Tag Archives: Whistler

William Orpen – The Mirror: Why live in the world when you can live in your head?

13 Feb

William Orpen, The Mirror, 1900

This painting keeps haunting me. I don’t quite know why because it’s a really simple portrait, nothing special about it at first sight. I discovered it months ago, and it just lingers in my memory. Every once in a while I remember it and then I gaze it for some time. Then I forget it, and a week passes and then I remember it again and it’s a never ending cycle. The space in the painting isn’t cluttered with many things that tire our eyes. The colours are neutral, greys, black and olive green, nothing overwhelming. The simple arrangement of objects in a painting, with a chest of drawers, a round mirror on the wall and a girl sitting on a chair makes for a simple composition. It also makes it look as if the painter didn’t just capture the space as it was, although it is accurate, but rather chose the objects to make the painting look aesthetically appealing. William Orpen, an Irish painter, was very young when he painted “The Mirror”, just twenty-two years old. He had just recently finished his schooling at the Slate School of Art in London (he studied there from 1897 to 1899), and with this painting he was paying homage to Whistler’s famous “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2” or simply A Portrait of the Artist’s Mother painted in 1871. The round mirror on the wall which shows the artist painting is an obvious reference to “The Arnolfini Portrait” painted by Jan van Eyck. But Emily seems to belong to an entirely different world to the one where Orpen is painting. As if the space around her is disappearing and she remains alone on the stage of her life, hiding from us with that hat.

“The Mirror” was painted in Orpen’s lodgings and the model was a girl called Emily Scobel who modeled at the Slade School and was at the time engaged to Orpen, but broke off the engagement the following year and eventually married someone else. She was the main model for Orpen’s early works. With the simple composition and sombre colours, Orpen put a focus on Emily’s face because that’s where the real drama takes place. Her face is very captivating to me and it seems to say so much. Half hidden in the shade of her lovely hat, the same hat you can see in a drawing of Emily that Orpen made in 1901, her eyes are full of doubt and slight disappointment; I feel like she’s come to the point where she doesn’t know what to do with her life and she’s staring into the grey future with worrying eyes that seem to say: and what now? Her shoulders are sloping and her hands are clasped in her laps. She is sitting there in her long black skirt and white blouse, but her thoughts are somewhere else. Cheeks of her round face are pink as roses, but her lips pressed together are hiding secrets that she is hesitant to tell us. When I look at her face, and I have gazed at it for quite some time on different occasions, the lyrics to the Pulp’s song “Monday Morning” comes to mind:

There’s nothing to do so you just stay in bed,

Oh poor thing,

Why live in the world when you can live in your head?

 

Mmm when you can go out late from Monday,

Till Saturday turns into Sunday,

And now you’re back here at Monday,

So we can do it all over again.

And you go aah ah ah

I want a refund,

I want a light,

I want a reason,

To make it through the night, alright.

 

And so you finally left school,

So now what are you going to do?

Now you’re so grown up,

Yeah you’re oh oh oh oh oh so mature oh.

William Orpen, A Study – Emily Scobel, 1901, red chalk, graphite and grey wash

This interesting red chalk study of Emily was used to illustrate an article written about Orpen in August 1901 in a magazine called “The Artist”. Not much is known about Emily, and if it wasn’t for her connection with Orpen and her modelling at the Slade School of Art, she would have probably been forgotten in history. She was born sometime in 1877 and in the 1901 UK census, she was listed as a twenty-four year old servant living in Lewisham, London, working for the Churchward family along with a girl called Mary Scobel, who was twenty-two years old at the time and possibly her sister or cousin.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Harmony in Grey and Green

6 Feb

“A fallen blossom
Returning to the branch?
It was a butterfly.”

