Frederick Elwell. Part 4 – More of his genre works

Frederick William Elwell       (1870 - 1958)

Frederick William Elwell
(1870 – 1958)

In my final look at the life of the twentieth century Yorkshire artist Frederick William Elwell I want to conclude his life story and look at some of his genre paintings.

In the last blog, when looking at his life, I had reached 1914.  It was in the August of that year that the Great War began in Europe and it was also in that year, two months later, that Fred Elwell married his close friend and fellow artist, Mary Dawson Holmes.  The newlyweds made their home at Bar House, a residence Mary and her late husband George Holmes had bought in 1910.  Mary loved the house and its garden and they were depicted in a number of paintings by both Mary and Fred.

At the Mirror by Mary Dawson Elwell

At the Mirror by Mary Dawson Elwell

In the work entitled At the Mirror by Mary Dawson Elwell we see the interior of one of the bedrooms of their house which overlooked York Road.  There are two large double beds each covered with a purple quilt.  One of the bedroom’s windows is in the central background and through it we are able to see the neighbouring house, Wyles House.  The technique of allowing viewers to catch a glimpse of the outside world, seen through the framing device of a window, had always been popular with artists.  To the right of the window a woman stands before a mirror brushing her hair totally oblivious of the outside world that we see through the window.  The large full length mirror reveals a reflection of the room.  The light which shines through the windows of the room lights it up and the polished brass fender casts its reflection on the dark polished wooden floor.

Bar House Garden, Beverley by Fred Elwell (1914)

Bar House Garden, Beverley by Fred Elwell (1914)

Fred Elwell painted a number of depictions of the interior of the house but I particularly like the one he completed in 1914 of the garden at Bar House entitled Bar House Garden, Beverley .

The First Born by Fred Elwell (1913)

The First Born by Fred Elwell (1913)

It was also around this time that Fred Elwell developed an idea based on the blissful event for a mother,  the birth of her child.  This type of painting was not a new idea for artists but the mother/baby scene had been depicted as far back as the Renaissance period.  In 1913 Elwell completed an oil on canvas work entitled The First Born.  The setting for the work is a farm worker’s cottage in Beverley.  The furnishings are simple.  The large canopied tester bed with its old-fashioned chintz curtains and turned bed-posts takes up centre stage in the painting.  A floral-covered ottoman sits next to the end of the bed.  By the bed is a ladder-backed cane chair.   In the work we see the young father who is still wearing his gamekeeper clothing.  He has rushed home from work to be with his wife and their first baby.  The father sits on his wife’s bed, leaning slightly forward to catch a better glimpse of his child.  He grasps small bouquet of primroses as a small present for his wife.  Primroses are associated with spring which in turn is associated with new beginnings which fits in nicely with the birth of the newborn baby.   It must have been a warm spring day as the sliding window is open and the delicate lace curtains gently flutter in the breeze which penetrates the room.   The thing which strikes you when you look at this work is how light and airy it is.  This was a factor in the work of the French Impressionists and was taken on board by the artists involved with the Newlyn School in Cornwall around the end of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century.

The Wedding Dress by Fred Elwell (1911)

The Wedding Dress by Fred Elwell (1911)

Queen Victoria died in 1901 and this solemn period and the Victorian period prior to her death saw many artists concentrate on human loss and the grief felt when a loved one died.  Queen Victoria suffered the loss of her beloved husband, Albert in 1861, and continually wore mourning clothes for ten years after he died.   Many paintings compared the happiness of life before the death of a loved one with the inconsolable grief of those left behind.  Elwell beautifully captured such a moment with his painting, The Wedding Dress, which he completed in 1911.  The setting for Elwell’s painting is the widow’s bedchamber.  The lady lies slumped against the ottoman at the end of the bed, the lid of which is open.  On the floor next to her is her wedding dress and we can see more wedding clothes in the chest.  She is grief-stricken and buries her face in her hands.  We cannot see her face.  This is a private and very sad moment for her.  It could be that although she had her wedding dress, she never had a chance to marry her fiancé or maybe she did marry and is now remembering the day her and her late husband got married and the happy life they once had.  It is a pictorial tale of two worlds.  The white of the dress and the happiness of marriage in contrast to the black mourning clothes she wears in respect of her late husband or fiancé.  It is the contrast between innocence and happiness and the darkness of sadness and loss.  One other thing which makes this depiction even more poignant is the fact that the model for this painting was a local girl, Violet Prest, a costumier of Minster Moorgate West, in Beverley, and three years after the painting was completed, her husband was killed in the Great War.

The Wreath by Mary Dawson Elwell (1908)

The Wreath by Mary Dawson Elwell (1908)

Violet Prest also modelled for Elwell’s soon-to-be-wife Mary for her painting entitled The Wreath which she completed in 1908, three years before Fred Elwell completed The Wedding Dress.

His Last Purchase by Fred Elwell (1921)

His Last Purchase by Fred Elwell (1921)

With this being the last part of my blog featuring Frederick Elwell I was in a quandary as which paintings to feature or more to the point which ones could I bear to leave out.  My next painting by Elwell was completed in 1921 and is one of my favourites.  It is entitled The Last Purchase and is housed in the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.  The painting depicts Fred’s father, James Elwell, sitting at a table in the book-lined study of Fred and Mary Elwell’s house.  We see before us a very satisfied and happy man who has just returned from an antiques auction with his purchases.  James Elwell was a great lover of ceramics and in the painting we can see him carefully eyeing the vase which was one of his purchases.  It is not in perfect condition but this master craftsman considers how best to repair the lip of the vase.  The table he sits at is covered with his beloved purchases some of which still retain their auction lot number.

The painting was originally entitled His New Purchase but on James Elwell’s death in 1926, Fred Elwell changed the title of the work to The Last Purchase in memory of his late father.  What I like about this work is that it highlights the artistic ability of the artist.  It is not just a meticulous and lifelike portrait of his father, it is an example of his ability to paint a still-life work as well as it being a beautifully crafted interior painting

 In 1931, Elwell was elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and, in 1938, he was elected as a member of the Royal Academy.  Elwell felt very honoured to have been elected to full membership of the Royal Academy.  The honour came with one drawback, which he wrote about to one of his friends – the writing of acknowledgements to all his well wishers on them hearing of this artistic honour.  He humorously wrote:

 “…Can you picture me trying to cope……with twenty suitable acknowledgements every evening?   No club, no cinemas, no dinners, no theatres until they are finished for such are the Kingdom of God…”

 Having accepted the honour of becoming a full member of the Academy, he was asked to serve on the Royal Academy Council and become a member of the selection and hanging committee, which was a group of Academicians, who decided which works of art submitted by the public should be accepted into the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition.

The Royal Academy Selection and Hanging Committee by Fred Elwell (1938)

The Royal Academy Selection and Hanging Committee by Fred Elwell (1938)

Having featured the portrait of his father in the previous work set me thinking, what could be more difficult than crafting a single recognisable portrait?  I suppose the answer is to craft a work of art which includes fourteen individual recognisable portraits and this is exactly what Fred Elwell achieved in his 1938 painting entitled The Royal Academy Selection & Hanging Committee, 1938,  which was his diploma work on being made a Royal Academician and was retained by the Academy as an example of his extraordinary artistic talent.

 The setting for this work was the assembly room of Burlington House.  This 18th century room was walled with dark wood panelling and the only light emanates from behind the artist himself as he tries to incorporate all the members of the picture selection and hanging committee who sit around the dining table.  Elwell has included himself into the group portrait.  He stands to the left with brushes and palette in hand.  Look how the light source has not only illuminated the faces of the Academicians but also lit up the tableware and napkins.

Armstrong's Garage by Fred Elwell (1921)

Armstrong’s Garage by Fred Elwell (1921)

The next two paintings I am showcasing show how war changes every facet of daily life.   The first work is entitled Armstrong’s Garage which Elwell painted in 1921 and features the interior of the Elizabethan timber-framed building which was a garage and workshop in Beverley, owned by Gordon Armstrong since 1907.  It was close to Fred and Mary’s Bar House.  Fred Elwell was fascinated by motor engineering and the innovative skill of the owner who designed and built his own car, known as The Gordon.  Gordon Armstrong also patented the Armstrong shock absorber which made motoring much more comfortable.   In the foreground of the painting we see two mechanics working at a bench and behind them we see the vast empty expanse of the workshop.  The timber “A” frames and beams play a prominent role in the depiction and are lit up by the light streaming through the skylights.  The work is now part of the permanent collection of the Williamson Art Gallery at Birkenhead.

