Clara Peeters – The Queen of Still Life paintings

I suppose painters challenge us with trompe l’oeil aspect of their depictions partly as a joke, as in the case of M C Escher and partly as an outward show of their technical brilliance. Trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) is often incorporated in still life paintings and in many facets of a still life work we can appreciate the expertise of the artist.  The words still life derive from a Dutch word stilleven while the French prefer nature morte and Italian, natura morta meaning dead nature.  Still life paintings are those which depict inanimate objects, whether they be such things as musical instruments, kitchen utensils and tableware as well as portrayal of dead animals, foliage or musical instruments etc.  Often the inclusion of an inanimate object in a painting has a symbolic meaning whilst at other times it is simply art for art’s sake.

What Is Vanitas
Vanitas Still Life with a Skull and a Quill (1628) by Pieter Claesz

The term memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’ is often a term used when describing certain types of still life works.  Paintings, for example, which may include a portrait with a skull but other symbols commonly found are hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit, and flowers.  Closely related to the memento mori picture is the vanitas still life.  I find the depiction of these inanimate objects fascinating and feel that they are completed by the most talented artists. 

Basket of Flowers by Balthasar van der Ast (1622)

Unlike me, the French Academy of the seventeenth century did not agree.  According to the French Academy their hierarchy of genres (or subject types) for art established in the seventeenth century, still life paintings were ranked at the bottom – fifth after history painting, portraiture, genre painting (scenes of everyday life) and landscape. It is thought that still life and landscape paintings were considered lowly because they did not involve human subject matter.

Still Life with Jug, Berkemeyer and Smoking Utensils_Pieter Claesz_17th century
Still Life with Jug, Berkemeyer and Smoking Utensils by Pieter Claesz (1640)

We know people buy portraiture to remember someone.  People buy landscapes and seascapes for their beauty and often to remind themselves of places they loved to visit.  Genre paintings were scenes of everyday life which often were also pictorial tales of morals and sometimes the realist genre paintings told of harsh times suffered by the less fortunate.  But who would buy still life paintings?  I suppose a beautiful flower arrangement depicted in a floral still life lights up a room but what about still life paintings which depict dead animals, food and expensive homeware?  Buyers of such work may believe that the painting reflects their affluence or hunting prowess.

The spoils of the chase guarded by a dog by Jan Fyt (c.1630)

When you look through the list of sixteenth and seventeenth still life painters, very few women’s names appear and yet there are a few.  The most obvious are the seventeenth century artists, Rachel Rausch with her floral still life works and Judith Leyster.   Today I want to look at the life and works of the greatest female still life painters, Clara Peeters.  She was by far the best-known female Flemish artist of this era and one of the few women artists who became a professional artist in seventeenth-century Europe, and she achieved that status despite constraints on women’s access to artistic training and membership in guilds.

Still Life Self portrait by Clara Peeters (c.1610)

Clara Peeters was born in Antwerp but when it comes to her date of birth there is some confusion.  It is known that a Clara Peeters, the daughter of Jean (Jan) Peeters was baptized on May 15th 1594 in the Church of St. Walburga, Antwerp and other records indicate that Clara Peeters and Henric Joosen were married in the same church on May 31st 1639.  So is that Clara Peeters the famous artist?  Although she is a major figure in the history of European still life painting, almost nothing is known about Clara Peeters’s life with certainty. Early researchers confused her with other women bearing the same relatively common name, ranging from an Antwerp heiress to an Amsterdam prostitute.  Also, we have to be wary of jumping to conclusions as Peeters was a very common name in Antwerp.

Still Life by Clara Peeters (1607)

Another factor which casts doubt on the birthdate of 1594 as her paintings, which were dated 1607, would mean she completed them she was just thirteen years of age and that is extremely unlikely so the conclusion is Clara was born in the 1580’s.

Still Life with Fish, a Candle, Artichokes, Crab, and Prawns by Clara Peeters (1611)

At a point in time when she was living in Amsterdam Clara Peeters produced one of her still life masterpieces in 1911.  It was entitled Still Life with Fish, a Candle, Artichokes, Crab, and Prawns.  Before us we see what looks like a wooden table upon which is a selection of seafood, such as boiled crabs and shrimp, several freshwater fish including two carp, a roach, several ide or orfe, and a northern pike.  Behind the food there is a dark glass goblet, a brass candlestick with an unlit but partially burnt out candle, a Rhenish stoneware jug, a copper strainer with a brass colander in which are two artichokes. 

The reflected face

Although you will not see it in the main picture if you were able to take a close look at the lid of the jug you would see a reflection/self portrait of Clara wearing a large headpiece.  She, like a number of famous artists, included her own portrait in a number of her paintings.

Still Life with Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells, zoomed in
Still life with Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells by Clara Peeters (1611)

Another painting in the Prado collection by Clara Peeters is her 1611 work entitled Still Life with a Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells and is thought to have been in the Spanish royal collection.  In this work we see a life-sized Eurasian sparrow hawk balanced on the edge of a wicker basket.  Due to its large size we believe it to be the female of the species.  Sparrow hawks would typically be used in the gardens surrounding a palace or a city, and not only by men but also by women and children learning the art of falconry.  Lying lifeless in the basket is a large mallard, and a woodcock.  At the left, with its head hanging from the table is a hen.  A dead thrush lies on the table.  The small red bird to the right is a common bullfinch.   The bullfinch often appeared in Clara’s still life paintings and this could well be because of its vivid red colouring and in this work contrasts well with the green head of the mallard.  Along the side of the wicker basket are a line of dead finches, hanging by their necks.    One question you might ask yourself is why have one live bird depicted among so many dead ones.  I think the reason is that the smaller dead birds could well be the prey of the living sparrow hawk.  Again in this painting, as it was in the previous one, note how Clara has contrasted the soft feathered bodies of the birds with the harder and finer surfaces of the shells and porcelain dishes.

Kraak bowl (c.1600)

The several plates and bowls of white kraak porcelain are stacked on top of a blue and white kraak plate, an item which appeared in a number of Peeters’ paintings.  In this painting the blue colour of this dish has faded and this is probably due to the cobalt-based pigment used.  Kraak ware or Kraak porcelain is a type of Chinese export porcelain produced mainly in the late Ming Dynasty, in the Wanli reign.   It was among the first Chinese export wares to arrive in Europe from the late sixteenth century via Portugal and Spain, and spread throughout the continent mainly through Habsburg networks.  It often featured in Dutch Golden Age paintings of still life subjects which included foreign luxuries.

Image result for still life with flowers, gilt goblet, almonds, dried fruits, sweets, biscuits, wine and a pewter flagon
Still life with flowers, a Silver Gilt Goblet, Dried Fruits, Sweetmeats, Bread Sticks, wine and a Pewter Flagon by Clara Peeters (1611)

For the less squeamish but keeping to the subject of food I give you Clara Peeters’ 1621 painting entitled Table with Cloth, Salt Cellar, Gilt Standing Cup, Pie, Jug, Porcelain Plate with Olives and Cooked Fowl.  There are no dead animals on this table, just simple and tasty fare.  The arrangement of inanimate objects would appear random when in fact Peeters probably spent much time with the arrangement.  Firstly, she would want what was placed on the table to look like an everyday table set for a feast.  However, she would ensure that none of the objects blocked the view of another. The glass in the background containing the red wine is a fluted façon de Venise glass and was the type that was being manufactured in Antwerp by Italian glassblowers at the time. It is probable that the red wine had been imported from France, Italy or Spain. At the time of the painting much of food in the Dutch capital, such as wine, oil, salt, raisins and figs had come from Spain.  In this painting we see these fruits, together with almonds and sugar candy, in a large wide bowl known as a bianchi di Faenza vessel, a type of earthenware made in Faenza, an Italian city in the province of Ravenna, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries..


Look carefully at the gilt goblet and the pewter flagon.  These are objects that appear in other of her still life paintings and also once again, she painted her self-portrait – three times in the raised parts of the goblet and four times in a vertical line on the pewter jug. This inclusion of herself portraits in some of her works is believed to be a form of a proclamation that she was a female painter and proud to be one in a profession dominated by men.

Clara Peeters - Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels.jpg
Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels by Clara Peeters (1615)

The Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels which she completed in 1615 is one of Clara Peeters’ best works and is part of the Mauritshuis collection. The depiction features a stone table top on which is a tin plate with three cheeses on it.  Above the cheeses is a smaller plate of butter shavings. In the foreground, on the left there are two pretzels, next to which is a knife with a beautifully decorated silver handle, three almonds and a blue-white plate of Wan Li porcelain filled with dried figs, almonds and raisins.  In the background we see a stoneware jar and a partially gilded lidded glass à la façon de Venise.  On the right side of the table there is also a sandwich and two raisins.  It is a meticulous depiction even down to small damages to some of the items and the hole in the cheese where a testing tube had been inserted.  As with all her still life works she has a remarkable ability to depict textures.  Look how she has depicted the crumbly nature of the dark green cheese and the softness of the shavings of butter as well as the reflective quality of the wine glass.  Her colour palette consists mainly of delicately harmonised yellow and reddish-brown shades and by doing this she has added warmth to the depiction but it is contrasted by the cool blue and white bowl at the right foreground.  The dark background and the way she has placed the objects in close proximity to each other offers a scene of intimacy.

The ornate knife

Look at the knife in the foreground that overhangs the edge of the table. The blade has an Antwerp mark, but more of interest is the ornate handle, which is decorated with ornaments and figures that signify love and marriage.  Although not clear in the picture, at the top a vignette of entangled hands with a burning heart and below it the allegorical figures of Faith and Temperance.  This type of knife, along with a matching fork in a pouch, was given as a wedding cutlery as a gift at weddings.  Even more interesting is the side of this bridal knife, on which Clara has put her name in the form of an engraved inscription, which is unusual as it is one of the few still lifes that she has signed her name in full, rather than her usual signature on her paintings “CLARA P”.    Maybe the reason for the full name on the knife handle was because it was her own wedding gift. However, whether she ever married is still unknown. 

Face of Clara in the lid of the jug

Once again we see the added personal touch to this still life work for if you take a closer look you can uncover in the metal lid of the stone jug the reflection of a face with a white cap: this is Clara herself and as in other paintings by her this reflection appears to be a secondary “signature”.  This incorporation of a self portrait in a painting soon caught on and many other artists followed suit.

Florero (2)
Vase of Flowers by Jan Brueghel the Elder (Jan Velvet Brueghel), 1609

Paintings depicting vases of flowers were very popular at the time.  One of the leading exponents was Jan Breughel the Elder.

Bouquet of Flowers by Clara Peeters (c.1612)

One of Clara Peeters’ floral still life paintings is in the Met Museum of New York. The painting depicts a luxurious bouquet of flowers in a roemer glass, which stands on a low stone shelf. The painting is awash with primary colours which make it stand out against a plain dark background.  The bunch is a mix of late spring and early summer blooms and include roses, tulips, narcissi, carnations, and irises. We see that some of the flowers have shed their petals which now lie on the pitted ledge.  Clara Peeters was an expert when it came to depicting reflective surfaces, an example of this is her depiction of the glass with its ornamented base and serrated foot. We see a butterfly perched on the stem of a fallen flower and in a way, this brings to life this still life work.

