Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 3. Patrons and portraiture

In May 1816, Christoffer Eckersberg left Rome and headed home to Copenhagen.  During his homeward journey he stopped off at Dresden where he met up with the German Romantic painter, Casper David Friedrich.  Eckersberg finally arrived back in Copenhagen in August 1816.  His reputation as a leading painter of his time was all he could have wished for and soon commissions were rolling in.  Probably the most prestigious of these was a commission to paint four large works for the Throne Chamber of the magnificent baroque palace of Christiansborg which showed scenes from the history of the House of Oldenburg.  This commission earned him the nomenclature of “court painter”.

Duke Adolf declines the offer to be Danish king by Christoffer Eckersberg (1821) (43 x 39cms) Private collection

Duke Adolf declines the offer to be Danish king by Christoffer Eckersberg (1821)
(43 x 39cms)
Private collection

One of these works was Duke Adolf declining the offer to be King of Denmark which he completed in 1819.  The story behind this event is that in January 1448, King Christopher of Denmark, Sweden and Norway died suddenly and had no natural heirs. His death resulted in the break-up of the union of the three kingdoms, with Denmark and Sweden going their separate ways. Denmark had now to find a successor to the vacant Danish throne and so the Council of the Realm turned to to Duke Adolphus of Schleswig, as he was the most prominent feudal lord of Danish dominions. However Adolphus, who by that time was forty-seven years old and childless, declined the offer but instead supported the candidacy of his sister’s son, the Count Christian of Oldenburg.  Christian was elected King Christian I of Denmark and his coronation followed a year later in October 1449. In the painting we see Duke Adolphus declining the offer as he points to the portrait of his nephew, Christian, which is hanging on the wall in the background.

Mendel Levin Nathanson by Christoffer Eckersberg (1819) (32 x 28cms) Museum of National History at Fredericksborg Castle

Mendel Levin Nathanson by Christoffer Eckersberg (1819)
(32 x 28cms)
Museum of National History at Fredericksborg Castle

In October 1817 Eckersberg became a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.  This allowed him to apply for any position as professor at the Model School of Charlottenborg, which was the home of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.  Whilst Eckersberg had been travelling around Europe he had been funded by a number of patrons and on his return home he decide to repay their generosity by completing portraits of them and their family.  One of Eckersberg’s most important and generous benefactors was Mendel Levin Nathanson.   He had arrived in Copenhagen aged twelve as a poor Jewish immigrant.  Nathanson rose to become a wealthy Danish merchant, editor, and economist who from an early age established himself in business.  At the age of twenty-six he became associated with the large Copenhagen banking firm of Meyer & Trier.  He was also a leading patron of the arts.   He was an author of books on economics as well as the country’s mercantile history but was probably best known for his advocacy of the Jewish cause. Nathanson was editor of the Berlingske Tidende one of the big three national newspapers from 1838 to 1858 and from 1865 to 1866.  Eckersberg completed the portrait of Nathanson in 1819.

The Nathanson Family by Christoffer Eckersberg (1818) (126 x 173cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

The Nathanson Family by Christoffer Eckersberg (1818)
(126 x 173cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Another of Nathanson’s commissions for Eckersberg was to get the artist to complete a group family portrait, a task he completed in 1818.  The depiction was of Nathanson, his wife and their eight children.  It was simply entitled The Nathanson Family and the portrait was the most densely peopled and involved work ever attempted by Eckersberg.  Nathanson was quite specific about what he wanted the painting to reveal about himself and his family.  It was to be a depiction which would tell of his affluence and status in the country.

The Nathanson Family (Preliminary sketch) by Christoffer Eckersberg (1818)

The Nathanson Family (Preliminary sketch) by Christoffer Eckersberg (1818)

Eckersberg’s original idea, as seen in a preliminary sketch, was to depict the whole family dancing, highlighting a close and harmonious family connection,  a family who enjoyed each other’s company but this idea failed to satisfy Nathanson.  For Nathanson the depiction must depict a family of stature and wealth.  It was paramount to depict his own prominent position in Danish society as a merchant and an integrated Jew.  He again spoke to Eckersberg to remind him how he wanted the family to be depicted.   The family members in the finished painting are shown, in a line, blatantly parading themselves before us in a stage-like manner.  On the left hand side the depiction focuses on the private life of the children, at play, dancing and one daughter is seen playing the piano.  The children’s activity is interrupted by the arrival home of Nathanson and his wife from an audience with the Queen having enjoyed the family tradition of some royal entertainment.  There is a sartorial elegance about the velvet-like clothing Nathanson and his wife are wearing and this of course brings home to the viewer of the painting the social and financial class of the couple.  The whole scene is a juxtaposition of two visual aspects of Nathanson’s life – the loving husband and father with his happy children and the successful businessman who has access to the Royal Court.  In the portrait Nathanson stares out at us inviting us into his house to witness all that belongs to him.  His wife stands next to him, somewhat aloof, as the children, who have  interrupted their playing to run and greet her.

Bella and Hanna. Mendel Levin Nathanson's Elder Daughters by Christoffer Eckersberg (1820) (125 x 85cms) Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen

Bella and Hanna. Mendel Levin Nathanson’s Elder Daughters by Christoffer Eckersberg (1820)
(125 x 85cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen

In 1820 Eckersberg completed another portrait for Nathanson.  This time it is one depicting his two daughters, Bella and Hanna.   For many artists who have been asked to complete a portrait the decision as to how the sitter should be portrayed is a question which has to be carefully answered.  Should it be an en face depiction or a profile depiction?  In this work Eckersberg has solved the problem by having the daughter, who is standing, portrayed en face whilst the seated daughter is shown in profile.   Although it would not be that unusual to see the likeness of the two daughters in this case, could it be that Eckersberg has emphasized the similarities to such a degree that it almost looks as it is the portrait of a single person seen from two different angles.  On the table we see a parrot in a cage.  Is this just an additional ornamentation which lacks meaning?  Actually many believe it is symbolic and that it is all about the two young ladies who are at an age when marriage is on the horizon whilst other believe there is a definite similarity between the shape of the cage and the shape of the girls’ faces

Hans Christian Ørsted by Christoffer Eckersberg (1822) (53 x 43cms) Danish Museum of Science and Technology, Helsingør

Hans Christian Ørsted by Christoffer Eckersberg (1822)
(53 x 43cms)
Danish Museum of Science and Technology, Helsingør

Another of Eckersberg’s interesting portraits is Hans Christian Ørsted which he  completed in 1822.  It is a medium sized head and shoulder portrait which can now be found at the Danish Museum of Science and Technology in the eastern Danish town of Helsingør.  This is a good example of Eckersberg’s ability as a portraitist as to how he precisely and truthfully depicts his sitter.  It is a realistically accurate depiction of the man, as confirmed by his wife. The depiction of Ørsted facial expression is one of contemplation which concurs with the views that Ørsted was a great “thinker”.  Other than that expression on Ørsted’s face, it disregards the modus operandi of many portrait artists past and present who feel the need to incorporate into the portrait their perceived notion of the sitter’s psychological persona and by doing so they are happy to lose some of the physical accuracy of the person.   I know I am in the minority when I say, that for me, a portrait needs to be real and recognisable.   I am often told that as I am not an artist I do not understand portraiture !

Hans Christian Ørsted was an acclaimed international scientist born in 1777 who made the discovery that electric currents created magnetic fields which would later be known as Ørsted’s Law.  Eckersberg tells us more about the man, not by the way he “adjusts” the portrait but by using the tried and trusted method of including items in the portrait which relate to the man.  In his hand we see Ørsted holding a metal Chladni plate on which is sprinkled powder.  The powder has now formed a pattern on the surface of it, which is the result of a violin bow,  which can be seen on the table in the left foreground, being scraped against the edge of the plate.  The catalogue raisoneé of Eckersberg works does not indicate any payment for the portrait and it was probably a gift from Eckersberg to Ørsted as the two endured a long friendship after they had met in Paris years earlier.

Portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen wearing the habit and Insignia of the San Luca Academy by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814) (91 x 74cms) The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts

Portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen wearing the habit and Insignia of the San Luca Academy by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814)
(91 x 74cms)
The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts

When Eckersberg stayed in Rome we know he stayed in a lodging house which also accommodated the great Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and the two became good friends.  One of Eckersberg’s most famous and inspired portraits, which he completed in 1814, was of Thorvladsen.  It was entitled Portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen wearing the habit and Insignia of the San Luca Academy.  At the time, Thorvaldsen was regarded as the most important sculptor in Rome and in 1804 he became a member of the Florence Academy of Art and a year later a member of the Danish Art Academy.  In this portrait, we see Thorvaldsen bedecked in the official robes of the Academia di San Luca in Rome, of which he had been a member since 1808. This prestigious academy was founded in 1577 and as such  is among the oldest academies in Europe with its roots being traced to the first statutes written in 1478 for the guild of painters named Compagnia di San Lucca. The robes we see Thorvaldsen wearing provide the portrait with the nuance of an artist who is continuing the work of a long Roman tradition.  There is no doubt that the message we can take from the way Eckersberg depicted his friend is the artist’s great admiration for the sculptor and all that he had achieved.  Eckersberg, like many admirers of Thorvaldsen, looked upon him as a visionary and the artist has tried to capture that aspect in the sculptor’s contemplative facial expression.  Such admiration for Thorvaldsen’s work can be seen by the way Eckersberg has included Thorvaldsen’s most famous piece of sculpture, the Alexander Frieze, which can be seen in the background.  Eckersberg was so happy with the finished portrait that he sent it to Denmark as a gift to the Copenhagen Academy.  This generous gesture probably had a more ulterior motive, that of proving of his artistic ability to the academicians.

