Dosso Dossi. Part 2 – The tale of the young man who was a famous lady and the Ducal Palace of Ferrara

Dosso Dossi self portrait

Dosso Dossi
self portrait

The first painting of Dosso Dossi I want to showcase is one which is owned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.  The gallery acquired the painting from a gallery in London in 1965 for £8000.  The title of the oval painting was then said to be Portrait of a Youth.  There was an element of mystery surrounding the art work as the artist of the work was said to be unknown.  It was only in the start of the twenty-first century that the gallery made a painstaking examination of the work during its restoration which would last several years.  The mystery to be solved was two-fold.  Firstly, who painted the work and secondly was the sex of the sitter a male.   The gallery staff looked for clues as to whether the sitter was a young man or a young woman.  In the background, behind the sitter, there is a myrtle bush and in art this was symbolic of Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love and symbolised feminine beauty.  Another clue to the sex of the sitter, according to the gallery’s conservator, Carl Villis, can be found in the inscription on the piece of paper which lies on the balustrade in the foreground.  The translation of which is:

“…brighter is the virtue reigning in this beautiful body…”

Portrait of a Young Man by Dosso Dossi

Portrait of a Young Man by Dosso Dossi

So in the opinion of the conservator the sitter was female.  The next questions to be answered were who was she and who painted the portrait.  After two years of intense scientific analysis and research in Italy, Australia and America the art curator and conservator, Villis came to the conclusion that the female was no other than a young Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and brother of Cesare Borgia and furthermore the artist was Giovanni di Niccolo de Luteri, or as we now know him, Dosso Dossi.  So why Lucrezia Borgia?  Villis postulated that because the female figure in this painting is holding a dagger the depiction alludes to the Roman heroine Lucrezia, who after being raped by Tarquin, the son of the King of Rome, killed herself with a dagger so as to protect the honour of her family.

1502 coin featuring Lucrezia Borgia

1502 coin featuring Lucrezia Borgia

They also likened the depiction to the 1502 coin which was adorned with Lucrezia’s profile.  Maybe these are good arguments to make Lucrezia the woman in the painting but what made them believe the artist who painted her portrait was Dossi?  The belief that he was the artist followed an analysis of the painting’s pigments and the artistic style which indicated that it was likely to have been painted by Dossi.  Dossi ,if you remember from Part 1 of this blog, came from Ferrara as did Lucrezia.  In 1502 the twenty-two year old Lucrezia married her third husband Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, who later employed Dosso Dossi as the court painter – a coincidence ?  Maybe, maybe not!

National Gallery of Victoria paintings conservator Karl Villis (right) and director Gerard Vaughan stand beside the painting

National Gallery of Victoria paintings conservator Karl Villis (right) and director Gerard Vaughan stand beside the painting

The gallery awaits authentication by external scholars and art history experts and are right to be wary of being too dogmatic with regards their discovery as in 2007 the National Gallery of Victoria was embarrassed after it was revealed that it had wrongly attributed a painting by an unknown Dutch painter to Vincent van Gogh !

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian (1523)

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian (1523)

Dosso Dossi was a contemporary of four great High Renaissance Italian artists, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian and it is because of one of their famous works of art, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne that Dossi came to complete his own work, Bacchus in 1524.

In 1523, Titian finished his painting entitled Bacchus and Ariadne which is now housed in London’s National Gallery.  The commission for Titian’s work was one of a cycle of mythological works, which he and Giovanni completed for Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and it was to be hung in the Camerini d’Alabastro, a private room in the ducal castle.  Originally this part of the commission was given to Raphael who had made plans and sketches for what was to be his Triumph of Bacchus but he died in 1520 and Titian was given the commission to complete.

In the left of the painting we see Ariadne who has been abandoned on this island of Naxos by her lover Theseus, who has sailed off.  The white sails of his boat can be seen in the extreme left background.  In the painting we see Bacchus, the god of wine, leaping energetically from his chariot which is drawn by two large cheetahs.  His followers and fellow revellers appear, emerging from the forest in the right of the picture.  Bacchus is immediately smitten by the sight of Ariadne, who steps back in fear of his sudden arrival.  He promises to turn her into an eight-star constellation, which we see halo-like in the sky, above her head.  This beautiful painting from the Venetian School painter Titian is awash with beautiful colours, blues, reds and browns which enhance the mythological scene.

Bacchus by Dosso Dossi (1524)

Bacchus by Dosso Dossi (1524)

Dosso Dossi was a contemporary of four great High Renaissance Italian artists, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian and it is probably due to the popularity of Titian’s work that he was commissioned to copy part of Bacchus and Ariadne, a commission he completed in 1524.  The painting was simply entitled Bacchus and is a copy of the central character in Titian’s painting, with just a few small changes to the background landscape.  The painting probably came about through a commission given to Dossi from an admirer of Titian’s work, which he or she saw when it arrived at Ferrara the year before.

A woman fleeing on a wooded path by Dosso Dossi (c.1542)

A woman fleeing on a wooded path by Dosso Dossi (c.1542)

Another of Dossi’s paintings featuring Ariadne is entitled A Woman Fleeing on a Wooded Path.  This work at one time was thought to have been painted by Dosso Dossi’s younger brother Battista but now is generally believed to have been painted by Dosso himself because of the forms and the drapery, and the detail of the landscape, particularly the buildings in the upper right section.   The female figure has since been identified as being of Ariadne as noted in the lists of paintings by the influential scholar of the Italian Renaissance, the art historian Bernard Berenson.

The Three Ages of Man by Dosso Dossi (c.1515)

The Three Ages of Man by Dosso Dossi (c.1515)

One of Dossi’s most accomplished landscape works was completed around 1515.  It was entitled The Three Ages of Man.   This motif has been painted by many artists including Titian and Giorgione and depicts three pairs of males in three particular stages of their life, infant, youth and old age.  It is an allegorical concept of the cycle of life with depictions of the wonderment of the young child to the earthly pleasures of youth and finally the forlorn and Vanitas-like depiction of ageing men contemplating the end of life.  However there is some doubt whether the painting by Dossi falls into this allegorical category.  It is true there are three pairs of humans of differing ages but in each pairing there appears to be one male and one female.   Look at the two children.  They are connected to the “youthful” pair simply because they are spying on them as they enjoy the pleasures of youth.  He could well be a goat herder as accompanying the amorous couple are a number of goats also watching them intently.  The Italian biographer, historian and contemporary of Dossi, Paolo Givio, wrote that the artist’s works fell into two categories – the ones with serious subjects which he termed justis operibus and his landscape works which he termed parerga, which he says:

“…contain embellishments, intended to simply delight the eye and refresh the spirit without implying any more serious message…”

This painting by Dossi seems to fit into this second category

Much has been said about the ducal palace of Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara and the art that graced the walls of his palace.  In fact, by 1529, he had managed to create the most magnificent private art gallery of his time, including several masterpieces by Titian, hung as an ensemble. The Duke’s gallery, known as the camerino d’alabastro with its alabaster walls and gilded ceiling, contained the finest sculpture and paintings that money could buy. The power and wealth of Duke Alfonso allowed him to commission paintings from the most famous artists of the day. The elderly Giovanni Bellini completed the Feast of the Gods in 1514, which was the last painting he completed before he died. Sadly both Fra Bartolommeo and Raphael died before completing Alfonso’s commissions and so as we saw with the painting Bacchus and Ariadne the Duke turned to Titian who was still only thirty years old and though he was a student of Bellini he was still not famous.

Aeneas at the Entrance to the Elysian Fields by Dosso Dossi (c.1514)

Aeneas at the Entrance to the Elysian Fields by Dosso Dossi (c.1514)

In 1514 Alfonso commissioned Dossi to produce ten paintings for his Camerino d’Alabstro.  These works were to illustrate scenes from the twelve books of Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid and would be so hung, high up on the walls, so as to imitate a frieze.  The first painting I have featured from this set, which is part of the National Gallery of Canada collection, is entitled Aeneas in the Elysian Fields and it illustrates a scene from the sixth book of the Aeneid.   In the work of art, we see Aeneas in the far left of the painting with his plumed hat, carrying the golden bough, and accompanied by the Cumaean sibyl as they arrive at the Elysian Fields.

Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

The second of the three surviving paintings from the “frieze” is entitled Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast.  This work is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  The depiction is based on the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid which is all about the story of Aeneas, who after the fall of Troy and seven years wandering, founded a settlement on the Italian peninsula, establishing the Roman state. In Book 1, Aeneas and his faithful companion Achates, having only just started their journey, and are forced to take refuge on the Libyan coast after their ships are wrecked in a storm.

Dosso Dossi worked for the Dukes of Ferrara for almost three decades.  He died in 1542.  His brother Battista who had taken over the mantle of chief court painter to the Duke of Ferrara on his brother’s death, died six years later.

I will leave you with the words from a pre-exhibition write-up that accompanied the 1999 exhibition of Dossi’s works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“…In Orlando Furioso — the most widely read epic poem of the 16th century — Dosso is listed alongside Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian as one of the great figures of his age by the renowned Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto, who likely admired Dosso’s poetic and subtle — indeed enigmatic — representations of myth and allegory. Dosso’s paintings have long been appreciated as celebrations of pictorial freedom and artistic invention, characterized by a rich palette, brilliant contrasts of light and shadow, and by the enduring echoes of joyousness, wit, and sensual delight. With the devolution of the Ferrarese court into the papal states in 1598, virtually all of Dosso’s oil paintings were dispersed to collections in Rome and Modena, removing them from the elaborate context for which they were created…”

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Dosso Dossi. Part 1 – The Constabili Polyptych

In my last blog I looked at the lives of two American landscape artists, Marion and Elmer Wachtel and for many people outside of America these painters may have been completely unknown.  Today in my blog I want to introduce you to a great painter who may also be unfamiliar to many.  Today let me introduce you to the Italian High Renaissance painter Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri who became known as Dosso Dossi.

The Constabili Polyptych

The Constabili Polyptych

Dossi was born in St Giovanni del Dosso, which is a small village thirty kilometres south west of Mantua.  His actual birth date is something of a mystery with various historical documents and biographers disagreeing, albeit a consensus of opinions puts it at around 1487.  His early upbringing is also somewhat shrouded in mystery.  However we do know Dossi had a younger brother, Battista, who was also a painter but said to be not as talented as his older brother.  We also know that his father, Niccolò de Luteri, was a native of Trentino, an autonomous northern province of Italy, close to the Austro-Italian border.  His father was a member of the Ferrara court of Duke Ercole I d’Este the Duke of Ferrara and later, after his death in 1505, his son Duke Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara.  His role was that of a spenditore, a bursar or land agent for the court and it was the name of the Duke’s property, Villa Dossi, which lent its name to his two sons.

Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)

Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)

There is much conjecture about Dossi’s early training.  Giorgio Vasari believed Dossi studied under Lorenzo Costa in Ferrara whilst others say he studied in Venice.  Dossi’s seventeenth century biographer, the priest, poet and writer, Girolamo Bruffaldi, wrote in his 1704 book Vite de’ pittori e scultori ferraresi (Biogrpahy of Ferrara artists) that Dossi studied in Rome and Venice.   Records show that Dossi was working for the House of Gonzaga in Mantua in 1512 and two years later was working as a court painter in Ferrara at the court of Alfonso I d’Este, and later his son Ercole II d’Este.  As a court painter Dossi’s time would have been spent decorating the private residences of the Court with large frescoes and paintings, often detailing historical or mythological themes.  Court painters of the Renaissance, like Dossi, would have been asked to provide designs for elaborate tapestries and conjure up theatrical sets and backdrops.  There would have been many portraiture commissions to carry out featuring the Duke and his family as well as portraits of the family members of the wealthy courtiers.

In his early days at court Dossi was sent by the Duke to Venice, Florence and Mantua.  The Duke also sanctioned Dossi and his brother Battista to produce altarpieces and secular works for the local nobility and princely patrons, such as the Duke of Urbino and Cardinal Bernado Bles the prince-bishop of Trent.

Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

One of Dossi’s first tasks as a court painter was a collaboration with the painter, Benvenuto Tisi, known as il Garofalo.  Garofalo, who had been living in Rome, where he had once studied under Raphael, received an invitation to come to Ferrara and complete a commission from the Duke of Ferrara to decorate a small chapel.  On completion of the commission he was approached by Antonio Costabili to decorate an altarpiece.  Antonio Costabili was a Ferrarese soldier, nobleman and diplomat and prominent figure at the court of Alphonso I and was a leading patron of the arts.  The commission taken on by Garofalo and Dossi was the polyptych, which became known as the Costabili Polyptych.  It was for the high altar, which stood at the rear of the chancel, raised above the choir stalls of the Augustinian church of Sant’ Andrea in Ferrara, which was home to the Ordo Eremitarum Sancti Augustini, the order of the Augustinian Hermit monks.   This was an order of monks accepted into the Roman Catholic family by Pope Alexander IV in 1256.

The completion date of this magnificent work is contested by art historians but one clue as to the date is that Vasari wrote that the polyptych was completed prior to the death of Raphael and he died in 1520.  It should be remembered that Vasari, on two occasions, met with Garofalo in the 1540’s and therefore should have had accurate knowledge with regards the completion date of the altarpiece.  Others narrow down the completion date to around 1514.

Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara

Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara

The altarpiece is now housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara.  The paintings are still in the original altarpiece’s wooden frame but there has been much work on reconstructing it as it was badly damaged during World War II.  The altarpiece measures 31ft 6 inches high and 19 feet wide (9.6 x 5.8m).

Central Panel of the polyptych

Central Panel of the polyptych

The main central panel measures 174 inches x 96 inches (474 x 262cms) and features the Virgin Mary enthroned with the Christ Child.  Alongside her throne, on the right, is the infant Saint John the Baptist.

Angels and spiritelli

Angels and spiritelli

Above the throne, on either side there are angels and spiritelli.

John the Evangelist

John the Evangelist

On the steps below the throne sits John the Evangelist, cross-legged, pausing from his writing to look upwards towards the Virgin. On the floor besides him is a chalice.  The chalice is often associated with and symbolises John the Evangelist.  It alludes to John being put to the test by the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The high priest said to him:

“…If you want me to believe in your god, I will give you some poison to drink and, if it does not harm you, it means that your god is the true God…”

Saint John blessed the cup of poison, neutralizing it and was then able to drink the liquid.

Saint Jerome

Saint Jerome

In the right foreground of the central panel we have Saint Jerome holding an open book whilst his foot rests upon a skull.  In the left foreground of the central panel we have Saint Andrew, the titular head of the church, who holds a cross and points towards the Virgin.

The two side panels of the polyptych depict two further saints.  Saint George, the patron saint of Ferrara, is featured in the lower right side panel whilst Saint Sebastian, the popular saint who was looked upon as a protector of the people against the plague appears in the lower left side panel.

The Spandrels

The Spandrels

Above these side panels there are two spandrels.  A spandrel is the almost triangular space between the left or right exterior curve of an arch and the rectangular framework surrounding it.

Saint Augustine (right spandrel)

Saint Augustine (right spandrel)

Saint Augustine, the patron of the Augustinian order can be seen in the right spandrel dressed as a hermit in the robes of an Eremitani friar with his bishop’s mitre on the floor by his feet and Saint Ambrose appears in the left spandrel with a manuscript resting on his lap.  His demeanour is one of contemplation as one hand rests on his breast as he studies the text.  Both spandrels have in the background an oculus window through which comes the light which illuminates the two saints.

The pediment

The pediment

The resurrected Christ is displayed within the pediment at the top of the polyptych.

This is a truly remarkable work of art.  At first sight it would appear that the Saints that have been depicted were just a random selection but having read Dosso Dossi, Garofalo, and the Costabili Polyptych: Imaging Spiritual Authority by Giancarlo Fiorenza he believes they were chosen very carefully and he goes into great detail in his article about the reasoning.  The article appeared in The Art Bulletin Volume 82, No.2 (June 2000).  It was from this complex article that I got most of my facts about this work but I decided to steer clear of the theories about the inclusion of the saints and other symbolic aspects of the polytypch and will leave you to seek out the article if you want to delve further.

