Tag Archives: Romanticism

Rainy Day Scenes in Art: Renoir, Prendergast, Constable, Bonnard, Childe Hassam, Henri Riviere

16 Sep

“My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the moldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.”

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Rainy Day)

Maurice Prendergast, Ladies in the Rain, 1894

In this post I wanted to make a little selection of some lovely rainy day scenes in art, mostly from the nineteenth and early twentieth century art. The first painting of my selection is a dazzling watercolour by the American painter Maurice Prendergast which shows two ladies strolling in the rain. The watercolour has a distinct vertically elongated shape which gives the painting a touch of Japonisme and this shape fits the scene perfectly because it provides space for the two figures of the ladies descending small stairs in some park and for a tree in the background. The colour of their dresses fits the overall mood of the rainy day and yet Prendergast manages to make even the dark blues, black and greys so fun and exciting.

John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-28), oil on paper

Constable’s seascape study “Rainstorm Over the Sea” painted between 1824 and 1828 is a long time favourite of mine. It shows a beach in Brighton in rainy, stormy weather. I love how dramatic and spontaneous the painted clouds are, so mad and so full of rain, ready to pour down all over the beach pebbles and the sea. Interestingly, the sea takes up little space on the canvas while the sky dominates the scene and rightfully so because that is where the sublime moment of nature, the rainstorm, is occuring.

 

Childe Hassam, Rainy Midnight, 1890

Again we have Childe Hassam who seems to have enjoying portraying rain scenes in urban environment, as you may have seen in my last post about his gorgeous watercolour “Nocturne, Railways Crossing, Chicago” (1893). The streetscene is a blurry harmony of blues from the rain and pale yellow of the streetlamps and the only motif here is a carriage by the side of the road; is it waiting for a rich party-goer to leave the party at midnight, or is it already carrying their drunken passangers home after a ball or a theatre evening? Whatever the situation, Hassam creates a stunning play or blues and yellow and paints the excitement of the night life in a big city, even in rainy weather.

Henri Riviere, Funeral Under Umbrellas, 1895, etching

I already wrote a long post about this etching here. In short, what I love about this etching is its strong influence of the Japanese ukiyo-e prints which reveals itself in the diagonal composition, the flatness of the figures and the way the rain, carried by the strong wind, is painted in many thin lines that indicate the direction of it.

Childe Hassam, A Rainy Day in New York City, c 1890s

Another painting by Hassam! “A Rainy Day in New York City” shows an elegant lady dressed in a yellow-beige gown rushing home because of the rain. She has an umbrella, but still she must lift her dress to avoid the puddles. And how will the damp weather affect her hairstyle, ahh…. so many troubles! Her little black boots are stepping on the pavement glistening in blues, yellow and oranges, the puddles reflecting the big city lights. Again, we have the vertically shaped canvas and the figure of the woman is cut-off a little bit, both reveal the influence of Japonisme.

Pierre-August Renoir, Umbrellas, 1883

Renoir’s painting “Umbrellas” always brings to mind the video of the song “Motorcycle Emptiness” by the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers. The video was short in Tokyo in 1992 and in many scenes people are seen walking down the street in the rain, many colourful umbrellas filling the horizon. For some reason, Renoir’s street scene, almost cluttered with umbrellas, not so colourful though but mostly blue and black, always brings to mind that video and the music which matches the sadness of the rain.

Childe Hassam, Rainy Day, 1890

Another fun rainy day scene by the American painter Childe Hassam called simply “Rainy Day”, painted in 1890. The effect of rain is beautifully captured here and the composition is very interesting. The house on the right is visible, but the church with its tall tower in the background on the left is shrouded in the mist. People are rushing down the street, eager to get home fast and escape the rain, notably the two figures of ladies with their umbrellas, which remind me of the ladies in Prendergast’s watercolour.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Rue Tholozé (Montmartre in the Rain), 1897

Bonnard’s painting “Montmartre in Rain”, painted at the very end of the nineteenth century, shows a different view of the rain. Here the rain is seen through the window, and it isn’t a grey and dreary rendition of the rain scene but rather the scene shows the beauty of a rainy night when the yellow light of the lanterns is reflected in the wet pavements dotted with puddles. Black figures with black umbrellas are strolling around and everything is lively and magical.