The Double Portrait of Count Preben Bille-Braheand his second wife Johanne Caroline neé FalbeZ by Christoffer Eckersberg (1817) (61 x 50cms) Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

The Double Portrait of Count Preben Bille-Braheand his second wife Johanne Caroline neé FalbeZ by Christoffer Eckersberg (1817)
(61 x 50cms)
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Eckersberg’s many portraits were not just of male sitters.  Portraiture was a great way of making money and many commissions came to him when he returned to Copenhagen.  The next painting I am showcasing is The Double Portrait of Count Preben Bille-Braheand his second wife Johanne Caroline neé Falbe which he completed in 1817 and is now housed in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.  Eckersberg had been awarded the Academy’s Gold Medal in 1809 and with it came funds to cover the cost of European travel.  However the money did not become available to him until 1812 but he wanted to set off to Paris immediately and so had to turn to some wealthy sponsors to lend him the money he needed to start his journey.  One such benefactor was Count Preben Bille-Brahe, a wealthy Danish landowner.  On his return to Copenhagen Eckersberg repaid Count Preben Bille-Brahe’s generous support for his European journey by painting a double portrait of the count and his second wife, Double Portrait of Count Preben Billie-Brahe and his Second Wife, Johanne Caroline, neé Falbe.  Although their social status was to be part of the aristocracy, Eckersberg has managed a more commonplace depiction of the couple, which he used when he depicted the middle-class in his portraiture, enhancing the view that they were just real people.  Having said that, the male sitter with the ruddy cheeks looks resplendent in his brown tailcoat, the buff waistcoat with its lower fastening unbuttoned.

Jesus and the Little Children by Christoffer Eckersberg (c. 1810) Altarpiece for the Home Church at Funen

Jesus and the Little Children by Christoffer Eckersberg (c. 1810)
Altarpiece for the Home Church at Funen

Eckersberg had met Count Preben Bille-Brahe in 1810 during the first part of his European journey to Paris.  He stopped off at his benefactor’s estate on the island of Funen and received a commission from Count Preben Bille-Brahe to create an altarpiece for the Home Church which was part of the estate.  Eckersberg completed the painting for the altar whilst in Paris.  It was a biblical scene entitled Jesus and the Little Children.

Home Church Funen

The interior of Home Church Funen

In my fourth look at the life and work of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg I will concentrate on some of his female portraiture and his large number of nude paintings.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Bertel Thorvaldsen, Christoffer Eckersberg, Danish artists, Portraiture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 2 – Rome (1813 – 1816)

C.W.Eckersberg by Christian Albrecht Jensen (1832)

C.W.Eckersberg by Christian Albrecht Jensen (1832)

In my last blog I talked about Christoffer Eckersberg travelling to Paris in 1810 where he studied under the tutelage of the French painter, Jacques-Louis David.  The year 1810 was an important year for Eckersberg for a completely different reason for it was in this year on July 1st that he married Christine Rebecca Hyssing.  The two had been lovers for a number of years and in September 1808 she had given birth to their son Erling Carl Vilhelm.  It is thought that the reason for the marriage was more to do with expediency and the desire to legitimise their son than love and devotion and it was soon after his marriage that Eckersberg left the marital home to travel to France.

Erling Eckersberg

Erling Eckersberg

The marriage was doomed to be a failure and in 1816 the couple’s divorce papers finally came through whilst Eckersberg was away on one of his travels. In my next blog about Christoffer Eckersberg I will look at his excuisite portraiture.would follow in his father’s footsteps studying at the Danish Art Academy in Copenhagen and at the age of twenty-six he, like his father, received the Academy travelling scholarship for three years and during which time he journeyed to Paris and Parma in Italy.

The Israelites Resting after the Crossing of the Red Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg

The Israelites Resting after the Crossing of the Red Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg

Christoffer Eckersberg left Paris in June 1813 and arrived in Rome in July.  He rented a room in a house which was also home to the Danish sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen.  History paintings continued to be his favoured genre and in 1812 he had received a commission from a Jewish merchant, Mendel Levin Nathanson to depict the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses and the Jewish people and for two years whilst he was in Rome he worked on the painting which was entitled The Israelites Resting after the Crossing of the Red Sea.  This large work which measures 203 x 283cms (80 x 112 ins) can be seen at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen.  The depiction is not the actual crossing itself but what happened after the event – the Israelites resting after their crossing.   In the book of Exodus (14: 26-29) it was written:

“…The Lord told Moses, “Stretch your arm toward the sea—the water will cover the Egyptians and their cavalry and chariots.” 27 Moses stretched out his arm, and at daybreak the water rushed toward the Egyptians. They tried to run away, but the Lord drowned them in the sea. 28 The water came and covered the chariots, the cavalry, and the whole Egyptian army that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them was left alive. 29 But the sea had made a wall of water on each side of the Israelites; so they walked through on dry land…”

 It is testament to Eckersberg’s artistic ability that he has been able to include such a large group of people in such a natural manner and once again he has added a landscape dimension to the biblical painting in the way the people are shown within a real landscape setting based on his studies and meticulous observations of nature which served as the basis for the depiction of the morning sun and cloud formations.  This methodology was contrary to the teachings he received from his professor,Abildgaard back at the Copenhagen Academy, whose landscape works were often somewhat murky and had no relevance to the time of day of the depiction.

Rome, at the time of Eckersberg’s sojourn, was a hive of artistic activity.  Many young artists had travelled from all over Europe to congregate in the Eternal City to be with like-minded painters and this offered them a chance to exchange views on art.  Many were inspired by what they learnt from their contemporaries who, like themselves, had escaped the clutches of their Academies and the strict academic training.  It was a chance for them to try out new artistic ideas.  For landscape artists it was a vital stage in their education and the one main decision many undertook was to paint plein air.  This technique allowed them to sit before their chosen subject in the open air and paint what they saw rather than just sketching out doors and then taking the sketches back to their studios for completion.  For these artists plein air painting afforded them the chance to capture on canvas the existing weather conditions and observe how that affected the light and shadow.  It also gave artists the opportunity to produce topographically correct depictions rather than idealized versions conjured up in their studios.  One of the founders of this en plein air idea around 1780 was the French painter, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes who produced many oil studies en plein air, which were not meant for exhibitions but for his own private collection.

The Marble Steps leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1816)

The Marble Steps leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1816)

At this time in Rome, landscape and cityscape paintings, especially ones with the city’s most famous sights were in great demand with the tourists so much so it was a struggle for these artists to come up with a subject or a point of view of a subject which had not already been recorded artistically by a previous painter.  One of Eckersberg’s plein air paintings featuring a well-known building in Rome is The Marble Steps leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome.  It was completed in 1816 and we can see that he took up a position with his easel at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and that allowed him to produce a composition of vertical and diagonal lines.  From the way and the direction of the shadow cast by the church we know the time of day was around ten in the morning and so Eckersberg would return numerous times at this time to build up the painting on the canvas.

View of the Capitoline Hill with the Steps that go to the Church of Santa Maria] d’Aracoeli) by Paranesi (c.1757)

View of the Capitoline Hill with the Steps that go to the Church of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli by Giovanni Piranesi (c.1757)

It is interesting to note that the structures we see in the painting were real and yet what was untrue about the depiction is what was left out – the omission of Michelangelo’s Palace which was atop the hill to the left of the church.  We know this by looking at Giovanni Piranesi’s etching of the same scene made half a century earlier, one from his collection entitled Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome).

View of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1814)

View of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1814)

Many of Eckerberg’s paintings featuring the city of Rome avoided the iconic locations which featured in many of the other artists’ paintings.  He seemed to favour depicting less famous parts of the capital.  One such work which he completed in 1814 was entitled View of Cloacia Maxima which was bought by the NGA in Washington in 2004.  Cloacia Maxima, which means Greatest Sewer, is one of the world’s earliest sewage systems, thought to have been built around 600 BC as an open air canal.  It is a highly elaborate depiction packed with rich detail.  Some of the buildings we see are very old and many are decaying.  There is no uniformity in the architecture for most of the buildings would have been erected in different eras.  The viewpoint for this painting was the eastern slopes of the Palatine Hill looking towards the Capitoline, one of the Seven Hills of Rome.  It is a painting which depicts the transition from the “countryside” in the foreground which then leads towards the city itself.  It is a realistic depiction for although the foreground is a mass of verdant vegetation, it has been continually crossed by people on foot carving out rough paths.  Our eyes follow the two figures that walk down the path and lead us into the city.

View of the Garden of the Villa Borghese in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814)

View of the Garden of the Villa Borghese in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814)

Even when Eckersberg chose a well known location for his painting, he chose to depict a view that in his mind didn’t become “yet another view” of a famous place.  In his painting View of the Garden of the Villa Borghese in Rome which he completed in 1814 he chose to depict part of the decaying and unexceptional 18th century aqueduct rather than the famous gardens themselves.  The ancient reliefs on the wall to the left are foreshortened and are almost unrecognisable. Having said that, it is a beautiful work, which combines a detailed depiction of the angular ruins of the aqueduct in the mid ground.  Our eyes follow the path which runs under the aqueduct arch to an area of the garden albeit it is hidden from view by the ancient arch itself and the trees.   Again, like the previous work, Eckersberg is making the comparison between the harshness of architecture and the softness of nature in a single painting.  The way the artist depicts the sunlit and shaded areas leads one to believe that this was another of Eckersberg’s plein air paintings.

A Courtyard in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814-16)

A Courtyard in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814-16) (34 x 28cms)

Another interesting painting during his stay in Rome is one entitled A Courtyard in Rome.  It is a depiction of a nondescript courtyard which could have been in any city so what made Eckersberg paint this one.  There is some conjecture about this and one line of thought is that it is the courtyard of Casa Buti a lodging house in which he and Thorvaldsen stayed.  If that was the reason for painting this scene then it would make it a more personal depiction and one he would have seen every day for three years.  However it and could equally be one he passed by one day when walking around the city and was just a random choice of depiction for the work.   There is nothing breathtaking about the scene and yet it is a beautifully crafted work.  It is interesting to note that the aspect of this scene, the loggia, which could have added colour and variety to the depiction, can barely be seen in the upper background.  The painting is housed in the art museum of the town of Ribe in western Denmark.

