Tag Archives: victorian art

William John Montaigne – The Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth

18 Nov

“She sits in her red tower – and dreams.”

(Virginia Woolf, from a letter to Ethel Smyth written c. January 1935)

William John Montaigne (1820-1902), The Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1866

A young angelic faced maiden is standing by the window in a small chamber in the Tower of London. Our eyes are instantly captivated by her gorgeous dress; so sumptuous and so vibrantly red with golden detailing on the bodice, puffed ‘Juliet’ sleeves, delicate white ruffles around her slender neck, and a shining silk petticoat which falls beautifully and creases majestically, bringing to mind the splendour of the dresses painted by Van Dyck in his portraits of the seventeenth century court ladies. Apart from the beautiful vibrant gown, our eyes are captivated by her face which reveals an inner turmoil. So pale and delicate, almost doll-like with sad pink-lidded eyes and full pouting mouth. Wistfulness of her gaze reveals her thoughts and worries. So tall, thin, elegant, and regal she seems to is in that stuffy old chamber. She seemed to have been writing something on the wooden wall, words unbeknownst to us, but something made her stop and her hand gesture, resting on her forehead, signifies this overwhelming worry. This fiery red-haired girl is the twenty year old Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, a younger Protestant sister was a thorn in the eye to the Catholic Mary, daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, and when Wyatt’s rebellion broke out early in 1554, Mary wasted not a second in trying to accuse Elizabeth of conspiracy. Elizabeth was questioned at court about her involvement with the rebellion and despite having protested her innocence, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two months. All sorts of thoughts must have been haunting her mind when she was imprisoned on the 18th March 1554. Her future was uncertain, what awaited her was a possible death, and, moreover, the Tower of London was the same place where her mother, Anne Boleyn, had spent her last days before being accused of witchcraft and adultery and then executed. Was her mother’s spirit there to comfort her, in blue velvety night when the full moon shone through the tall windows?

In this painting, young and pretty historical figure is facing the same inner drama, fear and uncertainty that some other heroines have faced; Joan of Arc and Lady Jane Grey to name a few. Romanticism loved romanticising martyrs and beautiful brave heroines facing tragedies, and Victorian painting brought this genre on an entirely new level. William John Montaigne was a Victorian era painter and such a scene is perfectly suited to Victorian tastes, but the wonderful execution and striking colours give it a lasting value, it’s not to be forgotten easily. Still, Montaigne’s painting style here has a lot in common with Pre-Raphaelites too, more than the sentimental mainstream Victorian art. The composition with the girl standing by the window, looking worries and dressed in a vibrant dress, brings to mind John Everett Millais’ “Marianna”. More similarities are found in the manner in which Montaigne’s painting was painted, using intense colours and portraying intense genuine feeling, and being attentive to detailing.

For anyone interested in the political situation behind Elizabeth’s imprisonment and even her letter, you can read an interesting article here.

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William Dyce: Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858

5 Nov

William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858, painted in 1858-60

Autumnal evening. Victorian ladies wrapped in their warm shawls, wearing their bonnets and crinolines are collecting pretty pebbles and seashells on the beach. There is one dreamy little boy there too, holding a spade and gazing into the sea. The ladies are in fact Dyce’s wife and two sisters, and the little boy is his son. It’s early October and the sun is setting earlier. The plain grey sky is tinged with lilac and pink. The tide is low, revealing many treasure otherwise hidden by the sea. The cascading row of rocks formations and water pools creates a visual rhythm which brings our eye from the distant place where the sky and the sea meet, all the way to the ladies occupied with finding shells. There are many other figures in the background; some collecting rocks and some doing other things; one man is keeping a donkey for the popular donkey rides. Visually, the painting is divided in three zones; the foreground with the figures, the area with the sea and the cliffs, and then the monotonous sky. All together, the nature occupies the majority of space and people are nothing but small blots compared to its vastness.