Otto Pippel (German, 1878-1960), Street in rainy weather, Dresden, 1928

German painter Otto Pippel shows us a chaotic rainy day scene in his painting “Street in Rainy Weather, Dresden”, painted in 1928. At first sight the painting is a mess of greys and blues because Pippel painted the scene as if it was seen though a window covered in rain drops and this is really interesting. Everything; buildings, streets, street lamps and people, are painted in a blurry, vague manner.

Sir Muirhead Bone, Rainy Night in Rome, 1913, drypoint

Sir Muirhead Bone’s drypoint “Rainy Night in Rome”, painted in 1913, shows the people leaving the church, I assume after the evening mass. There are rushing with their umbrellas and there is even a carriage waiting for someone too rich to experience a walk in rain. The vertical form of the drypoint where the upper half show the sky and the church and the bottom part shows the church entrance, the street and the people, is great because it shows the flow of the rain, painted in vertical lines.

J.M.W.Turner – Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff

3 Sep

“Autumn approaches and
The heart
Begins to dream.”

(Bashō, from The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets)

J.M.W.Turner, Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff, 1835-39, bodycolour on paper

The last true month of summer – August – has not even passed yet and already my end-of-summer-blues has started sinking in. I awoke the other day not welcomed by golden rays of sweet sunshine but with a gust of colder breeze. I sneezed… And I realised at that moment that summer is fleeing. A succesion of rainy days is a further reminder and now I cannot escape the realisation. Surely there will be more sunny days in September, but it is inevitable: the clock is ticking the last minutes of the summer of 2022. It’s back to scarves and jackets, cloudy skies, lighted candles, hot teas, wet streets and falling leaves. I feel a huge wave of blue sadness overwhelming me… A poetic kind of sadness and the only way to soothe it is to immerse myself in all things beautiful, poignant, melancholy and with a touch of the sublime.

It’s a wonderful thing then that I recently discovered yet another painting by J.M.W. Turner which I adore. This one is called “Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff” and it was painted between 1835 and 1839 in the medium of bodypaint on paper. Just the title alone catapults me into mad romantic reveries! The words such as “sunset”, “ruined castle” and “cliff” are enough to start the wildfire in my imagination. So so romantical! And the lyrical beauty of the painting perfectly justified the beauty of the title. It’s not a clickbait for sure, you know, a pretty title but a boring painting. Turner has painted many and many sketches and watercolours of castle, some half-ruined and some still intact, but this painting is something else. The rich and warm colours of the painting are warming my soul in a way only beautiful things can. I love the gradient way the colour go from the lavender sky to the pinkish-red-wine coloured ruins of the castle perched on top of the hill, over to the warm orange and yellow shades. The depths of the landscape bellow the castle with a lake I believe are painted in cooler blue and grey tones.

Considering just how abstract this painting is; the castle is not painted in a detailed manner, and there is no clear, strict, defined space such as we may find in some of Turner’s other paintings, the soft, gradient flow of colours really creates a certain vague, dreamy magic. I love how the yellow light appears out of nowhere in the middle of the lavender sky, right above the ruined castle’s highest tower. The light of the sunset is at once illuminating the castle in its warm, almost redish glow, and covering it with a veil of vagueness, mystery and dreams. Just like the castle of the Sleeping Beauty is covered with a veil of brambles, ivy and thorns, the castle in Turner’s vision is covered in a veil of sunset dreams. All of Turner’s watercolour sketches of castles have a vague, dreamy quality to them, but this one is something special or at least it fits my mood at the moment because it’s dreamy, impalpable and … just as all that is happy and beautiful, it is just beyond reach. I feel that if I stretched my arm and tried to touch the castle it would disappear, crumble into dust like a dry moth on the windowsill.