A View through Three of the North-Western Arches of the Third Storey of the Coliseum by Christoffer Eckersberg (c.1816)

A View through Three of the North-Western Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum by Christoffer Eckersberg (c.1816)

Probably the most famous of Eckersberg’s paintings was one he completed during his three year stay in the Eternal city and is entitled A View through Three of the North-Western Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum in Rome, which he completed around 1816.  It is a relatively small work just measuring 32 x 50cms and is currently housed in the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark) in Copenhagen.  Eckersberg had depicted the ancient monument in a number of sketches and paintings but he never depicted a view of the outer structure of the amphitheatre in its entirety unlike many other artists.  It was this painting that he will be remembered for.  He set up his easel high up on the third level of the Colosseum looking out across the city which we see through the three arches of the structure.  The background details of the city in the distance are so precise it is thought that he may have used a telescope to ensure accuracy.  Look at the foreground of the painting and the authentic way in which he precisely depicted the crumbling structure.  This aspect of the work encompasses a thoroughness not seen in many landscape works.  This attention to detail serves to highlight the slow disintegration of the ancient monument.   However the greatest attribute to this work is the way he has made the three arches of the Colosseum act as picture frames for the cityscape in the distance.   he painting is sometimes referred to as “The Beautiful Lie” for if we stood in front of the centre arch, as seen in the depiction, then we would not see views of the city of Rome depicted through the other two arches.  To see those views we would have to move to the left or right and look through other arches.  Eckersberg also rid himself of many of the intervening structures which he thought inconsequential and would detract from the beauty of the view.  However this straying from realism does not take anything away from the work.  Eckersberg just wanted his viewers to experience the beauty of Rome as he envisioned it.

In my next blog about Christoffer Eckersberg I will look at his exquisite portraiture.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Christoffer Eckersberg, Danish artists, Landscape paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 1. Early life

Self Portrait by Christoffer Eckersberg (1811)

Self Portrait by Christoffer Eckersberg (1811)

Let me start this blog with a question.  When you look around a large art gallery how long do you stand before each painting?  Is it just a cursory glance or do you study the artistic technique of the artist and examine the brush strokes which many artists believe are like the painter’s fingerprints?   I suppose a lot depends on the size of the gallery with all the works on show at the major ones being impossible to see in one visit and of course one has to also take into account whether one is likely to return to the gallery on another occasion.  The reason for this question is that a fortnight ago we were in Hamburg, staying for three nights in a hotel opposite the Hamburger Kunsthalle which is said to be the largest art museum in Germany.  Such a large collection and such a limited time to feast our eyes on the many paintings so what was to be the strategy – rush and see as many as possible or be selective and miss out on many unknown painters?  Fortunately, I didn’t have to decide as when we arrived and looked out the hotel bedroom window there were many large signs unfurled telling people that the museum was still closed and would not open until May 1st after seventeen months of renovations!!!

Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition

Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition

However all was not lost as a small number of rooms had been opened for a visiting collection of the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and this turned out to be one of the best exhibitions I had ever seen.  The exhibition entitled Eckersberg – Fascination with Reality contained about 90 paintings and 40 drawings and prints from all the artist’s creative periods, and included all of the artist’s major works.  Because people may have been waiting for the official re-opening of the museum to visit the exhibition, there were no crowds and it allowed time to study each one of Eckersberg’s works without any “gallery rage” caused by hordes of people pushing to get better views.  In my next few blogs I will look at the life of Eckersberg and showcase some of his historical paintings, his portraits, seascapes and landscapes which made him one of Denmark’s greatest artists.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was born in 1783 in Blåkrog, a small Danish town in the parish of Varnæs in Southern Jutland.  Later the family moved a short distance to the town of Blans.  He lived with his mother, Ingeborg Nielsdatter and his father, Henrik Eckersberg, who was a carpenter and house painter.  Christoffer studied as a painter for three years from the age of fourteen under the guidance of Jes Jessen of Aabenraa, who was well known for his a floral paintings, portraiture and historical works.  When Eckersberg was seventeen, Christoffer became apprenticed to the Flensborg artist, John Jacob Jessen.  During these early years of training Christoffer had one goal in mind – to be accepted as a pupil at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen, which was inaugurated in 1754, and was the leading artistic establishment of Denmark.  During his early training he had put together a portfolio of his work and that along with some money given to him by local people of the village, he set off in 1803 for Copenhagen.  The entrants’ panel of the Academy were impressed by his portfolio of work, so much so that he was accepted into the Academy without having to pay a fee.

Whilst studying at the Academy Eckersberg was influenced by the works of the late portrait and landscape painter, Jens Juel, a court painter and professor at the Academy but who had died a year before Eckersberg’s arrival.  The other great influence was one of Eckersberg’s professors, Nickolai Abildgaard, a neo-classical and royal history painter.  The highlight of Eckersberg’s six year stay at the Academy came in his final year, 1809, when he was awarded the academy’s Gold Medal and with that came a stipend for travel to Rome which he received in 1812.  After completing his studies he concentrated on completing a number of historical, mythological and biblical paintings.

Loke and Sigyn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

Loke and Sigyn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

One such work was entitled Loki and Sigyn who were husband and wife characters in Norse mythology.  Sigyn was a goddess and the wife of Loki and the tale is about her role in assisting Loki during his period of captivity. The mythology around this pair of characters is rather gruesome.  The story goes that when the gods captured Loki, they turned one of Loki’s sons, Vali into a wolf. The wolf then ripped apart Narfi, Loki and Sigyn’s son. The boy’s entrails hardened into an iron chain, and the gods used this grotesque fetter to bind Loki in a cave deep beneath the earth. The gods then placed a snake above Loki that would drip venom onto his head.  In order to save her husband from the dripping venom from the snake’s mouth, Sigyn sat by Loki’s side with a bowl to catch the drops of venom so that they wouldn’t touch her husband’s head. Every so often, however, she would have to leave the cave to pour out the bowl. In her absence, a few drops of poison would fall onto Loki’s forehead. This caused him to writhe in agony, which in turn caused earthquakes on the earth’s surface.

Farm in Spejlsby on Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

Farm in Spejlsby on Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

Prior to his European travels Eckersberg completed a commission for Frantz Christopher von Bülow, Chief of the General Staff for King of Denmark, Frederick VI.  The commission was a set of twelve scenes of the island of Møn, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea.  One of these paintings was entitled Farm in Spejlsby on Møn, a depiction of a rainbow over the farmstead in a small village on the north of the island.  The farm has been hit by a rainstorm and yet the farm itself is bathed in sunlight.  Neither of the milkmaids in the foreground seems to be phased by the storm as they chat away, nor is the man with the basket who casually strolls along the path towards the farmhouse.  It is thought that Eckersberg completed the work in his Copenhagen studio from a sketch he made the previous year.

View of Møns Klint and Sommerspiret by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1809)Another landscape Eckersberg completed in 1809 featuring the island was entitled The Cliffs of the Island of Møn. View of the Summer Spire.  The chalk cliffs on the eastern coast of the island, known as Møns Klint, and the surrounding woodlands and pasture lands has attracted an estimated quarter of a million visitors every year and is the favourite location for artists as it was in the nineteenth century.  Christopher von Bülow had his Nordfeld estate near the cliffs so this was probably the reason for Eckersberg depiction.  It gave the artist the chance to depict the elements of nature which made the area so loved.  The high white limestone peak we see in the background is the Sommerspirit or Summer spire which rises to a height of 102 metres.  Unfortunately this natural wonder can no longer be seen as in January 1988 it crashed into the sea due to coastal erosion below its base.  Maybe there is a touch of humour in the painting as we Eckersberg depicting a petrified woman shrink back from the edge of the cliff in fear, despite the soothing overtones from her male companion.

View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg ( 1809)

View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg ( 1809)

Another of his paintings depicting a scene on the island of Møn was View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn. This is acknowledged as one of the most romantic and picturesque views of the gardens at Liselund Manor.  Liselund is a landscaped park, in which there are several exotic buildings and monuments. The park is situated close to Møns Klint on the northeast side of the island.  The park was created in the 1790s by French nobleman Antoine de Bosc de la Calmette for his wife Elisabeth, commonly known as Lisa, and Liselund, roughly translated, means Lise’s grove.  The park is considered to be one of the finest examples in Scandinavia of Romantic English gardening.  Before us we see the cleft with the small waterfall which is framed by luxuriant trees.  In the foreground we see three visitors to the park fascinated by what they see before them.  The format of this landscape painting is unusual with it being portrait format instead of the usual landscape format.

Having completed his paintings of the island of Møn, Eckersberg set off on his Grand Tour of Europe, the first stop of which was Paris.  What Eckersberg soon learnt was that the new contemporary French painting of the time was so radically different to that of his Danish role models, Juel and Abildgaard. French paintings had a greater clarity of colour, bright light and clear-cut contours.  One of the stars of French art at this time was Jacques-Louis David and Eckersberg, through his patron had not only arranged for him to meet the great Neoclassical-style painter but had also had arranged for Eckersberg to be tutored by him in his life classes where students were taught how best depict the human body and the resulting change in a manifest change to Eckersberg’s style of history painting.