A Munitions Factory by Fred Elwell (1944)

A Munitions Factory by Fred Elwell (1944)

 Fast forward twenty three years and Elwell painted another picture featuring Armstrong’s Garage but it could not be more different.  Armstrong’s business boomed and he eventually moved to a larger premises on the other side of town in the late 1930’s.  However with the onset of the Second World War, his garage was taken over by the government and turned into a munitions factory.  The painting which Elwell completed in 1944 and was entitled A Munitions Factory.  In the left foreground   of the painting we see a table on which lay tracer bullets and other munitions which had been produced in the factory.  This is not just a beautiful work of art but forms a pictorial record of the time.  The factory employees will be almost all women who helped the war effort whilst their male partners had gone off to fight the war.  This will be a daytime scene as we can see windows in the roof which would have been covered with black-out curtains had this been a night shift.  Despite it being the day shift there is a lack of natural light which would have added to the difficulty in working conditions.

Maids with Pigeons by Feed Elwell (1916)

Maids with Pigeons by Feed Elwell (1916)

I have reluctantly come to the last painting I am featuring by Elwell.  There are so many and yet far too many for me to feature so I will choose another of my favourites.  When Fred and Mary married in 1914 they went to live in Mary’s Bar House.  Mary, on the death of her husband George Holmes, had been left financially well off.  So much so they were able to employ staff to help run the house.  In his 1916 painting, Maids with Pigeons, two years after their marriage, Fred Elwell depicted their kitchen maids in the houses’ kitchen.  This was just one of many Elwell’s depictions of domestic life at Bar House.  The realism of the paintings was well loved by both public and critics alike.  This work is a fine example of naturalism.  The two maids pay no attention to us but focus on two pigeons who have braved their way through the open window in search of food.  One holds out the palm of her hand on which there is some food for the hungry birds.  On the sink we see a bowl of water, the wetness of which has been skilfully depicted by Elwell using coloured highlights.  On the window sill is a plate and a colander.  To the left of the window we can just make out a wooden casing which highlights the water pump.

Married in 1914, Fred and Mary lived a long and happy life.  In 1945 Mary suffered a series of strokes which meant that she had to have round the clock nursing.  She died in 1952.  Fred Elwell continued to paint finding his art very theraputic.  He was his own tough taskmaster and even in his eightieth year would rise early to work on his canvases.  In 1953, the Ferens Gallery in Kingston upon Hull and the Beverley Art Gallery held a retrospective exhibition featuring ninety of his painting and a small selection of his wife’s work.

Frederick William Elwell died in January 1958, aged eighty-seven.

It has given me great pleasure over the last four blogs to look at the life and work of Fred Elwell.  He was a truly talented painter.  I will certainly make the effort to visit Beverley and Kingston upon Hull and visit the galleries which house so many of his paintings.  In the meantime I will satisfy myself with the excellent book, Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster and Malcolm Shields.  It is well written and has 141 colour plates of Elwell’s art.  It inspired me to write these four blogs and I do recommend you buy it.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, English artist, Fred Elwell, Genre painting, Genre paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fred Elwell. Part 3 – Landscapes and Mrs Elwell

Fred Elwell by Dame Laura Knight

Fred Elwell by Dame Laura Knight

As far as art was concerned, Fred Elwell was a master of many art genres.  In my last blog I looked at his superb portraiture and in this blog I want to feature some of his landscape paintings as well as introducing you to his wife, another landscape painter.

In telling his life story I had reached the year 1896.  Fred Elwell had returned from Paris and had tried to forge himself a successful career in London but it had not worked out for the twenty-six year old artist and in this year he had been rescued by his father who brought him back to the family home in the East Yorkshire town of Beverley.  Although Elwell had left England and studied in Antwerp and Paris he had always made many trips back home to Beverley.  He had returned for good to the beauty of Yorkshire, not as a student painter but now as an accomplished artist and he was pleased to test himself and his artistic skills by setting out to paint the magnificent local landscape and some of the fine local buildings.

Beverley Minster from the Hall Garth by Fred Elwell (1900)

Beverley Minster from the Hall Garth by Fred Elwell (1900)

One such painting, which he completed in 1900, was of Beverley Minster and was entitled Beverley Minster from the Hall Garth.

His year in London and his struggle to survive had taken a toll on him so the first thing the family had wanted him to do was to relax and enjoy the tranquillity of the Yorkshire countryside.  Elwell also enjoyed the freedom offered by sailing and he would often take a small boat and cruise along Beverley Beck which joined the River Hull.  Many like-minded painters would do the same as the clarity of light and the beautiful countryside including the East Riding flatlands surrounding the river was an idyllic setting for landscape artists.  On occasion he would tie up the boat alongside a jetty and would welcome visitors to look at his artwork and, by so doing, would often receive commissions.  Elwell’s love of landscape painting coincided with the English public’s change of attitude of what they wanted to see in a work of art.  Depictions of city life were becoming less popular, displaced by depictions of the tranquillity of the countryside.  This was a period when people wanted to “go back to nature”.  They worked in cities but hankered for the fresh air of the countryside.  They wanted to soak up country life by sailing along inland waterways or get themselves horse-drawn caravans and lose themselves in the peacefulness and serenity of the rural areas.

In 1899, Elwell set himself up in a studio in Wood Lane in the centre of Beverley.  It had once been home to the local theatre and later a meeting house for the local Quakers and it was in that year that Elwell launched his first solo exhibition.  It was a great success for here was the local boy making good.  Locals flocked to see their “own son” and what he had achieved.

One day in 1904 Fred Elwell had a visitor to his studio. The visitor introduced himself as George Alfred Holmes.  Holmes, an oil broker, was a well respected member of the Beverley community.  He asked Elwell whether he could paint a portrait of his wife, Mary.  Mary Dawson Bishop, the daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant, was born in Liverpool in 1874.  Her father died when she was very young and the family moved to Manchester.    Her late father’s wealth ensured that Mary received the best education that money could buy and she was educated at Ellerslie College, which was described as a ‘fairly exclusive school’, and the college would undoubtedly have provided instruction in painting and drawing.  In 1896 she married George Holmes.

A pen and ink sketch of a canoe-yawl by George Holmes

A pen and ink sketch of a canoe-yawl by George Holmes

Elwell agreed and made many visits to the home of George and Mary Holmes and soon the three became good friends.  Holmes and Elwell had one thing in common, they both loved boats.  Holmes was a founder member of the local Humber Yawl Club and Fred Elwell owned his own boat.  It was a small twenty-two foot sailing houseboat which had the strange name of Callathumpian.  This too was a canoe-yawl but had been adapted with a large deckhouse.  George and Mary would often visit Fred on his boat and go for days out sailing the boat along the many tributaries and canals.

Mary Dawson Holmes by Fred Elwell (1904)

Mary Dawson Holmes by Fred Elwell (1904)

Elwell completed the Portrait of Mary Dawson Holmes in 1904 and had it exhibited at the Royal Academy that year.  It is an exquisite work of portraiture with the sitter depicted as a lady of gracious sophistication.  Her clothes are reminiscent of the French fashion of the time.   She wears a tight-fitting dress finished off with a fine white lace collar.  Her head is tilted slightly to one side.  She holds an upright stance.  She has dark almond-shaped eyes.  Look at her expression.  It gives little away.  What do you make of it?  Is there an unwillingness, a reticence to pose or is this reserve due to her modesty or shyness?

Detail from Les Parapluies by Renoir (1880-6)

Detail from Les Parapluies by Renoir (1880-6)

The way she stands and the fact that she is holding a basket is the reason why many people have compared the painting with one of Renoir’s ladies depicted in his painting of 1886, Les Parapluies, which Elwell may have seen.

Mary and Fred Elwell also some had a common interest – art, for she was a talented painter and he encouraged her to submit some of her work to the Royal Academy for inclusion at their annual exhibition.  She had two works accepted and Fred also had his portrait of her included at the same exhibition.   It is believed that Fred, George and his wife Mary would often travel to Europe, visiting Venice and Switzerland where Fred Elwell and Mary Holmes would take the opportunity to sketch and paint the local landscapes.

