Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico

Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)
Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)

“…One must embrace all forms of art…”

With those words from the lecturer who gives us weekly Art History talks still ringing in my ears when I dared query the relevance of Surrealism, Abstract and Performance Art, I will, for his sake, attempt to seduce you with a modicum of Pittura Metafisica and talk about the life of its founder and main proponent and leave you to decide whether you can embrace my tutor’s concept.

Pittura Metafisica or Metaphysical Art was a movement formed by the Italian painter, writer and theatre designer, Giorgio de Chirico and is a term applied to his work in the early twentieth century and to the work of his friend Carlo Carrà.  So in a few words, what is Metaphysical Art?   It is a depiction of dream-like things with sharp contrasts of light and shadow which sometimes gives the impression of being slightly threatening and has a mysterious quality. There is often a feeling of neoclassicism about the works and in many instances there is a mood of depressing purposelessness and a scary-type remoteness of a world alienated from man and, by the way the artist has arranged completely unrelated objects in the work, has somehow created a secret, often magical meaning to the work with their recognizable iconography and their illusory depictions with their subverted one-point perspective.  Often within the paintings, regularly of types of architecture found in Mediterranean cities, one would see classical statues or what look like tailor’s mannequins or expressionless human beings.  To this was often added inanimate objects such as coloured toys, geometrical instruments, fruit and small realistic paintings.

Giorgio de Chirico was the elder son, born in Vólos, Greece in 1888, of Italian parents.  His mother was Gemma Cervetto,  a noblewoman of Genoese origin and his father, Evaristo, was from Sicily.  He had a brother Andrea, who was two years his junior, and the two would remain close friends and confidants until the death of their mother in 1936 at which time, they started to drift apart.  The parents had moved from Tuscany and were living in Greece as his father was an engineer who was involved in the overseeing of the construction of the Greek railway system in Thessaly.  Giorgio and his brother  had early parental encouragement to take an interest in art and in the stories from Greek mythology and this latter was probably made somewhat easier by the fact that de Chirico’s home town of Vólos was built on the area which was once the site of the ancient port of Ioclos, which was were Jason boarded his ship Argo accompanied by the Argonauts as they set sail in their quest to find the Golden Fleece.  De Chirico’s childhood health was not good and it is recorded that he suffered from numerous bouts of stomach disorders which could well be the reason for his ever increasing bouts of melancholy which would, in later life, turn towards a more serious form of depression and lead him to having a fairly jaundiced view of life.  His initial artistic training came at the age of seven when his father arranged for him to have drawing lessons from a Swiss painter, Emile Gilleron, who taught his young charge the fundamentals of drawing.  De Chirico completed and signed his first work, a depiction of a galloping horse, at the age of seven, which was acquired by the Austrian-Hungarian Consulate General in Vólos.  In 1899, his father moved the family from Vólos to Athens.

In 1903, at the age of fifteen, Giorgio attended the Athens Polytechnic, which at the time was both an engineering school and the Academy of Fine Art. Here he studied drawing and painting and received tuition from, amongst others, Georgios Roilos and Konstantinos Bolonakis, who were the most important and influential Greek painters of the late 19th-early 20th century.  De Chirico’s father died in 1905 and this event is thought to have been a contributing factor to Giorgio’s failure in his final Academy exams that same year.   In the autumn of the following year, the family left Greece and went to live in Munich where Giorgio enrolled at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.    It was during de Chirico’s eighteen month tenure at the Academy that he came across and was influenced by the artistic works of the Swiss Symbolist painter, Arnold Böcklin and the bizarre works of the German Symbolist painter and sculptor, Max Klinger.   It is thought that their art was one of the reasons why de Chirico began to reject naturalism and instead concentrate on more illusionary and imaginary subjects for his paintings.   He was also influenced by the literary works of the German philosophers, Schopenhauer, Weininger and Frederick Nietzsche.  It was Nietzsche who tried to persuade artists of the time to “refute reality”.

In March 1910, de Chirico left Germany and travelled to Milan to rejoin his mother.  He stayed there for six months before moving on to Florence the following year.  Whilst staying in the Tuscan city he studied the works of the great thirteenth century Florentine painter and architect Giotto de Bordone.   It was whilst in Florence that de Chirico began a series of works known as his Metaphysical Town Square paintings, which depicted deserted public squares with sombre monolithic arches which cast giant dark shadows.  The first painting in the series which he completed in 1910 was entitled The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon and the idea came to him after he spent an afternoon wandering around the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence.  He recalled that time and what he experienced on that day and explained his painting by saying:

“…One clear autumn afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen this square…The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent…Then I had the strange impression I was looking at these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind’s eye. Now each time I look at that painting I see that moment. Nevertheless the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable…”

In July 1911 he and his mother left Florence and headed for Paris where his brother Andrea was living but on his way they stopped off for a few days at Turin.  De Chirico liked Turin and was intensely stimulated by what he saw in that city and often referred to the city’s architecture, with all its archways and piazzas, as the ‘metaphysical aspect’ of Turin, something which would shape his art in the future.  De Chirico arrived in the French capital that same month, joining his brother Andrea and it was through him that Giorgio de Chirico was introduced to Pierre Laprade who held the powerful position as one of the jurists at the Salon d’Automne.  De Chirico managed to get three of his works exhibited at that 1912 Salon and in 1913 exhibited paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, one of which he sold.  Soon his works became popular and he was introduced to the Parisian art dealer, Paul Guillaume with whom he signed a contract to produce more works for sale.  At the time, Guillaume Apollinaire, who was looked upon as the apostle of modern art, noticed de Chirico’s canvases and the two met at one of Apollinaire’s soirées.  Apollinaire was the first person to coin the term metaphysical to de Chirico’s art in an article he wrote for the left-wing French newspaper,  L’Intransigeant.  It was also through Apollinaire that Giorgio de Chirico and his brother, Andrea met Pablo Picasso and the Fauvist painter, André Derain.  Apollinaire showed great interest in the Giorgio’s work and soon became a great supporter of the artist introducing his work to the late Surrealist painters such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Giorgio Morandi, and René Magritte.  The Surrealists were influenced by his paintings but de Chirico had a love-hate relationship with them and when his style changed he was criticised by the Surrealists and he turned on them referring to them as “the leaders of modernistic imbecility.”

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, de Chirico decided to leave Paris and return to Florence.  In June 1915, de Chirico and his brother were conscripted into the Italian army and sent to join their regiment in Ferrara.  In 1917, he suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the town’s military hospital.  It was whilst at the hospital that he met the artist Carlo Carrà and together they decided to launch the art movement la scuola metafisica (Metaphysical Painting movement).  When the war ended in 1918, the two artists set out the basic theories of the Pittura Metafisica and de Chirico published their ideas in the form of articles for the magazine Valori Plastici, a newly founded Rome-based magazine which focused on the aesthetic ideals and metaphysical artwork. The articles focused on his belief that there should be a return to traditional methods and iconography.  Although their Metaphysical Painting movement and ideas influenced the Surrealist painters of the time, the movement was short-lived and ended shortly after the two founders, de Chirico and Carrà fell out in 1919.

 From 1918 de Chirico’s work was exhibited extensively in Europe.  He returned to Paris in November 1924 but he no longer had the support from his friend Apollinaire who had died six years earlier.  This time during his stay in the French capital he became friends with the surrealist painters Max Ernst, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí. In 1929, Giorgio de Chirico married the Russian ballet dancer Raissa Gurievich Kroll and he worked with the Russian Ballet company of Sergei Diaghlev and during the next six months designed scenery and costumes for them. His first marriage ended in 1930 and he remarried that same year to another Russian émigré Isabella Pakswer.  This second marriage lasted for the rest of his life. In that year he also published an autobiographic novel Hebdomeros, Le peintre et son génie chez l’ecrivain.  In August 1935 he moved to New York, buoyed by the success of his earlier exhibitions in the city.  He remained there until January 1938 and then headed back to Italy eventually settling down in Rome.  Giorgio de Chirico died in Rome in 1978, aged 90.

