Tag Archives: orphan

Nicolaas van der Waay’s Orphan Girls and Jane Eyre

4 Jan

Nicolaas van der Waay, Orphan girls from the Burgerweeshuis, Amsterdam, c. 1900, Black and red chalk and pencil on paper

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century portraits of orphan girls from Amsterdam are the most interesting and unique works of Nicolaas van der Waay’s oeuvre. He painted other things as well but these orphan girls, recognisable by their wistful faces and matching uniforms in traditional Amsterdam colours; black, red and white, are really interesting. This drawing of the orphan girl made in black and red chalk was just a sketch for other paintings of the same motif that van der Waay painted, but I prefer this drawing to other paintings because it seems so immediate and alive. The two colours of the chalk, plus the white paper, go perfectly well with the colours of the girls’ attire, which is a fortunate coincidence. I like how the girls are sketched in their everyday activities; two are chatting, one is holding a bucket of water, one is wistfully staring in the distance, perhaps daydreaming of a better life. These drawings and paintings reminded me of Jane Eyre’s life at the Lowood Institution and the uniform she had to wear there. Jane was an orphan but that school wasn’t an orphanage, but still the cold, unloving atmosphere, the strictness and deprivation of the school isn’t so unlike that of an orphanage. Here is a passage from chapter five where Jane gives her first impressions of the school and she also describes how the girls there are dressed:

Ranged on benches down the sides of the room, the eighty girls sat motionless and erect; a quaint assemblage they appeared, all with plain locks combed from their faces, not a curl visible; in brown dresses, made high and surrounded by a narrow tucker about the throat, with little pockets of holland (shaped something like a Highlander’s purse) tied in front of their frocks, and destined to serve the purpose of a work- bag: all, too, wearing woollen stockings and country-made shoes, fastened with brass buckles. Above twenty of those clad in this costume were full-grown girls, or rather young women; it suited them ill, and gave an air of oddity even to the prettiest.

Jane Eyre (2011)

When I gaze at these paintings I am not just thinking of their aesthetic beauty but also of the conditions in which these girls lived which, I am pretty sure, weren’t the greatest. Jane Eyre, in chapter 6, also mentions the freezing winter cold, which is very familiar to me in these dreary January days, and the bad conditions in general:

The next day commenced as before, getting up and dressing by rushlight; but this morning we were obliged to dispense with the ceremony of washing; the water in the pitchers was frozen. A change had taken place in the weather the preceding evening, and a keen north-east wind, whistling through the crevices of our bedroom windows all night long, had made us shiver in our beds, and turned the contents of the ewers to ice. Before the long hour and a half of prayers and Bible-reading was over, I felt ready to perish with cold. Breakfast-time came at last, and this morning the porridge was not burnt; the quality was eatable, the quantity small. How small my portion seemed! I wished it had been doubled.

Nicolaas van der Waay, Amsterdam Orphan Girl, c. 1890

Nicolaas van der Waay, Les Orphelines d’Amsterdam, 1900

Wladyslaw Ślewiński – Orphan from Poronin

2 Aug

Wladyslaw Ślewiński, Orphan from Poronin, c. 1906

One gaze at Wladyslaw Ślewiński’s painting “Orphan from Poronin” is enough to make it stay etched in the memory forever because the face he painted is unforgettable, even though it didn’t belong to a person extinguished by wealth or importance in society. Gentle face of this poor orphan boy touches one right in the heart. Just look at him; in that worn-out coat which might have fitted him years before and trousers ever so slightly ripped at the knee, and that odd hat. He looks ill at ease seating at that chair, his fright and anxiety captured for eternity on canvas. The drabness of the wall behind him seems to mirror his thoughts. Upright and stiff he appears, so much so that you can imagine drops of sweat sliding down his forehead and a lump in his throat, preventing him to speak or even move.

