Georgia O’Keefe. Part 1 – The early years and the “Specials”

Georgia Totto O'Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)
Georgia Totto O’Keefe
photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)

If I was to ask you who was the most quintessential American artist, I wonder whom you would choose. Would you go for one of the nineteenth century Hudson River School artists such as Frederic Church, Asher Durand and Thomas Cole or would you select one of the pioneering and tenacious American female painters who fought hard to gain a foothold in the male dominated world of art, such as Mary Cassatt and Elizabeth Jane Gardner. Perhaps you would decide on one of the great twentieth century painters such as Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper or the folk artist Grandma Moses. Then of course, let us not forget, there is John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler and naturally there are the modern greats of American art such as Rofko, Warhol, Pollock and de Kooning. I suppose it is impossible to single out one from the list of artists who paint in so many different genres. However, for me, the painter who symbolises America is Georgia O’Keefe and in my next blogs I will look at her life and feature some of her best-loved paintings.

The O'Keefe farmhouse. outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin
The O’Keefe farmhouse.
outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, the second of seven children. She was the eldest of five girls and had a younger and elder brother. Her father, who was of Irish descent, was Francis Calyxtus O’Keefe, who ran a successful farmstead on the outskirts of the village of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, along with his wife Ida Ten O’Keefe (née Totto), whose maternal grandfather was a Hungarian count. The farm was spread over 1700 acres of land on which they raised cattle, horses and grew crops. When Georgia was five years of age she attended the small one-roomed South Prairie Town Hall school. She progressed well and she and her siblings were constantly being pushed to learn by their mother, who would read stories to her children and play the piano for them. In fact Georgia went on to play both piano and violin.

At the age of eleven Georgia developed an interest in drawing and painting and so her mother arranged private art tuition for her and two of her sisters, Ida and Anita. Georgia revelled in what she learnt, She then attended the Sacred Heart Academy in nearby Madison as a boarder and in a conversation with a friend and fellow 8th grade pupil she talked about her future dreams:

“…I am going to be an artist!…..I don’t really know where I got my artist idea…I only know that by that time it was definitely settled in my mind…”

The O'Keefe's house in Williamsburg
The O’Keefe’s house in Williamsburg

In 1902 her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia but Georgia, who was fifteen years old, stayed behind for a short time with her aunt. Soon after she re-joined her parents in Peacock Hill, a suburb of Williamsburg and enrolled as a boarder at the private Chatham Episcopal Institute for Girls. She continued to love art and her artistic talent was recognised by all and her fellow students elected her art editor of the school yearbook. In her yearbook was written the telling verse:

“…O is for O’Keefe.

an artist divine.

Her paintings

are perfect and

drawings are fine…”

In 1905, Georgia, now seventeen years of age, graduated from high school and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here that she honed her skills as an artist and studied composition, anatomy and life drawing. Her anatomical drawing class tutor was John Vanderpoel, the Dutch-American artist and teacher, who was best known as an instructor of figure drawing and whose 1907 book, The Human Figure, became a standard art school resource. Georgia O’Keefe excelled at the Academy and all was going well until the summer of the following year when she went home and contracted typhoid and was so ill that she was unable to rejoin the Academy. She had to remain at home to recuperate for more than twelve months.

Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O'Keefe (1908)
Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O’Keefe (1908)

When she finally got her health back in 1907, she decided to resume her art career but instead of returning to Chicago she enrolled at the Arts Student League of New York which was one of the top art colleges of the time. One of her tutors was William Merritt Chase, who was one of the foremost art teachers of his generation. At this institution aspiring young artists were trained in the European tradition, namely, learning to paint portraits and still-lifes. Once again her artistic talent shone through and the following year she won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). Her prize was a scholarship to attend the League’s outdoor summer school at Lake George, in upstate New York, east of the Adirondack Mountains.