The featured painting by de Chirico I am featuring today is entitled Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure), which he completed in 1914 just before he left France for Italy.  It is a classical example of his early work.  The setting for the work is the Paris station Gare Montparnasse and we see the long shadows and deep colors of early evening.  It is a dream-like, somewhat nightmarish depiction and some art historians believe that the subject of the painting coincided with a period of acute homesickness experienced by de Chirico whose overwhelming and all-consuming thought was to leave Paris, board a train and return to Italy.  One can only conjecture on some items he has included in the work and one can only ask questions which remain unanswered about other objects.  In many of de Chirico’s works, including this one, a steam train is featured and this could well be due to his early memories of his father, the railway engineer, and his fascination with rail transportation.  The painting is strange in many ways.  Look at how the smoke from the steam train rises vertically and yet the flags on the clock tower and the building to the left flutter furiously in a wind coming from right to left.  Was there a reason for this inconsistency?   There is absolutely no perspective in the way the artist has depicted the yellow road on which we see two figures and yet to the left of the road there is a structure which visibly recedes into the distance.  So why apply the laws of perspective to one element of the painting and not the other?  The strangest part of this painting is the inclusion of a large bunch of bananas in the right foreground of the painting.  This is not the first time such an object has been incorporated into his paintings, but what is the significance of this fruit with a French railway station?  I am sure art historians have had a field day postulating on the meaning!

I will leave you to decide whether you can take on board my art lecturer’s advice to “embrace all forms of art”.  For me his advice is a little hard to swallow!

Rocky Seascape with Shipwreck by Clakson Frederick Stanfield

Rocky Seascape with Shipwreck by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield
Rocky Seascape with Shipwreck by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield

In my last blog I featured a painting of a lighthouse by Edward Hopper and talked about how these structures over the years had helped seafarers find their way around coasts and enabled them to safely navigate treacherous waters.  However sadly for some they were not enough to prevent maritime disasters and all too often ships would, because of mechanical failure, horrendous weather conditions or human error, suffer the indignity of being grounded on rocks.  I remember all too well an Atlantic port we used to sail into, which had a very tricky entrance to it and was often pounded by the ferocious ocean waves.  As a stark reminder as to the care in which the entrance had to be approached there was an abandoned wreck of a ship on the sandbank at the mouth of the river entrance,  which did not quite make it and which was being gradually eaten away by sea and wind erosion.  I often thought, as I helped to steer the ship along the curving channel with a ferocious following sea lifting the ship’s stern in all directions, what must have been going through the minds of the people on the bridge of that abandoned ship that day, as they realised they were not going to make it safely into the tranquillity and safety of the harbour.  So today I have decided to feature a painting of a shipwreck by one of the great Victorian artists, Clarkson Frederick Stanfield.  Although there is a majestic beauty about this seascape, there is also a sense of sadness as I look at the plight of the sailors.

 The artist who painted today’s featured work is Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, who was born at the end of 1793 in Sunderland, England.   He was the youngest of five children.  His parents were James Field Stanfield and Mary Hoad.   His father was born in Dublin and initially trained for the priesthood in France, but abandoned his “calling” and returned to Liverpool and became a merchant seaman.  He sailed on a ship which was engaged in the slave trade and after his experience on the slave ship, which he described as “a floating dungeon”, he quit the life at sea, came ashore and became both an actor and playwright and an energetic supporter of the campaign to abolish the slave trade.   It is documented that he was the first ordinary seaman involved in the slave trade to write about its horrors.  In 1788 he wrote vividly describing his experiences on the voyage from Liverpool to Benin in West Africa and it was published as a series of letters addressed to Stanfield’s friend and a leading anti-slavery campaigner, the Reverend Thomas Clarkson.  It was from him that young Stanfield received his Christian name.  Clarkson Stanfield’s mother, Mary, who was both an actress and artist, taught painting and must have instilled the love of drawing into her son but sadly she died when he was just seven years old.  His father remarried to Maria Kell, a year later.

 In 1806, Clarkson Stanfield worked as an apprentice to a heraldic and coach painter in Edinburgh but left that employment two years later and, at the tender age of fifteen, decided to go off to sea and joined a small coal-carrying merchant vessel.  Four years later in 1812 he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy.  For some reason, during his stint in the navy he used the alias “Roderick Bland”.  Whilst in the Navy, Stanfield managed to keep his hand in artistically by painting theatre scenery for some naval productions as well as some painting and sketches.   In December 1814 he fell from the rigging of a naval vessel he was working on and had to be discharged from the Navy as being “unfit for duty”.    The following year he returned to sea on a merchant navy ship and sailed to China.  After returning home on leave, he had every intention of carrying on with his sea-going career but for some reason it never materialised.

 It was now 1816 and he found himself without a job and needing to earn some money and so he reverted back to his artistic work and managed to get employment at London’s Royalty theatre as a scene painter.  Soon after working in the theatre he met Mary Hutchinson whom he married in 1818 and the couple went on to have two children, a son, Clarkson William and a daughter, Mary Elizabeth.  Within a month of the birth of her daughter Mary Hutchinson died.   Clarkson Stanfield married again in 1824.  This time his wife was Rebecca Adcock and they went on to have ten children, eight sons and two daughters.  His second son from this marriage, George Clarkson Stanfield, was a pupil of his father, and painted the same type of subjects.

Clarkson Stanfield continued to work in various London and Edinburgh theatres and he gained a reputation as one of the finest scene painters in the land.   The Times reviewed his work in December 1827 stating:

  “…When our memory glances back a few years and we compare in “the mind’s eye”, the dingy, filthy scenery which was exhibited here – trees, like inverted mops, of a brick-dust hue – buildings generally at war with perspective – water as opaque as the surrounding rocks, and clouds not a bit more transparent – when we compare these things with what we now see, the alteration strikes us as nearly miraculous. This is mainly owing to Mr. Stanfield. To the effective execution of the duties belonging to the scenic department, he brought every necessary qualification – a knowledge of light and shade which enabled him to give to his scenes great transparency and a ready and judicious taste for composition, whether landscape, architecture or coast, but more especially for the last…”

 Despite most of his time being taken up working in the theatres he never gave up his painting of pictures.  He first exhibited some of his seascape work in 1820, and was immediately recognised as a marine painter of great promise.   When the Society of British Artists was founded in 1823, he was one of the founder members and later in 1829 became its President.  It was also in that year that he submitted his first painting to the Royal Academy, of which he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy and a Royal Academician in 1832 and 1835 respectively.  He loved to exhibit his work and, in all, he exhibited over a hundred works at the Royal Academy, and forty-nine at the British Institution from 1844 to 1867.

 In late 1834 he resigned as scene painter for Drury Lane and from then on devoted most of his time to his own paintings.   His output included works in both oil and watercolour and he specialised in shipping, coastal and river scenes.  Sadness struck the Clarkson household in 1838 when his eldest son from his second marriage, Harry, died just short of his twelfth birthday.  It was a terrible blow to Stanfield and many believe that his turning to the Roman Catholic religion was partly down to his search for solace and inner peace after his son’s death.    He made a number of European trips taking in Holland, France and Italy and while travelling, he would build up a large and extensive collection of sketches.  During this period, he completed many paintings depicting views of Venice and Dutch river scenes.

