A Flood by John Everett Millais

A Flood by Millais (1870)

I begin My Daily Art Display today with an extract from The Illustrated London News newspaper telling of the disastrous flooding which occurred in Sheffield on Saturday March 19th 1864

The Illustrated London News
Saturday, March 19, 1864

“… In arguably the greatest tragedy ever to befall Sheffield — indeed one of Britain’s worst disasters, in terms of loss of life — almost 250 people perished, possibly more, when a reservoir dam burst in the hills a few miles from the town, shortly before midnight on the night of 11th March 1864. The entire reservoir is said to have emptied in only 47 minutes, as in excess of a hundred million cubic feet of water (between 600 and 700 million gallons, or — as noted in one of the articles — two million tons weight) crashed down the Loxley and lower river valleys, destroying almost everything in its path and inflicting terrible damage to property and livelihoods in its wake. …..”

John Everett Millais painted The Flood in 1870.  It is believed that he was motivated to paint his flood scene by the tragic events which occurred  in Sheffield in March 1864 when a dam collapsed in the middle of the night and the ensuing flood killed hundreds of villagers who lived downstream of the dam.    Among the many local newspaper reports there was one telling of a baby, still in its cradle, being swept away in the swift flowing waters.

In the painting, we see the baby wide awake with little idea of what is happening around him or her.  The baby just looks upwards and seems mesmerised by the raindrops which cling to the thin branches of a tree.   The wide-eyed and open-mouthed expression of the baby would in normal circumstances cause us to smile at the child’s inquisitiveness but unlike the baby, we are only too aware of its fate.  On the other hand, the black cat, which is sharing the ride on the cradle, is conscious of the peril and it too is also open-mouthed as it howls in fear of its life.   A household jug floats alongside the cradle reminding us of the devastating affect the raging water had as it swept unchecked in and out of the small impoverished village dwellings.

In the background on the left we can see a bridge almost submerged by the flood water and further to the right there is a house on the river bank and we can observe the water level has already reached the height of the ground floor windows.  To the right in the background men in a boat can be seen drifting quickly and uncontrollably on the tide of muddy water.

The painting hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery and it was intetersting to hear various comments from people as they studied the painting.  Some thought, as they looked at the smiling baby, that it was a charming picture whilst others tended to focus on the event itself and the probable drowning of the young child and found the painting rather disturbing.

You see, it is all in the eye of the beholder !

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)

For the second consecutive day I want to present a painting to you which has a connection with a poem.  My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Found Drowned and was painted by the Victorian painter George Frederic Watts in 1850.  It is almost certain that the idea for the painting came from Watts having read The Bridge of Sighs, the poem written by Thomas Hood just before his death in 1845.

Watts was born in London in 1817 and his Christian names came from the fact that he was born on the composer, George Frederic Handel’s birthday.  He was brought up in an impoverished household, did not attend school, being taught at home by his father.  Despite these early setbacks in life, he achieved acceptance into the Royal Academy when he was eighteen years of age.  In 1843 he won first prize in an artistic competition to design a mural for the Houses of Parliament and although this never came to fruition, the monetary value of the prize enabled him to travel to Italy.  He remained in Italy until 1847 at which time he returned to London.

On his return to London he made the acquaintance of Henry Prinseps, an amateur artist and director of the East India Company, along with his circle of friends and in 1850, Prinseps, his wife Sara, along with some of her sisters and Watts obtained a twenty-one year lease on Little Holland House which belonged to Henry Fox, 4th Baron Holland, and a friend of Watts.  The house, not only became a place for them to all live and entertain their friends, but it gave Watts a studio for his painting.

In 1864 Watts painted portraits of the Terry sisters, Kate Terry and her famous actress sister Ellen Terry.  Watts was besotted by Ellen and despite the fact that she was still a little way short of seventeen years of age and he was thirty years her senior, they married.  The marriage was doomed to failure and a year after the marriage she eloped with her lover forcing Watts to sue for divorce.

In the early 1870’s when the lease ran out on the Little Holland House, Watts acquired another house in London and also one in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight.  In 1877 his divorce with Ellen Terry finally came through and nine years later at the age of 69 Watts re-married, this time his bride was Mary Fraser-Tytler,  a Scottish designer and social reformer, some thirty-three years his junior!   In 1891 he bought land in Guilford, Surrey and they named the establishment Limnerslease, which was a combination of the words “limner” meaning artist and “leasen” meaning glean and by it they had built the Watts Gallery which was a museum dedicated to his work.  It was the first and only remaining purpose-built gallery in Britain devoted to a single artist.  It eventually opened in April 1904, shortly before the death of Watts.

So that is the story of today’s artist and so now let us study his poignant painting and understand why he should depict such a heart-rending scene.  When Watts returned to London from Italy he was traumatized by the extremes of riches and poverty that he could see all about him.  It moved him and he realised that through his art he could bring home the inequalities of life.

The background of the painting is the London skyline and we are viewing it from under Waterloo Bridge and in the distance we can just make out Hungeford Suspension Bridge.  Waterloo Bridge had been a common place for suicides with people throwing themselves off the structure into the Thames.  In the foreground Watts has painted a “fallen woman”, a reasonably common subject in Victorian paintings.  She has drowned and been washed up on the shores of the Thames. Was it an accident or had life proved just too much for her to bear?  In those days, female suicides caused by adulterous relationships or financial hardship, which then led to prostitution, were not uncommon happenings.   Her body is lit up and is in stark comparison to the darkened background.  Her dress still floats in the murky polluted waters.  She is lying on her back with her arms stretched out in a cruciform adding religious symbolism to the picture.  In her left hand she is clutching hold of a chain, attached to which is a heart-shaped locket and this again makes us believe that unrequited love may have had some bearing on the situation.  In the night sky we see a very bright pin-point of light which could be a star of the planet Venus and Watts probably added this as a symbol of hope that maybe there will be a better after-life for the dead woman.  Look at the young woman’s face.  It appears calm.  Maybe at last she is at peace with herself.

It is interesting to note that the title of the painting Found Drowned was legal phraseology often used by coroners when there is no conclusive evidence of suicide, such as a note, and thus the coroner’s report avoids the stigma attached to suicides, which would automatically rule out a Christian Burial.

I end today’s blog with the Thomas Hood’s poem Bridge of Sighs which it is believed was the basis of Watts’ painting.  Read it through and then look at the painting and see if you agree that there is a connection between the two.

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve’s family—
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!

Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God’s providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

In she plunged boldly—
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran—
Over the brink of it,
Picture it—think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro’ muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix’d on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr’d by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.—
Cross her hands humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behaviour,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen (c.1665)

I have featured many paintings, mainly by Dutch or Flemish artists, which try and have an embedded moral message in their works of art.  Often it is about the dangers of drinking too much, which is a subject painters from our present time may find very topical.   My Daily Art Display today features one such 17th century painting entitled The Effects of Intemperance by the Dutch painter Jan Steen.

Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in 1626 in Leiden a town in the Netherlands and was a contemporary of the great Rembrandt van Rijn.  He received his artistic education from the German painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Niclaes Knupfer who gained a reputation for his historical and figurative scenes of Utrecht.  At the age of twenty-two Steen joined the Saint Lukes Guild of Painters in Leiden.  Steen then moved to The Hague where he lodged in the household of the prolific landscape painter Jan van Goyen.  Soon after, he married Margriet, the daughter of van Goyen.  Jan and his father-in-law worked together closely for the next five years.  Then he moved and went to live in Warmond and later Haarlem.  His wife died in 1669 and his father-in-law passed away a year later.  Steen returned to Leiden re-married and had two children and remained there until his death in 1679 at the age of  53.
So back to today’s featured painting which is a pictorial moral tale of the dangers of insobriety.  The painting illustrates well the Dutch proverb “De Wijn is een spotter” translated means: Wine is a mocker, in other words wine (or drinking it in excess) will make a fool of you.  Although we see the children misbehaving the onus of guilt is placed squarely on the shoulders of the adults.

The main character of the painting is a woman who we see sitting slumped on the steps of her house sleeping off the effects of having drunk too much alcohol.  The overturned flagon of wine lies on the floor and despite the noise and antics of the children she doesn’t wake.   She is being portrayed as the neglectful mother.  She is totally unaware of what is happening around her.  However, she is no peasant.  Look at her clothes.  These are not ragged and threadbare.  The fur-trimmed jacket, in fact, looks both expensive and stylish.  Maybe the moral of the tale is that an excess of alcohol can affect rich and poor alike.  Her comatose state is going to cause a disaster as we see that her lit pipe is just about to slide from her fingers on to her dress.  The hem of her dress rests perilously close to the rim of the small clay brazier by her side which she has been using to keep her pipe alight and soon her clothes will surely catch fire.  It should also be remembered that at this time in the Netherlands most houses were of wood construction and fire had become a great hazard of life for those living in these dwellings.

The child behind her is stealthily filching the purse from the pocket of her dress, watching her carefully in case she stirs.  Again we are reminded of the Dutch proverb which states “opportunity makes the thief”.  This painting, in some ways,  mirrors Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs but on a smaller scale.    Look at the girl kneeling in front of the comatose woman. Maybe it is her eldest daughter.  She is offering the parrot a drink of wine from a glass.  The girl looks unsteady and her face is flushed.   Maybe she too has imbibed to excess.  Are we being reminded that the sins of the mother will be passed on to the child?

Next to the mother we see a boy clutching a bunch of roses.  He is throwing them to the pig which is busy snuffling around the legs of the woman in search of food.  We know of the biblical proverb “ Nether caste ye youre pearles before swine”  meaning that it is a worthless gesture of offering items of quality to those who aren’t cultured enough to appreciate them.  However the Dutch proverb doesn’t talk about pearls but instead – rose buds.  So what we are seeing in the painting is the rose-strewn pig, which simply symbolises how people waste what they have.

To the right of the mother we see three small children feeding a meat pie to the cat.  Again, this is highlighting the folly of waste.  It is interesting to note what is hanging above the drunken woman’s head.  It is a basket, in which there is a pair of crutches and a birch.  This is to be a reminder of what happens if you throw money away and mismanage your finances.  The crutch is a reminder of life as a beggar and the birch is a salutary warning of what happens if you are hauled to court because of bad debts.  Look back at My Daily Art Display of February 16th and Jan Steen’s painting entitled In Luxury, Look Out,  in which  the artist had depicted a similar scenario and the same moral tale that is being depicted by the artist in today’s painting.  In it we can see the same basket hanging above the miscreant.

Take a look at the background on the right hand side of the painting.  Here we see a man, maybe the husband of the drunken woman, sitting in the garden on a bench with a buxom young serving wench on his knee.  He is oblivious to what is going on around him and prefers to carouse with the young girl.

The Dutch painter and biographer of artists from the Dutch Golden Age, Arnold Houbraken, wrote about Jan Steen, recording that the household of Steen himself was both “riotous and disorganised” and that Steen, not being able to bring in enough money from his paintings ran an inn but Houbraken cynically pointed out that Steen’s best customer was himself!  However maybe the facts do not bear out the biographer’s assertions for Steen completed over 1400 pictures in a span of 30 years,  so could he possibly have had time to waste by drinking in his inn?  In yesterdays offering I spoke about artists liking to incorporate their own image into their paintings and Steen was no different.  He would even add his wife’s image into some of his bawdy pub scenes and she, rather than being flattered by her inclusion, would claim that her husband was always showing her as a “horny tart, a matchmaker or a drunken whore”!  It could be that she was the model for the drunken woman in today’s painting.

The chaos which reigns in this painting is similar to the themes in many of his household scenes and “a Steen household” is a Dutch phrase which means a household which is a badly managed and in total chaos.

Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims by Vittore Carpaccio

Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims (1495)

My Daily Art Display today features a painting by the Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio.  The painting is massive in size, measuring 280cms high and 611cms wide (9ft high by 20ft wide).  It is one of a series of nine, tempera on canvas, paintings.   The set of paintings, commissioned in 1488 by the Lordean family  They were a noble Venetian dynasty, three of whom became Doges of Venice, including Doge Leonardo Lordean whose portrait by Bellini was featured in an earlier blog (Nov 17th).   The paintings were created for the Scuola di Sant’ Orsola (Ursula) in Venice, a confraternity ( a type of brotherhood or society) of which the Lordean family was a patron.  All nine paintings can now be found in the Gallerie dell’ Accademia in Venice.  The artist was asked to tell the story of Saint Ursula through a series of paintings.  This legendary tale of the northern saint, Ursula, was very popular in the Middle Ages and Carpaccio’s design for the paintings came from Jacobus de Varigine’s Legenda Aurea (Golden Legends) which featured stories of the Saints and which had only just been translated into Italian.

The legend of Saint Ursula has like all good stories, over time, been added to and twisted, to make it a more thrilling tale.  The story is as follows….

At that time young girls did not choose their own husbands, their parents decided whom they would marry. A powerful pagan king and ruler of what is now Brittany requested of Ursula’s father that she would marry his son Ethereus. The pagan king sent ambassadors to Ursula’s father offering large sums of money and other promises if the marriage took place. However they added terrible threats of what would happen if the marriage were not to take place. Ursula’s father was very troubled by this turn of events.  He was afraid of the violent reaction of the other king if he declined the request and he wasn’t sure that Ursula would agree to marry and in any case both he and Ursula would prefer a Christian marriage.

However much to her father’s surprise Ursula, inspired by God, agreed to the marriage but only on certain conditions.   She demanded that her father and the pagan king put ten girls at her disposal and each of them would be accompanied by another thousand girls and that she and her entourage of ten thousand virgins would travel to Rome and once there, she would be granted three years to dedicate herself to God and that her future husband, Ethereus, would receive Christian instruction for baptism.  Ursula actually thought the proposal would be withdrawn on these conditions – but no, the king agreed and Ursula’s demands were carried out immediately.

Ursula’s father also invited a group of young men to accompany her and young people began arriving from all directions to join the voyage. During the journey Ursula converted all the girls to Christianity and soon they arrived in Cologne, Germany. Here an angel appeared to Ursula and told her that she and all her companions would return to this place and win the crown of martyrdom.

They moved on to Rome and Pope Cyriacus was delighted to see them since he himself came from Britain and he had many relations among Ursula’s travelling companions. That night an angel told the Pope that he too along with Ursula and her companions would gain the crown of martyrdom. In the next few days Pope Cyriacus asked to join Ursula’s group. He put another Pope in his place called Ametos. Pope Cyriacus, Ursula and her companions set out to return to Cologne.

The Huns were afraid that Christianity would become popular and that many people would become Christians. They gathered an army and plotted to kill Ursula and all her companions on their arrival back in Cologne.

Back in Britain, Ethereus who had now become king received a message from an angel that Ursula was on her way back to Cologne with the Pope and her companions and that he should go quickly and join them. He too would become a martyr. Ethereus set off for Germany and met Ursula and her companions in Cologne.

When Ursula and her companions arrived in Cologne they met the Huns who were only interested in women for pleasure. Ursula and her young girls resisted this violation. Julius, leader of the Huns, instructed his army to kill them all, including Ethereus and the ex-pope Cyriacus. Julius decided not to kill Ursula as he thought she was so beautiful he wanted to marry her. Ursula firmly refused his proposal because she wanted to keep the promise she had made to God to remain a virgin. Julius was so enraged he threw an arrow towards her, which pierced her heart and killed her. And so Ursula and her companions were martyred in Cologne.

With that story in mind Vittorio Carpacci set about his nine-painting story of Saint Ursula.  He didn’t paint the canvases in the chronological order of the events but in the order that the wall space at the Scuola di Sant’ Orsola was available for him.  He began this huge commission in 1490 and did not complete the ninth canvas until 1496. The full list of paintings is as follows:

Arrival of the Ambassadors – the arrival of the ambassadors of the pagan King of England at the Court of the Christian King of Brittany, to ask for the hands of his daughter Ursula for the son of their Lord

The Departure of the Ambassadors-  the conditions Ursula sets out before accepting the marriage proposal

The Return of the Ambassadors- the ambassadors return to the English Court

Meeting of Ursula and the Prince and the Departure of the Pilgrims-  the farewells and Ursula’s pilgrimage

The Saint’s Dream- the dream in which Ursula is forewarned of her martyrdom

Meeting of the Pilgrims with the Pope- her encounter with Pope Cyriacus in Rome

Arrivals of the Pilgrims in Cologne- her arrival in Cologne, occupied by the Huns

The Martyrdom and the Funeral of St. Ursula – the slaughter of the pilgrims and Ursula’s funeral

Glory of St. Ursula-  St Ursula in glory above the host of martyrs

I am not going to give you the nine paintings over nine days as I think that would be a little hard to swallow so for My Daily Art Display today, I have just chosen one – the fourth painting of the cycle entitled Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims which Carpaccio completed in 1495.  This was the largest of the nine paintings which make up the Stories of the Life of Saint Ursula.

The painting has been divided vertically into two halves by a pennant with its fluttering banners atop.  The various events which take place are all incorporated in this one painting.  To the left of the pennant we see Eretheus taking leave of his father and to the right we see the betrothed couple meeting for the first time as they prepare to depart from her parents and board their twelve-oared sloop and then to their ship.  To the left one can see their ship having departed with its sails billowing in the wind and the inscription “MALO” which is rather like a foreboding of what is to befall the pilgrims as they start their journey to Rome.

In the left background, perched on top of a hill we have the English town with its walled fortification and this is in complete contrast to the city in Britanny built along the water’s edge, which is shown on the right hand side of the painting and seems to be without any fortification at all.    It is thought that the buildings Carpaccio has placed on the right hand side of the painting were copies of Venetian palaces that were built at the end of the 15th century.   To the left of centre of the middle-ground Carpaccio has given us two towers situated on the steep slopes of the hill and fortified by high walls.  These are reproductions of the towers of the Knights of Rhodes and St Mark of Candia and more than likely modelled on the pictures found in Bernhard Von Breydenbach book Peregrinatio in terram sanctum.

Antonio Loredan (seated on the right)

The bridges, piers and harbour-lined streets are full of people attired in the most decorative clothing.  People hang out of windows to catch a glimpse of the departure of the betrothed couple.  In the foreground sitting on the left of the central pennant and looking slightly towards us is Antonio Loredan, a member of the family who commissioned this work.  He is splendidly dressed and one can see, embroidered on his sleeve, the coat of arms of the Fratelli Zardinieri, one of the Compagnie della Calza.   In the centre-middleground on has the busy harbour and to the left we can see a large vessel lying on its side whilst the wooden planking of its hull is being re-caulked

This work of art is a hive of activity and one can spend lots of time scrutinising every facet of this large painting.  I look forward to going to Venice next month and visiting the Gallerie dell’ Accademia and standing in front of this magnificent work of art and the eight other paintings of the St Ursula cycle and absorbing all that is on display.

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael (c.1660)

When I come to think about the painting I am going to use for My Daily Art Display I like to try and find one by an artist I haven’t featured before.  I also like to showcase an artist I had not heard of previously so that when I research his or her life it is a learning curve for me.  Today, however My Daily Art Display is a three-fold repeat which limits what I can say, without being accused of repeating myself.

 Firstly I have offered you a painting by Jan van Ruisdael before (January 9th) but I will not apologise for that as he is an amazing painter and has completed many superb works of art.   Secondly, the painting today is a Vanitas-type painting, a type of painting, which I talked about when I offered you the Still Life of Food and Drink by Willem Heda on February 11th, and lastly this painting resembles in many ways the painting by Arnold Böcklin which I gave you on January 5th.  Having said all that, I have to tell you that when I was looking through some art books for my next presentation I was immediately taken aback by the strength of this painting and the aura that emanates from it.

My Daily Art Display today is The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael which he completed around 1660 and now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister in Dresden with a larger version in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  This is a Vanitas genre painting, which is a type of painting that depicts an object or collection of objects symbolizing the brevity of life and the transience of all earthly pleasures and achievements.  In other words it is a painting which reminds us that we are not immortal and notwithstanding how rich or powerful we are –  we will all die sooner or later.

