Hans Makart

Hans Makart in Renaissance costume (1879) Photogrphed by Ludwig Angerer
Hans Makart in Renaissance costume (1879)
Photogrphed by Ludwig Angerer

The artist I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today is the Austrian academic history painter Hans Makart.  He was an artist who was so loved by the high society of Vienna that he attained an almost cult-like status.  He was born Johann Evangelist Ferdinand Apolinaris Makart in Salzburg in May 1840.  His mother was Mary Catherine Rüssemayr and his father was John Makart, who was the chamberlain at the Mirabell Palace in Salzburg.  He must have shown some artistic talent as a youngster for he enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1858.   His tutor was the Austrian painter of genre pieces and landscapes, Johann Fischbach.  However, his tenure at this famous art establishment was short lived as his tutors found that he lacked the talent to become an academic painter.  Hans Makart was not to be put off by the comments of his former tutors as he still retained a great self-belief in his artistic ability.  In 1860 Makart moved from Vienna to Munich and in 1861 enrolled at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste München, also known as the Munich Academy and, for four years,  studied under the tutelage of the German painter and Munich Academician, Karl von Piloty.  During those four years he also found time to visit London, Paris and Rome.

His artistic “break” came in 1868 but the lead up to his opportunity began ten years earlier.   The inner city of Vienna in 1857 was ringed by its 13th century city walls. However in that year the emperor, Franz Josef, decreed that the walls should be demolished and in their place a wide thoroughfare was to be built, which would circle the inner city.  This large-scale building project was financed, in part, by the sale to private individuals, of land alongside the proposed boulevard, which had not been set aside for public buildings or parks.  The work started in 1858 and was completed seven years later. It became known as the Ringstraße and soon buildings, both private and public, were erected along the tree-lined boulevard.   People loved their new boulevard and would take the opportunity to stroll along the Ringstraße.  This love of promenading by the citizens of Vienna was captured in Theodore Zasche’s work entitled The Ringstrasse, Vienna.

Moderne Amoretten (Modern Cupids) by Hans Makart (1868)
Moderne Amoretten (Modern Cupids) by Hans Makart (1868)

One of the first public buildings erected along the Ringstraße was the Vienna Künstlerhaus which was completed and opened in September 1868 and became home to the Austrian Artists’ Society.   To mark its opening it held an art exhibition and Hans Markt was invited to submit some of his work.  One of the paintings he sent was a very large triptych entitled Moderne Amoretten (Modern Cupids).  It was such a large work that he even sent written instructions and drawings as how it was to be hung to achieve the best visual result.  All three paintings were bought by Count Johann Palffy who later commissioned more work from Makart, including a portrait of his wife.  A few months after the end of the exhibition Emperor Franz Joseph, who had already acquired some of Makart’s works, invited him to return to Vienna and in return for doing so, he was provided with a large studio, for his art work, which had once been a foundry.

Hans Makart's Studio before the Auction by Rudolf Ritter von Alt (1855)
Hans Makart’s Studio before the Auction by Rudolf Ritter von Alt (1855)

Makart filled the place with sculpture, ornate furniture, musical instruments and flowers, all of which he used as a backdrop to his historical works and for his staged elaborate and opulent interiors which he incorporated as backgrounds for some of his portraiture.  Before long the former foundry was not just a simple, if large, artist’s studio, but a Salon and it was here he would invite his friends, models and patrons. He entertained everybody notwithstanding whether they were nobility or bourgeoisie.  The social class of his guests mattered little to him, all he wanted from them was their adoration of him as an artist.  It was simply his showroom for marketing his paintings. The visitors were merely his admiring audience and soon he became the talk of the Viennese high society.  He had become a cult hero and he loved every minute of it.  He had become the leading artistic figure of Viennese society.

Makart did not shy away from controversy.  He saw nothing controversial in his art work and in fact he realised that controversy could work in his favour.   Alexander Klee, a curator at Vienna’s Belvedere museum commented on this aspect of Makart’s art, saying:

“…Part of the scandal came from erotic features in his paintings.  Adults kissing, loose-fitting clothing, an uncovered ankle, monks receiving sexual favours, gold backgrounds inspired by church paintings with nudes in the forefront, depictions of sex and crime – these were all scandalous and sometimes almost blasphemous compositions…”

The Entry of Charles V into Antwerp by Hans Makart (1878)
The Entry of Charles V into Antwerp by Hans Makart (1878)

One such painting which caused ructions was one Makart completed in 1878 entitled The Entry of Charles V into Antwerp.  In the work we see Charles V, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, depicted arriving in Antwerp in 1525.  Makart has depicted the triumphal procession surrounded by beautiful scantily-clad virgins.  Art critics of the time questioned why such nudity should appear in a modern historical scene and suggested that their inclusion was simply a tawdry way Makart had used to be noticed.  In the United States, the painting fell afoul of the Comstock Law, a law named after Anthony Comstock, the United States Postal Inspector and politician dedicated to the strict ideas of  Victorian morality which made illegal the delivery or transportation of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material .   As we know, there is no such thing as bad publicity and despite prints of the painting being banned in America, the Americans were desperate to see the work and make their own judgement and of course the painting, in a round-about way, secured Makart’s fame in that country.

However maybe the critics were overly harsh about Makart’s inclusion of semi naked women in the historical painting as Albrecht Dürer in his book, Journal of a Voyage to the Netherlands wrote:

“…I gave a sou for a little book describing the entry into Antwerp where the king received a costly triumph.  The city gates were ornamented in the most costly manner; there was music and great rejoicing, and beautiful maidens whose like I have seldom seen…” 

And in 1526 Dürer wrote to his friend with regards the scene, writing:

“…I looked at these young women very attentively and closely, and without shame, because I am a painter…”

One presumes Makart was aware of Dürer’s comments as he included him in the crowd scene in his work!

Death of Cleopatra by Hans Makart (1875)
Death of Cleopatra by Hans Makart (1875)

Another historical painting Makart completed in 1875 was sold at auction this year for 757,300 Euros.  It was his work entitled Death of Cleopatra.  The painting depicts the dramatic moment immediately after the snake has plunged its poisonous fangs into Cleopatra’s breast.   The portrayal of the dying queen derives its intensity from the contrast between the depiction of Cleopatra’s luxurious silk garments along with her glittering gold jewellery that adorn her body and the pale opaqueness of her skin.  We see the blue tinge on her right breast at the point where the asp has struck.   The sitter for this painting was a friend of Makart, Charlotte Wolter, a Viennese actress.  Gabriel Frodl, who was once director of the Belvedere in Vienna, describes how Makart set the scene:

“…In this manner, the painter conveys an erotic-lascivious mood, further emphasised by the palpable vulnerability of the body, doomed to die among the now insignificant luxury of its surroundings…”

Makart’s artistic work had now branched out in many directions.  He not only created works of art on canvas but also designed costumes and furniture and conceived elegant interior designs for upper-class residences and his work became known as Makartstil (Makart-style).  In 1879, just before his fortieth birthday, he was commissioned to organise a pageant and parade as part of the Silver Wedding Anniversary celebrations of the marriage of Emperor Franz Josef and his wife, Elizabeth of Bavaria.

Hans Makart at the Parade
Hans Makart at the Parade

It was a great success and Makart took this as an opportunity of self-aggrandisement for besides designing the costumes for the people on the floats, cars and carriages and the scenic settings for the various floats he designed a float specifically for artists, which would head the parade and this would be headed by Makart himself on a white horse.   It is no wonder that this parade later became known as the Makart-parade.  The Makart-styled parade was such a success with the Viennese people been given the opportunity to dress up in beautiful historical costumes and be “transported” back to bygone times.  Such was the triumph of this parade and pageant that annual parades followed.

