Tag Archives: Victorian era

Victorian Photography: Girls in Silk Cages, Pale and Fragile as Lilies

10 Jun

A friend recently reminded me of the photograph of Ellen Terry that you see below and its mood of sadness and wistfulness struck a chord with me. Naturally, I thought of many other Victorian photographs of girls in contemplation so I decided to share them all in this post; they are perfect for daydreaming.

Sadness (Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen), photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864

All of the photographs here were taken by female photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) who is perhaps a pandan to the Pre-Raphaelites in the field of photography because of her inclination toward the Arthurian world and medieval romances, and Clementina Maude Hawarden (1822-1865) who often took photos of her daughters and is sometimes called “the first fashion photographer” because many of her photos feature the lovely crinoline gowns from the era, full of ribbons and flounces.

What draws me to these photographs is their dream-like quality; they are like windows to the long lost worlds, they evoke as much feelings from me as a poem can, they portray beautifully the inner world of Victorian girls and young women. Gorgeous fashions and delicacy of the fabrics, dazzling play of light and shadow, a tinge of melancholy and wistfulness. In this long lost world from the other side of the mirror long haired dreamy maidens in their dazzling silk and tulle cages are shown reading or praying, or travelling the landscapes of their thoughts, sitting by the window and gazing into the outside world of freedom and strangeness; girls as fragile as lily flower, with faces pale from the moonlight, yearning hearts and silent tears that smell of jasmine, trapped in claustrophobic interiors of damask and daydreams, touching life only through veils, “seeing it dimly through tears”, drunk, not from cherry cordial, but from the heavy fragrance of roses in their vases. Caught between girlhood and adulthood, in their dreamy interiors, with mirrors and books, they are gazing through the glistening bars of their cages, in silence, for the captive birds sing no ditties.

“I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there: not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart: but really with it, and in it.” (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights)

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Kiss: I was a child beneath her touch

20 May

Karel Hynek Mácha, a Czech poet of Romanticism, wrote in his most famous work, a lyrical epic poem called “May” that the sweet and flowery month of May is a time of love. I couldn’t agree more, for the sweetness of the spring months awakens the heart. This is how his poem starts:

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May—the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied,
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-08

In the sweet, sensuous and indolent mood of May, my thoughts easily wander to Gothic romances, poetry, reverie and Pre-Raphaelites, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “The Kiss” has been on my mind these days. Here it is, accompanied by beautiful examples of kisses in art:

What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay

Or seizure of malign vicissitude 

Can rob this body of honour, or denude

This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day?

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay. 

 

I was a child beneath her touch,–a man

When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,– 

A spirit when her spirit looked through me,– 

A god when all our life-breath met to fan 

Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran, 

Fire within fire, desire in deity.

Francesco Hayez, The Kiss (Il bacio), 1859

Egon Schiele, Liebende (Lovers), 1909

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In Bed (The Kiss), 1892

Note: you can read the whole English version of Mácha’s “May”, if you are interested, here.

Bocca Bacciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

18 May

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’s Watercolours – Ladies with Parasols

9 Apr

It so happens that most of the paintings I talk about here on the blog are oil on canvas, but deep down in my heart I am an ardent lover of watercolours. I think it’s a medium full of spontaneity and feelings. So, let’s take a look at some beautiful watercolours with a mood of spring and indolence by an American Impressionist John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, detail

A beautifully dressed woman with a parasol, in nature, enjoying the sunshine and summer breeze; not quite a foreign subject to the artists, especially not to the Impressionists; Claude Monet for one painted plenty of such scenes. Still, I feel that John Singer Sargent’s explorations of this theme are particularly interesting. Firstly because they are made in watercolours, and secondly they were made in moments when Sargent was taking a break from his highly appraised oil-on-canvas portraits of Victorian and later Edwardian nobility, therefore they are more experimental and more intimate. These show Sargent’s heart, not his business.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911

In “The Lady with the Umbrella”, a beautiful woman dressed in a beautiful white gown is lying on the grass; her umbrella has just rolled over and she has to hold it gently with her hand, lest the summer’s breeze might blow it away. There is an air of sweetness and delicacy about her, she looks like a large white anemone flower, but there is a hint of sensuality as well; her flushed cheeks and direct gaze, the way her little hand is holding the umbrella, the S-silhouette of her body, so typically Edwardian, clad in soft whiteness. The sitter is actually Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond. I like how closely cropped her body is; look how her dress and the umbrella are delightfully ‘cut-off’. The artist hesitates to show us all of her charms, but rather invited us to daydream of the nature surround this beauty and makes us believe her dress is indeed a flowing sea of white silk that goes on and on, lavish and soft. The painting reminds me of a scene you’d find in Merchant-Ivory films such as “A Room with a View” (1985) or “Howards End” (1992) with the beautiful Helena Bonham-Carter. Also, because of the woman’s gaze, pose and the way she’s closely-cropped, it almost reminds me of fashion photography, from the sixties and seventies as well as now. Example of what I mean is right below:

John Singer Sargent, Madame Roger-Jourdain, 1883-85, watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 55.8

Still, “The Lady with the Umbrella” isn’t the first painting of this kind that Sargent made. After 1900, Sargent often used the motif of woman lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but when he painted Henriette, this was a new thing for him. His watercolour portrait of Madame Roger-Jourdain made decades earlier is perhaps the painting that started it all. Henriette Roger-Jourdain was a daughter and the wife of two artists; her father was Henri Moulignon, and her husband was the artist Joseph Roger-Jourdain. Henriette was not just a society hostess but also a friend and a muse to many artists; composer Gabriel Fauré dedicated his composition “Aurore” to her in 1884, Paul Albert Besnard and Sargent both painted her. Sargent became acquainted with the Roger-Jourdain family because they were neighbours in the boulevard Berthier in Paris.

The painting is similar to the one we’ve seen above; a lady lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but here her body isn’t closely cropped and she is surrounded by grass; freedom all around her. One can imagine her laughing when tickled by the grass, stretching her arms and breathing in the fresh air, laughing at the tree tops that open before her eyes, wishing she could fly with the birds and be one with the baby blue sky… Dressed in a white dress, lying on that dark green grass she looks like a lotus flower on the flickering emerald green surface of a lake. The portrait oozes that fantastically indolent and sensuous “dolce far niente” mood.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Parasol, 1888, watercolour on paper, 17.2 x 24.1 cm

Now, this third example is a tad different; the colours are darker and the woman appears more demure. She is depriving the viewer of her coquettish gaze, choosing rather to stay hidden underneath her gauzy white scarf. I really appreciate the sketch-like brushstrokes here; look how the parasol was painted with its taupe brown shadings and details in white, then the grass in a strange moss-green colour, perhaps it was an autumn day. Again, the woman’s hat and her parasol are slightly closely-cropped which helps us imagine that we are there with her, it gives an immediacy to the scene.

All painting/drawing techniques have their strengths and beauties. Drawings with pencil exude sincerity, those with charcoal possess the gloom and the strength of a tall oak. Pastels are raw pigments and their vibrancy is so psychedelic and childlike. All yet, I adore watercolours! Painting with them is such a thrill; you dip your brush in that watery paint, press is gently to the paper and let is either sink in or mingle freely with the colour next to it… and you feel like a magician, like a witch over her cauldron creating a love potion. Pure magic! Everyone should try it, it’s really therapeutic, it feels like travelling on a rainbow and making friends with each colour. I feel that, with watercolours, the painting almost creates itself; you can make a brushstroke in blue and add a mere drop of red, when water touched the two, you’ll see purple. You can play with it and see where it takes you.

Richard Redgrave – The Sempstress

19 Mar

Work — work — work!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

In a modest interior, on a light of a single candle a poor girl is wasting her precious hours, days and nights, labouring over a blouse she will never wear, or a dress for a dance she’ll never attend. Outside the last breath of twilight colours the sky in sad streaks of yellow. Lights on the windows appear one by one. The hour is merry. The night murmurs of dreams and far-off lands, it speaks to the poets and dreamers across the grey cityscape, and softly knocks on this poor needlewoman’s window… The night invites her eyes for a dream, distant trees are whispering gentle lullabies, but she knows she cannot leave her needle and rest her hands… The work needs to be done, the bills paid, warm bread on the table would be heaven… And yet her gaze is directed upwards; tired of the wordly misery, she longs for the stars. Her own shadow on the wall is her only companion; her kindred-spirits are the birds that sing cheerfully in spring, and white snowflakes in winter. She is yearning not for idleness and luxury but rather a heaven up there with all its promised delights, for this earth is unkind. Exhausting work day by day, night by night, have coloured her young oval face in paleness of sorrow, as she daydreams of the sweetness of the countryside:

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet —
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet.

She might be poor and starving in the countryside, but at least she would have fresh air, brooks and flowers that ease the life’s hardships in ways that the grey city cannot. In the early Victorian era, the newspapers were informing their readers about the exploitation of workers in the factories, often in the clothing trade. Still, when Richard Redgrave painted “The Sempstress”as a part of the wave of sentimentalised portrayals of working-class life, he was inspired by a poem he had read earlier, Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt“, which I already quoted above, first published on 16th December 1843. Here are some more lines that go well with the painting:

In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own —
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!

Her face expression, with large eyes turned upwards, and the way her figure is lighted in a dramatic way are reminiscent of the baroque paintings of female saints. Redgrave here portrays a realistic subject and offers a social criticism to eyes that wished to see it, but for the majority of Victorian viewers this painting offered a sentimentalized portrayal of working class reality; a life of sorrows, poverty and longing, with hope directed towards god. Is not this poor girl a martyr then? A martyr of a society blighted by the blossoming industrialisation and exploatation of cheap labour in factories.

Oscar Wilde – Speak gently she can hear the daisies grow

22 Feb

Today I’ll share with you a poem I recently stumbled upon and loved very much: Requiescat by Oscar Wilde. I particularly loved the first stanza and the last one, and the rest in between.

The Birch Tree (1967), by Ante Babaja

Tread lightly, she is near

Under the snow,

Speak gently, she can hear

The daisies grow.

 

All her bright golden hair

Tarnished with rust,

She that was young and fair

Fallen to dust.

 

Lily-like, white as snow,

She hardly knew

She was a woman, so

Sweetly she grew.

 

Coffin-board, heavy stone,

Lie on her breast,

I vex my heart alone,

She is at rest.

 

Peace, peace, she cannot hear

Lyre or sonnet,

All my life’s buried here,

Heap earth upon it.

Virginia Poe’s Valentine Poem for Edgar Allan Poe

14 Feb

Here is an acrostic poem that Edgar Allan Poe’s darling little wife Virginia wrote to him for Valentine’s Day in 1846. Less than a year later she was dead.

Virginia Poe’s handwritten Valentine poem to her husband Edgar Allan Poe, Feb 14th 1846; what a beautiful handwriting!

Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.