The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1778)

My Daily Art Display featured artist of the day is Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the French painter whose scenes of frivolity and gallantry are the finest examples of the Rococo spirit.  The Rococo style of art was characterised by lightness, grace, playfulness and intimacy and emerged out of France around the beginning of the 18th century and in the following century spread throughout Europe.  The actual word rococo is thought to have been used disapprovingly by a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, who ridiculed the taste which was in vogue in the mid-18th century.  He combined the artistic genres of rocaille, which prospered in the mid 16th century and was applied to works that depicted fancy rock-work and shell-work, and barocco (baroque) genre.

Fragonard was a pupil of Jean-Baptiste Chardin for a short time and later studied under the French pastoral painter Francois Boucher.   He went on to win the Prix de Rome in 1752 which eventually allowed him to travel to Italy where he remained between 1756 and 1761.  Whilst in Italy he developed a high admiration for the works of the artist Giambattista Tiepolo.  During his travels around the Italian countryside he made many drawings of the Italian landscape.  He was particularly taken with the Villa d’Este, which was situated at Tivoli near Rome and its Italian Renaissance gardens, parts of which were to feature in many of his future paintings.

In 1765 he became a member of the Académie in Paris with his historical picture in the Grand Manner entitled Coroesus Sacrificing himself to Save Callirhoe.   By 1767 his style had changed and his works became more erotic.  One example of this I featured in My Daily Art Display of March 29th when I gave you his beautiful work entitled The Swing, which is now housed in the Wallace Collection in London.    In 1769 Fragonard married Marie-Anne Gérard who was a miniaturist and history painter.  Marie-Anne’s sister Marguerite Gérard, studied under Fragonard and was to become one of the greatest French female artists.  Fragonard and his wife had a daughter, Rosalie, two years later and she was often used as a model in her father’s paintings.  The following year his son, Alexandre-Évariste, was born and he would also go on to be a talented painter and sculptor.

After his marriage, he also painted children and family scenes. His works were now almost all painted for private commissions from his wealthy private patrons.  One such patron was Louis XV’s mistress, the beautiful Madame du Barry.   For her he painted a set of four pictures entitled The Progress of Love, and art historians believe they were his greatest masterpieces.  Sadly these paintings in his usual light-hearted Rococo style were, by 1773, the year he completed them, not looked on as being in vogue and they were returned to him.   The appetite for Rococo works had almost died and with that Fragonard’s commissions began to dry up and he tried his hand at the “in vogue” Neoclassicism style but he was never able to replicate his Rococo achievements with this new style.  Disheartened with the new turn of events, Fragonard left Paris in 1773 and went journeying around Europe visiting Austria Italy and Germany before returning home the following year.

His reliance on wealthy patrons, often members of Louis’s cour,t took a major blow with the onset of the French Revolution.  Fragonard lost their patronage and in many cases his patrons lost their lives.  As he was associated, through patronage, with the rich and noble he decided it was best to move with his family away from Paris and the bloody revolution and he went to Grasse, a commune in the south of the country where he was given shelter by his friend Alexander Maubert.  He eventually returned to Paris and through the auspices of the Neoclassical painter, Jaques-Louis David, a staunch and important supporter of the French Revolution, got Fragonard a position at the newly-opened Louvre.   David had been helped by Fragonard when he was a young and struggling painter and it had been time to return the favour.

Fragonard could never achieve the heights he reached during the Rococo period and died, virtually penniless, of a stroke in 1806 at the age of 74.

My featured painting today by Jean-Honoré Fragonard is entitled The Souvenir, which he completed in 1778.  In the painting we see a young girl carving something on the trunk of a tree.  According to the 1792 sale catalogue, the girl is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s heroine Julie whom he wrote about in his novel of the same name, although its original title was Lettres de deux amans habitans d’une petite ville au pied des Alpes (“Letters from two lovers living in a small town at the foot of the Alps”).  The figure of the girl which we see in profile is framed by the arching branches of the large tree.  Her hair is decorated with pink ribbons and we see her upper body silhouetted against a white-grey sky.

The young girl has just received a letter from her lover which we see lying on the ground.  So delighted with its contents and so besotted by her lover, she is carving his initials into the bark of the tree.  By her side, sitting on a pedestal, which bears the artist’s name, is her pet spaniel, a symbol of fidelity.  Her dog watches her intensely as her knife digs into the bark.  There is an enchanting innocence about the girl and we wonder how the relationship with her lover will progress.  Will their true love for each other triumph or will her innocent trust in true love end in sorrow?   Fragonard has painted her sumptuous pink and white dress with great skill.  Look how he has carefully and meticulously painted the folds of the satin material with all its different shading.