Portrait of Anna von Waldberg by Hans Makart (1883)
Portrait of Anna von Waldberg by Hans Makart (1883)

One could not end a blog about Makart and his paintings if one did not delve into his portraiture.  Many men sat for their portraits but it is Makart’s sensual and seductive portraits of upper-class females which were his best.  One such painting was his 1883 Portrait of Anna von Waldberg which he completed a year before her death.  In the painting we see her wearing a black bustle-era evening dress with its low-cut neckline.  The design was less conservative but incorporates a black bow as a modesty piece hiding the lady’s cleavage.

The Five Senses by Hans Makart (1872-79)
The Five Senses by Hans Makart (1872-79)

The final work of Makart which I am featuring is his famous; some would say his infamous, five-panel oil painting entitled Die Füunf Sinne (The Five Senses) which he completed in around 1879.    It is a study in the nude, depicting five different views of his ideal female form under the guise of the five senses: the senses of smelling, seeing, hearing, feeling and tasting.  Each of the five senses is represented by the action of the female nude.

1990 Austrian Postage Stamp
1990 Austrian Postage Stamp

Hans Makart died in October 1884, aged 44.  He was buried in an honorary grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetery.  The Austrian postal service has issued a number of stamps honouring his memory, the most recent being in 1990 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Honoré Daumier – Lithographs and Caricatures

1830 issue of La Caricature
1830 issue of La Caricature

In my blog today I want to look at some of Honoré Daumier’s political and satirical caricatures and lithographs.  To get some idea as to why he came to satirise the ruling classes of his day I think it is worthwhile looking at the French history of Daumier’s time to find the answers.

The French Revolution began almost twenty years before Daumier’s birth in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille and the fall of the French monarchy.  The majority of upper-class and bourgeoisie Parisians who had managed to survive the slaughter, found themselves imprisoned.  In September 1792 the ruling body known as the National Convention had declared France a republic and took control of the country.  This ruling group was split into two major factions: the Moderates known as the Girondins and the Radicals known as the Jacobins but in Paris itself there was third and far more dangerous faction known as the sans-culottes, (those without breeches).  This group of radical left-wing partisans came from the lower classes and were typically urban labourers.  They were easily identifiable as they wore full-length working-class pants rather than the knee-length culottes which was the French name given to silk knee-length breeches worn by the moderate bourgeois revolutionaries of the National Convention.  The sans-culottes strove for popular democracy, affordable food but most of all they wanted to ensure that a counter-revolution would never come to fruition.  This fear of a counter-revolution was to have a bloody consequence as the sans-culottes were aware that there were a large number of political prisoners in gaols, the number of which they believed was greater than the free Parisians, and, in their mind, they viewed them as counter revolutionaries and a threat to the spirit of the Revolution.  Their decision to rid themselves of this threat was precipitated by rumours that the Prussian army was going to invade the country and when it got to Paris would be sympathetic to the imprisoned counter-revolutionaries.   The sans-culottes were now desperate to prevent the freeing of the prisoners and so on September 3rd and 4th of 1792 they stormed the prisons and within a few days had killed thousands of them.  Men and women, aristocrats and clergy were butchered.  The bloodbath became known as the September Massacre.  A year later, Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were beheaded.

As is often the case violence begets violence and in 1794 the leaders of the sans-culottes had themselves been executed by the Jacobins under Robespierre.  Robespierre was now a leader of the Convention and ruled through terror but by 1794 he was considered by many to have gone too far and eventually fell from grace.  He was arrested by the deputies in the National Convention and was executed in July 1794.  A new grouping known as The Directory was formed in 1795 with the intention of making France a republic.  For four years the Directory tried to please all the people but they themselves were still divided between those who wanted life to go back to the Pre-Revolution days and those who still wanted the bloodshed to continue and rid the country of the upper classes.

In October 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte arrived back in Paris from his battlefield heroics in Egypt.   The time was right for change.  Popular opinion was divided but all seemed to hate the Directory and so Bonaparte struck and his successful coup in November 1799 led him to become the new French ruler.  In December 1804 he was crowned Napoleon I, Emperor of the French by Pope Pius VII.   Bonaparte reign as leader lasted until his defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, after which he was exiled to St Helena where he died six years later.

On Bonaparte’s departure, France was once again under monarchist rule – this time it was the House of Bourbon and Louis XVIII.  On Louis death in 1824 his younger brother Charles X, who had been living in exile in London, returned to France and took up the reins of power.   Soon after coming to power Charles’ government passed a series of laws which strengthened the power of both the nobility and clergy.

Charles’ rule was of a dictatorial nature.  His was an absolute monarchy in which he exercised ultimate governing authority as the head of the country and his powers could not be limited by the country’s constitution or law. As an absolute monarch he was the supreme judicial authority and as such he could condemn men to death without the right of appeal.   Charles wielded his unlimited authority to reassert the power of the Catholic Church in the country.  He also sought to restrict the freedom of the press but most contentiously he passed laws which would compensate the families of the nobles who had had their property destroyed during the Revolution.  His popularity slowly but surely waned with the French people.  The “straw that broke the camel’s back” came about when Charles set forth what is now known as the July Ordinances which laid down a raft of new laws, one of which was to exclude the commercial middle-class from future elections.   Furthermore most businessmen were banned from running as candidates for the Chamber of Deputies, membership of which for many was a position that afforded them the ultimate in social prestige. Bankers were far from happy with this Ordinance and took their revenge by refusing to lend money, and business owners shuttered their factories and work places, which culminated in workers being callously turned out onto the streets where they were left to fend for themselves.   Naturally, the unemployed felt badly done by and decided that the only course of action left to them was to take to the streets in protest.  The July Revolution of 1830 had started.  It lasted three days and eventually forced Charles to flee to exile in England.  However rule by a monarch survived and Louis-Philippe became king of the French.   The downfall of Charles came to fruition, not only because of the workers protesting on the streets but because of the power wielded by the upper middle class society, the bourgeoisie, the bankers, railroad barons, mine and forest owners as well as wealthy merchants and so during Louis-Philippe’s eighteen year reign the power of the French bourgeoisie grew more powerful and became very close to the king.

However as years passed it was clear that not everybody was happy with Louis-Philippe’s monarchy and his government and many reform movements came in to being wanting more equality for the working classes.  In 1846 France suffered a financial crisis and it was also a year when the harvest was disappointing.  In 1847 the country descended into an economic depression and the peasant farmer workers began to rebel against their poor living standard.  It was not just the rural areas that were suffering as a third of Parisians were out of work.  Louis-Philippe and his government sought to silence the masses by banning political rallies but this only served to further incense the populace and the people took to the streets of Paris.  The military fired on the angry crowd and over fifty were killed.  Barricades were erected and shops, cars and omnibuses were set alight.  It was over for Louis Philipe and so, like his predecessor Charles X, the people had ousted him, forcing him to flee to exile in England.  The monarchy had once again fallen and the Second Republic of France was born.

It was in the middle of all this that Honoré Daumier was born in Marseille in February 1808.   He came from a working-class household.   When he was twelve years old the family moved to Paris.  His father was a glazier and picture-framer but gave it all up in his quest to become a successful playwright, alas to no avail.  The family was now short of money and Honoré had to supplement the family income by working as an errand boy at the law courts and as a clerk in a bookshop.  He had developed a love of sketching and would often spend time at the Louvre copying the Masters.   He secured some informal artistic training from a friend of his father, the painter, Alexandre Lenoir.  Later he attended life-classes and at the age of seventeen he became an apprentice at the studio of Zepherin Belliard, the lithographer and portraitist and it was his love and skill at lithography which would shape Daumier’s future.

