Camille Doncieux and Claude Monet

My next two blogs deal not with a particular painting but with the subject of a series of paintings completed lovingly by one artist.  The subject is Camille-Léonie Doncieux, who was the beloved model, mistress and wife of Claude Monet.  In 1861, Monet had enlisted as a soldier in the Chasseurs d’Afrique regiment and spent two years in Algeria.  His military life came to an end in 1863 because he had fallen ill with fever.  He went back to Paris where he studied at the atelier of the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre and it was during this time that he met up with the artists Sisley, Bazille and Renoir, who would later join together with others and become known as the Impressionists..

Camille Doncieux was born in 1846 and met the impoverished but talented painter, Claude Monet, for the first time in 1865 when she was just eighteen years of age.  She came from an ordinary unprivileged background.  She fell in love with him, leaving her home to live with the talented 25-year-old painter who struggled to sell his work. People called her La Monette.  Everyone she met fell under her spell.   It was recorded that she was a ravishingly good-looking girl with dark hair, very graceful, full of charm and kindness.  Monet, her future husband, was struck by her beauty and described her eyes as being wonderful.    It was not long after they met that she began modeling for him and soon became his favourite model.  His professional interest in her soon became personal and the two soon became lovers.   The first time we come across Camille in a painting by Monet was in a study for his ill-fated work Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.

Study for Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1865/6)

In 1863, Édouard Manet had exhibited his painting Déjeuner sur l’Herbe at the Salon des Refusés (see My Daily Art Display, December 23rd 2010).   The critics and public were shocked by the work and Manet’s depiction of a nude woman seated with a pair of clothed men in a landscape setting.    Monet, who was known for his competitive streak decided to paint his own version of Déjeuner sur l’Herbe in the spring of 1865. This audacious venture would culminate in putting it forward for an exhibition at the Salon of 1866.  Following outdoor studies he made in the Forest of Fontainebleau, he immediately headed back to his nearby studio at Chaillyen-Bière and started to make preparatory sketches for what would be his mammoth canvas measuring an unbelievable 4.5 metres x 6 metres.  In one of his preparatory sketches, which he did in oil entitled Bazille and Camille (study for Déjeuner sur l’Herbe) we see Camille Doncieux and Monet’s fellow artist friend Frédéric Bazille.   Ultimately the painting was not a success. Monet was unable to finish it in time for the 1866 Salon and eventually abandoned the work. He left it, rolled up, with his landlord as part payment for rent he owed but it became damp and all that now remains are fragments of the work and some preparatory studies. The experience did, however, contribute to Monet’s realisation that to portray the brief moment in time, he would have to work on a much smaller scale.

La Femme à la Robe Verte by Monet (1866)

The next time we see Camille is in a painting Monet exhibited in the 1866 Salon.  The work was entitled Camille or Woman in a Green Dress and now hangs in the Kunsthalle, in Bremen.  After his disastrous attempt to emulate Manet with his painting of Déjeuner sur l’Herbe this work of his gained him critical acclaim.  Rumour had it that in his rush to meet the Salon deadline he completed the work in four days but one must doubt that assertion.  It is not strictly a portrait of Camille.  It is all about the dress.  She was simply his model for the painting.  The first thing which strikes one as we look at the work is the colour of the promenade dress which had probably been borrowed for the occasion.  Monet loved colour and the green he has used is awesome.  It dominates the painting and even detracts from the woman herself.  This is not about Camille but on the dress she wears and how it hangs.  The painting reminds one of a photograph out of a fashion shoot for a fashion magazine when the clothes are the important thing and not the model.  Look how the background is undefined.  It is simply plain and dark.  Monet had decided that nothing should deflect our gaze from the woman and her dress.  I like how Camille is just raising her right hand towards her face as if the picture has captured her just about to do something, a fleeting gesture, and we are left guessing as to what.  Maybe she is adjusting the ribbon of her bonnet.  The painting was accepted by the Salon jury and hung in their 1866 exhibition.    It was an immediate hit with both the art critics of the time and the public and the Paris newspapers called Camille the Parisian Queen.

One amusing anecdote about this painting was the story that Monet’s signature on the painting had been mistaken by many viewers for that of Manet, who had entered the Salon to a chorus of acclaim for his supposed work.  Monet told this story to the newspaper Le Temps:

“….imagine the consternation when he discovered that the picture about which he was being congratulated was actually by me !   The saddest part of all was that on leaving the Salon he came across a group which included Bazille and me.  ‘How goes it?’ one of them asked.  ‘Awful,’ replied Manet, ‘I am disgusted.  I have been complimented on a painting which is not mine’…….”

Camille au Petit Chien by Monet (1866)

That same year Monet produced a hauntingly beautiful and intimate portrait of his lover entitled Camille with a Little Dog, which is in a private collection.  We see Camille sitting side-on to us in quite a formal pose.  This is one of the few paintings of her by Monet that looks closely at her.  Once again as was the case in the Woman in a Green Dress, the background is plain and dark and in no way serves as a reason for taking our eyes off Camille.  We are not to be distracted from her beauty.  This painting is all about Camille.  It is interesting how Monet has painted the figure of the dog simply by thick brush strokes.  At a distance it looks like a dog but if you stand close up to the painting you can see it is just a mass of brush strokes.  However Monet has not treated the painting of Camille’s face with the same quick thick strokes of his brush.  She has been painted with delicate precision.  Monet did not want to depict the love of his life with hastily swishes of a brush. He took pains in her appearance.  This was a labour of love.

Luncheon by Monet (1868)

In 1867 Monet’s lover Camille gave birth to their son Jean.  A year later, during the winter of 1868, Monet started on his painting entitled Luncheon, which can be seen at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Franfurt.   This family, which now included their son Jean, were staying in Étretat at the house of a patron, where Monet had taken refuge from his Parisian creditors and critics.  It is a large highly detailed oil on canvas painting measuring 230cms x 150cms.   It is simplistic in its subject.  Before us we have sitting at the dining table Camille and her blonde-haired son.  She looks lovingly at him whilst he seems to only have eyes for the food.  A visitor stands with her back to the window and the maidservant is seen leaving the room.  A place is set out ready for her husband to join her at the meal table.  Look how Monet has painted a number of items overlapping the surfaces they are resting on.  On the table we have the loaf of bread, the newspaper and the serviette  all hanging over the cloth which Monet has depicted as being somewhat creased.  In the background we have two books overlapping the edge of the table.  All this in some ways adds to the realism of the painting.  Sunlight pours through the large window to the left of the painting and bathes the well-stocked table in light and by doing so brings it to life.  Monet submitted the painting to the 1870 Salon jury but it was rejected.  Four years later he included the work in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874.

to be concluded tomorrow………………………………

The Stoning of Stephen by Adam Elsheimer (c.1604)

The Stoning of Saint Stephen by Adam Elsheimer (c.1604)

Today I am staying with the religious theme and I am also looking at another painting which is housed at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  My featured painting today is entitled The Stoning of Stephen by Adam Elsheimer.

Adam Elsheimer was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany in 1578.  He was the son of a tailor and one of ten children.  His initial training as an artist was under the tutelage of Philipp Uffenbach, the German painter and etcher.  It is thought that in those early days he may have also been influenced by the works of the Dutch painter, Gillis van Coninxloo, as his early works show signs of the way the Dutch artist depicted forest scenes.  Coninxloo, at the time, was living in the nearby Frankenthal region having had to flee his native country in order to avoid religious persecution.

