The Irish Girl and The English Boy by Ford Madox Brown

Manchester Art Gallery exhibition

The other day I went to Manchester to see the Ford Madox Brown exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery.  The exhibition opened on September 24th and runs until January 29th 2012 and I strongly recommend you make the effort to visit the city and take in this superb show which displays 140 public and private works from this talented 19th century painter.  I have already  featured two of Ford Madox Brown’s paintings, The Last of England (June 15th) and Manfred on the Jungfrau (July 21st), the former I saw when I visited the Birmingham Art Gallery and the latter which I had hoped to view when I went to Manchester a few months ago had been withdrawn from the gallery for some restoration work prior to this new exhibition.   Both of these works are on show at the current Manchester Exhibition.

I will, in the coming months, review more of Ford Madox Brown’s works,  which I saw at the exhibition, but I need to space them out a little otherwise I will be accused of featuring one artist too often.

Like most people, I had seen many of Ford Madox Brown’s paintings before, in books or on the internet, but what I had not realized was that he had completed many portraits of which a number were on display at the exhibition.  However, there is nothing more true than the saying “you cannot please all the people all the time” for as I researched today’s blog and was still buoyed up with my admiration for Brown’s portraits,  I came across the Daily Telegraph’s art critic’s, Alastair Smart, view of the exhibition and his assessment of some of the paintings, especially his portraiture.  He wrote:

“…Despite the show’s claims to the contrary, Brown’s portraits and biblical dramas aren’t up to much either: his figures are just too awkward in facial gesture, one toothy contortion after another…”

How disappointing to read that when I was still so enthused with what I had seen.  I loved his small portraits.  I did get some consolation however when I re-read the opening line of his article which stated quite bluntly:

“….First, a confession: I utterly loathe the Pre-Raphaelites. Oh, what a mawkish, melodramatic and clichéd bunch…”

The journalist did however go on to qualify his bold statement by saying that he realized Ford Madox Brown was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but countered that by telling us that he did have a close association with the three founder members.  Guilty by association ?  Having said all that I will not be deflected from my proposed look at two of Brown’s small portraits, which I loved, even if the knowledgeable art critic disliked them. 

The Irish Girl by Ford Madox Brown (1860)

For My Daily Art Display today I am featuring two portraits, The Irish Girl and The English Boy as they were hung next to each other at the exhibition and in some ways they are connected.  It was the coming together of these “two old friends”, who were separated forty-seven years ago.  The man, who commissioned the paintings, was a Leeds stockbroker called Thomas Edward Plint, who was a patron of Ford Madox Brown, and an important Pre Raphaelite art collector.  In 1850, he had commissioned Brown to paint Work, and out of that commission came the painting, The Irish Girl, which also happens to be featured on all the exhibition publicity material.  To my mind this is a beautiful and haunting painting.  This small (almost 28cms square) oil on canvas work was completed by Brown in 1860 and is normally to be found exhibited at the Yale Centre of British Art.  The Yale Center for British Art, which is in New Haven, Connecticut, is a public art museum and research institute for the study of British art and culture. It was presented to Yale University by Paul Mellon who was in the Class of 1929 at Yale.  The Centre houses the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom.

In comparison to the portrait of the young English boy the young girl looks slightly nervous and somewhat troubled.  She has real beauty.  There is nothing idealized about this portrait.  Her haunting loveliness is plain to see and yet the difference between her and the English boy could not be starker.  Unlike the boy, she looks worldly–wise.  Her jet black hair, her dazzling brown eyes and her painted red lips are all part of her exquisiteness.   She has tilted her head a little to one side and her eyes focus on something off to the side.  When Ford Madox Brown was looking for Irish models for his painting Work he came across this young girl selling oranges and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to paint her portrait.   We see the fingers of her hand appearing from inside her red paisley shawl which is tightly wrapped around her and the colour of which complements the colour of her lips.  Between her fingers, she is gently holding a sprig of cornflowers. 

The English Boy by Ford Madox Brown (1860)

The portrait which hung next to the Irish Girl was entitled The English Boy and was the companion piece to the Irish Girl.  In this case the young child depicted was no stranger to Brown.  It was his five year old son, Oliver, and this too was painted in 1860.  It is slightly larger than the Irish Girl, measuring 39cms x 33cms.  This portrait is owned by the Manchester Art Gallery, which acquired it in 1932.  Although a companion piece to the Irish Girl they couldn’t be more different.  In this portrait,  the young child stares straight at us with a self-assured gaze.   It is a deadpan expression and we wonder what is going through his mind.   His cheeks are slightly flushed and this colouring in some way matches the red shawl and lips of the Irish Girl.   He wears a white smock over a red checked dress and on top of his head, sitting at a slightly jaunty angle, is a brown straw hat.  In his hands he clutches on tightly to the popular child’s toys of the time, a top and whip.  The way in which he holds the toys in some way reminds us of royal paintings where the subject holds a sceptre and orb.

