Tag Archives: Rococo

Working Class Heroines of the Rococo

4 Dec

Earlier this year I wrote a post about Dolce Far Niente and the paintings which feature pretty girls doing nothing. Well, in this post we’ll take a look at some 18th century paintings where pretty girls are not daydreaming and lounging around in flimsy dresses but ironing, doing the laundry, carrying tea, soaping linen…

Philip Mercier, Girl with a Tray, c. 1750

Rococo is an often overlooked era in the history of art. It’s deemed as kitschy, pink and frivolous, but if you scratch the surface you’ll discover many wonderful artistic inventions. After the extravagances of Baroque which favoured sacral themes, dramatic lightning and chiaro-scuro, in Rococo painters shifted their attention from saints and kings to everyday life with its everyday pleasures and pursuits. If Baroque is a dark night with blazing thunderstorms, then Rococo is a quiet morning full of lightness and possibilities. If Baroque is a turbulent stormy sea, then Rococo is a serene lake whose surface reflects the blueness of the clouds. Baroque is extravagant, grandiose, serious; Rococo is lighter, gentler, simpler. Rococo brings as in intimate spheres of people’s lives, but at the same time it’s not realistic, it doesn’t portray the harsh reality, the hard working conditions of the underprivileged and poor. Rococo idealises and lies, it doesn’t mirror the truth but instead offers a world of dreams and escapism. There is such a fragility about Rococo and especially about the paintings of Antoine Watteau which started the movement in the first place: it is so beautiful that it cannot last. Dreams always end.

Rococo is typically full paintings that present luxury and pleasure; handsome men and charming women in silk gowns lounging in gardens of everlasting spring, nudes, “fete galante”, Venuses and angels, painting such as Fragonard’s The Swing… The paintings in this post are something different. My fascination with the subject started when I saw Mercier’s girl bringing tea on Pinterest. I liked it a lot and I noticed a series of paintings from the same time period which feature the similar theme: girls doing a domestic work such as ironing, bringing tea or washing the laundry. These ladies are maids and not duchesses and yet they are worthy enough to occupy a canvas. This intrigued me. So, I envisaged this post as a brief overview of eight paintings by four different French and British painters, not as a detailed study of each painting. Also, I have to say that there is a parallel between these Rococo paintings and Dutch Baroque art of Vermeer: he also painted everyday women in simple interiors. Nothing posh, nothing luxurious.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, 1761

Greuze shows us a rosy-cheeked Rococo maid who happens to be washing the laundry but has lifted her gaze towards us. One can sense a quiet curiosity in her eyes. And look at her mules; they were a very popular form of shoes for women in the eighteenth century. The wall behind her is grey, in the upper left corner red bricks are seen. From 1759 to about 1770s, there was a craze for Greuze’s genre paintings in the Parisian art circles.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Wool Winder, c. 1759

Another painting by Greuze shows a very young girl dressed in gentle blue and white gown winding wool. She looks so young and dreamy with her pale face and fine blonde hair hidden underneath a white cap. The gentleness of her face reminds me of Raphael’s faces. She looks as if her skin was silky soft and her neck smells of lily of the valley. I sense wistfulness, a quiet melancholy in her blue eyes. The cat, on the other hand, seems amused by the thread of wool, you can tell just by looking at its eyes and the tail turned upward. As I gaze at the girl who, to me, exudes such chastity and naivety, I am thinking about her name; for me it’s Justine. It just dawned on me that perhaps she is the same girl who is sitting in her attic flat abandoned by a lover in Greuze’s painting The Complain of the Watch of which I’ve written earlier this year. I will imagine that she is. This painting is becoming dearer and dearer to me.

Philip Mercier, Portrait of a young woman, 1748

Philip Mercier was a French painter who was born in Berlin and died in London and he is well-known for making some portraits of the royals. This is the painting that started my fascination in the first place and it is my favourite painting out of all that I’ve presented here, and a rather simple one too; just a girl with porcelain skin and large dark eyes holding a tea tray. She is dressed in a light green dress. The model was possibly the artist’s maid Hannah. I like her straightforward gaze. Now something that I am interested in: who is the lucky person to be served by this beauty?