This is quite a small painting measuring a mere 25cms x 19cms but it is delightful and a thoroughly captivating work by the French master of Rococo spirit and who was once described as “the fragrant essence of the 18th century”.  The painting by Fragonard mirrors the French literary and social happening of the eighteenth century known as sensibilité, which reached its peak between 1760 and the French Revolution.  It was de rigueur for paintings to depict softer emotions of love, pity, sympathy and grief, a type of emotional sensitivity.

Although we are fully aware that Rococo art is in some ways a false impression of what life was like for the majority,  do we not sometimes want to dream about what a perfect life would have been like rather than be bombarded by reality with Social Realist art, which constantly reminds us of poverty and suffering?

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke by Richard Dadd

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke by Richard Dadd (1855-1864)

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is a very strange one.  It is Bosch-like in its depiction and I find it fascinating, part of the fascination coming from the story that comes with it.  The painting is entitled The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke and it was completed in 1864 by the English artist of the Victorian era, Richard Dadd, and now hangs in the Tate Britain.

The story of the life of the artist is quite a sad one.  Richard Dadd was born in 1817 in Chatham, Kent, fourth of seven children.  He attended The King’s School at Rochester and developed a love for Shakespeare and the Classics while at the same time beginning to display an artistic talent.  In 1834 his family moved to London and three years later Dadd gained admission to the Royal Academy of Arts.  Whilst there he won three silver medals for his draughtsmanship and during his first year began exhibiting some of his works.  It was whilst at this artistic establishment that he and six of his fellow art students founded an artistic group known as The Clique.  The group would have regular meetings, often in Dadd’s rooms,  at which they would show off their latest works.  In some ways The Clique was characterised by their rejection of “academic” high art in favour of genre painting. They held the belief that art was for the people and should therefore be judged by the people and not by its conformity to academic ideals.

In 1842, when Dadd was twenty-five, he travelled with his patron, Sir Thomas Phillips, on a Grand Tour of Europe and the Middle East. They travelled through Italy and Venice before journeying through Greece, Turkey.  They continued on through Syria by mule and finally arrived in Egypt where they travelled by boat along the Nile.   It was at this time that Dadd’s health started to deteriorate due to a combination of exhaustion and sun-stroke and he was starting to suffer with blinding headaches.  The two returned home the following year but on the return journey Dadd had begun to become disorientated and delusional and increasingly violent towards his patron.  The pair split up in Paris and Dadd returned to London.

Nowadays, Dadd would have been diagnosed as suffering from manic-depression which stemmed back from his time in the Nile Valley when he first became delusional and had a fixated fascination with Egyptian Gods and in particular Osiris.   Dadd had become convinced that he was being called upon by divine forces, such as Osiris to do battle with the Devil.  In Allderidge’s biography of Richard Dadd he quotes Dadd’s own words regarding the subject:

“….On my return from travel, I was roused to a consideration of subjects which I had previously never dreamed of, or thought about, connected with self; and I had such ideas that, had I spoken of them openly, I must, if answered in the world’s fashion, have been told I was unreasonable. I concealed, of course, these secret admonitions. I knew not whence they came, although I could not question their propriety, nor could I separate myself from what appeared my fate. My religious opinions varied and do vary from the vulgar; I was inclined to fall in with the views of the ancients, and to regard the substitution of modern ideas thereon as not for the better. These and the like, coupled with an idea of a descent from the Egyptian god Osiris…”

Dadd was now living back in London but his mental illness worsened so much so his father called in specialist to examine his son.  The specialist came to the undeniable conclusion that Dadd “was not of sound mind” and that he should be institutionalised.  However his father wanted time to think about this and decided to accompany his son on a trip out to Cobham which he believed would help his son.  The trip proved to be a disaster and culminated in Richard Dadd killing his father with a knife and a razor.   Dadd then hurriedly left the scene and went to Dover and took a ferry to Calais.  The body of Robert Dadd was found the next day.