Despite what our knowledgeable journalist would have us believe I don’t find these portraits in any way awkward in facial gesture.  I find them to be simply fascinating studies of two young children.

Advertisements

Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca

The Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca (c.1460)

My Daily Art Display today has me in a quandary.  When I choose a painting for the day I have to spend a number of hours researching the artist, the painting and the subject of the painting and then try and collate all I have discovered into a meaningful and yet not too verbose blog.  Sometimes I struggle to find the information I need from the hundreds of art books I have hoarded, the internet and the local library.  On other occasions, like today, I was overwhelmed by the vast amount of information there was with regards the work of art and now I have the difficult task of trying to filter out what I don’t need.  In this case, I also have to contend with the many varied and conflicting interpretations of what we are actually looking at.  The one thing which is common to all that I have read about the work of art is the praise upon praise which has been heaped on it and yet when I look at it, I struggle to appreciate or understand its so-called “greatness”.  However I will let you decide and if you want to comment and tell me that like Kenneth Clarke, the art historian, who declared it to be the “Greatest Small Painting in the World”,  you also believe it to be one of the greatest paintings of all time, then tell me why you think that.

Before I talk about the painting, let me first look at the life of this Early Renaissance painter and mathematician, Piero della Francesca.   Yes, you read that correctly – mathematician, for as well as being a revered painter, he is now looked upon as the greatest mathematician of the 1400’s.   Piero was born in 1415 in the town of Borgo Santo Sepolcro, now Sansepolcro, eighty kilometres east of Florence.  His father Benedetto de’ Franceschi was a tradesman and his mother was Romana di Perino da Monterchi.  At an early age he began his artistic apprenticeship and at the age of fourteen he and another apprentice, Domenico Veneziano worked on frescoes for the Sant’ Egidio Church in Florence.  It was during this time spent in Florence that Piero would have probably come into contact with the great Florentine artists of the time such as Fra Angelico, Mantegna and the architect, Brunelleschi.

Records show that Piero had returned home to San Sepolcro by 1442 and three years later had received a large commission from the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro, for a polyptych as an altarpiece for the local church, Church of the Misericordia,.  The confratentiy had asked Piero to complete the work in three years, setting the anticipated completion date as 1445.  Piero however did not feel constrained by this suggested timeline and any way he had many other projects on the go at the time and in the end did not complete the altarpiece until 1462, some seventeen years late!

Piero della Francesca travelled widely around Italy completing commissions for frescoes including some papal work in Rome.  At the age of fifty-four he moved to Urbino, where for almost the next twenty years he worked for Count Federico III da Montefeltro, the Lord of Urbino (see My Daily Art Display for March 23rd).  It was during his stay at Urbino that he completed today’s featured work, The Flagellation of Christ, somewhere between 1455 and 1460. 

In his later years, around 1482, Piero della Francesca was living in Rimini where he had a studio.  As he grew older he had given up painting, the artist biographer Vasari put this down to his failing eyesight but this has since been contradicted because it is known that he wrote and completed a mathematical treatise in 1485, when he was seventy years of age.  It could be that his love of mathematics had overtaken his love of painting.  He died in 1492, aged seventy seven at his home in San Sepolcro.

 The Flagellation of Christ is an oil on panel painting and one of the most famous paintings completed by Piero della Francesca.  It is one he painted during his first visit to Urbino.  Look closely at the painting.  The setting is the portico of Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem.  Are we looking at one scene divided into an outdoor and indoor location or are the two scenes we observe, depictions of two different times?    The latter is a popular theory.  It is generally agreed that the inner depiction of the flagellation is set at the time of Christ but the outdoor setting in the right foreground, with the three men, is set in the fifteenth century.  One pictorial argument favouring the time separation of the two scenes is that the background scene is illuminated from the right whilst the outdoor scene with the three men is illuminated from the left.

The whole scene is dominated by architecture with a stunning use of perspective which adds a sense of realism and manages to draw our eyes towards the small figure of Christ despite the fact that the actual flagellation takes place in an open gallery in the middle ground of the work.   Also in the flagellation scene, we have Pontius Pilate seated on the left and possibly King Herod with his back to us.   In the foreground on the right hand side we see three figures, who appear not to be paying any attention to what is happening behind them. So who are all the various people featured in the painting?  It would be great if there was a clear cut answer to that question but different experts have different ideas and so I had better offer you a few alternatives and let you pick which one sounds the most probable to you.

