Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto (c.1525)

I have over the past blogs featured paintings of a women whose facial beauty I find quite stunning and have commented at length on their great beauty.  Two especially come to mind, Jeunesse Dorée by Gerard Brockhurst (My Daily Art Display May 16th 2011) and Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina (My Daily Art Display May 1st 2012).  I mention this because today I am featuring another such painting which is a portrait of an exceptionally beautiful woman.  The title of the painting is simply, Portrait of a Woman and the artist is Bartolomeo Veneto.  I will look at the painting in detail later and explore the mystery of whose portrait it might be but first let me tell you a little about the artist.

Bartolomeo Veneto was born at the end of the fifteenth century but little is known of his early upbringing and family life.  The first time his signature was found on a painting, was on his work entitled Virgin and Child and it was dated 1502.  The signature itself gives an insight into his early days as he signed it:

“… bartolamio mezo mezo cremonexe venizian e…”

which when roughly translated means:

“…Bartolomeo half-Venetian and half Cremonese…”

In his early days he worked in Veneto, in North East Italy, Venice itself and Lombardy, which has its border to the west of Veneto.  Whilst in Venice he trained under Gentile Bellini, who was the most prestigious painter in Venice in the early sixteenth century.  Bartolomeo Veneto concentrated most of his art on portraiture and for that he received many commissions.

It is thought that around 1507 Bartolomeo worked at the Este court in Ferrara, which was ruled by the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I d’Este who in 1502 married for the second time.  His new wife was none other than Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso was her third husband.  During his time at the court Bartolomeo gilded frames and made carnival decorations and completed a painting depicting the Virgin and Saints.  After three years at the court Bartolomeo moved on and he is reported to have been in Padua in 1512 and Milan eight years later and it was here that his portraiture became influenced by the portraits by Leonardo da Vinci who had been in this Italian city some years earlier.

Today’s featured painting by Bartolomeo Veneto, which he completed around 1525, is entitled Portrait of a Woman and is now housed in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.  I suppose the first question one asks when looking at this beautiful half-naked woman is who is she?   There is no degree of certainty as to the answer but it is thought to be a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia.  What makes her stand out is the fact that the artist has placed her, in three-quarter profile, dressed in a white tunic against a black background and he would use this black background technique in other portraits.

The staring eyes

Although she has turned to the left she keeps eye contact with us.  Although her left breast is bared, it is her gaze that catches our attention.  As we look at her we are almost mesmerized by that stare.  The way she looks at us is in some ways unnerving.  She has captured our attention.

Observe the ringlets of her golden hair as it cascades down her shoulders.  See how Bartolomeo has painted each strand of it in detail.  It is this extraordinary attention to detail that made his portraits so popular and led to many commissions from wealthy patrons.  This tempera and oil on wood panel bears the name of the ancient goddess of spring, Flora and she was often a character portrayed in Renaissance art.   In her right hand, she delicately holds up to us, between her slim index finger and thumb, a small posy of wild flowers consisting of daisies, anemones and buttercups,.  These three flowers are attributes of Zephyr’s wife Flora, the goddess who ushered in spring.  This is her offering to us.

A lavish jewel adorns her forehead.   Above the jewel is a blue silk band and her hair is covered in a veil which is crowned with myrtle, all of which lead us to believe that this woman is married.  Another jewel hangs between her breasts on a pendant, the placing of which adds to the sensuality of the portrait.  Having said that, I believe there is also chasteness in the way the artist has portrayed the woman.  Could this then be a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia?  The same Lucrezia Borgia who was one of the daughters of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, later to become Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza Cattanei?  Could this be the portrait of a woman who was accused of incest with both her father and her brother Cesare?  Could this beautiful and delicate-looking woman be the infamous female who was accused of poisoning many of her adversaries and who had a string of extra-marital affairs?

So, are we looking at a beauty or a beast and is this a true likeness of Lucrezia Borgia?