The painting below is Mercier’s work again and its dramatic light reminds me of Baroque. It shows two girls, perhaps sisters; one is sewing and the younger one is sucking her thumb.

Philip Mercier, A Girl Sewing, 1750

Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Woman peeling turnips, 1740

Chardin’s portrayal of the working class life is perhaps the most realistic, both in terms of style and content. Painted in dark, muted colours and earthy tones and presenting a gritty image of reality instead of silk-clad idealism of the previous paintings, and it lacks the glamour and sparkling colours of Mercier’s girls bringing tea. In “Woman peeling turnips”, Chardin presents us with an intimate and realistic scene of a woman sat on a chair, peeling turnips in her kitchen, dressed in simple garments. The wall behind her is bare and grey, and she is surrounded by things you’d normally find in a kitchen, pots and a pumpkin. Something distracted her for a moment and she is looking to the right. It looks as if Chardin really was in her kitchen. Chardin was a keen observer of everyday life and his paintings emphasise the values such as industriousness, loyalness to ones family and honesty, and this struck a cord with the middle-class buyers. Speaking of turnips, whoever is a fan of Blackadder will know that Baldrick loved them. Ha ha.

Henry Robert Morland, A Laundry Maid Ironing, c. 1765-82

A London-based painter of genre scenes, Henry Robert Morland, presents us here with two pretty ladies dresses in sumptuous silks perhaps too sumptuous for the position of a maid, but then again all these paintings, apart from Chardin’s woman peeling turnips are just dreamy idealised portraits of domestic scenes, and why portray reality when it was so gritty? The girl above is shows ironing and is very focused on her task, while the girl doing laundry in the painting below had to stop for a moment to show us her smile.

Henry Robert Morland, Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen, c. 1765-82

Although artistically these paintings hold importance within their art movement, thematically we should embrace their light-heartedness. Unlike similar genre paintings of Victorian era, these Rococo portraits of beautiful working class heroines were not meant to convey a social message or serve as a social critique.

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Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Complain of the Watch

29 Jul

The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went.” (Virginia Woolf)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Complain of the Watch, 1770

In a sad room a sad faced young thing is sitting on a chair. Indulged in a wistful reverie, she looks as ethereal and pale as a ghost, so lost in her thoughts that if someone happened to walk into her room, she’d probably seize to notice him. Behind her a bed and a barren wall as grey as her thoughts. Dressed in a loose white dress, an undergarment or a nightgown, the blonde girl is gazing in the distance with a pensive face expression. She’s holding a watch in her hand. Thin rays of sun coming through the small window provide the light in this poorly furnished attic room. Every night when the bells of a near-by church announce midnight, thin-legged spiders walk up and down the walls of her sad abode, greenish from the mould, weaving webs in the corners of the room, weaving webs in every corner of her heart. How could someone so young look so sad? Who dared to fill those blue eyes with tears and burden those slender white shoulders with woe?

Next to the girl is a small table, and on it a basket, some flowers and a letter. A letter which must hide all the secrets of her aching heart, a letter which hides the mystery behind her wistful reverie. I don’t know what the letter says, neither do you, but a little blackbird which sat on my windowsill today knows all the secrets from centuries gone by: he is a time travelling bird. It is a long tale of woe which I hesitate to retell, but I will tell you this: the lover loved and went, leaving nothing but a watch as a memory and empty words of goodbye; I can only assume it took more time for ink to dry than it did for his feelings of affection to cool down. Poor, poor girl, with her Rococo face and her Rococo sadness, what is she to do with her life now? Abandoned, alone, breathing in the perfume of lost hopes and sadness, while her wedding gown is being slowly eaten by moths in the wardrobe, her bouquet of flowers slowly withering as hours linger.

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?