One theory put forward about the reason for the commissioning of this work is that that the painting was an attempt to favour the reconciliation between the two Christian churches, of the East and of the West, because of an impending attack by the Turks on Constantinople. Both the presence of the character in the centre, dressed after Greek fashion, and an inscription on the frame convenerunt in unum would seem to support this interpretation.

We know that the painting was commissioned by the then Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro.  The conventional interpretation of this painting and the one which is still upheld in Urbino as the true interpretation of the work, is that the three men in the right foreground of the painting are, in the centre, the Duke of Urbino, Oddo Antonio da Montefeltro, the predecessor of Federico, the commissioner of the work, and is flanked, on each side by his advisors, Manfredo dei Pio and Tommaso di Guido dell, Agnello.    All three were dead.  Oddo Antonio was assassinated a few months after coming to power because of the unpopularity of his laws and his advisors suffered a similar fate.  Another interpretation is that Oddo Antonio is in the centre and the characters either side of him were his assassins, Serafini and Riccardelli.  A third suggestion is that this is simply a dynastic painting commissioned by Federico in which he has his three predecessors depicted.

There are more possibilities and books and treatises have been written about the painting with various suggestions as to the identity of each of the characters  but I will leave it there and if you want to look deeper into the interpretation of the painting, do so and I will be interested to see what you find out.  So back to my original question which still puzzles me; why is this painting by Piero della Francesca look on as being “a great work”?    Is it the artistic quality of the painting or is it the mathematical quality of the perspective which has art historians tell us it is a gem?

Rebecca and Eleazar at the Well by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta

Rebecca and Elizear at the Well by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (c.1740)

Today I am returning to Italy for My Daily Art Display painting.  It is a painting based on a biblical tale and one that features the work of the Venetian rococo painter of religious subjects, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta.  Piazzetta was born in Venice in 1682.   His father, Giacomo was a sculptor, and he gave his son his first artistic tuition, concentrating on wood sculpture.  Starting in 1697, at the age of fifteen Giovanni started studying painting under the auspices of the painter Antonio Molinari, an Italian artist of the Baroque era of Venice. Later in his early twenties he went to Bologna and studied under Giuseppe Mari Crespi, another Baroque painter, who was part of the Bolognese School of painting.   The Bolognese School of painting thrived in this capital city of Emilia Romagna during the 16th and 17th centuries and was considered the equal of Florence and Rome as the perceived centre of Italian painting.   It was probably Crespi who persuaded Piazzetta to take up genre subjects.   Piazzetta remained in Bologna for two years and was influenced by the works of another Bolognese artist, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, who was the cross-eyed painter and who was better known by his nickname, Guernico, which in Italian means ‘squinter’!  Guernico was renowned for his religious paintings and altarpieces, with their rich colours and dramatic storytelling and his influence can be seen in some of Piazzetta’s own religious works.  Today’s featured painting is a great example of this aspect of his work.

Piazzetta returned to Venice in 1710 but struggled somewhat to get commissions in comparison with his artistic contemporary, Sebastiano Ricci and the young “newcomer on the block” Giovanni Tiepolo,  who had both begun to corner the market with their popular late Baroque/Rococo works.  However Piazzetta supplemented his income by illustrating books. His presentation drawings, portraits, and character heads, usually made in charcoal or white chalk, were also in wide demand from discerning collectors. He was a slow worker, and often painted the same subject several times with subtle modifications.  He was a perfectionist.  In 1750 Piazzetta became the first director of the newly founded Venice Academy of Fine Arts, which was established by the Senate and included courses of Academy Figure, Portrait, Landscape and Sculpture.  He devoted himself in the last few years of his life to teaching and although never wealthy he was always admired for his art work.   He died in Venice on April 28, 1754, aged 72.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is by Piazzetta and is entitled Rebecca and Eleazar at the Well.  He completed this oil on canvas painting around 1740 and was one I saw when I visited the Brera Gallery in Milan.  As I said at the beginning, this painting is based on the Old Testament story in the Book of Genesis, (Chapter24).  For those of you are unfamiliar with the story let me give you a précis of the biblical tale.