The most interesting part of this portrait is the face because it speaks of so many feelings and gives the painting a psychological depth which separates it from a simple social realism style paintings. Firstly, that strange sickly yellowish coloured skin, hair hidden under the hat, no eyebrows, thin lips tightly together, and a pair of large grey-blue eyes, bordering on tears, which radiate fear, desperation and panic. It lingers in the memory because it touches what is human in all of us. The form of his body, that clear fluid outline of his coat, the shape of his face with a thick black line contouring the jaw, that strange sick yellowish colour of his skin, and the formless way the hands were painted reminds me so much of Edvard Munch which is somewhat strange because Ślewiński’s artistic style was often compared to that of his friend Paul Gauguin. The two met in 1889 and spent some time painting together in Brittany. Wladyslaw Ślewiński (1856-1918) was a Polish painter who was educated in Paris and spent most of his life in France. Still, this painting during his stay in Poland from 1905 to 1910, before returning to Paris again. The awkwardness of the pose also reminds me of Munch’s painting “Puberty” where a girl is sitting on the bed with an equally haunting face and doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself.

Amedeo Modigliani, The Little Peasant, c. 1918

Wladyslaw Ślewiński’s painting irresistibly reminded me of one painting by Modigliani, which might sound strange since Modi is known for his sensuous nudes. Nonetheless, the same year that Ślewiński died, Jewish-Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani who would himself be dead in two years, painted his painting “The Little Peasant”. Stylistically it is instantly recognisable as Modigliani’s work; a sad looking elongated figure in a sombre interior. This little peasant boy has the same sadness, but his gaze possesses none of the eloquence of Ślewiński’s orphan boy. He has a similar hat and his suit is equally worn out, bursting at the buttons, and look how clumsy his hands are. His motionless and mute expressionless statue-like rosy-cheeked face and his distant gaze don’t have the psychological strength as the orphan’s blue eyes have, but it has an incomparable silent and haunting beauty.

Eugene Delacroix – Orphan Girl at the Cemetery

26 Apr

A French painter of Romanticism, Eugene Delacroix, was born on this day, 26th April, in 1798 and today we’ll take a look at one of his early works, the “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery”.

Eugène Delacroix, Orphan Girl at the Cemetery (Jeune orpheline au cimetière), 1823-24

A young girl alone at the cemetery looks up towards the sky, with a prayer mounting in her heart and not yet spoken on her lips. She sees the large white clouds moving monotonously, slowly, tiredly; she wishes to talk to God but the sky is empty, to quote Sylvia Plath. The girl is painted from the profile, with large eyes turned upwards and mouth slightly open. Her left shoulder is left bare and her right arm is resting lifelessly on her knee; all suggesting resignation and vulnerability. The graveyard in the French countryside, as it is suggested, with its wooden crosses, forgotten names, mud, flowers and candles, is a vision of loneliness. As dusk descends, not a soul is around. Her eyes and her pose tell us so much. She is seeking answers, she is unloved and confused, and contemplating over her life she sees nothing but poverty and uncertainty. Look at her eyes. This is sadness beyond tears and meaningless words. Tombstones and the trees in the background all look tiny in comparison with her rather closely-cropped figure. Mournful murmur of the distant cypress trees mingles with the heavy silence of the wooden crosses.

Since this is one of Delacroix’s early works, the colours are not of the warm and glistening kind that he used after his trip to Morocco in 1832. The limited colour palette of murky browns, greens and yellowish-white serves here to intensify the gloomy mood, and yet on her skin colour the real dynamic dance of colours begins; the warm brown base takes over red, pink and greenish shades in places. The dimly-lit vanilla coloured sky in the background is painted as romantically as it is possible and brings to mind the melancholy sunsets and skies in paintings of a German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. As a true Romanticist, Delacroix approached the subject with a lot of subjectivity, compassion and a depth of feelings. In a harmony of colours and a wonderful composition, he brought the emphasis on what is important; the girl with her pain and her solitude, successfully avoiding the sentimentalising of her position.