Three Spartan Boys by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

Three Spartan Boys by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

Eckersberg’s time spent in Jacques-Louis David’s life classes must have honed his skill for that type of art as in 1812 he produced Three Spartan Boys.  This was one of the first paintings in which he translated what he had learnt at those life classes of David.  A year after completion, the painting was exhibited in Copenhagen with the title, Three Spartan Youths Practicing Archery.  Etude from Nature.  The first part of the title ensures the painting is looked upon as a history painting but the second part of the title alludes to the fact that it is a modified and elaborated figure study.  See how the three youths strike different poses and we, as viewers, see them from different angles and thus admire the artist’s skill at his depiction of their bodies.  Note to the inclusion of a landscape background to this work.

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David

Such an inclusion could be the result of Eckersberg having studyed the works of Jacques-Louis David who would also add landscape backgrounds to his historical paintings, one example of which was his painting entitled Leonidas at Thermopylae which Eckersberg probably only saw an unfinished version as it was not completed until 1814.

Odysseus' Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, by Christoffer Eckersberg (ca. 1812)

Odysseus’ Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, by Christoffer Eckersberg (ca. 1812)

Another of Eckersberg’s historical paintings at this time was one entitled Odysseus’ Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, which he completed around 1812.  Book XIX of the Odyssey tells of the return of Odysseus, in disguise as a poor beggar to his home and to his erstwhile wife Penelope.  Odysseus continually refers to Penelope as the honourable wife of Lord Odysseus.   Odysseus has a bath and helped by his old nurse Eurykeia who recognizes a scar on Odysseus’ thigh and therefore knows the beggar is her lost master. Odysseus grabs her by the throat and tells her to keep what she saw from all others or else he will kill her.   In his painting, Eckersberg captures the moment when the old nurse is about to blurt out Odysseus’ name and so he covers her mouth with his hand as he looks over to Penelope to see if she has been alerted to the nurse’s discovery but she has her head in her hand still grieving for her lost husband.

Pont Royal seen from Quai Voltaire by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

Pont Royal seen from Quai Voltaire by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

Whilst in Paris Eckersberg did complete a number of historical paintings but his love for landscape work was not forgotten and in November 1812 he produced a beautiful painting entitled Pont Royal seen from the Quai Voltaire from sketches he made that summer.  It is a view from the Left Bank of the Seine looking across the river towards the Louvre and the Tuilleries.  As a landscape it is a change of style for him. It is an early example of his use of linear perspective which allowed him to give a sense of depth to the depiction.  As an artist and recorder of a view, he has adopted a very soberly observed position.  The details in the work are given to us in far greater detail than his usual landscape style.  He portrays light shining in from the left casting numerous shadows and his depiction of the clouds bears witness to his careful inspection of nature.  The painting was exhibited at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen in 1814.

In my next blog I will follow Eckerberg’s journey to Rome and look at more of his works of art.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Christoffer Eckersberg, Danish artists, History Paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Samuel Palmer. Part 2 The Shoreham Ancients, William Blake and later life

Samuel Palmer by George Richardson (1829)

Samuel Palmer by George Richardson (1829)

Samuel Palmer was seventeen years old when he met the painter John Linnell and they would remain friends for life, a period stretching almost sixty years, albeit on occasions their relationship was somewhat strained during Palmer’s marriage to Linnell’s daughter. Linnell was born in London in 1792.  His background was very different to the middle-class prosperity of Palmer’s family.  His father, although a respectable carver and gilder, was not a wealthy man and whereas Palmer, who lived in the semi-rural outskirts of London, and was indulged and pampered by his parents, Linnell had to survive the murkiness of the depressing bleak streets of Bloomsbury.   Linnell was a landscape artist and portrait painter who found himself constantly in competition with the great John Constable.  At the time Linnell met Palmer the latter had rather lost his way artistically. Palmer wrote honestly about his worries regarding his art:

“…by the time I had practised for about five years I entirely lost all feeling for art … But it pleased God to send Mr. Linnell as a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art…”

John Linnell inspired Palmer.  He offered artistic advice and instruction.   He took him to art galleries and introduced him to other artists, most notably William Blake who was to have a profound influence on Palmer.

The Rising of the Lark by Samuel Palmer (c.1839)

The Rising of the Lark by Samuel Palmer (c.1839)

Linnell’s mentoring of Palmer was of great importance as it was Linnell who brought to the attention of Palmer  the artists of the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods, such as Albrecht Dürer, and the fourteenth century muralists, Francesco Traini, Buonamico Buffalmacco and Benozzo Gozzoli who were responsible for decorating the cemetery, Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, Italy.

Interior hallway of Campo Santo showing restoration work of some of the murals

Interior hallway of Campo Santo showing restoration work of some of the murals

This magnificent building was said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, brought back to Pisa from the Fourth Crusade in the 12th century.  An inscription near the right gate tells us that the construction of the Camposanto started in year 1277 and finished in the late 15th century.

Another influence on Palmer around this time was the works of art of Henry Fuseli.  The National Gallery in London was not built until 1824 so Palmer would spend time at the Dulwich Gallery (opened in 1817) copying the works of the Masters and was fortunate to be allowed to view the private collection of the German merchant and insurance agent Carl Aders which included many works by artists of the Primitives movement.  However one of the greatest influences on Palmer was William Blake.  Blake was introduced to him by Linnell in 1824, who at the time, because of his art work, was viewed by many of the art establishment as an obscure and impoverished figure and thought to be just a harmless madman.  Palmer had always been a visionary and this was enhanced once he entered the world of William Blake

Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825)

Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825)

In 1824, Palmer’s health once again deteriorated.  He suffered from asthma and bronchitis, and so he decided to follow his mother’s old remedy of leaving London and heading to the South Coast.  He visited the Kent village of Shoreham, and two years later he moved there permanently, buying himself a small run-down house, which he called Rat Abbey maybe because of his fellow dwellers in the old building!  A short time later, his father sold up his book selling business and left London and joined his son in Shoreham.  He rented half of a large house with the name Waterhouse which was situated on the banks of the River Darent.  Samuel Palmer’s nurse, Mary Ward, and his brother William joined Samuel snr. and also came to live there. The Water House proved to be of use to Samuel as it often housed visiting guests and fellow artists when there was no room at Rat Abbey.  Finally in 1828 Samuel Palmer left his small house and went to live with his father at Water House and stayed there for the rest of his time in Shoreham and it was during those heady days in Shoreham that Samuel first encountered John Linnell’s daughter Hannah whom he would later marry.  Palmer loved his new home and we can witness his contentment shown in his autobiographical letter published in The Portfolio art journal of that time.  He wrote:

“…Forced into the country by illness, I lived afterwards for about seven years at Shoreham, in Kent, with my father, who was inseparable from his books, unless when still better engaged in works of kindness. There, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes visited by friends of congenial taste, literature, and art and ancient music wiled away the hours, and a small independence made me heedless, for the time, of further gain; the beautiful was loved for itself …”

It was during his time in Shoreham that he founded, along with George Richmond and Edward Calvert, an artistic group of painters that were all inspired by William Blake.  The group were known as The Ancients or the Shoreham Ancients.  They were an artistic brotherhood who would meet both in Shoreham at Palmer’s home and at Blake’s apartment home in London.  This like-minded group of painters were followers of William Blake and were attracted to archaism in art, a style which has the deliberate intention to emulate a style of the past to suit contemporary vision.  With the exception of Palmer, most of the members of the “brotherhood” were former students of the Royal Academy, who had broken away from the confines of academic teaching and concentrated on their idealized vision of the past.

Samuel Palmer by George Richmond, watercolour and body colour on ivory, 1829

Samuel Palmer by George Richmond, watercolour and bodycolour on ivory, 1829

The Ancients were in existent around the same time as another art group was formed in Rome by some nineteenth century German painters.  They were known as the Nazarenes a derisory title which was used against them by detractors because of the biblical manner in the way they dressed and their Christ-like long hair and beards.  Samuel Palmer used to wear revivalist-type clothes and in a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London we see him with long hair and a full beard wearing a round-necked pleated smock under a coat.  It was during this time that critics believe that Samuel Palmer created his best works of art.  They were small landscapes which were almost composed of just a single colour using watercolour or ink. The depictions enforced Palmer’s religious belief which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God and all the food derived from the fields were gifts from God.

An example of a Samuel Palmer painting of this time and type is one he completed in 1825 entitled The Valley Thick with Corn which is part of the six so-called Oxford Sepias, a group which now belongs to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.   The six pictures were completed between 1825 and 1835 at a time when Palmer found inspiration in the landscape around his home village of Shoreham.  The area was inspirational for him and it allowed him to produce, what some believe to be, some of the greatest English pictures of the 19th century.

The Valley Thick with Corn by Samuel Palmer (1825).

The Valley Thick with Corn by Samuel Palmer (1825).

The Valley Thick with Corn is a beautiful brown ink pen drawing which has been finished off with a layer of varnish.  This coating has aged over the years and has now given the work a rich yellow-brown finish.  The setting for the painting is undulating cornfields.  The darkness of the picture suggests it is late evening with the full moon rising over distant rounded hills and a tall thin church spire. A horse drawn cart can just be made out in the top left of the picture, as it trundles up a steep track.   In the foreground we see an elderly bearded man dressed in what looks like Elizabethan clothes lying on the ground surrounded by ears of corn.  He is stretched out and rests on his elbow.  On his lap lies an open book so he could be reading, albeit he looks as if he has fallen asleep.  Behind and to the right of him we see two cows slowly making their way through the cornfields.  To the left, in the mid ground, we see upright sheaves of corn which have been harvested and awaiting collection and behind them are sheep tended by the shepherd who sits under a tree and plays music to them on his pipes.