Abraham who was  well advanced in years, had a son named Isaac and wanted to find a good wife for him.  He spoke to his trusted servant Eleazar and said:

“…Put your hand under my thigh, that I may make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac…”

The servant Eleazar was concerned that the woman he chose for Abraham’s son would not want to come back with him and asked why he could not choose a local girl instead, but Abraham would have none of that idea and eased the mind of his servant:

“ … The servant said to him, ‘Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?’   Abraham said to him, ‘See to it that you do not take my son back there.  The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there.  But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.”  So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter…”

And so Eleazar set off on his quest and he later relates the meeting with Rebekah:

“…Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all sorts of choice gifts from his master; and he arose and went to Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor.  And he made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time when women go out to draw water…”

So Eleazar had reached the well but was now concerned about how he would decide which woman he should choose for the wife-to-be of Isaac:   

 “…And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.  Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

 Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known…”

 Then Rebecca’s brother and mother came to Eleazar, who was standing at the well:

 “…Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The thing has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good.  Behold, Rebekah is before you; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”    When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed himself to the earth before the Lord.  And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments…”

 So it is at this point of the story that we can now look at today’s painting in which Piazzetta pictorially displays the meeting at the well of Eleazar, Abraham’s servant and messenger and Rebekah (Rebecca), Isaac’s future wife.  The characters in the painting are dressed in fashionable eighteenth century clothes.  Eleazar, dressed in brown with a rose-coloured sash around his waist, holds the jewellery which he is offering to Rebecca who clutches to her side a pitcher of water.   She looks slightly taken aback at the offering.  The half-figure composition painted with a light and luminous palette could almost be a pastoral scene with the cattle, camel and a dog squeezed into the left of the painting.

This meeting between Eleazar and Rebecca was the subject of many paintings including ones by Tiepolo, Poussin and Murillo.  However of the ones I have looked at I believe the painting by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta is the best.

Madonna of the Steps by Nicolas Poussin

Madonna on the Steps by Poussin (National Gallery of Art,Washington) 1648

“..Poussin is without question one of the greatest of all French painters whose influence on the development of European Art from the 17th Century onwards cannot be overstated. Like Titian before him and his contemporaries Caravaggio and Velazquez, he developed a personal, innovative and highly rigorous style of outstanding originality.  His work has been deeply influential on generations of artists up to the present day…”

Richard Knight, International Co-Head of Old Masters and 19th Century Art at Christie’s

My Daily Art Display today once again features a work, in fact two works, by the great French classical painter, Nicolas Poussin.  The two paintings in question are both entitled Holy Family on the Steps or sometimes referred to Madonna of the Steps and both were completed in 1648.  The painting is considered a masterpiece of 17th-century art and the pinnacle of the artists refined classical style.  One is housed in the Washington Gallery of Art and the other in the Cleveland Museum of Art.  They are similar paintings but the Washington version looks somewhat lighter in colour.  The big issue was which gallery had the original and which gallery had the copy.  The painting which is in the Cleveland collection and was purchased in 1981.   X-radiographs, published in 1982, proved that it was the original of the two versions, the other in the National Gallery of Art, Washington must then be the copy.   Up until then, the Washington picture was thought by some art historians to be the original.  The Washington Gallery was far from pleased with the adjudication and in 1994 Earl Powell  III, Director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, was embroiled in controversy when he delayed the public acknowledgement that the Museum’s  Madonna on the Steps” by Poussin was no longer thought by scholars to be by the master.  It should be said that Anthony Blunt the British historian, art expert and an authority on the works of Poussin believed that the Washington painting was the original.

However notwithstanding who is right and who is wrong the painting dating from Poussin’s mature period is a beautiful work of art.  The arrangement of the figures harks back to works by the High Renaissance artists such as Raphael Sanzio and Andrea del Sarto.  The painting is a merging of the Classical, with its architecture and the Christian with its religious theme.  The figures are placed in a triangular format with the heads of Mary and the Christ Child at its apex. Before us,  we see, seated on the steps, Mary, holding the Christ Child, Saint Elizabeth holding her son John the Baptist and seated behind them, Joseph.  Poussin has included some symbolic features to the painting.  To the left of the seated figures we see an urn overflowing with water which is symbolic of the stream of life and the passing of time and our inevitable death.   Behind the urn we have an orange tree which is regarded as a symbol of purity, chastity and generosity and is often depicted in paintings of the Virgin Mary.    On top of the walled side of the staircase we have a myrtle bush which has been, since early times, used as the symbol of love.  In Roman mythology the myrtle was considered sacred to Venus, the goddess of love.

At the front of the painting, on a lower step we see the gifts Mary has received from the three Magi at the time of the birth of the Christ child.  Usually when the Christ Child holds an apple it is symbolizes the fruit of salvation.  There is also a connection with Christ and Adam going back to the passage from the Song of Solomon (2:3):

 “…As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste…”

The passage has been interpreted as an allusion to Christ.  As Christ is the new Adam, so, in tradition the Virgin Mary is the new Eve and for this reason an apple being placed in the hands of Mary, symbolises salvation.