One has to presume that Clara Peeters’ choice of still life paintings is a result of the restrictions imposed on female artists. Female artists rarely followed an art education, certainly never being allowed to paint naked models, a must-do requirement if you wanted to become a history painter.  On the other hand, everyday objects were within reach of female painters.  Peeters’ still life artwork was in great demand with the buying public.  Already in the first half of the 17th century there was work by her in collections in the Northern Netherlands as well as her still lifes in the royal collection in Madrid. As was explained at the beginning of this blog the date of her birth is not precisely known.  It is the same for the date of her passing but it is presumed to be sometime after 1657.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Part 2 – Marriage and early still-life paintings.

Portrait of Marguerite Saintard by Chardin

Chardin’s road towards married life was a protracted one. The love of his life was Marguerite Saintard, the daughter of Simon-Louis Saintard, a Parisian tradesman and his wife Françoise Pantouflet and in 1723 a contract of marriage was agreed with financial details and dowries having been accepted by both parties and the future in-laws. However, Marguerite’s parents were wary with regards how Chardin would support their daughter and needed Chardin’s position to be “consolidated” before any marriage could take place. One has to remember that it was not until 1728 that Chardin was accepted into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture which meant he had a greater chance of selling his work. However, in 1730 he had acquired his first patron, Comte Conrad-Alexandre de Rothenbourg, Louis XV’s ambassador to Madrid, who was buying up many of his paintings.

Still life with Attributes of the Arts by Chardin (c.1731)

In 1731 Chardin was commissioned by Rothenbourg to paint two still-life canvases for his library on Rue du Regard, in Paris. It was decided that they should be painted and then hung high up on either side of the door to the room, as they were initially designed to be viewed from below. One was entitled Attributes of the Arts which is housed in St Petersberg’s Institute of Russian Literature

The Attributes of the Sciences by Chardin (1731)

The other was Attributes of the Sciences.  It is interesting to note that two of the items depicted in this latter work belonged to Chardin. They were two large Turkish carpets which normally covered the oak tables in Chardin’s study. In the painting we can see a graphic characterisation of the Scientific Revolution and the discoveries and inventions from that time. We see instruments that were connected with observation such as a telescope, and a microscope. There were objects which harked back to times of discovery and knowledge such as the globe, as well as books and maps. These items also symbolise the documentation and spreading of knowledge in science. This still-life work focuses on inanimate objects that represent the theme and motif of the image. The depiction is without people and the scientific instruments are placed in the centre of the painting and reflect the scientific revolution and the new world view and perspective that was gradually accepted during the artist’s time.

Chardin and Marguerite, signed a second marriage contract in January 1731. It is ironic that the delay to the marriage was due to Marguerite’s parents concern about Chardin’s ability to financially provide for their daughter and yet her dowry as stated in the second contract (1000 livres) was less than that stated in the first marriage contract (3000 livres) eight years earlier. The probable reason for this reduction was that since the signing of the first contract both of Marguerite’s parents had died. Chardin and Marguerite married on February 1st 1731 at the nearby church of Saint-Sulpice.

A Lady Taking Tea by Chardin (1735)

In Chardin’s 1735 painting A Lady Taking Tea, it is believed that his wife, Marguerite Saintard, was the model for the depiction. It is a beautiful and, in some way, a haunting image of a lady drinking tea, because the work was completed just two months before she died.

Cat with Salmon, Two Mackerel, Pestle and Mortar by Chardin (1728)

In 1728 Chardin produced two more still-life works featuring cats. One was entitled Cat with Salmon, Two Mackerel, Pestle and Mortar which is now housed in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. In this work we see the cat with its tail erect placing its paw tentatively on a piece of salmon. Under the salmon fillet we can just make out a dark green pottery lid, next to which is a leek and an onion and on the far right there is a pestle and mortar.

Cat with Ray, Oysters, Pitcher and Loaf of Bread by Chardin (1728)

The other work, entitled Cat with Ray, Oysters, Pitcher and Loaf of Bread is also housed in the Madrid museum and features Chardin’s well-known ray. Like the previous painting this work depicts a nervous tortoiseshell cat as it hesitantly places its paws on the oysters. The depiction is completed by the ray. This is complimented by the inanimate objects – the green glazed earthenware dish, a small jug and part of a loaf of bread. Chardin’s still life works are arranged with objects that belonged to him and which he repeatedly used in his compositions.  These two paintings were in the collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild and were acquired for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1986.  Both reflect the influence of Dutch painting that is evident in the artist’s early work, in which he adapted northern subjects and formats to his own manner. Chardin had now begun to supplement his inanimate objects with living animals that in some way interpose the calmness of the depiction. The composition of these two paintings is pure simplicity with the arrangement of the cats and the inanimate kitchen items on a stone ledge. Chardin’s rich colouring creates a visually believable image.

Still Life with Pestle and Mortar, Pitcher and Copper Cauldron by Chardin (c.1732)

Another of Chardin’s early still-life paintings housed in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Madrid is Still Life with Pestle and Mortar, Pitcher and Copper Cauldron, which he completed around 1732. In this work, Chardin depicts a wooden pestle and mortar, a pottery pitcher, a small copper cauldron or cooking pot and a fired terracotta dish of a type used for cooking. The foreground is dominated by a white cloth of a thick weave, atop of which we see an arrangement made up of onions, potatoes, two eggs and some thin leeks. Colour played a big part in the success of Chardin’s works and this painting is a fine example of Chardin’s use of colour and tones. Look, for example, at the whites in the foreground. Chardin has used various shades of white to depict the skin of the onions, the eggs and the coarse tablecloth to give a feel for the texture of the objects. The wooden pestle and mortar on the left can be seen in other paintings by Chardin, as would the pitcher and the copper cooking pot.

Still life by Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1642)

Chardin uses ploys which can also be seen in Flemish and Dutch still-life paintings to create a sense of depth by depicting the white cloth fallings over the front of the table top. The end of the leek also appears to overshoot the table top to give a 3-D impression and this reminds one of the similar trompe l’oeil technique when objects overlap tables in many Netherlandish paintings, such as in the Still Life painting by the Flemish painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem in which we see the claws of a lobster and the curled peel of a lemon overhang the green velvet table covering.

Bowl of Plums, a Peach and Water Pitcher by Chardin (1730)

In 1930 Chardin completed his painting, Bowl of Plums, a Peach and Water Pitcher, which is now housed at The Phillips Collection in Washington DC.  The bowl of plums we see in this work was a favourite of Chardin’s and appeared in some of his other works.  What is unique about this painting is his inclusion of the white water pitcher with its exquisite butterfly pattern and delicate silver mount.  It puzzled art historians as to whether this item was a figment of the artist’s imagination but it is known that Chardin needed to have the objects in front of him when copying them and so it is thought that he had acquired this Chinese vessel at some time. Chardin has gone for a scumbled (the application of a very thin coat of opaque paint to give a softer or duller effect) background, so not to detract from the pitcher and fruit.

The next six years were a rollercoaster of personal events for Chardin. His father, Jean-Pierre died at the beginning of April 1731 but Chardin received very little from his father’s estate due to the fact he was the product of his father’s second marriage and there were many “calls” on the estate from his father’s ex-wife and their children of his first marriage. In the end Chardin inherited 1,711 livres. On November 15th 1731, Chardin’s son, Jean-Pierre was born and two years later, in 1733, his daughter, Marguerite-Agnès, was born. A period of sadness was to soon follow with Chardin’s wife Marguerite dying on April 13th 1735 at the young age of 22 and his daughter dying in 1737, aged just four. These deaths probably took their toll on Chardin as in 1742 he became very ill and takes no part in that year’s Salon.

..……to be continued

One of the many blogs I follow is one entitled Victorian Paris Blog and the author is Iva Polansky.  I was pleased to read that she has turned the various blogs into an e-book.  Take a look at it:


Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin. Part 1 – The start of the artistic journey.

In my last few blogs I have concentrated on lesser-known artists but for the next few blogs I will be delving into the life and works of one of the greatest French artists of the eighteenth century. This painter is rightly regarded as one of greatest masters of Still Life in the history of art. I give you Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin. Chardin who was born in 1699 and grew up in a time when the painting style of the establishment was Rococo; an affected style which was overflowing with allegorical images from classical mythology depicted amongst a whirl of lavish adornments. Chardin would not follow that theatrical trend, much preferring his works to be rational conversation pieces. His works of art were ones of truth, self-effacement, and tranquillity.

Self-portrait by Chardin (1771)

Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin was born on the Parisian Left Bank quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on November 2nd 1699. His father was Jean Chardin, a master cabinet-maker, and his mother was Jeanne-Françoise David, his father’s second wife. The family lived in a house on the rue de Seine, close to the church of Saint-Sulpice, which has, along with its “Rose Line”, gained notoriety because of the film The Da Vinci Code. Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin was baptised the next day in the church with fellow cabinet maker Siméon Simonet and the wife of another cabinet maker, Anne Bourgine acting as godparents.

From an early age Chardin found joy in drawing and painting and his father decided to nurture his son’s love affair with painting. He had his son join the Académie de Saint-Luc and by securing him a position at the studio of the French historical painter, Pierre-Jacques Cazes to teach his son the finer techniques of painting. It was whilst studying at Cazes’ studio that Chardin learned to draw and studied the history of painting. This was the same sort of tuition young artists were taught at the Académie Royale de Peinture. However, entry to such a prestigious establishment was not open to all and Chardin never studied there but managed, through Cazes, to acquire similar training. During his time with Cazes Chardin set his mind to become a history painter but that was to change. Why did he change? The answer was probably quite fundamental – he was not a very good history painter and so he decided to set upon a different artistic journey.

A Game of Billiards by Chardin (c.1725)

One of his earliest paintings was The Game of Billiards which he completed in 1725. It is a painting which depicts a large number of people in a real-life setting. This work by Chardin which is housed in Musée Carnavalet in Paris was probably a reference to his father who made billiard tables for a living. During those early days he turned his attention to genre scenes but soon found that his greatest satisfaction came from depicting animals involved in game hunting which were known as tableaux de chasse, (hunting pictures). He believed that such paintings should be as realistic and unique as possible, once stating:

“…I must forget everything I have seen, and I must even forget the way such objects by others…”

Chardin exhibited his first still life painting on September 25th 1728. The date was important as this was the date, he was accepted by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Charles-Nicolas Cochin, the Younger, the French art critic tells the story of Chardin and that fateful day:

“…Encouraged by the praise he was receiving from a number of artists, he decided in 1728 to present himself to the Académie. He was eager to know what the leading officers of this august body thought. He employed a little ruse – a perfectly legitimate one – to be sure of winning their approval. He placed the paintings he was going to present in the first room, as if by chance, and waited in the second room. M. de Largillierre, an excellent painter, one of the best colourists and a knowledgeable theorist on the effects of light, came to find him. He stopped and studied the paintings before coming in to the room where M. Chardin was waiting. As he entered, he said: ‘You have got some very fine paintings there. They must be by a skilled Flemish painter. Flanders is an excellent school of learning about colour. Let us see your paintings now’. ‘Monsieur, you have just seen them’ said M. Chardin ‘What? Those paintings which….?’ ‘Yes, Monsieur.’ ‘Oh, my friend, said M. de Largillierre, embracing him, present yourself without hesitation…”

However, before this acceptance, Louis de Boullongne, the first painter to the king, and who had served as one of its highest-ranking officials of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, entered the room. Chardin grasped the opportunity to ingratiate himself with Louis de Boullongne, informing him that ten or twelve of the paintings in the first room were painted by him but added that if the Académie found any to their liking they could have them! M. de Boullongne dryly commented that Chardin was already talking about being enrolled when he had yet to be accepted but said he was pleased that Chardin had drawn his attention to the paintings. Cochin goes on to say that Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin was accepted by the Académie to general applause and the institution accepted two of Chardin’s paintings as his morceaux de reception (reception pieces). Chardin was accepted into the Académie but as a painter “specialising in animals and fruit” which, according to the Académie at the time, was the most inferior genre of all.

