Theodore Robinson. Part 1 – the early years of the American Impressionist

Theodore Robinson

When we think of Impressionism and Impressionist painters we immediately think of French artists and if I was to ask you to name a few French Impressionist painters, I guess you wouldn’t have a problem and the names of Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Bazille, Pissaro and Cézanne would easily roll off your tongue.  However, if I was to ask you to cite some famous American Impressionists I guess the names of Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent would come immediately to mind, some may even suggest William Merritt Chase or John Henry Twachtman but, especially if you were not an American, it would become a struggle to think of the names of any other American Impressionist.  In my blog today I am looking at the life and work of one of the first American Impressionists, Theodore Robinson, albeit he is not the best known.  Lovell Birge Harrison, the American genre and landscape painter, teacher, and writer and prominent practitioner and advocate of Tonalism wrote about Robinson in a 1916 article in Century Magazine, saying:

“…The one who always stands out most vividly in my own mind …[is] Theodore Robinson, who is now taking his place beside Inness, Wyant, and Winslow Homer as one of our American old masters…”

Self Portrait by Theodore Robinson (c.1887)

Robinson was one of the most skilful and gifted American artists of the nineteenth century. He said he always knew he would become an artist and once said of himself that perhaps he was born to make sketches.  His accomplishments as an artist take on an even greater meaning considering that he was a man who would have to battle all his life against poor physical health.

Harbour Scene by Theodore Robinson (1876)

Theodore Pierson Robinson was born on July 3rd 1852 in the small northern Vermont town of Irasburg which lies twenty-five miles south of the US-Canada border.  He was the third of six children of Elijah and Ellen Brown Robinson.  Sadly, his two sisters and one of his brothers died in childhood, leaving just Theodore and his two brothers Hamline and John.  In 1843, his father, who had worked on the family farm in Jamaica, trained to become a minster in the Methodist congregation but due to ill health had to give up the ministry and he became a shopkeeper opening is own clothing store.

Young Woman Reading by Theodore Robinson (1887)

In 1855, whilst still a very young child, Theodore and his family moved from Vermont and went to live in the small town of Barry, Illinois and two years later they moved again, this time to Evansville, southern Wisconsin, another small town that was first settled in the 1830s by New Englanders who were attracted to the area by its unspoiled wooded landscapes.  Another reason for the move to the countryside of Wisconsin was because of Theodore’s health.  As a young child, he had developed asthma which had weakened him and would trouble him for the rest of his life.  He enrolled at the local seminary where his artistic talent was first noted, winning  prizes for penmanship.   He would also often sketch portraits of friends and family as well as the parishioners who came to the local Methodist church.

In 1869, aged 17, after he had completed regular schooling, and because of his burgeoning artistic talent,  along with his mother’s dogged perseverance, he enrolled as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Unfortunately, he did not stay there long as his asthma worsened, a chronic condition that he had suffered with since childhood, and so it was decided that he should move away from polluted air of city life and move to the cleaner drier mountain air of Denver, Colorado.  It must have done the trick for a few years later, he did return to Evansville where he carried on with his portraiture work which he would sell and with the money he earned he would put it aside for his art college fund.  In 1874 he moved to New York where he enrolled at the National Academy of Design.   This establishment was founded in 1825 by a group of artists including Samuel F. B. Morse, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, Martin E. Thompson, all students of the American Academy of Fine Arts, who had grown increasingly impatient with the constraints of the Academy, and in 1825 they had left to found the National Academy of Design. The idea for its existence was said to be

“…to promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition…”

On the Housatonic River Connecticut by Theodore Robinson (1877)

Whilst there, Robinson studied under Lemuel Everett Wilmarth and when not at the Academy would spend hours sketching in nearby Central Park.  We have seen with many of the European academies, the narrow and rigid academic training in art was not for everybody with some aspiring young artists wanting more freedom with regards what was being taught and how it was being taught.  As far as Robinson and several his fellow students were concerned there was a two-fold problem with the American Academy of Fine Art.   Firstly, the Academy was run by a group of older artists who were landscape painters and concentrated on teaching that artistic genre despite many of the students, including Robinson, wanting more emphasis on figurative painting.  Secondly, the students believed that their prospects to exhibit, and ultimately sell their work, was being limited by the Academy.  Another reason could have been that in 1874 the Academy temporarily suspended activities.  Rumours flew around that the establishment was in financial trouble and so its students felt they had nowhere to turn and wondered about their future.  In 1875, this dissatisfaction and confusion about the future lead Wilmarth, along with a group of his students, including Robinson, to form the Art Students League. This Art Students League met and held its classes in a small rented space over a shop at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.  It was so small a space that a daily schedule of studio instruction had to be organised, with women studying in the afternoon and men at night. However, this alternative organisation allowed these painters a greater influence on their curriculum and would also allow them greater access to exhibition space.

Suzette (also known as Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Theodore Robinson fulfilled one of his artistic goals two years later in 1876 when he went to study art in Paris, a city looked upon at the time as the centre of the world of art.  Most American art students during the second half of the nineteenth century viewed their study in New York as a stopping-off point on their artistic journey before they headed to Europe.   The first art tutor Robinson studied with in Paris was the French painter, August Carolus-Duran, whose studio was in the Boulevard Montparnasse.  Carolus-Duran was renowned for his elegant portrayal of members of French high society and people travelled from far and wide to become one of his sitters.

Portrait of Mrs Astor by August Carolus-Duran (1890)

Carolus-Duran was probably well known to artists in America for his 1890 portrait of the American banker’s wife, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the doyenne of American high society in the latter half of the 19th century, who maintained the stance of “old money” in the face of changing times and values when the nouveau riche were coming to the fore.   Also, studying under Carolus-Duran, at that time, were John Singer Sargent, the landscape and genre painter Carroll Beckwith and the muralist and author Will Hicock Low.   It was Low who recalled being with Theodore Robinson at that time in Carolus-Duran’s atelier, when he wrote in his 1908 book A Chronicle of Friendship, 1873-1900:

“…Among the new arrivals one year was Theodore Robinson, who, timidly, with due respect for my two years experience in Paris student life, sought my acquaintance… Frail, with a husky, asthmatic voice and a laugh that shook his meager sides and yet hardly made itself heard, yet blessed with as keen a sense of humor as anyone I have ever known, Robinson was received at once into our little circle. At first he seemed almost negative, so quietly he took his place among us, but once the shell of diffidence was pierced few of the men had thought as much or as independently…”

Arabs Arguing by Jean-Leon Gérome

Theodore Robinson was only with Carolus-Duran for a short time and rumour has it that they did not agree on some aspects of the artistic training,  Robinson moved on and became a student at the École des Beaux-Arts, and a pupil at the atelier of the French painter and sculptor, Jean-Léon Gérome, an artist, who had always been a great believer and follower of the painting style known as Academicism, a style of painting and sculpture produced under the influence of European academies of art. Gérome was noted for his portraiture and his history paintings which often featured Arabian scenes, which was known as Orientalism, and was an art genre of Academic art, popular in the nineteenth century which represented the Middle East.  The fact that Robinson was accepted into this atelier is testament to his artistic ability as it was the most admired studio and the one that most American students wanted to attend.

Spinning by Theodore Robinson

In 1877 Theodore Robinson achieved another of his artistic goals, one which every art student strived for; he had a painting, Une Jeune Fille, accepted at that year’s Salon. One can only imagine how delighted he was to get his painting hung at the Salon.  In a letter to his mother he wrote of his joy:

“…My picture is accepted and I tremble with joy…”

The Bridge at Grèz-sur-Loing by Corot (c.1860)

Robinson went on to exhibit his works at five more Salons during the 1880’s.  Following the time spent on his Salon entry and its inclusion at the 1877 Salon, Robinson decided to take a break from his studies and head out of the city and delve into the nearby countryside around Fontainebleau.  He and some of his fellow artists, Will Low, Birge Harrison and Walter Launt Palmer travelled to the village of Grèz which was on the banks of the River Loing on the southern edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, some fifteen kilometres south of Barbizon.  At the time, this was an area that was awash with artist colonies such as those at Barbizon, Grèz-sur-Loing, Montigny-sur-Loing and Thomery but at this time, Grèz was the most popular with artists who wanted to spend the day painting en plein air and the evening spent talking about art.  This popular idyll was described in the book Theodore Robinson’s La Debacle, 1892: an American Artist in France by Betsy Kathryn Koeninger, in which she quotes the words of the Scottish painter John Lavery, a student at the Académie Julien who stayed in the village in the early 1880’s.   He described the ambience of the village and its surroundings:

“…a pleasant place surrounded by large fields of white and yellow water lilies and poplars and willows. There was also the much-painted bridge… a ruined castle and an ancient church… [and] Madame Chevillon’s Inn with its long garden down to the water’s edge where guests could sit in bathing dress to eat after a swim or a sail in a skiff…”

Farmhouse at Grèz by Theodore Robinson

Robinson’s friend and colleague from the Academy, Birge Harrison, who had travelled to Grèz with him and remembers him, wrote an article in the December 1916 edition of the Century Magazine, entitled With Stevenson in Grèz.  He wrote:

“…Robinson was far from handsome in the classic sense. An enormous head, with goggle-eyes and a whopper-jaw, was balanced on a frail body by means of a neck of extreme tenuity; and stooping shoulders, with a long, slouching gait, did not add anything of grace or of beauty to his general appearance.” It was not Robinson’s physical prowess that interested Harrison, but his strength of character. “[Out] of those goggle-eyes shone the courage of a Bayard, and in their depths brooded the soul of a poet and dreamer, while his whole person radiated a delightful and ineffable sense of humor…”

Another visitor to Grèz that summer was the writer Robert Louis Stevenson and he and Theodore Robinson immediately became good friends.

