La Vucciria by Renato Guttuso

La Vucirria by Renato Guttuso (1974)

I am leaving the final part of My Daily Art Display’s look at the life of Paul Gaugin until my next blog and thought I would feature a painting I came across the other day when I was watching an art/ travelogue/cooking programme, which looked at the artistic treasures of the Sicily whilst the presenters sampled the local dishes.  In the first of three programmes they visited Palermo and in one section we were shown the manic hustle and bustle of La Vucciria, the popular market of the town.  When I was researching this blog I came across a description of this marketplace given by a resident of the town.

“…There are no words in any language to accurately describe this place. It is a mix of heaven and hell in one place! The mix of smells and people and cultures all in one market. You can glimpse into the life of the real people of the city. I go there almost every day because I can’t get enough…”

What fascinated me the most about the market was a painting of it by one of Sicily’s most famous artists, Renato Guttuso, and so I have made him my artist of the day and his painting simply entitled La Vucciria the featured painting for today’s blog.

Renato Guttuso was born on 26 December 1911 at Bagheria, a small town on the north west coast of Sicily, some ten kilometres east of Palermo. His father Gioacchino was a land-surveyor and also an amateur watercolourist.  His mother was Giuseppina d’Amico.  Probably due to his father, Guttuso learnt to paint at a very early age.   At the age of thirteen he began signing and dating his paintings and drawings which at the time were, in the main, copies of nineteenth century landscapes.  He went to high school in Palermo and then on to the university, where he studied European art, from Courbet to Van Goghand to Picasso.
In 1931, when he was twenty years of age he had two of his paintings accepted for the Prima Quadriennale d’Arte Nazionale in Rome and this gave him the chance to attend the exhibition and see the works of the greatest Italian artists. The following year his works appeared in an exhibition in Milan.  To supplement his income as a painter he worked as a picture restorer for the Picture Gallery of Perugia and the Borghese Gallery in Rome.  He was also interested in commenting and writing articles on art and the trends of modern art.  However the first article he contributed to the left-wing Palermo newspaper, L’Ora,  fell foul of Fascist censorship.

In 1935 Guttuso did his military service in Milan and two years later went to live in Rome where he set up his studio and had his first solo exhibition.  Guttuso kept producing outstanding works: nudes, landscapes, still lifes.  In 1941 he produced one of his most famous paintings entitled Crocifissione(Crucifixion), which is now looked upon as one of the most relevant masterpieces of the Twentieth Century.  He explained the meaning of the work:

: “… this is a time of war. I wish to paint the torment of Christ as a contemporary scene … as a symbol of all those who, because of their ideas, endure outrage, imprisonment and torment”.

This controversial painting for which he is probably best remembered, denounced the horrors of the war under a religious guise. His depiction of one of the most famous Christian events provoked widespread controversy.  The Vatican authorities even issued an edict forbidding the religious to look at the canvas.

In 1942 Gutusso turned his hand to stage design for musicals, creating both scenery and costumes for performances at the Teatro della Arte in Rome.  During the war Gutusso moved out of the capital city and joined the Resistance movement which was strongly opposed to fascism.  At the end of the war, he visited Picasso in Paris and this was to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two painters.   He, along with some other like-minded artists, founded the “Fronte Nuovo delle Arti’ (New Arts Front), a group of politically aware artists who aimed at making up for those European artistic experiences whose circulation in Italy had been prevented by Fascism. Social themes and scenes of everyday life prevailed in his painting.   In 1950 Guttuso was awarded the World Council of Peace prize in Warsaw, and in the same year his first one-man exhibition was held in London.  Large-scale paintings of his were regularly shown at the Venice Biennale, always stimulating debates and controversies.  In 1972, Guttuso was awarded the Lenin Prize at the time of his exhibition at the Art Academy in Moscow. The following year Guttuso selected a relevant collection of works, both his own and by other artists, which would form the core of the future municipal art gallery of Bagheria.  In 1976 he was elected a Senator of the Republic for the Italian Communist Party, a political party he had been an active member since joining in 1937,

Guttuso died on 18 January 1987, leaving major works to the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Rome. He had previously entrusted other works together with a rich collection of documents to the Museum in his native town of Bagheria which had been dedicated to him. This museum, Museo Guttuso, which is housed in the 18th century Villa Cattolica, owns the largest collection of his paintings, drawings and graphics.

And so to the painting I am featuring today, La Vucciria by Renato Guttuso which he completed in 1974 and can be found in Palermo’s Palazzo Steri.  It is a sort of folk art type of painting.  When I watched the TV programme and the part which looked at La Vucirria, nothing seems to have changed in almost forty years since the artist depicted it in his painting.  The naked electrical lights dangling over head still remained.   The Sicilian word vucciria means “confusion” and we can recognise the aptness of that name in the painting.   Look at the scene.  Can you imagine the noise and smells that emanate from this market as the vendors scream out descriptive delights of their precious products?  The many fish stalls have to be kept constantly wet to maintain freshness and the floor around these areas are never dry.  The closeness of the market to the port ensures the freshness of the fish and this is depicted by the artist as we see them curled, still in rigor mortis.    The painting is a rich and colourful, some would say gaudy, portrayal of life in the market.  The colours are so vibrant and pulsating.

There is verticality about the painting as the path between stalls moves almost in an upward direction through the centre of the painting to the top.  This is Sicily and, as we know, Sicily is synonymous with the Mafia and maybe there is a dark side to the painting.  Observe either side of the woman in white who has her back to us.  To her left there is the fish seller.  Note how he looks across at the cheese seller to the right of the woman.  Notice how they scowl at each other.  The fishmonger grasps the swordfish almost as if he is grabbing hold of a blade.  If one looks closely at the cheese seller there is evidence of a pentimento, which is where there is evidence in the form of traces of previous work that shows us that the artist has changed his mind as to the composition whilst he was in the process of painting. The word actually derives from theItalian word pentirsi, which means “to repent”.   It is thought that the partly hidden hand of the cheese seller once was painted with a knife in it.  Are we witnessing a brewing vendetta between the two men?  Does the woman in white have anything to do with the bad feeling?  Are the two vendors vying to be her lover?  The vertical line through the centre of the painting was looked upon as the vertical line of life and the horizontal line of sight between the warring cheese seller and the fishmonger was looked upon as the horizontal line of death and of course the intersection of the two lines form a cross.

Renato Getups was deeply anti-fascist and an ardent communist all his life.  He was also anti-Mafia and so it was ironic that in 2009 when a leading mafia financier, Beniamino Zappy, was arrested and had his art collection confiscated there were many paintings by Gattuso.  A spokesman for the anti-Mafia investigators said, with a touch of humour, of Zappy:

”…He is part of a criminal organization, the Mafia, but

The Swineherd, Brittany, The Schuffenecker Family. Madame Gaugin by Paul Gaugin.

Life Story of Paul Gaugin (Part 2)

In my last blog I gave you a brief outline of Gaugin’s life up until April 1871 when Gauguin, having completed his military service, returned to his late mother’s home in St Cloud, only to find it had been destroyed during the year-long (July 1870 – May 1871) Franco-Prussian War.  He then moved back to Paris and takes an apartment close to where his former guardian Gustave Arosa lives with his family.  In 1872, through Arosa’s business connections with the owner of a stockbroker firm, Paul Bertin, Gaugin becomes a bookkeeper for the company.

The Schuffenecker Family by Paul Gaugin (1889)

It is whilst working here that Gauguin meets the part-time artist and his co-worker, Émile Schuffenecker, who joined the firm a few months earlier.  The friendship grew and they used to spend time in the Louvre studying the paintings of the Old Masters.  In December that year Gustave Arosa introduces Gauguin to a Danish woman Mette-Sophie Gad.  Mette was a judge’s daughter and formerly a governess to the children of a Danish Minister of State and she was in Paris with a friend to improve her cultural education.  Gaugin and Mette married in Paris in November 1873 and they became great friends with Emile Schuffenecker and his wife, Louise.  The Schuffeneckers who married seven years later in 1880 had two children, a daughter Jeanne born in 1882 and a son, named Paul after Gaugin, was born in 1884.   Gaugin and Mette’s first child, Emile (named after their friend Schuffenecker), was born in September 1874.  The couple at this time were experiencing a good standard of living derived from Gaugin’s earnings at the financial brokerage.

Mette Gad (Madame Gaugin) in an Evening Dress by Gaugin (1884)

Gauguin love of art blossomed, thanks mainly to two people.  Firstly from his former guardian Gustave Arosa who had, along with his brother, managed to build up an impressive collection of paintings from the likes of Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix and Jean-François Millet and it was Arosa who introduced Gaugin to Camille Pissarro who would occasionally tutor him.    The other person who encouraged Gaugin to paint was his friend and work colleague Émile Schuffenecker and the two of them would often go off on Sundays on painting trips.  The pair also spent the occasional evening at the life classes at the art school, Académie Colorossi.  To give one an idea of how quickly Gaugin learnt the art of painting, it should be noted that in 1876, within four years of starting to paint, Gaugin had a landscape Under the Tree Canopy at Viroflay accepted at that year’s Salon.  There was also a family connection with art as Mette’s sister Ingeborg had married the Norweigan painter Fritz Thaulow and when he and Gaugin got together they would discuss painting and Thaulow would offer critical advice to Gaugin about his works of art.