Dadd travelled from Calais to Paris by coach and during this trip he attacked a fellow passenger and tried to cut his throat.  He was arrested and on searching him the French police found a handwritten list of people “who must die” and topping this list was the name of his father.  Dadd was brought out of the Clermont asylum where he had been incarcerated and sent back to England where he was to stand trial for the murder of his father.  He pleaded guilty to the charge and the case never came to trial.  Dadd, who was just twenty-seven years of age, was sentenced to be placed “in a place of permanent safety” at the Bethlem Hospital in the criminal lunatic department and there he remained for twenty years.  In 1884 he was transferred to Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital where he died two years later in 1886

It was whilst Dadd was in Bethlem psychiatric hospital that he completed today’s featured painting.  Maybe now having read about his tortured mind and his incarceration you can understand what made an artist paint such a strange picture.  The work was commissioned by George Hayden, the Steward of Bethlem Hospital, who asked Dadd to paint him a “fairy painting”, a popular genre at the time.  It took Dadd nine years to complete, what is considered to be his greatest work.    It is an elaborate picture painted meticulously.  It lacks any kind of horizon and in some ways resembles a tapestry.  It is awash with strange little figures most of who are concentrating on the central figure, the fairy woodsman who is the “fairy feller” in the title of the painting as he brings his axe down on a hazelnut.   This is a painting one can return to many times and see different aspects which were not spotted before.

So what does it all mean?  Who are all those characters Dadd has lovingly painted?  Dadd decided to compose a poem in which he described all the character in the hope that it would add meaning to his work.  He called the poem Elimination of a Picture & its subject–called The Feller’s Master Stroke and from it we are supposed to derive that nothing is random about the figures shown.  Every character has a roll to play.

The poem describes the action of the fairy woodsman:

fay woodman holds aloft the axe
Whose double edge virtue now they tax
To do it singly & make single double
Featly & neatly–equal without trouble.

And once the hazelnut has been split asunder,  the two halves would be used to build a chariot for his queen, Queen Mab:

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep:
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider’s web;
Her collars, of the moonshine’s watery beams;
Her whip, of cricket’s bone; the lash, of film;
Her wagoner, a small gray-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love. . . .

The painting is fascinating with its large cast of characters which we see amongst the clutter of nuts and berries, and the tangle of grass and stems in the foreground.  Is it just a piece of madness painted by a madman – probably yes, but the we only need to look at works by Hieronymus Bosch and Dali and wonder at the state of their minds when he puts brush to canvas.

The Father’s Curse and The Punished Son by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

The Father’s Curse and The Punished Son by Greuze

My Daily Art Display today looks at a work by the French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze.  His work was praised by the French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot who claimed that Greuze’s paintings were, as he succinctly put it, “morality in paint” and as such represented the highest ideal of painting in his day.  So who was this moralistic painter?

Jean-Baptiste Greuze was born in Tournus, a Burgundian town on the banks of the River Saône in 1725.  He came from prosperous middle-class family and studied painting in Lyon in the late 1740’s under the successful portrait painter, Charles Grandon.  Around 1750 Greuze moved to Paris where he entered the Royal Academy as a student.  It was whilst there that he developed a style of painting which was described as Sentimental art, but more about that later.  He was accepted as an Associate member of the Academy after he submitted three of his paintings A Father Reading the Bible to His Family, The Blindman Deceived and The Sleeping Schoolboy.    These moralising pictorial stories, which in some ways remind me of the works by William Hogarth some two decades earlier, were about life amongst working class folk.  It was this genre of art which depicted scenes from the lives of ordinary citizens and which were calculated to teach a moral lesson –  that would be Greuze’s trademark for the rest of his life.

Although Greuze was happy to be admitted to the Academy on the strength of his three genre paintings he strived to be accepted as a history painter which, in thiose days, was considered a higher rank of art.  However the Academy did not look favourably on his attempts at history paintings and this rebuff so annoyed Greuze that he refused to submit any more of his works for the Academy’s exhibitions.  Fortunately for Greuze the public liked his “sentimental” paintings and the sale of his works continued strongly, which meant he had no more need to exhibit his works at the Academy.

During the late eighteenth century in France, Rococo art had almost taken over the French art scene.  It was all the rage with its mythological and allegorical themes in pastoral settings and its elegant and sometimes sensuous depictions of aristocratic frivolity.  At this time this brand of light-hearted, and now and again erotic works, were much in demand with wealthy patrons.  So in some ways the French art world received a shock when Greuze’s pompously moralising rural dramas on canvas countered the frivolity of the artificial world of Rococo art.

The featured painting today is entitled The Father’s Curse and The Punished Son which Greuze completed in 1778.  The first thing that strikes one with the characters depicted at the bedside scene is their staged posturing.  This was another trademark of Greuze, the way in which his characters were shown in dramatic poses that had once been reserved for grander historical and religious subjects.  It reminds me somewhat of watching an amateur dramatic performance were all the actions of the amateur players seem so “over the top” and comically exaggerated.

