Tag Archives: Victorian era

Lovers are Strangers: John Atkinson Grimshaw – Lovers on a Moonlit Lane

2 Aug
“Expressing your uncertainties
Through years of anniversaries
Then five years down the line
You’ll say: she was never my type
Lovers are strangers
There’s nothing to discuss
Hearts will be faithful
While the truth is told to someone else”

(Michelle Gurevich, Lovers Are Strangers)

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Lovers on a Moonlit Lane, 1873

John Atkinson Grimshaw was a Victorian era artist who is mostly remembered for his captivating and atmospheric paintings of nocturnal urban scenes. The pompous American expatriate Whistler said: “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures”, and this is a true testament which reveals just how captivating Grimshaw’s nocturnal paintings were back in his day. Whistler wasn’t the type of person who would give praise or credit lightly. A few years ago I wrote a post about Grimshaw’s Dreary Victorian Streets where I connected the desolate, urban mood of his paintings with the music of Joy Division, but today I want to tackle a painting which is nocturnal but less urban and more romantic than his other ones.

Painting “Lovers on a Moonlit Lane” was painted in 1873, which is a decade earlier then his more famous masterpieces, though he was already thirty-seven at the time. The painting shows two lovers meeting in the moonlit lane near a forest. The tree branches point the way and the glowing full moon casts light on the face of two beloveds. The vertical canvas suits the nocturnal foresty scene because it gives space for the trees to stretch their branches into the night sky. The night scene with the hauntingly dark and tall trees brings to mind the setting of a poem or a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, but also the motif of nature in moonlight and the figures of lovers irresistibly reminds one of the painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The muted colours, blues and greys, are helpful in conveying the mood. Romanticism, like the ghost of the past, haunts this painting and gives it beauty. Distant fog and unknown paths, uncertainty of love, like frost, bites the hands and cheeks… The motif of the trees which are mostly bare, the leaves that have fallen on the frozen muddy ground and the path leading nowhere all indicate a sense of ending. Autumn is giving way to winter, the vibrant leaves of autumn have rotten and fallen on the ground, a question lingers in the air: will the flame of their love survive the winter frost, or will it perish and be forever lost?

The painting has the Tim Burtonesque “Corpse Bride” aesthetic and that is why it came to my mind when I was listening to Michelle Gurovich’s song “Lovers are Strangers” which I recently discovered. I love the lyrics of the song, but also, the music sounds like something that belong to a macabre carnival, the film “Coraline” or that fits the imagination of Tim Burton. In my mind, all of these are connected together.

James Tissot – Young Lady In A Boat

9 Jan

James Tissot, Young Lady In A Boat, 1870

James Tissot, the painter of the idle and glamorous lives of the wealthy Parisians, was popular and received critical acclaim in his time but today he is in the shadow of the more revolutionary painters from his time such as Monet or Degas. Tissot was extremenly prolific and left us many, many wonderful genre paintings of people enjoying everyday life; going for walks, sipping tea, going on balls, gossiping, children playing, reading books and lying in a hammock, spending afternoon gliding on boats or enjoing a picnic under a grand old chestnut tree… All of his paintings are very meticulous and detailed and just a joy to gaze at. Tissot put a particular emphasis on the clothing the figures in his paintings are wearing and that is no surprise, for his father was a succesful drapery merchant and his mother designed hats.

My favourite Tissot painting at the moment is “Young Lady In a Boat”, painted in 1870, just a year before Tissot’s departure for London following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. It shows a pensive young woman dressed in a sumptuous white dress with ruffles and a hat with striped ribbons. A fan in her hand. A flower bouquet in front of her and a little pug behind her. I particularly love her pose; she is holding her chin with her hand and gazing into the distance. Her pinkie finger is touching her lip, what a dainty pose. You can see it also in the drawing bellow which is one of the studies for the painting that Tissot made. Is she sad or just bored? Or both. Is she suffering from ennui? The pug on the other hand looks not pensive but perplexed and he certainly adds to the charm of the painting with his humorous face expression, the face which a critic at the time compared to a monkey. The lady’s hat with those striped ribbons and her hair bring to mind the portraits of the Directoire period (1795-1800) and this was no accident, for Tissot had purposefully tried to emulate the styles of the period and this is evident in a few of his paintings from that time period. Directoire period was a glamorous time of frivolity after the terrors of the revolution and perhaps this is why Tissot decided to emulate the style.

