Tag Archives: Symbolism

Rimbaud – Sensation – I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing…

25 Mar

My heart leaps up when I behold the charms of spring; tree branches adorned with leaves and gorgeous little white or pink blossoms, daisies and buttercups gracing the meadows, violets smiling devilishly from the grass, sunsets in shades of lilac, pink and orange. These days my soul is filled with sweet restlessness and my mind is alive with ideas, and I found a special delight in aimlessly walking around town and by the river, listen to the water murmuring, feeling the cool breeze on my bare head. Every flower lures me to ‘rescue’ it from someone’s garden and put it in my vase. Flowers, flowers, just give me pretty flowers and I shall be happy!

Some things are synonymous with spring for me; paintings of Impressionists, Schiele and Klimt, music of Debussy and The Stone Roses, Vincent van Gogh’s letters and Rimbaud’s poems! When I first discovered Rimbaud, I instantly fell in love with his poetry. Oh, it was a mad love! His book of poems was in my hands always. Every evening I’d sit by the window, breathing in the chill evening air filled with the sweet fragrance of lilac trees, gaze at the distant hills covered with a veil of pinkish mist, and read his poems over and over again, for a moment stopping to rest my head and daydream, while the distant church bells permeated the air, along with an occasional dog bark. Inspired by what I felt, what I saw, and what I daydreamed about, I wrote many and many verses too, not very good admittedly, but it was Rimbaud who unlocked that creativity in me, and I shall never forget that! Sunsets are heartbreaking, not dawns, and every moon is indeed atrocious and every sun is bitter!

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol, 1875

This evening, the same book is in my hand, the same verses, the same view from the window and yet the feeling the poem awakes is more subtle. The excitement upon reading something for the first time is just exquisite, and you can’t get it back. Rimbaud wrote this poem in March 1870; not even sixteen years old. I first read it in March too, and I was overwhelmed by the fact that there was a boy who lived more than a hundred years before me, and yet felt the same things that I do, and managed to express it more eloquently than I ever could. It appealed me immensely that he was my age when he wrote all of his poetry. This verse from another poem was amongst my favourites as well: “Seventeen! You’ll be so happy!/Oh! the big meadows/The wide loving countryside! – Listen, come closer!…

These days, his poem Sensation is on my mind constantly and I think it goes very well with Claude Monet’s portrait of his wife Camille and their son Jean. It’s a beautiful en plein air study on a windy summer’s day, look how Camille’s veil playfully dances in the wind, and how green the grass, how blue the sky, how white the clouds? It was painted in just a few hours, and the intensity of the colours really shows that it was painted outdoors on a summer day, and not in the studio. Colours are intense just like they really are when the sun is high. Camille is shown dressed like an elegant Parisian woman, walking down the meadows on a blue summer afternoon, crushing the short grass and getting prickled by the corn… but will the endless love mount in her soul too, as she walks silently, her face covered with a mysterious flimsy veil?

Sensation

On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.

And here is the poem written by the man himself, what elegant handwriting!

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol, facing left, 1886

If this poem hasn’t awoken a sense of excitement and rapture in your soul, I don’t know what could. My plans for the rest of the weekend: Rimbaud, Debussy and a healthy dose of Egon Schiele, and you?

Gustav Klimt – Valley of the Dolls

5 Mar

In a transitional period from his ‘erotic-symbolist Golden phase’ to his highly decorative and vibrant Japanese inspired phase, Klimt painted these gorgeous and aloof femme fatales: a subject so popular in fin de siecle. These two ladies are not mythical creatures, they look like real Viennese women and they’re impatient, they’re waiting, wrapped in their fur, adorned with the finest Art Nouveau jewellery, they’re glancing at you with disdain, they’re throwing darts in the eyes of their lovers.