In 1908 things changed for Georgia. The Arts Student League of New York wanted to keep to the European tradition of art tuition, copying in the style of the Old Masters. It was a conservative formula and one will never know whether it was this rigid mimetic way of teaching art that disillusioned Georgia, but at the end of her year’s tuition in the autumn of 1908, she decided that she no longer wanted to become a professional artist. Another reason for giving up on her art studies was that her father’s business had collapsed and the family was in need of an extra income and so Georgia gave up her studies and embarked on a career as a commercial artist in Chicago where she spent her time designing adverts and company logos. She did not paint another picture for four years.

Georgia O'Keeffe, aged 30
Georgia O’Keeffe, aged 30

This artistic drought ended in 1912 when she attended a summer course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville where one of the classes was run by Alon Bement of the Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. It was Bement who introduced O’Keefe to the radical thinking of his colleague, Arthur Wesley Dow, the head of the Faculty of Fine Arts at New York’s Columbia University Teachers College. Dow believed in the Modernist approach to art and postulated that rather than just copying nature, art should be created by the various elements of composition such as line, mass and colour. He put his thoughts into words in his 1899 book entitled Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. He summed his thoughts up in the introduction to the second edition of the work which came out in 1912. He wrote:

“…Composition … expresses the idea upon which the method here presented is founded – the “putting together” of lines, masses and colors to make a harmony. … Composition, building up of harmony, is the fundamental process in all the fine arts. … A natural method is of exercises in progressive order, first building up very simple harmonies … Such a method of study includes all kinds of drawing, design and painting. It offers a means of training for the creative artist, the teacher or one who studies art for the sake of culture…”

Georgia O’Keefe who had tired of the mimetic teachings of the academy was enthralled by Dow’s ideas and her love for art was rekindled. In 1912, she moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she had accepted a position as supervisor of art in the city’s public schools. She took up a post in the August of 1912 as an art teacher at City Public School of Amarillo but she returned to the University of Virginia’s to attend the summer course the following year; this time as an assistant to Bement and in the autumn of 1914 she went back to New York and enrolled for two semesters at Columbia University Teachers’ College where she studied under Dow himself. It was around this time that she discovered the work of Arthur Garfield Dove. Dove, an American modernist painter, who has often been labelled as the first American abstract artist. He placed great emphasis on the artist’s subjective experience of his surroundings and on the intrinsic emotional power of colour and line rather than just copying from nature. To Georgia this was not just a revelation but it was the kind of art, which she believed in and it was to influence her art for the rest of her life. For her, it was inspirational, and she happily set off on a new artistic journey. She was excited at the new ideas which flooded her brain and described how she felt:

“…I said to myself ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me – so natural to my way of thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew – to strip away what I had been taught – to accept as true my own thinking……. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown – no one to satisfy but myself…”

You can sense her joy. You can sense her feeling of casting off the shackles of rigid academic teaching. You can sense the elation in the way she saw her future.

Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915
Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915

In September 1915, she accepted a teaching post at Columbia College, South Carolina and it is around this time she begins to experiment with her art, producing a series of amazing cutting-edge charcoal abstract drawings. One such drawing was entitled Drawing XIII which was completed in 1915. In this work we see that the image is sub-divided into three parallel sections. The left hand section has wavy vertical lines which reminds one of a meandering river although some say it is more like a vertical flickering flame reaching upwards. The central part of the work consists of four rounded bulbs which if we continue with our thoughts of nature could then be construed as round top hills. An alternative to this premise is that they are four densely foliated trees. The right hand section comprises of a series of jagged lines which could be a representation of mountains and so in a way this drawing may be a bird’s eye view of a range of mountains and a flowing river with trees separating the two.

Early No. 2 by Georgia O'Keefe (1915)
Early No. 2 by Georgia O’Keefe (1915)

Another of her charcoal works was entitled Early No. 2 which she also completed in 1915. O’Keefe has followed the advice of Arthur Dow and focused on the lines, shapes and tonal values which she, like Dow, believed were the fundamentals of the picture. Her reasoning behind these early drawings being in black and white and devoid of colour was her belief that colour would distract viewers from what she had hoped to create. It was all about curves and geometrical shapes and the clever balance between areas of the work which were light and shaded.