In 1598, after his initial artistic training in Frankfurt, Elsheimer travelled to Munich and from there headed south into Italy.  He initially settled in Venice and it is thought that whilst there he worked as an assistant to Hans Rottenhammer, a German painter who specialized in highly finished small scale paintings.  Rottenhammer was a master craftsman who was known for his highly-finished cabinet paintings on copper, depicting religious and mythological subjects, which were a mix of both German and Italian fundamentals of design and technique.  The term cabinet paintings was used to describe small works of art, which are usually no larger than two feet square but in many cases are much smaller. The name is especially used for paintings that depict full-length figures painted on a small scale, as opposed to a head painted nearly life-size, and these works of art are painted very precisely and with great delicacy. From the 1600’s onwards wealthy collectors of art would keep cabinet paintings in locked cabinets, hence the name, or sometimes they would be on show in a relatively small and private room in a house, to which only those with whom the house owners were on especially intimate terms would be admitted.  Elsheimer learnt a great deal from Rottenhammer in the time they were together. Most of Elsheimer’s works were cabinet paintings painted on copper plates. He was particularly admired for his use of diverse sources of illumination.  Using copper as his “canvas” meant that his pictures remained of small dimensions. But copper was an excellent medium on which to paint. It meant that Elsheimer was able to include more than fifty figures on this miniature-like plate. Copper also allowed him to put on paint in very fine and delicate strokes and by doing so the detail could be both intricate and decorative. He also took advantage of the medium to select and use very brilliant colours.

In the spring of 1600 Elsheimer moved to Rome and it was here, through his contact with Hans Rottenhammer that he met and became friends with the Flemish landscape painter, Paul Bril.  Soon Elsheimer built up a friendship with a number of artists who were working in the Italian capital at the time, such as Rubens and David Teniers the Elder.  The artistic work carried out by Elsheimer was noted in the Schilder-Boeck, which was written by the art historian Karel van Mander  in 1604.  In it van Mander praised the artist but described him as slow-working and making few drawings.    It was this small output that led to Elsheimer’s financial ruin.

In 1606, Elsheimer married Carola Antonia Stuarda da Francoforte, a lady of Scottish ancestry and a fellow Frankfurter, and in 1609 they had a son. The son was not mentioned in a census a year later, which could have been because he died as an infant or possibly because he had been put out to a wet nurse.  His wife had been the recent widow of the artist Nicolas de Breul.  In 1606, Elsheimer was admitted to the Academia di San Luca, the Roman painters’ guild.  He was a very religious man and converted to Catholicism in 1608.   In spite of his fame and talents, he appears to have both lived and impoverished life and died penniless.

Despite his reputation for being an influential artist of his time he was a perfectionist and he dwelled for ages over a single work.  This led to him being unable to finish enough pieces to actually make a living.  This perfectionist trait along with frequent bouts of depression which stopped him working combined to reduce his artistic output.  Elsheimer, despite having a talent that inspired Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens, and in spite of his fame and obvious talents, lived and died in difficult financial circumstances.  In his latter days he had set up a partnership with a wealthy etcher, Count Hendrick Goudt to complete a number of works but he was unable to fulfil his part of the contract with his partner.  Worse still, he had also borrowed a sum of money from his partner but was unable to repay him and was thrown into a debtor’s prison, where he died in 1610, aged 32.   Sadly, he only painted for a period of about thirteen years and only twenty-seven pictures are attributed to him.

Rubens, who owned a couple of Elsheimer’s paintings, wrote of him saying:

“…..he had no equal in small figures, landscapes, and in many other subjects. …one could have expected things from him that one has never seen before and never will see….”

And on news of his Elsheimer’s death Rubens wrote to a friend:

“…Surely, after such a loss, our entire profession ought to clothe itself in mourning.  It will not easily succeed in replacing him………….. For myself, I have never felt my heart more profoundly pierced by grief than at the news…”

Contemporaries described him as an extraordinary artist who “invented a style of small sceneries, landscapes, and other curiosities”.

The painting today is based on the New Testament story of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen.  The scene is set in Acts 7: 55-60

“…..But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God   “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”


 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep…”.

Elsheimer’s painting on copper is entitled The Stoning of Stephen which he completed around 1604 and which can now be seen in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  St Stephen was one of the first seven deacons of the Christian Church appointed by the Apostles and also its first Christian martyr.  His fervent preaching had incurred the hostility of the Jewish authorities who accused him of blasphemy and he was sentenced to be stoned to death outside the walls of Jerusalem.

The painting before us shows the point in time just before Stephen’s execution.  He has sunk to his knees.   There is a gentle naivety about his expression.  He actually seems surprised with what is about to happen to him.  He is open-mouthed uttering his last words to God asking him to receive his spirit. His tormentors with their arms held aloft clutch large stones which they are about to rain down on the ill-fated Stephen. It is at this time that he is said to have experienced a vision of heaven and a beam of intense light  penetrated the clouds and shines down on the kneeling saint almost like a spotlight focuses on an actor on a stage.  Stephen is dressed in the robes of a deacon, and angels tumble towards him bearing the palm fronds of martyrdom and a laurel crown.

It is a small work of art measuring just 35cms x 29cms (14 inches x 11 inches).   It is an extremely colourful work and the artist has magically depicted the beams of light, emanating from the heavens at the top left of the painting, and falling on the head of the martyr.  The painting is divided into three diverse areas with diagonals creating clear tonal contrasts.  This effect is known as chiaroscuro.  To the left and right, the painting is in shadow.  On the left-hand side we see a man on horseback presiding over the execution.  This is Saul of Tarsus, who would himself late convert to Christianity and become the future Saint Paul.  On the right-hand side, also in shadow, we see some Roaman soldiers, one of whom is on horseback, and a gathering group of spectators.  The middle section is illuminated, and in this section we see Stephen and his young executioners.

The Stoning of Stephen by Rembrandt (1625)

Rembrandt’s first dated work is entitled The Stoning of St Stephen, which he completed in 1625 at the age of 19, and appears to be a response to Elsheimer’s painting of the subject.  The same chiaroscuro effect can also be seen in his version of the painting.

For me, besides the exquisite colouring and the astonishing amount of detail  Elsheimer has brought to this painting, I love the magical Italianate landscape which forms the background.  Elsheimer’s delicate portrayal of the trees and the Roman ruins exudes such a beautiful and enchanting quality. I would have loved this work of art to have been on a much larger scale but then maybe some of the enchantment would have been lost.

The Flemish landscape artist Paul Bril, who befriended Elsheimer, may have, at one time, owned this painting.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (c.1655)

Once again, as promised in my last blog, I am returning to a painting depicting the two biblical sisters Mary and Martha.  The setting for this painting is their meeting with Christ at their home, which unlike the setting and the story behind Cagnacci’s painting Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity which I featured in yesterday’s blog; this meeting was recorded in the Bible.  In Luke 10:38-39 it states:

“…As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  

The depiction of this meeting has been painted by many artists, such as Tintoretto in 1580, Diego Velázquez in 1618, and Rubens who painted a similar scene in 1628 but moved the setting to an outdoor terrace.  Christ at Home with Martha and Mary was painted by Joachim Beuckelaer, a kitchen scene, but from which we learnt about the rivalry between Mary and Martha.  A similar kitchen scene was depicted in the late 16th century painting entitled Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vincenzo Campi.  In these last two paintings Martha is depicted working hard in the kitchen whilst Mary is sitting at the feet of Christ listening to what he had to say.  The tension between the two women as highlighted in these paintings was recorded in the Book of Luke 10:40-42:

“….But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!”      “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,  but few things are needed—or indeed only one Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her…”

However the painting I am featuring today depicts Mary and Martha in seemingly perfect harmony as they listen to the words of Christ.  The painting is by the great Dutch Master, Johannes Vermeer and is entitled Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  He completed the work around 1655 and it is believed to be one of his earliest surviving paintings, coming some ten years before his more famous works, such as Girl with a Pearl Earringwhich he completed in 1665.    It is also thought to be one of his largest paintings, measuring 160 cm × 142 cm (63 in × 56 in) and this probably means it was painted for a specific commission.  The fact that the work is so large and has a very dark backdrop, unlike most of Vermeer’s later works it may not have been accredited to Vermeer but for his recognisable signature on the stool which Mary sits upon.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (1650)

There is a certain similarity with the way Vermeer has painted the folds in Christ’s robe with the 1650  painting  Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by the Flemish artist Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes) and one that Vermeer may have actually seen as his father, Reynier Jansz,  was an art dealer.