(Moritake)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, 1872-1874

Whistler painted quite a few ladies in white gowns, but those ladies usually have a look of melancholy or wistfulness on their gentle faces. The little girl appears to be showing off her clothes, her white stockings, her black satin slippers, her hat with a large feather, all the way to her dazzlingly white muslin gown, but as our gaze slowly moves up, we see a pale face with pouting lips and a distant gaze that doesn’t speak of joy or rapture. This little girl however looks rather moody, hiding her anger because she isn’t allowed to express it. But how can someone dressed in such a pretty gown be so moody? How can someone posing for an artist not have cheeks blushing from thrill and rapture? This dolly isn’t a typical melancholy muse as Joanna Hiffernan was; Whistler’s lover and companion who posed for his Symphony in White no 2 and some other paintings. This little girl is Miss Cicely Alexander, a daughter of a banker that Whistler met because of their mutual interest in Oriental art, and she was eight years old when this unfortunate sitting took place. More than one sitting naturally. It took the pedantic Whistler more than seventy sittings to paint everything just as he had envisioned it. He didn’t seem to take Miss Cicely’s feelings into consideration and despite the lyrical beauty of the portrait, it didn’t remain in good memory for the little girl. This is what she had to say about the sittings: “I’m afraid I rather considered that I was a victim all through the sittings, or rather standings, for he never let me change my position, and I believe I sometimes used to stand for hours at a time. I know I used to get very tired and cross, and often finished the day in tears.

That’s why she looks moody! Why, wouldn’t you be moody and angry yourself, if you had to stand still for a long time and not be able to play with dolls or joke around with your friends or siblings. Sitting for Whistler surely made her feel like Sisyphus carrying that huge stone to the top of the hill over and over again; a never ending pursuit…  which did have its ending after all. And the result is a very dreamy painting that continues Whistler’s tradition of portraits of wistful ladies inspired by Japonism. In this portrait, hints of Japan come in form of bright curious daisies on the right and a few butterflies that desperately want to escape the canvas. I really love how the tall daisies seem to be leaning towards the girl, as if they are trying to comfort her; “shhh little girl, don’t cry, that Mr Whistler may be awfully demanding but the painting will be a dream once finished”. The daisies are such prophets and they were right. Whistler’s eccentricity, love for l’art pour l’art philosophy and his pedantic approach to his art truly shine through in this portrait. He paid meticulous attention to all the aspects of the setting, especially the colours because he wanted to achieve a palette of muted shades, white and greys. The carpet and the walls are in many shades of grey while Miss Cicely shines in white like a resplendent white flower. The carpet was order made and that gorgeous muslin dress was designed by Whistler and made especially for Miss Cicely to wear in this portrait. He even made sure the family find the right muslin, as a dandy he would know the fabrics!

I really love all of Whistler’s harmonies and symphonies and their balanced colour palettes, dreamy ambients and pretty wistful sitters. For a long time my favourite was The Little White Girl, and perhaps it still is, but I feel that in this portrait Whistler achieved the minimalism of colours and space that he so loved in Japanese art; the background isn’t cluttered with fur carpets or fireplaces, it is just that meditative grey that stretches on and on, the mood of infinity broken only by that black line which somewhat reminds me of a canvas by Rothko, and the canvas is a little bit elongated which brings to mind the ukiyo-e prints and the formats they used. When I look at this portrait for a long time, at first I hear silence but then I hear quiet music emerging, an echo of the daisies’ laughter, and a sound of flute carried on by the butterflies chasing each other around the moody girl in white… Oh, how she wishes she could join them!

J. A. M. Whistler – Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl)

16 Feb

It’s impossible not to love this painting; it has a meditative, dreamy aura, wistful lady wearing a beautifully painted white dress, and delicate pink flowers, hinting at Whistler’s appreciation of Japanese art and culture.

1864-james-abbot-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-2-the-little-white-girlJames Abbot McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl), 1864

Model for this ‘little white girl’ was an Irish beauty Joanna Hiffernan, a muse, model and a lover not only to Whistler but to Gustave Courbet as well, most famously in his painting ‘Sleep.’ Whistler’s biographers wrote of her: “She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.” Here, in Symphony in White no 2, Whistler painted her leaning against the mantelpiece in their love nest; a house they shared in Lindsey Row in Chelsea. She’s holding a Japanese fan in her hand. It’s interesting to note the ring on her left hand, but they were not married. There’s something ethereal about her; dressed in white gown that touches the ground, with long hair and a sad look in her eyes; she seems melancholic and detached from everything at the same time, as if she’s not really here, but is just passing through life without touching it, not allowing the harshness of reality to taint that beautiful whiteness of her muslin dress. If you close your eyes, you can imagine her slowly and elegantly walking across the room, then standing by the fireplace, her small hand barely touching the mantelpiece, while the other gently holds a fan. She is a silent Victorian woman living on the border of dreams and reality, like Millais’ Mariana, wrapped in the loneliness of her birdcage, longing for the imagined excitement of the real life out there. Or not. Perhaps she’s so engulfed in the sweetness of her daydreams and contemplation and doesn’t even walk to live the ‘real life’. At the same time, she knows that ‘dreams always end, they don’t rise up just descend’*, and this thought is the source of the wistfulness of her gaze that Whistler has so beautifully captured.