And something else crumbling into dust these days is my summer castle made out of poetry, wildflowers, moonlight and dreams. Just like the roots of a tree are encroaching the pavement or growing under the house, the cold and crooked fingers of the approaching autumn are slowly encroaching my summer castle. Soon the branches will break the windows, the winds blow off the rose wallpapers, and autumn rains soak in the soft carpets, the moss will grow over the birch hardwood floors, and the fog will hide the castle away from me forever… I need something beautiful to cling to and Turner’s paintings of castles and ruins are a wonderful choice.

But the last day of summerNever felt so coldThe last day of summerNever felt so oldNever felt so…
All that I haveAll that I holdAll that is wrongAll that I feel for or trust in or loveAll that is gone

(The Cure, The Last Day of Summer)

John Constable – Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea)

22 Aug

“My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.

(Mary Shelley, Mathilda)

John Constable (1776–1837), Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-28), oil on paper, 22.2 × 31.1 cm

English painter John Constable painted many interesting landscapes but the most beautiful, the most majestic and awe-inspiring, to me, are his seascape studies painted in Brighton around 1824-28. The most dramatic of these seascape studies is the painting you see above called “Seascape Study with Rain Cloud” or sometimes simply called “Rainstorm over the Sea”. The painting shows the sea and the vastness of the sky above it in the moment of a rainstorm. The rough, sketchy look of the sky attests to the quick manner in which the painting was executed, but still there is precision and confidence in the way the dark, threatening clouds were captured so as to inspire awe and the feeling of the sublime. The sea here takes up very little space of the canvas while almost the majority of it is dedicated to the portrait of the roaring clouds heavy with anguish and rain. It is in these moments, very much loved by the Romantics, that nature reveals its raw power. The clouds are black at parts and the vertical motion of the brushstrokes helps to convey the wildness of the transient moment of the summer rainstorm over the sea. Constable had a particular penchant for observing and portraying clouds, in all their shapes, colours and moods, and this is evident in these seascape studies.

John Constable, Seascape Study: Brighton Beach Looking West, ca. 1824-28

Another seascape study painted in the 1824-28 period is the painting called “Seascape Study: Brighton Beach Looking West” which shows two tiny female figures standing on the desolate beach and looking out at the sea. Their dresses are windswept as they admire the breaking of the waves. Our eye stretches from the soft seafoam in the shallow sea in the foreground all the way to the dark blue deep sea in the background. The diagonal line which visually separated the beach from the sea slightly curves in the background and, again, more than the half of the canvas is occupied by the sky with the delightful white clouds. Their whiteness is echoed by the whiteness of the sea foam and it is just so exciting to see touched of white colour here and there, they enlived everything. These beach scenes make me think of the film “Me Without You” (2002) which is set in Brighton in the early 1980s, in some scenes the girls are seen walking on the Brighton pier or walking by the sea.

John Constable, Seascape Study: Boat and Stormy Sky, 20 July 1828

Above we can see yet another wild and untamed portrayal of a stormy sky over a raging sea. This is a little less known painting by Constable but interestingly we know the exact date it was painted, the 20 July 1828, which is amazing.

The reason behind Constable’s constant visits to Brighton was the frail health of his wife Maria. They all hoped she would find peace and serenity in the melliflous music of the sea waves and the fresh, salty sea air. Maria and their six children stayed in Brighton for lenghtly periods of time on and off in the period from 1824 to 1828; she gave birth to their seventh and last child in January that year and finally succumbed to consumption in November. Constable would split time between London and Brighton and, interestingly, he had mixed feelings about Brighton. At times he wrote that Brighton was “perhaps no spot in Europe where so many circumstances conducive to health and enjoyment are to be found combined“, and other times he complained at how touristy and hectic it was, offering no serenity for his artistic endeavors: “Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London. The magnificence of the sea, and its (to use your own beautiful expression) everlasting voice is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stage coaches – gigs – ‘flys’ etc – and the beach is only piccadilly …. By the sea-side … in short there is nothing here for the painter but the breakers – & the sky – which have been lovely indeed and always [various].

John Constable, Brighton Beach, 1824, oil sketch

The third seascape study I’ve chosed fro this post is this simple but fascinating oil sketch called “Brighton Beach”, painted in 1824. The canvas is distinctly elongated which gives the painting a panorama-like view of the beach. The mood is definitely daker in this painting than in the previous one; the sky and the clouds are a much darker shade of blue and this stormy mood brings to mind the hypnotic sounds of the Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is my go-to rainy day album.

Wassily Kandinsky – The Singer, 1903

28 Dec

“Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

(Kandinsky)

Wassily Kandinsky, The Singer, 1903, colour woodcut

I decided to end the artistic year on this blog with a gorgeous colour woodcut by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Earlier this month I had written about Kandinsky’s magical painting “Riding Couple” from 1906-07, and today we have another example of Kandinsky’s early artistic phase. “The Singer” is one of Kandinsky’s earliest colour woodcuts and its fluid, undulating lines and the ornamental division of the space shows the influence of Jugendstil which was popular at the time. The contours of a pianist dressed in black arise out of a dreamy blue background. His face and arms are pale as moonlight, his hair longish. Despite, or maybe because of, the stylised lines and the simple composition Kandinsky managed to convey such a deep, palpable mood which is dreamy, melancholy, poetic. Roses, piano music and moonlight. Soft, hushed tones, a whisper, a soft sigh, a rustle of red roses. Evereything watery and Neptunian; sensitive, tender, mystical…

Kandinsky deeply felt the connection between painting and music. In fact, his final decision to succumb to the voice that was luring him to become a painter was inspired, partly, by seeing Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin” in the Moscow theatre sometime in the mid 1890s. Whilst listening to the music, he saw the entire range of colours and shapes before his eyes, wild lines were creating drawings in his mind. In the end, he was a painter and not a composer, but he always sought connections between painting and music, between colours and tones. Art was a synesthetic experience for him. Many artists, such as Degas, have painted theatre and stage scenes before, but in Kandinsky’s case the choice of a motif, the singer and the pianist, is especially interesting and meaningful. And I must say, to me, this woodblock feels musical. The sounds of a melancholy Nocturne is seeping out of the black and blue tones. The lines, stylised, fluid, like water, are the medium of a melody that lives in this woodcut. There is a dynamic between the dark background and the white foreground where the singer is standing, dressed in a white dress which, strangely, brings to mind the shape of the skeleton.

I will end this post with a dreamy passage from E.T.A.Hoffmann’s essay about Beethoven’s instrumental music which first appeared in 1810 and was revised in 1813:

…(music is) the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing..”

Caspar David Friedrich – On the Sailing Boat

17 Dec

Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on…”

(Alphonse de Lamartine, The Lake, translated by A.Z.Foreman)

Caspar David Friedrich, On the Sailing Boat, 1818-20

Friedrich, the melancholy misanthrop and loner of Greifswald, had finally tied the knot on the 21 January 1818, just a few months after his fourty-third birthday. His young bride was the twenty-five year old Caroline Bommer whose elegant figure in a red dress we can see in a few of his paintings from that time period. Friedrich’s friend, and a fellow painter, Carl Gustav Carus noted that the marriage didn’t leave a trace on Friedrich, but there is a subtle yet notable shift in Friedrich’s work after the marriage; the colours are softer, the overall mood lighter, and human figures appear more often. In fact, his famous and perhaps even the most beautiful painting “Moonrise Over the Sea” was painted in 1820. Nothing compares the pink and purple sky in that painting, it’s something most dreamy and romantic. But this uplifting, lighter phase of his career was, sadly, only a short Nordic summer; as he was getting older his gloominess prevailed and he started returning to his moody, isolated landscapes.

Painting “On the Sailing Boat” shows a couple, that is, the painter and his wife, sitting at the prow of the ship, hand in hand, gliding towards the infinity of their love. Typical for Friedrich, the figures are seen either from behind or in profile, which definitely adds to the mysterious appeal. The tender purple and blue waves are cradling the lovers’ boat and above them the yellow-tinted vanilla sky is smiling with promises of future joys. In the distance the shadowy contours of a townscape appear as if they are seen through the mist, or – seen in a dream. The vastness of the sky and the sea further intensifies the dreamy, almost mystical aura of this painting which correlates to the Romantics’ view on love, or a cult of love we might even say, as a union of souls. This solemn seriousness towards the matters of love was a far cry from the frivolous and playful attitude of the Rococo generation. Just how different is this dreamy painting to something painted by Boucher or Fragonard. The subtle melancholy which permeats Friedrich’s paintings, even the seemingly joyful ones, brings to mind the work of Watteau. It seems the two painters have more in common than one would initially assume. Their work, although so dreamy and charming, holds a deeper truth about life: that all human experiences are bitter-sweet and transient: “Upon the sea of time can we not ever/ Drop anchor for one day?” (de Lamartine, The Lake) Another interesting thing about this painting is the viewpoint; while gazing at the painting we feel as if we too are on the boat and that makes us closer to the scene in the painting, but two is a company, three’s a crowd, we better leave them alone to enjoy the hours of bliss until they pass…

Eugene Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People!

20 Nov

“When injustice becomes law, resistence becomes duty.”

(Thomas Jefferson)

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, September – December 1830

When the French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix started working on his famous masterpiece “Liberty Leading the People” in autumn of 1830 he was already a well-established painter in France and a leader of the French Romanticism. Even though this painting seems historical and monumental, it actually depicts what was in Delacroix’s time a resent, fresh and new event. On 21st October 1830, Delacroix wrote to his brother: “My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subject – a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her.” The event shown in the painting was the July Revolution of 1830 when the King Charles X (1824-1830) abdicated and the King Louis Philippe came in his place. The peace didn’t last long and in June 1832 the angry Parisian republicans, resenting the replacement of one king with another, had an uprising and, sadly, lost. This event – the June Uprising – is the main event described in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables”, published decades later, in 1862.

The most memorable figure in the painting is surely the bare-bosomed lady in a yellow dress; the figure of Liberty, also seen as Marianna, the symbol of France and the French Republic. She is holding a tricolour flag in one hand and a bayonetted musket in another. Of course, Delacroix didn’t mean to imply that an actual half-naked woman was leading the Parisian rebels, this is an allegorical representation of Liberty, or the spirit of Liberty that is inspiring people, giving them the fire to keep on fighting for what they believe to be right. White the Liberty is allegorical, the rest of the people in the painting, some dead and most alive, are real. At first sight this painting may seem chaotic, and it surely is vibrant and bursting with energy, but it is also carefully crafted and that is what gives it its ultimate power. Delacroix was an amazing painter and he knew how to translate even a scene as this one into a painting that will be astonishing even centuries later. In the foreground we see the dead rebels, the people whose lives were sacrificed at the altar of freedom, the centre is occupied by the figure of Liberty who is looking over her shoulder to make sure that the people are following her. Beside her is a young boy who is believed to have been an inspiration for the character of Gavroche in Victor Hugo’s aforementioned novel. Behind the figure of Liberty we see the angry mob arising from the big cloud of smoke, they have swords and bayonettes and they aren’t afraid to use them. Anarchy is in their blood, everyone on barricades! The rebels came from all different classes but most of them were urban workers, such as construction workers. In the right corner of the painting is a symbol of Paris – the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Delacroix presented the painting at the Salon in 1831 and it was quickly bought by the government, but quickly the political tides changed and after the June Rebellion of 1832 the painting was returned to Delacroix. It was originally meant to be displayed in the Palais du Luxembourg but the idea was discarded in fear that it might inspire people to rebel. We see the same thing happening today; the mass media is reluctant to show the protests, or it downplaying their size and importance, in fear of encouraging people to keep fighting because the battle of freedom is not lost. This is also the reason why I chose to write about this painting at this particular moment in time, as a way of expressing reverence for all those people out there, all over Europe and the world, who are defying the tyrannical measures and protesting against them. Long Live Freedom!

