The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Part 1.

I had a short city break in Birmingham the other day when I had intended to visit some of the main art galleries.  Unfortunately, the main Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the centre of the city was closed until late April, for essential electrical works and so I was able to concentrate my cultural journey on a visit to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the centre of the Birmingham University Campus.  I had been here once before, five years ago and especially fell in love with two of the paintings.   The Barber Institute is a smaller gallery in comparison to the main one in the Birmingham centre and yet it is full of artistic treasures by the most famous artists.  In my next three blogs I will introduce you to and tell you about some of the wonderful paintings in their permanent collection, so as to tempt you to visit the museum.

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The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts is housed in one of Birmingham’s finest Art Deco buildings and was opened in 1939.  The architect tasked with designing the building was Robert Atkinson, one of Britain’s leading architects of the 1920s and ’30s. The building is laid out around the central music auditorium, surrounded by corridors. On the Ground floor these form offices and lecture halls for the Departments of Music and History of Art, as well as a dedicated Art History library. The galleries occupy the same space on the first floor, approached by a stunning travertine staircase directly opposite the entrance.

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Ramsau by Thomas Fearnley (1832)

The first painting I want to present to you is one of my all-time favourite landscape works.  The 1832 work, entitled Ramsau, is by Thomas Fearnley.  Fearnley was born in Norway, but studied abroad, often with his fellow countryman Johan Christian Dahl.  It was whilst working alongside Dahl that Fearnley developed the habit of painting directly en plein air.  Fearnley was travelling to Italy when he and his party stopped at the village of Ramsau, a small town located on the Königssee in the district of Berchtesgadener Land in Bavaria.  In the painting we can see the road winding and disappearing around a corner of the village before we catch a glimpse of it again as it heads off towards their destination, the snow-covered Alps and the beautiful snow-capped Hoher Göll, which straddles the border between the German state of Bavaria and the Austrian city of Salzburg.    It is such a beautifully tranquil scene.  In the middle ground of the depiction, we see a lone farmer collecting hay.  Such hard work was so important so as to have food for his animals during the harsh and bitterly cold winter, which was fast approaching.  This en plein air work would have taken Fearnley several sittings during the week-long stay, on each occasion adding another layer of colour.

The Wrath of Ahasuerus by Jan Steen (c.1670)

I have always loved the works of the Dutch Golden Age painter, Jan Steen, so I was pleased to see one of his works in the Barber Institute’s collection.  It was not one of his exuberant genre scenes but a Biblical painting.   It was his painting The Wrath of Ahasuerus which he completed around 1670.  The characters who appear in the painting come from the Old Testament Book of Esther.  The depiction before us is an episode in the life of the Persian king Ahasuerus and his Jewish wife Esther.  King Ahasuerus had sought a new wife after his queen, Vashti, had refused to obey him, and Esther, the adopted daughter of the Jew Mordecai, was chosen for her beauty.  The subject of the painting is from Esther vii, 1-7.  Haman, the king’s First Minister had issued a decree that all the Jews in Persia should be killed.  Esther, the wife of the king, held a banquet and at it she confessed that she was a Jew, and that she too was threatened by Haman.  So we see in the painting, on hearing what his wife had to say about Haman, her husband jumps up in a violent reaction to what he has just heard.  Ahaseurus explosive and exaggerated gesture, eyes bulging, red in the face, fists clenched, jumps up knocking over a vase and the peacock pie.  Haman, on the left, cowers away from the king’s fury. The peacock is a symbol of pride and is a reference to Haman’s fallen pride and his downfall.  The king ordered Haman to be hung.  This story of Esther’s triumph over the evil Haman was popular with the Dutch people who could see the similarity between her battle and their plight against the mighty, and in their eyes, the evil Spanish invaders and occupiers of their country, being a similar story.

