Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife by John Singer Sargent

Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife by John Singer Sargent (1894)

My Daily Art Display today is a tale of two artists who were very close friends.  One is the great American Impressionist John Singer Sargent, the other is the French painter Paul César Helleu.  Today’s work of art is a picture by the American artist Sargent of the French painter Paul César Helleu and his wife Alice Guérin.

John Singer Sargent was to become a leading portrait painter of his era.  His family were extremely wealthy, his father, Fitz William, being an eye surgeon in Philadelphia.  Sadly Sargent’s mother, Mary (née Singer) suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her daughter and to aid her recovery her husband decided that his wife and their family should go to Europe to allow Mary to convalesce. 

Whilst in Europe, they travelled extensively.  John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 whilst his parents lived in Florence and his sister Mary was born there a year later.  After much discussion and to please his wife John’s father reluctantly relinquished his post at the Philadelphia hospital and remained in Italy were they led an unassuming lifestyle relying on a small inheritance and what savings they had managed to accrue. 

John Singer Sargent proved to be a rebellious child who would not take to formal schooling and so was taught by his parents.  His mother was a good amateur artist and she soon got John interested in that subject.  His parents must have provided him with a good education as by his late teens he was fluent in French, Italian and German and accomplished in art, music and literature.  No doubt the extensive travelling of European countries by the family improved his education.

In 1876, at the age of eighteen, Sargent passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Here he studied anatomy and perspective and spent time in the Paris museums copying the works of art of the masters.  It was whilst studying at the Art Academy that he met and became close friends with a young French artist, four years his junior, Paul César Helleu.  Whereas Sargent was having success with the sale of his paintings and was having no trouble in securing commissions, Helleu was becoming very despondent and disheartened, finding sales of his works difficult to come by and he was struggling to make needs meet.  Sargent, on hearing that Helleu was at the point of giving up his career as an artist, visited his friend on the pretext of looking at the young Frenchman’s work.  He congratulated his friend on the standard of his work and asked to buy one.  Helleu was delighted but told Sargent he must have the painting of his choice as a gift as it was not right to charge his friend.  Sargent replied to this offer saying:

 “I shall gladly accept, Helleu, but not as a gift. I sell my own pictures, and I know what they cost me by the time they are out of my hand. I should never enjoy this pastel if I hadn’t paid you a fair and honest price for it.”

He gave his friend a thousand-franc note for the painting.  Can you imagine how Helleu felt on receiving such a large sum of money for one of his paintings ?

In 1884 Sargent painted the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, entitled Madame X, wearing a very risqué off the shoulder gown.  It was also shockingly low-cut.  Her mother asked him to withdraw the painting but he refused.  Although, now it is acclaimed as his best work of art, it scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper.  Sargent found the criticism unjustified and at the age of 28 he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life England.  He died there in 1925, aged 71.

My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife which he completed in 1889 and is in the Brooklyn Museum, New York.  It is difficult to put a name on Sargent’s genre of painting.   He was a prolific painter, painting over 2000 watercolours.  He was a very successful portraitist but labelled portraiture as “a pimp’s profession” and in 1907 he announced that he would paint “no more mugs” and with a few exceptions kept to his word.   He loved to paint landscape watercolours.  Today’s painting of his is very much in the characteristic style of Impressionism.

Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt

Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt (1886)

Today my painting for My Daily Art Display is a work of art by the American artist Mary Cassatt.   She was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh, in 1844 and was the fourth of seven children, two of whom died in infancy.  She came from a wealthy family.  Her father, Robert, was a wealthy stockbroker and land speculator and her mother, Katherine, came from a banking family.   She and her family moved from America to Europe when she was seven years of age, where they travelled from country to country before returning back to America.  This European “adventure” was looked upon, by the affluent, as an aid to a good education and offered an understanding of different cultures

Mary decided that a life as an artist was for her but her parents disapproved.  However she was, even at this young age, very headstrong and wasn’t to be discouraged and at the  age of fifteen studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  She became disillusioned with the Academy and the way budding female artists were treated and despite her father’s disapproval and his many objections, which she finally overcame, in 1866 she travelled to Paris, initially chaperoned by her mother and some family friends.  Whilst in Paris she met and was taught by Camille Pissarro, the great French Impressionist painter.  She was a great admirer of the works of Edgar Degas whom she met and became great friends with.  He was to have considerable influence on her life and her art work.  As time went on the Impressionist movement in Paris benefited greatly from Cassatt who helped them both financially and by facilitating them getting their works of art recognised and accepted in American museums and galleries.

Cassatt’s family never believed that their daughter would stay long in Paris and were surprised by her determination to succeed in the French capital.  Her sister Lydia, who Mary said was not just a sister but her best friend, joined her in France in 1874, so as to be company for her.   Three years later her parents moved to Paris.   Lydia Cassatt, as well as being very close to Mary, was also the model for many of Mary Cassatt’s most famous paintings.  Sadly after long bouts of illness Lydia died in 1882.  This had a devastating effect on Mary who for a time stopped painting. 

Mary Cassatt was an outspoken individual who was never backward in coming forward with her opinions.  Some say she was too outspoken.  However, being wealthy allowed her to be independent and she did not need to suffer fools.  Her independent attitude and her frankness, which on occasions was considered insulting, became more noticeable as she grew older.   She was highly critical of the modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse and even some of her Impressionist colleagues received her unbridled censure.  

Mary was a prolific and a well respected artist on both sides of the Atlantic and her works of art when they come up for sale now realise millions of dollars.  Like her friend and mentor Edgar Degas she suffered with failing eyesight and when she died in 1926, aged 82 she was blind.

Mary Cassatt’s place in the history of American art is unique, not only because she was one of the few woman artists of any nationality to succeed professionally in her time, but also because she was the only American artist to exhibit with the French Impressionists.

My Daily Art Display today is a painting completed in 1886 by Mary Cassatt entitled Child in a Straw Hat.  Mary Cassatt’s favourite subjects became children and women with children in ordinary scenes. Her paintings express a deep tenderness and her own love for children. But she never had children of her own.  Cassatt was fond of painting young girls in large elaborate hats and bonnets wearing frilly dresses.  However in this painting the girl wears a simple plain gray pinafore and her hat, albeit very large, is a simple straw one.  The child, with a furrowed brow, doesn’t look too pleased and has a sullen and slightly glum look on her face.  There is an air of impatience in her expression and maybe this is due to having to pose for the artist when she would rather have been out playing.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942)

My Daily Art Display’s offering today is in complete contrast to Raphael’s Madonna which I gave you two days ago.  Today I have skipped almost four hundred and fifty years to look at a work of modern art by the American artist Edward Hooper.  It is entitled Nighthawks and portrays three people sitting in a downtown diner.  For Hopper it was to be his most famous painting and one of the most recognisable in American art.

Edward Hopper was born in Nyack, on the Hudson River, in the state of New York in 1882.  He was an outstanding American Realist and American Scene painter as well as a  printmaker.  He came from a middle-class background and was an able student at school where he developed a love of art from an early age.  His parents encouraged this love and helped him develop his talent for drawing.  At the age of seventeen he attended the New York Institute of Art and Design and remained there for six years.  In 1905 he went to work at an advertising agency where he was employed to design covers for trade magazines but he did not like this type of illustration work but like all of us, needed the money.   He managed to visit Europe on three occasions during which time he discovered and fell in love with works of Rembrandt and some of his contemporaries.  Whilst in Paris he spent a lot of his time painting café and street scenes, a hobby he carried on with when he returned to New York.  He became very interested in the Realist art genre.

It was in 1942, at the age of sixty that Hopper painted today’s work of art, Nighthawks.  The expression “nighthawk” is a word used to describe somebody who stays up late, often also termed a “night owl”.  The scene of his painting was inspired by one in Greenwich Village, Manhattan where Hopper lived for fifty four years.  There is a mood of despondency about this painting and this may be in part due to the fact that Hopper started this painting soon after Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese and the whole of America, after the initial shock, was in a mood of hopelessness and misery after such a loss of American lives.

The diner is probably not an up-market establishment due to the fact that the advertisement above the window is for “Phillies” which is a brand of popular but cheap cigars, which were usually on sale at gas stations and convenience stores.  The three “nighthawks” are bathed in a swathe of fluorescent light which also lights up the corner of the deserted street.  There is an Art Deco feel to the diner.  As is the case in this work, Hopper often painted pictures which illustrated the loneliness of life with motel rooms and gas stations being the setting for some of his works.  Here we see a couple at the bar with their hands almost, but not quite, touching.   They remind me of Bogart and Bacall.  The third diner sits alone around the corner of the bar.  There is a definite sense of isolation and loneliness about the people in the picture.  Instead of sitting comfortably at home with their families they are in an impersonal friendless late-night diner.  It is interesting to note that the picture does not show any obvious entrance to the diner and thus it gives a feel of entrapment as if the people are prisoners of their loneliness.  Hopper himself disagreed with the idea that he had made the diner a lonely-looking venue stating:

“…I didn’t see it as particularly lonely…….Unconsciously, probably; I was painting the loneliness of a big city…”

Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Gottfried Helnwein (1984)

Hopper’s iconic painting was reproduced many times.  One of the most famous is probably Gottfried Helnwein’s painting entitled Boulevard of Broken Dreams in which the bar tender is Elvis, the couple Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Munroe and the solitary figure, with his back to us, James Dean.  This was sold extensively as a poster.  I suppose that because we know the characters in this picture and we know of their lives, maybe the feeling of loneliness of these “nighthawks” is not so obvious at first glance but maybe their tragic fates were meant to add to the mood of their diner.

I will leave you with a poem, written by Wolf Wondratscheck, based on Hopper’s painting Nighthawks in which he reasons as to why the customers came to the diner and what will happen next

 It is night
and the city is deserted.
The lucky ones are at home,
or more likely
there are none left.

 In Hopper’s painting, four people remain
the usual cast, so-to-speak:
the man behind the counter, two men and a woman.
Art lovers, you can stone me
but I know this situation pretty well.

 Two men and one woman
as if this were mere chance.
You admire the painting’s composition
but what grabs me is the erotic pleasure
of complete emptiness.

 They don’t say a word, and why should they?
Both of them smoking, but there is no smoke.
I bet she wrote him a letter.
Whatever it said, he’s no longer the man
who’d read her letters twice.

 The radio is broken.
The air conditioner hums.
I hear a police siren wail.
Two blocks away in a doorway, a junkie groans
and sticks a needle in his vein.
That’s how the part you don’t see looks.

 The other man is by himself
remembering a woman;
she wore a red dress, too.
That was ages ago.
He likes knowing women like this still exist
but he’s no longer interested.

 What might have been
between them, back then?
I bet he wanted her.
I bet she said no.

 No wonder, art lovers,
that this man is turning his back on you.

American Gothic by Grant Wood

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)

My Daily Art Display offering today is the oil on beaverboard painting by American artist Grant Wood entitled American Gothic which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.  This is said to be one of the most famous paintings in the history of American art.

Grant Wood was born in small town America, in Anamosa, Iowa in 1892.  During his early artistic life his works of art showed no one distinguishable style but he enjoyed painting the “niceties” of American Midwestern life with all its small villages and their white-painted churches.  That all changed in 1927 after he spent some time in Munich on a commission supervising the putting together of stained glass windows for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building.  Whilst in Munich he visited the large art gallery, Alte Pinakothek and was introduced to the Early Netherlandish works of art and witnessed first hand the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement in German paintings which reflected the resignation and cynicism of the post-war period.  In all he made four trips to Europe and after each journey he returned home with a much greater appreciation of the Midwest lifestyle, culture and its traditions and this love of Midwest America was transformed into his paintings.

On his return home his painting style changed and his paintings took on a more painstaking and sharply detailed style.  As is the case in today’s painting Wood liked to paint ordinary every day people and their commonplace lifestyle in the Midwest of America.  His style of painting was often termed Regionalism and exuded a sense of patriotism and nostalgia and in some ways was an artistic record of the history of small town America.  He hoped that this style of his art and the subjects he displayed would, in some way, act as  a boost to the morale of people who were suffering badly during the Great Depression, reminding them that they should retain their self belief and steadfast American pioneer spirit.  American Regionalism opposed the European abstract art and the art which was very popular at the time on the East Coast of America and California and preferred depictions of homely rural America and its people

In American Gothic we see a farmer and his spinster daughter standing in front of their late nineteenth century Gothic Revival styled house with its distinctive upper window.  The actual building in Eldon, Iowa, is still standing and is a popular tourist attraction.  The figures were modelled by the artist’s dentist, Doctor Byron McKeeby and Wood’s sister, Nan.  They are both dressed in clothes dating from the 1890’s.  The man, because of the way he is dressed, and the fact he is holding a three-pronged pitchfork , one believes him to be a farmer but he also has the studious look of a banker’s clerk.  Maybe the pitchfork is there to signify man’s traditional role as hard working but it also gives him a slight air of hostility and someone who has a bad temper.   There is something puritanical in his look.  In contrast, the woman exhibiting a side-long glance seems more prim and dowdy with her colonial-print apron with its white collar.  She conveys an air of domesticity.   The precise realism of the rigid frontal arrangement of the man and woman was probably inspired by the Northern Renaissance Art Wood saw when he was in Europe.  There is a definite similarity with van Eyck’s double portrait, The Arnolfini Portrait, (see Nov 27th) and also the way mystery surrounds the symbolic meaning and interpretation of both works.

However with regards symbolism and interpretation maybe we should leave the last word to the artist for when asked about the satirical nature of his painting and the two characters he merely replied that “they were the kind of people I fancied should live in that house”.

Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago and although it was not liked by all the judges, it achieved a bronze medal and the Institute bought the work of art.  Copies of the painting were published nationwide in many newspapers and all was well until the local newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa published it.   The locals were up in arms at the depiction of the couple as “pinched, grim-faced Bible-thumpers”.   Woods’ sister was embarrassed and horrified as being portrayed as the wife of somebody old enough to be her father and was quick to state that the couple were indeed father and daughter.

It is a strange painting but one, like the Arnolfini Portrait, which may hold symbolic messages and is open to many interpretations despite the artist himself denying any hidden meaning to his famous work of art.

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth (1948)

The other day I came across what I thought was a simple landscape painting, which at first glance was a simple rural scene with a solitary figure, seemingly resting, in the foreground.  I had guessed it was an American landscape.  My mind went back to the photographs of the Mid-West plains.  I was half right in as much as it was an American landscape but not of the Mid West but of Maine. The female figure in the foreground was of a young woman, and my perception was that she was just raising herself from the ground after a pleasant lie in the meadow-like surroundings.  Maybe I should be forgiven for jumping to conclusions from just a fleeting glance but it was simply my first impression.  Look and see what you make of it after you have taken that first momentary look.

In fact this is not as simple a painting as one might have first believed.  Christina’s World was painted in 1948 by the American artist Andrew Wyeth and despite me having never seen it before, it is said to be one of the best known American paintings of the mid twentieth century and is presently hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The girl whom I took to be just simply raising herself from the ground after a period of relaxation is in fact a young woman afflicted with polio from early childhood which had paralysed her lower body and is actually crawling across a field to her home which can be seen in the distance.

The artist was inspired to create this painting when looking through a window of his summer house in Cushing Maine and he saw his young neighbour, Anna Christina Olson, who suffered from infantile paralysis, which resulted in her inability to walk, gazing up at her house from the large tree-less field in front of it.  The model he used for the picture of the girl was not Christina herself, who was in her mid-fifties at the time of the painting, but Andrew Wyeth’s young wife Betsy who was in her mid-twenties.  The painting of the young woman in a pink dress with wasted limbs has a haunting quality to it.   The landscape and the rural house are all painted in great detail.  Wyeth’s attention to detail is amazing.  Each blade of grass and each strand of the woman’s hair is painted individually. The style of the painting has been termed “magic realism”which is defined as an artistic genre in which meticulously realistic painting is combined with surreal elements of fantasy or dreams.  Wyeth commenting on his artistic style said:

“I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it…I always want to see the third dimension of something…I want to come alive with the object.”

Of the picture in general, Wyeth commented:

“The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.”

Have you a favourite painting which you would like to see on My Daily Art Display?  

If so, let me know and tell me why it is a favourite of yours and I will include it in a future offering.