Before us we have the three figures, named in the title of the painting, in a kind of triangular formation almost filling the canvas.  The background is sombre and somewhat dark which ensures that we are not distracted from the three figures depicted in the work.  Our viewpoint is from the bottom left of the painting which leads art historians to believe that this could have been intended for an altarpiece which would have been above eye level.

Christ is seated, looking very relaxed.  There is a soft glow emanating from his head and this ensures that he is seen as the main figure of the three.  He wears a dark blue robe over a brown undergarment.  It is an unusual shade of blue and not the ultramarine that we see in later works by Vermeer.  The right arm of Christ stretches out as he points towards Mary.  At the same time he focuses his attention on Martha.  Our attention is immediately drawn to his outstretched arm as the colour of his skin and the brown sleeve of his undergarment stand out against the pure white of the table cloth.

Mary sits on the floor at the feet of Christ, her head resting on her hand.  She looks lovingly at Christ hanging on his every word.  Of the three she is by far the most exquisite.  Vermeer has painted her lovingly and may have been sympathetic with her contemplative nature.  Mary’s positioning in the painting at the feet of Christ is somewhat controversial as that place was usually taken up by one of Christ’s disciples and in those days for a teacher to accept a female as a disciple was unheard of.

Martha stands at Christ’s right-hand side  and we see her placing a loaf of bread on the table whilst at the same time leaning slightly forward listening to his words.  Her eyes are downcast and yet her eyebrows are raised in a questioning gesture.  She looks somewhat saddened and dissatisfied with something.  Could it be she is not happy with Christ’s support of Mary’s contemplative role?   There is a hint of a pout in her expression, which could hark back to the conflict between the two females.   All looks tranquil and peaceful in Martha and Mary’s house but I wonder if the fact that Martha is bringing in the food whilst Mary just sits and listens to the words of Christ harkens back to the different roles the women play in the household and the discord between the two sisters is caused by such differing roles.  Maybe we are at a point in time that Christ is explaining to Martha that although she is the “worker” of the household who is serving up the bread which she may just have baked, Mary’s role as a contemplative disciple is equally as important. This is more forcibly portrayed in other works of art.  I am sure there are many theologians who have looked in to the relationship between the two sisters but the general consensus is that Martha is the more aggressive and work-like female whereas Mary is the more quiet and contemplative woman.

Much has been written about the two females and it has been interesting to study the various paintings featuring the two sisters and by doing so trying to read the mind of the artist and figure out what he or she is trying to tell us about the women.

Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity by Guido Cagnacci

Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity by Guido Cagnacci (c.1660)

Today I am returning to an artist I featured back in My Daily Art Display of April 24th 2011 when I looked at two paintings of his depicting the death of Cleopatra.  He is the Italian painter of the late-Baroque period, Guido Cagnacci.

Guido Cagnacci was an Italian painter belonging to the Bolognese School, which rivalled Florence and Rome as centres of painting.    He was born in 1601 in Santarcangelo di Romagna, a town in the province of Rimini where he spent the early part of his life.  Later, he moved to Rome where he met fellow artists Simon Vouet, and Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, often better known simply as Guernico.   Cagnacci had also been a pupil of Guido Reni and he tended to combine references to classical models and to Raphael’s work with his own lively interest in the type of daring perspectives and brilliant compositions that the Baroque style favoured.   It is also believed that during this time he may have studied under an ageing Ludovicio Carracci.  He moved back east to Venice in 1650 and started to paint very sensual scenes with seductive, half-naked girls as his subject, His later paintings often featured semi-naked women as Lucretia, Cleopatra and even Mary Magdalene, as we will see in today’s offering.  These erotic paintings were very popular and much sought after by collectors at the time and through them, his popularity spread.  In 1658 he journeyed to Vienna where he gained the patronage of Emperor Leopold I and that was his ticket to fame and riches.  It also gave him the opportunity to bring to the German-speaking lands the latest classical style.

It is his contentious painting of a semi-naked Mary Magdalene that I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today.  The painting, which Cagnacci completed around 1660, is entitled Martha Rebuking Mary for Her Vanity.  The title of the painting brings up the first question one needs to consider and that is who is Mary?    Many would say that the Mary in the title is Mary Magdalene but others would disagree.  Mary and Martha are the most familiar set of sisters in the Bible. In the books of Luke and John, the pair, who lived in Bethany were described as friends of Jesus and who had a brother called Lazarus.  Though some earlier interpreters blended the person of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene, current theologians believe she was a different person.  In Latin tradition, Mary of Bethany is often identified as Mary Magdalene while in Eastern Orthodox and Protestant traditions they are considered separate persons. The Orthodox Church has its own traditions regarding Mary of Bethany’s life beyond the gospel accounts.  However I will go along with the idea that in this painting we are looking at Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha.

Cagnacci's Mary Magdalene

The painting is a vivid and somewhat melodramatic allegory of Virtue conquering Vice.  Cagnacci has managed to blend reality, idealism and fantasy in the way he has portrayed the occurrence.   Lying prostrate on the floor is the semi-clad Mary Magdalene being rebuked and lectured to by Martha who sits on the floor in front of her.  Martha leans forward and is fervently lecturing her sister about the sins of Vanity pointing to the allegorical scene we see in the background. She is passionately trying to get her sister to discard the life of pleasure she had been leading up until then and turn to the life of virtue as a true follower of Christ.  Mary would seem to have recognised the life of sin she had been leading and realised, in response to the admonitions of her sister Martha, the error of her ways.  As a dramatic act of changing course, she has discarded her lavish and extravagant outer garments, jewellery and her other worldly possessions which we see scattered on the floor around her.

To the right of the painting we see a couple of servants, one in tears, symbolising contrition whilst the other looks back in disbelief and annoyance at Mary’s act of repentance and she symbolises the unremorseful face of Vanity.   In the background, mirroring what is happening in the foreground, we see an angel, symbolising Virtue driving out the demon which represents Vanity.  Cagnacci has in some ways tailored the story of the discarding of the woman’s clothes so as to give us an unusually sensuous depiction of the semi-naked Mary Magdalene.  He was often criticised for this sort of eroticism in his paintings, with critics maintaining that some artists could make anything salacious and Cagnacci was one of these.  However one must remember that Cagnacci knew that this type of painting sold well, so he would not be put off by his detractors.

The scene, which Cagnacci has painted, does not come from any particular passage in the Bible and we must believe the artist has manipulated the biblical facts of the differing character of the two sisters to suit the story behind this work.  The story of the differing personalities of Mary and her sister Martha was painted many times before by many different artists and in my next blog I will feature one by Johannes Vermeer.

Cagnacci probably completed this work whilst working for Leopold I at the Austrian court in Vienna.   The painting later went to the Gonzaga court in Mantua, which had strong ties with the court at Vienna. The painting was acquired by the Norton Simon Art Foundation and is currently housed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

Ruth Weisberg and her painting

When I was researching the painting I discovered that the Museum had held a special exhibition in November 2008 entitled Guido Cagnacci and the Resonant Image which featured the Los Angeles artist Ruth Weisberg’s series of works in dialogue with Cagnacci’s Baroque masterpiece Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity.  It was based on her intuitive artistic reaction to the work.  Ruth created over twenty paintings and drawings which were pictorial stories on the themes of repentance, anger and ultimately the triumph of virtue over vice. In one she even depicts herself and family members as characters from the Cagnacci work.

Farm at Watendlath by Dora Carrington

Farm at Watendlath by Dora Carrington (1921)

It often occurs that I stumble across and interesting subject for My Daily Art Display when I am researching another artist.  I came across today’s featured artist when I was delving into the life story of Mark Gertler and his painting Gilbert Cannan and his Mill in my last blog.  I should probably state up front that today’s blog is more about the artist and her fascinating social life than her featured painting.