1909-gustav-klimt-lady-with-hat-and-feather-boa-1909-4Gustav Klimt, Lady with Hat and Feather Boa, 1909

End of the first decade of the twentieth century brought some changes for Klimt; his gorgeous studies in gold with intricate details and stylised forms were slowly becoming passé. Rise of the Expressionism denoted the end of his ‘golden phase’. In his paintings such as ‘The Kiss’, Klimt painted his figures in shining yellow fabrics, decorated with tiny golden leaves, against luminous golden backgrounds, floating in a highly decorative world of his imagination. This excessive decorative element in his art prevented him from delving into psychological depth and achieving the emotional intensity of the portrayed figure, and that’s something that painters like Schiele and Kokoschka did very well . In 1909, Klimt travelled to Paris where he discovered the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fauvists. These encounters with the new streams in the artistic world, as well as his friendship with the younger artist Schiele, all inspired him to reinvent his style.

La Belle Epoque fashion looks as if it was made for femme fatales – it’s exuberant, it’s glamorous; wide-brimmed hats with feathers, fur muffs, voluminous hairstyles, large choker necklaces, long flowing dresses with lace details… Klimt was very much in tune with the fashion of the day because his life companion Emilie Flöge happened to be a fashion designer. Klimt also helped in designing the dresses by making the patterns. In this transitional period, Klimt dressed his femme fatales not in gold but in lace and perfumes and jewels and rouge; he tamed them, he made them into fashionable little dolls who are impatiently waiting to be played with, to be admired. These creatures are vain and aloof but not as sinister and destructive as Franz Stuck’s dark female figures filled with lust and anxiety. Klimt also tamed his lust for excessive ornamentation by painting the background in one colour instead of the usual vibrant kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns.

Painting Lady with Hat and Feather Boa has a strangely dark colour palette, unusual for Klimt’s typical vibrant pinks, yellows and greens. The lady has an amazing face expression; her downward tilted eyes are fixated on something on her right which we can’t see, and her eyebrows are sharp and angry. Her face has been haunting me for weeks! And that peacock blue line on her hat, and the feathers, painted in swirling, near abstract motions. Her wild red hair, and gorgeous lips peeking from that feather boa, oh she’s a real femme fatale. You can imagine her getting out of the carriage, somewhere on the streets of Vienna, opening her parasol, blind to every eye she meets, with a gaze that says: ‘You’re not fit to polish my boots!’

1910-gustav-klimt-black-feature-hat-1910Gustav Klimt, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat), 1910

On the other hand, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat) is somewhat different in mood and style. Our redhead beauty above looks gorgeous and vivacious like Klimt’s women usually do, but this one looks a tad different – there’s a subtle nihilism in those white-grey shades, a hint of Egon Schiele and the fin de siecle nervousness. Look at her angular face and the way her hand is painted; it looks like something you’d see on Schiele’s paintings. Truth is, Schiele was initially inspired by Klimt, but Klimt also learner something from his young independent-minded pupil. Again we see this gorgeous La Belle Epoque fashion, and again this femme fatale is looking into the distance, we don’t know what occupied her attention, or whose face lingers on her mind.

Franz Stuck: Dark Female Figures in a World of Anxiety and Lust

6 Sep

If you gaze at dark and richly textured paintings of a German Symbolist painter Franz Stuck for too long, you become spiritually drowned in a world of ‘anxiety and lust’, to quote Carl Jung. That peculiar mood of his paintings is as intoxicating as it is heavy and suffocating, radiating the typical turn of the century claustrophobia and interest in eroticism.

1903. The Sin (Die Sünde) - Franz Stuck

Franz Stuck, The Sin (Die Sünde), 1903

Last August, while I was in Berlin, I had a chance to see Stuck’s The Sin and Circe in Alte Nationalgalerie where they are part of the museum’s permanent collection. I remember it clearly, the feeling of being completely and fully mesmerised by hypnotic power of Stuck’s vamp femme fatales; dark eyed Eve luring from the shadow, and Circe, clad in purple, offering a gold cup, and smiling lustfully with moist, half-open lips. The day was rainy and gloomy, the chamber quiet and solitary because most visitors chose to see the Im-Ex exhibition that was on at the time. Even in the middle of the day, painting The Sin seemed frightening and grandiose because of its dimensions, but how magical and sinister at the same time would it look at night, with a few tall candles as only sources of light, shining in brilliant Byzantine golden flames, and a sofa you could lie on, smoke opium and immerse into dreams, watched upon by those big, darkly oriental eyes. I think that kind of experience would be the closest to an acid trip I could possibly imagine.

