Tag Archives: Rococo

Pietro Longhi – Scenes from Everyday Life

12 Jan

Pietro Longhi is a wonderful Venetian eighteenth century painter who, unlike some of his contemporaries in Venice, devoted himself to portraying the simple beauties of everyday life. These days I enjoy gazing at his genre scenes and let’s take a look at a few interesting ones.

Pietro Longhi, The Painter in His Studio, 1741, oil on canvas, 41 × 53.3 cm (16 1/8 × 21 in)

A painting is a finished work, but in Longhi’s painting “The Painter in His Studio” we see the hidden, mysterious aspect of art and portrait painting; we see what happens behind the curtains, a sweet secret that only the artist, the sitter or the model know. In this work, a painter is painting an oval portrait of a Venetian noblewoman. Her clothes speak of her wealth and importance. I deserve to be captured for eternity on canvas, her gaze seems to say. Her hair is powdered and short, her stays laced, and a little dog is peeking under her lace sleeve. Considering how wide her sumptuous dress is, perhaps there is another dog hiding in there. Their carnivals and their masques, one never knows with these Venetians, what are they hiding, what is real and what a mirage. The man beside her; is he her husband, her brother, a father or a friend, we don’t know. But he also has a Venetian masque on his face, moved to the side though. Maybe he is telling the painter something really important. And look, his hand is about to pull something out of his inner pocket, what is it, a dagger? In case he is displeased with the painter’s work. Or some gold coins, if he thinks the likeness of the two faces, the one on canvas and the one in reality, is astounding. On the left of the painter, we see his painting equipment. The background is painted in muted brownish tones and is empty of details and ornamentation, we don’t see the continuation of rooms or space, which makes these three characters seem like actors on the stage, but then again, aren’t we all?

Pietro Longhi, Fainting, 1744, 50×61.8 cm (19 11/16 × 24 5/16 in)

From a calmness of a portrait sitting painting we are moving on to a more dramatic scene, painted around the same time, 1744, when Longhi was about forty-two years old; it is unsure whether he was born in 1701 or 1702. A lady dressed in a pastel pink gown, deadly pale and weak, is just opening her eyes. Quick, quick, someone call the doctor! The lady had fainted. Oh, she is opening her eyes slowly now. Her one hand is on her breast, the other is hanging limp. A soft pillow was brought so she can lay her head on it, and smelling salts are offered to her delicate nostrils. Do not let this pastel pink sweetness fool you, for this scene is not as innocent as it may seems at first.

The evidence of the crime lays open to our eyes in the bottom left corner; an overthrown little table with a notably Rococo playful and flamboyant chinoserie pattern, cards and a little velvet purse full of coins are scattered on the floor. People have gathered sympathetically around her, but this lady has a card or two up her sleeve. The reason she fainted is not the lack of fresh air, or the stays laced too tight, but rather the fact that she was loosing in the game. What else can she do but stage this silly little incident. Ha, but the man dressed in a long blue cloak and a long dark grey wig on the right doesn’t seem to believe her. His hand is stretched towards her as if he’s asking for the money. Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni praised Longhi’s portrayal of truth on his canvases, portrayal of the real world around them, and the painting “Fainting” most likely inspired Goldoni’s comedy “La finta ammalata or “The Fake Patient Woman” (1750–1751); there’s a scene in which the main character Rosaura had just fainted and she is surrounded by her friend, her suitor, her father and her doctor.

Pietro Longhi, The Game of the Cooking Pot, 1744, 49.8 × 61.8 cm (19 5/8 × 24 5/16 in)

Another charming and slightly confusing scene is presented in the painting “The Game of the Cooking Pot”. The lady in the gorgeous white gown is a sight to behold; her delicate pale face, her tiny pearl earring, a subtle pink flower in her powdered hair, her little white shoe peeking under the dress, all so dainty and doll-like in the typical Rococo way. But then there’s a guy on the right, holding a stick, his eyes tied with a handkerchief so he cannot see, and he is about to hit … the pot? The Game of pentola or The Game of the Pot is yet another one of strange Rococo games played by adults and not children which includes a person who has to strike the pot and smash it in order to find a pleasant surprise underneath. In a fancy Rococo interior carefree and pretty young people are indulging in lighthearted fun, and why would they not? Life is to be enjoyed. In the background, on the left, there’s some wine in jugs and some biscuits, little details that Longhi painted to add his scenes some warmth and domesticity.