The setting of today’s painting is the final part of a tragic tale.  The beginning of this saga was when a son decided to abandon the family home and join the army despite the pleadings of his father, mother and siblings who need him to financially support the family.  Not having been swayed by their entreaties he left.  Now the scene is set with his homecoming.  However, it is not a joyous celebration of the return of the prodigal son.  Before us in the bed we see his ageing father who has just died and his family are all congregated around the death bed, inconsolable.  Look at the exaggerated poses of the family members as they pour out their grief.   In the right foreground we see the son who has returned to his home wounded.  He is stooped and remorseful, racked with guilt, having returned too late to be with his father before he died and he can see by the state of the home that the family have little money and of course we see him, head in hand, realising it was all his fault.

The increasing significance of the middle class, and of middle-class morality, also played a part in the success of Greuze’s painting genre.   His paintings seemed to preach the ordinary virtues of the simple life.   It was a call to the return of honesty in the way we dealt with life.   Surprisingly, the unconcealed melodrama of his pictorial sermonising was not found offensive, and visitors to the Salons were moved and often openly wept in front of his paintings.   The intellectuals of the day were generally opposed to rococo art style and considered its style decadent, and in turn looked upon Greuze as “the painter of virtue, the rescuer of corrupted morality.”   Greuze’s fashion for simplicity and his portrayal of ordinary people infiltrated even the highest circles of society, and engravings of Greuze’s work were popular with all classes of society.

Greuze’s reputation declined towards the end of his life and through the early part of the 19th century but briefly revived after 1850, when 18th-century painting returned to favour.   The advent of modernism in the early decades of the 20th century totally obliterated Greuze’s reputation.

Greuze survived the French Revolution but his fame did not. He died in Paris on March 21, 1805, in poverty and obscurity.

Portrait of Andrea Odoni by Lorenzo Lotto

Portrait of Andrea Odoni by Lorenzo Lotto (1527)

The featured artist in My Daily Art Display today is Lorenzo Lotto. He was born in Venice around 1480 and although little is known of his early life we but we know that he was greatly influenced by the works of Bellini. He was an artist of the High Renaissance period but there are signs in his work, such as unusual posing of his figures and some distortions in their body shape that he was a follower of the transitional stage leading to the Mannerism genre of art.

One knows that Lotto moved from Venice to Treviso around 1503. This move of his may have been due to the intense artistic competition in Venice with the likes of Giorgione and Titian and he may have believed he would fare better in the affluent town of Treviso. It was while here that he met the bishop, Bernardino de’ Rossi, who became his patron. After a few years spent here he moved to the Marche region of Italy and eventually ended up in Rome in 1508 where the pope, Julius II, commissioned some of his work. He carried on his nomadic lifestyle, travelling around Italy before finally returning to Venice in 1525. Here he took up residence at the Dominican monastery but his stay was cut short after a conflict with one of the brethren. By 1554 he was partially blind and he became a lay brother at a monastery at Loreto where he eventually died.

This nomadic and restless lifestyle of his mirrored his temperament which was said to be an existence of constant anxiety and change which made him a difficult person to get on with. His painting styles differed enormously. He was a keen observer of people. He is probably best known for his portraiture but in most of his portraits he conveyed a mood of psychological turmoil which was probably a mirror-image of his own mindset. His works of art often focused on religious works and he completed many altarpieces.

My Daily Art Display featured painting of the day is Lotto’s work entitled Portrait of Andrea Odoni which he completed in 1527 just two years after returning to Venice after his long self-exile from the city. .   The portrait has fittingly been described as one of the finest and most impressive of all of Lotto’s portraits and a calculated challenge to Titian’s supremacy in the field. So who was Andrea Odoni?    Odoni was an extremely successful Venetian merchant and collector of antiquities who lived in a grand house in Fondamenta del Gaffero in the district of Santa Croce.  The son of a wealthy recent Milanese immigrant to the city, Andrea Odoni was an important member of Venetian society.   He built upon the collection which he had inherited from his uncle, Francesco Zio, to become a renowned collector of paintings, sculpture, antique vases, coins, gems and natural history specimens. This portrait by Lotto was hung in Odoni’s bedroom alongside religious and profane paintings: a reclining nude by Savoldo, and paintings by Palma Vecchio and Titian.  His residence also contained an unusual combination of ancient and modern statues, with ‘mutilated and lacerated antique marble heads and other figures’.    The poet and satirist, Pietro Aretino, once wrote to Odoni in which he said that he believed Odoni had managed to re-create Rome in Venice.  However there was a subtle rebuke for the collector, as then Aretino went on to describe the splendours of the house in a tone that suggests it overstepped the boundaries of Venetian decorum.