Jean-Honoré Fragonard – The Swing

4 Apr

Painting The Swing is Fragonard’s most well-known work, and the epitome of Rococo; it’s a fun, frivolous, hedonistic painting imbued with erotic insinuations and painted in rich colour palette full of lightness and vivacity. To most people, and myself included, it is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Rococo and today would have been Fragonard’s birthday, so it’s a perfect day for this painting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767

Painting The Swing shows a young woman sitting on a swing and two male figures lazing around in a pastoral setting. The woman holds a central position and she is a true eye-candy; dressed in a silk gown in a peachy-pink colour, her head adorned with a straw hat. Rosy cheeked and laughing, she’s dangling her legs in white stockings and playfully throwing one of her pink shoes in the air. Her flat straw hat is a fashionable style of the time, called ‘bergeré’ which means ‘shepherdess’, and can be seen in many Rococo paintings, in particular those of Fragonard and Gainsbourgh. The man in the background, a layman, is pulling her swing, while the one on the left, resting amidst delicate pink roses, gets to have all the fun, gazing mischievously at the legs of this gorgeous girl, and not just legs – women of Rococo didn’t wear knickers.

Fantasies, flirting, and debauchery are all intermingled in this voyeuristic scene placed in an idealised setting of lush nature, marble statues and roses, all painted in soft fluttering brushstrokes and bathed with luminosity and lightness which Fragonard took from the Italian masters such as Corregio, who is sometimes considered the forerunner of Rococo, and Tiepolo. The scene is painted so beautifully that one can feel the mood of that carefree afternoon, smell the flowery sweetness that lingers in the air on this late spring or early summer day, you can heard their laughter and a peaceful birdsong.

Sensuality of this erotic reverie is emphasised by the vibrant, lavishing glistening pastel shades, from her pink dress to the gorgeous hazy background painted in the most exquisite shades of green; notice the gradation from the gentle light green where the rays of sun fall to darker greens which exceed into a mystical turquoise mist on the right part of the painting. And then the soft, dreamy blue sky with delicate clouds: the perfect background for us to notice the little pink shoe flying in the air. Sculptures of Cupids, Venuses and angels are popping up everywhere in Rococo art, and this painting is no exception. There’s a sculpture of Cupid on the far left; his finger is pressed on his lips, suggesting secrecy and conspiracy of this naughty game. But will the roses keep their little dirty secrets safe, or will they maliciously whisper them to the moon when the night falls?

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a pupil of another famous Rococo master – Francois Boucher who painted many portraits of Madame Pompadour, the one of many mistresses of Louis XV, including my favourite one where she’s shown wearing a peachy coloured dress and standing next to an old statue. Fragonard continued his tradition, but the vivacious brushwork is entirely his own. As a marvellous colourist, Fragonard won an award in 1752 which enabled him to spend five years, from 1756, in Rome to study painting, and he returned to France with a rich luminous colour palette. There’s an interesting anecdote about this painting; it’s said that Baron de Saint-Julien asked another painter, Gabriel-Francoise Doyen, to make a painting of him and his mistress on a swing in which he would be portrayed looking at her legs. Doyen wasn’t really impressed with the frivolous nature of this commission and passed it on to Fragonard who made a painting so memorable that I can’t help it wonder what Doyen’s version would have looked like. Small dimensions of this painting emphasise the intimate nature of Rococo art which was meant to be enjoyed in privacy of one’s home, whereas the grand Baroque art was meant for showing off. Rococo is dreamy, intimate chatter in saloons, and Baroque is pompous swaggering in long halls with mirrors and candles, like that of Louis XIV.

And now the Swinging sixties version of The Swing:

Rococo art has many aspects, this ‘frivolous and hedonistic’ one is just one of them, and these days it’s all I need; rose gardens, dreamy blue skies, gorgeous dresses. Titles of the paintings, e.g. Boucher’s The Secret Message, Dreaming Shepherdess, or Fragonard’s The Stolen Kiss, The Love Letter, The Souvenir, The Secret Meeting, Progress of Love and Confession of Love are just adorable. And so are all those ladies painted in gorgeous silk gowns with flowers on their bosoms and lace around heir necks, with straw hats or love letters in their hands, captured for eternity with porcelain white skin and rosy cheeks, daydreaming in parks and forest glades by the statues of angels and Roman goddesses, or having their kisses stolen in luxurious salons by naughty noblemen with powdered hair; in short, doing nothing, doing it sweetly, and doing it in style – Rococo!