Although Dyce originally supported the Pre-Raphaelites and encouraged them in their art revolution, especially William Holman Hunt in his student days, in this painting he exhibits their influence by using a refined, precise and detailed way of painting and using warm colours. One of the aims of the Pre-Raphaelites was “to study the nature attentively” and that is exactly what Dyce had achieved in this painting. He made a few en plein air sketches in preparation for this large canvas painting, so this isn’t a fanciful scene created in the studio; the beach was observed and portrayed just as it had looked that day. And he wasn’t just meticulous with his brush in this instance, he also used the painting as an opportunity to show his interest in geology and his knowledge of the field: the cliffs behind the beach are painted with accuracy. But still, the choice of the scene from nature that he chose to portray isn’t as romantic as the background to Millais’ “Ophelia” is, for example. This painting is a visual splendour and Dyce has captured the moment perfectly; by using the subtle shadings of colours and being attentive to details he managed to paint a scene that lingers in the memory because it is vivid with life and detail. Dyce takes us there: we can almost see all the pretty pebbles, hear the soothing sound of the waves and the chatter of the women, we can feel the mood of the moment, feel the slightly chill and damp air…

Still, this isn’t a transcendent landscape such as Caspar David Friedrich would have painted at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Dyce also included the human figures, but they are not wistful or dreamy; they are occupied with their fun pursuit of finding beach treasures, they are chatty and cheerful, and very small compared to the grandeur of those old and wise cliffs that hold many secrets. The cliffs are stable and permanant, the man is weak and transient, and yet Dyce’s figures aren’t amazed by this fact, why for would they be when there is a cute seashell glistening just right over there!?

La Belle Dame Sans Merci – Pre-Raphaelites and John Keats

11 Oct

In this post we’ll take a look at a very popular topic for the Pre-Raphaelite painters: the heroine of John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. At once beautiful and cruel, this damsel enchants the poor naive knight and brings him to his doom.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893

The most beautiful, the most captivating portrayal of the beautiful and cold-hearted lady from John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is, for me, the one painted by John William Waterhouse in 1893. The warm rich colours, her languid pose and the way she gazes at the poor knight linger in the memory. Winterhouse wasn’t particularly faithful to Keats’s vision of the setting; Keats described the scene of their doomed encounter as taking place in a desolate wintry landscape where no birds are singing. Waterhouse and other artists before and after him had envisaged the scene differently, which shows that sometimes motifs from poetry don’t translate well into visual arts. Still, the warm colours and details such as red leaves in the foreground suggesting that it’s late summer or early autumn, add to the sensuality of the theme. The autumn is not much different to the merciless lady; nature in autumn charms us with her richness, giving promises it won’t fulfill; the crimson leaves speak of luxury, yet they shall wither and fall in decay.

This is how the knight in the Keats’ poem describes the lady:

“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”

Most unusually, but very fitting for the rest of the painting’s colour palette, Waterhouse painted the lady’s dress in a beautiful warm shade of purple, in a seductive and illusive colour of wine. And look at the heart on her sleeve. Her long auburn hair is falling down her back as she gazes transfixed at the knight, in the same way that the nymphs in Waterhouse’s other painting “Hylas and the nymhps” are gazing at the poor Hylas. Her ruby red lips, her long hair and sweet-scented air all lie; for it is not love that lies on her heart but deceit! And it is only the poor naive knight who is blind to it. And the nature is lying with her; white briar-roses bloom and the trees in the background, reminiscent of the early Renaissance painters, are silent and many dark things they wickedly withhold. The dense row of tall trees reminds me of the trees in Botticelli’s paintings from series “The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti”, part one and two.

Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1902

Frank Dicksee was another painter who painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, but just like Waterhouse he wasn’t the member of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There is something sentimental about his version which I don’t like, but I do love the lady’s long flowing red hair with a crown of white flowers on it. Here is John Keats’s poem, it is too beautiful not to be included:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1863

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1926

At last, the knight is defeated and the lady arises like a phoenix from the ashes with a victorious glow on her cheeks, hair even shinier and more beautiful – she is ready to strike again. Wild red poppies are swaying in the wind, dancing and whispering passionately of the poor knight’s death. Her dress is intricate and ornate, and, similar to Klimt’s designs, almost has a life of its own. Her hands are seductively placed above her head, while the knight is lying dead in the grass, poppies and a few dandelions around him make for a very striking and powerful scene. Whereas Waterhouse opted for a dreamy idyllic version of the theme, focusing on the lady’s intense seductive gaze, Cowper here isn’t shy at portraying her as a merciless vixen.

Aesthetic Movement: Oriental Lyricism vs Sumptuousness of Renaissance

19 Feb

L’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake; welcome to the world of Aestheticism!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865-67

“Now at last the spring

draws swiftly to its finish.

