Tag Archives: Romantic painter

Eugène Delacroix – Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard

13 Oct

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839, Oil on canvas, 29,5 x 36 cm

Eugene Delacroix’s temperament, lifestyle and interests made him the perfect Romantic artist. Delacroix travelled to hot, vibrant, exotic places such as Morrocco, but he also travelled in his imagination to the romantic and alluring, dark and dramatic past eras. He was also an avid reader; words of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and others fed his soul and fired his imagination. His ardent love of literature came with a knack for illustrating the scenes that he was reading about, he was prolific at it, and he was great at it. A theme that he found himself returning to often throughout the years was Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and especially the scene where Hamlet and Horatio are at the graveyard. Delacroix made different litographs and watercolours of the scene, but his most well-known depiction of the scene is the painting from 1839. The scene shows four figures; Horatio and Hamlet standing by the grave and two gravediggers digging the grave for Ophelia who had recently perished. This is a rather morbid, depressive chore but the gravediggers are so used to it that they are unphased. They are capable of digging a hole and talking about decomposing bodies and death as if they are exchanging recepies over tea. This makes it almost grotesque, but for Hamlet the discovery of the skull of Yorick leads to deeper thoughts, pensiveness and introspection; how transient and meaningless life is, how it passes and means nothing, how every corpse here on the graveyard was once a person with wishes, yearnings, loves. The personalities of gravediggers and Hamlet could not be more different. Here is an excerpt from their dialogue from Act V, Scene I:

Gravedigger: This skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years.
Hamlet: Whose was it?
Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet: This?
Gravedigger: E’en that.
Hamlet: Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, watercolour, 1827-28

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet Contemplating Yorick’s Skull, litograph, 1828

In his litographs Delacroix had depicted the scene with more details, in composition and in the clothes of the figures, everything feels more ornate and Baroque-like. The painting is stripped of all unnecessary details and ornaments. Only four figures set against a distant landscape and the stormy sky with dark clouds. This allowed Delacroix to place his focus on the analysis of the characters and the drama that is going on in the scene. The bare-chested gravedigger holding a skull is quite a sight, but all eyes are on Hamlet. Delacroix saw him through the lenses of Romanticism and he depicted him as a pale, melancholy, frail and gentle looking man dressed in black. His pale and small, almost feminine looking hands, stand out against the darkness of his clothes. His hair is flying in the wind and the stormy clouds seem to echo the stormy state of his soul. Pale and withered, in a pensive mood, reflecting on matters of life and death, and anticipating the burial of Ophelia, Hamlet is like a frail lily-flower just plucked from the ground. The watercolour version of the scene shows an equally frail, melancholy Hamlet and the whole mood is lyrical and wistful in a way that can only be accomplished with the medium of the watercolour.

Petrus van Schendel – Reading by Candlelight

9 Dec

Petrus van Schendel, Reading by Candlelight, date unknown, c. 1840s-50s

I recently rediscovered the wonderful paintings of a Dutch-Belgian painter Petrus van Schendel. I say rediscovered because I remember seeing some of them before, and forgetting about them, but now my eye was truly ready to take in all their beauty and magic. Van Schendel specialised in nocturnal scenes lit by candles or lamps. A daylight scene wouldn’t provide him with an opportunity to paint such mesmerising effect of the candlelight, and in Van Schendel’s paintings the beauty of light is truly mesmerising. I really love his painting “Reading by Candlelight” painted c. 1840s or 1850s. The clear date isn’t given, by the lady’s hairstyle gives the time period away. The painting is a simple genre scene of a young girl reading a book at nighttime. The light of a single candle lightens the room and illuminates the space around her while the rest of the chamber descends into darkness. You can just feel the warmth and the coziness of that room.

The girl is seen from the profile and her face shows calmness, she doesn’t even know she is being watched. The way her head is painted and her clothes remind me of the girls from Vermeer’s, or even better Geritt ter Borch’s paintings, who are shown reading or writing a letter. But in those paintings the cold light of a grey day is falling on the girls, while here we have the light of a candle which colours this simple genre scene in warmth, dreaminess and mystery. Night is always more mysterious than day, and in the light of the flickering candle, which may extinguish at any moment, the contours of things fade away and things may seem different than they are, more enchanting or eerie. The vase full of vibrant flowers on the girl’s table is very pretty in shape and I love the detail of its shadow falling behind.

And another interesting thing is the faint, barely noticeable portrait of a bearded man on the wall above. Who is he? Her father, or perhaps old ancestor who had died. Regardless, his ghostly face is keeping an eye on the girl like a stern, yet protective father-figure. The whole scene oozes intimacy and warmth, as if we are watching into a private world of this girl without her even knowing it. The beauty of the candlelight as the main focus of the scene naturally brings to mind the French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour who is very famous for his chiaroscuro scenes where the candle is the only source of light. We are spoiled for light today and it is easy to forget just how precious the light was in the past ages when you couldn’t just press a light switch; when a candle burns out, the darkness rules again until the dawn’s faint light comes again.