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

Self portrait by William S Mount (1832)

Self portrait by William S Mount (1832)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘There is one in Endor,’ they said…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth Mount Seabury by William S Mount (1831)

Ruth Mount Seabury by William S Mount (1831)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherd Alonzo Mount by William S Mount (1847)

Shepherd Alonzo Mount by William S Mount (1847)

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

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

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

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

Portrait of Reuben Merrill by William S Mount (1832)

Portrait of Reuben Merrill by William S Mount (1832)

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

Portrait of Midshipman Seabury by William S Mount (1868)

Portrait of Midshipman Seabury by William S Mount (1868)

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

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

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William Sidney Mount. Part 1. The Music Man

William Sidney Mount

William Sidney Mount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cradle of Harmony

Cradle of Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching the Tune by William Sidney Mount (1866)

Catching the Tune by William Sidney Mount (1866)

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

The Banjo Player by William S Mount (1856)

The Banjo Player by William S Mount (1856)

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

The Bone Player by William Mount (1856)

The Bone Player by William Mount (1856)

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

Dance of the Haymakers by William S Mount (1845)

Dance of the Haymakers by William S Mount (1845)

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

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

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

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

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Natalia Goncharova and Rayonism

Natalia Goncharova       1881 - 1962

Natalia Goncharova
1881 – 1962

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

Natalya Goncharova by Laborov

Natalya Goncharova by Laborov

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

Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)

Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)

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

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

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

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

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

Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)

Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)

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

Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

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

The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo

Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo

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

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

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

The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova

The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

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

 

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

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

The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)

The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)

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

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

Maria Luise Katharina Breslau

Self portrait by Louise Breslau (1891)

Self portrait by Louise Breslau (1891)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children reading by Louise Breslau

Children reading by Louise Breslau

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

Les amies by Louise Breslau (1881)

Les amies by Louise Breslau (1881)

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

Le thé à cinq heures by Louise Breslau (1883)

Le thé à cinq heures by Louise Breslau (1883)

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

Chez soi by Louise Breslau (1885)

Chez soi by Louise Breslau (1885)

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

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

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

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

Jean Carries in his Atelier by Louise Breslau

Jean Carries in his Atelier by Louise Breslau

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

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

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

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

Marie Bashkirtseff. Part 2 her later life and diaries

Marie Bashkirtseff (1858 - 1884)

Marie Bashkirtseff (1858 – 1884)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Meeting by Marie Bashkirtseff (1884)

The Meeting by Marie Bashkirtseff (1884)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

Autumn by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

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

 In a diary entry for May 1884, she wrote:

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

Marie Bashkirtseff's mausoleum  in Cimetière de Passy, Paris

Marie Bashkirtseff’s mausoleum in Cimetière de Passy, Paris

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

Inside of Marie Bashkirtseff's mausoleum

Inside of Marie Bashkirtseff’s mausoleum

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

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

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

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

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

Marie Bashkirtseff. Part 1 The portraitist and feminist

Photograph of twenty year old Marie Bashkirtseff (1878)

Photograph of twenty year old Marie Bashkirtseff (1878)

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

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

 

The Umbrella by Marie Bashkirtseff  (1883)

The Umbrella by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of a Woman by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

Portrait of a Woman by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

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

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

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

Parisienne, Portrait of Irma by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

Parisienne, Portrait of Irma by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hendrik Willem Mesdag – his seascapes and Panorama Mesdag

Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1913)

Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1913)

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

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag (1882)

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag (1882)

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

Fishing Boats in the Surf by Hendrik Mesdag

Fishing Boats in the Surf by Hendrik Mesdag

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

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag

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

Pinks in the breakers by Hendrik Mesdag (1880)

Pinks in the breakers by Hendrik Mesdag (1880)

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

Gales in Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)

Gales in Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)

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

Les Brisant

Les Brisant

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

Detail from Panorama Mesdag

Detail from Panorama Mesdag

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

Detail from Panorama Mesdag

Detail from Panorama Mesdag

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

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

Panorama Mesdag as seen from central observation platform

Panorama Mesdag as seen from central observation platform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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