How alone I am.”

(Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura)

I bet that hearing the young Chelsea bohemians and aesthetes, such as Whistler and Rossetti, boasting about their art for art’s sake motto, was like a slap in the face to all that Ruskin had achieved in his writings and life long devotion to art. The English aesthetes continued in their paintings what the French poet and a devotee of Beauty, Théophile Gautier started. Art for art’s sake principle claims that the only purpose of art is to create Beauty; art should be its own purpose, and ought to remain detached from society, politics, philosophy or science. Perfection of execution and harmony of colours were seen as important means of achieving the Beauty. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Gautier wrote: “Nothing is truly beautiful except that which can serve for nothing; whatever is useful is ugly.” This view of art having merely an aesthetic value clashed with John Ruskin’s opinion that art should convey the moral truths and influence us on a spiritual level.

Representatives of this wave of aestheticism in England, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, filled their canvases, in most cases, with beautiful women in sumptuous surroundings, wearing gorgeous clothes and evoking a mood of languor and sweetness smelling of violets and roses. This obsession with Beauty went in two different directions; the first was the Oriental-inspired musings, while the other went into the past and revisited the luxurious settings of Titian and Giorgione’s paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

“The temple bell stops –

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.”

(Basho, translated by Robert Bly)

Whistler is the representative of the first path; inspired by both his fellow painter Albert Moore and Japonism or the madness for all things Japanese, Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain and fabrics that ruined the minds of Parisian artists like plague, he created delicate, serene and lyrical paintings bathed in white and lightness. His famous “Symphonies”, the third one you can see above, were admired by his fellow painters such as James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas, but also highly criticised too. Model for the girl lounging on the couch was Whistler’s mistress, model and muse Joanna Hiffernan who also posed for the Symphonies in White no. 1 and 2.

A painting needn’t always have a lady dressed in a kimono, white clothes or cherry blossom tree in it, for us to say that it was Japanese-inspired, it’s more about following the principles of Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese design by observing their use of perspective, flat portrayal of space, composition and bold outlines. This is also how Edgar Degas explored Japonism, by incorporating its interesting perspectives into his ballerina scenes, unlike Monet who opted for the simpler way: painting his wife in a colourful kimono.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866

Artists who took the second path, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, partly continued the Medieval reveries, but were mostly inspired by the luxurious, richly-coloured paintings of Renaissance ladies by Titian, Veronese and dreamy idyllic world of Giorgione. Ever since he painted “Bocca Bacciata” in 1859, Rossetti continually returns to the subject of a beautiful sensual and vain woman-enchantress with bloody lips of a vampire, clad in luxurious fabrics, surrounded with objects of beauty such as fans, jewellery or flowers. Her long and lustrous hair is ready to smother every man who dares to set his eyes upon her, her eyes are cold and large gemstones. “Monna Vanna” is another beautiful example of the rich-coloured dreamy splendour that Rossetti portrays, using different models but painting the same archetypal face with heavy-lidded eyes, strong neck and large lips.

Edward Burne-Jones, Le Chant d Amour (Song of Love), 1869-77

And at springtide, when the apple-blossoms brush the burnished bosom of the dove,
Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of our love;
Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now to part.
(Oscar Wilde, Flower of Love)

Edward Burne-Jones, a young admirer of Rossetti and a follower of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, also paints idealised worlds with much beauty but little content. In those reveries inspired by the Italian High Renaissance, like the “Song of Love” time stands still and figures are sinking deeper and deeper into the sweet languor that arises from imaginary sounds. Warm glowing colours are melting and draperies are heavy, as if carved from stone. Faces are strong and gazes distant. Claustrophobia and stillness almost painful, rapture captured for eternity, the height of ecstasy, the trembling of sighs, the caressing twilight that flickers in the distant sky, cold stone of the castle, eyelids closed by the intoxicating perfume of the tired tulips in the foreground.

No breeze, no movement, no bird is heard, the hand that lightly touches the keys of an instrument produces no sound, the drapery and the fine hair not dancing in the wind but stopped in the movement, the gaze is forever fixated. The figure on the right dressed in red, seems to be whispering Oscar Wilde’s lines “Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made them bleed” from “Flower of Love”. The painting itself has a mood of a flower which, unable to bloom or wither, chooses to stay crouching for eternity in the painfully agonizing stage of the bud.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Just by looking at Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, it is easy to see their influence on both Burne-Jones’s “Song of Love” and Rossetti’s “Monna Vanna”. The same sweet languor pervades the air, the background reveals contours of a castle and a yellowish sky, and the draperies are similar as well. In Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, people are enjoying the music and each others company as warmth and indolence hang over them like a bright soft cloud.

