Tag Archives: silence

Peter Ilsted – Two girls playing

27 Jan

Out of the three leading Danish painters in the early twentieth century; Peter Ilsted (1861-1933), Carl Holsøe (1863-1935) and Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), it was Peter Ilsted who brought the warmth, the yellow rays of sunlight, coziness and quiet cheerfulness in his interior scenes, while imbuing them with the little bit of the mystery, the kind that haunts Hammershoi’s well-known interiors. Ilsted was the oldest of the three painters, born on Valentine’s day in 1861, and his sister Ida later became Hammershoi’s wife and appears often in his interior scenes, as a mysterious figure in black.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted (Danish artist, 1861-1933), Two girls playing, c. 1900

Ilsted’s painting “Two girls playing” exudes loveliness and warmth. Sunlight is streaming into the room, pale, peachy-orange and yellowish, and suddenly the same minimalist Northern interior which would appear cold and distant in the paintings of Holsoe or Hammershoi, is filled with quiet sweetness and hopes. Two girls, perhaps sisters are playing with something. They turned their backs on us, they don’t care about us because whatever they are playing with is far more amusing. Their appearance is matching; dark dresses under white aprons, little black boots, hair in a single plait follows the line of the neck and ends in a little bow. While the lighter haired girl is kneeling on the chair, the other seems to be standing on the tips of her toes to see better that secretive toy which seems to provide them both with so much amusement. I can imagine them chatting quietly, even giggling, but all in moderation, for the children ought to be seen but not heard. An interesting detail to notice are the paintings on the wall, little paintings in a painting, figures on them are shadowy and dreamy.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior with girl reading, 1910

The painting “Interior with girl reading” from 1910, is again filled with the same Ilsted-esque sunshine, silence and tranquility. Sweet moments at home, the coziness and the safety. The future, its trials, tribulations and uncertainties are miles away from this little girl reading a book in her drawing room. How sweet and shy and modest she appears, in a simple grey dress, hair tied in a braid, completely absorbed in the book she is reading. What thoughts occupy her sweet and innocent mind? The bookshelf, the mirror and the drawer are the only pieces of furniture in this simple room, but again there is something warm and cozy about it which doesn’t appear in the paintings of Ilsted’s contemporaries Holsoe and Hammershoi. I love how Ilsted continually achieves this delightful warmth and coziness in his interiors with little girls playing, reading or chatting, without allowing his canvases to fall into the abyss of sentimentality. Far from it, these paintings are equally thrilling and mysterious as any interior painted by Hammershoi. This delicate, gentle portrayal of the home life and childhood resonated with me, the warm orange-yellowish light that colours the space in his interiors almost fills me with nostalgia. Just take a look at that golden sunlight on the floor, how yellow and tangible it appears! It makes me wanna lie there and take a nap like a cat.

It being winter; cold and dreary, and I am weary, weary of it, my thoughts go to “Northern” painters and writers. I recently read Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger” originally published in 1890, and while he isn’t a Danish but a Norwegian writer, some interior scenes by Hammershoi and Ilsted came to my mind because these cozy, quiet and sunny interiors are a stark contrast to the cold and unwelcoming outside world. “Hunger” is written in the first person by an unnamed narrator who is struggling to get his writing published, his extreme poverty brought him to the state of perpetual hunger and this hunger makes his nerves frail and his behavior somewhat eccentric. In one scene from the novel, he keeps staring at a window until a girl’s face appears, they stare at each other for a while, but then her lovely countenance disappears behind the thick white curtains, the borders between the outside world and the indoor coziness, the narrator continues staring at the window, feeling curious and slightly embarrassed.

I wonder, if the girls from Ilsted’s painting would leave their books and their toys, and if they looked through the window and saw a thin, hungry man in a tattered suit, with wild untamed hair and crazy eyes, how would they feel about him? A mix of pity and fear. Would they stare for some time, until their mother or the servant chased them away from the window because it’s inappropriate to stare at the outside world. This simple and sober middle class interior is a safe cage for the girls-birds; they are too shy, too innocent and too sweet to see the reality out there, on the other side of the curtains and windows which serve are protectors. Whatever crazy stuff is going on outside, none of it can harm them.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior, 1897

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior with two girls, 1904

Gerard ter Borch – Love Letters and Glistening Satin Gowns

2 Jul

In this post we’ll take a look at some pretty women dressed in splendid white gowns by a Dutch Baroque painter Gerard ter Borch.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Reading a Letter, 1660-62

Out of the darkness that lures in the background, a genre scene full of intrigues and turmoil arises. A table, two chairs and three figures hold a story. A pretty young lady is reading a letter, most likely a love letter. Her raised eyebrows and slightly parted pink lips reveal her thoughts and feelings; she’s surprised, confused, a bit saddened by the words of the letter. An older female figure dressed in a fur-lined dress is sitting at the table, above an unfinished letter, she’s resting her head on one hand, and holding a quill in the other. Her gaze tells us about the seriousness of the situation. Even the young long haired servant boy glances at her worryingly! Meanwhile, a little dog is sleeping on the other chair.

