The Dining Room by Paul Signac

The Dining Room by Paul Signac (c.1887)

On October 21st,  I looked at a work by the Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, which had been completed by him using the technique known as Pointillism or Divisionism.   For a brief explanation of those terms, please go and look at that earlier blog.  Today I want to look at a work by his contemporary and friend Paul Signac.

Paul Victor Jules Signac was born in Paris in 1863 and came from a prosperous family of shopkeepers.  Originally he trained to become an architect but at the age of eighteen, after visiting a Claude Monet Exhibition, he decided to set off on an artistic career and learn the technique of en plein air painting.  His earliest known works were landscapes or still-lifes and one can see in them an Impressionist influence, especially the works of Monet and Alfred Sisley.  At the age of twenty he was tutored by the Prix de Rome winner Emile-Jean-Baptiste Bin.  In 1884 he became a founder member of the Société des Artistes Indépendants and their Salon des Indépendants.   The Salon des Indépendants was an annual exhibition which started in 1884 and was held in Paris by the Société des Artistes Indépendants.  It was set up in direct competition to the Paris Salon.   Many artists as well as the public became increasingly unhappy with the rigid and exclusive jurist-based selection policies of the official Salon.  Just over twenty years earlier, in 1863 the first Salon des Refusés had been held for innovative artists whose works had been rejected by the official Salon.  The Société des Artistes Indépendants which Signac co-founded had the motto “Sans jury ni récompense” which meant “no jury, no awards”.  One of the other co-founders of this society was Georges Seurat and it was he who introduced the principles of Divisionism and the theory of colours to his friend Signac.

Signac, up until then, had been following the Impressionist style of painting but he became fascinated with Seurat’s technique, known as Pointillism.    He then decided to experiment with this newly acquired technique of scientifically juxtaposing small dots of pure color on the canvas which combined and blended them in the viewer’s eye instead of the artist blending the colours on a palette before putting the combination on to the canvas.  Signac was fascinated with this technique and was tireless in his attempts to convert others to Seurat’s methods. In 1885 Signac met Camille Pissarro, whom he introduced to Seurat. Pissarro realised that this technique was the answer to his desire to have a rational style and so adopted it with great fervour.  Pissarro, against the wishes of the other Impressionists, invited Signac to participate in their eighth and last Impressionist Exhibition in 1886.

Signac loved to sail and a large number of his paintings featured the French coast and its harbours.  He would progressively sail further afield, visiting various ports in the Mediterranean as well as the Dutch coast to the north.  During the summers he would head south to the Côte d’Azur and St Tropez where he had bought himself a house in 1892.  He would always return from his voyages with numerous sketches of the places he had visited and then back in his studio, turn them into beautifully coloured canvases that are carefully worked out in small, mosaic-like squares of colour, and which were quite different from the tiny, variegated dots previously used by Seurat.

He became friends with Vincent van Gogh and the two would spend time in Van Gogh’s Parisian home and his summer hide-away in Arles. From the mid-1880s Signac exhibited regularly. Apart from the Salon des Indépendants, in which he figured every year, he showed at the last Impressionist Exhibition (1886) at the invitation of Pissarro.   It was not until he was almost forty years of age that he had his first one-man exhibition which was held at the Paris gallery owned by Siegfried Bing.  However like his Neo-Impressionist friends he received little public acclaim for the first 20 years of his career.  On Seurat’s death in 1891, Paul Signac became the leader of the Neo-Impressionists

Signac was a great inspiration to the young and up-and-coming painters such as Henri Matisse and André Derian.  It was his support that played a vital role in the evolution of Fauvism.   Fauvism was the short-lived and loose group of early twentieth-century Modern artists whose works emphasised the artistic qualities of strong colour more than the representational or realistic values of the Impressionist painters.  Signac became president of the annual Salon des Independants in 1908 and retained that position until his death.   As such, Signac encouraged and supported younger artists such as Matisse by allowing their works and the controversial works of the Fauves and the Cubists to be exhibited.

Signac died in Paris in 1935, aged seventy-two.

My Daily Art Display featured oil on white primed canvas painting today is not one of Signac’s landscape or seascape although it does highlight the unusual Divisionism technique.  It is entitled Dining Room and was completed in 1887 and exhibited at the Paris Salon des Indépendants in 1887 that year.  It now hangs in the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, in Otterlo, Netherlands.  Before us we see three people, a man and a woman seated at a table and a maidservant.  Although the setting looks like it has all the accoutrements of a well-to-do bourgeois household, the dining room is actually that of Signac’s family, and before us we have Signac’s mother, grandfather and housekeeper.   The room is lit from behind with light emanating from a window on the rear wall.  This illuminates the subjects vividly and creates silhouettes and strong contrasts of light and shade.  It gives a strong structure to the composition.  See how Signac has highlighted areas of the painting by the use of barely tinted yellowish whites.  The seated characters are rather wooden-like.  They sit at the lunch table in stony silence.  There appears to be no communication between Signac’s grandfather and mother and the setting is devoid of anecdote.  There is a stiffness of what we see before us.  There is a frozen solemnity about the scene and this may have been Signac’s way of pictorially criticising the strict and ritualistic sombreness of middle-class meal times.

I am not sure I like the Divisionism technique used in Signac’s indoor scenes.  I think it works much better in his coastal landscape works.  There is no doubt about it that it was a clever technique but it is just not for me.

A Brawl in a Guardroom by Sébastien Bourdon

A Brawl in the Guardroom by Sébastian Bourdon (c.1643)

My featured artist for My Daily Art Display today is Sébastien Bourdon.  He was born in 1616 to Protestant parents living in Montpellier. His father was a glass painter.   Initially he was apprenticed to a painter in Paris from the age of seven to fourteen and then worked in Toulouse and Bordeaux until he travelled to Rome in 1634, where he gained a reputation as a bambocciante.  The Bamboccianti were genre painters active in Rome from about 1625 until the end of the seventeenth century. Most were Dutch and Flemish artists who brought existing traditions of depicting peasant subjects from sixteenth century Netherlands with them to Italy.   His genre scenes often depicted military bivouacs or itinerant figures at rest beside Italianate ruins, a fondness perhaps due to the fact that, after his apprenticeship, he enrolled as a soldier in the French Army at Toulouse.