Symphony in White, No. III
Symphony in White No. III by James McNeill Whistler (c.1867)

James McNeill Whistler completed Symphony in White No. 3 in 1867 and it is now part of the Barber Institute collection.  It was thought to have been originally entitled Two Little White Girls.   Two women are depicted in the painting.  One, sitting on a sofa, is Joanna Heffernan, Whistler’s mistress.  The other, resting on the floor in the cream/yellow dress, is Millie Jones, the wife of an actor friend.  Laying on the floor is an Oriental fan which is a reminder of the popular Japonisme cult of the time.  Japonisme was a French term that referred to the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design among a number of Western European artists in the nineteenth century.  Whistler had embarked on this painting in July 1865 and within a month, he had completed the preliminary sketches and by September he had completed the work and had signed and dated it. 

However, he was not happy with what he saw and began to rework it and Whistler was not finally satisfied with it until 1867 when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. He painted over the final “5” in the original date, and replaced it with a “7”, to mark the changes it had undergone.   

Whistler chose the term ‘Symphony’ to highlight to visitors to the exhibition that it was purely a study in colour and the connection of two branches of the Arts, music and art..  It was the first of Whistler’s paintings to be exhibited with a musical title.  And so, why was it entitled “No. 3”? 

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Symphony in White. No 1. by Whistler. NGA Washington.

The reason behind this numerical conundrum was that Whistler’s 1863 painting was given the title White Girl but Paul Mantz, a French art historian and writer for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, called it ‘Symphonie du blanc‘, and so it was later renamed Symphony in White. No. 1. 

Symphony in White No.2 by Whistler. Tate Britain.

In 1864 Whistler completed a second similar work entitled The Little White Girl, which later became known as Symphony in White. No. 2.  In their 1908 biography of Whistler, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell, make the point that this may have been a factor that influenced Whistler in his choice of titles for the third in the series. 

Edgar Degas - Portrait de Mlle Eugénie Fiocre in the Ballet "La Source"
Portrait de Mlle Eugénie Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source” by Degas (1868). Brooklyn Museum.

The work was greatly admired by all who saw it.  It is thought that Deagas drew inspiration from Whistler’s painting when he worked on his painting, Portrait de Mlle Eugénie Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source”

However, there were some critics who were not altogether in love with the work.  Philip Hamerton, an English artist, art critic and author, writing for the Saturday Review on 1 June 1867, remarked:

“…In the “Symphony in White No. III.” by Mr. Whistler there are many dainty varieties of tint, but it is not precisely a symphony in white. One lady has a yellowish dress and brown hair and a bit of blue ribbon, the other has a red fan, and there are flowers and green leaves. There is a girl in white on a white sofa, but even this girl has reddish hair; and of course, there is the flesh colour of the complexions…”

Whistler was horrified by what had been written in the journal and wrote a letter to the editor but he would not print it.  However in Whistler’s own book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, he reproduced the letter in which he had written:

“…How pleasing that such profound prattle should inevitably find its place in print!…Bon Dieu! did this wise person expect white hair and chalked faces ? And does he then, in his astounding consequence, believe that a symphony in F contains no other note, but shall be a continued repetition of F, F, F ? . . . Fool!…”

Two Peasants binding Faggots by Pieter Brueghel (c.1615)

For my last offering in Part One of my blog relating to my best-loved works in the collection of the Barber Institute I have reverted to one of my favourite painters, Pieter Brueghel the Younger.   He was the son of one of the greatest sixteenth century artists, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and the brother of Jan Breughel.  This amusing and fascinating painting entitled Two Peasants binding Faggots, was completed around 1615, and it was the type of work which was popular in the seventeenth century.  It was entitled Two Peasants binding Faggots. It is a depiction of peasants binding a bundle of stolen branches for firewood whilst their fellow accomplice is seen in the background cutting the branches of a tree.  The two peasants in the foreground glance around furtively and from that we gather that they are up to no good,  The larger of the two, on the left, is stout symbolising the sin of gluttony whilst his thinner and gaunt accomplice with a paler face and wearing a codpiece has a bandage around his head and it is thought that Brueghel has depicted this as it relates to the Flemish proverb “to have toothache behind the ears” meaning a malingerer. On the ground, next to the gaunt-looking man, is a pipe which is a traditional phallic symbol and represents the sin of lechery.

Bruegel Netherlandish Proverbs@0
Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525). Staatliche Museen Berlin.

The artist’s father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, had painted a large work, Netherlandish Proverbs, in 1559, which featured a large number of similar characters each representing various Netherlandish proverbs which today is part of the Staatliche Museen collection in Berlin.

…………….to be continued.

Théodore Roussel and Hetty Pettigrew

 Theodore Roussel  Self Portrait (1901)
Theodore Roussel
Self Portrait (1901)

I went to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy one afternoon, a couple of weeks ago and frankly I was a little disappointed in the majority of the works.  Yes they were quirky and often bizarre but I like beauty in paintings.  Maybe part of the problem was that in the morning I had just visited the National Portrait Gallery and perused their permanent collection as well as the BP 2014 Awards exhibition.  There were so many beautiful works of art.  There was a “chalk and cheese” difference between the paintings I stood before at the Portrait Gallery and those in the many rooms housing the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition.  You see, I like to stand back from a work of art and be amazed at what I see before me.    I especially like to be stunned by the beauty depicted by the artist whether it is a landscape or a portrait.  I am never impressed by a few random blobs of colour on a canvas and to be told to just imagine something.  Yes, I do need to be led by the nose and have everything explained to me through a realistic depiction.   The artist I am featuring today was also an admirer of beauty, to be more precise, feminine beauty and I was utterly seduced by a painting he completed featuring his lover, a work which the establishment at the time found a little too much to countenance.  Today I am going to look at the life of Théodore Casimir Roussel, and explore some of his paintings and prints and feature his sitter, studio assistant and lover, Hetty Pettigrew who featured in many of his works.

Roussel was born in the French town of Lorient in Brittany in March 1847 and was educated in France.   He was called to arms by his country during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 but in 1878 he moved to England and settled in London. Two years later he married an English lady, Frances Amelia Smithson Bull.  Roussel had always loved to sketch and paint and was, for the most part, self taught.  When he settled in the English capital he managed to secure studio space in Chelsea with two English artists, George Percy Jacomb-Hood and Thomas Henry.  A couple of years after working in his Chelsea studio, Roussel began to exhibit some of his paintings.  His breakthrough came in 1885 when he was introduced to one of his neighbours, the successful artist, James McNeil Whistler, who had seen Roussel’s paintings and had been very impressed by the standard of his work.  Despite Whistler being thirteen years older than Roussel, it was not long before the two became firm friends, probably because some of their works of art centred around the same subject matter – London and the Thames river.  They also shared similar artistic tastes and had similar views with regards the art establishment.  Roussel now became one of Whistler’s London circle of friends which included Walter Sickert, Paul Maitland and Wilson Steer.  Like Whistler, Théodore Roussel became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1887 but both resigned from the Society the following year.

Blue Thames End of a Summer Afternoon Chelsea by Théodore Roussel (1889)
Blue Thames End of a Summer Afternoon Chelsea by Théodore Roussel (1889)

Some of Roussel’s early work, when he was in London, depicted the river Thames around Chelsea.  One such painting was Blue Thames.  End of a Summer Afternoon, Chelsea  received excellent reviews when it was exhibited at the London Impressionist exhibition.  In December 1888 he exhibited seven such oil paintings of “Impressions of the Thames and Chelsea” at the London Impressionist Exhibition at the Goupil Gallery.

The Thames at Hurlingham by Théodore Roussel
The Thames at Hurlingham by Théodore Roussel

Another work featuring the Thames is a work Roussel completed later in his career was a work entitled The Thames at Hurlingham.  This atmospheric work has all the characteristics of a Whistler painting.  When Roussel made preliminary sketches for this work he was probably in the grounds of the famous Hurlingham Club, one of Britain’s greatest private members’ club which borders the Thames at Fulham.  In the painting we are treated to the merest glimpse of the river and the house on the opposite bank as we peer between the two mature lime trees whose size has cast the bank in deep shadow.

The Reading Girl by Théodore Roussel         (1886–7)
The Reading Girl by Théodore Roussel

However my lead in to this blog was all about Roussel’s depictions of female beauty and one particular painting which had caught my attention and so let me feature this absolute gem.  The painting I am referring to was completed by Roussel in 1887 and was entitled The Reading Girl.  It measures 152 x 161cms (60 x 64 inches) and now hangs in the Tate Britain in London and I urge you to feast your eyes on this beautiful work.

 Roussel decided to by-pass the Royal Academy and exhibited this work in April 1887 at The New English Art Club, which had been founded in London in 1885 as an alternate venue to the Royal Academy for artists to exhibit their works.    Maybe the reason for the painting being accepted into the exhibition was that this art club was, at that time, promoting the French style of painting.  Maybe another reason for Roussel’s decision not to submit it to the Royal Academy was that he was well aware that the Royal Academy would be very critical of his depiction of a nude woman, not as a mythological, classical or historical character, but simply as a present day female.  This was Roussel pushing the boundaries.  This was a step too far for many and the art critic for the Spectator newspaper in the April 16th edition of the journal wrote a highly critical article.  He wrote:

 “…Our imagination fails to conceive any adequate reason for a picture of this sort.  It is realism of the worst kind, the artist’s eye seeing only the vulgar outside of his model, and reproducing that callously and brutally.  No human being, we should imagine, could take any pleasure in such a picture as this;  it is a degradation of Art…”

 It could well be that Roussel was making a stand with regards female nudity and would have been well aware of the furore which followed Edouard Manet exhibiting his famous but rebellious nude work, Olympia, at the Paris Salon twenty-two years earlier (see My Daily Art Display October 12th 2011).

 What I suppose strikes you at first glance is how relaxed the sitter is for the artist, how comfortable and at ease she was to sit before Roussel without any vestiges of clothing.  The female is Harriet (Hetty) Selina Pettigrew, a nineteen year old professional model, Roussel’s studio assistant and possibly a student of his.  She was born in 1867 in Portsmouth, one of twelve children, nine brothers and three sisters.  She was Roussel’s favourite model and also modelled along with her sisters Rose and Lily, for James McNeil Whistler, John Everett Millais and other Pre-Raphaelite artists. Hetty had met Roussel in 1884 and from becoming his model, then, despite Roussel being married, became his mistress and gave birth to their daughter, Iris around 1900.   When Roussel’s wife died, instead of legalising his relationship with Hetty and their child, he married Ethel Melville, the widow of the Scottish watercolour painter, Arthur Melville. Once Roussel re-married in 1914,  Hetty never sat for him again. Their close bond was over.

 Look how Roussel has used an almost black background so that nothing detracts from the female form.  This is not a pulchritudinous depiction of a classical woman à la Rubens.  This is simply a modern beautifully proportioned young woman.  Hanging from the back of her chair is a kimono which harks back to Roussel and Whistler’s love of all things Japanese which were sweeping through Europe.  The female reads a newspaper giving the impression that before us, we have a well educated young woman.  This is no Rococo-style air-head !!  The art critic Frederick Wedmore’s view of the painting was completely at odds to that of the Spectator’s art critic.  Of the painting he compared the work with many previous classics and wrote in the Art Journal of 1909:

 “…the most health-suggesting, health-breathing of Courbets, with the most rosily robust of Caro Delvaille’s (Le Sommeil fleuri), with the dreamiest Henner, with the slimmest and least material of Raphael Collin’s (Floréal)… a high masterpiece… austere in its performance, restful in its effect…”

Eva Mongi-Vollmer an art historian and curator at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt commented on the pose of the woman in Roussel’s painting in her book, Naked!Woman views. Painters intentions departure to modernity.  She wrote:

 “…It is the reading of an intellectual, modern woman who is not sexually available, despite the nudity…”


Study From the Nude of a Girl Lying Down by Théodore Roussel (1890)
Study From the Nude of a Girl Lying Down by Théodore Roussel (1890)

Another of Roussel’s works which is believed to have featured Hetty is Study From the Nude of a Girl Lying Down, a drypoint completed around 1890 which is part of the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago with a print of it held at the British Museum.

Chiaroscuro, A Profile, the Golden Scarf by Théodore Roussel (1900)
Chiaroscuro, A Profile, the Golden Scarf by Théodore Roussel (1900)

My third and final featured work by Théodore Roussel which featured Hetty is Chiaroscuro, A Profile, the Golden Scarf, which he completed around 1900.

Théodore Roussel died at St Leonards on Sea, a coastal town in East Sussex in 1926, aged 79.