No. 12 Special by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
No. 12 Special by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Georgia O’Keefe was proud of her first foray into this new world of art and she would often refer to these early drawings as “Specials” indicating how much they meant to her. She mailed some of these drawings to her friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had been a Columbia classmate of hers. Pollitzer, who was now a photographer in May 1916, took them to show the internationally reknowned photographer and art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz, who had his gallery, 291, at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York. Stieglitz was impressed with what he saw and described them as:

“…the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered ‘291’ in a long while…”

Special No. 15 by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
Special No. 15 by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Unbeknown to O’Keefe, Stieglitz exhibited her drawings at his gallery alongside works by other artists. When O’Keefe found out about this, she was not best pleased but later forgave him. This initial collaboration between artist and gallery owner was to be a turning point in Georgia O’Keefe’s artistic life.

…………….to be continued.


Showing at Tattersalls by Robert Polhill Bevan

Showing at Tattersalls by Robert Bevan (1919)

The Camden Town Group was a group of English Post-Impressionist artists who were active between 1911 and 1913.  This hallowed group included Lucien Pissarro, the son of the French Impressionist, Camille Pissarro, Wyndham Lewis, Walter Sickert, Augustus John and today’s featured artist, just to name a few.  Their meeting place was usually at the Camden Town studio of the Munich-born painter, Walter Sickert, a leading light in the transition between Impressionism and Modernism.  My Daily Art Display featured artist of the day is Robert Polhill Bevan.

Bevan was born in Hove, near Brighton in 1865.  He was the fourth of six children of Richard Alexander Bevan and Laura Maria Polhill.  He was originally trained as an artist under Arthur Pearce.   As well as being a drawing teacher, Pearce had worked as an illustrator and had exhibited at the Royal Academy.  Later he would join the Royal Doulton pottery company where he became their chief designer.  When Bevan was twenty-three years of age he attended the Westminster School of Art and was tutored by the painter, Fred Brown, who would later move to the Slade School of Art and teach the likes of Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis.  After this initial training Bevan moved to Paris and studied art at the Académie Julian where he met some aspiring French artists, such as Édouard Villiers, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Sérusier and became great friends with another English artist, Eric Forbes-Robertson.  Whilst living in France Bevan and Forbes-Robertson visited the artist colony at Pont-Aven in Britanny.  Bevan was to visit this area many times over the years and became friends with Paul Gaugin and Renoir and art historians believe that judging from some of his early works he may have come into contact with Van Gogh. He returned to England in 1894 and settled in Exmoor, in the south-west of the country.  Three years later he met the Polish artist Stanislawa de Karlowska when he attended the wedding of his close friend Eric Forbes-Robertson in Jersey. At the end of 1897 Bevan and de Karlowska married in Warsaw where her parents lived and owned extensive land in the heart of the country.  Throughout the couples lifetime they would return there each summer to visit.  It was during his long summer stays in Poland that Bevan produced his most colourful paintings.  The influence of his friend Gaugin can be seen in these early works.   Their first child, Edith Halina, was born at the end of the following year.   Bevan and his wife left Devon in 1900 and moved to London and Stanislawa gave birth to their second child, a son Robert Alexander in 1901. In 1905 Bevan held his first solo exhibition but it did not receive the great acclaim he had hoped for from the art critics of the time and few of his paintings were sold.  Although very disheartened with the outcome of the exhibition he held his second exhibition three years later in 1908 and some of his paintings on display were in the pointillist style of Seurat and Signac, the first time he had used that technique.  (See My Daily Art Displays of October 21st and November 9th).  That year he exhibited five of his paintings at the first Allied Artists’ Association exhibition.  This organisation had been formed by a London journalist and art critic for The Sunday Times, and early champion of English Modern Art, Frank Rutter.  His main aim was to promote Modernist Art in Britain.  Artists could exhibit their works without them having to first be subjected to a selection jury, unlike the Royal Academy Exhibition.   It was an association very similar to one that was set up in Paris in the summer of 1884, called the Salon des Indépendants, another non-juried organisation, and which was, in some ways, in direct competition with the Paris Salon which like the Royal Academy had a jury to select paintings that were allowed to be shown. Soon after his exhibition he was invited to join the group of artists formed by Walter Sickert, entitled the Fitzroy Street Group and out of this group was spawned in 1911 The Camden Town Group.  In John Yeats social history book about The Camden Town Artists, he writes that Sickert advised Bevan about what subjects he should depict in his works.  Sickert told him:

