Alfred Jacob Miller and the Rendezvous

Self Portrait by Alfred Miller (c.1850)
Self Portrait by Alfred Miller (c.1850)

It is often strange that a chance meeting or a chance happening can affect one’s life but for my featured artist today his life was changed when he met a man who offered him a chance to go on a “holiday adventure”.  Intrigued?   Then come and join me as I look at the life of the nineteenth century American painter Alfred Jacob Miller and explore the world of mountain men and the famous rendezvous of trappers.

Miller was born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 2, 1810.  Like many artists I have featured, as a child, he loved to paint and sketch.  Apparently when he was at school he loved to create caricatures of his teachers which often got him into trouble.  It is said that his first art lessons were given to him by the talented American portrait painter, Thomas Sully in Philadelphia.

Portrait of Colonel Alexander Smith by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)
Portrait of Colonel Alexander Smith by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)

Miller worked on his portraiture and an example of this early work can be seen in his companion pieces Portrait of Colonel Alexander Smith and his wife Portrait of Lydia Lloyd Murray which he was commissioned to paint in 1833.

Portrait of Lydia Lloyd Murray by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)
Portrait of Lydia Lloyd Murray by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)

Colonel Alexander Smith served in the Morgan Volunteers which was a militia based in Baltimore part of the Maryland militia, a group of men which is probably the equivalent of the current National Guard.  Colonel Smith paid Miller $75 for the pair of paintings.  The two paintings are now housed in the Walters Museum in Baltimore.

Little is known about Miller’s early years except that his talent as an aspiring artist was blossoming.  In his 1832 book Six Months in America, the seasoned traveller and travel writer, Godfrey Vigne wrote:

“…At Baltimore I visited the studies of two very promising young artists: Mr Hubbard, an Englishman, is certainly the better painter; but has the advantage of four or five years of experience over Mr Miller, who is an American , quite a boy; and whom, I think, at least an equal genius.  He has had little or no instruction.  If sent to Europe as he certainly ought to be, I will venture to predict, that at some future period he will be an ornament to his native city; and which he certainly never will, or can be, if he does not leave it…”

Whether or not Vigne spoke to Miller about the advantages of travelling to Europe to study art is not known but it is quite likely.  The seeds must have been planted in Miller’s mind for in 1833, at the age of twenty-three, with the financial backing of his parents, he did leave the shores of America and head for Europe in order to enhance his knowledge of his true love, art.  Whilst in Europe, he visited Switzerland, the Italian cities of Bologna, and Rome where he studied religious art at the Gallerie Borghese.  He also made many sketching trips through the Lazio region, north of the Italian capital, Venice and spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, where he attended life classes at the École des Beaux Arts.  During his stay in the French capital, Miller like other visiting painters would spend time at the Louvre and other galleries copying the works of the Old Masters.

A Baltimore Watchman by Alfred Jacob Miller
A Baltimore Watchman by Alfred Jacob Miller

Miller loved to sketch, in fact he was a prolific sketcher and filled many sketchbooks with his sketches, most of which were accompanied by his own captions.  Above the sketch, Baltimore Watchman,  on which, he scribbled in pencil:

“…Recollections” and “One of the Dogberry’s of 1825 Balto”.

Below the figure he scrawled:

“…”after crying the hour of ten, he slept soundly in his box– until roused again…”

The Two Friends by Alfred Jacob Miller
The Two Friends by Alfred Jacob Miller

Many of his sketches depicted theatre life but also life in the home.  One poignant sketch of his was entitled The Two Friends.

Bridge of Sighs by Alfred Jacob Miller (c. 1834)
Bridge of Sighs by Alfred Jacob Miller (c. 1834)

Another moving sketch was entitled Bridge of Sighs which shows a woman committing suicide by jumping from a bridge.  Miller’s scribbled notes at the bottom of the sketch are a quote from the Thomas Hood 1844 poem Bridge of Sighs:

 “…It was pitiful, near a whole city full, Friend, had she non….”

Thomas Hood’s poem also inspired the English painter, George Frederick Watts to complete his moving 1850 painting, Found Drowned (see My Daily Art Display, July 4th 2011)

Miller returned to Baltimore in 1834 and opened his own portrait studio but his portrait business was poor and so, in December 1836, he decided to relocate to New Orleans and ply his trade in that city.  Miller set up lodgings on the second floor of L. Chittenden’s dry-goods store on Chartres Street in New Orleans.  This also acted as his studio.  However, money was still tight as his optimism that commissions would soon roll in was unfounded and his financial plight was such that he painted the landlord’s portrait in lieu of his rent.  In return his landlord also allowed Miller to place some of his works of art in the shop window.  Maybe this was fate for Miller’s artwork attracted a passer-by who came into the shop and watched Miller at work.  The man was Captain William Drummond Stewart.  He was the second son of Sir George Stewart, seventeenth Lord of Grandtully and fifth baronet of Murthly.  William Stewart was a Scottish adventurer and retired British military officer, who had travelled around the American West in the 1830’s.  He told Miller that he was about to set off to attend the annual rendezvous of fur trappers and traders in the Rocky Mountains in the summer and needed an artist to accompany him and record the trip.

Attack by Crow Indians by Alfred Jacob Miller (1837)
Attack by Crow Indians by Alfred Jacob Miller (1837)

Miller’s painting Attack by Crow Indians has a fascinating story to go with it.  Miller did not witness the scene himself, which happened during an earlier expedition of Captain Stewart’s who then recounted the story to Miller who converted his words into a painting..  In fact Miller made a number of versions of Stewart’s story.  The account of the story appears in the book entitled Broken Hand by LeRoy Hafen.  In it he tells of what happened a century earlier:

“…a band of young Crows invaded the camp while Fitzpatrick was away and Stewart was in charge. They carried off stock, pelts, and other property. They encountered Fitzpatrick on their return and stripped him of everything of value as well. As Stewart described the incident, the Crow medicine man had told the braves that, if they struck the first blow, they could not win. Thus, they had to provoke Stewart or someone in his party into striking the first blow. Stewart stood firm, refusing to strike. The Crows left, and the captain survived a situation in which he would have surely lost the battle. Fitzpatrick managed to talk the Crows into returning most of what they had taken…”


These annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, which began in 1822 and went on for fifteen years, happened in various locations during the spring and early summer months.  The rendezvous was originally organised by a St. Louis businessman and politician William H. Ashley.  The idea was that the trappers, who lived in the wild collecting furs, would not have to leave the mountains to come to the cities to sell or exchange their wares for much needed rations but would instead exchange their produce at an annual fair in the mountain regions.  Ashley advertised for men who were willing to seek adventure as trappers and stay in the mountainous wilderness for up to two or three years.

Aricara by Alfred Jacob Miller
Aricara by Alfred Jacob Miller

These “Rendezvous” were a kind of trading fair organised by the fur trading companies at which the trappers and so-called mountain men would exchange their furs and hides, which they had collected during the year, for supplies which would allow them to survive the harsh winters.  The fur trading companies would then move the furs and hides to places in the Pacific Northwest or the ports on the northern Missouri river.   It was a time of celebration when the trappers and their wives and children as well as Native Indians would come to the Rendezvous after a long season of hunting.  The fur trading companies, as well as bringing food, weapons and ammunition, would also bring whisky which no doubt enhanced the celebrations.  The trapper and mountain man, James Pierson Beckwourth, who narrated his life story, which was then made into a book in 1856 entitled  The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians, told of the merriment:

“…“Mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent…”

Where the Clouds Love to Rest by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1850)
Where the Clouds Love to Rest by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1850)

William Stewart had been present at four previous rendezvous but due to the failing health of his brother , the then lord of Grandtully and baronet of Murthly, he had an inclination that this 1837 one maybe his last and so believed that the event should be recorded pictorially by an artist – hence Alfred Jacob Miller.    Miller also knew he had little to lose by leaving New Orleans and so readily agreed to take part in the adventure.  The Rendezvous in the spring of 1837 was to take place on the banks of the tributary of the Green River an area which is at the centre of the Rocky Mountain region and is now part of Wyoming.  Stewart, Miller, representatives from the American Fur Company and the caravan of goods set off for St Louis in April 1837.  On arriving at St Louis, William Stewart introduced Alfred Miller to Governor William Clark, an American explorer, soldier, Superintendant of Indian Affairs and territorial governor.  His collection of artefacts and paintings by George Catlin, who was an American painter, author, and traveller who specialized in portraits of native Americans in the Old West.  They  had a great influence on Miller.  From St Louis the fur company’s caravan headed across what is now known as Kansas and finally arrived at the Platte River.  From there they headed into western Wyoming and finally arrived at their destination, the valley Horse Creek with its backdrop of the Wind River Mountains part of the Rocky Mountain range.

Antoine Clement the great Hunter by Alfred Miller
Antoine Clement the great Hunter by Alfred Miller

Throughout the journey Miller was continuously sketching the exquisite mountainous terrain, the people who were part of the caravan and of course the mountain men and Indians who had come to exchange their furs and hides.  At the rendezvous site the fur trappers and Indians were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Fur Company’s caravan.  These people made excellent sitters for Miller’s portraits.  One such person whose portrait Miller completed was Antoine Clement who had been one of the scouts and buffalo hunters who had supplied the people on the travelling caravan with food during their journey.  Clement was a half caste, his father was French, his mother a native Indian.  All in all Miller’s stay at Horse Creek lasted three weeks and then after two weeks on a hunting trip with William Stewart they returned to New Orleans.

The Lost Greenhorn by Alfred Jacob Miller
The Lost Greenhorn by Alfred Jacob Miller

One painting Miller converted from one of his sketches was The Lost Greenhorn.  The story behind the painting was given in Miller’s 1837 book entitled The West of Alfred Jacob Miller:

“…On reaching the Buffalo District, one of our young men began to be ambitious, and although it was his first journey, boasted continually of what he would do in hunting Buffalo if permitted. This was John (our cook), he was an Englishman and did no discredit to that illustrious nation in his stupid conceit and wrong-headed obstinacy. Our Captain, when any one boasted, put them to the test, so a day was given to John and he started off early alone. The day passed over, night came, – but so did not John. Another day rolled over, the hunters returning at evening without having met him. The next morning men were dispatched in different quarters, and at about two o’clock, one of the parties brought in the wanderer – crest fallen and nearly starved;- he was met by a storm of ridicule and roasted on every side by the Trappers. Thus carrying out that ugly maxim of Rochefoucault’s ‘There is always something in the misfortune of our friends not disagreeable to us’…”‘ 

Hunting Buffalo by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)
Hunting Buffalo by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)

Once back in the Louisiana city Miller set to work on his large collection of sketches he had made whilst at the rendezvous and completed an album of eighty seven of the watercolour sketches.   William Thompson Walters, an American businessman and art collector, whose collection was to form the basis of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore where many of Miller’s paintings are housed, commissioned two hundred watercolours from Miller paying him twelve dollars per painting.  Each sketch was accompanied by Miller’s descriptive text.  It took Alfred Miller almost two years to complete the commission which William Walters then had bound in three leather volumes.

Indian Lodge by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)
Indian Lodge by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)

Miller was interested in the lifestyle of the Native Americans and his painting entitled Indian Lodge looks at the Indian lodge and its construction with its upright supports which act to hold the supporting bond timbers at differing heights and this design allows for a sloping circular roof.  There is an aperture at the centre of the roof which allows light to filter in and allows smoke from the fires to exit the space.   The painting depicts groups of Indians scattered around the large space, some standing, some seated some immersed in game playing.

William Stewart returned to the Rocky Mountains for the 1838 Rendezvous but whilst there he learnt of the death of his brother back in Scotland.  William Stewart had suddenly become the new laird of the family’s estates of Murthly, Grandtully, and Logiealmond.  Stewart, now Sir William Stewart, returned home to Scotland and commissioned Alfred Miller to paint a series of large oil paintings which would be on display at Murthly Castle.  In 1840, Miller was invited to stay at Murthly Castle by its new owner and whilst there he could continue with his paintings.  He accepted the invite and was Sir William’s guest until the autumn of 1841 at which time he returned to Baltimore where he was to live the rest of his life and where he established himself as a leading portraitist of the time.

After his 1837 Rendezvous expedition, Miller worked for many years converting many of his two hundred sketches he had made whilst out West  into oil paintings.  The public loved them and he received many commissions.  He also sold several of his works of art to Charles Wilkins Webber, the American explorer and writer who had them made into illustrations for his 1851 book The Hunter-Naturalist: Romance of Sporting; or, Wild Scenes and Wild Hunters.

In 1839 the Apollo Gallery in New York held an exhibition featuring eighteen of Miller’s large oil paintings depicting scenes from his 1837 expedition with Stewart.  The paintings were owned by Stewart who agreed to loan them to the gallery.  So popular was the exhibition that it was extended to allow more people to view Miller’s work.

Alfred Jacob Miller spent the next thirty years working hard on converting his sketches into oil paintings to satisfy all the commissions he received.  He also continued with his portraiture work.  He is now looked upon as one of the earliest and most significant painters to record pictorially the American West.  He was the only artist to go on a Rendezvous expedition and depict the fur traders, Native Indians  and mountain men.  His art played a major role in educating people back East about life in the American West.

Alfred Jacob Miller died in Baltimore in June 1874, aged sixty-four.

Artist's Studio - The Critic by Alfred Jacob Miller (1840)
Artist’s Studio – The Critic by Alfred Jacob Miller (1840)

I am going to conclude this blog with one of my favourite paintings of his.  It is not an American West landscape nor is it one of the mountain men or Native Americans.  It is a painting he completed around 1840 entitled Artist’s Studio – The Critic and in some way it is an amusing look at a cleaner who is appraising a painting which is in the studio of an artist in which she is the cleaner.  We see her pausing from sweeping the floor to look at a painting on the easel.

If you live near Baltimore and like what I have shown you it would be worth visiting the Walters Art Museum on Charles Street.  I would be interested to hear what you thought of the collection of Miller’s artwork.

Ary Scheffer

Self portrait by Ary Scheffer (1795)
Self portrait by Ary Scheffer (1795)

I have often mentioned in previous blogs that the subject for a blog frequently comes from something I have stumbled upon whilst researching another blog.  Today’s blog is all about the Dutch painter Ary Scheffer who had a connection with the artist I talked about in the last two blogs, Théodore Géricault, but more of that connection later as I first want to look at the life of the Dutchman who was a leading Romantic painter.

Ary Scheffer came from an artistic background.  His father was Johann- Bernhard Scheffer a portraitist who originally hailed from Hamburg but from his early teenage years lived in the Netherlands.  He had married Cornellia Lamme, another artist who concentrated on miniature portraits.  Ary Scheffer’s maternal grandfather was Arie Lamme the Dutch landscape painter.  The couple, who lived in Dordrecht,  had three sons, Ary, the eldest, was born in February 1795, his brother Karel Arnold Scheffer who was born in 1796, went on to become a journalist and writer and their youngest, Hendrik, who also became an artist, was born in September 1798.

The Three Brothers Scheffer in a Landscape by Ary Scheffer (1824)
The Three Brothers Scheffer in a Landscape by Ary Scheffer (1824)

Ary Scheffer was given his first artistic tuition by his parents but when he was eleven years of age his parents enrolled him at the Stadstekenacademie in Amsterdam on a three year art course.   During that time he put forward one of his paintings, Hanibal Searing to Avenge the Death of his Brother Hasdrubal, in the first Exhibition of Living Masters in Amsterdam in 1808.

The painting is now in the Dordrecht Museum along with a number of his other works which are hung in the Ary Scheffer Room.  That same year, his father became the court painter of Louis Bonaparte, who ruled over the Kingdom of Holland, a position bestowed on him by his brother, Napoleon Bonaparte.  Ary’s father only held the position for a year as in 1809 he died.  Following the death of her husband, Cornelia Scheffer moved to Paris with her three sons where Ary and his brother Hendrik became pupils at the studio of the French painter, Pierre Guérin.   Ary and Hendrik were in good company at the studio as two of their fellow pupils would become the figureheads of the French Romantic movement in art, Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault.

Ary Scheffer later attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and from 1812 for the next thirty five years exhibited works at the annual Salons.  Along with Delacroix and Géricault, Ary Scheffer is recognised as one of the great painters of the Romantic school.  Following the end of the Revolution and the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte the French bourgeoisie once again came to prominence and along with the State were the main patrons of the Arts.   Scheffer’s work was very popular and at the end of each Salon his paintings would be snapped up by eager buyers.

The Soldier's Widow by Ary Scheffer
The Soldier’s Widow by Ary Scheffer

In the 1822 Salon he exhibited his very sentimental painting Soldier’s Widow which was very popular and although the whereabouts of the painting is unknown there are a number of monochrome prints of the work.

General Lafayette by Ari Scheffer (1823)
General Lafayette by Ari Scheffer (1823)

Ary Scheffer was also an excellent portraitist and in 1823 he completed probably one of the best portraits. It was of General Lafayette, the French aristocrat and military officer.  It was a full-length standing portrait that was the most popular image of Lafayette as an older man, who had once been a general in the American Revolution War (1775-83) against the British and a close friend of George Washington.  Lafayette was a popular subject for prints in the first half of the 19th century.  He was a hero to both the French and the Americans; he was the first foreign dignitary to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress and in 1824, on the occasion of Lafayette’s celebrated tour of the United States, Ary Scheffer presented his painting to the U.S. House of Representatives. It has hung to the left of the Speaker’s rostrum since the opening of the current House Chamber in 1858.  Lafayette would later figure in the French Revolution in 1789 and in the July Revolution of 1830 which led to Louis-Philippe becoming ruler of the French nation.  This painting, entitled Gilbert de Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, is now part of the collection of the US House of Representatives in Washington.

When Louis-Philippe came to power in 1830 it marked the zenith of Scheffer’s artistic career.  Scheffer, before the July revolution, had been giving drawing lessons to Louis-Philippe’s children and a great friendship between artist and his pupils blossomed.  Once Louis-Philippe came to power after the 1830 Revolution, Scheffer attained an influential position within the court. Louis-Philippe became the patron of the artist and the Orleans family bought many of Scheffer’s paintings. Scheffer received numerous lucrative commissions for the Musée Historique at Versailles, which Louis-Philippe founded in 1837 and which was situated in the wings of the Palace of Versailles.   The gallery which is one hundred and twenty metres long houses and also includes extensive tables that illustrate the major military events of the history of France.

Princess Marie d'Orléans by Ary Scheffer (1831)
Princess Marie d’Orléans by Ary Scheffer (1831)

Ary Scheffer also completed a number of Royal portraits including one in 1831 of Princess Marie of Orléans the third child and second daughter of Louis-Philippe and his wife Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies.  She later became the wife of Duke Alexander of Württenberg.  She was the most talented artist of all the Royal children and was constantly encouraged to pursue her love of art and sculpture by Ari Scheffer.  Sadly she died of tuberculosis when she was just twenty-five years old.

Marie Amélie of Naples, Queen of the French by Ary Scheffer (1857)
Marie Amélie of Naples, Queen of the French by Ary Scheffer (1857)

Another member of the he French Royal Family who featured in one of Scheffer’s portraits was Marie-Amalia, the niece of Marie-Antoinette and the wife of Louis-Philippe.  Louis-Philippe had reigned as the French monarch from 1830 when he came to power following the July Revolution and ruled for eighteen years but was deposed in the February 1848 Revolution which resulted in he and his wife, Marie-Amalia living a life in exile in England.


The couple lived at Claremont, a stately home owned by Leopold of the Belgians, but lent out to Queen Victoria.  In 1850 Louis-Philippe died but his widow remained at Claremont for the rest of her life.   Ary Scheffer visited Claremont in 1857 at which time he completed the portrait of the ex-Queen.   In it we see a frail seventy-five year old lady in mourning.