If you observe Stuck’s oeuvre, you’ll notice that darkness, like heavy November fog, lurks from every corner. World that he created in his paintings is a mythical one, where anxiety and erotic fantasies emerge from every canvas. Sometimes his paintings, just like those of Edvard Munch, can be a tad difficult to digest, at least for me, as they seem to lurk the viewer to the end of the cliff; first to be amazed, and then – to fall. I feel emotionally drained and ill after looking at them for too long, that’s the power of art for you all. Stuck portrays the dark side of mythology and female dominance and images that arise from his artworks are those of suffering and agony, twisted bodies, murky colours and strong contrasts, and ever popular in Symbolism, figures of wicked and possessive femme fatales.

So, what exactly is the true subject of his art, the spiritual fall of the Western society of his own secret Freudian fantasies?

Stu-04-NatGalFranz Stuck, Tilla Durieux as Circe, c. 1913

Stuck painted the subject of Eve’s sin and the consequent Fall of Humanity many times. The version I’ve put here, from 1903, isn’t the most striking, but it is the one I saw. In The Sin, Eve looks directly at the viewer, ironically smiling. Her sickly white, yet robust body emerges from the dark background. Two large, dark, protruding almond shaped eyes resemble those of Luisa Casati, an extravagant Italian heiress and a great example of fin de sicle decadency in lifestyle. A garishly green shadow hides her face. Framed with masses of Rossettian hair so dark it seems to have been woven from darkness itself. And then, as if the painting wasn’t unsettling enough, you notice the snake wrapped around Eve’s body, with thin piercing pupils and purplish skin that distinguishes it from the pervading darkness. If you don’t move your eyes, it will draw you in too.

Circe is visually brighter, painted in three vibrant colours; auburn for the hair, dark yellow with hints of olive brown for the cup, and lastly – purple, like dried larkspur flowers. Three colours against the pitch dark background and again, that strange sickly pale skin, were enough to uplift the mood of the painting. In body sculpting, Stuck slightly reminds me of Burne-Jones. Look at her purple tunic that sensuously falls, then her earrings and the luminous cup. Who wouldn’t be tempted to drink from it, even if the price was entering the kingdom of death and running into the arms of Persephone, a fellow mythological creature that played around with fin de siecle imagination. Stuck’s Circe reminds me of silent film stars of 1920s, such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri, who often played roles of vamp femme fatales.

Arthur Rimbaud – Dawn

18 Jun

1861. Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861

I have kissed the summer dawn. Before the palaces, nothing moved. The water lay dead. Battalions of shadows still kept the forest road.

I walked, walking warm and vital breath, While stones watched, and wings rose soundlessly.

My first adventure, in a path already gleaming With a clear pale light, Was a flower who told me its name.

I laughted at the blond Wasserfall That threw its hair across the pines: On the silvered summit, I came upon the goddess.

Then one by one, I lifted her veils. In the long walk, waving my arms.

Across the meadow, where I betrayed her to the cock. In the heart of town she fled among the steeples and domes, And I hunted her, scrambling like a beggar on marble wharves.

Above the road, near a thicket of laurel, I caught her in her gathered veils, And smelled the scent of her immense body. Dawn and the child fell together at the bottom of the wood.

When I awoke, it was noon.*

Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Art

22 Mar

These are some paintings that come to my mind when I read Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s poetry. Mostly the works of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and other artists as well.

1863. Olympia - ManetEdouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

The Jewels by Baudelaire

My darling was naked, and knowing my heart well,
She was wearing only her sonorous jewels,
Whose opulent display made her look triumphant
Like Moorish concubines on their fortunate days.

(…)

She had lain down; and let herself be loved
From the top of the couch she smiled contentedly
Upon my love, deep and gentle as the sea,
Which rose toward her as toward a cliff.

