Kristian Zahrtman and Leonora Christina

Kristian Zahrtmann

Kristian Zahrtmann

My blog today is a mixture of art and history. It is about a late nineteenth century Danish painter Kristian Zahrtmann and his fascination with Leonora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV of Denmark and Kirsten Munk. Zahrtmann was a painter, who produced landscapes, street scenes as well as many fine portraits but he was especially known for his history painting and especially paintings which featured legendary, and often tragic, females in Danish history.

Self portrait (1914)

Self portrait (1914)

Peder Henrik Kristian Zahrtmann was born in March 1843 in Rønne, a Baltic Sea town on the west coast of the Danish island of Bornholm. His mother was Laura Pouline Jesperson and his father, Carl Vilhelm Zahrtmann, was a doctor on the island. He was the eldest of nine children, having two sisters and six brothers. On completion of his normal schooling, at the age of seventeen, he left the Rønne Realskole and enrolled at the Sorø Academy on the Danish island of Zealand and it was here that he began to study painting under the tutorship of the Danish landscape painter and drawing master, Hans Hader. He graduated from the Academy in 1862 and a year later received his doctorate.

Following his graduation he went to live in Copenhagen and for the six months of the winter of 1863 he enrolled at the Technical Institute in Copenhagen where he studied drawing and design under the Danish artist, Christian Hetsch and architect Ferdinand Vilhelm Jensen. At the same time, he received private instruction from the genre painter Wenzel Ulrich. A year later he enrolled on a four-year course at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen. He graduated from the Academy in 1868 when he was twenty-five years of age and it was in this year that he first exhibited some of his first work at the Charlottenborg, the palace in which was situated the Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Jammers Minde The hand written autobiography of Leonora Christina

Jammers Minde
The hand written autobiography of Leonora Christina

It was around this time that Zahrtmann became great friends with aspiring Danish painters Otto Haslund and Pietro Krøhn with whom he shared a studio. It was this friendship that in some way was the starting point of this blog about Zahrtmann and the 17th century Danish princess Leonora Christina for it was they who gave Zahrtmann, for his birthday, a copy of Jammers Minde, which literally translated means A Memory of Lament. It was a posthumous autobiography written by Leonora during her twenty-two year solitary incarceration in the Blue Tower in Copenhagen Castle and which was not published until 170 years later, in 1869. So who was Leonora Christina and why was the daughter of the king imprisoned for over two decades of her life?

Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower by Kristian Zahrtmann

Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower by Kristian Zahrtmann

To find the answer to this we need to go back to King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway who succeeded his late father, Frederik II, at the age of eleven and ascended to the throne eight years later. He married his first wife Anne Catherine in 1597, when he was twenty years of age, and the couple went on to have seven children, four of whom died in infancy. Anne Catherine died in 1612 and three years later, in December 1615, Christian IV remarried. His second wife was Kirsten Munk, the daughter of a wealthy court official, who had been living with her family at the royal palace in Copenhagen . Although she was of the nobility, she held no title and so when she married the widowed king, Christian, it was a marriage between people of different social classes and the marriage was termed a morganatic marriage (similar to the present day marriage between Prince William and the “commoner” Kate Middleton). This difference in class between husband and wife could well have been the reason why the wedding ceremony was a private affair and not a full-scale church wedding. Kirsten Munk bore the king twelve children, ten of whom survived infancy, two sons and eight daughters. Leonora Christina was the couple’s fifth child, born in July 1621.

Leonora Christina i Fængselet (Leonora Christina in Prison) by Kristian Zahrtmann (1875)

Leonora Christina i Fængselet (Leonora Christina in Prison) by Kristian Zahrtmann (1875)

Leonora Christina, like four of her sisters, did not marry princes from one of the many European monarchies but instead her father allowed them to marry powerful and wealthy Danish noblemen in an attempt to assure their allegiance to the monarchy. Leonora’s husband, whom she married in 1636 when she was just fifteen years old, was the thirty-eight year old Corfitz Ulfeldt, the son of the Danish chancellor. They had actually been engaged since she was nine years old! Corfitz Ulfeldt held great powers at the royal court but became more and more ambitious and grasping and it was these traits along with some bad political decisions which had him and the king fall out. Christian IV died in February 1648 and it was two months before the king’s second son, Leonora’s half brother, Frederick, from his first marriage, was elected the new King of Denmark and Norway. He became King Frederick III. During that two month transition period Corfitz Ulfeldt, as Steward of the Realm, the country’s de-facto prime minister, virtually ruled Denmark.

Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerard van Honthorst (1647)

Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerard van Honthorst (1647)

Corfitz Ulfeldt’s avarice and naked ambition during his rise to power irritated the new king and a perceived plot against the new monarch by Ulfeldt caused the latter, out of fear for his life, to flee the country with his wife Leonora and their family. Ulfeldt then forged a close alliance with Charles X of Sweden, Denmark’s old enemy, and offered his financial support with money which was thought to have been embezzled from the Danish state. This money was to help Charles facilitate the war against Denmark which began in July 1657. At the end of the conflict in 1658, Sweden had won its most celebrated victory, and for the vanquished, Denmark/Norway, they had suffered a humiliating and costly defeats of all time, having to cede territory to Sweden under the Treaty of Brömseboro. Ulfeldt even took part in these treaty negotiations, during which he took great pleasure in denigrating his former homeland. This, however, was to be his ultimate undoing. Ulfeldt, now feted by the Swedish monarch, once again became too ambitious and fell out with Charles X, who ordered his arrest and was condemned to death. In 1660, Ulfeldt decided that the lesser of two evils was to escape from Sweden with his wife Leonora Christina and return to his homeland, Denmark, and try and make his peace with Frederick III. Frederick was not amused and had the couple imprisoned for a year. Their release came after Ulfeldt paid a hefty fine which saw him and his wife almost reduced to a poverty-stricken existence. Their imprisonment had been both degrading and cruel and once released Ulfeldt plotted his revenge on Frederick. His act of treason against the Danish monarch was discovered and he was condemned to death in absentia. He escaped the jaws of death but died in a Rhine boating accident during one of his flights from impending arrest.

Leonora Christina in the Garden of the Frederisborg Palace by Kristian Zahrtmann (1887)

Leonora Christina in the Garden of the Frederisborg Palace by Kristian Zahrtmann (1887)

So what happened to Leonora Christina? After her and her husband’s release from prison Ulfeldt persuaded Leonora to go to England, seek an audience with Charles II and see if she could recover money he had lent the English monarch. Charles was unwilling to help and had Leonora arrested at Dover on her way back to the Continent. She was eventually hand over to Frederick and the Danish state, which as they still could not find Ulfeldt, instead decided to punish his wife and had her locked away in solitary confinement in the infamous Blue Tower at Copenhagen’s Castle. The conditions in the prison were both degrading and vile. So why was she so severely punished for the wrongdoings of her husband? Throughout her incarceration she blamed her downfall and her imprisonment, not on her half brother, the monarch Frederik, but on his wife Sophie-Amalie and the queen’s desire for revenge. Why this animosity between Leonora and Sophie-Amelie?

Sophie Amalie von Braunschweig-Lüneburg  with a slave by Abraham Wuchters (c.1670)

Sophie Amalie von Braunschweig-Lüneburg with a slave by Abraham Wuchters (c.1670)

Leonora had been her father’s favourite daughter and when her mother, Kirsten Munk, was banished from Copenhagen by her husband for infidelity, Leonora took on the role and power as the First Lady of Denmark. When her father died and Frederick came to the throne things changed. When you are at the pinnacle there is only one direction one can go – down! Frederick married Sophie-Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who became Queen of Denmark and Norway. She and Leonora, who had seen her power usurped by another woman, became bitter enemies and she probably played a leading part in having Leonore incarcerated.