After a brief sojourn in Venice he returned to France.  His return was brought about as he, being a Protestant, was forced to flee Italy in 1638 to escape denunciation by the Inquisition. He returned to Paris and continued to paint Italianate genre scenes. . He also became famous for his large Baroque religious and classical subjects painted with the definite influence of the great Venetian painters.   Around 1645 there was a noted difference in his painting style and it is believed that he had become influenced by the works of Nicholas Poussin.  The Académie Royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture), was founded in 1648.  The purpose of this academy was to professionalize the artists working for the French court and give them a stamp of approval that artists of the St. Luke’s guild did not have.    Bourdon was one of the founding members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and would later became its rector in 1654.  In these later years, due to his great success and recognition, he abandoned painting genre scenes altogether and his works were mostly comprised of commissions of a biblical or historical nature.

In 1652 Bourdon became the first court painter to Sweden’s Queen Christina, and during this period he painted numerous court figures in a style inspired by Anthony van Dyck.   His last works, made back in Paris, were landscape-oriented and influenced by Poussin’s art, to which Bourdon added tenderness, charm, and cool colour.

Bourdon died in Paris in 1671, aged 55.

My Daily Art Display featured work is entitled A Brawl in the Guardroom, and was completed by Bourdon around 1643 and can be seen at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.  Guardroom scenes, which the likes of the Dutch painter Pieter van Laer had mastered in the early seventeenth century, were very popular genre scenes in Europe at the time.  The guardroom scene is basically a genre painting depicting an interior with officers and soldiers who spend their off duty time making merry with camp followers.   These paintings often depicted mercenaries and prostitutes dividing booty, harassing captives, or indulging in morally despicable activities. The more dignified officers sometimes serve as mediators between the middle-class viewer and the unruly scene.

Two phases can be distinguished for the guardroom scene. The early phase lasted roughly until 1645 and was rather crude, displaying soldiers who were gambling, drinking, and frolicking with women of dubious repute. The second phase began after 1645 and was characterised by a certain refinement. Following the growing civility displayed by Dutch society as the seventeenth-century progressed, painters began to depict guardroom scenes which were occupied by middle-class people and devoid of booty and other signs of belligerent activities.  In the early phase, we find women in the role of barmaids, wearing aprons and holding jugs in their hands. The guardroom context, their unrestrained interaction with the men and the fact that they are sometimes dressed in undergarments and display a generous décolletage, are telling signs of their true nature.  In the second phase, the women who figure in the guardroom scenes tend to be restrained in dress and behaviour, whereas the men approach them gallantly and are otherwise mostly busy with activities related to the military.

In today’s work we can see that Bourdon has depicted the interior scene of a guardroom where we see soldiers at rest after a hard day.  The evening draws to a close and night fast approaches.   The moonlight illuminates the fort’s portcullis has remained in a raised position.  On the left of the painting we see a pair of young soldiers engaged in a brawl over a game of cards. The fight is almost spilling out of the left hand side of the painting.   It is apparent that the one who has lost the game believes he has been cheated and his fist is raised high poised to extract retribution.  Across the table from the combatants sits two older men, still dressed in their armour, watching the fracas, offer some reasoning, but to no avail and they appear not to want to intervene physically.  In the right of the painting we see another soldier kneeling by the open fire trying to warm himself.  In the middle of the foreground we see a young bare-footed boy, dressed almost in rags deliberately averting his eyes from the scuffle.   He looks directly out at us.  He, we believe, is a shepherd boy and if we look closely under the table we can just make out one of his sheep busily searching for crumbs of food.

This an interesting work of art and I received much of the information with regards the “guardroom” genre of painting  from the Dutch “dbnl” website.

Portrait of St John of Avilla by Pierre Subleyras

Saint John of Avila by Pierre Subleyras (1746)

Pierre Subleyras was born in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, a town close to Nimes in the south of France in 1699.  He was a pupil of his father and later of the French painter, Antoine Rivalz, in Toulouse. In 1726 he studied at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, where he was awarded the Premier Prix de Rome, which was a scholarship for arts students, principally of painting, sculpture, and architecture. It was created, initially for painters and sculptors, in 1663 in France during the reign of Louis XIV.   It was awarded annually and came with a bursary for promising artists having proved their talents by completing a very difficult elimination contest. The competition was open to the students of the Academy and starting in 1666, the award winner could win a stay of three to five years at the Palazzo Mancini in Rome paid for by the King of France.    

In 1728, Subleyras went to Rome where he received a painting commission from Frederick Christian, the Elector of Saxony, and this led to him being accepted into the Roman artists’ guild known as the Academia di San Luca.  He remained in Rome for the rest of his life and carried out many commissions for the Catholic Church.  He painted a variety of subjects, which included portraits of Pope Benedict XIV.  He also painted the portrait of the Italian priest and nobleman who was a great art collector and patron of Subleyras and who was eventually elevated to become Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga.  He painted many still-lifes, but his reputation was built around his religious paintings, which are much more serious in spirit than most French work in the Rococo period.

His most famous work is the Mass of St Basil, which he painted for St Peter’s.  The painting that served as the cartoon for this altarpiece was commissioned from Pierre Subleyras.   He was paid for the picture, which is now in S. Maria degli Angeli, Rome.  This huge picture was highly acclaimed when it was unveiled in 1748, but Subleyras died before he could follow up his success.  A modello of the work is currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

However, My Daily Art Display featured painting for today is another of Subleyras’ works.  It is his portrait of St John of Avilla which he completed in 1746 and now hangs in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  Saint John of Avila (1500-69) is often known as the Apostle of Andalusia.  Shortly after his ordination to the priesthood, Saint John gave his family’s wealth to the poor and prepared to do missionary work in the New World. However, the Archbishop of Seville intervened, for in the wake of the release of the southern-most region of Spain from almost eight centuries from 711 to 1492 of Islamic rule, the archbishop wanted to restore and revitalize the Catholic Faith in Andalusia, and he convinced Saint John, who was a renowned preacher, to take on the task.  He remained in Andalusia for nine years and afterwards continued his missionary activities throughout Spain and is, to this day, one of the most beloved of Spanish saints.  He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII on November 12, 1893, and Saint John was canonized on May 31, 1970, by Pope Paul VI.  St John of Avila is one of the Catholic Church’s greatest heroes, even if relatively little is known about him outside Spain, where he is patron of the nation’s priests.

It is a mesmeric work with the light falling on the white vestments of St John as he stands in the pulpit holding up the cross with the crucified Christ. The long fingers of his left hand lay across his chest as he points towards the cross.   His greying hair adds to the dignity of the figure.  His dark eyes look out at us as he preaches his sermon. His black biretta lays before him on the edge of the raised pulpit.  This painting is a personification of his greatest gift – the power of oratory and it was this God-given gift that enabled him to win over the hearts of minds of the Andalusian people.