The Ray by Chardin (1726)

One of the Chardin’s paintings accepted by the Académie was entitled The Ray, which he completed in 1726. The painting remained in the collections of the Academy, before entering, during the French Revolution in 1793, the Muséum Central des Arts, which would later become the Louvre. It is without doubt one of his early masterpieces and it has remained on public display without interruption since 1728. The French novelist, Marcel Proust, on seeing the painting described the fish as:

“…the beauty of its vast and delicate structure, tinted with red blood, blue nerves and white muscles, like the nave of a polychromatic cathedral…”

It is a depiction of contrasts. The central and dominant figure in the painting is the gutted and skinned ray, a repulsive blood-stained fish with almost a human face. To the right we see a collection of everyday inanimate objects, a skimming ladle, the casserole, knife and the pitcher whilst to the left of the hanging fish we have items from the vegetable and animal world. We see oysters, a carp and the strange figure of a young cat, fur raised in fright at something it has seen outside the painting. Cats would often feature in Chardin’s paintings.  The depiction of the skinned ray itself with its expressionless and eerie gaze is spellbinding.

The Buffet by Chardin (1728)

Chardin’s second morceau de reception for the Académie was his painting entitled The Buffet. This work was completed in 1728 some two years after the completion of The Ray. In the foreground we see a hunting dog, standing next to a wine cooler and a bunch of radishes.  He is staring up at a dark grey parrot which is perched on the handle of a large ewer. The dog is obviously distressed at the sight of the bird leaning towards the fruit. To the left on the end of the curved sideboard there is a pewter jug, two stemmed glasses of wine, one of which is tilting over possibly due to the dog pulling the white linen table cloth. At the other end of the sideboard there are two carafes which have been described as being made of very fine fern ash glass, two bowls without handles, probably Chinese in origin. The focus of our attention is the central high pyramid stack of plums and peaches which sits on a crumpled white tablecloth. Below the fruit is a plate of oysters and two golden rounds of lemon. Again, as we have seen in many Flemish still-life works, Chardin has displayed his artistic talent by his depiction of the folds in the tablecloth, the curling lemon peel and the three-dimensional look of the silver tray and knife which overlap the edge of the sideboard.  Again Marcel Proust lovingly commented on what he saw:

“…Clear as daylight, enticing as spring water, glasses in which a few mouthfuls of sweet wine linger as in the throat, stand beside glasses that are already almost empty, like symbols of thirst assuaged.  Bent over like a wilted bloom, one glass is half toppled; this happy stance shows off the shape of its foot, the delicacy of its joints, the transparency of the glass, the elegant flare of its cup…”

Pewter Jug with Basket of Peaches, Plums and Walnuts by Chardin (1728)

Many of the items depicted in those still life paintings emanated from other works by Chardin. Take a look at his painting entitled Pewter Jug with Basket of Peaches, Plums and Walnuts, which he completed the same year and is part of the Staatliche Kunsthalle collection of Karlsruhe, and one can recognise the pewter jug which is part of The Buffet depiction.

Carafe of Water, Silver Goblet, Peeled Lemon, Apple and Pears by Chardin (1728)

Also in his painting Carafe of Water, Silver Goblet, Peeled Lemon, Apple and Pears which he completed in 1728, and also part of the Staatliche Kunsthalle collection of Karlsruhe, we also see items which appeared in The Buffet which makes one wonder whether these two paintings  were preliminary studies for the larger work.

Chardin chooses his objects and fruit carefully, for their shape and for their colour.  Look at the variety of colours.  They are all arranged carefully with the contrast between the soft pink of the peaches and the velvety blue of the plums, the carmine red of the apple and the acid green of the pear or the sharp yellow of the lemon..  It is magical to see how he alternates between hot and cold colours and how he juxstaposes the various shapes of the fruits and the rectilinear surface they are placed on.

..….. to be continued.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry – animals and hunting scenes artist and so much more.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau.

My last nine blogs focused on female artists and in many cases their fight for equality and so, for this blog, I thought I better give the men a chance. I have gone back to the end of the seventeenth century to look at the work of a distinguished French artist whose painting genre was looked upon by the Academies of Europe as the lowest genre in the hierarchies of figurative art.
The hierarchy in figurative art was established in the wake of the Italian Renaissance for works in 16th century Italy by the prodigious Italian Academies in Rome and Florence and they were later ratified by all the major European Academies, such as the French Académie de peinture et de sculpture, which was one of the leading Art establishments of the time. The hierarchical list, the top genre being the most important in the eyes of the Academicians, was:

 History painting, including historically important, religious, mythological, or allegorical subjects
Portrait painting
Genre painting or scenes of everyday life.                                                               Landscape and cityscape art
Animal painting
Still life

This hierarchical listing was based on a division between art that made a cerebral effort to render visible the universal essence of things and that which merely consisted of mechanical copying of particular appearances. Basically, the list meant that Idealism was honoured and more favoured than Realism.

Let me introduce you to the Master of animal and still life painting, the French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Oudry was born in Paris on March 17th, 1686, the youngest of three brothers. His father was Jacques Oudry, a painter, art dealer, and from 1706, the director of the Académie de St-Luc art school, which was the only serious competition to the more prestigious and influential Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. He was to give all his sons their initial art tuition. Jean-Baptiste’s mother was Nicole Oudry (née Papillon).

Self-portrait of Nicolas de Largillierre.(1707)

Jean-Baptiste Oudry began his artistic studies at the age of eighteen. In 1704, he first studied with the Marseilles-based Catalan-born French painter Michel Serre, a cousin of the portraitist Hyacinthe Rigaud. The following year Oudry began a five-year apprenticeship with the portrait painter, Nicolas de Largillierre whilst also enrolling in drawing classes at the Académie de St-Luc and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris. Largilliere set Oudry the task to copy the works of the Flemish and Dutch schools of the seventeenth century. Through the teachings of Largillierre Oudry began to perfect his sense of colour and enhance his skills as a painter of still life and portraiture, both genres in which his master had rightly built up his reputation. In 1708 Oudry submitted a now-lost bust-length painting of Saint Jerome as his reception piece and this gained him the status of Master in the Académie de St-Luc.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry began giving art tuition to some students, one of whom was Marie-Marguerite Froissé, the daughter of a miroitier (a mirror-maker) and in 17o8 master and student married. The couple went on to have thirteen children, one of who, Jacques Charles Oudry, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a painter.

A still life of a swan by Jacques Charles Oudry (Oudry’s son)

After completing his apprenticeship, Oudry set up his own business and concentrated on portraiture commissions and still-life painting to earn money but times were hard so he tried to paint whatever was popular with the public. He wanted to create his own style of portraiture and not be seen as just copying the style of his former tutor, Nicolas de Largillierre, who was at the peak of his fame. Oudry’s clients were mostly of the modest bourgeoisie and the lesser nobility.

Abundance with her Attributes by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1719)

His financial predicament changed for the better in 1719 when thirty-three-year old Oudry was elected to membership of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (French Royal Academy) as a history painter with his reception work, Abundance with her Attributes. Although classed as a historical painting, look at the superbly painted surrounding array of fruits, vegetables, and animals. It was this talent for painting animals and still life objects that would make him famous. His main rival in this field of painting was Alexandre François Desportes, who at the start of the 18th century had been the principal painter of these genres in France.

Dead Wolf by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1721)

In 1721 Oudry completed pendant paintings Dead Wolf and Dead Roe which can be seen at the Wallace Collection in London. These masterpieces were followed by several large hunt pictures, the most notable of which was his large 1723 painting (almost five metres wide) entitled Stag Hunt which was his breakthrough work. It can now be seen at the Stockholm Royal Palace.

Fire of the Petit Pont by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1717)

It was around this time that Oudry reduced the number of portraiture commissions he accepted and concentrated on his still-life and hunting scenes which were beginning to become ever more popular. He even experimented with other genres such as landscapes and cityscapes as can be seen in his 1717 painting, Fire of the Petit Pont.

Le cheval fondu tapestry designed by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1730)

During the 1720s, Oudry’s paintings of animal and hunting scenes were looked upon as the best in France and through them he even managed to impress the French king, Louis XV. Royal patronage soon followed and from 1724 onwards, Oudry spent all his time creating royal commissions. Through his honoured royal patronage Oudry became the most visible artist at the Paris Salon of 1725 and the following March he was granted his own solo exhibition at the palace of Versailles. His exhibition was a great success and this along with his paintings at the Salon led to him being offered a position at the royal tapestry works at Beauvais in July 1726 where he became the painter of tapestry cartoons. In 1734 Oudry became director of the factory and shortly afterwards he employed François Boucher as factory painter and the collaboration between Oudry and Boucher was one of the reasons for the success of the Beauvais tapestry works in the eighteenth century. During this period Oudry’s painting output declined and it was this way until 1737.

Stag Hunt by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1723)

However, his work was in such great demand that he opened his own workshop which produced copies of his works for sale to the public. Between 1722 and 1725, Jean-Baptiste Oudry concentrated on his still-life and hunting scenes and would exhibit his works at the annual open-air Exposition de la Jeunesse which was held on Corpus Christie in the Place Dauphine and on the adjoining Pont Neuf in Paris which was the only public venue available to him.

Royal Hunts of Louis XV by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

The Salon in Paris was the official exhibition of art sponsored by the French government. It originated in 1667 when Louis XIV sponsored an exhibit of the works of the members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The exhibitions, to begin with, were not annual events, in fact they were quite sporadic with only one exhibition being held between 1704 and 1737 but from 1737 they became annual events. The Salon’s original focus was the display of the work of recent graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts and exhibiting one’s work at the Salon de Paris was vital for any artist to achieve success in France. Having one’s work in the Salon was tantamount to achieving royal favour and in the early days, before the inception of art dealers, it was the only way an artist had to sell their works. The return to annual exhibitions could be one of the reasons why in 1737 Oudry returned to painting and every year after, he would exhibit his works at the Salon.

Through his friend, Jean-Baptiste Massé, a portrait-painter and miniaturist, Oudry was introduced to Henri-Camille Marquis de Beringhen, Premier Ecuyer du Roi (Master of the King’s Private Stables), and organiser of the royal hunt, and he played a part in launching Oudry’s artistic career at court. He arranged for Oudry to have a studio and lodgings for himself and his family in the Tuileries Palace, so that he could work on royal commissions.

Misse and Turlu,Two Greyhounds Belonging to Louis XV by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1725)

Oudry’s hunting scenes were very much admired by Louis XV, and Oudry portrayed the king’s favourite royal hounds, Misse and Turlu, and painted scenes of the king riding to the hunt, which was the monarch’s sporting passion.

