Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon: 19th century gems – Part 1.

Of all the paintings on view at the Founder’s Collection of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon I think my favourites where the section featuring the 19th century works.

The Wreck of a Transport Ship by Turner (1810)

The first work I have chosen is by the English painter Joseph Mallord Turner and is entitled The Wreck of the Transport Ship which he completed around 1810. The painting is one of a series of large-scale depictions carried out by Turner in the first decade of the 19th century which were all about natural disasters at sea caused by storms. Shipwrecks and other disasters at sea were a popular theme in Romantic painting. They revealed the unrelenting and brutal forces of nature which were constant dangers to those who set off on a sea voyage. The inspiration for this work has been much debated. At one time it was thought that Turner painted the work the same year the vessel, Minotaur was wrecked in December 1810, as a result of a navigational error in a gale on the Haak Sands off the mouth of the Texel, with around 370 of her crew lost, including Captain Barrett. However, this idea was discounted when billing records showed the sale of the painting to Charles Pelham, 1st Earl of Yarborough, in April 1810, some several months before the sinking of the Minotaur.

The Shipwreck by Joseph Mallord Turner (1805) (Tate Britain, London)

The popular thought is that Turner was influenced by an earlier painting of his, The Shipwreck, which is part of the Tate Britain collection in London, and one he completed in 1805.

A Road at Ville d’Avray by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1874)

Calouste Gulbenkian was an avid collector of works by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and the one I especially like is entitled A Road to Ville-d’Avray which he painted in 1874, the year before his death. In the work we see the road leading to the railway station at Ville d’Avray, a village in the western suburbs of Paris, located twelve kms from the centre of the French capital. It was a very small village where Corot spent long periods of his life at a summer house which was purchased by his parents in 1817. This small hamlet, as it was then, was one of the artist’s greatest sources of inspiration. Corot’s paintings of Ville d’Avray are thorough observation of nature. They are closely associated with plein air painting although sketches first made outdoors were then usually finished back in his studio utilising both his memory and his imagination. It is thought that Corot positioned the figures we see in the depiction, at the end, to act as a balancing mechanism for the finished work. Jean-Baptiste Corot died in Paris of a stomach disorder on February 22nd 1875, aged 78 and was buried at Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery.

The Bridge at Mantes by Corot (c.1870)

Another painting by Corot which I liked was his work entitled Bridge at Mantes which he completed around 1870. The outlying towns and villages of the French capital were one of Corot’s favourite subjects throughout his career and many depictions of them appear in many of his works. Mantes-la-Jolie was one of Corot’s favoured places to paint. The town is situated a few kilometres to the north-east of Paris and the depiction we see before us is as seen from the Île de Limay on the Seine. Corot painted many views which incorporated the old medieval bridge, Le pont de Mantes, and the Gothic cathedral. Corot had begun a series of works around the middle of the nineteenth century and completed the last one around 1870. This painting was one of his later works to feature the town. It is both a clear and natural looking depiction which Corot achieved by the use of monochrome shades and the way he reduced the use of colours. The painting shows soft fluent brushstrokes and this fluidity makes it seem as if the leaves on the trees are being moved by a gentle breeze and the painting displays a freshness that floods all of the senses. Corot’s art in this period is magical and as he himself declared, sensations captured in the open air are reproduced without ever losing sight of the importance of the first impression.

Winter by Jean-Francois Millet (c.1868)

I have always liked the rural realism paintings of Jean-François Millet such as The Gleaners, The Angelus and The Winnower and so to see something quite different from the French artist at the museum was of great interest. The painting was Winter which he painted around 1868. The depiction in the painting, Winter, is of grim harshness, and exudes an air of melancholia. We see before us a frozen wintry landscape which disappears into the distant horizon. The tiny figure of a man can be seen to the right of the haystack and the inclusion of the figure enforces a sense of loneliness in this bleak expanse of the frozen plain. It forces us to think about man’s relationship with nature and his ever-changing environment. This sense of cold desolation has been achieved by Millet through his constrained use of colours. Before us we see a vision of a grey, hostile, and unwelcoming world and it is this sombre intensity which dominates the entire surface of the canvas.