Daumier being from a working-class background was a staunch republican and so was delighted with the July Revolution of 1830 and the overthrow of Charles X but was bitterly disappointed to find that instead of the formation of a Republic, the monarchy would continue with the arrival of King Louis-Philippe as the successor to Charles X.  His hope of a Republic had been dashed.   Daumier decided to fight the monarchy in the only way he could.  He would use the power of the political and satirical caricature to criticise the monarchy.  This was quite a dangerous form of dissent and many artists shied away from such a blatant form of criticism.  Daumier joined the newly founded Parisian satirical, anti-monarchist, illustrated newspaper Le Caricature.  The four-page weekly journal, with two or three lithographs usually in the form of political caricatures, was one of the first French satirical newspapers and was founded in November 1830 by the anti-royalist, Charles Philipon, five months after the July Revolution.

Gargantua by Honoré Daumier (1831)
Gargantua by Honoré Daumier (1831)

Probably the most famous of Daumier’s caricatures was one he completed in 1831, entitled Gargantua.   The name Gargantua derives from Rabelais’ 16th century series of novels, which tells of the adventures of two giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel.   It was one of the first major political lithographs completed by Daumier. In the work, we see King Louis-Philippe seated on his high throne, which is actually a giant commode!  It is an unflattering caricature of the monarch but this pear-shaped head was Daumier’s constant caricature depiction of Louis-Philippe.  From the king’s mouth runs a stepping board to the ground on which the servants carry the sacks of money which, on reaching the top, tip into the king’s mouth.  Daumier is portraying the king as a devourer of his subjects’ hard-earned money.

In the bottom right of the work we see taxpayers who have been rounded up and told to empty their pockets into the baskets.  Look at the man who is just putting his money into the basket.  He is dressed in rags.  Sitting on the floor in the very right of the foreground is an emaciated-looking woman clutching her baby.  By depicting such people Daumier is highlighting that it is the lower class poor people who are giving money to the already-rich king.  Above the heads of the poor tax-givers we see the windmills and buildings of a port.  The sun is shining on this landscape and presumably Daumier is reminding his viewers that the economy was on track despite the way the king had an ever-demanding tax regime.

Look at the secondary scene by the feet of the king where we see well-dressed men with their tricorn hats.  They are standing under the steep walkway and are availing themselves of any coins which may fall from the servants’ baskets as they stagger upwards towards the king’s mouth.  Under the king’s commode/throne we see papers fluttering down and its is Daumier’s somewhat unsavoury way of showing the king “issuing” documents granting honours and privileges to the chosen few below, who are carrying their symbol of their status – their tricorn hats and who eagerly await to collect their privileges.  In the left of the painting we see these people from upper-middle class who have collected their documents of privileges running off towards the National Assembly.

The caricature appeared in the December 15th 1831 edition of La Caricature and was displayed in the window of La Caricature office in the Gallery Vero – Dodat to attract onlookers.  The ruling powers were horrified with this pictorial assault on royal power.  Louis-Philippe immediately reintroduced press censorship. Orders were given by the king’s government via the courts that all the copies of the caricature were to be seized and the lithographic stone broken.   The proprietor of the journal, Charles Philipon, was fined and Daumier was gaoled in August 1832 and not released until February 1833.  To raise money to pay the fines, Philipon, in August 1832,  immediately retaliated by launching the L’Association Mensuelle Liphographique, sometimes referred to as L’Association pour la Liberté de la Presse which published a monthly large format supplement which was distributed to regular subscribers.

The Legislative Belly by Honoré Daumier (1834)
The Legislative Belly by Honoré Daumier (1834)

Many of the issue would include a number of Daumier’s caricatures.  The first of these was entitled:

Le Ventre législatif

Aspects des bancs ministériels de la chamber improstituée de 1834

 The Legislative Belly

(Aspects of the Ministerial Benches of the Improstituted Chamber of 1834)

In it we see a meeting of some of the National Legislature.  There are thirty-five members shown in the work, all of who, at some time, had been unflatteringly caricatured separately by Daumier. These were members of the Centre Right faction of Louis-Philippe’s legislature.  One can see by the way Daumier has portrayed them that he has an extreme dislike of them and what they stand for.  He has depicted them as bloated and uninspiring, figures who struggle to keep awake.   Daumier is wishing to portray them as the embodiment of idleness, conceit and corruption as this was how he viewed the monarchy and its supporters.

Rue Transnonain le 15 avril 1834 by Honoré Daumier (1834)
Rue Transnonain le 15 avril 1834 by Honoré Daumier (1834)

The third and final Daumier work I am looking at is not a caricature but a lithograph which he completed in 1834 and once again highlights the artist’s interest in politics and the cause of the ordinary people as they struggled to survive.   It is entitled Rue Transnonain le 15 avril 1834.  This work was like many of his others in as much as Daumier wanted to put across, through his art his discontentment with what he believed was social injustice. Through his art work he wanted to remind people, if it was needed, that they should not have to put up with their lot in life.  The background story to this work was that Louis-Philippe’s government had just passed a law which would seriously curtail the power of the unions.  Louis-Philippe, although outwardly indicating that he would maintain the ideals which were held dearly by those revolutionists at the end of the eighteenth century, said that he would look after the lower classes.  Despite this promise his government still favoured the wealthy classes when it came to offering business contracts.  This we saw was highlighted in Daumier’s Gargantua caricature.  The rich got richer and these wealthy businessmen treated their workers badly and for these downtrodden people, their union was their only hope of improved conditions.  The workers could see that the curtailment of the union powers by this new proposed legislation was going to have dire consequences on their working life and living conditions and so they rose up against it.

In April 1834 the insurrections and public disorder began in Paris, part of which was centred around Rue Transnonain in the Parisian working class district of St. Martin,.  The house at number 12 Rue Transnonain was close to a barricade set up by the protesters and, according to the soldiers of the civil guard, who were trying to quell the uprising, a shot was fired at them from a window in that building and a civil guard was killed  The civil guard reacted swiftly and murderously.  They forced their way into the building and indiscriminately fired on the inhabitants. Nineteen people, men, women and children, were slaughtered.

If we look at the lithograph we are aware that there is a somewhat restrained brutality about this work.  We are not shown the actual killings but just witnessing the bloody aftermath.  It is as if we have just opened the door of the bedroom and are greeted with this dreadful sight.  There is a deathly stillness of what we see before us.  The main focal point of this lithograph is a man slumped against his bed, tangled up in the sheets of his bed.  He is dressed in his white night shirt which is stained with blood and he still has his nightcap on his head.  His attire gives us the impression that he had been asleep when the civil guard burst into the room, all guns blazing.  It is not until you look more closely at the slumped figure that you realise his inert body is lying on top of a dead child.  Blood is coming from a wound in the child’s head.  Cast your eyes to the left of the lithograph and in the shadows you can just make out another body of a woman lying on the ground and in the right foreground, on the floor by the bed, we see the head of an elderly man, yet another victim.  From the choice of bodies, Daumier has depicted he is highlighting the fact that neither the elderly, nor a child nor a woman escaped the massacre.

We have to admire Daumier’s skill in the way he has made us search the lithograph for more victims of this massacre.  Each one we find adds to the horror.  There is a matter-of-fact element to Daumier’s depiction.  Daumier had been quite clever with this lithograph.  The king and the government were not alluded to nor openly blamed in the work.  It was just a pictorial statement of facts of what happened on the night of April 14th 1834.   It was simply a piece of journalism.  People who looked upon the work were then allowed to make up their minds about what they saw before them and decide who to blame.  Baron Haussmann in his radical remodelling of Paris in the 1860’s and 1870’s merged Rue Transnonain with the larger Rue Beaubourg and the street name Rue Transnonain was deleted and with it the reminder of the atrocities which occurred on the night of April 14th 1834.

My apologies for the length of the blog but I thought it was important to give you a feel for what was happening in France which lead to the staunch Republican views of Honoré Daumier.  To all historians I just hope I have presented the French history facts correctly !!!

