Tag Archives: plein air

Ford Madox Brown – Capturing the Atmosphere: Walton-on-the-Naze and The Hayfield

29 Aug

Ford Madox Brown, Walton-on-the-Naze (1860)

The final days of August are always tinged in melancholy. Summer is not yet gone, and autumn has not yet arrived. The rich and vibrant facade of summer is slightly cracking and a yearning for what once was fills the cracks, and even a sunny, warm day or the beauty of a blooming rose are haunted by a feeling of nostalgia for the passing summer. The first rain, or a gust of wind, the first sight of yellow leaves on a chestnut tree all seem ominous of what is to come. This mood inhabits some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and two of such examples are landscape scenes by Ford Madox Brown. His paintings “The Hayfield” and “Walton-on-the-Naze” both possess that rich yet wistful ambience. Most of the painting “The Hayfield” was painted slowly and patiently during a period of time from late July to early September and, following the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy of painting directly from nature, Brown would walk miles and miles from his house two times a week to a spot where the scenery was the most delightful. Waiting for the perfect light, he would start painting at 5 am. The twilight scene shows the end of a working day; the moon had just risen but there is still enough daylight to reveal the scene to our eyes. The farmers are slowly getting ready to go home, there are children sittin in the haycart and one man is gazing up at the moon. You can feel the chill in the air, the slightly damp, cold grass, children’s cheerful chatter… The colours of the painting proved to be controversial, just as was the case with John Constable’s landscape some years before, but Brown stated in the catalogue for the painting that: “the stacking of the second crop of hay had been much delayed by rain, which heightened the green of the remaining grass, together with the brown of the hay. The consequence was an effect of unusual beauty of colour, making the hay by contrast with the green grass, positively red or pink, under the glow of twilight”. This shows us that the Victorian audience had a perception of reality and nature different to what it really was and they didn’t want to see the reality in art, but rather their dreamy vision of the world around them.

The painting “Walton-on-the-Naze”, painted during Brown’s visit to this small coastal town in Essex in August 1859, again features the motif of a rising moon and the gorgeous effect of light. This might be his most beautiful landscape because the ephemeral light and the effect of depth are just mesmerising. The air seems soft, rosy and palpable and the rainbow in the sky adds a whole new dreamy dimension to the scene. I had had the luck of seeing the rainbow but a few weeks ago and its beauty still charms my memory. The male figure is the portrait of Brown himself and the female figure is Brown’s wife Emma. The little girl is their daughter Catherine. The beautiful visual rhythm of the stacks of wheat in the foreground may reminds us of the harvest time and the work that is to be done, but this painting isn’t the harvesting type like the previous one, but a touristy type because Brown and his family were on holiday in that coastal town when he painted it and this reflects the Victorian discovery of coastal towns and the sea as places for leisure, rest and fun. Londoners could have easily reached the coast via a steamer train and one is seen in the background of this painting. Even Elizabeth Siddal and Rossetti stayed on the sea for her health around the same time. The layers of depth in this painting are superb, I mean just look at the ship disappearing on the horizon, a pink sky behind it, how utterly dreamy.

Ford Madox Brown, The Hayfield, 1855-56

John Singer Sargent: Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife

19 Apr

John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889

I discovered this gem of a painting two months ago but I decided to save it for April because plein air paintings with such lush greenness just scream April and springtime to me. The man with a straw hat, long sharp nose and a beard is the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul César Helleu. His canvas sits in the grass, framed by noisy blades of grass. The long thin fingers of his right hand are not so dissimilar to the brushes he is holding in his left arm, and if you look at it closely, you will see that the brush is nothing more than a stroke of paint, confident and carefree. Whatever he is painting, and it must be the nature that is in front of him, is it for sure keeping him completely absorbed. Behind him, in the shadow of this great artist, is a seemingly disinterested auburn haired woman with greyish complexion; that is Helleu’s wife Alice Guérin.

The couple met in 1884 when Helleu was commissioned to paint a portrait of this graceful young lady with long red hair. They quickly fell in love and married two years later, on 28 July 1886 when she was sixteen years old and he was twenty-six. She was his favourite model, but in this painting painted by Helleu’s life-long friend John Singer Sargent, she is sitting wistfully in the grass behind him; lost in daydreams, listening to birds or just following a butterfly in its flight with her eyes. He seems so stern and so absorbed in his work, I wonder: was she bored just sitting there useless, like a captive bird, dressed in an almost matching grey jacket to that of her beloved husband? Or did she enjoy being his passive companion? Or perhaps he just seems serious, but we don’t see the jokes he might have cracked or smiles he might have sent to her in times of  little painting breaks. One thing I do know for sure: the grass in this painting is something out of this world! In so many different shades of green, from the proper grass green to being and brown tones… it is a joy to soak my eyes in this greenness! Sensuality of nature comes through in these colours. Every blade of grass has a unique life of its own. This isn’t some neat, tamed lawn, no, this is a sweetly wild grass that grows on its own accord, without man’s laws.

Bellow you can see a similar painting that John Singer Sargent painted four years before the Helleu one, and in this painting it’s the famous Impressionist Claude Monet who is shown painting plein air on the edge of the wood. Sargent sort of strikes me as a voyeur of a sort… I know that they knew they were being painted but still, it seems that Sargent was quick to capture them in their pursuit.

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood, 1885