Giorgione, Pastoral Concert (Fête champêtre), 1508-09

So, which direction of Aesthetic movement in painting do you prefer; oriental or Renaissance? It is pretty clear that I am all for the serenity of Whistler’s Symphonies in white influenced by Japanese-influence, but both possess their beauty. Whistler’s paintings can sometimes seem distant and cold, and the intensity of Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s colours and details can sometimes be overwhelming.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Bocca Baciata

4 Aug

Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent 1850s in a mood of indolence and love; he was infatuated with Elizabeth Siddal, the beautiful red-haired Pre-Raphaelite model who famously posed for Millais’ Ophelia, and he mainly painted pencil drawings of Siddal and watercolours of idealised Medieval scenes. He wasn’t as productive in the early years of Pre-Raphaelite as he was in his later years when he filled his canvases with seductive, dreamy women with luscious full lips and voluminous hair; “Bocca Baciata” is the painting that started it all.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859

The half-length portrait shows a woman dressed in an unbuttoned black garment with gold details, while the white undergarments coyly peek through. Her neck is long and strong, her head slightly tilted, lips full and closed, eyes heavy-lidded and gazing in the distance. On her left is an apple, and she’s holding a small pot marigold in her hand. She is full, voluptuous, strong, possessing none of Siddal’s delicate, melancholic, laudanum-chic beauty, but one thing they have in common: beautiful hair. Model for the painting was Fanny Cornforth who was described as having “harvest yellow” hair colour, but here Rossetti painted it as a warm, rich coppery colour which goes beautifully with the orange marigolds and gold jewellery around her neck and in her hair. Rossetti must have borrowed the brush of Veronese himself when he painted those masses of lascivious wild hair that flows and flows, seemingly endless, ready to wrap itself around the neck of its victims. Gazing at Pre-Raphaelite paintings has taught me that the famous Victorian saying which goes: “hair is the crown of woman’s beauty” is wrong. Hair is not the crown, but the weapon, ready to seduce a man, ready to suffocate him in a matter of seconds.

What lures me about this painting are the beautiful autumnal colours and pot marigolds that grace the background; they are the flowers which fascinate me the most at the moment. They are the birth flowers for October, appropriate because their orange colour matched that of the falling leaves, and in the Victorian language of flowers they are seen as the symbols of love and jealousy, pain and grief, but this symbolism saddens me. Why bestow such a negative meaning to such an innocent, bright, whimsical flower? Marigolds are known as “summer brides” because they love the sun and I love them; they are so modest and unassuming, you’d fail to notice them in the company of extroverted roses and overwhelming sunflowers, but they hide so much beauty in their small orange petals.

The white rose in her hair symbolises innocence, and this portrait, although sensual, is indeed innocent compared to those which followed. As if the long, flowing fiery hair wasn’t enough, the title, Bocca Baciata, meaning “the mouth that has been kissed”, gives off a sensual mood. The beautiful expression comes from an Italian proverb from Boccaccio’s Decameron which Rossetti wrote on the back of the painting: “The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its savour, indeed it renews itself just as the moon does.” The line is a reference to a story from Decameron told on the second day, about a Saracen princess who, despite having numerous lovers, managed to persuade the King of Algarve that she was a virgin bride.

“Bocca Baciata” is both stylistically and technically a transitional work. It is Rossetti’s first oil painting in years, the previous one being “Ecce Ancilla Domini” from 1850. The luxurious, sensuous mood is a reference to High Italian Renaissance, more specifically, the art of Titian and Veronese and their long-haired women. The main characteristic of Venetian art is the beautiful colour; space, volume is built with colour, not with line, and Rossetti used this principle hear, using soft shadings on the skin of her neck and in building the hair, stroke by stroke. Also, inspired by Titian, he used red colour as a base of his canvas, not the usual white. “Bocca Baciata” is not just a beautiful harmony of warm colours, but it also set a pattern of a style of painting typical for the art of late Pre-Raphaelite Movement and Symbolism, where a beautiful woman occupies a canvas, exuding sensuality, vanity and indolence, dressed in luxurious fabrics and surrounded by other objects of beauty such as flowers, mirrors, fans and jewellery. These types of paintings are not portraits with individual characteristics of a person, but a never ending series of visual representations of female sexual allure.

