassicism

Ode to Indolence – Dolce Far Niente – Sweet Doing Nothing

10 Apr

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Silver Favourites, 1903

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

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

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1897

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

John William Godward, Summer Idleness: Day Dreams, 1909

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

MY FAVOURITES:

John William Godward, When the heart is young, 1902

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

John William Godward, Mischief and Repose, 1895

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

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1906

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

John William Godward, Idleness, 1900

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

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

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

John William Godward, Tranquillity, 1914

John William Godward, In the Days of Sappho, 1904

John William Godward, An Idle Hour, 1890

John William Godward, The quiet pet, 1906

John William Godward, Summer Flowers, 1903

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

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

John William Godward, Playtime, 1891

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, In the Tepidarium, 1881

Charles Edward Perugini, Dolce Far Niente, 1882

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

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente, 1880

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

Auguste Toulmouche, Dolce Far Niente, 1877

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

Gothic Imagination of Henry Fuseli – Shakespearean Scenes

23 Oct

Henry Fuseli not only announced the art movement of Romanticism with his painting The Nightmare, but also created one of the most original, fantastical and darkly beautiful paintings of Romantic era, influenced some other Romantic minds such as William Blake, and indulged his Gothic imagination and his interest in Shakespeare by illustrating some of his plays in a beautiful macabre manner. Also, Fuseli’s work is ideal for all you lovers of sublime in art.

1790. Henry Fuseli - Titania and Bottom Titania and Bottom, Henry Fuseli, 1790

Although Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was born almost thirty years before the majority of Romantic painters, his most famous work ‘The Nightmare‘ (1781) is almost avant-garde; very progressive in many aspects – its theme, dark eroticism, dreams, the unconsciousness, mysteries, all announced the arrival of a new art movement that would put emphasis on the subjective, intimate, mysterious and emotional – the Romanticism. One of the four main themes of Romanticism is the ‘mystical and occult’; a theme which seems to have been a particular favourite of Henry Fuseli, a lover of the night sky and supernatural in art.

As an artist Fuseli connects the spirit of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. While his paintings are conventionally executed, and his compositions fairly classical, his themes are certainly not. Es evident from his most famous work, The Nightmare, he was fascinated with fantastical and horrifying motifs, and, just like Romanticists, he showed a particular interest in history and illustrated scenes from Shakespeare’s plays just like William Blake who created drawings and paintings under the influenced of Fuseli. It’s not surprising that Shakespeare’s vivid imagination was appealing to Fuseli, if we think about some of the plays he has written: gloomy Scotland in the 11th century, a selfish and ambitious king, three witches and a ghost of a murdered man – Macbeth, tragic lovers and victims of two families in feud, passions and suicides – Romeo and Juliet, a play about jealousy, reality and surreal events, lovers and death of Desdemona – Othello, and of course the first existentialist character in literature, insanity, skulls, ghosts, poor maiden Ophelia – Hamlet: it’s easy to see why Shakespeare’s themes would be appealing to Fuseli and Romanticists in general who considered Shakespeare as their role-model.

Dark, dreamy and fantastical is the atmosphere of Fuseli’s illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays. It seems like the characters on the painting are brought to focus, painted in a typical late eighteenth, early nineteenth century manner, while the rest of the scene is engulfed in darkness: this way Fuseli shows his specialty in painting technique, the play of light and shadow. It suits perfect for these Shakespeare scenes because it seem like the characters live in a world of darkness, and also, Fuseli may be reminding us that these paintings portray scenes from plays. Characters are in the spotlight, and the surrounding darkness perhaps symbolises the far corners on the stage. Fuseli excels in setting his figures in motion, and he spent seven years in Rome so his paintings of bodies are all due to studying Michelangelo’s work.

The Dream of Queen Katherine (from William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’, Act IV, Scene 2) (fragment), Henry Fuseli

1809. Romeo stabs Paris at the bier of Juliet - Henry FuseliRomeo stabs Paris at the bier of Juliet – Henry Fuseli, 1809

1793-94. Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head. By Henry Fuseli,Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head, Henry Fuseli, 1793-94

1780-85. Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost of Hamlet's Father. Henry Fuseli,Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, Henry Fuseli, 1780-85

1812. Johann Heinrich Füssli - Lady Macbeth with the DaggersLady Macbeth with the Daggers, Henry Fuseli, 1812

Romantic Dilemma: Beautiful and Sublime in Art (Immanuel Kant)

9 Oct

In his book ‘Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime‘, Immanuel Kant described two kinds of finer feelings; the feeling of the sublime and the feeling of beautiful. Intrigued by this ‘romantic dilemma’, I instantly thought of artworks that embody these finer feelings.