James Tissot, Study for Young Lady in a Boat, c.1869–70. Graphite on buff wove paper, 25.3 x 24.3 cm

Tissot’s paintings are really like a dream; beautifully dressed women lazing around in splendid gardens, gliding on boats, sipping tea in warm salons whilst the children are playing hide and seek. These are people, mostly women, that seem to have everything but there is always a hint of sadness in their faces, as if despite having everything they aren’t fully happy. There’s always a sense of something missing from their lives, perhaps they feel the weight of the contraints on them, both of their corsets and of their society, maybe too much idleness brought too little to fight for or desire, maybe they don’t know what they want but just feel a certain void inside. A void that perhaps a little pug could solve.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Venus Verticordia

24 Oct

“‘Alas! the apple for his lips,—the dart

That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,—”

(Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia, 1864-68

Painting “Venus Verticordia” is a gorgeous example of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s style of portraits from the 1860s. The original model for the goddess of love was an exceptionally beautiful cook that Rossetti had met in the street. We don’t know what she looked like; perhaps she fit Rossetti’s ideal of a woman perfectly, or perhaps with his imagination and with his brush he transformed her into his feminine ideal. Regardless,in 1867 he had altered the face on the portrait to fit the features of his favourite model Alexa Wilding who sat for many of his paintings. The goddess of Love was portrayed in so many ways and so many times throughout history, but here she takes on the typical features of Rossetti’s feminine ideal; her hair is long, lush and auburn, her eyelids heavy and langorous, her lips thick and pouty, her neck strong. This is a far cry from the weak, frail and melancholy beauty exemplified by his lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal whose face and figure domineered his art of the previous decade.

“Venus Verticordia” means “Venus, changer of the heart” and was said to change the hearts of men from lust to love, but the mood and symbolism in Rossetti’s portrait tell a different story. The eroticism isn’t subtle and subdued here, but rather the goddess’ breasts are lavishly exposed. The space around her is filled with lush, vibrant flowers, roses and honesuckles, whose symbolic connotations of passion and female sexuality would have been known to the Victorian audience. She is holding a golden arrow in her hand, a motif we usually see with her son Cupid, the god of desire erotic love. A contrasting motif to all this is a golden halo and butterflies around her head, both are symbolically connected with spiritual, not earthly or sensual matters. The halo typically graces the heads of saints and butterflies are sometimes seen as symbolic of the soul, so perhaps a soulful love and not just a carnal one.

The painting left no one speechless when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Art critic and writer John Ruskin found the painting tasteless to put it lightly while others such as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote: “The great picture of Venus Verticordia has now been in great measure recast; the head is of a diviner type of beauty; golden butterflies hover about the halo of her hair; alight upon the apple or the arrow in her hands; her face has the sweet supremacy of a beauty imperial and immortal; her glorious bosom seems to exult and expand as the roses on each side of it. The painting of leaf and fruit and flower in this picture is beyond my praise or any man’s; but of one thing I will here take note; the flash of green brilliance from the upper leaves of the trellis against the sombre green of the trees behind. Once more it must appear that the painter alone can translate into words as perfect in music and colour the sense and spirit of his work.”

Stills from the film “Love Witch” (2016)

When I look into the eyes of this redhead Venus conjured in the imagination of the Victorian artist, poet and an aesthete, the image of Elaine Parks from the film “Love Witch” (2016) comes to mind; both have that look of indifference and power in their eyes, a certain awareness of their beauty and dominance, and they are confident about their inevitable success in love matters. It is a gaze that brings doom to a man who gazes back at it.