Her eyes fixed upon me, like a tamed tigress,
With a vague, dreamy air she was trying poses,
And by blending candor with lechery,
Her metamorphoses took on a novel charm…

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1862. Jeanne Duval, in a painting by Édouard ManetJeanne Duval, in a painting by Édouard Manet, 1862

To a Colonial Lady by Baudelaire

In scented countries by the sun caressed
I’ve known, beneath a tent of purple boughs,
And palmtrees shedding slumber as they drowse,
A creole lady with a charm unguessed.

She’s pale, and warm, and duskily beguiling;
Nobility is moulded in her neck;
Slender and tall she holds herself in check,
An huntress born, sure-eyed, and quiet-smiling.

Should you go, Madam, to the land of glory
Along the Seine or Loire, where you would merit
To ornament some mansion famed in story,

Your eyes would bum in those deep-shaded parts,
And breed a thousand rhymes in poets’ hearts,
Tamed like the negro slaves that you inherit.” (Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire, New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

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1886. Woman in the Bath -DegasDegas, Woman in the Bath, 1887

Venus Anadyomene by Rimbaud

Out of what seems a coffin made of tin
A head protrudes; a woman’s, dark with grease –
Out of a bathtub! – slowly; then a fat face
With ill-concealed defects upon the skin.

Then streaked and grey, a neck; a shoulder-blade,
A back – irregular, with indentations –
Then round loins emerge, and slowly rise;
The fat beneath the skin seems made of lead;

The spine is somewhat reddish; then, a smell,
Strangely horrible; we notice above all
Some microscopic blemishes in front…

Horribly beautiful! A title: Clara Venus;
Then the huge bulk heaves, and with a grunt
She bends and shows the ulcer on her anus.*

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1894. Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) - Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin, Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua)1894

Exotic Perfume by Baudelaire

When, with closed eyes in autumn’s eves of gold,
I breathe the burning odour of your breasts,
Before my eyes the hills of happy rest
Bathed in the sun’s monotonous fires, unfold.

A langorous island, where Nature abounds
With exotic trees and luscious fruit;
And with men whose bodies are slim and astute,
And with women whose frankness delights and astounds.*

Led by that perfume to these lands of ease,
I see a port where many ships have flown
With sails out wearied of the wandering seas; 
While the faint odours from green tamarisks blown,
Float to my soul and in my senses throng,
And mingle vaguely with the sailor’s song.’
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1873. Claude Monet, Autumn on the Seine, ArgenteuilClaude Monet, Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil, 1873
Autumn Song by Paul Verlaine
When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and longPale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over,
And I weep.And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.*
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1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon RedonOdilon Redon, Ophelia, 1900-1905

Ophelia by Rimbaud

I

On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily ;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils…
– In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort.

For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze.

The wind kisses her breasts and unfolds in a wreath
Her great veils rising and falling with the waters ;
The shivering willows weep on her shoulder,
The rushes lean over her wide, dreaming brow.

The ruffled water-lilies are sighing around her ;
At times she rouses, in a slumbering alder,
Some nest from which escapes a small rustle of wings ;
– A mysterious anthem falls from the golden stars.

II

O pale Ophelia ! beautiful as snow !
Yes child, you died, carried off by a river !
– It was the winds descending from the great mountains of Norway
That spoke to you in low voices of better freedom.

It was a breath of wind, that, twisting your great hair,
Brought strange rumors to your dreaming mind ;
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the tree and the sighs of the nights ;

It was the voice of mad seas, the great roar,
That shattered your child’s heart, too human and too soft ;
It was a handsome pale knight, a poor madman
Who one April morning sate mute at your knees !

Heaven ! Love ! Freedom ! What a dream, oh poor crazed Girl !
You melted to him as snow does to a fire ;
Your great visions strangled your words
– And fearful Infinity terrified your blue eye !