In my next blog I will look at more of Dossi’s paintings and look at one of a young man which is now believed to be a portrait of a famous young woman !

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Dosso Dossi, Garofalo, Italian artists, Renaissance Painters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mr and Mrs Wachtel and their Californian dreams

Elmer Wachtel

Elmer Wachtel

I often come into contact with American tourists who stay at my Bed & Breakfast and I always ask them where is the best place in America as far as climate is concerned and I nearly always get the same answer – the area around the coastal town of San Diego.  In my blog today I am looking at two landscape artists, husband and wife, who concentrated their work around the beautiful areas of Southern California.  Let me introduce you to Mr and Mrs Wachtel.

Spring Landscape by Elmer Wachtel

Spring Landscape by Elmer Wachtel

Elmer Wachtel was the older of this married couple, born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 21st 1864 but it was not until 1882, when he was eighteen years of age and had completed schooling, that he crossed country to live in California.  His new home was to be San Gabriel, California where his brother was foreman of the Rose Ranch.  He had married the sister of the artist Guy Rose.  Guy Rose was a student of John Bond Francisco who had settled in Los Angeles. Francisco had become a major cultural figure, performing as a violinist, painting, teaching and entertaining in his home and his studio on Albany Street. He combined his two great loves art and music and helped form the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra in 1897 and served as their first concertmaster.  Studying with Francisco, Elmer had found the ideal “fit” as he was interested in art and was also an exceptionally talented musician, having taught himself to play the violin.  In fact he was such a talented musician that he at one time was the first violinist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which was founded by William Andrews Clark, Jr., a millionaire and amateur musician.

Desert, River, Mountains by Elmer Wachtel

Desert, River, Mountains by Elmer Wachtel

It was not until 1894 that Elmer decided to enrol at an art establishment to learn more about drawing and painting and he moved back east to New York where he joined the Art Students League which had been founded in 1875 by a group of artists, both male and female.  They had all been students at the National Academy of Design in New York City.  Many of these aspiring artists decided to break away from the Academy citing the reason that the Academy’s art tuition was too conservative and unsympathetic to their new and modern ideas about art.  Whilst here, Wachtel studied under William Merritt Chase, the American painter and leading American exponent of Impressionism.

Valley Afternoon by Elmer Wachtel (c.1910)

Valley Afternoon by Elmer Wachtel (c.1910)

Elmer returned to California in 1896 and stayed at the San Francisco home of William Keith, the Scottish-American painter who was famous for his Californian landscapes and in fact was often referred to as the “Dean of California painters”.  Elmer Wachtel eventually left San Francisco and returned home to Los Angeles.  During this period, he supplemented his income as an artist and an art teacher and by playing his violin in a number of orchestras.

California had been opened up to folk from the East by the Santa Fe railroad in the late nineteenth century and many of these travellers from the East were artists who wanted to experience the beautiful Californian landscapes and the natural light which bathed these lands.  One such visitor was Marion Kavanaugh.

Marion Kavanagh Wachtel

Marion Kavanagh Wachtel

Marion Kavanaugh was born on June 10th 1876 in Milwaukee.  She came from an artistic background.  Her mother, Jean, was an accomplished and well respected artist and her great grand-father a Royal Academician.   She received the most thorough art education studying in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago under John Vanderpoel, the Dutch-American artist and teacher and was tutored in New York, like Elmer Wachtel, by William Merritt Chase.  Following the completion of her studies she taught art in some Chicago public schools and later attained a post as tutor at the Art Institute of Chicago where she taught for two years but life in the classroom was not for Marion.  Slowly she built up a reputation as a portraitist and an accomplished painter of child portraits.  Marion Kavanaugh had now built up a reputation as one of America’s great watercolourist and her skill as a landscape artist and tonalist was much admired.  Tonalism is a style of painting in which landscapes are depicted in soft light and shadows, often as if through a coloured or misty veil.

Foothill Eucalyptus Landscape by Marion Wachtel

Foothill Eucalyptus Landscape by Marion Wachtel

In 1903, Marion received a commission from one of the vice presidents of the Santa Fe Railroad to paint murals of Western landscapes for the company’s San Francisco ticket offices, in return he offered free passage to California on one of the company’s trains .  To achieve that commission she travelled west and visited many sites all the time making sketches along the way which she found would be conducive for her commission.  She stopped off at New Mexico, Arizona and California. Whilst in California she called in at the Cooper Ranch in Santa Barbara where she stayed for several months as a guest of the owner, the entrepreneur and agriculturist, Ellwood Cooper.  Cooper commissioned her to paint some landscape scenes around his ranch.  It was during this commission that she began to paint the eucalyptus trees which were found close by and it was these beautiful trees that were to appear in many of her works of art.

Brook in Sierra Landscape by Marion Kavanagh Wachtel

Brook in Sierra Landscape by Marion Kavanagh Wachtel

Many of the paintings she completed for Ellwood Cooper were exhibited and they won critical acclaim.  One person who viewed her work was none other than William Keith.  Some believe that Marion Kavanaugh worked for a short time with him and that he suggested she visited Elmer Wachtel in Los Angeles and studiywith him.  She agreed to the suggestion and so in 1903 Marion Kavanaugh and Elmer Wachtel met for the first time.  Even though the circumstances of their first meeting may be just conjecture, what is certain is that there was a definite chemistry between the two artists for one year later in 1904, forty-year old Elmer Wachtel and twenty-eight year old Marion Kavanaugh married in Chicago.   After her marriage to Elmer, Marion took his name but also added her maiden name after dropping the “u” from it and became known as Marion Kavanagh Wachtel.  The couple returned to California and settled down in the Mount Washington area, close to Pasadena where they built themselves a home and a studio.  The couple lived in the Mount Washington area of Los Angeles until 1921.  They then moved to the Arroyo Seco area close to Pasadena.

Monterey Coast by Marion Kavanagh Wachtel

Monterey Coast by Marion Kavanagh Wachtel

They spent almost twenty-five years travelling around together painting, en plein air, the various landscapes in the south west of the United States. Often they would be seen painting and sketching the awe inspiring Southern California landscape and they travelled great distances to capture the views and light conditions which they translated into spectacular paintings.  They traversed and painted the coastline between Gaviota and Conception Lighthouse (just north of Santa Barbara, California), the Cooper Ranch (north of Santa Barbara), Matilija Canyon and Ojai, California. They would head further south to the San Luis Rey River and the Cerisa Loma Ranch which was close to San Diego and in 1908 they hiked their way across the arid deserts of Arizona and New Mexico availing themselves of the opportunity to capture on canvas the historic pueblo villages on the Moki and Navajo reservations.

Lake Mary, Sierra Nevada by Marion Kavanagh Wachtel

Lake Mary, Sierra Nevada by Marion Kavanagh Wachtel

Marion worked in watercolours unlike her husband who worked in the medium of oils.  She was a member of many art societies such as the American Watercolour Society and the California Watercolour Society and on two occasions in the 1920’s Marion Kavanagh Wachtel was granted one-woman exhibitions at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art.

Their happy marriage came to an abrupt end in August 1929 when Elmer Wachtel died, aged 65, while on a Mexican painting trip in GuadalajaraFollowing her husband’s death, Marion gave up painting  and exhibiting for a number of years.  When she returned to her beloved art, besides using her favourite painting medium, watercolours, she began to dabble in oils, the favourite medium of her late husband.  She exhibited her works on both coasts of America and became a very popular and revered landscape artist.

Marion Kavanagh Wachtel died at her home in Pasadena on May 22nd 1954.

Posted in American artists, Elmer Wachtel, Landscape paintings, Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, Marion Kavanaugh | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Henry Herbert La Thangue – the pictorial documenter of rural life

Henry Herbert La Thangue  (photo c.1893)

Henry Herbert La Thangue
(photo c.1893)

A few blogs ago I looked at the life and works of George Clausen and termed his art as rustic realism and today I want to delve into the life and the art work of another such painter, the English realist rural landscape artist Henry Herbert  La Thangue.