Alexander Pushkin: All that is left is apathy and grief…

17 Nov

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sadness, 1864

Don’t Ask Me Why

Don’t ask me why, alone in dismal thought,
In times of mirth, I’m often filled with strife,
And why my weary stare is so distraught,
And why I don’t enjoy the dream of life;

Don’t ask me why my happiness has perished,
Why I don’t love the love that pleased me then,
No longer can I call someone my cherished–
Who once felt love will never love again;

Who once felt bliss, no more will feel its essence,
A moment’s happiness is all that we receive:
From youth, prosperity and joyful pleasantry,
All that is left is apathy and grief…

Léon Cogniet – Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter

16 Nov

Léon Cogniet, Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter, 1843

William Michael Rossetti, the brother of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, wrote an essay about Tintoretto in 1911 in which he mentions a well-known tale about the great painter and his beloved daughter. The Italian Renaissance painter Tintoretto absolutely adored his daughter Marietta who was also known as Tintoretta and when she passed away at the age of thirty in 1590 the great painter was so grief-stricken, tormented to the point of delirious, that he decided to paint her portrait as she was lying dead in bed. He couldn’t part with her so he captured her delicate features for the last time. This dramatic, eerie scene, which may or may not be true, fired the imagination of many Romantic painters and the version that I love the most is this one by the French painter Léon Cogniet. He was also an art teacher and he even married one of his students, furthermore both his father and his sister were also painters and it is a shame that this painter from such an artistic family stopped painting in 1855 at the age of sixty-one and died practically forgotten in 1880.

As a romantic painter it is easy to see why this sublime scene captivated him so much. Tintoretto is presented as a stern and grief-stricken father who gazes at his beloved daughter’s pale face, oh how lovely she is in death. I can imagine what beautiful verses Edgar Allan Poe would have written had he seen the sight of a famous painter painting the last portrait of his daughter. Surely, the pale face of Marietta is the same face that we see in many portraits of dead women of which I have written about here and here, it’s almost a face of a martyr, pure and tender. Marietta was her father’s pupil and she painted in his workshop, she was also a great singer and played lute, harpsichord and clavichord. Tintoretto simply couldn’t part with such a treasure and so he didn’t allow her to marry far away. Instead, he arranged a marriage for her with a local jeweler and silversmith so she would always stay close to him in Venice. You can only imagine then how sad he was when death took her away, knowing how desperately he tried to keep her by his side when she lived.

I won’t comment much about the colours in the painting because both versions I have been able to find are not that great. Also, bellow you can see another version of the same scene by a British Victorian painter Henry Nelson O’Neil. In that version the dead Marietta, with flowers in her red hair, looks like a Pre-Raphaelite maiden and brings to mind the frail and ill Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal; Dante Gabriel Rossetti didn’t paint her as she lay on her deathbed but he did bury a book of sonnets with her.