Haystacks Autumn by Jean-François Millet (c.1874) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In 1868, the wealthy French industrialist Frédéric Hartmann had given Millet a twenty-five thousand francs commission to paint a series of four paintings depicting the seasons. A painting from that series, Haystacks: Autumn which Millet went on to paint in 1874 and which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, bears a resemblance to his aforementioned Winter 

The Town of Thiers by Théodore Rousseau (1830)

Étienne Pierre Théodore Rousseau was just eighteen years old when he completed his 1830 painting entitled The Town of Thiers. He had visited the Central French Auvergne town in the summer of 1830 and during his stay completed many works depicting the commune. The depiction reveals the scene of a medieval town with its gathering of houses which ascend the steep slope that culminates in the Church of St. Jean, the towns highest point. The pale blues of the background signify the mountain range of the Puy-de-Dome. Rousseau’s biographer, Alfred Sensier, believed that the style used in the series of work Rousseau completed in this region were to forever become his own style.

The Fishermen by Constant Troyon (c.1850)

My last offering for this first look at the 19th century paintings is one by the Barbizon school artist, Constant Troyon. Troyon was born in Sèvres a southwestern suburb of Paris in 1810. The painting, The Fishermen, which he completed around 1850 was the integration of an imported pictorial style from the Dutch Golden Age. It was recorded that Troyon visited the Low Countries in 1847 and was influenced by the great Dutch artists, such as Albert Cuyp and Paulus Potter and such influence can be seen in this work in a group of animals seen on the plain somewhere in the region of Normandy. In the middle ground we see ancient oaks set against a cloud covered sky. It is a balance of Romanticism and Naturalism.

In my final blog about the paintings in the Founders Collection of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian I will be looking at more of the nineteenth century paintings on display.

Calais Pier by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Calais Pier by Turner (1803)

I am fast approaching my 300th edition of this blog and many of you may think it strange that in all that time I have never featured an artist much loved by many, Joseph Mallord William Turner.  In some ways, of course, it is an omission but I have to be honest and state that Turner is not one of my favourite artists.  Yes, I am aware that statement is artistic anathema and pictorially sacrilegious but everybody’s likes and dislikes are different.  I am a person who loves detail and clarity in a painting and the haziness” of a lot of Turner’s painting is just not for me.  I was at a local gallery the other day and when asked which was my favourite painting on display, I pointed to a mountain scene and the person who asked me to decide commented that it was too much like a photograph for his liking.  There lies my dilemma.  I don’t want a framed photograph on my wall but I do want clarity of detail.  I am happy with an idealised landscape.  I just want to study the intricate details of the artist’s work.

Less about my likes and dislikes and on to today’s offering which is one of Turner’s paintings, which is without the haziness that I dislike.  It is entitled Calais Pier and was completed by Turner in 1803 and is in the safe keeping of the National Gallery in London.  I touched briefly on Turner’s life a few days ago when I featured the artist Thomas Girtin, a friend and contemporary of Turner.  I know many books have been written about Turner’s life but let me briefly go through the life of today’s artist

Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden, London.  His father, William Gay Turner was a wig maker and when they became unfashionable he became a barber.  His mother was Mary Mallord Marshall.  His mother and father had married in 1773 and a year after Turner was born his mother gave birth to his sister, Mary Ann.  Sadly and with devastating consequences she died in 1786, at the age of eight.  Her death virtually destroyed her mother who became mentally unstable and eventually in 1799 she was committed to the Bethlem Royal Hospital Mental Hospital (Bedlam) where she died in 1804.