Henry Herbert La Thangue was born in Croydon, Surrey on January 19th 1859. He attended the renowned public school, Dulwich College, where two of his contemporary school friends were fellow aspiring artists Stanhope Forbes and Frederick Goodall. He enrolled briefly at the Lambeth School of Art in 1873 before enrolling on a five year course at the Royal Academy schools in 1874. The culmination of his studies at the Academy came in December 1879 when he won a gold medal for his work as well as a three year travelling scholarship to study in Paris at the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  It was during this time, whilst staying in the French capital, that he became influenced by the works of Whistler and the many paintings he saw at the Salon by artists who favoured rustic naturalism. He was also influenced by the landscape works of the en plein air artists of the Barbizon school. So how did the Barbizon School come into being ?

The Last Furrow by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1895)

The Last Furrow by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1895)

As far as the French Academy was concerned aspiring artists should be taught in the Neoclassical tradition and copy the style of the painters of the Renaissance and Classical era.  Landscape art was not looked upon as an important genre unless the landscape , usually an idealized version, was combined with some historical connotation.  In 1816 the Academy even encouraged this genre by introducing a Prix de Rome in paysage historique (landscapes with a historical nuance), the winner of which would travel to Rome to live and paint at the Villa Medici.  By making this award the Academy had hoped to encourage artists to paint not just landscapes but by adding the historical aspect to the work it would ensure history painting would not die.  It actually had the opposite effect as many artists turned to simple landscape work and this desire was further enhanced when in 1824 John Constable’s landscape works were exhibited at that year’s Salon.

The Plough Boy by Henry Herbert La Thangue (c.1900)

The Plough Boy by Henry Herbert La Thangue (c.1900)

In the warm summer months artists would leave the French capital and move to the tranquillity of the Parisian countryside around the Forest of Fontainebleau with its dense forest and meadowlands.  Small hamlets were situated around the periphery of the forest which made ideal stopping-off places for the artists and one such hamlet was Barbizon which proved to be the ideal temporary home for many landscape painters, such as Théodore Rousseau and Constant Troyon, who had rejected the Academic tradition of historical landscape painting and embraced a more realistic representation of the countryside and life in the country.  Later in the 1840’s, artists such as Jean-François Millet and Charles-François Daubigny came to Barbizon.

The Boat Builder's Yard by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1881)

The Boat Builder’s Yard by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1881)

In 1881 after completing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, La Thangue travelled to Brittany, another popular region with landscape painters, and worked alongside the English landscape painter, Stanhope Forbes.  Whilst here, he met the renowned master of rustic realism, Jules Bastien-Lepage.  That year, he visited the small coastal commune of Concale, east of St Malo and completed his painting entitled The Boat Builder’s Yard. He remained in Brittany until mid 1882 and the following year he travelled south to the Rhone Valley commune of Donzère with his friend, the sculptor James Havard Thomas.

Resting after the game, Kate La Thangue by Henry Herbert La Thangue

Resting after the game, Kate La Thangue by Henry Herbert La Thangue

When he returned to England in 1884, La Thangue first lived at South Walsham on the edge of the Norfolk Broads before moving to Rye in East Sussex for a brief time in 1885.   This was an eventful period in La Thangue’s life for in 1885 he married the actress, Kate Rietiker.  It was also at this juncture in his life that he became interested in politics surrounding art and art establishments.  La Thangue was a radical thinker and believed fervently that the Royal Academy had to change.  La Thangue proposed that it should be a more democratic society open to all and based on the principles of ‘universal suffrage’  Much was written about his views in the press but ultimately nothing changed.  La Thangue remained unhappy with the administration of the hallowed society and so he, along with a number of his like-minded contemporaries, having failed in their attempt to revolutionise the establishment, founded the New English Art Club in London in 1885 as an alternate venue to the Royal Academy

Portrait of the Artist's Wife by Henry Herbert La Thangue

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife by Henry Herbert La Thangue

In 1886, despite his misgivings surrounding the Royal Academy, he continued to exhibit works at the art establishment.  The Royal Academy was not the sole outlet for his works as the paintings were also exhibited Royal Society of British Artists and the Grosvenor Gallery, which had opened in 1877 by Sir Coutts Lindsay, and was a welcoming home for those painters, such as Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Crane, whose works the more conservative Royal Academy shunned.  His paintings could also be seen at the New Gallery which was founded in Regent Street in 1888 by Comyns Carr and Charles Edward Hallé who had once been co-directors of the Grosvenor Gallery but because of all the Grovesnor Gallery problems, had resigned and set up this new gallery.  The New Gallery was also a home for the works of the Pre-Raphaelite and  Aesthetic movement artists and artists such as Lawrence Tadema-Alma, William Holman Hunt, Lord Leighton and George Frederic Watts exhibited works at this establishment.  La Thangue also exhibited at the Royal Institute of Painters which he had joined in 1883.

The Return of the Reapers by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1886)

The Return of the Reapers by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1886)

In the summer of 1886, La Thangue  moved home to the Norfolk countryside and the small fenland village of South Walsham.  During these years La Thangue produced head studies of farm hands and fisherfolk and it was whilst living here that he completed his landscape painting entitled Return of the Reapers.  This was a typical example of La Thangue’s rustic realism style.  La Thangue was probably influenced by the works of the French artists Jules Bastien-Lepage and Gustave Courbet and the en plein air works of the French Impressionists.

Study of a Boy with a Black Hat, before a Cornfield by Henry Herbert La Thangue

Five years later La Thangue left Norfolk and moved home south to the neighbouring county of Suffolk and the coastal village of Bosham just a few miles from the town of Chichester.  He carried on painting rural scenes, often large-scale works, with their realism connotations.

I

The Man with the Scythe by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1896)

The Man with the Scythe by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1896)

n 1896 he completed a work The Man with the Scythe, which is now housed in the Tate Britain gallery in London.  This proved to be a controversial work.  At first glance one ponders as to the reasoning behind the title.  However, look closely and in the background you can make out a man carrying a scythe but this is not just a country scene with a man off to work in the fields whilst the mother tends her daughter.  This is a more solemn and symbolic piece,  as what we are witnessing is a mother horrified to discover that her young daughter has died,.  At the very instant of her tragic discovery a man arrives at the gate carrying a scythe, which is one of the traditional symbols of death, often referred to as the ‘grim reaper’.    This tragic and somewhat melodramatic depiction by La Thangue was a definite change in his subject matter and may have been influenced by the pair of paintings by Frank Holl in 1877 entitled Hush and Hushed (See My Daily Art Display Feb 9th 2012)

The March Month by Henry Herbert La Thangue

The March Month by Henry Herbert La Thangue

His English base from 1898 and into the early 1900’s was in the West Sussex village of Graffham.  His painting motifs still concentrated on rural life.  His works, depicting both arable and livestock farming, documented life in the fields from the harrow and the harvest, to  animal husbandry and fruit growing.  He was always searching for the perfect portrayal of the countryside and countryside practices during the different seasons.  In his painting entitled The March, completed around 1900,  he depicted the orchard near his house which was also used as nursery areas during lambing time.   We see the farmer scattering turnips from his cart which would feed the sheep and fatten up the lambs.  It could be that this depiction by La Thangue was influenced by the famous novelist and gentleman-farmer Rider Haggard, a contemporary of the artist, for in his 1899 book A Farmer’s Year  he talked about fattening lambs:

“….’The flock is being penned at night on the three-acre [field] with a view to improving the bottom of his young pasture which has grown somewhat thin. In the daytime they run out to one or other of the meadows, where root is thrown to them, and every night they are shut in a new fold on the three-acre and receive a ration of corn, hay and beet…”

Selling Chickens in Liguria by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1906)

Selling Chickens in Liguria by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1906)

At the turn of the century La Thangue became more and more interested with the work of the French Impressionist painters and their fascination with light and in 1901 he travelled to Provence.  From 1903 to 1911 he spent much of his time in the Italian region of Liguria building up a large collection of work. Despite La Thangue’s earlier outspoken criticism of the Royal Academy he became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1898 and became a full Member in 1912.