Leonora Christina paa Maribo Kloster (Leonora Christina at Maribo Cloister)  by Kristian Zahrtmann (1883)

Leonora Christina paa Maribo Kloster (Leonora Christina at Maribo Cloister)
by Kristian Zahrtmann (1883)

Leonora Christina’s sworn enemy, Sophie-Amalie died in February 1685 and one of Leonora’s daughters went to the king, Christian V, the son of the late Frederick III and Sophie-Amalie, and begged for the release of her mother. The king agreed and in May 1685 and she went to live at a monastery run by the nuns of the St. Birgitte-order. It was here that Leonora completed her autobiography, Jammers Minde, which she had started to write during her long imprisonment. Leonora Christina died in March 1698 and was buried in the crypt of the monastery which is now the church at Maribo on the Danish island of Lolland. It is believed that some time later her sons had her body removed from the church and laid to rest in a secret location where her husband had been interred. Leonora’s last years in imprisonment improved due to the attitude of the new king Christian V and his wife, the queen-consort, Charlotte-Amelie despite his mother, Sophie-Amelie’s everlasting vindictive nature. In her autobiography Leonora wrote about her indebtedness to the king and queen improved situation:

“…My most gracious hereditary King was gracious enough several times in former years to intercede for me with his royal mother, through the high ministers of the State. Her answer at that time was very hard; she would entitle them “traitors”’ and, “as good as I was, and would point them to the door. All the favours which the King s majesty showed me — the outer apartment, the large window, the money to dispose of for annoyed the Queen Dowager extremely; and she made the Kings majesty feel her displeasure in the most painful manner…”.

Dronning Sophie Amalies død, (The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie)  by Kristian Zahrtmann (1882)

Dronning Sophie Amalies død, (The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie)
by Kristian Zahrtmann (1882)

Zahrtman was fascinated by the book and completed a number of paintings of the way he envisaged Leonora during her captivity and like Leonora, Zahrtmann blamed Sophie-Amalie for Leonora’s downfall and the artist depicted the deathbed scene of Leonora’s nemesis. The state of the dying queen mother and the pain-wracked expression on her face presumably comforted Zahrtmann !

For anybody who would like to read the translation of Leonora’s autobiography I believe there is a Guttenburg e-book available:

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Danish artists, History Paintings, Kristian Zahrtmann | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese

Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese (1573)

Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese (1573)

The 16th century the art scene of Venice was dominated by three artists, Titian, Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Tintoretto and it was these three painters who managed to tender for and win most of the public and religious commissions, which were on offer during that period.  My featured painting today was one of Veronese’s most controversial paintings.   It was intended to be a monumental work depicting the Last Supper but as you will now read that Veronese, three months after its completion, had to hastily change the title of the painting.  The work, which is now entitled Feast at the House of Levi, is a massive work of art measuring 555cms x 1280cms (18’6″ x 42’6″) and was far too big to be included in the recent Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London but I have been fortunate enough to stand in front of this amazing work a few years ago when I visited the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.  It is a truly magnificent painting.

Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

In 1573, Paolo Veronese, who was at the time forty-five years old, was awarded the commission to paint a depiction of the Last Supper for the rear wall of the refectory of the fourteenth century Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, sometimes known as the pantheon of doges, as twenty-five of them have been buried there. It is one of the largest churches in the city of Venice. The building of this great church started around 1333 but was not completed until November 1430 as the construction was halted on many occasions due to the never-ending plagues that the city suffered during the 14th century.  This painting by Veronese would replace Titian’s painting, The Last Supper, which had been lost in a fire in 1571.  According to the writing on the base of the pillars, to the left and right in the foreground of the painting, the work was completed by Veronese on April 20th 1573.  When I looked at some of the Veronese paintings at the National Gallery exhibition in my previous two blogs, I talked about the artist’s penchant for combining secular depictions in some of his religious works, such as his painting, Supper at Emmaus, and in today’s painting we can see that this theme was once again adopted, much to the horror of the Catholic Church.  So let us look in more detail at this immensely impressive work.

Dog looking at cat which appears under Last Supper table

Dog looking at cat which appears under Last Supper table

In the painting we see a monumental triple-arch background through which one can see more magnificent buildings of Venice cityscape.  This was more than likely inspired by buildings designed by the great Italian architects of the time, Andrea Palladio and Jacopo Sansovino, who designed many of the Venetian buildings in the sixteenth century.   In the foreground of the painting and on either side of the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper, we witness a scene of great merriment, with jesters and blackamoors, along with the nobility of Venice enjoying their own sumptuous feast.  Veronese has simply combined the Last Supper with Christ and his Apostles with a typical Venetian dinner party.  The first thing that strikes you about this work is the large number of figures that have been included in the work, one could say, almost crammed into the work and because the work is somewhat cluttered by human beings, the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper seems almost lost in the melee and this is part of the reason why it did not find favour with the Church.  One realises that the artist must have derived great joy from including all these various figures, all doing different things and for him this maybe what the painting was about and that the Last Supper was just a bi-product of the work.  Maybe we can glean an understanding of Veronese’s modus operandi by his description of his work as an artist when he described what he did, saying:

“I paint and compose figures”

Jester with parrot

Jester with parrot

The Church’s displeasure of the completed work was not just that the depiction of the Last Supper, in the central background of the painting, seems almost to play a secondary and minor role in the work; it was that they were horrified by some of the numerous other characters who populated the work.  Veronese’s inclusion of this assortment of characters into such a famous religious scene was looked upon by the Church as being irreverent, bordering on blasphemous. One has to remember that this period marked the beginning of the Counter Reformation which was the Catholic Church’s attempt to strongly and vociferously oppose the Protestant Reformation and to move towards a re-definition of good Catholic values.  The Church was very wary about anything which could be perceived as mocking the Church and its values.  This counter-reformation movement attempted to elevate the moral and educational standards of the clergy and by so doing enable it to win back areas endangered by Protestantism.  So when Veronese added a plethora of people, some of whom seemed to be drunk, as well as dogs, a cat, midgets, and Huns to the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper at the house of Simon, the elders of the Church were horrified.  Veronese was summoned to appear before the Inquisition on July 18th 1573 which was sitting in the Chapel of S. Teodoro.

One of the first questions posed by his inquisitors was whether he knew why he had been summoned before them.  Veronese replied:

“…I fancy that it concerns what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the prior of the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I did not know, but who informed me that he had been here, and that your Most Illustrious Lordships had ordered him to cause to be placed in the picture a Magdalene instead of the dog; and I answered him that very readily I would do all that was needful for my reputation and for the honour of the picture; but that I did not understand what this figure of the Magdalene could be doing here…”

 The inquisitors were not pacified by his answer and began to question him in more detail.  They asked him why he had included two German soldiers seen on the stairway, standing guard bearing halberds, in the right foreground.  One has to remember it was the German Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestan Reformation fifty-five years earlier and it was he who had been a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church, constantly criticising the ways of the Catholic clergy and the Catholic doctrine.   The Inquisition wanted to know why such frivolous things as a dwarf with a parrot on his arm, a dog which sits before Christ’s table staring at the cat which has appeared under the tablecloth had been included in a deeply religious scene.  Veronese had all the answers ready.  As far as the German soldiers he answered:

German guards with halberds

German guards with halberds

“…We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants…”

The inclusion of the two Germans in the painting was considered by the inquisitors an even greater sin than the other inclusions the inquisitors questioned Veronese again as to their inclusion.

“…Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?…”

Veronese realised he was now on dangerous ground but skilfully replied:

“… I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters…”

Veronese was probably now becoming a little fearful at the way the questioning was going and so decided to go down the line of – if you think I have blasphemed with my painting, what about the much beloved Michelangelo’s work in the Vatican.  Veronese expanded:

“…In Rome, in the Pope’s Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling…”

Other diners

The Inquisitors however would not criticise Michelangelo’s work, merely saying that in the depiction of the Last Judgement, which Veronese was referring to, it was only natural that the people were without clothes and that the work had been inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They then turned on Veronese stating that there was no indication that his work had been so inspired by the Holy Spirit and that he needed to make some changes to it.  They then compared Michelangelo’s work with his and commented:

“…There are neither buffoons, dogs, weapons, nor other absurdities. Do you think, therefore, according to this or that view, that you did well in so painting your picture, and will you try to prove that it is a good and decent thing?..”