III

– And the poet says that by starlight
You come seeking, in the night, the flowers that you picked
And that he has seen on the water, lying in her long veils
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.*

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1897. The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning by PissarroPissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning, 1897

The Seven Old Men by Baudelaire

To Victor Hugo

City swarming with people, how full you are of dreams!
Here in broad daylight, surely, the passerby may meet
A specter, — be accosted by him! Mystery seems
To move like a thick sap through every narrow street.

I thought (daybreak, it was, in a sad part of town)
“These houses look much higher in the fog!” — they stood
Like two gray quays between which a muddy stream flows down;
The setting of the play matched well the actor’s mood.

All space became a dirty yellow fog; I tried
To fight it off; I railed at my poor soul, whose feet,
Weary already, dragged and stumbled at my side.
Big wagons, bound for market, began to shake the street….*

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1859. The Absinthe Drinker ( Le Buveur d'absinthe)by Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker ( Le Buveur d’absinthe), 1859

Le Vin du solitaire by Baudelaire

The wildering glances of a harlot fair
seen gliding toward us like the silver wake
of undulant moonlight on the quivering lake
when Phoebe bathes her languorous beauty there;

the last gold coins a gambler’s fingers hold;
the wanton kiss of love-worn Adeline,
the wheedling songs that leave the will supine
— like far-off cries of sorrow unconsoled —

all these, o bottle deep, were never worth
the pungent balsams in thy fertile girth
stored for the pious poet’s thirsty heart;

thou pourest hope and youth and strength anew,
— and pride, this treasure of the beggar-crew,
that lifts us like triumphant gods, apart!*

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1883. Au Foyer du Théâtre, 1883, Jean-Louis ForainJean-Louis Forain, Au Foyer du Théâtre, 1883

Pagan Prayer by Baudelaire

Don’t stint the fires with which you flare.
Warm up my dull heart to delight,
O Pleasure, torture of the sprite,
O Goddess, hear my fervent prayer!

Goddess, who through the ether pass,
Flame in this subterranean hole!
Raise up a chilled and stricken soul
Who lifts to you his peal of brass.

O Pleasure, always be my queen!
In flesh and velvet to be seen,
Mask your beauty like a siren:

Or else my soul with sleep environ
Drained from the formless mystic wine,
Elastic phantom! which is thine.’ *

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

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1910. Girl with black hair - Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

The First Evening by Rimbaud

She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees
Threw out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.

Sitting half naked in my big chair,
She clasped her hands.
Her small and so delicate feet
Trembled with pleasure on the floor.

– The colour of wax, I watched
A little wild ray of light
Flutter on her smiling lips
And on her breast, – an insect on the rose-bush.

– I kissed her delicate ankles.
She laughed softly and suddenly
A string of clear trills,
A lovely laugh of crystal.

The small feet fled beneath
Her petticoat: “Stop it, do!”
– The first act of daring permitted,
Her laugh pretended to punish me!

– Softly I kissed her eyes,
Trembling beneath my lips, poor things:
– She threw back her fragile head
“Oh! come now that’s going too far!…

Listen, Sir, I have something to say to you…”
– I transferred the rest to her breast
In a kiss which made her laugh
With a kind laugh that was willing…

– She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees threw
Out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.*

Shadow – A. G. Matos

3 Mar

Short story ‘Shadow’ was written by Antun Gustav Matos (1873-1914), a central figure in Croatian modernism. It’s written in style of Symbolism, and when I read it, it reminded me of Mannucci’s painting, I think the atmosphere is compatible. Also, Matos was occupied by themes of love, death and beauty, his other stories often feature bizarre subjects and characters. It’s interesting to note that he lived in Belgrade, Vienna, Munich, Genova and spent five years in Paris. He was influenced by Baudelaire and E.A. Poe. I stumbled upon his work on wiki.cultured. The page also features art and literature from different cultures, which is very interesting.

1910. Cipriano Mannucci - Verso la luce1910. Cipriano Mannucci – Verso la luce

I love the mournful shadow, the dozing light: light which dreams of the night. I love the shadow, twin sister of the warm sun and of the cold moon. I love the shadow, my eternal adopted sister and companion which slumbers beside me, walks near me, my dark picture and my caricature. Yes, I love the shadow, yellow, grey, black; the shadow, sad and silent as death.

