Hendrick Willem Mesdag. Part 1 – The early years, family and influences

Hendrik Willem Mesdag
Hendrik Willem Mesdag

If you are a young aspiring artist I wonder what your dreams are.  You obviously hope that your painterly skills will improve over the following years.  Maybe you dream that your love of painting could become your main livelihood but for that to happen maybe it needs some sort of financial breakthrough.  Perhaps you hope that one day you could also afford to build up a collection of paintings created by well-known artists and that your collection grows to such an extent that you house them in your own museum.   An impossible dream?  The artist I am looking at today achieved all this, so sometimes what you wish for does come true.

Hendrik Mesdag at work in his studio
Hendrik Mesdag at work in his studio

Hendrik Willem Mesdag was born in Groningen on February 23rd 1831.  His father Klaas, who originally was a grain merchant, later became a very successful stockbroker and banker, and was also active in politics, but maybe more importantly, for the future path of his sons Hendrick and Taco, he was an art collector, amateur painter and draughtsman.   Hendrick’s mother was Johanna Wilhelmina van Giffen, who came from a wealthy family of silversmiths.  Sadly, she died at the age of 35, when Hendrik was just four years old.  Hendrik had an elder brother Taco who was born in 1829, a younger brother Gilles, born in 1832 and a sister, Ellegonda, who was born in 1827.  His cousin was the renowned painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the two men and their wives would remain friends throughout their lives.  As schoolchildren, both Hendrick and his older brother Taco showed and early artistic talent and their father decided to send them for some artistic training.  They both received drawing lessons from the Dutch painter, Cornelis Bernardus Buys who had also tutored Jozef Israels and later received drawing tuition from the Dutch painter and photographer, Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger.  However, for Hendrik, once he left school at the age of nineteen, art became just an enjoyable pastime, as he believed that his future, like that of his father, lay in banking.  Hendrik Mesdag joined his father’s bank where he remained for the next sixteen years.

Hendrik and Sientja (1906)
Hendrik and Sientja (1906)

On April 23rd 1856, when Hendrik was twenty-five years old, he married Sina (often known as Sientja) van Houten, who was three years his junior.  Her father, Derk van Houten, was a wealthy timber merchant who owned a large sawmill just outside Groningen.  She was the eldest of seven children brought up by a wealthy family, and she, like her husband, would become a painter later in life.  Hendrik’s love of art during his days as a banker did not diminish, in fact in August 1861 he enrolled as a pupil at the Academie Minerva, a Dutch art school based in Groningen.  On September 25th 1863 Sientje gave birth to their son Nicolaas, who was called Klaas.

In 1864, a year after she gave birth to her son, her father died and left her an inheritance which she finally received in 1866, the size of which was enough to allow her husband Hendrik to give up his job in his father’s bank and concentrate on his painting. You may wonder what Hendrik’s father thought of his son’s decision to quit the world of banking and take up a more hazardous life as an artist.  Maybe that can be answered by a passage in a letter he wrote to his son on October 9th 1868:

“…Keep up the good work and fulfil if possible my hope that you will someday become a true artist…”

In the Spring of 1866, Hendrik wrote to his cousin Laurence Tadema-Alma asking for some help with his desire to become a professional artist:

“…‘I’m 35 years old. I’ve a wife and child. I’ve been trained for business, but am not cut out for it. I’m a painter; help me…”

Tadema-Alma arranged a tutor for Mesdag.  He was Willem Roelofs, the Dutch painter, water-colourist, etcher, lithographer, and draughtsman and was one of the forerunners of the Dutch Revival art and one of the founders of the art society known as The Hague Pulchri Studio.  Roelofs agreed to train Mesdag but he didn’t come cheaply.  Roelofs wrote of his tuition agreement saying:

“…‘In the autumn (September) I’m expecting a new pupil, a cousin of Tadema, Mr Mesdag from Groningen. The 1,200 francs His Honour gives me is nothing to sniff…”

 

Roelofs wrote from Brussels to Mesdag on May 27th 1866 to tell him he looked forward to tutoring him:

“…As I’ve already told Alma-Tadema, nothing would give me greater pleasure than helping you with your study of landscape, and I hope to be able to stimulate you to make progress in our art…”

Woodcutters by Hendrik Mesdag (c.1866)
Woodcutters by Hendrik Mesdag (c.1866)

Before starting his tuition, Hendrik Mesdag took his wife Sientja on a short break to Oosterbeek, a small village on the outskirts of Veluwe in eastern Netherlands which was famed for its beautiful landscapes. At that time, Oosterbeek was the site of one of the first Dutch artist’s colonies. The artists there were followers of the French Barbizon naturalist tradition, and it attracted painters, such as landscape painter Johannes Warnardus Bilders, who was one of the the first to settle there and they were inspired by the open air and were able to capture the fluctuations of light. Bilders soon became an inspiration to many other painters who flocked to the region.  This would have been an ideal place for Mesdag to practice his en plein air painting.  Mesdag wrote Roelofs in May 1866, to tell him about his Oosterbeek plans.  Roelofs heartily approved of Mesdag’s plan to spend the summer making sketches directly from nature, and replied to his letter:

“…since, if you were here, I could advise you to do nothing better…”

After his summer sojourn in Oosterbeek, Mesdag and his wife and child move to Brussels in September 1866 where he began his three-year studies under Roelofs.

We know a little of the initial training and advice Mesdag was given by Roelofs as in the 1996 edition of the Van Gogh Museum Journal there is a quote from the van Houten archives of the dbnl (digitale bibliotheek de Nederlandse lettern) in which Roelofs advice to Mesdag is quoted:

“…Try and rid yourself of all so-called manner and, in a word, try and imitate nature with feeling, but without thinking about others’ work. Paint studies of parts, a bit of land for instance, a stand of trees or something of the kind, but always in such a way that it can be grasped in connection with the entire landscape […]. – These studies [are] in order to become acquainted with nature bit by bit. – Further studies of a whole, preferably very simple subjects. – A meadow with the horizon and a bit of sky […]. Paint all these studies not so you can bring home something beautiful […] but for yourself…”

Interior with Staircase by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)
Interior with Staircase by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)

Willem Roelofs was a great follower of the Barbizon School and the Barbizon artists whose paintings faithfully reproduced nature in their depictions.  Roelofs wanted Mesdag to go away and paint depictions of his own surroundings.  There was nothing to be fanciful about the depictions.  Roelof just wanted Mesdag to paint realistic depictions of his everyday life and what was happening around him.  One example was his 1868 painting Interior with Staircase.

Interior with Wife and Child by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)
Interior with Wife and Child by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)

Another early work by Mesdag was entitled Interior with Wife and Child which was also completed in 1868.

Fate again played a hand in the course of the artistic life of Mesdag for in the summer of 1868 he and his family went to Norderney for a holiday.  Norderney is one of the German East Frisian islands off the North Sea coast.  For Mesdag it was a veritable epiphany, for it was here that Mesdag discovered his love of the sea and seascapes and when he returned to Brussels he began to collect paintings which depicted the sea and it was from this time that he decided that he wanted to become a seascape artist. Mesdag became fascinated by the sea itself.  He was enthralled by the constantly changing shape of the waves and his sketches of the sea were testament to the realism of his art.  He constantly strived to improve his depictions of the sea and the waves and how they were constantly changing and in an interview for the De Nieuwste Courant in March 1901 he was quoted as saying:

“…at home I had spent an entire winter fumbling at a work; it was a coastline, but very naively painted. Then I said to myself: “You have to have the sea in front of you, everyday, to live with it, otherwise all this will come to nothing…”

Near the Lighthouse by Hendrik Mesdag (1873)
Near the Lighthouse by Hendrik Mesdag (1873)

It was probably then that he knew that he had to live by the sea.  Mesdag completed his three-year study course with Roelofs in Brussels in 1869 and the family moved to The Hague where he knew that there would be an abundance of sea views at the nearby coastal village of Scheveningen.  Hendrik also gained admission to The Hague’s Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society.   The society had been formed in 1847 because of mounting dissatisfaction among the young artists in The Hague who complained about there being little or no opportunities for training in art and developing their artistic skills and so the Pulchri Studio was established.  It was also to be an artistic talking-shop where artists could exchange views and ideas.

Mesdag had completed some seascapes but felt they were not good enough to exhibit and so spent hour after hour trying to perfect his depiction of the sea and elements of landscape paintings.  In another letter, dated June 1869, to his friend Verwée he talked about the pleasure it had brought him to be near to the coast, despite the sometime inclement weather:

“…Nature is so beautiful here, but the weather has been awful so far…”

Les Brisant de la Mer du Nord by Hendrick Mesdag (1870)
Les Brisant de la Mer du Nord by Hendrick Mesdag (1870)

For an aspiring artist, the one thing which would enhance their reputation was to have one of their paintings exhibited at the Paris Salon.  Mesdag failed to get any work exhibited at the 1869 Salon and so was very hesitant in deciding to try again the following year. It was only in March 1870 that he made up his mind to exhibit two paintings, one of which was to be ‘la grande marine’ entitled Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord and the other was Journée d’hiver à Schéveningue.   He sent both entries to the Paris Salon via Brussels, where his friend, Verwée saw them at a local art dealer’s gallery.   Verwée was unconvinced by the Journée d’hiver à Schéveningue, but thought the large seascape, Les Brisant, was excellent and this approbation pleased Mesdag.

Mesdag not only had his two paintings accepted but, to the surprise of many, was later awarded the gold medla for Les Brisant. The painting marked the start of Hendrik’s illustrious career as a seascape painter and this work is now considered as the first masterworks of The Hague School.  Mesdag started on this beautiful work in November 1869 as he mentioned in a letter to his good friend Alfred Jacques Verwée, a Belgian painter who was known for his depictions of animals, landscapes, and seascapes.  In the letter, dated November 15th 1869, Hendrik wrote to Verwée, as quoted in the 1989 book by Johan Poort, Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915): Oeuvrecatalogus:

“…Impressed by one of those bad days, I have painted over that large marine painting you saw. It is now much improved…”

Hotel Rauch
Hotel Rauch on Scheveningen beach front

The inspiration for this work was the North Sea at Scheveningen which was a short distance from The Hague where he lived.  So that he could spend an unlimited time at the coast, he rented a room in the Villa Elba which had a view of the sea.  Later he would move to the Hotel Rauch, located at the Scheveningen beach. Until his death in 1915, Mesdag visited the sea frequently to seek inspiration for his paintings. From his room he could observe the sea in every weather condition.

Les Brisant is a painting with a broad format, measuring 90cms x 181cms.  It is painted from a low point of view as if the artist sat or stood on the beach at the waterline with their brushes and easel, albeit we see nothing of the shore and yet through the change in tone of the colour we can see the change in depth of the water.   This low vista causes the horizon we see depicted just below the vertical centre of the work.  The one thing these two aspects achieve is it allowed Mesdag to ensure that the breakers fully stood out in this seascape. In the midground, just below the horizon we see the crest of the waves being caught by the wind.  We can tell that the depiction is during a period of adverse weather as the sky is both grey and stormy.  There are no humans in the depiction and yet if we look closely at the central foreground we see a piece of driftwood being battered towards the shore by the ferocity of the sea.  Look also to the central horizon and we can just make out a small ship battling the seas and struggling to survive.  These two elements bring home the ferocity of nature and the brutal nature of the sea that claimed so many of the lives of the fishermen of Scheveningen.

The Wave by Gustave Courbet (1869)
The Stormy Sea (The Wave) by Gustave Courbet (1869)

One knows that Mesdag was seduced by the view of the sea but what made him choose this motif for his painting?  Some believe that he was aware of the painting, The Stormy Sea (The Wave) by Gustave Courbet which the French painter completed whilst staying at Etreat and which he submitted to the Salon in September 1869 and received rave reviews around the world and maybe Mesdag realised that concentrating on the waves and sea would bring him similar acclaim, which we know was correct, as his submission gained a medal at the Salon.

In my next blog I will be looking at more of Hendrik Mesdag’s seascape works often featuring Scheveningen and their fishing folk.  It was this genre that Mesdag was mainly known for.   I will also look at the paintings done by his wife Sientje and look at the amazing and spectacular Scheveningen Panorama which Mesdag, with the help of his wife and a few friends completed and which measures an incredible 14 metres x 114 metres !!!!!

Sir George Clausen. Part 2 – More rural works and the War artist

Sir George Clausen       1852 - 1944
Sir George Clausen
1852 – 1944

In this concluding part looking at the life and works of George Clausen, later Sir George Clausen, I will focus on his love of depicting workers labouring in the fields in a genre of art which was often referred to as rustic naturalism and have a look at a couple of works he completed whilst he was employed as a war artist.

Agnes Mary Webster by George Clausen (1882)
Agnes Mary Webster by George Clausen (1882)

In 1881 George Clausen married Agnes Mary Webster of Kings Lynn and they went on to have three sons and a daughter.  Clausen had met her brother, Alfred, at South Kensington Art School where he was also studying art.  The following year Clausen painted his wife’s portrait.

Henry La Thangue, an English landscape painter, who had visited Brittany to paint and was a friend of Stanhope Forbes, another landscape artist, persuaded Clausen to take a trip there to discover the countryside and light the French area had to offer.  And so, in 1882, Clausen sett off for Brittany with his wife and visited the artist colony at Quimperlé, a small town, fifteen kilometres east of the other popular haven for artist, Pont Aven.   Here they met up with the Dublin-born artist, Stanhope Forbes who, two years later, moved to Newlyn in Cornwall and became a leading figure in that growing colony of artists.  Stanhope Forbes was excited that Clausen was to join him at Quimperlé writing to his mother in September 1882:

“…Thangue tells me he is sending G.Clausen the painter and his wife.  Very glad as he is a really good painter in fact belongs to the sacred band whom even I admire…”

 It was whilst here that Clausen produced a number of wonderful paintings depicting local peasant farm workers and their families.

Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé by George Clausen (1882)
Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé by George Clausen (1882)

One such work was entitled Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé which he completed in 1882.  This is a portrait of a young girl seen standing in a field, hand on hip, holding an earthenware pot.  She is dressed in a peasant costume, the quality of which indicates that she is from a family of limited means.  She is surrounded by tall spherical flowering onion plants. It is interesting to look closely at the way Clausen has depicted the pose of the young girl.   This is not the pose of a professional model.  This is a peasant girl displaying the uncomfortable pose of a young child, which makes the image of her appear so realistic.  There is no harshness about the way Clausen has depicted her facial expression.  It is a face that exudes gentleness.  What must be going through the child’s mind as she poses for this foreigner, the artist?

The Return to the Fields by George Clausen (1882)
The Return to the Fields by George Clausen (1882)

The next featured work of Clausen is a small watercolour (35 x 26 cms) which he again completed in 1882.   The painting, entitled The Return from the Fields depicts two young workers carrying bundles of brushwood which had been obtained by thinning out the copses.  This brushwood was used for hedging, or as beating implements used for fire fighting or sometimes used to construct sheep hurdles.  That year, the painting was exhibited at Institute of Painters in Watercolours, in London, under the title of Boy and Man and the art reviewer of the Magazine of Art commented favourably on the work:

“… the most artistic work on the walls……a small drawing, but it is so strong, and at the same time so tender and full of feeling, that it arrests attention more powerfully than the other pictures together.  It is evidently inspired by Millet…….he has struck the right road…”

Head of a Peasant Woman by George Clausen (1882)
Head of a Peasant Woman by George Clausen (1882)

Clausen painted two close-up portraits of peasant labourers.  The first was entitled Head of a Peasant Woman which he completed in 1882.   This is a wonderful portrait.  It is a triumph of realism as Clausen has depicted the woman, “warts and all”.  We see her weather beaten face caused by the many days and weeks of working the fields and her wrinkled bow is testament that she has endured a hard and worrisome life.  She doesn’t look directly at us as she rests her hands on a long stick.  The ring on her wedding finger glints in the sunlight.

Labourers after Dinner by George Clausen (c.1882)
Labourers after Dinner by George Clausen (c.1882)

The second portrait was an oil and canvas study of a young boy who was to figure in a work entitled Labourers after Dinner.  This painting is held in a private collection in Australia and I have not been able to find a colour copy of it so have just scanned a black and white version which I found in a magazine.   The painting was the first indication that Clausen was moving away from the emotional depiction of peasant pictures which had been popularised in England and France by Jules Bastien-Lepage.  Clausen veered towards more naturalistic, if brutal, genre subjects. This work was one of the most studied of Clausen’s early compositions.   It is a depiction of a boy sitting between his mother and father who were taking a rest from their work in the fields.  The controversial Irish novelist and art critic, George Moore, on seeing the painting, wrote scathingly about the group depicted in the painting in his 1893 book entitled Modern Painting. In it he commented on the depiction of the boy’s mother and father:

“…the middle aged man and woman who live in mute stupidity – they have known nothing but the daily hardship of living and the vacuous face of their son tells how completely the life of his forefathers has descended upon him…”

Head of a Peasant Boy by George Clausen (1884)
Head of a Peasant Boy by George Clausen (1884)

A “vacuous face” wrote Moore.  I will let you decide as the oil sketch Clausen made prior to the large scale painting, entitled Head of a Peasant Boy is awash with detail.  George Moore was not a lover of realism in art as in the same book he condemned it saying:

“…Realism, that is to say the desire to compete with nature, to be nature, is the disease from which art has suffered most in the last twenty years.  The disease is now at wane, and when we happen upon a canvas of the period like Labourers after Dinner, we cry out, ‘What madness! Were we ever as mad as that?”…”

Harsh words indeed and yet I like this painting.

The Shepherdess by George Clausen (1885)
The Shepherdess by George Clausen (1885)

Clausen was a founder member of the New English Art Club (NEAC) of London which was set up in 1885 in competition with the Royal Academy.  It was a club which attracted many young inspiring artists who were returning to England after their artistic studies in Paris.  One of Clausen’s first paintings to be exhibited at an NEAC exhibition was The Shepherdess which he completed in the Spring of 1885 and which is now art of the National Museums, Liverpool collection.   Clausen had sold the painting to John Maddocks an artist and art collector, and borrowed it back to show at the exhibition.  The orchard in which the young girl stands was to feature in a number of Clausen’s works.  In 1891, the art critic of The Magazine of Art, Butler Wood, commented on the work:

“…admirable specimen of Mr Clausen’s best manner, and displays feeling and atmosphere.  His colour scheme is simple, yet satisfactory and skilfully elaborated.  The girl’s figure is modelled with almost sculpturesque strength and the face painted with that ruddy glow of health which he is so clever at rendering…”

In 1891 Clausen moved from the Berkshire village of Cookham Dean and went to live in Widdington, a small picturesque village in the county of Essex.  He had been exhibiting most of his works at the New Gallery and the NEAC but as his paintings became larger in size they were not easily accommodated at these venues and so he had to once again look at exhibiting his larger works at the Royal Academy in London.  Clausen had fallen out with the Royal Academy years earlier over their teaching methods and their strict and antiquated rules but now, with an ever expanding family, he needed the support of the Academy if he was to sell his larger works.  In 1895, Clausen was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.  The art world noted his election to an establishment he had once roundly criticised but many saw Clausen as an excellent addition to the RA.  The scholar and prolific art critic of the time, often referred to as “one of the most powerful figures in the late Victorian art world”, Marion Spielmann, wrote about Clausen’s appointment in the February 1895 edition of weekly illustrated newspaper, The Graphic:

“…Mr Clausen was…… a signatory of the open letter which years ago set fire to the inflammable material which we young hot-bloods had….pile up  against the door of the Academy…. much amelioration has been brought since then;  the girls may now study from the semi-nude; then standard of probationership has been raised….”

Clausen now worked within the Academy system, a system which he had once heavily criticised.   He gave up his time, a couple of months each year, to teach students at the Royal Academy Life School Between 1904 and 1906 and in that year he became Professor of Painting at the Academy and, because of the large number of students who attended his lectures, was regarded as one of the most popular professors since Joshua Reynolds.

Bird Scaring by George Clausen (1896)
Bird Scaring by George Clausen (1896)

One of the works Clausen completed in 1896 was entitled Bird Scaring: March, and which is housed in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.  In Victorian days bird scarers were employed by farmers to act as human scarecrows. Their task was simple; they just had to position themselves in the farmer’s field and scare off the birds which swoop down to eat the farmer’s crops.  This onerous job was for very young children who had to be working in the fields, dawn to dusk, no matter what the weather was like.  In the painting we can see the young boy who, despite the cold weather, wears only sack-cloth.  A small fire has been lit on the ground to keep him warm.  The blue/grey smoke from the fire wafts behind him giving us the sense that it is not only cold but also windy.  He is energetically swinging around, holding a wooden clapper in his right hand which made sufficient noise to deter birds from landing nearby.

Youth Mourning by George Clausen (1916)
Youth Mourning by George Clausen (1916)

For my next two featured works by Clausen you will notice a complete change of style.  The first one was completed in 1916 and entitled Youth Mourning.  The work you see is not the original version but one altered on the request of the purchaser.  Clausen, who was sixty-four when he painted this work was too old for military service in the First World War, however he was not untouched by the many tragedies of the Great War for his son-in-law, the husband of his daughter Kitty, was killed in battle in 1915 and it was that sad event which moved him to paint this work.  It was his personal expression of grief for the thousands who perished during the conflict.  This was an artistic departure of his favoured rustic naturalism style and more towards the French Symbolist genre.

In the original work there were three white crosses in the ground just behind the female and further in the background many more white crosses could be seen.  When the owner of the work, a Mr C.N.Luxmoore, who bought this and many other paintings from Clausen presented it to the Nation in 1929 the crosses had been painted out just leaving a barren shell-holed hillside.  We have no definitive reason why the owner got Clausen to re-paint part of the work.   The resulting work has a powerful symbolic aura of anguish and sorrow captured by the nude female figure hunched over in the foetal position.  The finality of death is depicted by the barrenness of the landscape where nothing lives.

In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918 by George Clausen (1918)
In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918 by George Clausen (1918)

George Clausen was later appointed an official war artist and took part in the ambitious British War Memorials Committee art scheme in 1918. He produced a large 183 x 318cms oil on canvas work in 1918 entitled In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918.  This urban scene once again is huge shift away from rustic idylls of the countryside we saw in his earlier works.  The painting was a commission Clausen received from The Ministry of Information who said they wanted a “Uccello” sized work of art which would be exhibited in the Hall of Remembrance.  Clausen visited the gun factory on a number of occasions and had originally intended that the painting would be in an upright format but eventually realised that it had to be of a horizontal format.  The work was finally completed in December 1918 and was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition of 1919-20.  Critics believed it was one of the best works on display.  In 1926, due to his successful war commission he was commissioned to paint murals, notably Wycliffe’s English Bible for the Houses of Parliament and on completion of this task he was knighted.  He continued to regularly exhibit work at the Royal Academy during the 1930’s.

My Back Garden by George Clausen (1940)
My Back Garden by George Clausen (1940)

One of last paintings by Sir George Clausen was one he completed in 1940 entitled My Back Garden.  It was a depiction of the back garden of his house at 61 Carlton Hill, London.  He was eighty-eight years of age when he painted this picture.  It was almost a farewell painting as a year later; he had left his beloved house and garden because of the almost continuous bombing of London by the Nazis.  He decided that he and his wife should move to Cold Ash, a Berkshire village some two miles from the town of Newbury and seventy miles west of London.  Clausen continued to sketch and complete watercolours which he sent off for inclusion in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions of 1942 and 1943.   Clausen’s wife’s health had deteriorated in 1939 and she remained poorly until her death in March 1944.  Sir George Clausen died eight months later in November 1944, aged 92.   In June 1944, just five months before Clausen’s death, he was approached by Kenneth Clark, the Director of the National Gallery, proposing a retrospective exhibition of his work at the National Gallery.  Clausen was delighted with the proposal and wrote back to Clark:

“… I think such an exhibition as you suggest would be more appropriate when I am dead and indifferent to praise or censure !   However I will help you all I can…”

Sadly the exhibition never took place.

C R W Nevinson. Part 2 New York

Portrait of C R W Nevinson by  Ronald Ossory Dunlop
Portrait of C R W Nevinson by Ronald Ossory Dunlop

In my last blog I looked at the early life of Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson and featured some of his paintings which depicted the horrors of the First World War.  Today I want to conclude his life story and look at some of his other works of art which had nothing to do with war but which I find have their own beauty.

Nevinson had been taken ill in 1912 and was moved to Buxton to convalesce and it was whilst partaking of the healing waters at the Hydro that he met Kathleen Knowlman who had accompanied her father to the health resort.  With the outbreak of war in 1914, Nevinson, being a conscientious objector, had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in November 1915.  It was in this capacity that he had helped tend the wounded who had been brought home from the Front.  He was stationed at the Third General Hospital in London but was always aware that soon he would be called to leave the relative safety of England and travel to France.  Fully realising his possible death at the Front he decided that he should be married before he met his fate !  On November 1st 1915 he married Kathleen Knowlman.  It turned out that he was never sent to the front as he was invalided out of the army following bouts of pericarditis and rheumatic fever which he contracted in January 1916 which left him crippled and for a time he began to think he would never walk again.  He recalled the time in his 1935 autobiography, Paint and Prejudice:

“…I was now crippled completely. I began to think I should never walk again. Everything was tried on me while I lay helpless on my bed…”

Temples of New York by C R W Nevinson (1919) Drypoint. Trinity Church facade from the back, which faces Wall Street
Temples of New York by C R W Nevinson (1919)
Drypoint. Trinity Church facade from the back, which faces Wall Street

With the ending of the First World War in 1918, the public’s desire for his war paintings and their harrowing depictions of the suffering of the troops waned. Maybe people just wanted to forget about the previous four years and did not want to be reminded of the brutality of war.   For Nevinson, his favoured and once much appreciated subject matter had dried up and he had to make a decision as what to do next.   Paul Nash, a contemporary of Nevinson and also a war artist, summed up the war artists’ dilemma when he talked about the ‘struggles of a war artist without a war’.   At the end of the war, Nevinson went to Paris looking for new inspiration but soon tired of the French capital, a place he had visited as a child with his mother.  In the spring of 1919, he decided to visit America and in particular New York.  He had received an invitation from David Keppel to visit the American city to stage an exhibition of his War prints.  David Keppel who with his father, Frederick Keppel, were print publishers and owned a four-storey gallery on 4 East 39th Street in Manhattan.  They had exhibited many of Nevinson’s war prints which proved very popular with the American public.

Nevinson was made very welcome on his arrival and according to David Boyd Haycock in his 2009 book about the artist, A Crisis of Brilliance, relates how Nevinson was welcomed as a ‘war hero and victimised genius of modern European art, come to discover the USA and reveal it to itself ‘   Nevinson, on his arrival in New York, was taken aback by the city’s architecture, so much so when questioned by a local journalist of how he liked the city he commented that he loved the buildings so much he believed the city had been built for him.  Nevinson would roam around the city constantly sketching and after a month long stay in America, he returned to London and converted his sketches into paintings.   On his return to London he was to receive sad family news.  Whilst he was in America his wife had given birth to a son, Anthony Christopher Wynne on 21st May 1919. His mother, Margaret, recorded that the child only lived for fifteen days, which, as she put it, had been “just enough time to get fond of him.”   Nevinson later wrote in his autobiography:

“…On my arrival in London I was met by my mother, who told me my son was dead…”

 And he later added in a somewhat morbid fashion:

“…I am glad I have not been responsible for bringing any human life into this world…”

The Soul of the Soulless City (New York - an Abstraction) by C R W Nevinson (1920)
The Soul of the Soulless City (New York – an Abstraction) by C R W Nevinson (1920)

One of Nevinson’s depictions of  New York, which he completed back in London in 1920 before he returned to America that October to set up his second exhibition of work at Frederick Keppel & Co, New York gallery, was entitled The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’).  The painting depicts an idealised view of a section of the elevated railway which ran through Manhattan. It was an unusual work with a narrow chromatic range reliant mainly on shades of greys and browns with just merest hint of blue for the skies between the tops of the skyscrapers.  The way he has depicted the skyscrapers with their complex faceting harks back to Picasso and Braque’s cubism of a decade earlier.  There is something very powerful and impressive about the way Nevinson has depicted the railway line receding dramatically into a cluster skyscraper blocks.  There is a sense of speed about the disappearing railway track.  Nevinson, was associated with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti  and his concept of futurism, who wanted  to revolutionize culture including art and make it more modern. The new ideology of Futurism was an art form which stressed modernity, and the virtues of technology, machinery, and speed and we can see in this work that Nevinson was a great believer of the ideals of futurism.

When the work was first exhibited at the Bourgeois Galleries in New York it was entitled New York – an Abstraction.  It was not received well.  According to David Cohen in his 1999 The Rising City Urban Themes in the Art and Writings of C.R.W.Nevinson’, C.R.W.Nevinson The Twentieth Century, one critic went as far as to dub the painting  “inhuman, metallic and hard”.  Later when he exhibited the work in London in 1925 at the Faculty of Arts Exhibition, Grosvenor House, London, it was given the title of The Soul of the Soulless City and this change was almost certainly made by Nevinson himself and although it has been likened to Karl Marx’s comment on religion being the “heart of the heartless world”, it could also be because Nevinson had fallen out of love with the American city.

New York, Night by C R W Nevinson (c.1920)
New York, Night by C R W Nevinson (c.1920)

Another work by Nevinson with New York as its subject is New York, Night which he completed somewhere between 1919 and 1920.  This work which was completed around the same time as the previous work and was painted at the time when Nevinson was still in love with New York.   There can be no doubt about his initial love affair with New York for Nevinson was quoted by David Cohen in his 1999 book, C.R.W. Nevinson, The Twentieth Century:

 “…New York, being the Venice of this epoch, has triumphed, thanks to its engineers and architects, as successfully as the Venetians did in their time..Where the Venetian drove stakes into his sandbanks to overcome nature, the American has pegged his city to the sky. No sight can be more exhilarating and beautiful than this triumph of man…”

 The painting depicts the busy harbour of New York at night.  It is a view I have witnessed many times from the bridge of a ship as the city’s skyscrapers loom large ahead as we enter the port.   In the painting we see the giant buildings through the smoke and steam emanating from the funnels of the small tugs and ferries which ply their way up and down the Hudson River.  It is a mystical and atmospheric scene.  It is a scene depicting industry.  This is a scene of modernity, loved by the futurists.  In the foreground we see jibs of cranes busily working on the loading and unloading of cargo vessels berthed at Brooklyn, across the river from Manhattan.

Looking through Brooklyn Bridge by C R W Nevinson (1920)
Looking through Brooklyn Bridge by C R W Nevinson (1920)

Nevinson built up a collection of prints of Manhattan, another of which is the drypoint print entitled Looking through Brooklyn Bridge.  This work and another entitled Under Brooklyn Bridge are housed in the British Museum and were part of a set of ten drypoints of the city of New York which were commissioned by Frederick Keppel.  Whenever I visit New York I always take time to walk across this bridge and never fail to be enthralled by the views on offer when crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  What first strikes you about this work is how the bridge is the central “character” as it dwarfs the people we see walking across it.  In the background, through the mist, we see the colossal skyscrapers of Manhattan looming before us.  In the evening light they lack colour and are just presented as grey giants.  It is a cold depiction.  There is no warmth about it.  It is an inhospitable scene and the mist which gives a haziness to the skyscrapers also gives a feeling that the air may also be polluted.  The people are wrapped up in warm clothes and the wooden walk way looks wet as if the rain has been beating down on the massive structure.  The man in the foreground holds an umbrella but probably due to the strong winds, dare not open it to protect himself. Nevinson has managed to convey the massive structure as a monument to the permanence of the new Industrial time and it contrasts with the temporary nature of the people, who appear on it as mere shadows as they hurry from one side to the other.

Like a lot of artists, Nevinson did not take criticism and rejection well and his love for New York and America disappeared.  Not only were his paintings attracting criticism, he himself was also becoming disliked for his ill-conceived outbursts.  He often suffered periods of depression and would often be volatile.  He had an unfortunate habit of bragging and publicly aired embellished claims of his war experiences, which people found hard to accept and together with his depressive and temperamental personality, he became an unpopular figure on the New York art scene.   Whether it was because of the poor reviews or his growing dislike for the people around him, he decided to leave America.

So who was to blame for Nevinson’s falling out of love with America and the Americans.  Maybe the answer lies in the 1920 catalogue introduction to an exhibition of Nevinson’s work by the art critic Lewis Hind.  Of Nevinson he wrote:

“…It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists…”

In Julian Freeman’s biography on Nevinson he talked about the artist’s mental state during the last couple of decades of his life:

“…From 1920 until 1940 they carried his strident, maverick diatribes, aimed at society at large, and at the establishment in all its forms… and the variety, salacity, and often uncompromising savagery of his egocentric articles remains enormously entertaining. However, his autobiography is marked and marred by a strong undercurrent of confrontational right-wing xenophobia, and some of his private correspondence in the Imperial War Museum in London is explicitly racist: true signs of the times to which he was such a conspicuous contributor…”

I will leave the last word to the artist himself who, in his 1937 autobiography,  Paint and Prejudice,  wrote:

“…My prices have always been humble, but it has been possible up to the present to lead the life of a millionaire. Far from being a starving artist, a great deal of my time has been taken up in refusing food and drink, affairs with exquisite women, and wonderful offers of travel or hospitality. But I have always been driven mad by the itch to paint. Painting has caused me unspeakable sorrows and humiliations, and I frankly loathe the professional side of my life. I am indifferent to fame, as it only causes envy or downright insult. I know the necessity of publicity in order to sell pictures, because the public would never hear of you or know what you were doing unless you told them of it. But publicity is a dangerous weapon, double-edged, often causing unnecessary hostility and capable of putting you into the most undignified positions. Until of late I have had to fight an entirely lone hand. When I exhibited at the Royal Academy it was a revelation to me how well the publicity was done through the dignity of an institution rather than through the wits of an individual. But I suppose that now I shall always remain the lone wolf. I have been misrepresented so much by those who write on art that the pack will never accept me. Incidentally, because I painted I have earned something like thirty thousand pounds for the critics, curators, or parasites of art. Ninety per cent of their writings has consisted of telling the public not to buy my pictures and of charging me with every form of charlatanism, incompetency, ignorance, madness, degeneracy, and decadence. It is useless to deny that this has had its effect..”

A Winter Landscape by C R W Nevinson (1926)
A Winter Landscape by C R W Nevinson (1926)

His post-war career was not so distinguished.  He never achieved the adulation that was bestowed on him due to his war paintings.  Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson died in October 1946 aged 57.

Georges de la Tour. Part 2. Religious works and tenebrism

My featured artist today would often bring into play the tenebrism style in his works of art.  The term tenebrism comes from the Italian word tenebroso, meaning dark or gloomy and figuratively can be translated as “mysterious” and is a word used to primarily describe dark tonality in a work of art.  Tenebrism was developed to add a sense of drama to an image through a spotlight effect.  Tenebrist works of art first came on the scene in Rome around 1600 and some of the earliest examples were by Caravaggio.  The dark backgrounds to his works and the shadows cast across the subjects of his painting where in complete contrast to small areas of light, often from an unidentified source, which lit up part of the main depiction.  Caravaggio’s tenebrist style was taken up by a number of his Italian contemporaries such as the father and daughter painters Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi and the great Dutch Master, Rembrandt von Rijn.  Many of the artists from outside Italy who came to Rome and Naples to study art also experimented with tenebrism.  Georges de la Tour was a masterful exponent of this style of painting.  In some ways his tenebrist style was slightly different from that of Caravaggio in as much as he would often include the source of light in his painting.  Although Georges de La Tour spent his entire artistic career in provincial France, far from cosmopolitan centers and artistic influences, he developed a poignant style as profound as the most illustrious painters of his day. In his lifetime his work appeared in the prominent royal collections of Europe. La Tour’s early training is still a matter for speculation, but in the province of Lorraine he encountered the artist Jean Le Clerc, a follower of the Italian painter Caravaggio.

Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges De La Tour (1640)
Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges De La Tour (1640)

One great example of Georges de la Tour’s tenebrist style can be seen in his work entitled Magdalene with the Smoking Flame which Georges De La Tour, completed in 1640 and which can now be found in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  In this work we see a depiction of Mary Magdalen, not as an aged woman living a hermit-style life in her grotto, but as a contemplative young woman.  This is a depiction of a vivacious young woman who sought the pleasures of the flesh in her early days.  Her arms and legs are bare.  There is a sense of melancholia and loneliness about her demeanour.  She sits with her left elbow resting on the table with her hand supporting her chin as she gazes fixedly at the burning flame.  Maybe she is mentally examining her past life.   Look how the artist has managed to achieve differing textures which have been brought to life by the light of the candle.  Observe the textural difference between her heavy red skirt and thin white, wrinkled blouse which contrasts with the blemish-free smoothness of Magdalene’s flesh.  On her knees rests a skull which is always looked upon as symbolising our own mortality and the inevitability of death.  On the table there are books of Scripture, a wooden cross and a leather scourge which alludes to Christ’s suffering and his eventual crucifixion.  These latter two items add to the sombre mood of the work.  However, besides Magdalene, the main subject of the work is the oil lamp which smokes and emits the light that brings a modicum of luminosity to the dark painting.  Flame from a candle is often looked upon as symbolising enlightenment and purification but in this depiction there is a smoky element to the flame which may lead us to believe that enlightenment and purification of Magdalene’s mind and soul are not yet complete.     Although our eyes too are drawn to the candle we should look at other aspects of the work and see the mastery of the artist in the way he depicts the various textures.   We have the well-polished skull and the leather cover of the books both of which reflect the candlelight.

Christ in the Carpenter's Shop by Georges de la Tour (1645)
Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop by Georges de la Tour (1645)

Another haunting work of Georges de la Tour in his tenebrist style is Christ in the Carpenters Shop, completed in 1645 and which hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.  It is a depiction of Joseph, a descendant of the house of David, husband of Mary and “foster father” to Christ, who was a carpenter in Jerusalem. In Georges de la Tour’s depiction we see Joseph leaning forward, busy drilling a hole in a block of wood with his auger, the shape of which mirrors the shape of a cross.  He is in his workshop watched over by Jesus whose face radiates in the large frame.  Once again the depiction of the two characters is swathed in darkness with only their faces and upper bodies lit up by the flame of the candle held by the boy.

Jesus holding the candle
Jesus holding the candle

 Jesus is seated and holds a candle to illuminate what Joseph is doing.  It almost seems that it is the face of Jesus which is illuminating the scene and not the light of the candle.  The act of holding up the light for Joseph to see by has an allegorical reference to Jesus Christ being the Light of the World as mentioned in the New Testament (John 8:12):

“…I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life…”

The contrast between the two figures is striking.  The bearded Joseph, a large hulk of a man, is bent over towards his young helper in an almost threatening stance brought upon by the physical exertion of working the auger.   In total contrast Jesus is depicted as gentle youngster watching Joseph’s every move.  The candlelight illuminates the young face of Jesus.  There is purity and innocence in the way the artist has depicted the face of Jesus.  What is also fascinating about the depiction of the young Christ is the way de la Tour has depicted the luminescence of Jesus’ left hand which is shielding the flame. Although this is probably looked upon as a religious work because of its title, it could well have been a simple genre piece looking with strong realism at a young boy watching his father at work.  If we look at the floor, on which we see carpenter’s tools, a wooden ladle and a curled wood shaving.  It could almost be deemed as an excellent still-life work.

The Dream of St Joseph by Georges de la Tour (c. 1640)
The Dream of St Joseph by Georges de la Tour (c. 1640)

The Dream of St Joseph was a work completed by Georges de la Tour around 1640.   The work was based on a dream that Saint Joseph had, as recounted in Matthew’s New Testament gospels.   According to Matthew, Joseph had three dreams.  One was to tell him he was to be Mary’s husband and the father of the Christ Child.  The second dream was to warn Joseph that he must take Mary and Jesus, leave Bethlehem and go to Egypt and the third and final dream the angel told Joseph to take his family back to Nazareth as all was now safe.  :

Matthew 1:20-21

 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 2:13

 “…When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him…”

Matthew 2:19-20

 “…After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt  and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead…”

We are not sure as to which of the dreams is depicted in this painting and it matters not.  However some art historians who have researched the works of de la Tour have offered a different reasoning behind the work claiming that in early art catalogues the painting had a much simpler title, An Old Man Asleep, Woken by a Girl Carrying a Candle.  So is this a religious or secular work?  In the painting we see two people, an old man and a child.  The old man on the right is seated next to a small table.  His eyes are closed.  His mouth is slightly open.  He is asleep and possibly lost in a dream world.  His right elbow rests on the table and his head is resting in his right hand.  On his lap we see an open book with the fingers of his left hand still lightly gripping a page.   Standing in front of him is a child, probably a girl, dressed in the garb of a biblical character.

Dream-like apparition appearing to St Joseph
Dream-like apparition appearing to St Joseph

She stares at the sleeping man and has her arms outstretched in a prayer-like manner. There is something strange about her posture.  It is almost as if she is casting a spell over the sleeping man.   It is simply a depiction of a man and a child.  There are no sign of halos on the head of the child signifying her as an angel and so one can understand why some people cast doubts on the biblical connotation of the work.

What fascinates me about this work of art is the tenebrist style Georges de la Tour has used in his lighting of the depiction.  The light from the candle flickers and is partially hidden by the one of the girl’s outstretched arms but it still manages to light up her face in a haunting manner.  She becomes apparition-like which of course lends to the idea that she is in the old man’s dream.  Once again, as in the last painting the girl’s fingertips become translucent and the page held in the man’s hand is illuminated.   It is a fascinating work and I will leave you to decide whether you believe it is a religious work and hence it’s current title or whether it is simply a secular work of art and hence its original title.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Georges de la Tour (1644)
Adoration of the Shepherds by Georges de la Tour (1644)

There can be no such doubt with regards to my final featured work by Georges de la Tour.  The birth of Jesus and the presence of shepherds is a religious scene which has been depicted numerous times by different artists.   This painting, Adoration of the Shepherds, was completed by Georges de la Tour around 1644 and can now be found in the Louvre. The first thing we notice about this work is the amazing candlelight illumination which is associated with tenebrism.  As we look at the work we feel the tranquillity and contemplative mood of those around the newborn baby.   Mary is to the left of the painting, her hands clasped in prayer.   Opposite her is the elderly bearded figure of Joseph.  He holds a lit candle in his right hand whilst his left hand guards the flame from being extinguished.  Once again, as seen in previous works, the light from the candle filters through between the fingers of his hand.  His depiction of the visiting shepherds is a triumph of realism.  They crowd around the crib with their presents.  The one holding a staff has brought a sheep.  The one next to him, slightly in the background has brought a flute, which he clutches to his chest and the shepherdess, or it could be a serving girl, has come with food in the shape of a covered terrine.  Next to the crib the lamb chews at an ear of corn which is providing bedding for the infant.  There is a simplicity to this scene and this could well be due to the omission of the wealthy trio of visiting kings, dressed in their fine clothes, and holding their expensive gifts which are often included in depictions of the baby in the manger paintings.  It is thought that Georges de la Tour’s depiction emanates from the Christmas tradition when villagers dressed up as shepherds and shepherdesses to re-enact the Nativity scene and this premise is borne out by the way he has depicted the shepherds in fine contemporary clothing which is in contrast to the plain red gown worn by Mary.  Note the small shadow cast by the candlelight on her gown.  It is of a trèfle or trefoil, a three-leaved plant, which is part of the crib bedding and is probably a symbolic reference to the Holy Trinity.

In this and my previous blog I have featured two distinct types of paintings by Georges de la Tour and I will leave you decide which you prefer.

Georgia O’Keefe. Part 4 – New Mexico and later life.

Georgia O'Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1920)
Georgia O’Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1920)

In this final look at the life and works of the American artist Georgia O’Keefe I want to examine her love affair with New Mexico and how it influenced her art.  She had been living in New York during the winter months and in the summertime she and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, would move to his large family home at Lake George in upstate New York.  However by the end of the 1920’s Georgia had depicted all she could of the Lake George area and was looking for a new challenge, something fresh to influence her work.   Her reason for giving up her summer sojourns at Lake George could well be that she had tired of having to share the space with Stieglitz’s family and friends, who also passed time at Lake George during the summer months.  I already told you in the previous blog that in order to pacify Georgia, Stieglitz had agreed to her moving out of the large family home and live and work in a farm building on the estate, which she called her Shanty.  The desire to move away from Lake George and Stieglitz could have been Georgia’s desire to escape the suffocation of Stieglitz’s family and friends but another reason could have been that she was having health problems as in 1927 she had to undergo two breast operations.  Another contributory factor could be Georgia’s unhappiness at Stieglitz having become infatuated with a young woman Dorothy Norman, forty-four years his junior.

Rebecca Strand
Rebecca Strand

Fate took a hand in 1929.  Her friend and fellow artist, Rebecca Strand, the wife of photographer, Paul Strand, who was a close friend of Alfred Stieglitz, suggested that she and Georgia take a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Georgia liked the idea of escaping Lake George that summer and so in the May the two set off on the long train journey to the New Mexico town.  Not long after arriving in Santa Fe, the two women received an invitation from Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy American writer and patron of the arts, to come and visit her and stay a while at her large twelve-acre property in Taos, New Mexico.  Mabel Luhan was a great hostess who liked to surround herself with artists and writers.  Taos was a small town, situated on a high plateau in the north-central region of New Mexico, whose inhabitants at the time were mainly native Indians.  It had become, since the beginning of the twentieth century, a favourite destination of artists because of its unspoiled landscape and clear light and in 1915 the Taos Society of Artists was formed.  The English writer and playwright, D.H. Lawrence, fell in love with the area waxed lyrically on the effect it had upon him:

“…The moment I saw the brilliant proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.   There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty……In the magnificence fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new…”

Georgia O’Keefe also could not have been happier with what she saw at Taos.  Mabel Dodge Luhan had even provided her two visitors with a studio within her large house. Georgia found Taos and the surrounding area simply inspirational and so different from the places she had previously visited.  She spent her time during her five-month stay wandering around the area visiting the small Indian villages on foot or sometimes on horseback constantly sketching and developing ideas for her work.  Travelling by foot or horse restricted the distance she could travel so Georgia learned how to drive and bought herself a Ford Model A car, and from then on, distance was no longer a problem.

The D.H. LawrenceTree by Georgia O'Keefe (1929)
The D.H. LawrenceTree by Georgia O’Keefe (1929)

One of the places Georgia visited was the Kiowa Ranch, which was owned by Mabel Dodge Luhan and who had gifted it to the English writer D.H.Lawrence and his wife Frieda in 1924.  It is situated near the town of San Cristobal, some twenty miles north west of Taos.  It has become known as the D.H. Lawrence Ranch.  One of the great natural phenomena on the ranch was the great pine tree, which stood in front of, and towered over the ranch house.  This beautiful specimen became known as the Lawrence Tree, as he used to sit writing at a table at its base and in Rachel Maurer’s The D.H. Lawrence Ranch she quotes the English writer’s description of the tree he loved so much:

“…The big pine tree in front of the house, standing still and unconcerned and alive…the overshadowing tree whose green top one never looks at…One goes out of the door and the tree-trunk is there, like a guardian angel. The tree-trunk, the long work table and the fence…”

Georgia O’Keefe wonderfully captured the tree in her 1929 painting, The D.H. Lawrence Pine Tree.  Of it, she said:

“… There was a long weathered carpenter’s bench under the tall tree in front of the little old house that Lawrence had lived in there. I  often lay on that bench looking up into the tree…past the trunk and up into the branches. It was particularly fine at night with the stars above the tree…”

At first glance, the depiction of the tree almost resembles an octopus with its long tentacles stretching out amidst its ejected black ink. Once you look closer you begin to realise that what you are looking at are the branches of a tree as they stretch upwards into the cloudless night sky.  Georgia achieved this depiction by painting it whilst lying down on a long carpenter’s bench at the base of the tree and looking up at the star-filled sky through its branches and the dark mass of pine needles.  It is a beautifully evocative work of art.  The painting now hangs at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Photoraph of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, Taos, NM
Photoraph of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, Taos, NM

Another place which fascinated O’Keefe during her 1929 visit to Taos was the San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church at Ranchos de Taos with its massive adobe buttresses and two front-facing bell towers,which was completed in 1816.  This building is a National Historic Landmark, dating back to Spanish Colonial times.

Photograph of the rear view of the church
Photograph of the rear view of the church

It is a well-preserved adobe building in the heart of the community at the central plaza of the Ranchos de Taos Historic District and is re-mudded every spring.  O’Keefe was fascinated by the buildings of the indigenous people and completed a series of six paintings featuring the church from different angles, some in the clear light of day with cloudless blue skies, others with a cloud covering.

Ranchos Church, No. II, NM, by Georgia O'Keefe (1929)
Ranchos Church, No. II, NM, by Georgia O’Keefe (1929)

O’Keefe wanted her work to highlight the natural harmony of the building with the surrounding nature and she has cleverly captured just that by merging the rounded forms of the sand coloured building with the similarly coloured ground.

Grey Hills by Georgia O'Keefe (1942)
Grey Hills by Georgia O’Keefe (1942)

From 1929 to 1949, O’Keefe regularly returned to New Mexico each summer although she found the growing artist colony of Taos at odds with her desire for isolation and tranquility and so in 1931 she began to spend her summers in the Rio Grande Valley, which lay west of Taos and rented a small cottage in the village of Alcalde.  Georgia O’Keefe was fascinated by the barren landscape with its red sand hills and the flat-topped tablelands.  This was the New Mexico Badlands, which was a type of arid terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils had been considerably scoured by both wind and water.What she saw before her may have been inhospitable and infertile but it was the colours which fascinated her and inspired her paintings.  Of this factor she once said:

“…All the earth colours of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands.  The light Naples yellow through the ochres – orange and red and purple earth – even the soft earth greens…”

Small Purple Hills by Georgia O'Keefe (1934)
Small Purple Hills by Georgia O’Keefe (1934)

In 1934 she completed a painting entitled Small Purple Hills, which depicts the stark, desolate and yet colourful rocky formation.

Another series of her paintings depicting the dark and forbidding landscape with its grey and black hills, was her series of paintings entitled The Black Place.   They were depictions of the Bisti De-Nazin Badlands, a desolate wilderness area in Navajo country, some 150 miles north west of her Ghost Ranch home.  Georgia loved the place and its isolation and made a number of camping trips between 1936 and 1949, sometimes alone, other times with her friend and assistant, the writer, Maria Chabot, who lived with her at Ghost Ranch, from 1940 to 1943.

Black Place II by Georgia O'Keefe (1944)
Black Place II by Georgia O’Keefe (1944)

The painting Black Hills II, completed in 1944, was one in the series of six, which she completed between 1944 and 1945, and Chabot, in her book, Maria Chabot—Georgia O’Keeffe: Correspondence 1941–1949, described the work:

“… the black hills—black and grey and silver with arroyos of white sand curving around them—pink and white strata running through them. They flow downward, one below the next. Incredible stillness!…”

In 1946, Ms. Chabot agreed to organize the rebuilding of an adobe hacienda on a hilltop in Abiquiu.  The town sits on a plateau at an elevation of 6,400 feet, overlooking the Chama River Valley in Rio Arriba County in New Mexico and forty-eight miles northwest of Santa Fe.  This was to become Georgia O’Keefe’s winter home.  It had originally been two buildings, one of which had been a home to pigs and this was converted into her studio, bedroom and bathroom, whilst the other building was transformed into her kitchen and living rooms and guest bedrooms.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses by Georgia O'Keefe (1931)
Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses by Georgia O’Keefe (1931)

In the first part of this four-part blog on Georgia O’Keefe I asked you to name the most quintessential American artist and I had chosen her, not because of her floral paintings, but for her rugged landscapes but most of all for her works which depicted the skulls, horns and antlers of cattle and other animals which she collected up from the desert and which reminded me so much of the Wild West and American history.  There are two in particular that I like.  The first of these is Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, which she completed in 1931 and can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago.  The previous year Georgia O’Keeffe had witnessed a devastating drought in the Southwest that caused the starvation and death of many animals.  All around the skulls and carcasses of the dead animals littered the landscape. Georgia was enthralled by what she witnessed and had a number of these bones shipped back to New York so she could depict them in her paintings. Of this collection of skulls and bones she commented:

“…To me they are as beautiful as anything I know…The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable…”

 In Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, O’Keeffe incorporated a somewhat ghoulish aspect by embelishing the skull of the cow with two artificial flowers, the type which often adorned graves in New Mexico.

Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills by Georgia O'Keefe (1935)
Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills by Georgia O’Keefe (1935)

The second painting I like is entitled Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills, which she completed in 1935 and is housed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In this painting we see an enlarged ram’s skull and antlers depicted floating over a mountainous landscape and a grey cloudy and threatening sky.  Once again, as was the case in a number of flower paintings some art historians alluded to the depiction of the lower part of the ram’s skull having a resemblance to the female genitalia!

In May 1946 the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York held a retrospective of her work.  Sadly a month later, Alfred Stieglitz died of a cerebral thrombosis and Georgia returned to New York, where she remained for almost three years in order to settle his estate.  In the spring of 1949 she returned to her beloved New Mexico.  She lived at her house in Abiquiu during the winter and spring and then moves back to her Ghost Ranch during the summer months.

Up until 1956 Georgia, who was then sixty-six years of age, had never travelled outside of America but that was all to change for long periods during the rest of her life she travelled around the world.  In 1962, O’Keeffe was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and four years later she became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science.  In the autumn of 1970, the Whitney Museum of American Art granted her a retrospective exhibition.  The exhibition was a great success and revived her popularity with the American public.

Georgia O'Keefe (1887 - 1986)
Georgia O’Keefe
(1887 – 1986)

Her final foreign journey to Costa Rica came about in 1983 when she was ninety-six years of age !  In 1984, for health reasons, she had to leave her Abiquiu hacienda and she moved to Santa Fe.  Georgia O’Keefe died on March 6th 1986 at the age of 98.  In compliance with her last wishes her ashes were scattered over the land around her beloved Ghost Ranch.

This ends my four-part look at the life of Georgia O’Keefe.  There are many books about her life and works and one I can recommend is O’Keefe by Britta Benke.

In my next blog I will be looking at another female artist who was known for her flower and plant paintings.  However unlike Georgia O’Keefe this artist concentrated on detailed and botanically accurate depictions of her subjects and I suppose instead of labeling her as a floral painter she is better described as a botanical painter.

 

Honoré Daumier – Lithographs and Caricatures

1830 issue of La Caricature
1830 issue of La Caricature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Ventre législatif

Aspects des bancs ministériels de la chamber improstituée de 1834

 The Legislative Belly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suzanne Valdon. Part 4 – Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas

Self portrait by Suzanne Valadon (1883)
Self portrait by Suzanne Valadon (1883)

In my last blog, Part 3 of the life story of Suzanne Valadon, I talked about her relationship with the French painter Pierre-August Renoir and looked at his 1883 Dance Series of painting, two of which featured Suzanne.  At the end of the blog I stated that Renoir had nurtured Suzanne’s interest in art.  I suppose nurturing was the wrong word to use as although Renoir’s art influenced Suzanne it was more his dismissive attitude to her early attempts to paint and sketch that had an effect on her.  Renoir had a somewhat condescending attitude towards her attempts at drawing and painting and this along with his preference for Aline Charigot over her rankled Suzanne all her life.  However Renoir’s indifference regarding her artistic attempts galvanised the young woman in her mission to prove him wrong and at the same time it fostered in her a desire to become a great artist in her own right, for if nothing else, Suzanne was a very headstrong and determined character and one who would never accept failure lightly. 

Suzanne Valadon did however receive valuable help and support with her quest to become an artist.  This help came from two completely different sources.   Her initial help came from a young French artist who had just come on to the Parisian art scene and it was through his good auspices that she was introduced to an elderly artist who, at the time, was viewed as The Master of all the French artists.   The young artist was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Master was none other than Edgar Degas.

My Utrillo at the Age of Nine by Suzanne Valadon (1892)
My Utrillo at the Age of Nine by Suzanne Valadon (1892)

Unabashed by Renoir’s attitude Suzanne set about sketching with pencil and charcoal.  She sketched avidly.  Any free time she had from her modelling engagements were spent sketching.  It was in the Spring of 1887 that she first met the twenty-two year old, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who had a top floor studio at No.7 rue Tourlaque, the same building in which Suzanne, her mother Madeleine and her son Maurice were living.  Toulouse Lautrec was once described as having a grotesque appearance.  At the age of fourteen, he slipped on a floor and broke his left thigh bone.  The following year, while out walking, he fell and broke his right thigh bone.  Neither leg healed properly.  It is now believed that this was due to a genetic disorder.  After these breaks, his legs never grew any longer which resulted in him attaining a height, as an adult, of just 1.54 m (5 ft 1 in) despite have a full sized torso.  His walk was just an embarrassing shuffle.  Add to this physical deformity his oversized nose, his dark and greasy skin and full black beard which masked his face, one can envisage the physical and mental torment he must have suffered.  However, despite this, he was quite a gregarious person and had a buoyant character and soon after setting up his studio it took on a new role as a meeting place for local artists and members of the literary set.  Lautrec would often provide food and drink at these meetings and conversation would often centre on art, artists and artistic trends.  Suzanne Valadon often helped Lautrec with these get-togethers and soon she was considered the unofficial hostess of Lautrec’s soirées.  One should remember that Suzanne was quite short in stature and so standing next to the diminutive Lautrec they made for an “ideal couple”.  Suzanne had always been a very good looking woman and so, when standing next to him her physical beauty meant eyes were immediately focused upon her and not her little companion. 

Suzanne was not “backward in coming forward” at these events and would unreservedly give her opinion on current artistic trends.  As ever, her wit and the acidity of her tongue came to the fore ensuring that the evening would never be dull and of course, her physical beauty was always admired by all the male guests.   As Suzanne helped Lautrec to run his parties and add her own brand of verbal entertainment at them Toulouse-Lautrec expressed his gratitude by taking an interest in her early art. He was also the first person to buy a couple of her sketches.   He hung them on the wall of his lodgings and was often amused when visitors attributed them to artists such as Degas and Théopile Steinlen, the painter and printmaker, but all viewers of these works were in agreement that they had been done by an accomplished artist. 

The Hangover; Portrait of Suzanne Valadon by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (c. 1888)
The Hangover; Portrait of Suzanne Valadon by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (c. 1888)

Suzanne and Toulouse-Lautrec would often wile away their time together sketching.  He completed a number of portraits of her but would never pose for her.  One of the best portraits Toulouse Lautrec did of Suzanne was his 1888 painting entitled Gueule de Bois (The Hangover) in which we see her sprawled across a café table.  She received no payment from Lautrec for modelling for this picture.  It would have been unthinkable considering all the help he had given her.  Soon Toulouse-Lautrec began to advise Suzanne, not just on things artistic, but everyday things such as how she should dress what hats she should wear and would often accompany her on shopping trips. 

Portrait of the Artist Suzanne Valadon  by Toulouse Lautrec (1885)
Portrait of the Artist Suzanne Valadon by Toulouse Lautrec (1885)

It was Toulouse-Lautrec who persuaded her to change her name from that which she was baptised, Marie-Clémentine, to Suzanne as he believed her birth name was just too mundane for an up-and-coming artist.  Suzanne agreed to the change of name and she gave Lautrec the very first painting she completed, which had been signed “Suzanne Valadon”. 

It was on the insistence of Toulouse-Lautrec that in 1887, Suzanne went to see Edgar Degas and took along some of her sketches.  She recalled the time:

“…Lautrec’s great brown eyes laughed behind his thick glasses and his mouth was solemn and grave as a priest’s when he told me I must go to M. Degas with my drawings…” 

When she arrived at Degas’ house for the first time,  Suzanne always recalled that day stating on a number of occasions that it was “the wonderful moment of my life”.  She arrived at the house in rue Victor Massé clutching her portfolio of sketches.  She was extremely nervous in his presence.  She recalled the time vividly.  Degas took her sketches, moved to the window to see them better and slowly thumbed through them mumbling comments to himself, occasionally looking up at her.  On completing his examination of her work he turned to Suzanne, who was sitting straight-backed in a chair, and uttered the words that she would never forget:

“…Yes it is true.  You are indeed one of us…”

Nude getting into the Bath besides the Seated Grandmother by Suzanne Valadon (1903)
Nude getting into the Bath besides the Seated Grandmother by Suzanne Valadon (1903)

Degas, who had once described himself as simply a colourist with line, could see the merit in Suzanne’s work despite her work was in a pure and savage state and the sketches were totally without refinement, and yet there was a sense of grace about them.  Suzanne and Degas became good and long-lasting friends.  It was a friendship which would have, in some ways, seemed strange as Degas and Suzanne came from different backgrounds and different social classes but it could be the fact that Degas was uneasy in the company of women of his own social strata and that made Suzanne and ideal companion.  During their many meetings she would show him her latest work which he would assess and give advice and she in return would tell him all the gossip and news from Montmartre, for he rarely set foot outside stating he was too ill and it was also around this time that his eyesight began to fail. 

Although Suzanne Valadon was a self taught artist it is generally accepted that she owed a lot to Edgar Degas.  It was he that supervised her first engravings and it was he who ensured that Ambroise Vollard, one of the most important art dealers of the time, presented an exhibition of Suzanne’s engravings at his gallery in 1895.  As far as Suzanne was concerned, Edgar Degas was “The Master”, an artistic genius.  Of all the artists she came across, he was the one she respected the most.  She hung on his every word, basked in his praise for her work and although he had lost a number of friends due to his petulance and grumpiness, she looked on his irascibility as part of his charm and charisma.  Degas could do no wrong in her eyes.  Degas too loved her companionship and Suzanne Valadon was one of the few people who could call herself a friend of the great man and she was immensely proud of this mutual friendship.

                                                           ……………………………………….. to be continued

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)
Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)

When you walk around an art gallery I wonder how long you spend in front of each painting.  I suppose it depends on the type of painting and whether it is part of a crowded special exhibition when you are jostled from one painting to the next by a crowded sea of viewers.  I suppose it also depends on your time management as if you are coming to the end of your allotted time you tend to jump from one picture to the next in a desperate attempt to not miss a single one, although in a way your hurried state probably means that the last few painting remain just a blur in your mind.   So why do I ask this question about time management and carefully appreciating the paintings before us?   The answer is that during a recent visit to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid I had left the room, which housed the fifteenth century art collection till last and I was constantly aware that my time at the museum was running out.   I found myself flitting from one painting to another and I have to admit by doing so I failed to take in the beauty of the works in that section of the gallery.   That was until I came across two stunning works which I could hardly drag myself away from.  They were just such beautiful paintings.  Yes, I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder but for me they were truly exquisite.   I stood before them, totally mesmerised by their intrinsic charm and so I am dedicating my next two blogs to those two 15th century works. 

The Wdding Medalion
The Wdding Medalion

Today I want to offer you a beautifully crafted portrait by the 15th century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio entitled Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni which he completed in 1490 and which is now part of the permanent collection at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.   Giovanna was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni who came from the wealthy Florentine banking family and whose father, Giovanni was Domenico Ghirlandaio’s patron.  We know this is the image of Giovanna as at the time of her marriage to Lorenzo a series of bronze portrait medals with her image were made to commemorate the event and the likeness of the figure on the medal and in the painting is undeniable.   Lorenzo and Giovanna married in June 1486 but sadly she died giving birth to her second son in 1488, at just twenty years of age.  As the portrait was completed after she died, it is thought that it could be looked upon as a kind of remembrance painting.   The painting hung in her husband’s private rooms in the Tornabuoni Palace.

We see Giovanna before us, half-length, in a somewhat rigid profile.  In her hands she clasps a handkerchief.  Giovanna is dressed in the most sumptuous way.  She wears a giornea which is an open-sided over-gown, which is brocaded.  The design on the brocade features the letter “L” and a diamond.   The “L” is her husband, Lorenzo’s initial and the diamond was the Tornabuoni family emblem.  There is no doubt that she is one of Florence’s élite by the way she wears her hair in the very latest Florentine fashion.  The jewels she wears around her neck comprise of two rings and pendant which were given to her by Lorenzo’s family as a wedding gift.  If you look closely at the pendant she wears you will also notice a matching brooch designed in the shape of a dragon which lies on a shelf behind her.   The jewel with its dragon, two pearls and a ruby formed a set with the pendant hanging from a silk cord around her neck.   Behind her, on the shelf, is a prayer book which is thought to be the libriccino da donna (little ladies’ book).  Above the book hangs a string of coral beads which have been identified as a rosary.   Ghirlandaio’s inclusion of this prayer book and the rosary in the painting was testament to Giovanna’s religious beliefs and her piety. 

What did Ghirlandaio think of his sitter?  Will we ever know?  Actually the answer lies within the painting itself because just behind Giovanna’s neck we can see attached to the shelf a cartellino.   A cartellino (Italian for small piece of paper) was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, often as though attached to a wall or parapet in a painting.  On the cartellino added by Ghirlandaio in this painting are the words:

ARS UTINAM MORES

ANIMUMQUE QUE EFFINGERE

POSSES PULCHRIOR IN TERRIS NULLA TABELLA FORET

 

which translates to:

 

“…Would that you, Art, could portray her character and spirit ;  for then there would be no fairer painting in the world..”.

At the bottom there is the date:

“MCCCCLXXXVIII”. (1488)

By these words there is no doubt Ghirlandaio is excusing himself to Giovanna for his belief that he has not been able to show her real inner beauty.  These are fine words from our artist but in fact they were not quite his own as they are a slight variation on the words of an epigram (a short and concise poem) of the Latin poet Marcus Galerius Martial, whose works were all the rage with the Florentine aristocracy of the day.

My featured artist today was born Domenico di Tommaso Curradi di Doffo Bigordi.  The name was derived in part from his father’s surname Curadi and the surname of his grandfather Bigordi.  He was born in Florence in 1449, the eldest child of Tommaso Bigordi and Antonia di ser Paolo Paoli.  His father was a goldsmith and was well-known for creating metallic garland-like necklaces which were worn by the ladies of Florence, and it was for that reason that Domenico was given the nickname Il Ghirlandaio (garland-maker).   Domenico worked in his father’s jewellery shop and it was during his time there that he started sketching portraits of customers and passers-by.   According to the famous biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari, Domenico’s father decided to afford his son some formal artistic training and had him apprenticed to the Florentine painters, Alesso Baldovinetti and later Andrea del Verrocchio.

Domenico will always be remembered for his exquisite detailed narrative frescos in which he would incorporate portraits of the local aristocracy resplendent in their finery.  Many of his frescos appeared in local Florentine churches.  In 1482, he also completed a Vatican commission for Pope Sixtus IV – a fresco in the Sistine Chapel entitled Calling of the First Apostles.  The frescos he will probably be best remembered for were two major fresco cycles, which he completed with the help of his brothers, Davide and Benedetto along with his brother-in-law, Bastiano Mainardi, who was one of Domenico’s pupils.

 

The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Girlandaio
The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Ghirlandaio

The first of these frescos was for the Sassetti Chapel in the church of St Trinita in Florence.  It had been commissioned by Francesco Sassetti, a rich and powerful banker who worked for the Medici family.  This cycle of frescos was in six parts and depicted the life and times of St. Francis of Assisi, who was Sassetti’s patron saint. Seen within the frescos were a number of portraits of members of the Sassetti family along with some of the leading figures from the Medici family.  To look at the two families within the frescos one would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Sassettis and the Medicis were very close, which of course was precisely the allusion Francesco Sassetti had wished to convey.  Alas for him, the close bond between the two families was all in his mind!

Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio
Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The second fresco cycle, Ghirlandaio’s last, and many art historians believe was his greatest, was commissioned to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence by another banker, Giovanni Tornabuoni, who was related by marriage to the Medicis.   There was a connection between the two fresco cycles as Sassetti had the rights to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church and he had wanted to have the frescos in the church depict the life of St Francis.   However the church was in trust to the Dominican order and they refused to allow such a design, so it was then that Sassetti decided to have the St Francis frescos painted instead in the Sassetti Chapel of the St Trinita Church in Florence and he sold the rite to decorating the Capella Maggiore to Giovanni Tornabuoni

 Ghirlandaio had not even completed the Sassetti fresco cycle when he was given this second large scale commission and he had to bring in most of the workers from his large Florentine studio to help him in this four-year project which was finally completed in 1490.  

The reason for talking about this fresco cycle is that I want you look closely at Ghirlandaio’s fresco, the part entitled Visitation.  Look at the third woman from the right.  Do you recognise her?   It is a full length portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni who was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni whose father, Giovanni was the commissioner of the fresco work and who was also my subject of today’s featured work.

The painting had a number of owners but in 1907 the American millionaire financier and philanthropist and founder of the J.P. Morgan bank,  J. Pierpont Morgan bought it in 1907.  It is believed that he adored the painting as it reminded him of his first wife, Amelia Sturgis, who like Giovanna had died very young.  She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, just four months after she and J.P. had married.   It entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection from the Morgan Library, New York, in 1935.

Whereas J.P. Morgan had his painting on view in his home to remind him of his wife I have a print of it on my breakfast room wall to remind me of Giovanna’s beauty as I serve guests with their breakfasts.

Frederic Edwin Church, Part 1

Last weekend I spent a two day break in London attending the christening of my grandson and pottering around a couple of galleries visiting their current exhibitions.   I had tickets for the Boccacio exhibition at the National Gallery and whilst there I decided to call in to their small but excellent Frederic Church exhibition, Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch, which is running until April 28th.   It was a veritable gem of a show and as the publicity stated,

 “…[ it was an invitation to] step into a world of wild natural phenomena with the landscape oil sketches of celebrated American landscape painter, Frederic Church…

 It is a free-to-enter exhibition and one you should try and visit.   I want to dedicate the next two blogs to the nineteenth century American painter Frederic Church, and look at some of his paintings, some of which were at the exhibition.  Church was a master of the plein-air oil sketch and I ask you to accompany me on a journey looking at his life and sampling some of his exquisite artistic gems.

Frederic Church was born in Hartford, the state capital of Connecticut, in May 1826.  He came from a privileged background.  His father, Joseph, who came from a very prosperous family, was a jeweller, silversmith and a Hartford insurance adjuster and the Church household lived an affluent lifestyle.  Frederic, who was brought up in a devout Protestant Congregationalist household, showed a propensity for art whilst at school and through a family neighbour, Daniel Wadsworth, was fortunate enough to be introduced to Thomas Cole, the English-born American landscape artist, who is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School.  Thomas Cole, who up until then had never taken a pupil under his wing, agreed to take Frederic on as his pupil.   Frederic studied under Thomas Cole in his Catskill studio between 1844 and 1846 during which time he and his tutor would go off on painting trips to the Catskill Mountains and the Berkshires, a highland region in western Massachusetts, west of the Connecticut and lower Westfield Rivers .

Hooker and Company journeying through the Wilderness in 1636  from Plymouth to Hartford by Frederic Church (1846)
Hooker and Company journeying through the Wilderness in 1636 from Plymouth to Hartford
by Frederic Church (1846)

Frederic flourished under Cole’s guidance and, within a year, he had his painting, a scene from early New England history, Hooker and Company journeying through the Wilderness in 1636 from Plymouth to Hartford shown at New York’s National Academy of Design annual exhibition.  The scene recounts the June 1636 journey made by the prominent Puritan religious leader, Reverend Thomas Hooker as he left the Boston area with one hundred men, women, and children and set out for the Connecticut valley. The group traveled over one hundred miles through the wilderness and reached their destination in early July. Many members of the Hooker party settled in Hartford, while some located to nearby Wethersfield and Windsor, and others traveled north and settled Springfield, Massachusetts.    It was through this painting that Church combined his love for ancient landscapes with an acknowledgement of his cultural origins.  The following year Church was elected as the youngest Associate of the National Academy of Design and was promoted to Academician the following year.  That year he sold his first major oil painting to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, an art museum which had been founded by Daniel Wadsworth.

 After completing his apprenticeship with Cole, Frederic Church moved to New York and set up his own studio in a space which he rented in the Art-Union Building, which was at the centre of the city’s art world, and he began to teach art.   During the spring and autumn months he would leave the city and set out on painting trips throughout New England, particularly Vermont.  Over the months he would build up a large collection of sketches of the beautiful scenery he witnessed, which he would then bring back to his New York studio and during the dark and cold months of winter he would convert them into beautiful landscape paintings.    His landscape artistry was much admired and his landscape works featuring New York and New England vistas sold well.  Frederic Church’s landscape paintings differed from the moral and religious allegorical ones which had been the hallmark of his tutor, Thomas Cole’s landscape works,  for Church wanted to concentrate on the true beauty of nature.  His depictions of storms, sunsets and waterfalls in the Catskill Mountains encapsulated the beauty and spirituality of the American wilderness.  It could well be the case that Frederic Church had read the words of the great English art critic John Ruskin who laid out his ideas of what a young artist should seek to achieve in their landscape works.  Ruskin wrote:

 “…For young artists nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature….. Their duty is neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalize; but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God…”

Niagara by Frederic Church (1857)
Niagara by Frederic Church (1857)

During a two year period, 1854 to 1856, Frederic Church travelled extensively visiting Nova Scotia, and journeying throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and it was around this time that he visited the Niagara Falls.   The Falls, by this time, had become a great tourist attraction and a favourite destination for artists.  Whilst at the Falls he completed a number of oil sketches which he would utilise when he painted his large-scale works of the Falls in 1857 and 1867.   Frederic Church’s great breakthrough came when, in 1857, he exhibited his painting Niagara It was a large work measuring 107cms x 230cms (see My Daily Art Display Sept 9th 2011) and it visually stunned all who saw it.   Without doubt, the late 1850’s were the high point of Church’s career.  Artistic triumph followed artistic triumph.

 Frederic Church had, like many others,  become fascinated with the translated writings of the celebrated Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, which were based on his five-year expedition in the New World at the start of the nineteenth century.  It was in one of his works, Kosmos  that Von Humboldt implored artists to travel and paint equatorial South America.   In 1853, along with his friend, the young entrepreneur Cyrus West Field, who had financed the trip, Church set off on the first of two expeditions following Humboldt’s footsteps, chiefly in Colombia;  the second trip, in 1857, in company with the American Creole landscape painter, Louis Remy Mignot.   Together, the artists travelled from Panama to Ecuador, where they spent 10 weeks painting village and mountain scenes.

The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Church (1859)
The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Church (1859)

From his trips to South and Central America, Frederic Church amassed a large collection of sketches from which, on his return home, he completed large and spectacular oil paintings.  One of these works was his ten-foot wide work entitled The Heart of the Andes which he completed in 1859.   This elaborate and highly structured painting was his most ambitious work.  In this painting Church managed to depict the variety of earthly life as seen by the lush green foreground.   The painting took pride of place in a New York exhibition, housed in an elaborate window-like frame and illuminated in a darkened room by concealed skylights.  Can you just imagine what nineteenth century viewers made of this extraordinary painting exhibited in such an extraordinary setting?   People thronged to see the painting and it was estimated that more than twelve thousand people visited the exhibition in three weeks and were happy to part with a quarter each to see it.  For that admission fee, the public were provided with opera glasses so that they could examine the painting in detail.  The painting was then shipped to England where once again people flocked to see it.  Church eventually sold it for $10,000, at that time the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist.

Iceberg Flotante by Frederic Church (1859)
Iceberg Flotante by Frederic Church (1859)

In 1859 Church took a voyage north along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in search of icebergs.  On this trip he was accompanied by the Reverend Louis L. Noble, an author who was to write about their trip together in his 1861 book, After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Around Newfoundland.  During their voyage of discovery Frederic Church and Noble would hire a boat to take them up close to these awe-inspiring floating icebergs to allow Church to sketch these remarkable and majestic floating white giants.  Frederic Church managed to capture the breath-taking beauty of these white giants in a number of his paintings, one of which was his work entitled Iceberg Flotante which he completed in 1859

The Icebergs by Frederic Church (1861)
The Icebergs by Frederic Church (1861)

I particularly like his 1861 painting entitled The Icebergs, in the foreground of which we see a broken masthead lying cross-like on the ice.  Not only is this a beautiful landscape work but it is a kind of historical painting as the inclusion of the masthead is a reference to the tragic loss of Sir John Franklin’s doomed British expedition party which had been attempting to cross the last un-navigated section of the North-West Passage in 1847.  Sadly, the two ships of the expedition became icebound in Victoria Strait, close to King William Island in the Canadian Arctic.  Despite the British Admiralty’s sending numerous search parties to find the ships, the entire expedition party, including Franklin himself and his 128 men, was lost.

……………………………………………….to be continued in my next blog.

Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun and Marie Antoinette

Marie-Antoinette of Austria, Queen of France
by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778)

I had intended this blog to be the concluding look at the life and some of the works of Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun but instead I am just concentrating this blog on a couple of the portraits Élisabeth did of the Queen consort Marie Antoinette and look at Élisabeth’s life up to her forced exile from France.  My next blog will conclude Élisabeth’s life story.

At the end of my last blog we had reached 1775 and Élisabeth’s step father had retired from his jewellery business and the family had moved to an apartment in a large property, Hotel de Lubert, which was situated on the rue de Clery.    The Hotel de Lubert was also where the painter and art dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun had his gallery.  Soon after settling into her new home, Élisabeth took a great interest in the beautiful masterpieces which filled Le Brun’s apartment and gallery.   She recalled this time in her memoirs saying:

“…I was enchanted at an opportunity of first-hand acquaintance with these works by great masters.  Monsieur Lebrun was so obliging as to lend me, for purposes of copying, some of his handsomest and most valuable paintings. Thus I owed him the best lessons I could conceivably have obtained…”

Six months after moving in to her new home Le Brun proposed marriage to Élisabeth.   She was not physically attracted to him but was concerned about her family’s financial future, hated living with her stepfather and after much persuasion from her mother, who believed Le Brun was very rich, agreed to Le Brun’s proposal.  Even on her wedding day on January 11th 1776, Élisabeth had her doubts about the wisdom of her decision for she later wrote:

“…So little, however, did I feel inclined to sacrifice my liberty that, even on my way to church, I kept saying to myself, “Shall I say yes, or shall I say no?” Alas! I said yes, and in so doing exchanged present troubles for others…”

Élisabeth’s fears were soon borne out for although she termed her husband as being “agreeable” he had one great character flaw – he was an inveterate gambler and soon his money and that which Élisabeth earned from her commissions was frittered away.  However before the money had run out, Élisabeth and her husband bought the Hotel de Lubert in 1779, and her Salons, which she held there became one of Paris’ most fashionable pre-revolutionary venues for artists and the literati.  Two years later, on February 12th 1780, her only child Jeanne Julie Louise was born.   In 1781 she and her husband left Paris and journeyed to Flanders and the Netherlands and it was during this trip that she saw some of the works by the great Flemish Masters and these paintings inspired her to try new painting techniques. During their time in Flanders she carried out various portraiture commissions for some of the nobility, including the Prince of Nassau.

It was back in the year 1779 that Élisabeth first painted a portrait of Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI’s queen consort.  It was at a time when the lady had reached the pinnacle of her beauty.  In her memoirs Élisabeth described Marie-Antoinette:

“…Marie Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best walk of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that stamped her queen in the midst of her whole court, her majestic mien, however, not in the least diminishing the sweetness and amiability of her face. To anyone who has not seen the Queen it is difficult to get an idea of all the graces and all the nobility combined in her person. Her features were not regular; she had inherited that long and narrow oval peculiar to the Austrian nation. Her eyes were not large; in colour they were almost blue, and they were at the same time merry and kind. Her nose was slender and pretty, and her mouth not too large, though her lips were rather thick. But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman…”

Both the artist and sitter formed a relaxed friendship and in her first portrait (above) the queen is depicted with a large basket, wearing a satin dress, and holding a rose in her hand. The painting was to be a gift for Marie-Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, and a further two copies were made, one of which she gave to the Empress Catherine II of Russia, the other she would keep for her own apartments at Versailles.  In all, Élisabeth painted more than thirty portraits of the queen over a nine year period

Élisabeth’s friendship with Marie-Antoinette and her royal patronage served her well as in 1783,  her name had been put forward by Joseph Vernet for election to France’s Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.   As her morceau de réception (reception piece) she submitted an allegorical history painting entitled La Paix qui ramène l’Abondance (Peace Bringing Back Prosperity).  She also submitted a number of her portraits. The Académie however did not categorise her work within the academy categories of either portraiture or history.  Her application for admission was opposed on the grounds that her husband was an art dealer, but because of Élisabeth’s powerful royal patronage, the Académie officials were overruled by an order from Louis XVI.  It is thought that Marie Antoinette put considerable pressure on her husband on behalf of her painter friend.

Having royal patronage and being great friends with Marie-Antoinette was a boon when the Royalty was loved by its people but once the people turned against Louis XVI and his queen, as happened during the French Revolution, then any friends the royal couple had were equally detested and at risk from the mob.  Attacks on Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s character had started back in late 1783 when the newspapers wrote stories about an alleged affairs she had with the Finance Minister, Charles Alexandre, Vicomte de Calonne, the Comte de Vaudreuil and the painter François Menageot.  The rumours persisted and it all came to a head in 1789 when fictitious correspondence between Élisabeth and Calonne was published in the spring.  Rumours about her lavish lifestyle abounded, even though they were not altogether true.  She was now starting to realise that having close connections to the monarchy, which she had once considered to be advantageous, was becoming a dangerous liability.

Marie Antoinette and her Children
by Élisabeth Vigé Le Brun (1788)

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s last portrait of Marie-Antoinette was completed in 1788 and entitled Marie Antoinette and her Children.  The setting is a bedroom or a private chamber within the Royal palace.  Marie Antoinette is seated with her feet on a cushion.  This depiction of her posture symbolizes her status and high position in society.  She has a young infant on her lap and her son and daughter are either side of her.  In the painting we see her son, Louis-Joseph, Le Dauphin, standing to the right. Louis-Joseph suffered from bad health all his young life with the onset of early symptoms of tuberculosis and he died of consumption in 1789, a few months before his eighth birthday.   On the Queen’s lap sits Louis-Charles, Duc de Normandie, who on the death of his elder brother, became the second Dauphin. Following the guillotining of his father Louis XVI,  he became known as Louis XVII. This young boy was imprisoned in The Temple, a medieval Parisian fortress prison, where he died in 1795, aged ten, probably from malnutrition but rumour also has it that he was murdered.  Standing on the Queen’s right is Marie Therese Charlotte de France, Madame Royale.  She was Marie-Antoinette’s eldest child.  She too was imprisoned in The Temple but was the only member of the Royal family to survive the ordeal.  She remained a prisoner for over a year but Austria arranged for her release in a prisoner-exchange on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, in December 1795.  In the painting we can also see depicted an infant’s cradle which Louis-Joseph points to and lifts the covers showing it as being empty.  This empty cradle is a reference to Princess Sophie, Marie Antoinette’s other daughter, who was born in 1786 and died of convulsions two weeks before her first birthday.  This very poignant painting still hangs at Versailles.

On the night of October 6th 1789, following the invasion of Versailles by Parisian mobs and the arrest of the royal family, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun left the mayhem of Paris with her daughter and governess in a public coach and headed for Italy.  She had hoped to return to France in the near future when the situation had settled down but in fact she never set foot back in France for twelve years.

My next blog will look at the latter part of Élisabeth’s life and I will regale you with my tale of infidelity which was the reason for featuring Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun in the first place !!