Ennui by Walter Richard Sickert

Ennui by Walter Sickert (c.1914)

Yesterday we looked at a painting by Robert Polhill Bevan and talked about the Camden Town Group of artists and its leading light the Munich-born Walter Sickert.  Today I want to look at the life of Sickert himself and at one of his best known paintings.

Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich in 1860.  His father, Oswald Sickert, who was technically of Danish nationality, always considered himself German and did not speak Danish.  Oswald Sickert was a dramatic genre and landscape painter.  Walter’s mother was Eleanor Louise Moravia Sickert (née Henry) who was the illegitimate daughter of Richard Sheepshanks, the English astronomer, and his Irish lover.   Oswald and Eleanor had three children, two sons, Walter and Bernhard and a daughter Helena, who as Helena Swanick was to become a well-known suffragist and pacifist.  Walter Sickert’s parents had left Munich in 1851 and settled in London around the time of the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition.  At the age of ten, Walter was sent to the University College School in Hampstead, North West London and after a year he moved to the King’ College School at Wimbledon where he remained until the age of eighteen.  He applied to join the British Museum for a position in their department of coins and medals but was turned down.

Both Walter Sickert’s father, Oswald and his paternal grandfather, Johann were painters so one may have thought that Walter would follow their artistic trail but after his job application failure he decided to turn his attention to acting and his main ambition now was to become an actor.  In his early days he managed to play small parts in Sir Henry Irvine’s touring theatrical company using the pseudonym, Mr Nemo.   He soon realised that he was not going to make the grade as an actor and turned towards art.  He briefly attended the Slade in 1881 but left and began to work as an assistant to the American artist, James McNeill Whistler, who had been living in the English capital for a number of years.  Whilst working in Whistler’s studio, Whistler entrusted Sickert to travel to Paris with the painting, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, which he had just completed and wanted to present it to the Paris Salon for their exhibition.   Whistler also gave Sickert two letters of introduction; one to Manet, but at the time Manet was seriously ill and could not see Sickert and one to Degas, whom he met.  Sickert was very impressed with Degas and his work and received much advice on his painting technique.  The works of Degas would greatly influence Sickert in the future.  Sickert was now twenty-three years of age and even at this young age he had already come upon the three greatest influences of his future artistic career, namely, the theatre, Whistler and Degas and the young Sickert from this point of his life, never looked back.  Whistler had instilled in Sickert the importance to constantly record what he saw and would often walk around with a copper plate and an etching needle in his pocket.  Sickert exhibited for the first time in 1884 at the Society of British Artists in London and signed himself simply as “pupil of Whistler”.  His early paintings were of life in London music halls highlighting the roles of the audience, musicians and actors, somewhat similar to Degas’ paintings of the dancers and café-concert entertainers.  There was an underlying sexual theme in a number of these paintings but it should be remembered that just as in Degas’ Paris,  female performers on London stages were looked upon as having similar morals to prostitutes of the London streets.

In 1885, aged twenty-five, he married the daughter of a Liberal politician and spent many of the ensuing summers in Dieppe. He also was a regular visitor to Venice. In 1893, with the help of James Whistler’s patronage, he opened an art school in London. He often exhibited his theatre and music hall-themed works at the New English Art Club, which had been founded in 1886 in opposition to the Royal Academy. He also took part in the exhibition of British Impressionists held in London in 1889.   One of his last trips to Venice was dogged by bad weather and Sickert’s desire to paint en plein air was dashed.  It is thought that the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” happened for Sickert as he was forced to paint indoors  and it was at this point in time that he started to develop his own distinctive approach to the multiple figure tableau that would continue after he returned to England.  According to the author Robert Upstone in his 2009 book,  Sickert in Venice, Sickert would employ prostitutes to sit for his Venetian paintings, many of whom he would later have a physical relationship with.

Walter Sickert was fascinated with the under-belly of London life and based his studio in a working-class area of London.  In 1905 his studio could be found in Camden Town and this was to be the favoured location and meeting place for Post-Impressionist artists of the time.  It was here in 1911 that the Camden Town Group of artists was founded under Sickert’s leadership.  The list of artists who met there on a regular basis was like a Who’s Who of Post-Impressionists with the likes of August John, Lucien Pissarro, Henry Lamb and Wyndham Lewis just to name a few.  A couple of years later the Camden Town Group came together with the Vorticists, which was a short-lived modernist movement in British art and poetry along with other like minded artists’ associations which wanted to challenge the domination of the Royal Academy which they believed had become both unadventurous and conservative.  This newly founded artistic conglomerate was known simply as The London Group and still survives today.

Sickert became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1924 and an Academician ten years later.  Shortly afterwards, however,  he resigned in protest against the hostile attitude of the president toward the work of Jacob Epstein. Much of his later career was devoted to teaching and writing.  In 1941 Sickert was honoured with a one-man exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The next year he died in Bath, aged 82.

My Daily Art Display featured work today is entitled Ennui by Walter Sickert which he completed around 1914 and which can now be found in the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford.  It was painted at Sickert’s London studio in Fitzroy Street.  The title of the painting is the French word for boredom and in the painting Sickert depicts a man and a woman, who despite being portrayed in close physical proximity, seem to have lost the art of communication, which in turn has led to a dislocated relationship.  One presumes it is a husband and wife but could also be a father and daughter but the sense of disarticulation is still the same.  They both gaze into space.  They face opposite directions.  Their thoughts are their own. Don’t you wonder what is passing through their minds?  Maybe they contemplate on what went wrong with their relationship and what would have been their future if they had never met.

On the chest of drawers which the woman is leaning against there is a bell jar which contains an array of stuffed birds.  Their entrapment under the glass dome is symbolic of the entrapment of the two humans in their relationship.  On the wall we see a painting which appears to be of a music hall diva and the melodrama which goes with her profession which of course is in complete contrast to the scene she looks down upon.  The model for the man in the painting was “Hubby” who was an old school friend of Sickert and who had fallen on hard times and whom Sickert gave shelter and kept in beer over a number of years.  The woman was Marie Hayes, a woman who had modelled for Sickert on a number of occasions

Virginia Woolf, who met Sickert in 1923 and 1933, argued that Sickert’s pictures could be classified as stories in their ability to stimulate and develop plots and dialogue. However Sickert disagreed saying that if the subject of a painting could be stated in words there would be no need to paint it.