John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

2 Jun

Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is one exceedingly beautiful, vivacious and dreamy painting set in a resplendent garden covered with a flimsy veil of purple dusk in late summer, August perhaps, when nature is at its most vulnerable and autumn creeps in bringing chill evenings and morning mists, and starts adorning the landscape with a melancholic beauty. Two little girls dressed in white gowns are playing with Chinese lanterns in this magical “secret” garden where lilies, carnations and roses appear enlivened by the nocturnal air and soft caresses of twilight.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86

This is my favourite painting at the moment and despite its, at first sight obvious, aesthetic appeal, it is much more than a visual delight. It awakens my every sense; I can almost hear the laughter of the fair-haired girls as they watch the lanterns with admiration and curiosity; and the enchanting melodies sung by the flowers; I can smell the thick and sweet fragrance of carnations, dearer to me than any perfume – I might pick a few for my vase; and I can almost feel the grass tickling my legs, oh it makes me giggle…

Gentle blades of grass seem to dance in the sweet, but fleeting melody of the dusk. White lilies laugh, their whiteness overpowering the shine of the lanterns, and relish in throwing mischievous glances around the garden, spreading gossips. Pink roses that spent their days in daydreams, have now awoken, keen not to miss all the fun that the night has to offer. Pretty yellow carnations, with thousands of little petals, each adorned with a divine perfume, are naughty little things. Girls’ white dresses, glistening in pink overtones from the dusky light, flutter in the evening breeze. Very soon, a game will begin; a game in which lanterns and moonbeams will be competing in beauty and splendour… As dusk turns into night, the lights of the moon will colour the garden in silver, secrets and dreams… When all is quiet and children are asleep, the flowers and the moon will converse. If you’re eager to know the mysteries of their language I suggest you to follow the trail of rose petals and silver all the way to one of the famous opium dens in Victorian era Limehouse, and once there, lie on the soft oriental cushions that glisten in dim lights and smokes arising and dancing in the tepid air, and wait for Morpheus to visit your soul in a slumber, for we all know that the poppy seeds never lie.

This painting is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also reminds me of all sorts of things; first on the magical garden in the film Coraline (2009) where flowers are alive and naughty, and cat talks, then to the film Secret Garden (1993) which is based on book I’ve not yet read, and also on Syd Barrett and the lyrics to some of his song;”Flaming” and “Wined and Dined”.

John Singer Sargent, Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884

This is just an utterly beautiful and dreamy painting, but its technical aspects are equally interesting. First of all, the details and the very fine brushwork are amazing, and they irresistibly remind us of Pre-Raphaelites, and we know from the letters that Sargent was obsessed with them since the autumn of 1883, which he spent in Sienna.

The inspiration for the painting comes not from pure imagination but from a real event; one evening, in September 1885, he was sailing on a boat down the Thames with a friend and he saw Chinese lanterns glowing among trees and lilies. That special velvety pink-purplish dusky colour palette was achieved by directly gazing at nature in dusk, which meant it took him an awful lot of time to actually finish the painting. It was painted “en plein air” or “outdoors” which was typical for the Impressionists but uncommon for Sargent. He painted it in two stages; first from September to early November of 1885, and then in the late summer of 1886, and finished it sometime in October 1886. He spent only a few minutes painting each evening, at dusk, capturing its purplish glow, and then continue the next evening. He found the process of painting difficult, writing to his sister Emily: “Impossible brilliant colours of flowers and lamps and brightest green lawn background. Paints are not bright enough, & then the effect only lasts ten minutes.” And when autumn came, he would use fake flowers instead of real ones.

Two girls in the paintings are the 11-year old Dolly on the left, and her sister Polly, seven years old at the time; daughters of Sargent’s friend and an illustrator Frederick Barnard. They were chosen because of their hair colour. The original model was a 5-year old dark-haired Katherine, daughter of the painter Francis David Millet, and she was allegedly very upset that Sargent had replaced her. Poor girl! Also, the lovely title of the paintings comes from the refrain of the song “Ye Shepherds Tell Me” by Joseph Mazzinghi.