Jean-Marc Nattier

Jean-Marc Nattier by Louis Tocqué (c.1742) Toqué was taught by Nattier in the 1720's and married Nattier's daughter Marie in 1747.
Jean-Marc Nattier by Louis Tocqué (c.1742)Toqué was taught by Nattier in the 1720’s and married Nattier’s daughter Marie in 1747. 

The career you decide on as a teenager is often a logical follow-on from what one or both your parents did or what they were interested in.  There are cases when parents are disappointed that their children don’t follow their career footsteps, no matter how much they try to cajole them.  Musicians beget musicians, lawyers, beget lawyers and of course artists beget artists.   The father, mother and godfather of the painter featured in my blog today were all artists and so one should not be surprised to find that their sons became interested in all things artistic.  Of course to be interested in art and be good at art are two completely different things but my featured painter today was one of France’s most talented 18th century historical painter and portraitist.  He was Jean-Marc Nattier. 

Nattier was born in Paris in March 1685.  He was the second son of Marc Nattier a portrait painter and Marie Nattier (née Courtois) who was a miniaturist.  His father and his godfather were his first art tutors.  His godfather was Jean Jouvenet, a history painter, who specialised in religious scenes.  When he was fifteen years of age his father arranged for him to enrol in the drawing classes at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture of Paris and soon the establishment recognised the artistic talent of  Jean-Marc for in 1700 he was awarded the Premier Prix de Dessin.

The Wedding by Proxy of Marie de' Medici to King Henry IV by Rubens (1622-1625) Part of the Marie de' Medici cycle
The Wedding by Proxy of Marie de’ Medici to King Henry IV by Rubens (1622-1625)
Part of the Marie de’ Medici cycle

Nattier’s father had a royal licence to reproduce Rubens’s famous cycle of paintings known as the History of Marie de’ Medici, which was, at that time, housed in the Le Galerie du Palais du Luxembourg, Paris.  It is now housed in the Louvre.   Before he died, he arranged for the licence to be taken over by Jean-Marc and his brother, another artist,  Jean-Baptiste Nattier.  Nattier and his brother spent much time making drawings of this cycle of paintings.  The cycle consisted of twenty four monumental allegorical paintings of the French dowager Queen by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens who began painting them in 1622 and which took him two years to complete.  It was a set of narrative paintings, commissioned by Maria de’ Medici, the widow of Henry IV of France, who, on her husband’s death, took control of the country until their thirteen year old son Louis XIII reached the age of thirteen.   Twenty-one of these works tell the story of her life, her struggles and triumphs as a widow, mother and ruler.  The other three paintings were portraits of her and her parents, Francesco I de’ Medici the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Joanna, Archduchess of Austria.  It was presumably in her mind that such a set of paintings about her would immortalize her in French history. Jean-MarcNattier, over time, made a series of drawings of this cycle of paintings which were turned into engravings by the leading engravers of the time.  The drawings appeared in 1710 under the title La Galerie du Palais du Luxembourg and  proved extremely popular.  Jean-Marc Nattier’s artistic ability was now recognised. 

Portrait of Tsar Peter by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)
Portrait of Tsar Peter by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)

Through the good auspices of his uncle, Jean Jouvenet, Jean-Marc Nattier was offered the chance to visit Rome and study at the prestigious Académie de France à Rome.  Unlike his elder brother, John-Baptiste, however, he declined the offer and instead of heading to Italy, remained in Paris to further his career.  

Catherine I of Russia by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)
Catherine I of Russia by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)

In 1717, Nattier, at the age of thirty-two, travelled to Amsterdam where he was commissioned to paint portraits of the visiting Russian Tsar, Peter the Great and his second wife, the Tsarina, Catherine. Both portraits are housed at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Battle of Poltava by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)
Battle of Poltava by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)

The Tsar, obviously pleased with the portraits then commissioned Nattier to produce two historical paintings depicting the 1709 Battle of Poltava and the 1708 Battle of Lesnaya, two of the major conflicts between Russia and Sweden in the Great Northern War which he completed in 1717. 

The Tsar was delighted with the history paintings and invited him to come to Russia and work at the Russian court but the Frenchman declined the offer and returned to the French capital.  Nattier remained in Paris for the rest of his life . 

Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa by Jean-Marc Nattier (1718)
Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa by Jean-Marc Nattier (1718)

Nattier’s work between 1715 and 1720 focused on historical paintings such as his Great Northern War paintings (above) and he was received into the Académie Royale as a history painter on the strength of these works and in particular one he completed in 1718 entitled Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa.   The painting is based on Book V of Ovid’s Metamorphoses,  which tells the tale of  Andromeda, who was betrothed to her uncle, Phineas, until Perseus rescued her from the sea monster, Cetus,  and in return for saving her life she agreed to marry him instead.    At their wedding celebrations Phineas and his followers burst in and attacked Perseus and the wedding guests.  Andromeda came to his aid but he was heavily outnumbered.  Perseus then unveils his ultimate weapon, the severed head of the gorgon, Medusa, that petrifies all those who look at it.  Perseus thus transforms all his attackers into statues and utters the words to Phineas:

“…You shall not suffer by the sword.  Rather I will cause you to be an enduring monument through the ages and you will always be seen in my father-in-laws palace, so that my wife may find solace in the statue of her intended…”  

Phineas tried to avert his eyes but it was too late.  His neck hardened, the tears on his cheek were turned to stone and he was turned into marble.  In Nattier’s painting we see the intruders on the left already turned to stone whilst those in the right foreground try to avert their eyes from the Medusa’s severed head which is being held aloft by Perseus.  Throughout the painting we see the bright flashes of highly polished armour.  There are also the gleaming  silver salvers and decorative pitchers which lie on the floor in the foreground that were being used for the wedding feast.  These random reflections catch our eye and have our gaze dart around the painting.  This attention-dispersing effect is known as the papillotage

Nattier’s was forced to move from historical paintings to the more lucrative genre of portraiture around 1720 when he, and numerous French citizens, lost most of their money they had invested in the government’s Mississippi Company, set up by Louis XIV’s financial adviser, the Scotsman, John Law.  The collapse of the company became known as the Mississippi Bubble.  Nattier was in a state of financial ruin and urgently needed to recoup his lost money and the most lucrative art genre was portraiture, although this form of art came low down in the academic hierarchy of genres.   Artists of the time who made money from their portraiture were frowned upon by the art establishment who considered that the portraitists had lost all artistic credibility.  Nattier was loathed to give up on his favoured genre of history painting, which he knew the art academies of 17th century Europe considered the highest intellectual achievement for an artist.   He was extremely unhappy that he was about to sell his soul for the financial gain of portraiture but “needs must”.   However to retain some artistic credibility he decided that his portraiture would revive the genre of allegorical portraiture and by depicting his sitters as characters from Greek and Roman mythology, history or biblical tales then he was not completely abandoning history painting.  Initially his portraiture clientele came from the Parisian bourgeoise but later in the 1730’s he began to work on portraits of the ladies of the Royal court and in the 1740’s he was commissioned to paint portraits of the Royal family of Louis XV.  

Henriette of France as Flora by Jean-Marc Nattier (1742)
Henriette of France as Flora by Jean-Marc Nattier (1742)

Females liked this type of portraiture as artists could then depict them in roles outside their normally constrained and often boring professions, and elevate their status to that of Goddesses.  Nattier realised that with a little help from props and artificial settings the finished painting moved a tad closer to the much vaunted and more credible history painting genre.  His finished works pleased the female courtiers as besides elevating them to the status of Goddesses he would cleverly beautify his sitters without losing their true likeness.  Examples of this allegorical portraiture can be seen in his 1742 painting entitled Henriette of France as Flora.  The painting had been commissioned by Henriette’s mother, Maria Leczinska, the wife of Louis XV.  Nattier had transposed the princess into the mythological figure of the Roman goddess of flowers and the season of spring, Flora. 

