Tag Archives: watercolour

Eugene Grasset – Young Girl in the Garden

12 May

“Let it pass; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.”

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Sensible Thing)

Eugene Grasset, Young Girl in the Garden, date unknown, watercolour

I recently stumbled upon this gorgeous watercolour by a Swiss turn of the century decorative artist Eugene Grasset (1845-1917) and I was instantly captivated by its lyrical beauty and the ever so slight tinge of melancholy seen in the girl’s downward gaze and the setting sun in the distance, a sense of finality and regrets.

A young brunette in a garden of orange and green tones is casting her gaze down to the pond. She is deep in her thoughts. Spring is passing and the sunset song of the birds speaks of warm summer days which are soon to come; heavy with heat and rich scents of awakened flowers. The lush, elegant garden with its marble staircases and statues brings to mind John Singer Sargent’s vibrant watercolours of the gardens of the Italian villas painted around the same time as Grasset’s watercolour or a little later. The figure of the girl, and the scenery around her and behind her, work in a beautiful harmony; our eye is not distracted by the natural setting of a garden, but the scenery isn’t too simplistic either. Just notice and admire the details on the trees in the background; how lively and wild their branches that stretch towards the heavy orange sunset clouds! With its cascade of statues and flower bushes the scene of a garden acquires a depth which makes the scene more realistic. The girl’s appearance seems to belong to two different ages; at first glance she is the turn of the century young lady, with her dress with slightly puff sleeves and her flowing hair, but also her attire makes her look like a princess from some distant time, from some far-away, enchanted land… Time has stopped; the garish orange sun is captured in its flight, but the tender breeze caressing the trees whispers of changes that are to come. The rosebud of spring is blooming into a summer rose and in this painful transience some things must be left behind. What could I have done differently, or, how fast have the spring days gone by, the young girl seems to be asking herself, in the sunset of a beautiful warm day.

Motives of girls and flowers are common in the art of the La Belle Epoque and indeed, Grasset’s own oeuvre is littered with illustrations that feature a figure of a beautiful girl in a natural setting. Usually, in those kinds of illustrations, everything is so decorative and flowery that it might be hard to tell which is the flower and which – the woman. Visually, this watercolour fits into the same type of paintings, but its mood is more lyrical and it conveys more emotions. It is not emotionally flat and merely decorative, and that is what kept luring me to this watercolour. It speaks to my soul, for sure.

Maurice Prendergast – Feast of the Redeemer

2 Mar

“Spring lanterns –

colourful reincarnations

of the moon”

(haiku by Isabel Caves, found here.)

Maurice Prendergast, Feast of the Redeemer, c 1899, watercolour

Another post, another watercolour by Maurice Prendergast! In this post we are sort of continuing the theme from my previous Prendergast post where I talked about his watercolour “The Grand Canal, Venice“, also from 1899. The aforementioned watercolour is a lively scene that shows tourists, gondoliers and strollers enjoying a sunny day at the Grand Canal, but the watercolour we will be seeing today shows us a night view of the same waters and canals of Venice.

Using only three colours; blue, orange and yellow, Prendergast manages to create a fetching nocturnal scene filled with plethora of little boats decorated with garlands and glowing lanterns. The painting has depth; our view stretches on and on into the distance, so far off that it is hard to distinguish whether the distant orange and yellow dots are the lanterns or just the reflections of the lanterns in the nocturnal waters. Each boat is painted in a single thick black line which, for some reason, brings to mind the black lines in paintings of Franz Kline. I cannot decide which aspect of the watercolour is more beautiful; the glowing lanterns or the reflections of their light in the dark midnight water, the reflections which are painted in a kind of zig zag pattern in the foreground while in the distance they are vertical, like golden tears. Everyone who paints watercolours will know that it is like walking on a tightrope, a constant struggle between control and spontaneity. Sometimes the effect of letting the watercolour paint itself can be magical, but without some direction it could also be a big colourful mess. Prendergast always walks that tightrope with ease and perfection, none of his watercolours seem as if they are laboured over, as if he struggled.