All, all is shadow. The world is a shadow. And the sun is a shadow of a mystical sun. And life is the shadow of a mystical life. The shadow is a cradle. The shadow is a grave. Before my existence I was but a shadow. And, when I cease to be, I shall be a shadow. I am the shadow of that which I was and of that which I shall be: a shadow between two eternities of haze. All is shadow.

The shadow is larger than light, as it is greater at evening than the fields of my grandfather. Wheat and grain spring up in the shadow and die in shadow. Life arises from shadow, wanders in the shadow, and disappears into the shadow.

We are shadows.

O, Shadow, child of the day and the night! Shadowy morning and purple evening! Shadow, child of darkness and light, pale daughter of enigma, opening melancholy silent weary eyes, and through them life peers wonderingly into mysterious death! Last night, my love, you were trembling against my breast with the moist eyes of affection and happiness. I named you beauty, happiness, and woman, but there remained a handful of ashes in place of honey. Love, you also are a shadow.
I am a shadow, and I love the quiet still shadows of the affliction which awaits the new Titans and the new twilights of the gods.

The shade told me, the shade which grew larger and larger behind the old oak beneath the moonlight whilst awaiting the dew and the dark song of the nightingale under the shrubbery of the hawthorn and brier rose, such shady, foggy and grey fables. The shade was whispering to me this morning as well, as it walked under the fleecy cloud across the field of stubble, caressing the larks’ and the quails’ nests, and kissing the quivering tops of the field flowers.

Shadow, thou soft pillow of light: Shadow, thou black bed of life! And when once the planets extinguish, you will remain the empress of life.

I love you, Shadow, pure silent goddess: lift up your soft mantle of fog streaked with golden secrets, and cover my weary eyes, to close them to embrace my shadow.

(Translated by Carolyn Owlett Hunter)

‘Found Drowned’ by George Frederick Watts

19 Dec

One more Unfortunate
Weary of breath
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!‘ (The Bridge of Sighs, by Thomas Hood, 1844)

1850. Found Drowned is an oil painting - George Frederic WattsFound Drowned, George Frederic Watts, 1850

Painting Found Drowned was painted in c. 1850 by the famous Victorian painter George Frederic Watts, who is usually associated with the Symbolist movement. In this case however, he employed his talents in social realism genre. The painting depicts the dead body of a woman washed up beneath the arch of Waterloo Bridge, her body still immersed in the cold, dirty water of the River Thames. She is presumed to have drowned after throwing herself in the river in despair, trying to get away from the stigma of ‘fallen woman’: a term used in Victorian era to describe women who had lost their innocence. The painting was inspired by Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs‘, published in 1844. The poem tells a story of an anonymous young woman, desperate and abandoned by her lover, pregnant and thrown out of her home, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

In the foreground we see her dead body, her torso and arms in the shape of a cross. The simplicity of her orange-coloured gown suggests that she belonged to the lower class, perhaps she was a servant. Some parts of the poem directly describe her appearance: ‘Look at her garments/Clingling like cerements; /Whilsts the wave constantly/drips from her clothing…‘ and ‘Loop up her tresses/Escaped from the comb,/Her fair auburn tresses…‘ and ‘And her eyes, close them,/Staring so blindly.‘ As a contrast, the background is painted in dark shades of blue and grey, portraying the gloomy London night sky and industrial cityscape. City sleeps, and so do the people, in their quiet and cozy homes, sitting by the fireplace; chatting or reading. Questions arise: Will she be missed? Will anyone even notice that she’s gone? What will they say when they find her body in the morning? Will anyone’s heart be filled with regret? And yet there’s a star in the sky, could there be hope? Hardly, I’d say.

