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 ?