Dora de Houghton Carrington was born in Hereford in 1893.  She was the second of the two daughters and fourth of the five children of Samuel Carrington and his wife, Charlotte de Houghton.  In 1902, aged 9, the family moved to Bedford and Dora attended the local girl’s high school.  The school’s ethos at the time was that the pupils should concentrate their studies on the Arts such as music and art with a healthy amount of sport thrown in rather than the normal but more commonplace subjects.  Dora showed an aptitude for drawing and her teachers persuaded her parents to pay for her to attend extra drawing classes in the afternoons.  One’s childhood often shapes the way we are in later life and the author Vanessa Curtis wrote about Dora’s differing relationship she had with her mother and father:

“…Although Carrington adored and revered her father, sketching him almost obsessively, she did not admire her fussy, martyr-like mother, who crammed the house with ornaments and devoted herself to charity work and religious causes….”

It is quite obvious that Dora’s mother had a suffocating influence on her children, especially her daughter.  Dora’s brother, Nicholas wrote of his mother extreme views on sex and  religion:

“..The first was extreme prudishness. Any mention of sex or the common bodily functions was unthinkable. We were not even expected to know that a woman was pregnant. Even a word like confined was kept to a whisper. The second was church-going and behaviour on Sunday. We all came to hate the whole atmosphere of a Sunday morning. The special clothes, the carrying of prayer books, the kneeling, standing and murmuring of litanies…”

In 1910, aged 17, she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. There can be no doubt that once Dora Carrington was free of her home life and the puritanical views of her domineering mother, she rebelled.  She cut her hair to a bob which gave her a somewhat androgynous appearance. She entered into many intense and sometimes sexual relationships both with women and homosexual and heterosexual men.   She also decided that she wanted to be known simply by her father’s surname, “Carrington”.   Carrington fared well at the Slade and won several awards for her work.  One of her fellow students was Mark Gertler, who was totally besotted with Carrington and it was through him that Carrington met Lady Ottoline Morrell, the “society queen” and he introduced Carrington to the Bloomsbury Group, a group of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists.    Lady Ottoline and her husband Philip had a house in Bloomsbury, Central London and a country house in Garsington, Oxford where they would hold weekend parties for their friends, many of whom, like Stanley Spencer, Gertler and Carrington were aspiring artists.

Carrington and Lytton Strachey

The Morrells were prominent pacifists and during World War I they invited conscientious objectors, such as the artist Duncan Grant and the writers Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey to take refuge at Garsington.  Carrington met Strachey, a writer and founder member of the Bloomsbury Group in 1915. Strachey was a homosexual but this did not stop Carrington falling in love with him.  This was a love that was to last almost twenty years.  Gertler felt no threat from Carrington’s love for the openly gay Strachey but in 1917 when Strachey bought a house and Carrington moved in with him, Gertler was devastated and realised that his love for Carrington was irrevocably unrequited and doomed.

Lytton Strachey and Ralph Partridge

Carrington’s father died in 1918 leaving her a small inheritance that allowed her to feel more independent.  That same year, Carrington was introduced to Ralph Partridge, a friend of her brother Noel.  Partridge like many men before him was besotted with Carrington, even though he was aware of Carrington’s love and devotion to Lytton Strachey.  Despite this knowledge, and knowing that Carrington would never give up Strachey, he married her in 1921 and along with Lytton Strachey, they bought and moved into Ham Spray House just outside the town of Hungerford.  It was here that they spent the rest of their lives.  It was a happy period for Carrington who carried on with her artwork and looking after the two men in her life.  Unfortunately, over time, Strachey suffered frequent bouts of illness and had to be cared for by Carrington.

Frances Partridge née Marshall

In 1926 Ralph Partridge started an affair with Frances Marshall, a writer friend and member of the Bloomsbury Group and went to live with her in London. His marriage with Carrington was all but over, but never in the eyes of the law.  Partridge did however still visit her most weekends.   Carringotn in the meantime had a number of extra-marital affairs with both males and females.  The most famous being her affair with Gerald Brenan, an army man and friend of her husband.  She also had a tempestuous love affair with Henrietta Bingham, the daughter of the American ambassador in London

In 1931 Strachey became seriously ill with stomach trouble and the doctors could not decide as to what was causing the illness.  By the end of that year doctors had given up hope of curing him.  In a fit of deep despair at the thought of losing her beloved friend she attempted to kill herself but was saved by her husband Partridge.  For the next month she watched as Strachey moved slowly towards death.  In January 1932 the end came for Strachey and, following an autopsy, it was discovered that he had been suffering from stomach cancer.  Carrington was devastated and her friends tried to rally round to support her but it was to no avail as in March 1932 she shot herself with a gun she had borrowed from a neighbour.  Her husband found her just before she died.  She died just a fortnight before her thirty-ninth birthday.

The painting I am featuring today entitled Farm at Watendlath was completed by Carrington in 1921. Newly-wed Carrington and her husband along with Lytton Strachey and some of their artist friends spent a summer holiday here that year.   One of their holiday companions was her future lover and friend of her husband, Gerald Brenan.  She would often return to spend other painting holidays around this area and she and her friends were frequent visitors to the farm which is near to Keswick in the Lake District.  The house we see in the painting faces Watendlath Beck, which flows from Watendlath Tarn into Derwentwater. A stuffed stag hanging inside was known as ‘Mr Wordsworth’  The two female figures we see in the painting are unknown and it has been suggested by some art historians that this depiction of female figures, dwarfed by a fertile and undulating landscape, relates to the artist’s sense of being overwhelmed by her own womanhood.  However, I find that interpretation hard to believe.

Her life story, in many ways, is tinged with sadness.  Her relationship with Lytton Strachey could not have fulfilled all her dreams and she would have constantly have had to compromise.  Yet, I am sure she had times of great joy and maybe we should look at this painting and remember that at the time she painted this, she had just married and she was at a place she loved with companions whose company she enjoyed and who in return where devoted to her.

The painting which can be found at the Tate Gallery London was presented to that establishment by her brother Noel Carrington in 1987.

Gilbert Cannan and his Mill by Mark Gertler

Gilbert Cannan at his Mill by Mark Gertler (c.1916)

My Daily Art Display today is all about the artist and the person who is the subject of the painting.  The artist who painted today’s featured painting was Mark Gertler and the painting which he completed in 1916 is entitled Gilbert Cannan and his Mill.

Marks Gertler was born in Spitalfields, London in 1891.  He was the youngest of five children born to Jewish immigrants from Poland, Louis Gentler and Kate Berenbaum.  He had two older brothers and two older sisters.   At the age of one, his father took the family to his mother’s native city, Przemyśl in south-east Poland where they worked as innkeepers.  The business failed and one night in 1893, in desperation, Gertler’s father Louis, without telling anyone, left them all and went off to America to search for work.  He eventually sent word to his wife telling her that once he was settled she was to bring the children to live with him there.  It never happened as all his hopes of making a fortune ended in failure.  Louis Gertler returned to Britain, and had his family join him in London in 1896.  It was at this time that his son’s Polish name “Markz” was changed to Mark.

From a very early age Mark Gertler showed a talent for drawing. His first formal artistic tuition came when he enrolled in art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic in London.   Unfortunately because of the family’s dire financial circumstances he had to leave the course after just a year to try and earn some money as an apprentice with a stained glass maker.  However he still maintained his art tuition, attending evening classes at the Polytechnic.  In 1908 he entered a national art competition and was awarded third place.  Buoyed up with that success, but knowing the cost of art training, he applied for a scholarship from the Jewish Education Aid Society.  His application was successful and in 1908, aged seventeen, he enrolled on a three year course at the Slade School of Art.  It was whilst on this course that he met Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Charles Nevinson, all of whom would be leading artists in the twentieth century.  Whilst studying at the Slade, Gertler also met the aspiring painter Dora Carrington, the daughter of a Liverpool merchant.  Gertler fell in love with her and pursued her relentlessly for many years.  The story of his brief love affair with Dora was featured in the 1995 biographical film Carrington.  Unfortunately for Gertler his love was unrequited and at one point in this tempestuous relationship he threatened to commit suicide.