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 72.4 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 875)

“Garden Study of the Vickers Children” is a some kind of a draught, a rehearsal for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”; both paintings were painted en plein air and both show children in a garden; childhood innocence was a theme often exploited in the arts of the 19th century because it appealed to the Victorian sentiments immensely, and both show the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. However, in “Vickers Children” he uses bolder brushstrokes and the colour palette is all but magical; dull white, green and black. Sargent is said to have made more studies for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” than he did for any other of his paintings. Some of these studies you can see here, and they are simply gorgeous, they have such ardour and liveliness and there’s a real magic coming from those quick, visible brushstrokes; look at those lanterns, shaped in swift, round strokes of warm magical colours, and quick ones for the blades of grass and tints of rich red for flowers, ah…. This is the beauty that Dante must have had in mind when he said “Beauty awakens the soul to act.” These paintings awaken my soul!

Here you can listen a composition by Meilyr Jones inspired by this painting. Can you spare a second to think just how exciting it is to make a composition inspired by a painting, and such a beautiful painting?!

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 59.7 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 872)

The scene irresistibly reminds me of John Everett Millais’s beautiful painting “Autumn Leaves”; both are very detailed with fine brushstrokes, set in a fleeting moment of the day – dusk, and show girls in nature, just in different seasons. Sargent’s painting is “magic”, while Millais’s is “melancholy”. Still, I feel a touch of sadness behind Sargent’s dreamy garden scene, brought on by the understanding of its transience and the fleeting nature of everything that is beautiful and magical in this world. Dusk lasts so shortly, and for a moment its charm will be replaced by darkness and chill air of night; Summer – which gives nature vivacity, colours and joy, will fall into the decadence of autumn. Unveil this beauty, the glow of lanterns and the fragrance of flowers, and you shall see decay – the garden in its future barren winter state. First the yellow leaves, then the white snowflakes, will cover the places where roses grew and nightingales sang their songs of love and longing; to quote Heinrich Heine:

“Over my bed a strange tree gleams

And there a nightingale is loud.

 She sings of love, love only . . .

I hear it, even in dreams.”

And girls who are now innocent children will became adults, insensitive towards the beauty they once gleefully inhabited.

The very first glance at Sargent’s painting reminded me of this sentence from the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”: “‘Wined and Dined’ has an undertow of sadness, sung in the most fragile of voices, lingering in twilight at an August garden party he never wanted to leave.” That beautiful, sad and poignant song dates from Syd’s days in Cambridge, when he was a happy man and life was idyllic, all “white lace and promises”, just like in the song of The Carpenters. This magical garden scene where flowers giggle, gossip and chatter in the purple veil of dusk, and lanterns glow ever so brightly is what I imagine Syd was in his mind; the August party he never wanted to leave… Thinking about it always makes me cry, it is so very sad. That “undertow of sadness”, this gentle fleetingness of the moment is exactly what I see in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” and in all of Syd’s songs.

In the acid-laced song “Flaming”, Syd sings of “watching buttercups cup the light, sleeping on a dandelion and screaming through the starlit sky” creating a visual scene that matches Sargent’s painting in its magic, but this childlike cheerfulness descended into a sad, wistful elegy to better days, “Wined and Dined“(version on the “Opel” sounds especially sad and poignant):

Wined and dined
Oh it seemed just like a dream
Girl was so kind
Kind of love I’d never seen

Only last summer, it’s not so long ago
Just last summer, now musk winds blow…

Move the flimsy veil from beauty, melancholy thou shall find.

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856

They are things which are so intensely beautiful that I am not sure whether they produce as much pleasure as pain. They fill the heart with delight and longings all at once – such is the effect this painting has on me; first it lures me, and then it saddens me… But hush now, hush, reality, and let me enjoy the sweetness of this magical garden for another moment… Oh yes, I can feel the softness of the grass, see the lights of the lanterns, smell the carnations, can you?

John Everett Millais – The Vale of Rest

3 Dec

Painting ‘The Vale of Rest’ isn’t as famous as Ophelia, nor as vibrant and richly coloured as Mariana or The Blind Girl, but it is certainly one of Millais’ most atmospheric paintings, and also the one whose mystery can’t be solved despite all the details, symbols and hints, typical for early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Roman Catholic nuns on a graveyard in the dusk of an autumn day. Mood of mystery, anxiety and secrecy.