Marie Adelaide of France by Jean-Marc Nattier (1745)
Marie Adelaide of France by Jean-Marc Nattier (1745)

Three years later in 1745 he completed another allegorical portrait for Maria Leczinska.  This time it was a portrait of another of her daughters, Marie Adelaide, which was entitled Marie Adelaide of France as Diana.  Diana was the Roman goddess of hunting and in the painting we see Marie Adelaide sitting on the ground, one hand wrapped around her bow whilst the other hand withdraws an arrow from its quiver.  Both the paintings of Louis XV’s daughters can now be seen at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Portrait of Queen Marie Leszczyńska by Jean-Marc Nattier (1748)
Portrait of Queen Marie Leszczyńska by Jean-Marc Nattier (1748)

In 1748 Nattier received a commission to paint Louis XV’s wife, Maria Leszczynska, who was the daughter of the former King of Poland.  Louis and Maria’s marriage was an arranged one and fifteen year old Louis and twenty-one year old Maria met for the first time on the eve of their wedding.   It started off as a very happy marriage and the couple went on to have ten children.   There were complications with the birth of the last child, Princess Louise, in 1737 and from that time on the couples sex life was at an end and they slept in separate rooms.   It was around this juncture in their married life that Louis  began to have a series of love affairs including his famous one with Madame de Pompadour.   The portrait by Nattier of the Queen was a change of portraiture style.  This was not the usual allegorical portrait that he had been carrying out over the last twenty years, but a simple depiction of a forty-five year old married woman.  Marie had asked that she be depicted in habit de ville (day dress).   She wanted simplicity and that is exactly what Nattier gave her.  We see her seated with her left hand on top of an open bible which makes us aware of her strong religious beliefs.  She looks relaxed and at ease with herself.  She was a homely-type of person and Nattier has depicted her just so.  There is a natural quality about this work which must have pleased the queen.

Jean-Marc Nattier had married Marie-Madeleine de la Roche in 1724 and the couple went on to have four children, one of whom, Marie, married Louis Tocqué in 1747.  Tocqué who was only ten years younger than his father-in-law and had at one time been a student of his and they were colleagues at the Académie Royale.  Louis Tocqué and Jean-Marc Nattier were two of the most celebrated portraitists of the 18th century.

Self-Portrait with his Family, by Jean-Marc Nattier
Self-Portrait with his Family, by Jean-Marc Nattier

Nattier completed a family portrait of himself, his wife and their four children which depicts them well dressed and quite affluent looking.  The painting would have been from the 1730’s when Nattier had started to recover from his financial losses a decade before.  

Jean-Marc Nattier’s health deteriorated in 1762 and he was forced to stop painting.   The popularity of his work had started to wane in the last decade of his life and he died a poor man.  

Jean-Marc Nattier  died in Paris in November 1766, aged 81.

The Three Portraits of Ria Munk by Gustav Klimt

I suppose the most challenging and distressing period of one’s life is when somebody close to us, somebody we love, dies.  It is both a traumatic and painful time when suddenly we feel the loss of someone we loved.  Later, we want to cling to memories of the dead person.  We want to remember them forever.  We do not want to ever forget that person who had so touched our lives.   How do we do that?   Within days of our loved one dying, we are offered the chance to see the deceased one last time as they lay in rest in the funeral parlour.   I have done that on a number of occasions and regretted it.  I probably did it more out of duty than out of a desire to see the body of the dead person.  The face of the deceased I looked down upon was not the way I wanted to remember them.  It makes no difference how well the mortician has waved his or her magic wand over the deceased, the face of the person is pallid and lifeless and only our mental capacity and power of imagination can change that image.  Ultimately, our fondest recollection of the deceased person is almost always through photographs, which sadly, like our recollections, fade over time.  Even after photography became the medium of remembrance, a painting of a person acted as an aide-mémoire and in today’s blog I want to look at how one family wanted to remember their deceased daughter. 

Ria Munck on her Deathbed by Gustave Klimt (1912)
Ria Munk on her Deathbed by Gustav Klimt (1912)

My blog today is about a mother’s love for her dead daughter and her desire to hold on to her memories of her beautiful girl through a posthumous painting.   The mother in question was Aranka Pulitzer Munk.  She was the niece of Joseph Pulitzer, the man who, through the  provisions in his will, set up the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism.   Aranka married Alexander Munk, a wealthy Polish industrialist in 1882 and the couple went on to have three daughters, Lili, Maria (Ria) and Lola.  The daughter that is featured in today’s blog is the second-born girl, Ria, who was born in November 1887.  Ria was an extremely beautiful young woman and in 1911, when she was twenty-four years old, she had become the lover of the forty-year old German poet and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers.  This was never going to be a good match for Ewers reputation as a libertine was well known and wherever he went, scandals followed.  However maybe it was this that drew Ria to the latter-day “bad boy” character.  They eventually became betrothed and despite Ria entering this arrangement with a sizeable dowry, Ewers called it off.  According to the book Gustave Klimt by Jane Rogoyska and Patrick Bade, Ewers wrote Ria a letter that December, in which he described her as “a hopeless romantic and out of touch with reality”.     As one can imagine, Ria was devastated and could not come to terms with the break-up and at noon on December 28th she took a gun and shot herself through the heart. 

Whereas now, the tabloid papers would be full of the scandalous story of the suicide of the daughter of a wealthy family, the suicide of Ria Munk was of little import in the local press.  On the contrary, Viennese society looked upon suicide following a broken relationship as almost the norm.  There was even a sense of romanticism about it, similar to cases of death at the end of a duel which was fought over someone’s honour.  The Viennese society seemed to be in awe of the pomp and ceremony of grand funeral processions which followed on from such deaths.  The famous Austrian writer and journalist, Stefan Zweig  summed it up in his 1943 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, when he wrote:

“…‘In Vienna, even funerals found enthusiastic audiences and it was the ambition of every true Viennese to have a lovely corpse, with a majestic procession and many followers; even his death converted the genuine Viennese into a spectacle for others. In this receptivity for all that was colourful festive and resounding, in this pleasure in the theatrical, whether it was on the stage or in reality, both as theatre and as a mirror of life, the whole city was at one…” 

That may in the case but one can only imagine the devastation and heartbreak felt by her parents.  Her mother, Aranka, decided that she wanted a posthumous portrait painted of her daughter.  Aranka’s sister was Serena Lederer (neé Pulitzer) and she was one of Gustav Klimt’s main patrons and he had painted her portrait in 1899 and a portrait of her daughter, Portrait of Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt in 1916.  Serena Lederer and her husband August had built up the largest collection of the Austrian artist’s works and so it was logical for Aranka to ask her sister to speak to Klimt about the portrait commission, Klimt was, at that time, the most sought after portraitist in Vienna.  It was also around this time in Viennese society that the death-mask portrait and the death-bed portrait had grown to become in vogue with city’s privileged classes, and so following the tragedy of her daughter’s suicide, Aranka Munk decided that she would commission a death-bed portrait of her beloved Ria and arranged, through her sister, to have Klimt  paint it. 