At first sight this watercolour appears whimsical, playful and fantasy-like, but in reality the scene it depicts is a religious festival called “Festa del Redentore” or Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer which is celebrated every year on the third Sunday of July. It is one of the most important Venetian celebrations that binds religion and festivity. The origin of the festival started back in the sixteenth century, to commemorate the end of the plague that happened in 1577. The festival is celebrated by a sea pilgrimige to the little island of Giudecca and that is the sight that Prendergast has seen and decided to capture in watercolours. On the night of the festival the fireworks are let out and people gather on the balconies and roofs to observe the occassion.

Watercolours of Venice: Maurice Prendergast and John Henry Twachtman

18 Feb

Maurice Prendergast, The Grand Canal, Venice, 1899, watercolour

I recently stumbled upon these two gorgeous watercolours of Venice and I though it would be fun to compare the two because they are so different in mood. As you may know already, I am a massive fan of Maurice Prendergast’s watercolours and I have written about them on numerous occasions. They are just so vibrant, colourful, bubbly and so darn fun! Prendergast truly transformed the otherwise moody, watery and melancholy medium of watercolour into something ecstatic and playful, childlike but still skilled and refined. Colours and vivacity are two things that characterise Prendergast’s watercolours the most. In this watercolour “The Grand Canal, Venice” from 1899, we are instantly captivated by all the energy and business of the scene; people are gliding up and down the pavement, the gondoliers are on their gondolas, the seawaves are cradling the gondolas and the water is glistening in the sunlight. The way the water is painted, in little dots and dashes, really makes it seem as if it were alive. The composition is interesting because it has a lot of depth and our view stretches from the gondolas in the foreground and the little girl with her red parasol, all the way to the beige and blue houses in the background. The vertical lines of the streetlamps is echoed by the vertical lines of the canal poles. As usual, Prendergast is great at capturing people, lots of people walking down the street chatting and laughing, in a way that is seemingly detailed and sketchy both at once.

In his watercolour titled simply “Venice”, from 1881, the American Impressionist painter John Henry Twachtman offers us a rather different view of the dreamy town on many canals. Twachtman’s watercolour painted in harmony of greys and browns is a stark contrast to Prendergast’s bubbly and colourful view of the Venice canal. The moody, grey sky and the grey water with ever so slight touch of blue and green occupy the majority of the scene. The little boats with brown sails and grey toned domes of churches visually break the vastness of the water and the sky. Prendergast’s watercolours are always bursting with liveliness and are full of people, but in Twachtman’s view of Venice there are no people. This absence of human figures, further contributes to the sombre, slightly melancholy mood. The tonalist way in which the watercolour was painted, with just a few carefully selected colours, makes it feel as if this was a musical composition, a nocturne, something hushed and melancholy. Twachtman allows the colours to freely create the scene and this gives the impression of something light and effortless; we don’t feel as if the painter laboured over this watercolour, rather it feels delicate and natural, as if the sky had imprinted itself on the paper and the sea waves of Venice painted the painter in their aqua blue shades. Two different views of the same city, different in style but equal in beauty.

John Henry Twachtman, Venice, 1881, watercolour

Antigone in Art: Being charged as foolish by a fool

27 Nov

“…does not someone who, like me,
Lives on among so many evils, profit
By dying?

(Sophocles, Antigone)

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927), Antigone, no date

When, back in high school, I first read a few passages from the Greek tragedy “Antigone”, written by Sophocles in 441 BC, I wasn’t particularly interested in it, but now I decided to read the play again because the play’s central theme – the civil disobedience – is something that resonates strongly with today’s events. The strong and brave Antigone is a true heroine and reading the play filled me with a sense of direction and gave me encouragment.