In a Shoreham Garden by Samuel Palmer (1830)

In a Shoreham Garden by Samuel Palmer (1830)

In 1829 Palmer completed his work entitled In a Shoreham Garden.  It is a wonderful work at a time which is looked upon as the height of Palmer’s achievements. The picture is a small watercolour heightened with gouache on stiff smooth cardboard often referred to as Bristol Board.  The work, measured just 28 x 22 cms and remained in Palmer’s own collection, no doubt in memory of Shoreham, the village he had loved so much.   It now resides in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.  It is full of light and colour with the dominating feature being an apple fruit tree in full blossom on the end of a path within a walled garden.  The tree is loaded with flowers.  In fact, besides the side of a wooden building in the right foreground the picture is an abundance of colourful flowers, bushes and trees which reach up to the sky.  In the background we see a lady wearing a long flowing red dress gazing out to something out of view to the right of the painting.  It is thought that the painting was a scene from the garden of his and his father’s Water Garden house.  It is now part of the V&A collection.

The Magic Apple Tree by Samuel Palmer (1830)

The Magic Apple Tree by Samuel Palmer (1830)

What is thought to be a companion piece to In a Shoreham Garden is one of his other 1830 works, The Magic Apple Tree.

Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star by Samuel Palmer (c.1830)

Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star by Samuel Palmer (c.1830)

Around 1830, Palmer also completed a work entitled Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star.  It was a small painting measuring just 19 x 30cms.  The painting is now considered one of Palmer’s finest moonscape paintings.  We see a man carrying a staff, dressed in a long smock and wearing a wide brimmed hat walking through a cornfield with his dog.  In the foreground there are again sheaves of corn.  The sky is dark, lit up by a waxing sickle moon and an evening star, which could be, because of its brightness, the planet Venus.  The light emitting from the moon is probably much stronger than it would be for such a moon but it serves to illuminate the land.  There is no documentation to tell us the location of the scene but the rolling hills we see was characteristic of the Shoreham area.

In 1835, after ten years in the Kent village, Palmer left Shoreham and went to live back in London.   He had hoped to earn some money by selling some of the work he had accumulated whilst at Shoreham and he also hoped that he would be able to make some money by teaching art in the capital.

Samuel Palmer and Linnell’s eldest daughter, Hannah, married on 20th September, 1837 after an engagement which lasted several years.  Linnell had always been supportive of the match unlike his wife who was somewhat opposed to the liaison.  Samuel Palmer, funded by his new in-laws, and his new wife Hannah set off on their honeymoon to Italy in October 1837, a journey which would last two years and one that Palmer’s mother-in-law was vehemently opposed to..

 Dream in the Apennines by Samuel Palmer (1864)

Dream in the Apennines by Samuel Palmer (1864)

A later painting by Samuel Palmer, one of his largest watercolours measuring 94 x 130cms, may have come from sketches he made during the honeymoon.  It was exhibited in 1864 and entitled Dream in the Apennine.  The depiction is a view of Rome as seen from the south-east.  It is now owned by the Tate in London.  When it was first exhibited it came with a note which read:

“…Suddenly, at a turn in the mountain road, we looked for the first time on that Plain; the dispenser of law, the refuge of philosophy, the cradle of faith. Ground which Virgil trod and Claude invested with supernatural beauty was sketched – but with a trembling pencil...”

In the foreground we see a young girl peering over the edge of a stone wall at the fast flowing river below.  She is throwing stones into the valley below.  There are goats standing behind her which may well be in her charge.  Behind and to the left of the girl we see a fully laden cart being pulled by a pair of mighty oxen which are being controlled by a young man.  A small child rushes towards the cart to add a few more bunches of flowers to the already filled large wicker baskets.  In the distance, on the plain we can see the Eternal city and the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.

The Lonely Tower by Samuel Palmer (1879)

The Lonely Tower by Samuel Palmer (1879)

The last work of Samuel Palmer which I am looking at was an etching which he completed in 1879 entitled The Lonely Tower.  The scene before us was first exhibited as a watercolour at the Watercolour Society by Palmer in 1868.  Along with the watercolour there was a quotation from Il Penseroso (The Serious Man), a poem by Palmer’s favourite poet, John Milton.

“…Or let my lamp at midnight hour,

Be seen in some lonely tower,

Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,

With thrice great Hermes…”

Palmer and his family were living at Furze Hill House in Reigate and from his study he could look out towards Leith Hill and the folly, built in 1765 which is at its summit.  It could be this that he saw when he painted The Lonely Tower.    It is a depiction of a remote hilltop tower standing on the edge of a cliff with its single light shining out against a darkening sky.  It is now the remains of what once had a greater purpose.  We see a crescent moon against a horizon which is filled with clouds and stars which sparkle brightly.   Below and to the left of the light we see a man struggling to get his ox-cart up a steep track.  On the opposite side of the deep ravine we see two shepherds gazing up at the light and the night sky.  Flying over the ravine we see a barn owl. It is such an atmospheric and haunting picture. The Irish poet W B Yeats referred to the work in his poem Phases of the Moon:

“…He has found, after the manner of his kind,

Mere images; chosen this place to live in

Because, it may be, of the candle-light

From the far tower where Milton’s Platonist

Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:

The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,

An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;

And now he seeks in book or manuscript

What he shall never find…”

This was by far the most evocative of Palmer’s late works.

Leith Hill Folly

Leith Hill Folly

Hannah and Samuel’s first son was born on January 27th 1842.  He was named Thomas More Walter George Palmer, Thomas More, after the famous fifteenth century statesman and philosopher who was councillor to Henry VIII, and George after Samuel’s good friend George Richmond.  He was a boy who grew to be a studious young man during which time he survived many boyhood scrapes whilst in Grammar school prior to going to Oxford University.  Sadly his father’s dream that his son would get to Oxford was dashed when the young man’s health deteriorated in 1859 and eighteen months later, after a long and painful illness, died on July 11th 1861.  He died at the tender age of nineteen.  Both Hannah and Samuel were devastated.  Samuel Palmer never got over his loss.  In his work The Lonely Tower the Great Bear star constellation depicted in the sky in the background is said to be as it was on the night his son died and as he looked skyward in grief. It was forever engraved on his mind.

The couple had another son Alfred Herbert Palmer who was born in 1860.  He went on to publish a biography of his father The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer in 1892.

Samuel Palmer's grave in St Mary Magdalene Church Reigate

Samuel Palmer’s grave in St Mary Magdalene Church Reigate

Samuel Palmer died on May 24th 1881 aged seventy-six.  Palmer’s father-in-law and mentor John Linnell died six months later.  Palmer’s wife Hannah died twelve years later and the two are together in a cemetery in St Mary Magdalene churchyard in Reigate.  A strange twist to this story is the fact that in 1909, many of Palmer’s Shoreham works were destroyed by his surviving son Alfred, who burnt a great quantity of father’s sketchbooks, notebooks and original works. His reasoning behind the destruction was that he believed that nobody would not be able to make head nor tail of the material and that he wished to save it from a more “humiliating fate”.   Alfred Herbert Palmer died in 1931.

Samuel Palmer in Old Age by John Linnell

Samuel Palmer in Old Age by John Linnell

There is so much about Samuel Palmer I haven’t included in the two blogs but I hope that there is enough in them to tempt you to read more about the artist and I recommend an excellent book which will tell you all you about the great man.  It is written by Rachel Campbell-Johnston the chief art critic and poetry critic for the Times.  The book is entitled Mysterious Wisdom.  The Life and work of Samuel Palmer.

Posted in Ancients, Art, Art Blog, Art History, English artist, Landscape paintings, Samuel Palmer, William Blake | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Samuel Palmer Part 1. The Early years, portraiture and the rural idyll

The Prospect by Samuel Palmer (1881)

The Prospect by Samuel Palmer (1881)

My featured artist today is one of the great English landscape painters, draughtsmen and etcher of the nineteenth century.  He was a major player in the art of Romanticism.  His landscape works were special, conjured up by his inventive and far-sighted imagination.   There was a magical feel about his work.  Palmer was not just an ordinary every day painter; his works were poetical and he himself, through his art, seemed to have the ability of a mystical seer. Let me introduce you to Samuel Palmer.

At the time of Samuel Palmer’s birth there was a worrying tension brought on by conflict.  It was a troubling time.  It was a time of tumult in Europe.  Sixteen years earlier France had been affected by the storming of the Bastille and the fall of the rich and the nobility of the ancient regime.  Initially, there was probably a delighted sense of schadenfreude in the minds of many in England, including the “establishment” at the fall from grace of what they perceived was the cruel and greedy French aristocracy but soon that enthusiasm dwindled with the thought that such revolutionary behaviour may cross the English Channel.  In 1793, twelve years before Samuel was born France declared war on Britain, a war which would last more than two decades.  Although the battlefields were not in England Napoleon Bonaparte used another weapon against the British by blockading European ports and by so doing deprive Britain of lucrative trade.  The war however proved fortuitous to Samuel’s family who were hatters and hats were in great demand since the government, to add to their much needed war chest, had imposed a hair powder tax and this ended the era when elegantly puffed and powdered coiffures which were once de rigueur, now could not be afforded.  The fashion was now for the “topper”, the nickname given to top hats.

Portrait of Samuel Palmer by Henry Walter (1819)

Portrait of Samuel Palmer by Henry Walter (1819)

Samuel’s father, also named Samuel, had set forth to study to become a surgeon but his squeamish nature put an end to that dream and he ended up in his father, Christopher Palmer’s, millinery business.  Samuel Snr. was somewhat of a dreamer and this along with his love of books led him to forego the safe and lucrative job as a hatter to set himself up as a bookseller.  This decision did not go down well with his family as the trade of a bookseller seemed a lowly trade not fit for a “gentleman”.  Samuel Snr. was, besides being a dreamer, a very determined person and cared little about status and the financial position of his family.

Samuel Palmer Snr. met and fell in love with Martha Giles and they married in October 1803.  Samuel Palmer, their first child, was born in Newington, London on winter Sunday morning, on January 27th 1805.  The couple lived in Surrey Square in Newington, which at the start of the nineteenth century, was a semi rural area populated with lush gardens, fields and orchards.  It was a haven for those who loved the countryside; a love young Samuel would have all his life.  It was a time when survival at birth was somewhat of a lottery with a third of babies not surviving to see their first birthday and amongst the poor and deprived the survival rate would drop even further.  However Samuel Palmer was lucky in as much as he was born into a prosperous middle-class family.

Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825) Pen and ink and wash, mixed with gum arabic, varnished,

Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825)
Pen and ink and wash, mixed with gum arabic, varnished,

Samuel was not a healthy child and his mother and grandmother would often take him to the Georgian seaside resort of Margate in the hope that sea air would improve his health.  This once fishing town was a favourite of Turner.  It was during his boyhood stays in Margate that he would listen to his grandmother’s tales of ghosts and restless spirits who wandered around the town.  Stories of such apparitions would remain with Samuel and would interest him all his life.  His mother’s continued concern about her son’s physical health led her to employ a live-in nurse, Mary Ward, who set about improving his health by improving his diet.   It was also this lady who was to have such an influence on the young boy.  Unlike most servants who were illiterate Mary was well read with the Bible and Jacob Tonson’s pocket illustrated book of Milton’s poems being her favourites.  She, like Samuel’s father, loved books and would often read Milton’s poems to Samuel.  When Mary died she bequeathed the book of poems to Samuel who would carry it round with him wherever he went.  Of Milton’s poems, Samuel wrote:

“…I am never in a “lull about Milton”…….nor can tell how many times I have read his poems… He never tires….I do believe his stanzas will be read in heaven…”

Samuel gained a brother in 1810 with the birth of William, who was to be the only other surviving child of Samuel Snr. and Martha.  Samuel Palmer did not have many boyhood friends as he was more than satisfied to immerse himself in his books, including works by Dickens, which featured the English capital.  It was a trait, which delighted his father.  Samuel would often go for walks on Dulwich Common with either his father or his nurse during which they would often read to him as they strolled the countryside.  His love for reading and the joy books brought him can be seen in one of his letters (The Letters of Samuel Palmer – Raymond Lister, 1974) in which he wrote:

“…There is nothing like books of all things sold incomparably the cheapest, of all pleasures the least palling, they take up little room, keep quiet when they are not wanted and, when taken up, bring us face to face with the choicest men who ever lived at their choicest moments…”

Samuel, maybe because of his poor health, tried to avoid the necessity of going into the heart of London with all its pollution from coal fires and the often dank fogs emanating from the Thames.  He was a lover of the countryside and being of poor health abhorred the polluted city life.

In May 1817, at the age of eleven, Samuel was sent to Merchant Taylors’ public school.  This was a prestigious institution founded back in 1561 but for Samuel it was a nightmare.  Samuel who had been cosseted by both his mother and nurse and had a quiet solitary home life, which suited his nature, suddenly was thrust into a maelstrom of lively and loud boys in which a pale-faced asthmatic boy fared badly.  Samuel disliked the public school system with all it entailed and in another of his letters he wrote:

“…the fag crawls to be kicked, and, in his turn, kicks the fag who crawls to him………it perfectly represents and so admirably prepares for the requirement of public life for what is statesmanship but successful crawling and kicking….”

His time at Merchant Taylors lasted only six months as his pleading to come back home was answered in the Autumn of 1817.

The death of Samuel’s mother in 1818 came as a harsh blow to her thirteen year old son.  He struggled to cope with the loss and shed many tears.  The loss of his mother came at the same time as he and his father considered what career he should follow.  Samuel favoured becoming an author.  He had already written some prose and poetry and although the latter never attained the quality required to have them published his stylistic prose gave him hope of a fulfilling career.  However it was not to be as his father believed, because of his son’s early talents as a draughtsman that the visual arts should be the career his son should follow.  The family’s decision that Samuel should follow a career in art was thought to have been down to a belief that it was what his mother would have liked her son to do.

Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces; Brill Church bearing S. E. by S., Masensluys E. by S. by J W Turner (1819)

Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces; Brill Church bearing S. E. by S., Masensluys E. by S. by J W Turner (1819)

The family employed William Wate, a run-of-the-mill landscape artist, to tutor Samuel.  In 1819, when Samuel was just fourteen, he made his first visit to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.  He was amazed by the colour in Turner’s painting of the Entrance of the Meuse and fascinated by Turner’s Liber Studiorum, a series of his landscape and seascape compositions which were published as prints in etching and mezzotint, has been once described as perhaps comprising of ‘the pith of all that is best in his life and work’.

At this time Palmer was just a developing artist who was still learning the basic skills of art through Wate’s tuition.

Samuel Palmer a Self-Portrait (1826)

Samuel Palmer a Self-Portrait (1826)

I recently attended a portraiture workshop at which the guest artist and presenter talked about how the portrait he would produce would not necessarily be a photographic image of the sitter but how he envisaged the model.  With those words still in my head I gaze at Samuel Palmer’s self portrait which he completed around 1826 when he was twenty years of age.  Is this how he envisioned himself?  There is something quite disturbing about this self-portrait.  Palmer gazes directly towards us but it is a blank stare as if he is looking through us.  The question that immediately springs to mind is what is he thinking about.  What is going on in his mind as he looks into the mirror?   It is not an image one would associate with an aspiring artist who is looking forward to the future.  What is troubling him?  Look at his physical appearance.  He has not readied himself for the painting.  It is more of a “this is who I am, take it or leave it” stance.  He is unshaved.  His thick hair looks uncared for.  The collar of his shirt is crooked but he knows all this as he puts brush to canvas.  Maybe he wants us to disregard his physical appearance and concentrate on what could be on his mind.  We are looking at the face of a troubled dreamer.  We are looking at a man whose vivid imagination would influence his art and those who view some of his imaginative paintings will be transported into a magical world which in her book Mysterious Wilderness, The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer, the author Rachel Campbell-Johnston describes the artist and some of his works:

“…It is a place in which magical shines through the material, in which nature and heaven are intertwined, in which God in all his mildness blesses man’s harvests and the darkness of night can be innocent and day.  This is not the haunt of any workaday painter.  It is the home of the artist as mystic and seer and poet…”

The Shearers by Samuel Palmer (1834)

The Shearers by Samuel Palmer (1834)

One of his best known works is The Shearers which he completed in 1835.  It is a painting which is rich in colour.  There is the juxtaposition of golden sparkling light and gloomy shadow.  I have already said the Palmer was looked upon as a seer and this painting was his vision of paradise.  Raymond Lister in his book, Catalogue Raisonné of the works of Samuel Palmer describes the work and a similar one entitled The Sleeping Shepherd which uses the same setting of the entrance to the barn we see in the above work:

“…A group of richly textured and abundantly coloured paintings of this period includes some of Palmer’s greatest and most attractive work. Such work reached its ultimate expression in The Shearers and The Sleeping Shepherd…”

Geoffrey Grigson, in his 1960 book Samuel Palmer’s Valley of Vision, wrote of the work:

“…Great richness of technique was used to realise The Shearers. In this Palmer combined oil and tempera so as to render every nuance of texture from the light on the distant hills and in the sky to the detailed depiction, almost Dutch in its realism, of the group of implements on the right. There is also an advance in the drawing of the figures, the shearers and their helpers; rarely if ever before this had Palmer portrayed figures so convincingly in movement…”

The setting of the painting is the great barn,  the doors of which are open and we look out at the scene before us.  The doors and the roof beam in some way form a frame for the painting.  A group of six people work in the shade of the trees outside the barn, three men and three women can be seen in the mid-ground.  The men are in the process of shearing the sheep whilst the women collect and bag the wool.  In the background we see an expanse of rolling hills which are lit up by the rays of the sun which light up the beautiful countryside.  Samuel Palmer never forgot his walks with his father over the hills and through the fields of Dulwich.   The idea for the painting must have been in his mind years earlier because he once wrote about his plans for depicting such a scene:

“…A group of different sex and age reaping, might be shewn in the foreground going down a walk in the field toward the above cottage island, and over the distant line that bounds this golden sea might peep up elysian hills, the little hills of David, or the hills of Dulwich or rather the visions of a better country which the Dulwich fields shew will to all true poets…”

Still life detail

Still life detail

In a way the painting is not just a rural landscape scene but part is also a still-life work in the way Palmer has painted the farming equipment inside the barn which we see on the right hand side along with a wide brimmed straw hat which the artist’s son, Alfred, said was one of his father’s most cherished possessions and an item which would appear in many of Samuel Palmer’s works.

In my next blog I will continue to look at the life of Samuel Palmer and explore the help he received from the landscape artist and portraitist John Linnell and  how he was so influenced by William Blake, the poet and painter who was an influential figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, English artist, Landscape paintings, Portraiture, Samuel Palmer | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Maurice Denis. Part 2 – Religion and his wife, Marthe

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

The year 1890 was the year Maurice Denis began to fall in love.  It was in this year that he met Marthe Meurier, a musician.  He had started to write a journal diary in 1884 and kept adding daily passages throughout his life.  In his diary entry for September 3rd 1891 he declared his happiness at being in love.  He wrote:

“…One feels more beautiful when one is in love.  The attitudes are easy and chaste.  Life becomes precious, discreet…”

And later the diary entry for November 8th 1891 shows his joy with being with Marthe and his love for her:

“…She is more beautiful than any picture, any representation, any subjective effect!  She exists outside of me, I am not the one who creates her…….Faith, love is an act of faith.  I believe in you Marthe…”

Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine's Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano). by Maurice Denis (1891)

Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).
by Maurice Denis (1891)

Denis would complete many portraits of his fiancé.  One of the first, completed in 1891, was entitled Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).  It is an interesting depiction of his fiancé.  She is in three quarter profile with her hands resting on the keys of the piano.  On the piano stand we see the frontispiece of some sheet music, the cover of which was designed by Maurice.  The Princess Maleine mentioned in the title of the painting was a character in a tragic and violent play written by Maurice Maeterlinck that year.  The book had obviously captured the imagination of Maurice’s fiancé as Denis wrote an entry in his diary that October:

“…She is reading again the Princess Maleine until two in the morning. She is pale, nervous, affectionate. Pains for me, and again doubts. Always doubts. Never mind, it’s life…”

The background wall is coloured using the technique known as pointillism, in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image.  This technique was developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in 1886 (see My Daily Art Display Oct 21st 2011).  This painting is housed in the Musée d’Orsay.

Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)

Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)

Another interesting portrait of his fiancé was completed a year later in 1892.  It was entitled Triple Portrait de Marthe, fiancée.  In the painting we see three portraits of Marthe and by depicting Marthe’s images three times in the work Maurice had hoped to symbolise the different aspects of his fiancé’s personality.  He believed that a single portrait would only depict one characteristic whereas a multiple portrait gave him the chance to load the painting with many of her traits and, by doing so, depicting the uniqueness of his fiancé.

Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)

Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)

Maurice Denis used the same technique later in 1897 when he completed Portrait d’Yvonne Lerolle en trois aspects (Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle).  Yvonne was a friend of Denis and the daughter of Henri Lerolle and art patron and music publisher.  The artist recorded in his journal how he structured the painting, writing:

 “…Do the portrait of Y, making the foliage prominent and set the small tree further back so that it becomes more prominent and, at the same time, makes room for the smaller figures. 1. decide on a composition; 2. draw each part or essential element;  3. put the composition on to canvas with the modifications and patches of colour;  4. draw in chalk, charcoal, then in de-oiled paint, and in local colour;  5. rub down and then touch up. Give equal care to each operation. The advantage of this formula is that you only have to paint once and you can do each section individually…”

The description that accompanies the painting which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay states:

 “…Maurice Denis seems particularly fond of using “mise en abyme” as the image reduces: the paving stones in the foreground provide a reference point, as if everything beyond this becomes a variation on the image of the young woman. By portraying several phases in the life of Yvonne, Denis remains faithful to his love of allegorical representations of moments of existence, like those he had already done in the four paintings of his Seasons cycle (1891-1892, various locations). And, by reminding us, along with Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Proust, that the true essence of a human being is the sum of his or her successive appearances, Denis reaches a pinnacle of Symbolist art…”

Mise en abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.

La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)

La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)

My next picture which I am showing you is La Cuisinière (The cook).  This also features Marthe Meurier, now his wife Marthe Denis,.  It was completed in 1893, the year the two were married.  Maurice Denis was brought up as a Catholic and one of the things that he must have found attractive about his future wife was her strong Christian beliefs.  Both were familiar with the Bible and although it may not be apparent at first sight, this picture has religious connotations.  It is typical of Denis’ early works being simply, as the Christie’s New York catalogue described it:

“…a plane surface covered with colors, a compositional tour-de-force in Denis’ oeuvre….. It also possesses a powerful narrative, one that carries several layers of meaning in the symbolist manner, pertaining to the artist, the cook, Brittany, the New Testament and the history of European painting…”

 After Maurice and Marthe married in June 1893 they honeymooned in a small rented house in the small Breton town of Perros-Guirec and the interior of the building features in this painting. Maurice decided to feature his wife working in the kitchen as he looked on her domestic expertise as a wonderful attribute.  He wrote in his journal the following year:

“…she carries out the essential household tasks with total dedication” while displaying her shy love and her taste for what is beautiful among humble domestic tasks…”

It is no coincidence that Maurice’s wife was named Marthe by her very religious parents.  It was the name of the woman in the New Testament who was known for her dedication at home.  We see Denis’ wife Marthe in the foreground working in the kitchen but look carefully at the background of the work and the silhouette against the window.  It is that of Jesus and Mary. Accoring to the bible, Jesus had come to visit the two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany.  In this painiting, Marthe Denis is portraying the character of Martha, who is hard at work in the kitchen.  The story according to the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42) sets the scene:

“… As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her…”

However in this work, Denis has focused on the character of Martha rather than Mary.  The biblical tale focuses on Jesus’ support for Mary who was, rather than helping Martha with her kitchen chores, had chosen to just sit and listen to the words of Jesus.  As in most paintings depicting the threesome, Martha was cast as the bit player and although Jesus did not reproach her for complaining about her sister he said he could see no wrong in Mary’s choice not to help her sister.  Maurice Denis’ painting takes an opposing stand, casting Martha as the tireless worker who was looking after the needs of their respected visitor.  Having said all this, let us remember that this is first and foremost another portrait of Denis’ wife.

The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)

The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)

On 12 June 1893 Denis married his great love, Marthe Meurier. The wedding reception was held on the terrace in front of the Pavilion of Henri IV in the forest of St-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, which had also been the setting for Denis’ major painting The Muses, completed earlier that year. This large decorative composition, measuring 171 x 138 cms, was both a significant representation of the artist’s style at the time, as well as a remarkable prefiguring of Art Nouveau, which emerged in the mid 1890s.  It is very noticeable in this painting that Denis had expanded his palette with much richer colours such as reds, greens and golds.  The Art Nouveau style can be seen in the way the artist has incorporated sinuous lines and decorative patterning of the trees, their trunks, and their leaves, which lie scattered on the ground like a carpet.  Maurice Denis had been commissioned to paint this work by Arthur Fontaine, a French government official.  The title of this painting, The Muses, derives from Greek mythology and refers to the nine goddesses of literature, science and the arts.  Each of the Muses had their own domain, one would be “in charge of” dance, one for comedy, one for literature and so on.  The Muses were considered the fund of knowledge which was embodied in the poetry, song-lyrics, and myths.  Denis used his wife, Marthe as a model for each of his three Muses in the foreground of this painting.  On the left of the trio we see Marthe with a sketchbook on her lap.  She is the Muse who is associated with art.  The depiction of Marthe with her bare back and shoulders on view to us, dressed in what looks like a ball gown, is the Muse of love.  The third Muse which Marthe portrays is dressed in black, her hair is covered with a veil and on her lap is an open religious book, maybe the bible or a book of prayers.  She is the Muse associated with religion.  In the background, amongst the trees, we see many more females walking about dressed in full length gowns and it is this which adds to the “otherworldly” character of the painting.

Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)

Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)

As I mentioned earlier both Maurice and Marthe Denis were devout Roman Catholics and much of his later art focused on religion.  He was determined to renew French church art.  French religious art had lost its popularity and was often cynically termed as the Saint-Sulpice style of art, named after the area in Paris surrounding the famous church which flooded the market with plastic religious relics.   After visiting Italy in 1910, Denis became greatly influenced by the works of the great Italian fresco painters of the 14th and 15th centuries and began to place emphasis on subject matter, traditional perspective, and modelling, which was contrary to the ideas of Les Nabis.  In November 1919 Maurice Denis and a contemporary of his, fellow artist George Desvallières, founded an artistic movement known as the Ateliers d’Art Sacré (Studios of Sacred Art).  The aim of this movement was to create church art once again and teach aspiring young artists to create paintings that would serve God and would decorate places of worship with tasteful religious works.   Maurice himself went on to complete works on canvas as well as murals for more than fifteen churches throughout France.  His artistic work was one of the chief forces in the resurgence of religious art in France.

Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )

Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )

One of his early religious works, which he completed in November 1889, is entitled Le Calvaire, or La Montée au calvaire (Calvary, also called Road to Calvary).  It is a painting of great simplicity.  The structure of the composition is a rising diagonal which runs from the bottom right of the painting with the group of women, black clad nuns, and moves diagonally up to the top left of the work to the top of the upright of the cross.  One is not given any pictorial detail of the women who slowly follow the procession.  They just merge together to form a black mass of people as is the gathering of the lance bearing Roman soldiers we see in the right background.  This anonymity of the women makes for a more haunting image.  In the mid-ground we see Jesus forced to his knees by the weight of the cross.  Mary his mother has moved to him, embraced him and offered her support.

The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées

The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées

In 1911 Maurice Denis was commissioned to carry out paintings and murals for the soon to be built Theatre des Champs-Elysées which opened in 1913.  The theatre is made up of three separate theatres.  The largest theatre was for symphony concerts and operas whilst the two smaller theatres stage repertory theatre.  The Art Deco building was designed by a talented group of artists.  The architect was initially Henry van der Velde but later taken over by August Perret and his brother.  Antoine Bourdelle looked after the bas relief sculpture work on the outside, Maurice Denis designed the massive cupola dome with its immense mural decorations whilst Édouard Vuillard was tasked with the paintings.

Maurice Denis' murals in L'Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.

Maurice Denis’ murals in L’Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.

One of the churches which Maurice Denis and some of the artists from the Ateliers d’Art Sacré, decorated, was the Église du Saint-Espirit which can be found in the 12th arrondissement of Paris.  The building was designed by Paul Tournon.  The construction began in 1928 and was completed seven years later.

The chapel at Le Prieuré

The chapel at Le Prieuré

In 1918 Maurice Denis purchased the old General Hospital of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which had been built by Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.  Denis named it the Le Prieure (the Priory). Maurice’s wife Marthe died on August 22nd 1919 after being ill for several years.  Maurice Denis later painted murals on the walls of the chapel, which was part of the Le Prieuré, which he dedicated to her memory.

On February 2nd 1922, Denis married again.  His second wife was Elisabeth Graterolle, and she gave her husband two more children.   Maurice Denis died in L’hôpital Cochin in Paris after being taken there with injuries he sustained resulting from being hit by a truck on the Boulevard St Michel on November 13th 1943, just twelve days before what would have been his seventy third birthday.