Violets for Perfume by Henry Herbert La Thangue (ca. 1913)

Violets for Perfume by Henry Herbert La Thangue (ca. 1913)

His diploma work for the Royal Academy was one entitled Violets for Perfume.  The notable English artist, George Clausen (see My Daly Art Display May 30th & June 8th 2015) wrote about La Thangue’s work:

“…Sunlight was the thing that attracted him: this and some simple motive of rural occupation, enhanced by a picturesque surround…”

This work stemmed from his time in Provence and depicts a woman tipping a basket of freshly picked violets onto a muslin sheet in preparation for perfume making. All through his artistic career La Thangue developed his subject matter from labourers working in fields, vineyards and orchards. The depiction of the lady working in this work highlighted the back-to-basic work practice.  Gone was the mechanised practice of harvesting which La Thangue disliked and which he saw creeping into the rural life of England, destroying the old-fashioned rural practices which he had so loved to paint.

A Mountain Frontier by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1910)

A Mountain Frontier by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1910)

In 1914, just prior to the beginning of the Great War, the Leicester Galleries in London  staged a one-man exhibition of La Thangue’s southern European landscape works,  which concentrated on his paintings completed whilst he was in Provence and Liguria.  One of the works exhibited was entitled A Mountain Frontier which La Thangue completed around 1910.  The exhibition was a great success and praised by the critics.  The artist William Sickert wrote about La Thangue’s skill as a painter in the May 1914 issue of the British literary magazine The New Age stating:

“…What renders La Thangue’s work particularly interesting is that while using the language of the day in painting, that is to say an opaque mosaic for recording objective sensations about visible nature, he is using it in a personal manner…”

Sickert went on to write that La Thangue, through his talent at developing relations of colour with a warm colour at the base,  was able to build on it a series a series of beautiful and interesting sensations of nature which is what he,  and not somebody else, had to say.

A Ligurian Bay by Henry Herbert La Thangue

A Ligurian Bay by Henry Herbert La Thangue

In the 1920’s after the Great War had ended La Thangue returned to Liguria and the motif of his paintings changed from the arable land of the English countryside to the sunlit orange groves and gardens of Italy.  La Thangue spent those days in southern Europe painting en plein air directly on to large canvases.  This belief is based on the fact that very few smaller versions of his paintings or sketches exist.

Wreck of the S.S. Manuka December 16th 1929

Wreck of the S.S. Manuka December 16th 1929

Henry Herbert La Thangue died on December 21st 1929, just a few weeks before his seventy-first birthday.  Less than a week before his death La Thangue had been devastated and depressed when he was given the news that a vessel, the S.S. Manuka, during a voyage from Melbourne/Bluff/Dunedin was wrecked on Nugget Point near Long Point, South Otago.  Part of the cargo on the vessel was two of La Thangue’s paintings.  La Thangue was never to know, that five days after his death, the paintings were recovered and said to have been in “reasonable condition”.

 His wife Kate died in 1941.

Posted in English artist, Henry Herbert La Thangue, Landscape paintings, Ruralism, Rustic naturalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Peder Balke. Part 2 – The great Norwegian journey and disillusionment

Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl  (1827)

Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl (1827)

Balke returned to Christiania in 1830 and stayed with Professor Rathke and in that May travelled to Copenhagen and was fortunate to be able to view royal collections of art.  Of all the works he saw, Balke was most impressed by a winter landscape painted by Johan Christian Dahl, entitled Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, which he completed in 1827.  The large (173 x 205cms) work of art depicts a somewhat oppressive atmosphere with its undertones of death, symbolised by the dolmen behind the lifeless branches of the two oak trees. A dolmen is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of two or more upright stones supporting a large flat horizontal capstone.  Nature is depicted in the form of its icy winter garb.  He wrote of the painting to Rathke saying that it was the most life-like painting he had ever seen.  The fact that he had managed to see the works of the great Masters at the royal collection, although influencing him, also depressed him somewhat as to his own ability.  He wrote:

“…I sometimes felt a certain heaviness of heart and lack of courage when I compared my own insignificance with these true masterpieces; quietly and I admit somewhat superficially I calculated how much I would have to learn and how many ordeals I would have to go through before I would be able to achieve a mere fraction of the perfection in aptitude and skill in execution exuded by these paintings…”

North Cape by Peder Balke (1945)

North Cape by Peder Balke (1945)

Balke was determined to succeed and in the summer of 1830 having returned to Norway from Copenhagen he set off on foot on an artistic journey through the Telemark region and over the mountains to western Norway and then north to Bergen returning to Christiania via the Naeroydalen valley and the town of Gudvangen.  He later recalled his short time spent in the area around Gudvangen, writing:

“.. I first arrived late at night, because I became so engrossed in admiring the sublime beauty of Naeroydalen that I hardly knew whether what surrounded me was real or supernatural.  So fascinating and uplifting did my youthful imagination, with its passion for the beauties of nature….”

From North Cape by Peder Balke (c.1860's)

From North Cape by Peder Balke (c.1860’s)

Two years later, in April 1832, Balke set off another artistic journey.  This time, setting off in his own carriage he went to Trondheim where he was to catch a boat to the north of the country.  His planned journey hit a snag when he arrived late in Trondheim and missed the boat.  He had to wait a further seven weeks for the next boat but spent the time sketching the town and the surrounding areas.  Peder Balke finally embarked on his northbound boat trip, passing the Lofoten Islands and arrived at Tromso.  From there the boat went further north to Hammerfest and then proceeded around the North Cape to Vardø and Vadsø.  He was the first Norwegian painter to record the harsh beauty of the northern landscape.  Eventually Balke and the boat returned to Trondheim.  During the long journey Balke had completed a large collection of sketches of the places he had seen and many were used in his many seascape and moonscape works of art which he worked on when he returned to Stockholm.  He sold many of his paintings to wealthy Norwegians and Swedes as well as members of the royal family.  In 1834, now, financially secure, Peder married Karen Eriksdatter, the woman he had been secretly engaged to for several years, but had been too poor to marry.

The Severn Sisters by Peder Balke (1847)

The Severn Sisters by Peder Balke (1847)

The couple settled in Christiania and Balke, now accepted, not simply as a decorator but as a landscape artist, tried to establish himself and sell his artworks.  However competition at the time was too great and the sales he had hoped for never materialised.  However, in 1835, he managed to sell another of his works to the king and with that money he decided on fulfilling his dream of travelling to Dresden and work with the Norwegian artist, J C Dahl.   Many Norwegian artists had trodden this path, including Thomas Fearnley (see My Daily Art Display November 24th & 28th 2012).  With help from a friend, Balke set off for Germany and reached Berlin in the winter of that year.  He remained in Berlin for several weeks and was able to visit the Royal Museum and whilst in the German city he saw paintings by the German romantic landscape painter, Casper David Friedrich.  It was this artist who was going to have a great and lasting influence on Balke.

Ship in Breaking Waves by Peder Balke (c.1849)

Ship in Breaking Waves by Peder Balke (c.1849)

Balke left Berlin and travelled to Dresden via Leipzig.  He received a great welcome from Johan Dahl who helped him find accommodation.  J C Dahl introduced Balke to Casper David Friedrich and Balke was able to watch the two great artists at work.  In a letter to Rathke, dated March 29th 1836, he wrote about watching J C Dahl at work:

“..to see Dahl paint, I know with which colours and have seen how he uses them, and though I at present cannot proceed successfully in the same manner I hope that with time I will also reap the benefit.  What I regret most is my lack of studies from nature.  Dahl certainly has several thousands of them, of all kinds.  He has told me there is no other way to become a real painter than by painting from nature, which admittedly has been my intention, and I shall now try to see whether I can make up for what I have hitherto neglected, in Norway, though not in Germany – there is no nature here…”

Sami with Reindeer Under the Midnight Sun by Peder Balke, (c.1850)

Sami with Reindeer Under the Midnight Sun by Peder Balke, (c.1850)

Balke left Dresden but returned in the 1840’s to work once again with J C Dahl.  Landscape art was popular in Norway and Balke managed to sell many of his works but things were to change when a number of young Norwegian landscape artists having returned from studying at the Dusseldorf Academy, which at the time was looked upon as the most modern art-educational institute.  The teaching of landscape art was more to do with what was termed “cautious Realism” rather than Balke’s Romantic landscapes which suddenly became less fashionable.  He had to endure much criticism with regards his work which had once been loved by his people.  In an article in a 1944 edition of Morgenbladet, the eminent art critic Emil Tidemand scathingly wrote about Balke’s paintings:

“… There is no question here of a grandiose, poetic perception: no not even the simplest technical demands of drawing, perspective, clarity, strength and depth of colour have been met……………….This is not a representation of nature – his whole production is merely the mark of a dirty palette handled without discrimination…”

Old Trees by Peder Balke (c.1849)

Old Trees by Peder Balke (c.1849)

Maybe it was the vitriolic criticism which made Balke realise that there would be no hope of becoming financially secure through his art sales in Norway and so in 1844 he, along with his pregnant wife and three young children, left their homeland and travelled to Paris via Copenhagen and Germany  There was also another reason to visit Paris and this was that Balke was well aware that the country’s ruler Louis-Philippe had, as a young prince in exile in 1795, travelled along the Norwegian coast from Trondheim to the North Cape just as he had done.  As Balke did not speak French he asked a friend to write a letter on his behalf to the king in which he reminded the king of his exile and his Norwegian journey and that his nine sketches of the area would remind the king of that journey.  Louis-Philippe was intrigued and summoned Balke to the palace.  Balke and the king immediately became close and the two would meet regularly and reminisce about their travels to the North Cape

A View of the Sarpsfoss Waterfalls, Norway by Peder Balke (c.1859)

A View of the Sarpsfoss Waterfalls, Norway by Peder Balke (c.1859)

Louis-Philippe commissioned a set of paintings derived from the sketches.  Balke’s financial future seemed to have been rescued and he set to work on the commission.  Alas fate was to take a hand in the form of the February Revolution of 1848 which saw the downfall of Louis-Philippe.  Balke realising the dangers of being close to the unpopular ruler decided in late 1847 that he and his family would have to hurriedly leave Paris which meant he had to abandon, what was to have been a very lucrative commission.  Balke moved back to Dresden.  Shortly after his arrival in the German city in 1848 his young son Johann died.  His death came around the same time that his wife gave birth to their daughter Frederikke.  Sales of his art in Dresden were hard to come by and so he decided to leave his family with a friend and head back to Christiania.  He managed to sell some of his work, one of which was The North Cape by Moonlight but still the Norwegian people favoured the Dusseldorf School of landscape painting and so Balke returned to his family in Dresden.  In the Spring of 1849 he and his family moved to London where Balke believed his art would be more appreciated.  London had fallen under the spell of Joseph Mallord William Turner and his marine paintings and so Balke believed his works of art would do well.  He was proved right and managed to sell more of his works of art.

Balkeby  1860-70

Balkeby
1860-70

In the autumn of 1850 Balke and his family moved back to Christiania.  In 1855 his good friend and benefactor Professor Rathke died and left Balke a sizeable amount of money which Balke used to buy eight acres of land just outside the city limits at a place known as Vestre Aker.  He virtually abandoned his career as an artist of large scale landscape works, concentrating on small scale paintings which he believed would be bought by the middle class.  He now concentrated on his property portfolio and in particular the development of housing for workers in his newly attained property in the suburb of Balkeby, He dabbled in local politics championing the cause of pensions for men and women, and also of grants for artists. His painting was now just a hobby and for his own pleasure.

The Old Bridge by Peder Balke (c.1869)

The Old Bridge by Peder Balke (c.1869)

Balke, as you may realise, was an unlucky man and more bad luck came in June 1879 when his beloved Balkeby went up in flames.  Nearly every house, including his own, was burnt to the ground.  Four years later Balke suffered a stroke, and he died in Christiania on February 15th 1887 aged 82.  The obituaries that followed after his death were all about his political work and little was said about Balke the artist.  Maybe his penchant for ignoring criticism and sticking to what he believed in was apparent in the obituary which appeared in the magazine Verdens Gang in March 1887.  It emphasised Balke’s pugnacity:

“…Fearless and straightforward as he was, it would never occur to him to defer to people in an argument.  He considered only the matter in hand and did not bother in the least about who was for or against him.  This does not always result in popularity…”

I can recommend an excellent book about the artist and his work entitled Paintings by Peder Balke, from which I derived most of my information about this Norwegian painter.

Posted in Art, Art History, Landscape paintings, Moonlight paintings, Norwegian painters, Peder Balke, Seascape | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Peder Balke. Part 1 – His early life and struggles to become a painter

Peder Balke (1804-1887)

Peder Balke
(1804-1887)

I suppose if you are a landscape or seascape artist it is ideal to be living amongst glorious scenery or rugged coastlines which inspire you to paint and is much better than having to move to an artist colony in some idyllic area to find inspiration.   The artist I am featuring today was fortunate enough to come from a country of amazing natural beauty which he often depicted in his works of art.  Today let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Norwegian painter, Peder Balke, who specialised in landscape and seascape paintings with a romantic and dramatic connotation.

Peder Balke was the younger son of Anders Thoresen and Pernille Pedersdatter and born August 28th 1804.  He was christened Peder Andersen on November 4th.  Information about his early years was given by Balke in a dictated version of his life story, seventy years later.  He reminisced:

“… I was born on the island of Helgøya, in Nes in the country of Hedmark on 4 November 1804 in poverty, my situation in life being therefore less than enviable.  Yet the nearly influence of an affectionate and conscientious mother with constant good advice and exemplary admonitions was of the greatest benefit to my youthful and perhaps exceptionally lively temperament – for it is in these years of one’s development that the seeds are sown of both good and evil, though only later in life does one value their significance correctly…”

Christiania Viewed from Ekeberg by Peder Balke (c.1829)

Christiania Viewed from Ekeberg by Peder Balke (c.1829)

He did not have an easy start to life his family being part of the lowest ranks of the peasant society.  His parents were simple farm labourers working on a farm called Svennerud on the island of Helgøya, which lies in the middle of Lake Mjøsa, , some 60 kilometres north of Christiania (now Oslo)  and is Norway’s largest and one of the deepest lakes in the country.  The family owned nothing.  They had no lands to grow their own crops.  They were simply impoverished land-less servants of the farmer.   The family predicament was one his father could not tolerate and when Peder was young, he abandoned the family and is never mentioned in his son’s dictated autobiography.  In 1812, when Peder was eight years old, because Norway and Denmark were in an alliance with France, their ports were blockaded by the British, as part of Britain’s war against Napoleon.  This prevented much needed corn from entering the country and this, along with a severe and early frost of 1812 which destroyed the Norwegian corn harvest, meant that for the next two years the country suffered a terrible famine.  This severe time was remembered well by Balke who wrote:

“….wretched times, when war and years of hardship oppressed people and it goes without saying that this suffering and national scourge affected the poor most severely.  My mother, who had to look after herself and two children- for I had a brother who was seven years older than me ……like so many others we had therefore to resort to substitutes which are less easy for humans to digest, and I and my brother went into the forest to remove bark from the trees, which was dried and ground and Mother baked bread with it.  It goes without saying that food of this kind resulted in disease such as dysentery etc…”

The Mountain Range 'Trolltindene' by Peder Balke (c.1845)

The Mountain Range ‘Trolltindene’ by Peder Balke (c.1845)

Being from such a peasant class there was no possibility of schooling for Balke but his mother taught him to read and write.  When he was old enough he would try to earn some money for the family by helping out on the neighbourhood farms, but pay was poor, and he would also go fishing to bring food to the table.

It was thought Peder’s maternal grandfather was an painter/decorator and that was the first influence on him.  Another relative, Anders Skraedderstuen, who had a nearby smallholding was also a painter and took on seventeen year old Peder as an apprentice for two years.  Peder was employed to paint but also learn the skills involved in fine interior decorations.  There was always work for him as the farm owners were becoming richer and building themselves large homes which they needed decorating.  Peder travelled extensively from farm to farm to carry out commissions.  One such farm was the Vestre Balke farm at Toten which was owned by Anders Balke.  The Balke family took to Peder and soon he was not just looked upon as a workman but as a son.  This close tie pleased Peder and it was at this time that he changed his surname to Balke.  Although now living with his “new family” he always remembered to go back and visit his mother and help her out financially.