At the start of 1877, Gauguin decided to leave Paul Bertin’s stockbrokerage firm and move to André Bourdon’s bank. The job at the bank was better for Gaugin as it had regular business hours which meant that he could set aside regular periods for his painting.   Financially life was still good.  He received a regular salary from the bank and he had been very successful with his speculations on the Paris stock market.  Gaugin and his wife moved house and went to live to Vaugirard, a suburb in the south west of Paris, where they rented rooms in a property owned by the sculptor, Jules Bouillot and one of their neighbours was Jean-Paul Aubé.

In 1877 Gaugin’s daughter Aline was born and the following year there is an upturn in Gaugin’s financial situation as share prices rise and bank bonuses roll in.  Gaugin spends this money on buying contemporary art by the likes of Camille Pissarro and some of the other Impressionist painters.  In 1879 Gaugin is invited by Pissarro and Degas to exhibit some of his work at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition.  That same year, Gaugin’s second son, Clovis, is born.  Life is good for Gaugin and his wife. They wanted for nothing. They are happily married; he is earning good money at the bank and is exhibiting more of his paintings at the Impressionist Exhibitions.  In April 1881 his third son Jean-René is born.

However, as in life, all good things come to an end.  For Gaugin the end came in January 1882, for it was then that the Paris Bourse (French stockmarket) crashed.  It caused the worst crisis in the French economy in the nineteenth century. The crash was triggered by the collapse of l’Union Générale Bank that month.  Around a quarter of the brokerage firms on the Bourse were on the brink of collapse and Gaugin lost most of his money he had riding on the stock market.   Now it was decision time for Gaugin; should he get out of the once lucrative world of finance altogether and concentrate on his art but by taking this course of action he risked the wrath of his wife?   That was his dilemma and despite having an ever expanding family to support (his fifth child Paul, often known as Pola was born in December 1883), he decided to turn his back on finance and commerce and become a full-time artist.    In January 1884 on the advice of Pissarro, Gaugin, now with little of his savings left and very little income coming in from the sale of his paintings,  moved his family from Paris to Rouen where the cost of living was less than in the capital.  Sales of his work were slow and he has to sell off some of his much loved art collection.  This life of poverty did not go down well with his wife Mette and the couple were constantly arguing and their marriage started to unravel.

In the summer of 1884 Mette had had enough of their impoverished lifestyle and along with the children sailed off to Copenhagen to be with her parents    She does return to Gaugin in Rouen and tells him that she has secured a position teaching French to Danish children but told him there was a great opportunity for him to sell his art work in Copenhagen as the Danes are showing an interest in Impressionism art.   In November 1884, Gaugin reluctantly joined his family and his in-laws, the Gad family, in Copenhagen and works for a while as a tarpaulin salesman for Dillies & Cie. on a commission-only basis.  Whereas his wife is very happy to be back home, he is extremely unhappy.  He could not speak the language, hated the job which he found demeaning and which got in the way of his one true love – his art.  However he persisted with his painting and in January 1885 wrote a somewhat upbeat letter to Shuffenecker in which he said:

“.. Here [in Copenhagen], I am more than ever tormented by art and although I have to worry about money and look for business, nothing can deter me…”

To make things worse the exhibition of his art work at the Academy of Art in Copenhagen proved to be a failure and is shut down after just five days.  Although he managed to paint a little he could not keep down a job and bring in money for his family and his attitude did not please his in-laws.  To Gaugin, his wife and her parents were holding him back and so in June 1885, he decided that enough was enough and returns to Paris with his favourite child, his second son Clovis.   Art historians have often discussed Gaugin’s split from his wife and many would have you believe it was not so much that he abandoned his wife but more the case that she threw him out.  Whatever the situation was Gaugin when he arrives back in Paris arranges to have six year old Clovis live with his sister Marie who is now married to a Chilean businessman Juan Uribe.   Between the years of 1883 and 1886, due to the many upheavals in his life, Gaugin paints very little.  In the summer of 1886, thanks to some financial assistance from his sister, his son Clovis attends a boarding school, leaving Gaugin free to travel to Pont-Aven, a picturesque Breton village and a centre for a community of artists.  He is happy here and is soon looked up to by his fellow artists.  In a letter to his wife in July 1886, Gaugin wrote:

“… I am respected as the best painter in Pont-Aven, although that does not put any more money in my pocket…”

Gaugin fell in love with Brittany and the Breton way of life. He lived for five months in the Pension Gloanec boarding house and struck up a friendship with the artists Charles Laval and Émile Bernard before returning to Paris in the autumn of that year.

Gaugin is unhappy with life in Paris and has once again developed a wanderlust,  maybe brought on by his days in the navy, and once again the desire to get out of the capital city and travel kicks in, as he explained in a letter to his wife Mette in January 1887:

“…what I want above all is to leave Paris which is a wasteland for a poor man… I am going to Panama to live the life of a native.  I know a little island called Tabogas a league off panama; it is virtually uninhabited, free and very fertile.  I shall take my paints and brushes and reinvigorate myself far from the company of men…”

I am wondering whether Gaugin occasionally feels pangs of guilt about leaving his wife in Copenhagen as in a letter to her in February 1887, he writes to her and tries to justify his departure and tries to get her to look on the bright side of their separation:

“…You are in your house, comfortably furnished, surrounded by your children, doing a tough job but one that you enjoy, you see people, and as you like the company of women and your compatriots you must be satisfied sometimes. You enjoy the comforts of married life without being bothered by a husband. What more do you want other than more money, like many others…”

I once again break off this life story of Gaugin at a point in his life when he looks forward to leaving France and enjoying a worry-free lifestyle in the Caribbean and Central America.  Was his journey a success and did it bring him the all that he desired.  I will tell you in the next blog.

The Swineherd, Britanny by Gaugin (1888)

One of the paintings Gaugin completed during his stay in Pont Avon was entitled The Swineherd, Britanny which he completed in 1888 and now hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This colourful work of art is much more realistic than his later works in the way the artists divides the various areas of the canvas.  There is a definite foreground in which we see the swineherd with his pigs.  There is a middle-ground partly separated from the foreground by a long low stone wall.  In the mid-ground there is the small village with its tall spired-church and a collection of houses and cottages with their black-tiled roofs.    There is a definite background in which we see the blue sky over rolling hills with its patchwork-quilt like fields.

The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel) by Paul Gaugin

The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob and the Angel) by Gaugin (1888)

The featured artist in My Daily Art Display blog today is the much loved French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin.  This is the first time I have featured a painting by the artist which I am sure is very remiss of me.  I have spent a great deal of time researching Gaugin’s life.  There are numerous books and articles about his life and what I found strange is that they don’t all agree on some of the lesser known facts.  I have tried to bring together the masses of information I have discovered about the great man and I have made an informed guess as to which is the true version of some of the things that happened to him.  My collated version of his life is a little too long to put into one blog so over the next few weeks I will serialise the fascinating tale of his life and on each occasion include one of his major works.  So let me start at the beginning…………………………

Aline Gaugin, mother of Paul Gaugin

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in June 1848.  His father, Pierre Guillaume Clovis Gaugin was a radical French journalist working as an editor for the liberal-leaning, anti-Bonapartist National newspaper. His mother was Aline Maria Chazal, who was half French and half Peruvian Creole and who like her husband had strong political convictions. Paul Gaugin was the youngest of the couple’s two children, and their only son.   Gaugin’s maternal grandmother, who lived in Peru, was Flora Tristan.  She was the daughter of a Peruvian nobleman, and came from a very powerful and wealthy Peruvian dynasty.   She was a socialist writer and activist and also one of the founders of modern feminism.

In 1848 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte came to power which caused a great deal of political unrest.  It ended in a coup d’état and revolution in 1851 and the dissolution of the French Assembly along with the imposition of Napoleon III on his people.  Gaugin’s father held strong political against Napoleon III and he frequently expressed such opinions in newspaper articles.  In August 1849 because of the political turmoil, he and his family fled Paris and headed for Peru with the idea of setting up a newspaper in Lima.   Gaugin’s father, Clovis, suffered a sudden heart attack during the voyage and died, aged 35, leaving Paul, his mother and sister Marie to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima with Paul’s great-uncle and his family. Gaugin’s mother sought protection and help for her family from  the powerful and wealthy Don Pio Tristan Moscoso, the head of their extended family, who had family connections with the president of the country.