1859. found - Dante Gabriel RossettiFound, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859

Subject of ‘fallen women’ was particularly popular in Victorian art and literature, and, I’d have to say it’s a rather compelling subject to write about. As you will see later, many artists such as John Everett Millais, Augustus Egg, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Richard Redgrave decided to portray the sad and hopeless circumstances that tormented those fallen women after their innocence was lost. As expected, moral authority was almost always limited to women, nobody questioned the chastity of men. This is just one of many hypocrisies of Victorian society.

Fallen” was therefore an umbrella term that was applied to a variety of women in a variety of settings: she may have been a woman who had had sex once or habitually outside the confines of marriage; a woman of a lower socio-economic class; a woman who had been raped or seduced by a male aggressor; a woman with a shady reputation; or a prostitute. Furthermore, prostitution was defined in a range of ways and the “reality was that hard economic times meant that for many women, prostitution was the only way to make ends meet. Many … were only transient fallen women, moving in and out of the profession [of prostitution] as family finances dictated.’(*)

Rossetti’s painting ‘Found’ (unfinished) was inspired by fallen women, and he also wrote a poem on that subject:

There is a budding morrow in midnight:’ –
So sang our Keats, our English nightingale.
And here, as lamps across the bridge turn pale
In London’s smokeless resurrection-light,
Dark breaks to dawn. But o’er the deadly blight
Of love deflowered and sorrow of none avail,
Which makes this man gasp and this woman quail,
Can day from darkness ever again take flight?

Ah! gave not these two hearts their mutual pledge,
Under one mantle sheltered ‘neath the hedge
In gloaming courtship? And, O God! today
He only knows he holds her; – but what part
Can life now take? She cries in her locked heart,-
‘Leave me – I do not know you – go away!’

Picture 920The Bridge of Sighs, Sir John Everett Millais, 1858

Millais’ etching truly captured the alienation of the individual in the big city, a sense of hopelessness, while the question of ‘what shall I do next?’ lingers in her mind. Even though its colourless, it holds a certain warmth and vividness; city lights and the bridge seem so lively, the river glitters. Woman’s weary body is tightly wrapped in a shawl, her eyes tired, her face gloomy. A feeling of destitute pervades the atmosphere. She reminds me of Lou Reed’s Femme Fatale: ‘Where shall she go, what shall she do…’ There is no turning back, and yet the future brings nothing but uncertainty. A chance of finding a decent job was unlikely. Fantine, a character from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, is a good example of the poor treatment of fallen women. She was left with a small child, Cosette, after her lover abandoned her. Initially she worked in the factory, but lost her job after everyone found out she is an unwed mother.

For me, Millais’ visual interpretation of Hood’s poem really captured these verses:

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery
Swift to be hurl’d–
Any where, any where
Out of the world!

1879. George Elgar Hicks, On the Seashore,1879George Elgar Hicks, On the Seashore, 1879

The lady above is undoubtedly facing completely different problems and dilemmas than the unfortunate woman in Millais’ etching or Hood’s poem. Her gown is black, but opulent, her hair lush and restless, her gaze wistful. All together she seems groomed and proper, on her face life has not yet left any traces of sadness and disappointment, everything awaits her, unlike Millais’ heroine who was forced to encounter the ‘real world’.

Augustus Egg’s triptych ‘Past and Present’, 1858, shows the downfall of a bourgeois family, the effects of adultery not only for the ‘guilty’ woman but for the children as well, and the whole reputation of the family. Third painting, Past and Present, No. 3, Despair’, is the most interesting one because it shows the same motifs as Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts. Woman, who had played he cards wrongly, now sits under the bridge, and, helpless and alone, oh, completely alone, gazes at the moon, as if expecting salvation from the stars. One wrong step gambled away her future. Was it worth it?, she asks herself, but the night doesn’t respond. All is silent, and Thames is asleep. The scene again leads me to Hood’s poem:

Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
Oh! it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

1858. Augustus Leopold Egg, 'Past and Present, No. 1, Misfortune'Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 1, Misfortune’, 1858

Past and Present, No. 2 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 2, Prayer’, 1858

Past and Present, No. 3 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 3, Despair’, 1858

1851. Richard Redgrave - The Outcast Richard Redgrave – The Outcast, 1851