Landscape with Mill and Rapids by Peder Balke (1840)

Landscape with Mill and Rapids by Peder Balke (1840)

In winter there were no commissions to be had so it was then that Balke travelled to Christiania to buy paints, stencils and the latest in ornaments ready for the following summer.  At this time there was no place in the capital where Balke could study art but he did manage to find rooms in a house owned by Ole Nielsen in Gudbrandsdalen.  Nielsen was a talented painter and over a period of seven months he taught Balke the fundamentals of drawing and painting.  Balke recalled the time later in his autobiographical notes:

“…From this kind man I received many tips hitherto unknown to me that had an appreciable effect on my later evolution in the profession of painter…”

Moonlight on the Coast at Steigen by Peder Balke (1842)

Moonlight on the Coast at Steigen by Peder Balke (1842)

Life and business were good for Peder Balke, so much so, he employed several apprentices but as in life itself there were always ups and downs and the “down” at this time was the threat of military service.  Balke did not want anything to do with this and tried all sorts of ploys to get himself out of fighting for his country.  His eventual get-out was by becoming a qualified craftsman and seeking citizenship in Christiania.  So, in 1826, aged twenty-two, Balke left Toten and moved to the capital and was accepted as a journeyman by the Lubeck-born painter and engraver, Heinrich August Grosch and studied to become a master painter of the town, thus acquiring citizenship and best of all, be exempt from military service providing he completed his two year course to the satisfaction of Grosch.   Balke tired of working for Grosch switched to working for Jens Funch.  In 1827, with the money he had saved, he enrolled in an elementary drawing class at the Royal School of Drawing and received tuition at the Kongelige Tegneskole from the former military officer and painter Captain Jacob Munch, who was pleased with Balke’s progress.  With his savings almost gone, Balke returned to Toten and asked his benefactor Anders Balke for some financial help.  Anders and two other farm owners decide to financially back Balke, in the form of a letter of guarantee for a sum of money which Balke needed to continue his studies and in return he promised to decorate their farm buildings.

Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl  (1827)

Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl (1827)

Balke returned to Christiania and with the letter of guarantee met with Professor Jens Rathke a renowned natural scientist and professor at the university who was well known for his generosity.  He agreed to take the letter of guarantee and lend Balke the funds he needed.   Balke was to late recall that he was never asked to repay the sum he had borrowed and commented on Rathke’s invaluable support:

“… For that as well as for all the other kindnesses that man bestowed on me I have always been and always will be grateful to him…”

Jens Rathke also persuaded Balke to take a trip around large parts of central Norway in order to study nature.  Balke first toured the Telemark area in the south east of the country an area which he later recalled had awakened his profound interest in Norway’s wonderful natural life, and the astonishing beauty it reveals in all directions.  Later he explored central Norway and the Gudbransdalen Valley.  He continually recorded his travels with a large number of sketches which he would later combine in his paintings.

Seascape by Peder Balke (c.1860)

Seascape by Peder Balke (c.1860)

In 1829, military service still loomed large as Balke had not managed to qualify as a painter-decorator within the prescribed two year period.  His only course of action to avoid military service was to try and enrol at an academy and study landscape painting.  Rathke advised Balke to apply to the Stockholm Academy and agreed to finance Balke’s application.  Balke studied for a short time under the Swedish landscape painter, Carl Johan Fahlcrantz.  Whilst in Stockholm Balke visited the summer residence of the country’s ruler Karl Johnan in Djurgärden where he viewed the king’s art collection and was much enamoured by a painting by the German landscape painter, Johan Christian Ezdorf.  Ezdorf, who was also a student of Fahlcrantz, had a great love for the Nordic scenery and often depicted it in his works of art.

Balke was enjoying life in Stockholm and in his memoirs he wrote:

“…I used the time to pay frequent visits to the city’s art academy and art galleries, as well as a number of private collections of paintings where I was made welcome, and I also executed some small paintings which I had the satisfaction of selling…”

In my next blog I will continue to look at the life and works of Peder Balke and examine the reasons why he gave up being a professional artist in favour of politics.

I can recommend an excellent book about the artist and his work entitled Paintings by Peder Balke, from which I derived most of my information about this Norwegian painter.

 

Posted in Art Blog, Art display, Art History, Landscape paintings, Moonlight paintings, Norwegian painters, Peder Balke, Seascape | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sir George Clausen. Part 2 – More rural works and the War artist

Sir George Clausen       1852 - 1944

Sir George Clausen
1852 – 1944

In this concluding part looking at the life and works of George Clausen, later Sir George Clausen, I will focus on his love of depicting workers labouring in the fields in a genre of art which was often referred to as rustic naturalism and have a look at a couple of works he completed whilst he was employed as a war artist.

Agnes Mary Webster by George Clausen (1882)

Agnes Mary Webster by George Clausen (1882)

In 1881 George Clausen married Agnes Mary Webster of Kings Lynn and they went on to have three sons and a daughter.  Clausen had met her brother, Alfred, at South Kensington Art School where he was also studying art.  The following year Clausen painted his wife’s portrait.

Henry La Thangue, an English landscape painter, who had visited Brittany to paint and was a friend of Stanhope Forbes, another landscape artist, persuaded Clausen to take a trip there to discover the countryside and light the French area had to offer.  And so, in 1882, Clausen sett off for Brittany with his wife and visited the artist colony at Quimperlé, a small town, fifteen kilometres east of the other popular haven for artist, Pont Aven.   Here they met up with the Dublin-born artist, Stanhope Forbes who, two years later, moved to Newlyn in Cornwall and became a leading figure in that growing colony of artists.  Stanhope Forbes was excited that Clausen was to join him at Quimperlé writing to his mother in September 1882:

“…Thangue tells me he is sending G.Clausen the painter and his wife.  Very glad as he is a really good painter in fact belongs to the sacred band whom even I admire…”

 It was whilst here that Clausen produced a number of wonderful paintings depicting local peasant farm workers and their families.

Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé by George Clausen (1882)

Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé by George Clausen (1882)

One such work was entitled Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé which he completed in 1882.  This is a portrait of a young girl seen standing in a field, hand on hip, holding an earthenware pot.  She is dressed in a peasant costume, the quality of which indicates that she is from a family of limited means.  She is surrounded by tall spherical flowering onion plants. It is interesting to look closely at the way Clausen has depicted the pose of the young girl.   This is not the pose of a professional model.  This is a peasant girl displaying the uncomfortable pose of a young child, which makes the image of her appear so realistic.  There is no harshness about the way Clausen has depicted her facial expression.  It is a face that exudes gentleness.  What must be going through the child’s mind as she poses for this foreigner, the artist?

The Return to the Fields by George Clausen (1882)

The Return to the Fields by George Clausen (1882)

The next featured work of Clausen is a small watercolour (35 x 26 cms) which he again completed in 1882.   The painting, entitled The Return from the Fields depicts two young workers carrying bundles of brushwood which had been obtained by thinning out the copses.  This brushwood was used for hedging, or as beating implements used for fire fighting or sometimes used to construct sheep hurdles.  That year, the painting was exhibited at Institute of Painters in Watercolours, in London, under the title of Boy and Man and the art reviewer of the Magazine of Art commented favourably on the work:

“… the most artistic work on the walls……a small drawing, but it is so strong, and at the same time so tender and full of feeling, that it arrests attention more powerfully than the other pictures together.  It is evidently inspired by Millet…….he has struck the right road…”

Head of a Peasant Woman by George Clausen (1882)

Head of a Peasant Woman by George Clausen (1882)

Clausen painted two close-up portraits of peasant labourers.  The first was entitled Head of a Peasant Woman which he completed in 1882.   This is a wonderful portrait.  It is a triumph of realism as Clausen has depicted the woman, “warts and all”.  We see her weather beaten face caused by the many days and weeks of working the fields and her wrinkled bow is testament that she has endured a hard and worrisome life.  She doesn’t look directly at us as she rests her hands on a long stick.  The ring on her wedding finger glints in the sunlight.

Labourers after Dinner by George Clausen (c.1882)

Labourers after Dinner by George Clausen (c.1882)

The second portrait was an oil and canvas study of a young boy who was to figure in a work entitled Labourers after Dinner.  This painting is held in a private collection in Australia and I have not been able to find a colour copy of it so have just scanned a black and white version which I found in a magazine.   The painting was the first indication that Clausen was moving away from the emotional depiction of peasant pictures which had been popularised in England and France by Jules Bastien-Lepage.  Clausen veered towards more naturalistic, if brutal, genre subjects. This work was one of the most studied of Clausen’s early compositions.   It is a depiction of a boy sitting between his mother and father who were taking a rest from their work in the fields.  The controversial Irish novelist and art critic, George Moore, on seeing the painting, wrote scathingly about the group depicted in the painting in his 1893 book entitled Modern Painting. In it he commented on the depiction of the boy’s mother and father:

“…the middle aged man and woman who live in mute stupidity – they have known nothing but the daily hardship of living and the vacuous face of their son tells how completely the life of his forefathers has descended upon him…”

Head of a Peasant Boy by George Clausen (1884)

Head of a Peasant Boy by George Clausen (1884)

A “vacuous face” wrote Moore.  I will let you decide as the oil sketch Clausen made prior to the large scale painting, entitled Head of a Peasant Boy is awash with detail.  George Moore was not a lover of realism in art as in the same book he condemned it saying:

“…Realism, that is to say the desire to compete with nature, to be nature, is the disease from which art has suffered most in the last twenty years.  The disease is now at wane, and when we happen upon a canvas of the period like Labourers after Dinner, we cry out, ‘What madness! Were we ever as mad as that?”…”

Harsh words indeed and yet I like this painting.

The Shepherdess by George Clausen (1885)

The Shepherdess by George Clausen (1885)

Clausen was a founder member of the New English Art Club (NEAC) of London which was set up in 1885 in competition with the Royal Academy.  It was a club which attracted many young inspiring artists who were returning to England after their artistic studies in Paris.  One of Clausen’s first paintings to be exhibited at an NEAC exhibition was The Shepherdess which he completed in the Spring of 1885 and which is now art of the National Museums, Liverpool collection.   Clausen had sold the painting to John Maddocks an artist and art collector, and borrowed it back to show at the exhibition.  The orchard in which the young girl stands was to feature in a number of Clausen’s works.  In 1891, the art critic of The Magazine of Art, Butler Wood, commented on the work:

“…admirable specimen of Mr Clausen’s best manner, and displays feeling and atmosphere.  His colour scheme is simple, yet satisfactory and skilfully elaborated.  The girl’s figure is modelled with almost sculpturesque strength and the face painted with that ruddy glow of health which he is so clever at rendering…”

In 1891 Clausen moved from the Berkshire village of Cookham Dean and went to live in Widdington, a small picturesque village in the county of Essex.  He had been exhibiting most of his works at the New Gallery and the NEAC but as his paintings became larger in size they were not easily accommodated at these venues and so he had to once again look at exhibiting his larger works at the Royal Academy in London.  Clausen had fallen out with the Royal Academy years earlier over their teaching methods and their strict and antiquated rules but now, with an ever expanding family, he needed the support of the Academy if he was to sell his larger works.  In 1895, Clausen was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.  The art world noted his election to an establishment he had once roundly criticised but many saw Clausen as an excellent addition to the RA.  The scholar and prolific art critic of the time, often referred to as “one of the most powerful figures in the late Victorian art world”, Marion Spielmann, wrote about Clausen’s appointment in the February 1895 edition of weekly illustrated newspaper, The Graphic:

“…Mr Clausen was…… a signatory of the open letter which years ago set fire to the inflammable material which we young hot-bloods had….pile up  against the door of the Academy…. much amelioration has been brought since then;  the girls may now study from the semi-nude; then standard of probationership has been raised….”

Clausen now worked within the Academy system, a system which he had once heavily criticised.   He gave up his time, a couple of months each year, to teach students at the Royal Academy Life School Between 1904 and 1906 and in that year he became Professor of Painting at the Academy and, because of the large number of students who attended his lectures, was regarded as one of the most popular professors since Joshua Reynolds.

Bird Scaring by George Clausen (1896)

Bird Scaring by George Clausen (1896)

One of the works Clausen completed in 1896 was entitled Bird Scaring: March, and which is housed in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.  In Victorian days bird scarers were employed by farmers to act as human scarecrows. Their task was simple; they just had to position themselves in the farmer’s field and scare off the birds which swoop down to eat the farmer’s crops.  This onerous job was for very young children who had to be working in the fields, dawn to dusk, no matter what the weather was like.  In the painting we can see the young boy who, despite the cold weather, wears only sack-cloth.  A small fire has been lit on the ground to keep him warm.  The blue/grey smoke from the fire wafts behind him giving us the sense that it is not only cold but also windy.  He is energetically swinging around, holding a wooden clapper in his right hand which made sufficient noise to deter birds from landing nearby.

Youth Mourning by George Clausen (1916)

Youth Mourning by George Clausen (1916)

For my next two featured works by Clausen you will notice a complete change of style.  The first one was completed in 1916 and entitled Youth Mourning.  The work you see is not the original version but one altered on the request of the purchaser.  Clausen, who was sixty-four when he painted this work was too old for military service in the First World War, however he was not untouched by the many tragedies of the Great War for his son-in-law, the husband of his daughter Kitty, was killed in battle in 1915 and it was that sad event which moved him to paint this work.  It was his personal expression of grief for the thousands who perished during the conflict.  This was an artistic departure of his favoured rustic naturalism style and more towards the French Symbolist genre.

In the original work there were three white crosses in the ground just behind the female and further in the background many more white crosses could be seen.  When the owner of the work, a Mr C.N.Luxmoore, who bought this and many other paintings from Clausen presented it to the Nation in 1929 the crosses had been painted out just leaving a barren shell-holed hillside.  We have no definitive reason why the owner got Clausen to re-paint part of the work.   The resulting work has a powerful symbolic aura of anguish and sorrow captured by the nude female figure hunched over in the foetal position.  The finality of death is depicted by the barrenness of the landscape where nothing lives.

In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918 by George Clausen (1918)

In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918 by George Clausen (1918)

George Clausen was later appointed an official war artist and took part in the ambitious British War Memorials Committee art scheme in 1918. He produced a large 183 x 318cms oil on canvas work in 1918 entitled In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918.  This urban scene once again is huge shift away from rustic idylls of the countryside we saw in his earlier works.  The painting was a commission Clausen received from The Ministry of Information who said they wanted a “Uccello” sized work of art which would be exhibited in the Hall of Remembrance.  Clausen visited the gun factory on a number of occasions and had originally intended that the painting would be in an upright format but eventually realised that it had to be of a horizontal format.  The work was finally completed in December 1918 and was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition of 1919-20.  Critics believed it was one of the best works on display.  In 1926, due to his successful war commission he was commissioned to paint murals, notably Wycliffe’s English Bible for the Houses of Parliament and on completion of this task he was knighted.  He continued to regularly exhibit work at the Royal Academy during the 1930’s.

My Back Garden by George Clausen (1940)

My Back Garden by George Clausen (1940)

One of last paintings by Sir George Clausen was one he completed in 1940 entitled My Back Garden.  It was a depiction of the back garden of his house at 61 Carlton Hill, London.  He was eighty-eight years of age when he painted this picture.  It was almost a farewell painting as a year later; he had left his beloved house and garden because of the almost continuous bombing of London by the Nazis.  He decided that he and his wife should move to Cold Ash, a Berkshire village some two miles from the town of Newbury and seventy miles west of London.  Clausen continued to sketch and complete watercolours which he sent off for inclusion in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions of 1942 and 1943.   Clausen’s wife’s health had deteriorated in 1939 and she remained poorly until her death in March 1944.  Sir George Clausen died eight months later in November 1944, aged 92.   In June 1944, just five months before Clausen’s death, he was approached by Kenneth Clark, the Director of the National Gallery, proposing a retrospective exhibition of his work at the National Gallery.  Clausen was delighted with the proposal and wrote back to Clark:

“… I think such an exhibition as you suggest would be more appropriate when I am dead and indifferent to praise or censure !   However I will help you all I can…”

Sadly the exhibition never took place.

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