Presumably with the help of photographs, Klimt completed the death-bed portrait of Ria Munk in 1912 and it was entitled Ria Munk am Totenbett (Ria Munk I),   Ria Munk on her Deathbed (Ria Munk I).  The background of the work is dark blue and is in stark contrast to the red carnations which form part of the garland of flowers, which frame Ria’s beautiful face.   Looking at the work we see Ria lying peacefully with her head on a white pillow.  Surrounding the pillow there are some white carnations.  There is no indication that Ria has died a violent death.   This painting is all about Ria’s beauty.  Her chest is covered in orange, red and purple fabric, which hide from us the bullet wound.  She is at peace.  Klimt has painted her with pink cheeks. As yet her facial features have not begun to sink into her skull.   Her mouth is partly open which make us think that she is just asleep.    She is surrounded by flowers and many people draw a similarity to Klimt’s depiction of her and the depiction of the tragic heroine in John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting, Ophelia.   It is a lovely portrait which exudes an aura of peace and serenity but there was also something about it that made her parents to reject it.  Aranka Munk decided the work, although beautiful, was too death-like and too distressful to behold.   Aranka then belatedly decided that she wanted the aide-mémoire of her daughter to be a painting of how she remembered her when she was alive.  She wanted to evoke memories of her daughter’s vivaciousness and exuberance, rather than the peaceful but solemn one of Ria, depicted by Klimt as she lay on her death bed and so, according to Erich Lederer, Serena Lederer’s son, Klimt was again commissioned to paint a second portrait of Ria.  In 1913, Aranka gave Klimt some more photographs of her daughter and asked him for another portrait, one that would encapsulate her beauty and her joie de vivre. 

Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) by Gustave Klimt (1916)
Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) by Gustav Klimt (1916)

There are some questions about this second portrait that remain unanswered.    The one fact we do know was whatever the artist gave Aranka, she rejected it.   Why did she reject it?   Was the painting above the one Klimt handed over to Aranka Munk?  If we look at the painting which bears the title Ria Munk II, then it is not difficult to see why a mother would be horrified and subsequently reject such a semi-naked portrait of her late daughter.   However we are not sure that the portrait we see before us was the painting Klimt gave her, in fact we can almost be certain that it was not.  Would Klimt really believe that a grieving mother would welcome such a semi-nude depiction of her daughter?  Although we have no way of knowing what Klimt’s second portrait of Ria Munk, which he gave to Aranka looked like, what we do know is that it was rejected by her.  Another fact we know about this second commission from Ria’s mother was that Klimt struggled with it.  We know this from a postcard he sent to his life-long friend, the Viennese fashion designer Emilie Flöge, in 1913.  He wrote of his problem with the commission:

“…the Munk portrait… wouldn’t come together! Can’t make it a likeness!…”

Following Aranka’s rejection of the painting, Klimt took it back to his studio, and altered it.  The altered and finished version is more erotic and depicts a bare-breasted portrait of a dancer.  It is now beleived that the dancer could have been Johanna Jusl, who was not only a dancer with the Vienna Hofoper but was also one of Klimt’s models.  His amended version, which we see above, depicts a lady, bare-breasted and exuding an overt sensuality, which one presumes would not have been present in the painting he offered Aranka Munk.   She stands in a full-frontal pose but her head is coyly turned away. Her cheeks have a faint rose tinge to them.  The elongated horizontal shape of her eyes gives her an oriental look.  There is a delicate tinge of light blue on her face and neck which confers upon her a ghost-like appearance. Next to her is a table upon which there is a vase of poppies.  Behind her, to the right, there is a vast floral display whilst in the left of the work we see oriental figures portrayed on a green background.  Her highly colourful and garish patterned  dress, which is open to her waist exposing her breasts, seems to become one with the background.  Below the hem of the dress we catch sight of lace-edged black pantaloons below which we see her shapely white-stocking legs and high-heeled shoes with their decorative bows.  There is a definite oriental-feel to this work and we know Klimt was fascinated by orientalism.  In Frank Whitford’s 1990 book, Klimt, he tells the story of a young aspiring artist, Egon Schiele, visiting Klimt’s studio in the Vienna district of Heitzing and how Schiele describes the studio as being dominated by Far Eastern Art and artefacts as well as Japanese woodblock prints.  Klimt had also a large collection of kimonos, a large red Japanese suit of armour and a number of exquisite Chinese costumes.  So was Klimt’s love of orientalism unusual?  In 1923, Anton Faistauer, a Viennese painter wrote a book entitled ‘Neue Malerei in Osterreich’ and in it he discussed  Klimt and orientalism, he wrote:

“…for Europeans Klimt is an outsider… (and) it would be better not to compare him at all to western ways. He is incomprehensible to the West, to the French and Germans, and his art, for now, is rejected there… He is conceivable only in Vienna, better still in Budapest or Constantinople. His spirit is entirely oriental. Eroticism plays a dominant role in his art, and his taste for women is rather Turkish… He is inspired by the decorations of Persian vases and oriental carpets, and especially delights in the gold and silver of his canvases…” 

The work, with the title Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) – The Dancer (Ria Munk II), the title originating from Erich Lederer, remained in Klimt’s studio and he never sold it.  It is now part of the collection of the Neue Galerie in New York. 

Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) by Gustave Klimt (1918)
Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) by Gustav Klimt (1918)

The third portrait of Ria Munk, entitled Frauenbildnis ( Ria Munk III), which Klimt began around 1917, was one of the largest and greatest full-length female portraits by him.  It was, like a number of Klimt’s  later works found in his studio, unfinished, when he died in February 1918.  The woman in the painting, with her pink cheeks and dark eyes is standing sideways on but is turning to face us, the viewer.  Unlike the previous portrait, there is demureness in the way she holds her robe closed.  She seems totally at ease.  There is an aura of self-confidence about the young lady.  She proffers us a dreamy smile.  There is no hint of seductiveness about her expression that we saw in the earlier portrait. As was the case in many of his earlier full length female portraits of women from Vienna’s high society such as Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II (1912), Portrait of Eugenia (Mäda) Primavesi (c.1914) and Friedericke Maria Beer (1916), he once again morphs his subject into a highly colourful and decorative background.   The background of this work consists of a multitude of flowers such as roses and tulips, floral patterns and oriental-looking designs. The painting is incomplete, especially with regards the dress and the foreground, which we see are just traces of the charcoal preliminary sketch.

Shortly after Klimt’s death, and because her daughter’s portrait had been commissioned by Aranka Munk, it was given to her.  Aranka, who had divorced her husband in 1913, was now living in the summer at her lakeside villa at Bad Aussee in the Austrian state of Styria and it was here that she kept this third portrait of her daughter Ria.  It remained there until 1941.  Aranka, being Jewish, was then forced to sell part of the property to neighbours in 1941.   The Gestapo later seized her remaining property, and her apartment in Vienna, in 1942.    Aranka was deported to Lodz in German-occupied Poland in October 1941 and was put to death on November 26th, a day before her 79th birthday. Her daughter, Lola, was also sent to a concentration camp, at Chelmno, Poland, where she died in September 1942.

The year the villa and its contents were seized by the National Socialists, the Frauenbildnis ( Ria Munk III), portrait passed into the hands of the art collector and dealer William Gurlitt.  In 1953 the Frauenbildnis painting was among a number of important paintings that Gurlitt sold to the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz, which in 2003 became known as the Lentos Museum. The painting subsequently remained in the Lentos Museum, Linz until June 2009.  It was then, after years of legal challenges that Linz city council finally voted to return the Klimt painting to its rightful owners and it was thus given up by the Lentos Museum to Aranka Munk’s descendents, who were living in Europe and America.  The following year, June 2010, the descendents put the work in Christie’s London auction where it sold for £18.8 million. 

Whilst I was working on this blog news broke out about a $1 billion art hoard discovery at a Munich apartment of an 80-year-old recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt.

Does the surname ring a bell ??????

Frederick McCubbin. Part 3 – The later years and The Pioneer

The Pioneer by Frederick McCubbin (1904)
The Pioneer by Frederick McCubbin (1904)

In my last two blogs I have looked at the life of the Australian painter, Frederick McCubbin.   I looked at how he started painting and how, in his twenties, he became an accomplished artist who had begun to exhibit some of his work.  I talked about the influence some of his tutors had on his art, such as Eugène von Guérard, Thomas Clark and George Folingsby and how he had been influenced by his contemporary artistic friends, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder.   However in this third and final blog about McCubbin I want to introduce you to another person who was to have such a great sway on his life and inspire him to even greater things. The person in question was Annie Lucy Moriarty who he had met in 1884 at an artist’s picnic which was being held in Blackburn, an eastern suburb of Melbourne. 