 “…paint what really interests you and look around and see the beauty of everyday things…”

After this advice Bevan went off and completed a series of works depicting the horse cab trade in London and its steady but inevitable decline.  After this Bevan concentrated on pictorially recording what went on at horse sales, especially the ones which were held at Tattersall’s and it is one of those works which is My Daily Art Display featured painting for today.  The Camden Town Group relied on the goodwill of Arthur Clifton who ran the Carfax Gallery in London for he put on the groups exhibitions but after three exhibitions which failed to get critical acclaim and left many paintings unsold, Clifton declined to hold any more of their displays in his gallery although he would give space to some of the artists from the group.  This marked the beginning of the end for the Camden Town Group.

Robert Bevan continued painting.  His works often depicted London scenes or scenes of the countryside where he spent most of his summers.   Prior to the First World War he would spend the summers in his wife’s homeland of Poland but later they took their summer vacations around Devon and Somerset.

Bevan died in London in 1925, aged 60.  In 2008, the Tate put on a major retrospective exhibition of the Camden Town Group.

My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Showing at Tattersalls and was painted by Robert Bevan in 1919.  Tattersalls is the major auctioneer of race horses in Great Britain and Eire.  It dates back to 1766 and was founded by Richard Tattersall who had once been stud groom to the second Duke of Kingston.  Originally it had been situated close to Hyde Park Corner in London but now is located in Newmarket, the home of horse racing.

I love this painting.  It is simple and yet pleasing to the eye.  Before us we see two horses being paraded in front of potential buyers.  We are there.  We are being allowed to watch the goings-on at the stables.  The figures themselves mostly have their backs to us which allows Bevan to do away with carefully crafted facial expressions and their long clothing gives them a straight up-and-down appearance.  Bevan has spent time in the detail of the horses and their musculature and the sinews are in harmony with the animals’ movements.  The chestnut horse stands out well against the red door of the building and the blue-tinted horse, similar to the colour of the coats of the handlers, contrasts well against the yellow coloured building.  This backdrop of the yellow-coloured buildings looks like the stables which are attached to the yard and adds lightness to the work.

The simplicity of this painting is charming and as I look at it I feel the urge to step forward into the arena before me and enjoy the thrill of the auction preview.  I came across this painting when I recently visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.  I had gone there to view the Claude Lorrain exhibition and was absolutely staggered by what was on display at this museum.  Its collections of paintings were exceptional and I do urge everybody to try and visit it.  You will not be disappointed.

Finally I must pay tribute to a website from which I got a lot of information about the painting itself and have done my best not to plagiarise it too much.  The author of the blog, unlike me, is an artist and her interpretation of her painting is excellent.  It is a wonderful blog and well worth a visit.  It is called personalinterpretations and the website address is:

Her piece on this painting was in her blog of August 18th.

The Railway by Édouard Manet

The Railway by Édouard Manet (1872)

During Édouard Manet’s life he was great friends with the writer Charles Beaudelaire, the French poet, philosopher and art critic, and from around 1855 they became constant companions with the two of them frequently going off on sketching trips.   It was an important friendship for Manet, as during the times his work was being harshly criticised, Beaudelaire was very supportive of him.  Lois Hyslop the American author and Beaudelaire specialist wrote about this supportive role in her 1980 book Beaudelaire, Man of His Time, and she quoted his comments with regards Manet:

“…Manet has great talent, a talent which will stand the test of time. But he has a weak character. He seems to me crushed and stunned by shock…”

Beaudelaire believed in modernité in art and in his book, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, he stressed the importance of it saying that it was very important that art must be held accountable to capture the modern experience.  He wrote:

“…By modernity I mean the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable…”

His advice to Manet was that his art should depict a contemporary realism and that Manet should become le peintre de la vie moderne .