So what do you think is going on in the painting?  I will leave you with Virginia Woolf’s description of what she saw in the painting:

“…the picture of the old publican, with his glass on the table before him and a cigar gone cold at his lips, looking out of his shrewd little pig’s eyes at the intolerable wastes of desolation in front of him. A fat woman lounges, her arm on a cheap yellow chest of drawers, behind him. It is all over with them, one feels. The accumulated weariness of innumerable days has discharged its burden on…”

Showing at Tattersalls by Robert Polhill Bevan

Showing at Tattersalls by Robert Bevan (1919)

The Camden Town Group was a group of English Post-Impressionist artists who were active between 1911 and 1913.  This hallowed group included Lucien Pissarro, the son of the French Impressionist, Camille Pissarro, Wyndham Lewis, Walter Sickert, Augustus John and today’s featured artist, just to name a few.  Their meeting place was usually at the Camden Town studio of the Munich-born painter, Walter Sickert, a leading light in the transition between Impressionism and Modernism.  My Daily Art Display featured artist of the day is Robert Polhill Bevan.

Bevan was born in Hove, near Brighton in 1865.  He was the fourth of six children of Richard Alexander Bevan and Laura Maria Polhill.  He was originally trained as an artist under Arthur Pearce.   As well as being a drawing teacher, Pearce had worked as an illustrator and had exhibited at the Royal Academy.  Later he would join the Royal Doulton pottery company where he became their chief designer.  When Bevan was twenty-three years of age he attended the Westminster School of Art and was tutored by the painter, Fred Brown, who would later move to the Slade School of Art and teach the likes of Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis.  After this initial training Bevan moved to Paris and studied art at the Académie Julian where he met some aspiring French artists, such as Édouard Villiers, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Sérusier and became great friends with another English artist, Eric Forbes-Robertson.  Whilst living in France Bevan and Forbes-Robertson visited the artist colony at Pont-Aven in Britanny.  Bevan was to visit this area many times over the years and became friends with Paul Gaugin and Renoir and art historians believe that judging from some of his early works he may have come into contact with Van Gogh. He returned to England in 1894 and settled in Exmoor, in the south-west of the country.  Three years later he met the Polish artist Stanislawa de Karlowska when he attended the wedding of his close friend Eric Forbes-Robertson in Jersey. At the end of 1897 Bevan and de Karlowska married in Warsaw where her parents lived and owned extensive land in the heart of the country.  Throughout the couples lifetime they would return there each summer to visit.  It was during his long summer stays in Poland that Bevan produced his most colourful paintings.  The influence of his friend Gaugin can be seen in these early works.   Their first child, Edith Halina, was born at the end of the following year.   Bevan and his wife left Devon in 1900 and moved to London and Stanislawa gave birth to their second child, a son Robert Alexander in 1901. In 1905 Bevan held his first solo exhibition but it did not receive the great acclaim he had hoped for from the art critics of the time and few of his paintings were sold.  Although very disheartened with the outcome of the exhibition he held his second exhibition three years later in 1908 and some of his paintings on display were in the pointillist style of Seurat and Signac, the first time he had used that technique.  (See My Daily Art Displays of October 21st and November 9th).  That year he exhibited five of his paintings at the first Allied Artists’ Association exhibition.  This organisation had been formed by a London journalist and art critic for The Sunday Times, and early champion of English Modern Art, Frank Rutter.  His main aim was to promote Modernist Art in Britain.  Artists could exhibit their works without them having to first be subjected to a selection jury, unlike the Royal Academy Exhibition.   It was an association very similar to one that was set up in Paris in the summer of 1884, called the Salon des Indépendants, another non-juried organisation, and which was, in some ways, in direct competition with the Paris Salon which like the Royal Academy had a jury to select paintings that were allowed to be shown. Soon after his exhibition he was invited to join the group of artists formed by Walter Sickert, entitled the Fitzroy Street Group and out of this group was spawned in 1911 The Camden Town Group.  In John Yeats social history book about The Camden Town Artists, he writes that Sickert advised Bevan about what subjects he should depict in his works.  Sickert told him:

 “…paint what really interests you and look around and see the beauty of everyday things…”

After this advice Bevan went off and completed a series of works depicting the horse cab trade in London and its steady but inevitable decline.  After this Bevan concentrated on pictorially recording what went on at horse sales, especially the ones which were held at Tattersall’s and it is one of those works which is My Daily Art Display featured painting for today.  The Camden Town Group relied on the goodwill of Arthur Clifton who ran the Carfax Gallery in London for he put on the groups exhibitions but after three exhibitions which failed to get critical acclaim and left many paintings unsold, Clifton declined to hold any more of their displays in his gallery although he would give space to some of the artists from the group.  This marked the beginning of the end for the Camden Town Group.

Robert Bevan continued painting.  His works often depicted London scenes or scenes of the countryside where he spent most of his summers.   Prior to the First World War he would spend the summers in his wife’s homeland of Poland but later they took their summer vacations around Devon and Somerset.

Bevan died in London in 1925, aged 60.  In 2008, the Tate put on a major retrospective exhibition of the Camden Town Group.

My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Showing at Tattersalls and was painted by Robert Bevan in 1919.  Tattersalls is the major auctioneer of race horses in Great Britain and Eire.  It dates back to 1766 and was founded by Richard Tattersall who had once been stud groom to the second Duke of Kingston.  Originally it had been situated close to Hyde Park Corner in London but now is located in Newmarket, the home of horse racing.

I love this painting.  It is simple and yet pleasing to the eye.  Before us we see two horses being paraded in front of potential buyers.  We are there.  We are being allowed to watch the goings-on at the stables.  The figures themselves mostly have their backs to us which allows Bevan to do away with carefully crafted facial expressions and their long clothing gives them a straight up-and-down appearance.  Bevan has spent time in the detail of the horses and their musculature and the sinews are in harmony with the animals’ movements.  The chestnut horse stands out well against the red door of the building and the blue-tinted horse, similar to the colour of the coats of the handlers, contrasts well against the yellow coloured building.  This backdrop of the yellow-coloured buildings looks like the stables which are attached to the yard and adds lightness to the work.

The simplicity of this painting is charming and as I look at it I feel the urge to step forward into the arena before me and enjoy the thrill of the auction preview.  I came across this painting when I recently visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.  I had gone there to view the Claude Lorrain exhibition and was absolutely staggered by what was on display at this museum.  Its collections of paintings were exceptional and I do urge everybody to try and visit it.  You will not be disappointed.

Finally I must pay tribute to a website from which I got a lot of information about the painting itself and have done my best not to plagiarise it too much.  The author of the blog, unlike me, is an artist and her interpretation of her painting is excellent.  It is a wonderful blog and well worth a visit.  It is called personalinterpretations and the website address is:

Her piece on this painting was in her blog of August 18th.

Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi


Lot and His Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi (C.1640)

The other day I was asked a question about a painting and the painting within that painting and it was whilst researching into the answer I came across My Daily Art Display’s featured painting of today.  My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi.  I had previously featured a painting with the same title by Lucas Cranach the Elder back on August 20th and there are numerous similar works by other Renaissance artists who have depicted the biblical scene including Orazio Gentileschi, the father of today’s featured painter.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in 1593 in her parents’ home on Via Ripetta, near S. Giacomo degli Incurabili, a church dedicated to St James the Great, in the Corso near Piazza del Popolo. She was the first born of five children of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, then 30, and Prudentia Montone Gentileschi, who was then just 18 years old.   The Gentileschi family always lived in the artists’ quarter between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di Spagna, in the Campo Marzio, Latin for the Field of Mars and the nearby church of Sta. Maria del Popolo, which was built in 1520 and contains works by Raphael, Bernini and Caravaggio.  Artemisia’s mother died in childbirth aged 30 when Artemisia was just twelve years of age and she was brought up by her father.  Artemisia studied painting in her father’s workshop and accounts of her early life tell of how she was a far better student than her brothers who were also being trained as artists by their father.  Her father introduced her to the Roman artists of the time including the great Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Much of Orazio Gentileschi’s work was influenced by Caravaggio and in turn Artemisia’s style of painting in her early artistic days was also inspired by him.  The one main difference between the painting styles of father and daughter was that Orazio’s works were idealized, her paintings were more naturalistic in nature.  Artemisia was indebted to her father in the way he supported her artistic ambitions as at that time women were not considered to be intelligent enough to be an artist and her artistic talent, which was plain to see even in those early days, was heavily criticised by her male counterparts who were jealous of her artistic gift.  Artemisia was not to be put down and fought for her right to become an artist and her determined and unwavering attitude eventually gained her the respect she deserved and ultimately it gained her justifiable credit for her work.

She produced her first major work at the age of seventeen.  It was Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susan and the Elders) which she completed in 1610.  This biblical subject was another which had been, and was to be painted many times over.  However Artemisia’s painting shows how she incorporated the realism of Caravaggio into the work and is one of the few Susanna paintings showing the actual sexual assault of the two Elders as a traumatic event.

Two years later an incident occurred which was to change the course of Artemisia’s life.  Her father was working on a commission for Pope Paul V inside the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace along with fellow painters, one of whom was the Florentine artist,  Agostino Tassi.  Orazio got on well with his fellow worker and contracted him to tutor his daughter privately. It was during this tutelage that Tassi raped Artemisia. At the time she was nineteen years of age.  Instead of reporting the incident to her father she said nothing and continued to have sexual relations with her mentor, as Tassi had managed to placate her by promising her marriage.   Tassi however, had other ideas and broke off the liaison citing her unfaithfulness with another lover as the reason for the end of the relationship.   It was at this point that Artemisia’s father pressed rape charges and Tassi was arrested and put on trial for rape and for the theft of a painting from Orazio’s workshop.

The trial lasted several months and is well documented and the transcripts of the trial still exist.   The case followed a similar pattern that is familiar nowadays with the defendant maintaining that his victim had not been a virgin but was a willing lover and in fact had had many lovers and was an insatiable “whore”.  The assertion that Artemisia was not a virgin was the crucial issue and it has to be remembered that the fact that Artemisia had maintained that she had been a virgin prior to the rape was the only reason the courts would countenance a trial.  However she had to undergo the embarrassment of a number of  thorough gynaecological examinations by midwives to determine whether she had been “deflowered” recently or a long time ago and she even underwent intense questioning sometimes being tortured using a sibille, a type of thumbscrews, for the officials to come to a decision about the charges she had laid against Tassi.  Tassi denied ever having had sexual relations with the virginal Artemisia and brought many witnesses to testify that she was “an insatiable whore.”   During the court case, it came to light that Tassi had previously been imprisoned for having an affair with his sister-in-law and had planned to kill his wife.   Unfortunately for Tassi, a witness was produced who recounted how he had heard Tassi boasting about raping Artemisia.  Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment.

A month after the trial ended, her father arranged for Artemisia to marry a Florentine artist, Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi and soon after the couple moved home to Florence.  Soon after the trial, Artemisia Gentileschi painted Judith Slaying Holofernes .  The painting is remarkable not only for its technical proficiency, but for the original way in which Gentileschi portrays Judith, who had long been a popular subject for art.  A year after moving to Florence, Artemisia gave birth to their daughter Prudentia.  In all they had four sons and the one daughter but it was only Prudentia who survived childhood.  She and her husband worked at the Academy of Design, and Artemisia became an official member there in 1616.  This was an extraordinary tribute to be paid to a woman of her day and this almost certainly came through the good auspices of her Florentine patron, the Grand Duke Cosimo II of the powerful Medici family.   It was during her time in Florence, that he commissioned a number of  paintings from her and soon betters her husband’s reputation.  Artemisia Gentileschi remained in Florence producing works for Cosimo II until his death in 1621 at which time she returned to Rome.

The following year her husband is charged with assaulting one of a group of Spaniards, who were outside their home serenading Artemisia. By 1623, her husband is no longer listed as being a household member and it appears that they have separated permanently. Artemisia continued to live in Rome until about 1627,when she moved to Venice.  A year later she was in Naples, living with her daughters and servants.  Always in search of new patrons she finally found one, King Charles I of England who was an art-collecting monarch and who surrounded himself with many continental artists including Artemisia’s father Orazio.  Her patronage ended suddenly with the outbreak of the English Civil War and the execution of her patron Charles.  Artemisia returned to Naples where she spent the rest of her life.  She died in there in 1654, aged 61.

Although the story about Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed God by looking back at the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is very well known and told to children who receive bible studies or religious education, the follow-up biblical tale about Lot being plied with wine until he was drunk by his daughters, who then seduce him, and have a sexual relationship with him in order to have children is for obvious reasons often left off the religious curriculum in schools, or at least I can say, with hand on heart, it wasn’t mentioned during my religious lessons.

The Bible passage Genesis (19: 30-38) sets the scene:

30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. 31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”

33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi ; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.

Artemisia Gentileschi painted the subject in the 1640’s at the height of the Baroque era.  In the painting she elected to portray the scene of wining and dining prior to the first seduction.  Lot sits between his two daughters at the entrance to their cave.   In the left background, far behind them, the city burns, and in the middle distance Lot’s wife is frozen into a Baroque statue, her arms outstretched in terror. The three main figures are intricately interlocked by a system of rhyming arms and legs.   Three prominent arms take us across the painting from left to right in a slowly falling rhythm: the daughter’s arm on the wine jug rhymes strongly with Lot’s lower arm which in turn intersects with a third arm that curves gently down to the tabletop. This strong physical  linking, with its relationship to the wine jug, wine glass and bread, has set the scene and in some ways incriminates the father and daughters in the incest which follows.  In this portrayal of the scene unlike others the artist has not depicted Lot as somebody who is so drunk that he is incapable of knowing what is happening and thus unable to thwart the incest.  He is not shown as a passive victim of the affair.  Artemisia has portrayed all three members of the family as having an active role of what is about to happen.  The girls are virgins, a state which will soon change.