In some ways it is an unusual portrait as it is in “landscape” orientation rather than the usual “portrait” orientation but this was to enable the artist to include some of Odoni’s collected antiquities.  As in a number of portraits the sitter likes to be depicted in a way that it will inform the viewers a little about himself or herself.  Where sitters want to highlight their wealth, the painting is adorned with the most sumptuous and expensive room decorations and the sitter is bedecked in the most magnificent fineries.  Odoni wanted people to look at his portrait and realise his passion for collecting antiquities.  However, it is amusing to read that with the exception of the bust of Hadrian, none of the antiques on show actually belonged to him and were probably plaster cast versions of the originals and were probably owned by Lotto.

Look at Odoni’s hand gestures.   His left hand clasps a small gold cross and presses it against his heart.  Is this simply a gesture signifying his heartfelt sincerity?  Is he merely indicating to us that he is an honest God-fearing man and that from his mouth will only come truthful utterings?  Maybe there is another reason behind the portrayal of him touching the cross to his heart.  It has been suggested that for Odoni, the true religion of Christianity, represented by the golden cross, will always take primacy over Nature and the pagan gods of antiquity, as indicated by the statuette of Diana and the busts of the other classical figures such as Hercules and Venus.

Look how his full beard and hair form a frame around his face.  Is it purely coincidental that the marble bust of the Emperor Hadrian we see in the foreground, peering from beneath the green table cloth, has a similar countenance?   Did Odoni ask the artist Lotto to position the bust in a prominent position in the painting so that we would make this comparison?  On the table we see a book, some medals and some coins.

In our sitters right hand he lovingly cradles the statuette of the Roman goddess Diana (the Greek goddess Artemis) of Ephesus with her body covered with breasts symbolising fertility.  She is the fertility goddess from classical mythology.  Is it meant as an offering to us?  What is the meaning of his gesture?

Odoni, sitting before us in his dark robe trimmed with fur in some way looks like a ringmaster at a circus with all the busts and statues surrounding him like his performers.   He appears as somebody very comfortable with his surroundings and maybe he is challenging us to “make what we will” of everything that we see before us.   In some ways this complex portrait has a sombre feel to it and by Odoni’s expression I am not convinced, despite his wealth, that we are looking at a particularly happy and contented man.

Charity by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Charity by Williiam Adolphe Bouguereau (1865)

It used to be the “in thing” when one talked about what one was studying to reel off a list of “-ologys”.  It always sounded very impressive.  In the art world there is the tendency to group artists in “-isms” and not so long ago I even bought a book, entitled isms, Understanding art.  Would you believe there were 52 “isms” listed and a few more words that they gave up trying to add the ism suffix.    The featured artist in My Daily Art Display today is described as a dedicated follower of Academicism and Realism with a touch of Classicism.  He is the French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Bouguereau was born in the Charente-Maratime seaport of La Rochelle in 1825.  His family were wine and olive merchants and as he grew older it was expected that he would join the family firm.  But for his uncle Eugène, a local priest, we may never have had the pleasure of seeing the works of this talented French painter.  His uncle managed to interest the young William-Adolphe in biblical and historical stories and even organised for the boy to attend the local high school.  Whilst at the school Bouguereau began to develop his artistic talents which not only impressed his teachers but also his father.  The course of the boy’s life changed and he was enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux and later with some financial assistance from his family along with money he made from some of his paintings he took himself off to Paris where he was accepted at the École des Beaux Arts

Bouguereau enjoyed painting and drawing figures and decided that to improve his technique he would attend anatomical dissections.  During this time he studied under Francois-Edouard Picot, the renowned French painter whose artistic forte was the depiction of mythological, religious and historical subjects.  Bouguereau had his first introduction into the genre we now term Academicism.  He went on to win the prestigious Prix de Rome with his painting Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes and the travelling stipend that went with it in 1850 and he went off to Italy and the Villa Medici in Rome which housed the French Academy.  It was Napoleon Bonaparte who located the Academy in this building and both the building and the grounds were renovated so that future French artists who won the Prix de Rome could come here for a year, soak up the Italian atmosphere and have the opportunity to study and copy the art and sculptures of the Masters of the Italian Renaissance.  It was during this time that Bouguereau, as well as studying the art of the ancient, Greek, Etruscan and Roman times,  was able to immerse himself in classical literature.  This period of his life was forever going to have a profound effect on his life and be inspirational in his choice of subjects that he would depict in his future works of art.  Bouguereau throughout the rest of his artistic life was going to strictly adhere to the tenets of Academicism.  So what is Academicism?  It is a genre of art which promoted Classical ideals of beauty and artistic perfection and by doing so establishes a clear hierarchy within the visual arts.  Academicism preferred the grand narrative or history painting genre and advocated life drawings and classical sculpture.