Henri Camille, Chevalier de Beringhen (1722)

Occasionally, Oudry painted portraits, one of which was of the twenty-nine-year old, Marquis de Beringhen. Once again, this painting is part portraiture and part still-life with dead game, a living animal, and a landscape. It typifies Oudry’s method of painting: the stylish elegance of the rococo style is combined with a perceptive sense of observation. We see the marquis sitting upon a knoll at the base of a tree. He is splendidly dressed in his linen shirt, a pale grey hunting coat lined with teal-blue velvet and trimmed with silver braid and buttons, breeches, and thigh-length boots. We see strands of his powdered hair swept back and tied with a black silk ribbon. He holds aloft a red-legged partridge in his left hand and with his right hand he strokes his faithful pointer. To the left, behind the dog we see lying on the ground a powder horn, fowling piece, game, and a game bag. To the right of the marquis, in the distance, we can just make out two women talking on the terrace of a country house, which may be pure idealization and just included as a befitting noble setting that Oudry had devised for the Marquis de Beringhen. Oudry once again highlights his artistic techniques in the way he depicts the lace of Beringhen’s shirt and the silver embroidery on his coat, and in the feathers of the partridge and the fur of the hound.

Grand Buffet, Still Life with Monkey, Fruit and Flowers by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1725)

Oudry soon broke Desportes’ royal monopoly and his work output grew. In 1725, the Paris Salon held an exhibition, the first since 1704, and Oudry submitted twelve pictures, including one entitled Grand Buffet but also known as Still Life with Monkey, Fruit and Flowers, which can be seen in the bottom right corner of the November 25th, 1725 edition of the French gazette and literary magazine Le Mecure de France.

Salon de 1725 as advertised in Le Mecure de France

In 1726 Oudry provided twenty-six paintings for an exhibition at Versailles. His other important acquaintance, Louis Fagon, the king’s Intendant des Finances, arranged for Oudry to become the painter to the royal tapestry works at Beauvais. This was to be the start of a new direction for Oudry who over the next decade designed a number of tapestry sets, including four pieces depicting Comedies of Molière, eight pieces based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and four panels depicting Fables of La Fontaine.

The Fables of La Fontaine – The Two Pigeons by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

Between 1729 and 1734, Jean-Baptiste Oudry produced a total of 276 beautiful and highly finished drawings, including a frontispiece, which illustrated tales from the famous 17th century work by Jean de La Fontaine, Les Fables choisies mises en vers (Selected Fables Rendered in Verse). Each of the scenes was drawn with the brush with black ink and grey wash, heightened with white gouache, on sheets of blue paper, with each image surrounded with a wide border brushed on the same sheet in a darker shade of blue, acting as a fictive mount. These drawings, all made during this five-year period have long been recognised as Oudry’s most famous works as a draughtsman.

Louis XV Stag Hunting in the Forest at Saint Germain-en-Laye by Jean Baptiste Oudry (1730)

In 1728 Oudry began on a royal commission Louis XV Stag Hunting in the Forest at Saint Germain-en-Laye. It was a massive painting, measuring 210 x 390cms. Louis XV was a keen and knowledgeable hunter who knew the name of every one of the dogs in the pack. This work was painted for the hunting pavilion in Marly, and again it is a combination of animal painting and landscape genres. Oudry depiction set in a clearing in the forest of Saint Germain, is the moment of the halloo, the cry or shout used to attract attention or to give encouragement to dogs in hunting.

A Wild Sow and her Young Attacked by Dogs by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1748)

Louis XV liked this work so much that, in 1733, he commissioned Oudry to produce three tapestry cartoons illustrating the hunts. The tapestries, woven under Oudry’s supervision at the Gobelins factory, were intended to decorate the king’s bedchamber and antechamber and the Council Chamber at the Château de Compiègne. In 1738, it was decided that the series should comprise nine cartoons; the last was completed by Oudry in 1746 and delivered to Gobelins. They made two sets of the tapestries. One set for the chateau at Compiègne and the other was sold to Philip, Duke of Parma, the King’s son-in-law.

Clara the Rhinoceros in Paris by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1749)

In the 1720s and 1730s, Jean-Baptiste Oudry established himself as the preeminent painter in France of hunts, animals, still lifes, and landscapes. His Painted Menagerie focused on a set of eleven life-size portraits of exotic animals from the royal menagerie at Versailles, painted by Oudry between 1739 and 1752. The paintings ultimately went into the ducal collection in Schwerin, Germany. The most famous of these is the splendid portrait of Clara, an Indian rhinoceros who had become a celebrity in mid-eighteenth-century Europe.  The Indian rhinoceros, who was born in Assam and had been named Clara, caused a sensation in Europe. A Dutch captain, Douwe Mout van der Meer, brought the three-year-old rhino in 1741. It was an animal that had never been seen before in Europe and he presented her at the Saint-Germain Fair in Paris, where she inspired many artists to undertake drawings and studies of her. Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s depiction of her is life size. The grand painting was shown at the Paris Salon in 1749 and acquired in 1750 by Duke Christian Ludwig II of Mecklenburg-Schwerin together with Oudry’s series of menagerie paintings. In all, there were approximately 57 drawings by him which ended up in the possession of the court in Schwerin.

Farmhouse by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1750)

Although Oudry is remembered for his animal and hunting scenes his idealized landscape work was of the highest quality. In 1750 the Dauphin, Louis, the elder son on Louis XV, commissioned Oudry to paint a picture of rural life which would highlight the bountiful and beauty of Ile-de-France and to promote the state’s progressive agricultural policy. Later the painting became known as The Farmhouse.

Jacques-Charles Oudry – Nature morte avec chien et le canard

Oudry was not a very wealthy man but lived comfortably. Oudry lost some of his responsibilities when Louis Fagon, the king’s Intendant des Finances, was replaced by Daniel-Charles Trudaine. Oudry suffered two strokes in quick succession in 1755. The second left him paralysed and he died shortly thereafter in Beauvais on April 30th, 1755, aged 69. He was buried in the Church of Saint-Thomas in Beauvais. His son, Jacques-Charles Oudry, trained by his father, was also an accomplished painter.

Hendrik Willem Mesdag. Part 2 – his wife, Sientje Mesdag van Houten.

Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)
Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)

My blog today is somewhat shorter than usual as I decided to concentrate solely on the life and works of Hendrik Mesdag’s wife Sientje van Houten, an artist in her own right and not just “Mrs Mesdag, wife of the marine painter Hendrik Mesdag”.

Hendrik Willem Mesdag married Sientje van Houten in April 1856 and seven years later in September 1863 their only child, Klaas was born.  In June 1864, her father Derk, a wealthy Groningen timber merchant, died and left her a substantial inheritance which she realised in 1866.    This change in her financial situation allowed Hendrik to leave his father’s bank where he had been working for sixteen years and concentrate on his painting and eventually become a professional artist.  He even managed to have one of his paintings, which had been accepted at the 1870 Salon, awarded a gold medal.

Sientje van Houten-Mesdag in her studio (c.1903)
Sientje Mesdag van Houten in her studio (c.1903)

Sientje had accompanied her husband when he went to stay in Brussels to study under Willem Roelofs.  Their house in Rue Van de Weyer was often the focal point for Dutch and Belgian painters, and it could well have been the conversations on art at these soirées that  stimulated Sientje’s mind and enhanced her artistic talent. She, like her husband, not only received instruction from Roelofs but also from Hendrik’s cousin the professional artist, Laurens Alma-Tadema.

Winter Scene by Johannes Christiaan d'Arnaud Gerkens (1875)
Winter Scene by Johannes Christiaan d’Arnaud Gerkens (1875)

She accompanied her husband when he spent the summer of 1866 at the Oosterbeek artist colony and again in the summer of 1868 on the island of Nordeney where she, like Hendrik, spent time painting and sketching seascapes.   The couple moved to The Hague in 1869, where they lived in a house on Anna Paulownastraat and later in a house on Laan van Meerdervoort.  Her husband, who wanted to concentrate on seascapes, later hired a studio room facing the sea at the Villa Elba in Scheveningen where he and Sientje would spend hours painting and sketching. In order to improve her artistic proficiency, Sientje took drawing lessons from their family friend and painter Christian d’Arnaud Gerkens.

Head of a Dog by Sientje van Houten (1875)
Head of a Dog by Sientje Mesdag van Houten (1875)

Life could not have been better for Hendrick Mesdag and his wife Sientje and yet fate would play a fateful trick on the couple.  On September 24th 1871, tragedy struck when their beloved eight-year-old son Klaas, died of diphtheria.  It must have been a devastating time for Hendrik and Sientje.  Who knows whether Sientje wanted to totally immerse herself into something which would deaden the pain of loss but following the death of Klaas, she devoted all her time painting.  She had been in contact with art from an early age through both her father, who had a modest art collection, which she and her siblings would have seen and of course she had lived with her husband and watched him paint.

Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje van Houten Medag
Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

At first, Sientje concentrated on landscape painting and would often leave home and go on painting trips in the Scheveningen dunes with her friend and artist, Harriet Lido who was constantly giving her artistic advice.     Sientje Mesdag-van Houten initially focused on landscape painting and travelled to areas such as Drenthe, Overijssel and the Veluwe region in Gelderland. Besides her love of landscape painting she also liked to paint still lifes.  Over the years, she became increasingly accomplished as an artist and her self-confidence grew to such an extent that she began to submit her paintings to national exhibitions in Europe and America and was happy to partake in group exhibitions held by the Dutch Drawing Society and the Pulchri Studio.  Her husband was also a member of the Pulchri Studio and on a number of occasions both husband and wife exhibited together.  She was also the president of Our Club, a meeting place for cultured women. Mesdag-van Houten kept in touch with other women painters and dedicated herself to the cause of the ‘poor female artist’ and became the leading light and mentor for many young aspiring female artists who would gather at her studio for advice on their artwork

Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje van Houten Medag
Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

She was in close contact with many art dealers and her paintings were sought after by their clients, especially her still lifes.  In 1881 she helped her husband paint the amazing 1680 square metres panoramic painting of Scheveningen which has become known as Panorama Mesdag, but more about this work in the next blog.  Her painting entitled Cottages at Sunset and Heath near Ede was well received at the 1889 Paris Exposition and was awarded a bronze medal.

Camelias in Vase by Sientje van Houten Mesdag
Camelias in Vase by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

Sientje, like her husband Henrik, were avid collectors of art and eventually amassed almost three hundred and fifty works of art as well as objet d’arts, porcelain and artefacts from Holland and Asia.   Their favourites were works by the French Barbizon School artists.  This massive collection dated back to the time she had gone to live with her husband in Brussels whilst he was receiving artistic instruction from Willem Roelofs.  Their joint collection grew to such a size that in 1887 they had a museum built next to their house in Laan van Meerdervoort in The Hague.  In 1903 Sientje and Hendrik donated the collection and the museum to the Dutch state, since which time it has been called The Mesdag Collection and having visited it a few weeks ago I can assure you  it is well worth a visit.

Farm and creek with boat by Sientje van Houten Mesdag
Farm and creek with boat by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

In 1904, Sientje Mesdag-van Houten celebrated her seventieth birthday at the art society, Pictura, and during the celebration they announced that they would name a room in their new building after her. The Pulchri Studio also mounted a retrospective exhibition of her work. For many years Sientje had been simply referred to as Hendrik Mesdag’s wife but in an interview she was very forthright about how she should be remembered, as noted by the interviewer who stated:

“…Despite her marriage to a renowned marine painter, she does not wish to go down in art history as Mesdag’s wife, but as an independent “heroine of art” who follows her own path and seeks recognition for her original artistic convictions…”

Sientje and Hendrik Mesdag
Sientje and Hendrik Mesdag

Sientje van Houten continued to paint all her life.  She died on March 20th 1909, aged 74 and she was buried at the Oud Eik and Duinen Cemetery in The Hague, where later her husband Hendrik and her brother the liberal politician Samuel van Houten would also be interred.  There is no doubt that in her day, she was one of the best known and well regarded female artist.  Sadly, despite her protestations, soon after she died her standing in the art world declined and she was once again viewed as “the wife of Hendrik Mesdag, the marine painter”.  There was however a renewed interest in her life and oeuvre in 1989 when art historians discovered more information regarding her life and artwork.