In 1910 George and Mary bought their dream home in Beverley.  It was known as Bar House.  It was a house that afforded the occupants beautiful views of the surrounding areas.  It even had its own tower from where one could watch the local racehorses training on the Gallop around Westwood, close to Beverley racecourse.  Sadly the joy of moving to their beautiful home was tinged with sadness as shortly after taking up residence her husband George became ill, so much so, he had to retire from his Hull shipping business.  As his health deteriorated he had to give up his beloved sailing.  Mary and Fred’s became more distressed with George’s health as he became more and more incapacitated.   His illness eventually was diagnosed as being terminal.  Knowing he was dying George spoke privately to Fred and asked him to look after his wife once he had died.  George Holmes died in August 1913, aged just 58.

Fred Elwell and Mary Dawson Holmes married on October 1st 1914, two months after the start of World War I.

 ……………………… to be continued

  Fred Elwell was a multi-talented painter and in this blog I want to feature some of his landscape works and those of his wife, Mary.

Upper Reaches of the River Hull by Fred Elwell (c.1905)

Upper Reaches of the River Hull by Fred Elwell (c.1905)

One of his early landscape works was Upper Reaches of the River Hull which he painted in 1905.   The work now hangs in the Beverley Art Gallery.  Its original owner was John Brown of Beverley who was a local tailor and provided suits for Elwell and could well have taken the painting in part payment for tailored clothing.  It is a beautiful work of art and features Elwell’s favourite area, the flatlands on either side of the River Hull, which he would have seen so many times from his boat.  Harvest is over and the stooks of corn sit up proudly in the newly harvested cornfield.

Corsican Landscape by Fred Elwell (1927)

Corsican Landscape by Fred Elwell (1927)

The next painting was completed by Fred in 1927 and entitled, Corsican Landscape.   This landscape work, which has a distinct feel of Impressionism, depicts a farm in the centre ground along with grazing cattle and a few figures, all of which are surrounded by a mountain range which, on the left hand side, have been partially lost in shadow.  I particularly like the colours Elwell has given to his tall trees ranging from green and golds to the black-shaded ones which have lost the light of the sun.

Corte Corsica by Mary Dawson Elwell

Corte Corsica by Mary Dawson Elwell

Mary Elwell completed a painting, around the same time depicting and probably during the same holiday, of the Corsican landscape, entitled Corte, Corsica.   It is a depiction of the hillside town of Corte, in northern Corsica.  Again, like Elwell’s Corsican landscape, the town is in the centre ground, surrounded by mountains.  The buildings are painted white and yellow with red terracotta roofs.  In the foreground we see a river cascading down a shallow waterfall.  The contrast between the blue of the water and the whiteness of the boulders it flows over adds to the beauty of the work.

Zermatt by Fred Elwell (c.1938)

Zermatt by Fred Elwell (c.1938)

Another foreign landscape work by Fred Elwell was completed in 1937, entitled Zermatt.  The oil on wood panel painting is a typical Swiss-style landscape dominated by the church and its tower on the right, with the clock showing seven o’clock.  On the left we can see some chalets which disappear down the hillside.  In the background we have mountains, some in full sunlight others in full shade.  Fred and Mary Elwell loved this Swiss Alpine region and spent many happy journeys between 1937 and 1939 in the surrounding region completing a number of works in the region of Zermatt and the Matterhorn. On the outbreak of World War II they had to make a hasty retreat back to England.

Pigs in Barn by Fred Elwell (1937)

Pigs in Barn by Fred Elwell (1937)

One amusing anecdote accompanies this work.  Elwell did not sell it to a dealer or art lover for a vast sum of money.  He sold it to a neighbouring pig farmer, a Mr Symmons and all Elwell wanted in return was a number of photographs of the Symmons’ pigs !!  These he used in another work he completed that year, entitled Pigs in Barn.

Brick Bridge, Swinemoor by Fred Elwell (c.1943)

Brick Bridge, Swinemoor by Fred Elwell (c.1943)

The next work by Fred Elwell probably brought back fond memories of his childhood.  It is entitled Brick Bridge and features a brick-built bridge which straddles the Barmston Drain.  In Fred Elwell’s days this was a favourite place for Beverley folks to come and enjoy a swim on a hot summer’s day.  The picture was painted in 1943 during the Second World War and was the only place the people from Beverley could go for a swim as troops had commandeered the local swimming pool.  Again there is a hint of Elwell’s use of Impressionistic techniques with dabs of various colour representing reflections on rippled water and also the blurring effect of some of the features as if we are looking at the scene through the hazy atmosphere of a summer afternoon.

Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat (1884)

Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat (1884)

The painting by Elwell could well have been influenced by the work of the French artist, Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières which like Elwell’s work has people relaxing on the riverbank as well as in the water and in the background is the horizontal structure of a bridge crossing the water which in both paintings creates a horizontal axis. In the case of Elwell’s work the bridge almost hides the horizon from our view whereas in Seurat’s work our eyes leave the bathers in the foreground and follow the river towards the bridge and the industry on the far side of it.

In my next blog I will be complete the life story of  Fred Elwell and take a look at some of his genre paintings.

Once again let me recommend an excellent book on the life and works of Fred Elwell.  Most of the information for this blog was gleaned from this book which I bought in Harrogate.  It is entitled Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster & Malcolm Shields.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, English artist, Fred Elwell, Landscape paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fred Elwell. Part 2. Portraiture

In my second look at the life and works of Fred Elwell I want to concentrate on his masterful portraiture.

In the last blog I left Fred Elwell studying in Paris with his friend Claude Rivas.  The year was 1892.   They had found themselves some rooms and had enrolled at the Académie Julian under the tutorship of William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  Bouguereau was far more than just a teacher of art at the Academy, he was a fierce defender of the academic method of teaching art.  He was also the chairman of the selection panel of the Paris Salon and thus had, with the other jurists, the power to accept or refuse submitted entries for the annual exhibitions and the jurists’ refusal to accept non-academic art angered many such as Paul Cézanne, Manet and Whistler.

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)

Life at Académie Julian was an exciting time for aspiring artists and many travelled great distances to be part of the Academy’s chosen few.  The artists were made to work hard and it also developed their competitive nature by offering a number of annual prizes.  Fred Elwell blossomed under this heavy workload and managed to win a number of these prizes during his stay.  Friendships were born at this Paris academy and Fred developed long term and special friendships with two other English artists, Richard Jack and the Lincoln-born, William Tom Warrener.  Warrener was nine years old than Elwell and had already established himself as a painter.   He was also a great social animal and spent much time in the bars of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge nightclub which had come into being in October 1889, in the Jardin de Paris, at the foot of the Montmartre hill.  Warrener had become friends with Toulouse-Lautrec and, like Lautrec, had been commissioned to design a number of advertising posters for the Moulin Rouge.

Elwell would often visit Warrener at his apartment on rue Ravignon and would see the walls of his rooms covered with paintings he had done of the nightlife of the Moulin Rouge.  It was during one of those visits that Elwell was introduced to the actress, Léonie, who was one of Warrener’s models and Elwell managed to persuade her to also become his model (see Part 1 of my Fred Elwell blog where I have included Elwell’s painting of her, Léonie’s Toilet).

Elwell’s stay in Paris coincided with La Belle Époque.  This period from the late 1870’s to the start of World War I was one of optimism.  It was the golden age.  For France, this was a period of stability and peace squeezed between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, quickly followed by the brutality of the Paris Commune and the Great War of 1914. It was a time of peace and prosperity.  It was time of joy and many took the opportunity to visit clubs and theatres and Elwell, who worked and studied hard during the day, managed to sample the night life in the evening and late into the night and it was during his stay in Paris that he developed the love of pipe-smoking, a habit which stayed with him for most of his life.  Another facet of Paris life which Elwell took to was what we now term as café culture which he continued to follow when he returned to England.  However, life in Paris had its downside for Elwell, as with most wannabe artists the burden of financial problems was ever present and Elwell’s financial predicament, despite the odd help from his father, was the same, so much so that he had to give his beloved portrait of Léonie to his landlord in lieu of rent.