Bouguereau with his portraiture, especially those of women, was very popular and successful as he had the ability to merge together a true likeness of the sitter with a certain amount of beautification without it being too obvious.  He was inundated with commissions from wealthy patrons for portraits of them or their family and most of these still remain in private hands.  His artistic standing increased over the years and he was made a Life Member of the Academy in 1876 and in 1885, was made Commander of the Legion of Honour and Grand Medal of Honour, the highest decoration in France.   His art was now bringing in great financial rewards and he had built up a formidable list of clients and art dealers who were willing to handle his work.  In 1875 he started teaching drawing  at the Académie Julian which had been established in 1868 as a private school for art students, both male and female (although taught separately) and its teachings prepared the students for the entrance exam for the prestigious École des Beaux Arts

In 1856 when he was 31 years of age he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon and the couple went on to have five children.  In 1877 his wife and infant son died and in 1896 at the age of seventy-one he remarried, this time to an American, a fellow artist and academic, Elizabeth Jane Gardner who was twelve years his junior and one of his former pupils.   In 1905, Bouguereau died of a heart attack at the age of 79.  He had a long and full life over the course of which he completed in excess of eight hundred paintings.

My Daily Art Display showcases Bouguereau’s painting entitled Charity which he first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865.  I saw this work in the Birmingham Municipal Art Gallery a few weeks ago.  Before us, at the centre of the painting, sitting on the steps of the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, we see a woman with three children huddled together.  This is a pyramidal composition which we are viewing from a low viewpoint.  The woman in the way she is dressed reminds me of the Virgin Mary and with the baby in her lap I can almost believe that I am looking at a secular Madonna.  She stares straight out at us.  The soft features of her face plead with us to, in some way, help her with her burden.  Look how the artist has portrayed the two young children.  They have been depicted in begging poses, which are meant to tug at our heart strings.  However they seem to be reasonably well dressed and we see no signs of the clothes being ragged.  I do note that they are all bare-footed and the shirt and the chemise worn by the young boy and girl have been pulled down slightly, revealing bare shoulders but this to my mind adds to the lack of realism.  This painting found no favour with Bouguereau’s contemporary realist painters.  They castigated him for depicting the woman and children in their spurious begging poses.  They said the depiction looked completely “stage managed” and lacked the brutal reality of beggars and their terrible impoverished lifestyle.  To them, Bouguereau had sold out his Realism ideals.  To them this depiction of poverty and begging was highly idealised.  Notwithstanding whether he had “sold-out” his Realism principles in thisn instance, I still think this is a superb painting and of course I can assure you it looks even more beautiful when you stand close up to it.

I will end the blog today with Bouguereau’s thoughts about art in general and how it had affected him and given him so much pleasure.  He commented:

 “Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come…if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable…”.

The White House at Chelsea by Thomas Girtin

The White House at Chelsea by Thomas Girtin (1800)

From Tudor-period portraiture by a Flemish artist yesterday, I am switching today to a landscape painting by an English Artist.  My Daily Art Display’s featured artist today is Thomas Girtin who was born in Southwark, London in 1775.  Girtin was to become recognised as one of the greatest watercolour landscape artists of his time and a rival to his contemporary, Turner.

Girtin’s father, Thomas, who was a prosperous brush maker, died when his son was only a child and Thomas was brought up by his mother and step-father.  Initially Thomas received his art tuition from the painter and engraver, Thomas Malton and this was followed by an apprenticeship with the watercolourist Edward Dayes.  His seven-year apprenticeship did not run smoothly as Thomas had a turbulent existence with his master, Dayes.  Girtin had become friendly with a fellow pupil of Thomas Malton and they were both employed to fill in the outlines of pencil sketches by the antiquarian James Moore with watercolours.  Sometimes they would be set the task of copying drawings by John Cozens.   This friend and pupil was to prove to be one of Girtin’s great rivals.  His name was Joseph Mallord William Turner.  For Girtin, these tasks were of great importance for unlike Turner he never attended the Royal Academy schools and these tasks honed his talent as a watercolourist.

Girtin first exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy in 1794 at the age of nineteen.  He produced many landscape sketches and his use of watercolours was to establish his reputation as a great artist.  He travelled widely throughout Britain on sketching expeditions visiting the Lake District, North Wales and the West Country.  By the end of the eighteenth century, he had managed to acquire the influential patronage of Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland and the wealthy British art patron and amateur painter, Sir George Beaumont, a man who played a decisive part in the creation of the London National Gallery.  In 1800 Girtin, who had attained financial security through the sale of his paintings, married sixteen year old Mary Ann Borrett, the daughter of a London goldsmith and the couple set up house in the fashionable Hyde Park area.  Although free of money worries, his health was beginning to deteriorate,  Despite this he travelled to Paris and spent five months painting watercolours and making a series of sketches which he then turned into engravings on his return to London, some of which were published posthumously as Twenty Views in Paris and its Environs after his death the following year.  In 1802, Girtin exhibited Eidometropolis, a monumental panorama of London that dazzled his contemporaries.  It was 18ft high and 108 feet in circumference.  In November 1802, whilst in his painting studio he collapsed and died at the young age of twenty seven.  The reported cause of death was thought to be asthma or tuberculosis.