Let us take a moment to appreciate her gorgeous satin gown. It is painted so beautifully and so skilfully that it looks, to me, as if it was a ball gown woven from moonlight and dandelion seeds for a forest fairy and by some magical mistake it ended up in the wardrobe of a seventeenth century lady. By painting the dress so shining and white, Ter Borch not only emphasised the rich status of the lady wearing it, and showed the elegance and sophistication of the latest fashions, but he also used it as a dazzling contrast of light and darkness. The background and the other figures are painted in dark sombre tones, and the spotlight is on her, the lady reading a letter whose words and emotions will remain forever mysterious to us. In that splendid whiteness the woman looks like a fragrant white lily blooming in the darkness of her beautiful cage.

Gerard ter Borch, Lady at her Toilette, 1660

In “Lady at the Toilette”, we have a somewhat similar scene. Again a woman dressed in a gorgeous white satin gown with details in gold and blue takes the central position. Our eyes are on her, but where is she looking? Both her clothes and the interior signify her high status, and are surely more sophisticated than Vermeer’s are. The interior with a fireplace, Oriental carpet, a mirror, and candlesticks shows luxury. The mirror shows the woman’s profile, but it doesn’t quite make sense. A figure behind the woman is perhaps a maid helping her with her gown, or a seamstress taking a measure or putting finishing touches to the dress. There is a richly dressed servant boy again. A little dog is present as well, not sleeping this time, but stretching with curiosity on the chair.

Ter Borch always lets the long skirt touch the floor and stay there in movement, creating shadows and depths, and you can almost hear its rustle, imagine its softness and shine. With his emphasis on elegance and splendour, Ter Borch partly announced the art of the eighteenth century.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter, 1655

And now a lady not reading a letter but writing one. Take a look at her pearl earring, and look how concentrated she looks, as if she doesn’t know we are gazing at her. And what is she writing, I am bursting with curiosity to find out!

These days, Jan Vermeer is perhaps the most well-known out of the genre-scene painters from the Dutch Golden Age of painting but Gerard ter Borch has painted his fair share of everyday people in everyday situations and he went even further than Vermeer and Jan Steen by adding the glamour and stylishness to everyday life; he transformed middle class ladies into belles of the ball. There is a simple reason why genre painting flourished in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century: there was a free art market and painters weren’t restricted by the demands of the church as they were in the neighbouring Flanders or Southern Netherlands, then controlled by Spain. The artists naturally shifted their focus from the pompous religious subjects full of pathos and flair, which dominated the Spanish and Flemish Baroque, to humble beauties of everyday life. Genre-scenes were a popular option, but still lives and landscapes were common too. This shift seems all to natural to me, for, if a king or a court lady deserves to have her portrait painted, if she is worthy of being captured on canvas for eternity, why wouldn’t a middle-class lady from Utrecht or Amsterdam be a worthy subject for a painting?

Gerrit ter Borch, Messenger, 1650

Painting “The Messanger” is very interesting because the mood of mystery that lingers throughout Ter Borch’s paintings reaches its peak here. A lady in a shining white satin is reading a letter brought by a messenger merely a moment ago. But she turned her back on us, so not only are the words of a love letter concealed from us, so is her face expression. Is she smiling sweetly and trying to prevent herself from giggling, or is she standing in that dark room with a furrowed brow, trying to prevent tears from obscuring her vision, in case the messenger had brought sad news and is waiting for a quick reply. We will never know.

In all these paintings, Ter Borch presents us with a gentler, more intimate, softer side of Baroque; a world of silence and stillness, eloquent glances and glistening fabrics, letters being written and letters being read, letters full of secrets; a world we can relate to and which intrigues us. Jan Vermeer’s genre scenes have a similar mood, and the emphasis is, in both artists, on intimacy and silent drama that takes place behind closed doors.

Gerard ter Borch, An Officer Making His Bow to a Courtesan, 1660s

I decided to add the painting you see above just because of the ethereally beautiful white fabric. It looks so light and airy as it touches the floor. Also, I recently wrote a short post about Victorian photography where girls are dressed in splendid gowns and reside in chambers of silences and dreams, and looking at Gerard ter Borch’s paintings now reminds me of those photographs.

Also, I already wrote about Jan Vermeer’s similar genre scenes here.