In my final blog about Hendrik Mesdag I will be focusing on his seascapes and his love of Scheveningen.

Félix Vallatton. Part 2. The Nabis, woodcuts and the “dreadful nudes”

Self-portrait with the dressing gown by Félix Vallotton (1914)
Self-portrait with the dressing gown by Félix Vallotton (1914)

During the 1890’s Vallotton, besides painting and writing art criticism, spent much of his time working with woodcuts.  The woodcuts he produced were looked upon as being very innovative and established him as a leading exponent of this type of art.  Japonism was sweeping through the French art world during the last part of the nineteenth century and Vallotton’s work was influenced by the Japanese woodcut In 1890 there had been a large exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts and like many people in France, Vallotton built up a collection of these prints.

La Paresse by Félix Vallotton (1896)
La Paresse by Félix Vallotton (1896)

Vallotton’s subjects ranged from domestic scenes to street crowd demonstrations in which police are depicted clashing with anarchists and from portrait heads to bathing women.  In his 1896 woodcut entitled La Paresse (Laziness) he depicts a naked women relaxing face down on a bed whilst stroking a cat.

Le Mensonge (The Lie) by Félix Vallatton (1896)
Le Mensonge (The Lie) by Félix Vallatton (1896)

The high point of his woodcuts was probably reached in 1898 when he produced a series of ten interiors entitled Intimités (Intimacies), for the La Revue blanche, the avant-garde French art and literary magazine, which was published between 1889 and 1903 and had many influential contributors such as Toulouse Lautrec.  The set of woodcuts dealt with the tensions between men and women and they proved so successful that they were circulated in magazines and books in Europe and America.

This set of woodcuts was a great success and for many critics there was a greater appreciation of them in comparison to his paintings.  The ten woodcuts were dark with some white lines cut through the black background.  Vallotton, through his woodcuts, wanted to bring out the continuing tensions between man and woman and that was further enhanced by the evocative titles he gave the individual works, such as Le Mensonge (The Lie), L’Argent (The Money) and L’ Irreparable (The Irreparable).  In a way it was his way of denigrating love between man and woman, blaming the woman for being insincere and scheming creatures who often brought an element of spitefulness and dominance into a relationship.

Bathers on a Summer Evening by Félix Vallotton (1892)
Bathers on a Summer Evening by Félix Vallotton (1892)

Around 1892 Vallotton became associated with the Nabis art movement.   The group came about around 1888 and was composed of disaffected artists who had passed through the Académie Julian and been subjected to the rigid representational methods being taught at that establishment.  Founder members of the Nabis, which was a Hebrew word meaning prophet, were Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis.  The Nabis were inspired by the broad planes of unmediated colour, using thick and bold outlines that were seen in Japanese prints.

Clair de lune (Moonlight) by Félix Vallotton (1895)
Clair de lune (Moonlight) by Félix Vallotton (1895)

Two examples of Vallotton’s take on the Nabi style art were his 1893 work entitled Das Bad. Sommerabend (Bathers on a Summer Evening), and his 1895 symbolist work Moonlight which can be found at the Musée d’Orsay

Bathers on a Summer Evening depicts women bathing in an open-air brick pool.  The painting was exhibited at the 1893 Salon des Indépendents exhibition and its subject caused a furore but at the same time it successfully enhanced Vallotton’s reputation as an artist.  In some way this painting is looked upon as a caricature of the traditional paintings of Salon artists such as Seurat and Renoir .  The painting is housed in the Kunsthaus, Zurich.

Mme. Felix Vallotton by Félix Vallatton (1899)
Mme. Felix Vallotton by Félix Vallatton (1899)

In 1899 Félix Vallotton married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques née Bernheim.  Gabrielle was the daughter of Alexandre and Henriette Bernheim and was one of six children.   Alexandre Bernheim came from Besancon and was an art dealer and friend of a fellow countryman of Besancon, Gustave Courbet.   Gabrielle was eighteen months older than Félix Vallatton and had married Gustave Rodrigues Henriques in February 1883 and the couple had three children, Max, Joseph and Madeleine.  Gustave died in 1894 at the young age of 34 leaving his widow financially comfortable.  Gabrielle and Félix married five years later in 1899.  Félix wrote to his brother Paul and told of his relationship with Gabrielle.  He wrote:

“…I love her very much which is the main reason for this marriage, and she loves me also, we know each other very profoundly, and we trust each other.  In short, I regret nothing and I nourish the highest hopes…”

In 1899, the year of his marriage to Gabrielle he painted a picture of her sitting at a table.

As I mentioned in my last blog about Vallatton, what drew me to him was the headline of a 2007 essay in The Guardian newspaper by the writer Julian Barnes:

The neglected, enigmatic Swiss artist Félix Vallotton was a fine painter of still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Shame about his dreadful nudes, writes Julian Barnes

I was intrigued to find out what was “dreadful” about Vallatton’s portrayal of nudes.

Models Relaxing by Félix Vallatton (1905)
Models Relaxing by Félix Vallatton (1905)

In 1905 Vallatton’s neo-classical style painting Models Relaxing was exhibited at the Ingres retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in Paris.

Le bain turc by Ingres (1863)
Le bain turc by Ingres (1863)

One of Ingres’ works Turkish Bath was also on view at the exhibition.  It is said that Vallatton was moved to tears by this Ingres’ work and maybe that was the reason that two years later, in 1907, Vallatton completed his own painting entitled Turkish Bath.

The Turkish Bath by Félix Vallatton (1907)
The Turkish Bath by Félix Vallatton (1907)

The women in his painting were not hand maidens of a harem but were women of the 1900’s with their fashionable hairstyles.

The Rape of Europa by Félix Vallatton (1908)
The Rape of Europa by Félix Vallatton (1908)

Controversy was not far away when his nude paintings were exhibited,  At the beginning of the twentieth century  one exhibition of his work only allowed over 18 years of age visitors to enter and witness the naked women !  Depicting his nudes as part of mythology did not decrease the censure of the critics.  An example of this is his 1908 painting entitled The Taking of Europe which is housed in the Kunstmuseum Bern.

Perseus Slaying the Dragon by Félix Vallatton (1910)
Perseus Slaying the Dragon by Félix Vallatton (1910)

Another of Vallatton’s paintings featuring a nude but with mythological connotations was his version of the story of Perseus slaying the dragon, a story which had featured in many pasintings before.  Vallatton completed his up-to-date version of Perseus Slaying the Dragon in 1910 and it is now owned by the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève .

Woman with a Black Hat by Félix Vallatton (1908)
Woman with a Black Hat by Félix Vallatton (1908)

Vallatton painted hundreds of pictures featuring nude or semi-nude females and the one I like the most is his 1908 work entitled Woman with a Black Hat.  The woman’s face is flushed as if she is embarrassed to appear semi naked before the artist.  It adds to he vulnerability and in a way enhances her beauty.

Landscape Semur by Felix Vallotton (1923)
Landscape Semur by Felix Vallotton (1923)

Vallatton kept a register of all the works he completed and by the time of his death the list catalogued almost 1600 works.  I have looked at his portraits and his penchant for painting nude females but of all his works, for me, his landscapes stand out.  It was in his latter years that Vallatton produced most of his landscape works, such as Landscape Semur which he completed in 1923.

Square in Les Andelys with the Chateau Gaillard by Félix Vallatton (1924)
Square in Les Andelys with the Chateau Gaillard by Félix Vallatton (1924)

Another interesting painting was completed a year later in 1924 and entitled The Chateau-Gaillard in Andelys.  Since 1909, Vallatton had a summer home in Honfleur and in 1924 whilst en route to his summer residence he passed through the small village of Andelys which lay on the banks of the Seine.  He had first visited the village eight years earlier.  The village is dominated by the ruins of Chateau Gauillard, a fortress built by Richard the Lionheart in 1196.  It is situated on a hill overlooking Andelys.  The ruins fascinated Vallatton who produced a number of paintings and sketches featuring the once mighty fortress.  The painting is housed in the Musée A.G. Poulain de Vernon in Vernon, a town about 30 kilometres south of Andelys.

Nature morte a la peinture chinoise by Félix Vallatton (1925)
Nature morte a la peinture chinoise by Félix Vallatton (1925)

Another art genre that interested Vallatton in the early twentieth century was Still Life painting.  In 1925 he completed a work entitled Nature morte a la peinture chinoise (Still Life with Chinese painting).  Like many still life paintings the artist has challenged himself by having to paint a white napkin, with all its creases and folds, looking as if it is laying over the edge of the table.  The Chinese painting mentioned in the title can be seen in the background.

Parrot Tulips by Felix Vallotton
Parrot Tulips by Felix Vallotton

One of my favourite still life paintings by Vallotton was a work entitled Parrot Tulips.  I love the richness of the colours used and love to study the way Vallotton has depicted the individual items which crowd the scene.

Vallotton’s life came to a close at the end of 1925.  His brother Paul’s daughter Marianne recalled the time:

“...It was the end of of the year 1925 and the weather was grey and gloomy, but in accordance with our old custom, we were getting ready to celebrate Christmas, when on 21 December my father received a letter , whose opening lines I quote:

‘ …My dear Paul, after examining me twice, they have decided to operate.  It has been arranged for next Saturday morning the 26th.  It would be nice if you could be here, for various reasons…’ “

Félix Vallotton died three days after his operation on December 29th, three days before his sixtieth birthday.  According to Marianne Vallotton his last words to her father, his brother Paul were:

“…Don’t you think this is an amusing way to celebrate the centenary of the death of Jacques-Louis David?…”

The French painter died on December 29th 1825.

There were just so many apintings to include but so little time or space to accommodate them.  To see more I can recommend the excellent book on the life of Félix Vallotton by Nathalia Brodskaïa entitled Félix Valloton, The Nabi from Switzerland.  It was from this biography that I have been able to put together these two blogs on this talented Swiss painter.

Earlier I had mentioned the headline of an essay in The Guardian newspaper written by Julian Barnes.  It is said that in a few years time he will be curating an exhibition of Félix Vallotton’s work at the Royal Academy in London and it will certainly be an exhibition not to be missed.

Anne Vallayer-Coster. The Queen of Floral Still-Life works

Anne Vallayer-Coster
Anne Vallayer-Coster

At the end of 1362 the Florentine writer, Giuseppe Boccaccio, he of The Decameron fame, (see my Daily Art Display Feb 21st 2012), had completed his book, De mulieribus claris (Of Famous Women), a biography of famous (and infamous) women, some real, some mythological.  In it he wrote about three female artists and commented:

“…Art is Alien to the mind of women, and these things cannot be accomplished without a great deal of talent, which in women is usually very scarce…”

In this blog I am returning to look at female artists and I am featuring a highly talented lady whose superb artistic talent rubbishes Boccaccio’s theory.  Today, I am looking at the struggle she, like other female painters of the time, had fighting their way through to success in a male-dominated field.  One of my favourite paintings is by the eighteenth century French female artist Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (See My Daily Art Display November 21st 2012) and recently I have been reading about a contemporary of hers, the very talented 18th century French painter who, like Le Brun, gained the patronage of Marie-Antoinette, the wife of the French monarch, Louis XVI.   She is Anne Vallayer-Coster.   Such royal patronage was the ultimate prize for aspiring painters as it led to many lucrative commissions.  However, unlike Le Brun, Anne Vallayer was not solely a portraitist but was an exceptional still-life and floral painter.