Today I am returning to the French artist Édouard Manet and looking at another of his paintings.   It is a painting of modern life and modern Paris and would no doubt have pleased his friend, Beaudelaire.  The painting is simply entitled The Railway which he started in 1872 and completed the following year.  It now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This was the only painting by Manet that was accepted by the Salon jury for their 1874 exhibition.  In some ways it is an unusual painting and we struggle to understand what it is all about and Manet never revealed his thoughts behind the work.  So let us take a look at the image and see if we can understand Manet’s thought process as he put brush to canvas.

Gare Saint Lazare and Pont de l'Europe (c.1868)

To start on this journey of exploration I suppose we need to say what we see.  Let us first let us take in the setting of the scene.  It is an urban landscape of Paris in the late 19th century.  Why did Manet choose this scene and what was its significance?  This was the area around the newly built Gare Saint Nazare which was completed in 1837 and this area, along with the Pont de l’Europe, which straddled the railway tracks was an area of unparalleled importance for representing the changing face of modern life in Paris brought about by the redevelopment scheme of Baron Haussmann.   It was an area which was depicted many times by the Impressionist artists like Monet, Caillebotte and Jean Beruad.  The view we see is from the garden of the rue de Rome apartment house of Manet’s artist friend Alphonse Hirsch.  The painting is almost dominated by the black metal railings which boldly run the full width of the painting, creating a foreground and a background to the work and at the same time and in some ways acts to force the two females out towards us.  The black railings form a hard, lattice-work and it is in contrast to the pure white steam behind it.  There is an abundance of contrast in this painting with its sharp edges and soft dissolves. The small girl, with her back to us, almost seems as if she is using the railings as stage curtains which she draws open to get a better view of the rail tracks and the feverish movement of the trains below.  In contrast, the older female just leans back against them and shows little interest in what is happening behind her.  She has seen it all before.  To the right, on the other side of the railings, low down we can see a signal box, above which we can just make out a white pillar which is part of the Pont de l’Europe, which was inaugurated in 1868.  The Saint-Lazare station, which is out of picture, is further to the right.

Across from the railway tracks and in the background on the upper left of the painting, just behind the woman’s head, we see the buildings on the rue de Saint-Pétersbourg and the probable reason for this inclusion is we are actually looking at the door and window  of 4 rue de Saint-Pétersbourg , which was formerly a fencing hall, but from 1872 to 1878, it was Manet’s studio.  Most of the central background behind the railings has been masked by a cloud of steam and smoke which has wafted upwards from a passing locomotive and now hangs in the air.

On our side of the railings and close up to us we have the life sized figures of a young women and a young girl.  We are connected to them by their nearness, but is there a connection between the two of them?  Are they mother and daughter, or sisters, or governess and charge?  I think at this early stage in our investigation we have hit a brick wall as there is nothing to tell us about this relationship.  However there is certain disconnect between the two.  They face in different directions, almost a Janus-like scenario.

The woman wears a long dark blue dress with large round white buttons and full lace cuffs.  Cradled in her lap we see a small dog, which is often termed due to its size, a lap dog.  She is holding an opened book which she has been reading and tucked partly under her right arm is a closed fan.  Her long hair which is auburn in colour hangs loosely down and rests on her shoulders.  The lack of styling to her hair gives me to believe that she may be just out of her teenage years and yet, the covering of her arms, unlike the young girl next to her,  would indicate a sense of decorum attributable to adulthood.  On top of her head she wears a tall bonnet crested with a floral design.  For jewellery she has gold-like earrings and a bracelet and wears a thin black ribbon around her neck.   She stares thoughtfully out at us.  It is an ambiguous unwavering  stare and in some ways a similar look to the one the lady gave us in Manet’s painting Olympia.  Is she trying to engage with us?

The model Manet used for this depiction is once again Victorine Louise Meurent, a painter and famous artist’s model.  We have seen her before in Manet’s controversial masterpieces, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) which I featured in My Daily Art Display of August 2nd and Olympia (My Daily Art Display Oct 12th).  This was to be her last sitting for Manet  for it was around this time that she started taking painting lessons.  She wanted to concentrate on an academic style of painting which was anathema to Manet and their relationship fell apart.