Joseph sits on the steps behind Mary.  He is almost completely lost in the shadows.  By Joseph’s foot we see a measuring stick which in some ways indicates that Joseph was not just a humble carpenter but more of an artisan.  The steps which they are all resting on can be interpreted as the stairway to heaven and the light of God is shining brightly above the summit of the steps.  There are actually a number of light sources in this painting which cast various shadows.

The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus by Nicolas Poussin

The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus by Nicolas Poussin (1629)

Today My Daily Art Display looks again at an artist who many believe was the greatest French painter and the leader and dominant inspiration of the classical tradition in French painting.  His name is Nicolas Poussin. 

 Poussin was born of a noble but impoverished peasant family in Les Andelys, small town in Normandy in 1594.  In his youth he studied Latin, and this was to have great influence in his future works of art.  In his late teenage years he met an artist, Quentin Vartin, who had come to Les Andelys to carry out a church commission.  It was then that Poussin showed the visiting artist some of his artistic work who then agreed to give the youngster some artistic tuition.  In 1612 Poussin left Les Andelys and went to Paris and studied art at the studios of the Flemish portrait painter Ferdinand Elle and the French painter George Lallemand.  French art and the way it was taught and learnt by young aspiring artists had yet to change and apprenticeships with established artists was still the only way young men would learn to become painters.  It would soon change in France when academic training for up and coming artists would supplant this old system.  It was not until 1648 that the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture was founded by Cardinal Mazarin.  The purpose of this academy was to professionalize the artists working for the French court and give them a stamp of approval.

Around 1623 Poussin met Giovanni Battista Marino in Paris.  Marino was court poet to Marie de Medici at Lyon.  The poet was very impressed with Poussin’s work and urged him to travel to Rome to widen his artistic experience.  Poussin had already made two unsuccessful attempts to go to the Eternal City but in 1624, aged thirty, he made it to Rome and initially lodged with the French painter, Simon Vouet.  Life in the city proved difficult as Poussin was always short of money.  However he was befriended by Cassino dal Pozzo, a wealthy antiquarian and secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who were both to become Poussin’s earliest patrons.  It was in 1628 that Poussin received two major commissions; the first was from Barberini, for a pair of large history paintings, The Death of Germanicus and The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem.  The paintings were well received.  The following year a commission from the Vatican for an altarpiece resulted in The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus which is My Daily Art Display featured painting today.   The work was not greeted with universal acclaim in fact it was a comparative failure with the art critics of Rome.   It could well have been the fact that Poussin was French and that the Italians did not take to his attempt to compete with the Italian masters of the Baroque style on their own ground.   After this Poussin ceased competing for large public commissions and would paint only for private patrons and even then would confine his work to formats which were seldom larger than five feet in length.   

In 1630 he became ill.  It is believed that he contracted venereal disease.  He was taken to the house of his friend Jacques Dughet, whose daughter Anna Maria cared for him.  Poussin and Anna Maria married in 1630 but the couple never had any children.   Anna’s brother, Gaspard Dughet studied art as a pupil of Poussin and was later to take Poussin’s surname as his own.

By now news of his achievements filtered back to his home country and the court of Louis XIII and the powerful Cardinal Richelieu.  He was summoned by the court to return and reluctantly he had to acquiesce to the royal command and in 1640 he returned to Paris.  He was offered commissions for types of work he was not used to nor really competent to carry out, including the decoration of the Grande Galérie of the Louvre palace.  Worse still, the works he did complete did not bring forth the admiration he had anticipated, so annoyed at the lack of acclaim, he left Paris in 1642 and returned to Rome.   Ironically after his death, Poussin’s style of painting was accepted and acknowledged and in the late seventeenth century it was glorified by the French Academy.

Poussin was never a well man and his health started to decline more rapidly when he was in his mid fifties and with it came problems with his hands which suffered from ever worsening tremors.    In his later paintings one could detect the unsteadiness of his hand. He died in Rome in 1665 aged seventy-one and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, his wife having predeceased him.

And so to today’s painting, The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, which Poussin completed in 1629.  Nicolas Poussin’s altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus was commissioned in 1628 for the for the altar of the right transept of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Chapel of St. Erasmus, in which relics of the Saint are preserved.  It was part of the ongoing decoration of the great basilica.  The commission had been initially given to Pietro da Cortona but was then assigned to Poussin in 1628 who used the preparatory sketches of Cortona’s as a basis for the work.  Poussin was probably obliged to produce not only a preliminary compositional drawing but also a painted modello, a model, to give his patrons a clear idea of his intentions

In the painting of Saint Erasmus, also known by his Italian name, Saint Elmo, we see the subject in the foreground.   He was the bishop of Formiae, Campagna, Italy, and suffered martyrdom in 303 AD, during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians.  The setting is a public square.  The painting shows the almost naked Erasmus being disembowelled.   To the left of him we see a priest dressed in white robes talking to Erasmus and pointing upwards to the statue of Hercules, a pagan idol that Erasmus had refused to worship and which resulted in his martyrdom.  In the left mid ground we see a Roman soldier on horseback who is overseeing the execution.  It is a horrific and gruesome scene.  We see Erasmus’ executioner, dressed in a red loin cloth, extracting the intestines of the martyr who is still alive, and they are being fed on to what looks like the rollers of a ship’s windlass, which is being slowly turned.  Above we see two angels descending, one of who is carrying a palm and crown which are the symbols of martyrdom.   

The painting remained in the basilica until the eighteenth century at which time it was replaced by a copy in mosaic and the original transferred to the pontifical palace of the Quirinal. It was then taken to Paris in 1797 following the Treaty of Tolentino between France and the Papal States during the French Revolutionary Wars.  It returned to Italy in 1820 and it became part of the Vatican Art Collection of Pius VI.

Let me end this blog with two pieces of trivia.   When a blue light appears at mastheads of ships before and after a storm, the seamen took it as a sign of Erasmus’s protection.   This phenomenon is known as “St. Elmo’s fire”.    Erasmus is also appealed to when suffering from stomach cramps and colic. This probably comes about due to the way the saint met his death!

For another of Poussin’s paintings, Rinaldo and Armida, look at my blog of March 8th.

The Exhibition Stare Case, Somerset House by Thomas Rowlandson

The Exhibition Stare Case, Somerset House by Thomas Rowlandson (c. 1800)

My Daily Art Display today is something different from the usual paintings I feature.  It is a print by the English artist and caricaturist, Thomas Rowlandson.  In some ways it reminds me of what is termed the “saucy” seaside postcards which were extremely popular twenty or thirty years ago and are still sold at seaside resorts in Britain.

Rowlandson was born in London in 1756.  His father was a successful local merchant.  It is said that Thomas Rowlandson learnt to draw before he learnt to write.  He was so enthralled in drawing that his early years were solely spent in drawing.  He attended Eton and after that enrolled to study art at the Royal Academy.

In 1772, at the age of sixteen he travelled to Paris where he remained for two years, during which time he was a student at a drawing school in Paris.  After his stay in France he returned to London and opened a studio in Wardour Street from where he sold his portraits.    At this early point in his artistic career he was looked upon as being somebody who would become a great portrait painter.  He had been awarded the Silver Medal by the Royal Academy in both 1777 and 1778 and was becoming known as a very fine watercolour portrait painter. In the 1780s Rowlandson’s output of his portraiture decreased and he concentrated most of his time on drawings.  These were much in demand and he had a lot of his work published in journals such as the English Review and The Poetical Magazine.   Rowlandson found another means of earning money; that of illustrating novels and many of the great novelists of the time, like Henry Fielding and Oliver Goldsmith had him produce illustrations for their famous works of literature. He also di d illustrations for Tobias George Smollett, whose radical books resulted in him being sent to prison for libel.  Some of Rowlandson’s political cartoons also got him in trouble and he was accused by his critics of being “coarse and indelicate”.
 However fate was to take a hand in changing his future life and lifestyle with the death of his French aunt and the inheritance of £7000 he received.  This was an exceptionally large sum of money at this time and unfortunately Rowlandson could not handle being wealthy and within a short time had gambled it all away and had become penniless.

Rowlandson needed to earn some money but instead of concentrating on his watercolour portraits he, because of his friendship with the great political satirist, James Gillray, decided to concentrate his artistic efforts on socially satirical caricatures.  There was a good market for such works at the time and he was aware that this was an excellent way to improve his finances.  Rowlandson preferred to use watercolours for his caricatures and he was so successful with what he produced that for the rest of his life he had no need to revert to watercolour portraiture.  His trademark for his caricatures was the lecherous old man and the buxom female and accompanying the picture he would add a title or the odd line of prose or verse which enlightened the viewer as to what the caricature was all about (if it was ever needed!).  The caricatures were often moralistic and were in some ways like the moralistic paintings of Hogarth.   Whereas the great caricaturists of Rowlandson’s time such as James Gillray and George Cruickshank concentrated mainly on political cartoons Rowlandson favoured the socio-cultural caricatures and their satirized morals. Although some of his caricatures were criticised for being crude and unseemly, this was nothing compared to the criticism he received for his erotic prints and woodcuts which even today would be met with censorship for their pornographic nature.  Rowlandson by any standards lived a hard lifestyle and eventually this was the cause of prolonged illnesses in later life.  He died in 1827 aged 71.