Anne Vallayer-Coster was born in Paris in December 1744.  She was the second of four daughters.  Her mother was a painter of miniatures.  Her father, Joseph Vallayer, was a goldsmith working at the Gobelins Manufactory Company in Paris, and the family lived on the grounds of the Gobelins Manufacturing complex, which produced the finest tapestries as well as luxury objects, which often adorned the royal palaces.  In 1757 the family moved to another area of Paris and Anne’s father started to trade in jewellery.  His business soon expanded with royal patronage and was granted the right to produce metal products for the military.

Anne Vallayer became interested in sketching and painting at an early age and her mother encouraged her by arranging for her to have private tuition from an art teacher, Madeleine Françoise Basseporte, a one-time pupil of the great French botanical painter, Claude Aubriet, and she, like him, was made the Royal Painter at the court of Louis XV, teaching the royal princesses to paint flowers.  Anne Vallayer learnt well from Basseport and she too was to become a talented botanical artist.  Her next art tutor was the landscape painter Claude Joseph Vernet.  In a short period of time Anne Vallayer became an accomplished artist concentrating on floral still-life works.  Her works were a beautiful juxtaposition of the flowers and inanimate objects such as books, musical instruments, tableware and furnishings.  The inanimate objects Vallayer included in her floral depictions allowed her to highlight her artistry by depicting the various different surfaces, such as glass, pewter, and silver and how the light played differently on each of them.   The still-life works often included aspects of trompe-l’oeil affording depth perception.

Attributs de la musique by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1770)
Attributs de la musique by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1770)

In 1770, when she was just twenty-six years of age, such was her artistic talent that a number of her tutors and fellow artists suggested that she should apply to become a member of the Académie Royale.  To gain admittance to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture she submitted two reception pieces.  They were still life works entitled Les attributs de la peinture, de la sculpture et de l’architecture (The Attributes of Painting), and Attributs de la musique (The Attributes of Music).

Les attributs de la peinture, de la sculpture et de l'architecture by Anne Vallayer-Coster  (1769)
Les attributs de la peinture, de la sculpture et de l’architecture by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1769)

It could be that Anne Valleyer was quite canny when she put forward to the Académie elders her reception piece The Attributes of Painting, as all the objects we see depicted are references to the various arts taught at the academy. The brushes and palette symbolize painting, the bust and torso epitomize sculpture, and the building plans signify architecture. The books and portfolios of drawings symbolize the scholarly facet of the fine arts.  It is thought that the bust is a self-portrait of Anne.

Her works met with great acclaim and the honourable Academicians unanimously elected her.  This was an extraordinary endorsement as there was a “four female artist at any one time cap” on admissions to the Académie at this time.    This achievement was recognised in the twice-weekly gazette and literary magazine Mercure de France of that year, when the journal paid tribute to her achievement, writing:

“…the disadvantages of her sex notwithstanding, she has taken the difficult art of rendering nature to a degree of perfection that enchants and surprises us…”

This should have been the happiest time of her life but the sudden death of her father overshadowed the joyous news.   With the main family breadwinner now gone, her mother had no choice but to take over the family business, whilst Anne helped the family finances with the sale of her paintings.

However, despite her being admitted to the Academy she, unlike the male Academicians, was still not allowed to take part in any of the establishment’s drawing courses which involved nude models, as women drawing nude men was considered indecent.  So with the drawing course out of her reach she was not able to break into the highest genre of art as set down by the Académie, historical paintings, and so she continued with her favoured art genre, still-lifes as well as some portraiture and landscapes and as an Academician she was now allowed to exhibit some of her work at the biennial Paris Salon exhibitions.  This she did starting in 1771 and went on exhibiting regularly there until 1817.  In a review of her work shown at the 1771 exhibition, the prominent French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot wrote:

“…if all new members of the Royal Academy made a showing like Mademoiselle Vallayer’s, and sustained the same high level of quality, the Salon would look very different…”

Portrait of Marie-Adelaide-Louisa de France, called Madame Adelaide by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1780)
Portrait of Marie-Adelaide-Louisa de France, called Madame Adelaide by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1780)

She completed a number of portraits of the royal family including one of Marie-Antoinette.  It is said that the queen disliked her portrait.  The French critics who were complimentary with regards her floral works, were  dismissive of her figurative work.  With this in mind and being aware that she had major rivals in that genre, including two fellow Academicians, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adelaide Labille-Guiard,  who were the favoured female portraitist of the time,  she decided to concentrate on her still-life painting.

Art was a very important facet in the life of the upper class and nobility.  A thorough knowledge of which artists were in vogue and who were the up-and-coming artists was of great importance.  Soon through word of mouth in Court circles and the glowing evaluations of her artistic ability, the floral still-life work of Anne Valleyer came to the attention of Queen Marie-Antoinette.  Anne Valleyer received a number of painting commissions from Marie-Antoinette and many members of the royal court as well as a number of wealthy art collectors.  As was the case with Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the artist and queen became friends and in fact, it was the queen who, at a ceremony at Versailles in 1781, witnessed and signed off the marriage contract between Anne and her betrothed, Jean-Pierre-Silvestre Coster, a wealthy lawyer and respected member of a powerful family from Lorraine.

A Vase of Flowers, two Plums on a Marble Table top by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1781)
A Vase of Flowers, two Plums on a Marble Table top by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1781)

In total, Anne Valleyer-Coster painted over one hundred and twenty floral still-life works.  One painting which she completed in 1781 entitled A Vase of Flowers and Two Plums on a Marble Tabletop was used as a model by Gobelins for one of their tapestries.

Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1776)
Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1776)

To fully appreciate the talent of Anne Valleyer-Coster as an artist take a look at a work she completed in 1776 entitled Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and GrapesThis still-life painting was one of a pendant pair and was commissioned by a high-ranking official of the entourage of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Both paintings were exhibited at the Salon of 1777, the year after they were completed.  One has come to recognise her expertise in the way she depicts flowers but in this painting we see how accomplished she was when it came to her bas-relief imités.

Detail of bas-relief imités on vase
Detail of bas-relief imités on vase

Look carefully  at the vase and the depicted bas-relief work.  In sculptural terms, Bas-relief is a form of sculpture in which a solid piece of material is carved so that objects project from a background.    This painting combines a number of different elements.  We have the exquisite floral painting.  We have the still-life depiction of the terracotta vase and the various fruit and finally we have the bas-relief imités depicted on the vase.  The skill of the artist in completing such a work is dramatic and totally eye-catching.

Vase of Flowers and Conch Shell by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1780).  Metroppolitan Museum of Art, New York
Vase of Flowers and Conch Shell by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1780).
Metroppolitan Museum of Art, New York

Another famous work of hers is Vase of Flowers and Conch Shell, which she completed in 1780.  This work of art is thought to be one of three small oval paintings of flowers and fruits which she exhibited in the Salon of 1781. The flowers are a selection of anemones and marguerites.  Look carefully how she has depicted the light reflecting on the gilt of the blue porcelain vase and the vase itself and how it shimmers on the multi-coloured conch shell.  She has paid close attention to the various textures of the objects on display and how the light reflects differently on their surfaces.

Garden Still Life, with Implements, Vegetables, Dead Game, and a Bust of Ceres (The Attributes of Hunting and Gardening by Anne Valleyer-Coster (1780)
Garden Still Life, with Implements, Vegetables, Dead Game, and a Bust of Ceres (The Attributes of Hunting and Gardening by Anne Valleyer-Coster (1780)

A number of her paintings are in British galleries but her still-life work, Garden Still Life, with Implements, Vegetables, Dead Game, and a Bust of Ceres (The Attributes of Hunting and Gardening) can be found in Basildon Park, Berkshire, a country house run by the National Trust of Great Britain.


The Palladin-style house itself is worth a visit.  It was built between 1776 and 1783 for Sir Francis Sykes, a wealth English landowner, Member of Parliament and who was once the Governor of Kasimbazar, India.  Valleyer-Coster received this painting  commission along with its companion piece, A Still Life of a Vase of Flowers, Fruit, and a Bust of Flora, on a Table in an interior from Joseph-Marie Terray, abbé de Molesme,  who was the directeur-général des Bâtiments du Roy and contrôleur–général des finances.   The National Trust came by this work of art when it was allocated to them by the UK Government who, in 2010, had taken it in lieu of inheritance tax from the state of Lord and Lady Iliffe, the previous owners.  The setting is a park and in the work we see a rake and scythe propped up against a plinth.  In the foreground there is a variety of vegetables, a cardoon or wild artichoke, a gourd, a marrow, a melon, a cabbage, a tomato, along with a sickle.  On the plinth itself besides the bust of a young woman with an ear of corn in her hair, we see depicted  a gun, game-bag, two dead partridges and a hare.

When the fall of the ancien régime came during the French revolution all those close to Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were in great danger and many of the artists, such as Vigée Le Brun, had to go into exile to save themselves.  Anne Valleyer-Coster was fortunate in as much as, regardless of her closeness to the queen, who along with her husband, Louis XVI, was hated by the common people, she managed to survive the bloodshed of the French Revolution.   However, along with the fall of the French monarchy, went her primary patrons and her lucrative commissions dried up completely.  She, as an artist, was forgotten during these turbulent times.

Still Life with Lobster by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1781)
Still Life with Lobster by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1781)

It is interesting to note that a painting, Still Life with Lobster, which she completed in 1781.  Many believe it to be her best still-life work.  In 1817 she exhibited it in that year’s Paris Salon.  This painting came into the hands of Louis XVIII after he had been restored to the French throne in 1814.  Some art historians believe Vallayer-Coster gave it to the king as an expression of her joy as somebody who had remained loyal to the Bourbon cause throughout the turbulent years of the Revolution and the following Napoleonic imperialism. However, it should be noted that she had produced two works of art in 1804 for Napoleon’s Empress Josephine.  In the work, she has included many of the previous objects she had incorporated in earlier still life works. 

Anne Valleyer-Coster was one of the greatest still-life painters of the eighteenth century and art historians believe that her work was influenced by the great Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin who died in 1779 and who is still considered to be one of the greatest French still-life and genre painters. She imitated his dark and shadowy tabletops on which were her arrangements of fruit, bread and dead game. In her later years she turned to a more unrestrained lavishness which was seen in Dutch floral painting.  She died in  Paris in 1818, aged 73 and will always be remembered for her still-life works with their distinctive colouristic brilliance and their almost photographic quality.  If you are lover of still-life and floral paintings, you will love her beautiful works of art.

Alexandre-François Desportes. The Animal and Still Life painter.

Alexandre-François Desportes
Alexandre-François Desportes

When I looked at works by Gabriel Metsu in a recent blog I featured a couple of scenes which depicted hunters.  Scenes with hunters were very popular at the time especially with the upper classes and nobility as hunting was a pastime of the rich and so any painting which depicted the hunter alluded to wealth.  Hunting in the eyes of the nobility was one of the last symbols of class distinction.   It was not just the portrayal of the hunter and the hunt which was popular with the wealthy classes but also the portrayal of the hunted – the prey and the hunting dogs.    Today I am featuring the works of the French painter and decorative designer who specialised in animal paintings. Alexandre-François Desportes.