Henry Nelson O’Neil, Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter, 1873

Sándor Petőfi: Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose, not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

27 Oct

Today I wanted to share my new poetic discovery: Sándor Petőfi, a Romantic Hungarian poet and a revolutionary whose national fervour and patriotism eventually led him to his doom, but also to his glory. Romanticism arrived a bit late to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was closely tied to patriotism and national revival; each country in the vast empire sought to define its individuality; its national history and traditions. Petofi fits the theme of central European Romanticism and the two of his main poetic themes are romantic love and love for his country. He was of Slovak or Serbian ancestry, but he wrote in Hungarian and fought for the Hungarian language to be the language of the theatre and literature instead of German. As a true Romantic hero, he led a short and turbulent life and went missing at the age of twenty-six after the Battle of Segesvár in 1849; he was presumed dead but who knows when he actually died… His poems are the mirrors of the politically turbulent times he lived in and he died in the very manner he wished, as expressed in his poem “The Thought Torments Me”:

When every nation wearing chains
Shall rise and seek the battle-plains,
With flushing face shall wave in fight
Their banners, blazoned in the light:
“For liberty!” Their cry shall be;
Their cry from east to west,
Till tyrants be depressed.
There shall I gladly yield
My life upon the field;
There shall my heart’s last blood flow out,
And I my latest cry shall shout.

In 1846, in Transylvania he met an eighteen year old maiden Júlia Szendrey and, charmed by the beauty of her countenance which matched the beauty of her mind and soul, Petofi instantly fell in love and they married the same year. His parents didn’t approve and their marriage was short anyway. Like her husband, Júlia was also a poet, and a writer and translator. She spoke a few foreign languages, loved the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the writings of George Sand, loved dancing and playing the piano but she was also a private and modest person who didn’t like sharing her talents with the world. They seem like a perfect Romantic couple, with the perfectly short, intense and tragic marriage ended by a mysterious disappearance in battle and probable death. It sounds like a story one would read in a work of Schiller or Lermontov.

Giuseppe Molteni, Desolate at the Loss of her Lover, 1850

Poem “At the End of September” is written in a truly Romantic manner because it ties the themes of love and death that all Romantics loved so much. In the first stanza Petofi slowly introduces the theme of transience through a visual imagery of the changing of seasons, and even compares the arrival of winter to his hair slowly turning grave. The transience of spring and summer goes hand in hand with the passing of his youth, and the arrival of winter is tied with the impedimence of his death. I love how melancholy and melodramatic he is, wanting to know whether his beloved will weep over his grave, but then the poetic imagery turns a darker mood and we see the poet returning from the death’s vale at midnight… These poems satisfy all my poetic needs. Just seeing the words and expressions in the poem such as “broken heart”, “bleeding heart”, “tomb”, “weep”, “tears”, “death”, “mournful”, makes me swoon!

At the End of September

The garden flowers still blossom in the vale,

Before our house the poplars still are green;

But soon the mighty winter will prevail;

Snow is already in the mountains seen.

The summer sun’s benign and warming ray

Still moves my youthful heart, now in its spring;

But lo! my hair shows signs of turning gray,

The wintry days thereto their color bring.

This life is short; too early fades the rose;

To sit here on my knee, my darling, come!

Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

O, tell me, if before thee I should die,

Wilt thou with broken heart weep o’er my bier?

Or will some youth efface my memory

And with his love dry up thy mournful tear?

 

If thou dost lay aside the widow’s vail,

Pray hang it o’er my tomb. At midnight I

Shall rise, and, coming forth from death’s dark vale,

Take it with me to where forgot I lie.

And wipe with it my ceaseless flowing tears,

Flowing for thee, who hast forgotten me;

And bind my bleeding heart which ever bears

Even then and there, the truest love for thee.

Matthew James Lawless, Dead Love, 1862

“Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?”

Petofi’s poems often bring to mind romantic imagery, typically romantic themes of love and death mingle freely in his verses and I decided to illustrate the poem with the drawing “Dead Love” from 1862. Victorian era artist Matthew James Lawless is little known today because he died young, at the age of twenty-seven, and his career never had a chance to take off. The drawings that he left definitely show a talent and a romantic imagination which ties him to the Pre-Raphaelites, and therefore I think the mood of his drawing fits the mood of Petofi’s poem. And now a poem which continues with the theme of love but here love is tied with another motif Petofi loves: fighting for liberty.