Antoine Watteau – The Love Lesson

8 Oct

In this post we’ll take a look at Antoine Watteau’s painting The Love Lesson and explore its world of fragile elegance and melancholic serenity.

1700s-antoine-watteau-the-love-lessonJean-Antoine Watteau, The Love Lesson, 1716

A picture of a gentle, innocent afternoon; sky is clear blue with a few clouds that are as threatening as a little dog in the right corner. Sunlight gently hits the sleeping trees in this grove filled with laughter, music and leisure. Trees are captured in flickering, playful brushstrokes. Three ladies in pastel coloured dressed seem to be amused by a piece of paper, most likely a love letter. Two lads are keeping them company; a musician and the other one, with little moustaches, dressed in a blue cloak, pointing at a letter with amusement. The lightness and the seemingly easy-going nature of this painting is typical for Watteau’s style.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, the master of ‘fetes galantes’, was born on 10th October 1684 in Valenciennes but soon settled in Paris where he painted genre scenes for rich bankers and dealers. Today his paintings are considered not only as little masterpieces but also as the pioneers of Rococo style that would rule the majority of 18th century, but during his lifetime they were praised merely for their ornamental, decorative value. Rococo is not my cup of tea because it is a bit too decorative, too flamboyant, and, let’s be frank – too kitschy. Still, Watteau’s paintings are lighter, gentler and a certain melancholic serenity dominates their mood.

Perhaps Watteau deliberately painted the simple pleasures of life and created a world that was so different to the mundaneness of his everyday worries; a world where shepherds hold hands with their shepherdesses, sweet scents and music are always in the air, a world of picnics in magical parks where it never rains, a world of cavaliers and pretty ladies in shiny silks. His reality was so much different; he lacked aristocratic clients and he was of fragile health, dying of consumption at the age of thirty-seven, just five years after The Love Lesson was painted. Still, in his visions of beauty there’s a hint of sadness that’s hard to define. Watteau knew the sweetness and the pleasures of life, but he also knew their short lasting nature. Love that is here today, may be gone tomorrow, beauty that charms the eyes of the beholders may soon vanish, and happiness rarely lingers. Awareness of the transience of beauty gave his art a certain intensity that’s lacking in other Rococo artworks.

Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Silent Films and Frilly Dresses

9 Apr

America’s sweetheart, The girl with the curls, Little Mary – these are some of the nicknames for Mary Pickford, a silent film actress who recently captivated me.

1920s Mary Pickford 8

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Before I started writing this post, I gave myself a task of watching a documentary about her called Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies (2012), which is really interesting and you can watch it on YouTube. It’s a good quality documentary; amusing with plenty of information, and the narrator has a pleasant voice. I liked that the focus was not only on Mary Pickford’s personality and different stages of her career, but on the development of Hollywood as we know it today, film industry and ‘flickers’, as the early films were known back then.

I utterly recommend you to watch the documentary as it is a great introduction into the glamorous world of Hollywood – a topic which has, as I mentioned in one of my previous posts, captivated me recently. Like majority of people, I like watching films, but I’ve never been a massive ‘Old Hollywood’ fan like my mum, for example. Films of the 1930s and 1940s somehow never captured my attention, and I always wondered, with a slight dose of envy, what my mum saw in them. Then, a few weeks ago, out of nowhere, I’m ill with a disease called ‘Old Hollywood glamour’, and the only cure is to watch as many films as you can!