Dog and Wild Duck by Alexandre-François Desportes   (c. 1720)
Dog and Wild Duck by Alexandre-François Desportes (c. 1720)

Alexandre-François Desportes was born in Champigneulle, a small town fifty kilometres south of Reims, on February 24, 1661.   His father was a farm labourer.  When François was twelve years of age his father sent him to Paris to live with his uncle.  Shortly after his arrival at his uncle’s home he took ill and was confined to bed.  To while away his time his uncle gave him an engraving and told his nephew to try and copy it.  François’ effort was so good that his uncle arranged for him to study art under the Flemish painter Nicasius Bernaerts.  Bernaerts was an accomplished artist who had studied with Frans Snyders, the Flemish painter, famous for his depiction of animals and hunting scenes.  Bernaerts carried on the painting tradition of Snyders and had worked at Gobelins, the Parisian tapestry manufacturers, where his cartoons of animals were often used as designs in their tapestries.  He was to greatly influence the future work of François Desportes.  Whilst studying under Bernaerts, Desportes was put to work copying Flemish paintings, particularly those depicting animals and hunting scenes.  He was also encouraged to sketch flowers direct from nature and paint floral still-lifes.  Desportes never found this period of his life very fulfilling as Bernaerts, who although only in his mid-fifties, was often ill and his health was further impaired by his alcoholism and very rarely offered practical advice or assistance to his students.   Bernaerts died in 1678, aged 58.  After the death of Bernaerts, Desportes continued his artistic training at the Académie Royale where he was able to learn about traditional classical drawing but was also able to continue with his favoured painting method – en plein air.  Desportes had to fund his schooling, as well as buy food and pay for his lodgings, and to do this he earned money by designing stage scenery, gained portrait commissions and commissions to paint decorations in Paris hotels

During the 1680’s he assisted the French painter Claude Auran III in supplying paintings for Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duc de Vendôme’s Chateau d’Anet.  Artists survive on commissions and without commissions they struggle to make ends meet.  France at the end of the seventeenth century struggled financially as it had been a century of costly wars.  France and Spain clashed during the Franco – Spanish war (1635 – 1639) and again between 1683 and 1684 during the War of Reunions.  The French and the Dutch clashed between 1672 and 1678 and France went into battle with most of its neighbours in the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697).  Wars cost money – lots of money and in consequence, the French government had no money left for grand artistic endeavours, which meant that lesser known painters, who had yet to establish their reputation, struggled to make a living.  Desportes did struggle but despite his financial hardship, Alexandre-François Desportes married Eléonore-Angélique Baudet.  His wife was a linen and lace maker and through her occupation she was able to support her husband and allow him to search out commissions and carry on with his studies.

Self-Portrait as a Huntsman by Alexandre-François Desportes (1699)
Self-Portrait as a Huntsman by Alexandre-François Desportes (1699)

Desportes luck changed when in 1695 he received an invitation from the French ambassador to Poland to come to the court of the Polish king John III Sobieski who was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania.  Desportes was commissioned to paint portraits of the king, his wife Maria Kasimiera and some of the palace courtiers.  His stay at the royal court lasted less than a year as the Polish king died in June 1696.  Desportes was summoned to return to France by Louis XIV.  Desportes had spent a number of years painting portraits of wealthy people and he intended to carry on doing this when he returned to his homeland.  However he soon found that the art establishment was awash with highly skilful portraitists and realised that it would be difficult to obtain portraiture commissions and so he decided to revert back to the training he received from Nicasius Bernaerts – the depiction of animals and still life painting and as a twist to this he would incorporate the two in his artistry.  In August 1699 Desportes was received into the Académie Royale as an animal painter and his reception piece was Self Portrait as a Hunter.  The painting, in which we see the thirty-eight year old artist seated in a landscape with his two hunting dogs and a large array of dead game, was a move away from the normal self-portrait as he has used the setting and what has been included in the work was a tribute to his own skill as a specialist animal painter as well as being a talented landscape artist.  He was advertising his abilities!

Backyard of the royal menagerie of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV by Pierre Alexandre Aveline
Backyard of the Royal Menagerie of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV by Pierre Alexandre Aveline

Louis XIV had started to have his palace at Versailles built in 1664 and he decided to incorporate a menagerie within the palace’s park.  The design of his menagerie was in line with other Baroque menageries of the time with its circular layout, in the centre of which was a magnificent pavilion. People were able to walk along the paths which surrounded this central building, and alongside them were the cages which housed the wild animals.  The king had been very impressed with the animal paintings of Desportes and commissioned him to complete five works of art which depicted animals and hunting scenes for the menagerie pavilion.  Desportes, like a present day method actor who immerses himself into his character, often went on hunting trips with Louis XIV so that he could realise the thrill of the hunt.  During the hunt he would carry with him a small notebook in which he would make on-site sketches of the hunt “trophies” – the dead animals, which could then be used later for still-life depictions of the game that resulted from the day’s hunt,  Louis XIV would then choose the best sketches and Desportes would go off and complete an oil on canvas painting of the king’s chosen subject.   Four such paintings, Deer Kill, Boar Hunt, Wolf Hunt and Hounds Guarding a Dead Deer,  still survive and are housed in the private Paris museum, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature).

Bonne, Nonne and Ponne by Desportes
Bonne, Nonne and Ponne by Desportes

Louis XIV was so pleased with these paintings that in 1702, he commissioned Desportes to paint six works, portraying the portraits of the hunting dogs which were his personal favourites.  In one such work entitled Bonne, Nonne and Ponne we see the king’s three favourite hunting dogs chasing and flushing out pheasants and partridges from the long grass.  The king was so pleased with the work Desportes produced for him that he awarded him a pension and two years later he made Desportes a councillor of the Académie Royale.

Dogs, Dead Game and Fruit by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)
Dogs, Dead Game and Fruit by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)

Desportes reputation as an artist spread outside of France and soon he was in high demand.  In 1712 he visited London and stayed for six months working on commissions.  When Louis XIV died in 1715, Desportes carried on working for the Regent of France, Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, who was ruling for the infant Louis XV, the grandson of Louis XIV and over time provided many paintings for the royal residences at Versailles, Marly, Meudon, Compiègne and Choisy.  It was not just hunting scenes that Desportes had mastered for he also spent time painting still-life works featuring the dead “trophies” brought back from the hunt cleverly arranged alongside floral displays or displays of vegetables lying on a table or even in landscape settings.  Two such paintings, Dog, Dead Game and Fruit and Dog with Flowers and Dead Game completed in 1715, can be seen in the Wallace Collection in London.

Dog with Flowers and Dead Game by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)
Dog with Flowers and Dead Game by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)

These pendant pictures were commented on by the Revue Universelle des Arts in 1857 as being:

“…incontestably the finest which came from the brush of Desportes…”

The two works were bought by Captain Richard Seymour-Conway,  the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1857 for his country house, Château de Bagatelle,  in France and at the time he commented on his acquisitions saying:

“… a little rubbish for the country…. beautiful of the sort and perfect for my shooting place…”

There is an interesting connection between the buyer of these paintings and where they are housed today for the purchaser of the paintings, Lord Hertford, also owned a house in London known as Manchester House, situated in Manchester Square.    He was an avid art collector and built up a sizeable collection of European art.  On his death in 1870, his illegitimate son, who had acted as his secretary, Sir Richard Wallace, inherited his father’s unentailed estates, and large collection of art in 1871. Wallace added to the collection himself, and in 1897, after his death, the works of art were donated to the nation by his widow. They are now housed in what was his London home, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, and are part of the Wallace Collection.

Still Life with Silver  by Alexandre-François Desportes (c.1720)
Still Life with Silver
by Alexandre-François Desportes (c.1720)

Several of his still-life paintings which combined game with fruit or flower displays also featured some beautiful pieces of silverware which came from Louis XIV’s collection.  One such painting is entitled Still Life with Silver and was completed around 1720.  Before us is a buffet laid out with an array of objects in silver, porcelain, and semi-precious stone as an array of fruit.  The gold and silver vessels are displayed on a tiered console table which is weighed down with fruit and flowers. The composition is monumental in scale, measuring  262cms x 187cms (almost 8ft x 6ft).  This is what one might have seen as a centrepiece on the table if we had attended a royal banquet.  At the centre we can see the dragon-handled tureen and vermeil salvers both of which are in the Régence style of 1715-23.

Still-Life with Ewer by Alexandre-François Desportes (1734)
Still-Life with Ewer by Alexandre-François Desportes (1734)

Alexandre-François Desportes died in April 1743, aged 82.  He left a legacy of paintings and sketches as well as his cartoons which were used as designs for tapestries made up at the famous Parisian tapestry company, Gobelins.  Many of his designs were also used at the Savonnerie company, the Parisian carpet factory at Chaillot, which manufactured the most prestigious European manufacturer of knotted-pile carpets.

Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly


Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly (1651)
Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly (1651)

Vanitas is an explicit genre of art in which the artist uses gloomy and moody symbolic objects in order that the viewer becomes very aware of the brevity of life and the inevibility of death.   The origins of the term vanitas can be traced back to the Latin biblical adage from the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:2):

“…vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas…”

which when translated means:

“…vanity of vanities; all is vanity…”

This specific artistic genre was very popular in the 16th and 17th century especially in the Netherlands, Flanders and France.

My Daily Art Display blog today looks at one of the works by the great Dutch still life and vanitas painter David Bailly.   Bailly was born in Leiden in 1584.  His father, Pieter, a Flemish immigrant from Antwerp, was a writing master.  Being a practicing Protestant he had fled from the Catholic Spanish rule of his homeland to the safer, more tolerant Northern Netherlands, eventually settling in the town of Leiden.  It was whilst living here that he married Willempgen Wolphaertsdr. and the couple went on to have four children, Anthony,  Anna, Neeltgen and David.  In 1592 David’s father took up the position as writing master at the University of Leiden.  He remained there until 1597 at which time he changed careers and became fencing master at a school run by the mathematician Ludolph van Cuelen, which was an establishment set up to train aspiring army officers in the various facets of warfare.

David’s initial training in drawing came from his father and in 1597, at the age of thirteen, he trained at the Leiden studio of the Dutch draughtsman and copper engraver, Jacques de Gheyn II.  David Bailly soon came to believe that his future did not lie as a draughtsman but as a painter and he was somewhat fortunate to live in the town of Leiden which was the home of many established and aspiring artists.  The leading artist in Leiden at the time was Isaac van Swanenburgh, who with his three sons, had set up a thriving studio in the town.  However it was not to this family concern that young David sort employment and tuition but instead his father arranged his son to become an apprentice to the painter and surgeon, Adriaen Verburgh.   In 1602 David moved to Amsterdam and became an apprentice in the city studio of the very successful portraitist and art dealer, Cornelius van der Voort. 

At the end of 1608, then aged twenty-four, David Bailly, now a journeyman painter, set off on his own Grand Tour, all the time seeking out commissions.  He travelled around Europe visiting a number of German cities such as Frankfurt, Nuremburg and Augsburg before crossing the Tyrolean Alps into Italy where he visited Venice and Rome.  In all, his journey lasted five years and it was not until 1613 that he returned to the Netherlands.

Once back home his work concentrated on drawing and painting portraits and vanitas still-life works and would often, as is the case in today’s featured work, combine the two genres.  His portraiture at the time consisted of many works featuring some of the students and professors of the University of Leiden.  He built up a very illustrious clientele which was testament to his artistic ability.  Bailly also had a number of pupils, two of whom were his nephews Harmen and Pieter van Steenwyck, who rank amongst the best still-life Dutch Golden Age painters.  In 1642 David Bailly married Agneta van Swanenburgh.  The couple did not have any children.  In 1648, he along with other artists including Gabriel Metsu, Gerard Dou, and Jan Steen founded the Leidse Sint Lucasgilde  – Leiden Guild of St Luke.  David Bailly died in Leiden in October 1657, aged73.