My Daily Art Display today features the caricature print entitled The Exhibition Stare Case, Somerset House which Thomas Rowlandson completed around 1800.  This print is based on a drawing which Rowlandson made earlier.   In his print he points fun at the people attending the art exhibition and the male penchant for caring more about the “living” pictures that provide additional, or even preferred, entertainment to the works on display at the Exhibition.  Look at the facial expression on the lecherous old men ogle the elegant ladies who have tumbled haplesslydown the staircase, limbs akimbo and tender parts exposed. It is interesting to note how Rowlandson has depicted the under-dress of the women.  He shows them wearing stockings but not much more beneath those gauzy muslins.  So are we to believe that females of that era wore few or no under-garments or is it Rowlandson’s way of adding a touch of erotica to his work.  

The setting for this work is the Royal Academy of Art, which was founded in 1768 and housed in Pall Mall, and then Old Somerset House before it moved to New Somerset House in 1780.  It remained there for almost ninety years when in 1868 it transferred to its present site, Burlington House, on Piccadilly.  The title of the work is a pun on the word stare (as in looking fixedly) and stair (part of a staircase) and the artist is poking fun at the people who have come to see the works exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition.  In Rowlandson’s mind there were two kinds of viewers who came to Somerset House: those who wanted to see the paintings and sculptures, and those who came to ogle the ladies whose legs and ankles were exposed walking up those prominent stairs.  Of course with such lack of attention to what they are doing the inevitable accident happens as people trip over one another and fall down the stairs in a domino effect.  The print shows the large ornate staircase which leads to the Great Room at Somerset House.  This was a steep and winding staircase and at times when the Royal Academy was well attended it would have been difficult to negotiate a safe passage up and down it. 

In the alcove at the bottom of the staircase we have a statue of Venus.  This is a later print of Rowlandson’s work as in the original instead of the statue of Venus, there was just an urn.

Dian Kriz, the American art historian’s book “‘Stare Cases’: Engendering the Public’s Two Bodies at the Royal Academy of Arts.”  and in Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780-1836 recounts a number of comments regarding the Exhibitions made in the reviews of the RA exhibitions at the time.  One commented on the exhibitions and the attendees describing it:

” …. as a place where art and female bodies vied for the male gaze…”

She quotes the Morning Post of May 3rd 1875 and its view on the visitors:

“…“there are two descriptions of persons who visit the Royal Academy some perambulate the rooms to view the heads others remain at the bottom of the stairs to contemplate the legs…”

Finally in the World, Fashionable Advertiser of May 8th 1787 it notes:

“….“Exhibitions are now the rage and though some may have more merit, yet certainly none has so much attraction as that at Somerset House; for, besides the exhibition of pictures living and inanimate, there is the raree-show [peep show] of neat ancles up the stair-case which is not less inviting…”

One can see that Rowlandson could well have got the idea for his caricature from these press releases.   What I love about this painting is that all the people are different.  They are all doing different things and it is a joy to scan each individual closely to see the facial expression and their role in the picture.  Look how absorbed they are in what is going on around them.  Note the lecherous looks on the faces of the old men as they gaze at the disheveled attire of the falling and fallen females.

When I was researching the works of Thomas Rowlandson I was astounded at the sexual nature of some of his caricatures.  I have talked on a number of occasions about the fine line in paintings between what is considered sensuous and what is considered erotic.  With some of Rowlandson’s caricatures there is a very fine line between what is erotic and what is pornographic.  I think that if ever there was an exhibition of his works the media would have a field day on discussing whether some of his works should be censored.  I will leave you to look at some of these works on the internet and decide for yourself.  Erotic/pornographic cartoons and caricatures of course are not just a thing of the past as in the present time we have the Japanese Hentai comics and Japanese Anime (animation).

Miss Murray by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Miss Murray by Sir Thomas Lawrence

My Daily Art Display looks at a work by one of the greatest English portrait painters.  His name was Thomas Lawrence, later to become Sir Thomas Lawrence.   He was born in Bristol in 1769.  His father, also called Thomas, was a supervisor of excise and his mother Lucy was the daughter of a clergyman.  His mother had an amazing number of children – sixteen in all, albeit only five survived infancy.  It was around the time that Thomas was born that his father decided to give up his government job and become an innkeeper.  The initial move into running an inn failed and when Thomas was four years of age his father moved the whole family to the Wiltshire market town of Devizes and tried again at being a successful landlord of an inn.  The inn named the Black Bear was on the main route between London and Bath and was ideally situated to catch the London gentry who were on route to Bath in order to take the healing waters.

The father’s business acumen was lacking and he soon ran into debt and it was left to young Thomas to help with the family finances by selling his pastel portraits.  When Thomas was ten, his father was declared bankrupt and the family moved to Bath.  There was now more pressure on the young boy to stabilise the family’s finances through the sale of his portraits.  He concentrated on oval portraits measuring 3ocms x 25cm and he was able to charge three guineas for each half length portrait.   In 1787 Thomas Lawrence moved to London and in a very short time established his reputation as a portrait painter in oils.   It was primarily the portraiture of Britain’s growing aristocracy which was in great demand and Lawrence was able to command high fees for his work and it was into this aristocratic world that Lawrence was accepted.      In 1790, he received his first royal commission when he was asked to paint a portrait of Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.  The following year, aged just twenty two, he became an associate of the Royal Academy and three years later a full member of that society.  In 1792, Sir Joshua Reynolds the great English portrait artist, friend and mentor to Thomas Lawrence, died and this opened royal doors for his protégé.  George III, who had been delighted with Lawrence’s portrait of his wife, Queen Charlotte, appointed Thomas Lawrence as the Principal Court painter. He retained that position under the monarchy of George IV.   Lawrence was knighted in 1815 and five years later became the President of the Royal Academy.

So business was good for Lawrence the sale of his portraits went well and he could command higher and higher fees for the commissions he received and so he was rich.   Well, in fact no, he wasn’t wealthy and on a number of occasions was nearly bankrupt and only staved off financial disaster with help from friends and patrons.  So where did all the money go?  Lawrence was bemused by his lack of money, commenting:

“…I have never been extravagant nor profligate in the use of money. Neither gaming, horses, curricles, expensive entertainments, nor secret sources of ruin from vulgar licentiousness have swept it from me…”

Many biographers have sought the reason for his financial mess and it is now generally accepted that Thomas Lawrence could not handle his finances, rarely kept accounts and he spent a lot of money building up a collection of Old Master drawings.  He was also very generous when it came to his family – probably too generous.

Apart from financial problems he was also very unlucky in love.  He had come in contact with the well-known London stage actress Sarah Siddons and he became entangled with her two daughters, Maria and Sally.  He fell in love first with Sally, then transferred his affections on to her sister Maria, then broke with Maria and turned back to Sally again. Both the sisters had fragile health; Maria died in 1798, on her deathbed extracting a promise from her sister never to marry Lawrence.  Sally kept her promise and refused to see Lawrence again, dying in 1803. But Lawrence continued on friendly terms with their mother and painted several portraits of her.   Lawrence never married.  Sir Thomas Lawrence died in 1830, aged 60 and was the most fashionable portrait painter in Europe

My Daily Art Display today is a delightful portrait which Sir Thomas Lawrence completed in 1826, entitled Miss Murray, which can be found at Kenwood House in London.  It is an unusual portrait considering the wealthy and famous people he had painted.  The painting was commissioned by Sir George Murray, the Scottish soldier and politician, who fought with General Wellington in the Peninsular Wars.  Louise Georgina Murray was his daughter and was also the goddaughter of the Duke of Wellington.  The young girl dances towards us beribboned and utterly bewitching.  She reminds me of the very young girls we see in present day American child beauty pageants, all dressed up adult-like, performing little dances for their doting audience.  She is just like Shirley Temple.   We seem to be looking up at her from below as if she is performing her dance on a stage and we are merely part of her audience.  Lawrence has undoubtedly captured the little girl’s beauty whilst she was still young.  Lawrence realised that his portrait had in some ways captured a certain moment in her life, a moment of child-like innocence and beauty which would undoubtedly change.  He commented on this very fact to her father, writing:

“…All I can do will be to snatch this fleeting beauty and expression so singular in the child before the change takes place that some few months may bring…”

How many times have we looked back on our children’s photographs when they were young and wondered how things change so much over time?  Lawrence and undoubtedly Sir George Murray knew that the sweet innocence of the child as she proudly shows off her dress and performs her dance would inevitably change.

So what of little Miss Murray, what became of her?    In 1843, aged twenty-one, she married Captain Henry George Boyce, a grandson of the 1st Duke of Marlborough who sadly died in Rome, five years after they were married.  Louisa Georgina Augusta Anne Murray remained a widow for forty three years, dying in 1891 in the Italian coastal town of Bordighera.

Mirror image ?

As I said at the start of this blog, the painting can be found in Kenwood House, London which I believe is near to Hampstead Heath.  I have never been there and thus have never stood in front of the painting but when I was researching the work I came across two “versions” of the painting, the one you see at the begining, with the girl looking slightly to her left and the sprig of flowers on the floor on the left side of the painting and the other picture of the painting (on the right) I came across in another art history book which had the girl turning slightly to her right and the flowers were on the floor to the right of the painting.  One book must have had a mirror-image of the real painting but which is correct?  Next time you visit the gallery please let me know !