The daughter to the right of the painting is well highlighted and one must suppose that she is the elder daughter and the first to seduce her father.   Look at the colours of the girls’ clothing; blue, white and gold.  We have the rich blue which is the colour often used in the portrayal of the Virgin Mary.  We have the white which symbolises virginal innocence and we have gold which is symbolic of purity and preciousness.  The elder daughter twists round, almost contorted, to look at her father.  One end of the rich blue fabric snakes between her thighs whilst the other end lies close to the thighs of her father.  Is that just coincidental or are we to believe that maybe Artemisia has placed the sash between the daughter’s thighs as an indication that this is exactly where her father will position himself during their sexual act?  Again, are we reading too much into the painting if we compare the bread which is on the table as having had its outer skin violently broken and its fresh interior exposed to the light with the act of the virgin being deflowered?  Another strange departure from the biblical tale is the action of the father.  In the Bible we are told that the daughters plied their father with drink so he became drunk and did not know what was about to happen, but look closely at the picture.  The daughter with the wine is on the left and the father is passing his wine glass to the daughter on the right as if he is plying her with wine and not the other way around.  Look at his facial expression.  What do you read into it?  Is it a look of a man who is becoming befuddled and not in control of the situation or is this the look of a man who is beginning to enjoy himself and is encouraging his elder daughter to imbibe and  take pleasure in what is happening?  Is this another way in which Artemisia is implicating him in the sexual acts which were to follow?  Is Artemisia trying to tell us that the man is not without guilt?  So the question you must ask yourself as you look at this painting is whether the artist is portraying Lot as almost a lecherous old man or one that is being hoodwinked by the daughters?  If you believe the former, as a lot of feminists do, why did Artemisia portray him that way?  Had her being raped altered her view of men and thus she would not have us believe Lot was just an old man being hoodwinked by his daughters?  Remember also that her artistic career and her eventual fame did not come easily as she was thwarted throughout her life – by whom?  Men !!!!

Many questions and some controversial answers.   I will let you form your own conclusions.

Just a little addition to the original blog:

The sibille was a long cord which was wound round the base of each finger then the palms of two hands were tied together, palm to palm, at the wrists.   Then the cord was threaded around each pair of fingers.  A large wooden screw is then attached and turned so the cord tightens digging into the flesh, cutting it and eventually it would cut down to the bone.  The pain would have been excruciating.

A Moonlight Effect by Paul Sandby

Landscape painting became the most inventive form of art in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  Traditionally, paintings of the British landscape had been a way of showing off magnificent country houses, and were often commissioned by wealthy landowners to show off their estates and wealth.  However in the late eighteenth century the landscape became the subject of a more poetic vision. There was a growth in the urban middle-class and for them landscape art provided a romantic ideal of the landscape as the source of timeless values which could be enjoyed by anyone.  Landscape paintings were now being viewed as portraying idyllic places of rest and solace.  Landscape art in the 18th century did however have its detractors.  The Swiss-born artist Henry Fuseli, when once lecturing his art students, identified landscape art as a low branch of painting.  He described it:

“…the tame delineation of a given spot;   what is commonly called Views is  little more than topography; ….a kind of map-work”……”

My featured artist today would not have agreed with Fuseli’s description, as he was one of England’s great landscape artists.  His name is Paul Sandby.  Sandby was born in Nottingham in 1731.  His father Thomas was a framework knitter and he had a brother, also named Thomas, who was ten years older than him.  The boys had a comfortable upbringing and it is thought that they both received drawing tuition from Thomas Peat, a Nottingham-based land surveyor.  Both boys showed great aptitude and in 1747 Paul, then aged sixteen, left Nottingham to take up employment as a military draughtsman.  After the Battle of Culloden the English felt the need to map the Scottish landscape with detailed records of forts and castles and Paul Sandby was involved in the survey and from his office at Edinburgh Castle, where he worked as a mapmaker, he developed his landscape drawing technique.

After his work in Scotland he went on to paint much of Britain. In 1752, he, along with his brother, took up a post producing landscapes of the royal estates at Windsor.   Importantly in 1770, he travelled through Wales and was one of the first artists to paint landscapes of that country.  He popularised the area by not just exhibiting paintings but widely circulating printed images and developing an innovative print method, aquatint, a variant of etching, which echoes the washes of watercolour rather than relying on pure lines.   He returned to Wales in 1773 and toured the south of the country along with Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist and botanist.  This sketching trip resulted in the 1775 publication of XII Views in South Wales.  A further twelve views were added the following year.

In 1757, Sandby  married Anne Stogden.   In 1768, the same year as his election as a Royal Academician, he was appointed chief drawing master to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, a position he held for over thirty years,.  His son Thomas Paul was eventually to succeed him in that post.

 Unfortunately for Sandby the public fell out of love with his fresh and uncomplicated natural style of paintings, which he embraced, and he was ultimately forced to petition the Royal Academy for financial support to supplement his modest pension. He died in 1809, his obituary describing him as the ‘father of modern landscape-painting in watercolours’.  He is buried in St George’s Burial Ground London.

Gainsborough praised Sandby as one of the first artists to paint what he termed “real views”, ones which were topographically accurate as opposed to idealised compositions.  There was a large gap between the topography and the ideal landscapes.  The topographer accurately recorded what he saw whereas the ideal landscape artist manipulatesd his landscape for aesthetic ends.  Paul Sandby endeavoured to bridge that gap.  He kept faith with his topographical skills but managed to bring expression and sensitivity to his work.  He did this by carefully choosing the viewpoint for the composition.  He also liked to incorporate realistic human figures in his works.  Throughout his career Sandby only ever used the medium of watercolour.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled A Moonlight Effect which Paul Sandby completed around 1790 and which can be found in the Nottingham City Museums and Galleries.  This is one of a number of paintings Sandby completed which depicted a place or a building as seen by moonlight.  In the 1770’s the early romantic painters, such as Joseph Wright of Derby and William Hodges, had taken a special interest in the portrayal of moonlight effects; and the image of the moon and of moonlight became one of the great romantic images.  For the romantic artist, who saw himself as alienated from society, the moon was often seen as an image of constancy and hope in a changing world, and it adequately depicted that longing and yearning or an unattainable perfection which lies at the heart of romanticism.