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1920s Mary Pickford 7***

As you might have guessed by the title, a Hollywood phase I became fixated on is the Silent era and its main star, actress Mary Pickford. Her eyes are her most charming feature; two bright stars surrounded by long eyelashes, with the ability to express every emotion; from sadness and resignation to gratitude and rapture. Then her gorgeous curls, her famous curls, which she cut off in 1928 much to the dismay of her fans. Bobbing her hair happened as a sort of ritual of transition: her mother had just died, and she found herself incapable of playing little girls now that she wasn’t anyone’s ‘little girl’. Her phase of playing child-parts was over.

That’s a personality trait I liked about Mary Pickford – she knew how to end things while they were still good. She was a woman who achieved everything she set her mind to. A remarkable person, not just a great actress. Her ‘rags to riches’ life story continues to captivate people’s imagination. ‘America’s Sweetheart’ was born as Gladys Smith in Canada, on 8th April 1892, in a poor family with an alcoholic father. Not the best starting point for someone who’d later be the first Hollywood actress to earn a million dollars.

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1917. Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)

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‘When Mary smiled, you could hear the angels sing’, said Lillian Gish, a fellow silent film actress and Mary’s lifelong friend.

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1916. Mary Pickford 1916 advertisementAdvertisement in ‘Moving Picture World’, September 1916

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Mary Pickford’s life story is interwoven with the life story of another silent film actress – Lillian Gish. In 1905, the Smith family shared quarters with the Gish family. Namely, Lillian Gish (14 Oct 1893-1993) had a younger sister Dorothy (11 March 1898-1968) who was also an actress. Similarly, Mary Pickford was the eldest sibling, her sister Charlotte ‘Lottie’ and brother Jack were actors as well, though both had succumbed to alcohol and died fairly young. Both families led bohemian lives which are as rich as they are hard to endure. Mary and Lillian became lifelong friends.

Starting in theatre, both girls quickly transferred to films or ‘flickers’. Early films were sensationalistic (does anyone sense a revival these days?), and often close to being pornographic. Targeted audience was the working class. After a long day’s work at the factory or a construction site, they could go and a watch a film, which was cheap as chips, travel in their imagination and escape the greyness of their lives.

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1920s Mary Pickford being paintedMary Pickford being painted, c. early 1920s

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Even though both were great actresses, Mary Pickford’s name stayed synonymous with the era of silent films. Early cinematography produced a great deal of actresses and icons such as Louise Brooks, Norma and Constance Talmadge, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Pola Negri – all of which played very seductive and flirtatious roles. Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford had a different quality about them – they played more virtuous, innocent and girlish characters. They looked like dolls with their large expressive eyes and lush curls.

Lillian said herself: “I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role.” (source)

Lillian Gish plays a ‘frail, downtrodden little virgin’ Lucy Burrows in the filmBroken Blossoms (1919). Brilliantness of the film comes from the combination of Lillian’s poignant portrayal of a ‘fragile waif’, gloomy and decaying Limehouse district of London as the setting, and the opium-laced mood and Eastern flair brought by Cheng Huan – a Chinese lad who came to London with a dream ‘to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.’ Lillian’s performance was remarkable, and the ending truly brought tears to my eyes, and I’m not someone who cries easily at films. Somehow, when watching a silent film, you focus all your attention at the face expressions, gestures, eye movements; everything is intensified. Some quotes from the title cards, Cheng Huan’s thoughts about Lucy.

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 1

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Blue and yellow silk caressing white skin – her beauty so long hidden shines out like a poem. (at 50.50 min)

Breathing in an amber flute to this alabaster cockney girl her love name – White Blossom. (at 55.18)

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 3 1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 4

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I reckon Lillian has a naturally melancholic face, perhaps it is because her eyes are large and her lips really small, I dunno, but most of the photos of her have a slightly morbid appeal, at least for me. She’s a true Ophelia.