Antigone, the play’s heroine and the main character, is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, and the sister of Ismene, Polynices and Eteocles. An event that happens before the start of the play is the civil war of Thebes in which Antigone’s brothers Polynices and Eteocles fight on different sides. Antigone’s uncle Creon gives an order that Eteocles must have an honorable burial but Polynices must be left unburried in the battlefield and his dead body will be food for vultures, as a punishment for his rebellion. The play begins with a conversations between Antigone and Ismene; the brave Antigone who is led by justice wishes to give her brother a proper burial because she feels that is the right thing to do, but Ismene, who is a lawful and obedient daughter, dares not to do this, even though she knows in her heart it is the right thing. Ismene begs Antigone not to proceed with her plan because she knows how harsh the punishment will be when the King Creon finds out, but Antigone doesn’t listen to her sister and instead says:

ANTIGONE:
For me it’s noble to do
This thing, then die. With loving ties to him,
I’ll lie with him who is tied by love to me,
I will commit a holy crime, for I
Must please those down below for a longer time
Than those up here, since there I’ll lie forever.

Antigone and Ismene by Emil Teschendorff, Antigone and Ismene, n.d.

ISMENE: You have a heart that’s hot for what is chilling.
ANTIGONE: But I know I’m pleasing those I must please most.

In the painting by Emil Teschendorff above you can see the beautiful, blue-eyed and blonde Ismene trying to convince Antigone not to go out and bury her brother. What a visual contrast they make; Ismene is dressed in light clothes, she is bright and fair, and Antigone is dressed in a dark blue, with dark hair. Ismene is the good and proper daughter, and Antigone is the stubborn rebel and troublemaker. Their personalities are indeed as different as day is to night, but this ‘light’ and positive representation of Ismene is very misleading because ‘obedience’ doesn’t equal ‘goodness’ or ‘justice’. Being obedient doesn’t mean doing the right thing, it means doing what you were told to do without questioning it.

Nikiforos Lytras, Antigone in front of the dead Polynices, 1865

As you can see, there are many interesting representations of Antigone in art, especially the scene where Antigone finds the body of her dead brother and gives him a proper burial. Greek painter, appropriately, Nikiforos Lytra places the scene at a rocky beach. Behind Antigone the dark sea and the moody sky meet. She gazes in disbelief at her brother’s corpse. In Benjamin-Constant’s version of the scene the Antigone is dressed in a white gown and while she is performing the ritual two guards behind here have just caught her in the act.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Antigone au chevet de Polynice, 1868

In the watercolour by Lenepveu the naked body of Polynices is stretches under Antigone’s feet while she is sprinkling dust all over him and perfroming the ritual. Their poses and the way the red cloth is carefully placed to cover Polynices’s private part makes the scene seem staged and not as mysterious or as spontaneous as the previous paintings. My favourite is the version by the Pre-Raphaelite painter of Greek origin Marie Spartali Stillman; the landscape behind Antigone is a moody one and the crows add to the ominous appeal, both sisters are next to their brother’s body and Ismene is holding Antigone’s hand imploringly, desperately trying to prevent her from doing what she is about to do.

Jules Eugene Lenepveu (1819-1898), Antigone Gives Token Burial to the Body of Her Brother Polynices, c. 1835-1898, watercolor, pen and black ink over black chalk, on gray-green paper

Ismene with her moral lenience, her cowardice and lack of passion and integrity reminds me of a quote by Robert Anton Wilson which is very appropriate for our times: “The obedient always think about themselves as virtuous, rather than cowardly.” And this leads us to another moral dilemma which is at the centre of the play: obedience to what or whom? Obedience to civil laws made by men, or obedience to something higher; obedience to God or your own conscience? Which is more important? Ismene doesn’t want to create an inconvenience or disobey the civil law but Antigone doesn’t care about laws on earth because she knows that she must please the Gods first; her life on earth is brief but the life of her soul is eternal.

Isn’t it fascinating how when we are presented with something in retrospective, or in art, everything is perfectly clear to us; it is obvious that Antigone is a brave and principled heroine, that Ismene is weak and obedient, that Creon is a tyrannt. Everyone would agree that Antigone did the right thing, and yet, in real life, everything is twisted and upside-down; blind obedience, conformity and cowardice are celebrated as bravery, real bravery is portrayed as dangerous ignorance and even lunacy, not to mention that Truth and Logic have been the first victims of our tragedy; they died in Act One. If our situation was a Greek play it would be obvious who was on the right side, as history will inevitably show too. To end, here is a brilliant dialogue between the King Creon and Antigone where he questions her about what she has done and Antigone gives him a brilliant, intelligent, even a bit cheeky reply. Go, Antigone!:

KREON: You — answer briefly, not at length — did you know
It was proclaimed that no one should do this?