Whilst he studied at the Académie Julian, Fred would often go back to Beverley to recharge his batteries and sample the delights of home comforts.  Elwell finally left Paris in 1895 deciding to live and work in London, although he still exhibited his works at the city’s Salon des Artistes Français (Paris Salon).  Elwell was determined to get some of his paintings excepted by the Royal Academy in London and believed he would be able to fund his London life through commissions.  Unfortunately for Elwell many artists had the same thought and the contest for painting commissions was ruthless.  Elwell realised that the streets of London were not paved with gold and soon he became very despondent with his lack of success.  It is thought his despondency led to a nervous breakdown.  His father rushed down to London to support his son and eventually convinced him to return home to Beverley

………..to be continued.

Florence by Fred Elwell (c.1902)

Florence by Fred Elwell (c.1902)

Fred Elwell was a master of many painting genres and the paintings I am featuring today deal with his skilful portraiture. The first portrait, Florence, is one Elwell completed around 1902.  It features his twelve year old niece Florence Elwell.  Florence had been brought up by Fred’s mother and father after she came to live with them at their Park Villa home, close to the racecourse in Beverley, following the death of her parents.  She looks a little moody and frustrated at having to sit for her uncle and pouts with annoyance.  There were more joyous things to do for a twelve-year old including mixing with the racing fraternity who would often congregate at her uncle’s home during Beverley horse-racing events.  It is believed that Fred Elwell completed the portrait in just one hour.

Portrait of a Small Boy by Fred Elwell (1917)

Portrait of a Small Boy by Fred Elwell (1917)

My next featured work is also of a youngster and is entitled Portrait of a Small Boy which Elwell completed in 1917.  Before us we see an immaculately dressed young boy in a white suit holding his hat in his right hand and his beloved yacht in the other.  His short white socks show signs of falling down towards his shiny black leather sandals.  The portrait must have been a challenging task for Elwell as boys of his age are reluctant to stand still and the crumpled look of his white suit is an indication of much movement.   It was so challenging that after he had completed the painting, Elwell swore that he would never paint the portrait of a child again.

Seated Nude in the Studio by Fred Elwell (1935)

Seated Nude in the Studio by Fred Elwell (1935)

As I mentioned in the first part of the Fred Elwell story, the first time he was allowed to paint live nudes was when he moved to Antwerp.  One of his best works of a female nude was completed in 1935 and was simply entitled Seated Nude in Studio and can be found at the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Museum.  The lady depicted in this work is seated on a stool and is depicted in graceful semi-profile.  Her blue dressing gown lies besides her. In the background there is some dark furniture which contrasts with the radiant flesh tints of the lady.  It is a quirky set-up as she sits before a painting on an easel as if she is the artist admiring her own work.

In a Bar by Fred Elwell (1943)

In a Bar by Fred Elwell (1943)

Another female portrait by Elwell which I really like is entitled In a Bar which he completed in 1943 and was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year.  In the work we see the model sitting at the bar, cigarette in hand with a glass of gin and tonic on the bar beside her.  There is an air of casual indifference about the way she poses, a somewhat challenging facial expression which challenges us to query her drinking and smoking habit.    This is twenty-eight year old Muriel Fox a favourite model of Fred Elwell and believed to be the lady who posed nude for him in the previous work.  Muriel was a cook at the Beverley Westwood Hospital and would often call into the Beverley Arms Hotel on her way home from work. This bar was later known as Elwell’s Bar.  She was a well-known regular at this hostelry and this was “her stool”.   There is great poise in her expression as she stares out at us.  As was the fashion in the 1940’s her cheeks were applied with  a liberal amount of rouge and her hairstyle , tightly waved, was the fashion of the day.   It was rumoured that she had recently given birth to her daughter and baby and basket had been placed out of sight behind the bar.

A Man with a Pint by Fred Elwell (1932)

A Man with a Pint by Fred Elwell (1932)

My next offering is a male portrait and it is a real gem.  The work is entitled A Man with a Pint and was completed by Elwell in 1932 and exhibited at the Royal Academy a year later.  The painting depicts and elderly man tightly clasping his pint of beer whilst pointing at something in the newspaper which he had been reading.   He has a red face and a bulbous nose.  There is something very comical about the portrait.  The public loved this portrait and the art journal, The Artist, maintained that Elwell “belonged to the School whose purpose is Life”.  This portrait is a wonderful realist depiction.  Elwell has chosen his sitter, not for his handsome qualities but for his down-to-earth demeanour.  This is a depiction of man, like the many elderly men, who love to spend the time with their pint in a welcoming hostelry.

Portrait of George Monkman, Mace Bearer of Beverley by Fred Elwell (1890)

Portrait of George Monkman, Mace Bearer of Beverley by Fred Elwell (1890)

The next portrait is also of an elderly man but in this instance he is not an unknown character but a member of the local Beverley Council.  He is the official mace bearer that the town rolls out on official occasions.  His name is George Monkman and the title of the pastel painting is Portrait of George Monkman, Mace Bearer of Beverley.  This was painted by the twenty-year old Elwell in July 1890 during the time he was attending the Antwerp Academy and, like many of Elwell’s works, is housed in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Museum.  Before us sits a grey-haired sad-faced man in top hat and dark gold rimmed livery.  He sits in a high-backed chair. Look how the light shines on both the man’s face and the gilt mace.  It is a great study of character and is a testament to Elwell’s ability in the way he has depicted the demeanour  of the man, who looks old and tired but still proud of his position as the mace bearer.  The frailty of the man, who was eighty-four years old at the time, is brought home by the way Elwell has got him to hold the large ornamental mace with his left hand grasping on to the weighty implement as he holds it against his body.  Elwell remembered the portrait well, stating that to keep the sitter happy he had to ply him with brandy.  Sadly a fortnight after the portrait was completed Monkman died.  Elwell completed an identical portrait in oils thirty years later in 1921.

Canon Fisher and his Wife by Fred Elwell (1905)

Canon Fisher and his Wife by Fred Elwell (1905)

 The final work of portraiture by Fred Elwell is entitled Canon Fisher and his Wife which he completed around 1905 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1929.  Before us we see an intimate dining room scene featuring the Reverend Robert Fisher and his wife Charlotte.  It is thought that painting had been commissioned to mark the retirement of the Canon paid for by his loyal parishioners and was one of Elwell’s first portraiture commissions.  The portrayal oozes warmth and there is an aura of affection and kind-heartedness surrounding the couple.   Robert Fisher sits at the table writing which probably alludes to the fact that he wrote a number of books on subjects such as plants, flowers and Yorkshire villages.  His wife sits by his side and works on her knitting.  The Canon retired from his position at St Mary’s Church in Beverley in 1905.

In my next blog I will be continue with Fred Elwell’s life story and look at more of his paintings.

Most of the information for this blog was gleaned from the excellent book I bought in Harrogate, Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster & Malcolm Shields.  It is a beautiful book and well worth buying.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, English artist, Fred Elwell | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Frederick William Elwell. Part 1. The early days.

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)

When I look back on the four and half years of doing this blog I see my early entries were quite short but appeared nearly three or four times a week.  Nowadays due to other commitments and my being sucked into the life of artists the blogs are longer and often in multiple parts.  My last three blogs looked at the life of the American genre painter, William Sidney Mount and today I start a multiple-part blog on a home-grown nineteenth century English painter Frederick William Elwell, who many of you, like me, may have up to now, been unheard of.  In a way you have to thank my wife for this look at Frederick Elwell as she persuaded me to go with her to Yorkshire for a big three-day cooking event in Harrogate and I managed to slide out of the culinary arena and visit some small local galleries in this beautiful town, where I came across a book on Frederick William Elwell.

Frederick William Elwell was born at St Mary’s Cottage in the small Yorkshire market town of Beverley in on June 29th 1870.  His father, James Edward Elwell, was a well-known and well-established wood carver who played a prominent role in Beverley society.  In 1900 he was a member of the town council and mayor of Beverley. And when he held the position of Chairman of the Library Committee, he organised the first exhibition of paintings in 1910. The exhibition featured a selection of art which the town had loaned from local collectors.  It also included a large selection of works by his son Fred.

