Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto (c.1525)

I have over the past blogs featured paintings of a women whose facial beauty I find quite stunning and have commented at length on their great beauty.  Two especially come to mind, Jeunesse Dorée by Gerard Brockhurst (My Daily Art Display May 16th 2011) and Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina (My Daily Art Display May 1st 2012).  I mention this because today I am featuring another such painting which is a portrait of an exceptionally beautiful woman.  The title of the painting is simply, Portrait of a Woman and the artist is Bartolomeo Veneto.  I will look at the painting in detail later and explore the mystery of whose portrait it might be but first let me tell you a little about the artist.

Bartolomeo Veneto was born at the end of the fifteenth century but little is known of his early upbringing and family life.  The first time his signature was found on a painting, was on his work entitled Virgin and Child and it was dated 1502.  The signature itself gives an insight into his early days as he signed it:

“… bartolamio mezo mezo cremonexe venizian e…”

which when roughly translated means:

“…Bartolomeo half-Venetian and half Cremonese…”

In his early days he worked in Veneto, in North East Italy, Venice itself and Lombardy, which has its border to the west of Veneto.  Whilst in Venice he trained under Gentile Bellini, who was the most prestigious painter in Venice in the early sixteenth century.  Bartolomeo Veneto concentrated most of his art on portraiture and for that he received many commissions.

It is thought that around 1507 Bartolomeo worked at the Este court in Ferrara, which was ruled by the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I d’Este who in 1502 married for the second time.  His new wife was none other than Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso was her third husband.  During his time at the court Bartolomeo gilded frames and made carnival decorations and completed a painting depicting the Virgin and Saints.  After three years at the court Bartolomeo moved on and he is reported to have been in Padua in 1512 and Milan eight years later and it was here that his portraiture became influenced by the portraits by Leonardo da Vinci who had been in this Italian city some years earlier.

Today’s featured painting by Bartolomeo Veneto, which he completed around 1525, is entitled Portrait of a Woman and is now housed in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.  I suppose the first question one asks when looking at this beautiful half-naked woman is who is she?   There is no degree of certainty as to the answer but it is thought to be a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia.  What makes her stand out is the fact that the artist has placed her, in three-quarter profile, dressed in a white tunic against a black background and he would use this black background technique in other portraits.

The staring eyes

Although she has turned to the left she keeps eye contact with us.  Although her left breast is bared, it is her gaze that catches our attention.  As we look at her we are almost mesmerized by that stare.  The way she looks at us is in some ways unnerving.  She has captured our attention.

Observe the ringlets of her golden hair as it cascades down her shoulders.  See how Bartolomeo has painted each strand of it in detail.  It is this extraordinary attention to detail that made his portraits so popular and led to many commissions from wealthy patrons.  This tempera and oil on wood panel bears the name of the ancient goddess of spring, Flora and she was often a character portrayed in Renaissance art.   In her right hand, she delicately holds up to us, between her slim index finger and thumb, a small posy of wild flowers consisting of daisies, anemones and buttercups,.  These three flowers are attributes of Zephyr’s wife Flora, the goddess who ushered in spring.  This is her offering to us.

A lavish jewel adorns her forehead.   Above the jewel is a blue silk band and her hair is covered in a veil which is crowned with myrtle, all of which lead us to believe that this woman is married.  Another jewel hangs between her breasts on a pendant, the placing of which adds to the sensuality of the portrait.  Having said that, I believe there is also chasteness in the way the artist has portrayed the woman.  Could this then be a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia?  The same Lucrezia Borgia who was one of the daughters of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, later to become Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza Cattanei?  Could this be the portrait of a woman who was accused of incest with both her father and her brother Cesare?  Could this beautiful and delicate-looking woman be the infamous female who was accused of poisoning many of her adversaries and who had a string of extra-marital affairs?

So, are we looking at a beauty or a beast and is this a true likeness of Lucrezia Borgia?

The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia by Gilbert Stuart Newton

The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia
by Gilbert Stuart Newton (1828)

Today I am going to look at the life and one of the paintings of the Canadian born artist Gilbert Stuart Newton.  Newton was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of twelve children in 1797.  His father, Henry Newton, who originally came from Boston, worked as a Customs official and his mother Anne Stuart came from a family of Scottish descent, who also lived in Boston, Massachusetts.  Her brother, Gilbert Stuart, was an artist and was generally believed to be one of America’s leading portraitists of the time and was to become one of his nephew’s first art tutors.   Gilbert’s parents moved from Boston to the Canadian port of Halifax in 1776 but on the death of his father in 1803, when he was six years old, his mother took her family back to her home town of Charleston, a district of Boston on the Charles River.

Although initially heading for a career in commerce he developed a love of art and his uncle Gilbert Stuart recognising his artistic promise took him on as one of his pupils.  Like many aspiring artists, Newton travelled to Europe to study painting, first in Florence and later in Paris and London.  He arrived in London in 1817.  During his travels, he made the acquaintance of the American artist, Washington Allston, (see My Daily Art Display, Feb 25th 2011),  the English genre painter Charles Leslie and the Scottish painter David Wilkie.  He enrolled as a student of the Royal Academy Schools in 1817 and exhibited his first work at the Royal Academy the following year.  Initially he focused his artistic talents on portraiture and had many well known sitters, such as the American author, Washington Irving and the American politician and then American Consul in Liverpool, James Maury.  He left England in 1831 and went back to America for a short period where he married but a year later he and his wife returned to England.

Gilbert Stuart Newton is principally remembered, not for his portraiture, but for his genre and literary scenes many of which were engraved.  Probably Newton will be remembered most of all for his depiction of literary subjects such as today’s featured painting entitled The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia, taken from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel, The Vicar of Wakefield.  He also depicted scenes from Shakespeare such as his 1831 painting entitled Portia and Bassanio.    Another scene from a novel he painted was that of Yorick and Grisette, two characters in Lawrence Sterne’s novel, A Sentimental Journey.  This work was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1830.  In 1828 Newton was made and Associate of the Royal Academy and four years later was elected as a Royal Academician.  That same year, 1832, when he was made a Royal Academician was the also the year of the onset of his mental illness which progressively worsened to such a point that he had to be institutionalised in a private asylum in Chelsea.  Even whilst hospitalised he continued to draw, completing a number of sketches based on Shakespearian characters.   He died of consumption at the asylum in 1835 just a month before his thirty-eighth birthday.  He died alone as his wife along with their child had returned to America a few months earlier.

My featured painting today is Gilbert Newton’s work entitled The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia. It was painted as a commission for Lord Lansdowne.   The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1828 and in the Exhibition catalogue against this work was the following quotation from Oliver Goldsmith’s 1766 novel, The Vicar of Wakefield.  They were the words uttered by the vicar to his wife imploring her, like him, to forgive the misdeeds of their daughter:

“…I entreat, woman, -that my words may be now marked once for all: I have here brought you back a poor deluded wanderer; her return to duty demands the revival of our tenderness … The kindness of heaven is promised to the penitent, and let ours be directed by the example…”

This novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, by Goldsmith was his most famous work of literature and in the painting we see Olivia, the vicar’s daughter, who had run away from home to be with the man she loved.  Her father, the vicar, eventually finds her and brings her home and we see him, in the right of the painting, comforting his distraught but repentant daughter, who has buried her face against his shoulder. To the left of the painting we see the vicar’s wife who has her back almost turned away from her husband and daughter and by her facial expression we must believe she hasn’t quite come to terms with what has happened.  She is now trying to balance the desire to punish her daughter for her misdeeds and yet show her some maternal love now that she is back in the fold.  Her hands are clenched tight in her lap and we can see by her facial expression that she is not in a forgiving mood.  Also included in the painting are the vicar’s two youngest sons who stand in front of their mother completely unaware of what is happening.   The younger daughter Sophia, who kneels at the side of her mother and who holds her mother’s hand in a comforting gesture, is pleading with her to forgive her errant sister, Olivia.  The vicar’s second son Moses, stands at the far right of the painting, by the open door of the house and looks somewhat bemused and unable to know what to do for the best.  The family dog lies under the table looking up aware of the commotion.

