Of all the paintings on view at the Founder’s Collection of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon I think my favourites where the section featuring the 19th century works.
The first work I have chosen is by the English painter Joseph Mallord Turner and is entitled The Wreck of the Transport Ship which he completed around 1810. The painting is one of a series of large-scale depictions carried out by Turner in the first decade of the 19th century which were all about natural disasters at sea caused by storms. Shipwrecks and other disasters at sea were a popular theme in Romantic painting. They revealed the unrelenting and brutal forces of nature which were constant dangers to those who set off on a sea voyage. The inspiration for this work has been much debated. At one time it was thought that Turner painted the work the same year the vessel, Minotaur was wrecked in December 1810, as a result of a navigational error in a gale on the Haak Sands off the mouth of the Texel, with around 370 of her crew lost, including Captain Barrett. However, this idea was discounted when billing records showed the sale of the painting to Charles Pelham, 1st Earl of Yarborough, in April 1810, some several months before the sinking of the Minotaur.
The popular thought is that Turner was influenced by an earlier painting of his, The Shipwreck, which is part of the Tate Britain collection in London, and one he completed in 1805.
Calouste Gulbenkian was an avid collector of works by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and the one I especially like is entitled A Road to Ville-d’Avray which he painted in 1874, the year before his death. In the work we see the road leading to the railway station at Ville d’Avray, a village in the western suburbs of Paris, located twelve kms from the centre of the French capital. It was a very small village where Corot spent long periods of his life at a summer house which was purchased by his parents in 1817. This small hamlet, as it was then, was one of the artist’s greatest sources of inspiration. Corot’s paintings of Ville d’Avray are thorough observation of nature. They are closely associated with plein air painting although sketches first made outdoors were then usually finished back in his studio utilising both his memory and his imagination. It is thought that Corot positioned the figures we see in the depiction, at the end, to act as a balancing mechanism for the finished work. Jean-Baptiste Corot died in Paris of a stomach disorder on February 22nd 1875, aged 78 and was buried at Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Another painting by Corot which I liked was his work entitled Bridge at Mantes which he completed around 1870. The outlying towns and villages of the French capital were one of Corot’s favourite subjects throughout his career and many depictions of them appear in many of his works. Mantes-la-Jolie was one of Corot’s favoured places to paint. The town is situated a few kilometres to the north-east of Paris and the depiction we see before us is as seen from the Île de Limay on the Seine. Corot painted many views which incorporated the old medieval bridge, Le pont de Mantes, and the Gothic cathedral. Corot had begun a series of works around the middle of the nineteenth century and completed the last one around 1870. This painting was one of his later works to feature the town. It is both a clear and natural looking depiction which Corot achieved by the use of monochrome shades and the way he reduced the use of colours. The painting shows soft fluent brushstrokes and this fluidity makes it seem as if the leaves on the trees are being moved by a gentle breeze and the painting displays a freshness that floods all of the senses. Corot’s art in this period is magical and as he himself declared, sensations captured in the open air are reproduced without ever losing sight of the importance of the first impression.
I have always liked the rural realism paintings of Jean-François Millet such as The Gleaners, The Angelus and The Winnower and so to see something quite different from the French artist at the museum was of great interest. The painting was Winter which he painted around 1868. The depiction in the painting, Winter, is of grim harshness, and exudes an air of melancholia. We see before us a frozen wintry landscape which disappears into the distant horizon. The tiny figure of a man can be seen to the right of the haystack and the inclusion of the figure enforces a sense of loneliness in this bleak expanse of the frozen plain. It forces us to think about man’s relationship with nature and his ever-changing environment. This sense of cold desolation has been achieved by Millet through his constrained use of colours. Before us we see a vision of a grey, hostile, and unwelcoming world and it is this sombre intensity which dominates the entire surface of the canvas.
In 1868, the wealthy French industrialist Frédéric Hartmann had given Millet a twenty-five thousand francs commission to paint a series of four paintings depicting the seasons. A painting from that series, Haystacks: Autumn which Millet went on to paint in 1874 and which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, bears a resemblance to his aforementioned Winter
Étienne Pierre Théodore Rousseau was just eighteen years old when he completed his 1830 painting entitled The Town of Thiers. He had visited the Central French Auvergne town in the summer of 1830 and during his stay completed many works depicting the commune. The depiction reveals the scene of a medieval town with its gathering of houses which ascend the steep slope that culminates in the Church of St. Jean, the towns highest point. The pale blues of the background signify the mountain range of the Puy-de-Dome. Rousseau’s biographer, Alfred Sensier, believed that the style used in the series of work Rousseau completed in this region were to forever become his own style.
My last offering for this first look at the 19th century paintings is one by the Barbizon school artist, Constant Troyon. Troyon was born in Sèvres a southwestern suburb of Paris in 1810. The painting, The Fishermen, which he completed around 1850 was the integration of an imported pictorial style from the Dutch Golden Age. It was recorded that Troyon visited the Low Countries in 1847 and was influenced by the great Dutch artists, such as Albert Cuyp and Paulus Potter and such influence can be seen in this work in a group of animals seen on the plain somewhere in the region of Normandy. In the middle ground we see ancient oaks set against a cloud covered sky. It is a balance of Romanticism and Naturalism.
In my final blog about the paintings in the Founders Collection of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian I will be looking at more of the nineteenth century paintings on display.