Ford Madox Brown – Capturing the Atmosphere: Walton-on-the-Naze and The Hayfield

29 Aug

Ford Madox Brown, Walton-on-the-Naze (1860)

The final days of August are always tinged in melancholy. Summer is not yet gone, and autumn has not yet arrived. The rich and vibrant facade of summer is slightly cracking and a yearning for what once was fills the cracks, and even a sunny, warm day or the beauty of a blooming rose are haunted by a feeling of nostalgia for the passing summer. The first rain, or a gust of wind, the first sight of yellow leaves on a chestnut tree all seem ominous of what is to come. This mood inhabits some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and two of such examples are landscape scenes by Ford Madox Brown. His paintings “The Hayfield” and “Walton-on-the-Naze” both possess that rich yet wistful ambience. Most of the painting “The Hayfield” was painted slowly and patiently during a period of time from late July to early September and, following the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy of painting directly from nature, Brown would walk miles and miles from his house two times a week to a spot where the scenery was the most delightful. Waiting for the perfect light, he would start painting at 5 am. The twilight scene shows the end of a working day; the moon had just risen but there is still enough daylight to reveal the scene to our eyes. The farmers are slowly getting ready to go home, there are children sittin in the haycart and one man is gazing up at the moon. You can feel the chill in the air, the slightly damp, cold grass, children’s cheerful chatter… The colours of the painting proved to be controversial, just as was the case with John Constable’s landscape some years before, but Brown stated in the catalogue for the painting that: “the stacking of the second crop of hay had been much delayed by rain, which heightened the green of the remaining grass, together with the brown of the hay. The consequence was an effect of unusual beauty of colour, making the hay by contrast with the green grass, positively red or pink, under the glow of twilight”. This shows us that the Victorian audience had a perception of reality and nature different to what it really was and they didn’t want to see the reality in art, but rather their dreamy vision of the world around them.

The painting “Walton-on-the-Naze”, painted during Brown’s visit to this small coastal town in Essex in August 1859, again features the motif of a rising moon and the gorgeous effect of light. This might be his most beautiful landscape because the ephemeral light and the effect of depth are just mesmerising. The air seems soft, rosy and palpable and the rainbow in the sky adds a whole new dreamy dimension to the scene. I had had the luck of seeing the rainbow but a few weeks ago and its beauty still charms my memory. The male figure is the portrait of Brown himself and the female figure is Brown’s wife Emma. The little girl is their daughter Catherine. The beautiful visual rhythm of the stacks of wheat in the foreground may reminds us of the harvest time and the work that is to be done, but this painting isn’t the harvesting type like the previous one, but a touristy type because Brown and his family were on holiday in that coastal town when he painted it and this reflects the Victorian discovery of coastal towns and the sea as places for leisure, rest and fun. Londoners could have easily reached the coast via a steamer train and one is seen in the background of this painting. Even Elizabeth Siddal and Rossetti stayed on the sea for her health around the same time. The layers of depth in this painting are superb, I mean just look at the ship disappearing on the horizon, a pink sky behind it, how utterly dreamy.

Ford Madox Brown, The Hayfield, 1855-56

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Elizabeth Siddal Having Her Hair Combed

25 Jul

Earlier this year, on the 12th May, I wrote a post to celebrate the birthday of the great artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and I think it would only be fair to celebrate Elizabeth Siddal’s birthday as well. She was born on this day in 1829 in London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Having Her Hair Combed, c. 1855, brown ink on paper, 153 x 115 mm

Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti is mostly remembered for his richly coloured, dense and detailed close-up portraits of languid and beautiful women that bring back the spirit of the High Renaissance portraits by painters such as Titian and Veronese, but his pencil and ink drawings show a completely different side to the artist.

“Elizabeth Siddal Having Her Hair Combed” is an ink drawing made sometime in 1855, as stated on the back of the drawing by Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti. The drawing shows Rossetti’s lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal who is having her hair combed by a maid while she is reading a book, maybe a book of Keats’ poetry. The drawing doesn’t do justice to Elizabeth’s long, lush, coppery red hair, but it gives us a glimpse into the intimate world of two bohemian lovers. Rossetti met Elizabeth in 1850 and she quickly became his favourite thing to paint. At first she posed for other artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, but very soon Rossetti made sure she posed for him only. Rossetti’s brother commented once that the walls of Rossetti’s studio were filled with drawings of Elizabeth; Elizabeth combing her hair, Elizabeth having her hair combed, Elizabeth reading or just sitting in a chair and daydreaming. Such was the extent of Rossetti’s passion and obsession for his melancholy girl. This might seem a bit extreme, even creepy, but in Rossetti’s case it shows just how much Elizabeth fueled his art and how, at last, in Elizabeth’s face and person, he found a perfect muse. The small drawing executed in brown ink is a glimpse into their everyday life, almost like a photograph, it captures the moment in a quick and sketchy manner. It must be noted how stylised Elizabeth’s face is and how skillfully executed the drawing is. The ink drawing above and the pencil sketch bellow unite two of Rossetti’s lifelong obsessions; Elizabeth Siddal and lush, long woman’s hair.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Plaiting her Hair, c. 1850s, graphite on paper, 117 x 127 mm

Artists in Literature: Amy March from Little Women

4 Jun

Louise May Alcott’s coming of age novel “Little Women”, first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, is a well-known and well-loved book, especially nowadays with many film versions and series being made. The novel follows the lives of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, from their teenage years to their adult lives. The girls’ personal trials and growing pains are intertwined with the social hardships and tribulations that came with social events such as the Civil War. Amy March, the third sister, starts the novel as a vain, self-obsessed little girl occupied with all things of elegance and beauty, and as the story progresses Amy grows up to an elegant young lady who is still occupied with Venusian things but her obsession with personal beauty transcends into a love of Beauty in art and she eventually goes to study art in Paris with her aunt. The twenty-sixth chapter from the book called “The Artistic Attempts” deals with Amy’s growing pains of being an artist and I think it is very interesting because we rarely have artists as characters in a book.

“…mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity.”

Amy March in Little Women (2017)

Here are the passages from the book:

It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius, especially ambitious young men and women. Amy was learning this distinction through much tribulation, for mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity. For a long time there was a lull in the ‘mud-pie’ business, and she devoted herself to the finest pen-and-ink drawing, in which she showed such taste and skill that her graceful handiwork proved both pleasant and profitable. But over-strained eyes caused pen and ink to be laid aside for a bold attempt at poker-sketching. While this attack lasted, the family lived in constant fear of a conflagration, for the odor of burning wood pervaded the house at all hours, smoke issued from attic and shed with alarming frequency, red-hot pokers lay about promiscuously, and Hannah never went to bed without a pail of water and the dinner bell at her door in case of fire. Raphael’s face was found boldly executed on the underside of the moulding board, and Bacchus on the head of a beer barrel. A chanting cherub adorned the cover of the sugar bucket, and attempts to portray Romeo and Juliet supplied kindling for some time.

Winslow Homer, Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine, 1883, watercolour on paper

From fire to oil was a natural transition for burned fingers, and Amy fell to painting with undiminished ardor. An artist friend fitted her out with his castoff palettes, brushes, and colors, and she daubed away, producing pastoral and marine views such as were never seen on land or sea. Her monstrosities in the way of cattle would have taken prizes at an agricultural fair, and the perilous pitching of her vessels would have produced seasickness in the most nautical observer, if the utter disregard to all known rules of shipbuilding and rigging had not convulsed him with laughter at the first glance. Swarthy boys and dark-eyed Madonnas, staring at you from one corner of the studio, suggested Murillo; oily brown shadows of faces with a lurid streak in the wrong place, meant Rembrandt; buxom ladies and dropiscal infants, Rubens; and Turner appeared intempestsof blue thunder, orange lightning, brown rain, and purple clouds, with a tomato-colored splash in the middle, which might be the sun or a bouy, asailor’s shirt or a king’s robe, as the spectator pleased.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Bow, 1887, Charcoal and graphite on off-white laid paper

Charcoal portraits came next, and the entire family hung in a row, looking as wild and crocky as if just evoked from a coalbin. Softened into crayonsketches, they did better, for the likenesses were good, and Amy’s hair, Jo’s nose, Meg’s mouth, and Laurie’s eyes were pronounced ‘wonderfully fine’. A return to clayand plaster followed, and ghostly casts of her acquaintances haunted corners of the house, or tumbled off closet shelves onto people’s heads. Children were enticed in as models, till their incoherent accounts of her mysterious doings caused Miss Amy to be regarded in the light of a young ogress. Her efforts in this line, however, were brought to an abrupt close by an untoward accident, which quenched her ardor. Other models failing her for a time, she undertook to cast her own pretty foot, and the family were one day alarmed by an unearthly bumping and screaming and running to the rescue, found the young enthusiast hopping wildly about the shed with her foot held fast in a pan full of plaster, which had hardened with unexpectedrapidity. With much difficulty and some danger she was dug out, for Jo was so overcome with laughter while she excavated that her knife went too far, cut the poor foot, and left a lasting memorial of one artistic attempt, at least.

Claude Monet, The Studio Boat, 1876

After this Amy subsided, till a mania for sketching from nature set her to haunting river, field, and wood, for picturesque studies, and sighing for ruins to copy. She caught endless colds sitting on damp grass to book ‘a delicious bit’, composed of a stone, a stump, one mushroom, and a broken mullein stalk, or ‘a heavenly mass of clouds’, that looked like a choice display of featherbeds when done. She sacrificed her complexion floating on the river in the midsummer sun to study light and shade, and got a wrinkle over her nose trying after ‘points of sight’, or whatever the squint-and-string performance is called.

If ‘genius is eternal patience’, as Michelangelo affirms, Amy had some claim to the divine attribute, for she persevered in spite of all obstacles, failures, and discouragements, firmly believing that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Paolo and Francesca da Rimini

12 May

Love led us straight to sudden death together.”

(Dante, Inferno, Canto V)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1855, watercolour

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an English poet, painter, illustrator, translator and most importantly the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was born on this day in 1828 in London so let us use the opportunity and remember the fascinating and charismatic artist on his birthday. Rossetti had artistic aspirations from an early age and his siblings shared those aspirations as well. His maternal uncle was John William Polidori; the friend of Lord Byron and the author of the short story “The Vampyre” (1819). He died seven years before Rossetti was born, but it shows what kind of family ancestry Rossetti had and why it was perfectly natural for him to aspire to become a poet and an artist. Half-Italian and half-mad, Rossetti idealised and glorified the Italian past, especially the Medieval era and the writings of Dante Alighieri; a hero whom he worshipped. In 1848 he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood along with William Holman Hunt whose painting “The Eve of St. Agnes” Rossetti had seen on an exhibition and loved, and the young prodigy John Everett Millais. Their aim was to paint again like the old masters did; with honesty and convinction, using vibrant colours and abundance of details, and most of all; to paint from the heart.

In 1850, two very important things happened in Rossetti’s life; he met Elizabeth Siddal; a moody and melancholy redhaired damsel who was to become the main object of his adoration in decade to come, his pupil, his lover and muse; and, he focused on painting watercolours. In the 1850s Rossetti’s head wasn’t all in the clouds of love, no half of it was in the rose-tinted clouds of the past, his main artistic inspirations being the Arthurian legends and Dante.

His watercolour “Paolo and Francesca da Rimini” from 1855 is a synthesis of these two inspirations; his love Lizzy Siddal and Dante. The watercolour is a tryptich (read from left to right) in intense, rich colours portraying the tale of doomed lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini who was the wife of his brother. Paolo and Francesca were real-life historical figures, but Rossetti’s inspirations stems from Dante’s Inferno, specifically from the Canto V where Dante and Virgil, portraid in the central panel of the tryptich, enter the part of Hell where the souls of passionate and sinful lovers remain for eternity. The first tryptich shows Paolo and Francesca in a kiss. A secret, guilty, and forbidden kiss and yet Rossetti’s scene only shows a tender and passionate moment between lovers, their hands clasped together, Paolo pulling her closer. Francesca’s long red hair and face resemble the hair and face of Elizabeth Siddal, and the figure of Paolo was based on Rossetti himself. It is as if he knew that his love would be as doomed, though in a different way, just like that of Paolo and Francesca.

The interior is simple and allows the focus to be on the couple and their secret kiss. A plucked rose on the floor, an opened book with glistening illuminations is on Francesca’s lap shows the activity that bonded the pair and made the kiss inevitable, from Dante’s Inferno, Canto V:

Dante asks Francesca:

But tell me, in that time of your sweet sighing

how, and by what signs, did love allow you

to recognize your dubious desires?”

And she responds:

And she to me: “There is no greater pain

than to remember, in our present grief,

past happiness (as well your teacher knows)!

But if your great desire is to learn

the very root of such a love as ours,

I shall tell you, but in words of flowing tears.

One day we read, to pass the time away,

of Lancelot, how he had fa llen in love;

we were alone, innocent of suspicion.

Time and again our eyes were brought together

by the book we read; our fa ces flushed and paled.

To the moment of one line alone we yielded:

it was when we read about those longed-for lips

now being kissed by such a famous lover,

that this one (who shall never leave my side)

then kissed my mouth, and trembled as he did.

When I gaze at this left panel of the tryptich, a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s song “The River” comes more and more to my mind, I wonder does the memory of the kiss come back to haunt Paolo and Francesca in hell:

“Pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry…”

When finally I spoke, I sighed, “Alas,

what sweet thoughts, and oh, how much desiring

brought these two down into this agony.”

(Dante, Inferno, Canto V)

The central part of the tryptich, as I’ve said, shows Dante and Virgil. The third or the right wing of the tryptich shows the afterlife of the doomed lovers in Hell. Just like the sould of other unfortunate and lustful lovers, Paolo and Francesca are shown being carried by the wind of passion that swept them away in their living life on earth too, in each other’s arms for eternity. Are they being mercilessly carried by the wind, or have they overpowerd it and are riding it blissfully? All around them flames of hell dance like shooting stars. Quite romantic actually, I don’t see where the punishment part comes myself. Still, there is a message and the tale of doomed lovers in hell shows how a single moment and a single step is enough to commit a sin; the kiss was the act of weakness and passion. That single moment of weakness endangered forever their possibility of eternal glory.

Unlike other artists before him who have portrayed the story of Paolo and Francesca, Rossetti convinently avoids portraying the bloody and gruesome moment when the lovers are caught by Paolo’s brother Gianciotto who is also Francesca’s husband and murders them both. I really like that Rossetti painted a tryptich whose theme isn’t religious but profane, though some, like John Keats – another Rossetti’s hero – argue that love is sacred. After all, a tryptich is just an artwork divided into three panels, telling a story, kind of like a modern comic book so there is really no need for it to be restricted to religious topics. We can view this watercolour then as a Tryptich of the Religion of Love. And to end, here is a quote from Keats’ letter to Fanny Brawne, from 13 October 1819:

“I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.”

John Everett Millais – Portrait of Sophie Gray

28 Oct

“I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.”

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

John Everett Millais, Portrait of Sophie Gray, 1857

Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais painted his wife Effie Millais’ younger sister Sophie on many occasions; most notably in the beautiful painting “Autumn Leaves” and “Spring” which are both atmospheric, rich in details and colour, but this “Portrait of Sophie Gray” is by far the most beautiful portrait of Sophie that Millais has painted and perhaps one of the most beautiful portraits I have ever seen. Sophie is just gorgeous to me and her face is painted exquisitely, full of colour and emotion, poetry and music. Her rosy cheeks are like ripe crimson apples. In her blue eyes I see the sea; the sublime roaring sea with its storms and wild waves, you could drown in their blueness, so intense and so alluring, so mysterious and so enticing. And yet her lips, so cherry red, so full and so inviting of a kiss, are pressed together. She is silent and shall not speak. While her eyes intrigue the viewer, her lips make sure that all her secrets are well kept. There is a melancholy charm painted all over that face, face framed with masses of long auburn hair which seems to flow endlessly. Sophie was fifteen, going on sixteen when this portrait was painted and to me it stands as a border between her childhood and the girlhood that is before her, with all its mysteries and curiosities. There is a definite sensual touch of the portrait; her crimson lips and her slender white neck, so exposed to our eyes, and how coyly the white lace touches it. I see Sophie’s awakening when I gaze at this portrait, she is standing at the doorway and looking into the world that awaits her fills her with melancholy. Her deep blue eyes can already see into the future and anticipate the life’s woes. There is a heart woven on her dark blue dress. Who will break your heart Sophie? Who will fill your blue eyes with tears? Who will infuse you with sadness? You know you will suffer and you know it is inevitable. You cannot avoid it Sophie. When I gaze into her eyes, this quote from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre” comes to my mind, it’s something that Mr Rochester tells to Jane when he gazes into her eyes: “I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.” Sophie, October’s child of woe, a Scorpio girl born on 28th October 1843, grew up to be a miserable woman, suffering from anorexia and melancholy. Despite the deep fear of marriage planted in her by her older sister Effie, both by words and through observation of her sister’s despair, Sophie did marry and she died at the age of thirty-eight, probably as a result from anorexia. Her daughter Beatrix died six years later at the age of fourteen.

Pretty Girls Make Graves – Beautiful Corpses in Art: Part I

25 Oct

“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world – and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Paul Delaroche, The Young Martyr (La jeune martyre), 1853

American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”, and no one other writer devoted himself to writing about pale, ghostly maidens and beautiful dead women with such a feverish passion. When I think of Beauty, Love and Death in literature, I instantly think of Poe, but what about the visual arts? I envisaged this post as a part one of a little overview of dead or dying women captured not with ink on paper, but in colour on canvases. The first example I’ve chosen of a girl – beautiful, young and dead, the winning combination for the utmost beauty, is the painting “The Young Martyr” by a French painter Paul Delaroche. This is probably his most famous work and it is easy to see why; the painting’s romantical and mystical flair is just mesmerising. A young Christian martyr is floating on the surface of the river, her halo shines so strongly with such pure golden light that the gentle ripples of the water of Tiber are painted in its yellow glow. Her hands are bound with a rope and only a flimsy white gown is covering her body. Her hair looks like that of a mermaid, and as we gaze at her lovely pale face, we might believe for a moment that she is still alive. She looks angelically beautiful, without a doubt. Delaroche’s beloved, adored wife Louise died in 1845 at the age of thirty-one and the artist was deeply miserable about it, so there is a personal connection there as well.

John Everett Millais, The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl, 1847

The next example is very different in colours and style. “The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl” is a very early work by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. His famous “Ophelia” was painted only two years later and there is a stark contrast between those two artworks. This painting doesn’t have the intricate, lush details nor the gentle melancholy of Ophelia, and the colours are not vivid and clear but toned down. The shades of black and grey, along with the simple, almost bare composition, add to the realism of the painting. The now lost inscription on the back of the painting said: “The painting represents an incident in Millais’s own life when he was sent for by people unknown to him, but who knew him to be a young artist, to draw a portrait of a girl in her coffin before her burial. The scene moved him so much that when he got home he made this sketch showing himself being asked to draw the girl’s portrait.” This could explain the sketchy style of the painting; it was done from the memory, unlike Ophelia which was carefully and patiently crafted. The dead girl’s face looks like that of a doll; pale, sad doll wrapped in flimsy veils.

Found Drowned, George Frederic Watts, 1850

While Delaroche’s “The Young Martyr” was painstakingly romantical and mystical, this painting by George Frederich Watts, “Found Drowned” is all but romantic. Watts is sometimes associated with the Symbolist movement, but in this painting he focused on a social realism genre because this dead, young girl washed ashore on the murky waters of the Thames is clearly a working class girl who had committed suicide because life’s prospects were bleak and it seemed like the only option. Is she not a working class martyr then? The painting was inspired by the poem “The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, published in 1844 and here are a few appropriate verses:

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!

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Millais’ painting “Ophelia” is perhaps the visual archetype of a young and beautiful dead woman in art. No other painting quite surpasses the vibrant and melancholy beauty, intricacy and magic of Millais’ Ophelia. Even though the painting is static and flat, I can really see her sinking gently into the water, as in a dream, while the moss is sighing and the reed is murmuring. Ophelia is becoming one with nature, her hair will mingle with the river, tangle with the reed, and flowers all around her speak of bloom while she is experiencing her death. The model for Ophelia was Elizabeth Siddal, the moody anorexic redhead lover and muse of a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her red hair, the gesture of her hands, that shimmering white dress, and not to mention the expression of ecstasy on that face and those slightly parted lips, it all adds to the ethereal magic of the painting. Ophelia’s beauty is captured forever on this canvas; she will never grow old and have wrinkles, her cheeks are feverish and rosy from the eerie and hot kiss of the Death and she longs for nothing no more.

Walter Crane, Lady of Shalott, 1862

The last example for the Part One of this post is a painting “Lady of Shalott” by a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter Walter Crane. Seen from the profile, lying in the boat, dressed in silvery robe, her long wavy brown hair spread around her, Lady of Shalott looks like the dreamiest corpse. Her face is so pale and her eyelids closed so tenderly, as if a gentle kiss from her beloved closed them, and not death. One can almost envy her serene peacefulness. Would you not to glide down the river, towards eternity, not seeing the tree tops and birds above you, but feeling them and hearing them as if through a mist, because your senses are fading and this world means nothing to you no more.

John William Godward – When the heart is young

10 Aug

The sweetest thing on earth is …. to do nothing and enjoy it! Late Victorian British painter John William Godward was born on 9th August 1861 and his life ended by a suicide in 1922 because, as he stated in a note that he left, “the world is not big enough for myself and Picasso”. His perception seemed to be that Picasso was so superior a painter that he had to reside from the position of the painter and from planet earth. A very sad ending to a life devoted to art.

John William Godward, When the heart is young, 1902

“you came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing”

(Sappho, translation by Anne Carson)

“When the heart is young” is one of my favourite painting by Godward, perhaps even the favourite one. There’s just something about it that lures me to it, again and again. Perhaps it is the sweet indolence that speaks to my heart the most. I just love the warmth, sensuality and clear, vibrant in this painting. Every detail about it is perfect and precise and no element of the painting seems superfluous. A beautiful and dreamy dark haired young woman occupies the central place in the painting and everything around her; the marble bench and floor, a peacock fan, animal skin, flowers and the sea in the background all serve to accentuate the idleness and luxury that she is oozing. She is lazing around on a sunny summer day and has the luxury to do so; daydreaming and allowing the minutes and hours to pass by without any guilt or concern, for being idle is not a crime. Gorgeous masses of her black hair are seductively falling over her head, her large dark eyes are full of desire and dreams and her flushed cheeks speak of desires unspoken in words. She seems to exist on a diet of sunlight’s caresses, sweet summer wines and thoughts of love. The curvy line of her body stretched on the fuzzy warm fur is as seductive as the yellowish line that separates the azure blueness of the sea from that of the sky. I can imagine the soft, summery breeze rustling the distant cypresses, kissing the poppies and bringing the salty scent of the sea to the woman’s nose. And now some more of Sappho’s verses because they fill so well with the mood of idleness and undisturbed ripe and juicy fig sweetness:

“Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.

here to me from Krete to this holy temple
where is your graceful grove
of apple trees and altars smoking
with frankincense.
And in it cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.
And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing….”

(Sappho, translated by Anne Carson)

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1904

Marble and draped gowns worn by the indolent women in Godward’s paintings bring to mind the similar work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Godward was the protégé of Alma-Tadema and their styles hold similarities; they both drew inspiration from the imagined luxury of the Greek world, Ancient Roman Empire and the warm, rich, fragrant, mood of the Mediterranean, they both painted in a Neoclassical style with fine, elegant brushwork resembling that of Ingres, especially when the subject is that of a female body; both made paintings full of light and vibrancy. Paintings “When the Heart is Young” and “Dolce far niente” both show elegantly dressed women doing nothing, being sweetly idle in beautiful settings and thus they fall into the “dolce far niente” genre of painting. ‘Dolce far niente’ is a wonderful Italian expression meaning ‘sweet doing nothing’, and it illustrates the dreamy, hedonistic, self-indulgent nature of indolence, and the enjoyment of it. In the late 19th and early 20th century, in the artistic climate influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic movement with its ‘cult of beauty’, popularity of this genre of paintings grew. Artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Godward and John William Waterhouse dared to tackle the subject and painted numerous vibrant and beautiful paintings of this theme.

There’s a certain pattern of beauty in all of these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings: a beautiful idle woman dressed in her finery, lazing around in sumptuous surroundings, doing nothing, gazing in the distance or at the viewer. Usually they’re presented in luxurious and idealised settings, aesthetically inspired by the Roman empire, lounging on animal skin, dressed in gorgeous diaphanous fabrics. Certain motifs appear in all of these paintings: finely painted marble balustrades or just marble in general, balconies overlooking the sea glistening underneath a perfectly blue sky with a few clouds, animal skin, clothes and hairstyles inspired by the styles of the Ancient world, flowers and flower pots, lush Mediterranean vegetation and plants such as oleander, lavender, cypresses, orange trees, even poppies, thyme, basil etc.