The painting I am featuring today is entitled Vanitas Still Life with a Portrait of a Young Painter which was completed by David Bailly in 1651 when he was sixty-six years of age and six years before he died.  It is now housed in the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden.    It is a fascinating painting full of symbolism.  To the left of the painting we have, what some believe, is a self-portrait of the artist himself, but of course as we know Bailly’s age when he painted the work we know this was a depiction of himself as a young man in his early twenties.    In his right hand he holds a maulstick, or mahlstick, which is a stick with a soft leather or padded head, used by painters to support the hand that holds the brush.  In his other hand he holds upright on the table a framed oval portrait of himself as he was at the time of painting this work.  So in fact the man sitting on the left of the painting and the man in the frame are one and the same and the inclusion of both images in the painting simply reminds us of the transience of life.    

Behind the framed self-portrait we have another oval painting, that of a young woman and this has always interested art historians.  It is believed to be a portrait of his wife Agneta in her younger days.  However at the time the painting was completed Bailly’s wife was gravely ill, in fact, it could well be that she had already died.  Look closely at the wall in the right background, just behind the half empty fluted glass, can you make out a ghost-like portrait of a woman, en grisaille, painted on it, across which drifts the smoke from the extinguished candle?  This is another classic vanitas symbolisation.  This could well be alluding to the fact that his wife had died from contracting the plague.  On the table we also see a standing figure of Saint Stephen bound to a tree, pierced with arrows.  So what is the connection with St Stephen and the other objects on the table?   One theory is that there was a link between Saint Stephen and the plague, which killed so many people in Europe, including Bailly’s wife.    The infections produced by the bubonic plague caused people to compare the “random attacks” of the plague with attacks by arrows and these folk desperately sort out a saint who was martyred by arrows, to intercede on their behalf and so prayers were offered up to St Stephen for him to intercede.   

This is a vanitas still-life painting and we see the usual vanitas symbolism amongst the objects depicted in the work of art.   Vanitas works allude to the transience of life.  Time passes.  It cannot be halted.  We all must eventually die.  Look at the background of the painting.  Look at the angle of the wall as it vertically divides the painting.  To the left, the painting is brightly lit and we have the young man, the aspiring artist, with his unused artist’s palettes hanging on the wall.  To the right of the vertical divide, the room is in shadow and we have the portrait of the old artist.  On the vertical line we have a bubble, which is a classic metaphor for the impermanence and fragility of life. 

There are many other items to note.   On the wall we see a print of Franz Hals 1626 painting, The Lute Player.  There is a plethora of objects on the table including a picture of a bearded man which could have been a portrait of Bailly’s father or maybe one of his teachers.  On the table, there are also many noteworthy items indicating death such as the skull, the extinguished candle, the tipped-over Roemer glass, the grains of sand of an hour glass running down and the wilting flowers.  There are also reminders of the luxuries of life which are of little use to us once we are dead, such as the coins and the pearls as well as items that have once helped us to relax and add to our enjoyment such as the pipe and the book, as well as the art in the form of paintings and sculpture. Sadly, pleasure and wealth are short-lived and ultimately unimportant.   This is about the temporality of life.    Overhanging the table in the foreground is a scroll with the words:



which remind us of the words from the  book of Ecclesiastes I quoted at the start of this blog.

So the next time you decide to have somebody take your photograph, think carefully what you would place by your side or on a nearby table so as to convey a subtle and symbolic message to the people who will view the photograph in years to come.


The Scottish Colourists, Part 4 – George Leslie Hunter

Cottage, near Largo by G.L.Hunter  (c.1920)
Cottage, near Largo by G.L.Hunter (c.1920)

In my blog today I conclude my look at the group of early twentieth century Scottish artists, who would later be grouped together and known as the Scottish Colourists.  The fourth member of this group was George Leslie Hunter.   Hunter was born in Rothesay, a town on the west coast Scottish Isle of Bute, in 1877.  He was the youngest of five children, born to William Hunter, a chemist by trade and his wife, Jeanie Hunter (née Stewart).  His initial schooling was at Rothesay Academy.  In February 1892, Hunter’s elder sister Catherine died and this was followed shortly after with the death of his elder brother.  Both iwho were in their early twenties were thought to have died from an influenza pandemic which had been sweeping the country.  Although his mother and father had been toying with the idea of emigrating, these tragic events were the final push they needed to leave Scotland and in September that year they set sail for California via New York to start a new life.  The family arrived in California where Hunter’s father bought an orange farm east of Los Angeles.  George enjoyed life in America and spent most of his time sketching and enjoying the favourable Californian climate.   He did not undertake formal art training, and was largely self-taught.  When he was nineteen years of age he managed to get work as an illustrator for some local magazines.  The father’s farming venture lasted just eight years before Hunter’s parents decided to return home to Scotland.  However George, who had developed a love of art, was enjoying life in America so much that he decided not to return with his parents but instead decided to stay on and in 1900 he moved to San Francisco where he became part of the Bohemian lifestyle of the Californian city.   The following year he had some of his artwork exhibited at the California Society of Artists exhibition.

To earn money Hunter illustrated work for the Californian magazines, Overland Monthly and the Sunset magazine.  The latter was a promotional journal for Southern Pacific Transportation Company, designed to combat all the negative publicity regarding the “Wild West” life in California. In 1904 Hunter went to New York with friends and then on to Paris and it was whilst in the French capital that Hunter took up oil painting and became determined to become a professional artist.  On his return to California in 1905, he started to build up a large collection of his work which he intended to exhibit at his first solo exhibition which was to be held at the Mark Hopkins Institute the following year.  However tragedy struck in the form of the great Californian earthquake in April 1906 which devastated San Francisco and destroyed his studio and most of his artwork.

Fruit and Flowers on a Draped Table by G.L.Hunter (1919)
Fruit and Flowers on a Draped Table by G.L.Hunter (1919)

Hunter returned to Glasgow and rejoined his mother.  He continued his self-education as a painter and carried earning a living as an illustrator.  Many of his initial oil paintings were of the still life genre.  He liked to experiment with these works, revelled in the use of colour and often would incorporate the technique used by the Dutch still-life masters, such as Willem Kalf, Jan Davidsz de Heem and the great Willem van Aelst.

Still Life with Nautilus Cup by William Kalf (1662)
Still Life with Nautilus Cup by William Kalf (1662)

These still life painters often composed their colourful depiction of floral and fruit arrangements with a drab and dark background to afford the greatest contrast.  They used the chiaroscuro technique to dramatic effect and for Kalf it was his delightful way in which he  combined in his paintings humble objects such as simple kitchen utensils with luxurious objects such as crystal glassware and exquisite silverware.    Hunter would probably have seen examples of the Dutch masters in the museums of Glasgow and would have found them inspirational for his work.   Although this may be construed as “copying” by Hunter and could be looked upon as a form of plagiarism, in fact it was not, for he was simply studying the great works of art and taking what he had seen back into his own works.

Hunter met fellow Colourist, Samuel Peploe, through mutual friends, the artists, Edward Archibald Taylor and his wife Jessie Marion King when he was in Paris in 1910 but it was over a decade later before the two became close friends.  Hunter’s professional artistic career really started in 1913 when he was fortunate to be introduced to Alexander Reid, an influential Glasgow art dealer.  That year he held his first solo exhibition in Glasgow at Reid’s gallery.   Three years later, in 1916, Hunter exhibits more work at the gallery and later showed at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts.  The review of the exhibition in the March edition of the Bailie newspaper commented on Hunter’s work:

“…He has three of four examples of still life that are superlatively strong…. they show a mastery of form and colour that takes one back to the triumphs of the Dutchmen…”

It was through exhibitions like these that Hunter connected with a group of affluent collectors who would continue to buy his works of art over the next fifteen years.

Portrait of Alexnder Reid by Vincent van Gogh (1887)
Portrait of Alexnder Reid by Vincent van Gogh (1887)

During the post-First World War days, Hunter became influenced more and more by the works of the modern French painters he had seen whilst visiting Paris, in particular Matisse, Cezanne and van Gogh.   In 1922 he went on an extended tour of Europe, visiting the French Riviera, Florence and Venice.  Glasgow art dealer Alex Reid and Parisian gallery owner, Ettienne Bignou, were developing a business relationship around this time and decided to stage an exhibition of the works of Peploe, Cadell and Hunter, entitled Les Peintres De l’Ecosse Moderne at the Galerie Barbazanges in June 1924.  Following this Hunter held a joint exhibition the next year with Peploe and Cadell at the Leicester Galleries in London.

Provencal Landscape by George Leslie Hunter (c.1929)
Provencal Landscape by George Leslie Hunter (c.1929)

During the period between 1924 and 1927 Hunter carried out a lot of his work in Fife and around Loch Lomond.  Whether it was due to the cold climate of Scotland or just his desire for the chance to savour the bright light and warm weather in southern France,  he became restless and left Scotland and based himself in the small Provencal village of Sainte-Paul-de-Vence.  From there he would set off on daily sketching trips around the many picturesque Provencal villages.  Most of the paintings he completed were sent back to Alex Reid in Glasgow for him to sell.  In 1929 he made the trip to New York for his exhibition at the Ferargil Galleries, which was critically acclaimed as an outstanding success.  From New York he returned to France but in November 1929 he suffered a breakdown and his health began to deteriorate and he is forced to return to Glasgow where he was looked after by his sister.

Reflections, Balloch by George Leslie Hunter (1930)
Reflections, Balloch by George Leslie Hunter (1930)

During the last couple years of his life Hunter concentrated once again on painting scenes around Loch Lomond and the village of Balloch which is situated at the southern tip of the loch.  He had painted scenes in this area five years earlier but now his later works show a greater clarity and are unfussy in composition.  In his work, entitled Reflections, Balloch, Hunter has concentrated the main focus of the work on the sparkle of light and reflections on the surface of the loch.  Many of these later works featuring the loch also incorporated houseboats and this series of paintings has been acknowledged as some of his best. His fellow colourist Samuel Peploe praised it at this time, saying:

“…that is Hunter at his best, and it is as fine as any Matisse…”

In 1931 Hunter travelled to Paris for the last time so as to be present at the highly successful exhibition Les Peintres Ecossais from which the French government bought a landscape of Loch Lomond for their national collection.  Buoyed by the success of the exhibition, of which he played a leading part, he began to make tentative plans to move from Scotland and go to live in London.  His spirits were high, he believed his luck had changed and he viewed the future with great optimism.  He was quoted at the time as saying:

“…I have been kicking at the door so long and at last it is beginning to open…”

Sadly before he could savour what he believed would be the start of a new life, he died in a Glasgow nursing home in December 1951, aged just 54.

This is my final blog about the four Scottish Colourists.  It cannot be emphasised enough the importance France played in their art.  In the book Scottish Colourists 1900-1930, one of the authors, Elizabeth Cumming, a lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, commented on this fact, writing:

“…Without their French contacts and experience, none of the Scottish Colourists would have developed their art as we know it.  For all, visiting and living in France invested their ideas with a new vision.  For Cadell, it meant developing an empathy with stylistic sophistication.  For Hunter, visiting the south of France especially injected light airiness into his landscapes.  For Peploe, two years of life in Paris opened a door to the intellectual possibilities within traditional subjects.  And for Fergusson, living in France for far longer than any of the others, it became the crux of his existence…”