Let us now look at the young girl.  The model used for this young girl was the daughter of Albert Hirsch, Manet’s friend.   She has her back to us and we see her peering between the railings at the activity below – the passing of a steam train.  It is somewhat strange that her right arm and shoulder are missing which is in direct contrast to her left arm which is stretched outwards as her hand grips the black metal railing.  Her attire reinforces her young age as we see she is not condemned by late 19th century convention to have long sleeves to her dress.  Her bluish/silver dress with the large bow is depicted in an unusual fashion.  It balloons outwards which either means a rush of upward air has caused it to billow or she has retained what is termed “puppy fat”.  Her hairstyle belies her age as it is swept up in an adult fashion and tied by a similar black ribbon worn by the woman.

So what did the critics make of Manet’s painting which was his largest en plein air work,  up until then, that he ever painted measuring 93cms x 114cms.  Alas once again a hostile reception from the critics greeted Manet’s work.  One said the painting should be renamed:

Two sufferers from incurable Manet-mania watch the cars go by, through the bars of a madhouse

Those who visited the exhibition were baffled by the work.  Critics said that the painting was incoherent and the painting quality was poor.  Unfortunately, few failed to recognise that this was a painting which symbolised modernity.  His friend Beaudelaire would have been proud of him but alas he died seven years before the painting was exhibited.

Olympia by Édouard Manet

Olympia by Édouard Manet (1863)

My Daily Art Display today continues with the life of Édouard Manet.  Yesterday we had reached 1864 the year when he exhibited his work entitled The Dead Christ with Angels at the Paris Salon and for which he was heavily criticised.  So did Manet, after the criticism and ridicule of his 1864 painting, submit a less contentious work the following season in 1865?  The answer is simply a resounding NO.  He entered two paintings into the 1865 Salon and in fact one of the paintings entitled Olympia, was one he had completed two years earlier and it was this one which caused an even greater furore with both the public and critics alike. The fact that Manet had completed the painting two years earlier but had not exhibited it makes one wonder whether Manet himself had doubts about the wisdom of launching such a contentious painting on the Parisian public.  His concern was well founded as it was considered the most shocking of all the works exhibited that year.  Olympia by Manet is My Daily Art Display featured painting today.

Before us we see an almost nude woman lying on a bed with a pink orchid tucked behind her left ear.    At the end of the bed, by the naked woman’s feet, we can just make out a small black cat.  In fact the inclusion of the small furry animal often had people naming the painting, Venus with a Cat.  The model for the painting was Victorine Meurent.  Victorine was also, besides being a famous model for painters,  an artist in her own right and one who exhibited a number of works at the prestigious Paris Salon.  Ironically in 1876, one of her paintings was included in the Salon’s juried exhibition (exhibitions at which the works of art are only displayed if selected by a jury) and the painting which Manet put forward for selection was rejected.

The subject of the oil on canvas painting caused a sensation.  So what shocked the critics?  Was it the nudity?  If that was the case, then why, as surely paintings of nudes were quite common at that time.   The problem was not the nudity but the fact that the critics believed the naked woman that Manet had depicted could be identified as a demi-mondaine.  These were ladies who had a reputation of enjoying an extravagant lifestyle of fine food and clothes, all of which had been achieved because of the steady income they made in cash and gifts from their various lovers.   In other words she was identified as a high-class prostitute and the Parisian public was very uncomfortable with the scale of prostitution in their city. 

Venus of Urbino by Titian

There can be no doubt that Manet’s inspiration for this painting came from Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Giorgione’s Sleeping (Dresden) Venus (see My Daily Art Display for Feb 15th).  Maybe Manet wanted to update and be more innovative with his “Olympia”.   Not all critics condemned his effort.  A few praised him for his “bold step into modernism”.  However there are differences in the way Manet has portrayed his woman in comparison with Titian’s Venus and it is these differences which led to the outcry.