 During the last decade of his life he was beset with poor health. His rheumatism and bad leg often prevented him from going out of his house and the pain was so intense that for long periods he was unable to work.   He died in Hampstead, London in May 1867 aged 73.  One of his last visitors to call on him the day he died was his great friend Charles Dickens who he had met thirty years earlier.  After Clarkson Stanfield died, Dickens wrote of him, paying this glowing tribute:

 “…He was the soul of frankness, generosity and simplicity.  The most genial, the most affectionate, the most loving and the most lovable of men. Success had never for an instant spoiled him . . . He had been a sailor once; and all the best characteristics that are popularly attributed to sailors, being his, and being in him refined by the influence of his Art, formed a whole not likely to be often seen…”

The depth of friendship between Dickens and Stanfield can also be seen in a passage from a letter Dickens sent to Stanfield’s son, George shortly after his father’s death.  He wrote:

“…No one of your father’s friends can ever have loved him more dearly than I always did, or can have better known the worth of his noble character…”

The featured painting today is entitled Rocky Seascape with Shipwreck which is held at the Glasgow Museum.   In it we see dark storm clouds above the ferocious seas which are buffeting the large stricken sailing ship which has grounded on the rocks at the foot of a steep cliff, atop of which is a fort.  This structure could have been at the mouth of the river, which lead inland to the safety of a port.   A smaller sailing boat stands off from the stricken vessel,  probably trying to assist any sailors who are adrift in the choppy seas.  In the foreground we see two sailors desperately clinging on to what looks like the remnants of a sinking boat which may have once belonged to the large grounded vessel.  One of the sailors hangs on to the mast and is struggling to keep out of the water.   Three men perched on the rocks in the foreground are trying to pull this small boat towards them to give the unfortunate sailors a chance to leap onto the rock.  A woman also stands nervously on the rock, her hands covering her eyes, not daring to view the attempted rescue.  Maybe one of the men in peril is her husband or son.  A man kneels on the rock in front of her peering down at the stricken seaman, probably shouting words of encouragement.

The sea, in many ways, is something to fear and I have spent many times on ships which have been battered unmercifully by huge seas during ferocious storms and I end this blog with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s book The Mirror of the Sea in which he wrote:

“…The sea has never been friendly to man.  At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness…”

Lighthouses and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine by Edward Hopper

Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Eizabeth, Maine by Edward Hopper (1927)
Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Eizabeth, Maine by Edward Hopper (1927)

The Lighthouse
by Becky Jennings

The mighty lighthouse stands secure,
Undaunted by the restless sea;
Ravaged by the changing tides
And buffeted by winds blown free.

Yet, it sheds its beacon straight and true,
Unfaltering in the bleakest night,
Guiding every passing ship
Uncertain of the course that’s right.

May we be diligent and true,
Dedicated to the right
And like the stalwart lighthouse stand
A beacon in the darkest night.

Having spent my early working life on ships travelling around the world I have an affinity for lighthouses which would often signal landfall after many days and sometimes weeks without seeing land.   There is something very majestic and imperious, dare I say, even romantic about lighthouses as they rise skyward on rocky headlands guiding ships  carrying seafarers homeward bound to the arms of their loved ones.

Time magazine cover  December 24th 1956
Time magazine cover
December 24th 1956

Today I am featuring a beautiful watercolour featuring a lighthouse by one of my favourite American artists, Edward Hopper.   Although he was not alone in depicting lighthouses in his paintings, nevertheless Hopper was one of the few artists who made the tall structures the focus of his compositions and by doing so gave them an iconic presence.  For Hopper, lighthouses were majestic architectural structures and things of beauty.  His name was synonymous with depictions of lighthouses so much so that when Time magazine did a story about his life in their 1956 Christmas issue, the James Chapin portrait of Hopper on the cover included a lighthouse in the background.

During the early days of his career  Hopper would often spend the summers in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and he had become fascinated with lighthouses and went on to depict these tall structures in several media.   It was in the summer of 1927 that he painted the watercolour depicting the Portland Head Light entitled Lighthouses and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine which I am featuring today.  The painting resides in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  This lighthouse was the first one to be built in the state of Maine, which at the time was still part of Massachusetts.  It sits on the headland overlooking the main shipping route for vessels, which are approaching from the south, prior to entering Portland harbour.   Up until this time there were no lighthouses on this part of the coast and the local merchants continually petitioned that one should be built so as to avoid ships and their cargoes being lost due to going on the rocks whilst approaching the busy port.   In 1787, two more people were killed when a vessel went aground on Bangs Island (now known as Cushing Island) close to Portland Head and this disaster and loss of life resulted in George Washington authorising the building of a lighthouse on the headland so as to avert any further shipping disasters.  Washington arranged that the lighthouse was to be built by two local Portland stonemasons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols.  As the State was not awash with money he stipulated that the materials used to build the lighthouse should be “taken from the fields and shores, which could be handled nicely when hauled by oxen on a drag”.  The tower was built of rubble stone and Washington set a deadline for the build telling the two masons that he wanted it completed within four years.  It is interesting to note that the original plans for the build was for a fifty-eight foot tall structure but on completion it was realised that, at that height, the light would not be seen by ships approaching from the south and so the tower had to be raised to a height of seventy-two feet.  The tower was completed during 1790 and first lit January 10, 1791.

Portland Head   Lighthouse (as seen today)
Portland Head
(as seen today)

Hopper’s watercolour of the Portland Head lighthouse is one of the most picturesque, and by far the most reproduced of his works.  In the painting we see the lighthouse and to the right are the lighthouse keeper’s house and garage which, as the light is now fully automated and does not need the presence of a lighthouse keeper, since 1992 has become the Portland Head Light Museum.  Hopper decided to use some artistic licence in his depiction of the lighthouse and the surrounding area for he omitted from his watercolour a number of fences and paths which he believed would detract from the finished work.   It is interesting to note the limited palette used by Hopper for this work which enhances it.  He used light blue for the sky and a darker blue for the ocean.  The roofs of the buildings are of a reddish-brown and the grass in the foreground is gold and light green.

 In Edward Rowe Snow’s book The Lighthouses of New England, he described the lighthouse and its surroundings as:

“…Portland Head and its light seem to symbolize the state of Maine – rocky coast, breaking waves, sparkling water and clear, pure sea air…”

Gail Levin, art critic and author of the Hopper biography, Edward Hopper, An Intimate Biography, suggests that there was a personal and physical relationship between Hopper and lighthouses.  She wrote:

“…He [Hopper] was nearly six feet five inches tall and perhaps felt a special affinity to this genre of architecture, which like him, stood apart from the rest of the world…”

 Other art critics look upon Hopper’s passion for lighthouses as an architectural manifestation of the theme of loneliness which can be found in much of Hopper’s art.

 I started this blog with a poem written about lighthouses and I conclude today with a longer one on that same subject, written by the famous American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The Lighthouse

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
and on its outer point, some miles away,
the lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
in the white tip and tremor of the face.

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light,
with strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!

No one alone: from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean’s verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o’er the restless surge.

Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night o’er taken mariner to save.

And the great ships sail outward and return
Bending and bowing o’er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn
They wave their silent welcome and farewells.

They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils
Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze.

The mariner remembers when a child,
on his first voyage, he saw it fade and sink
And when returning from adventures wild,
He saw it rise again o’er ocean’s brink.

Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!

It sees the ocean to its bosom clasp
The rocks and sea-sand with the kiss of peace:
It sees the wild winds lift it in their grasp,
And hold it up, and shake it like a fleece.

The startled waves leap over it; the storm
Smites it with all the scourges of the rain,
And steadily against its solid form
press the great shoulders of the hurricane.

The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.

A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
Still grasping in his hand the fire of love,
it does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
but hails the mariner with words of love.

Sail on!” it says: “sail on, ye stately ships!”
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse.
Be yours to bring man nearer unto man.

“Moonlights” by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Moonlight, Wharfdale by Atkinson Grimshaw (1865)
Moonlight, Wharfdale by Atkinson Grimshaw (1865)

Today I am featuring some works by the English Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw, who was born in Leeds in 1836.  His father, David, at various times during his life, served as a policeman, worked for Pickfords and then as a Great Northern Railway worker in Leeds.  His mother was Mary Grimshaw née Atkinson.  John Atkinson Grimshaw was the eldest of six children.  He and his siblings were brought up in a very religious household with both his parents being strict Baptists.  He left school at the age of sixteen and became a clerk at the Great Northern Railway headquarters in Leeds.  It was whilst working and living in Leeds that he was able to visit one of the many art galleries and see the works of some of the Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Holman Hunt and Henry Wallis.  He also loved and was influenced by the works of the Leeds-born Pre-Raphaelite landscape artist John William Inchbold.   While he was employed as a clerk much of Atkinson’s free time was taken up by his love of art.  He was a self-taught artist who received no formal training.

In 1857 Atkinson Grimshaw married his cousin Frances Theodosia Hubbard and the couple went on to have twelve children although sadly only six survived to be become teenagers.  Of those who survived, many went on to become artists like their father.  In 1861, much to his parents’ horror Grimshaw, gave up his work at the railway company and decided to become a professional artist.   He first exhibited som of his art work in 1862 and at this time he had concentrated on still life works depicting fruit and blossom and some paintings of birds.  He also managed to gain his first commissions from the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.  Over time, Grimshaw developed his own highly individual style, and subject matter.   He became a talented painter of autumnal scenes and also works which depicted twilight and night time scenes, lit by moonlight reflected on the wet cobbled streets, sometimes depicting horse-drawn traffic and handsome cabs.  These were known as his “moonlights”.  His paintings would often depict street scenes swathed in fog and smog from pollution that so often enveloped cities and towns at that time.

Shipping on the Clyde by Atkinson Grimshaw (1881)
Shipping on the Clyde by Atkinson Grimshaw (1881)

 He also painted many nocturnal harbour and dockyard scenes with the spiky outlines of the ships’ masts rearing up against a darkening sky.  Examples of this type of work can be seen in his paintings such as Liverpool from Wapping (1875), Nightfall down the Thames (1880),  Shipping on the Clyde (1881),  The Thames by Moonlight (1884),  Liverpool Quay by Moonlight (1887) and Prince’s Dock, Hull (1887).   Grimshaw’s works were more varied than just this as he painted many portraits, fairy pictures, and the most elaborate pictures of attractively dressed young women in opulent interiors.  During his early period he signed his paintings “J.A. Grimshaw” or “JAG” but in 1867 Grimshaw dropped his first name, John, and from then on signed his works “Atkinson Grimshaw”.

Atkinson Grimshaw always considered himself to be a Northerner, a Yorkshire man and Leeds, for most of his life, remained his base.  Grimshaw rarely travelled to London although he did set up a studio and live there for a short time in the mid 1880’s, and it was during this time he became friends with James McNeil Whistler.  His reputation as an artist was further enhanced when one of his paintings was accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy.   However the fact that over the years, he only ever submitted five of his paintings to the Royal Academy  probably meant that he set little store by what the RA could do for him and he knew he had numerous northern business men queuing up to buy his work.  Over time, he slowly built up a large clientele for his work, including some London art dealers, especially the William Agnew Gallery, and with this artistic success came wealth, so much so that in 1870 he was able to move his family into Knostrop Hall on the outskirts of the city.

Knostrop Old Hall, Leeds by Atkinson Grimshaw
Knostrop Old Hall, Leeds by Atkinson Grimshaw

Knostrop Hall was a magnificent 17th century stone-built manor house, which featured in many of his paintings.  He also had a house in Scarborough for use in the summer.  He called it Castle-by-the-sea.

Atkinson Grimshaw died of cancer in October 1893 at Knostrop Old Hall, and was buried in Woodhouse cemetery in Leeds. He was especially appreciated by middle-class clients, many of whom were northern industrialists.   Grimshaw’s dock scenes of Liverpool, Hull and Glasgow, and the manor houses seen at the end of leafy, stone-walled suburban lanes, along which a single figure walks, were especially popular.

Atkinson Grimshaw had campaigned for a number of years for the building of Leeds City Art Gallery.  After much wrangling and a prolonged struggle with the authorities the Leeds Art Gallery opened in October 1888 and was financed by public subscription, collected in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. The artist Hubert Herkomer formally opened the building, and presented an example of his work to the collection.  The Gallery mounted annual spring exhibitions in which Grimshaw always put forward works for inclusion.

 Atkinson Grimshaw had a unique style and is remembered as one of the minor Victorian masters and his place in art history will be assured by his depiction of Victorian life and his haunting moonlight which became his trademark.

Having said that, there was an element of controversy about his work.  As I said at the start of his biography, Atkinson had not received any formal artistic tuition, got married at the age of twenty-one and four years later despite now being a family man, had given up his job as a railway clerk to become a professional artist.  He had now to make money from his art work and to do this had to reach a level of artistic competence which would guarantee that his work would sell.  So how did he achieve such a feat?   John Ruskin, the art critic had recommended that artists should paint directly from nature but to do this one had to have had some training in draughtsmanship and perspective and so Atkinson Grimshaw in a way decided to “cheat”.   He discovered that by projecting a photograph or a lantern slide on to a blank canvas he was able to produce an immediate composition.  Then he would go over the outlines in pencil.  Over which he would add colours and the end result was a glossy finish which had removed all traces of the pencilled outline.  The finished landscapes and cityscapes sold well and for a time made him very wealthy.  However despite his success, other artists who had studied and trained in traditional academic methods for years despised his productions and in one of Grimshaw’s obituary notices it was written:

  “…[his pictures] excited considerable controversy among contemporary artists, not a few [of whom] were doubtful whether they could be accepted as paintings at all…

To be fair to Grimshaw the technique he used would not have caused such controversy nowadays and the question remains, does the end justify the means?  So let me finish with a kinder obituary notice which simply stated:

“…A Leeds artist of very great ability has passed away.  He may be regarded as self-taught in all that gave character and distinction to his art. His methods, treatment and colouring were quite unlike anything in ordinary practice…”

The Magpie by Claude Monet

The Magpie by Claude Monet (1868)
The Magpie by Claude Monet (1868)

Being in a much milder, wetter and windy climate it is always a novelty to see snow except atop distant mountains and for those of you are knee-deep in it, you have my sympathy, as I tend to agree with those who say snow is fine when viewed on a greetings card but not when one has to trudge through it.  However there is nothing as beautiful as a painted snow scene and for My Daily Art Display featured painting today I am featuring a beautiful depiction of a snow scene by Claude Monet entitled The Magpie, which is reputed to be one of the most popular paintings in the Musée d’Orsay collection.

Monet painted this work during the winter of 1868-9 whilst he was living at Étretat with his wife Camille and his one-year old son Jean.  He had left Paris and one of the reasons for his departure from the capital was given by him in a letter to his artist friend, Frederic Bazille:

“…In Paris one is too preoccupied with what one sees and hears, however strong-minded one may be, and what I shall do here will at least have the virtue of being unlike anyone else’s work, because it will simply be the expression of my personal experiences…”

Monet had been going through a very tough and trying period in his life.  Although his painting Woman in Green was exhibited in the 1866 Salon his offering of Women in the Garden the following year was rejected by the jury of the Salon.   None of the pictures he sent in the spring to the International Maritime Exhibition at Le Havre were sold and worse still, the canvases were seized by his creditors.   His lover, Camille Doncieux, whom he had met in 1865, had become pregnant and in August 1867 gave birth to their son, Jean-Armand-Claude.   Although his father had finally and reluctantly come around to his son’s chosen profession as an artist, he was totally against his son’s liaison with Camille and told him that he would only offer him financial help if he left Camille.  Monet’s financial situation in Paris had become dire and he survived on hand-outs from his friends.  His money problems and now the impending arrival of his child, which was yet another mouth to feed, were so bad that in 1868 he had attempted suicide by throwing himself off a bridge into the River Seine.  Penniless, Monet was forced to return home alone to his father’s house in Sainte-Adresse, a small coastal town west of Le Havre, and there he lived with his aunt, abandoning Camille in Paris.  To add to all these financial and family problems he suffered partial loss of his sight in July 1867 which prevented him from painting and sketching out of doors.