Death of Géricault by Ary Scheffer (1824)
Death of Géricault by Ary Scheffer (1824)

What persuaded me to feature Ary Scheffer was when I was looking at the death of Théodore Géricault at the young age of thirty-two; I came across a painting entitled The Death of Géricault by today’s featured artist, Ary Scheffer.  It is beautiful work of art which highlights the French Romanticism style, which was so popular at the time.  Look at the man sitting on the chair who was presumably one of Géricault’s close friends.   Look at the way Scheffer has depicted him.  He grasps Géricault’s limp wrist with his right hand whilst he buries his head on his left hand which lies across the back of the chair which he is sitting on.  It is almost a scene from an old silent Hollywood movie or part of an amateur dramatics production.  The physician holds Géricault’s left hand which lies almost lifeless over his heart.  Look at Géricault’s face.  It is sunken.  It is almost skull-like.   In my last blog I featured Géricault’s last self-portrait which was a very disturbing depiction and somebody commented that it could not have been that bad but what we see in Scheffer’s painting is very close to that self-portrait.  This was the end for the great artist.

A Primitive City by Edward Calvert

A Primitive City by Edward Calvert (1822)

When I wander around various galleries, I am often lost in wonderment  when I stand in front of a massive painting.  I can remember when I was in Venice last year and visited the Accademia Galleries and stood before the giant work of Paolo Veronese entitled Feast in the House of Levi.     I was amazed at the magnitude of the work which measured  5.6 metres x 13metres and I could only wonder at how he managed to physically paint such a large scale picture.  How long must it have taken him?  Maybe he had some of his apprentices to help him but still it was an outstanding undertaking.  I find equally impressive miniature paintings and I am always filled with a sense of amazement at how these delicate paintings have been achieved.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today is one such miniature and I want you to feast your eyes on this lovely work of art entitled A Primitive City painted by the English artist Edward Calvert.

Edward Calvert was born in Appledore in the county of Devon in 1799.  His early schooling and art education was at Plymouth but coming from a seafaring area the young Calvert joined the Navy and spent five years serving his country.  A death of a close friend in naval action resulted in him leaving the force and coming ashore.  In 1824 he moved to London and it was here he, at the age of twenty-five, enrolled at the Royal Academy, where one of the professors was the artist, Henri Fuseli.  It was whilst in London that he met the ageing English painter, William Blake.  Blake and his paintings were one of his first great artistic influences and one that would remain with him for the rest of his life.  Blake’s art work inspired a number of aspiring artists and Calvert and some like-minded Romantic artists, who had fallen under the spell of Blake and his work formed an association known as The Brotherhood of the Ancients often simply known as The Ancients.  The leader of the group was Samuel Palmer but one of the most of the most important members of the group was today’s featured artist, Edward Calvert.  Others in the group were George Richmond and John Linnell.  This group of painters, who  all had a love of the spiritual art of the past, would often meet at the home of Blake, which they used to refer reverentially to as the House of the Interpreter.  They would also congregate at Palmer’s house in Shoreham, Kent to discuss Blake’s visionary ideology and to paint pastoral images with a mystical perspective.  They brought a new dimension to Romantic Art.  They brought a wondrous vision of a golden age set in quiet landscapes amidst a pastoral innocence and abundance.

Edward Calvert who was a man of private means left the Academy and concentrated on another love of his, wood-engraving.  He lived with his wife in Dalston in the London borough of Hackney for most of his life.  Calvert’s love of pastoral depictions disappeared gradually but his interest in ancient Greece increased. He visited Greece where he sketched prolifically.  Eventually, he gave up his printmaking and for the rest of his life his art was just for himself and for his own pleasure.  He would work in oil, watercolour and gouache and for his subjects he liked to focus on pagan mythology.  Latterly, Calvert became a recluse and died in 1883, aged 84.

My featured painting today is a tiny watercolour miniature, measuring just 7 cms x 10 cms (not quite 3 inches x 4 inches), entitled A Primitive City, which Edward Calvert painted in 1822.   The quality of this work of art is amazing with its clarity of line and jewel-like colouring and the amount of detail that is shown in such a small space.  It is an evening scene and in the background on the right, we see the waning moon as it hovers behind a distant walled city.  In the right mid-ground we see a peasant leading a donkey which staggers slowly heavily laden with two large baskets of grapes on its back.  Behind the donkey there is another cart, crossing a rickety wooden bridge, being pulled by a bullock, which is loaded with sacks of grain and driven by a woman.  The grapes and grain symbolise the Eucharistic wine and bread.  The pastoral theme is emphasized  by the shepherd and his flock which  we see depicted in the left mid-ground of the work.  If we carefully look at the city itself we see a woman drawing water from a well and above her we see another woman watching her from her viewpoint on the staircase between the two towers.

There is an innocence to the scene and this is accentuated by the beautiful, almost naked, young girl we see to the left of the picture who is about to take a swim in the nearby stream, which runs across  the foreground of the painting.  We can see Calvert’s love and interest in Classical art in the way he  has depicted the woman, as the stance of the scantily-clad young lady is almost certainly derived from the Venus Kallipygos, which is in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.  It could well be that the presence of the river was Calvert’s idea of symbolising the river of life and the nakedness of the young woman symbolic of innocence.  Above the girls head we see that the trees are full of fruit symbolising abundance.

This was Calvert’s vision of the perfect idyll, tranquillity and abundance.  It should be remembered that this work was completed before Calvert went to London and became part of The Ancients , which just goes to show that his ideas for artistic subjects were similar to those of artists he was yet to meet.

Self Portrait by Tommaso Minardi

Self Portrait by Tommaso Minardi (1807)

From a French Modernist painter I am moving to an Italian Romantic painter.  Today I am featuring Tommaso Minardi and looking at his painting entitled Self Portrait, which he painted in 1807.

Tommaso Minardi was born in Faenza in 1787, an Italian city some fifty kilometres south-east of Bologna.  As a teenager he studied art and design at a private school, as a pupil of Giuseppi Zauli.  Minardi was granted an annual stipend by Count Virgilio Cavina of Faenza and in addition, he received financial assistance in the form of a stipend, from the Congregazione di S Gregorio of Faenza.  Thanks to this five year stipend from his patron, Minardi, who was not yet sixteen years of age, moved to Rome to continue his artistic studies.  The terms of this five year grant were such that the young man had to send one completed work of art back to Faenza each year.   His paintings Socrates and Alcibiades and Supper at Emmaus were two of his works he sent back to his patron in Faenza.  At the age of twenty-three he entered a painting into an annual competition run by the Bologna Academy of Fine Arts and he won and his reward was financial stability for the next three years.

Whilst in Rome he studied art but was also employed by the painter and engraver Giuseppe Longhi, who was an exponent of Neoclassicism and for his employer he did reproduction drawings of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.  

In his thirties Minardi began to teach art and in 1819 he was appointed director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Perugia.  Three years later he became professor of drawing at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, a position he held for over thirty-five years.  Besides his own painting and teaching, Minardi began to take an interest in local politics and he spent much of his time working tirelessly for the protection and restoration of the capital city’s great heritage.  Tommaso Minari died in Rome in 1871, aged eighty-three.