Gertler was fortunate enough , in these early days, to be patronized by Lady Ottoline Morrell, the English aristocrat and society hostess and it was through her that Gertler became acquainted with the Bloomsbury Group. He was also introduced to Walter Sickert, who at the time was the leader of the Camden Town Group. With all these new artistic and society connections it was not long before he was enjoying great success as a painter of society portraits.  Unfortunately Gertler had a very abrasive manner and was extremely temperamental.  This did not go down well with his clients and his popularity and that of his paintings waned sharply causing him some financial problems.

In 1914 Gertler visited the writer and the subject of today’s painting, Gilbert Cannan, who lived with his wife in their converted windmill at Cholesbury, Hertfordshire. They became great friends and over the next two years Gertler would be a regular visitor to the mill along with the likes of the writers Katherine Mansfield and D.H.Lawrence  The latter would feature Gertler as the sculptor Loerke in his celebrated novel Women in Love.  It was during one of his early visits that Gertler started his painting which he later entitled Gilbert Cannan and his Mill.

In 1920 when he was just twenty-nine years of age he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and this ailment resulted in many long stays in various sanatoriums.  Around this time, when his artistic career was in decline, he taught part-time at Westminster School of Art.  Gertler’s life began to unravel in the 1930’s.  A war with Germany was brewing.  His mother, whom he was very close to, had died.  The once love of his life Dora Carrington had committed suicide in 1933.    His exhibition at London’s Lefevre Gallery was ridiculed by the critics.  In 1936, no doubt as a result of these personal and professional setbacks, he attempted to commit suicide but failed.   Three years later, in 1939, aged forty-eight, he succeeded in ending his life by gassing himself at his studio in Hampstead.

The subject of today’s painting, as I have said was Gertler’s friend Gilbert Cannan.  Cannan, a novelist, was born in Manchester in 1884 of Scottish ancestry.  He was well educated studying at Manchester Grammar School and King’s College Cambridge.  After receiving his university degree he went into the legal profession.  This profession was not for him and after a brief dabble into the world of theatrics he turned all his efforts to writing.  He worked as a secretary to the Scottish author and dramatist J M Barrie who created the famous character Peter Pan.  Over time, Gilbert Cannan and Barrie’s wife Mary became lovers.  James Barrie and his wife were divorced in 1909 and the following year Mary Barrie and Cannan were married.

In the years before the First World War Gilbert Cannan became friendly with the Bloomsbury Group, a group of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists who, throughout the 20th century, held informal discussions in Bloomsbury, London,.   The group would also congregate at Cannan’s home which from 1916 was a converted mill at Cholesbury in Hertfordshire and it was during this time that he met Dora Carrington and Mark Gertler.  The mill we see in the painting was Cannan’s home and was a favourite place for his intellectual circle to meet.

The painting is a full-length portrait of Gilbert Cannan standing in front of the mill with his two dogs.  The large black dog on the right hand side of Cannan is a Newfoundland dog called Luath.  To the left hand side of Cannan is his large black and white St Bernard dog Porthos.  Porthos was originally owned by J.M.Barrie and was used as a model for the dog Nana, dog which served as the Darling children’s nurse in J.M.Barrie’s famous book, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.

What is interesting and somewhat quirky about this painting is Gertler’s use of geometrical shapes such as cones and triangles.  This can be seen in the shape of the windmill and the foliage of the large tree to the right of it.  Even the way Cannan and his two dogs are portrayed has a triangular shape to it as does the way the tall poplar trees on the left of the work lean to the left against the side of the painting. This was a reflection of Gertler’s interest in the contemporary art which was popular at the time.  The bright colours used by Gertler were not realistic and reflects the anti-naturalistic modern style of the era.

I think I am drawn to this painting purely for its eccentricity and nonconformity and the way Gertler has added vibrancy to the work with his use of unrealistic colouring.  The painting can be seen at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and as I have said on a number of occasions you must add a visit to this wonderful establishment on your “to do” list.

Étretat by Various artists

There are many subjects depicted by artists in their paintings which are the same.  One only has to think of religious paintings and the likes of the pietà or the deposition or even the crucifixion itself to see how numerous artists choose the same subject for their works of art.  It is also reasonably common for one artist to paint many versions of the same subject.  Think of how many times Vincent van Gogh painted his Sunflowers.  The last blog I did featured a painting of Bentheim Castle by Jacob van Ruisdael and I told you that he had actually painted the subject no fewer than fifteen times.  Today I am going to focus on geological structure that many artists have used in their paintings and I will let you compare them and see what you think.  First let me show you the location as you would see it today.

Cliffs and The Pinnacle at Étretat

The place is Étretat which is situated in the Haute-Normandie region of Northern France.  The town itself is about twenty miles north-east of Le Havre but it is not the town which claims the fame and which has always fascinated artists but its cliffs.  The single beach of Étretat is separated from the town by a sea-wall promenade and lies between two well-known cliffs.  To the east of the town lies the Amont Cliff and to the west lies the Aval cliff with its huge arch, Porte d’Aval,  cut through the chalk structure.   Slightly offshore of the Porte d’Aval stands the solitary needle rock known as L’Aiguille.    During the late nineteenth century this area of Normandy was very popular with Parisian families and with this popularity it soon became a very fashionable place to visit.

In 1868, Claude Monet lived at Étretat with Camille Doncieux,  whom he was to marry two years later.  He revisited the town on a number of occasions in the 1880’s so as to work on a number of paintings depicting the cliffs and sea.   Étretat had already been painted by both Delacroix and Courbet and in fact Monet owned a Delacroix watercolour of the area.. When Monet visited Étretat in 1883 he had planned to create his own Normandy seascapes, saying:

“I reckon on doing a big canvas on the cliff of Étretat, although it’s terribly audacious of me to do that after Courbet who did it so well, but I’ll try to do it differently.”

Because of the increasing popularity of the area with holidaymakers, Monet sensed that there would be a good market for paintings depicting this area. The area had everything, magnificent cliff structures from the top of which one had spectacular views of the sea, which sometimes had a mirror-like calm sheen about it, whilst on other times it exhibited a terrible unforgiving  ferocity as it crashed on to the foot of the cliffs, biting away at the base of the massive chalk structures

During the 1880s, Monet rediscovered the Normandy coast and visited the area many times so as to draw by the sea. He was fascinated by its dramatic cliffs and rock arches and was constantly looking for somewhere with outstanding natural beauty and a place where he could observe the effects of natural light on the sea and on the chalk and limestone cliffs.  He would move from one position to another continually looking for the best natural lighting of the cliffs and the sea. His search for the perfect light on the sea and the perfect position from where it could be seen was of paramount importance.  He once said:

“…I know that to really paint the sea it has to be seen every day at any hour and from the same spot to know its life at this very spot ; that’s why I’m repeating the same subjects up to four and even six times…”

Stormy Sea at Étretat by Claude Monet (1883)

In 1883 Monet completed a work entitled Stormy Sea in Étretat, which is now housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon.  The painting is set on a winter day and we can see is being whipped up by gale force winds.  It is believed that Monet worked on this painting as he sat at the window of his hotel room.  What a wonderful depiction of the ferocity of the sea with the white curls of the surf atop the waves.  In the foreground we have the beach on which we see five boats.  Three of which are filled with what looks like thatch whilst the other two on the right seemed to have been abandoned and show signs that they have had to endure a battering in the waves.  Two men, stand by the boats, looking out on the rough seas.  To the left we have the cliffs and the Porte d’Aval,  above which we have the storm and rain clouds rushing towards the land.