His luck finally changed in 1868 when he fortuitously received some timely aid from his very first patron, a shipowner and art collector, Louis-Joachim Gaudibert, who supported him by commissioning him to paint three full-length life-sized portraits.  Two were of Guadibert himself and the third one of his wife,  (Portrait of Madame Gaudibert).  He also managed to sell his painting Camille to Arsène Houssaye, the editor of the magazine L’Artiste, for 800 francs. Now, finally, with some money in his pocket he was able to return to Paris to once again be with Camille.  Gaudibert also helped Monet rent a house in Étretat for his family in late 1868. Recovering from an episode of depression, Monet joined Camille Doncieux and Jean at the house in Étretat in October 1868.  He wrote to Bazille about his change of fortune:

“…Thanks to this gentleman of Le Havre who’s been helping me out, I’m enjoying the most perfect peace and quiet and I look forward to do some worthwhile things…”

It was whilst he lived here that Monet painted the many famous scenes of the cliffs at Étretat and it was in December 1868 that he painted today’s featured work, The Magpie.  Although en plein air painting may be a joy in the sunny warm days of summer, it becomes a challenge in the cold harsh winter days but Monet was not deterred by this and never let the elements confine him to working indoors.  In fact he often claimed that he preferred the countryside in winter.  Monet loved to experience the differing effects light had on the countryside and for him the understated difference of shadows upon the snow covered ground presented him with a different challenge from the sun on green grass and blue water.  It would mean a complete change of palette with more emphasis on the whites, greys and violets.  He wrote to Frederic Bazille extolling the virtues of his surroundings and the freedom to paint en plein air:

“…I spend my time out in the open, on the shingle beach when the weather is bad or the fishing boats go out, or I go into the countryside which is very beautiful here, that I find perhaps still more charming in winter than in summer and, naturally I work all the time, and I believe that this year I am going to do some serious things…”

Before us we have Monet’s oil on canvas winter landscape scenes of the countryside close to Étretat.  It is entitled La Pie (The Magpie).  It is a prime example of the natural effet de neige (effect of snow).   It was one of the earlier snowscapes that Monet painted.  In all he completed over hundred snowscape paintings. The snow lies upon the ground.  A solitary magpie perches on the top rung of a wooden hurdle gate.  Its black and white feathers, along with the dark bark of the trees, contrast starkly against the snowy landscape and, despite the small size of the bird, it become the focus of the work. Its inclusion in the scene in some ways breathes life into the painting. The source of light comes from the background and dramatically creates blueish gray shadows of the wattle fencing on the pristine snow in the foreground.   Monet and the Impressionists, instead of making the shadows in their paintings a conventional black, preferred  to use coloured shadows as they believed that adding colour represented the actual, changing conditions of light and shadow as one would see in nature.  However this idea did not set well with the Salon jurists and this work by Monet was rejected when he submitted it for exhibition at the 1869 Salon.    There is a beautiful luminosity about this work.  In summery paintings the sky would normally be lighter in colour and tone in comparison to the ground colour but of course in winter this all changes and as we see in this work the sky is darker than the snow-covered ground.  Look at the way Monet has depicted the snow.  It is not pure white but more a tinted white and where the shadows straddle the snow-covered ground in the foreground we have patches of gray-blue.  We can also see darker spots in the snow of the foreground indicating that the snow is not as deep here and the ground below it is showing through the whiteness.

The painting is considered by art historians as one of Monet’s best and most accomplished snowscapes.  Monet once revealed that he wanted to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched things – the enveloping air.  I will leave you with a quote from a Harper’s Magazine article entitled The Enveloping Air in which the author John Berger wrote:

“… Monet once revealed that he wanted to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched things – the enveloping air.   The enveloping air offers continuity and infinite expansion.  If Monet can paint the air, he can follow it like following a thought.  Except the air operates wordlessly and when painted, is visibly present only in colours, touches, layers, palimpsest, shades, caresses, scratches……… Like many innovative artists, Monet, I believe, was unclear about what he had achieved.  Or, to be more precise, he could not name his achievement.  He could only recognize it intuitively

Classical Greek Landscape with Girls Sacrificing Their Hair to Diana on the Bank of a River by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes

Classical Greek Landscape with Girls Sacrificing Their Hair to Diana on the Bank of a River by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1790)
Classical Greek Landscape with Girls Sacrificing Their Hair to Diana on the Bank of a River by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1790)

As an artist, he has been spoken of as the father of French Neoclassical landscape painting and an artist, who was for landscape painting what Jaques-Louis David was for history painting, so how can I ignore this eminent and much honoured French painter.

My featured artist today is Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, who was born in Toulouse in 1750.   He studied at the Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture of Toulouse, under the tutelage of the local history painter and pastelist, Jean-Baptiste Despax, an artist who had spent much of his life in the decoration of churches and monasteries in and around the French city.  It is probably from him that Valenciennes became familiar with the iconography of conventional classical and biblical subjects.  Another of Valenciennes’ early teachers was the miniaturist, Guillaume Gabriel Bouton.

When Valenciennes was nineteen years of age his work came to the attention of Mathias Du Bourg, a prominent and wealthy Toulouse lawyer, merchant and councillor at the Toulouse parliament, who became his patron.  In 1769 Du Bourg invited Valenciennes to accompany him on a trip to Rome where he stayed for two years before returning home.  At the end of that year, 1771, Valenciennes went to live in Paris and, through the recommendation of Du Bourg, managed to get himself a placement in the studio of Gabriel-François Doyen, who at the time was one of the leading French history painters.  Another person Du Bourg introduced Valenciennes to was Etienne-François, comte de Stainville, Duc de Choiseul, a French military officer, diplomat and statesman who became another of Valenciennes’ patrons.  Valenciennes would often spend time at the country estate of his new patron and soon developed an interest in the native landscape.

In 1777, Valenciennes made another trip to Italy and this time remained there for almost eight years.  He travelled extensively around what was then termed the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, which was the largest of the Italian States, prior to Italian unification and extended south of Rome and included the island of Sicily.  Valenciennes also found great pleasure in journeying around the campagna, the low-lying area which surrounds Rome.  He did return once to Paris in 1781 where he met and received tuition from Claude-Joseph Vernet.   Vernet strongly urged him to work en plein air.  In 1787, Valenciennes applied to become a member of the Académie Royale and following a short probationary period and the submission of his reception piece, a historical and imaginary landscape work entitled Cicero Uncovering the Tomb of Archimedes, he was accepted into the hallowed institution.   His painting was one of two Salon works which he had accepted at the Paris Salon that year.  From this first submission to the Paris Salon, Valenciennes would exhibit annually, large landscape works there until 1819, the year of his death.  Valenciennes quickly established his reputation at the Salon as a painter of paysage historique (historical landscapes inspired by mythology and Greek antiquity). These large-scale works which represented imaginary visions of the classical past, earned Valenciennes the title, “the David of landscape.”

Once he established himself at the Academy, he opened his own studio in 1796.  At this time, the European Academies believed in a strict hierarchy in figurative art, which had originally been postulated for painting in 16th century Italy and which still held good two centuries later. The hierarchy was:

History painting which also included works which had narrative religious mythological and allegorical subjects

Portrait painting

Genre painting which were scenes of everyday life

Landscape painting and cityscapes and cityscape

Animal painting

Still life painting

Many artists would not accept the Academy’s hierarchal approach and would invent new genres and by doing so, raised the lower subjects to the importance of history painting. Joshua Reynolds, the English portraitist, achieved this by inventing the portraiture style that was known as the Grand Manner in which his works flattered his sitters by likening them to mythological characters.   The French artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau invented a genre that was known as fetes gallants in which he would depict scenes of courtly amusements which took place in Arcadian setting.  These often had a poetic and allegorical quality, which, as such, were considered to elevate them within the hierarchy.  Valenciennes, like many landscape artists before him such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, endeavoured to elevate the status of their landscape work by incorporating mythological figures into their works.

Claude had ennobled his paintings of the Roman countryside by adding biblical and classical narrative references and by doing this enforced an idealized vision of balance and harmony on the world before him. This emphasis on timeless landscapes augmented with historical vignettes could be seen in Valenciennes’ large salon landscape paintings.  Valenciennes was adamant that the status of landscape painting should be elevated.  In his efforts to see this through he put out a famous treatise entitled Élémens de perspective pratique à l’usage des artistes (Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting, Particularly on Landscape) in which he gave landscape painting the full practical and theoretical examination it was due but which up until then had been denied.  This work remained the most influential treatise on landscape painting for decades to come.   Things did change in the nineteenth century France with French landscape painting undergoing a remarkable transformation from a minor genre, rooted in classical traditions, to a primary vehicle for artistic experimentation.

In 1812 Valenciennes was appointed Professor of Perspective at the École Impérial ses Beaux-Arts, a position he held for the next four years.  During his time at the art school he managed to nurture an up and coming set of French landscape artists, such as Nicolas Bertin, Achille Michalon and Jean-Baptiste Deperthes.  In 1816 the Académie even encouraged Valenciennes’ favoured painting genre, paysage historique (historical landscape painting), by presenting a special Prix de Rome award for the best landscape painting.   Much to Valenciennes’ delight the first winner of the award went to Michallon, one of his students.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes died in Paris in 1819, aged 68 and is buried in the Parisian Père Lachaise Cemetery.

My featured work today by Valenciennes is one he completed in 1790 and exhibited at the Salon the following year along with six other landscape paintings.  It is entitled Classical Greek Landscape with Girls Sacrificing Their Hair to Diana on the Bank of a River.

When young girls wanted to marry, they were asked to lay their personal belongings of their virginity on an altar to Artemis (Diana). They were such things as toys, dolls, and locks of hair. This represented their transition from childhood to adulthood closing the door of the domain of the virgin goddess forever.  In ancient times, hair, and the way it was worn, identified class and status. Young girls and unmarried women wore their hair long and loose but once they were married it was coiled upon their heads; prostitutes and women of easy morals coifed their hair in elaborate ringlets and curls. The girls’ short hair now identified them as virgins dedicated to perpetual chastity in the image of Diana, with a consequential curtailment of fertility.  When he painted this picture in 1790, Valenciennes was at the height of his artistic career and had already established himself as the master of the paysage historique genre.

In the foreground of this work we can see a small lake.  To the right of the lake there is a marble statue of the goddess Diana, under a leafy arbour, holding her bow with a small stag standing by her side.   On the far side of the lake we can see a circular altar, which looks very much like the base of a large column.  Around this altar we see three young women.  On the altar we can see hair that two have laid down as a sacrifice to Diana whilst we see the third woman in the process of cutting off locks of her hair.  In the middle ground we can just make out two other women standing in an open sunlit plain pointing towards a stream on the left middle ground where we can just make out more women who are in the process of drying their washed clothes on a large stony outcrop.  The building behind the plain is a circular fort along with its high stone walls which divide the composition into two diverse zones.

On the other side of the walls of the fort, to the left, we can see a range of desolate and infertile hills extending into the distance. The Temple of the Sibyl can also be seen atop a mountainous outcropping at left of composition.  If we look closely at the hinterland and beyond, on the other side of the wall, we can make out a number of impressive buildings which extend across the plain.  In this beautiful landscape painting, the viewer’s eyes quickly pass over the small figures shown in the foreground and are lifted to the expansive and idyllic natural space that stretches into the distance.   Even the statue of the goddess directs her attention to the landscape. So even though Valenciennes has added a touch of mythology to his work he seemed more interested in the natural landscape which he hopes will occupy most of our gazes.

The painting is housed at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley, Massachusetts which was founded in 1876 and was one of the first collegiate museums in the United States.

Sophie Gray by John Everett Millais

Sophie Gray by John Everett Millais (1857)
Sophie Gray by John Everett Millais (1857)

Much has been written about the love triangle of the pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais, the art critic, John Ruskin and his wife, Euphemia Gray.  This year we will be offered two feature films, Effie and Untouched exploring their relationship but for today I want to look at the life of Millais’ other sister-in-law, Sophie Gray.  Sophie was Effie’s younger sister, and today I am featuring the amazing portrait of her by her brother-in-law, Millais.

Sophie Gray was born in Kinnoull, a suburb of Perth, Scotland in 1843. She was brought up in a comfortable family environment, her father, George Gray, having his own solicitor’s practice, along with money from property investments in Perth.  Her family, although not considered to be rich, could neither be described as poor and she would have had everything money could buy to ensure that she was kept safe, warm and in good health. George Gray and her mother, Sophia Margaret Gray, née Jameson, had fifteen children although by the time Sophie, their tenth child, arrived, five had died and sadly, before Sophie had reached her seventh birthday in 1850 another two of her siblings had passed away and a third died a year later.  Sophie was fifteen years younger than her elder sister Effie.

Effie Gray, first met John Ruskin, who was a family friend, in 1840, when she was twelve, whilst she was on a visit to Herne Hill and they met again a a year later.  Six years passed before their next encounter in October 1847 and it was at this meeting that John Ruskin started to fall in love with the nineteen-year old Effie, so much so that when Ruskin returned to his home in London, he wrote to Effie’s father and asked for her hand in marriage. George Gray consented and marriage plans for the following year were drawn up. These plans were disrupted by Effie’s father becoming almost bankrupt due to a railway speculation going awry. However, the wedding did eventually take place at Effie’s home in Bowerswell House on April 10th 1848.

At the time of the wedding Sophie was just five years old and she would often go to London and stay with her sister and Ruskin.  Effie, in many ways, became a second mother to her.   The marriage between Effie and Ruskin as it has been well documented was not a success and could have been down to many reasons such as their totally different personalities and their differing temperaments for Effie was naturally sociable and flirtatious, and soon began to feel oppressed by her husband’s  dogmatic and unbending personality.  In April 1854, Sophie had been staying with her sister and husband and on the pretext of having to take her little sister back home to Scotland Effie left the marital home at Herne Hill and never returned.  The marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation in July of that year.

Sophie Gray (aged 10) by Millais (1854
Sophie Gray (aged 10) by Millais (1854

Sophie Gray had first met John Everett Millais in 1853 and she, like her sister, Effie, had modeled for him.  He painted several pictures of her and this led, in some quarters, to speculation as to Millais relationship with his young sister-in-law.  The first painting of Sophie produced by Millais was a sensitive watercolour drawing of her, in oval form, in January 1854 when she was just ten years old. Millais appears to have been totally entranced by the prettiness of the young girl who would soon become his future sister-in-law.  When he had completed the work he wrote to Sophie’s mother extolling the virtues of her daughter.  He wrote:
“…What a delightful little shrewd damsel Sophia is…I do not praise her to please you, but I think her extremely beautiful, and that she will even improve, as yet she does not seem to have the slightest idea of it herself which makes her prettier—I am afraid that ignorance cannot last long…”

Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais (1856)
Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais (1856)

Sophie continued to sit for Millais; in fact, she was being used as his model more than he used Effie.  Her sister Effie, now divorced from Ruskin had moved back to Scotland and from August 1855 lived with Millais at Annat Lodge which was close to her parent’s home at Bowerswell and so Sophie was always on hand to sit for Millais.  Sophie’s beauty had become even more noticeable as she changed from a young girl to a young teenager.  One of next paintings Millais completed of Sophie was in 1856 when she had yet to reach her thirteenth birthday.  It was entitled Autumn Leaves which he exhibited at the Royal Academy that year.   In this painting Sophie is one of four girls standing around a smouldering bonfire of fallen leaves which they had been collecting.  The twilight setting is the garden at Annat Lodge and in the background we see the Arochar Alps. The girl on the left is Sophie’s younger sister Alice, who was two years her junior.  Next to her is Sophie who is, like Alice, dressed in a green velvet dress.  On the right there are two young working-class girls from the village, Matilda Proudfoot and Isabella Nicol.  Millais used these same two local girls as sitters for his beautiful painting, The Blind Girl, (See My Daily Art Display May 16th 2011).  As we look closely at these four young girls Sophie stands apart as the one who is not to be looked upon as a young girl but one who should be considered as becoming a young woman.

The painting received mixed reviews.  John Ruskin described the work as:

“…the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight…”


“…[It] will rank in future among the world’s best masterpieces…”


For others, like some of the members of the Royal Academy, the subject of the painting baffled them.  One wrote:

“…We are curious to learn the mystic interpretation that will be put upon this composition…”

John Millais’s wife, Effie, wrote that her husband had intended to create a picture that was “full of beauty and without a subject”.  Millais wrote to his friend and art critic, Frederic Stephens, who was also one of the two “non-artistic” members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and who had written a glowing report about the work.  Millais explained the thought behind the painting stating that he:

“… intended the picture to awaken by its solemnity the deepest religious reflection. I chose the subject of burning leaves as most calculated to produce this feeling…”

However my featured painting today is the truly haunting head and shoulder intimate portrait entitled Sophie Gray which he completed in 1857 when his sitter was just fourteen years of age.  The young girl occupies an uncharacteristically large portion of the picture.   A delicate light illuminates the left side of her face and this emphasizes the golden brown colour of her hair with its auburn highlights.  Sophie’s clothes are unremarkable.  They are dark in colour and simply decorated with an embroidered heart with three flowers within it.  What an enigmatic portrait.  Her long hair frames her face and becomes one with the equally dark background, leaving only her pale skin and the touch of lace at her throat as an absolute contrast.  Sophie looks out at us.  Her ice-blue eyes stare blankly and expressionless.  Her lush red lips and rosy cheeks are a contrast to her white skin and dark background.  Her lips are defiantly pursed and her chin is tilted up slightly in a determined manner.  This is a young woman of great self-confidence for one so young.  The way Millais has depicted the beauty of his young sister-in-law leaves us in no doubt for the fondness he had for the young girl. It is an alluring and haunting portrait.  This is a very personal work of art.  There is a definite connection between the artist and the sitter and one feels that had he not loved his wife, his relationship with Sophie may have been much different.

Alice Gray by Millais (1857)
Alice Gray by Millais (1857)

This beautiful Pre-Raphaelite painting, dating from the height of the movement, is a pendant to a similar head of Sophie’s younger sister Alice, who was another of Millais’ favourite models.   Both works were bought from Millais by his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite landscape and figurative artist, George Price Boyce, for himself and on behalf of his sister Joanna, also an artist. There is a well-defined difference between the two portraits. The painting of Alice, the younger of the two sisters is simply an uncomplicated portrait of a young and somewhat immature girl, whereas the portrait of Sophie is a painting which demonstrates the electric energy that was present between the sitter and the artist.

So what became of Sophie Gray?   She had major mental health problems and in 1868, in her mid-twenties, she spent time away from home, staying at Manor Farm House in Chiswick receiving medical care from a Doctor Thomas Tuke, who was a noted practitioner in mental health.  She remained under his care, away from the family home, and did not return to Scotland until the following year.    Sophie did not marry until 1873, at what was in Victorian times looked upon as a very advanced age of thirty. She married Sir James Key Caird, who was a wealthy jute manufacturer, and the couple had one child, a daughter Beatrix Ada a year later.  A portrait of their daughter, when she was five years old, was painted by Dante Rossetti.  The marriage was an unhappy one and Sophie’s husband paid little attention to his wife’s needs and was often absent from the marital home.   Sophie spent much of her time alone with Beatrix, mostly living between Dundee and Paris.   She had suffered from anorexia nervosa for a good deal of her life and in her later years lost a lot of weight.  In 1882, with her health rapidly deteriorating, she had to return to the care of Doctor Tuke but her health never improved and on March 15th 1882, aged 38 she died.  The cause of death was put down to “exhaustion and atrophy of nervous system, 17 years”.

As I wrote this blog I couldn’t help but wonder how the beautiful thirteen year old we see in the main picture could lead such a sad life and die so young.  Such a waste of life.

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1805)British Museum
Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1805)
British Museum

I try to visit my children, who live in London, every couple of months and take the opportunity to visit new art exhibition at one of the many city galleries.  As they are all away on extended breaks in far-off lands I will not be heading south until the end of January and this will sadly mean I will miss the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, Cotman in Normandy which is an exhibition of works by the watercolourist, John Sell Cotman, which ends on January 13th.  For most of the twentieth century, Cotman was the most widely admired English watercolourist, surpassing even Turner in popularity.

John Sell Cotman was a marine and landscape painter, mainly in watercolour, who was born in Norwich in 1782.  He was the eldest of ten children.  His father, Edmund Cotman, formerly a barber but latterly a draper by trade, had married Ann Sell.   He initially studied at the Norwich School, which is one of the oldest schools in the world having been founded in 1096.   John’s father had intended that once his son had completed his education he would join him in his family business.  However during his time at school John Cotman had developed a love of art and being determined that he would not spend his working life behind a shop counter, at the age of 16, left home and went to London to study art.

Whilst in London he managed to earn a living by colouring aquatints for Anglo-German lithographer and publisher, Rudolph Ackerman, who in 1795 established a print-shop and drawing-school in The Strand.   Ackermann had set up a lithographic press and begun a trade in prints. It was whilst he was in London that he also met Doctor Thomas Monro, who was an avid art collector.   He was Principal Physician of the Bethlem Royal Hospital and one-time consulting physician to King George III.  Besides being an amateur painter and art collector he was also a patron to a number of young aspiring artists including Thomas Girtin.  He had a house in Adelphi Terrace, London where he had his studio and a country house in Merry Hill, a suburb of Bushey just fifteen miles from the capital.  Monro liked to surround himself with other artists and J.M.W. Turner was a frequent visitor.  He ran an art Academy where he would offer evening art classes, some of which were attended by John Sell Cotman.

John Sell Cotman managed to gain the patronage of Monro and through him met many of the leading British artists of the time and it was through his friendship with Turner, Girtin and Peter de Wint that Cotman continued his artistic development.  He enjoyed taking trips out to sketch and it is believed that in 1800 he accompanied Thomas Girtin on a sketching trip to North Wales. Considering Cotman had had no formal art tuition it is amazing the artistic standard he had reached for someone of such a young age for when he was aged just eighteen, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy  showing five works, four depicting scenes from the Surrey countryside and one was of Harlech Castle.   The following year, 1801, John Cotman joined the Brothers, a sketching society, founded by Thomas Girtin, for both professional artists and talented amateurs. During the next two summers he spent much of his time travelling around Wales, sketching scenes many of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801 and 1802.