Despite the Gaguins sharing the exclusive and wealthy lifestyle of the Moscosos in Lima, when an opportunity arose to return home to France at the end of 1854, Aline seized it.  She was well aware that her presidential cousin was losing political power and that Don Pio’s promises to leave her a comfortable legacy might come to nothing.  Gaugin’s mother Aline decided that her best opportunities of an independent life lay in Europe.   Around this time she had also received word that her late husband’s father, Guilliame Gaugin, a retired merchant and widower, who was close to death, wanted to make his only grandchildren, Paul and Marie, his heirs.  Aline Gaugin realised that her future and that of her family now lay not in Peru but back in France.

In 1855 Aline, Marie and Paul Gaugin returned to Orléans, and went to live with their paternal grandfather.   While living there Paul and Marie attend an Orléans boarding school as day students. Their grandfather Guillaume died within months of their return to France, and it was also around this time that Aline’s great-uncle, Don Pio de Tristan Moscoso, died in Peru.  In 1859, Paul Gauguin enrols in the Petit Séminaire de la Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, which was one of the top boarding schools located a few miles outside of Orléans, where he completed his education over the next three years.  His mother leaves Orléans and moves to Paris, and her children live with her there while on school breaks.  With the money she has received in her father-in-law’s will and because she was a trained dressmaker, she opens her own dressmaking business on the rue de la Chaussée in Paris in 1861.  Aline Gaugin falls ill in 1865 and retires to the Parisian countryside of St Cloud, a western suburb of Paris.  It is whilst living here that she meets and is befriended by a Parisian financier, Gustave Arosa, a wealthy Jewish businessman of Spanish descent who has his summer residence near to her home.

After his spell at the boarding school in Orléans, Paul Gaugin attends the Loriol private school in Paris where he prepares for the very demanding École Navale’s entrance examination.  It is probably at this juncture in Gaugin’s life that he receives his first artistic training as part of the exam is to be able to draw from plaster casts and live models as well as technical drawing and map making.  He doesn’t succeed in the exams but in December 1865, aged 17, Gaugin is accepted as a pilotin (officer cadet) in the merchant marine and his first positioni is on the vessel Luzitano which plied its trade between Le Havre and South America and Martinique.  He eventually reaches the rank of second lieutenant at the age of eighteen.  His mother Aline dies in July 1867 aged 42 whilst her son is away and in her will she entrusts Paul Gaugin and his sister Marie to the guardianship of Gustave Arosa.  Gaugin’s arrives back in Le Havre in December 1867 and he leaves the ship.  In January 1868, Gauguin joins the French navy to fulfil his military service requirement and in that March becomes a sailor third-class aboard the vessel, Jérôme-Napoléon in Cherbourg.  At the start of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, Gaugin serves in the French Naval campaigns in the Mediterranean and North Sea.

In April 1871 Gauguin completes his military service and returns to his late mother’s home in St Cloud, only to find it has been destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War.  He then moves back to Paris and takes an apartment near to where his former guardian Gustave Arosa lives with his family.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Gustave Doré (1855)

I will leave Gaugin’s life story at this point in time, 1871, and look at My Daily Art Display’s featured painting which Gaugin completed in 1888.  It is entitled La Vision après le Sermon (La Lutte de Jacob avec l’Ange) [The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel].  It can now be found in Edinburgh, hanging in the National Gallery of Scotland which purchased the painting in 1925 for a mere £1150.  The depiction of Jacob battling the angel had been depicted in paintings and murals before.  Rembrandt painted the scene in 1659 and Eugène Delacroix painted a mural of the scene in 1861 which can be seen in the Church of St-Sulpice in Paris, which of course has received thousands of visitors since the church was featured in the book The Da Vinci Code.  Works of art concerning the subject were also painted by Gustave Doré in 1855 and Gustave Moreau in 1878.  The latter two could well have been seen by Gaugin.

The painting before us by Gauguin has no identifiable light source and it is dominated by heavily-outlined flat areas of pure and contrasting colours.  The perspective Gaugin uses is sharp and by doing this he forces us to look at the paintings background and Jacob’s tussle with the angel.  The grass instead of being green is red.

The Plum Garden in Kameido by Hiroshige (1857)

A tree lying across the painting, bottom right to top left creates a strong diagonal as it dissects the painting, separating the real world from the imaginary one.  At the time of this painting France was being flooded with all things Japanese and it is thought that the way the tree dissects the painting in Gaugin’s work is something he may have seen in the woodblock print of The Plum Garden in Kameido by the Japanese artist Ando Hiroshige.  To the left of the tree we see a solitary cow and a group of Breton women wearing their traditional headdresses.  Each design of headdress denotes the ladies class, marital status, standing in society as well as which part of the area the woman comes from.   The women have emerged from a church service and on the far right of the painting is the priest who has just delivered the sermon.  On the other side of the tree we have the imaginary world created in the minds of the people after hearing the priest’s sermon about Jacob’s struggle with the Angel.

Here we see Jacob wrestling the angel and it is thought that Gaugin’s portrayal of the pair wrestling could have been based on one of the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai’s prints of sumo wrestlers in his 1888 publication The Manga.  The story of Jacob and the Angel comes from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 32, in which we are told that Jacob is frantically trying to prove to the angel that he has repented for his sins and will not allow the Angel to leave until he has been successful.

This painting is all about what Gaugin believes the women will be thinking on leaving the church after hearing the priest’s sermon.  Gaugin loved the simple faith of the peasants and their spiritualism.  He believed that art should be about the inner meaning of the subjects, and not necessarily about their obvious outward appearance. He explains his thoughts about this painting in a letter he wrote to Vincent van Gogh in September 1888.

“…I have just painted a religious picture, very clumsily; but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the church of Pont-Aven. Naturally they don’t want it. A group of Breton women are praying, their costumes a very intense black. The bonnets a very luminous yellowy-white….. An apple tree cuts across the canvas, dark purple with its foliage drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with greenish yellow chinks of sunlight. The ground (pure vermilion). In the church it darkens and becomes a browny red. The angel is dressed in violent ultramarine blue and Jacob in bottle green. The angel’s wings pure chrome yellow.  The angel’s hair chrome  and the feet flesh orange…”

Gaugin offered the painting to the local curé of the church in Nizon, Pont Aven but he was horrified by the depicted scene and declined the offering!

Isabella by John Everett Millais

Lorenzo and Isabella by John Everett Millais (1849)

My favourite Pre-Raphaelite artist is, without doubt, John Everett Millais and I have featured a number of his paintings in previous blogs.  As you know, as I have mentioned it before, I like paintings with a story behind what is depicted by the artist and so merging my two favourite aspects of art I am delighted to present you with Millais’ painting entitled Isabella, also sometimes referred to as Lorenzo and Isabella or The Pot of Basil.  Some of you may know the story and poem behind this early work of art by the Pre-Raphaelite painter but for those who do not, let me lead you through the background of this work and to the medieval allegorical tale, Decameron, written around 1352 by Giovanni Boccaccio.   The word Decameron comes from the combination of two Greek words; déka meaning ‘ten’ and hēméra  meaning ‘days’ and thus decameron means ‘ten day event’.

The Decameron is set in Italy around the 1350’s at the time of the Black Death.  It tells of a group of ten people, seven young women and three young men who escape from the plague-ridden town of Florence and head into the hills of Fiesole and a deserted villa where they stay for a fortnight.  In order to while away the evenings, each one of the group had to tell a story on each night for ten days.  No story would be told on the one day set aside for the chores around the villa nor would a story be narrated on the holy days and thus in all ten stories would be told on the ten evenings making a total of 100 tales.  The stories are sometimes of a bawdy nature and range from the erotic to the tragic.   Each of the ten young people is made King or Queen of the company for one of the ten days in turn. This gives him or her, the right to choose a theme and a topic for the ten stories that day.

The painting I am featuring today is based on a story told by one of the young women, Filomena, on the fourth day and that days theme for all the stories was that they mus be tales of love that ends tragically.  She tells the story of Lisabetta and her three brothers who live a very rich life togetherthanks to the wealth they have inherited after the death of their father.  She has fallen in love with their manager Lorenzo and it was not long before they became lovers.  Her affair with Lorenzo was kept a secret from her brothers but, unbeknown to her, her eldest brother saw his sister sneak into Lorenzo’s bedchamber.  He was horrified as it was he and his brothers’ plan to marry her off to a wealthy nobleman and increase their own wealth.   He informed his brothers as to what he had witnessed and they hatched a plot to kill Lorenzo.  Days passed without incident until one day the brothers asked Lorenzo to accompany them on a trip, during which they murdered him and buried his body.  On returning home they told their sister that Lorenzo had been sent away on business.  A long time passes without any sign of Lorenzo and Lisabetta is heartbroken.  One night Lorenzo appears to her in a dream and shows her where he is buried. She goes there and disinters the body and brings away his head.  She takes the severed head wraps it in a fine napkin and buries it into a flower pot over which she plants basil, and other sweet herbs.  Each day she sheds tears over the pot which nourish the herbs.  Eventually the brothers get to hear about this pot of herbs, take it from her and discover the head of Lorenzo, which they re-bury.  Isabella is once again heartbroken, grows weak from sorrow and eventually dies of grief.