ANTIGONE I did. How could I not? It was very clear.
KREON And yet you dared to overstep the law?
ANTIGONE:
It was not Zeus who made that proclamation
To me; nor was it Justice, who resides
In the same house with the gods below the earth,
Who put in place for men such laws as yours.
Nor did I think your proclamation so strong
That you, a mortal, could overrule the laws
Of the gods, that are unwritten and unfailing.
For these laws live not now or yesterday
But always, and no one knows how long ago
They appeared. And therefore I did not intend
To pay the penalty among the gods
For being frightened of the will of a man.
I knew that I will die —how can I not? —
Even without your proclamation. But if
I die before my time, I count that as
My profit. For does not someone who, like me,
Lives on among so many evils, profit
By dying? So for me to happen on
This fate is in no way painful. But if
I let the son of my own mother lie
Dead and unburied, that would give me pain.
This gives me none. And now if you think my actions
Happen to be foolish, that’s close enough
To being charged as foolish by a fool.

Oh and the guards in the play who told the King that they saw Antigone are the perfect examples of people who are “just doing their job”, which is something I am sick to my stomach of hearing. The picture above is something I found on The Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown’s Twitter, but I have seen it in other places and I don’t know who the original creator is.

Teodor Axentowicz – The Old Man and the Ghost of a Young Woman

7 Nov

Polish-Armenian painter Teodor Axentowicz (1859-1938) is somewhat forgotten and neglected in today’s art history but he has many amazing painting, for example his pastel “Redhead” of which I have written about before. Today I wanted to write about a pastel and watercolour painting whose mood and colours fit this time of the year so well, that is, the mood of the painting fits the mood of nature in this moment.

Teodor Axentowicz, Vision – Memory, Old age and youth, (The old man and the ghost of a young woman, An old man with a girl) (after 1900), pastel and watercolor on paper

This painting is known under various titles, but my favourite title is “The old man and the ghost of a young woman” because it directly implies that the wistful, gentle face of a woman that appears to be gazing at the old man is a ghost. We could assume that from the way she was painted as well; her face is clear but the rest of her seems unfinished, as if she is fading away or she is not really there. She is suppose to be a simple peasant, but her facial features look more like those of a model and the classical, idealised beauty of her face contrasts with the more realistic manner in which the old man’s face was painted. The old age has coloured his hair and beard in snow white, his attire is simple and brown. Why is he sitting under a tree with a furrowed brow? Does he sense that his end will come soon? Do the memories of his youth haunt him? Does he see the face of a girl he once loved but who had died? Maybe she came to tell him: shhh, it is time to go now… But he is still scared. The girl’s face oozes patience and tenderness, surely she has come to help him in some way. Wistful, lovely and lonely female figures appear often in Axentowicz’s art; whether it’s his gorgeous pastel “Girl with a Blue Vase (Tears)” from 1900, “Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Krakow” from 1909, or his “Girl with a Candlestick”, but they are always isolated figures against a landscape. In this painting the girl’s wistful face is tied to a bigger story and every detail is imbued with a symbolism.

Another title for the painting “Memory, Old Age and Death” brings yet another meaning to the scene; the old man seeing the girl’s face in the forest must be a sign of his impending death and the girl must be a face from his memory, someone he loved. Also, it implies a vanitas theme of transience and the shortness of life. The somber, earthy, autumnal colours match the mood of the painting perfectly. The colours aren’t the gay, vibrant shades typical for early autumn, no, this is the autumn nearing its end; winter’s frost kissing the bare trees. The painting looks like it was seen from a sepia-tinted glasses, like a distant memory, something melancholy that can never be returned. The forest setting, away from people, away from everyday life, brings additional spiritual dimension to the painting. There are no more leaves to fall of those trees; the leaves rustle no more, nothing but stilness and coldness is in the air – death is near. The combined technique that Axentowicz used is also interesting; pastel over watercolour; it brings the best of both worlds.