Annie Lucy Moriarty was ten years younger than McCubbin.  She was born in August 1865 in Melbourne but came from an Irish family who had immigrated to Australia from County Clare.  She was described as a striking young lady with long dark brown hair and soft smiling brown eyes.  However it was not just her exquisite looks that attracted McCubbin.  It was her intelligence, her vivaciousness and her “full of life” attitude which appealed to Frederick.  She was always very supportive of Frederick. She was frugal and had a great organisational skill, all of which would be qualities needed to support her artist husband and their large family.  Frederick and Annie courted for four years and at the end of their courtship, on March 5th 1889, they were married in the Jesuit church of St Ignatius, Richmond, an inner suburb of Melbourne.  McCubbin’s friend and fellow artist Tom Roberts was the couple’s best man.  At the time of the wedding Frederick was thirty-four years old and Annie was twenty-four.  The happy couple would, during the next seventeen years, go on to have seven children, four boys, Louis Frederick, Alexander, Hugh Montgomery and John (Sydney) and three girls, Mary, Nora Sheila and Kathleen.  Mary sadly died a week before her third birthday when she fell out of her push chair and hit her head on the cobbled street.  The first-born child, Louis, named after his father’s friend and fellow artist,  Louis Abrahams, was born in March 1890 and became an artist in his own right and would later become Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia and their last-born child was Kathleen who arrived in November 1906 when her father had reached the grand-old age of 50.  One can just imagine what a spirited household it was and an insight into the McCubbin happy family life was given by Frederick’s youngest daughter’s 1988 book Autumn Memories: A McCubbin Family Album, by Kathleen Mangan (née McCubbin).  In it she wrote:

“…The McCubbins were a lively and ebullient family, each one of them with their own distinct characters. Louis, the eldest, was ‘conscientious and good natured’, ‘the most responsible member of the family’. Alexander was ‘emotional and creative’, with dark complexion and hair. Hugh was ‘practical and serious’, while Sydney was ‘an inventor, with a head full of crazy ideas, who liked to laugh a lot’ and was called ‘Ginger’ because of his hair. Sheila was ‘sensitive, creative and kind hearted, an artist who did not always defend herself against the harshness of the world…”

Frederick and Annie were extremely happy and this was commented on by his friend Arthur Stretton in a letter, dated December 1896, to Tom Roberts in which he recalls a visit he made to the McCubbin’s New Street house in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton:

“…I walked over to the Proff McCubbin’s yesterday & had tea with him in his garden—Mrs Proff in a harmonious yellow gown—all the little Proffs buzzing round—the garden of fruit trees & the haystack—The Prof[f] is a married man very happily & securely married…”

“The Proff” was the nickname Frederick McCubbin had been given by his friends during his student days at the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria, because of his frequent bouts of philosophising, while Tom Roberts was nicknamed ‘Bulldog’. 

On the Wallaby Track by Frederick McCubbin (1896)
On the Wallaby Track by Frederick McCubbin (1896)

Around this time McCubbin focused a lot of his work on people’s struggle for survival.  His paintings were both narrative and social realism works, which told of the struggle new immigrants, had in order to gain a foothold in society. 

Mother and Son - detail from On the Wallaby Track painting by McCubbin
Mother and Son – detail from On the Wallaby Track painting by McCubbin

One such painting was entitled On the Wallaby Track, which he completed in 1896.  Around this period in the history of Melbourne there was the only too familiar story of “boom and bust”.  By 1880 the population of the city was two hundred and eighty thousand.  Because of the vastness of the wilderness around the city, it was continually expanding outwards which meant that the area of the city made it one of the largest in the world.  Trains and trams criss-crossed the city.  Everybody wanted to live in this prosperous area and within ten years the population had almost doubled.  Speculators made their fortune on land deals and the banks were lending money out willy-nilly, some would say irresponsibly as if there was no tomorrow and as we have recently found to our own cost, the good life doesn’t last forever.  The Melbourne “boom” had to end and indeed it did in 1891 when a dramatic financial crash hit the economy.  Thousands of people who had invested unwisely lost their savings, businesses collapsed and throughout the 1890’s it was thought that the Melbourne unemployment was around 20%. 

The title of the painting derives from the term “on the wallaby” or “on the wallaby track” which fifty years earlier, referred to routes migrant workers took through outlying areas in search of seasonal work.  These were the underclass of society, who sought casual work on farms, travelling about on foot, carrying their swag, their bundle of personal belongings, on his back.  These were the swagmenWhen the financial crash hit Melbourne more and more people had lost their jobs and were searching for employment and it was not unusual to see the swagman “on the wallaby”.  In this painting we see a swagman brewing some tea in a billy can over an open fire.  His wife, with their baby, lies on the ground, propped up against a large tree.  She is exhausted after the long journey during which she had the added burden of having to carry their baby. 

The setting for the painting was the forest area close to the Melbourne suburb of Brighton where McCubbin and his family lived.   Of all the artists McCubbin studied, his favoured landscape painter and the one who influenced him the most was the French artist, John-Baptiste Corot and it is believed that there are traces of the Frenchman’s style in this painting.   Frederick’s wife, Annie, posed for the painting and the baby, who lies asleep across her legs, was Frederic’s son, John who had been born the same year as the painting was completed.  The swagman was modelled by Frederick’s brother-in-law, Michael Moriarty.

Down on his luck by Frederick McCubbin (1889)
Down on his luck by Frederick McCubbin (1889)

Another of McCubbin’s works I really like is one entitled Down on His Luck, which he completed in 1899.  The setting for the work was their Box Hill Artist’s camp and in the work we see a very despondent, down-on-his-luck gold prospector sitting by his camp fire.  McCubbin’s friend and fellow artist Louis Abrahams posed for the painting.  The prospector sits on a fallen tree and stares into the fire.  His search for gold had proved fruitless and he is ready to “throw in the towel”. 

In Jane Clark and Bridget Whitelaw’s 1985 book Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond they quote an 1889 review of this work in which the art critic had written about the character we see before us:

The face tells of hardships, keen and blighting in their influence, but there is a nonchalant and slightly cynical expression, which proclaims the absence of all self-pity…”

The National Gallery of Victoria in its description of the painting believed that the work was of great cultural importance and they wrote:

“… For city workers, living and working in crowded, dirty conditions, McCubbin’s image of the prospector offered an alternative to the oppressive poverty experienced in the slums of Melbourne. Although the bushman is ‘down on his luck’, he has a certain nobility. He is his own man, independent of the demands of a ‘boss’, he breathes the fresh air of the bush and is free to make his own decisions…” 

The McCubbin family had moved about around the Melbourne suburbs.  They started married life in a rented property in Hawthorn.  As the family expanded there was a need to move to a larger house and so, at the end of 1893, with Annie pregnant for the fourth time, they moved to a larger rented place in Blackburn.  Shortly after the tragic death of their daughter Mary, the family moved to an even larger property in Brighton.   Annie McCubbin was taken ill with bronchitis in 1900 and this quickly deteriorated into pneumonia and it was on her doctor’s advice that Frederick, that summer, during the Christmas holiday break, took his wife and family away from the polluted atmosphere of Melbourne city life to a small town of Woodened, forty miles north west of Melbourne, where they rented a cottage for a few weeks.  Here his wife was able to reap the benefit of the clearer, cleaner air of the Mount Macedon area.

One day, whilst the couple relaxed and explored the area near to the summit of Mount Macedon, they came across an idyllic old-fashioned cottage with its red gabled roof and attic windows, which at the time was known as “Dillon’s Summer Residence”.  They fell in love with it and its four acres of land and before the end of 1901 they had bought it for five hundred pounds.  For them, this was a dream come true and, from that day on, they lovingly referred to their first owned home as Fontainebleau.  The one problem they had with this purchase was that it was too far for Frederick to commute by train on a daily basis to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, where he was Master of the School of Design, and so he spent weekends and holidays at Fontainebleau but during the week he went to live at The Rose of Australia hotel which was being managed by his mother and his two sisters Wilhelmina and Helen. 

