Manfred on the Jungfrau by Ford Madox Brown

Manfred on the Jungfrau by Ford Madox Brown (1842)

My Daily Art Display today once again has a connection with a number of blogs I have done earlier.  On July 14th I showcased The Funeral of Shelley by Fournier and one of the mourners at this event was the English Romantic poet Lord Byron who is centre stage in today’s offering.  On June 15th I featured the artists Ford Madox Brown and today he is once again the artist who painted today’s work. Finally, this is yet another work of art which has a connection with a poem.  My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Manfred on the Jungfrau and is by the English painter Ford Madox Brown.

Ford Madox Brown, although his parents were English, was born in Calais in 1821.   His father, Ford Brown was a ship’s purser in the navy and his mother, Caroline Madox, came from an old Kentish family.  He initially studied art in Belgium, in Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.  One of his teachers was the Belgian painter Gustave Wappers.  Madox Brown also spent time in France and Italy before coming to England in 1845.  He married his first wife Elisabeth Bromley in 1841, who was his cousin, and they went on to have a daughter, Lucy.   In that same year he had his first painting exhibited at the Royal Academy.   In the winter of 1845 he travelled to Switzerland and Rome.  During his time in the Italian capital he visited the studios of a group of German Romantic painters who had been sarcastically termed the Nazarenes as they would go around dressed in flowing robes and wearing their hair long, in a biblical-like style.  The aim of their artistic style was simply to add a kind of honesty and spirituality to their paintings which they believed had been missing from contemporary works of art and in some ways it was a reaction against Neoclassicism and the rigidity of Academicism.  Their philosophies would influence the Pre-Raphaelite movement

In 1846 Elizabeth Bromley died of consumption.  Five years later Madox Brown married for the second time, this time to Emma Hill.  The couple already at that time had a two-year old daughter, Catherine.  In 1848 he met, for the first time, Daniel Rossetti and Holman Hunt, two of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Ford Madox Brown was never a member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood although he was closely associated with the group of artists and in fact Rossetti approached him and asked to be allowed to work under his tutelage at his studio.   Madox Brown had a varied career but although he was highly thought of by his contemporaries, he never achieved popular success.  Madox Brown painted many historical pictures and for most of the 1880’s he worked on subjects of local social history for Manchester Town Hall.   Ford Madox Brown died in 1893, three years after the death of his wife Emma.

So what has the painting to do with Lord Byron?   The Manfred of the painting’s title was the central character and romantic hero in Lord Byron’ famous dramatic poem Manfred and the painting depicts a scene from the poem.   The twenty-four year old poet, Lord Byron, had returned to London after a long period of travelling around Portugal, the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea Europe, in 1812 and had the first two parts of a four-part narrative poem published.  They were hailed by the literary critics as masterpieces and Byron became an overnight success and a leader of the social and literary circles of London.  However his fall from grace came shortly after with his well publicized affair with the married socialite Caroline Lamb, who famously said of Byron that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.   The affair, which lasted six months, was broken off by Byron but his spurned lover continued to pursue him.   Byron turned his affections to Annabella Millbank.  She was so different in character to Caroline Lamb.  She was from a wealthy family, very well educated and a somewhat prim religious woman with very strict morals.  After two years of being pursued by Byron she agreed to marry him in 1814.  The marriage was doomed to failure because of the complete difference in their characters.

In 1815, Byron’s financial situation was dire as he refused to sell his work as he fervently believed the sums offered were too small.  He struggled to sell property to bolster his finances and he became depressed with life in general.  He drank heavily and became violent towards his wife.  His wife actually believed he was going mad.   Byron had an affair with a chorus girl that year despite his wife being pregnant with their first child, a daughter Ada, who was born in the December of 1815.  His then turned to his half sister, Augusta Leigh, the daughter from Byron’s father’s first wife, for friendship but this led to what many believe was an incestuous relationship.    Finally the marriage split asunder and the couple separated in January 1816.  The separation was bitter amidst rumours of marital violence, adultery with an actress and incest, all of which scandalised the public.  Incest at the time was a very serious offence and it is believed that Byron’s hasty departure from the country that year was because of his fear of prosecution.

So what has all this to do with today’s painting?  Whilst Byron, who was now living at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, toured the Bernese Alps he wrote most of his great dramatic narrative poem Manfred.  The poem recounts the tale of this Alpine nobleman who had an incestuous relationship with his sister, Astarte, and who not being able to come to terms with this relationship, committed suicide.  Manfred is wracked with guilt blaming himself for her death and conjures up seven spirits from whom he seeks forgetfulness so as the death of his sister would cease to haunt him.  They cannot help and he himself attempts suicide and one of these attempts is portrayed in Ford Madox Brown’s painting in which we see Manfred about to hurl himself off the top of the mountain, the Jungfrau.  The poem tells of this time:

“..And you, ye crags upon whose extreme edge
I stand, and on the torrent’s brink beneath
Behold the tall pines dwindled as to shrubs
In dizziness of distance, when a leap,
A stir, a motion, even a breath, would bring
My breast upon its rocky bosom’s bed
To rest for ever – wherefore do I pause?
…Thou winged and cloud-cleaving minister,
Whose happy flight is highest into heaven,
Well may’st thou swoop so near me…
…How beautiful is all this visible world!
How glorious in its action and itself!…”

 His suicide attempt fails as a fur-clad chamois hunter, whom we see in the painting standing behind Manfred, rescues him before he can leap to his death.  In the painting, Madox Brown depicts the tormented Manfred holding his head in his hands with his face contorted with anguish as he prepares to end his life.  His red robes, which flutter violently in the mountain wind, contrast starkly with the clear blue sky.  In the background to the left we can just make out a castle, which to me, resembles Neuschwanstein, the Disney-like edifice which we see on so many pictures and postcards.

It cannot be just coincidental that Byron having had an incestuous affair with his step sister should write a poetic story about another incestuous relationship and its dire consequences and many believe that his poem was about himself and his earlier relationship which scandalised society.

I had hoped to see the painting yesterday when I visited the Manchester Art Gallery but alas it has been taken down for some restoration work in preparation for the forthcoming Ford Madox Brown exhibition which will be held in this gallery in September.  I will return then and cast my eye over Manfred and his tortured state of mind.