My Daily Art Display today is entitled The White House at Chelsea and was completed by Thomas Girtin in 1800.  The scene is set on the River Thames and we see the great waterway as it flows peacefully under a twilight summer sky.  It is believed that the actual view can be narrowed down to an upstream view of the Thames as seen from a location very close to where Chelsea Bridge now stands.   In the background on the left we have Joseph Freeman’s windmill.  If we look to the right of this we can see the sunlit white house, which gives its name to the painting.  The little house glistens.  Its brightness is uncanny and its glow is added to by its own reflection in the water.   The position of the white house is about where Battersea Park is now located.  Move further round to the right and you can see Battersea Bridge and on the other side of the river is the Chelsea Old Church, which was almost completely destroyed in the Second World War in 1941.

Look how Girtin has painted the tranquil surface of the river.   It is awash with colour under the grey and pink clouds of the summer sky.  We see two working boats on the water.  The one on the left has its sails down as it lays peacefully at anchor whilst the other wends its way slowly upstream, its wake breaking the smooth glass-like appearance of the water.

The painting is amazing, as before us we don’t have the sun lighting up a magnificent building or famous London landmark.  All we have is a small nondescript building suddenly illuminated by Girtin’s evening sun.  It is just an ordinary house on a nondescript stretch of the Thames.

To end with let me give you two famous quotes by Thomas Girtin’s friend Turner.   On hearing of Girtin’s death Turner remarked:

“Poor Tom……..If Tom Girtin had lived, I should have starved.”

Today’s watercolour by Girtin was much admired by Turner and this was borne out by the anecdote:

“………..A dealer went one day to Turner, and after looking round at all his drawings in the room, had the audacity to say, I have a drawing out there in my hackney coach, finer than any of yours. Turner bit his lip, looked first angry, then meditative. At length he broke silence: Then I tell you what it is. You have got Tom Girtin’s White House at Chelsea………”.

Praise indeed !

Mary Neville, Baroness Dacre by Hans Eworth

Mary Neville, Baroness Dacre by Hans Eworth (c.1555-1558)

My Daily Art Display today is a story of three people, the artist the woman who sat for her portrait and the man shown in a picture within the painting.  The featured artist today is the sixteenth century Flemish painter, Hans Eworth (Ewouts), who spent most of his artistic life in England.  The lady in the painting is Mary Fiennes, Baroness Dacre and the young man in a picture within the picture is her late husband, Thomas Fiennes, 9th Baron of Dacre.

Before I tell you the story of the painting let me linger awhile and talk about the artist himself.  Hans Eworth was born in or around Antwerp.  His date of birth is believed to be between 1520 and 1525.  Little is known about his early upbringing but the English art historian and one-time director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, Sir Lionel Cust, in his 1913 essays to the Walpole Society, draws a connection between Hans Eworth and a “Jan Euworts” who was known to have been a member of the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp in 1540.  In Karen Hearn’s short biography of Eworth published in 2000 and  according to Julius Friedrich’s in his book published in 1891, De Secte Der Loisten of Antwerpsche Libertijnen, 1525-1545, a Janne Ewouts and Claes Ewouts, painter and mercer (dealer in textile fabrics and fine cloths) were “expelled” from catholic Antwerp for heresy in the summer of 1544.  They lost their homes and property but were very lucky not to have lost their lives as the punishment in those days for heresy was ane extremely painful execution.

Eworth, like thousands of others fleeing Flanders because of its religious persecution, settled in London.   He continued painting and it is believed that one of his most important patrons was Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor) of whom he did many portraits of the monarch between 1554, the year after she was crowned queen and the year of her death 1558.  He was a prolific portrait painter but only about thirty of his paintings survive.  He was also known for his decorative painting and set designs for masques and pageants at the court of Queen Mary and her successor, Queen Elizabeth I.  He continued his artistic work until his death in London in 1574

The painting featured today is his portrait painting which he completed around 1558, entitled Mary Neville, Baroness Dacre.    She was the daughter of George Nevill, 5th Baron Beragvenny and his third wife Mary.  She married the English aristocrat Thomas Fiennes, and on his father’s death in 1528 became the next in line for his grandfather’s title who was the 8th Baron of Dacre.  He eventually became 9th Baron of Dacre in 1534 on the death of his grandfather and as well as the title,  inherited the family home of Hestmonceux Castle in Sussex.  The couple were married two years later in 1536 and went on to have three children, the eldest, Thomas who died of the plague at the age of 15, Gregory and Margaret.

That is not the end of thestory of their lives but let us now look at Eworth’s portrait of Mary and by doing so we will discover what happened to the family.  In front of us we have Mary sitting up straight in a richly upholstered chair with its red velvet back and arms.  This alone was symbolic of the sitter’s wealth.  She is dressed in a black gown which has a beaver collar and puffed sleeves.  Her dress is of satin and the collar and cuffs of her chemise are ornately embroidered.   It is Blackwork Embroidery, which was popular during the Tudor times.  It was often termed “Spanish work” because it was thought that Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon brought many such embroidered works with her from Spain.

In her right hand she holds a quill pen hovering over the pages of a notebook which lies upon a green-baize covered table.  In her left hand we see a partly opened notebook in which we can see some hand-written words.  On the table we see other implements used in those days for writing, the pot of ink and an ornate golden sand-shaker with a clock motif.   The Tudors dealt with a large black wet inky mistake soaking its way into a thick layer of paper by sprinkling clean sand onto the text to soak up the ink. The inky sand could then be flicked away from the paper, and any residual stain removed by gently scraping it off with a knife.

If you look at the flowers at her breast you will note they are a mix of forget-me-nots, rosemary, violas and pinks.  Forget-me-nots symbolise true love and memories and Rosemary which is often included in funeral wreaths symbolising remembrance and in wedding bouquets as a symbol for fidelity. It’s said that if you touch a lover with a sprig of rosemary, they’ll be faithful!    Violas often symbolise melancholy and pinks are symbolic of marriage.

So why the use of these symbols in the portrait by the artist?  Maybe the answer lies to the background to the left where we see, against a floral tapestry, a framed portrait of her late husband.  The inscription on the top part of the frame is “1540”, the date of the portrait and inscribed on the bottom “ÆTATIS. 2 4”,  which means “at the age of 24”.   So, what does it all mean?  Why did she want the picture of her young husband included in the portrait?  Why was he not with her?

The answer is simple but sad.  On 30 April 1541 Dacre along with a party of gentlemen including his brother-in-law went to poach on the neighbouring estate lands of Sir Nicholas Pelham of Laughton.    During the “adventure” the party were discovered by some of the servants of Sir Nicholas, one of whom was the gamekeeper, John Busbrig.   The meeting of adversaries went from verbal abuse to a fight during which Busbrig was fatally wounded and subsequently Dacre, although he did not strike the fatal blow and in fact was in another part of the estate at the time was held responsible for the death and along with several others was charged with murder.   Dacre originally entered a plea of not guilty but was later persuaded to change it to guilty and throw himself upon the King’s mercy in the hope of a reprieve.  However his strategy failed and he was hanged at Tyburn on 29 June 1541.

An account of the execution was reported in the Hall’s Chronicle, a periodical of the time, simply stating:-

“…….he was led on foot between the two sheriffs of London from the Tower through the city to Tyburn where he was strangled as common murderers are and his body buried in the church of St Sepulchre ….”.

Not only did her husband lose his life but the family lost their hereditary title and had their lands forfeited which left them destitute.  Despite numerous protestations from his widow it was not until ten years later in 1558 when Elizabeth I came to the throne that the hereditary title was restored to the family and Gregory, her second son was made 10th Baron Dacre.

Maybe the sumptuousness of her clothes and the splendour of the backdrop to this portrait suggest that almost ten years have passed since the execution of her husband and the forfeiture of the property and maybe life had become better for the widow.  In fact, in the same year her husband was executed, the widow managed to obtain an Act of Parliament in order to provide a dower for her from out of her late husband's estates.  A dower was a provision accorded by law to a wife for her support in the event that she should survive her husband (i.e., become a widow).  In her case the dower handed down to her by the Act of Parliament stated:

“.....the said Mary for the relief of her and her children &c is contented & pleased that it be enacted by His Highnes with the assent of this present parliament, & by authority of the same, that the said Mary Fynes shall possess & enjoy for the term of her natural life, from Michaelmas last past, the Manors of Burham & Codham co. Kent-of Fromquinton & Belchwell co. Dorset, of Nashall co. Essex, & all their rights & privileges &c. the said attainder....”

Courtesy of


Mary Neville married twice more and had six children by her third husband.