There is a definite melancholic and depressing feeling about this painting.  There is also that sense of foreboding which was present in Arthur Böcklin Island of the Dead which I gave you on January 5th.  The ruins, the graves and the dark skies set the mood of the painting.  Ruisdael had this uncanny talent to be able create such feelings in how and what he depicts.   This is a painting of the Portugeuse-Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk on the Amstel River close to Amsterdam, however to be absolutely accurate, I must tell you that only some of the elements in the painting actually exist such as the three large tombs shown in the mid-ground, but that’s about it !  

The backdrop to the cemetery bears no similarity to the place at Ouderkerk.  There are no ruins overlooking the actual cemetery.  The ruins Ruisdael painted were the remains of the Egmond Castle which is situated near Alkmaar some thirty miles away.   There is no river running through the cemetery but Ruysdael just used it to portray the fact that the water like time rushes away from us.  The landscape, the river and the “added-in” ruins were just figments of Ruysdael’s imagination but one has to admit they do lend themselves well to the atmosphere he wanted to project.   

The three large tombs in the middle ground, which immediately catch one’s eye, the dead beech tree in the right foreground and the broken tree trunk overhanging the fast flowing river all indicate allegorically the fast approach of death.  However, Ruisdael does offer us a glimmer of hope in the way we can see a shaft of light penetrating the black clouds.  We can also see a rainbow and if we look carefully there are signs of flourishing growth amongst the dead trees, so he is telling us there may be a better life still to come after death.   Art historians have interpreted this painting simply as a reminder that man lives in a transient world and that despite being beset by sinful temptations there is always hope for salvation and deliverance.

Dam Square in Amsterdam by Jacob van Ruisdael

Dam Square Amsterdam by Jacob van Ruisdael (1670)

Today, Jacob van Ruisdael is my featured artist in My Daily Art Display.   He was born in Haarlem in 1628 and was brought up in an artistic household.  His father, Isaak van Ruysdael and his uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael were both landscape painters.  Little is known about Jacob’s early artistic training but it is thought that his father probably taught him with guidance from his uncle.  At the age of twenty he was admitted as a member of the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem.  The Guild of Saint Luke was the most common name for a city guild for painters and other artists especially in the Low Countries.   They were named in honor of the Evangelist Luke, who was the patron saint of artists.

Unfortunately during his lifetime Jacob van Ruisdael’s artistic talent was not appreciated and by all accounts he led a poverty-stricken existence.  At the age of fifty three the Haarlem council was petitioned for his admission into the town’s almshouse.  He died in Amsterdam a year later in 1682 and his body was brought back to be buried in Haarlem

Jacob van Ruisdael travelled considerably during his lifetime but seldom went outside his own country.   He was a prolific painter with over seven hundred paintings and a hundred drawings attributed to him.  His great love was to paint countryside scenes showing fields of corn and windmills as well as woodland scenes.  He was also a renowned painter of trees and their foliage.    Another favourite subject of his was seascapes and the neighbouring dune lands.  He also liked to paint waterfalls based on the work of Allart van Everdingen, the Dutch painter, who had travelled extensively in Scandinavia.

Today’s painting, The Dam Square in Amsterdam, completed in 1670 is neither a landscape nor a seascape.  The subject is Dam Square in Amsterdam, a place which he was very familiar with as he lived on the south side of the square at this time.   The square was dominated by the old Amsterdam municipal weighbridge and one can see several bales of goods under the canopy waiting to be weighed.   On the right of the building one can see the Damark with its sailing boats and the tower of Oude Kerk.  In the foreground of the painting there are a large number of figures.  It is not thought that Ruisdael actually painted these as he was not an established figure specialist.  Experts believe they may have been painted by the Rotterdam artist Gerard van Battem.  The pale light from the left of the painting casting long shadows across the square suggests that it is daybreak.

 His artistic works although not fully appreciated during his lifetime have since his death been highly praised and he is now often considered the greatest Dutch landscape painter of all time.