Eugene Delacroix – Horse Frightened by Lightning

22 Oct

Eugene Delacroix, Horse Frightened by Lightning, 1825-29, watercolour

The spirit of Romanticism is alive and intense in this wonderful and expressive watercolour by Delacroix. The simplicity of the composition contrasts the intense and dramatic mood that is conveyed. Using the combination of simple visual elements; a wild horse, a desolate landscape, and a gloomy sky with a lightning, Delacroix created a painting that encapsulated the aesthetic of the Sublime. The face expression of the horse and his pose convey his torment and fear at the sudden lightning and thunder that have appeared in the sky. He seems truly unsettled and his feelings seep into the lonely landscape around him and his fear touches the viewer too; our sympathy for the poor frightened animal mingles with the feeling of awe at the nature’s unpredictability and power. This scene seems like something I would imagine whilst reading a Gothic novel.

Delacroix inherited his love and admiration for horses from another master of French Romanticism; Theodore Gericault, who was only a few years older than Delacroix but at the time this watercolour was painted, Gericault had already been dead. But despite his short life and even shorter career his dramatic art full of feelings and dark passions set the standard for the French Romanticism. Wild and untamed, or tamed but still very beautiful, strong and awe-inspiring, horses are a motif we find often in the art of Romanticism; in Fuseli’s Nightmare, in the art of Sawrey Gilpin, Gros and Gericault. A century later Franz Marc painted vibrant and expressive paintings of horses as well. For Romanticists a horse was a symbol of something wild and unstoppable, of the fire of youth, of passion for exploration, of bravery and Delacroix chose to portray this majestic animals in numerous occasions.

In this watercolour the horse is clearly not representative of something strong and wild, but rather the opposite. Panicked and red-eyed, the horse exhibits his more emotional, vulnerable side, something one wouldn’t expect to see portrayed and this strange constrasts adds to the painting’s stunning beauty; it is not just aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but poingnant and strange all at the same time. The reason why I love this painting so much is firstly because it is a watercolour and I love watercolours, and secondly because of its simplicity, passion and expressiveness, and the colour scheme where the mystical deep shades of blue present in the sky and also as subtle touches on the horse add to the mood of the sublime. A brown colour scheme would have muted the effect of terror, strangeness and drama. Blue is the colour of the deep sea and the sky, of things infinite and mysterious. The landscape around the horse thus gets a mystical air and we might wonder whether the horse itself is but our vision or a fancy…

Constantin Guys – A Grisette and Other Watercolours

19 Sep

M.C.G.[Monsieur Constantin Guys]loves mixing with the crowds, loves being incognito, and carries his originality to the point of modesty.” 

(Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life)

Constantin Guys, A Grisette, 1859, Pen and ink with ink and watercolor washes on wove paper

These watercolours and drawings by Constantin Guys have caught my attention these days. I just love how brilliantly they capture the vibrant and busy social life of the mid-nineteenth century rich and posh Parisians. Guys is almost like a precursor to a paparazzi, capturing every move, every laughter, every nuance of what is going on. These works were mostly made during the Second French Empire times; from 1852 to 1870, and lucky for us viewers, those decades were the decades of the sumptous and extravagant fashion for women, mostly because of the crinoline which made the skirts excessively wide thus making the women look like giant lotus flowers walking around. These sketchy and quick yet so vivid and detailed pen and ink drawings with watercolour washes give us a sneak peek into the era that is gone by. But Guys doesn’t just paint the wealthy ladies. His drawing of a grisette from 1859 can vauch for that. A grisette is a flirtatious coquettish working class woman. Guys stunningly captures the flounces of her dress and the way he painted the black fabric makes it appear like waves on the dark waters of Venice. His use of blue is equally thrilling in the drawing “Leaving the theatre”. Guys seems always to be walking on the tightrope between sketchiness and brimming with details.