The Vale of Rest 1858-9 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01507John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-59

Dusk of a late Autumn day. Poplar trees are looming on the horizon. Tombstones coated in moss; names of the dead nearly erased with time, their lives now mere legends. Sky dazzles with purple, vanilla yellow and pink-lavender shades as chillness descends in this walled enclosure. A contour of a low chapel with a bell. Two Roman Catholic nuns. One digging a grave, the other – observing with a worried look on her face, and clutching a rosary in her hand. Art critic Tom Lubbock said of the painting: ‘Corpses, secrets, conspiracy, fear. It’s a picture that pulls out all the stops.’ The whole scene evokes mystery. Why is the nun digging a grave? Is it a burial, or an exhumation? What secrets are they hiding, and whose body lies in the cold, dark soil. Then the subject of Catholic nuns – still an object of scepticism in Victorian Britain.

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Millais intended this painting to be a pendant to Spring or The Apple Blossoms (1856-59) where the subject of death is only hinted, but here it is fully exposed. There’s a skull on the nun’s rosary, and in the sky there’s a purple cloud vaguely shaped like a coffin – a harbinger of death, according to a Scots legend. As if the sight of a graveyard in the dusk isn’t unsettling enough, Millais incorporated these little morbid details. As you can see, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are like books, you can read them by observing the details and symbols, which can always be interpreted in a different way.

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Although he had carried the idea of painting nuns in his mind for some time, Millais ventured into painting this scene one night in late October in 1858, when the appearance of the sky, shining in gold and purple shades, was especially pleasing to him. He had to work with his brush quickly because, as it goes in autumn, sky is beautiful and vibrant for one moment, and a second later all is dark and cold once again. Still, the idea occurred to him earlier, while on his honeymoon in Scotland in 1855. His wife Effie recalled: ‘On descending the hill by Loch Awe, from Inverary, he was extremely struck with its beauty, and the coachman told us that on one of the islands were the ruins of a monastery. We imagined to ourselves the beauty of the picturesque features of the Roman Catholic religion, and transported ourselves, in idea, back to the times before the Reformation had torn down, with bigoted zeal, all that was beautiful from antiquity, or sacred from the piety or remorse of the founders of old ecclesiastical building in this country. The abbots fished and boated in the loch, the vesper bell pealed forth the ‘Ave Maria’ at sundown, and the organ notes of the Virgin’s hymn were carried by the water and transformed into a sweeter melody, caught up on the hillside and dying away in the blue air. We pictured, too, white-robed nuns in boats, singing on the water in the quiet summer evenings, and chanting holy songs, inspired by the loveliness of the world around them…‘ (source)

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Millais painted the sky, trees and shrubs sitting just outside the front door, in the garden of Effie’s family at Bowerswell, Perth. Effie said: ‘It was about the end of October, and he got on very rapidly with the trees and worked every afternoon, patiently and faithfully, at the poplar and oak trees of the background until November, when the leaves had nearly all fallen.‘ The grave and the tombstones were painted a few months later at Kinnoull old churchyard in Perth. There’s a funny story connected to it. So, as Millais was painting at the graveyard daily, two strange or ‘queer’ bachelors, known by the names ‘Sin’ and ‘Misery’, noticed him and assumed that he made a living by painting the graves of deceased persons. So, they brought him wine and cakes every day, to reward his everyday hardships.

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To end this post, I have to say that Millais is, in my opinion, the master of painting dusks and capturing moods and psychological states in a lyrical way; in Mariana, he portrayed her longing and loneliness, and even here you can sense a certain tension, or a deeper emotional connection between two nuns, even perhaps a game of power; while one is digging, tired, with rolled up sleeves, the other sits calmly, though her direct gaze at the viewer reveals anxiety and worry. Millais perfectly captured the colours of an autumn dusk; even softening the gold and purple, according to Effie. In ‘The Vale of Rest’, he perfectly captured the mood, just like he did in his painting ‘Autumn Leaves’, 1856.

Still, after analysing this painting, and observing its every detail, every symbol and every brushstroke, I can’t solve the mystery behind it. Perhaps it was never meant to be solved, but enjoyed. And I certainly did; drowned in its dusky mood and morbid, doomy beauty.