There was so much more to write about this great French artists and so many more paintings I could have added but time and space dictate that I leave it there.  If you like what you have seen in my last two blogs, I hope you will take the opportunity to research further into the life and works of Maurice Denis.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Ateliers d’Art Sacré, French painters, Maurice Denis, Religious paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maurice Denis. Part 1 – Les Nabis

Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House by Maurice Denis (1916)

Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House by Maurice Denis (1916)

Remember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.

Maurice Denis

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Today I am looking at the life and some works by the great French painter, designer, printmaker and writer, Maurice Denis whose Christian upbringing had an influence on many of his works.  His writings on art theory and his paintings were to influence future painters and in some ways heralded the arrival of cubism, fauvism and abstract art.

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

Maurice Denis was born in November 1870 in the fishing port of Granville in the Manche department of north-west France.  This Normandy coastal town with its scenic coastline and its countryside hinterland were very picturesque and would feature in many of Denis works.  He was the only son of Constant Eugène Denis and Hortense Denis (née Hadde).  Maurice was born into a wealthy family and benefited from this by attending the best school and academies.

The Denis family, who had been living in Paris, had moved out of the French capital to avoid the Franco-Prussian war which culminated in the capital being besieged by the Prussian army in September 1870.  After the war the family returned to Paris and went to live in the western suburb of Saint Germain-en-Laye which was to be Maurice’s home town for the rest of his life.  In 1882, aged eleven, Maurice enrolled at the Lycée Condorcet, which was founded in 1803 and  was one of the four oldest and most esteemed high schools in Paris   Fellow students at the school were his future contemporary artists, Édouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel and the future theatre director and set designer, Aurélien Lugné-Poe.  Maurice completed his secondary schooling in 1888 and due to his family’s financial status was able to enrol simultaneously in the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian where one of his tutors was Jules Lefebvre.

Pluie en Bretagne by Maurice Denis (1889)

Pluie en Bretagne by Maurice Denis (1889)

Also studying at the Académie Julian at that time was another aspiring artist, Paul Sérusier.  Sérusier, who was six years older than Denis, had also studied at the Lycée Condorcet high school.  During the summer of 1888 Sérusier had spent his time at Pont-Aven in Brittany, which was a popular meeting place for artists. It was during that summer stay that Sérusier met the French painters, Émile Bernard and Paul Gaugin.  Sérusier sat in on many conversations between Paul Gaugin, Louis Anquetin and Émile Bernard, the latter postulating many artistic theories which intrigued his listeners.  For Bernard, simplicity should be the key to paintings and both he and Gaugin would talk about what art genre should follow and differ from Impressionism which had been so popular during the late nineteenth century but it was around the late 1880’s that the Impressionist artists were starting to look at other styles of painting. Sérusier learnt about painting techniques whilst he was at Pont-Aven and one of the last paintings he did that summer was a small landscape work which he called The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour.  When he returned to Paris he explained to Maurice Denis and some of the other students that Gaugin had coached him during this painting and Sérusier quoted Gaugin’s words:

“…How do you see these trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermilion…”

The Talisman, The Aven River at the Bois d'Amour by Paul Sérusier (1888)

The Talisman, The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour by Paul Sérusier (1888)

Gaugin’s advice to Sérusier was to strengthen the colour but at the same time make the form simpler.  Whereas Impressionists would want to paint what they saw and how natural light affected the scene, this was replaced by the artist searching for coloured equivalents.  Maurice Denis and some of his fellow students, Vuillard, Bonnard and Paul Ranson were fascinated by the work and the change of emphasis in the painting technique.  This to them was a new beginning.  They nicknamed Sérusier’s work “The Talisman”, as for them it was looked upon as a secret and magical object that would change their ideas on artistic technique.  This was an early example of Synthetism in art, a term used by Gaugin, often termed Cloisonnism , a term given to it by Édouard Dujardin, a writer and art critic, of the style developed by Bernard and Anquetin, inspired by both stained glass  and Japanese ukiyo-e prints.  It emphasized two-dimensional flat patterns which was totally different to the techniques used by the Impressionists.

Beauty in the Autumn Wood by Maurice Denis (1892)

Beauty in the Autumn Wood by Maurice Denis (1892)

Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Ranson, the four students who had been amazed by the painting which Sérusier had brought back from Pont-Aven soon after formed themselves into art group and called themselves Les Nabis, which is a Hebrew word for “prophets”.  It was a kind of secret brotherhood committed to a type of pictorial Symbolism.  The term Les Nabis was thought up by the poet and physician, Henri Cazalis, who drew a parallel between the ways of the group of painters, as prophets of modern art, aspired to invigorate painting in the same way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel. Other artists studying with Denis at Académie Julian, such as Odilon Redon, Félix Vallotton and Ker-Xavier Roussel also became part of Les Nabis.  This group of young artists were fundamentally opposed to the naturalism technique, the true-to-life style which involved the representation or depiction of nature and people with the least possible distortion or interpretation, which was taught by their Academy teachers.

Maurice Denis was a lover of art theory and at the time published an article, Définition du néo-tranditionnisme in August 1890 in the periodical, Art et Critique, in which he defended their new ideas on art and this became Les Nabi’s manifesto.  It was a definitive declaration which signified the founding philosophies of cubism and fauvism and set up the foundation for the theories of abstraction that would carry on expanding throughout the 20th century.  The article opened with the famous lines:

“…It is well to remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order…”

Nouvelles théories sur l'art moderne [et] sur l'art sacré, 1914-1921 by Maurice Denis

Nouvelles théories sur l’art moderne [et] sur l’art sacré, 1914-1921 by Maurice Denis

Denis would later, in 1922, publish a collection of  his historical and theoretical work in one book entitled Nouvelles théories sur l’art moderne, sur l’art sacré (New Theories of Modern and Sacred Art), often simply referred to as “Theories by Maurice Denis.”

Sunlight on the Terrace by Maurice Denis (1890)

Sunlight on the Terrace by Maurice Denis (1890)

Maurice Denis produced a small painting in 1889 entitled Sunlight on the Terrace which illustrated the style used by the Sérusier/Gaugin Talisman painting and the works on show at the 1889 Volpini Exhibition.    The story behind this exhibition and how it came into being is, to say the least, unusual.  The Académie des Beaux Arts was holding an official art exhibition as part of the Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair designed to flaunt French cultural and industrial might, and its signature attraction was the 300-meter tower of Gustave Eiffel.  Artists were invited to submit paintings for this exhibition which then had to be sanctioned by the selection jurists.  Gaugin and Les Nabis painters realised they would not be invited to submit their works for public viewing and decided to hold a “counter exhibition”.

Volpini Exhibition poster

Volpini Exhibition poster

This was made possible when the painter, Emile Schuffenecker, a friend of Gaugin, discovered that across from the main exhibition on the Champ de Mars was the Grand Café des Arts.  The owner of the café was Monsieur Volpini who was, at the time, arranging the inside furnishings for the café but was distraught to be informed that the large decorative mirrors he had ordered for the walls, and which were coming from Italy, had been delayed and so was delighted to be approached by Schuffenecker who offered to decorate the walls of the café with their paintings.  The exhibition was the initial showing of paintings which reflected the progressive ideas of Gauguin and other artists of the Pont-Aven School. The exhibition became known as the Volpini Exhibition.

A Studio at Les Batignolles, Un atelier aux Batignolles by Henri Fantin-Letour (1870)

A Studio at Les Batignolles, Un atelier aux Batignolles by Henri Fantin-Letour (1870)

In My Daily Art Display (February 3rd 2012) I looked at a painting completed in 1870 by Henri Fantin-Letour entitled A Studio at Les Batignolles.  It was a depiction of a group of artists at the atelier of Édouard Manet whom we see surrounded by his artist friends.  It was a painting which pictorially documented the group of popular artists of the time.

The next painting I am showing you was one done in a similar vein by Denis.  Although Les Nabis as a group had started to go their own ways around 1899 this painting by Maurice Denis entitled Homage to Cézanne was not completed until 1901.  It is a large work of art measuring 180 x 240cms which makes the figures almost life-sized. The setting for the work is the shop belonging to the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, which was in the Rue Laffitte, a street in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.  Les Nabis artists used to meet regularly at the home of one of their group, Paul Ranson and talk about their art and this painting was a reminder of those get-togethers.  In the background, hanging on the rear wall we can just make out works by Renoir and Gaugin.  This pictorial recorded meeting was to celebrate Paul Cézanne and on the easel in the centre of the painting is his 1880 still-life work Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples.  The presence of this painting was another reminder of Paul Gaugin who owned the work but was not present as he had six years earlier set off for a new life in Martinique and Tahiti.  Gaugin had been a great fan of Cézanne describing him as:

“… an exceptional pearl, the apple of my eye…”

Homage to Cézanne by Maurice Denis (1900)

Homage to Cézanne by Maurice Denis (1900)

The gathered artists along with some art critics and art dealers are all dressed in black suits, which is strange attire for such a gathering of the avant-garde Nabis.  On the far left is Paul Sérusier, the leader of Les Nabis who is in conversation with the bearded painter Odilon Redon.  At the back on the left we have the painter Jean-Édouard Vuillard.  Behind him wearing a top hat is André Mellerio, a French art critic who endorsed the cause of Symbolism and was the biographer, and great friend of Odilon Redon.    Behind the easel to the right of Mellerio, and seen holding the easel’s upright, is the art dealer and host, Ambroise Vollard.  Further to the right is Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and on the far right with pipe in hand, Pierre Bonnard.  It is also interesting to note that Maurice Denis included his wife, Marthe in the painting, whom we see in the right background.

In my final look at the life and works of Maurice Denis I will be looking at his later works which would centre around his devout religious beliefs.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, French painters, Maurice Denis, Nabis, Paul Sérusier | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments