Laurits Ring. Part 2 – True love and happiness.

The Road at Mogenstrup, Zealand. Autumn, by Laurits Ring (1888)

In the later part of the nineteenth century, Ring concentrated on landscape painting.  For Ring, painting landscapes allowed him, through the works, to communicate and find expression in the world around him. One example of this is his 1888 landscape painting entitled The Road at Mogenstrup, Zealand. Autumn.  This depiction is evidence that he was fond of muted autumn colours and there is a definite hint of melancholia about the depiction which may have mirrored his mood at the time.

Thaw by Laurits Ring (1901)

A similar type of “drab” work is his 1901 painting entitled Thaw.  The dilapidated fence in the foreground renders the depiction even more gloomy as does the artist’s use of yellowish-brown colours.  It is yet another example of what one critic called Ring’s “landscapes of the soul”— a type of psychological painting with its own poetic soberness.  Ring landscapes project his personal emotions. His friend and biographer Peter Hertz, a Danish art historian and museum worker, wrote how Ring, especially in those periods from 1887 to 1893 when his depressive moods and melancholy were prevalent, discovered a way of liberating himself, by painting his many overcast and misty landscapes.  Hertz wrote:

“…With such weather he has closed himself up inside his own loneliness and found a resonance in nature, echoing his own mood… In these scenes of dull, overcast weather he reaches his highest pinnacle, giving most of himself…”

Laurits Rings was in a very bad place mentally in 1892.  He had broken off all contact with Alexander Wilde and his wife Johanne.  He had suffered the heartbreak of his mother dying and the sudden death of his brother, Ole.  These losses made him doubt his belief in God and with this doubt came another doubt, a doubt in his own artistic ability and is hope that the lot of the peasant workers would be addressed came to naught.

Herman Kähler in his Workshop by Laurits Ring (1890)

Salvation came to him in the form of a ceramicist, Henrik Kähler, who owned a Danish ceramics factory.  Kähler Keramik was based in Næstved on the island of Zealand.  He had started to experiment with more appealing designs with glazed finishes and in 1886, he succeeded in attracting a number of well-known artists to complement his designs.  Laurits Ring was one as was his friend Hans Andersen Brendekilde.  Through his relationship with Henrik Kähler, Laurits met his daughter, Sigrid who was also a painter as well as a ceramicist.  Sigrid Kähler was the third woman who took on a special importance in Rings’ life. 

The Artists Wife by Lamplight by Laurits Ring (1898)

She was literally his lifesaver.  Friendship between them soon changed to mutual love and the couple married on July 25th 1896. Laurits was 42 and Sigrid was 21.  The couple moved to a house in the harbour town of Karrebæksminde on the south-east coast of Zealand.

At the Breakfast Table by Laurits Ring

Sigrid featured in many of Laurits’ paintings.  In his paintings of Sigrid we can depict subtle symbols of love and affection and the use of soft hues are different from his more melancholic ones he used in his Realism works.  One depiction of Sigrid was his 1898 work entitled At the Breakfast Table.  We see his wife seated at the breakfast table reading Politiken, the Danish daily broadsheet newspaper, which is Laurits’ way of reminding us about the world outside.  The scene is lit up by the streams of sunlight which come in through the open door, and if we look outside, we can make out the lush green of summer.

In the Garden Door. The Artist’s Wife by Laurits Ring (1897).

Sigrid also featured in her husband’s 1897 work entitled In the Garden Door: The Artist’s Wife.  The painting is housed in the Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), National Gallery of Denmark and has proved to be one of the most loved works on show.  Peter Nørgaard Larsen Chief Curator, Senior Researcher at SMK says of the work:

“…It’s one of my favourite pictures, and there are several reasons for that. It is fantastically nice painted and has a very crisp and delicate colour scheme. And then it’s a picture you’ll be happy to look at. This is the summer we dream of with a fertile garden and a beautiful woman. After all, this is the woman he just married, so he’s obviously interested in portraying her as part of a world he experiences as happy. A very positive picture…”

So, is this just a depiction of his wife, Sigrid, pregnant with their first child, Ghitta Johanne, who stands before a beautiful Spring garden scene which symbolises a consummated and fertile love between the artist and his wife?  Is this simply a painting honouring fertility and the up and coming new life?   Or is there something else we should be contemplating as we look at the painting.  Remember Laurits Ring was, besides a man dedicated to Social Realism depictions, also a Symbolist painter.  Let us look a little closer at the depiction.  His wife stands before us on the patio with her belly bulging with her unborn child.  This is about new life.   Compare that with the potted bush by her side.  It looks stunted being confined to the pot.  Its branches are gnarly and old.  In all, it looks as if it is coming to the end of its life.  The depiction is a comparison of new life and death.  It is a painting depicting transience and in some way a reminder that all things come to an end.  It is Ring’s appreciation that the opposite to life is death.  Ironically the painting is somewhat premature as Sigrid did not give birth to her daughter until January 5th 1899 !

The Artist’s Wife and Daughter by Laurits Ring (1901)

In 1901 Ring produced a painting featuring his wife, Sigrid and their two-year-old daughter Ghitta.

The Drunkard by Laurits Ring

For me, his Social Realism art is his best genre.  In 1890 he completed a work entitled The Drunkard.  It depicts a group of angry villagers, fist-waving and shouting at an elderly man with a walking cane, some distance from them.  He has been forced back to the edge of the village by the baying crowd.  He has been isolated.  It is a sign of rejection.  However, it is not what we perceive it to be.  The scene is actually part of a children’s social play.  It is all about rejection and isolation of a lone figure at the hands of an unsympathetic group.  The artist is testing us to think about times when we have shown little sympathy towards our fellow human beings.  He wants us to examine our own conscience.  The painting sadly verifies Ring’s pessimistic view of the human race.