I love this painting with its silvery moonlight. 

Maybe you will have noticed that My Daily Art Display has not quite been a “daily” offering recently.  The reason for that is not because I am losing interest or having difficulty to find yet another painting, albeit it is getting harder.  The reason is that I have been trying to build up a reserve stockpile of blogs for when I am away on holiday in case I don’t have the time to research and compose a blog.  Today we are setting off to Hong Kong and Australia for a three-week break.  I am hoping I will still have access to the internet when I am away so that I can send out one of my “reserve” blogs, at least every other day.  I am hoping to take in a couple of art galleries when I am away and I am looking forward to seeing the depth of art on offer.


The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello

Hunt in the forest by Paolo Uuccello (c.1470)

When I visited the Claude Lorrain exhibition at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford last month,  I had time to look around their permanent collection of painting.  To my mind they have one of the best collections on offer with works from artists of different nationalities and from different eras.  I strongly recommend you visit this gallery for I know you will not be disappointed.

The painting I am featuring in today’s My Daily Art Display is one by Paolo Uccello entitled The Hunt in the Forest which he completed around 1470.  Hunting was a very popular pastime for the aristocracy in those days.  The depiction of hunting in art goes back to the Ancient Greeks when it can be seen on their tableware.  During the time of the Romans, many hunting scenes can be found on their sarcophagi and in Medieval times hunting scenes could be found in their manuscripts, wall paintings and tapestries.  There were many forms of hunting in the Medieval times, such as hunting with hawks, which took place mainly in the spring and summer and the boar and bear hunting which took place during winter.

Cassone (chest) with spalliera (backboard)
Cassone (chest) with spalliera (backboard)

It is believed that this work of art you see before you was a one-off painting and not part of a series.  It is of an unusual size, measuring 63cms tall x 165cms wide.  With those dimensions it could well have been intended for the front panel of a cassone, a Renaissance marriage chest or a spalliera, the back of a Tuscan bench or settle, or the headboard or footboard of a bed.  The spalliera paintings were very popular at the time this painting was completed.  Therefore we are probably safe to assume that this work was painted for a wealthy family to be seen by guests as they entered the house and went into the camera, the reception room which was also often the bedroom, where the spalliera or cassone would be in pride of place.

 So what do we see before us?  Is it a painting of a real hunt or is it an imaginary scene?  Art historians tend to believe the latter is correct as hunts such as these would have had a number of different species of dogs each trained to carry out a specific task in the hunt.  There would be dogs which were good at following scents.  There would be another species of dog which were fast running and capable of catching and bringing their quarry to ground.   In this painting we only have the one type of dog.   In the painting we also only see one type of deer, the roebuck, and that would be unlikely to be the case in a real hunt.  The setting for the hunt is also very questionable.  The scene is dark and it appears that the hunt is taking place at twilight or during the night and this is not the normal time of day set aside for hunting.  Hunting, especially in forests, would normally take place during the day when the maximum amount of sunlight can filter through the trees.

The view we have before us is also one of organised chaos !  The hunters seem to be converging upon each other from two sides while the dogs and the hunted animals seem to be disappearing into the central distance.  There seems to be no attempt by the hunters to enact a carefully co-ordinated plan to capture their prey.

I love the vibrant colours in this painting.  Look how Uccello has given the leaves on the trees golden highlights.  I love the bright livery of the horses and the colourful clothing of the aristocratic hunters atop their horses, ably being assisted by the beaters.  On the livery of the horses we see many examples of a golden crescent moon emblem which could be a sort of homage to Diana the Roman goddess of hunting (Artemis the Greek goddess of hunting) who was often seen wearing a crown shaped as a crescent moon.

The aristocracy liked to have hunting scenes adorning the walls of their mansions.  Hunting, in some way, like chivalric jousting tournaments, was akin to battle and those taking part in such events were looked upon as being fearless and athletic.  Men who organised such hunts (maybe not in this case!) were looked upon as being tactically astute and great leaders and just the qualities which were needed for those who were to lead armies into battle.  In those days hunting was a very prestigious pastime and strangely, sometimes looked upon as an allegory of love.

The one question, which has yet to be answered and one can only guess at it, is who commissioned Uccello to carry out this work.  We know that this was Uccello’s last major painting before he died in Florence in 1475 and historians think the painting was completed around about 1470.  Art historians have come up with a couple of ideas but none our conclusive.  I have already mentioned the crescent moon emblems on the horses livery and as well as being associated with Diana they were also the emblem of the Strozzi family.  The Strozzi clan were an ancient and noble Florentine family who played an important part in the public life of Florence and this painting may have been commissioned by one of them.  The other possibility was that Uccello painted this picture whilst he was still living in Urbino and before he returned to Florence.  We know that he was in Urbino from 1465 to 1469 and if that was the case he could well have been commissioned by his patron, the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro whose palace was full of works of art.

This is undoubtedly a masterpiece and as we look at the painting we can almost hear the noise made by the hunters crashing through the undergrowth and the baying of their animals as they chase after their unfortunate quarry.  It is an exciting painting full of vitality and colour.  The artist encourages us to stare into the depth of the forest and our eyes alight on Uccello’s distant vanishing point in the central background but no sooner do we stare into the distance than our eyes dart back to the foreground, seduced by the colours and the rhythm of the hunt. 

I just love this work and it is even better to stand in front of the original.

The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy by William Blake

The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy by William Blake (1794)

Today I am once again dipping my toe into the strange world of William Blake the 18th century painter, printer, book illustrator and poet.  I went through his life story in a couple of my earlier blogs (October 30th and November 1st) and if you haven’t read them I urge you to go to them now before you read about this painting as it may just give you a better understanding as to why an artist would depict such weird but wonderful scenes.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today has three titles.  It is usually known as The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy but is often referred to as The Triple Hecate or simply The Hecate.   It is a colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper.   

If, like me, you have never heard of Enitharmon or Hecate, let me take you into Blake’s strange world of mythopoeia, his own fictional mythology.  We are all used to hearing tales of Greek and Roman mythology but William Blake made up his own mythology with its own characters.   I suppose he can be compared with Tolkien and his stories of Middle Earth or C S Lewis and his tales of Narnia.   For Blake, who all his life experienced visions of heavenly bodies whom he would communicate with, his mythological characters were real.

Enitharmon is a major female character in William Blake’s mythology and she plays a major role in some of his prophetic books.   In this work Blake portrays her as an androgynous Hecate, one with a combination of male and female characteristics, as can be seen in this coloured print.   Hecate is the goddess of witchcraft and you may have come across her in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  She appeared to the three witches in the play, as they sat around their bubbling cauldron, she came to them demanding to know why she has been excluded from their meetings with Macbeth.   To William Blake she represents female domination and sexual restraints that limit the artistic imagination.  After her birth, Enitharmon asserts that women will rule the world, with Man being given Love and Women being given Pride. This would create within men a fear of female dominance that would in turn bring them under control of the females.

Do you remember the famous lines spoken by the three witches in Macbeth as they surrounded the cauldron?

“Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

It is therefore not a coincidence that in Blake’s print we can see a frog or a toad, a bat and a snake?  The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy is a large colour print and is plate 5 of Europe, a book written by Blake in 1794 which has the opening line:

“..Now comes the night of Enitharmon’s joy!..”

 In the book, Enitharmon sets the trap of false religion which dominated Europe, for eighteen hundred years between the time of Christ’s birth and the French Revolution.  The night of Enitharmon’s joy is when she establishes her Woman’s World with its false religion of chastity and vengeance.   Blake used pen and ink to give strong outlines to the figures, and to draw locks of hair, the bat, and the donkey’s mane and rough coat. The owl has eyes which have been highlighted with a bright opaque red wash.  The figures have been given form and roundness by washes of intense but transparent colour.   The sky is dark as are the lichen-covered rocks in the left of the work.  A strange-looking evil winged spectre hovers above Enitharmon’s head as a large donkey to the left nibbles on what little vegetation can be found amongst the rocks.

This is yet another weird work by Blake and once again I hesitate to think what was constantly going through his mind as he conjured up these images.

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

In an earlier blog (November 14th) I looked at the life of Courbet and his painting The Artist’s Studio.  If you have just arrived at today’s blog it would be worth going to the earlier one to read about Courbet’s life and his artistic principles I mentioned in that earlier blog that when he had tried to get his three large painting into the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855 they were rejected because of their size.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today entitled A Burial at Ornans was one of the three.  This work was even bigger than the The Artist’s Studio, and measures 3.1metres by 6.6 metres and was completed by Courbet in 1850.  Both paintings are housed at the Musée d’Orsay.

Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans in 1819 and this huge painting depicts the funeral of his great uncle at the town in September 1848.   The depiction of the funeral and the laying to rest of the dead is unlike the usual way it would have been portrayed in Romantic or Academic art, where we would expect to see angels of the Lord carrying the soul of the deceased heavenwards.  Gustave Courbet was a realist painter.  In fact he was in the forefront of the Realism art movement, which was a grouping of artists  who believed that they should represent the world as it is even if that meant breaking with artistic and social conventions.  Realist artists painted everyday characters and situations all in a true-to-life manner.  These artists wanted to rid art of the theatrical drama, lofty subjects and the classical style and in its place they wanted to depict more everyday commonplace themes.  Courbet was once asked to incorporate angels in a painting he was doing of a church.  He rejected the request saying:

“….I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one… “

The Innocent gaze

This realist art we see before us is exactly as Courbet would want.  It is a funeral scene, warts and all.  It is an unflattering yet dignified scene, but more importantly to Courbet, it is a realistic scene.  There is a stillness and serenity of what we see before us.  There is no attempt to glorify the setting with a grandiloquent and ostentatious depiction of descending angels with God seated on a throne in the clouds above.  In the foreground there is an open grave awaiting the coffin.  The funeral procession approaches from the left.  In the procession we see the pallbearers slowly following the priest and altar boys as they close in on the gaping hole in the ground and the gravedigger, who is on bended knee by the grave.  The figures in red are officials of the church, who assisted at religious functions.  If you look closely at the edge of the grave, you can just make out a skull which presumably was exhumed when the grave was dug out.  The mourners fill the middle ground of the painting.  Grief-stricken women, with handkerchiefs fending off their tears, circle the grave.  It is interesting to note that Courbet did not use models for this scene, which would have been the norm in historical narrative paintings.  Instead he used actual villagers who were at the ceremony, including his sister and mother, and this again highlights his desire for realism.  This is not an en plein air painting for the depiction of the people was done in his studio at Ornans.  Look how Courbet has depicted the young at this event. 

Girl peeking at grave

See how the young altar boy, who is standing behind the priest, stares up at one of the pallbearer.  Courbet has managed to perfectly capture the look of innocence in the boy’s face.  Cast your eyes to the right foreground of the painting and see if you can spot the face of a small girl who is peeking out at the grave.  We just see her face.  The rest of her is almost lost amongst a sea of black clothing.  Look at the way Courbet has kept the heads of the mourners and officials level with the tops of the cliffs and the land in the background.  Observe how only the crucifix reaches reaches above that level into the pale sky, as it is held aloft by an attendant.   Just a coincident or has a little piece symbolism crept into Courbet’s work?

In Sarah Faunce’s biography of Courbet she talked about the reception this painting received from the public and critics.  She wrote:

“….In Paris the Burial was judged as a work that had thrust itself into the grand tradition of history painting, like an upstart in dirty boots crashing a genteel party, and in terms of that tradition it was of course found wanting…”

The critics seemed to miss the histrionics and exaggerated gestures of grief they had been used to seeing depicted in great historical funeral paintings of the past.  They thought this painting was ugly and presumably missed the beauty of angels, puti and the presence of the figure of God sitting aloft awaiting a new entrant to his kingdom.   Another aspect of the painting which disturbed the critics was the fact that Courbet painted this huge work, similar in size to grand historical paintings of the past, centred, in their opinion,  on a subject of little consequence – a burial of a family member.  As far as the sophisticated Parisians were concerned paintings of  rural folk should be confined to small works of art and they were very critical of Courbet’s decision to afford these folk such a large space of canvas.  The fact that he did was looked upon as a radical act.  However Courbet said of the painting “it was the debut of my principles”.   For the critics, if an artist was going to paint such an enormous work, then they expected the subject to be an idealized grand narrative and not just an ordinary every day event.

I end today with two quotes from the artist on his artistic upbringing and his pursuit of Realism and what he tried to achieve.

“…I have studied, apart from any preconceived system and without biases, the art of the ancients and the moderns. I have no more wished to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor was it my intention, moreover, to attain the useless goal of art for art’s sake. No! I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete knowledge of tradition the reasoned and independent understanding of my own individuality…”

“…To know in order to be capable, that was my idea. To be able to translate the customs, idea, the appearances of my epoch according to my own appreciation of it [to be not only a painter but a man,] in a word to create living art, that is my goal…”

And finally his hope for how he would be remembered…………….

“…When I am dead, let it be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of liberty…”