A little trickier was the question as to why he would include a jester with a parrot on his wrist in such a “sacred” work.  However, he was not to be browbeaten and simply answered:

“…He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures…”

 Veronese did however agree with his inquisitors that there was only Christ and his twelve apostle present at the table during the Last Supper but forwarded the reason for the inclusion of so many characters.  He said that the painting was to be so large that he had to fill the space with something, saying:

“…when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention…” 

The inquisitors countered Veronese’s argument by asking him whether he thought he had the right to mock the Last Supper by including irreligious figures, such as buffoons, dwarves, a dog, a cat and worst of all Germans.  Veronese replied:

“…No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures…”

The way in which Veronese had depicted the Last Supper seen in the central background was also criticised by the Inquisition.  This was not similar to the portrayal of Last Supper à la Leonardo.  Veronese’s table scene was more of an everyday festive scene and this was not lost on the inquisitors who wanted to know what was going on at the supper table.  They started by questioning Veronese as to who was sitting down with Christ.  He answered:

“…The twelve apostles…”

They then questioned what the person, Saint Peter, on the right hand of Christ was doing.  The artist responded:

“… He is carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other part of the table and Christ holds a plate to see what Saint Peter will give him…”

On questioning what a third person at the table was doing he merely commented:

“…. He is picking his teeth with a fork…”

In a desperate final attempt to justify the inclusion of all the extra people, both normal and strange, he pointed out that such elements that displeased the Inquisition, such as the dog, the dwarf, the blackamoors, the man with the nosebleed, who is seen holding a handkerchief at the left of the picture, were all in the foreground or the sides of the painting, and did not, in any way, form an incursion into the religious depiction of Christ at supper at the centre of the work.

Venetian guest arriving for supper

Venetian guest arriving for supper

With a terrible sense of foreboding the questions came to an end and Veronese awaited his fate. So, it was much to his surprise that at the end of the interrogation Veronese was told that he was a free man.  However as the Inquisition could not accept his argument for adding what they termed “anti-conformist elements” he was given three months to correct the painting at his own expense.  They required him to paint out the dog, and replace it with the Magdalene.  He was also to expunge the German soldiers and it was all to be done within three months. Paolo Veronese, who had feared torture and even death because of his heretical depiction of the Last Supper, couldn’t believe his luck.  So how had he managed to escape the full force of the Inquisition?  Maybe the answer lay in the fact that the Inquisition had much reduced powers in Venice and the inquisitors knew that they could only threaten and not use the brutal methods of torture that was taking place in other countries such as Spain and Italy.  They simply wanted to frighten Veronese in the hope that he would think twice before he again combined secularity with religious scenes.  The Inquisition in Venice was also fully aware that every judgement they made was scrutinised by the Venetian Senate, who were ready to drastically curtail their powers, if they dared to take away the liberty of a Venetian subject and, of course,  Paolo Veronese was one such subject.

Date on column and reference to Luke's Gospel

Date on column and reference to Luke’s Gospel

Veronese never made any of the major changes to his painting that the Inquisition had demanded, but in deference to Ecclesiastical sensibilities and not wishing to push his luck, he added the inscription across the top of the pillars at the head of the staircases, the ones which also showed the date of completion.  The inscription read:

Fecit D.Covi Magnum Levi                       Luca Cap. V

This was in reference to a passage in Luke’s gospel of the New Testament (Luke 5: 27-29):

“…After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.  Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them…”

He then merely changed the title of the work from The Last Supper to Feast at the House of Levi and by doing so was able to retain the dog and removed the need for it to be replaced by a repentant Magdalene prostrating herself on the floor before Christ.  Veronese’s decision not to make the changes pleased both the friars who loved the painting, and for the majority of Venetians who resented Rome’s inquisition.   The painting remained in the refectory of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo until Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops marched into Venice in 1797 and he ordered it be taken back to Paris.   It was returned to Venice a decade later and remained in the church until 1815, at which time it was acquired by the Accademia Galleries in Venice, its current home.

One final thought as to why Veronese would add so many people into a religious scene.   A decade earlier, in 1563, he had completed a similar monumental religious commission for the monks, entitled the Wedding at Cana, which now hangs in the Louvre.  It is interesting to note that it was the monks who had asked him to squeeze as many figures into their painting, as possible.  This was however at a time when the Inquisition and the upholding of Counter-Reformation ideals had yet to reach Venice.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Religious paintings, Venetian painters, Veronese | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London. Part 2

In art, the hackneyed phrase “size matters” is not relevant as some of the most beautiful works of art are quite small. In my first look at the Veronese exhibition at London’s National Gallery I focused on some of the artist’s monumental works which were on show. In today’s blog I want to look at some of the smaller paintings which were on display at the exhibition.

Mary Magdalen in the Wilderness by Veronese (c. 1585)

Mary Magdalen in the Wilderness by Veronese (c. 1585)

The first painting I want to feature is Veronese’s oil on canvas work entitled Mary Magdalene in the Wilderness which he completed around 1585 and is on loan to the exhibition from a private collection in Genoa. The scene is a cave, bathed in moonlight, which is home to Mary Magdalene. Legend had it that after the death of Christ, his resurrection and finally his ascension into heaven, she, along with her brothers Lazarus and Maximin, fled the Holy Land in a rudder-less boat and one without a sail and landed at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue near the city of Arles. From there she went to Marseille before living for thirty years in a cave in the Saint Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume Mountains. According to legend, during her self-imposed exile, she went on a strict period of fasting and that but for occasional visits by the angels, and the comfort bestowed by celestial visions, she might have died. The only food she received was the Holy Eucharist which was given to her by angels.

In the painting, we see Mary Magdalene leaning back against a shelf as she converses with the angel who has descended to offer her a modicum of comfort. Veronese has retained her youth and beauty despite what would have been her real age. She is depicted as being semi-naked although she attempts to cover up her nakedness with her hair and diaphanous clothing. Her legs are bare and her breast is exposed and this portrayal of her is probably meant to remind us of her previous immoral life. Look at the shelf behind her. On it we can just make out a number of items. There is an alabaster jar which is the traditional attribute of Mary Magdalene, reminding us of the jar of very expensive aromatic oil, pure nard, with which she anointed the feet of Christ. Also on the ledge there is a skull and an hour glass, both Vanitas symbols alluding to the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Propped up against the skull is a crucifix reminding us of the death of Christ which Mary Magdalene witnessed first-hand.

It is thought that the painting, which was purchased around 1736 by the Doria family, was enlarged during the eighteenth century so that it fitted snugly within decorated plasterwork of one of the rooms of their Strada Nuovo palace in Genoa.

The Finding of Moses by Veronese (c.1580)

The Finding of Moses by Veronese (c.1580)

My next featured work is one entitled The Finding of Moses which Veronese completed around 1580 and is part of the Prado collection in Madrid. This small cabinet-sized painting (57cms x 43cms) is another of his religious works and is based on the Old Testament story (Exodus 2:5-6):

“…Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So she had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children’…”

The painting depicts the moment when the Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, and her ladies-in-waiting have plucked the basket, made of bulrushes and pitch, from the reeds on the edge of the Nile River. The basket was the one in which the baby, Moses had been placed by his Hebrew mother, Jochebed, in order to save him from the slaughter of all male Hebrew children ordered by the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Although this obviously a religious work it has secular connotations and this secularising of the work made it one of Veronese’s most popular subjects. He completed many versions of this depiction, some small like this one, others much larger. This painting has combined the pomp and ceremony often seen in secular works with a story from the bible. The Pharoah’s daughter and her royal attendants are lavishly dressed in sumptuous gowns. Bithiah, as the Pharoah’s daughter, is the most lavishly dressed in stunning orange and white damask gown. To her left is one of her attendants, dressed in blue, holding a blanket ready to wrap up the baby who is being cradled by another attendant who can be seen crouching down with Moses in her arms. The background at the left of painting depicts a river flowing through a large town and is crossed by a bridge. This could well be based on city of Verona, which has many bridges straddling the fast-flowing Adige River.

In the left foreground we see one of her black servants holding the basket which had once carried the baby down river. To the right of the painting Veronese has included a dwarf in the company of the women. Dwarves were often present at 16th century European courts and depicted in paintings of the time. It is thought that this version of the painting was commissioned by Marquis and Marchioness della Torre of Veneto. Its emergence in Spain dates to the 1666 inventory of the Alcázar of Madrid.

Portrait of a Lady 'La Bella Nani' by Veronese (c. 1560)

Portrait of a Lady ‘La Bella Nani’ by Veronese (c. 1560)

My third offering is a portrait which Veronese completed around 1560. It is entitled Portrait of a Lady, ‘La Bella Nani’ and this work is considered to be Veronese’s greatest stand-alone female portrait. Venetian portraiture of Venetian courtesans was very popular at this time with works by the Italian painter of the Venetian school, Palma Vechio, the Italian painter of the Venetian Renaissance, Paris Bordone and Titian. This portrait by Veronese was often likened to Titian’s 1536 work entitled La Bella. In both these paintings the female sitter exudes a sense of opulence by the sumptuous and expensive clothes they wear. Veronese’s woman is standing with her left hand spreading her gossamer veil whilst her right hand is at her breast. Her hair is set tightly, and bejewelled with pearls. She wears a velvet dress which is deep ultramarine in colour and has gold epaulets; The colour of the dress was originally blue although over time sunlight has caused the painting to darken and the beautiful ultramarine dress seems black with just a hint of blue woven in. Veronese’s clever and complex layer of glazes makes the expensive material of the dress shimmer in the light. Her make-up is perfect with rouge on her cheeks she wears an assortment of jewellery, including a large gold piece hanging at her waist. Her wrists are adorned with gold bracelets, on her fingers there are gold rings and around her neck we see a string of pearls. The combination of the jewellery and clothes transforms her into what we would now term a fashion idol. As was the case with Titian’s female, we do not know who the sitter for Veronese’s portrait was but it will almost certainly be a female member of the Venetian aristocracy.