A Waiting Horsecart on a Village Road by Ole Ring (1946)

On October 9th, 1900, Laurits and Sigrid’s second child was born, a son Anders Herman, who became a painter, silversmith and sculptor.  The family moved to the old school in Baldersbrønde near Hedehuse, where on August 6th, 1902, their third and final child, a son, Ole was born.  He like his father would become an accomplished artist and well-known for his local landscape works.

A Visit ot a Shoemakers Workshop by Laurits Ring (1885)

Laurits Ring’s interest in politics and social issues was an ever theme in his paintings.   An example of this is his 1895 painting entitled A Visit to the Shoemaker’s Shop.  It depicts a politician from the Social Democratic Party who has called on a pair of cobblers hoping that he would secure their support.  It was through Laurits’ political convictions and his social realism depictions of workers and peasants during the early industrialization in Denmark, that he played an important role in what was termed The Modern Breakthrough. Unlike many of his contemporary artists and writers, you have to remember that Laurits Ring was not from a comfortable middle-class or upper-class background but originated from an impoverished peasant farming background and as one reviewer noted in 1886:

“…One implicitly trusts that Ring truly knows the life he portrays…”

Drænrørsgraverne (Laying the drains) by Laurits Ring (1885),

Another of Ring’s painting, from that year, which highlights the hard work of the less well paid is his depiction of drain-layers in his 1885 work, Laying the Drains.   Laurits Ring was always sympathetic with the workers’ struggle for better living conditions and throughout his life he expressed respect for the poor. Ring was always careful to depict the everyday life among workers and rural people with dignity, and avoided sentimentality, choosing to highlight a realistic view of people’s lives, notwithstanding whether his subject was a poor farm couple or a pair of ditch diggers.

When the Train is Expected. Level Crossing at Roskilde Highway by Laurits Ring (1914)

My favourite three paintings by Ring are ones which show his innate ability to portray everyday life.  The first is his 1914 work entitled Waiting for the Train. Level Crossing by Roskilde Highway.

Has it stopped raining by Laurits Ring

The second is his true to life work entitled Has it stopped Raining

A Boy and a Girl Eating Lunch by Laurits Ring (1884),

And the third is his 1884 Social Realism painting entitled A Boy and Girl Eating Lunch in which we see two children sharing a bowl of broth which focuses on the plight of poor children who often struggled to get sufficient food.

Laurits Ring with his audience

Laurits Ring led a nomadic life during his single and married years.  He frequently moved house preferring to live in small Zealand villages which probably reminded him of Ring, his birthplace.  This life of wandering was interspersed by periods of calm and waiting. 

Looking at Laurits Ring’s work reveals the extent to which the themes of travel and waiting infuse his art. His paintings record the historical changes that took place in the decades around the turn of the century.  This was a period of great change with the coming of modern life and Ring tried to capture how it affected the less well-off.

The aging Laurits Ring, photographed in 1926 as a guest of the couple Johanne and Paul Buhl. Ring sits on the terrace in front of their summer residence on Egevangen on the outskirts of Randers.

In January 1914, Laurits and his family moved to a newly built house on Sankt Jørgensbjerg in Roskilde.  Nine years after that move Laurits’ wife was taken seriously ill and on May 9th, 1923, three days before her 49th birthday, Sigrid Ring died of lung cancer.  After his wife’s death Laurits, then sixty-nine, went to live with his twenty-one-year old son, Ole.  In September 1933, Laurits Ring suffered a brain haemorrhage with slight paralysis of his left arm. He died on Sunday, September 10th, 1933, aged 79.

Laurits Andersen Ring. Part 1. Death, unrequited love and depression.

Portrait of Laurits Andersen Ring by Knud Larsen

ecently I gave you five blogs which were devoted to one of the great Surrealist artists of the twentieth century but today I am reverting back to what I would irreverently term “ordinary” paintings.  However, there is nothing ordinary about the works of the Danish painter Laurits Andersen Ring, professionally known as L.R. Ring, one of Denmark’s foremost artists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was a pioneer of both symbolism and social realism.   I had not previously known anything about him or his work but I could not believe how beautiful his paintings were.

Tåget landskab med Mogenstrup Mølle (Foggy landscape with Mogenstrup Mill,) by Laurits Ring (1889)

Laurits Andersen Ring was born Laurits Andersen on August 15th, 1854 in the village of Ring, near Næstved, in the south of the Danish island of Zealand. His father was Anders Olsen and his mother was Johanne Andersdatter.  For several generations, the Anders Olsen family had been peasant farmers and Johanne was a farmer’s daughter and came from a family of smallholders.  When Anders and Johanne married, he took over his father-in-law’s house in the village of Ring.  However, due to his poor health, asthma, he was unable to work the land and so neighbours undertook the upkeep of the land whilst he established himself as a carpenter and wheelwright.  Anders and Johanne had their first child, a son, Ole Peter on January 6th 1850 and four and a half years later Johanne gave birth to Laurits on August 15th, 1854.  Laurits and his brother grew up in a family with cramped and impoverished conditions, and throughout his life Laurits was particularly concerned with the struggle of workers and peasants to get better living and working conditions.  As teenagers the two boys had to help in their father’s workshop as his health was deteriorating and he was unable to work for long periods of time.  Eventually Ole took over the family business.

Autumn Weather: A Man with a Wheelbarrow on a Path by Laurits Ring

With Ole was looking after the family business, Laurits was free to further his own ambitions, that of becoming a professional painter. In 1869, aged fifteen, Laurits became a painter’s apprentice.   In 1873, while working in Copenhagen Laurits decided to enrol in painting classes and, in 1875, following two years of private study, he gained entrance to the Royal Danish Academy of Arts.  It was around this time that Laurits decided to change his surname.  He and his friend, fellow painter Hans Andersen, who came from the village of Brændekilde, decided to change their last names, taking the names of their native villages, in order to avoid confusion at exhibitions when they both exhibited paintings.  Laurits Andersen became Laurits Ring and Hans Andersen became Hans Andersen Brendekilde.  As has been the case of many young artists I have profiled, Laurits fell out of love with academic teaching and the Academy set-up.  He was never satisfied with life at the Academy and loathed the strict training in classical disciplines.  In 1882 Laurits had his paintings shown at his exhibition debut.  It was a great triumph and through this and other exhibitions he slowly received critical acclaim for his work and within two years his artistic career had been launched successfully.

The Railroad Guard by Laurits Ring (1884)

In June 1884, Laurits Ring produced a painting which finally bestowed on him the artistic recognition he deserved.  The painting was entitled The Lineman.   Rail transport in Denmark began in 1847 with the opening of a railway line between Copenhagen and Roskilde and for Denmark, it was the great innovation of the middle and late nineteenth century.  Look at the figure in the painting.  He is the Lineman or Railway Guard.  He is dressed in his railway uniform.  He stands looking down the line at the on-coming train.  If we look more closely at the figure, we see a man whose clothes are ill-fitting.  He wears old wooden clogs.  His demeanour is one of tiredness with his slumped shoulders and there is a definite air of poverty about him.  Although the new railways might have benefited the country, they also allowed people the opportunity to escape impoverished rural communities and find work in the cities which further worsened the predicament of the rural communities which suffered the greatest poverty.

Evening. The Old Wife and Death by L.A. Ring

Sadly, just as Ring’s career was taking off, tragedy struck. On June 18th, 1883, his father, Anders, died, aged 66.  Laurits’ childhood home was dissolved, and his mother had to go and live with his brother. Worse was to happen three years later, on March 28th, 1886, when Laurits’ brother who had been looking after his mother, died after a short illness, aged 36.  Nine years later, in 1895, Laurits’ mother died aged 81.  These inevitable but tragic events occurred in a twelve-year period and greatly affected Laurits Ring.  Many of his works around this time focused on death, such as his 1887 painting entitled Evening: The Old Wife and Death.  Laurits, besides his Social Realism works, was also known as a symbolist painter, and depicted in this painting, we see before us an old woman resting by the roadside, exhausted after carrying her heavy burden.  Her arm hangs slack.  She can do no more. She is close to death.  She will not get to the end of the road.  She will not make it home.   The sun has set and the soft light of dusk characterizes the scene. The road symbolises her road of life on which she has made the final journey.  In the sky above her looms the Angel of Death.  He smiles and laughs knowing he is about to harvest yet another soul.

Three Skulls from Convento dei Cappuccini at Palerrmo by Laurits Ring (1894)

Ten years later Laurits Ring focused on another aspect of death following his visit to Sicily in 1894.  The Symbolist painting was entitled Three Skulls from Convento dei Cappucini at Palermo. It is a strange and haunting work based on the catacombs of the Cappuccin monastery in Palermo which has long placed their dead monks in catacombs, where their corpses slowly mummify.

Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo

Laurits Ring depicts just three of over eight thousand bodies there.  Just a point of interest: The last monk was buried in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in 1871. The last non-clergymen that was added to the collection dates from 1920.

Churchyard at Fløng by Laurits Ring

Throughout Laurits Ring’s life he showed great empathy with the poor and their lot in life.  He was one of the most well-known ambassadors of Social Realism in Danish art. Throughout his life he never forgot his humble and impoverished upbringing and his family’s battle to survive and this could be seen in his art.  He was proud to change his surname to the name of his birthplace in the little south Zealand village and it was those surroundings and the people living in the area which became his constantly recurring subject.

Boy with a Crossbow at the Foot of a Hill by Laurits Ring

In Denmark, the term The Modern Breakthrough was given to the period between 1870 and 1890 which marked a period in Danish literature and arts which focused on naturalism and realism and replaced romanticism at the end of the nineteenth century.  Personal poverty, which Ring had witnessed first-hand in his family household, had inspired him to support the constant battle of peasants and workers for social and economic change. Laurits Ring was a champion of the weak and oppressed and, like many young people demanded change and even contemplated the need for a revolution.  In the 1880s, Ring was active in the Rifle Movement, a group that openly advocated  an armed uprising.

Harvest by Laurits Ring (1885)

Laurits never forgot the poverty his family had suffered and his Social Realism paintings confronted the hardship of life for the less well-off such as the peasant farmers.  There was a family connection in his 1885 painting entitled Harvest.    Laurits managed to persuade his elder brother Ole Peter to model for the painting.  We see his brother working on his Zealand farm near the village of Fakse.  The depiction shows endless swathes of wheat fields and Laurits’ brother vigorously swinging the heavy scythe.

The Gleaners by Laurits Ring (1887)

Another of Laurits’ rural depictions, The Gleaners, completed in 1887, is one used by many artists, and depicts the gathering of grain or other produce left behind in a field after harvest.  The best-known version of this subject is probably Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting of the same name.