Fred Elwell’s schooling began with his attendance at Beverley Grammar School but in 1878 the education establishment had to close temporarily and Fred’s parents had to decide where their son should next be schooled.  The family were already aware that their eight year old son was talented at drawing and his father trained him in draughtsmanship and so his father decided to look for some scholarly opening which would allow Fred to further train in art and maybe later architecture as well as attain an all-round education.   The decision was made to send Fred to Lincoln to live with his two aunts, and by doing so, it would allow him to attend Lincoln Grammar School and at the same time afford him the chance to enrol in evening art classes at the nearby Lincoln School of Art on Lindum Hill.  Fred’s two aunts were a formidable pair of Victorian ladies.  One was the principal of the Lincoln Training College for Women whilst the other acted as its secretary

Still Life with Fish by Fred Elwell (1897)

Still Life with Fish by Fred Elwell (1897)

Elwell proved to be a talented scholar and although his father wanted his son’s career path to head towards architecture Fred was in love with painting.  He was so good that he was awarded the Gibney Scholarship, named after Rev. J.S.Gibney the canon of Lincoln Cathedral who with others founded then Lincoln School of Art in 1863, and this allowed him to continue on with a three year course in art.  In 1887, aged seventeen, Fred Elwell won the Queen’s bronze medal in the National Art School’s competition for his painting, Still Life with Fish.  This painting by the seventeen year old Elwell shows the dawning of a great artist in the way he depicts different textures in the painting, such as the shiny reflective glass bottle in contrast to the dull matt finish of the red lobster.  On the wall in the background he has depicted fading Delft tiles. The head of the codfish, with its mouth open, is well illuminated against a dark background.  Its body is curved and the head turns to the right whilst its tale disappears into the darkness.  The curve of the fish is, in some way, countered by the dried herrings which hang in front of the tiles with their tales curving towards the left, balancing out the body position of the cod.  Elwell has used the old artist’s trick of depicting depth by incorporating the edge of the marble shelf in the foreground of the painting.  This picture is housed in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Museum.

  The head of the college at the time of Fred Ewell was Alfred George Webster and he was a great admirer of the French Impressionism movement which had come to being in the early 1860s in Paris and it was Webster who taught the Impressionist technique to his students.  This introduction of Impressionist techniques to students, including Ewell, was strongly opposed by the Royal Academy.

In 1889, at the age of nineteen, Fred Ewell left the Lincoln Art College and followed the path of many aspiring painters of the time and, financed by his father, Fred travelled to Belgium where he enrolled at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp which had been founded in 1663 by David Teniers the Younger.  Fred Elwell and a fellow student Claude Rivaz shared a city studio on the Rue des Aveugles.   For many this establishment was considered the most important training academy for those artists who wanted to hone their artistic skills and follow classical Academic training.  Many great artists, such as Van Gogh, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Ford Madox Brown at one time studied at this establishment.  It was here that the students would learn more about the great Masters of art and in fact the Academy itself housed many works by the old Masters.  Fred Elwell’s tutor at the Academy was the landscape and portrait painter, Piet Van Havermaert.  Havermaert pressed his students hard and would not suffer any slackers, once telling his students:

“… Always remember that for the money your father pays to keep you here, he could keep four pigs…”

Havermaert was a hard task master and pushed his students to the limit demanding more and more from them.

The Butler takes a Glass of Port by Fred Elwell (1890)

The Butler takes a Glass of Port by Fred Elwell (1890)

Elwell flourished under this strict teaching regime and during his final year at the Academy produced a genre piece which harked back to the typical type of art that was so popular in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century.  It was entitled The Butler takes a Glass of Port.  The title is a play on words, meaning, on one hand, the partaking of a drink but, on the other hand, meaning “stealing” a drink.  The scene is set in a dining room and we see the butler, emerging from the shadows.  He had just finished serving his master and guests at the dining table and has come to arrange the clearance of the plates.  However he has decided to help himself to a small glass of his Master’s port.  Look at the miscreant.  Look how his face is lit on the side by the candlelight.  This use of light was very popular with the Dutch genre painters of the past and Elwell, even at the young age of twenty, managed to master the art of dramatic lighting.  Look at the butler’s expression of anticipation as he pours himself a drink.  His nose has been given a reddish tinge suggesting that he and alcohol were old friends.  It is amusing to note that the painting’s alternative title, another double-entendre, was All Things come to the Man who Waits !  It was at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp that Elwell began to perfect his skill in portraiture and still life through  the influence of the work of 17th century Dutch and Flemish artists.

This Academy was also a stopping off place for art students who headed for the artistic academies of Paris, a route that Fred Elwell and his friend Claude Riaz, followed in 1892.  The two young artist found themselves some rooms in rue de Campagne Première, on the left-bank, in the city’s 14th arrondissement of Montparnasse.  Elwell was fascinated with the French capital and soon built up a large collection of sketches of all that he saw of Paris life.  Elwell enrolled at the Académie Julian and was fortunate to be tutored by a giant among artists, William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  It was whilst study at the Academy that Fred Elwell started his training in life drawing using living models .  He was never given the opportunity to sketch nude men and women whilst studying at Lincoln, probably because of the presence of the cathedral in the city, the Academy thought life classes were somewhat inappropriate.  Out of this training came one of Elwell’s finest early paintings entitled Dolls or Léonie’s Toilet.

Leonie's Toilet by Fred Elwell (1894)

Leonie’s Toilet by Fred Elwell (1894)

Léonie’s Toilet was completed by Elwell in 1894.   Fred Elwell was introduced to the sitter of this painting, Léonie, by Thomas Warrener who was a friend of his from Lincoln, who, like Elwell, had studied at the Lincoln Art College.  Warrener then attended the Slade School of Art before moving to Paris and the Académie Julian where the two friends met up once again.  Léonie was also a model for some of Warrener’s paintings.   To the left of the painting in the foreground is the washbasin, draped over which is the newspaper famed for its gossip, Gil Blas, which leads us to believe Elwell was interested in the comings and goings in French society.  The periodical often serialised French novels as well as being known for its opinionated arts and theatre criticism.  Another hint of Parisian life in the 1890’s is the two Japanese dolls hanging from the mirror. Japonisme was sweeping through Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century.  It was the term used to describe the influence of Japanese art and fashion on Western culture, and was particularly used to refer to Japanese influence on European Art and Impressionism.  This painting’s original title was Dolls, referring to the dolls seen in the work.  Sibylle Cole in her 1980 book, FREDERICK  W. ELWELL, R.A. 1879-1958.  A Monograph with eight selected prints in colour  describes the skill of Elwell in the way he has painted the naked back of Léonie.  She highlighted the way in which he used a wide range of whites and lovely soft edges where she says “the light leaks into the background”.  There is an interesting story behind this work.  Elwell, like all struggling artists, had to part with his beloved depiction of Léonie, giving it to his landlord as payment for his rent.  Fifty years later the artist James Bateman R.A. was walking down Kings Road in Chelsea when he saw the painting of Léonie in an antiques shop.  He bought it and gave it to the seventy year old painter.   Elwell was delighted to have Léonie back with him !

Young Woman Powdering Herself by Georges Seurat (1890)

Young Woman Powdering Herself by Georges Seurat (1890)

The subject, a girl powdering her face, may have come to Elwell after seeing Georges Seurat’s 1890 work, Young Woman Powdering Herself, a painting depicting Seurat’s secret lover, a working-class woman, Madeleine Knobloch.  The painting was exhibited at the Société des Artistes Indépendants in 1892, the year Elwell arrived in the French capital.

Man with a Pipe by Paul Cezanne (1892)

Man with a Pipe by Paul Cezanne (1892)

My final offering in today’s blog could well have derived from a Cezanne painting Elwell may have seen, one which was painted by Cezanne in 1892 entitled Man with a Pipe, a depiction of a peasant relaxing, staring out at us with his pipe in his mouth.  

Old Man with a Pipe by Fred Elwell (1898)

Old Man with a Pipe by Fred Elwell (1898)

Fred Elwell completed a work in 1898 which was entitled Old Man with a Pipe and depicts a gardener, with pipe in mouth, which projects towards us.  It is a somewhat cut-off painting with the man’s right fist which grasps the handle of the rake and his left elbow, almost cut out of the lower part of the composition

 In my next blog I will continue with Elwell’s life story and look at some more of his beautiful works of art.

 Most of the information for this blog was gleaned from the excellent book I bought in Harrogate, Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster & Malcolm Shields.  It is a beautiful book and well worth buying.

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William Sidney Mount. Part 3, More of his genre paintings

Caught Napping- (Boys Caught Napping in a Field) by William S Mount (1848)

Caught Napping- (Boys Caught Napping in a Field) by William S Mount (1848)

This is Part 3 of my blog featuring the nineteenth century American genre painter and portraitist, William Sidney Mount.  In my first blog about this great painter I looked at his genre works which featured his great love of music and musicians.  My second blog featured some of his early biblical works and his portraiture and in this last offering I am reverting to his love of genre painting and some of his best known works of art.  In the first part of this trilogy I talked about the “heyday” of genre style paintings from the Low Countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.  They often featured taverns and interiors of homes and were often dark and looked at the life of the peasant classes with a degree of sombreness.  Mount’s genre paintings on the other hand, were more light and joyful.

 William Mount had entered the National Academy of Design in New York in 1829 and during his time there his studies incorporated the study of European paintings and engravings as well as the study of classical statuary.  Whilst he was studying at the Academy he was living with his uncle, Micah Hawkins, who was an amateur poet, and owned a tavern and grocery shop in New York.  Micah’s greatest love was the theatre and he would produce plays in which he would combine music and storytelling and the finished opus would have political and national connotations.  His nephew William was influenced by this and the American life theme and social comment  featured in many of his works of art.

 William Mount completed his studies in 1829 and returned home to Long Island where he set about building up a portfolio of paintings which included portraits of relatives and some of the workers on the family farmstead.  In 1832 he was elected to the Academy and for the next thirty-three years exhibited there regularly.   William Mount was very aware of the class structure in his country.  He could see the social gap between the urban citizens and those who worked the land.  Towns expanded and became cities and those who worked and lived in these cities became wealthier than their poor relations that remained in the countryside to work the land.  With financial wealth came cultural wealth and soon the division between the urban dwellers and the country folk became more obvious.

The Sportsman's Last Visit by William S Mount (1835)

The Sportsman’s Last Visit by William S Mount (1835)

The painting by Mount, which best looks at this cultural difference, was one he completed in 1835, entitled The Sportsman’s Last Visit.  In the depiction we see Mount has contrasted the genteel elegance of the city gentleman, dressed immaculately in black, who sits next to the lady and engages her in conversation.  She demurely, but coquettishly, looks away from him supposedly concentrating on a piece of fabric which she has been working on.  There is a slight smile on her lips indicating that she is enjoying the man’s attention. She completely ignores the man whom we see standing on the right hand side. He is scratching his head, perplexed by what he is witnessing.  He is a local country boy.  He has none of the airs and graces of the city gentleman but he cannot understand why the lady should favour the city gentleman over him.  Mount often painted scenes from rural life with loving depictions but in this one he was hinting at things were about to change.  If money was to be made, maybe city life was the way to do it.   On an artistic note I love how Mount has cleverly used the ceiling beams to demonstrate a feeling of depth in the painting.

California News by William S Mount (1850)

California News by William S Mount (1850)

Another of Mount’s painting which recorded changing time, was entitled California News which he completed in 1850.,  This was in the middle of the chaotic California Gold Rush In the picture we see a local man, with the New York Daily Tribune newspaper in his hands, reading aloud about the gold rush in California.  Local people stand around agog with excitement but what is more interesting is the picture above the door which depicts a couple of pigs which is probably a reminder that many who raced across country to make their fortune were simple pig farmers who struggled to eke out a living wage for their family.

 In 1834, William Mount met Luman Reed.   Luman Reed, who was born in 1784, was a farmer’s son from upstate New York.  He made a fortune in the wholesale grocery business in New York City and through his love of paintings, built up one of America’s most important collections of paintings, concentrating on American art of his own time.  He became patrons to such American artists as Asher Durand, Thomas Cole and George Flagg, just to name a few.  Luman Reed liked the works of William Mount and bought two of his paintings, Bargaining for a Horse and The Truant Gamblers (Undutiful Boys).

 

Bargaining for a Horse by William Sidney Mount (1835)

Bargaining for a Horse by William Sidney Mount (1835)

The painting, Bargaining for a Horse, which he completed in 1835, is probably one of the best known and best loved of William Mount’s works of Art.  The original title for the painting was Farmers Bargaining but when the painting was published as an engraving five years later the title was changed to Bargaining for a Horse.  When Luman Reed received the completed painting he was delighted and commented that this was “a new era of the fine arts of the country”.  There was a political connotation to this work by Mount as the phrase “horse trading” referred to a promise of material benefit in return for political support.  Mount’s original title for the painting did not so much allude to that colloquialism but the changed title in 1840 made it more apparent to all those who viewed the work.

 Look at the two men.  There is no eye contact between the seller and the buyer.  Both concentrate on the whittling of the wood almost as if the sale is of little importance.  Maybe the concentration they have given to the wood carving gives them time to think about their next step in the bargaining process.  It is a beautifully composed work which has been skilfully painted.   It is a painting which combines humour, warmth, and razor sharp observation.

 Luman Reed was delighted with his painting and wrote to William Mount in November 1835:

 “…This is a new era of fine arts in this Country, we have native talent and it is coming out as rapidly as is necessary.  Your picture of the ‘Bargain’ is the wonder and delight of everyone that sees it…”

The Truant Gamblers (Undutiful Boys) by William S Mount (1835.)

The Truant Gamblers (Undutiful Boys) by William S Mount (1835.)

A month later Mount wrote to Luman Reed telling him of the other painting he had completed for him.  He wrote:

 “…You will receive with this letter a picture: ‘Undutiful Boys’.   Boys hustling coppers on the barn floor……….My price for the picture ‘Undutiful Boys’ two hundred and twenty dollars.  I hope the picture will meet your approbation…”

 A week later Luman Reed wrote back  to Mount:

 “… I yesterday received your much awaited letter of the 4th Instant with your beautiful Picture of the ‘Undutiful Boys’.  To say that this picture is satisfactory is not enough, and the least I can say is that it pleases me exceedingly.  It is a beautiful specimen of art.   The interior is far superior to any thing of the kind I have seen, it is all good and therefore I need not particularize, the price is perfectly satisfactory and the money is ready for you any day you want it.  I pride myself on having now two of your Pictures and what I consider your best productions and hope yet to have more but it is no more than fair that others should be gratified too and I must wait until you execute some other commissions…”

 In the painting we see a group of young boys who have decided to abandon their farming chores and, instead, decided to spend some time gambling for pennies.  Happy with their decision to forego work, what they do not realise is that the farmer is approaching, pitchfork and switch in his hands and punishment is imminent.  This type of genre painting featuring life on the farm was popular in those days as life was changing from an agrarian one to an industrial one and rural life soon became somewhere to relax and enjoy and for people like Luman Reed who was brought up in the Hudson River town of Coxsackie and later moved to the hustle and bustle of New York City, paintings depicting life on the farm may have brought him fond memories of his childhood days.  For him this painting was a nostalgic one

At the Well by William S Mount

At the Well by William S Mount

In 1837 William Mount left New York City and returned home to Stony Brook and Setauket on Long Island and remained there for the rest of his life with just the odd trips back to New York.  He was content to paint rural scenes and the characters who worked on the farmsteads.   He maintained his portraiture work as this was a good source of income.  Unlike a number of his contemporaries he showed no inclination to travel to Europe to experience artistic life in London, Paris or Rome.  Mount fully captivated the rich European artistic legacy that was imported to the United States. It was through engravings, books and copies of European masterpieces, that Mount received a complete schooling in the academic tradition of art and by doing so became America’s first great genre painter.  He lived quite a sheltered life and unlike his brothers, he never married.

When we look at his works of art we are struck by the amount of detail in them.  Mount loved detail and worked painstakingly slow to ensure no detail was omitted from the finished work and this resulted in a small number of completed works, believed to be no more than two hundred completed in the thirty years that he painted.

The Raffle (Raffling for the Goose) by William S Mount (1837)

The Raffle (Raffling for the Goose) by William S Mount (1837)

My last featured painting is one of my favourites.  It is entitled The Raffle (Raffling the Goose) which William Mount completed in 1837 and is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  In this work, like a number of his other paintings Mount liked to highlight the social and political issues of the time.  Before us we see six men gathered around a table eagerly awaiting the result of an impromptu lottery to see who had won the plump goose which lies in front of them.  If you look carefully at the table you will see signs of blood which indicate the bird had recently been killed and plucked.  Such lotteries were common in the rural communities of Long Island around this time.  The year 1837 was a year of hardship for Americans.  The Panic of 1837, as it was known, was the financial crisis in the United States that touched off a major recession that lasted until the mid-1840’s. Profits, prices and wages went down while unemployment went up.  Mount alluded to food shortages during this hard time in this painting and what people had to do to survive and put food on the family table.  Mount worked on the painting through the winter of 1836 and completed it early in 1837.  Mount exhibited the painting that year at the National Academy of Design Spring Exhibition.

In the first part of this William S Mount trilogy I talked about his inventive nature and how he had invented a violin/fiddle which produced a larger volume of noise.  In about 1860 Mount designed a portable studio and home on wheels which was drawn by horses. It afforded him the opportunity to drive himself around the area and paint en plein air.   He spent much time during his last years in this unique conveyance, but sadly, due to ill health, his painting days were almost over.

The Grave of William Sidney Mount, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, East Setauket, New York.

The Grave of William Sidney Mount, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, East Setauket, New York.

William Sidney Mount died on November 19th 1868, at Setauket and is buried in the Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

William Sydney Mount House, Stony Brook, NY

William Sydney Mount House, Stony Brook, NY

His home and studio, now known as The William Sidney Mount House is one of America’s National Treasures.   One of the local elementary schools in The Three Village Central School District, a district in Long Island so named from the older, original “Three Villages” of Setauket, Stony Brook and Old Field, is named after the artist.

There were so many paintings I could have included but these are just a few of my favourites.  Besides the usual internet sources I gleaned a lot of my information from an old book I just bought entitled William Sidney Mount by Alfred Frankenstein.  The William Sidney Mount House at Stony Brook, Long Island houses numerous works of art by William Sidney Mount and I would be interested to hear from anybody who has visited the museum.

Posted in American artists, Art, Art Blog, Art History, Genre painting, Genre paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

William Sidney Mount. Part 2 – The Portraitist, and some of his early historical works

Self portrait by William S Mount (1832)

Self portrait by William S Mount (1832)

In my last blog I looked at the early life of William Sidney Mount, hailed as the first American genre artist.  I looked at his love for music and how he depicted song and dance in his paintings.  Today I want to carry on with his life story and take a look at his early works and his portraiture.

 William had been working for his brother, Henry Smith Mount, at his sign writing business in Setauket and enjoyed it.  At first he found the work interesting and challenging but later found the painting of signs somewhat restrictive.  He gave up working for his brother and moved to New York to live with his uncle Micah Hawkins, who operated a tavern and grocery store in New York City.  His uncle was also a composer, playwright, and poet.  Micah combined music and storytelling into his theatrical productions which often delved into what was happening in politics and much of these ideas were to influence his nephew and his paintings.

  It was also around this time that William Mount visited his first art gallery, the American Academy in New York and in 1826 he enrolled at the newly opened National Academy of Design, an artistic establishment founded by a number of young painters such as Asher Durand, Thomas Cole, and Samuel Morse.  In those early years William Mount’s art was all about portraits and historical scenes.  William remained at the Academy for a year before returning home.

Saul and the Witch of Endor by William S. Mount (1828)

Saul and the Witch of Endor by William S. Mount (1828)

One of his early works was entitled Saul and the Witch of Endor, which he completed in 1828 and can now be found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.   The painting depicts a passage from the Old Testament book of Samuel which tells of Saul and his battle with the Philistines.

 “… The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all Israel and set up camp at Gilboa. When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart.  He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.  Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.

‘There is one in Endor,’ they said…”

 Saul seeks help from the oracle from Endor prior to him going into battle with the Philistines.  She summons the spirit of the prophet Samuel so that Saul could ask for his guidance.  In the painting we see Saul and his three companions cower in fear as the ghostly apparition approaches them.

Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus by William S Mount (1828)

Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus by William S Mount (1828)

In that same year he produced another biblical work based on Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 9:23-26).  It was entitled Raising of Jairus’ Daughter.  The subject of this biblical work had been depicted many times before by great artists such as Veronese.  The bible relates the story:

“…When Jesus entered the synagogue leader’s house and saw the noisy crowd and people playing pipes, he said, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him   After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up.   News of this spread through all that region…”

William’s brother Henry was so impressed with the finished painting that he persuaded his brother to submit it at the annual National Academy exhibition.  It was well praised by the Academy professors.  William was now living at his brother’s place on Nassau Street, Lower Manhatten and had a studio in the attic.  He enjoyed painting historical and biblical works but the sales of which were not bringing in enough money so he reverted to portraiture which was always a guaranteed way of raising income.

Ruth Hawkins Mount Seabury and Son Charles Edward by William S Mount (1828)

Ruth Hawkins Mount Seabury and Son Charles Edward by William S Mount (1828)

One of his early works of portraiture was a family portrait entitled Ruth Hawkins Mount Seabury and Son Charles Edward,  which he completed in 1828.  It depicts his nineteen year old sister Ruth Hawkins Mount and her infant son Charles Edward Seabury, the first of her seven children.

Ruth Mount Seabury by William S Mount (1831)

Ruth Mount Seabury by William S Mount (1831)

William Mount completed a portrait of his sister, Ruth in 1831.

I suppose if you are looking for people to sit for you for a portrait, you turn firstly to your family and in 1828 he completed a portrait of his eldest brother, and his former employer, Henry Smith Mount.

Portrait of Henry Smith Mount by William S Mount (1831)

Portrait of Henry Smith Mount by William S Mount (1831)

Three years later, in 1831, Henry Smith Mount was the subject of another of his younger brother’s portraits.  This portrait of his eldest brother (by five years) is a masterful portrait.  He has depicted his brother as a man of great self-confidence, a man who comes across as a thoughtful academic and yet, a man who by his facial expression, seems stern and somewhat menacing, as he stares out at us, lost in his own thoughts.

Henry Smith Mount on his deathbed by William S Mount (1841)

Henry Smith Mount on his deathbed by William S Mount (1841)

Thirteen years on he completed another depiction of his brother, Henry.  The circumstances surrounding this watercolour were much sadder as this was completed in January 1841 and the setting was Henry’s deathbed.  Henry was just thirty nine years of age.

Shepherd Alonzo Mount by William S Mount (1847)

Shepherd Alonzo Mount by William S Mount (1847)

In 1847 William Mount painted a portrait of his other brother, Shepherd Alonzo Mount.

Portrait of Jedediah Williamson by William S Mount (c. 1837)

Portrait of Jedediah Williamson by William S Mount (c. 1837)

The next example of William Mount’s portraiture is one he completed in 1837 and was entitled Portrait of Jedediah Williamson.  It is a depiction of a ten year old boy commissioned by his family.  It is a full frontal depiction of the young lad and Mount has carefully and with great skill portrayed the boy’s facial features.  It is a very peaceful depiction of the boy as he looks out into the distance.  The family would have been very pleased to have received the work from Mount and it is recorded that they paid him fifteen dollars for the painting.  However there is a sad twist to this portrayal as this is a “mourning painting” or as Mount referred to them, “a painting after death”.  The boy had died and this portrait was in honour of him and may have given the family a modicum of comfort during the sadness of their great loss.  These “mourning paintings” were very popular at the time and artists found they could achieve a steady income from paintings which, for relatives, served as a reminder of a loved one who had passed away. One should remember that between 1861 and 1865 over 350,000 Americans died during the American Civil War, the families of many just had an artist’s painting to remind them of their lost son or daughter.

Portrait of Reuben Merrill by William S Mount (1832)

Portrait of Reuben Merrill by William S Mount (1832)

Another interesting portrait by William Mount was one entitled Portrait of Reuben Merrill.  It was one of Mount’s early works which he completed in 1832.  The question, which is yet to be resolved, is who is Reuben?  Some believe he was a gardener whilst others say he was a simple field worker on the farm owned by William’s sister, Ruth and her husband, Charles Saltonstall Seabury.  The fact that he identity of the sitter used by Mount is somewhat of a mystery is not uncommon as a number of the sitters in Mount’s portraits are unknown.  There is warmth about how Mount has depicted this man.  His face is weather beaten from all the outside work but he has compassionate eyes, which leads us to believe that although he was just a poor and simple labourer, there was some sort of warm connection between him and the artist which probably testifies to the fact that he was a hard worker and appreciated by his employers.

Portrait of Midshipman Seabury by William S Mount (1868)

Portrait of Midshipman Seabury by William S Mount (1868)

My last example of Mount’s portraiture was also thought to have been his last artistic work.  It was completed in September 1868, less than two months before Mount’s death, and was a pencil sketch of his nineteen year old nephew Samuel Seabury.  Samuel was one of seven children.  His mother was Ruth Hawkins Mount Seabury, William Sidney Mount’s younger sister, and his father was Charles Saltonhall Seabury.   At the time of the portrait, Samuel Seabury was a midshipman in the navy, and the ship in the left hand background is a reminder of his profession.

In my next blog I will take my final look at William Sidney Mount and his work and I will feature some of his excellent non-musical genre work.

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William Sidney Mount. Part 1. The Music Man

William Sidney Mount

William Sidney Mount

Genre art is defined as the pictorial representation of scenes or events from everyday life.  They often depict settings such as a marketplace or tavern or simply everyday occurrences in houses or in the street.  They can be either realistic depictions or imagined ones which may have been romanticised by the artist.  These works of art have one or more persons in the depiction carrying on with their everyday life notwithstanding how unglamorous it may be.  When one thinks of genre paintings one immediately thinks of the seventeenth century art of the Low Countries, the art of the Golden Age, and of the art of Gerard Dou, Gerard te Borch, Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen just to name a few.  I love this type of art and today I am focusing on another artist who was renowned for his genre works of art.  He however was not from Europe but from America.  He was the nineteenth century American genre artist and portraitist, often looked upon as one of the first American genre painter, the great William S. Mount.  In this blog, I will look at his early life, ponder over his connection with music and showcase some of his works which were influenced by his love of music.

William Sidney Mount was born on November 26th 1807 in Setauket , a small town on the northern side of Long Island, New York. He was the son of Thomas Shepherd Mount and Julia Ann Hawkins.  He was the fourth of five children with three older brothers, Henry Smith Mount, Shepherd Alonzo Mount and Robert Nelson Mount and a younger sister, Ruth Hawkins Mount.  His maternal grandfather was Jonas Hawkins, an American Patriot and a member of the notorious Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution, whose task it was to send messages to General Washington about the activities of the British Army in New York City which was the British headquarters and base of operations.

Portrait of William Sydney Mount by Charles Loring Elliott. (1848)

Portrait of William Sydney Mount by Charles Loring Elliott. (1848)

William recalled those very early traumatic days as an infant, presumably told to him by his relatives.  According to him he was literally left for dead.  He wrote:

“…The first and most remarkable event of my life occurred when I was about 6 or 7 months old.  I was taken from my Mother (she being very sick) to be brought up by hand – I soon declined for want of proper or abundant nourishment and after several days [was] considered dead by my kind nurse and tenderly laid away as so.  My Father’ sister being sent for to make further arrangements concerning me observed signs of life and immediately commenced nourishing me…”

Due to his mother’s poor health his grandmother played an important role in his upbringing.  In October 1814, a month before William’s seventh birthday, his father died and his mother took him and his four siblings to live on the Stony Brook farmstead owned by her family.  For the next ten years William and his brothers worked on the farm.  It was whilst living at the farmstead that, through his uncle, Micah Hawkins, who had a passion for music and the theatre that William and his siblings developed a love for music, especially the playing of the fiddle which William would often play at barn dances.

Cradle of Harmony

Cradle of Harmony

Barn dances were very popular with the farming communities but for them to be a success they needed a good fiddler and one such expert was young William Mount.  Barn dances were raucous and merry events and it could be difficult to hear the lone fiddler amongst the “whooping and hollering” of the dancers and so William decided to invent and instrument which could supply loud music.   In 1852 he designed a violin with a hollow back to make it sound louder than a normal violin and he patented it and called it The Cradle of  Harmony.

 However it was his younger brother Robert, the only one of the family who was not attracted to art who would turn out to be the accomplished musician and dance instructor.  Music however played a part in William Mount’s art as many of his paintings were a blend of music and art.

William Mount worked on the family farm at Stony Brook until 1824, when, at the age of seventeen, he was apprenticed to his older brother Henry, who was a sign and ornamental painter in New York City. It was also around this time that his other brother, Shepherd, became a fellow apprentice. From these small artistic beginnings, all three brothers soon became painters. William, who had taken up drawing seriously when he was eighteen years old studied for a short time with the leading American portraitist of the time, Henry Inman.  However William’s studies with Inman came to an end due to lack of tuition money and his own poor health and he returned home to Setauket in 1827.

Dancing on the Barn Floor by William S Mount (1831)

Dancing on the Barn Floor by William S Mount (1831)

The painting entitled Dancing on the Barn Floor, which he completed in 1831, was one of Mount’s earliest successes and combines his love of music with his talent as an artist.  The painting is a perfect example of how his studies in perspective influenced him. The converging lines at the centre of the painting are textbook examples of how students were taught to organize their canvases.  The painting is housed in the Long Island Museum of American Art, located in Stony Brook, New York.

Catching the Tune by William Sidney Mount (1866)

Catching the Tune by William Sidney Mount (1866)

Another work by Mount which focused on music was his painting entitled Catching the Tune, which he completed in 1866William wrote in his diary that the tune the musician was playing in this painting was Possum Up a Gum Tree, a title still known today and attached to more than one distinct tune in the South and Midwest.  All three men as well as the women onlookers are white. However, what is interesting is that a a study sketch that Mount did for this painting depicts the musicians’ faces with a subtle increase in African features.

The Banjo Player by William S Mount (1856)

The Banjo Player by William S Mount (1856)

Probably two of his most famous works of art are a combination of portraiture and genre painting.   He completed both in 1856 featuring African American musicians.  They were entitled The Bone Player and The Banjo Player and both had been commissioned by William Schaus.  Schaus was the New York city agent for the European firm of the printers Goupil & Company, who had asked for two pictures of African-American musicians, to be lithographed for the European market.   One should remember that the time Mount completed these works was just five years before the outbreak of the American Civil War and feelings regarding slavery was about to split the country.  Mount was not known as an abolitionist but he was an artist who was in tune with the feelings of the African-American folk and his art always depicted the black man with dignity and sensitivity notwithstanding whether they were portrayed at work or at play.  His art made it very clear that everybody, black and white, should be judged for their own worth and not by the colour of their skin.  There was a simplicity about the two portraits.  It was all about enjoyment.

The Bone Player by William Mount (1856)

The Bone Player by William Mount (1856)

By entitling the painting The Bone Player, Mount points out that the work of art is all about the musical skill of the man and not the man himself.   The two sets of bones, one in each hand, are made of wood or bone and are clicked together.  This instrument has always been connected with African-American minstrels, and was easily recognised as such by folks on both sides of the Atlantic.  There was a good market in Europe for this type of work with all its mystic and exoticism.  In some ways Mount’s depiction of the African-American in both portraits was neutral and he left it up to the purchaser of the works how they wanted to interpret what they saw in the painting and this neutrality made the works appealing to Americans from both the North and the South.

Dance of the Haymakers by William S Mount (1845)

Dance of the Haymakers by William S Mount (1845)

A painting by William S Mount which brings out the joy of barn dancing is one he completed in 1845, entitled Dance of the Haymakers.  It is said that Mount was inspired to paint this scene when he heard the song Shep Jones’ Hornpipe, composed by his neighbour Shep Jones who can be seen depicted in the painting as the fiddler.

The description of the work was outlined in a letter from William Mount to William Schaus of Goupil, Vibert & Company written on April 16th 1849.  Mount wrote:

“…[The depiction] represents a barnfloor scene, opening upon a fiddler, two Long Islanders, dancing with great energy, and an old man listening with his fancy evidently touched by the performance at the right, and on the out side of the barn, a negro boy is adding to the excitement and noise by drumming on the door, evidently delighted with the ‘concord of sweet music’ which he thinks he produces.  The noise of the clog hoppers, the music, and the loud laughter of the lookers on, is enough to arouse the village Parson.  The last and not least, a cat watching a dog from ma hollow beneath the door sill, is marvellous for its life and finish, quite equal to the celebrated master pieces of the kind in the Dutch school…

In my next blog I will carry on the story of William S Mount’s life and look at his wonderful portraiture and some more of his genre paintings.

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