So how was the painting greeted by the art establishment in 1828?  The literary magazine of the time, The Athenaeum commented on the work:

“…A very interesting picture, cleverly composed, and well painted. The mother’s struggle between pride and tenderness, is admirably expressed, not only in her face and features, but throughout the whole figure; not more in the stiffness and erectness of carriage, than in the clenching of the hand on the knee. The patient and benevolent Dr Primrose, of Goldsmith, is finely characterised in the figure and head of the father: the affectionate sister, kneeling by her mother’s side, and anxiously interceding, is a picture of amiable loveliness; while Olivia, abandoned to shame, sorrow, and penitence, neglected in her attire, and with face averted, and concealed on her father’s shoulder, while her hand is most expressively held by his, forms, with the figure of the indulgent parent, a group replete with delightful expression. The hobbledehoy simplicity of Moses, and the panting and vague consciousness of the younger urchins, must not be overlooked; they are also most happy. The whole picture, in short, is full of truth, sentiment, and feeling…”

Winter Harmony by John Henry Twachtman

Winter Harmony by John Twachtman (C.1890-1900)

When we hear the word Impressionism we immediately think of French painters such as Monet, Renoir, Cassatt, Degas et al, but how much do we know about American Impressionists and their works?  How did the Impressionism Movement become important for a time in America?  To find the answer, we probably have to go back to the mid-nineteenth century as it was after the Civil War ended in 1865 that America developed a healthy economy and this was never more so than in the North where many of the victors, who had made their fortunes from the war, had become extremely wealthy.  As is the case nowadays, it is often not just enough to be wealthy, one had to flaunt one’s wealth.   The newly wealthy Americans wanted not just to be recognised as rich, they also craved to be looked upon as sophisticated which didn’t automatically go hand-in-hand with wealth.  So the rich Americans sat in their large magnificent houses and realised that it wasn’t enough to just have a large building, they realised that what they filled their homes with could help in their quest for sophistication and what could be more sophisticated than having their house filled with European art and furnishings.  American artists soon realised that European style art was a saleable commodity and many crossed the Atlantic to Europe, especially Paris, to study the latest artistic techniques.

It was also around this time in Paris that French Impressionism was born.  Impressionist art was a style in which the artist captured the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it. Their paintings were full of colour and, in the main, the paintings depicted outdoor scenes. There was a wonderful brightness and vibrancy about the works of the Impressionists.  The images we saw on their canvases were without detail but were painted in bold colours.   In the 1870’s there were already two American painters who had been seduced by the Impressionist style of art and were considered great exponents of this style.  They were Mary Cassatt and the Italian-born son of American ex-patriots, John Singer Sargent.

During the mid-1880s, French Impressionist art became very popular with American collectors who began to appreciate this new style, and more American artists realised that they had to take on board this new phenomenon.   Soon, exhibitions of Impressionist works were held in American cities and the paintings sold well.

Today I am going to look at a work of a less well known Impressionist, the American painter, John Henry Twachtman.  John Twachtman was born in Cincinnati in 1853.  His parents, Frederick Twachtman and his mother Sophie Dröge were German immigrants who had arrived in the country in the late 1840’s.  His father had many different jobs including being a policeman, a storekeeper and a cabinetmaker but his most lucrative work was as a window-shade decorator at the Breneman Brothers factory, and when his son, John, was fourteen years of age he joined his father in the business,  as well as attending classes at the Ohio Mechanics Institute.  John developed a love for art and persuaded his parents to allow him to enrol for a part-time course at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati and this is when he met and was mentored by an already successful American realist artist, Frank Duveneck who invited Twachtman to share his studio in Cincinnati.

In 1875, when he was twenty-four years of age, he and Duveneck, who was just five years his senior, travelled to Europe to study European art.  First stop was Munich where Twachtman studied for two years at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Art tutored by the German genre and landscape painter, Ludwig von Löfftz.  This artistic establishment was a long-standing center of artistic excellence and was one which attracted increasing numbers of aspiring American artists.   From there he, Duveneck and another American student attending the Academy, William Merritt Chase, travelled to Venice in the spring of 1877 and spent much of their time painting en plein air.

Twachtman returned to America in 1878 and for a brief time taught at the Women’s’ Art Association in Cincinnati. He also joined the Cincinnati Etching Club where he became friendly with Martha Scudder, a Cincinnati artist and daughter of a local physician.    Martha had studied at the School of Design and also in Europe, and had, on a number of occasions, exhibited her work.   In 1880, Twachtman married, Martha Scudder.  Soon after she married she gave up her artistic career and simply devoted herself to bringing up her family.  John and Martha had two children: a son, J. Alden Twachtman, who was born in March 1882 and went on to became a painter and architect and a daughter, Marjorie, who was born in Paris in 1884.    In 1880 John and Martha left America on honeymoon and went to Europe and Bavaria where Twachtman helped out as an art teacher in Duveneck’s school.  Twachtman tired of the Munich style’s painting especially its lack of draughtsmanship and so he upped roots and moved to Paris, where in 1883 he enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he studied under Gustave Boulanger, the French figure painter who was renowned for his classical and Orientalist subjects.  Another of his tutors was the French figure painter, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre.

Twachtman returned to the United States in 1887 and remained there for the rest of his life settling in Connecticut where he established an informal art school at Holly House, a boarding house for artists at Cos Cob, a small fishing village near Greenwich.  This became a magnet for young aspiring artists, who came and were taught by Twachtman.  Ten years later in 1897, Twachtman along with Childe Hassan and J Alden Weir became founder members of a group known as the Ten American Painters generally known as The Ten.  This group was considered to be a sort of Academy of American Impressionists who had broken away from the more conservative Society of American Artists.  From 1899 onwards, although living on his farm in Greenwich, Twachtman spent most of his last summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts and it was here that he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1902, aged 49.

The painting by John Twachtman, which I am featuring today, is one of his many winter landscapes.  This one is entitled Winter Harmony and was completed by the artist in the last decade of the nineteenth century.  It now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  The painting features a pool on the artist’s property and was to be depicted in a number of his works.

Disappointed Love by Francis Danby

Disappointed Love by Francis Danby (1821)

Francis Danby was an English painter, born in 1793, in a small village near Waterford, Ireland, where his father owned a farm.  When he was fourteen years of age his father died and he along with his mother and twin brother moved to Dublin.  Whilst living in Dublin, Francis Danby enrolled at the Royal Dublin Society’s Schools of Drawing where he received artistic training.  It was at this establishment that he met the renowned Irish landscape painter James Arthur O’Connor and it was through his mentorship that Danby developed a love of landscape painting. Danby also struck up a friendship with another fellow student, George Petrie, and they along with O’Connor left Dublin in 1813 and travelled to London.  By all accounts the trip had not been well planned financially and their funds soon ran out and they had to head back to Ireland, on foot, but on the way they stopped off in Bristol.  It was in this city that Danby managed to supplement his meagre worth by painting watercolours of the local scenes and selling them to the locals.  At the same time as selling some of his work, he kept back what he considered to be his best paintings and sent them to various London exhibitions.