I imagine these ladies and gentlemen are the characters from Gautier’s stories, from Chopin’s concerts, maybe one of these beauties is the fatal mistress of Mr Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, stepping out of the carriage and giving a kiss to her other lover while Mr Rochester awaits her on the balcony, hidden by the roses, heartbroken and disappointed. I imagine these are the kind of ladies that Balzac wrote about in Father Goriot, the kind of ladies who know every little gossip and secret of Parisian budoirs and bedroom, they are the flies on every wall and no one is safe from their watchful eye. But little do they know that all along Monsieur Guys is gandering at them from afar, his eyes catching scenes like the camera, his hand drawing on its own. It is for a reason that the decadent poet Charles Baudelaire called him “the painter of modern life” in his essay of the same-name. In that essay he especially praises Guy’s endless curiosity about life and the world around him, the same curiosity that children have and which makes them ecstatic about everything. This curiosity, tied with perceptiveness, artistic skill and a flaneur lifestyle make Guys the brilliant painter that he was. Here are some interesting passages from Baudelaire’s essay:

“Today I want to talk to my readers about a singular man, whose originality is so powerful and clear-cut that it is self-sufficing, and does not bother to look for approval. None of his drawings is signed, if by signature we mean the few letters, which can be so easily forged, that compose a name, and that so many other artists grandly inscribe at the bottom of their most carefree sketches. But all his works are signed with his dazzling soul, and art-lovers who have seen and liked them will recognize them easily from the description I propose to give of them.

Constantin Guys, Leaving the Theatre, 1852, Pen and brown ink, brush and black, gray, red, blue, and yellow wash

M. C. G. [Monsieur Constantin Guys] loves mixing with the crowds, loves being incognito, and carries his originality to the point of modesty. (…) when he heard that I was proposing to make an assessment of his mind and talent, he begged me, in a most peremptory manner, to suppress his name, and to discuss his works only as though they were the works of some anonymous person. I will humbly obey this odd request. (…) M. G. is an old man. Jean-Jacques began writing, so they say, at the age of forty-two. Perhaps it was at about that age that M. G., obsessed by the world of images that filled his mind, plucked up courage to cast ink and colours on to a sheet of white paper. To be honest, he drew like a barbarian, like a child, angrily chiding his clumsy fingers and his disobedient tool. I have seen a large number of these early scribblings, and I admit that most of the people who know what they are talking about, or who claim to, could, without shame, have failed to discern the latent genius that dwelt in these obscure beginnings.

Constantin Guys, Two Gentlemen and a Lady, n.d., Pen and brown ink, brush and brown, green and blue wash, over graphite; touches of red chalk

Today, M. G., who has discovered unaided all the little tricks of the trade, and who has taught himself, without help or advice, has become a powerful master in his own way; of his early artlessness he has retained only what was needed to add an unexpected spice to his abundant gift. When he happens upon one of these efforts of his early manner, he tears it up or burns it, with a most amusing show of shame and indignation. In this context, pray interpret the word ‘artist’ in a very narrow sense, and the expression ‘man of the world’ in a very broad one. By ‘man of the world’, I mean a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs; by ‘artist’, I mean a specialist, a man tied to his palette like a serf to the soil. M. G. does not like being called an artist. Is he not justified to a small extent?

He takes an interest in everything the world over, he wants to know, understand, assess everything that happens on the surface of our spheroid. (…) With two or three exceptions, which it is unnecessary to name, the majority of artists are, let us face it, very skilled brutes, mere manual labourers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins. (…)  Thus to begin to understand M. G., the first thing to note is this: that curiosity may be considered the starting point of his genius.

Constantine Guys, Reception, 1847, Pen and brown ink with brush and watercolor, over graphite, on ivory laid paper

Do you remember a picture (for indeed it is a picture!) written by the most powerful pen of this age and entitled The Man of the Crowd? Sitting in a café, and looking through the shop window, a convalescent is enjoying the sight of the passing crowd, and identifying himself in thought with all the thoughts that are moving around him. He has only recently come back from the shades of death and breathes in with delight all the spores and odours of life; as he has been on the point of forgetting everything, he remembers and passionately wants to remember everything. In the end he rushes out into the crowd in search of a man unknown to him whose face, which he had caught sight of, had in a flash fascinated him. Curiosity had become a compelling, irresistible passion.