Once summer was over Robinson returned to Paris and his studies at Gérome’s studio and to copying the paintings of the Masters at the Louvre.  The climate in Paris during that winter was harsh and Robinson, a poverty-stricken artist, lived in poor conditions and suffered with colds and asthma attacks, all of which affected his work and he wrote to his mother:

“…When I’ve taken cold and cough all night my work is greatly interfered with not to mention the inconvenience it causes…”

On the Canal by Theodore Robinson

In 1878, Robinson decided to send one of his paintings to the Society of American Artists first exhibition.  The group had been founded the previous year by artists of attending the National Academy of Design which they believed did not satisfactorily meet their needs, and was far too conservative in its thinking.  This was the same reasoning behind the formation of the Art Students League which Robinson helped Wilmarth to organise in 1875.  The Society of American Artists was very valuable to those American artists who, having studied art in European cities, were returning home but discovered that there were inadequate prospects to exhibit their work. Robinson became a regular contributor to their annual exhibitions.

In my next blog I will be looking more at Theodore Robinson’s life and a very important and influential friendship he had with his French neighbour.

————————————————————————————–

Apart from the usual internet sources I found many details about Theodore Robinson’s life in an essay written  for the catalogue of the Theodore Robinson exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York in March 2000 by the American writer and art curator, D. Scott Atkinson.

Posted in American artists, Art, Art Blog, Art History, Impressionists, Theodore Robinson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Jean-Baptiste Pillement

The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)

The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)

Louis XIV, known as the Sun King died in 1715, at the age of seventy-seven after reigning for seventy-two years.  He had outlived all his legitimate children and two of his eldest grandchildren so his crown passed to his youngest grandchild, Louis Duke of Anjou, who became Louis XV at the age of five (the same age his grandfather was when he became Louis XIV) and his kingdom was ruled by his maternal great-uncle, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans as Regent of France, until Louis reached maturity in 1723.  The Duke of Orléans had a passion for beauty and cheerfulness and he tried to dismantle the godliness enforced by Louis XIV at his sumptuous home in Versailles. Following numerous wars under the previous monarch, France turned away from these imperial aspirations and instead, concentrated on more personal, and enjoyable pastimes. With this more relaxed political life and the letting-up of private morals, the change was mirrored by a new style in art, one that was intimate, decorative, and often erotic.  It was the era of Rococo.

Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)

Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)

Members of the new royal court began to decorate their sophisticated homes in a lighter, more delicate manner. This new style which came into being around the start of the 18th century has been known since the last century as “rococo,” from the French word, rocaille, for rock and shell garden ornamentation. The rococo style emphasized pastel colours, sinuous curves, and patterns based on flowers, vines, and shells. Artists moved away from depictions of lofty grandiloquence and instead focused on the pleasures of both colour and light, and also moved away from depictions of momentous religious and historical subjects and concentrated more on informal, friendly and relaxed mythological scenes as well as  joyous views of daily life, and elegant sophisticated portraiture.  When we think about rococo art we think of Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard but today I am looking at the life and works of a lesser known rococo artist, Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)

The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)

Jean-Baptiste Pillement was born in Lyon, France on May 24th 1728.  He received his first artistic training as a teenager from the French painter, Daniel Sarrabat in Lyon.  The training he received gave him an excellent foundation in the Rococo style of genre painting which had become so popular through the works of Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher.  In 1743, aged fifteen, Pillement moved from his home town to Paris where he was taken on as a design apprentice at the Manafacture des Gobelins, a tapestry factory, which is best known as a royal factory supplying the court of the French monarchs.   In 1745 he left Paris and travelled to Spain and remained there for five years. He spent those years moving from city to city earning money sometimes as a designer other times as a painter.

Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin
by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

One recurring theme depicted in his paintings was that of rugged landscapes, shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats cross fast flowing streams by way of rickety bridges, on either side of the cascading water we see lush green vegetation all of which was bathed in the golden glow of sunlight.

In 1750, after five years in Spain, the twenty-two-year-old Pillement journeyed to Lisbon where he was to remain for four years.  In 1754 Pillement left the Iberian Peninsula and travelled to London.  The favoured artistic genre of the English at that time was landscape painting and this meant that Pillement’s Rococo-style of romanticised landscape art was in much demand.  One of the popular artists at that time whose work was to influence Pillement was Nicolaes Berchem, the highly regarded and prolific Dutch Golden Age painter who painted numerous works depicting pastoral landscapes in the seventeenth century.

Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem

Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem

Berchem was part of the second generation of “Dutch Italianate landscape” painters who had travelled to Italy to take in the romanticism of the country and who would later return home to the Netherlands with sketchbooks full of drawings of classical ruins and pastoral imagery. Like Pillement, a century later, Berchem’s works were based on the Arcadian landscapes of the French painter Claude Lorrain which would typically depict shepherds grazing their flocks among Classical ruins, bathed in a golden sunlit haze.

The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During his sojourn in the English capital he became friends with the English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer David Garrick and his wife, the dancer, Eva Maria Weigel.  Garrick had become quite wealthy through his acting and this allowed he and his wife to buy a palatial estate in Richmond-on-Thames which became known as Garrick’s Villa.  Eva Marie Weigel became an art collector and furnished the house with paintings, many of which were by Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In 1763, Pillement was once again on the move, this time leaving London and travelling to Vienna.  His reputation as a successful painter gave him the opportunity to move in royal circles and was employed at the Imperial Court of Maria Theresa and Francis I.

Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In the eighteenth century, prints of designs was the foremost way of spreading information. They were often published monthly and were collected into folios or volumes, and people could order them by subscription. There was a massive demand throughout Europe, for these prints.   Pillement, whilst living in England, soon realised that the fashion there was the same as that in France, and, at the time, was the love of chinoiseries.  It was around 1764 that Pillement, according to his memoirs, had discovered a new method of printing on silk with fast colours.   Pillement’s illustrations were a blend of fanciful birds, flora & fauna, incorporating large human figures and chinoiserie.  The word, chinoiserie came from the French word Chinois, meaning “Chinese” and is a European version and simulation of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions, especially in the field of decorative arts.  It first became popular during the 17th century and this trend was further commercialised in the 18th century with the boom in trade with China and East Asia.   The chinoiserie style is associated with the Rococo style with its cheerfulness, its concentration on materials, and often depicts times of great pleasure and leisure time.

One of Jean Baptiste Pillement's Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l'usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.

One of Jean Baptiste Pillement’s Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l’usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.

These beautiful and intricate designs were used by engravers and decorators not only on porcelain and pottery, but also on textiles, wallpaper and silver. Pillement published many albums, of these illustrations, the most famous being Œùvre de fleurs, ornements, cartouches, figures et sujets chinois which was published in 1776.

After Vienna, Pillement’s next stop, in 1765, was Poland and the city of Warsaw where he once again worked for the royal court of the Polish king, Stanislaw II, who commissioned him to decorate the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the nearby Ujazdowski Castle.

Inside Le petit Trianon

Inside Le petit Trianon

Pillement was forever on the move.  He worked in Saint Petersburg, the Piedmont, Milan, Rome and Venice as well as returning to his homeland where he was employed by Marie Antoinette to furnish the Petit Trianon, a small château located on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles which was built between 1762 and 1768 during the reign of Louis XV.   Its purpose was to house Louis XV’s long-term mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who sadly died four years before its completion.  However, all was not lost, as the Petit Trianon was subsequently occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry. When Louis XV died in 1774 he was succeeded by his son Louis-Auguste who became Louis XVI and when he came to the throne he gave the Petit Trianon to his wife Marie Antoinette whom he had married in 1770 when he was just fifteen years of age, the same age as his bride. In 1778 Pillement was nominated Court Painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, in which capacity he provided paintings for the Petit Trianon at Versailles.

A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During the 1780’s Pillement was living once again on the Iberian Peninsula where he completed many of his most treasured works of art.  In Portugal, he became one of that country’s leading landscape and marine artists. He was also named Court Painter to Queen Maria I and King Pedro III, at last accepting the honour and pension that he had declined when he lived and worked in the country some thirty-five years earlier. It was during this second stay that he also gained a reputation as one of Portugal’s finest teachers of art.

Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)

Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)

He eventually returned to France in 1789 but instead of returning to Paris  he settled in a small town of Pézenas, in the Val d’Hérault in the Languedoc region.  In 1800, aged 72, he returned to his birthplace, Lyon, where he continued to paint.  On September 1st 1801 the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte signed a famous decree, Decree of 14 Fructidor, the so-called Chaptal Decree, named after the famous chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who was the minister for the interior from 1800–04.  The decree offered the fifteen newly founded museums the art treasures which had been captured from “the enemies of the Republic”.  In the main, these were post-Revolution confiscations effected in France, but also included artwork which had been seized elsewhere in Europe by the Republican and, later, Napoleonic armies. In Lyon, in 1801, the founding of the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon. The institution also fulfilled local aspirations, such as recalling the city’s prestigious Roman past and furnishing models for the silk industry, which was in crisis at that time.  And at the beginning of 1803, the Louvre Museum began to send a total of 110 paintings to be housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon.  Jean-Baptiste Pillement was employed at the museum to give art lessons which he continued doing for the rest of his life.

Fête Champêtre black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Fête Champêtre
black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Pillement achieved success not only as a landscape painter but was also one of the most influential decorators of the eighteenth century. His chinoiseries, arabesques and flower paintings providing elegant leitmotives for furniture makers, tapestry weavers, and particularly when he returned late in life to the south of France, he did much work for the silk industry of Lyon (Manufacture de Soie et des Indiennes), where he ended his distinguished career.

River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement

River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement

Jean-Baptiste Pillement died in Lyon in 1808, aged 80.  He will be remembered for his exquisite and delicate landscapes, but most of all for his engravings done after his drawings, and their influence in spreading the Rococo style and particularly the taste for chinoiserie throughout Europe.

In Maria Gordon-Smith’s 2006 book, Pillement, she commented:

“…the name Jean Pillement can evoke visions of Arcadian landscapes, luminous seascapes, and highly polished pastels and drawings. To the cognoscenti of decorative arts, Pillement is recalled as having been the most prolific and successful master of Rococo fantasy of his time. His designs were adopted by countless leading artistic manufactories, and their charm has never waned…”

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, French painters, Jean-Baptiste Pillement, Rococo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wilson and the Ferrieres Collection

The Wilson Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery

The Wilson
Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery

When I have to travel to meetings in the UK and have an overnight stay, I try and go to local art galleries and see what is on offer.   I am often somewhat disappointed with the collections.  I suppose I expect too much.  It is my own fault.  I should realise I am not going to find a hidden Uffizi or Prado in a provincial town as I am aware that building up an art collection is a costly affair in this day and age.  So, to my great surprise and pleasure, yesterday I discovered a real gem.  I was in Cheltenham for a meeting and had the afternoon free so decided to go and find their art gallery.   It is called The Wilson and it has a small but wonderful collection of paintings many of which are from an era I particularly love – seventeenth and nineteenth Dutch and Flemish works of art.  My blog today is all about the gallery and some of these paintings.

Baron Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrieres

Baron Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrieres

For a gallery to become established it obviously needs a collection of paintings and this almost always means it has to have a benefactor who has bequeathed the gallery a large number of works of art.  The regency spa town of Cheltenham and The Wilson had the second Baron de Ferrieres to thank for their foreign painting collection.  He died in Cheltenham in 1864 and left his large art collection to his son the third Baron, Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrieres, who in 1898 donated forty-three paintings and a sum of £1000 to the town of Cheltenham to set up a gallery to house the works of art, and so it was his generosity that today’s gallery began life and was able to house such a rich collection of work.

Trees, Castle and Skating Figures by Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder

Trees, Castle and Skating Figures by Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder

The first painting I am showcasing is entitled Trees, Castle and Skating Figures by Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder (1807-1868).  Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder was a 19th-century Dutch landscape painter who was born in Middelburg and was the son of the painter, Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek who gave him his early art lessons.  Marinus had two brothers, Barend Cornelis and Hermanus who were also artists.  Koekkoek was primarily based in Hilversum and Amsterdam, where he later died.

Fortified Building on the Banks of a Canal by Cornelis Springer

Fortified Building on the Banks of a Canal by Cornelis Springer

Fortified Building on the Banks of a Canal is another fine example from the Ferriers collection.  It was painted around 1850 by the Dutch landscape artist, Cornelis Springer who was born in Amsterdam in 1817.  Springer became a member of the Amsterdam painters collective Felix Meritis and won a gold medal for a painting of a church interior in 1847. He was the most skilled of the Dutch townscape painters in the nineteenth century.  He consistently strived for topographical accuracy in his townscapes and this he achieved by many hours studying the design plans of the original buildings.  His townscapes have a meticulous style with attention to light and atmospheric conditions.  In this work Springer has somewhat abandoned his normal detailed depiction of the buildings an sought to concentrate the light and atmosphere which makes the depiction more Romantic that topographically correct.

Dutch Street Scene by Adrianus Eversun

Dutch Street Scene by Adrianus Eversun

Adrianus Eversen was a pupil of our previous painter, Cornelis Springer and spent most of his life painting in Amsterdam.  He, like Springer, was known for his townscapes and street scenes.  However, unlike Springer most of his townscapes lacked topographical accuracy.  In his painting, Dutch Street Scene, which he completed in 1858, we see a row of buildings which the artist has depicted with architectural accuracy but the setting was probably just a figment of his imagination rather than a real street.  He completed many paints of this ilk which were simply entitled “Dutch street scenes”.

A fête champêtre was a popular form of entertainment in the 18th century, and took the form of a kind of garden party. This form of entertainment was especially prevalent at the French court where at Versailles large areas of the park were landscaped with follies, pavilions and temples to have the capacity for such revelries.

Fête Champêtre: Cavaliers and Women Round a Gaming Board by Joseph le Roy

Fête Champêtre: Cavaliers and Women Round a Gaming Board by Joseph le Roy

The term fête champêtre comes from the French expression for a “pastoral festival” or “country feast” and this may be construed as being a simplistic form of entertainment, but in the eighteenth century, a fête champêtre was usually a very graceful and stylish form of entertainment which would sometimes involve whole orchestras hidden from sight amongst the trees and participants would be in fancy dress.  Joseph Anne Jules Le Roy (1853-1922), the Parisian-born painter, was a specialist in military scenes and animals and in this painting of his we see those two themes.  In his painting, Fête Champêtre: Cavaliers and Women Round a Gaming Board we see depicted the fête champêtre in the grand manner with the people dressed in Flemish seventeenth century costumes.

Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering) by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1721)

Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering) by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1721)

This was different to the sumptuous costumes depicted by the French artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau’s in his 1721 painting, Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering). 

A Flemish Fair by of Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh

A Flemish Fair by of Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh

The next painting which is also part of the Ferrieres Collection comes from an earlier period.  This is thought to be a late sixteenth century work and is attributed to Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh.  He was a Dutch Renaissance painter who was born in Leiden in 1537 and died in the same town in 1614.  The work, entitled A Flemish Fair, reminds me of works by one of my favourite artists, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was a contemporary of Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh.  The depiction of fairs in paintings was very popular in the last decade of the sixteenth century.

Ruins over the River Birchel at Zutphen by Everhardus Koster

Ruins over the River Birchel at Zutphen by Everhardus Koster

Everhardus Koster (1817-1892) was a Dutch painter who specialized in sea and river scenes.  He studied at Frankfurt-am-Main’s Stadelsches Kunstinstitut and would later become a member of the Amsterdam Academy and for twenty years was the director of Het Pavijoen in Haarlem, he served as Director of the various museums that were formerly housed in the Villa Welgelegen.  One of his paintings, Ruins over the River Birchel at Zutphen is part of the Ferrieres Collection.

Willem van Mieris (1662-1747) was the most successful genre painter of his generation and a leader of the painters of Leiden. He was a master of cabinet pieces. In this painting, A Hurdy-Gurdy Player Asleep in a Tavern, which is dated 1690, the setting is the interior of an inn.  Van Mieris has meticulously depicted the numerous details of the inn itself as well as the table laden with food.   Not only is this a genre painting but it is also an extremely talented example of a still life featuring a meal of herring and plaice, a bun of bread and the brown German stoneware jug on the table and let’s not forget the authentic portrayal of the hurdy-gurdy. So what is the painting all about?

A Hurdy-Gurdy Player Asleep in a Tavern by Willem van Mieris

A Hurdy-Gurdy Player Asleep in a Tavern by Willem van Mieris

Surrendering to the effects of alcohol he has imbibed, the old hurdy-gurdy player has fallen asleep with his instrument on his lap.  The sleeping musician, a simple beggar, is dressed in rags.  Behind him the female maidservant holds aloft a pouch of money which she may have just taken from the sleeping musician.  She is ecstatic.  Two other tavern revellers look on in the background.  Hurdy-gurdy players were a frequent theme in Dutch peasant painting. They were people who would liven up happy gatherings with the primitive and penetrating sound of their instrument.  Willem shared his liking of depicting lively tavern scenes such as this one with his father Frans van Mieris the Elder. Willem painted several hurdy-gurdy players set in an inn.

The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, seated reading by Gerald Gardiner

The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, seated reading by Gerald Gardiner

Besides the Dutch and Flemish paintings bequeathed to The Wilson there were some interesting works that the museum had acquired over time.   The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, seated reading is a work by Gerald Gardiner.  Gardiner worked at the Cheltenham School of Art teaching drawing and painting from 1927 until his death in 1959.  It is a painting which exudes the quiet domestic atmosphere of life at home.  This work was painted at the Bisley home of Gerald and Evelyn Gardiner and is an example of the artist’s depiction of a night-time scene with his wife enjoying the company of her book, showing up the light, reflections and shadows which are cast by the gas lamp and fire as his wife reads.  It wonderfully encapsulates an atmosphere of domestic bliss and, for us, nostalgia as we see Evelyn reading a book by gas-light in front of the fire. Gardiner was particularly interested in painting night-time scenes and here he balances a powerful composition and the subtle effects of light. Gerald Gardiner was born in 1902. He studied at Beckenham School of Art and the Royal College of Art where he was awarded an Associateship with Distinction in 1926. In 1927 he was appointed second master at the Cheltenham School of Art, in charge of the drawing and painting department, later becoming Painting Master, where he worked until his death

Village Gossip by Stanley Spencer (c.1939)

Village Gossip by Stanley Spencer (c.1939)

Stanley Spencer was one of the most original artists of the modern age and it was good to see one of his works hanging in The Wilson.  Spencer’s paintings have special characteristics; we are urged to work out the story behind each painting and the work on show, Village Gossip is no exception.   It was painted around 1939 whilst he was on holiday in the Gloucestershire village of Leonard Stanley.  I will leave you to work out what you think is going on this painting.  Look at the body language of the woman on the right with her arms tightly folded across her chest.  Look at the accusing stance of the elderly man and woman on the left.  Even the small girl points towards the young man in an accusatory gesture. He bows his head in a somewhat remorseful manner.  What is he being accused of?

There were so many other excellent works of art on show at The Wilson and if ever you are in or around Cheltenham, I urge you to pay it a visit.

Posted in Adrianus Eversun, Art, Art Blog, Art Galleries, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, Cornelis Springer, David Hockney, Dutch painters, Everhardus Koster, Ferrieres Collection, Flemish painters, Gerald Gardiner, Isaac Claesz. van Swanenburgh, Joseph le Roy, Marinus Koekkoek, The Wilson, Watteau, Willem van Mieris | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Louis-Léopold Boilly

Self-portrait by Léopold Boilly (1805)

Self-portrait by Léopold Boilly (1805)

My artist today is the prolific late eighteenth century French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly, who was best known for his genre scenes featuring life in the French capital during the French Revolution and the French Empire. He is also renowned for his revolutionary use of lithography.

Boilly was born on July 5th 1761 in La Bassée, a commune in the Nord department of northern France, sixty kilometres south-east of Calais.  His father was wood carver and it was he, who gave Léopold his first lessons in art, and soon during his early teens young Boilly was producing many good works of art, a fact that came to the attention of the Austin friars at the monastery in Douai, a town close to his home. By 1774, word of Boilly’s artistic talent reached the bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Louis François Marc Hilaire de Conzié, who offered him a place to live and paint in Arras.

Also around this time, living and working in Arras, was the Flemish-born artist Guillaume-Dominique-Jacques Doncre, who made a living from painting portraits of the members of the Conseil of Arras and members of the local aristocracy but who also specialised in trompe-l’oeil paintings.  It is thought that maybe Léopold Boilly studied under Doncre as the young artist developed a liking for trompe l’oeil works.

A trompe l'oeil by Dominique Doncre

A trompe l’oeil by Dominique Doncre

Trompe l’oeil, (French for “deceive the eye) is a style of painting invented by the ancient Greeks whereby the artist creates an illusion of space often showing apparently three dimensional objects and spaces in a way which the eye accepts as realism in the context of their surroundings.  It was particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Low Countries and Northern France.  This trompe l’oeil by Dominique Doncre, above was completed in 1785.  At first sight it looks like a collection of items set out randomly on his “noticeboard”.  Two horizontal straps seem to be holding the items in place including what looks like an engraved page featuring the artist himself and we know it is Doncre as the words “ego sum pictor (I am the painter) are beneath the portrait.  On a card below the pair of spectacles, he has also signed and dated the painting.  It is a simple work with no hidden message.

A trompe-l'oeil by Léopold Boilly

A trompe-l’oeil by Léopold Boilly

Léopold Boilly completed several trompe l’oeil paintings of his own and my favourite is one with a cat gazing through a hole in the canvas caused by a log which has pierced it.  On the top bottom of which are fish hanging from the stretcher.

The Visit received by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1789)

La Visite reçue (The Visit received) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1789)

In 1785, aged twenty-four, Boilly went to live in Paris and there, two years later, he married Marie-Madeleine Desligne, the daughter of a merchant of Arras. In 1787 Boilly received a lucrative commission. The nobleman and lawyer, Antoine Joseph François Xavier Calvet de Lapalun had decided to refurbish his family residence in Avignon and he was advised by one of his former clients to incorporate an art collection into the re-modelling of the large house and at the same time arranged for his friend a number of  introductions with some of the most influential Parisian art dealers who would be able tosell him the finest works of art.  One of the artists chosen to provide works for the residence was Léopold Boilly.  The former client, the Marquis Alexandre de Tulle de Villefranche, gave Calvet de Laupin a present of two of Boilly’s works, La Visite reçue and La Visite rendue.  Calvet de Laupin was so pleased with the works that he commissioned Boilly to complete a further nine genre paintings of the same ilk.

The Visit Returned by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1787)

La Visite rendue (The Visit Returned) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1787)

All eleven genre works featured the many facets of love, all of which are set in an upper-middle class milieu.  The people depicted in the various scenes look as if they are actors appearing in a stage play.  These were not, unlike Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode, an eleven-episode story.  Each were simply variations on the theme of love and left the viewer to decide what was happening in the painting.   The setting of the two works I have included had been dictated to Boilly by Tulle de Villefranche while Calvet de Lapalun himself described the settings he wanted for the final seven works.

The Suitor's Gift by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1790)

The Suitor’s Gift by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1790)

In 1790 Boilly completed a work entitled The Suitor’s Gift.  In it we see a beautiful, elegantly dressed young woman looking out at us knowingly as she receives the attentions of a suitor. He is obviously a very generous suitor for on the table in front of the young woman we see a luxurious gift box which lies open. It had been lovingly wrapped, as we see several strands of pink ribbon lying over the side which had once secured the gift.  In the box and resting on the front edge of it are two white roses and this presumably symbolises the young lady’s innocence and adolescence. The young woman’s face is flushed and it is this and her full and rounded cheeks that suggests she is very young, certainly in comparison to her much older suitor.

The knowing look

The knowing look

Her hair is worn loosely and is softly curled with a pink ribbon tied around the crown of her head. Her clothes are elegant and lady-like.  She is attired in a graceful pink corseted gown over which is a thin gauze overskirt, which still allows us to see the colour of the gown.  She stares out at us and by doing so turns away from her suitor.  Is it coyness we are witnessing or is she taking in what she has just been given.  Maybe she is deciding whether the gift meets with her expectations.

Her prospective beau, whom we can just make out in the background shadows, crouches down at the side of the table.  Is he kneeling in a kind of devout reverence?  Look at his expression.  It is one of a man who is keenly awaiting to find out whether his gift had been well received by the young woman.  It would appear by the way his left hand is grasping a crucifix which he wears around his neck that he is looking for divine help in his quest to please the lady. From the demeanour of the pair we get a feel for the relationship.  Look how the woman smiles.  It is a knowing smile.  She knows she has the upper hand in this partnership.  Maybe it is this thought that makes us revise our opinion of her.  Maybe she is not as innocent and vulnerable as we first thought.  At first sight we felt a little pity for her being pestered by an elderly man but maybe it is he whom we should be pitying for it seems she may well play him for a fool!

Boilly’s reputation as an artist who artistically recorded contemporary life in the French capital steadily grew and by often having his paintings on display at various exhibitions he ensured the public would not forget him.  Boilly began exhibiting his work at the Salon in 1791, which was the first year it was open to all artists, previously the exhibition was only open to the work of recent graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts but control of the Salon was taken away from the Academy by the National Assembly, which ordered the exhibition opened to all artists.

Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1798)

Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1798)

In 1798 Boilly put forward his painting Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey for exhibition at that year’s Salon.  This genre of multi-figure or group portraits was popular with many Dutch and British artists and in this work of fiction, Boilly has imagined what it would have been like if all the young aspiring artists of the time had met up at the studio of his contemporary the French artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey, who we see dressed in red standing behind the man sitting at the easel.  The studio’s classical decoration is the work of architects Percier and Fontaine whom we see depicted standing on the left.

Arrival of the Stagecoach by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1803)

Arrival of the Stagecoach by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1803)

Boilly regularly exhibited at the Salon until 1824 and he received a gold medal at the Salon of 1804 for his painting Arrival of the Stagecoach.  The work depicts a major event in Parisian life – the daily arrival of a stagecoach in the crowded courtyard of the Messageries in rue Montmartre (which is now Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires).  This was a place where stagecoaches converged from all over France and Europe in the early 19th century. In the painting, we see the stagecoach is in the parking space reserved for coaches coming from northern France and Belgium, indicated by the inscription on the wall.

This is an interesting study of Parisian life.  Boilly has depicted a throng of people some of whom are waiting to board the stagecoach.  By their attire, we can see the various social classes.  At the centre of the painting we see a bourgeois being welcomed by his wife; on the left-hand side, we see a soldier with his arm around a flower seller or maybe she is a maid from the local hostelry, who by the way she is ignoring him, has only eyes for the well-dressed military officer with the plumed hat to her left.  Unfortunately for her, he is totally disinterested in her. There is still one passenger, an elderly lady, sitting in the coach.  Maybe she is awaiting assistance to help her debark, maybe someone was supposed to be there to meet her but has not arrived.

The young delivery men can be seen on top of and at the side of the coach helping to unload packages which have been brought in by the coach.  We see another by the side of the military officer almost brought to his knees by the weight of the case he is carrying on his shoulder.  He was a portefaix, an old term for a porter.   These workers were known as gagne-deniers, unskilled workers, often peasants from the countryside who have come to the city to earn a living and often were paid a mere pittance.   Now look at the characters on the far right of the painting. The man is the epitome of elegance albeit bordering on being a dandy. The lady with him has a pug on a leash, which was at the time the height of fashion. The little girl standing with them has turned her back on them and seems totally disinterested in the adult conversation.

Boilly continually showed an interest in the bustling life of Paris and in this work and others he highlighted the developing role of transport in the early 19th century with the Napoleonic wars and the development of capitalism. This painting which describes an everyday urban event, a scene which falls within the domain of genre painting which, at the time and in view of the Paris Salon academicians was considered inferior to history painting.  Despite that, the work won the gold medal at the Salon in 1804 and was ultimately acquired by the Louvre in 1845.

The Triumph of Marat by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1794)

The Triumph of Marat by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1794)

Boilly was thirty-three at the height of the Reign of Terror period during the French Revolution in 1794.  He was a half-hearted supporter of the Revolution, and that year he was denounced to the Société Républicaine des Arts by a fellow artist, the Jacobin fanatic Jean-Baptiste Wicar, for having painted “obscene works revolting to republican morality.”  He was condemned by the Committee of Public Safety for these erotic undertones and for the frivolity of his work as well as his penchant for depicting the bourgeois in his early paintings. He was saved from literally a “fate worse than death” when his accusers searched his home and found his overtly flattering painting of Jean-Paul Marat, Triumph of Marat, the rabble-rousing radical journalist and politician and hero of the Revolution.  Although Boilly survived the incident, his wife died during these anxious times.  Boilly remarried in 1795.

The Movings by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1822)

The Movings by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1822)

In 1822 Boilly completed a painting entitled The Movings which highlighted the plight of the poor.  In the painting, we see several families, who were unable to pay rent, and so were forced to move out of their homes with their belongings and travel the streets of Paris in search of new shelter. The painting depicts a palpable tension of a social drama and Boilly has created this by adding the opposing constituents in the setting.  In the left background, we see the mirage-like image of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Rome. Most of the figures in the work appear to be moving away from the Roman church. However, the owners of the front wagon, possibly a lowly and poor family that appears to have come from outside the city in search of work, move towards the distant mirage of the church and it is this connection that suggests that the arriving family’s search for a better financial future will prove futile, as well-paid job opportunities, like the church, are just an illusion.  This was how Boilly saw life at that juncture of time.

Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers) by Louis-Léopold Boilly

Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers) by Louis-Léopold Boilly

Boilly was not only a fine artist but he was also a fine businessman and all through his career, he could change his artistic style to coincide with what was popular at the time with the public and made money by selling engraved reproductions of his genre paintings.  One of the strangest form of his art was his depiction of grimacers.  Grimacer is the French word meaning “to pull a face” and it fascinated Boilly, who produced many amusing works focused on the grimacers.   The lithograph above,  Les Amateurs de Tableaux (Lovers of Paintings) is part of his collection Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers).  In the painting, we see several grotesque looking characters, open-mouthed, brows furrowed as they concentrate on a small painting, some peering through monocles and spectacles.  It was thought that Boilly was poking fun at the so-called “amateur art connoisseurs”.

Les Grimaces by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1823)

Les Grimaces by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1823)

In other similar works, the artist made many studies of facial expressions and the result was humorous but often cruel caricatures of contemporary society.  In his lithograph, Les Grimacers, he even included himself (top left)

The Artist's Wife by Louis-Léopold Boilly (c.1799)

The Artist’s Wife by Louis-Léopold Boilly (c.1799)

Boilly was a talented portrait artist and received many lucrative commissions for his portraits.  It is said that he completed more than five thousand portraits during his lifetime.  One of my favourites is one he completed around 1799 entitled The Artist’s Wife in His Studio, which featured his wife.

In the 1820’s Boilly was one of the first French artists to experiment with lithography to reproduce his paintings.  He last exhibited at the Salon in 1824 and in the spring of 1828 he sold his collection of Dutch, Flemish, and French paintings and decorative objects, as well as thirty-seven of his own paintings. The monarchy of Louis-Philippe awarded him the cross of the Légion d’honneur in 1833. He died in Paris on January 4th 1845 aged eighty-four.  His youngest son, Alphonse Boilly was a professional engraver who apprenticed in New York.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Boilly, French painters, Portraiture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gerda Gottlieb and Einar Wegener

Gerda and Einar

Gerda and Einar

The artist I am looking at today was unknown to me.  The more I read about her the more I realise I should have been aware of her especially after the recent publicity.  Howeve,r so that I am not cast alone as the “unknowledgeable one” I wonder how many of you have heard of Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb.  Well, have you?   I am not going to totally give away why you, like me, should have known her until a little later in the blog.  Today’s blog is not just about her but also about her first husband Einar Wegener.

Gerda Wegener (née Gottlieb)

Gerda Wegener (1886 – 1940)

Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb was born on March 15th 1886 in the small rural town of Hammelev in the eastern part of central Jutland. She was the daughter of Emil Gottlieb, a clergyman in the Catholic Church and Justine Gottlieb (née Osterberg). Although she had three other siblings they all died before adulthood.  Life as the daughter of a clergyman was a very conservative one.  Probably, because of her father’s profession, the family moved around the country.  Whilst still a child the family moved the short distance south from Hammelev to the coastal town of Grenaa and later to the central Jutland town of Hobro.

Gerda showed a love of art and an unusual artistic talent at a young age and began to receive some local artistic training. In 1903, when she was seventeen years of age, and had completed her schooling, she managed, after a lot of cajoling, to have her parents agree to allow her to carry on with her art studies and enrol at the newly opened women’s college at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.  Gerda proved to be a very talented student and in 1904 some of her work was exhibited in the Kunsthal Charlottenborg which is the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art.  It was at this artistic academy that fate was going to change her life for it was here that she met and fell in love with a fellow Academy student Einar Wegener.

Einar Wegener

Einar Wegener

Einar Mogens Andreas Wegener was born a male (important to note!) on December 28th 1882 in the small Danish town, Vejle, which is situated in the southeast of the Jutland Peninsula and lies at the head of Vejle Fjord.  He was the youngest of four children. By all accounts Einar was a precocious child who, like Gerda, showed an early artistic talent. He trained as a painter at the Vejle Technical School, and on graduating in 1902 enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen.

Capri, Italy by Einar Wegener (c.1920)

Capri, Italy by Einar Wegener (c.1920)

In his own works Einar Wegener often painted landscapes from the place where he came from, and later scenes from the countryside in France. Einar Wegener received Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes Efteraarsudstilling (the Artists Fall Exhibition), Vejle Art Museum and in the Saloon and Salon d’Automme in Paris . These two aspiring young artists would often paint together although their interest in art differed.

Landscape by Einar Wegener (1908)

Landscape by Einar Wegener (1908)

Einar liked to paint landscapes whereas Gerda preferred illustrative work, the type she would have seen in fashion magazines.  Her main influences derived from her love of French eighteenth century Rococo art depicting well dressed women in luxurious and colourful clothes painted by the great French artists of that time such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, Francois Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.  Having a love of illustrative work she also admired the work of a contemporary of hers, the British Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley

The Morning Dream, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

The Morning Dream, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Beardsley, a major figure in Aestheticism and Art Nouveau, was influenced by the pre-Raphaelite painter and illustrator, Edward Burne-Jones and the woodcuts of the Ukiyo-e movement in Japanese art.  He had a distinctive style contrasting the subtle use of line with bold masses of black.  Many of his illustrations were classed as decadent and as an author he wrote an erotic novel, Under the Hill, and illustrated it with pornographic pictures.

Costumes Parisiens - illustration by Gerda Wegener (1914)

Costumes Parisiens – illustration by Gerda Wegener (1914)

Gerda Weneger had a refined and decadent character style, inspired by the English illustrator and her paintings split the views of the critic and public, some of who were excited with her work whilst it offended others, believing it to be simply pornographic. However in a lot of her erotic work Wegener often ensured that the ladies depicted had a disarming and somewhat enchanting twinkle in their eyes which countered the possible pornographic nature of the work. There is a distinct sense of fun and joie de vivre in Wegener’s work.

Lesbian illustration by Gerda Wegener

Lesbian illustration by Gerda Wegener

Gerda now lived in a bohemian area of Copenhagen populated by actors and dancers as well as artists her early works often depicted long-limbed heavily made-up, colourfully dressed exuberant females who were full of joie de vivre rather than art’s normal depictions of somewhat lifeless women.  In some way this could have been her challenge to the art establishment’s depiction of women, even challenging society’s concepts of women and challenge the standards of the time. Her book and magazine illustrations included ones which focused on high fashion and which were acceptable and loved by the public but she also produced illustrations featuring lesbianism and erotica which were often frowned upon my many parts of society.  There was a belief that Gerda herself was a lesbian.

Lili Elbe (1926)

Lili Elbe (1926)

Although I had never heard of Gerda and Einar Wegener they have become well-known not for their art but his sexuality which was brought to life in the 2016 biographical romantic film, The Danish Girl, which was based on the fictional book, of the same name, written in 2000 by David Ebershoff.    The book and the film also derived their information from a 1931 book about Einar.   The biography of Einar Wegener (Lili Elbe) was published in Denmark in 1931 under the title Fra mand til kvinde (From Man to Woman).  This was actually an autobiography edited by Niels Hoyer (real name Ernst Ludwig Hathom Jacobson) who had put together many manuscripts and letters after Lili’s death.  So when did the problematic sexuality of Einar first surface?  The Danish Girl film and book probably over simplified the beginnings of Einar’s doubt about his own sexuality but they refer to the day when he was asked to pose for his wife.  He described the occasion:

“…About this time Grete painted the portrait of the then popular actress in Copenhagen, Anna Larsen. One day Anna was unable to attend the appointed sitting. On the telephone she asked Grete, who was somewhat vexed: ‘Cannot Andreas pose as a model for the lower part of the picture? His legs and feet are as pretty as mine…”

Einar was very reluctant but Gerda finally persuaded him.   When Anna turned up unexpectedly at their studio she was very impressed with Einar’s portrayal of her and nicknamed him Lili.  On seeing (Einar, whose middle name was Andreas), she reportedly said:

 “…You know, Andreas, you were certainly a girl in a former existence, or else Nature has made a mistake with you this time…”

Two Cocottes with Hats (Gerda and Lili) by Gerda Wegener

Two Cocottes with Hats (Gerda and Lili) by Gerda Wegener

Gerda was so pleased with Einar as a female model she persuaded him to model for her on a number of future occasions.  Wegener’s fashion industry paintings featured beautiful women dressed in chic attire, one of the most popular of which was a captivating lady with a stylish short bob, full lips, and haunting almond-shaped brown eyes. Who would have believed that this exquisite beauty was her husband, Einar, who posed as her fashion model while donning women’s clothing. It was through these experiences that her husband Einar came to realize his true gender identity and began living his life as a woman. Einar’s sexuality became even more complicated when he and Gerda would go to parties as two females and often Gerda would introduce Lili Elba as Einar’s sister.

Gerda and Einar married in 1905 whilst they were still students at the Academy.  She was nineteen and he was twenty-two.

Portrait of Ellen von Kohl by Gerda Wegener

Portrait of Ellen von Kohl by Gerda Wegener

In 1907, Gerda completed a portrait entitled Portrait of Ellen von Kohl but although as we look at it now you will be surprised to know it caused quite a controversy and sparked the Peasant Painter Feud which was a national debate covered in the pages of the Danish newspaper Politiken.  It was all about ‘distasteful’ paintings of excess, (the smouldering look of Ellen von Kohl was seen as being too lascivious!) for the favoured norm at the time was for realism favoured representations of ‘ordinary people in the countryside’. The debate became so heated that the portrait was rejected by both the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, which was the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art, and also the Den Frie gallery, which was founded by the Association of Danish Artists, in protest against the admission requirements for the Kunsthal Charlottenborg.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Gerda completed her art course at the Academy in 1907 and once again fate was going to play a part in her future as in 1908, soon after leaving the Academy she entered and won a drawing competition organised by the leading Danish broadsheet newspaper Politiken. It was competition to draw ‘Copenhagen Woman’.  The newspaper was so pleased by her winning entry that they offered her a job as a regular contributor and soon she established herself as a capable cartoonist and illustrator.  This was just the start of her career as the recognition launched her into the fashion magazine industry and soon she became a leading illustrator of women’s high fashion in the Art Deco style of the time

Although the bohemian quarter of Copenhagen, where the couple lived, had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards life, the pair eventually moved to the more liberal Paris and soon Gerda and Einar began to live as two women.  In the French capital, Gerda was able to further her art career and, some would have us believe that she became a more active lesbian.

Lili and Gerda by Gerda Wegener

Lili and Gerda by Gerda Wegener

Besides posing as a woman for his wife’s paintings, Einar only dressed as Lili and was a tremendous hit on the bourgeois Parisian scene, with all its decadence, art, and sex. It soon became common knowledge that Lili and Einar were the same person but for Einar he had the satisfaction in knowing he would not be ridiculed.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Sadly for Einar simply dressing as a woman was not enough and he was suffering mental torment as Lili slowly took over his life.  For him, Einar was slowly dying and Lili was taking control.  Einar viewed himself as an artist but, as his alter-ego Lili, he viewed things very differently.  He described Lili as:

 “…thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman”, prone to fits of weeping and barely able to speak in front of powerful men…”

Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the magazine La Baionette

Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the magazine La Baionette

Life in Paris was good for Gerda who found success as a portrait painter, fashion illustrator and caricaturist and received many commissions for illustrations from La Vie Parisienne, a French weekly magazine founded in Paris in 1863, Le Rire, the successful humour magazine, La Baïonnette, the magazine which started a few years after Gerda and Einar moved to Paris, as well as the elite Journal des Dames et des Modes, a favourite of artists, intellectuals, and high societyHer success guaranteed a degree of fame and soon she was the primary breadwinner of the couple.

Self portrait by Gerda Wegener

Self portrait by Gerda Wegener

Andrea Rygg Karberg, art historian and curator at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Denmark has no doubt about the artistic ability of Gerda Wegener, saying:

“…Gerda was a pioneer who spent two decades as part of the Parisian art scene and revolutionised the way women are portrayed in art.  Throughout history, paintings of beautiful women were done by men.  Women were typically seen through the male gaze. But Gerda changed all that because she painted strong, beautiful women with admiration and identification – as conscious subjects rather than objects…”

Café by Gerda Wegener

Café by Gerda Wegener

With her new lesbian lifestyle in the avant-garde French capital, Gerda Wegener’s art became considerably more racy and scandalous. In addition to her fashion world portraiture that was featured in many fashion magazines, Wegener completed paintings featuring nude women often depicted in erotic, some would say lewd, poses. These paintings were termed “lesbian erotica,” and were published in art books, the most notorious being the Adventures of Casanova.  Some of these risqué paintings were exhibited publicly and the erotic nature and lesbian theme of the works often led to a public outcry.  Far from being taken aback by such vociferous criticism of her work by sections of the public, Gerda revelled in the notoriety.

Illustration by Gerda Wegener

Illustration by Gerda Wegener

The phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity” may be correct as far as the sale of her work but for Gerda there was a price to pay.  Christian X, the King of Denmark, became aware of Gerda’s marriage to Einar Wegener when he, Lili Elba, had legally become a woman, and so the king declared their marriage invalid in October 1930. Maybe the time had come to an end for Gerda and Einar’s marriage anyway but in 1930 following the annulment, the couple parted ways amicably.

Femme a la Rose by Gerda Wegener

Femme a la Rose by Gerda Wegener

Gerda Wegener following the end of her marriage to Einar married an Italian military officer, Major Fernando Porta, and the couple went to live in Morocco. She continued to paint and would sign her paintings as ‘Gerda Wegener Porta’. The marriage was not a happy one and did not last long with couple divorcing in 1936.

Indian couple seated on a balcony by Gerda Wegener Porta

Indian couple seated on a balcony by Gerda Wegener Porta

She returned to Denmark in 1938, but by then, her paintings and illustrations were no longer in demand and sadly Gerda just managed to eke out a meagre living by painting and selling postcards.  She managed to exhibit her work one last time in 1939.  She had no children and her latter years were spent alone in relative obscurity and with the loneliness came her reliance on alcohol.  Gerda Wegener died on July 28th 1940 in Frederiksburg, Denmark aged 54, a few months after the German army marched into Denmark.  She was buried alone at Solbjerg Park cemetery in Copenhagen.

Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe (1882 - 1931)

Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe
(1882 – 1931)

Einar Wegener continually struggled with his sexuality and believed that Lili Elba was his true self.  It was no longer enough to dress as a woman, he believed that the only way to be at peace with himself was to undergo revolutionary sex reassignment surgery and for that he had to travel to Germany.  In 1930 he attended Dr Ludwig Levy-Lenz clinic in Berlin where he was castrated and had his penis surgically removed.  The following year, 1931, he underwent further surgery, vaginoplasty, which was a procedure that results in the construction of the vagina.  Sadly for Einar these surgical procedures were carried out at a time before antibiotics and he died in Dresden of an infection on September 13th 1931, aged 48.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Danish artists, Einar Wegener (Lili Elbe), Female painters, Gerda Gottlieb, Gerda Wegener, Illustrations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eugène Galien-Lalou – the painter of Paris

Eugene Galien-Lalou (1920)

Eugène Galien-Laloue (1920)

La Belle Époque, which literally means “Beautiful Age” is a name given in France to the period from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the start of World War I in 1914. So why was this termed a beautiful age?   Probably the reason for naming this period thus was because, for the middle and upper classes in France, the standards of living and security increased in comparison with the dark days that went before.  The devastation and death toll of the Franco-Prussian War and the short-lived but bloody battles of the Paris Commune were over.  Napoleon III’s period of power had ended and a Third Republic was declared.  It was a period free of wars affecting France.  It was a period of economic affluence and an era of many new innovations both cultural and technological.  For many it was a good time which needed to be savoured.  My artist today is one who lived and painted during this time and his Parisian street scenes of the time depicted an opulence which many, but the poorer classes, could enjoy. Let me introduce you to the French painter Eugène Galien-Laloue.  He was a consummate draughtsman.  His depictions of fin-de-siècle Paris architecture was of an amazing standard and yet he was not just a cityscape painter as he was equally adept with his landscape work in which he brought to life the rural French countryside.

Paris Street in Autumn by Eugene Galien-Lalou

Paris Street in Autumn by Eugène Galien-Lalou

In his tiny gouaches Galien-Laloue rendered every detail of fin-de-siècle Parisian architecture with absolute precision, but in his landscape works he was more attuned to the painterly tradition of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, recording life in the rural French countryside in light-filled canvasses.  Galien-Laloue painted with great delicacy a wide variety of subjects.    Eugene

Un 14 Juillet, Place de la Republique by Eugène Galien-Lalou

Un 14 Juillet, Place de la Republique by Eugène Galien-Lalou

Eugène Galien-Laloue was born in Montmartre, Paris, on December 11th 1854, almost a year after his father, Charles Laloue, an artist and set designer, married Eugène’s mother, Endoxi Lambert in December 1853.  Eugène was the eldest of nine children and the large family lived on Rue Leonie in the Montmartre, which at the time was an artistic community where many of the Parisian artists and freethinkers lived.  Eugène, even as a child, demonstrated his artistic ability and almost certainly his early training from his father, who liked to paint, and being a set designer was a talented draftsman.  Charles Laloue died suddenly in 1869 when Eugène was fifteen years old and the family, which only just made ends meet when he was alive, struggled to survive financially.  Eugène, was forced to leave school so that he could find work and help his family and his mother secured him a job as an assistant to a notary.

Place de Bastille by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Place de Bastille by Eugène Galien-Laloue

In 1871, aged seventeen, filled with a sense of patriotism and nationalism, Eugène joined the army but to do so he had to lie about his age.  The war with Prussia was a short but deadly affair which France lost.  Fortunately, Eugène came through the bloody war unscathed and once the war ended he left the army and returned to civilian life.  His one aim in life was now to become a professional artist.  For an aspiring artist in Paris there was just one course one had to take to reach that ultimate goal.  One had to become a member of the prestigious L’Académie des Beaux-Arts, which was looked upon as the hub of the Parisian art world.  Some of the artists of this French Academy also served on the jury that selected paintings for the well-respected Salon de Peinture et de Sculpture, held at the Palais de l’Industrie on the Champs-Élysées, at which more than a thousand artists and sculptors had their works of art and sculptures displayed.  Unlike today there were only a small limited number of galleries where artists could show their work and so gaining access to the Salon was crucial for their success as painters and getting approval from the Salon hanging jurists was critical.

Flower Marketby by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Flower Market by by Eugène Galien-Laloue

In order to be nominated to the French Academy, an artist followed a well-tread course of instruction.  Students attended either the official school, the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris, or if they or their parents were affluent, received instruction in the private atelier of an established artist, often one who had connections with luminaries of the Salon.  Academic learning in the nineteenth century to become an artist was not an easy process.  The tuition was laborious albeit meticulous and it started off with the students learning draughtsmanship by copying engravings and sketching Roman and Greek sculpture, which was known as “working from the antique,” which translated, meant sketching black and white tonal studies from classical marble statuary or casts.  If the student had mastered that task, then the tutor would allow them to progress to the next phase of learning.  Advancement from one phase of instruction to another was based on the aspiring young artist mastering what they had been taught.  Progression was not based on an indiscriminate period of instruction.   They would then move on to drawing nude models using just graphite or charcoal.

Théatre de la Ville byby Eugène Galien-Laloue

Théâtre de la Ville by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Following several years of drawing the young artists would begin to paint.  This would be carried out under the direction of a time-honoured master and, when he believed his scholars to be ready, they would be allowed to submit their work to the Salon.  Having been trained by an established and well-respected painter would count for a great deal with the Salon’s jurists.  Not only did the jurists control which paintings would be exhibited they also decided on the placement of the paintings on the monumental and crowded wall of works.  A good placing of an artist’s painting (at eye level) ensured that they would be noticed by the buying public.  In the days of Eugène Galien-Laloue the Academy favoured large figurative works and looked on painting landscapes as a mere hobby one did when holidaying in the many artist colonies!

Illustrated railway poster of the time

Illustrated railway poster of the time

Records do not show whether Eugène attended the Academie des Beaux-Arts or any other academy, such as L’Academie Julian but when one of his works appeared at the Salon it was noted in the catalogue that he was artistically trained by his uncle, Charles Laloue, but of course this was also the name of his father, so maybe there was some confusion as to who did train Eugène.  In life, everybody needs a good break, a stroke of luck, and for Eugène it was the seemingly unbounded industrial enlargement of La Belle Epoque and one aspect of this was rapidly developing rail network which was growing westward from Paris. Eugène was hired as an illustrator for the French railways, the Chemins de Fer de l’Ouest.  The Compaigne de l’Ouest was formed in 1855 through the merger of several smaller railways operating in the western suburbs of Paris, largely serving Normandy and Brittany. Destinations served included London and Jersey (through ports in Normandy and Brittany), as well as Rouen, Dieppe, Saint-Germain, Mont St. Michel, Mers-les-Bains, Treport, and other outlying places.   Illustrators, like Eugene, were employed to illustrate the sights that awaited passengers on their rail journeys and these were used to seduce potential passengers to find out more about what lay at the end of the line.  To carry out his job as a railway company illustrator Eugène had to travel to all these “exotic” places out West and sketch the rural landscape along the way.

En Normandie by Eugène Galien-Laloue

En Normandie by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Eugene exhibited his work for the first time in 1876 at the Museum of Reims, where his work Le quai aux fleurs par la neige (Flower Market Along the Seine Under the Snow) was shown. The following year he exhibited for the first time at the annual Parisian Salon, showing En Normandie (In Normandy) as well as two other gouaches. He preferred executing gouaches since they were less time consuming as his oils and, in fact,  brought comparable prices.

Harbour Scene by Eugène Galien-Lalou

Harbour Scene by Eugène Galien-Lalou

After some time, Eugène Galien-Laloue decided to become self-employed and set himself up in his own Paris studio in rue de Clignancourt.  He spent a lot of his time alone which did not seem to bother him.  Acquaintances described him as a loner, an introvert, who was never happier than when he was working alone in his studio or sitting quietly managing his business.  Modern city life with all its gaiety did not appeal to him.  Maybe he became somewhat crotchety as it was said of him that he was a loner and someone who did not suffer fools gladly, and because of this characteristic people found it very difficult to befriend him.

The French Art Expert, Noe Willer, who was author of Galien-Laloue’s catalogue raisonné wrote of this aspect of Galien-Laloue’s character:

“…He was not eccentric but always conservative, practically a royalist.  He was obsessed with his painting.  In his private life he found simplicity alluring: he married three sisters, one after the other (beginning with the youngest and ending with the oldest).  They had all lived next door to him.  He lived a monastic life.  All worldly pursuits, games, alcohol, the pleasure of the flesh were not for him. Riding his bicycle to places in Paris to paint was his only physical exercise…”

View of the Grands Boulevards by Eugène Galien-Lalou

View of the Grands Boulevards by Eugène Galien-Lalou

The cityscape of Paris was changing rapidly during Eugène Galien-Laloue lifetime.  It all began around the 1830’s when Parisians were complaining about the condition of their city.  The city was overcrowded.   The streets with their open sewers were narrow and dark.  Paris had become a very dangerous and unhealthy environment to live in and the people were not happy with the government.  A whiff of revolution was once again in the air.  Tampering with the problem was not helping and so Napoleon III, in 1854, and his interior minister brought in Georges Eugène Haussmann, known as Baron Haussmann, to oversee the “rebuilding” of the city.  He had the slums torn down and the narrow streets were turned into wide avenues.  Large parks were created as were small villages on the periphery of the city.  A new theatre was built and the Paris Garnier opera house was completed in 1875.  The cit,y after many years of change, became a desirable place to live and it was this revitalisation of Paris which became the subject of the many Belle Epoque artists such as Eugène Galien-Laloue.

Summer Landscape with River by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Summer Landscape with River by Eugène Galien-Laloue

These Belle Epoque artists were pleased to depict the reality of the newly refurbished French capital with its cafés, parks and buildings.   More importantly this now beautiful city was a magnet to tourists, visitors from Great Britain and the United States came to Paris while they were partaking of the “Grand Tour” and  Galien-Laloue had a ready market for his work which concentrated on depictions of the city.  These depictions were just the treasured mementos the American tourists wanted to take home with them for it is known that many of Galien-Lalou’s cityscapes made their way across the Atlantic and into the collections of wealthy Americans from New York, Boston and Chicago.

La Madeleine sous la neige by Eugene Galien-Laloue

La Madeleine sous la neige by Eugène Galien-Laloue

One of Galien-Laloue’s favourite subjects was, L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine; less formally known as La Madeleine.  This Roman Catholic church, looking more like a Roman temple, occupies a commanding position in the 8th arrondissement of Paris and was originally designed as a temple to the glory of Napoleon’s army.  Galien-Lalou depicted the building and the area surrounding it in both summer with the flower markets brightening up the grey buildings and in winter with snow on the ground and people rushing to get to the warmth of their destinations.

River in Normandy by Eugène Galien-Laloue

River in Normandy by Eugène Galien-Laloue

In complete contrast, many people, who moved from the countryside in search of work and went to live in the bustling and noisy city, hankered after a more tranquil life in the countryside they had left behind and wished to be reminded of their rural idyll of the past.  Paintings depicting rural landscapes became popular and Galien-Laloue and the Barbizon painters of the time filled the void in the market for those people who wanted a landscape painting to remind them of the peaceful serenity of nature they had left behind.  Galien-Laloue had cornered both markets – Parisian street scenes and his rural landscape works which he made when he journeyed around the roads and villages of the Ile-de-France Region and the riverside views along the tree-lined banks of the rivers Seine and Marne.

In the early 1900’s Eugène and his family left the city of Paris and went to live at Fontainebleau, a town fifty kilometres south east of Paris which is surrounded by a large and scenic forest.  Eugène now fifty years of age was probably drawn to this area because of its beautiful and quiet environ and the slower pace of life such an idyll afforded.

Snow Scene in Paris by Eugène Galien-Lalou

Snow Scene in Paris by Eugène Galien-Lalou

In 1904 he once again put forward a painting which was exhibited at that year’s Salon.  It had been fifteen years since Galien-Laloue had exhibited at the annual Salon due partly to the politics of the Salon and maybe because his sales were so good that he no longer needed the Salon to be a sales vehicle. World War I broke out in August 1914 and the ever-patriotic Galien-Laloue put himself forward to fight for his country but, at that time, he was sixty years of age and he was considered too old for military duty.

Eugène Galien-Laloue married three times which in itself is not unusual but the extraordinary thing was that his three wives were sisters.  He married Flore Bardin in the 1880’s and they had one child, a son, Fernand.  She died in 1887 and five years later he married her elder sister Ernestine.  This second marriage lasted thirty-three years until she died in 1925.  They had a daughter Flore.  A short time after the death of his second wife he married for a third time this time to another of the Bardin sisters, Claire.  Claire died in 1933 and Eugène, now almost eighty years of age, moved back to Paris to live with his daughter Flore, her husband and his grandchildren.

Sortie La Théatre by Eugene Galien-Laloue

Sortie La Théâtre by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Galien-Laloue never stopped painting but his output of pictures decreased.  Despite living with his family, he became even more introverted and lived a rather solitude lifestyle.  When the German army moved towards Paris in 1940, the family left their city home and went to their summer residence in their country at Chérence in Val d’Oise.  During this flight from the French capital Eugène broke his arm which curtailed his ability to paint.

Eugène Galien-Laloue died at Chérence on April 18th 1941, aged 86.

Many of his paintings also bore other names such as “L.Dupuy”, “Juliany”, “E.Galiany”, “Lievin” and “Dumoutier”.  The reason for this is thought to be that he had a sales exclusivity contract with certain galleries that gave them the exclusive right to sell all his works and so to get around this he may have decided to sell some of his works under a different name !   So why those pseudonyms?   J. Lievin’ was the name of a soldier he met during the Franco-Prussian war, ‘E. Galiany’ is an Italianized version of his own names, and ‘L. Dupuy’ was the name of a neighbour, Dupuy Léon.  Although he signed the paintings, very few of them showed a date and art historians have found it difficult to actually date them.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Cityscapes, Eugène Galien-Laloue, French painters, Landscape paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hendrik Willem Mesdag. Part 3. Bomschuiten, Storms and Panorama Mesdag

Hendrik Willem Mesdag by Hendrik Johannes Haverman

Hendrik Willem Mesdag by Hendrik Johannes Haverman

Following his visit to the Frisian island of Nordeney in the summer of 1868, Hendrik Mesdag would dedicate the rest of artistic life to seascapes and maritime paintings.  He and his wife Sientje had moved back to The Hague in 1869, a town which was a short distance from the coastal district of Scheveningen which offered him the perfect situation for his seascape paintings.

Beached Bomschuiten by Moonlight by Hendrik Mesdag

Beached Bomschuiten by Moonlight by Hendrik Mesdag

Scheveningen, at the time of Mesdag, was a small fishing village which has since grown to become one of the most popular beach destinations of The Netherlands. In the 16th century the village of Scheveningen had less than 900 inhabitants whose livelihood was dependent on fishing.   In the 19th century the main fishery was focussed on the catch of the herring. These were the golden times for the Scheveningen’s fishing industry but by the end of the 19th century the fishery almost ended since few young folk of Scheveningen followed in their fathers’ footsteps in becoming fishermen.

The Scheveningen Fishing Fleet putting to Sea in Hevay Weather by Hendrik Mesdag

The Scheveningen Fishing Fleet putting to Sea in Hevay Weather by Hendrik Mesdag

One of the main features in Mesdag’s seascape depictions was the fishermen and their flat-bottomed boats known as bomschuiten on the beaches at Scheveningen.  When Mesdag went to live in The Hague, there was no harbour for the fishing boats and they would have to rest on the beach and the fishermen would simply pull them on and off the shore.  To get them into the sea for the next fishing trip was quite a complex and unusual affair which I saw explained in a write-up on the Gallery Rob Kattenburg website.

“…At about six feet from the water’s edge a heavy anchor is placed in the sea with a smaller anchor fixed to the same cable to prevent the large anchor from what is known as ‘crabbing’ – that is, sliding over the bottom – when the boat is being launched. At a short distance from the vessel an even smaller anchor is fixed to the cable. The youngest anchorman, with the anchor over his shoulder, walks into the sea up to his neck and then drops the anchor. Only after this has been done are the fishermen carried one by one by the so-called carriers or swimmers and set down on a ladder placed at the stern of the vessel. Then the carriers themselves climb on board. A complete crew numbered nine men. Then the anchor cable is wound round a primitive wooden windlass and the handspikes are inserted. Simultaneously with each rolling wave the crew strains to pull the cable in and thus draw the ship out to sea until they reach deep water. At some distance from the coast the sail is hoisted and the boat sets off for the fishing grounds…”

After the Storm of 1894 by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)

After the Storm of 1894 by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)

The low lying Dutch coastline was often battered by storms, one of the worst being in 1470 when it destroyed the church and half the houses.  The village was again hit by storms in 1570, 1775, 1825, 1860, 1881, and 1894, the latter being the most devastating.  At that time a safe harbour had yet to be built and as usual the fishing fleet of the flat-bottomed bomschuiten had been pulled up on the beach. They were devastated by the ferocity of the storm and most were smashed to pieces and this devastation was captured in Henrik Mesdag’s painting After the Storm 1894.  After this last storm, the villagers decided to build a harbour. Once the harbour had been constructed in 1904, more modern fishing boats replaced the bomschuiten.

Fishing Boats and Fisher-folk on the Beach of Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1872)

Fishing Boats and Fisher-folk on the Beach of Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1872)

The painting Hendrik Mesdag was probably best known for was his panorama painting which became known as Panorama Mesdag.  I remember when I travelled to Venice many years ago, and visited the Gallerie dell’Academia I came across the enormous painting by Veronese entitled The Feast in the House of Levi.  I could not believe how big it was – it measured 18ft high and 42ft in width.  However, this fades into insignificance if you compare it to the size of Hendrik Mesdag’s Panorama which is 46ft high and 394ft in circumference (14m x 120m).  Trust me, seeing is believing!

London Panorama by Robert Barker (1792)

London Panorama by Robert Barker (1792)

Panorama paintings had existed prior to Mesdag’s effort.  A panorama or panoramic painting is a massive work of art, which depicts a wide and all-encompassing view of a subject.  But what is a panorama? The word was coined by the Irish painter Robert Barker, the inventor of the visual panorama, by merging the Greek for pan, “all,” + orama, “that which is seen.” 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 Irish artist, Robert Barker experimented with the idea of representing nature at a single glance.  Barker was born at Kells, County Meath, in 1739. He set himself up as an artist in Dublin but was never very successful and eventually left Ireland and settled in Edinburgh, where once again he set himself up as a painter of portraits and as a miniature painter. If not a great painter, Barker was certainly a great inventor and devised a mechanical system of perspective which he taught. One day when atop Calton Hill, one of Edinburgh’s main hills set right in the city centre he had the idea of a panorama painting of the city below and in 1787, helped by his twelve-year old son, Henry, he made drawings of a half-circle view from the hill and later in his studio completed his picture in water-colour and took it to London where sadly, it was not well received.  However, Barker believed in his project and completed a whole-circle view of Edinburgh twenty-five feet in diameter. He went on to exhibit the work in the Archer’s Hall at Holyrood and afterwards in the Assembly Rooms in George Street. Later in 1788 he exhibited the work in a large room in the Haymarket, London.  Barker went on to complete many more panorama paintings.

Panorama Mesdag with Sientje sitting under white parasol

Panorama Mesdag with Sientje sitting under white parasol

In Belgium panoramas became very popular and Hendrik Mesdag received a commission from a Belgian panorama society, Societé Anonyme du Panorama Maritime de la Haye to paint a maritime panorama.  They wanted the panorama, without borders, to be centred around the Seinpostduine, which at the time was the highest sand dune in Scheveningen and was in danger of being excavated to make room for a café-restaurant.

Panorama Mesdag - view of Scheveningen

Panorama Mesdag (detail) – view of Scheveningen

Mesdag accepted the commission believing it to be a great opportunity to depict his beloved picturesque coastal village of Scheveningen and so, he went about enlisting the help of a few artist friends from The Hague School.  He invited George Hendrik Breitner, a young art student from The Hague Academy, whose task it was to sketch the village of Scheveningen, Théophile de Bock, a friend of van Gogh, was tasked to paint the sky and the dunes and the small contribution of Bernard Blommers was the painting of a fisherwoman and her child who are looking out to sea.  Another contributor to this massive project was Mesdag’s wife Sientje, who he depicted in the painting sitting down with her easel under a white parasol.   Mesdag set to work on the panorama in March 1881 building a sixteen-cornered building on Zeestraat in The Hague.  It incorporated a 14-metre-high structure on which Mesdag could paint his work

panorama_mesdag_3

Panorama Mesdag (detail) showing Cavalry exercising the horses on Scheveningen Beach

Mesdag and his team of painters made numerous sketches of the town and the surrounding coast and slowly over the next four and a half months the panorama evolved.  Mesdag was well satisfied with the finished result.  He believed the painting gave an overwhelming impression of nature.  Many believe he was influenced by his training at the hands of Willem Roelofs who had stressed the importance of reality painting.  Roelofs had told Mesdag on many occasions to “paint reality and nothing but reality”.

Panorama Mesdag Gallery

Panorama Mesdag Gallery

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.   Vincent van Gogh, an early visitor to Panorama Mesdag,  in a letter to his brother Theo, dated August 26th 1881, wrote about the panorama:

“…then I saw Mesdag’s panorama with him [Théophile de Bock], that’s a work for which one must have the utmost respect.  It put me in mind of what Bürger or Thoré, I think, said about Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. That painting’s only fault is not to have any faults…”

Panorama Mesdag Viewing Gallery

Panorama Mesdag Viewing Gallery

I visited Panorama Mesdag at the beginning of December and it was truly an amazing experience.  You enter the building, past the obligatory shop and into two small rooms which house some of Mesdag and his wife’s paintings.  You then follow a corridor upwards through a dimly lit long passage which opens out to what looks a circular observation gallery surrounded by the enormous painting.  The observation gallery has a circular walk way with rails all around it which you can lean against as you scan the painting.  As you stand on the gallery platform, the painting is 14 metres away from you and between you and the painting is sand and various items of flotsam, abandoned fishing nets and marram grasses which make it seem that you are standing on top of a sand dune looking down to the sea on one side and the village on the opposite side.  This addition of sand and bits of driftwood make the whole experience more realistic.

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.

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.

50th wedding anniversary of Hendrik Mesdag and Sientje Mesdag-van Houten in the Pulchri Studio

50th wedding anniversary of Hendrik Mesdag and Sientje Mesdag-van Houten in the Pulchri Studio (1906)

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

I end with a quote from the author, Frederick W Morton who wrote an article 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…”

It is very difficult to describe the Panorama Mesdag experience but if you go to YouTube and type in “panorama mesdag” there are a number of videos showing you this wonderful painting.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art Galleries, Art History, Dutch painters, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Marine paintings, Seascape | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments