Tag Archives: oil on canvas

Jan Steen – The Lovesick Maiden

13 Dec

Today we’ll take a look at a very interesting painting from the Dutch Golden Age; “The Lovesick Maiden” by Jan Steen.

Jan Steen, The Lovesick Maiden, c. 1660

In a typical Dutch interior of the period, a pale young woman is suffering from a terrible illness, the one for which no cure has ever been found – love! She is situated in the middle of the canvas as if she was an actress playing a role on the stage. Tragedy is the genre. On her right side is her maid servant, on her left is a doctor dressed in unusual clothes. His hat in particular is strange, and look at the way the servant is eyeing him. He is checking the girl’s pulse. The setting is the girl’s bedroom, there is a bed in the background, in the left corner there are bed heaters and the girl’s appearance reveals an intimate setting; she is wearing her white linen night cap, and she only carelessly threw on her ermine trimmed little coat to keep her warm I guess, her rounded white bosom are peeking above her garish red corset. She is too in distressed to care for frivolous matters such as clothes! Too ill to care, and still too healthy she appears to be sitting there like that instead of lying in bed. And that doctor too looks too much like a comedy actor. That’s because he is a quack doctor. Next to the girl’s feet a little dog is sleeping. In the context of a love scene, a dog usually represents fidelity. What exactly is she faithful to here; to her unrequited love, or to her love sickness?

I can really imagine her thinking these thoughts from Bob Dylan’s song “Love Sick” as she is sitting there with her head on her hand, her leg raised up, her rosy cheeks and her furrowed brow, half-lamenting and half-sulking:

Did I hear someone tell a lie?
Did I hear someone’s distant cry?
I spoke like a child; you destroyed me with a smile
While I was sleeping

I’m sick of love but I’m in the thick of it
This kind of love I’m so sick of it….

I’m sick of love; I hear the clock tick
This kind of love; I’m love sick

Sometimes the silence can be like the thunder
Sometimes I feel like I’m being plowed under
Could you ever be true? I think of you
And I wonder

I’m sick of love; I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love; I’m trying to forget you

Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to be with you

Decades before this was painted, in 1610, the French physician Jacques Ferrard published a study of this “disease of the fantasy”, named “Of Lovesickness or Erotic Melancholy: A Scientific Discourse that teaches how to know the essence, causes, signs, and remedies of this disease of the fantasy“. Here he names the symptoms of this illness that this Jan Steen’s pale girl which also have: “Lovesickness gives rise to a pale and wan complexion, joined by a slow fever that modern practitioners call amorous fever, to palpitations of the heart, swelling of the face, depraved appetite, a sense of grief, sighing, causeless tears, insatiable hunger, raging thirst, fainting, oppressions, suffocations, insomnia, headaches, melancholy, epilepsy, madness, uterine fury, satyriasis, and other pernicious symptoms that are, for the most part, without mitigation or cure other than through the established medical remedies for love and erotic melancholy… These symptoms of disease have caused many to believe that love is a kind of poison that is generated within the body itself…” (quote found here.)

Jan Steen, Physician’s Visit, 1660

In this painting, a sculpture of Cupid in the shadowy upper left corner, above the doors which lead into the outdoors stands as a symbol of love that is tormenting her. This is however just one painting in a row; Jan Steen made an entire series of paintings that portray love as an illness and a doctor as a quack. It was a comedy genre beloved in his time and especially in his home town of Leiden because the Leiden University produced many fine doctors in the country. Here is another example that he made, the same year in fact, called “The Physician’s Visit”. In this example, the painting of Venus and Adonis on the wall tell us that Steen’s girl is suffering from lovesickness. The physician is feeling her pulse because that was a way of knowing whether the patient suffers from the “erotic melancholy”. The illness could also be detected through the urine, and we can see that the maid is holding an urine bottle. Also, the little boy in the left corner is a Cupid dressed in contemporary costume, ready to shot his arrow.

Apart from doing mischief, Cupid was especially fond of idleness and even in the Ancient times Ovid wrote how avoiding idleness makes you immune to Cupid’s arrows. During the Renaissance it was thought that idleness in fact triggers erotic melancholy. “In “L’Antidote d’amour”, Jean Aubery delineates the “particular dispositions” that make one susceptible to passion and thus to love-sickness. Chief among these are idleness, youth, luxury, and springtime. When all of these factors are present, passion is inevitable. Why are artisans and laborers exempt from erotic melancholy, even during springtime and even if they are young? Because, the author concludes, they know neither luxury nor idleness.” (Virginia Krause; “Idle Pursuits: Literature and Oisiveté in the French Renaissance”)

If Steen’s lovesick maidens had been doing their embroidery regularly or had other occupations, they might have avoided the trap of pining and yearning. All in all, these painting are comedies of love and everyday life and the possible buyer most likely had a good sense of humor.

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John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

2 Jun

Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is one exceedingly beautiful, vivacious and dreamy painting set in a resplendent garden covered with a flimsy veil of purple dusk in late summer, August perhaps, when nature is at its most vulnerable and autumn creeps in bringing chill evenings and morning mists, and starts adorning the landscape with a melancholic beauty. Two little girls dressed in white gowns are playing with Chinese lanterns in this magical “secret” garden where lilies, carnations and roses appear enlivened by the nocturnal air and soft caresses of twilight.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86

This is my favourite painting at the moment and despite its, at first sight obvious, aesthetic appeal, it is much more than a visual delight. It awakens my every sense; I can almost hear the laughter of the fair-haired girls as they watch the lanterns with admiration and curiosity; and the enchanting melodies sung by the flowers; I can smell the thick and sweet fragrance of carnations, dearer to me than any perfume – I might pick a few for my vase; and I can almost feel the grass tickling my legs, oh it makes me giggle…

Gentle blades of grass seem to dance in the sweet, but fleeting melody of the dusk. White lilies laugh, their whiteness overpowering the shine of the lanterns, and relish in throwing mischievous glances around the garden, spreading gossips. Pink roses that spent their days in daydreams, have now awoken, keen not to miss all the fun that the night has to offer. Pretty yellow carnations, with thousands of little petals, each adorned with a divine perfume, are naughty little things. Girls’ white dresses, glistening in pink overtones from the dusky light, flutter in the evening breeze. Very soon, a game will begin; a game in which lanterns and moonbeams will be competing in beauty and splendour… As dusk turns into night, the lights of the moon will colour the garden in silver, secrets and dreams… When all is quiet and children are asleep, the flowers and the moon will converse. If you’re eager to know the mysteries of their language I suggest you to follow the trail of rose petals and silver all the way to one of the famous opium dens in Victorian era Limehouse, and once there, lie on the soft oriental cushions that glisten in dim lights and smokes arising and dancing in the tepid air, and wait for Morpheus to visit your soul in a slumber, for we all know that the poppy seeds never lie.

This painting is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also reminds me of all sorts of things; first on the magical garden in the film Coraline (2009) where flowers are alive and naughty, and cat talks, then to the film Secret Garden (1993) which is based on book I’ve not yet read, and also on Syd Barrett and the lyrics to some of his song;”Flaming” and “Wined and Dined”.

John Singer Sargent, Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884

This is just an utterly beautiful and dreamy painting, but its technical aspects are equally interesting. First of all, the details and the very fine brushwork are amazing, and they irresistibly remind us of Pre-Raphaelites, and we know from the letters that Sargent was obsessed with them since the autumn of 1883, which he spent in Sienna.

The inspiration for the painting comes not from pure imagination but from a real event; one evening, in September 1885, he was sailing on a boat down the Thames with a friend and he saw Chinese lanterns glowing among trees and lilies. That special velvety pink-purplish dusky colour palette was achieved by directly gazing at nature in dusk, which meant it took him an awful lot of time to actually finish the painting. It was painted “en plein air” or “outdoors” which was typical for the Impressionists but uncommon for Sargent. He painted it in two stages; first from September to early November of 1885, and then in the late summer of 1886, and finished it sometime in October 1886. He spent only a few minutes painting each evening, at dusk, capturing its purplish glow, and then continue the next evening. He found the process of painting difficult, writing to his sister Emily: “Impossible brilliant colours of flowers and lamps and brightest green lawn background. Paints are not bright enough, & then the effect only lasts ten minutes.” And when autumn came, he would use fake flowers instead of real ones.

Two girls in the paintings are the 11-year old Dolly on the left, and her sister Polly, seven years old at the time; daughters of Sargent’s friend and an illustrator Frederick Barnard. They were chosen because of their hair colour. The original model was a 5-year old dark-haired Katherine, daughter of the painter Francis David Millet, and she was allegedly very upset that Sargent had replaced her. Poor girl! Also, the lovely title of the paintings comes from the refrain of the song “Ye Shepherds Tell Me” by Joseph Mazzinghi.

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 72.4 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 875)

“Garden Study of the Vickers Children” is a some kind of a draught, a rehearsal for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”; both paintings were painted en plein air and both show children in a garden; childhood innocence was a theme often exploited in the arts of the 19th century because it appealed to the Victorian sentiments immensely, and both show the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. However, in “Vickers Children” he uses bolder brushstrokes and the colour palette is all but magical; dull white, green and black. Sargent is said to have made more studies for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” than he did for any other of his paintings. Some of these studies you can see here, and they are simply gorgeous, they have such ardour and liveliness and there’s a real magic coming from those quick, visible brushstrokes; look at those lanterns, shaped in swift, round strokes of warm magical colours, and quick ones for the blades of grass and tints of rich red for flowers, ah…. This is the beauty that Dante must have had in mind when he said “Beauty awakens the soul to act.” These paintings awaken my soul!

Here you can listen a composition by Meilyr Jones inspired by this painting. Can you spare a second to think just how exciting it is to make a composition inspired by a painting, and such a beautiful painting?!

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 59.7 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 872)

The scene irresistibly reminds me of John Everett Millais’s beautiful painting “Autumn Leaves”; both are very detailed with fine brushstrokes, set in a fleeting moment of the day – dusk, and show girls in nature, just in different seasons. Sargent’s painting is “magic”, while Millais’s is “melancholy”. Still, I feel a touch of sadness behind Sargent’s dreamy garden scene, brought on by the understanding of its transience and the fleeting nature of everything that is beautiful and magical in this world. Dusk lasts so shortly, and for a moment its charm will be replaced by darkness and chill air of night; Summer – which gives nature vivacity, colours and joy, will fall into the decadence of autumn. Unveil this beauty, the glow of lanterns and the fragrance of flowers, and you shall see decay – the garden in its future barren winter state. First the yellow leaves, then the white snowflakes, will cover the places where roses grew and nightingales sang their songs of love and longing; to quote Heinrich Heine:

“Over my bed a strange tree gleams

And there a nightingale is loud.

 She sings of love, love only . . .

I hear it, even in dreams.”

And girls who are now innocent children will became adults, insensitive towards the beauty they once gleefully inhabited.

The very first glance at Sargent’s painting reminded me of this sentence from the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”: “‘Wined and Dined’ has an undertow of sadness, sung in the most fragile of voices, lingering in twilight at an August garden party he never wanted to leave.” That beautiful, sad and poignant song dates from Syd’s days in Cambridge, when he was a happy man and life was idyllic, all “white lace and promises”, just like in the song of The Carpenters. This magical garden scene where flowers giggle, gossip and chatter in the purple veil of dusk, and lanterns glow ever so brightly is what I imagine Syd was in his mind; the August party he never wanted to leave… Thinking about it always makes me cry, it is so very sad. That “undertow of sadness”, this gentle fleetingness of the moment is exactly what I see in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” and in all of Syd’s songs.

In the acid-laced song “Flaming”, Syd sings of “watching buttercups cup the light, sleeping on a dandelion and screaming through the starlit sky” creating a visual scene that matches Sargent’s painting in its magic, but this childlike cheerfulness descended into a sad, wistful elegy to better days, “Wined and Dined“(version on the “Opel” sounds especially sad and poignant):

Wined and dined
Oh it seemed just like a dream
Girl was so kind
Kind of love I’d never seen

Only last summer, it’s not so long ago
Just last summer, now musk winds blow…

Move the flimsy veil from beauty, melancholy thou shall find.

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856

They are things which are so intensely beautiful that I am not sure whether they produce as much pleasure as pain. They fill the heart with delight and longings all at once – such is the effect this painting has on me; first it lures me, and then it saddens me… But hush now, hush, reality, and let me enjoy the sweetness of this magical garden for another moment… Oh yes, I can feel the softness of the grass, see the lights of the lanterns, smell the carnations, can you?