1774. The Bard - Thomas JonesThe Bard, Thomas Jones, 1774, National Museum of Wales in Cardiff

According to the dictionary, sublime is something ‘of very high quality and causing great admiration’. Something that’s beautiful is ‘pleasing to the senses or to the mind‘. Tall oaks, thunderstorms, mountain heights, shadows, the movement of storm clouds and old ruins are sublime. On the other hand, Greek vases, Venus in art, flowery alleys and trimmed hedges are beautiful. In correlation to this, then, English style gardens are sublime and French gardens are beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful. Sublime has to be something big and simple, while the beautiful can be small but flamboyant and decorated. Feeling of sublime touches the man, while the feeling of beautiful enchants him. In literature, we could compare Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with the feeling of sublime, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with beautiful.

Furthermore, Kant explains how men have mostly feelings for the sublime, while women lean towards that which is beautiful. Friendship has mainly the character of the sublime, but love between the sexes, that of the beautiful.‘ Even with physical appearance, Kant noticed the types; people with fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair are closer to beautiful, while darker skin and dark eyes evoke a feeling of sublime.

1790. Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard - Philip James De LoutherbourgVisitor to a Moonlit Churchyard, 1790, Philip James De Loutherbourg

Moreover, in the last chapter of the book, Kant describes how different nationalities have different finer feelings. The Italians and the French are distinguished by the feeling of beautiful, while the Germans, the English and the Spaniards posses a feeling for sublime. Dutch people have no finer feeling, and put value only on that which is useful in some way. Kant explains it further, stating that the feeling of beautiful can either be: enchanting and touching – that suits the Italians, or cheerful and spicy, which suits the French.

When it comes to the feeling of sublime, Kant says that it leans towards dreadful or noble. He attributed dreadful sublime to the Spaniards, and noble sublime to the English, whose actions are guided by principles rather than impulses. He described Germans as possessing a fine blend of both sublime and beautiful, a mix which is more appropriate then the raw power of each separate feeling. Kant only cursorily touched the subject of arts. However, he did explain that the Italian geniuses specially distinguished themselves in music, painting, architecture and statuary. Pleasantry, comedy, satire saturated with laughter, flirtation of lovers, light and naturally fluid style is typical for France. On the other hand, profound thoughts, tragedy, epic poems, all found their place in English literature. I think there is some truth in this, if you only compare Molliere with Shakespeare, or gardens in France and England.

1852. Faust’s Dream by Carl Gustav Carus Faust’s Dream by Carl Gustav Carus, 1852

Kant’s theory proves the most accurate if one compares two completely opposite art movements; Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Neoclassicism, and its predecessor Rococo, was chiefly dominant in France with artists such as Ingres, Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Jacques-Louis David, and the Italian Antonio Canova, fellow lover of beautiful, all setting this style characterised by pure beauty, simplicity and symmetry of compositions. Portraits of royalty or king’s mistresses such as the portrait of Madame de Pompadour, are good examples of beauty in art. These painting evoke grandeur, richness, coquetry. Still, after a while these painting are sore to the eyes: how many cupids, elegant ladies with rosy cheeks, garden statues in knock-off Greek-Roman style and fine dresses, can a human mind put up with?

In contrast, Romanticism first appeared in Germany in works of Goethe and Schiller, and in England in works of Lake Poets, William Blake and Ann Radcliffe, exactly in those nations that valued the feeling of sublime. The difference with the French tastes is easy to see, just compare the works I’ve mentioned above with the sublime and wistful landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich or Carl Gustav Carus or William Blake’s fanciful illustrations. Beautiful could exceed into kitschy, and sublime could lead to Gothic and grotesque.

Examples of ‘Beautiful‘ in art:

1759. madame de pompadour -BoucherMadame de Pompadour, Boucher, 1759

The Progress of Love, The Confession by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), 1771-73

Vestal Virgins, by Jean Raoux (French, 1677–1734), 1727