Because of his mother’s mental problems, and the problems arising from her condition, the young Turner left home for about a year and went to live in Brentford with his mother’s brother, Joseph William Mallord Marshal.  Whilst living with his uncle’s family he attended the John White’s School.  It was during the time when he was being brought up by his uncle’s family that Turner started to show an interest in art.    For holidays he would often be taken to Margate and it was around this time, 1786, that eleven year old Turner first signed and dated his drawings of the seaside town and the surrounding areas.    These early drawings of his were often proudly displayed by his father in his shop window.   After early schooling, Turner, aged fourteen, was accepted as a student at the Plaister Academy of the Royal Academy of Art schools in 1789 where he studied for exams which would afford him membership of the Royal Academy itself.  After just one year, when he was fifteen he was accepted into the Royal Academy, which at the time was headed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great English painter, and who was on the selection panel of the artistic establishment.  Turner went on to have his first painting, a watercolour entitled The Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth,  accepted into the Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1790 and six years later he had his first oil painting entitled Fisherman at Sea  shown at the exhibition.  Turner exhibited some of his work at almost every subsequent Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions for the rest of his life.

After leaving the Royal Academy Schools, Turner embarked on many European journeys, visiting Paris where he studied in the Louvre, visiting Switzerland and Italy where he spent some time in Venice.  He also often travelled around Britain with his friend and fellow artist, Thomas Girtin.  During one of his British journeys when he was twenty-two, he visited Otley, Yorkshire and met and became great friends with Walter Fawkes, a wealthy landowner and Member of Parliament, who was to become one of Turner’s patrons and who commissioned many works from the artist.

Although Turner never married, he did have two children by his mistress Sarah Danby whom he met in 1799.  Sarah, a widow nine years his senior, gave birth to two of his children, Evelina in 1801 and Georgiana in 1811.  Art historians would have us believe that Turner over time became very eccentric and only had a handful of close friends.  However, he was always close to his father and for thirty years his father lived with Turner.  His father died in 1829 and this devastated and depressed the artist.  Not only had his father been supportive of him he would often act as his studio assistant.

In 1833, on one of his journeys back to Margate, Turner met Sophie Caroline Booth who had been recently widowed and lived in the town.  They became lovers and in the 1840’s she bought herself a small cottage in Chelsea and Turner went to live with her.  He was to remain with her until his death at the house of his lover in December 1851.   He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral and lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds.

I chose the featured painting today, Calais Pier as I have been associated with the sea and ships almost all my life and I am only too aware of the ferocity of the seas around the British and Channel coasts and so in some way it was a return to my seafaring past when I was in ships and had to watch helplessly when my ship battled against the ferocity of a storm and the mountainous seas which the winds had whipped up.  This painting by Turner is based on his own experience of rough weather during his first ferry crossing to France in 1802 at which time he made many sketches of the crossing from Dover to Calais.  We need to remember that in those days there was no such thing as weather forecasts and so vessels would put to see and were at the mercy of the weather.

We have before us a sombre scene of vessels being wildly buffeted by the gale-force wind and giant waves.  In the centre of the work with the dark sails we see the Dover-Calais ferry crammed full of people.  The English flag flutters wildly at the top of the mast.  Next to it, with the white sail, is a French fishing boat which looks to be perilously close to the English ferry.  The sails and the deck of this vessel are spectacularly lit up by a shaft of sunlight which has managed to penetrate the black storm clouds.  Pulling away from the quay and heading into the rough seas, we see another small boat with its fishermen.  One of its crew can be seen remonstrating wildly towards the other fishing boat, maybe to alert them to the dangers of colliding with the ferry.  It seems a foolhardy act for the men to set sail in the little boat considering the ferocity of the storm or risk being crushed by the waves against the pier itself.  It is almost as if maybe the storm has taken everybody by surprise.  On the pier we see people trying to carry on as normal.  Women wearing local hats and wearing wooden clogs gather the morning catch of what looks like skate and set about gutting the fish.

This is wonderfully dramatic painting and whereas we are use to being able to see and hear the rough seas and the sound of violent storm on television, in the days of Turner it was just the magic of the artist who could bring such things to the attention of people.  Turner has magically given us an insight into the happenings during a storm at sea.  We can almost hear the people shouting to be heard.  We see the wild billowing of the ships’ sails and see and sense the sound of the crashing of the waves against the pier.  We almost feel that we are there on the Calais Pier.

Turner exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy in 1803 but like many of his works it was not well received.  Many thought it was an unfinished work especially the foreground.