La Bella by Titian (1536)

La Bella by Titian (1536)

Whereas Titian’s woman looks out at us in a somewhat provocative manner, the female in the Veronese’s portrait has a somewhat restrained look as she averts her eyes from the observer. There is a look of sadness in her expression as she stares into the distance. She seems lost in thought and somewhat troubled. She does not seem to be at ease and maybe was a reluctant model, who has had to acquiesce to her husband’s demand that she should have her portrait painted. Her status as a married woman is confirmed by the ring she wears on her left hand. She looks tired and there are lines around her eyes. There is a vulnerability about this woman which makes us question whether wealth has given her all that she desired.

This painting by Paolo Veronese hangs at the Louvre and is in the same room as Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, Mona Lisa and one of Veronese’s monumental works, Wedding at Cana. The question as to whether she is a wife of an aristocrat is questioned by the curators of the Louvre who believe it could just be an idealised portrait of a woman by Veronese bringing together all the attributes that make for a beautiful woman. Their view is quite simple:

“…The figure is in fact a depiction of all the criteria of beauty sought after in Venice at the time: blond hair, a pearly complexion and radiance, as well as sweetness of character, reserve, or the quasi-shyness appropriate to any married woman…”

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c.1570)  National Gallery, London

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c.1570) National Gallery, London

My final offerings are a pair of paintings by Veronese based on the dream of Saint Helena. One is housed at the National Gallery, London whist the other can be found in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, in Rome. The Dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery was completed around 1570 and the Vatican painting of the same name was thought to have been completed by the artist five or six years later. The story behind the depiction tells of the Flavia Julia Helena, the Empress mother of Constantine the Great, receiving a visitation from an angel in her dream. The angel tells Helena that she should leave home, travel to the Holy Land in search of the relic of the true cross on which Christ was crucified. She set off for Palestine in 326AD on a part spiritual part diplomatic visit on behalf of her son Constantine and, after a two year search, found the cross. Since then, the imagery of the saint has always been associated with the relics of the cross.

In Carlo Ridolphi’s seventeenth century book, La Maraviglie dell’Arte, he talks about a painting of Saint Helena in the house of the Contarini family of Padua. Of the painting, he states:

“… a scene of Saint Helena, who while sleeping dreams of a vision of the Cross held by two angels, that saintly queen nursing such a saintly thought in her mind, even though she was resting…”

We can see by looking at the two works, only the one which is housed in London’s National Gallery has a depiction of two angels and so this could well be the work which Ridolphi was talking about.

Veronese, with great skill, depicts the dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery painting by separating the work into two distinct areas. The foreground represents the “here and now” and in it we see Saint Helena, eyes closed, asleep on a window seat with her head supported by her right hand and her right elbow resting on the window sill. The view through the square window is the space which depicts the dream scene and in her dreams she sees two angels struggling to hold a very heavy and substantial wooden cross. It is a somewhat bare composition but the inclusion of Saint Helena lends an elegance to the depiction. The colours Veronese has used for Helena’s gown are fairly subdued, albeit the cool greens on one hand and the warm golds, rich pinks and oranges, on the other, harmonise perfectly. Look how Veronese has cleverly highlighted the garment with flecks and whirls of white and examine carefully the way he has skilfully depicted the folds of Helena’s gown.

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c. 1580)  Pinacoteca Vaticana

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c. 1580) Pinacoteca Vaticana

In the Vatican’s Dream of Saint Helena we see Helena seated in a luxurious palace location. This work is completely different to the starkness and sparseness of the London version. In this painting the background consists of a decorated wall covering. To the left there is a fluted column and behind the chair is a bronze statue. Veronese’s depiction of her in this painting is one of an opulently dressed empress. She wears a glorious brocade dress with a red mantle. A jewelled crown sits atop her head. She is seated asleep in a chair, and once again, as in the London painting, her head is supported by her hand. In the right foreground we see the rear view of an angel who appears to be walking into the picture dragging along a large wooden cross. This is the vision Saint Helena is dreaming about and through Veronese’s two depictions we are privy to that dream.

In my next blog I am staying with Veronese and looking at a painting which was 42 ft (1280 cms) wide was far too large to be transported to London.  It was a painting which combined a secular scene with a religious story and by so doing fell afoul of the Inquisition. His inquisitors were not amused!

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Religious paintings, Venetian painters, Veronese | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London – Part 1.

Today’s blog came in to being thanks to Lady Luck.  Last week I went to London for two days.  The first day was spent with my daughter and her new baby leaving the second day free for me to roam around some art galleries.   It was March 19th and that was the day of the opening of the Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery.  I hadn’t planned my visit to coincide with that day and anyway, I had already checked on the internet to find, not unexpectedly, that I could not book tickets to the exhibition on its opening day.  However I decided to visit the gallery when it opened to see what literature they had regarding the exhibition and I was very surprised, but delighted, to be told that I could buy a ticket to visit the exhibition there and then.  I jumped at the offer.  It was a superb exhibition spread over seven rooms filled with the most magnificent paintings.  In my next two blogs, I want to feature some of my favourite works which were on display and look at the background to the depictions, in the hope that I can tempt you to visit this exceptional exhibition.

The Family of Darius before Alexander by Veronese (1565-7)

The Family of Darius before Alexander by Veronese (1565-7)

The first painting I want you to look at was one Palo Veronese completed around 1567.  It is entitled The Family of Darius before Alexander.  Veronese received the commission for this work from Francesco Pisani, the bishop of Ostia and a patron of the arts, for his residence Palazzo Pisani in Montagnana.  It is thought that this monumental work, which measures 236cms x 475cms (approximately 7.5ft x 16.5ft), was hung high up on the wall of the main room (probably the only room which could accommodate such a large work) on the piano nobile, the main floor of the house.  Its positioning meant that observers had to look up at the painting and from that viewpoint the depiction of the characters must have been amazing.

The event that is depicted in this work features Alexandra the Great and his first encounter with the abandoned womenfolk of the defeated Persian king, Darius III.  The meeting was written about by many Roman and Greek scholars and this work by Veronese was probably based on the writings of Valerius Maximus, a 1st century Roman historian.  It is an account of what happened following the Hellenic leader, Alexander the Great’s victory over the Persian army, led by Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333BC.  Although far outnumbered by the Persians, Alexander’s troops won the battle and Darius, rather than be killed fled the battlefield abandoning his family and his troops.  Although it may seem strange that the female members of the royal family were at the battle but it was the custom for royal Persian women to accompany their father/husband while they went to war.   When Darius made a hasty retreat from the battlefield, without a care for his family, his mother, wife and children were then captured by Alexander.   Darius later wrote a number of letters to his conqueror asking for the return of his family but Alexander would not agree unless Darius acknowledged him as the new Emperor of Persia.

In the meantime the female captives, Darius’mother Sisigambis, his wife Stateira and their two daughters, Stateira II and Drypteis were abandoned.  In the painting we see the four women meeting Alexander and his friend Hephaestion for the first time.  The four women at the centre of the painting are Darius’s family and they have approached Alexander asking for mercy.  Behind them stand their servants and a dwarf.   On the right we see Alexander, who is dressed in red, standing next to Hephaestion.  In between the two parties is an elderly man, dressed in blue, who is introducing the women to Alexander.   It is thought that this figure is a portrait of Veronese’s patron, Francesco Pisani.  The story of the event tells of the Darius’ mother initially mistaking Hephasteion for Alexander and in the painting we can see Alexander pointing to his friend who has stepped back in surprise at Sisigambis’ mis-identification.