The works of Francis Danby, which were shown at various London sites, received favourable reviews and were soon in great demand.  It was whilst still living in Bristol around 1818 that Danby joined an informal association of artists based around Bristol, which had been founded by the English genre painter, Edward Bird, known as the Bristol School or Bristol School of Artists.  In 1821, Danby had a painting of his first exhibited at the Royal Academy.  It was entitled Disappointed in Love and is My Daily Art Display’s featured work today.  In 1824 Danby left Bristol and moved to London.  It was around this time that Danby gave up his naturalistic and topographically accurate landscapes and moved towards poetic landscape painting.  Poetic landscapes gave one the geography and architecture of landscapes from a subjective point of view, using elements of myth, fantasy or the picturesque. Claude Lorrain is usually looked upon as the originator of this style and this style of painting culminated in the Romantic landscape of the 19th century.   A Poetic Landscape presents us with an imaginary place and for that reason the artists did not have to worry about topographical accuracy and it allowed them the opportunity to transform the characteristic features of, for example, Italian geography and architecture, and turn them into mythical or pastoral fantasy. This painting genre allowed artists to exaggerate the shape and height of mountains, delete or redesign buildings and objects, insert dramatically placed trees or human figures, and throw strongly contrasted lighting effects over it all. The public liked this style of landscape painting and did not care about the topographical veracity of what they saw.  People, at the time, preferred this style to the topographical landscape with its dryly objective recording of what was actually there.

Another artistic genre Danby began to draw on was the large biblical scenes such as his 1825 painting The Delivery of Israel,  which was exhibited at the Royal Academy and which led to him being elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy.  In the next two decades Francis Danby produced many large biblical and apocalyptic paintings which were to rival his contemporary and renowned “high priest” of apocalyptic art, John Martin.

Francis Darby, already an Associate Member of the Royal Academy was put up for election in 1829 to become a Royal Academician.  When the votes were counted, he was devastated to find he had lost out by one vote to John Constable,  who was elected instead of him.  This year, 1829, was an annus horriblis for Danby as this was also the year that his marriage to his wife Hannah failed and he took himself a mistress.  Hannah went off with another artist Paul Falconer Poole who had spent some time in the Danby household.  London Society was scandalised by the goings-on at Danby’s household and in 1830 he went into self-imposed exile in Paris along with his mistress.  From 1831 to 1836 Danby worked out of Geneva reverting back to his topographical watercolour landscape art work.

The Deluge by Francis Danby

In 1837 he returned to Paris and a year later went back to living in London.  It was in that year he produced his famous work, The Deluge, which re-established his reputation amongst the art community.  This massive canvas, measuring 2.85m x 4.52m, depicted an area of harsh and violent weather and writhing, diminutive bodies trying to save themselves from the stormy waters.  The painting put Danby briefly back in the limelight.  However for Danby,  life as an artist was becoming too much for him and in 1847, aged 54, he left London and went to live in Exmouth, Devon.

Whilst living in Devon Danby still found time to paint concentrating on landscapes and seascapes but he also took up boatbuilding.  Francis Danby died in Exmouth, in 1861, aged 67.  To the end of his life Danby constantly had money problems and was embittered that he never gained the recognition he deserved from the Royal Academy and was never elected as a Royal Academician.  The final straw came two days before he died when he learnt that his ex-wife’s husband, Paul Falconer Poole had been elected a Royal Academician !

My Daily Art Display painting for today is by Francis Danby which he completed in 1821 and is entitled Disappointed Love.  The painting was the first painting Francis Danby exhibited at the Royal Academy, and it became one of his best-known works. Before us, we see a heartbroken young woman who has just been jilted.  Her hands cover her face as she sits weeping on the bank of a  lily pond surrounded by dark and murky woodland.  The occasional small white flowers, dotted around, struggle to lift the dark green and browns of the undergrowth.  This gloomy undergrowth mirrors the depressed mind of the young girl.   Her long dark tresses hang down over her white dress.   On the ground beside her we see her discarded bonnet, her scarlet shawl , a miniature portrait of her lover and other letters which she has not yet destroyed.    Her sad figure dressed in white is reflected in the water and in some way it seems that the water is drawing her to it so that she can end her life and her misery, in an Ophelia-like fashion.  Floating on the surface of the pond are pieces of a letter which she has torn up and discarded.  Eric Adams wrote a biography in 1973 on Francis Danby entitled Francis Danby: varieties of poetic landscape and he believes the setting for the painting was on the banks of the River Frome on the outskirts of Bristol and that the model for the painting was a model at the Bristol Artists newly founded Life Academy.  There was a lot of criticism of the painting, not so much for the poetical nature of the work but for its technical faults, in particular the lack of proportion of the plants in the foreground.

When the painting was put forward to the Royal Academy jurists to see if it should be allowed in to the 1821 Exhibition it was not wholly loved.  An account of the jurist’s comments on seeing Danby’s painting was reported some twelve years later as:

“…An unknown artist about ten years ago sent a very badly painted picture for the exhibition.  The committee laughed, but were struck by “something” in it and gave it admission.  The subject was this.  It was a queer-coloured landscape and a strange doldrum figure of a girl was seated on a bank, leaning over a dingy duck-weed pool.  Over the stagnant smeary green, lay scattered the fragments of a letter she had torn to pieces, and she seemed considering whether to plump herself in upon it.  Now in this case, the Academicians judged by the same feelings that influence the public.  There was more “touching” invention in that than in the nine-tenth of the best pictures exhibited there the last we do not know how many years.  The artist is now eminent…”

To my mind it is a beautiful painting, full of pathos, and one cannot but feel sympathy for the young girl.  It was for this reason that I was surprised to read an anecdote about this painting and the depiction of the girl.  Apparently the Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, was being shown the painting by its owner, the wealthy Yorkshire cloth manufacturer, John Sheepshanks and commented that although he was impressed by the deep gloom of the scene, it was a shame that the girl was so ugly.  Sheepshanks replied:

“..Yes, one feels that the sooner she drowns herself the better…”

How unkind !

This painting along with the rest of his outstanding art collection was presented to the Victoria & Albert Museum

Hope by George Frederic Watts

Hope by George Frederic Watts (1886)

George Frederic Watts was a Victorian painter and sculptor who was closely associated in his later years with the Symbolism Movement.  Symbolism came about in the 1880’s but by the end of the century it had almost died away having been overshadowed by the birth and rise of Modernism.  The Symbolist movement was a reaction against the literal representation of objects and subjects, where instead there was an attempt to create more suggestive, metaphorical and evocative works.  Symbolic artists based their ideas on literature, where poets such as Baudelaire believed that ideas and emotions could be portrayed through sound and rhythm and not just through the meaning of words. Symbolist painter styles varied greatly but common themes included the mystical and the visionary. Symbolists also explored themes of death, debauchery, perversion and eroticism. Symbolism moved away from the naturalism of the impressionists and demonstrated a preference for emotions over intellect.

George Frederic Watts was born on February 23rd 1817 in Marylebone, London and his Christian names were those of the great musician George Frederic Handel who was born on that date some 132 years earlier.  His mother and father struggled financially and this was not helped by the poor health of his mother who was to die when George was very young.   His father was a piano maker and took it upon himself to educate his son at home.  Much emphasis was placed on a conservative Christian upbringing and a love for classical literature.  Unfortunately, as is so often the case, his father’s compelling desire to force his Christian views on his son, eventually made George turn completely away from organised religions.