The Étretat Cliffs after the Storm by Gustave Courbet (1870)

The next painting I am featuring is one which depicts a similar view but is a work which depicts the time after a storm.  The title is La falaise d’Étretat après l’orage [The Etretat Cliffs after the Storm] and was completed by Gustave Courbet in 1870.  Courbet visited Étretat that summer and stayed in a house by the sea which was tucked against the Aval cliffs to the left of the bay.  He painted a number of versions of this scene but the one you see above is housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  Courbet like other artists was attracted to this area not only because of the breathtaking geological structures but because of the quality of natural light and the clarity of the air.  The composition of the sea, the land with its cliffs and rocks and the sky is well balanced.  Courbet had sent the painting for exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1870 where it was well received and Courbet’s reputation as a painter was enhanced.  Of the painting, the art critic and Courbet’s friend, Jules Antoine Castagnary, marvelled at the beauty of his friend’s work and described the elements of the work, speaking of:

 “…the free, joyous air which circulates in the canvas and envelops the details…”

Beach at Etretat by Eugène-Louis Boudin (1890)

Another artist to depict this area in his painting was Eugène-Louis Boudin who in 1890 completed his work entitled Beach at Étretat.  Here we are looking at the scene from a vantage point similar to the previous works.  On the beach we once again see abandoned fishing boats which have been ravaged by the wind and sea.  Sails can be seen hanging from mast boom, shredded by the ferocity of a previous storm and probably act as a warning to the men as they contemplate a return to the fishing grounds.  In the distance we can just make out a steamship passing westward.

Étretat, Laundresses on the Beach, Low Tide by Eugène Bourdin (1892)

Two years later in 1892, Boudin, a noted marine painter, completed a very interesting depicting the beach at Étretat entitled Etretat, Laundresses on the Beach, Low Tide which is held in a private collectionThe setting is the same but the tide has retreated into the distance.  We are left with the brown and green of the rocks which have briefly lost their watery covering.  The breathtaking rock structure of the cliffs is not the focus of our attention in this work.  Before us we have a large group of women who have come down to the beach to do their washing.  It is a veritable hive of activity.

The Manneporte near Étretat by Monet (1886)

For my final painting I am returning to one painted by Monet in 1886 of the Manneporte, a spectacular rock structure just to the west of Étretat and the Aval cliffs.   It is entitled Manneporte (Étretat) and can now be found in the Metroploitan Museum of Art in New York.   This was one of nearly twenty views of the beach at Étretat and the spectacular rock formations such as the Porte d’Aval, Porte d’Amont and the Manneporte which rise upwards on along the coastline that Monet painted. In this painting Monet has captured the way the sunlight strikes the Manneporte, this beautiful natural wonder.  The reason for Monet painting so many pictures of the same scene was that he wanted to capture the changing light at different times of the day and during differing weather conditions

The writer Guy de Maupassant wrote his eyewitness account of Monet at Étretat.

“…The artist walked along the beach, followed by children carrying five or six canvases representing the same subject at different times of the day and with different effects. He took them up and put them aside by turns according to changes in the sky and shadows…”

One can so well imagine that scene.

Bentheim Castle by Jacob van Ruisdael

Bentheim Castle by Jacob Van Ruisdael (1653)

Today I am moving away from the horrors depicted in the Max Beckmann’s painting which I featured yesterday and move to a beautiful work by Jacob van Ruisdael, one of the greatest pure landscape painters in the Netherlands in the 17th century.  I have featured his works before in My Daily Art Display.  On January 9th 2011 I looked at his painting Dam Square and on February 18th I featured his hauntingly exquisite work entitled The Jewish Cemetery.  Both are worth looking at if you haven’t seen them before.     I never tire of his amazing paintings.  My Daily Art Display today features another of his works entitled Bentheim Castle which  van Ruisdael completed around 1653.

Jacob van Ruisdael was born in Haarlem in 1628 and was brought up in an artistic household.  His father, Isaak van Ruysdael and his uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael were both landscape painters.  Little is known about Jacob’s early artistic training but it is thought that his father probably taught him with guidance from his uncle.  At the age of twenty he was admitted as a member of the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem.  The Guild of Saint Luke was the most common name for a city guild for painters and other artists especially in the Low Countries.   They were named in honour of the Evangelist Luke, who was the patron saint of artists.

Unfortunately during his lifetime Jacob van Ruisdael’s artistic talent was not appreciated and by all accounts he led a poverty-stricken existence.  At the age of fifty three the Haarlem council was petitioned for his admission into the town’s almshouse.  He died in Amsterdam a year later in 1682 and his body was brought back to be buried in Haarlem

Jacob van Ruisdael travelled considerably during his lifetime but seldom went outside his own country.  However it is known that Ruisdael visited the small town of Bentheim, in Westphalia close to the Dutch-German border in the early 1650’s when he travelled to the region with his friend and fellow artist Nicolaes Berchem,  who, like Ruisdael, came from Haarlem.  Bentheim Castle received a first mention in historical records back in 1020 AD when the owner of the fortress who was named as Count Otto of Northeim, and who would later become the Duke of Bavaria, married.  He had, at this time, just married Richenza, the daughter of the Count of Werl, whose family was one of the most influential and wealth dynasties in Westphalia.  The castle changed hands during many battles over the centuries.  Nowadays the fate of Castle Bentheim is in the hands of the Hereditary Prince Carl Ferdinand of Bentheim and Steinfurt, who was born in 1977. Since 2007 he has been married to Hereditary Princess Elna-Margret of Bentheim and Steinfurt.

Jacob van Ruisdael’s favourite subjects were simple woodland scenes.  He was influenced by two great Netherlandish landscape painters of the time, Allaert van Everdingen and Meindert Hobbema.   Ruisdael forte was the depiction of trees in his works.  His rendering of the foliage was second to none. At the time of this painting which was completed in the 1650’s, Ruisdael portrayal of landscape scenes was bettered by nobody.  He stood out from his contemporaries when it came to the painting of woodlands, rivers, waterfalls, mountains, and even seascapes.

His landscape works became larger which allowed him more space for his portrayal of his giant oak and beech trees as well as the plethora of shrubs.  Look at today’s featured work simply entitled Bentheim Castle for an example of this.  No matter how the castle dominates the landscape, Ruisdael must have spent an enormous amount of time painting the surrounding trees and vegetation which can be seen like a skirt around the castle fortress.  Just take time and carefully study the detail of the vegetation in the foreground. Some of it has been brightened by a sudden shaft of sunlight whilst most of it in the middle ground remains in shade.  The colours the artist used in his paintings around this period became more vivid and space increases in both height and depth.  In this work by Ruisdael, look at the great variety of colours the artist has used to paint the flora.

What we see before us is the castle as seen from the south-west above which Ruisdael has given us a wonderful rendering of cloud formation.  It is an idealized landscape and not topographically accurate as the actual castle is situated on an unimpressive and somewhat low hill. However, Ruisdael, in order to add grandeur to his landscape work, has made the castle almost look like it is perched atop a small mountain.  Why would he do that?  Probably because placing the castle so high and so distant gave it a more commanding appearance but I believe his main reason was it offered him the opportunity to flood the middle and foreground with a small forest with all the colours that brings to the work.  In amongst the wooded slopes we see the red roof tops of the white houses and cottages.  This colour red manages to set off the verdant colour of the flora that surrounds them and which runs down to the foreground of the painting.  One can see that for Ruisdael the painting of trees and flora was his main joy.  Jacob van Ruisdael loved the view of this ancient fortress and over the years painted more than fifteen landscapes featuring Bentheim Castle, viewed from different viewpoints and seen in various surroundings.

I marvel at the detail in this painting and just wonder how long it took the twenty-five year old artist to complete it.  The painting is housed in Dublin at the National Gallery of Ireland.

The Night by Max Beckmann

The Night by Max Beckmann (1918-19)

Today I am exploring the unusual world of Expressionism, to be more precise, German Expressionism, and will be looking at a painting entitled The Night by the German artist Max Beckmann, who was one of the most important German painters of the 20th century.  Beckmann has always been compartmentalised as an Expressionist painter but he himself, railed against that tag.

Expressionism materialized in different artistic circles across Europe but its zenith was the period between 1905 and 1920.  Expressionism as a general term refers to art in which the image of reality is more or less heavily distorted in formand colour in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas about it.  In expressionist art the colours used were often strong and highly intense and often non-naturalistic.  The brushwork is typically free and paint application tends to be generous and highly textured.  Expressionist art inclined to be poignant and sometimes had mystical qualities.  It would often look at themes of belonging and alienation.  In some ways Expressionism was the art of unrest and the search for truth.  The German Expressionists were loosely gathered in two groups.  One was called Die Brücke (The Bridge) and the other was Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).  There are numerous well known artists who could be looked upon as Expressionist artists.  The ones who come to mind are Egon Schiele, Edvard Munch, Wassiliy Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Beckmann just to mention a few.

Max Beckmann was born in Leipzig in 1884, the youngest of three children.  His family were of a middle-class background.  His father was a grain merchant but died when Max was just ten years of age.  He received a thorough education and spent several years at a boarding school.  At the age of fifteen and despite family objections, he decided on an artistic career and applied to the Königliche Akademie in Dresden but failed the entrance exam.  In 1900, aged sixteen years of age, his artistic studies finally began with his enrolment at the Weimar Saxon-Grand Ducal Art School for a three-year course and it was here that he learned to draw from antique statues and eventually progressed to human models.  It was also at the Academy that he met fellow art student, Minna Tube, whom he married three years later.  They went on to have a son, Peter.  After the course ended in 1903 he went to Paris where he studied at the private Académie Colarossi, which was an alternative art institution to the government-sanctioned École des Beaux-Arts that had, in the eyes of many promising young artists at the time, become far too conservative.  In 1906, he was in Florence financed by winning the German art prize, the Villa Romana Prize and it was in this Italian city he was able to study the works of the great Masters.  The following year, he moved to Berlin and three years later in 1907 he participated in the Berlin Secession, which was the predominant voice of modern German painting.  The term Secession, which came from the Latin secessio plebis (the revolt of the plebeians against the patricians) was the term applied to groups of artists who secede from academic bodies or associations in protest at the constraints.  The three main Secessions were those of Berlin, Munich and Vienna.   The Berlin Secession was founded by Berlin artists in 1898 as an alternative to the conservative state-run Association of Berlin Artists.

Beckmann’s paintings from this period are characterized by the legacy of Impressionism, with landscapes and beach scenes painted with stippled brushstrokes which evoked the play of light across shapes. He was held in such high regard by his colleagues that, in 1910, he was elected to the executive board of the Secession and was the youngest member ever to achieve such a distinction. However because he preferred painting to policy making, he resigned the following year in order to devote himself full-time to his art work. Conflict within the Berlin Secession eventually led to a further schism in 1910 and the new group called itself the Neue Secession (New Secession). In 1914 the rejection of works by some members of the Berlin Secession again led to further disagreements and several artists, including Beckmann left the Berlin Secession to found the Berlin Freie Secession (Berlin Free Secession), which existed until 1924.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Beckmann volunteered as a medical orderly and served time on the Belgium front. Before the onset of war, he, like many other Germans, rationalized the necessity of war and believed in their countries aims.  He believed war could cleanse the individual and society. However, after experiencing day after day the widespread destruction and horrors of the war, he became disillusioned with the conflict and rejected the glory of military service.  In 1915 the dreadfulness of what he witnessed took its toll on him and he suffered a nervous breakdown and was moved to Belgium and later Frankfurt.

Following World War I, his work changed radically in reaction to the horrors he had witnessed. Initially he focused on biblical scenes, but during the 1920s he created more contemporary allegories and painted devastatingly realistic portraits and figure paintings associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) group, with whom he exhibited in 1925, but never formally joined.  He now rejected traditional perspective and proportion creating taut, airless pictorial structure of space and planes with an absence of bright colour and thick brushstrokes of Expressionism.   He saw the world as a tragedy of man’s inhumanity to man and saw life as a carnival of human folly.   In 1925 his marriage to Minna Tube, which had slowly been unravelling, came to an end and the couple were divorced.  That same year he married his second wife, Mathilde von Kaulbach and he was appointed professor at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt.

In 1933 the Nazis came to power and Beckmann was declared a “degenerate artist”.  He was dismissed from his post at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut and a ban was placed on all his exhibitions.  All his works in German museums were confiscated.  The Nazi art policy at the time applied to everything that did not conform to Nazi goals.  It was their battle against what they termed überfremdung (foreign infiltration).  He moved from Frankfurt to Berlin where he believed due to its size and large population he could become more anonymous.  In 1937 he moved to Amsterdam where he lived in poverty in self-imposed exile failing in his desperate attempts to obtain a visa for the US.  He remained there until 1948 at which time he was finally granted a US visa.    From there he and his wife moved to the USA and he took up a post at the School of Fine Arts, Washington University in St Louis.  Later he moved to New York where he was given a professorship at the Art School of Brooklyn Museum.

Max Beckmann died of a heart attack whilst out walking in Manhattan, the day after Boxing Day in 1950.  He was aged 66.  His wife, Mathilde, died six years later.

My featured painting today entitled The Night was painted by Max Beckmann during 1918 and 1919.    It is housed at the Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf.   This is an early example of Beckmann’s grotesque and appalling visionary paintings with its misshapen figures. Before us we have an overcrowded room in a modern city.  Beckman himself said he wanted this work to be looked upon as a large modern history painting tinged with a sense of evil. Three men have invaded the room and are terrorising the occupants.  The man to the left has been hung by the neck by one of the intruders while a man with a bandaged head, wearing waistcoat and tie and smoking a pipe, twists his arm.   Two women can also be seen in the scene.  One, in the central foreground with her back to us, possibly the man’s wife, wears red stockings and is bound to a post after having been raped.   The second woman whose feet we can just make out at the top right of the painting, is held upside down by a man whose hat resembles the type worn by Lenin. To the right a blonde-haired child is about to be dragged off.  Under the table we see an old phonograph, the sound from which may have been used to blot out the cries from those being tortured.  Also partly under the table on the left we see a dog whose head is raised as he howls for help.  This is a scene of urban hell, an unfathomable and vile scene.

In his book Max Beckmann, Stephen Lackner commented on this work saying:

“… Beckmann sees no purpose in the suffering he shows; there is no glory for anybody, no compensation, … Beckmann blames human nature as such, and there seems to be no physical escape from this overwhelming self-accusation. Victims and aggressors alike are cornered. There is no exit…”

Maybe, one should remember that 1918 was  the time of the German November Revolution which resulted in the replacement of Germany’s imperial government with a republic and which unleashed tremendous savagery and terror across the country.  In 1919 there followed a general strike which was brutally put down by the authorities.  Maybe in some way Beckmann, in his painting, was alluding to such horrors perpetrated by mankind on mankind.  I find it very hard to fathom the state of the artist’s mind when he was painting this work.  Had he personally suffered so much mentally and lost all hope in humanity to depict such violence?

Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg

Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg (1862)

Today I am once again featuring a Victorian painter.  His name is August Leopold Egg and he was born in London in 1816.  He was the third son of Joseph and Ann Egg.  His Swiss-born father, like his family before him, was a gunsmith and today one of his guns or rifles commands a high price at auction.

In 1834 Augustus studied art at the Sass Academy in London.  Henry Sass was an English artist and teacher of painting who founded this London art school and it provided training for those seeking to enter the Royal Academy.  Two years later, in 1836, the twenty-year old August Egg enrolled as a Probationer to the Royal Academy Schools.  The following year, he joined up with a number of fellow aspiring artists and formed a sketching club, known as The Clique.  This small grouping, which included the founder, Richard Dadd, also included Alfred Elmore, William Powell Frith, Henry Nelson O’Neil, John Phillip and Edward Matthew Ward.  The Clique was characterised by its denunciation of academic high art in favour of the simpler genre painting, and the group were influenced by the great English narrative painter William Hogarth and the Scottish historical painter David Wilkie.  For them, art was for public consumption and for the public to judge.  They believed that works of art should not be judged solely on how well they conformed to academic principles.

August Egg was at pain to combine popularity with moral and social activism in his paintings which was similar to how his friend, the writer Charles Dickens managed to do with his novels.   Egg and Dickens became great friends and  jointly founded the “Guild of Literature and Art”, which was a philanthropic organisation which provided welfare payments to struggling artists and writers.  Egg’s early works of art were mainly illustrations of literary subjects as well as historical incidents taken from the accounts of the seventeenth century diarist, Samuel Pepys.  He also showed great interest in Hogarth’s narrative works, which often had a moral theme such as Marriage à la Mode and The Rake’s Progress and it was probably these works that inspired Egg to complete his moral narrative painting, The Life and Death of Buckingham.  Many members of The Clique were vociferous critics of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood because, to them, their art was deliberately unconventional, but Egg disagreed and became a great friend and admirer of William Holman Hunt.  In 1848 Egg completed his much lauded work entitled Queen Elizabeth discovers she is no longer young.  This won him critical acclaim and earned him the position of Associate Member of the Royal Academy (ARA).  In 1860 he was elected to the position of Royal Academician (RA).  That same year he married Esther Mary Brown.

August Egg was, besides being a talented artist, a great organiser and spent a much of his time organising exhibitions for his fellow artists.  In 1857 he was one of the organisers of the The Art Treasures of Great Britain exhibition, which was held in Manchester from  May to October of that year.  To this day, it is said to remain the largest art exhibition ever to be held in the Great Britain, possibly in the world with over 16,000 works on display. It was so popular that it attracted over 1.3 million visitors in the 142 days it was open, which at the time, was about four times the population of Manchester.

Egg loved the theatre and it was through this love that he became friends Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and at times they would all take part in amateur theatricals.  In 1849, Egg was elected to the Garrick Club, a gentleman’s club, which was named after the well-known thespian of the time David Garrick.  At the end of that year, Egg who often travelled extensively around the Mediterranean countries, set off on a journey to Switzerland and Italy and was accompanied by Dickens, who had just completed his novel Bleak House,  and his other writer friend, Wilkie Collins.  Egg’s health was never good and in his later years he tried to remedy this by living in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean countries.  He died in Algiers in 1863 of asthma aged 46.  He was always well loved and his friend, Charles Dickens, described him as:

“….always sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved…”

My featured painting today by August Egg is entitled Travelling Companions which he completed in 1862 and can now be found at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  This has a connection with Egg’s travels as the setting of the painting is a railway carriage and through the open window of the carriage one can just make out the shoreline of Menton, a popular health resort in Victorian days, which lies close to Monte Carlo on the French Riviera.   Look how the artist has cleverly depicted the motion of the carriage by painting the tassel attached to the window blind at an angle away from the vertical.  There are no other people in the carriage besides the two females which may have been an indication that in those days, males and females rode in segregated train carriages.  There is almost a perfect symmetry about the women in this painting as they sit across from each other in the carriage.  They wear almost identical billowing voluminous grey dresses.  Their hats rest on their laps.  Their faces are each framed with a mass of beautiful brunette hair and each wears a black choker around their neck.  At first glance, they almost look like mirror images of each other but once we look more closely, there are obvious differences.  One sits with a basket of fruit by her side, whilst the other has a bouquet of flowers next to her.  One reads whilst the other lays back with her eyes closed.  There is no interaction between the two females.  Neither seems to be interested in the other or what sights can be seen from the carriage window.  Did August Egg want us to take the painting on face value, that is, did he want us to just to accept that this is simply a painting of two women travelling in a railway carriage?   I did, but many do not see the painting in such simplistic terms.  Maybe it is because Egg had painted many moral narrative works that people looked for hidden meanings in this work.  I am not convinced, but let us look at some of the suggestions that have been put forward about how we should interpret what  we are looking at and then I will let you be the judge as whether they are too fanciful to believe or there is a modicum of truth in what they want us to accept as the true meaning behind the painting.

So, if you, like me, look on the painting as simply a depiction of two women travelling by train let me “muddy the waters” for the more I investigate this painting the more I am wondering whether I am missing something.  Is this simply a painting of two almost identical women on holiday travelling in a railway carriage?  Are we simply observing a young lady sleeping and a young lady reading?  First of all, are we looking at two separate women?  That would seem a silly question but some people would have us believe they are one and the same person and that the artist is portraying them in different moods.  Some again who believe in the “one woman” theory would have us believe that perhaps the waking woman is the product of the sleeping one: in other words, she is the dreamed projection of the other.  Another theory is that the one who sleeps is a portrait of inactivity and the one who reads is a portrait of activity – a pictorial depiction of “Industry and Idleness”.  I also read that Egg’s painting was a statement of past and future with the one woman with her eyes closed dreaming of the future whilst the other reads of the past?

And so the theories about the interpretation of this painting mount up but I suppose one has to remember that in Victorian times, tales with a moral were all the rage and Augustus Egg painted many pictures which told a moral tale, so is this yet another one?     

For people who like to add their own interpretation to a painting many feel the need to explore the sexual connotations in a scene and I read an article which does just that.  It is by far the most unusual interpretation (I initially intended to say “fanciful interpretation” of the painting but decided the word “fanciful”  sounded derogatory and that is not my intention).  The article I came across was on the website entitled Victorian Visual Culture and was written by Erika Franck as part of a degree course in Modern Literary studies.  She wrote:

“…Although Egg’s Travelling Companions (1862) is considered to be a reflection on railway travel and the way in which the different classes were segregated, one cannot ignore the sexual connotations that are evident in the painting. The painting displays two young ladies who appear to be identical, and yet upon closer inspection are not. It seems as though the girl on the left has been awakened sexually despite the fact that she is asleep. This can only be detected in comparison with the girl on the right. Firstly, the young lady on the right has flowers set beside her as opposed to the other lady who has a basket of fruit. The flowers convey the virginity and sexual virtue of the girl on the right whereas the fruit beside the girl on the left implies her virginity has been lost and her innocence has been replaced by sexual indulgence and consequently sexual maturity. This analogy continues as one studies the way in which the companion on the right has the curtain slightly drawn to shade her from the sunlight, as opposed to the lady on the left whose curtain allows the light to expose her fully. In addition, the companion on the left has removed her gloves and is thus further exposed physically. The hat of the lady on the left is positioned slightly to the left in contrast to her companion whose hat sits centrally upon her lap. Again it appears as though the girl on the left has exposed herself sexually in that she is less guarded than her sister. This notion is furthered when one considers the posture of the two companions. The one on the right seems more composed and is reading a book whereas the one on the left is leaning back exposing her neck, and is asleep. Although one could question that if this girl has been awoken sexually then why is she the one who is sleeping in the painting? However, it is possible to argue that this displays her overall lack of constraint and propriety that is portrayed by the other young lady. Even the hair of the companion on the left seems to have fallen out compared to the girl on the right whose hair is pinned back in a controlled manner. If one examines the shape of the carriage window in conjunction with the symmetry of the girls’ dresses one can observe there is a shape which resembles that of a chalice. This traditionally symbolizes the womb and fertility, thus accentuating the theme of sexual awakening. Therefore, Egg presents a young woman who appears to be sexually passive and another who is not. One can speculate that the two ladies are the same person and this consequently, would indicate that a transition from sexual unconsciousness to sexual enlightenment has occurred. However, if one is to argue that this picture depicts a girl who has fallen sexually in contrast to her companion, then this painting serves as a mere “freeze-frame”. It does not represent the consequences of the girl’s fall….”

I sometimes wonder whether I should write a book entitled My Interpretation of Great Paintings as I would be simply just one of many to offer an interpretation as to what I think we are looking at and as the artist is dead and cannot repudiate my suggestions, who is to say the hidden meanings I put forward are wrong !    Somebody once told me that if you want to write a successful biography of an artist you have to come up with at least one amazing, contentious even bizarre fact about the artist that nobody has ever heard before as that will get you the publicity needed to sell the book.   I wonder if the people who have interpreted Egg’s work were thinking along those lines !