What were the Venetians up to in the 1740s. This is sort of like an Instagram of their day and age; everything is smooth and perfect, there’s no smallpox, pimples, sadness or a bad hair day. Everyone is “caught” on the canvas having so much fun, like in a group selfie, a big smile everyone! And of course they are having much more fun than you are. Pietro Longhi’s focus on painting genre scenes led the art critics to compare his work to that of his English contemporary, the famous brutally satiric William Hogarth. This comparison isn’t true at all. They both placed their focus on the everyday life on their age and area, but Hogarth’s work tends to be harsh, his wittiness turns to sarcasm, whereas Longhi’s world is delicate and dainty, and figures in his paintings look like actors on stage, their face expressions and movements carefully devised to tell the tale. Pastel colours, fine brushstrokes, Longhi shows both the refined and frivolous past times of Venetians around him; gambling, playing games, sitting for portraits, reading letters, dancing, taking music lessons, receiving visitors. Every canvas is a scene from life. Also, the notable small size of these interior scenes is another thing which connects Longhi’s art with that of Vermeer and other seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed daily life, though with more modesty, mystery and coldness, they are after all people from the dark, rainy, and gloomy North.

Pietro Longhi, The Letter, 1746, oil on canvas, 61 x 49.5 cm (24 x 19 1/2 in)

In this painting I love the detail or a washing line with the white garments painted in such loose, feathery soft, almost ghostly strokes, it just looks so delicate, and adds to the aura of gentleness which matches the pale pretty girl’s pastel pink gown and a sweet round face.

Pietro Longhi, The Music Lesson, 1760, oil on copper, 44.6 x 57.6 x 0.2 cm (17 9/16 x 22 11/16 in)

Since when is holding hands crucial for learning the notes? Hmmm…. The music teacher’s profile alone, with the wide wicked smile and those eyebrows indicates a lecherous Faun-like nature. And look at the way the little dog is observing it all, with his paw in the air.

Fragonard and Goya: The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure?

9 Dec

Jean-Honore Fragonard, A Game of Hot Cockles, 1775

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a master when it came to turning fantasies into realities, in the realm of his canvas at least, he wasn’t a magician or a magic fairy. Fragonard, a pupil of Boucher, brought elegance and youthful playfulness into Francois Boucher’s sumptuous and slightly erotic compositions. Whereas Boucher intertwined mythological scenes with the unrestrained lives of the wealthy nobility, Fragonard painted worlds which are neither real nor mythological, but his own dreamy havens. His is the world where love never dies and sun never sets. The painting “A Game of Hot Cockles” isn’t even the finest example, his series called “Progress of Love” is the height of romantic escapism in that fanciful kingdom of love and dreams.

In the painting above the figures occupy just a small portion of the canvas, while the tall trees stretch on and on. He paints trees in a variety of shades, from the warm green-yellowish leaves in the foreground to the gentle hazy blue-greens in the background. The mysterious park is like a theatre stage where games take place. The inspiration for the dazzling landscapes in the background of his painting came from his travel to Rome in 1756, and so does the vibrant colour palette. In contrast to the greenness, the figures are dressed in vibrant jewel coloured clothes; ruby red, sapphire blue, amber yellow, pink as rose quartz.

Detail of Fragonard’s painting

In a dreamy park surrounded by woods a dreamy group of silk-clad figures are enjoying their leisure time and playing a game, and not just any game, but a very Rococo one called “game of hot cockles” which was a popular game for the Christmas time even in the nineteenth century. The game includes one person placing their head in someone’s lap while a third person is hitting their bottom, and the person has to guess who spanked them. A man had a unique opportunity to place their head in a pretty woman’s laps, and ladies had a chance to do the same. Such a silly and naughty game with an erotic undertone instantly became a hit with the indolent French nobility. One could intentionally name the wrong person so that this “wicked game” continues. The group is playing the game, but what are the lady in a red dress and the man in blue doing in the far left corner? Perhaps he’s telling her ‘Hey, I would like to spank you, but it needn’t be part of the game.’ To which she disapprovingly replies ‘Oh, please, can’t you see my dog is listening’.

Lyrics from the Gang of Four’s song ‘Natural’s not in it’ come to mind:

“The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses….
Renounce all sin and vice
Dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraine”

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Blind Man’s Buff (La Gallina Ciega), 1788

The works that Goya is known for today, the imaginative, but dark and disturbing “Los Caprichos” are in the start contrast to his earlier works painted for the court. “Blind Man’s Buff” belongs to Goya’s court phase or his Rococo phase. Both the theme and the colour palette are lighter, and he was influenced by Watteau in this period. It is part of the series that Goya painted for the Royal Palace of El Pardo in Madrid. The painting shows a group of young people playing the game of blind man’s buff.

The man in the middle is blindfolded and trying to touch the other players with a long wooden spoon. I remember playing that game when I was little, but we never used a spoon, how funny! One man, the one on the right, is dressed in an elegant French attire while the other three men and the women are all showing off their vibrant Spanish costumes which they chose to wear in order to emphasise their nationality and culture. In this detail you can see the wonderful vibrant colours, that red and that yellow are so eye catching! It all looks so dreamy and naive, which goes in tune with the spirit of Rococo and its never ending pursuit of pleasure and love for enjoying life.

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

Here is another painting from the same royal series by Goya, painted a bit later though, called “The Straw Manikin”. I already wrote about it here. Times are getting darker and Rococo is in demise, and here an innocent outdoor game is taking a twisted touch. Girls are throwing a straw doll in the air, but look at his face expression; so passive, so resigned, they can do whatever they want with him. He is powerless in the hands of females.

Pietro Longhi – Clara the Rhinoceros

15 Oct

Many famous and refined beauties lived in the eighteenth century, but none possessed a beauty so striking and none kept the entire Europe fascinated as much as Clara, the rhinoceros. Her exotic beauty and chiseled features caught the eye of many artists of the day, Pietro Longhi and Jean-Baptiste Oudry to name a few. Clara loved being a part of the art world, but she never allowed the fame to get to her head and stayed humble to the end.

Pietro Longhi, Clara, the rhinoceros in Venice, 1751, oil on canvas, 62×50 cm

Clara (1738-1758) was an absolute Rococo sensation; orphaned at a very young age after her parents were allegedly killed by Indian hunters she was brought to Europe, in Rotterdam, and afterwards continued traveling the continent and bringing delight wherever she went. She had the life of a rock star two centuries before the rock stars; common folk admired her and talked about her, authors wrote about her in the encyclopedia, and painters painted her. In January 1751, she found herself in Venice right in the carnival time and she caused quite a sensation in the ever so inquisitive Venetian society. This was about time when Longhi painted her. In his painting, a small crown of eight figures has gathered to see Clara. The composition is very interesting; the wooden fence visually divides the canvas in two parts; the foreground where Clara is languidly eating hay, and the foreground where the figures of the observers are. Some of the curious Venetians are wearing masks, it was the carnival time after all, and why not.

Some men in the first row are wearing white masks which are called “bauta”. The female figures behind them are dressed in shining silks, woman in the blue gown is wearing a black “moretta mask” which is held by the teeth and the wearer is prohibited to speak while wearing it, but this also enable the silent language of seduction to develop; a bat of the eyelashes, a wink, a nod suddenly got intense meanings. The woman in green silk cloak is holding the same mask in her hand, but showing her pale oval face. The man on the far left, the arrogant laughing chap without the mask, is holding Clara’s horn which she had either rubbed off while in Rome, or it was cut off, but anyhow a new one later grew. Longhi’s painting is, common for his work, rather small. French painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry, on the other hand, had painted her two years prior to Longhi, in 1749, in full size. How monumental and regal she looks, big and shining against the landscape, one can really imagine her wearing a red velvet cloak and a crown with rubies.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Clara the Rhinoceros, 1749, oil on canvas, 310×456 cm

Pietro Longhi is renown for his intimate portrayals of the Venetian society in the mid eighteenth century or the settecento. While Antonio Canaletto focused on grandiose vedute, and Givanni Battista Tiepolo on dramatic religious paintings; Pietro Longhi offered a glimpse of what goes on “behind the closed doors”, literally and figuratively because he not only painted the witty interior scenes, but also gave us an insight in the frivolous and decadent Venetian society just before its final fall at the end of the eighteenth century.

Francois Boucher – Resting Maiden

17 Dec

Today we are going to take a look at a famous Rococo painting by Boucher; a painter that is almost synonymous with the era. The painting of a nude girl unites luxury and eroticism, is painted in sensuous pastel shades of yellow, pink and blue, and it epitomises Rococo’s pursuit of pleasure and hedonism.