My Wife and My Sword

Upon the roof a dove,
A star within the sky,
Upon my knees my love,
For whom I live and die;
In raptures I embrace
And swing her on my knees,
Just as the dewdrop sways
Upon the leaf of trees.

But why, you’ll surely ask,
Kiss not her pretty face?
It is an easy task
To kiss while we embrace!
Many a burning kiss
I press upon her lip,
For such a heavenly bliss
I cannot now let slip.

And thus we pass our day,
I and my pretty wife,
Beyond all rare gem’s ray
Is our gay wedded life.
A friend, my sword, it seems,
Does not like this at all,
He looks with angry gleams
Upon me from the wall.

Don’t look on me, good sword,
With eyes so cross and cold,
There should be no discord
Between us, friends of old.
To women leave such things,
As green-eyed jealousy:
To men but shame it brings,
And you a man must be!

But then, if you would pause
To think who is my love,
You’d see you have no cause
At all me to reprove.
She is the sweetest maid,
She is so good and true;
Like her God only made,
I know, but very few.

If thee, good sword, again
Shall need our native land,
To seek the battle-plain
Will be my wife’s command.
She will insist that I
Go forth, my sword, with thee,
To fight, if need to die,
For precious liberty!

Sandor’s wife Julia Szendrey (1828-1868).

Eugene Delacroix – Horse Frightened by Lightning

22 Oct

Eugene Delacroix, Horse Frightened by Lightning, 1825-29, watercolour

The spirit of Romanticism is alive and intense in this wonderful and expressive watercolour by Delacroix. The simplicity of the composition contrasts the intense and dramatic mood that is conveyed. Using the combination of simple visual elements; a wild horse, a desolate landscape, and a gloomy sky with a lightning, Delacroix created a painting that encapsulated the aesthetic of the Sublime. The face expression of the horse and his pose convey his torment and fear at the sudden lightning and thunder that have appeared in the sky. He seems truly unsettled and his feelings seep into the lonely landscape around him and his fear touches the viewer too; our sympathy for the poor frightened animal mingles with the feeling of awe at the nature’s unpredictability and power. This scene seems like something I would imagine whilst reading a Gothic novel.

Delacroix inherited his love and admiration for horses from another master of French Romanticism; Theodore Gericault, who was only a few years older than Delacroix but at the time this watercolour was painted, Gericault had already been dead. But despite his short life and even shorter career his dramatic art full of feelings and dark passions set the standard for the French Romanticism. Wild and untamed, or tamed but still very beautiful, strong and awe-inspiring, horses are a motif we find often in the art of Romanticism; in Fuseli’s Nightmare, in the art of Sawrey Gilpin, Gros and Gericault. A century later Franz Marc painted vibrant and expressive paintings of horses as well. For Romanticists a horse was a symbol of something wild and unstoppable, of the fire of youth, of passion for exploration, of bravery and Delacroix chose to portray this majestic animals in numerous occasions.

In this watercolour the horse is clearly not representative of something strong and wild, but rather the opposite. Panicked and red-eyed, the horse exhibits his more emotional, vulnerable side, something one wouldn’t expect to see portrayed and this strange constrasts adds to the painting’s stunning beauty; it is not just aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but poingnant and strange all at the same time. The reason why I love this painting so much is firstly because it is a watercolour and I love watercolours, and secondly because of its simplicity, passion and expressiveness, and the colour scheme where the mystical deep shades of blue present in the sky and also as subtle touches on the horse add to the mood of the sublime. A brown colour scheme would have muted the effect of terror, strangeness and drama. Blue is the colour of the deep sea and the sky, of things infinite and mysterious. The landscape around the horse thus gets a mystical air and we might wonder whether the horse itself is but our vision or a fancy…