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 11

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Mary Pickford played a variety of roles, and often performed the stunts herself as a matter of fact, but her most memorable films are those where she plays a role of a little girl, something she successfully did up until the age of thirty-something. Up to now, I’ve watched four of such films, in this order: Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) where she stars as Gwendolyn, Pollyanna (1920) as Pollyana Whittier, The Little Princess (1917) as Sara Crewe, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) as Rebecca Randall. There’s more films where she plays child roles, but the next thing I want to watch is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ (1929) – it’s a ‘talkie’ she performed with her then-husband Douglas Fairbanks. That should be smashing!

There’s something so appealing about Mary Pickford’s roles in these particular films; a mixture of naivety and innocence, enhanced by her costumes and curls, and a courage and generosity. Goodness always wins in the end: in Poor Little Rich Girl she unites her previously money-and-success-distracted parents, in The Little Princess she finds a wealthy foster parent and brings her friend along, in Pollyanna she brings optimism to everyone she encounters. If audiences of the time saw a hope for the better world in those films, I fully understand them.

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The Taming of the Shrew (1929)Mary Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

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Isn’t it strange, back then, a twenty-five year old actress could play a little girl, while today fourteen year old girls are encouraged by the media to look much older and ”attractive”.

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1920s Mary Pickford 6

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Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish’s expressive eyes reminded me a great deal of Anna Karina, just because I watched her films first. I noticed a certain ‘silent film’ quality about Anna Karina’s acting. Others did too: With her expressive, luminous eyes and radiant presence she had the looks of a silent movie star while simultaneously embodying the self-confident spirit of the 60s generation.” (source) This correlation is especially prominent in Godard’s film Vivre sa Vie (1963) where Anna Karina ironically plays – an aspiring actress. Really, even if you excluded the speaking parts, her eyes would reveal everything.

Another thing I wanted to discuss was the costumes. Mary Pickford has a marvellous wardrobe in her child-roles: straw hats or flowers in her lush curly hair, knee-long white dresses with lace and frills, worn with white tights, then her cute polka-dot dress with several petticoats and a parasol as an accessory in the role Rebecca, her cute one piece pyjama in ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’. Even in others pictures I’ve shown here, she looks elegant like a spring day – in frilly white dresses, wide hats, string of pearls, empire waist for a girlish appeal, lots of lace. Is it a charming 1910s revival of Rococo and Marie Antoinette countryside style, or a prelude to modern Japanese Lolita style?

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Gaylen Studlar - Precocious Charms

The Straw Manikin – Goya

8 Jan

1791-92. The Straw Manikin (la Marioneta) by Francisco Goya The Straw Manikin (La Marioneta) by Francisco Goya, 1791-92

From 1775 to 1791 Goya painted, on commission for Charles III of Spain, sixty-three oil-on-canvas paintings which later served as bases for tapestries at the Royal Court in Madrid. At first glance, painting The Straw Manikin seems like a cheerful everyday life scene, which is just what the king wanted. Four young women are dressed in Spanish fashion, they are laughing, their eyes bright and cheeks rosy. Simple outdoor game took on a sinister mood, which shows the way Goya saw world. Take a look at the straw doll. It doesn’t seem very happy, does it? Its glaze look contrasts the cheeks which are bright pink in true Rococo manner. His hands hang limply, his legs lean in different directions. All in all, he is powerless in this cruel female game. If you take a look at the preliminary sketch below, you’ll notice the different position of the straw manikin; he appears to be enjoying his flight, while in this finished version he is being thrown into the air against his will. He doesn’t complain though, he’s passive and resigned. In this scene, Goya shows us what strong minded women can do to weak men.

1791-92. The Straw Manikin (la Marioneta) by Francisco Goya, detail

This painting is a typical example of Goya’s early works; charming and lively with soft colour scheme, but under the surface something wicked emerges. Bright colours can also be interpreted as a sign of Goya’s prosperity, as he was climbing the social ladder at the time. His later works are deprived of the cheerful element, and are much darker, showing all the evils that people are surrounded with.

1791. The Straw Manikin (la Marioneta) by Francisco Goya, preliminary sketchThe Straw Manikin (la Marioneta) by Francisco Goya, 1791, preliminary sketch