For most of the characters in this tale, all ended well.  Alexander married Darius’s daughter Stateira II, whilst his other daughter Drypteis became the wife of Hephasteion.  Sadly all didn’t end well for Darius III who, after the defeat, was assassinated by one of his satraps (governors), Bessus, who then pronounced himself King of Kings of the Persian Empire.  He was later captured and executed on the orders of Alexander for his crime, regicide.

Veronese’s depiction of the scene arranges the figures gracefully across the surface of the painting, and with the exception of Alexander who wears classical armour, the protagonists are sumptuously dressed in modern fashion.  Veronese chose an outdoor setting for the meeting with its classical architecture similar to what he saw in his home town Verona.

The Martyrdom of Saint George by Veronese (c. 1565)

The Martyrdom of Saint George by Veronese (c. 1565)

The second work I am featuring is one Veronese completed around 1565 and is entitled The Martyrdom of St George.   It is a colossal work measuring 431cms x 300 cms (approximately14ft high x 10ft wide).  Veronese was probably commissioned to paint this for the high altar of San Giorgio in Braida, a Roman Catholic church in Verona, by the Venetian architect Michele Sanmicheli.

To set the scene I rely on a passage from Carlo Ridolfi, the Italian art biographer, 1648 book entitled Le Maraviglie dell’Arte, (The Marvels of Art) in which he describes the work:

“…in the church of San Giorgio Paolo painted for the high altar the saintly knight on his knees, stripped by henchman, persuaded by priests to offer incense to the idol Apollo, his face reveals an unvanquished soul, unafraid of the tyrant’s threats, strengthened by seeing the Virgin flanked by the Theological Virtues in the sky…”

In the painting we are not seeing the actual gruesome death of Saint George, who was a Roman soldier, but the lead up to his martyrdom.  The scene has an architectural background and the it is framed by two armoured horseman who enter the painting at the extreme left and right of the work.  Amongst the people we see a couple of men with turbans and a black page boy which gives a Middle Eastern feel to the setting and Veronese may have decided on this as legend had it that the martyrdom of St George took place on April 23rd 303AD in the town of Nicomedia, which is now the north-west Turkish town of Izmit.  High up on the extreme left of the painting we see the statue of Apollo which St George has been asked to worship.  Behind the statue is the unfurled Roman standard with its acronym in golden letters, S.P.Q.R., derived from the Latin phrase:

Senatus Populusque Romanus, (The Senate and People of Rome)

St George, who is kneeling on the ground, is stripped of his armour, which lies before him on the ground.  He is now bare-chested.  Look at Veronese’s portrayal of the saint.  Look how he has lovingly depicted the saint’s face with a look of kindness which is in direct contrast to the way he has depicted the harsh and ugly faces of the priest and executioner.  Behind St George is the priest dressed in a maroon cloak and cowl.  He leans towards his prisoner and points to the statue of Apollo and asks St George for the final time to worship the God, Apollo, and by so doing, saving his own life.   To the right of, and behind St George, we see the executioner. He is eagerly awaiting the priest decision.  The executioner has drawn his sword from its scabbard which he hands back to one of his henchmen.  Another man ties the hands of St George.  St George is unmoved by the threat and can be seen looking up to the heavens where he sees a vision of St Peter and Saint Paul, who sit either side of the Virgin and Child.  Below them are the three virtues, Faith Hope and Charity.  Hope, like the Virgin, look down on the soon to be executed St George.  Below them we see a small angel heading downwards to St George holding a wreath and palm branch, which are symbols of martyrdom.

It is a very moving scene and one can just imagine the painting in place at the high altar.  The observer would have had to look upwards over the altar towards the painting.  The observer’s eyes would then catch a glimpse of St George and follow the upward direction he is focusing on, towards Heaven and the Virgin Mary.  The painting which is housed in the Roman Catholic church of San Giorgio in Braida in Verona was trucked over to London for the exhibition.

Supper at Emmaus by Veronese (c. 1555)

Supper at Emmaus by Veronese (c. 1555)

The third painting I am showcasing is another monumental work, measuring 242cms x 416cms (approximately 8ft x 14ft).  It is Supper at Emmaus and this often painted scene was completed by Veronese around 1555.  The depiction based on the biblical story portrays the moment when the risen Christ, having comes across two of his disciples, thought to be Luke and Cleopas, on the road to Emmaus, joins them for supper.  We see Christ at the head of the table being served by the servant whilst at the opposite end of the table sit Cleopas and Luke who have just realised the identity of their fellow diner.  This supper scene has been depicted in paintings by all the great Italian painters, such as Caravaggio, Titian, and Tintoretto as well as other European artists such as Durer, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Jordaens.  However this painting of the Emmaus Supper by Veronese incorporates into the scene a group family portrait.  There are three men, who maybe brothers, a woman, ten children and an infant in the arms of the woman.  They are all dressed in contemporary 16th costumes.  It could be that is a family who has commissioned the work.  Where the work was to be hung is unknown but thought to be in the main hall of one of the new Venetian palaces.

The combination of the biblical scene with a secular scene works well and there is a lavishness about the secular depiction giving it a grand and stately appearance.  There is an element of humour about the depiction as we look down below the supper table at the two young girls who play with the large dog.  To the left, in the background, we witness a prelude to the supper as we see the two disciples with Christ as they make their way through the countryside to the village of Emmaus and the inn.

It is interesting to note that Veronese liked adding ordinary people into religious scenes and liked to incorporate his love of richness and ornamental embellishment in his religious works as in this painting.  However,  it was to get him into trouble with the Inquisition, who viewed the combining of secular and religious depictions into another of his painting in which, according to them, he had crowded “irrelevant and irreverent” figures into the work.  They took a dim view of it and they looked upon it as a sign of disrespect towards the Catholic Church.  I will tell you more about that painting in another blog.

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese (c. 1572)

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese (c. 1572)

My final offering today is another religious painting by Veronese, which again has been the subject for many of the great painters, such as Caravaggio and Gerard David.  It is based on a passage from the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-15) which is a follow-on from the story of the three magi who had brought gifts to the newborn child, and had now departed:

“…When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,  where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son….”

During their flight the Holy Family stopped for a rest and it is at their resting place that the various artists have depicted the scene.  Veronese completed his painting entitled The Rest on the Flight into Egypt around 1572.  We see Joseph sitting next to Mary who cradles the Christ Child.  They are all in need of sustenance but had nothing to eat or drink.  They sit in a palm grove, in the shade of a palm tree, which is emblematic of martyrdom.  It is laden with dates but they are too high up for them to reach.  Joseph’s water canteen is empty and they have nothing to drink.  Then a miracle occurs.  The tree bends downwards and we see one young angel dropping down dates whilst another gathers them up to give to the Holy Family to eat, whilst the Virgin Mary nurses the Christ Child.  A spring of water appears below them allowing Joseph to re-fill his canteen. Behind the couple is an ass and to the right of the picture there is an ox, a reference to the animals at the manger when the Child was born in Bethlehem.  Another young angel can be seen in the left of the painting, spreading out the baby’s clothes on a branch so they would dry.

Light filters through the leaves of the palm trees and in the background to the right the sky is the most beautiful blue.  This colour used by Veronese for the skies and clothes in some of his paintings is truly breathtaking and it is what struck me most about his work.  In this work, this beautiful rich blue colour is used again for the cloak of the Virgin Mary. Below the sky line in the right of the painting we see ancient buildings and obelisks which are meant to signify the far off land of Egypt, the country to which the couple are heading. It is a truly beautiful work of art.

In my next blog I will look at some more of Veronese’s paintings which were on show at the exhibitions, including some of his smaller works.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Religious paintings, Venetian painters, Veronese, Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mary Cassatt – Mother and Child – Part 2

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt

As a follow-on from my previous blog I want to feature some more works by Mary Cassatt which feature the close relationship between mother and child. Mary Cassatt had always been enthusiastic about painting mothers and their children and this passion was once more awakened when, in 1880, Cassatt’s brother, Alexander, arrived in Paris with his young family. Their arrival renewed Cassatt’s interest in depicting children, and her nephews and nieces now provided the opportunity for Cassatt to study and paint children from life. She would often use her brother’s family as models. She would also use local women as her models for her paintings rather than employ professional models as, first of all, she did not believe that professional models would agree to sit for her, but secondly and more importantly, she was of the opinion that professional models posed self-consciously and that would destroy her objective of producing a natural mother and child portrait. As in most of her paintings, Cassatt did not seek to glamorise or sentimentalise her subjects; instead she wanted to depict the mothers as honest, clean-living, good-looking women.