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today entitled Self Portrait depicts the artist himself, sitting on a matress which is on the floor.  He is wrapped in a coat in what looks like a very unassuming room.   The room we see him in is termed a mansard room but is known more commonly as an attic room with its sloping ceiling.  It is a typical student-type apartment at the top of a very large house.  On the back wall of the room we can just make out a painting and besides the bed is a bookcase crammed with books and papers.  More books and documents can be seen strewn on a desk to the right of the painting.  The room is lit up from two sources, light streaming in through windows on either side.  On a cabinet to the artist’s left is a human skull and on the floor in the left foreground there is skull of an animal.  What are we to make of this?  What was Minardi’s symbolic reasoning for including these two items?   Was the human skull to have the meaning related to Vanitas paintings, that human life passes quickly and we are but mere mortals, or is it just a  theatrical prop used by the artist to induce a feeling of melancholia into the work.  Are we meant to sympathise with this depiction of him, a poor, sad young art student in his small cramped abode, clutching a heavy coat around his body for warmth.  Is this a depiction of a poor young artist struggling for recognition, and desperate to attain financial security?  Remember Minardi was only twenty years old when he painted this work and had yet to become a successful artist.  So maybe this is how the artist viewed his current “lot in life” – life as a bohemian student in his dingy top floor attic room in the Eternal city.

I wonder whether this paining in any way inspired the French novelist and poet, Henri Murger, when he wrote a work published in 1851 entitled  Scènes de la vie de bohème and which was later used by the librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa for Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème.  Was our struggling artist, Tommaso Minardi, in today’s painting the forerunner of the struggling painter Marcello, in La Bohème ?

I like the painting for its emotive qualities and I am heartened by the fact that Minardi did eventually make good and went on to live a prosperous life.

Die Teufelsbrücke or the Devil’s Bridge by Karl Blechen

Pont Valentré at Cahors

I will start My Daily Art Display today with a look at a local folklore that of the Devil’s Bridge.  Like most folklore there is not simply one version of the tale but many different versions of it depending on which country the structure is situated.   The first time I came across this phenomenon was when I visited Cahors in France and went to see the spectacular 14th century Pont Valentré Bridge.

The Devil clinging to one of the towers of the Pont Valentré

Built in 1308 and completed seventy years later it became associated with the legend of the Devil’s Bridge and the architect Paul Gout made reference to this by placing a small sculpture of the devil at the summit of one of the towers.

The folklore of the Devil’s Bridge is all about the Devil, a bridge builder and his bridge.  The main gist of the story is that a bridge builder sets about building a bridge across a river or river gorge, but at some point in the building of the structure the bridge builder realises he hasn’t the strength or time to complete the task and has to turn to the Devil for assistance.  The price levied by the Devil for his assistance is that he should receive the first soul that crosses it.

Die Teufelsbrücke by Karl Blechen

In my featured painting, Teufelsbrücke or Devil’s Bridge painted by the German Romantic artist, Karl Blechen, in 1832.  In the painting we see the Devil’s Bridge straddling the Swiss River Reuss as it passes through the Schöllenen Gorge on its way to Lake Lucerne.   The legend of this particular Devil’s Bridge states that the river was so difficult to cross that a Swiss goat herdsman asked the Devil to make a bridge. The Devil duly appeared, but required that if he should construct the bridge, the soul of the first to cross it would be given to him. The herder agreed, but instead of crossing the bridge first and risk losing his soul he drove a goat across ahead of him, thus tricking the devil.   The Devil was so angry that he had been duped he fetched a rock with the intention of smashing the bridge, but an old woman drew a cross on the rock and this prevented the Devil from being able to lift it.    The rock is still there and, in 1977, 300,000 Swiss Francs were spent to move the 220 ton rock by 127 m in order to make room for the new Gotthard road tunnel.

Karl Blechen was born in Cottbus in 1798.   His father was a local tax collector and Karl started his working life as a minor bank official.  It was not until he was aged twenty four that he began to study art.  In 1822 he enrolled at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin (Academy of the Arts).  Later when he was working in Dresden as an apprentice in an art studio he was befriended by two artists also based in the city , the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich and the Norweigen artist, Johan Christian Dahl who were leaders in the fields of art known as Romanticism and Realism.   My Daily Art Display has featured some of their works and they are well worth viewing.   Their styles would influence Blechen in his future works.   In 1828 he travelled to Italy where he remained for a year studying art and in particular, oil painting.  It was here that he was introduced to the en plein air style of painting and was influenced by the works of English landscape painter, Turner who was also in Italy at this time and by the French landscape painter, John-Baptiste Corot, who at this period in time, lived in Italy.  He returned to Germany and in 1831 and was awarded a professorship at the Berlin Academy.   Despite this academic recognition the sales of his work were disappointing and this depressed him.  His depression and mental state deteriorated and four years later, at the age of thirty-seven he was diagnosed as being mentally unstable.  Blechen died in 1840 in Berlin, a broken man, aged forty-two.

When Karl Blechen visited Italy his journey fostered an interest on visual phenomena and how light and colour effects landscapes.  A number of his paintings were categorised as being of a Romantic genre.  The Romantic artists, of which Blechen was one, applauded individualism, subjectivism, irrationalism, imagination, emotions and nature – emotion over reason and senses over intellect.  Whilst Blechen was returning back to Germany he travelled along the St Gothard’s pass and the Teufelsbrücke was still being built.  This Devil’s Bridge depicted by Blechen in his painting is enclosed by snow-capped mountains which soar into the sky and below them we can see the raging torrents of the Reuss River.  I think what I like most about this painting is the beautiful way in which Blechen has depicted the sunlight penetrating a gap in the mountains to light up the bridge and some of its builders.  It is as if somebody has switched on a spotlight to illuminate the scene.  In the central mid ground we see the arch of the old bridge and the partly constructed arch of the new one with its scaffolding.   The illuminated partly-built new arch is dwarfed by the mountains and one wonders whether its frailty and exposed position will be able to withstand the forces of nature when gale force winds relentlessly charge down the valley.    There is also a sensation of remoteness about the scene.  We are aware that we are miles from civilisation but can marvel in the savagery of nature.  In the right foreground we see some of the bridge builders taking a well earned rest from their labours amongst all their building materials.

Karl Blechen has managed to create an image which is both awe-inspiring and beautiful and one which makes us realise how small we are in comparison to our surroundings.   This awesome painting by Karl Blechen, which I have featured today,  hangs in
the Bavarian State Picture Collection housed in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.



Crossing at the Schreckenstein by Ludwig Richter

Crossing at the Schreckenstein by Ludwig Richter (1836)

About five or six years ago I was fortunate enough to be having a short break in Europe  and one of my journeys was from Dresden to Prague, partly by boat on the river Elbe and partly by train.  The banks of the River Elbe, like the German Rhine, is littered with palaces and castles perched high above the river.  My featured painting for today entitled Crossing at the Schreckenstein by Ludwig Richter reminded me of that trip and I remember the castle well as it stood imperiously above the river.