Now imagine an artist perpetually in the spiritual condition of the convalescent, and you will have the key to the character of M. G. But convalescence is like a return to childhood. The convalescent, like the child, enjoys to the highest degree the faculty of taking a lively interest in things, even the most trivial in appearance. Let us hark back, if we can, by a retrospective effort of our imaginations, to our youngest, our morning impressions, and we shall recognize that they were remarkably akin to the vividly coloured impressions that we received later on after a physical illness, provided that illness left our spiritual faculties pure and unimpaired. The child sees everything as a novelty; the child is always ‘drunk’. Nothing is more like what we call inspiration than the joy the child feels in drinking in shape and colour.

Constantin Guys, Meeting in the Park, 1860, Pen and brown ink, brush and gray, blue, and black wash

I will venture to go even further and declare that inspiration has some connection with congestion, that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less vigorous nervous impulse that reverberates in the cerebral cortex. (…) But genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed. To this deep and joyful curiosity must be attributed that stare, animal-like in its ecstasy, which all children have when confronted with something new, whatever it may be, face or landscape, light, gilding, colours, watered silk, enchantment of beauty, enhanced by the arts of dress.”

Andrew Wyeth – Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939

3 Sep

“Set sail in those turquoise days…”

(Echo and the Bunnymen, Turquoise Days)

Andrew Wyeth, Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939, watercolour and pencil on paper

This gloomy watercolour by Andrew Wyeth instantly struck a chord with me because it brought to mind the solitary landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and the moody music of Echo and the Bunnymen’s second album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is an all time favourite of mine, and I especially savour it in this time of the year. As someone who is continually seeking the connections between painting and rock music, literature and art, music and literature etc, this is a perfect match in mood, for the sounds of the “Heaven Up Here” transport me to a wet, solitary beach where the sea and the sky meet in a kiss while the dusk is slowly taking over… Wyeth’s watercolour strongly conveys a similar mood, at least to me because the colours are beautifully chosen.

Wyeth, who usually had a penchant for taking an ordinary motif and transforming it into an extraordinary one, took a simple motif of a three master or a ship with three masts and painted a stunning watercolour using a palette of only a few colours, but visually strong and captivating ones. The ship is leaning on its right, the sea waves are strong, they are cradling the ship as if it were a baby in the crib. The nature can easily destroy something man-made, even if it is as big as the ship, and it’s easy to see just how powerless and meaningless the small human figures are compared to the vastness of the sea. The figures here almost appear to be melting into the rest of the scene and they bring to mind the figures in Caspar David Friedrich’s melancholy seascape painting though Wyeth’s watercolour is more dynamic and expressive than meditative and dreamy. The combination of the dark colours and the whimsical, playful way the watercolour seemed to be painting itself creates a contrast that stimulates and excites our eyes.

The liquid and often capricious medium of watercolour is perfect for this kind of a scene because it vividly portrays the sea waves, better than a dry medium of pastel would, for example. When you gaze at these dark and murky waters you know they were painted with water, you can imagine the brush heavy with drops of rich colour hitting the surface of the paper and leaving a rich, dense trace which grows paler as the stroke gets longer… The greedy paper takes in the colour just as the sand on the beach drinks in the water of the sea. I feel that watercolour can translate the mood of melancholy, isolation and gloom better than other mediums. Wyeth was only twenty-two years old when he painted this watercolour; the same age as Echo and the Bunnymen’s singer Ian McCulloch when he sang the lines “set sail in those turquoise days…” from the above mentioned album. In 1937, at the age of twenty, Wyeth had his first one-man exhibition of mostly monochromatic watercolours. Seeing the gorgeous “Three Master Aground” we needn’t be surprised that the exhibition was a huge success and that all the watercolours were sold.