Sleeping (Dresden) Venus by Giorgione

The contention that Manet’s woman was merely a high class prostitute was brought about by the way she wore an orchid in her hair, her pearl earrings, her bracelet, and her expensive oriental shawl on which her body rests,  all of which gave rise to the belief that her wealth was gained from the “service” she offered her lovers.  Her skin is bright white in colour and there is a severe shift from light to shadow in this painting.  Look how she stares towards us with her black eyes.  This is not a demure gaze.  It is a challenging, contemptuous and provoking look, in some ways daring us to find fault with her appearance.  Her hand is placed over her vulva and in a way she is saying that this is only to be had by the men she chooses.  It is in some way a signal that she will choose who she will bed.  Around her neck she wears a narrow black ribbon which when contrasted with the paleness of her neck adds sensuality to her pose.  Her upswept hair held in place by the orchid adds to the eroticism.  Her slipper is half on and half off her foot in a slovenly fashion. 

Her black servant, Laure, stands by her side.  She is attired in the typical fashion servants of a courtesan would dress.  She is holding a bouquet of flowers which the naked woman seems to ignore.  They are probably a gift from a lover who may have just arrived.   Maybe her eyes are not on us but on the door through which her lover is about to emerge.

As I said earlier we have the strange black cat sitting on the end of the bed.  In Titian’s Venus of Urbino he had included a dog which symbolized fidelity and added a kind of gentility to the scene.  Manet would have none of this sentimentality and added his black cat which because of its habits was taken as a symbol of laziness, lust and prostitution.  A coincidence?  Or did Manet know exactly what he was doing when he include the animal in his painting?

The painting when exhibited was one which the observer either loved or hated.  There were no half-measures.  The painting could not be ignored.  The critics labeled it immoral and vulgar and his friend Antonin Beaudelaire commented that the picture had created such anger that it was in danger of being destroyed by an over-zealous and offended observer.  In 1890 the French government acquired the painting with a public subscription, which had been organized by Claude Monet, and it now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

 I will let you decide whether what you see before you is Venus, an old-style Titian-like goddess or a nineteenth century Venus whose name was Olympia.   Maybe you prefer to simply believe Manet has depicted a high class prostitute awaiting her next client but whatever you decide I think you will agree that it is a fine work of art.

The Dead Christ with Angels by Édouard Manet

The Dead Christ with Angels by Édouard Manet (1864)

Today, My Daily Art Display returns to the French painter of contemporary urban life and who was a leading figure in the shift from Realism to Impressionism and was looked upon as one of the founding fathers of Modernism.  So many –“isms” !   We have seen examples of these three -isms before but let me just do a recap of the meaning of these terms.

Realism was prevalent in the mid to late nineteenth century and this movement believed that painters should represent the world exactly as it was, even if it was at the expense of some artistic and social principles.  It was looked upon at the time as very controversial and often the works were viewed as being morally wrong and wicked because they challenged and broke the conventional standards of what was termed “good taste”.

Impressionism had its origins in France between 1860 and 1900 and soon spread to other western countries.   In a way it was, in some ways, a rejection of Academicism which promoted the Classical ideals of beauty and artistic perfection and which had a stringent hierarchy within the visual arts favouring the grand narrative and historical paintings.  The Impressionist painters and Impressionism wanted nothing to do with such Academic traditions but preferred to emphasise an accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities and looking how light changed with the time of day.  They would often paint outdoors (en plein air).   The Impressionist style of painting can be typified by its attention on the common impression produced by a scene or object and the way the artists tended to use unmixed primary colors and small brushstrokes in order to imitate real reflected light.

Finally Modernism, which was a very broad movement that also began around the latter years of the nineteenth century, and was a type of art that reflected modern times and did not keep looking back at times past.  The Modernist artists believed that the modern world they lived in was fundamentally different to what had gone before and that art needed renew itself and move on.  It was all about the artist’s vision of the future.

My featured artist today is Édouard Manet.  He was born in Paris in 1832 and was brought up in a wealthy, upper class household.  He was the eldest son of Auguste Manet, a judge and the Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Justice and Eugénie-Desirée Fournier, the daughter of a diplomat and goddaughter of Charles Bernadotte, the Swedish crown prince.  His father had hoped that young Édouard would follow him into the legal profession.  However even though he was well educated, Manet did not particularly shine academically but he did show a predisposition toward drawing and the arts.  In 1844, aged twelve years old, he enrolled at the College Rollin, a secondary school where he became friends with Antonin Proust, who would, in the future, become the French Minister of Fine Arts.   It was also around this time that Manet’s uncle, Charles Fournier, encouraged his enjoyment of the arts and the two of them along with Antonin Proust, would go on trips to the Louvre.

Manet had set his heart on going to sea and twice sat the entrance exam to a naval training school but in both cases failed.  He did however manage, with help from his father, to get a trip on the training ship Guadeloupe voyaging to Rio in 1848 and returning home in June the following year.   His father had by this time given up any hope of his son entering the legal profession and acquiesced to his son’s desire to become an artist.   For a six-year period, beginning in1850, Manet studies in the studios of Thomas Couture the Academic and History painter.  His relationship with his master was very strained and they would frequently clash.  It was around this time that he registers as a copyist at the Louvre and studies the works of the old masters, such as Velazquez and Goya.  Although impressed with their paintings, he believed that his works should reflect the ideas and ideals of the present time and not like theirs, keep harking back to the past.   Manet was a great friend and constant companion of Charles Beaudelaire, the great poet and art critic who was credited with coining the term modernité to designate the brief short-lived experience of life in an urban metropolis and he believed that art must be held accountable to capture the experience.  His advice to Manet about his art was that he should depict a contemporary realism, and had to become “le peintre de la vie moderne.

The year 1852 was the start of a change for Paris and Parisiennes as the great modernization of the city started on the direct orders of Napoleon III, under the supervision of Baron Georges- Eugène Haussmann.  The infrastructure often going back to medieval times had become inadequate, roads were too narrow and buildings were becoming unsafe.  In the great renovation programme, streets were widened and lengthened, houses pulled down to make way for new ones, shop fronts replaced.  All this work was labour-intensive and thousands of jobs were created people poured into the city from the outlying countryside to gain employment.  The whole of the social and cultural life of Paris changed with such a migration of labour.  Paris became one of the most beautiful and culturally progressive cities in the world and it was this modernity that Manet wanted to record in his works of art.

I will leave Manet’s biography at this point in his life and will conclude it in a later blog but for today I want to look at one of his earlier paintings entitled The Dead Christ with Angels, which he completed in 1864 and which can now be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  This was the first of a number of paintings by Manet that had religious subject matter. The biennial and later, annual Parisian Salons were considered the most expedient way for an artist to make himself known to the public, and Manet submitted paintings to Salon juries throughout his career.  He submitted today’s featured painting in 1864 exhibition.

The inscription indicates Manet’s source, but the passage he cited describes Mary Magdalene finding Christ’s tomb empty except for the two angels whereas his painting shows the two angels with Christ.  If that wasn’t bad enough Manet realised, albeit too late, when the painting was already on its way to the 1864 Salon Exhibition that he had made an even greater mistake with regards the accuracy of the biblical tale he had depicted.   Can you spot it?

In his painting he has painted the wound on the left side of Christ and not, as convention would have it, on his right side.   He immediately contacted his friend Baudelaire and told him of this error, and his friend advised him to correct the position of the wound in the painting before the exhibition opening.  He warned Manet that if he didn’t then his critics would have a field day, adding, “take care not to give the malicious something to laugh at.”   Manet’s submissions to the Salon of 1864 were again condemned by critics, for his painting of Christ and the Angels as they put it showed “a lack of decorum”.   The critics further denounced the work for its realistic touches, such as the cadaverous body of Christ and the seemingly human angels.  They argued that the painting totally lacked any sense of spirituality; the figure of the battered Christ was said to more closely resemble the body of a dead coal miner than the son of God.

Manet did not repaint the wound, and as Beaudelaire had foreseen, the critics derided his error. Only the writer, Émile Zola, gave the painting the respect it deserved.  Zola felt that Manet’s intention was to emphasize the reality of the corpse, even though he called attention to its holiness by including a halo.