Adrian Ludwig Richter, the son of Karl August Richter, a copper engraver, was born in 1803 in Dresden.   He received his initial artistic training from his father.  He attended the Dresden Academy of Art and his favoured artistic genre was that of landscape painting and at the age of twenty, with the financial backing of a Dresden book dealer, he was awarded a scholarship to travel to Rome to continue his studies.  Whilst in Rome he came across Joseph Anton Koch, an Austrian landscape painter of the German Romantic Movement who was famous for idealised landscapes.  It was whilst in Italy that Richter produced the first of many of his idyllic Italian landscape paintings.

Richter returned to Dresden in 1826 and two years later went to work as a designer at the Meissen factory.  Richter made many hiking trips through the mountains of Bohemia and along the Elbe and gradually his landscape art changed from the idealistic landscapes to the topographically accurate ones.  Richter was a lifelong lover of the works of Caspar David Friedrich and his influence can be seen in a number of Richter’s works.  In most cases he would add figures to his landscapes and through them tell a story.    In 1841 he became a professor at the Dresden Academy and would often take parties of students on walking tours through the local mountains where they would sketch and return to the college where they would use them to complete their works of art.

In 1874 at the age seventy-one an eye disease caused his sight to deteriorate to such an extent that he had to give up his art work.  He died in 1884 at Loschwitz ,  a few month short of his 81st birthday.

The harp player

The title of today’s painting Crossing at Schreckenstein is also known as Crossing the Elbe at Schreckenstein near Aussig and I have even seen it referred to as Ferry at the Schreckenstein.   So what do we see before us?  One can almost hear the tune from the harp as the ferryman and his boat transport their passengers across the Elbe.  Note the varied age of the passengers, spread between the child through to the old man and it was thought that Richter’s ferryboat was a “ship of life” in which the passengers of all ages are united.  The ferryman leans back as he heaves on his paddle.  With pipe in his mouth, his eyes are raised towards the hilltop castle.  He still seems in awe of the great edifice notwithstanding how many daily crossing of the river he makes.

At his feet there seems to be a small cargo of plants which are being transported across the waterway and next to them we see a young girl standing with a pole in her hand.  We do not know whether she is the ferryman’s helper or just another passenger.  In the middle of the boat we focus our attention on a young man, standing up with his back to us, who like us,  stares up at the castle whilst the old man plays a folk song about times past.

The Ferryman

A young couple cuddle up together.  His hand rests on hers as she holds on to a posy of flowers. Neither of them are aware of the beauty of their surroundings or their fellow travellers.  They only have eyes for each other.   A man sits in front of the elderly harp player, resting his chin on his hand, his eyes cast downwards.  He too seems unaware of the surrounding landscape.  He is lost in thought.  A small boy at his feet with his hand resting over the gunwale of the craft, drags a small branch through the calm water, slightly rippled by the current.  The curved shape of the upper part of the painting in some way lends it a somewhat solemn and religious feel.

The setting for this picture was probably one Richter saw on his many hikes along the banks of the Elbe.  Maybe the last word on the painting should be given to the artist himself.  He described his work in his autobiography, Lebenserinnerungen eines deutschen Malers, which was edited by his son:

“…As I remained standing on the bank of the Elbe after sunset, watching the activities of the boatmen, I was particularly struck by an old ferryman who was responsible for the crossing.  The boat loaded with people and animals, cut through the quiet current, in which the evening sky was reflected.  So eventually it happened that the ferry came over, filled with a colorful crowd among who sat an old harpist who, instead of paying the penny for his passage, played a tune on his harp….”

The view is as magnificent today as it was in the time of Richter with the once mighty castle perched above the river.  Bridges and locks now straddle the waterway and the ferryman’s efforts are no longer needed.  If ever you visit the area be sure to take the river journey down the mighty Elbe and savour the splendour of the river banks.

Mother and Child by the Sea by Johan Christian Dahl

Mother and Child by the Sea by Johan Christian Dahl (1840)

You would be forgiven for thinking today’s painting is by Caspar David Friedrich as it has all the hallmarks of similar paintings by the German Romantic painter.  My Daily Art Display today is in fact a painting by Johan Christian Dahl, who was the leading Norwegian landscape painter of his time.  The work is entitled Mother and Child by the Sea which he completed in 1840.

Dahl was born in Bergen Norway in 1788, son of a fisherman.  He studied art at school and thanks to a group of wealthy Bergen citizens who sponsored him and gave him funds, he was able to travel to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, where, at the age of twenty-three, he enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Seven years later, in 1818, Dahl left Copenhagen for a European tour of the major art centres in Germany and Italy.  He never forgot his homeland and made many journeys back to Norway where he made many sketches of the country’s rugged landscape.  In 1824 he became professor at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.  Whilst living in Dresden he became part of a celebrated artistic circle which included Casper David Friedrich and with these fellow artists shaped the era of German Romantic painting which began in the second half of the 18th century.  Friedrich and Dahl when they first met immediately hit it off and they became great friends.  Friedrich helped Dahl find lodgings and buy canvas and paint.  When Dahl moved into the house where Friedrich lived, they became even closer friends. They were godfathers to each other’s children, they sent paintings together to the various exhibitions, and when one had visitors, these were taken to see the works of the other. The two friends were regarded as the typical pair of complementary artists, Friedrich was the idealist painter and Dahl the naturalist painter, but both truly committed to Romanticism. They were considered a pair to such an extent that they were always mentioned together in the exhibition reviews and people tended to order companion pieces from them.  They had differing artistic techniques.   Dahl would start his subject directly on to canvas, composed from the various drawings and studies scattered around him, at great speed and with his studio full of visitors. Friedrich began his painting only after days of meditation when the entire scene stood clearly before his inner eye. He then worked in successive thin glazes, in order to have the whole composition visible at every stage in the process. Friedrich preferred an empty studio where nothing distracted his contemplation, and when he was painting the sky in his landscapes, nobody dared to speak to him.

Johan Dahl had quite a sad personal life.  He first married in 1820 and they had four children but sadly his wife, Emilie, died giving birth to their son, Siegwald in 1827.  In 1829 his son Alfred and daughter Marie died of scarlet fever.  He remarried in January 1830 to one of his art students, Amalie von Basserwitz, but she too died in childbirth that December.  This left Dahl, with the help of his housekeeper, to bring up his two children from his first marriage, Siegwald and Caroline.   Dahl, himself, died in Dresden in 1857, aged 69.  Over seventy years later his remains where brought back to his Norwegian homeland and buried in the cemetery of St Jacob’s church in Bergen.

The painting today was Dahl’s second version of the scene and was completed the same year as his great friend Casper David Friedrich died and in some way may have been Dahl’s tribute to the German Romantic artist   It depicts a woman with her child standing on a rocky coastal landscape pointing to a boat out at sea.  The scene is illuminated by moonlight.  Dahl, like many artists during the Romantic period, painted a number of pictures with moonlight over water and of this setting he once wrote:

“…The special thing I have succeeded in doing in this piece is the faint light cast by the moon over all the scenery, a peace that is spread all over the area, which makes it solemn and beautiful. The light in the clouds, the moon, the reflections in the water, in short a certain dimness that predominates it, if I dare say it, which must both be and not be, and shows that it is night…”

The mother and child await the arrival of the boat and the homecoming of the child’s father, one of the two figures we can just make out on the deck of the craft, which moves towards them across the glassy calm sea.  It is a tranquil night.  The moon peeks through an opening of the clouds, lighting up a patch of the otherwise dark sea causing a pearlescent shimmer over the water.  There is an air of optimism about this painting as the moon lights up the scene and we see the excitement of the child at his father’s safe return.  There is a magical feel to this work of art.

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)

My Daily Art Display today features one of the most moving paintings I have come across and what makes it even more remarkable is that it is based on a true story.  The massive oil on canvas painting is entitled The Raft of Medusa and was painted by the French Romantic painter, Théodore Géricault in 1819.  Before I look at the painting let me go through the actual events which this painting is based upon.

The story begins on June 17, 1816 with the new Bourbon government of France dispatching the frigates Medusa, Loire and Echo and the brig Argus to officially receive the British handover of the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal to France.  The British who having helped to re-establish the French monarchy, wanted to demonstrate their support for Louis XVIII, and decided to hand over to him this strategic trading port on the West African coast.  The French naval frigate, Medusa was to carry 365 crew and passengers, including the Senegal’s governor-designate, Colonel Julien-Désire Schmaltz, from Port de Rochefort on the island of Aix on France’s west coast, to Senegal via Tenerife.

The captain of the Medusa was Vicomte Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, who at the age of 53 had spent most of his career behind a desk at customs offices and had never been in command of a ship, in fact had hardly sailed on a ship for twenty years.  However,  the old adage “it’s who you know and not what you know” was applicable in his being put in command of the fleet as he had many Royalist connections.  The governor-designate Schmaltz wanted to reach St Louis as soon as possible and persuaded the captain to set a course close to the shore line in order to save time.  Things went badly almost from the start of the voyage when a young cabin boy was lost over the side.  Captain Chaumereys also had problems with both his passengers and crew alike, spending long periods arguing with them

The Medusa was a fast vessel and in fact much faster than the other vessels in the group and soon pulled ahead of them which was to be a contributing factor in the forthcoming disaster and terrible loss of life.  On July 2nd, for some reason, whether due to poor navigation skills or lack of attention the Medusa, was many miles off course and  ran aground on the Arguin Banks, which lie off the west coast of Mauritania, despite perfect weather conditions and calm seas.  The grounding ripped a hole in the hull of the Medusa and after surveying the damage it was deemed un-repairable and terminal.  Couple this factor along with deteriorating weather conditions and the crew had no choice but to abandon the vessel.  The Medusa had some lifeboats but they would hold only 150 people and so it was decided to construct a raft to house the rest

The crew then set to work making a raft from parts of the Medusa’s decking and masts.  When completed the raft measured 65 feet by 23 feet and was towed behind two of the ship’s lifeboats.  In all, one hundred and fifty people, including one woman, boarded the raft.  However with such weight the raft became almost submerged and it was decided to jettison some of the food.  After doing this the deck of the raft settled in the water with what they believed to be a suitable clearance above the sea surface.  The lifeboats towing their raft set off from the crippled Medusa but the weight of the raft was becoming problematic.  The only propulsion of this raft was from the rowing power of the men in the lifeboats which was towing it,as the raft had no oars, no sails and no navigational aids.

For some unknown reason, whether it be that the people on the raft decided that their lives would be safer if they disengaged from the lifeboats or whether those in the lifeboat believed that the raft was jeopardising their safety, the towing line was severed and the raft was set free, some four miles off the coast of Mauretania.  By the second day, three of the passengers had committed suicide and that following night the store of rum aboard the raft was broached and in a drunken insurrection by the soldiers against their officers, mayhem ensued.  By daylight the next day the number of people alive on the raft had more than halved to sixty.  Food had run out and the survivors resorted to eating the corpses.

On July 1th 1816, after 13 days adrift, the raft by pure chance was rescued by the Argus, as no specific search effort was made by the French for the raft.   At this time only 15 men were still alive; the others had been killed or thrown overboard by their comrades,  Some had died of starvation, and some had thrown themselves into the sea in despair.

The whole episode was a disaster, not only to those who sailed on the Medusa but for the French government and when the ship’s surgeon Savigny submitted a report on the incident, it was leaked to an anti-government newspaper, the Journal des débats,  which caused outrage.  The French government had tried hard to suppress the details.  The French nation was horrified.  The event became an international scandal, partly because of the human disaster and partly because the disaster was generally attributed to the incompetence of the French captain, whom people believed was acting under the authority of the recently restored French monarchy.  However in reality, King Louis XVIII had no say in the captain’s appointment, since, then as now, monarchs were not directly involved in appointments made to vessels like a naval frigate.   Captain de Chamereys was found to blame for the incident and was court-martialed.

This painting by Géricault was his first major work of art and is now housed in the Louvre in Paris.    What strikes you first when you stand in front of this painting is its enormous size, measuring 16 feet by 24 feet.  We, the viewers, are dwarfed by its enormity, which gives the painting more power.  Strangely enough nobody commissioned the work but the artist believed that the incident he was portraying would generate great interest from the public and in so doing he believed his career would take off.   Géricault spent much time in preparing for this painting doing numerous sketches.  He interviewed the ship’s doctor, Henri Savigny and the ship’s geographer, Alexander Corréard  and he even constructed a detailed scale model of the raft.  He would have models pose on his constructed raft .  His friend, the artist Delacroix, modelled for the figure in the foreground, with face turned downward and one arm outstretched.  His young assistant Louis-Alexis Jamar modelled nude for the dead man in the foreground, who is about to slip into the sea.  In his desire to depict accurately the bodies of the survivors and the dead he made many visits to morgues and hospitals noting details with regards the texture and colouring of flesh on live bodies and corpses.  Géricault had been correct in his assessment that the painting would prove popular if somewhat controversial.  It appeared in the 1819 Paris Salon and for the artist it launched his career and, although it was partly a history painting, it was looked upon as the beginning of the Romantic Movement in French painting.

The painting portrays the moment in time when the survivors on board the raft spot the approaching ship, Argus, which can just be seen on the whitened horizon.  It is at this very point in time that the survivors realise that they are about to be rescued.  An African crewman, said to be Jean Charles, can be seen standing on a cask waiving his shirt to attract the crew of the Argus.  This portrayal of a negro at the pinnacle of the painting was probably down to Géricault’s abolitionist’s sympathies.  The majority of the figures depicted in this enormous painting are life-size and the bodies of the men in the foreground are almost twice life-size.  Their closeness to the edge of the canvas  makes us almost believe we are just a step away from the raft itself.  The raft has suffered from the battering it endured in the rough seas and is barely afloat.  The painting is dark and sombre which Géricault chose to suggest the torment and agony of the survivors.

In some ways it is an idealised painting as in actuality, there are more people shown on the raft than were found by the Argus and at the time of the rescue of the castaways, the sea was recorded as being calm and the weather settled.  However to add feeling to the painting he has allowed the seas to be whipped up high in a frenzy of surf under blackened storm clouds.  One must also query the fact that some of the men seem so “muscled” and somewhat healthy despite having starved for such a length of time and barely kept alive.  It is a combination of history painting, recording the story of the men’s plight and a painting of the Romanticism genre.

There is a moody darkness about the painting.  There is a strong diagonal surge from the bottom left of the painting to the top right.  Our eyes move along the diagonal from viewing the despondent man with his head in hand in the bottom left to the man arm waving his shirt in the upper right.  As we stare in disbelief at the scene in front of us, we sympathise with the plight of these men.

Géricault must have been fully aware when he submitted the work to the Paris Salon that it would prove controversial as the demise of the Medusa and terrible loss of life was blamed on the Bourbon government and so whether the painting was acclaimed or condemned depended a a great deal on whether the viewer was pro or anti Bourbon.

Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston

Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston (1818)

Today my featured artist was considered to be the first American Romantic landscape painter.  Washington Allston was born on the family plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1779.    His father, William Allston, was a captain in the army and who died shortly after the Battle of Cowpens in the American Revolutionary War when Washington was only two years of age.  After his father’s death, his mother, Rachel re-married, this time to the son of a wealthy shipping merchant Doctor Henry Flag.  Washington Allston graduated from Harvard in 1800 and for a short period settled down in Charleston, South Carolina.  A year later he went to England and was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art in London.  At that time Benjamin West, the Anglo-American painter was president of the Academy and Washington learnt much from the “Master”.

He spent the next decade travelling around Europe visiting all the major art galleries and museums. He met and became great friends with the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose portrait he painted and now hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.   In 1809, aged thirty, he married Ann Channing, the daughter of the great American Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing.  After further travels around Europe the couple settled down in London where his artistic career blossomed and he won many prizes for his paintings.   Besides being a great artist, Washington Allston was an accomplished writer and many of his books were published.  His first major work of art, which established him as a great artist was painted in 1814, entitled Dead Man Revived by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha.  Sadly, in 1815, after just six years of marriage, his wife Ann died.  Her death devastated Washington and he beacme homesick for his country of birth.  He moved back to America in 1818 and went to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He remained there for the rest of his life, dying in 1843 at the age of 63.  He is buried in Harvard Square, in “the Old Burying Ground” between the First Parish Church and Christ Church.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said of his friend:

“…I consider him a man of high and rare genius, whether I contemplate him in character of a Poet, a Painter or a Philosophic Analyst…”

My Daily Art Display for today is a painting which Washington Allston completed in 1818 and which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  It is entitled Elijah in the Desert.  The subject of this painting comes from the Old Testament (1Kings 17:1-7) story in which God ordered the prophet Elijah into the desert and where he managed to stay alive with the help of the ravens who fed him with bread and meat.  The painting vividly depicts the vast and unwelcoming landscape of the wilderness, using a sober palette of browns, grays and steely blues.  The prophet Elijah, dressed in rags can be seen on his hands and knees pitifully crawling to reach a piece of meat the raven has just dropped on the ground in front of him.  It is a poignant and distressing depiction.  The size of the tiny figure of the prophet against this eerie setting adds to a sense of wretchedness and rejection and the observer experiences the tragedy of Elijah’s circumstances.

The painting was owned by Mrs Samuel and Miss Alice Hooper, who donated it to the “yet to be built” Boston museum.  It was actually the first painting which was acquired for the museum and entered the collection in 1870.  Of Washington Allston and his painting, the donors said:

“..We thought we couldn’t better testify our interest in this new art movement [American Romanticism] at home than by adding a really fine Allston to our public collection..”The donors went on to suggest that the museum, when completed, should be named after the artist but in the end it was simply known as the Museum of Fine Arts but a western suburb of Boston was named Allston..

This great American artist not only gained fame with his works of art but was a much heralded poet and author.   His works were appreciated and loved by many including the great English novelist Charles Dickins, who called him “a fine specimen of old genius.  

Great praise indeed.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

My Daily Art Display painting today is a mesmerising scene of a young man, believed to be a portrait of the artist himself,  with his back to us perched on a rocky outcrop gazing out reverentially over a landscape which is almost hidden by thick swirls of fog and clouds.  He is bedecked in a green frock-coat, leaning slightly on his walking stick, his curly blonde hair caught by the wind.  We, the viewer, look with the eyes of this young man and can just make out, through the thick pervading grey fog, a middle ground with its small clumps of trees which stand atop a rocky escarpment.  Further into the background one can see the tall greyish-blue toned mountains, lightly shrouded by the clouds, above which we are able to observe the sky with its slight glowing hue indicating that we  are witnessing either the start or end of the day.

Casper David Friedrich, the German Romantic artist, painted Wanderer above the Sea of Fog in 1818 and it can be found in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg.  It is one of the great Romantic landscape paintings of its time.  The setting for his painting is a fusion of various mountains in the Saxony and Bohemia region.  The outcrop of rocks on which the man stands is on the Kaiserkrone.  The painting draws attention to the smallness and insignificance of an individual in comparison to the untamed and possibly hostile natural setting.  Many of Friedrich’s paintings let people share his captivation with encountering nature in solitude whether it be from a rocky outcrop as in today’s painting or the frozen arctic as depicted in his painting The Arctic Sea.  He was a Romantic artists and their belief was that any artist who wanted to explore his own emotions, had necessarily to stand outside of the throng of money-making, political gimmickry, and urban noise in order to assert and maintain their positions.

Caspar David Friedrich was born in Greifswald, Germany in 1774.   At the age of twenty, he began his studies at the Academy in Copenhagen.  In 1798 he moved and settled down in Dresden but travelled extensively throughout Germany.  His landscapes, like that of his painting today, were based entirely of those of northern Germany and show in detail the breathtaking magnificence of the hills, harbours and weather conditions of that area which Friedich had observed.  Many of his scenes are devoid of people and concentrate on menacing ravines, intimidating cliffs and terrifying seas of ice.  One can see that in his landscape paintings, Friedrich gave more emphasis to threatening landscapes rather than the benign beautiful ones often painted by other artists.

David d’Angers, the French sculptor and contemporary of Friedrich said of Caspar David Friedrich, “Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape.”