A narrative poem by John Keats, entitled, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, written in 1818, is adapted from this story in which the girl is  not now Lisabetta but Isabella.  When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849 the following stanzas from Keats’ poem was included in the catalogue:

Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by.
These brethren having found by many signs
What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
And how she lov’d him too, each unconfines
His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
That he, the servant of their trade designs
Should in their sister’s love be blithe and glad
When ’twas their plan to coax her by degrees
To some high noble and his olive trees.

To read the poem in full go to:

I stood before this painting a week ago when I visited the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and one could not help but be moved by this beautiful work of art.  The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood members were fascinated by the poetry of Keats and Holman Hunt and Dante Rossetti intended to produce a series of etchings for book illustrations of Keats’s ‘Isabella’.   John Millais worked up his drawings into this large painting which he completed in 1849.  This was his first major painting and what is more remarkable is that he was only nineteen years of age.

The doomed lovers

The setting for the painting is a meal table around which sat a number of people including the three brothers, Isabella and Lorenzo.  The brothers have just found out about their sister’s affair with Lorenzo but have said nothing to her although they are already formulating a plan in their minds as to how to kill Lorenzo.  Isabella, wearing grey, sits at the right and is being handed a blood orange on a plate by her doomed lover, Lorenzo.   A cut blood orange is symbolic of the neck of someone who has just been decapitated and this alludes to the time in the future when Isabella will cut off the dead Lorenzo’s head after finding him buried. The sedate portrayal of mealtime is broken as we see Isabella’s eldest brother, hunched over, rocking forward on his chair as he furiously kicks out at a frightened dog while cracking a nut. His face is contorted in anger as he lashes out at the helpless animal.  Next to him sit his two brothers.  Their demeanour is much calmer and there is certain smugness about their expressions for they are aware of their brother’s plan to kill Lorenzo.  Observe the brother who holds up his glass of wine.  Observe how he is slyly and surreptitiously glancing at Lorenzo and Isabella.  He can see the look of desire in Lorenzo’s eyes as he studies his lover who has demurely avoided his penetrating gaze.

Millais has exaggerated the intensity of the painting by juxtaposing colours and tones.  Look at how Millais has contrasted the white towel draped over the arm of the servant, standing on the far right of the picture, with his black tunic.  The legs of this servant adorned in yellow stockings almost merges with the background colour of the floor and the marble base of the balustrade.

What I like about the work is how Millais has made each one of the diners different and each having very distinctive characteristics.  Common among Pre-Raphaelite works is Millais attention to detail.  Look at the plates on the table.  Each has an exquisite pattern.    Another distinctive Pre-Raphaelite feature is the inclusion of images and patterns within the image as a whole. Each of the majolica plates has a distorted picture glazed into its surface. Look too at the bench seat Isabella is sitting on.  See how Millais has gone to pains to depict the seat. The base of the bench on which Isabella sits contains an intricate carving depicting a kneeling figure, below which we see the letters PRB, which stand for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Sketch of Dante Rossetti for the Lorenzo and Isabella painting (courtesy of George Landow)

The people sitting around the table were modelled by Millais’ friends.  The wife of his half-brother was the model for Isabella.   William Rossetti, Dante Rossetti’s brother, was Lorenzo, who sits next to Isabella; Dante Rossetti is the model for the man at the far end of the table on the right with a wine glass held to his mouth.    The older man on the right-hand side of the table dabbing his mouth with a serviette is none other than John William Millais, the artist’s father.   Walter Deverell, a fellow artist and student of Dante Rossetti and Frederic Stephens, an art critic, and one of the two ‘non-artistic’ members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sat for the other two brothers who sit on the left hand side of the table.  Amusingly, the brother who kicks out at the dog is painted from memory of a John Harris, a person who had bullied John Millais when they were together at the Royal Academy Schools.

Millais has symbolised Lorenzo and Isabella’s love for each other by including a depiction of the white rose and passion flower entwined in the arch above their heads, and also by them sharing a blood orange.  We see the dog with its head on Isabella’s lap which is a sign of Lorenzo’s devotion for her and of course the fact that her brother aims a kick at the dog symbolises his feeling for Lorenzo.  In this painting we have no doubt that death will soon follow and of course we know it will be the death of Lorenzo.  Millais has included some symbols of death in the painting, for instance the brother holding up his glass of blood-red wine as he contemplates the end of Lorenzo.  Other symbols of death are the hawk, which perches on the back of an empty chair, pecking at a white feather which is a symbol of peace.  We see below the arm of the nearest brother a salt cellar lying on its side with the salt, which is considered a symbol of life, scattered on the tablecloth.  This spilt salt symbolises the spilt blood which will soon occur when the brothers kill Lorenzo.  Note how the salt is covered by the shadow of the brother’s forearm, thus implicating him in the heinous crime which is soon to happen.  Look at the right background and on the top of the balustrade we see a large pot containing basil and this may be the one in which Isabella will place Lorenzo’s severed head.   When you stand close up to the actual painting you can just make out designs on the majolica plates on the table.  On one there is the scene of David beheading Goliath whilst another shows Prometheus having his entrails pecked out by an eagle.  All of which is a reminder of the violence that is soon to follow.

The picture was sold to a tailor for £150 and a new suit.

Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy by Sir William Beechey

Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy by Sir William Beechey (c.1793)

The artist I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today is the English portrait painter, Sir William Beechey.  William Beechey was born in Burford Oxfordshire in 1753.  He was the eldest of five children of William Beechey and Hannah Read who both came from Dublin.  Young William Beechey was not brought up by his mother and father but by his uncle Samuel Beechey who was a lawyer and it was his intention to have William study law and made arrangements for him to be articled to a solicitor in nearby Stow-on-the-Wold and later in London.  Whilst in London training to become a lawyer William made friends with some students from the Royal Academy Schools.  In 1772, despite the displeasure of his uncle, William managed to gain a release from the solicitor’s articles and achieved admission to the Royal Academy schools.

Some historical records of his life state that at around this time William Beechey married Mary Ann Jones and the  couple went on to have three daughters and two sons, one of whom was his son, Henry William Beechey who became an explorer and artist.  William Beechey first put forward paintings for inclusion at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1776 and continued to submit works to their annual exhibitions for the next seven years.  At this time, most of his work consisted of what was then termed as “small portraiture”.

In 1772 he left London and moved to Norfolk, living in Norwich and for a short time, Great Yarmouth.  This move out of the capital city would appear to have been a strange one for London was an ideal place to sell his work but the author, William Roberts explained the reason for going to Norwich in his 1907 biography of the artist, entitled Sir William Beechey R.A.

 “…he was invited to spend a month in that city, where he found himself in the immediate receipt of so many commissions in that town and neighbourhood that he was induced to take up his abode there altogether…”

He was still submitting and having his works of art accepted  by the Royal Academy for their exhibitions but they received little mention.  However in 1788 he submitted two framed works which incorporated fifteen smaller portraits.  The Royal Academy jury, who decided on which paintings would be allowed to be exhibited at the Exhibition, rejected his two submissions because the R.A. rules stipulated that all paintings must be framed separately.  An art dealer Benjamin Vandergucht took the two works and exhibited them in his own gallery.  The phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity” kicked in as the press heard about the R.A. rejection of Beechey’s works and wrote the story of the R.A.’s rebuff.  Beechey had managed to obtain free and excellent publicity for his art work.

Beechey had returned to live in London.  A number of his contemporary portraitist had died, such as Gainsborough or ceased painting, such as Joshua Reynolds and so there was a great demand for his portraiture.  It was at about this time that Beechey moved away from miniature portraiture and started to concentrate on life-sized portraits.  His first wife, Mary died in 1793 and that same year he remarried.  His second wife was a miniature painter, Anne Phyllis Jessop, a lady some eleven years his junior.  The couple went on to have eighteen children!  The final breakthrough for Beechey in his artistic career was receiving royal patronage which came in 1793.  King George III and his wife loved Beechey’s portraiture style.  In a round-about way, Beechey had the Royal Academy to thank for this for they rejected another of his works, a portrait of a courtier.  The nobleman was so incensed when he heard that his portrait was not to appear at the R.A. Exhibition that he took the painting and showed it to the king and queen.  They thought it was a magnificent work of art and a generation of royal patronage began and Beechey was made the queen’s portrait painter.   One will never know fully how this influenced the Royal Academy but by a strange coincidence the R.A. elected Beechey as an Associate of the Royal Academy that same year.  This was also the year that the R.A. conferred the same honour to his portraitist rival John Hoppner.

An art critic of the Monthly Mirror journal wrote about William Beechey’s work and that of his rivals of the time, John Hopper and Thomas Lawrence:

“…Beechey has fewer eccentricities than his competitors—for he never distorts his figures for the sake of extravagant attitude—he is less fantastic in his design and less exuberant in manner, in short, he has more nature than [Hoppner and Lawrence]. … Beechey, who is more fixed and determinate, both in his colouring and outline, studies only to be chaste…”

Beechey’s work was often described as being delicate and lacking extravagance and it was these very qualities that appealed to his patrons and clients who disliked the ostentation and flamboyance of his two main rivals.  It was also these virtues of Beechey that appealed to King George.  King George was vociferous in his praise of Beechey, much to the chagrin of John Hoppner.  William Beechey was elected as an Academician of the Royal Academy in 1798 and in that same year, on King George’s specific instructions, he exhibited his great and mammoth masterpiece, measuring 14ft x 17 feet, entitled His Majesty Reviewing the Third Dragoon Guards and the Tenth Light Dragoons in which he depicted King George reviewing his household troops.    Sadly this beautiful work of art was destroyed during the 1992 fire in Windsor Castle.  The king was so delighted with the work that in May 1798 he conferred a knighthood on Beechey.  The knighthood was the first such honour to go to an artist since Joshua Reynolds was knighted back in 1769.  Sir William Beechey’s artistic rivals were astounded by this royal award!  Beechey remained a favourite of King George III.

Sir William Beechey continued to exhibit work at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions until his death in January1839, aged 85.

The featured painting fo My Daily Art Display today is by Sir William Beechey and is entitled Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy, which he completed around 1793 and is housed at the Tate Britain in London.  The beggar in the painting is not depicted as a dirty and scruffy sad-looking urchin as we have seen in works such as The Beggar Boy by Murillo (My Daily Art Display, January 25th 2011) as this would have upset the sensibilities of the Victorian public.  There were many portraits of beggars during the late 18th century, most of which could almost be considered as being “prettified” versions of reality.  Such pictures would be more likely to home in on, not the pathetic state of the begging child, but of the kindness of the charity givers.  So is this just another one of these charitable depictions.  Well actually I am not so sure but then maybe I am just a cynic. Why?

We have to suppose that  when a patron approaches an artist to paint a picture, they know what sort of painting they want.  They know not only who or what is to be depicted but they will make the decision as to how something or someone is to be portrayed.  They will know whether there is to be a certain reasoning behind the depiction other than what is visible at a first glance to the casual observer.  By now you must be used to looking at the paintings I have featured and together we have delved into the interpretations and symbolism of the works.  So now let us look a little closer at what William Beechey has painted and try and work out if there was a reason for such a portrayal.

The first thing to consider is who had commissioned the painting.  The client was Sir Francis Ford.  Ford was the heir of a Barbados planter of the third generation.  His family originally came from Devon. In 1793, he was elected as Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme and the day he was elected he was given a baronetcy. He was now a member of William Pitt’s administration but was in favour of procrastination as far as the abolition of the slave trade was concerned.   He disagreed with the government over the slave trade question and did not seek re-election as an MP.

Besides being a politician he was a plantation owner with estates in Barbados and the Dutch colony of Essequibo.  Being a plantation owner he needed labour to work his estates and thus was a great advocate of slavery.  However in England in 1793, at the time of this painting, there was the start of a movement against slavery and a steady outcry with regards the terrible conditions of the plantation slaves, although it would be another forty years before slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

In the painting we see portraits of Thomas Ford’s son and daughter giving a coin to a beggar boy.  Could it be that Sir Francis Ford wanted to remind the people of Victorian England that there were beggars in their own country, who were in desperate need of food and lived in unacceptable conditions, and that the English public should show more concern about the fate of their own “home-grown” poor rather than worry about the living and working conditions of the plantation slaves in some far-off distant lands.  Could Sir Francis Ford be stating in a roundabout way that “only those without guilt have the right to cast the first stone”!  Was Thomas Ford using the artistic talents of Beechey as that of a spin doctor?

Sir Thomas Ford died in Barbados in 1801.

An Idyll by Maurice William Greiffenhagen

An Idyll by Maurice Grieffenhagen (1891)

My featured artist today with the Germanic sounding surname was actually a British painter and Royal Academician.  Maurice William Greiffenhagen was born in London in 1862. His parents were both Germans from the Northern Baltic region.  At the age of 16, after passing the entrance examination, he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in 1878, where he won their Armitage Prize.   On graduating, Grieffenhagen secured a job as an illustrator, designing posters and worked on illustrations for books, magazines and newspapers.  One of the books he illustrated was Rider Haggard’s much loved novel, King Solomon’s Mines.   He contributed many illustrations to magazines and newspapers such as the Lady’s Pictorial and the Daily Chronicle.  In his art, Greiffenhagen specialised in portraits and allegorical figures in the Pre-Raphaelite style and in 1891, at the age of 29, he completed the painting entitled An Idyll, which was to establish his artistic reputation. This painting, which can be found at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool is the work, which I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today.  The public loved the painting and it was an instant success.  Meanwhile, his continuing friendship with the author Rider Haggard led to him, in 1899,  illustrating another of his adventure books, She: A History of Adventure. 

In 1884 he began to exhibit works at the Royal Academy and this prestigious art establishment made him an Associate Member in 1916 and a Royal Academician in 1922.

Railway poster by Grieffenhagen

In 1909 he became a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.  Grieffenhagen was a prolific illustrator and his ability to design posters which he had done in his early days came very handy when the London Midland & Scottish Railway commissioned travel posters from Royal Academicians and Associate Royal Academicians.   Greiffenhagen’s design The Gateway of the North depicting a mounted knight before a portcullis archway was by far the most successful of the series.

In his later career, Greiffenhagen concentrated on portraiture.   Between 1901 and 1912 he exhibited at many of the important international exhibitions including those held in Munich, Pittsburg and Venice. Greiffenhagen received gold medals at Munich in 1897  and in Dresden in 1901, and an honourable mention at Pittsburgh exhibition in 1907. In 1906, despite his home being in London, he took up the position of professor of painting at the Glasgow School of Art, and took charge of the Life Department.  Despite the long commute between home and the university he remained there until 1926.   Whilst living in Scotland, Greiffenhagen continued to paint and 93 of his works are housed in the collection of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow.

Greiffenhagen died from a heart attack in 1931 at his home in St John’s Wood at the age of 69.

An Idyll is set on a slope of pastureland.  It is a colourful work with the vibrant and warm red of the poppies surrounding the feet of the young couple.  The red contrasts well with the greens and blues he has used for the background.  Before us we see a young man, dressed as a shepherd in his animal skin clothing, holding in his arms a compliant young woman who is attired in modern dress. His skin is brown and weather-beaten whereas, in contrast, her skin is pale, almost a virginal white.  It is an unusual embrace as although the young man captures the young woman with some force, she seems not to reciprocate to the encirclement of his arms and instead just lies somewhat leadenly in his embrace.  Is this a sign that she is not enamoured by the young man’s sudden move or is it a fact that she finds herself in a powerless position.   Would you look at her facial expression and say that she is ecstatic with the young man’s advances or maybe somewhat coy?  Or would you surmise from her lack of response that she is just surrendering to the inevitable?  Maybe I am misjudging the artist, for one must remember that this painting was completed during Victorian times and the public and critics would not have been impressed if Grieffenhagen had shown the woman as being equally passionate.  Maybe that would have been a step too far!  Maybe we just need to use our own imagination as to what is going on and what is going to happen next.

It is believed that the models for the painting were personal friends of Grieffenhagen.  However he had a problem with them, for at the time of the first sittings they were merely an engaged couple but before Grieffenhagen had completed the painting, the pair married and the artist had great difficulty in getting them to pose for him once they were man and wife.  In the end he had to use two other models.  The author DH Lawrence refers to this painting in his novel The White Peacock.   Lawrence, the great chronicler of unbridled passion in human relationships, had a great love for the visual arts.  In 1929 he admitted:

“…all my life I have gone back to painting, because it gave me a form of delight that words can never give…”

To D H Lawrence, An Idyll was the epitome of passion. Blanche Jennings, a suffragette post clerk in Liverpool with whom Lawrence corresponded, had sent him a reproduction of this popular painting. Lawrence was fascinated by the picture and confessed in a 1908 letter to Jennings:

“…the painting moved me almost as much as if I had fallen in love myself…”

Are you as moved as D H Lawrence with this painting?  I started researching this painting a few days ago on February 14th – Valentine’s Day.  A coincidence ?

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-51)

A few days ago I visited my two children in London and went on a few gallery visits.  I had managed to get tickets for my daughter and myself for the David Hockney Exhibition at the Royal Academy which was really a great experience and one which everybody should try and get to.  I will feature a painting from the exhibition later this week.  The other exhibition I had wanted to see and which had just opened was an exhibition of Lucian Freud’s Portraits which was being held at the National Portrait Gallery.  Unfortunately I could not get a ticket for the days I was in the capital so I have booked to go next month.  Today I am going to look at one of my favourite paintings of his entitled Girl with a White Dog, which he completed in 1951.  First let me tell you a little about Lucian’s early life and that of the sitter for this painting, his first wife, Kathleen Garman and look back on the famous, or maybe I should say, infamous Garman sisters.

Lucian Freud, who is the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the pioneer of psychoanalysis, was born in Berlin in 1922.  His father, Ernst Freud, an Austrian Jew, was an architect and his mother Lucie (née Brach) was the daughter of a grain merchant.  On the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933, Lucian and his parents moved to Britain and lived in a house in St John’s Wood, London.  During his school years, he attended Dartington Hall Boarding School in Totnes Devon.    This was, at the time, an unusual seat of education.  It was a very progressive establishment in which there was a minimum of formal classroom activity and the children learnt by involvement in estate activities. From there he attended the Bryanston Independent School in Dorset.

In 1939 he became a British national and that year he enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design, which fifty years later would merge with the St Martins School of Art and become, as we know it today, the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, which is widely regarded as one of the leading Art and Design institutions in the world.  His stay at the college was only brief as he moved on to the Cedric Morris’ East Anglican School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham.  This was a far more radical establishment which gave free rein to its students.  The school was destroyed by fire and a new location for the school was established in Benton End on the outskirts of Hadleigh in the county of Sussex.

Lucian Freud served as a merchant seaman in an Atlantic convoy in 1941 before being invalided out of service in 1942.  From 1942 to 1943 he attended Goldsmiths, University of London, an establishment which specialises in the arts, humanities and social sciences.  At the age of 24, Freud began his European travels, painting in France and Greece.  Some of his early work had already been published in the Horizon arts magazine and in 1944 the Alex Reid & Lefevre Gallery in London staged the first solo exhibition of his paintings.

In 1948 Lucian married Kitty Garman, the subject of today’s featured painting.   Kitty was the second illegitimate child of the distinguished British sculptor, Jacob Epstein’s and his lover Kathleen Garman.  Jacob Epstein and his wife Margaret (née Dunlop) did not have any children of their own but they looked after a young girl, Peggy Jean, the product of Jacob Epstein’s earlier affair with Dorothy (Meum) Lindsell Stewart.  Margaret Epstein and the young girl lived across London with Jacob, while Kathleen Garman lived with her younger sister, Helen, in an unheated studio in Bloomsbury and her and Jacob’s infant son, Theo.    Margaret Epstein was aware of her husband’s affair with Kathleen Garman and despite her husband’s numerous previous affairs with women which never lasted, she felt threatened by Kathleen.  She realised that Kathleen was more than a lover, she was almost a  parallel wife. From the beginning, Mrs Epstein disliked her intensely, realising  that she would be her greatest rival.   It came to a head in 1923 when according to Cressida Connolly in her book The Rare and the Beautiful: The Lives of the Garmans:

“…Mrs Epstein took Kathleen into a room and locked the door before producing a pearl-handled pistol from under her capacious skirts… and shot her. The bullet hit Kathleen just to the right of her left shoulder blade, whereupon Mrs Epstein panicked and ran out of the room, leaving the bloodied Kathleen to stagger out into the street alone…”

Jacob Epstein visited Kathleen in hospital and paid her medical bills. The bullet wound to her shoulder left  a large scar and Kathleen Garman was never afterwards able to wear sleeve-less dresses. To protect the reputation of Jacob Epstein, Kathleen Garman refused to press charges against his wife.

Despite this incident and the pleadings of his wife, Epstein refused to give up Kathleen, who remained in her one-room London studio as Epstein’s lover and bore him three illegitimate children; a son, Theo, in 1924, and two daughters,  Kitty in 1926 and Esther in 1929.  Epstein had another affair with one of his students, Isabel Nicholas, and this resulted in the birth of a son Jackie in 1934.  Isabel gave up her son to the Epsteins and he was also looked after by Margaret Epstein.   Kathleen Garman never knew about Epstein’s parallel affair with Isabel or about the boy Jackie until several years later.

The cramped conditions of the studio Kathleen Garman was living in proved unsuitable for bringing up young children and Kitty was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, Margaret (née Magill), in Herefordshire.  Esther, the youngest daughter was later dispatched to a family friend.   Kitty Garman stayed on with her grandmother Margaret when the household moved to South Harting, Sussex, and only went back to live with her mother in London when she was in her late teens.  She then enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts to study painting under Bernard Meninsky. According to Kitty, her mother was constantly critical of her artistic efforts. Kitty recalled her mother’s attitude:

 “…I think she wanted her daughters to excel, but she didn’t want us to succeed, because she had to be the queen.   I was frightened of her because of her temper and she did say searingly sarcastic things…”

In 1949, Epstein’s wife, Margaret fractured her skull in a fall on the steps of her home and died.  This allowed Kathleen Garman to move into Epstein’s home in Hyde Park Gate.

By the early 1950’s Kitty Garman’s marriage to Lucian was in trouble and it ended abruptly after the artist’s affair with the society girl and writer Lady Caroline Blackwood was exposed.        Kitty Garman’s marriage to Lucian Freud ended in divorce in 1952 and Lady Caroline Blackwood became his second wife in 1957.  Shortly after the ending of her marriage to Lucian, Kitty was at a party where she met Wynne Godley, and economist, whom she married in 1955.

Lucian Michael Freud died aged 89 on July 20th 2011.  His first wife and sitter for today’s painting, Kathleen (Kitty) Eleonara Wishart (née Godley, née Freud) died aged 74 on January 11th 2011.

Kitty Garman, a brunette, was by all accounts, hauntingly beautiful and the subject of many paintings.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Girl with a White Dog which Lucian Freud commenced in 1950 and  completed in 1951.  When not lent out to external exhibitions this work of art resides at the Tate Britain Gallery, London.  This is the last of the series of portraits of his first wife, Kitty, which Freud had started at the end of the 1940’s.  Kitty had given birth to Lucian and her first child, Annie in 1948 and their second child Annabel was born in 1952, the year the painting was purchased by the Tate.

One can only marvel at the way Freud has handled the contrast of the fabrics and textures.  On the one hand we have the smooth white hairs of the dog and on the other hand we have the fuller texture of the yellow dressing gown, which contrasts also with the smoothness of the  striped silk bedspread on which she sits.    In the painting we see Kitty Garman sitting curled up on what looks like a low settee dressed in a dressing gown with its long plaited and tasselled tie.   Lying next to her, with its head in her lap, is one of a pair of white bull terriers the couple were given as a wedding present.  Look at the wonderful amount of detail Freud has put into his depiction of the dog.  He would often use animals in his compositions and often they would feature both pet and owner.

Kitty left hand hangs down and her fingers rest on the settee and on one of the fingers  we can see her wedding ring.   Her right hand is pressed against the bathrobe, cupping her left breast.  Her right arm is strategically placed under her right breast with her wrist adding to its uplift and fullness.  Her expression is difficult to translate.  She seems somewhat frightened and concerned about something.  Her eyes are large and staring.  In some ways we feel a little uncomfortable when we look at her.  Her brow is narrow which adds to her look of anxiety and sadness.  It could well be that Freud’s liaison with Caroline Blackwood at the time of this painting was taking a toll on Kitty.  Is her look one of calmness or one of desolation?  I will let you decide.

The Monk by George Inness

The Monk by George Inness (1873)

For my artist today I had decided to cross the Atlantic and look at the work of an American painter.   I have always liked the beautiful landscape works of the Hudson River School artists and so I dipped into my book, which featured these painters and came up with George Inness.  I particularly liked his superb and beautiful painting entitled Our Old Mill, which I had considered for today’s offering.  It was only when I was researching his life and his works of art that I came across a hauntingly beautiful work of his entitled The Monk.  It had little to do with the landscapes along the Hudson River but it was just too good to ignore.  So today my featured artist is an American who was famous for his American landscapes, but you will just have to forgive me for abandoning those works.  However I am sure that My Daily Art Display featured painting today will impress you.

George Inness was born in Newburgh, New York in 1825.  He came from a very large family being the fifth of thirteen children of John William Inness, a farmer, and Clarissa Baldwin.   In 1829 when George was just five years old the family moved to Newark, New Jersey.  Inness began his artistic education at the age of fourteen when he received tuition from an itinerant artist, John Jesse Barker.  Later he would work as a map engraver in New York and during the summer of 1843,  he studied under the French painter, who had recently arrived from France, Régis-François Gignoux.  From this he developed a great interest in art and enrolled at the National Academy of Design, where Gignoux taught, and the following year he exhibited his first work at the Academy.  This was to be the beginning of a great partnership between the artist and the Academy.

In 1848 he opened his first studio in New York and he received his first commission.  The following year he married Delia Miller but sadly she passed away a few months later.   In 1850, at the age of twenty-five Inness marries Elizabeth Abigail Hart and the couple go on to have six children.  The patronage of Ogden Haggerty allowed him to take a trip to Italy where he was able to paint and study the work of the great Italian masters.  Once there, he fell in love with the beautiful Italian landscape.  In all, he spent fifteen months in Rome and took the opportunity to study the works of the great landscape artists such as Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.  Whilst in Rome he rented a studio, which was in the same building as the American painter and portrait artist William Page who had arrived in the Italian capital two years earlier.

In 1853 Inness moved to Paris and began studying the work and technique of the French Barbizon landscape painters and soon Inness became the leading American exponent of the Barbizon-style of painting. His main influence was the work of The French painter, Pierre Étienne Théodore Rousseau, which totally captivated him. The Barbizon-style of painting, which uses loose brushwork and places an emphasis on mood, became part of the artist’s tools to create the luminous and atmospheric landscapes that eventually established Inness’ trademark.  A year after the couple settled in Paris, their son George Junior was born.  He would later become a leading landscape painter.

During the 1850’s, Inness received a lucrative commission from the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroads.  The train operator wanted him to record and portray the progress of DLWRR’s growth in early Industrial America. George Inness and his family settled in the small town of Medfield, a suburb of Boston, where they remained for five years.  It was during this time that Inness completed what art critics believed were some of his best paintings.   In 1864, he was on the move once again.  The family moved to the town of Eagleswood in New Jersey where he taught art.   He made many trips to Europe, especially France and Italy where he lived between 1870 and 1874 before he returned to America and settled in Montclair, New Jersey.

In 1894 he and his family made a trip to Europe, visiting Paris, Munich and Baden-Baden before arriving in Scotland where on August 3rd he and his son visited the famous beauty spot of Bridge of Allan.  In Adrienne Baxter Bell’s biography of Inness entitled, George Inness and the Visionary Landscape she recounts the time as described by Inness’ son:

“…My father threw up his hands into the air and exclaimed ‘My God oh, how beautiful!’ fell to the ground and died minutes later….”

George Inness died aged 69.  His funeral was held at the National Academy of Design in New York City and he was buried in West Orange, New Jersey.

George Inness painted today’s featured work, entitled The Monk, in 1873.  Without doubt this can only be described as a haunting work and one of his best paintings.  The setting of the painting is thought to be a secluded corner of the Villa Barberini, which is near the pope’s summer residence of Castel Gandolfo and lies a little distance south of Rome.  Just to the right of centre in the foreground we see the small figure of a cowled monk, holding a staff, as he walks within the walled garden.  He is diminutive in comparison to the tall stone wall behind him and further back, the cluster of tall slender pine trees that we see in the middle distance.   Inness often painted just the odd figure in his landscapes.  In most cases they would be solitary figures with a degree of anonymity.  Look how Inness has portrayed the pine trees with their unusual shaped branches.  They stand out so well against the brilliant yellow-ochre sky.  The bright yellow light also filters between the slim branches which rise vertically to support the tree canopies.

I like this panting.  I like the evocative nature of the depiction of the lone monk.  I suppose it is his white cowl which gives the painting a ghostly feel. The painting can be found in the Addison Gallery of American Art, at the Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.  The Phillips Academy is unique among secondary schools in the United States in as much as it is home to two museums, each of which is dedicated to educating and enriching its student community while also serving as a resource to the general public.

Hush and Hushed by Frank Holl

Hush by Frank Holl (1877)

I get great pleasure in “discovering” new artists.  Today I am going to look at the life of an artist I had never previously heard of and maybe he is somebody that you have never come across before.  In My Daily Art Display today I am going to look at two paintings by the English Victorian social realist painter and portraitist Frank Holl, entitled Hush and Hushed.

Frank Montague Holl was born in Kentish Town, London in 1845.  His father, Francis, was a well-known engraver and Academician.  His grandfather, William Holl, was also an engraver.  He was brought up in a political household.  His family were staunch Socialists and from an early age Holl was taught that he had a duty in life to transform society and improve it for the common people.   He started his schooling at the Heath Mount School in Hampstead and at the age of fifteen he enrolled as a probationer at the Royal Academy Schools.  He proved to be an exceptional student but much to the dismay of his tutors, Holl liked to add a touch of political content to his works of art.  At the age of seventeen he won a silver medal for his work and the following year was awarded a gold medal and a travel scholarship for his painting entitled The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.  It was a painting that depicted a family bereavement and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869, the then monarch, Queen Victoria attempted to buy the painting it but the original purchaser refused to sell it.  Two years later Holl painted another painting on the same theme entitled No Tidings from the Sea and on this occasion Queen Victoria purchased it for a 100 guineas.   Holl set off on his travel scholarship to Italy but the journey lasted only two months, at which time he wrote to the Royal Academy saying that he wanted to return home and concentrate on his social realism paintings based on the lower working-class life in England.

Holl started exhibiting his work in 1864 when he was nineteen years of age and from 1869 onwards he was a regular contributor to the Academy Exhibitions. Many of these works were depicting the plight of the less fortunate and their pitiful existence, such as No Tidings from the Sea (1871) and Leaving Home (1873).  When he completed his studies in 1869 he was employed by William Luson Thomas, a successful artist, wood engraver and social reformer, who had just founded a new weekly illustrated newspaper, called The Graphic, and was looking for a number of talented artists to illustrate it.  For the following five years, Holl produced a series of pictures that were used to illustrate stories in the magazine. Among his fellow workers were Luke Fildes (see The Doctor – My Daily Art Display, May 17th 2011) and Hubert von Herkomer (see Hard Times, My Daily Art Display July 25th 2011), who like him believed passionately in the cause for political and social change.  Often they would turn the engravings, which they had fashioned for the pages of The Graphic, into oil paintings.  These depictions of the real life lead by the “under-class” of the nation lead them to become known as the Social Realist Movement.  Although we may look upon these depictions of poverty as a welcome wake-up call to the nation, they were badly received by the Victorian establishment at the time.  They viewed the works as being disloyal.  The establishment and many of the people who had never suffered poverty wanted to turn a blind-eye to the suffering of the less fortunate.  Their motto was “out of sight, out of mind” and frowned upon these upstart young artists who wanted to drag the social differences which existed into the public forum.

Samuel Cousins by Frank Holl (1879)

In 1879 Frank Holl had a breakthrough in his artistic career when he completed a portrait of his neighbor, the English mezzotint engraver, Samuel Cousins.  The critics loved it.  One wrote in a national newspaper:

“…Mr Frank Holl’s portrait of the renowned engraver Samuel Cousins R.A. is a superb work, glowing,  for all the austerity of its execution, with animation and intelligence…”

In another newspaper the art critic commented:

“…Mr Frank Holl’s half-length, seated of Mr Samuel Cousins, the engraver is one of the portraits of the year and does the young artist infinite credit…”

So was Samuel Cousins delighted with the finished work?  Actually, he wasn’t, saying, with an open show of vanity, that the painter had added to his years, and had made him appear too old.  However notwithstanding the sitter’s comments the painting lead to numerous lucrative commissions from wealthy patrons.  From that day on till the end of his life, Frank Holl never had to search out work, work searched him out.  His portraiture was mainly of men, often ones who were very famous such as Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain.

In 1888 having sent a number of his paintings to the Royal Academy for their Summer Exhibition he travelled to Spain.  He had decided to spend a short period in Madrid and visit the Prado where he could study the works of the great Spanish master, Velasquez.  Shortly after returning home he suffered at heart attack and died suddenly on July 31st 1888, aged just 43.  His fame as an portrait artist lead to much work, in fact too much work, none of which he ever turned down.  Holl continually tried to find time to paint his social realist paintings as well as his lucrative portraiture work but to do this he found himself working every day of the week.  He once told his wife of the strain he was under, saying:

“…Hunger for work is always on me, and it is when I cannot satisfy this hunger that I get so worn out. If only I could banish my tormenting conscience for work; but that never lets me alone, and if I do nothing I feel of no use…”

After his death his daughter commented that her father continually suffered from the nervous strain of working with such distinguished men and that this strain, in her mind, contributed to her father’s premature death.

Hushed by Frank Holl (1877)

Today’s pair of paintings entitled Hush and Hushed were completed by Frank Holl in 1877 and are now housed in the Tate Britain Gallery in London.

The setting for the two paintings is a room in a small dwelling.  It is a solemn setting and the somber colours used by Holl enhance the bleak and depressing mood.  One can tell by the sparse decor and bare walls that the occupants have little money.  The lives of such people was a constant source for Holl’s artistic works.  In the first of these paintings entitled Hush, we see before us a mother tenderly bending over the cradle of her sick child.   There is a distinct look of concern and apprehension in her face.  Whilst she looks into the cradle,  she whispers to her other child, who stands close by, to be quiet so as not wake the infant who has finally gone to sleep.  The young boy looks equally anxious about the situation.   It is a typical homely scene and there is no hint of what is to follow in the companion work, Hushed.

This second work is a follow-up scene in the same room and this time we see the devastated mother gazing sorrowfully into the empty cradle where once the baby had been but had now sadly passed away.   We see the mother with her hand covering her face in a sign of grief.  Her other child leans against a cupboard with his hands clasped in front of him.   He looks at his grieving mother but has no idea what to do to console her.

These are extremely moving works of art and in a way Holl has handled them without resorting to sentimentality.  The paintings were meant for people to understand the problems faced by those who were imprisoned by poverty and suffered the fates that accompanied such financial destitution. Infant mortality was high in 19th century and it is estimated 1 in 5 children died before their fifth birthday. Infant mortality had always been high and much of it could be because of the lack of sanitation and general hygiene especially amongst the poor. However in those days, the well-off were not immune to such early deaths, as it was also a period when consumption and cholera accounted for many young deaths.

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885)

In past blogs I have featured Dutch and Flemish paintings depicting jolly peasants as they happily amuse themselves at work or at play.  I can think of many paintings by the likes of the Bruegels, Jan Steen and Adriaen van Ostade which gave us the rosy cheeks of the well-fed peasants and maybe we were lulled into the thought that a peasant’s life wasn’t too bad and maybe one which may have suited us.  Today I am going to feature a painting which looks at the reality of peasant life.  It is a fine example of naturalism in art, which was a type of art that depicts realistic objects and people in their natural settings.  In most cases, naturalism depicts characters in situations over which they have little or no control and where they appear to be at the mercy of powers outside themselves.  Artists who practiced naturalism in their art wanted to ensure that their depictions of life were done with absolute honesty.  Their artwork was to have almost photographic accuracy rather than simply an artist’s interpretation of what was before them.  Naturalist painters often concentrated on the life of the lower working classes and in many works of art we see that the people portrayed have little or no control of their destiny.

My painting today is not from an artist who is famous for his depiction of peasant life, nor is it an artist who is renowned for his somber-coloured works which categorises today’s featured work.  In fact, quite the contrary, today’s artist is known for his bright yellows and blues and the magical swirls of his brush-strokes, none of which can be seen in today’s painting.   Today’s artist is Vincent van Gogh and My Daily Art Display featured work today is entitled The Potato Eaters which he completed in 1885.  This painting by Van Gogh is now looked upon as his first masterpiece and it was his hope that it would establish his status as an artist.

One should remember that as far as art was concerned van Gogh was a late starter.  When he was young, like most children, he would enjoy drawing but he never seriously considered taking up painting as a career.  However, through some of his uncles who were art dealers, Vincent became immersed in the world of art.  However it was not until 1879, when he was almost twenty-seven years old, and living in the village of Cuesmes, in the coal mining district of the Borinage that he became progressively more interested in the people and scenes around him and began to create a pictorial record of his time there and it was around this time that his brother Theo’s encouraged him to take up art in earnest.

A peasant woman by van Gogh

Five years on, at the age of thirty-two, he painted today’s featured picture and this was at a time when he had only just mastered the art of painting.   It makes it all the more amazing that he would take on such a large project so early on in his artistic career.   Just remember what he had to achieve.  He had to paint five figures and make each one look natural and because he had decided the light source was to be central he had the difficult task of achieving the effect such light would have on the room and the figures.

Preliminary sketch for The Potato Eaters

As a prelude to this painting he made many studies of each of the peasants, some in charcoal, and others in oil.

The painting is naturalistic.  It depicts a truthful representation of the peasants and where they live.  It is both realistic and naturalistic.  The peasants are as they are.  This painting highlights the sad reality of a peasant existence.  There has been no exaggeration by the artist in the way he has painted them in order to gain certain effects although it is said that he carefully chose the people to model for his painting so as to illustrate them at their purest and most primitive, as representing the ancient, traditional values of rural life.  Of his choice of models, he wrote to his brother Theo:

“..I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned…”

The painting before us depicts a dark room which is only illuminated by the oil lamp which is hanging from the beams of the ceiling.   It is a very dark painting which has been achieved by the artist’s use of murky colours.   The ceiling is low and one imagines that it allows little headroom for the peasants.  It is a tiny space and van Gogh’s use of colour has highlighted its shabbiness.  The murkiness allows us to understand the oppressive nature of their life.     It is not hard to imagine the sort of life the peasants lead in these damp and clammy squalid surroundings.

The whole of the painting is monochromatic, in other words van Gogh has just used shades of a limited number of colours.  The colours he has used are mainly dark and dull such as black and brown and this adds to the morose and moody feel to the painting.   In contrast to the dark room the faces of the peasants sitting around the table are illuminated by the oil lamp and shine out brightly enabling us to explore their emotions.  There is symmetry about the way van Gogh has arranged the people around the table.  A man and a woman sit on either side of the table framing another man and woman who are seated behind the table

The faces of the peasants are sunburnt from the hours they have worked in the fields under the unforgiving sun during the summer months.  Five people sit around a square table eating potatoes; three are men, two are women.      We look at them eating baked potatoes from a potato tray as the woman on the far right of the painting is pouring a black liquid, maybe coffee, from a teapot into the cups on the table.   They are clothed in thick garments to keep the cold out, once the sun has gone down and the wind scurries across the low-lying fields.  Their heads are all covered with either caps or kerchiefs.

Look at the way van Gogh has depicted their facial features.  They have thick lips, protruding cheekbones and low, flat foreheads. Their mouths and cheekbones look almost larger than life.   The male and the female on the left of the painting have bulging eyes and this gives them a look of people lacking intelligence.  Their eyes, in some way, are blank and unseeing and it is difficult to imagine what is going on in their minds.  Look at their faces.  How would you describe their expressions?  To me they are solemn expressions.  The people do not exude an air of happiness or contentment.  Their facial expressions look almost as if they are very wary of each other.  There does not seem to be a close and loving connection between those who are sharing a meal.  There is no sense of communication between the diners.  They are wide-eyed and their thoughts seem to be in a place far from the dingy room.

When we look at this painting we are not seeing the fat ruddy faced peasants of the Bruegels.  These are not the jolly peasants we are used to seeing in paintings such as The Peasant Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (My Daily Art Display, March 27th 2011).  Look carefully at the physical characteristics of the people we see before us.  They have protruding features.  Observe the way Van Gogh has clearly depicted their hands and fingers.  They are gnarled and wizened.  These are coarse working hands and these very fingers will have scratched and dug at the soil to free-up the potatoes they now hold and eat.  This is naturalism at its best.  In this painting, Van Gogh has cleverly and effectively portrayed the poor and harsh lives the peasants had to endure.  Van Gogh defended the way in which he depicted the peasants saying:

“…..if people prefer to see them with a sugar coating, let them. I personally believe that it is better in the long run to paint them vulgar as they are than to give them a conventional charm…”

The artist again defended his depiction of the people in the painting saying that it was a “real peasant painting” and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:

“…I wanted to convey the idea that the people eating potatoes by the light of an oil lamp used the same hands with which they take food from the plate to work the land that they have toiled with their hands – that they have earned their food by honest means. One sees a kind of wild animal, male and female, all over the countryside, black, drab and scorched by the sun, bound to the soil which they dig and work with obstinate resolve; they speak with a single voice, and when they rise to their feet they reveal human faces, and they are indeed human. At night they retreat into caves where they live on black bread, water and roots; they spare others the effort of sowing, tilling and harvesting in order to live, and should therefore not want of the bread they have sown…”

To my mind although this may not be considered as a loving portrayal of peasants, it is probably a true one.  Gone are the smiling ruddy faced people one saw in many of the 16th and 17th century Dutch genre scenes.  There is nothing in this painting to suggest there is much fun in the life of these peasant workers.  A contemporary of van Gogh was the French painter Jean-François Millet, who was one of the founders of the Barbizon School in rural France and he was noted for his scenes of peasant farmers and was part of the naturalism and realism movements in France.  Millet had studied the peasant classes and would often depict them as coarse-looking, uncultivated people who led a feral existence.

Van Gogh defended his portrayal of the peasants insisting that he had never intended to malign them. As far as he was concerned he was simply painting them as typical of country people but maybe this notion should be questioned as a friend of van Gogh asserted that when the artist came to choose his models, he made a point of selecting ‘the ugliest of them’.

Vincent sent the painting to his brother to be exhibited at the Salon but Theo never did put it forward to the Salon juries, nor did he show it to the very influential art dealer of the time, Paul Durand-Rule, as Vincent had hoped.  Later Vincent sent a lithographic version of the painting to his good and close friend, the aristocratic artist, Anthon van Rappard.    Vincent was horrified and angered when he received a letter back from van Rappard, in which he declared the painting “a violence to nature”.  Those harsh words were to end their five year friendship and van Gogh and van Rappard never spoke to each other again.

The Potato Eaters now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.