Above Fontainebleau in the bush land of Mount Macedon, there was the estate of Ard Choille, (Gaelic words meaning high wood), which was also the war cry of the 16th century Clan McGregor.  It was here that his neighbour William Peter McGregor had built his Ard Choille estate, which was laid out like one of the great estates of Scotland, with its man-made lakes trout amd salmon hatcheries.  McGregor had raised deer, pigs and goats as well as importing the finest highland bulls from Scotland and to look after all this he had a number of cottages built for his workers.  Frederick McCubbin loved the setting of his new home and the surrounding area and it was here in 1904, on the bush lands of Mount Macedon, just a little above his home that he produced one of his greatest works, The PioneerMcCubbin painted the work en plein air.   The setting for the work is a view of land, Ard Choille thatwas once owned by William Peter McGregor, who died in 1899. 

Left-hand panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin
Left-hand panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin

The man in the left hand panel of the work, presumably the husband of the lady in the foreground, is making some tea on the open fire.  Behind him we see the covered wagon that the couple have travelled in during their search for their piece of land.  The decision has now been made.  This is their land.  In the foreground, the wife sits on the ground.  She is lost in thought.  I wonder if she is contemplating their move.  Has she some reservations about moving to this unconquered God-forsaken territory?  Is she worried about the isolation?  Frederick’s wife Annie, who was thirty-nine at the time, was the model for the wife in the painting and Patrick Watson, a local gardener was the model for the husband.  The baby in the painting was Frederick and Annie’s fifth child John (Sydney) who had been born in June 1896, the year that the painting was completed. 

Middle panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin
Middle panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin

In the middle panel of the triptych, the setting is still the forest area of the bush but instead of the covered wagon in the background we now have a small whitewash cottage with smoke emanating from the chimney.  The scene is a step forward in time for the two intrepid colonists.  They have staked their claim on the land and built themselves a cottage. The cottage in the painting was one which was actually on McCubbin’s neighbour’s property.  It was the cottage which belonged to McGregor’s manager, who looked after the estate’s prize bulls.  Although we have jumped ahead in time, the three characters we see in this middle panel are the same ones who featured in the left hand panel – the free selector, his wife and son.  The free selectorin this painting was modelled by James Edward, a professional commercial artist, who was known to McCubbin.   He is sitting on a tree, which he has just felled, and the area seems more open, highlighting the clearance work the free selector had accomplished.  Annie McCubbin once again modelled for the free selector’s wife and as a sign of the passage of time, the baby we saw in the left hand panel has now grown to a young boy which we see her holding.  The boy was modelled by Jimmy Watson, the nephew of Patrick Watson who posed for the husband in the left-hand panel.  The wife in this middle section seems more relaxed and maybe all her worries she had when we saw her in the lefthand panel have now proved to be unfounded.  There is a very relaxed and contented aura about the depiction seen in this middle panel.  The couple had come to the bush, seen it and conquered it. 

Right-hand panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin
Right-hand panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin

The right hand panel of the triptych is more of a mystery.  Time once gain has passed since the depiction in the middle panel.  In this painting there is just a solitary figure kneeling before a wooden cross in the ground.  Patrick Watson once again modelled for this figure.  It seems as if he is touching it lovingly.  McCubbin would never explain the meaning of this last panel so it is up to us to form our own ideas.  Could it be the son we saw being cradled by his mother in the first two panels returning to his mother’s or father’s grave or it could it be earlier in time and it is the free selector we saw in the other panels come to pay his respects to his late wife.   All we do know is that a lot of time has passed since the depiction in the middle panel for where there was once a solitary cottage in the background, there is now a vista of a city to be seen through the trees.  The minute cityscape had not been in the original work when it was exhibited in his one-man show in 1904.  The painting did not sell and McCubbin’s friend, Walter Withers suggested to McCubbin that if he painted a view of Melbourne in the background of the right-hand panel then it may find a buyer.  

Melbourne - detail from McCubbin's painting The Pioneer
Melbourne – detail from McCubbin’s painting The Pioneer

McCubbin added the view of Melbourne and, sure enough, the painting sold.  The buyer was the National Gallery of Victoria.  The fascinating fact for me about this work is that to paint it outdoors, McCubbin had to dig a trench in his garden, into which he lowered the huge canvas. 

In May 1907, a year after his last child, Kathleen, was born, McCubbin set off on a trip to England where it gave him a chance to be reunited with his brother James.  James, who was a ship’s purser, was killed eight years later in May 1915 whilst serving on the passenger liner, S.S.Lusitania, when it was torpedoed by German U-Boats.  Frederick also met up with his artist friend Tom Roberts who was based in London and the two of them toured the city’s art galleries.  McCubbin was impressed with what he saw, especially the works of Turner which would influence his later works.  He returned home in November.  A month after returning to Melbourne, whilst still retaining their family home of Fontainebleau, he rented Carlesberg, a colonial-style house in South Yarra which had a vast garden which culminated at the banks of the Yarra River.

The lime tree (Yarra River from Kensington Road, South Yarra) by Frederick McCubbin (1917)
The lime tree (Yarra River from Kensington Road, South Yarra) by Frederick McCubbin (1917)

McCubbin continued to paint either at his home in South Yarra or at Fontainebleau as well as retaining his position as Drawing Master at Melbourne’s National Gallery.  However at the end of 1916 his health began to fail, due to frequent asthmatic attacks and he had to take a six month leave of absence from the Gallery.   This bout of ill health did not stop him painting and his last paintings which he completed in 1917 was The Lime Tree (Yarra River from Kensington Road, South Yarra).  Kathleen McCubbin wrote about the painting and the setting for the work.  She wrote:

“…I always remember the name of this work as The Lime Tree and it really has a lot of sentimental value for me because it was painted from the side verandah of our house in South Yarra, overlooking the quarry. That has all disappeared now. In those times there were quarries beside the Yarra and an old stone crusher in Richmond, opposite our place. This particular painting is also of very great sentimental value for me because it was the last painting my father ever painted and it was not long after its completion that he died...”

In Andrew Mackenzie’s 1990 biography of McCubbin, entitled Frederick McCubbin 1855-1917: ‘The Proff’ and his art, he quotes Kathleen Mangan (née McCubbin) reminiscences:

“…I remember coming home from school and I used to walk up Rockley Road with school friends and take the short cut across to our place, across the paddocks. I would see my father sitting on the verandah in his dressing-gown and black velvet beret, which he always put on when he went outside at that stage of his life, and he would be painting this picture of The Lime Tree. He was really in very poor health at that time, but he persisted and he kept on painting it until it was finished. This was the last painting he ever painted, and it was sold. I remember it being sold to Thomas Lothian, the publisher, but then he sold it and I lost track of it…”

Frederick McCubbin died on December 20th 1917 of a heart attack, thought to have been brought on by his frequent asthmatic attacks and pneumonia.  He was just 62 years of age.  Frederick’s wife of twenty-eight years, Annie, was devastated at her loss and their daughter Kathleen remembered her mother during that sad time and wrote:

“…She was pale and listless and sat around for a good part of the day, just staring into space. She was truly lost without him…”

I hope you have enjoyed my last three blogs charting the life of this great Australian artist and that I have somehow enticed you to visit the Australia exhibition at London’s Royal Academy where you will be able to stand before the amazing painting, The Pioneer.

I have used many sources to put these blogs together but the two main ones which give you a much fuller look at McCubbin’s life were:

Artist’s Footsteps:



Happy beyond Life by Anne Gray: