Natalia Goncharova and Rayonism

Natalia Goncharova       1881 - 1962

Natalia Goncharova
1881 – 1962

In my blog today I want to look at the life of the avant-garde Russian painter, stage designer and printmaker, Natal’ya (Sergeevna) Goncharova.   Natalia was born in Russia on her father’s estate in the Tula governate in June 1881.  She was the daughter of Sergey Mikhaylovich Goncharov, a renowned architect and mathematician, and her mother was Yekaterina Il’icha Belyayeva.  However, in her early infant days she grew up in her grandmother’s home at Ladyzhino, near Kaluga. When she was ten years old, the family moved to Moscow and she attended the Fourth Gymnasium for Girls in Moscow and in 1898, when she was seventeen years old she decided to study sculpture and enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture as a sculpture student where her tutor was Paolo Troubetskoy.  It was at this establishment in 1900 that she met and became friends with fellow student, Mikhail Larionov.  He had enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture at the same time as Goncharova, studying painting under Isaac Levitan and Valentin Serov.  Larionov was a student with very contentious and provocative views and was suspended from the academy on three occasions for his deep-seated opinions.   He and Goncharova became lifelong friends and he was to have a great influence on her.  It was Larionov who persuaded Goncharova to switch from studying sculpture to concentrate on studying painting.

Natalya Goncharova by Laborov

Natalya Goncharova by Laborov

Goncharova’s early work concentrated on the medium of pastels and her first works were showcased at the Diaghilev’s Russian Art Exhibition, which was held in Paris in 1906 at the Salon d’Automne and a year later her first paintings were shown at the Moskovskoye Tovarishchestvo Khudozhnikov (Moscow Association of Artists) of which she was a member.  At this time, her friend Larionov’s painting style was that of Impressionism and Natalya, for a time, also became interested in the style which had become so popular in France.  In 1908 she took part in the Golden Fleece exhibition and it was during this show that she became more aware of a modern style of art with the works of Bonnard, Matisse, Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec.  The influence of these painters made Goncharova rethink her artistic style.

Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)

Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)

In 1909 she completed a work of art, which highlighted her much-loved topic that of Russian peasants hard at work on the land.  The painting, which is currently housed at the Tate Liverpool, is entitled Gardening.  It is a painting, which is typical of her depictions of peasant life and was made around the time of her stay on a family estate in rural Russia.  Of this style of painting and her patriotism, she explained:

‘…If I extol the art of my country, then it is because I think that it … should occupy a more honourable place than it has done hitherto…”

In the painting we immediately sense her love for colour and her depiction of the peasants is a somewhat stylistic portrayal.  The display caption at the Tate describes the way she has portrayed the subjects shown in the paintings as:

 “…Her statuesque peasants, with their thickset bodies and massive limbs, are imbued with a heroic grandeur…”

 Her subsequent works were so colourful that they were likened to the work of the Fauves, which was an avant-garde movement that thrived in France during the first decade of the twentieth century, led by the likes of Matisse and Derain, these artists were the first to split from the Impressionism.

Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)

Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)

  In 1910, Goncharova became one of the founder members of the Jack of Diamonds group, sometimes referred to as Knave of Diamonds.  This group of painters was deemed to be the first group of Russian avant-garde artists and it was Mikhail Larionov who came up with the group’s name.   This collection of painters came from both Moscow and nearby provinces and most of them, including Goncharova, had studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  They were all influenced by the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse.  Once again we see a group of artists coming together with the common idea that they would discard the links with traditional art, and discard the knowledge that they were taught at their alma mater. For them, it was all about change and new artistic ideas.  Goncharova exhibited a number of her works in the group’s first exhibition in December 1910.  Their art was not loved by everybody, in fact it horrified some.  The influential Russian artist, art critic, historian criticised the group of young artists for having gone too far in overthrowing accepted artistic ideals.  Many other critics and members of the public declared that many of the works of art shown at the exhibition were in bad taste, gauche and lacked artistic elegance and some were even criticised as being too violent.

Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

She exhibited another example of her Primitivist style art at the 1912 Jack of Diamond exhibition.  It had been completed a couple of years earlier and was entitled Fishing.  Again the style is similar to her painting Gardening and is part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and is housed in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

 Another one of the paintings which Goncharova exhibited was entitled The Evangelists and this was among her first mature works devoted to a religious subject.   In her 1962 book, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, art historian, Camilla Gray, the daughter-in-law of Sergei Prokoviev, wrote:

“...The depiction is typical of Russian iconic paintings and so is a combination of old and new influences in Russian art. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of these four paintings is their effective use of color, line, and composition to create a strong rhythmic whole. Goncharova manipulates these elements with such understanding and perception that when one looks at the four authors of the Gospels there are no distractions and no weak points — only strength and security in a modern interpretation of tradition and native style. Both line and color become here “expressive entities in their own right” and convey the sense of calm spirituality and wisdom treasured by icon painters. However, what the Neo-primitivists of Goncharova’s time might have treasured most was an almost childish “directness and simplicity” characteristic of folk art which they tried to imitate in their works. Today, the four paintings of the Evangelists may be admired for many reasons, and regardless of the basis for the viewer’s appreciation, they definitely are an integral part of the Russian avant-garde movement…”

This religious work by Goncharova was heavily criticised for its primitive depiction and the critics believed no religious work should be associated with a group known as The Donkey’s Tail as it was bordering on blasphemy and so it was removed from the exhibition.

Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Natalia Gonchorova produced a series of paintings in 1911 that became known as the Peacocks.  They were highly colourful and were influenced by Larionov and his new style of work at the time which was termed Rayonism or Luchism (luch being the Russian word for “ray”) which was a type of abstract or semi-abstract painting.  The Rayonists sought an art that floated beyond abstraction, outside of time and space, and to break the barriers between the artist and the public. They derived the name from the use of dynamic rays of contrasting colour, representing lines of reflected light — crossing of reflected rays from various objects.  .The painting seen above is an example of this and is entitled Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) which can be found in the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow.  The museum’s description of the work states:

“…The works in question combine the laws of Ancient Egyptian art and traditions of Russian folk art. The figure of peacock is transformed into an expressive sign. The bird’s chiselled head and elegant neck are shown in profile, whereas the magnificent tail is spread in front, as prescribed by Ancient Egyptian art. Between them is a green oval providing a background for the neck, head and body. The peacock seems to be examining its own tail in surprise, the tail resembling a grand architectural structure. It resembles at the same time the Coliseum, an arched iconostasis, a rainbow and palette. Unlike the artists of Art Nouveau, who associated peacock feathers with elegant luxury, Goncharova interprets this motif as primordial power, expressed in colours. The image of peacock seems to embody the ancient symbol of immortality…”

All was not well within the Jack of Diamond group as a rigorous debate took place between, on one side, David Burliuk, who was a fervent supporter and strongly supportive of Western art, and on the other side, Natalia Goncharova and Larionov, who favoured Russian themes. The two parties could not agree a compromise and so the Russian artists split into two camps. In the one corner was David Burliuk with his supporters, such as Alexi von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky, who favoured the art which was influenced by Western painters.  In the other corner was the more traditional camp, including Goncharova and Larionov, who believed that a modern Russian art should address the question of national artistic traditions and therefore they disassociated themselves from the Jack of Diamonds on the grounds that Burliuk was a “decadent Munich follower” while the others, known as Cézanne-ists, were conservative and eclectic..

Sunset Over the Adriatic by the ficticious Genoese painter  Joachim Raphale Baronali

Sunset Over the Adriatic by the ficticious Genoese painter Joachim Raphale Baronali

A year later in 1911 the more radical artists in the group, including Goncharova and Larionov, broke away and formed a new artist’s group which Larionov launched as Osliny khvost (the Donkey’s Tail), in order to promote avant-garde art inspired exclusively by Russian themes.  The name, The Donkey’s Tail, derived from a famous Parisian hoax in which the art critic, Roland Dorgelès and Fréderic Gérard, proprietor of the Montmartre café, Le Lapin Agile, had painted a lurid red and blue seascape by tying a paintbrush to a donkey’s tail. The work was exhibited as Sunset Over the Adriatic under the name of Joachim Raphale Baronali at the Salon des Indépendants of 1910 apparently without comment.

Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo

Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo

That year, Ilya Repin recounted the incident of the donkey’s tail in his review of Izdebsky’s International Exhibition and used the term as a critical epithet for the modernist work on show. Shortly afterwards, the Russian press satirized the Knave of Diamonds exhibition by publishing a cartoon of a donkey painting with its tail, with the cynical caption:

“…Off home already after looking round just one hall. Don’t be shy. Get your sixty kopeks worth and next year come again. Then we will change the name and under the sign of ‘the Donkey’s Tail’ we will show you the way we paint our pictures...”

In adopting this name for his group, Larionov beat the critics with their own stick.  Other artists to join the group were Marc Chagal and Kazimir Malevich.  The group, however, was only short-lived, disbanding at the end of 1912 having only managing to stage one exhibition in the March of 1912.  Goncharova submitted over fifty works of art to this exhibition.

The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova

The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova

Goncharova continued with her Rayonist works of art but unlike her friend Larionov her paintings depicted distinguishable objects or people, whereas Larionov’s paintings became more pure abstract. One of her most famous works of that period was one entitled The Cyclist in which her depiction cleverly captures the energy of the man on his bike as he passes by.  The blurred background adds to the sense of speed and movement.

Goncharova and Larionov were fervent believers of Rayonism, so much so they issued a joint manifesto in 1913 of what Rayonism meant to them.  The manifesto entitled Rayonists and Futurists, The Manifesto, began with:

“…We, rayonists and futurists, do not wish to speak about new or old art, and even less about modern Western art. We leave the old art to die and leave the “new” art to do battle with it; and incidentally, apart from a battle and a very easy one, the “new” art cannot advance anything of its own. It is useful to put manure on barren ground, but this dirty work does not interest us. People shout about enemies closing in on them, but in fact, these enemies are, in any case, their closest friends. Their argument with old art long since departed is nothing but a resurrection of the dead, a boring, decadent love of paltriness and a stupid desire to march at the head of contemporary, philistine interests. We are not declaring any war, for where can we find an opponent our equal? The future is behind us. All the same we will crush in our advance all those who undermine us and all those who stand aside. We don’t need popularization—our art will, in any case, take its full place in life—that’s a matter of time……..”

The American art historian, Camilla Gray, in her book gave her definition of Rayonism as:

“…[as an art style which] encompasses all existing styles and forms of the art of the past, as they, like life, are simply points of departure for a Rayonist perception and construction of a picture…”

Larionov and Goncharova started to believe that light was the indispensable source of our sensory appreciation of the world and believed that for any object to be observed it had to be lit up and the Rayonist style was to incorporate rays of light that then allows us to view a particular scene. Their manifesto explained:

 “…In fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision…”

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

In March 1913 Goncharova’s friend Larionov organised an exhibition entitled Mishen (Target) to introduce the Donkey’s Tail group of painters to the Moscow art critics and public.  One of the paintings Goncharova exhibited at the show was entitled La Forêt (The Forest) which is now part of the National Gallery of Scotland collection.  Although this is looked upon as an example of Goncharova’s Rayonist style with its coloured rays shooting out in different directions, it offers up the thought that Goncharova was more influenced by the Cubist style when she painted this work.  The shapes she has used in the depiction of trees in this work was replicated in a number of her works around this time.  It is a truly fascinating work.

 

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

Goncharova went on to design ballet costumes and sets for ballets in Geneva and in 1914 she and Larionov moved to Paris to work alongside the great Russian ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghliev, during which time they designed a number of stage sets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  Goncharova still found time to carry on painting and exhibited works at the Salon d’Automne, Salon des Tuileries and the Salon des Indépendants.

Goncharova was quite a controversial character.  She was a woman that did not “toe the line” of convention.  It was said that she would sometimes appear topless in public, with symbols painted on her body. In a sense, their use of odd, possibly meaningless symbols united the masses with the past Symbolist aesthetic. In John Bowlt’s 1990 article in the Art Journal entitled Natalia Goncharova and Futurist Theatre, he commented on her bizarre behaviour writing:

“…in private relations and behavior, Goncharova enjoyed a license that only actresses and gypsies were permitted, and perhaps because of this dubious social reputation rather than as the result of any apparent innuendos in her paintings, she was said to traverse the ‘boundary of decency’ and to ‘hurt your eyes…”

According to Mary Charmot who wrote an article in 1955 for the Burlington Magazine entitled The Early Work of Goncharova and Larionov, Diaghliev was full of praise for this unconventional painter who had brought life to his ballets.  He talked of her, saying:

“…The most celebrated of these advanced painters is a woman. [. . .] This woman has all Saint Petersburg and all Moscow at her feet. And you will be interested to know that she has imitators not only of her paintings but of her person. She has started a fashion of nightdress-frocks in black and white, blue and orange. But that is nothing. She has painted flowers on her face. And soon the nobility and Bohemia will be driving out in sledges, with horses and houses drawn and painted on their cheeks, foreheads and necks…”

Project poster for the ballet by Manuel de Falla, El amor brujo by Natalia Goncharova (1935)

Project poster for the ballet by Manuel de Falla, El amor brujo by Natalia Goncharova (1935)

Goncharova and Larionov had lived together shortly after their first meeting in 1900 as fellow students at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and they stayed together as an unmarried couple for more than fifty years.  She and Larionov became French citizens in 1939 and in 1955 the two artists married.  The reason for marrying so late in their romantic relationship was believed to be so that their paintings would revert to the surviving partner.  In the latter years Larionov and Goncharova suffered financially.   Goncharova suffered badly with arthritis in her hands and it is said that to carry on painting she had to tie the paint brushes to her wrist.  Goncharova died in Paris, in October 1962 and Larionov died two years later.

So what happened to their works of art?  The story goes that when the couple had both died, most of their collections were inherited by another Russian émigré, Alexandra Tomilina, who had met Larionov in the 1930’s when she was his student, and later became his mistress.   After Goncharova died in 1962, Larionov married Tomilina in order that she would inherit all the paintings, which by this time was numbered in the thousands, and by doing so the two artists would continue to be remembered and therefore it would safeguard both artists’ legacies.  Sadly Tomilina had always viewed Goncharova as a love rival and so hated her, so much so that she gave away, destroyed or disposed of many of Goncharova’s works. Tomalina’s old age became one of a life of poverty and so, desperate to pay off her debts, contacted the Soviet authorities and offered them all the remaining artworks if they would financially support her for the rest of her life.  This they agreed to.  When Tomilina died in 1987, her ashes were buried in Goncharova and Larionov’s double grave

Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

After her death, Goncharova was almost forgotten as a painter in the West. Why?  Maybe it was because she painted in many styles — Cubism, Futurism, Neo-Primitivism, Rayism, and  also maybe because she worked in many forms, from oil painting to textile design. This lack of recognition was all to change in 2007 when her work, Picking Apples, which she completed in 1909, was sold at Christie’s Modern and Impressionist sale in London for £4.9 million ($9.8 million), a record for a female artist, only to be bested a year later when her painting, The Flowers, sold for £5.53 million ($10.8 million).

The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)

The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)

Goncharova’s life, like her art, was very colourful.  She was unconventional and actually fell foul of the law on a number of occasions.  She was tried for pornography after a show of nude paintings in 1910 and as I mentioned earlier, her religious paintings were forcibly removed from several exhibitions and for a time were banned by the Holy Synod.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Female painters, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Rayonism, Russian artist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Maria Luise Katharina Breslau

Self portrait by Louise Breslau (1891)

Self portrait by Louise Breslau (1891)

In my recent blogs looking at the life of Marie Bashkirtseff, I talked about the time she spent studying art at the Académie Julian in Paris and her rivalry with her fellow artist Louise Breslau.  Despite the wealthy lifestyle of Bashkirtseff she was still constantly jealous of Breslau, who she perceived as her rival at the academy.  She was also very jealous of Breslau’s friendship with contemporary artists such as Edgar Degas.  So today, I thought I should dedicate this blog to her rival, and look at the life and works of the German-born artist, Louise Breslau.

Two young girls sitting on a banquette by Louise Breslau (1896)

Two young girls sitting on a banquette by Louise Breslau (1896)

Maria Luise Katharina Breslau, who would later be known simply as Louise Catherine Breslau,  was born in Munich in December 1856 but spent much of her early life in Zurich. She was born into a prosperous middle-class family.   Louise had three younger sisters Marie-Henrietta, Emma and Bernadette.  Her father was an eminent obstetrician and gynaecologist and in 1858 he and his family moved to Zurich where he took up a position as head physician in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University Hospital of Zurich.

Louise suffered badly from asthma when she was young and was often confined to her bed and it was due to this enforced confinement, that to pass the time and counter loneliness, she immersed herself in reading and also developed a love of sketching.

La fille à l'orange by Louise Breslau (1897)

La fille à l’orange by Louise Breslau (1897)

In 1866, When Louise was nine years old, her father died of staph infection which he contracted during the execution of a postmortem examination. Louise, even though still very young, was tasked with helping her mother to bring up her three younger sisters.  When her health worsened, she spent some time in a convent near to Lake Constance where with its warmer climate it was hoped that her health would improve.   It was during her stay at the convent that she became more interested in art and she continued to sketch and paint during her teenage years.  Her love of art and her artistic ability became apparent to her mother who persuaded Louise to attend the drawing classes of the local Swiss portrait painter, Eduard Pfyffer.  She excelled under his tuition but after a while she believed that she had learnt all she could from Pfyffer and she wanted her art to be more than just a pleasing hobby.  All young ladies of a certain class, besides learning about domestic skills, were also encouraged to be able to play a musical instrument and be able to paint or sketch.   However, Louise wanted art not to be just a pleasant pastime, she wanted to become a professional artist and to achieve this she knew she had to leave Switzerland, move to the European capital of art, Paris, and enrol at a specialist art academy.   In 1876 she went to Paris but like many other female artists who wanted the best art training that Paris could offer, she was disappointed with the ruling of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts that only male artists would be allowed to enter their hallowed establishment.  This sexist ruling did not change until 1897.  So, like Bashkirtseff, she enrolled at the Académie Julian who catered for aspiring female painters.

Children reading by Louise Breslau

Children reading by Louise Breslau

Her fellow students at the Académie Julian included the Ukrainian artist, Marie Bashkirtseff, Madeleine Zillhardt, the French painter, Sophie Schäppi who, like Louise, had come to Paris from Switzerland and the Irish painter, Sarah Purser.  Louise excelled at the academy and was looked upon by her tutors as one of their best students and this fact did not lie well with Marie Bashkirtseff who was inordinately jealous of her fellow student. In 1879, Louise Breslau, Sophie Schäppi and the singer Maria Fuller moved into a large apartment in the Avenue des Thermes and that same year Breslau had her painting entitled Tout passé accepted at the Paris Salon.  This was a great achievement not only for Louise but also for the female atelier of Académie Julian.

Les amies by Louise Breslau (1881)

Les amies by Louise Breslau (1881)

Two years later, in 1881, she received an honourable mention at that year’s Salon for her triple portrait entitled, Les amies (Portrait of Friends).  In it we see her friends Maria Feller on the left, Sophie Schäppi in the centre and Louise on the right, with a white dog sitting on top of the scarlet tablecloth.  It is a painting in which we see the three females in a reflective mood.  The painting is now housed in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.  Louise Breslau was now acknowledged as an up-and-coming artist.  She opened her own studio and soon started to receive numerous commissions for her work from the wealthy of Paris society.

Le thé à cinq heures by Louise Breslau (1883)

Le thé à cinq heures by Louise Breslau (1883)

In 1883 she was commissioned by the owner of the French newspaper Le Figaro to paint a portrait of his daughter.   She completed the commission and exhibited the painting entitled Isabelle de Rodays at the 1883 Salon.  She also exhibited another of her works, Five O’clock Tea at that year’s Salon and this can now be found at the Berne Kunstmuseum.

Chez soi by Louise Breslau (1885)

Chez soi by Louise Breslau (1885)

In 1885 Louis Breslau completed another great work entitled Chez Soi which is a portrayal of her mother and sister in an interior setting.  The dog sits at the feet of her mother and this genre piece exudes an air of silent contemplation.  The painting resides in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Contre Jour (Louise Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt) by Louise Breslau

Contre Jour (Louise Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt) by Louise Breslau

The friendship between Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt would last a lifetime and she would appear in many of her paintings.  After a brief affair in 1886 with the sculptor Jean Carriès, whom she met through Jules Breton, Louise Breslau chose to share her life with Madeleine Zillhardt and in 1902 the two women moved to a studio in Neuilly-sur-Seine where they set up home.

Jean Carries in his Atelier by Louise Breslau

Jean Carries in his Atelier by Louise Breslau

She eventually became the third woman artist, and the first foreign woman artist to be bestowed France’s Legion of Honour award.  During World War I Breslau, although by this time a naturalised Swiss citizen, and Zillhardt, remained at their home at Neuilly. Breslau showed her patriotism towards her new country, France, by drawing numerous portraits of French soldiers and nurses on their way to the Front. Louise was sixty-two years of age when the war ended and she began to withdraw from public view and was contented to stay at home and sit in her garden, painting flowers but she still loved to entertain her friends.

Louise Catherine Breslau died in May 1927, aged 70 after suffering from a long and debilitating illness.   Most of her estate went to her good friend and long-time companion Madeleine Zillhardt.  As per her wishes Louise Breslau’s body was taken to the small Swiss town of Baden where she was buried next to her mother.

Unlike Bashkirtseff, who died at the age of 25, Breslau had many years to forge her artistic reputation.  Bashkirtseff sadly knew, when she was told that she was dying, that she would never have the time to be able to build up such an artistic reputation as Breslau but of course Bashkirtseff will always be remembered for her diaries.  The works of art of Louise Breslau were very popular when she was alive but sadly, after she died, she was almost forgotten.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Female painters, French School, Marie Bashkirtseff, Swiss artists | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Marie Bashkirtseff. Part 2 her later life and diaries

Marie Bashkirtseff (1858 - 1884)

Marie Bashkirtseff (1858 – 1884)

In my previous blog I concentrated on the portraiture of Marie Bashkirtseff but she will probably be remembered best for other genres

One painting by Marie Bashkirtseff which came about during her time at the Académie Julian was one commissioned by the founder of the establishment, Rodolphe Julian.  He asked her to paint a canvas depicting the artists at work in his academy.  The finished canvas was entitled L’Atelier Julian and is now looked upon as one of Bashkirtseff’s finest works.  Initially Marie was not impressed by the commission but could see the benefit for herself, writing in her diary:

“…As for the subject, it does not fascinate me, but it may be very amusing, and then Julian is so taken with it, and so convinced… A woman’s studio has never been painted.  Besides, as it would be an advertisement for him, he would do all in the world to give me the wonderful notoriety he speaks about…”

Atelier Julian (In the Studio) by Marie Bashkirtseff (1881)

Atelier Julian (In the Studio) by Marie Bashkirtseff (1881)

The painting portrays the light and airy studio at the Académie Julian where Bashkirtseff and her fellow students would work.  L’atelier Julian is a quite large oil on canvas work measuring 154 x 186cms and is currently housed in the Dnepropetrovsk State Art Museum.  It is a fascinating work featuring sixteen students all taking part in a life-drawing session. The studio looks well organised, although small in size, but that maybe due to the number of people crammed into the room.  As an observer, we firstly focus on the woman seated at the centre of the work.  She wears a bright blue dress.  In her hands are a small brush and a maulstick.  She is working on a painting of the young nude model, who is holding a staff whilst standing on the raised dais so that he can be seen clearly by all the female studentsIf we look past this lady we see one of her colleagues staring out at us.  Maybe someone is entering the room to join this artistic group.  Our eyes now leave the lady in blue and we start to scan the rest of the room.  It is a hubbub of activity.  Some of the females are concentrating intently on their canvases whilst others partake in chit-chat. The two females in the foreground, one seated, one standing, engage in conversation.  The lady standing rests her hand on a wine-coloured velvet drape which has been laid over the back of the chair.  Look at the drape.  See how Bashkirtsteff has showcased her artistic ability in the way she has depicted the elaborate folds of the material.  Many artists in the past and in the present time like to show off their artistic skills in this way.  This large and multi-faceted work was exhibited to great acclaim at the 1881 Salon.

Following a visit to Russia in 1882 to visit her relatives she returned to Paris.  She had not been feeling well and decided to visit her doctor.  In Dormer Creston’s 1937 biography on the artist entitled Fountains of Youth – The Life of Marie Bashkirtseff, he quoted her diary entries:

“…At the doctor’s.  For the first time, I had the courage to say: Monsieur, I am becoming deaf.  It can be borne, but there will be a veil between me and the rest of the world…” 

Later that year her health deteriorated further and she noted in her dairy after visiting the physician that the news was not good:

“…I am consumptive, he told me so to-day…”

Despite her failing health she carried on with her art.  She punished herself by working long hours almost as if she realised her time was almost up and none should be wasted.  It was in 1882 that she met the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage.  He was ten years older than Marie but he became her confidante and mentor and her greatest inspiration.  It has often been mooted that the two became very close romantically.  He persuaded her to look beyond her wealthy lifestyle and observe and depict in her paintings those who were less financially fortunate than herself.  She listened to Bastien-Lepage and soon the subjects of her work changed.  Her works soon depicted the lower classes and street scenes.  This was such a turn-around for a young woman who had only known the life of affluence.

The Meeting by Marie Bashkirtseff (1884)

The Meeting by Marie Bashkirtseff (1884)

One of her best loved paintings featuring the “real world” is entitled The Meeting which she completed in 1884 and was exhibited at that year’s Salon.  It is now housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.   It was an enormous success, both with the press and public alike.  However, much to Bashkirtseff’s annoyance, her painting was not awarded a medal.  In her diary she wrote of her frustration and disappointment:

 “…I am exceedingly indignant because, after all, works that are really rather poor have received prizes…..There is nothing more to be done. I am a worthless creature, humiliated, finished…”

 Marie believed that being awarded a medal by the Salon jurists would help to immortalise her and that, to her, was of the utmost importance as, at this time, she knew her life was coming to an end.  She desperately did not want to die before her artistic talent was recognised.  She dreaded being forgotten.

 In this next work, Marie Bashkirtseff copies the Naturalist style of her friend and mentor, Jules Bastien-Lepage.   Lepage’s naturalism focused mainly on the countryside but Bashkirtseff decided to follow his style of naturalism or realism but concentrate on an urban setting.  In some ways the work is a genre scene, a depiction of everyday life.  Before us are six young boys, who stand in a circle fascinated with what the tallest boy has in his hand, although it is not visible to us.  Whatever it is, it has them deep in discussion.  Some still wear their school smocks.  The shabbiness of their clothes and shoes marks them as coming from poor working-class families and the setting is a run-down working class area.  We see, behind the group of boys, the old wooden fence with the graffiti and the torn posters all inferring that the setting is one of poverty.

 Bashkirtseff’s choice of depicting working-class schoolchildren in this painting may have come about as it was the subject of schooling which had become a great topic of conversation in the early 1880’s with Jules Ferry, a member of the French government at the time, establishing the law that saw the arrival of free, compulsory, secular education.  However other art critics would have us believe that the depiction of the boys was simply a bourgeois stereotype that people like Bashkirtseff would adopt.   Again some people wanted to look for a message in the painting, a message that may only be there in their eyes.  The feminists pointed to the fact that the group are all males and further suggest that the young girl walking away alone is symbolic of the feminist movement and their desire for better integration in society.  In the book, Overcoming All Obstacles:  The Women of the Académie Julian by Gabriel Weisberg and Jane Becker, the writers wrote about the painting and its lack of recognition by the Salon jurists:

 “…While painters at the Salon designated her for a medal, the jury passed on her submission. The public complained.  While Robert-Fleury was encouraging her to include passages of draped figures (to show off her virtuosity in that skill), Marie refused, not finding drapery fitting to her modern street boys.  Again the critics noted her sincerity of execution, freshness of facture, and realism in taking up the subject. While the work did not receive a medal, it was bought by the state, and several engravings and lithographs were made after it…”

Autumn by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

Autumn by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

 Although I stated earlier that Bashkirtseff wanted to focus on urban portrayals, my next offering of her work is a beautiful painting entitled Autumn, which moves towards a landscape work.  The setting is a rutted tree-lined road which runs parallel to the river.  Through the trees we see an arched stone bridge which straddles the waterway.  The time must be late summer or maybe early autumn as many of the trees have shed their bronze-tinted leaves while others cling to the branches and retain their summer colour.  To the side of the road is a pavement.  Look at the details Marie has depicted of the sidewalk.  The fallen bench straddles the pavement and the road.  The crumbling stonework of the pavement is clearly visible and which is now home for the fallen, windswept leaves and what looks like an abandoned newspaper lies in the gutter close to the fallen bench.  Beside the pavement we see a stretch of garden fencing which has seen better days.  This is an example of Naturalism in art, a style Marie Bashkirtseff had adopted due to the influence of her close friend, Jules Bastien-Lepage.  The painting is devoid of people and this fact alone means we are not distracted from the artist’s detailed depiction of the area.  It also avoids the work of art being focused on people and the depiction of them may turn the painting into a work of Social Realism with the landscape being looked upon as merely a background to a story within the work.  The colours used by the artist set the scene for a certain time of year and also a certain time of day.  One can imagine the lighting of the scene would be different at another time of day and obviously it would be a far different depiction if this had been mid-winter.

 In a diary entry for May 1884, she wrote:

 “…What is the use of lying or pretending?  Yes, it is clear that I have the desire, if not the hope, of staying on this earth by whatever means possible.  If I don’t die young, I hope to become a great artist.  If I do, I want my journal to be published…”  

Marie Bashkirtseff's mausoleum  in Cimetière de Passy, Paris

Marie Bashkirtseff’s mausoleum in Cimetière de Passy, Paris

Four months after this entry, on October 31st 1884, Marie Bashkirtseff died of consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis) in Paris.  She was just twenty-five years old and for her, she sadly believed she had achieved little.

Inside of Marie Bashkirtseff's mausoleum

Inside of Marie Bashkirtseff’s mausoleum

She was buried in Cimetière de Passy in a large mausoleum, designed as a full-sized artist’s studio and has now become a French Heritage site. The inside of Marie Bashkirtseff’s mausoleum we see in the central background a copy of Marie’s bust which was sculpted by her friend the sculptor René de Saint Marceaux.  Behind the sculpture hanging on the wall is one of Marie Bashkirtseff’s last and unfinished paintings entitled Women Saints. At either side, on pedestals are busts of her parents Sadly almost two hundred of her works were destroyed or looted during the Second World War.  However her journal was published by her family in 1887.  Sadly it was an abridged version which had been heavily censored by her relatives who thought a lot of the contents about them were unflattering seeing to it that a good deal of material was critical and unflattering to the family and unfit for the reading public.  Having said that however, the diary stands as one of the great diaries of its time.  It was not until some years later, with the discovery of Marie’s original manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale de France that it was realised that the diaries published by the family had been heavily edited.   An unabridged edition of the complete journal, based on the original manuscript, has been published in French in 16 volumes, and excerpts from the years 1873–76 have been translated into English under the title I Am the Most Interesting Book of All.

The diaries were started by a girl of fourteen and they began as a simple coming-of-age journal but later developed into an often sad account of how life conspired against her and her fight to survive.

I will leave you with an entry in her diary when she talks about how people may remember her.  She wrote:

“…If I do not die young I hope to live as great artist; but if I die young, I intend to have my journal, which cannot fail to be interesting, published. Similarly: “When I am dead, my life, which appears to me a remarkable one, will be read. (The only thing wanting is that it should have been different)…”

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Female painters, Marie Bashkirtseff, Ukranian painters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Marie Bashkirtseff. Part 1 The portraitist and feminist

Photograph of twenty year old Marie Bashkirtseff (1878)

Photograph of twenty year old Marie Bashkirtseff (1878)

I had been researching the life of Jules Bastien-Lepage for a future blog when I came across the fascinating story of a Ukranian lady, a friend of his, who during her very short life excelled as a painter, a sculptor and a diarist.  It was her talent as a diarist and her personal diary which led to her notoriety.  I have split her lifestory, as short as it was, between two blogs, so come with me and explore the life of Maria Konstantinovna Bashkirtseva who became better known as Marie Bashkirtseff and her portraiture.

 Marie Bashkirtseff was born in November 1858 at Gavrontsi, a beautiful country estate close to the provincial town of Poltava in southern Ukraine.  Her father was Konstantin Bashkirtseff and her mother Mariia Babanina, who was a lady, fiercely proud of her Tartar heritage.   The family were wealthy and were looked upon as being of the petite noblesse social class, which was a termed used to describe the lesser nobility of France, especially rural landowners of noble ancestry.  A year later Marie’s brother Paul was born.  Marie was a studious and very intelligent child, speaking Russian and French fluently and even when young she exhibited a dynamic personality.  Her parents split up in 1859 and her mother took her and her brother back to her parents’ home in Tcherniakovka. 

 

The Umbrella by Marie Bashkirtseff  (1883)

The Umbrella by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

In May 1870, when Marie was eleven years old, her grandfather, Stepan Babanin, her brother Paul, and a motley collection of other family members, along with the family physician, Doctor Walitsky, left Tcherniakovka for good and embarked on a voyage of discovery around Russia and Europe.  The extensive journey lasted almost two years until the weary travellers settled down in a villa situated in the foothills of the Mediterranean Alps overlooking the coastal resort of Nice.  It was at this idyllic setting that fourteen year old Marie started to dabble with her artwork and also started to write her diary.  This diary which was eventually published in 1887, three years after her death, was to become a best seller.  In it she would write about her life on the Côte d’Azur with her extended family, her teenage infatuations, her dreams for the future and her loves.  She had a fixed idea of what her diary would be all about, writing:

 “…If I don’t live enough to be illustrious, this diary will be interesting for naturalists; the life of a woman is always curious, day by day, without affectation, as if nobody in the world should ever read it and at the same time with the intention of being read; I’m sure that you will find me pleasant… and I mean everything. Otherwise, what’s the point in writing? Apart from this, you will see that I say everything…”

Portrait of Mme X by Marie Bashkirtseff (c.1884)

Portrait of Mme X by Marie Bashkirtseff (c.1884)

 Marie Bashkirtseff received a well rounded education.  She was home-tutored with the family employing governesses and private tutors and she studied a number of languages including English, German, Italian, Greek and Latin.  She was well versed in history, mythology and literature and it was that knowledge that found its way onto the pages of her diary.   She also developed a great love of music and singing.   She was an accomplished pianist, played the harp and was a talented singer and she hoped that one day she would become a professional mezzo-soprano.   This plan for her future was to be dashed after a severe bout of laryngitis which irrevocably affected her vocal chords.  She was devastated at this turn of events, once musing in her diary about what could have been:

 “…My God!  What a beautiful voice I had!  It was powerful, dramatic, captivating; it gave chills in the back. And now I have nothing, not even a voice to speak with!…”

 With music being a thing of the past, Marie needed another outlet for her exuberance and it came in 1877,  when, aged nineteen,  she decided to embark on a career as an artist.  For this to happen she decided that Nice was not the place to be and insisted that the whole family should move to the European capital of art, Paris, for it was here she believed she would receive the best art tuition and be able to study the paintings of the Masters.  The family opposed the move, not because they didn’t want to move to the capital but because of Marie’s fragile health.  They believed that the warm climate of Nice was more suitable for Marie than the colder, damper climate of Paris.  It was not because of their wish to stay warm and enjoy the sunny climate of the south but it was because Marie had been diagnosed with irreversible tuberculosis and doctors had warned against such a move.  However the dominant and forceful character of Marie won the day and that year they left the south of France and moved north.

Portrait of a Woman by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

Portrait of a Woman by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

The Parisian establishment, which was in the forefront of art tuition, was the École des Beaux-Arts but this was not an option for Marie as, at that time, women were not allowed to enrol for study at that academy.  Marie then chose to enrol at the Académie Julian, which was the only academy at the time which accepted female students, albeit the men and women trained separately.  However the training for females was similar, even allowing women to participate in life drawing classes with nude models, which was frowned upon by other art establishments.  It was founded by Rodolphe Julian in 1868.  It was a private studio school for art students, which, as well as training aspiring male artists to pass the exams to enter the hallowed and prestigious École des Beaux-Arts,  it also offered independent training in arts to wannabe female painters.  Whilst there Marie received excellent artistic training under the tutelage of the likes of Rodolphe Julian, Tony Robert-Fleury, Gustave Boulanger, and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre.  She revelled in this world of art and even the glamour of her social life took a back seat as she commented in her diary:

 “…as for me, although feeling pleased of being in the ballroom, I’ve been thinking all the time in a pastel painted this morning with which I wasn’t satisfied…

 Marie was a perfectionist in all that she did and was highly competitive.  This latter characteristic manifested itself in her fierce competition with her fellow student, the Swiss-born painter, Louise Catherine Breslau.  They both exhibited works at the Paris Salons and Marie’s competitive nature soon turned to jealousy, jealous of the artistic ability of her fellow student.  She looked upon Breslau as a competitor in the race to be recognised by the art critics and the public.  Breslau was two years older than Bashkirtseff  but was to outlive her by more than forty years and so was able to consolidate her reputation within the art world.

Parisienne, Portrait of Irma by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

Parisienne, Portrait of Irma by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

Marie Bashkirtseff, besides her dedication to painting, developed another love whilst living in Paris.  She was drawn to the feminist movement .  Hubertine Auclert had founded the feminist movement known as Le Droit des Femmes in 1876, the year before Marie had arrived in Paris.  It was a movement that supported women’s right to have the vote.  Marie, using the pseudonym, Pauline Orell, applied her innate ability as a writer to produce articles in support of feminism.  She had some of her writings published in La Citoyenne, a bi-monthly feminist newspaper first published Hubertine Auclert in Paris in 1881.  In the March 1881 edition an article by Baskirtseff appeared which linked her artistic career with that of the plight of women.  She cynically wrote:

 “…I will not surprise anyone by saying that women are excluded from the School of Fine Arts as they are almost everywhere.  Yet we admit them to the School of Medicine, why not at the École des Beaux-Arts.  Perhaps one fears scandals that would cause the element in this female comedies environment…” 

Jeune Femme Lisant la Question du Divorce d'Alexandre Dumas (Portrait of a Young Woman Reading) by Marie Bashkirtseff (1880)

Jeune Femme Lisant la Question du Divorce d’Alexandre Dumas (Portrait of a Young Woman Reading) by Marie Bashkirtseff (1880)

In 1880 , Marie Bashkirtseff submitted a beautiful work of portraiture to the Salon.  It was entitled Jeune femme lisant la Question du Divorce d’Alexandre Dumas (Portrait of a young woman reading).  It was not simply a portrait of a young woman,  it was a work of art with a message.  We see before us a portrait of a beautiful and stylish young woman who is totally engrossed in reading her book, The Divorce Question by Alexandre Dumas.  The sitter for this portrait is thought to be Marie’s cousin, Dina Babanine, who two years after Marie’s death would marry and become the Countess Toulouse-Lautrec.  There is a feminist statement behind this depiction.  There is the message that beautiful women have intelligence.  The title of the painting tells us the title of the book she is reading.  It was the 1880 work by the well-known author, Alexandre Dumas, who was discussing divorce and the French laws appertaining to the subject.  It was a controversial book and in some ways a ground-breaking one.  The serious and intellectual nature of the book was a statement that women do not, as believed by many, especially men, only read frothy romantic novels.   The artist was also making a statement regarding the important position of women in society.  In this case, it was about her aspirations for female independence.  The right to divorce and break free from an abusive relationship, the same right as men to be trained to become an artist, the women’s right to vote.  It was simply her belief regarding the right of women to be equal to men.

Portrait de la Comtesse Dina de Toulouse-Lautrec, by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

Portrait de la Comtesse Dina de Toulouse-Lautrec, by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

Dina Babanin featured in another of Bashkirtseff’s works.  It was a work in pastels, simply entitled Dina Babanine and was completed in 1883.   Dina was Marie’s cousin and also a close life-long friend.  Her early upbringing was in total contrast to that of Marie.  Dina and her brother had been brought up in a very disruptive household.  Her father had his marriage to their mother annulled making his children illegitimate.  This beautifully crafted portrait depicts the beauty of Marie’s cousin.  She wears a pale blue décolleté peignoir with a wide delicate white collar.  Her face, neck and chest have been depicted using delicately blended light tones which enhance the youthful beauty of the sitter.  Her full lips are pressed together but it is her eyes that catch our attention.  They are dark blue in colour.  She does not quite focus upon us.  There is a feeling that she has lost her power of concentration and there is a blankness about her stare.  Like all inquisitive and discerning observers we search for imperfections of her beauty but they are hard to find.  Maybe we comment upon the slight cleft of her chin.  Maybe we remark upon the flatness of her nose.  However we cannot but acknowledge her overall beauty.  Look at the composition.  It is all about the female.  There is no jewellery, no flowers attached to her simple but revealing dress with its plunging neckline.  The artist wanted nothing to divert our attention from her cousin’s beauty and in that she has unquestionably succeeded.

In my next blog I will conclude her life story, look at some of her most famous paintings and reveal more about her diary.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Female painters, Portraiture, Ukranian painters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hendrik Willem Mesdag – his seascapes and Panorama Mesdag

Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1913)

Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1913)

The person I am featuring today was an artist of great talent, an avid art collector and an owner of a museum, which housed many of the works he had collected during his lifetime.  I talked briefly about him in my previous blog which was dedicated to his friend Jozef Israels.  Let me introduce you to the marine painter, Hendrik Willem Mesdag.

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag (1882)

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag (1882)

Mesdag was born in Groningen in February 1831.  His father Klaas was a banker and was also active in politics and his mother was Johanna Wilhelmina van Giffen, who came from a wealthy family of silversmiths.  She died when Hendrik was four years old.  Hendrik had two brothers, Gilles and Taco and a sister, Ellegonda.  As schoolchildren, both he and his older brother showed and early artistic talent and their father, who was also an amateur artists, decided to send them for some artistic training.  They both received drawing lessons from Bernardus Buijs who had also taught Jozef Israels and later received drawing tuition from Hinderikus Egenberger.  However, for Hendrik, once he left school at the age of nineteen, art became just an enjoyable pastime, and his future, like that of his father, lay in banking.  Hendrik Mesdag joined his father’s bank where he remained for the next sixteen years.

Fishing Boats in the Surf by Hendrik Mesdag

Fishing Boats in the Surf by Hendrik Mesdag

In April 1856, when Hendrik was twenty-five years old, he married Sientja van Houten, who would later become an accomplished artist in her own right.  She was one of seven children brought up by a wealthy family.  Her father owned a large sawmill just outside Groningen.  Her cousin was the renowned painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag

Hendrik’s love of art during his days as a banker did not diminish, in fact in 1861 he enrolled as a pupil at the Academie Minerva, a Dutch art school based in Groningen.  In 1863 Sientje gave birth to their son Nicolaas, who was called Klaas.  Hendrik’s love of art and his desire to become a full-time professional artist came to a head in 1866 when he decided to give up his work as a banker and concentrate on his art.  To give up a lucrative job took courage but it also required funding and for this he had to thank his wife who had received a sizeable inheritance when her father died and she was able to support him financially.

Pinks in the breakers by Hendrik Mesdag (1880)

Pinks in the breakers by Hendrik Mesdag (1880)

Lawrence Alma-Tadema advised Hendrik to go to Brussels to study art and in the autumn of 1866 he goes to the Brussels for three years and studied art under the tutorship of Willem Roelofs, the Dutch painter and watercolourist.  Fate played a hand in the artistic life of Mesdag in 1868 when he and his family went to Norderney for a holiday.  Norderney is one of the East Frisian islands off the North Sea coast.  It is here that Mesdag realises his love of the sea and seascapes and when he returns to Brussels he starts collecting paintings which depict the sea and it is from this time that he decides he wants to be a seascape artist.

Gales in Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)

Gales in Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)

Once he completes his three year study course in Brussels in 1869, the family move to The Hague where the sea views at the nearby coastal village of Scheveningen, would be plentiful.  Hendrik was admitted to The Hague’s Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society.   The society was formed in 1847 and was a result of mounting dissatisfaction among the young artists in The Hague who complained about their being little or no opportunities for training in art and developing their artistic skills and so the Pulchri Studio was established.  It was also to be an artistic talking-shop where artists could exchange views and ideas.

Les Brisant

Les Brisant

It was in 1869 that Mesdag worked on his painting Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord (Breakers of the North Sea) which, when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1870,  was awarded the gold medal.  In September 1871, tragedy struck Hendrik and Sentije when their eight year old son Klaas, their only child, died.  It was from that time onwards that Sientje took up painting.

Detail from Panorama Mesdag

Detail from Panorama Mesdag

Hendrik Mesdag’s collection of paintings had grown so large that it filled his house and in 1878 he decided to build a museum in the garden, next to his house, to accommodate his ever-growing collection.  That same year, his father Klaas died aged 85.  Although most of the works of art by Hendrik Mesdag were seascapes and paintings depicting bomschuiten (fishing boats) one of his most famous works came about in 1879 when he received a commission from a group of Belgian entrepreneurs to paint a panorama.  A panorama or panoramic painting was a massive work of art, which depicts a wide and all-encompassing view of a particular subject.  They could be depictions of a battle, historical event or a landscape and were very popular in the nineteenth century, a time before television or the cinema.  The commission was simple  –  the group wanted Mesdag to complete a painting without any borders !  The Belgians gave Mesdag free rein on the subject of the panorama and he was allowed to pick his team of artists to complete the task.  The commission intrigued Mesdag and he agreed to it and formed a team of artists which included Théophile de Bock and twenty-three-year-old George Hendrik Breitner, who was still a student at The Hague Academy , the artist, Bernard Blommers , as well as his wife Sientje.

Detail from Panorama Mesdag

Detail from Panorama Mesdag

Mesdag decided this was an opportunity to depict his beloved coastal village of Scheveningen.

In March 1881, Mesdag and his team of painters set to work on the panorama.  They made numerous sketches of the town and the surrounding coast and slowly over the next  four and a half months the panorama often referred to as Panorama Mesdag  evolved.  The work when completed was 14 metres high with a circumference of 120 metres, a square footage of 1600 square metres.  The finished work was housed in a purpose-built museum in The Hague and could be viewed from an observation gallery in the centre of the room.  When one stood at this central observation point, it was if one was standing on top of a high sand dune and one could observe the sea, the beaches and the coastal village of Scheveningen.  The museum housing the panorama was opened to the public on August 1st 1881 but after five years it went bankrupt.  Mesdag , who was concerned as to the fate of his panoramic painting, bought the museum and kept it open despite it losing money year on year.

Panorama Mesdag as seen from central observation platform

Panorama Mesdag as seen from central observation platform

It is still open to the public and it is still one of the The Hague’s greatest tourist attractions.  Can you imagine what it would be like to stand on that central observation platform – take a look now at http://panorama-mesdag.nl/   and see this wonderful work, which is the largest circular canvas in Europe.

In his later years Mesdag received many honours. In 1889, he was elected chairman of Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society, the society he joined twenty years earlier, and remained in that post until 1907. He received the royal distinction of Officer in the Order of Oranje-Nassau in 1894.  In February 1901 Mesdag is promoted to Commander of the Order of the Dutch Lion.

Hendrik Willem Mesdag  and his wife Sientje Mesdag-van Houten, (1906)

Hendrik Willem Mesdag and his wife Sientje Mesdag-van Houten, (1906)

In March 1909 his beloved Sientje died, aged 74.  Two years later in 1911, Hendrik Mesdag is taken seriously ill and although he recovers, his health slowly deteriorates.  Hendrik Willem Mesdag died in The Hague in July 1915, aged 84.

One may compare the seascapes and depictions of fishing boats with the artist, Jozef Israels, whom I looked at in my last blog.  Israels’ depictions were often full of angst and doom and gloom whereas Mesdag’s works were simply depictions of what he saw, without any need to have the works populated by people and all had a story behind them.   I end with a quote from the author, Frederick W Morton who wrote an artcle in the May 1903 edition of the American art journal, Brush and Pencil .  He wrote about Mesdag’s seascapes:

“…Other artists have painted more witchery into their canvases, more tenseness and terror.  A Mesdag has not the glint of colour one finds in a Clays or the awful meaning one reads in Homer.  On the contrary, many of his canvases are rather heavy in tone and are works calculated to inspire quiet contemplation rather than to excite nervous.  But he is a great marine-painter because he thoroughly knows his subject – he has sat by it, brooded over it, studied it in its every phase – and by straightforward methods, without the trick of palette or adventitious accessories, has sought to make and has succeeded in making his canvases convey the same impression to the spectator that the ocean conveyed to him…”

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Much of the information for this article came from the Mesdag Documentation Society and their excellent website Mesdag.com (http://www.mesdag.com/index.html)

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Dutch painters, Seascape | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jozef Israels Part 2 – The Peasants and his later life

Self portrait by Jozef Israels (1881)

Self portrait by Jozef Israels (1881)

I ended my last blog, which looked at the life of Jozef Israels, around 1856 when he was living in the small fishing town of Zandvoort and spent much of his time sketching and painting scenes involving the local fishing community.

The Day Before Parting by Jozef Israels (c.1862)

The Day Before Parting by Jozef Israels (c.1862)

Israels left the coastal area around 1858 and returned to Amsterdam where he remained until 1870.  In 1860 he completed a work entitled De dag voor het  schieden (The Day before the Parting), which can now be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.   It is a beautiful soulful depiction.  It is a depiction of sadness.  But why the sadness?  Is it like the paintings depicting families waiting for their fisherman husbands and fathers to return from the hazards of the sea?  Actually it is not, it is about death.   The setting is the interior of a cottage.  In the dimly lit background there is a coffin which lies across two chairs.  The wooden coffin is covered with a pall and is barely illuminated by a solitary candle.

Light streams into the room from the left and illuminates the two characters featured in the work.   The lighting of the foreground is in stark contrast to the background.  It was the artist’s clever use of chiaroscuro (the strong contrast of light and dark), which in some ways was a contrast between life and death.  In the foreground we have the mother leaning against the chimney breast as she sits on a chair, besides her in the fire hearth lies an empty overturned wicker log basket.  Her face is red from all the tears she has wept.  She leans forward and rests her face on her right hand whilst her left hand clutches hold of a book, probably the bible and her thumb keeps the place of the passage she was reading.  On the floor, at her feet, sits a young girl.  She leans against her mother to get comfort.  Her right hand lies across her mother’s knee.  She stares at the coffin.  Her left hand lies in her lap, grasping the loop of the cord attached to her toy cradle which lies by her side.  This painting is not only a depiction of sorrow it is a depiction of poverty.  The mother and daughter do not wear shoes despite the coldness of the red-tiled floor.  The fireplace, with its blue surround tiles, is empty and so too is the wicker log basket indicating that they have no fuel for the fire.  The large black chain over the fireplace which would hold pots or a kettle for food and drink hangs idly.  Have they food?

This wonderful work of art received the gold medal when it was exhibited in Rotterdam in 1862 and that same year it was shown at the International Exhibition in London.  Israels himself, some forty years later, admitted that this painting made his reputation.  In 1906 he commented on the work:

 “…I painted it in 1860 – I know it was then because it was the year before I was engaged.  It was made ‘pour la gloire’.  It was exhibited in Rotterdam in 1862 and got the Gold medal, the last year the medal was given…………………….There is good colour in that picture; I could do no better – some people say I cannot do now so well…”

Peasant Children by Jozef Israels

Peasant Children by Jozef Israels

 In May 1863 Jozef Israels married Aleida Schaap and the couple had two children, a daughter Mathilde Anna Israëls who was born in February 1864 and a son, Isaac Lazarus in February 1865.  His son became a fine art painter and was associated with the Amsterdam Impressionism movement.  At the time of his son’s birth Jozef Israel wrote about him saying:

 “…With the help of the Lord, he will become a better painter than his father…”

  Jozef Israels moved to The Hague in 1870 and here he began to associate himself with The Hague School of Painters.  This group of artists were active between 1860 and 1890.  For these artists reality was the key to their work, not idealised reality but depicting true reality, warts and all.  The colours used by these artists was often gloomy and sombre and consisted mainly of various tints of grey, so much so they were often termed the Grey School.  This only changed in the latter years of the School with the influence of the Barbizon painters and the early Impressionists who instilled a lighter and brighter palette.

In 1876, with a number of close artistic colleagues, Israels launched the Dutch Drawing Society (watercolours in those days were termed drawings)

The Cottage Madonna by Jozef Israels

The Cottage Madonna by Jozef Israels (1871)

 During his lifetime, Jozef Israels was one of the most famous living Dutch artist and earned the nickname ‘the Dutch Millet.’  The two artists saw in the life of the poor and humble peasants a motive for expressing with peculiar intensity their wide human sympathy.  Millet’s depictions of peasant life were much lighter in tone and were simply a look at peaceful rural life.  For Israels it was different, his depictions of peasant life was very much more sombre and carried a message of hardship and despair.  The French novelist and art critic, Louis Edmond Duranty who was a great supporter of the realist cause said Israels’ depiction of peasant life was painted with gloom and a sense of anguish.

  Jozef Israëls primarily painted scenes from the lives of simple farm labourers or fishermen. Sometimes, as in my next painting, he singled out tragic moments in their lives. This next work of art really tugs at one’s heart strings.  It is entitled Alone and can be found at the Mesdag Museum in The Hague.  Hendrik Mesdag, a contemporary and great friend of Israels, was a leading artist of The Hague School and he and his wife, Sientje played an active role in The Hague art world.  Hendrik Mesdeg was not just an artist, he was an avid art collector.  His collection grew so much that, in 1877, he had a museum built to house it

Alone in the World by Jozef Israels, (1881)

Alone in the World by Jozef Israels, (1881)

The setting for the painting, Alone in the World, is the inside a sparsely furnished bedroom of a peasant’s cottage.   There is an air of bleak despondency about the scene we see before us.  A man sits on the side of a bed.  His bony workman’s hands rest on his knees, his posture is unmoving. He is wracked by sadness as his wife has died despite all he had done for her.  Her body lies in the half-light which streams in from the left of the painting on to the bed and also illuminates the table on which are a pitcher of water and an empty glass as well as the bed.  The greyish colour of the dead woman’s skin makes her almost indistinguishable from that of her bedclothes.

It is interesting to note that Jozef Israels and Sientje Mesdeg talked about this work years after its completion and on a broader aspect of art.  They considered the anecdotal aspect of art and whether genre paintings should tell a tale.  They failed to agree. Sientje was adamant that there was never a need for art to tell a story, whereas Jozef Israels countered saying that a “felt” work is good even if badly delineated.  There is no doubt that this work is a “felt” work as we, the observers, can understand the feelings of the man at a time of his great loss.

Convalescent Mother and Child by Jozef Israels (1871)

Convalescent Mother and Child by Jozef Israels (1871)

A painting I really like which combines the reality of illness and sentimentality is Israels 1871 work entitled Convalescent Mother and Child.  In the painting we see a mother slumped in a chair, head lolled to one side, her knitting lies abandoned in her lap.  Walking towards her is her barefooted young child struggling to carry a small table towards her.  The child is trying to be a help to his sick mother.  Look at the concentrated expression on the child as he makes a great effort to move the table towards her.

A Jewish Wedding by Jozef Israels (1903)

A Jewish Wedding by Jozef Israels (1903)

In later years his paintings were influenced by the works of Rembrandt and this next work of art, entitled The Jewish Wedding, is a fine example of this.  Jozef Israels was a committed orthodox Jew and his mother had once hoped that he would become a Rabbi.  He produced a number of paintings depicting Jewish ceremonies.  Here before us we see bride and groom under the chupa in the ceremony of sanctification of the joining together of the couple in marriage, surrounded by family and wedding guests.  The couple in the painting are depicted in bright sunlight which was a symbol of the happiness of the occasion.

We Grow Old. Jozef Israëls, 1878

We Grow Old. Jozef Israëls, 1878

Joseph Israels died in Scheveningen in August 1911. aged 87.

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Jozef Israels. Part 1 – The Plight of the Fisherman

Portrait of Jozef Israels by Jan Veth (1887)

Portrait of Jozef Israels by Jan Veth (1887)

My previous three blogs looked at Russian landscape painters and although they were leading exponents of this 19th century genre they may have been unknown to many people nowadays.  The artist I am looking at today is probably also not known by most people but he had a great influence of the early works of the Dutch master, Vincent van Gogh.   Just before Christmas I went to Amsterdam to visit the newly refurbished Van Gogh Museum and I suggest that it is “must visit” museum for any travellers to the Dutch city.

Peasant Family at Table,  by Jozef Israels (1882)

Peasant Family at Table, by Jozef Israels (1882)

The museum was awash with colour from Van Gogh’s landscape paintings but I was fascinated by his darker early works and his fascination with the hard-working peasants and I wanted to know more about what influenced him to spend so much of his early life concentrating on depictions of the peasant class.  It was then I came across Jozef Israels and his 1882 painting entitled Peasant Family at the Table, a work of art which led to a similar depiction, by van Gogh, of peasants sitting around a table having a meal which is entitled The Potato Eaters and I featured this work of art in My Daly Art Display (Feb 7th 2012).  However this blog is not about Van Gogh but the Dutch artist, Jozef Israels who influenced him.  In this first blog about Jozef Israels I want to look at his paintings depicting the harsh life of fishermen and their families.

Josef Israels was a Dutch Jewish painter born in Groningen in January 1824.  His father was to Hartog Abraham Israel, a professional broker and merchant who had married Mathilda Solomon Polack.  Jozef was the third-born of ten children and he had six brothers and three sisters.  As is the case of many young aspiring artists, Jozef’s father did not see his son’s future as an artist but wanted him to carry on the family business and it was only after a long struggle and great determination that Jozef persuaded his father to let him study art.  It was a compromise, as during his artistic studies he worked as a stockbroker’s clerk in his father’s business.   At the age of eleven he received his first drawing lessons from the landscape artist J. Bruggink who worked at Minerva Academy in Groningen and a year later became a pupil of Johan Joeke Gabriel van Wicheren.   In 1838, aged fourteen he was tutored by the Groningen painter, Cornelis Bernudes Buys.

In 1842, shortly after his eighteenth birthday Jozef went to Amsterdam to study drawing under the tutelage of Jan Adam Kruseman and, in 1844, attended art classes at the Amsterdam Royal Academy of Art.  Kruseman had made his name as a painter of historical, biblical and genre scenes but was probably more famous for his portraiture.  In 1845 Jozef Israels left his native Netherlands and travelled to Paris where he worked in the studio of the neo-classical history painter, François-Édouard Picot.  Picot was one of the artists who was favoured by the French rulers of the time.  He was an esteemed artist who taught many of the aspiring artists of the time such as Alexandre Cabanel and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. His romantic historical paintings influenced Israels.  The Romanticism genre of Louis Gallait and Ari Scheffer also left their mark on the twenty-two year old. During his stay in Paris he attended classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts presided over by such artistic luminaries as James Pradier, Horace Vernet and Paul Delaroche and he would spend time at the Louvre where he copied the works of the great Masters.

The Academies at the time pushed the genre of paysage historique, historical landscape painting depicting idealised landscape works of art with their historical connotations.   This art genre went back to the 17th century Baroque era of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain and aspiring landscape painters from the Academies made their way to Italy to paint their landscapes interspersed with historical monuments, the settings of which were favoured by the dazzling Mediterranean sunlight. This favourable Italian climate had given the artists the chance to paint en plein air.

However, Jozef Israels, whilst he was living in the French capital, delved into the alternate world of landscape painting, the world of Realism, and the works of the Barbizon painters some of whom he had the chance to meet.  For them it was the landscape which was the beauty in itself and did not require the addition of mythological or biblical figures.  If figures were to be added it should be those of hard working peasants whose inclusion added reality to the work and dispensed with romanticism.  However Jozef Israels was not sold on their ideas for landscape painting and soon reverted to his painting which were more likely influenced by the painter Ari Scheffer (see My Daily Art Display May 15 2012 and Sept 30th 2014) depicting subjects from Romantic poetry or influenced by the work of the Belgian history painter, Louis Gallait and depicted figures from Dutch national history.

In 1847 Israels returned to Holland and his work concentrated on his portraiture and historical subjects, often with Jewish themes.    The problem for Israels was that by the 1850’s,  the genre of history paintings in the Netherlands was falling from favour and he realised that to sell his art he needed to think of a different painting genre.   Fate took a hand as Jozef was taken ill and in 1855, as a cure for his health problems, he moved out of the city and went to live in the small fishing village of Zandvoort, where he believed the sea air would aid his recovery.   He immersed himself in the local village life and became aware of the hard life endured by the village’s fishing community and he decided to record some of their sufferings in his works of art.   His paintings depicted the hard life of the fishermen and their families and the unforgiving nature of the sea.

Along mother's grave by Jozef Israels (1856)

Passing mother’s grave by Jozef Israels (1856)

In 1856 he painted one of his most famous works featuring Zandvoort fishing folk.  It was a life-size work measuring 224cms x 178cms  entitled Passing Mother’s Grave.  The painting depicts a fisherman passing his wife’s grave.   He walks hand in hand with his son whilst carrying his baby daughter.  The bare-footed trio alluded to the poverty of the fishing folk and for this trio life without the woman had added to their problems.The work is housed in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Fishermen carrying drowned man by Jozef Israels (c.1861)

Fishermen carrying drowned man by Jozef Israels (c.1861)

Another work of art featuring the plight of fishermen and their families was Jozef Israels’ painting entitled Fishermen Carry a Drowned Man which is housed in the National Gallery in London.  It is thought that this work was completed around 1861, sometime after Jozef returned to Amsterdam from Zandvoort but used sketches he had made whilst living in the fishing village.  The work is all about suffering and the hard life experienced by fishermen and their families and it was this eking of sympathy from the observer which was so like that of Jean-François Millet and his peasant paintings. Let’s look at this sombre work with its dark grey skies.  A line of fishermen and their family trudge up the dunes from the shore.  A grief-stricken woman leads the way with her two children at her side.  They too are aware of the loss.  Maybe the woman is the widow of the dead fisherman.  She is leading the line of mourners.  Behind her the body of the dead fisherman is carried by two burly men whilst to the left of them is a weeping woman.  The dead man’s companions follow on carrying the fishing equipment from their boat. The work of art was exhibited at the 1861 Salon and in 1862 at the London International Exhibition and was hailed a triumphant success.

Anxiously Waiting by Jozef Israels

Anxiously Waiting by Jozef Israels

The third painting by Jozef Israels with this fishing/sea-going motif is entitled Anxiously Waiting.  Once again observers of this work can empathize with the woman we see sitting on the dunes looking out to sea. On her knee sits her baby child.  She is bare-footed which tells us of her and her family’s financial state.   The sky has an orange hue indicating an oncoming storm.  We see the white crests of the waves which signify the wind is beginning to increase in its ferocity.  Her husband has left home in the fishing boat and has yet to return and she anxiously awaits sight of his boat.

Unloading the Catch by Jozef Israels

Unloading the Catch by Jozef Israels

In his painting Unloading the Catch we see that fishing was not just about the men that went to sea but the wives, parents and children who needed to help, notwithstanding their age or their state of health.  Look at the line of helpers.  An elderly woman bent over supporting herself with her cane, a man with a basket over his shoulder holding the hand of his daughter, two mothers carrying their babies , all have to help with the unloading of the day’s catch from the beached fishing boat.

Three Women Knitting by the Sea by Jozef Israels

Three Women Knitting by the Sea by Jozef Israels

In a number of his paintings he liked to connect the wives of the fishermen and the sea, the workplace of their husbands and fathers.   In most it was the about the wife, worried about the safety of her husband, and the prospect of him not returning home safely.   A painting by Jozef Israels with a lighter mood was his work entitled Three Women Knitting by the Sea.  In the background we see a fishingboat at sea ,whilst in the foreground, we have the three ladies happily chatting away as they knit.

On the Dunes by Jozef Israels

On the Dunes by Jozef Israels

In his work On the Dunes we see a familiar depiction of a woman sitting on the dunes looking out to sea.  On her back is her empty basket which, once the boat has landed with its catch, will be filled with fish which she will have to carry back to the village.  Her wait will not be long as on the horizon we catch sight of the returning fishing boat.  The sky is light and the sea is calm and for this day her beloved will return home safely.

Mending the Nets by Jozef Israels

Mending the Nets by Jozef Israels

An insight into the domestic life of a fisherman’s wife can be seen in his painting Mending the Nets.  The scene is the interior of a cottage.  A mother sits before a tiled fireplace mending her husband’s fishing nets whilst her young child sits in a wooden forerunner to today’s baby buggy.  The baby looks over the side at the cat which she  tantalises with a strand of wool.

In my next blog I will look at some more of the paintings by Jozef Israels, in which he depicted peasant life and I will conclude his life story.

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