For the next three summers John Cotman spent time at Brandsby Hall in North Yorkshire, which was the home of Francis Cholmeley, an avid art collector and a patron of Cotman.  During his stay at the Hall, Cotman acted as the drawing tutor to the Cholomeley family.  Whilst there he also met the politician and art collector, Walter Ramsden Hawkesworth Fawkes, whose stately home was Farnley Hall and who was a very close friend of the artist, J.M.W. Turner who often stayed at Farnley Hall.

The success he had hoped for in London never materialised and in 1806 Cotman returned to his hometown of Norwich and earned his living as an art tutor.  On returning home he also joined the Norwich Society an art society formed the previous year by the Norfolk landscape painter John Crome.  This society met fortnightly, held artistic discussions and organised exhibitions of their work.  John Cotman became the vice president and he and Crome were the leading lights of the society.  The ethos of the Society was laid down as being:

“…An Enquiry into the Rise, Progress and present state of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, with a view to point out the Best Methods of study to attain to Greater Perfection in these Arts…”

The artistic styles of Crome and Cotman were different and the Society members were, to some extent, divided into those who followed Crome’s realist manner, and those working in the more free style of Cotman, who was not above painting pictures of places he had not personally visited, working from other artists’ sketches.  The subjects of the Norwich School painters were typically landscapes, coasts and marine scenes from around Norwich and Norfolk.  John Cotman became president of the Norwich Society of Artists in 1811.

In 1809, Cotman married Ann Mills, the daughter of a farmer from the nearby village of Felbrigg and the couple went on to have five children.  During his time as a drawing master he taught the local banker, botanist and antiquary Dawson Turner and his children.  They became close friends and Dawson Turner introduced him to many prospective students. Cotman issued the first of his sets of etchings in 1811. He moved from Norwich and for the next ten years he lived in the Norfolk coastal town of Yarmouth and this gave him the opportunity to complete a number of seascapes.   It was around this time that Cotman concentrated on printmaking.  The majority of his etchings were architectural in nature, with numerous ones of old Yorkshire and Norfolk buildings.  It is more than likely that this move towards etchings and printmaking was due to, and inspired in part by, his friend and patron, Dawson Turner.   In 1817, Cotman , with help from his patron, made the first of three tours of Normandy and out of these journeys came a book in 1822 entitled, Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, one of various books he illustrated with his etchings.

In 1824, for business reasons he moved back to Norwich.  Cotman took up painting again with renewed energy, in watercolour and in oil; he exhibited more frequently in the city and also in London. In January 1834, through the good auspices of J.M.W.Turner, he gained the post of Master of Landscape Drawing at King’s College School in London, which he held until his death.  He and his family moved home to the London borough of Bloomsbury. Two years later, his eldest son Miles Edmond Cotman was appointed to assist him.  The taking up of the position at King’s College could not have come at a more fortuitous time as Cotman was beginning to have financial problems.   Sadly, with these financial problems, which had afflicted him during most of his working life, came bouts of depression, ill health and despondency brought on by the poor sales of his work.  During John Cotman’s tenure at King’s College he taught many artists including Dante Rossetti.  His last visit to his homeland of Norfolk was in the autumn of 1841, just nine months before his death in London in July 1842.

The 20th century art historian and painter, Charles Collins Baker, said of John Sell Cotman:

“…a great colourist, whose earlier palette produced that rare plenitude that only masters of exquisite simplicity and restraint compass: from his palette the brown glebe, the black reflection of massed trees in a still river, the grey and gold of weathered stone and plaster, the glinting gold on foliage and the gilded green of translucent leaves have a special and supernal quality of dream pageants rather than of actuality…”

Preliminary sketch of Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman
Preliminary sketch of Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is a watercolour entitled Greta Bridge (22cms x 33cms), which Cotman completed in 1805 can be found in the British Museum. A second version of the painting, a much larger one, (30cms x 50cms), was completed by Cotman in 1810 and is housed in the Norwich Castle Museum.  Both watercolours recreate the rural solitude and tranquillity of the Greta area of North Yorkshire, where Cotman spent the summers of 1803 – 1805.   The Greta Bridge in this painting  spanned the river Greta in North Yorkshire near the gates of Rokeby Park. John Cotman had arrived at Rokeby on the evening of 31 July 1805, accompanied by his friend and patron, Francis Cholmeley. It had been arranged in advance that the two men were to stay as guests of the owner of Rokeby Park, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt.  Cotman stayed at the house for about three weeks and when his hosts left on business, he remained nearby, taking up lodgings in a room at the local inn, which is the large building to the left of the bridge. Cotman then continued the work he had begun along the river Greta that skirts the park.  It is a wonderfully balanced composition depicting the Greta Bridge, with its striking, single arch, which runs horizontally across the picture, in some way dividing it in two and yet uniting it into a single scene.  The arch of the bridge epitomizes a great feat of engineering, which Cotman, with his love of architecture, admired. The structure we see before us was designed by John Carr of York, and built in 1773 for Morritt’s father, John Sawrey Morritt, who was a well-known collector of classical antiquities. The bridge replaced a Roman single-arched bridgeof the same design.  Cotman had a love of bridges and sketched many.  For him, a bridge was a meeting point or landmark for travellers, and would often be a point of reference on maps where rivers and roads meet. Cotman was fascinated by the interaction of this man-made feature and how it harmoniously interacted with a natural setting

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1810)Norwich Castle Museum
Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1810)
Norwich Castle Museum

The foreground of the painting is dominated by its rocky intrusions. In the background, above the bridge we see in the 1805 version, a forest of trees and  large white clouds and yet in the 1810 version a mountain ridge, which, in reality, does not actually exist, has substituted the individual clouds. So why did he make this fundamental change and add the idealised rocky structure?  It is believed that Cotman decided to add the mountain ridge in the later watercolour so as to strengthen the sense of perspective and by so doing have the viewers eye drawn through the landscape, starting from the rocks in the foreground, through the arch of the bridge to the trees in the middle ground as far as the mountain ridge and the sky in the background.

Although John Sell Cotman and Turner were strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Girtin, Cotman’s landscape style in comparison to Turner’s was different.  Cotman’s landscapes were not as detailed as either Girtin’s or Turner’s.  In his landscapes, Turner’s was more precise with the details.  Many believed his “every-single-branch-and-bud” precision was somewhat overwhelming, and said that the result was that the viewer stared at the same copse for too long.   In contrast, Cotman’s landscapes could be taken in with just a single glance.  In today’s work one can see the beauty of the watercolour despite the lack of minute detail.  In these watercolours, Cotman strived to capture the feeling and atmosphere of a place through the use of pattern and abstract shapes. Look how he has painted the boulders, which we see in the river.  They are smooth, rounded shapes sprinkled with spots of colour.  Cotman’s technique of using colour washes has accentuated the smooth roundness of the landscape.  His trees are rounded and block-like, in varying shades of green and brown and in the 1810 version the mountain ridge in the background is softly shaped.

This watercolour is a prime example of his balanced and sensitive technique which he used in his landscape work.   In this work he has used very muted colours for his high cloudy sky, which echo the colour of the river surface.  Below the dark clouds we see a suggestion of better weather to come with a hint of blue sky and thick white clouds.  The watercolour is built up in distinct patches of restrained colour, held in a precise pattern of tone and line, which were the hallmarks of Cotman’s inimitable style. The presence of the sun and the large trees around the flowing river causes crisp shadows on the building, bridge and water surface.

I love this watercolour and would love to visit Norwich were a number of his works are housed.  It would also be good to visit the Greta River area and take in the landscape, which inspired this talented artist.