Maurice Prendergast – Two Women Crossing a Field

18 Jul

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing”

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook – Two women crossing a field, 1895-97, watercolour

Two ladies in white dresses are walking through a yellow field. With their dainty parasols and elegant hats they almost look like porcelain dolls. The scene is closely cropped and we don’t get to see much of the nature around them. We don’t even see the sky the way we do in similar paintings by Claude Monet. Instead of a detailed portrayal of clouds and grass, Prendergast focuses on the intense yellowness of the field and offers us a sketchy but joyous scene in nature. The summer’s ripeness and vibrancy are at their peak. The lady’s red sash is dancing in the wind and its vibrant red colour contrasts beautifully with the yellow and white. Prendergast wonderfully masters the colour scheme where each colour brings out the vibrancy of the other. All of Prendergast’s watercolours have an uplifting effect on me and I really love how he wasn’t shy about using all the rich shades of colours. His love of raw, bright colours and flatness comes from his years of working in commercial arts. The watercolour sketches in the Boston sketchbook were all made after his return from Paris where he was introduced to the art of Aubrey Beardsley, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, but despite all these influences Prendergast returned to America with a vision of art that was playful, childlike, vibrant and completely his own. He took the Impressionist motives of leisure and nature but decided to portray them in the medium of watercolours instead of the traditional oil on canvas. This particular sunny, summery watercolour has been on my mind for a long time now and I thought what better time to write about this lovely watercolour than in the warm, yellow month of July? To end, here is a very fitting poem by Arthur Rimbaud called “Sensation”:

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

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

John Singer Sargent: Watercolours of the Gardens of Villa di Marlia in Tuscany

3 Jul

It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time.

John Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca – A Fountain, 1910

American painter John Singer Sargent was one of the many American and British artists who was seduced by the spirit of Italy. The Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and John Keats, and Victorian era writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Robert Browning all marvelled in the charms of Italy. Still, Sargent, having been born in Florence, had a special connection to Italy; the romance of Ancient ruins, the beauty of Renaissance palaces, the majestic paintings by Titian and Tintoretto, the lush splendour of gardens and parks, the warm sunlight and golden air woven with dreams and nostalgia, were things that Sargent was familiar with but that also excited him and inspired him.

It was the mixture of age and cultivated Beauty which made the landscape of Italy so enchanting and alluring: “The artists’ love affair with Italy had this need for an understanding not possible in the raw New World Story had found prosaic. It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time. Time, in Italy, must have seemed universal and mythic. After a sufficient number of histories, after Etruria, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, time underwent a curious compression which was also an infinite extension.” (Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture – American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875) Even though Sargent is mostly known for his glorious oil on canvas portraits, he was also immensely prolific in watercolours, having painted more than two thousand of them. The watercolours capture a wide range of motives, from the alligators of Florida, gondolas of Venice, to the beautiful gardens of Italian villas.

Watercolour “Villa di Marlia Lucca – Fountain” is one such work which beautifully captures the fragment of a carefully cultivated garden of the Renaissance villa di Marlia in Lucca in Tuscany where Sargent stayed at the time these watercolours were created. Sargent chose to portray the old parts of the garden which were not renovated but rather showed the true spirit of the times in which they were created. In this watercolour you can almost hear and feel the water of the fountain refreshing the garden, the scent of lemons and thyme colouring the air, the patches of muted yellow on the balustrade are the moss that speaks of the longevity and tradition of the garden; it wouldn’t be there if it was freshly built. The two sculptures in the fountain are the river gods representing the rivers Arno and Serchio. Sargent beautifully captures the play of lights on the water and the lush scenery in the background. The scene is also skillfully cropped, almost like a photographs; the horizontal line of the balustrade in the foreground beautifully frames the painting. Another lyrical watercolour that pays tribute to the past shows the statue of Daphne in the garden of the Villa Varramista. With her hands reaching towards the sky, Daphne looks vivid and almost alive.

John Singer Sargent’s Villa di Marlia, Lucca – The Balustrade, 1910

John Singer Sargent – Villa di Marlia, Lucca, 1910

John Singer Sargent, Daphne, 1910