Emmie and her Child by Mary Cassatt (1889)

Emmie and her Child by Mary Cassatt (1889)

The first mother and child work by Mary Cassatt that I am featuring is one she completed in 1889, entitled Emmie and Her Child. We can clearly see the influence of Impressionism in this work. Before us, we see a young child sitting on his or her mother’s knee. Look how relaxed the young child is as he gazes out at something off-canvas. The child rests his right hand on the mother’s chin. It seems to be almost an unconscious gesture. It assures him of her presence. It is not a demanding or needy gesture. His left hand is placed on his mother’s hand which encircles his waist. He is at ease. He feels secure in the close presence of his mother. The mother looks down lovingly at her child. She wraps her arms around her child offering comfort. She too is relaxed, content and happy.

There is a pleasing tranquillity about the depiction of mother and child. This tranquillity is enhanced by the colours Cassatt has utilised in this work. There is a lot of white but it is not a glaring brilliant white as it has been toned down by the grey, blue and brown she has added to the white. The white of the mother’s dress has also been toned down by the incorporation of a floral pattern of red roses, the colour of which almost optically masks the white of the dress. Although the white of the mother’s dress and the tinged white of the jug and bowl on the shelf in the background are less than pure it is the colour of the child’s vest which retains the pure white colour and thus makes it stand out. This pure white colour also reflects the light upwards on to the child’s face which thus cleverly captures our attention.

Baby's First Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)

Baby’s First Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)

My next featured work by Mary Cassatt is entitled Baby’s First Caress and was completed two years after my previous offering, in 1891. The first thing I noticed about this work was the similar way in which Cassatt has depicted the baby reaching up to touch and cup his mother’s chin with his tiny but pudgy hand. However, unlike the first painting, the baby boy is concentrating on his mother’s face. It is as if he is mesmerised by it and needs to feel the texture of his mother’s skin so as to glean some knowledge about her face. At the same time that he is touching her face she is holding his foot in her left hand, maybe soothingly stroking it with her thumb to give him some reassurance whilst her right arm which is out of sight cradles his back and keeps him secure on her knee. If we look closely, we can just make out the fingers of the mother’s right hand which the baby grasps in his right hand. She looks down at him with a loving expression. This work, unlike the first painting which was in oil, is in pastel. Once again the brilliant white of her dress has been toned down by strokes of blue as well as the hint of a red floral pattern. This has subdued the brightness of her dress and therefore does not distract us from the depiction of mother and child.

The provenance of this work is quite interesting. The painting had belonged to Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer. She was an art collector, fervent feminist and a patron of Impressionist art. After her father’s death in 1874, when she was eighteen years of age, her mother took Louisine and her sister to Paris. She attended the Marie Del Sarte’s boarding school where she became friends with a fellow student, also an American, Emily Sartain, and it was through this friendship that Louisine met Mary Cassatt. The two became inseparable and would often tour the Parisian art galleries and during one such visit Louisine met Degas. Cassatt convinced Louisine to invest in some of Degas’ works. It was good advice as in her autobiography Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a collector, Louisine wrote that one of the works by Degas which she bought was a pastel, La Repetition de Ballett, and it cost her 500 francs (about $100 US) which was almost her week’s stipend. In 1965 her grandson George Frelinghuysen sold it for $410,000! After that first foray into the world of a buyer of artworks, Louisine and Mary Cassatt made many more art purchases and the pair of art lovers travelled all over Europe together. Louisine was introduced to other aspiring artists such as Monet and Manet. Louisine returned to America in 1880 and concentrated on becoming an art collector. Three years later she married Henry O. Havemeyer of the American Sugar Refining Company. In the years that followed she and her husband built up one of the most important private art collections. When she died Louisine’s most of the art collection went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and yet this work, Baby’s First Caress, did not, as Louisine bequeathed it to her daughter Elektra, who was the wife of the great polo player and member of the Vanderbilt family, James Watson Webb. The painting was then bequeathed to the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut where it is currently housed.

Portrait of Mrs. Havemeyer and Her Daughter Electra by Mary Cassatt (1895)

Portrait of Mrs. Havemeyer and Her Daughter Electra by Mary Cassatt (1895)

In 1895 Cassatt painted a portrait of Louisine and her daughter Electra.

Chateau Beaufresne

Chateau Beaufresne

Although based in her rue de Marignan apartment in Paris in the winter, with the occasional visit to Grasse in Provence if the winter weather was really bad, Mary Cassatt bought herself a summer residence in 1893. It was the Chateau Beaufresne which was situated fifty miles north-west of Paris in the commune of Mesnil-Théribus in the Oise department. She loved her summer home and stayed there 33 years up until 1926, the year she died. Of the country house she once said:

                                     “…I have two loves, my country and Beaufresne !…”

Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby by Mary Cassatt (1902)

Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby by Mary Cassatt (1902)

My final offering is an oil painting by Mary Cassatt which she completed in 1902 and is entitled Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby. It was at Chateau Beaufresne that she completed this mother/daughter work. Reine Lefebvre was a local woman and neighbour and featured in a number of Cassatt’s works between 1902 and 1903 as well as being depicted in a number of preparatory sketches for this finished work. This oil painting of Reine and her baby was the culmination of many sittings and many preparatory sketches. We see the mother with her arms crossed together around the legs of the baby forming a platform for her to sit upon. She wears an orange robe and the simple flecks of white paint give it a polka-dot appearance. The addition of what looks like a red collar or scarf around Reine’s neck cleverly draws our eyes towards the faces of the mother and baby. The artist wants us to concentrate on the faces of her two characters. The lack of any objects in the plain dark background means that we focus purely on mother and baby.

Cassatt’s desire for realism extends to the depiction of the baby, which she has been portrayed as still having a fat stomach, which infants often have during the early days. The baby has wrapped her arms around Reine’s neck. They both focus on a point off-canvas. Reine’s eyes look tired. Once again Cassatt has avoided sentimentality in this work and the mother’s weary look is a true depiction of the tiredness that often goes hand in hand with a mother coping with a young baby. It would have been so simple to portray Reine as a person full of life with a loving smile for her baby but this portrayal of her is a realistic one and one that Cassatt believed was the way to depict a mother with her child. It is an honest portrayal and lacks sentimentality and hype.

In my two blogs featuring the mother/child portrayals by Cassatt I have constantly talked about her determination to avoid sentimentality which was often seen in works by other artists. The writer Joris-Karl Huysman was forthright in his condemnation of such artists who over-sentimentalised mother and child portrayals when he wrote about the way them. He wrote:

“…The bunch of English and French daubers have put them in such stupid and pretentious poses!…”

He went on to acknowledge the realism of Mary Cassatt’s work with its hint of Japonisme, writing:
“…[her works were]… irreproachable pearls

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Mary Cassatt’s Mother and Child works. Part 1

Mary Cassatt 1844 - 1926

Mary Cassatt
1844 – 1926

Having just become a grandfather for the third time last week I thought I would look at a painter who depicted mother and child in such a loving way and with breathtaking brilliance.  My featured artist is the American painter Mary Stevenson Cassatt. In my next two blogs I will look at her paintings which feature children or mothers and their children. Despite never having married or having any children herself, she managed to capture, in her works of art, the essence of a mother-child relationship.  These paintings were not sugary idealisations of mother and child but a realistic and natural representation of that great love between the two.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt (1878)

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt (1878)

My first offering is just of a child and it is her oil painting entitled Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.  She completed it in 1878 whilst living in Paris and submitted it for inclusion at that year’s Exposition Universelle, but it was rejected.  She was furious at the rejection as she had been confident about its acceptance having already had some of her works accepted at earlier Salons.  She was scathing of the three-man judging panel and later, in a letter to Ambroise Vollard, the Parisian art dealer, she wrote of her annoyance:

“…It was the portrait of a friend of M. Degas. I had done the child in the armchair and he found it good and advised me on the background and he even worked on it. I sent it to the American section of the big exposition [of 1878], they refused it … I was furious, all the more so since he had worked on it. At that time this appeared new and the jury consisted of three people of which one was a pharmacist ! …”

This rebuff by a jury system, which of course was similar to the way in which artists had paintings accepted for the Salon exhibitions, annoyed Cassatt and this is probably why she became friends with the Impressionist artists (although she and her friend Degas always referred to the group as the Independents) who railed against the Académie and its jurist system of accepting works into the annual Salon exhibitions.  The failure to have the work accepted by the jury was not only a rejection of Cassatt’s efforts but, unknown to them, it was a snub to Degas himself, who had helped her with the painting’s background and the light source we see from the rear windows. He had also supplied the model who was the daughter of one of his friends. It is thought that she exhibited the work two years later, in 1879, at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris, as Portrait de petite fille.

Paris at the time was revelling in the arrival of all things Japanese.  Woodcut prints, fans, clothing and silk screens were all in great demand and Cassatt was an avid collector of these prints.  In this painting we can see the Japanese influence in the way Cassatt has close-cropped all four sides of the work even though it meant having parts of each of the four colourful blue arm cut out of the painting.  The chairs are arranged in such a way that they form a circle around an oddly dull-grey coloured floor.  The upper part of the windows in the background is also cropped.  The only things to avoid this cropping technique are the little girl and her pet griffon dog, which lies lethargically on the adjacent armchair.  I like the way the child is depicted.  Although the setting and the furniture have been carefully “stage-managed”, the girl herself seems to be less “posed”.  The only manipulation of the child would be the clothes she wears which would probably not be her ordinary daytime attire.  Whilst modelling for this painting, she has been made to wear fashionable clothes with a tartan shawl which match her ankle socks.  Her hair has been well groomed and now has a bow in it.  Her shoes are highly polished and the light catches their metallic buckles.  However, it is a realistic pose.  The young girl is slumped in the armchair and she exudes an uninterested demeanour obviously tired of posing for the artist.  She is almost sullen in her deportment as she stares into space.  How many times have we witnessed children slumped in an armchair or a couch complaining they have nothing to do and are bored?   How many times have we looked upon our children in a similar pose and told them to “sit up and look lively”?  This is such a life-like pose and is testament to Cassatt’s observational powers.  The painting is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt (1897)

Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt (1897)

My next offering is Mary Cassatt’s 1897 work entitled Breakfast in Bed which is now housed at the Huntington Library and Art Collection, San Marino, California.  In this oil painting we see a young mother lying in bed, with her arms wrapped around her young child. Is the embrace a sign of motherly love?  Maybe the embrace is to hold her secure from falling off the bed but I am going to hazard a guess that the mother just wants to hold the child still so she does not run off and cause some mischief !   It is interesting to look closely at the faces of the mother and child.  Their expressions are so different.  The mother lies back with her head on the pillow and gives her child a sideways glance.  She looks tired almost as if she is unable to lift her head from the pillow.  It could be that she has returned to bed after making herself a cup of tea and brought her child with her so she doesn’t have to wonder what the lively toddler is up to when out of sight.  The mother’s tired expression tells us that she would just like another thirty minutes of peace and quiet but looking at the child’s expression it will be an unfulfilled aspiration.  In contrast, look at the child.   She is wide awake, her eyes alert as she concentrates on something which is outside the painting.  I am sure she is pondering on her next act of devilment.


Mary Cassatt's Modern Woman Mural

Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman Mural

Mary Cassatt left her homeland, America, and had been living in Paris since 1866.  As an artist she did not become famous back in her homeland until 1893 when she was commissioned to paint a mural for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition and Fair at Chicago.  The position of the proposed mural was the tympanum over the entrance to the Gallery of Honour in the Women’s Building.  A tympanum is the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, which is bounded by a lintel and arch.  Her mural, which measured 12ft x 58ft, was in the form of a triptych. The central panel of the triptych was a depiction of an orchard setting and entitled Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science.  The Women’s Building at the exhibition was a showcase of women’s advancement throughout history and Cassatt’s mural was an allegorical work in which we see women picking fruit from trees and handing it down to younger women who were collecting it.

Central panel of triptych

Central panel of triptych

This central panel was meant to symbolise women picking “fruit” from a contemporary “tree of life” and passing it (knowledge) on to a younger generation.  Unfortunately after Exhibition, the Women’s Building was pulled down and Cassatt’s mural was lost but fortunately some black and white photos were taken of the work.

Baby reaching for an Apple by Mary Cassatt (1893)

Baby reaching for an Apple by Mary Cassatt (1893)

So what has all this go to do with my theme of mother and child?  The reason is simple.  My next featured painting by Cassatt was a kind of spin-off from the lost Exhibition mural.  It is entitled Baby Reaching for an Apple and was also completed by Mary in 1893 and now resides in the Virginia Museum, Richmond, Virginia. In the painting we see the mother holding down the branch of the apple tree to allow her young child to reach up and grasp the fruit.  There is a beautiful contrast in colour between the green of the background and the leaves of the tree with the lustrous pink of the mother’s dress, her face and the baby’s body. Note the difference in subdued tonality of the lower part of the mother’s dress with the much brighter pink of the dress that encloses her upper torso and this is reciprocated in the background with the much darker green of the lower half in comparison to the brighter green of the upper background.  Cassatt has obviously spent much time depicting all the apples hanging from the branches.  All are different, all are beautifully painted.  It is a very tender depiction.

Maternal Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)

Maternal Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)

My final offering for this blog is a painting which Mary Cassatt completed in 1891 and is entitled Maternal Caress.  It is a colour drypoint and aquatint on cream laid paper, which is presently housed in The National Gallery of Art in Washington.  It is a small work measuring just 36.8 x 26.8 cm (14.5ins x 10.5ins).  Once again this work harks back to the Japanese influence in her work.  Cassatt had seen the exhibition of Japanese woodcuts, which were on display at the École des Beaux-Arts, and it’s is apparent that she wanted to similarly create prints that captured these somewhat audacious designs. The background wallpaper is an orange-brown with a floral motif, which matches that of the upholstery of the armchair.   Against the wall lies a wooden bed with the white fluffed-up bedding which has a softening effect on the depiction.  The mother and child take centre stage in the painting and Cassatt has spent a lot of time creating the intricate detail of the print of the woman’s dress which gives it a hint of Japonism.

It is not known who modelled for this work but it could have been a friend or relative of hers as she often got them to pose with their children for her paintings.  Once again this is a realistic depiction.  It lacks sentimentality.  There is nothing idealized with the mother/child pose we see before us.  It is, to some extent, simply an awkward hug of a child as he seeks comfort from his mother.  She looks very concerned.  Her eyes are closed as if she could not bear to look at her distraught child.  Her left arm is wrapped tightly around her child hoping that the body to body contact will offer some reassurance to her young charge.  Her right arm supports the bottom of the naked child.  The child desperately throws his or her arms around the neck of the mother desperately seeking reassurance.  This genre of mother/child paintings and prints was very popular at the time and Mary Cassatt sold many prints of this work.

In my next blog I will continue looking at works by Mary Cassatt and her fascination with the Mother and Child theme.

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Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. Part 2 – Pedro Américo

In my last blog I talked about my visit to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro and featured one of the great Brazilian artists, Victor Meirelles.  Some would have us believe that he was the greatest Brazilian artist of all times, whilst others would put forward the name of Pedro Américo for that honour.  A number of Américo’s works were on show at the museum so in this blog I want to look at his life and feature some of his paintings I saw as well as look at others, which are on show in other Brazilian cities.

Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello

Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello

Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello was born in April 1843 in the municipality of Areia in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Paraíba.  As far as the art world was concerned he was simply known as Pedro Américo.  He was one of six children of Daniel Edward Figueiredo, a merchant and Feliciana Cime.  He was brought up in an artistic household with his father a keen violinist, who taught him music and drawing and through art books got him interested in the paintings and lives of the Old Masters.  Américo’s biographers all agree that he was an avid learner and soon developed a precocious talent for drawing. As far as drawing was concerned he was a gifted child and some believed he was a child prodigy.  His amazing artistic ability soon became common knowledge in Rio and when, in 1852, a scientific expedition to the north east of Brazi, led by the French naturalist, Louis Jacques Brunet,  arrived in Rio the leader visited Pedro’s home to see his work.  He also tested his draughtsmanship by getting the young boy to copy a few objects.  Brunet was so impressed with the results that he signed him up as an auxiliary draughtsman on his scientific expedition  during which time he would pictorially document the flora, fauna and landscape encountered on the journey.  Pedro Américo had yet to celebrate his tenth birthday but with his father’s blessing, he set off on the twenty-month expedition.

The artistic work he produced was so good that he was awarded a place at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes, but being too young his placement was postponed for a year and as a stop-gap, he attended the Colégio Pedro II in Rio de Janeiro, where he studied Latin, French, Portuguese, arithmetic, drawing and music.  In 1856 he took up his place on a three-year course of Industrial Design at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.  At the academy he honed his skill as a draughtsman and painter and his progress was rapid.  He was an outstanding student and won many medals for his work.

The court of the Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II came to hear about Pedro Américo’s artistic talent and the emperor, who was a great art lover and patron of the arts, was amazed by his artistic skill and before Pedro had completed his studies the Emperor had arranged to finance a European scholarship for him. Pedro accepted the travel scholarship, the terms of which were, in return for a three-year funding, he would attend the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts, conform to the rigid disciplines of the Academy and regularly send back works he had completed, such as life studies and copies of the paintings of the Old Masters, so that it could be verified that he had been hard working and that he was progressing with his art.  Going to Europe and attending the Académie was the greatest gift an artist could receive.

Pedro Américo arrived in Paris in May 1859 and aged just sixteen enrolled at the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  It was at this prestigious school of art that he was taught by the great French painters of the time, such as the neo-classical historical painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hippolyte Flandrin and the battle painter Horace Vernet.  Not satisfied with just improving his art he also wanted to expand his knowledge with regards other subjects.  He availed himself of the opportunity to study physics at the Paris Institute of Physics and he also attended the University of the Sorbonne.  Here he studied architecture, theology, literature and philosophy, with tutors in these fields such as the French philosopher, Victor Cousin and the French physiologist, Claude Bernard. Pedro Américo took advantage of the opportunity of attending lectures on physics by Michael Faraday and on archaeology by Charles Ernest Beule.  Besides his artistic talent, one must never overlook Pedro Américo’s all-round intelligence.   His essay Refutation of the Life of Jesus by Renan won him the decoration of the papal order of the Holy Sepulchre.   He gained a bachelor’s degree in natural science from the Sorbonne, with his thesis Considerações Filosóficas sobre as Belas Artes entre os Antigos (Philosophical Considerations on the Fine Arts among the Ancients).

A Carioca by Pedro Américo (1882)

A Carioca by Pedro Américo (1882)

During his time at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, he won a number of prizes for his works of art.  One of the paintings Pedro Américo completed, around 1863, whilst studying at the Académie and which he sent back home for inclusion in the seventeenth General Exhibition, held at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio, was entitled A Carioca.   Carioca is a Brazilian word that is used to refer to the native inhabitants of the city of Rio de Janeiro.  It was a painting of a nude woman who was to symbolize the Brazilian indigenous population.  It was painted in a classical style, and could well have been influenced by Turkish Bath, a painting which his former tutor, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, which he had completed a year earlier.  With this work Pedro had probably aimed to turn the classical theme of a nymph from Greek mythology into a Brazilian theme.  The work received a Gold medal and Pedro decided that he would give the painting to the Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who had agreed to fund his training in Europe.  His gift however was not well received by the court officials who were shocked by the full frontal nudity and they considered the painting to be shockingly immoral and not fit for the walls of the palace.   The painting was returned to Pedro Américo, who had by then moved to  Florence.  The painting was eventually sold to Emperor Wilhelm of Prussia.   In 1882, almost twenty years later, Pedro Américo painted another version of the work, which he completed in 1882, and which is shown above.  This work is housed at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio.

Moses and Jochebed by Pedro Américo (1884)

Moses and Jochebed by Pedro Américo (1884)

Another of his paintings in a classical style was one he completed in 1884, which is entitled Moisés e Jocabed (Moses and Jochebed).   The painting is based on the Old Testament story of Jochebed, who was the mother of Moses and her dilemma regarding the news that the Egyptian Pharaoh, being afraid that the Jews in his country would one day join a foreign army and rise up against the Egyptians, ordered all male Hebrew babies to be killed.  Jochebed had just given birth to a son, Moses, whom she believed was going to be murdered, and so took a basket and coated the bottom with tar, to make it waterproof. Then she put the baby in it and set it among the reeds on the bank of the River Nile.  The story goes on to tell that at that same time, the Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing in the river and one of her maidservants saw the basket and brought it to her.  In the painting we see mother standing by the river with her baby, agonizing over decision.

After time spent in Italy, Pedro Américo returned to Rio in 1864 and took up the post as the Chair of Drawing at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.   However the following year he had once again left Brazil and was to be found in Europe.  This time he had set up home in Brussels and attended the University where he gained a Doctorate of Science in 1868.

The Emperor's speech (Pedro II of Brazil in the oppening of the General Assembly) by Pedro Américo (1872)

The Emperor’s speech (Pedro II of Brazil in the oppening of the General Assembly) by Pedro Américo (1872)

The following year Pedro Américo set off to return to Brazil but made a stop-over in Lisbon where he stayed at the home of one of his former tutors, Manuel de Araujo Porto Alegre.  A year on, Pedro was still in Lisbon and was now married to his host’s daughter, Carlota.  The couple went on to have two children, a daughter Carlota and a son, Eduardo.  The couple returned to Rio in 1870, where he once again gave lectures at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.  The subject of his lectures included aesthetics, archaeology and the history of art.  As another way of earning money he also provided caricatures for the satirical magazine, A Comédia Social (The Social Comedy).  He  completed a number of portraiture commissions including one of Emperor Dom Pedro II completed in 1872, entitled, Speech from the Throne.

Batalha de Campo Grande by Pedro Américo (1871)

Batalha de Campo Grande by Pedro Américo (1871)

He continued to paint historical works including the large painting (332cms x 550cms) Batalha de Campo Grande in 1871 which is housed in the Imperial Museum at Petrópolis, a city, north west of Rio.    The Emperor and his government were so pleased with the finished work that they made Pedro Américo Pintor Histórico da Real Câmara (Historical Painter of the Royal Chamber) and this led to him being commissioned to paint a historical work depicting a battle scene.  The battle scene he chose to depict was one which took place close to the River Avai and was a battle between the Triple Alliance forces (Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina) and those of Paraguay.  His fellow artist Victor Meirelles had been commissioned, at the same time, to paint another scene from this six-year long war (Battle of Guararapes) – see my previous blog.

Battle of Avaí by Pedro Américo (1877)

Battle of Avaí by Pedro Américo (1877)

Pedro Américo accepted the commission but decided that he needed time away from his homeland in order to concentrate on the commission.  He and his wife left Brazil and travelled to Florence.  The Italian government provided him with a studio in a room at the Convent of the Santissima Annunziata, and it was here he remained for three years whilst he concentrated on the monumental historical work.  Pedro Américo completed the war scene which was entitled Battle of Avai in 1877 and it was exhibited in the Italian city in the presence of the Brazilian emperor, Pedro II.  The painting was then shipped to Rio de Janeiro where it was exhibited at the Exposicao Geral de Belas Artes the annual exhibition of the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.   The exhibited work met with mixed reviews.  Most loved it and were in awe of its size but there were a few detractors who accused Pedro Américo of plagiarism as they believed the work was too similar to a battle scene depiction entitled Battle of Montebelo.  Notwithstanding the adverse comments, Pedro Américo’s battle scene is an amazing work of art.  This monumental painting measures 600cms x 1100cms (almost 20ft high and 36ft wide).  It is a monster of a painting, full of detail and one’s eyes dart from place to place on the canvas to try and take in all the details.

The two war paintings on display at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.

The two war paintings on display at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.

Standing in the long room at the museum one can see the two monumental paintings depicting battles during the Paraguayan War by Victor Meirelles and Pedro Américo almost side by side.  It is an amazing spectacle.

David and Abishag by Pedro Américo (1879)

David and Abishag by Pedro Américo (1879)

In 1879 Pedro Américo completed another painting based on an Old Testament story.  It was about the elderly King David.  In the book of 1 Kings verse 1-4,  it is written:

“…When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his attendants said to him, “Let us look for a young virgin to serve the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.”

Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful young woman and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The woman was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no sexual relations with her…”

In November 1889, Dom Pedro II’s reign came to an end with a military coup.  The Empire was dead and from the ashes of the Empire rose the Republic of Brazil.  It was a time of reform.  It was a time when those who had been close to the Emperor were ostracised as a  consequences of such an association.  Like my previous featured artist, Victor Meirelles, who like Pedro Américo had been a favourite of the Emperor and closely associated with the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, he was dismissed from his post.  Later however Pedro was elected a member of parliament for Paraíba but due to the onset of ill health rarely attended meetings. For health reasons he left Rio in 1894 and returned to Florence where he lived out his days and as well as painting found time to write two novels.  He died in October 1905 aged 62.

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