A young woman with a headscarf around her head (Johanne Wilde). by Laurits Ring (1887)

Laurits Ring had three women who took on a special importance in his life.  The first was his mother, Johanne Andersdatter, with whom he had a special and long-lasting bond.  Around 1887, a second woman came into Laurits’ life.  She was Olga Johanne Albertine Wilde, the wife of the lawyer and amateur painter, Alexander Wilde who had his studio next to that of Laurits’ residence in Frederiksberg, a district of Greater Copenhagen.  She was the mother to two sons and a daughter. With a mutual interest in painting Alexander and Laurits became great friends and Laurits almost became one of the family spending Christmas and the summers with them.   Despite his great friendship with Alexander, Laurits fell in love with his wife, Johanne.  It was a disastrous infatuation and an unrequited love as, despite a passing back and forth between Laurits and Johanne of recurrent intimate letters, she remained faithful to her husband.

Johanne Wilde at the loom in the summer residence, Hornbæk by Laurits Ring (1889.)

Finally, around 1892 Laurits realised that there could be no future with Johanne and he broke this circle of friendship with the Wilde family.  The end of this intimate relationship caused Laurits to experience a period of great depression at his lost love. It was a traumatic time in the life of Laurits Ring.  His father and only brother had died within three years of each other.  He was totally disillusioned with the political struggle to better the living conditions of the poor in urban and rural areas and he was now beginning to doubt his artistic ability.  In fact, he was losing faith in God and the deeper meaning of life at all.  It is thought that but for the fact that his mother was still alive, he may have contemplated suicide as a way out of his depression.  If that was not bad enough, his “friend” Henrik Pontoppidan, in his 1895 novel, Nattevagt (Night Watch), based his character Thorkild Drehling, a painter and failed revolutionary, who was in love with his best friend’s wife, on Laurits Ring.  Ring was horrified at his friend’s betrayal, especially the publicly divulging of Ring’s infatuation with Johanne Wilde.  Their friendship immediately ended.

Things had to change for Laurits, and they did, in the form of the third woman in the life of Laurits Ring.

…………………………………….to be continued.

Léon Frédéric. Part 2. The Symbolist painter

Having looked at his Realism/Naturalism works in my previous blog, in this, the second of my blogs about the nineteenth century Belgian artist, Léon Frédéric, I want to concentrate on his work as a Symbolist painter.

Allegory of the Night by Léon Frédéric

Léon Frédéric has been designated as a Symbolist painter and yet when I look at all his work only some of it seems to fall into that category, whilst other of his paintings tended towards realism, but today it is all about his Symbolist art. I think probably the best way of starting the discussion is to specify what Symbolism means as far as art is concerned. Symbolism was a late nineteenth century anti-materialist and anti-rationalist movement. It was a type of art which rejected the authentic representation of the natural world, as seen in impressionism, realism, and naturalism, which was spurned in favour of imaginary dream worlds in which we may see strange figures from literature, the bible, and Greek mythology. It was art which focused upon the erotic and mystical with diverse subjects such as love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. It was the aim of Symbolist painters to give visual articulation to emotional happenings. Symbolism was an art in which there was an idea that another world lies beyond the world of appearances.

Jean Moréas by Antonio de La Gandara

The Greek-born poet, essayist and art critic, Jean Moréas published The Symbolist Manifesto in the French newspaper Le Figaro on September 18th 1886. It described a new literary movement, and it proclaimed the name of Symbolism as not just the fitting terminology for that movement, but one that echoed how imaginative minds manage the work. It was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites in England and Symbolist art became very popular throughout Europe. The leading protagonists in France were Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes and Odile Redon. In Germany it was the artwork of Franz Stuck and Max Klinger and in Austria at the forefront of Symbolist art was Gustav Klimt and Alfred Kubin and in Frédéric’s homeland Belgium, Fernand Khnopff, James Ensor were the leading exponents of Symbolism art.

Studio Interior by Léon Frédéric (1882)

Frédéric completed his extraordinary symbolist painting, Studio Interior in 1882,  which appears to be a fantasy self-portrait depicting the artist naked with a skeleton on his lap. The latter has been dressed up in undergarments with a long starry veil over them. His palette and brushes are at the lower right, and his clothes – including a top hat – are draped on chairs.

Ohara Museum of Art (Kurashiki, Japan)

Frédéric’s works from the early 1890’s concentrated almost exclusively on symbolist subjects. His artwork was lauded by his fellow Belgian artist, Fernand Khnopff in The Studio, the Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art magazine which was published in London. More of Frédéric’s work was talked about in many foreign journals such as the Austrian Ver Sacrum, the official magazine of the Vienna Secession and it was this wide coverage which brought Frédéric and his art to the fore and became internationally recognised. His work was exhibited in Paris, Venice and Munich. Léon Frédéric’s Symbolist artworks were both large and spectacular. One example of this is in the Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki, Japan.

All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love by Léon Frédéric

It is entitled All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love. It is a massive work of art measuring 161 x 1100cms (5ft 3 x 36 feet). It is a polyptych, a painting which is divided into sections, or panels or to be more precise, a heptaptych (or septych) one which is divided into seven panels. It is incredibly detailed and took Frédéric twenty-five years to complete having started it in 1893, it was not completed until 1918. It is a work of great beauty and its potency is overpowering. The multi-depiction is made up of Biblical tales and it reads from left to right.

The three panels on the left tell how God is angry with how he is unhappy at how mankind has been acting and he is sends down fire and brimstone to punish the people. The end result, as depicted, is that the people were burnt by the fires and crushed into rocks and all eventually die.

In the fourth (middle panel) there is a change of mood and we see a depiction of a white dove, which is a symbol of a messenger from God, arriving on the scene bearing good news, that God forgives and through his love,  humanity will be revived.

The three panels to the right depict the result of his forgiveness. Happy people congregate under a double rainbow. It is an amazing work with countless figures, each with their own expressions. It was obviously a time-consuming project and highlights the love Frédéric had for this work and his Christian beliefs. Take time to study each panel. Look at all the different expressions on the faces of the people. Look at the backgrounds of each panel. It is amazing what you discover.

One sad note with regards the painting is connected with the centre panel. During the time Frédéric was painting this work, World War I had begun in which he lost his daughter Gabrielle. In the foreground of the middle panel there are five young girls wearing floral garlands on their heads. It is believed that the girl in the centre of this group was a portrait of his daughter who died and to the bottom left of the panel (although illegible in this attached picture) Frédéric has written:

“…a nohe bien ainee fille Gabrielle (To my dear daughter, Gabrielle)…”

and he has added his own signature.

So, what does the painting symbolise? It is thought that Frédéric intention was to depict the foolishness of wars and the sorrow it brings, not just to the victims but their loved ones as seen in the left-hand panels. However, he wants there to be some good for those victims including his daughter to revive in the land of God in the right half of the painting.

Self Portrait by Torajiro Kojima

The painting was bought by Torajiro Kojima following his visit to Frédéric’s Studio in 1923. He had originally seen the work at an exhibition in Antwerp. Torajiro was a Japanese artist who followed the traditions of the Impressionists. He studied at the University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, and in 1908 went to Paris to continue his studies. In 1909 he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, where he trained in Luminism. From 1920 onwards, after a decade back in Japan, he travelled to Europe several times at the request of Magosaburo Ohara, his patron and a Japanese businessman and philanthropist who founded the Ōhara Art Museum with the intention of filling it with Western art by Emile Claus, Jean-Joseph Delvin, Monet, Matisse, Albert Marquet and sculptures by Rodin, and many others. The museum, which opened in 1929, was the first one in Japan to house a large collection of modern Western art.  The polyptych painting by Frédéric was Torajiro Kojima’s last purchase in Europe. It is believed that this seven-panel painting became a determining factor for the width of the Ohara Museum of Art during the time of the design phase.

Les âges de l’ouvrier [The Ages of the Worker] by Léon Frédéric

The Musée d’Orsay has, within its collection, a triptych by Lé Frédéric entitled Les âges de l’ouvrier [The Ages of the Worker], which he completed around 1897. It is a painting packed with crowds of people, all of whom are displaying a multitude of dramatic, yet meaningful gestures.

Left-hand panel

The left-hand panel depicts the men engaged in heavy labour. The white-haired man with the white apron is almost kneeling on the floor. Is he collecting rubble as behind him stands a young boy with a wicker basket on his back, possibly waiting to haul away the stones? Look at the men in the background helping each other to carry the large baulks of timber. Does this not remind you of a crucifixion scene with the erection of the crosses in a religious painting?  Is this symbolic of man’s struggle?

Right-hand panel

The right-hand panel in contrast is populated by the women who are nursing their babies. They look very concerned and seem not to be happy with their lot in life. Again, thinking of religious connotations does this depiction remind you of religious depictions of the Virgin and Child ?

Centre panel

In between these two panels is the centre panel which is all about childhood and youth. In the front there is a group of boys playing cards while we observe a parade of youngsters coming out of school or young men leaving their workshops or worksites. Some of the young girls are carrying food whilst others are eating theirs. Look closely at the centre background of this centre panel and you will catch a glimpse of a funeral procession moving away and it is a reminder of the inevitability of death. The movement of the cortege is away from us which is in direct contrast to all the workers and school children that move towards the viewer.

Aurora by Léon Frédéric

Another of Léon Frédéric’s famed Symbolism paintings is entitled Aurora often referred to as ‘L’Aube arrachant les Ténèbres (Dawn tearing away the Darkness) which he completed in the early 1890’s. It is a painting, part Symbolism and part Neo-Classicism. Aurora is the Greek goddess of dawn and she was the sister of the sun-god Helios. Her normal depiction features her scattering flowers from her four-horse chariot but in this depiction by Frédéric we see her almost naked, her body partly covered with a wind-blown diaphanous black veil which covers half her face. She is surrounded by a series of moons, suns and an aureole of stars. We see her materialising from banks of clouds and sunbeams, she stands before us, separating the morning from the night. She is the true goddess of dawn. Frédéric has heightened the atmosphere of his depiction by using lighter, silvery-blue colours to paint a cosmic, supernatural motif. There is no doubt the depiction is both mesmerising and challenging.

Le Ruisseau (The Torrent) by Léon Frédéric

Around the same time that Frédéric completed Aurora he also finished what many consider to be his greatest Symbolist work, the giant triptych entitled Le Ruisseau (The Stream), which he dedicated to Beethoven. It was a controversial painting full of naked children and swans. Observers of the work were either impressed or upset by what they saw. Although painted in a photorealist style the meaning of the work was incomprehensible.

Centre panel (detail) of Le ruisseau (The torrent) by Léon Frédéric

Of all Léon Frédéric’s paintings my favourite is his 1882 triptych entitled The Holy Trinity. The frames of the three paintings are not joined together but the three are looked upon as companion pieces. As I said in the previous blog, in around 1882. Frédéric went to live in the small southern Belgium village of Nafraiture, which was close to the French border and over the next forty years he was to visit the village on numerous occasions and paint portraits of the inhabitants as well as landscapes of the outlying areas.

Holy Trinity Triptych by Léon Frédéric (1882)

Frédéric gave his Holy Family triptych, which he completed in 1882, to the village. One would have thought that the inhabitants of the village would be delighted to have his three paintings displayed in the charming little village church but that was not the case. The paintings were placed out of sight in the church rectory. The reason for the parishoners’ reluctance to openly exhibit the works of art was that the faces depicted in the paintings were that of some of the local people, who were less than pleased with their depictions. However Cardinal Mercier, an admirer of the works of Frédéric, had them removed from the rectory and placed on the interior walls of the church itself. They are now the centrepieces of the church of Nafraiture and are a testament to the artist Léon Frédéric’s love for the village.

The left-hand panel of The Holy Trinity triptych – God the Father

The painting on the left of the trio depicts the omnipotence of God the Father.

The centre panel of the Holy Trinity – Jesus Christ, God the Son

The painting which is positioned in the middle of the triptych is a depiction of God the Son, Jesus Christ. His face is depicted on a white shroud held aloft by two angel-like figures as they walk through a field of flowers. In the background we can see a field being ploughed and to the right we see a procession of people walking along a path, following the angels. Look at the bottom foreground on the right and you will see a pair of snakes

Close-up of Christ’s face

The depiction of Jesus Christ’s face is an amazing work of art which has been brought back to life after seven moths of restoration. It is a face covered in blood from the crown of thorns. The blood runs down the white cloth below the face. The forehead of Christ is wrinkled with pain and his eyes have taken on a blank look due to his intense suffering. It is such a heart-rending depiction.

The Holy Spirit

The final painting which is usually positioned on the right of the trio depicts the Holy Spirit.

In September 2017 the three works were taken down from the walls of the church so that they could be restored. The restoration took seven months to complete. It was a difficult job with the frames having been attacked by vermin and had to be repaired and the canvases re-stretched.

The restorer and the church curator explains what else had to be achieved:

“…We started with a clean-up, and we realized at that point the condition of the varnish, which is not homogeneous. The details and the touch of the artist were no longer so noticeable, because of the yellowing. It was due to the restoration varnish laid about fifty years ago, not to the painting. There were no chemicals used during our restoration…”

The tears

The clarity of the newly restored paintings is quite amazing. Look at the face of the Holy Spirit. Look at the astounding way the artist has depicted the tears. After the restoration, you can see much better the tears that flow from the eyes. The colours are lighter, brighter.

The village church of Nafraiture

The triptych of the Holy Trinity has been exhibited all over the world, but it has always returned home to the village church at Nafraiture.

Léon Frédéric died in the Belgian town of Schaarbeek on January 27th 1940 aged 83.

Elisabeth Chaplin

Elisabeth Chaplin

The artist I am looking at today is the French-born painter, Elisabeth Chaplin. She was born in Fontainebleau, France on October 17th 1890. Her father was William Chaplin and her mother was the eminent sculptor and poet, Marguerite Bavier-Chaufour.

A Song Silenced by Charles Joshua Chaplin
A Song Silenced by Charles Joshua Chaplin

A further artistic connection was that of her uncle, Charles Joshua Chaplin, a French artist and printmaker who was known for his landscapes and portraiture. He worked in many mediums such as watercolours, pastels and oils and was probably best known for his portraits of beautiful young women. He became famous in the Paris of Napoleon III and was admired by  Empress Eugenie for the delicate tones of his paintings. He became a member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, and exhibited his paintings at the Salon de Paris.

Autoritratto contro la finestra di San Domenico by Elisabeth Chaplin (1910)

The family, due to her father’s occupation, moved from France in 1900 and relocated to the Piemonte region of north-western Italy, a region which borders France. A few years later the family was on the move again. This time they went to live in Lagueglia, a coastal town on the Italian Riviera and it was around this time that Elisabeth, now a teenager, began to take an interest in painting and set about teaching herself to paint.

Self portrait in Pink by Elisabeth Chaplin (1921)

The family was soon on the move again and in 1905 finally went to live at Villa Rossi which was in the hills of Fiesole overlooking the Tuscan city of Florence. Living so close to Florence and being interested in painting Elisabeth would spend hours at the Uffizi Gallery copying the paintings of the Grand Masters. Elisabeth received no official training and maintained that the Grand Masters were her tutors and she, their pupil.

Ritratto di Famiglia (Family portrait) by Elisabeth Chaplin (1906)

One of the first paintings she completed was a family portrait in 1906 entitled Ritratto di famiglia in esterno, (Outdoor Family Portrait). She was just sixteen years old and the painting earned her the gold medal from the Florentine Society of Fine Arts. Whilst in Florence, Elisabeth visited the studio of Francesco Giolio’s and met the painter Giovanni Fattori, who was a member of the Macchiaioli, a group of Italian artists who were active in Tuscany in the second half of the nineteenth century. They shied away from the antiquated conventions which were being taught by the Italian art academies. They were lovers of plein air painting so that they were able to capture natural light, shade, and colour. The Macchiaioli are often compared to the French Impressionists, but unlike their French contemporaries they didn’t complete their entire paintings en plein air, but instead would take back to their studios the sketches they had done outdoors and worked them up into a full painting. Elisabeth would have learnt a lot about art from Fattori.

The Garden of Villa Il de Trepiede by Elisabeth Chaplin

In her early twenties, Elisabeth exhibited her work in all the major Italian exhibitions between 1910 and 1914. Her work was shown at the Società delle Belle Arti in 1910, and the Internazionale di Valle Giulia in Rome in 1911. In 1912 her work could be seen at the Promotrice Fiorentina, the Secessione Romana in 1913 and the Venice Biennale in 1914.

Three Sisters by Elisabeth Chaplin (1912)

In 1916 she and her family moved to Rome, and it was here that she was able to immerse herself into the vibrant, international cultural climate and through her artwork was able to build on her reputation as an international painter. It was in the Italian capital that she met Paul-Albert Besnard, a French painter and printmaker who became one of her mentors. After a two year stay in Rome Elisabeth returned to her beloved Villa Il Treppiede.

Two Nudes or Double Self-portrait by Elisabeth Chaplin (1918)

It was around 1918 that Elisabeth Chaplin created what is now looked upon as one of her masterpieces. The painting was entitled Two Nudes or Double Self-portrait, and is one of few works which was not bought by the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti a few years before she died. Elisabeth depicts herself in a dual position, front and back, as she holds onto a red sheet that is tantalisingly falling off her naked body. It is a Symbolist-style work and any likeness to her disappears, giving way to Symbolist features that go beyond a solely naturalistic portrayal. It is a beautiful example of chiaroscuro with the light striking the figure from below. The colour palette she uses is vivid with reds and blues meeting and conflicting. There is a whiff of exoticism about her long, black hair and about the red sheet that looks like a Tahitian wraparound skirt, so much so that the Italian art critic and author of the 1994 book: Elisabeth Chaplin, Giuliano Serafini, stated that it was “an unwitting tribute to Gauguin, which remains one of her most fascinating and emblematic pictures, is the nude conveyed with such fullness of style and truth.” .

Fanciulle in Giallo (Young girls in yellow) by Elisabeth Chaplin (1921)

I think my favourite Elisabeth Chaplin work is one she painted in 1921 when she was living in Paris. Its title is Les Jeunes filles en jaune (Young girls in yellow). The painting depicts them dressed in yellow-coloured clothes and this derives from the many self-portraits Elisabeth did during her childhood.  The two young girls are totally different.  The redheaded girl on the left is seated. Her hair is unfettered. She stares out at us with such intensity. Cradled in her arms is a black cat, a creature that is often looked upon as being enigmatic and yet sometimes malign. The cat is a sacred icon that infuses mystery and thus this young girl represents disorder and turmoil. The other girl with her distant blue eyes is so different. There is an air of calm and graceful tranquillity about her. Her hair is neatly coiffed and she is seen touching a bunch of anemones, the embodiment of innocence. This duality is a connotation of Symbolism and we again see the duality with the reflection of the girl’s hand and the vase on the dark brown table.

Self-portrait with a Green Umbrella by Elisabeth Chaplin (1903)

In 1946, the Uffizi Gallery bought three of her paintings and asked to be given an early self-portrait by her. She agreed and donated her 1903 work entitled Self-portrait with a Green Umbrella and it now hangs in the Vasari Corridor.  The most famous and the most respected collection of self-portraits in the world are to be found in the very long Vasari Corridor of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  (It has been closed for major renovations). The corridor is a long, raised passageway that connects Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria to Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river Arno. The passageway was designed and built in 1564 by Giorgio Vasari and its function was to allow Cosimo de’ Medici and other Florentine elite to walk safely through the city, from the seat of power in Palazzo Vecchio to their private residence, Palazzo Pitti. It is a veritable tribute to art but more especially to those who have created it. Along the walls there are great self-portraits by the Masters, such as Rembrandt, Velazquez, Delacroix and Chagal. The first paintings were bought by the Medici family, and after the collection started, the family began to receive the paintings as donations from the painters themselves. However, what is noticeable about the collection is the small number of self-portraits by female artists. There are some such as Marietta Robusti, the talented daughter of Tintoretto, who died prematurely, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, who immortalized for posterity the image of Maria Antonietta and today’s artist whom I am writing about, Elisabeth Chaplin. One of her very first paintings.

Self-portrait with her mother by Elisabeth Chaplin (1938)

Buoyed by the success of her work, in 1920 she had her paintings exhibited for the first time at that year’s Paris Salon. During the 1920s, she exhibited with Cezanne, Matisse, and Van Gogh and had her work was exhibited twice at Venice Biennale, in 1924 and 1926. Her work received great acclaim at the Salon, so much so that in 1922 she moved to Paris and remained in the French capital until the end of World War II. During her extended stay in Paris she spent time going to the Panthéon and the Hotel de Ville to study the work of the Symbolist painters, such as Puvis de Chavannes. Her acclaimed work brought her many commissions including producing large murals for the churches of Notre-Dame du Salut and Saint Esprit. In 1937 she was awarded the gold medal at the Exposition Internationale and a year later was given the Légion d’Honneur.

Mendiante avec enfant – Misère (Begging with child – Misery) by Elisabeth Chaplin

Elisabeth Chaplin died in Florence in 1982, aged 91. Most of her work including her family portraits, plus some plaster figures created by her poet and sculptor mother, Marguerite de Bavier-Chaffour, were donated to the Pitti Palace and have been on display there since 1974 in a room devoted entirely to her work.  More than six hundred other works are in storage at the Palace.

Hope by George Frederic Watts

Hope by George Frederic Watts (1886)

George Frederic Watts was a Victorian painter and sculptor who was closely associated in his later years with the Symbolism Movement.  Symbolism came about in the 1880’s but by the end of the century it had almost died away having been overshadowed by the birth and rise of Modernism.  The Symbolist movement was a reaction against the literal representation of objects and subjects, where instead there was an attempt to create more suggestive, metaphorical and evocative works.  Symbolic artists based their ideas on literature, where poets such as Baudelaire believed that ideas and emotions could be portrayed through sound and rhythm and not just through the meaning of words. Symbolist painter styles varied greatly but common themes included the mystical and the visionary. Symbolists also explored themes of death, debauchery, perversion and eroticism. Symbolism moved away from the naturalism of the impressionists and demonstrated a preference for emotions over intellect.

George Frederic Watts was born on February 23rd 1817 in Marylebone, London and his Christian names were those of the great musician George Frederic Handel who was born on that date some 132 years earlier.  His mother and father struggled financially and this was not helped by the poor health of his mother who was to die when George was very young.   His father was a piano maker and took it upon himself to educate his son at home.  Much emphasis was placed on a conservative Christian upbringing and a love for classical literature.  Unfortunately, as is so often the case, his father’s compelling desire to force his Christian views on his son, eventually made George turn completely away from organised religions.

At the age of ten, George had some informal tuition from William Behnes, a local sculptor where he practiced drawing from the sculptures.  This training proved a godsend as by the age of sixteen he was able to support himself from the sale of his portraits.  In 1835, aged eighteen years of age, George Watts enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools.  Although Watts never enjoyed his time at the establishment and would often fail to attend he did exhibit some of his works at the 1837 Royal Academy Exhibition.  It was whilst studying art that he met and became great friends with Alexander Constantine Ionides, an art patron and collector.  Ionides commissioned many paintings from Watts and became one of his earliest patrons.

By 1840 Watts had moved away from portraiture and concentrated on historical paintings.  In 1843, he entered the first competition to design murals for the new Houses of Parliament.  Entries were to be of a narrative genre which endorsed patriotism and thus would be appropriate to the new legislative building.   His entry, Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome, gained him first prize in the competition and the prize money helped fund his artistic study trip to Italy where he remained for four years.  During his stay in Italy he learnt the secrets of fresco painting and completed many large scale paintings depicting scenes from Romantic literature.  However, he never gave up on his other artistic loves, portraiture and landscape painting.

Watts returned to London in 1847 and once again entered the Houses of Parliament competition.  This was the fourth one organised by the monarch and the government.  Watts won the competition with his entry Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Encounter the Danes at Sea.   Watts suffered from bouts of depression and he expressed his personal struggle with the illness in a series of four paintings which evoked a social realism theme.  One of these works entitled Found Drowned was my featured painting in My Daily Art Display of July 4th 2011.  In 1851 he went to live with his friend Henry Thoby Prinsep and his wife Sara at Little Holland House.  He lived with them for the next twenty-four years and it undoubtedly provided Watts with a secure environment for him to work and relax and provide a safe haven away from the rigours of the real world.  Little Holland House was a favourite meeting place of the young Pre-Raphaelite artists and literary people like Tennyson and it gave Watts then ideal opportunity to paint portraits of the aspiring literary and artistic luminaries of the day.

In 1878 Watts took part in the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris and submitted nine paintings and one sculpture.  He became an instantaneous celebrity on the European art scene.  During the 1880’s,  he produced many symbolic paintings which displayed close links to the work of his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the other Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones.

In 1886 at the age of 69 Watts re-married, to Mary Fraser-Tytler, a Scottish designer and potter who was some thirty three years his junior.   In 1891 he bought a house in Compton, near Guilford, in Surrey and in 1904 had a gallery built nearby which became known as the Watts Gallery and which was dedicated to his work.  The Watts Gallery is still a very popular venue for art lovers. George Frederic Watts died that year aged 87, shortly after the gallery opening.

Hope is looked upon as certainly the most influential, and outstanding if not most unusual of all George Frederic Watts’ paintings. This portrayal of the poignant musician has struck a chord with audiences and critics ever since it was first displayed at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886.  In 1887 at the Royal Jubilee exhibition held in Manchester the painting took pride of place in the middle of an entire wall dedicated to Watts’ work.  Numerous reproductions were made of this painting and many who saw it were deeply affected by what they saw and Watts received many letters from people who were greatly moved by the emotional impact it had on them. In the painting Watts has personified Hope as a young woman seated on a globe, hunched over, appearing to be almost asleep.  She wears a blindfold which symbolises her blindness and to the mental state she embodies. What was it about this work that such an effect on people?  It has to be Watts’ portrayal of this hunched, isolated, blindfolded and barefoot woman who appears to be on the edge of despair.  So why the title Hope?   Maybe in this case it is not hope meaning one’s optimistic thoughts but more of a feeling of almost despair; a hoping against hope.   As we take in the picture of the girl bent over listening to the music from her lyre we wonder why Watts has chosen the title.  The bluish grey background induces a melancholy mood. One critic commented that the painting did not evoke a feeling of hope and should have been entitled Despair.  Maybe that was the reason that in another version of his painting he has added a single star to the background to symbolise hope.  The girl, Hope, bends her ear to catch the music from the last remaining string of her almost shattered lyre. It is the faintest of hope as symbolised in her musical instrument which now with just one string left for her to make music and once that has broken, all hope of her producing a musical sound has disappeared.

Did the painting appeal to those who had almost lost hope themselves and in some way empathised with the vulnerability of the woman in the painting?  Watts had always sought, through his paintings, to communicate his message to as many people as possible. Some would criticise this aspect as being somewhat patronizing but Watts was a great master of narrative paintings and this was probably the reason why his conventional patriotic works he put forward for the Houses of Parliament were so successful.  Watts was surprised by the critical acclaim and popularity of his painting and attempted to follow up his success with Hope with two other works entitled, Faith and Charity, the other two “theological virtues” but they neither received the critical acclaim that his Hope painting achieved nor were they as popular with the public.

This version of the painting can be found in the Tate Gallery, London.