At the age of ten, George had some informal tuition from William Behnes, a local sculptor where he practiced drawing from the sculptures.  This training proved a godsend as by the age of sixteen he was able to support himself from the sale of his portraits.  In 1835, aged eighteen years of age, George Watts enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools.  Although Watts never enjoyed his time at the establishment and would often fail to attend he did exhibit some of his works at the 1837 Royal Academy Exhibition.  It was whilst studying art that he met and became great friends with Alexander Constantine Ionides, an art patron and collector.  Ionides commissioned many paintings from Watts and became one of his earliest patrons.

By 1840 Watts had moved away from portraiture and concentrated on historical paintings.  In 1843, he entered the first competition to design murals for the new Houses of Parliament.  Entries were to be of a narrative genre which endorsed patriotism and thus would be appropriate to the new legislative building.   His entry, Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome, gained him first prize in the competition and the prize money helped fund his artistic study trip to Italy where he remained for four years.  During his stay in Italy he learnt the secrets of fresco painting and completed many large scale paintings depicting scenes from Romantic literature.  However, he never gave up on his other artistic loves, portraiture and landscape painting.

Watts returned to London in 1847 and once again entered the Houses of Parliament competition.  This was the fourth one organised by the monarch and the government.  Watts won the competition with his entry Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Encounter the Danes at Sea.   Watts suffered from bouts of depression and he expressed his personal struggle with the illness in a series of four paintings which evoked a social realism theme.  One of these works entitled Found Drowned was my featured painting in My Daily Art Display of July 4th 2011.  In 1851 he went to live with his friend Henry Thoby Prinsep and his wife Sara at Little Holland House.  He lived with them for the next twenty-four years and it undoubtedly provided Watts with a secure environment for him to work and relax and provide a safe haven away from the rigours of the real world.  Little Holland House was a favourite meeting place of the young Pre-Raphaelite artists and literary people like Tennyson and it gave Watts then ideal opportunity to paint portraits of the aspiring literary and artistic luminaries of the day.

In 1878 Watts took part in the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris and submitted nine paintings and one sculpture.  He became an instantaneous celebrity on the European art scene.  During the 1880’s,  he produced many symbolic paintings which displayed close links to the work of his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the other Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones.

In 1886 at the age of 69 Watts re-married, to Mary Fraser-Tytler, a Scottish designer and potter who was some thirty three years his junior.   In 1891 he bought a house in Compton, near Guilford, in Surrey and in 1904 had a gallery built nearby which became known as the Watts Gallery and which was dedicated to his work.  The Watts Gallery is still a very popular venue for art lovers. George Frederic Watts died that year aged 87, shortly after the gallery opening.

Hope is looked upon as certainly the most influential, and outstanding if not most unusual of all George Frederic Watts’ paintings. This portrayal of the poignant musician has struck a chord with audiences and critics ever since it was first displayed at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886.  In 1887 at the Royal Jubilee exhibition held in Manchester the painting took pride of place in the middle of an entire wall dedicated to Watts’ work.  Numerous reproductions were made of this painting and many who saw it were deeply affected by what they saw and Watts received many letters from people who were greatly moved by the emotional impact it had on them. In the painting Watts has personified Hope as a young woman seated on a globe, hunched over, appearing to be almost asleep.  She wears a blindfold which symbolises her blindness and to the mental state she embodies. What was it about this work that such an effect on people?  It has to be Watts’ portrayal of this hunched, isolated, blindfolded and barefoot woman who appears to be on the edge of despair.  So why the title Hope?   Maybe in this case it is not hope meaning one’s optimistic thoughts but more of a feeling of almost despair; a hoping against hope.   As we take in the picture of the girl bent over listening to the music from her lyre we wonder why Watts has chosen the title.  The bluish grey background induces a melancholy mood. One critic commented that the painting did not evoke a feeling of hope and should have been entitled Despair.  Maybe that was the reason that in another version of his painting he has added a single star to the background to symbolise hope.  The girl, Hope, bends her ear to catch the music from the last remaining string of her almost shattered lyre. It is the faintest of hope as symbolised in her musical instrument which now with just one string left for her to make music and once that has broken, all hope of her producing a musical sound has disappeared.

Did the painting appeal to those who had almost lost hope themselves and in some way empathised with the vulnerability of the woman in the painting?  Watts had always sought, through his paintings, to communicate his message to as many people as possible. Some would criticise this aspect as being somewhat patronizing but Watts was a great master of narrative paintings and this was probably the reason why his conventional patriotic works he put forward for the Houses of Parliament were so successful.  Watts was surprised by the critical acclaim and popularity of his painting and attempted to follow up his success with Hope with two other works entitled, Faith and Charity, the other two “theological virtues” but they neither received the critical acclaim that his Hope painting achieved nor were they as popular with the public.

This version of the painting can be found in the Tate Gallery, London.

Peasant Girl Lighting a Fire. Frost, by Camille Pissarro

Peasant Girl Lighting a Fire. Frost by Camille Pissarro (1888)

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today is entitled Peasant Girl Lighting a Fire. Frost, which was painted by Camille Pissarro in 1888 and can now be found in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  At this time Pissarro was still a leading light of the Impressionist movement, a movement he had helped to form.   However it was two years prior to this work that Pissarro began to become interested in the experimental work of young artists, who had adopted the fragmented brushstroke technique which Georges Seurat and Paul Signac were trying out, known as pointillism , a technique Pissarro used in parts of this painting.  For a more in depth look at pointillism see My Daily Art Display October 21st 2011 for a painting by Georges Seurat and November 29th 2011 for a painting by Paul Signac. Pissarro had been introduced to Seurat and Signac in 1885 and in the following years he began to work in the pointillist style which had then been adopted by the Neo-Impressionists.  By the time Pissarro was in his sixties he found that this pointillism technique too restricting and in the last ten years of his life he returned to a purer Impressionist style.
Camille Pissarro was fifty-eight years of age when he completed today’s featured work of art.  Ten years earlier his style of painting was such that he would portray nature in his landscapes by a myriad of smaller comma-like brushstrokes built up on the surface of the canvas such as his 1877 work, The Red Roofs (see My Daily Art Display of November 30th 2010).  Pissarro was concerned that these works lacked clarity and so he decided to change the way he worked.  He spent time working in collaboration with Degas, who was, of all the Impressionists, a great believer and advocate of figure painting and the primacy of the human figure at the expense of landscape background.  It was maybe the views of Degas that led to Pissarro to complete some works in which the human being(s) took pride of place in the painting, as is the case with today’s featured work.

The painting depicts two peasant girls working in a field in a cold and frosty winter morning and we see one of them tending a fire.  Pissarro often painted peasant women at work.  Two fine examples of this are his 1881 work entitled Girl with a Stick and the 1893 painting entitled Woman with a Green Shawl.  His portrayal of peasants received some criticism for copying the ideas of Jean-François Millet but Pissarro firmly contested such a notion.  However in general art critics looked upon his works as true representations of peasant life.  Look at the beautiful way in which Pissarro has depicted the landscape.  At the time of this painting Pissarro was extremely interested in the pointillism technique of Seurat and Signac and he used this method to present us with a sumptuous backdrop to the two girls.  The painting has a light and airy feel to it and there is a subtle delicate nature to the work.  The work was painted in Eragny just north-west of Paris where Pissarro and his family lived for a time.

In the far distance we can see the low hills topped by irregular spaced bushy trees.  In the middle ground, we observe grazing cows in the meadow, a line of poplar trees at the foot of the hills and possibly a hidden stream running horizontally across the mid ground.   Notwithstanding the backdrop, the focus of the painting is on the two girls in the foreground, who almost appear to stand next to us.  The scene is lit up by the sun, somewhere out of sight, to the left, which throws off long blue shadows across the field.  It is a wintry sun and still low in the sky, hence the long shadow of the girl in the foreground, which disappears off the painting to the right.    Although it emits light, the sun gives off little warmth and so our two young workers are wrapped up well.  The temperature is even colder due to the wind chill factor.  Look how the girls skirt and the smoke from her small fire are blown horizontally by the wind which comes from the left of the painting.  One can imagine how cold it is with the driving wind on a wintry day. We almost shiver as we look at this work of art.

The girls are both well wrapped up against the morning’s wintry chill.  The girl on the right, who seems no more than a child, is warming her hands by the fire.  She wears a blue dress and a thick dark brown coat.  She has a dark woolen hat on her head which is pulled down to protect her ears from the icy wind.   The older girl, who is closest to us and because of her height, is the main focus of our attention.  She has taken a branch from the pile behind her, and is about to break it up and add it to the fire.  She wears a pink skirt with a blue apron.  She too has protected her head, wearing a white scarf tied beneath her chin.  Her final layer of protection is a pink and white shawl from which emerge long black sleeves of her dress.

The colour combinations Pissarro uses to achieve the colour we see is fascinating.  The girls pink dress is made up of a combination of yellow, blue and pink.  The green grass of the meadow is achieved by using a combination green, blue, yellow, pink and white.  The only orange Pissarro used was for the flames of the fire.

Pissarro fled the traumas of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and, like Monet, went to live in London.   It was whilst in London that he saw a number of paintings by Turner.  Pissarro later commented on Turner’s works and was amazed by the way Turner succeeded in conveying the snow’s whiteness, not just by the use of white alone but by combining a host of multi-coloured strokes, dabbed in, one against the other, which when looked at from a distance, created the desired effect.  It is in this painting that Pissarro has, without the actual presence of snow, managed to give us a crystalline frost of a cold winter’s morning encapsulated in an aura of diamond blue.

Francesca da Rimini by Ary Scheffer

Francesca da Rimini by Ary Scheffer (1835)

What is your perception of Hell?  Do you think of it as a huge furnace full of burning souls, or simply a place of deprivation?  We do not know and I don’t believe we will ever know what it is like or whether it or its sister-place, Heaven, really exists and so with this lack of evidence we can then formulate in our own minds what it is all about without fear of contradiction.  One person who did just that was Durante degli Alighieri, better known simply as Dante Alighieri.  In the first part (Inferno) of his epic poem entitled Divine Comedy he tells of his journey he made through Hell with the Roman poet Virgil acting as his guide.  Many artists have painted pictures based on Dante’s Inferno with its concentric circles full of various types of sinners.  To get to the gates of Hell Dante and Virgil had to cross the river Acheron which could only be achieved by being transported by ferry, piloted by Charon.  My Daily Art Display (September 6th 2011) depicts the two men being ferried across the river made famous in the painting,  The Barque of Dante or Dante and Virgil in Hell by Eugène Delacroix.

According to Dante, Hell is situated within the Earth, it is made up of nine circles of torment.  The circles are concentric, and represent a gradual increase in evilness.  The outer circle, or the first circle is the resting place of those who were never baptised, the second circle was for people whose sin was one of Lust.  As Dante and Virgil moved inwards they came across circles which housed the souls who had committed the sins of Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery.  It is interesting to note that for Dante, an Italian male, those who committed the sin of Lust were only in the second circle, as presumably in Dante’s mind, Lust was not that bad a sin!  The inner most part of this Hell ends at the centre of the earth, where Satan is held in bondage.   The sinners who populated each of the circles were punished in a fashion fitting their crimes, a system of contrapasso; derived from the Italian words contra and patior meaning  “suffer the opposite” a sort of poetic justice.

My featured painting today is about two lovers from Dante’s Divine Comedy who Dante and Virgil meet, trapped in the stormy darkness of the Second Circle of Hell (Lust)It is here that those overcome by lust during their time on earth have been sentenced to remain. Dante condemns them, and those like them, calling them “carnal malefactors” for letting their sexual appetites affect their reasoning. These hapless souls are blown to and fro by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without hope of rest and this symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly.  It is here that Francesca da Rimini tells Dante the story of how she and her lover Paolo ended up in this Second Circle of Hell.

Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are depicted in the 1835 painting by Ary Scheffer, which is entitled Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld or simply Francesca da Rimini. .    The story goes back to the time when Francesca’s father, Guido I da Polenta was lord of Ravenna but had been at war with a rival  family,  the Malatesta family.  Peace between the two families finally came about and to cement their relationship Guido agreed that one of his daughters, Francesca, should marry Giovanni Malatesta, the son and heir of the Malatesta clan.  Although Giovanni was an able man and would on the death of his father become ruler, he was ugly and deformed.   The friends of Francesca’s father told him that if Francesca was to set eyes on Giovanni prior to the marriage, she would never go through with it. So the two fathers hatched plan and sent Giovanni’s younger brother Paolo to Ravenna with authorisation to marry Francesca in Giovanni’s name.   Paolo, unlike his elder brother was handsome and courteous and Francesca immediately fell in love with him. The marriage took place and the marriage contract signed and bride and bridegroom returned to Rimini, with Francesca still unaware of the deception.

In the morning following the wedding she became aware of the deception.  She was furious that she had been deceived and to make matters worse she realised that she had fallen in love with Paolo.  Giovanni left Rimini on business leaving Paolo and Francesca together and they both realised that they loved each other.   Their lovemaking was witnessed by Giovanni’s servant who sent word to his master, who then secretly returned home.  He went to Francesca’s room in which were the two lovers.  He banged on the door and shouted her name.  They recognised Giovanni’s voice.  Paolo pointed to a trapdoor in the floor that led to a room below. He told Francesca to go open the door as he planned his escape.   However as he jumped through the open trapdoor part of his jacket got caught on a piece of iron.  Francesca, unaware of his Paolo’s predicament, opened the door for Giovanni, believing she would be able to make excuses, now that Paolo was gone. When Giovanni entered the bedchamber he noticed Paolo caught by his jacket on the trap door.   He immediately ran towards the trapdoor and with his rapier drawn thrust it at Paolo intending to kill him. Seeing what Giovanni intended to do, Francesca quickly ran between the two brothers to try to prevent it. But Giovanni’s rapier was already thrusting downwards towards the hapless Paolo but before it struck him the blade passed through Francesca’s bosom. Giovanni was totally distraught by what he had done for he still loved Francesca.  He withdrew the blade of the sword from her body and immediately plunged it into his brother, killing him.  The next morning, amidst much weeping, the two lovers were buried in the same tomb.

In the painting we see Dante and Virgil standing to the right hand side watching as the two, almost-naked, lovers cling to each other.  Art critics at the time praised this exceptional work by Scheffer, and it was to become one of his most famous and most admired works.  Scheffer went on to produce several replicas of it.  The original painting can be found at the Wallace Collection, London.

Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen

Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen (1664)

I do my best to feature paintings by artists that people may not have come across before and I try not to feature the same artist too many times but sometimes I cannot help but revisit works by my favourite artists and today is no exception.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen which he completed in 1664.  I have showcased work by this artist three times before.  On February 16th 2011 we looked at a work entitled In Luxury, Look Out.  On April 27th 2011, I featured his painting The Effects of Intemperance and finally on August 26th 2011, I gave you The Life of Man so if you like today’s work why not go and have a look at some other of Jan Steen’s paintings.

Before us we have a simple scene of a couple celebrating the birth of their child, or do we?  In fact there is more to this painting than a simple celebration of the birth of a baby.  Look closely at the painting and see what is odd about the Steen’s depiction of the event and see if you can work out what is happening in the scene.  I will give you a hint.  Look at the man who stands behind the baby and the baby’s father.  Before I reveal the secret about the painting let me first tell you a little about the artist, Jan Steen.

Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in the Dutch town of Leiden in 1626.  He, like his artistic contemporary, Rembrandt, attended the local Latin School of Leiden. And a year later in 1646 he enrolled at the University of Leiden.  His professional artistic training started the following year and came from the German-born, Dutch Golden Age painter, Nicolaes Knupfer.  It is thought that he also could have studied with Adriaen van Ostade and it was this artist’s low-life genre work which was to influence Jan Steen’s early works.  At the age of twenty-two Steen along with his artist friend Gabriel Metsu and a number of local painters founded the painters’ Guild of St Luke of Leiden.

In 1648, Jan Steen moved to The Hague and worked as an assistant at the workshop of the celebrated landscape painter, Jan van Goyen.  Van Goyen was, like Jan Steen, born in Leiden.  He had moved from Leiden to The Hague in 1631 where he set up his workshop.  Steen was not only employed by van Goyen but was also taken in by van Goyen’s family and lived with him, his wife Annetie and their daughters.     Jan Steen became very friendly with Margriet, one of van Goyen’s daughters and they married in 1649 and the couple went on to have eight children.  Steen’s association with his father-in-law lasted until 1654.

In 1654 he and his family moved to Delft where he ran a brewery which his father had rented for him.  It was called De Roscam (The Curry Comb) but although Steen had a great artistic talent his business acumen was sadly lacking and the brewery failed.  In 1657 he went to live in Warmond,  a town close to Leiden and it was here that he met and became friends with the artist, Frans van Mieris.  Frans van Mieris was a painter of genre scenes which depicted the habits and actions of the wealthier classes.  It was this type of art by van Mieris and the works of Te Borch that weaned Steen off his low-life genre paintings and influenced him to paint more elegant genre scenes.  Jan Steen left Haarlem in 1660 and moved back to Haarlem where he stayed for the next ten years.  In 1669, near the end of this stay his wife died and the following year his father passed away.  After his father’s death in 1670 Jan returned once again to Leiden where he remained for the rest of his life.  He remarried that year and his second wife, Maria van Egmont,  gave Jan two children.

For the Dutch people, the year 1672 became known as the rampjaar(disaster year) as this was the year that saw the start of the Franco-Dutch War and the Third Anglo Dutch War, which culminated in the defeat of the Dutch States Army and large swathes of the Republic was conquered by the invading troops.   Because of these wars the art market collapsed and Steen needed another source of income so in 1673 he opened a tavern. His work in the tavern meant that his artistic output diminished in his later years.

Jan Steen died on New Year’s Day 1679 in Leiden

And so let us go back to the featured painting.  Have you worked out the “sub-plot” depicted in this painting yet?  Steen is best known for his humorous genre scenes, warm hearted and animated works in which he treats life as a vast comedy of manners and this work of his is no different.  We are looking at a lying-in room.  Whenever the lady of the house was about to give birth, one of the rooms was set aside for this purpose. The lying-in room was used for the actual delivery, and later to receive visitors.  The birth of a child was, as it is now, a cause for celebration.  It is greeted with both happiness and pride and in the 17th century in the case of the birth of a son, it became even more of a celebration for economic reasons as a son would often carry on his father’s business and would inherit the family possessions.

In this painting Steen has depicted a group of revellers celebrating the birth of a child.  One can imagine the elated atmosphere within the room with all its merriment and drinking.  The majority of people in the room are women as men, including the father, were considered inappropriate interlopers in this female sanctuary.  The mother is in the left background of the painting lying in her bed being fed some broth.  Another woman sits at the end of the bed drinking to excess.     The others present will probably be female relatives, maidservants and the midwife.  Normally one would expect, as in most works of art depicting such an event, that the mother of the newborn baby would be the main focus of attention.  However Steen has made the proud father the main focus of this painting.  However he is not the only man in the painting.  Look at the figure behind the baby.  We see another man as he is about to creep out of the room.  Actually it is a self-portrait of the artist himself.  It was not simply to break tradition to see the two men in the painting but Steen wanted to convey a little information about what has happened and to the nature of the husband and wife’s relationship.

Sign of the cuckold

Look more carefully and you will see something which was not visible until the painting was cleaned in 1983.  The man leaving the room has made a cheeky two-fingered gesture above the baby’s head.     This gesture can be seen by all those in the room except the proud father.   From the young man’s gesture, Steen has made us aware that the ‘father’ has been made a cuckold. The gesture illustrates the tradition of “cuckold’s horns, and that the horns, visible to all but the man himself, will grow on the head of a man whose wife has been unfaithful. The proud father stands right of centre having been presented with his child.  His pride on the birth of his child is plain to see.  He is totally unaware of the ridicule and stands before us, puffed up, beaming with pride as he shows off his child.  Nobody seems shocked by this audacious gesture which tells us that everyone in the room appears to know what the man does not: that the child is not his..  There are other sexually symbolic inclusions in Steen’s painting to suggest not just sexual impropriety but implying the husband was impotent, such as the bed warming pan, which lays prominently on the floor in the foreground.  The warming pan reminds us of the adage, the only warmth in the marriage bed is the warming pan.   In the right foreground we see broken egg shells scattered on the floor and again this is a reminder that the phrase, cracking eggs into a pan, was a contemporary euphemism for sexual intercourse.

The demand for money

Steen has been very unkind with his depiction of the father in this portrait.  We see him wearing an apron and carrying keys like a housekeeper would do, thus implying a lowering of his status in the household.   We also see the old midwife at his shoulder demanding money for her services and to the right of the man, sat on a stool, is a maid with her hand out, seemingly demanding payment for making the celebratory broth.  Steen’s final degrading of the man is his depiction of the limp and ineffectual sausage hanging by the fireplace which does not need me to explain the connotation of such an inclusion!!

There is a moralistic point to the painting.   It is a warning tale of what happens when an older man marries a much younger woman.   In a way Steen has no qualms about depicting the man as a cuckold.  Maybe the modern saying of there’s no fool like an old fool has its roots way back in time.

River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl by Salvator Rosa

River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaen Sibyl by Salvator Rosa (c.1655)

My featured artist today is the 17th century Italian Baroque painter Salvator Rosa.  He was born in 1615 in the small hill town of Arenella above the outskirts of Naples.  His father Vito Antonio was a land surveyor and had great ambitions for his son wanting him to become either a lawyer or take holy orders in the church and become a priest.  With this in mind he decided that his son should be afforded the best education and had him enter the convent of the Somaschi Fathers, a holy order of priests and brothers.  As we have seen in many biographies of artists, what the parents want for their children often differs from what the children themselves want and so it was the case for Salvator Rosa.  During his studies he had developed a love of art and with the support of his maternal uncle, Paolo Greco, he secretly began to learn to paint.  Rosa began his artistic training in Naples, under the tutelage of his future brother-in-law, Francesco Francanzano, who had trained under the influential Spanish painter, Jusepe de Ribera.  It is also believed that after this initial training, Rosa trained with the Naples painter, Aniello Falcone, who was also at one time apprenticed to Ribera.  Rosa greatly admired the works of Ribera and was influenced by them.

His father died when he was seventeen years old and, as he had been the breadwinner to Rosa’s large family, his mother struggled to feed her children let alone financially support her son Salvator with his artistic ambitions.  After his father’s death, Salvator Rosa continued to work as an apprentice with Falcone until 1634 when he relocated to Rome where he stayed for two years before returning home.

In 1638, aged 23 he went back to Rome where he was given accommodation by the Bishop of Viterbo, Francesco Brancaccio who treated him as his protégé and received commissions from the Catholic Church.  It was whilst in Rome that Rosa further developed his multi-talented skills, not just as an artist but as a musician, a writer and a comic actor.  He founded a company of actors in which he regularly participated.   He wrote and often acted in his own satirical plays, often political in nature and often lampooned the wealthy and powerful, and it was his devilish satire which gained him the reputation of a rebel, pitting himself against these influential people.  However his viperish-tongued satires made him some powerful enemies including Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous and powerful architect and who was at that time, the most powerful artist in Rome.  He, like Rosa, was also an amateur playwright and it was during the Carnival in 1639 that Rosa ridiculed Bernini’s plays and his stature as a playwright.  Eventually Rosa had made too many enemies in the Italian capital and decided it was just too dangerous to remain there.

From Rome he travelled to Florence where he was to remain for the next eight years.   One of his most influential Florentine patrons was Cardinal Giancarlo de’ Medici, himself a great lover and supporter of the Arts. Rosa worked for the Cardinal at his palace but was still allowed the freedom to paint his own landscapes and would go off and spend the summers in the Tuscan countryside around Monterufoli and Barbiano.    It was whilst living in Florence that Rosa did some work for Giovanni Carlo who was at the centre of the literary and theatrical life of Florence and Rosa soon became part of Carlo’s circle of friends.  Rosa used his own house as a meeting place for local writers, musicians and artists and it became known as the Accademia dei Percossi, or Academy of the Stricken.

He left Florence in 1646 being unhappy with the ever increasing restrictions put on him and his artistic and literary work by the Medici court  He went first back to Naples where he remained for three years before returning to Rome in 1649  where he believed his writings and paintings would win him even greater fame.  One of the problems Salvator Rosa had was his ever tempestuous relationship with his patrons and their demands.  He often refused to paint on commission or to agree a price beforehand.  He rejected interference from his patrons in his choice of subject.  In Francis Haskell’s book entitled, Patrons and Painters: Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, he quotes from a letter Rosa wrote to one of his patrons, Antonio Ruffo, explaining his thoughts on his art and commissions:

“…I do not paint to enrich myself but purely for my own satisfaction.  I must allow myself to be carried away by the transports of enthusiasm and use my brushes only when I feel myself rapt…”

The 17th century Florentine art historian Filippo Baldinucci could not believe Rosa’s attitude to his patrons and wrote:

“…I can find few, in fact, I cannot find any, artists either before or after him or among his contemporaries, who can be said to have maintained the status of art as high as he did… No one could ever make him agree a fixed price before a picture was finished and he used to give a very interesting reason for this: he could not instruct his brush to produce paintings worth a particular sum but, when they were completed, he would appraise them on their merits and would then leave it to his friend’s judgement to take them or leave them….”

In his later years he spent much time on satirical portraiture, history paintings and works of art featuring tales from mythology.  In 1672 he contracted dropsy and died six months later.  Whilst on his deathbed he married Lucrezia, his mistress of thirty years, who had borne him two sons.   He died in March 1673 just a few months short of his fifty-eighth birthday.  After his father’s death forty years earlier Rosa had struggled financially but at the time of his death he had accumulated a moderate fortune.

Landscape painting had been regarded as a relatively lesser genre of painting in Italy at the time. But two French artists based in Rome, Claude Lorraine, who Rosa had befriended, and Nicholas Poussin, had done much to raise its status by setting scenes drawn from classical myth or biblical legend in grand Arcadian landscapes inspired by the nearby countryside. Rosa continued their tradition but with one subtle difference.  His landscape scenes depicted scenes of stormy desolation rather than calm pastoral beauty scenes of Claude and Poussin.  For My Daily Art Display today I am going to look at a painting by Salvator Rosa, which is a landscape but based on Roman mythology and Ovid’s book Metamorphoses.  It is the story of Apollo (often known as Phoebus) and the Cumaean Sibyl.   Cumae, which was the location of Italy’s earliest Greek colony, is on the Gulf of Gaeta near Naples and this location was probably known to Rosa.  The basis of the painting harks back to a conversation Aeneas had with the Cumaean Sibyl, who was a guide to the underworld of Hades, the entrance to which was the volcanic crater of Avernus.  Aeneas wanted to enter the underworld in order to visit his dead father Anchises.  Aeneas, with the help of his guide, the Cumaean Sibyl, found the aged ghost of his father.  It was at this time that the Sibyl recounted the story of her barter with the god Apollo, how she reneged on her promise and why she had become old and haggard:

“…“I am no goddess,” she replied, “nor is it well to honour any mortal head with tribute of the holy frankincense. And, that you may not err through ignorance, I tell you life eternal without end was offered to me, if I would but yield virginity to Phoebus for his love. And, while he hoped for this and in desire offered to bribe me for my virtue, first with gifts, he said, ‘Maiden of Cumae choose whatever you may wish, and you shall gain all that you wish.’ I pointed to a heap of dust collected there, and foolishly replied, `As many birthdays must be given to me as there are particles of sand.’  For I forgot to wish them days of changeless youth. He gave long life and offered youth besides, if I would grant his wish. This I refused, I live unwedded still. My happier time has fled away, now comes with tottering step infirm old age, which I shall long endure…”

The making of the bargain

Her mistake had been not only to ask Apollo for eternal life but also to ask for everlasting youth and beauty.  She aged over time.  Her body grew smaller with age and eventually was kept in an ampulla, a small nearly globular flask or bottle, with two handles.   Eventually only her voice was left.

The painting, entitled River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl, depicting the meeting of the Cumaean Sibyl and Apollo, was painted by Salvator Rosa around 1655.  This is one of his finest works and highlights his ability as a landscape painter.  It is a desolate landscape scene.  Before us we have an isolated inlet of the sea, surrounded by towering cliffs of rough and rugged stone. On the right hand side of the painting we have a dark crag which towers against a stormy summer sunset.  From this jagged rock there are spindly trees sprouting from it at strange angles. In the foreground of the painting we see the god Apollo, seated on a tree stump with his lyre at his side, propositioning the beautiful Cumaean Sibyl, the turbaned woman who stands before him.    His hand is raised almost as if he is blessing the woman but it is his demonstrative act of granting her wish that she might live for as many years as there are grains of dust in the earth she holds out to him in her hand.   In return for the granting of her wish she would become his lover.   The Sibyl having been granted her wish, changes her mind, and refuses to surrender to Apollo’s advances.  Apollo cannot take back what he had given the young woman, but he was still able to punish the fickle girl, for, in devising her wish, she forgot to ask for eternal youth, and by refusing to grant her this he condemned her to grow older and older until at last she wasted away and only her voice was left.

The scene before us, depicted by Rosa, is purely imaginary, Rosa has included the cavern from which the Sibyl uttered her famous prophecies and which still exists in the dark, rocky area at the top right of the picture.  In the background we can see the inaccessible citadel perched high on a cliff.  The other characters we see in the scene are the nine muses, the goddesses of creative inspiration who were the handmaidens of Apollo. The painting is illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun light which light up the stormy sky in the distance. Look at how Rosa has managed to portray an aura of an ominous premonition.   The dramatic use of dark tones and chiaroscuro adds a feeling of foreboding about the scene.  The way he has depicted the wild landscape of bare rocks, splintered trees and a threatening stormy sky goes hand in hand with the story of retribution about to be dealt to the Cumaen Sibyl by Apollo for reneging on her promise to him.

Notwithstanding the darkness of the scene, it is still a beautiful landscape painting.  It is currently housed at the Wallace Collection, London.

Salon I by Otto Dix

The Salon I by Otto Dix (1921)

Today I am looking at a painting by an artist whose work has frequently shocked the public.  His art often focused on the First World War and the aftermath of it on the people of Germany.  It was not his intention to shock people with what was depicted in his paintings.  It was simply his intention to tell the truth through his art and ensure that people would not ever forget the price citizens had to pay when their governments took them to war.  Of his controversial paintings, he said:

“I’m not that obsessed with making representations of ugliness. Everything I’ve seen is beautiful.”

“I did not paint war pictures in order to prevent war. I would never have been so arrogant. I painted them to exorcise the experience of war.”

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.”

My featured artist today is the German painter and printmaker Otto Dix.  Dix was born in December 1891 in Untermhaus, Germany, which is now a part of the city of Gera.  He was the eldest son of Franz Dix, an iron foundry worker and Louise Dix, who was a seamstress and amateur artist.  His mother had also written poetry in her youth.  Otto had a cousin, Fritz Amann, who was a portrait and genre painter and so, from an early age, Otto Dix was exposed to the world of art.  At the age of fifteen Dix started a four year apprenticeship with the landscape painter Carl Senff and it was whilst at Senff’s workshop that Dix started painting his first landscapes.   At the end of his apprenticeship in 1910 he enrolled at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts and supported himself financially by painting portraits and selling them to local people.  Whilst there he studied under Richard Guhr, the painter and sculptor and Dix attended his figurative and decorative painting classes.

World War I broke out in 1914 and Otto Dix enthusiastically enrolled in the German army.    His first assignment, as a non-commissioned officer, was to join up with a field artillery regiment in Dresden.  In the autumn of 1915 he was assigned as a non-commissioned officer of a machine-gun unit in the Western front and took part of the Battle of the Somme. He was seriously wounded on a number of occasions. In 1917, his unit was transferred to the Eastern front where he remained until the end of hostilities with Russia. He then returned with his regiment to the western front and took part in the German Spring offensive. He earned the Iron Cross (second class) for valour and reached the rank of vice-sergeant-major.  By the end of the conflict, he had been wounded on five separate occasions.  Dix was horrified and very much affected by the horrific sights he had witnessed during the four years of the war and these visions caused him to have many persisting nightmares well after the end of hostilities.

It was these nightmares and his traumatic experiences during the fighting that comes through clearly in many of his subsequent works, including a portfolio of fifty etchings called War, published in 1924.  At the end of the war, Dix returned to Gera, but in 1919 he moved to Dresden, where he studied at the Dresden Art Academy.   It was whilst studying art in that city that he met the Expressionist painter, Conrad Felixmüller, who was one of the youngest members of the New Objectivity movement.   Felixmüller was also a member of the Communist Party of Germany and his paintings often dealt with the social realities of Germany’s Weimar Republic. He became a mentor to Otto Dix and managed to bring together Dix and a number of like-minded Expressionist artists to form the city’s most radical art group, the Dresden Secessionist Group.  A year later Dix met George Grosz and it was around this time that Dix began to integrate collage aspects into his work.

The Trench by Otto Dix (1923)

In 1922 Dix moved from Dresden to Dusseldorf where he found a more lucrative market for his works of art.  A year later, in 1923 he completed a painting which shocked the public and establishment alike.  It had been commissioned by the city of Cologne and was entitled The Trench.  It depicted dismembered and decomposed bodies of soldiers after an overnight battle in a German trench.  For many, it was a gruesome and offensive depiction of death in the trenches.  He began the painting it in 1920 whilst he was living in Dresden but did not complete it until three years later.  Such was the uproar that the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, which had commissioned the work, had to hide it behind a curtain.  The mayor of Cologne at the time and the future German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, cancelled the city’s purchase of the work and the Museum director, Hans Secker, was sacked.

Otto Dix’s work, like that of his friend and contemporary George Grosz was extremely critical of the present-day German Weimar society.   His paintings would draw attention to the more miserable side of life and the hopelessness felt by the ordinary German people following on from their defeat in war.   The depictions seen in his paintings often graphically showed prostitution, violence, old age and death.  He also focused his attention on the German veterans of the war who would wander the streets of Berlin physically disfigured and mentally unable to cope with life.  These were the forgotten men who had served their purpose and who were now abandoned by society.   These paintings of his were somewhat sad and depressing and yet realistic.

The War Cripples by Otto Dix (1920)

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in the early 1930’s they regarded Dix as a degenerate artist and his depictions of the defeated German soldiers and his portrayal of the low-life of Berlin were considered unpatriotic and for this reason they had him sacked from his post as an art teacher at the Dresden Academy.  He later moved to live on the shores of Lake Constance.   In 1937, in Munich the Nazis held an art exhibition of what they called Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art.  The purpose of the exhibition was to let the Germans know that some forms and pieces of art were not accepted by the “highest race”, and that this art was “degenerate”.  It was often termed Jewish or Bolshevistic art.  During the “Entartete Kunst” campaign over 20 thousand works by more than 200 artists of that time were confiscated. Dix’s 1923 painting The Trench and his 1920 work entitled, Kriegskrüppel (War Cripples) were shown at that exhibition.  They were later burned.  Dix was forced to join the Nazi-controlled Imperial chamber of Fine Arts in order to be able to work as an artist at all and had to promise to paint only landscapes. However, he still painted an occasional allegorical painting that criticized Nazi ideals. In 1939 he was arrested on a trumped-up charge of being involved in a plot against Hitler but was later released.  During World War II, Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm. He was captured by French troops at the end of the war and released in February 1946. Dix eventually returned to Dresden. After the war most of his paintings were religious allegories or depictions of post-war suffering. Otto Dix died in Singen, Germany, in 1969, aged 77.

For My Daily Art Display featured painting today I have not chosen one of his gruesome but telling war paintings but a painting which looks at the fall-out from war for individuals, in this case females of the defeated nation.  The painting is entitled The Salon I and was completed in 1921, just three years after the end of World War I,  Dix had often examined the life of women in the aftermath of war, many of whom desperate for money to feed themselves and their family turned to prostitution.  In his painting we see four such women, garishly dressed, sat around a table which is covered with an expensive tablecloth, which evokes middle-class décor.  Except for one, they are all passed their prime.

These four scantily dressed prostitutes, decked out in bangles, necklaces and other cheap trinkets look bored.   They sit there in silent contemplation.  In the short term they wonder who their next client will be and how will they be treated.  In a longer term they wonder what will eventually happen to them and how was it possible that they have been reduced to this way of life.  The female to the left of the painting is overweight and was a character often seen in Dix’s works.  She gives us an inviting smile as she supports her breasts giving them an uplift which may make them more tempting to her next client.  The woman to the right of the painting is pitilessly depicted by Dix.  Her best years are far behind her and no amount of make-up can hide the wrinkles of old age.  Her diaphanous negligee does little to hide her sagging breasts.  Next to her wearing a red band and bow around her forehead is a young woman.  We ask ourselves why somebody with her looks and manner should end up in this brothel.  Her eyes and facial expression hide the truth from us.  We are left to decide for ourselves what necessitated her to sell her body.

All in all, it is a depressing work of art but before we condemn Otto Dix for choosing such a subject we need to remember why he did it.  At the very beginning of this blog I gave you his reasoning behind his often gruesome and shocking art.  He was horrified by what he experienced during his four years at war and he fervently hoped that it would never happen again and in his own way he needed to remind everybody about the horror of war or as is the case in today’s featured painting, he wanted to remind people about the terrible aftermath of war especially for the defeated.  Maybe we should consider again his reasoning for his art.  Dix wrote:

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.”

Sadly nobody really paid attention to the horrors of the First World War as twenty years later we stumbled blindly into yet another major conflict.