Here we see the typical elements of Japanese culture that can be found in many 19th century paintings; pink flowers, a fan, porcelain vase. Influence of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, which were immensely popular at the time, is visible in the composition as well; you see how the picture looks like it’s cut on the ends, her wide sleeve on the left, pink azaleas at the bottom and her hand and the vase in the upper part of the painting. That’s something you don’t see in paintings of Academic Realism. Whistler is even said to have introduced Rossetti to Japanese art as a matter of fact.

Beautiful delicate pink azaleas are almost protruding into the composition, leaning their pink blossoms and delicate little leaves, as if they’re ready to listen to her sorrows and comfort her. ‘Don’t be sad, spring will soon come, and your woes will be gone‘, they seem to whisper. Joanna ignores them, her face turned away from the viewer. It’s the mirror which reveals the sadness and wistfulness of her gaze, and also the seascape that’s opposite the fireplace. She seems to be thinking:

I am weary of days and hours,

Blown buds of barren flowers,

Desires and dreams and powers,

And everything but sleep.” (Swinburne)

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the painting, besides the flowers, is her dress which is painted in soft, almost transparent brushstrokes. Its gentle, dreamy appeal is contrasted with the strict, geometrical line of the fireplace. White is the hardest colours to paint, but Whistler shows a complete mastery over it, and the painting deserves its title ‘symphony’, for it is indeed a symphony in whites. In one painting below, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, whose beauty arrives from the subtlety of colours, you’ll see that mastery of white again, and the dress seems to flow effortlessly, like a river, decorated with the flowers that also serve as an interior decoration; it’s hard to say where reality ends and dream start because the more I look at these gorgeous studies in white, the more I am drawn into this ethereal, delicate world that Whistler has created, using just his brush and colours, not magic.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American artist, but after coming to England in 1859, he never returned to his homeland again, but instead divided his time between London and Paris, and nurtured friendships with other artists and writers on the each side of the Channel; Gaultier, Swinburne, Manet and Courbet to name a few. Whistler is famous for promoting ‘art for art’s sake philosophy’, and enraging Ruskin who emphasised the social, moralistic role of art. He was also known for giving his paintings musical names, such as ‘Symphony’ or ‘Nocturne’, which sometimes enraged the critics, but still fascinates the lovers of his art, myself included.

This painting, with Joanna’s ghost-like reflection in the mirror, inspired Swinburne to write these verses:

Glad, but not flushed with gladness,

Since joys go by;

Sad, but not bent with sadness,

Since sorrows die;

Deep in the gleaming glass

She sees all past things pass,

And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.

The critics have drawn a parallel between this painting and Ingres’ Portrait of Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville from 1845, which also has a lady standing by the mirror. Similar meditative mood, delicate whiteness, and touch of the East, can be found in many of Whistler’s paintings, here are a few:

1862-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-1-the-white-girl-girl-is-joanne-hiffernanJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862 (Note: model is Joanna again)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873 oil on canvas 77 1/8 in. x 40 1/4 in. (195.9 cm x 102.24 cm) Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1916.1.133James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873

1863-65-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-le-princesse-du-pays-de-la-porcelaineJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

My interest in these paintings arose because of my longing for Spring, so here’s a beautiful haiku poem for the season that’s upon us. Spring, I am anxiously awaiting you, please come quickly!

In these spring days,
when tranquil light encompasses
the four directions,
why do the blossoms scatter
with such uneasy hearts?” (Ki no Tomonori, c. 850-c. 904)