Francois Boucher, Resting Girl (also known as:L’Odalisque blonde), 1751

Plump nude beauty. Seashell pink skin. Sumptuous interior. A rich and mesmerising amber-coloured fabric: yellow was a beloved colour for Rococo artists. All these things you are likely to find in any Rococo painting, especially if the painter is Francois Boucher himself. His painting “Resting Girl” is one of the first things that come to people’s minds when they think about Rococo. I know it was for me; this painting, Fragonard’s The Swing and portraits of Madame Pompadour. In this simple interior scene with a horizontal composition details are limited and everything draws the eye to the focal point and that is the girl. The gorgeous yellow fabric surrounds her like the green leaf surrounds the fragrant white lotus flower. She is lying on a sofa; her one leg rests on a pillow whose crisp whiteness you can almost feel, the other on the yellow fabric. On the floor are two elegantly discarded pink roses. There is an open book in the lower left corner, but she doesn’t seem to be reading it. We see her only from the profile, and yet we can sense her mood. She looks a bit startled, surprised, slightly worried. She is holding her hand under her chin, her lips are just slightly parted. Perhaps she saw someone she wasn’t expecting?…

Note: There are two different versions of this painting, but I think the one above is the prettier one and I am referring to that one. Still, the blue ribbons in the painting below do entrance me. The second version was made for Madame de Pompadour’s brother.

The second version: Francois Boucher, Resting Girl, 1752

You must all be wondering right now, who is the owner of this cute Rococo ass? I shall gladly tell you: Marie-Louise O’Murphy; one of the mistresses of Louis XV. She was the youngest of the O’Murphy sisters and her family was of Irish origin, but lived in Normandy. The story goes that one day Louise was at her sister’s house and Casanova himself happened to be there and he saw her stark naked. The image of her pretty teenage body left him so entranced that he demanded a nude portrait of her to be made. Of course the painter was Boucher, for who else painted such openly licentious and unashamedly erotic scenes? Casanova wrote this about the finished portrait: “The skilled artist had drawn her legs and thighs so that the eye could not wish to see more. There I write below: O-Morphi wasn’t a Homeric or either Greek word. Was simply mean Beautiful.” Greek word for beauty, “Omorphiá” is similar to Louise’s surname “O’Murphy”. Having been born in October 1737, Louise was very young when she posed for this painting and her body does look more developed, and yet, when the king Louis XV himself demanded to see her, he concluded that she is even better looking than in the painting.

Francoise Boucher, A Female Nude Reclining on a Chaise-Longue (Graphite, red and white chalk on paper), Sketch for the painting

Louis XV’s reign practically coincides with the existence of Rococo era in art, and he himself led a life full of extravagances and many love affairs so he is a good person to represent the mood of this art movement. His most famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour, is knows as “the Godmother of Rococo” and Boucher was her official portrait painter. Pink was her favourite colour and champagne glass was allegedly made according to the shape of her breasts. Need I say more: the woman loved the art of her time. No other era in art displayed such straightforward eroticism as Rococo, in no other era did the sexual conquests fill the canvases, the novels, the gossips. After centuries of religious art holding dominance, the 18th century brought a liberation, just like the 1960s did in a way.

In art before Rococo, nudity or half-nudity was justifiable and acceptable only if it served a purpose, if it was part of a religious (St Sebastian) or mythological scene (Venus). In Rococo an artist was finally allowed to paint a nude without putting it in a context. Still nature with jugs and apples needs no context, why would a nude body need one? In “Resting Maiden”, the subject is not another Venus; it’s just an everyday girl called Louise and her adolescent beauty captured for eternity. In the 1740s, Boucher painted a similar scene, this time using his wife as a model. Diderot was particularly disgusted with the painting and Boucher was accused of “prostituting his own wife”:

François Boucher, Brown Odalisque (L’Odalisque Brune), 1740-49

These paintings by Boucher can be seen as epitomes of the Rococo spirit because they are straightforwardly hedonistic and light-hearted, sensuous and pastel coloured but things didn’t stay so pink and light-hearted for a long time. As the century progressed, things changed, flirty and frivolous guests of the Rococo party were facing a hangover; dreams and escapism gave way to reality. Pinkness and liberation descended into decadence and the French Revolution of 1789, sharp like a guillotine, cut Rococo’s timeline in a second. It seems that every pleasure has its consequence. I feel that there is such fragility and silent wistfulness hiding underneath Rococo’s shiny pink exterior. On the inside, Rococo is as gentle as porcelain or antique lace; it idealises, it fuels daydreams, it yearns for an eternally lovely world with baby blue skies, it tried so passionately to avoid reality that it got swallowed by it.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Girl with a Dog, 1770

Fragonard’s painting above is yet another example of Rococo’s naughtiness. To end the post here are a few verses from Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Spleen” that perfectly capture that fragile appeal of Rococo:

I am an old boudoir full of withered roses,

Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses,

Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers,

Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.

***

Je suis un vieux boudoir plein de roses fanées,

Où gît tout un fouillis de modes surannées,

Où les pastelliste plaintifs et les pâles Boucher,

Seuls, respirent l’odeur d’un flacon débouché.

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.

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?