The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia by Gilbert Stuart Newton

The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia
by Gilbert Stuart Newton (1828)

Today I am going to look at the life and one of the paintings of the Canadian born artist Gilbert Stuart Newton.  Newton was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of twelve children in 1797.  His father, Henry Newton, who originally came from Boston, worked as a Customs official and his mother Anne Stuart came from a family of Scottish descent, who also lived in Boston, Massachusetts.  Her brother, Gilbert Stuart, was an artist and was generally believed to be one of America’s leading portraitists of the time and was to become one of his nephew’s first art tutors.   Gilbert’s parents moved from Boston to the Canadian port of Halifax in 1776 but on the death of his father in 1803, when he was six years old, his mother took her family back to her home town of Charleston, a district of Boston on the Charles River.

Although initially heading for a career in commerce he developed a love of art and his uncle Gilbert Stuart recognising his artistic promise took him on as one of his pupils.  Like many aspiring artists, Newton travelled to Europe to study painting, first in Florence and later in Paris and London.  He arrived in London in 1817.  During his travels, he made the acquaintance of the American artist, Washington Allston, (see My Daily Art Display, Feb 25th 2011),  the English genre painter Charles Leslie and the Scottish painter David Wilkie.  He enrolled as a student of the Royal Academy Schools in 1817 and exhibited his first work at the Royal Academy the following year.  Initially he focused his artistic talents on portraiture and had many well known sitters, such as the American author, Washington Irving and the American politician and then American Consul in Liverpool, James Maury.  He left England in 1831 and went back to America for a short period where he married but a year later he and his wife returned to England.

Gilbert Stuart Newton is principally remembered, not for his portraiture, but for his genre and literary scenes many of which were engraved.  Probably Newton will be remembered most of all for his depiction of literary subjects such as today’s featured painting entitled The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia, taken from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel, The Vicar of Wakefield.  He also depicted scenes from Shakespeare such as his 1831 painting entitled Portia and Bassanio.    Another scene from a novel he painted was that of Yorick and Grisette, two characters in Lawrence Sterne’s novel, A Sentimental Journey.  This work was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1830.  In 1828 Newton was made and Associate of the Royal Academy and four years later was elected as a Royal Academician.  That same year, 1832, when he was made a Royal Academician was the also the year of the onset of his mental illness which progressively worsened to such a point that he had to be institutionalised in a private asylum in Chelsea.  Even whilst hospitalised he continued to draw, completing a number of sketches based on Shakespearian characters.   He died of consumption at the asylum in 1835 just a month before his thirty-eighth birthday.  He died alone as his wife along with their child had returned to America a few months earlier.

My featured painting today is Gilbert Newton’s work entitled The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia. It was painted as a commission for Lord Lansdowne.   The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1828 and in the Exhibition catalogue against this work was the following quotation from Oliver Goldsmith’s 1766 novel, The Vicar of Wakefield.  They were the words uttered by the vicar to his wife imploring her, like him, to forgive the misdeeds of their daughter:

“…I entreat, woman, -that my words may be now marked once for all: I have here brought you back a poor deluded wanderer; her return to duty demands the revival of our tenderness … The kindness of heaven is promised to the penitent, and let ours be directed by the example…”

This novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, by Goldsmith was his most famous work of literature and in the painting we see Olivia, the vicar’s daughter, who had run away from home to be with the man she loved.  Her father, the vicar, eventually finds her and brings her home and we see him, in the right of the painting, comforting his distraught but repentant daughter, who has buried her face against his shoulder. To the left of the painting we see the vicar’s wife who has her back almost turned away from her husband and daughter and by her facial expression we must believe she hasn’t quite come to terms with what has happened.  She is now trying to balance the desire to punish her daughter for her misdeeds and yet show her some maternal love now that she is back in the fold.  Her hands are clenched tight in her lap and we can see by her facial expression that she is not in a forgiving mood.  Also included in the painting are the vicar’s two youngest sons who stand in front of their mother completely unaware of what is happening.   The younger daughter Sophia, who kneels at the side of her mother and who holds her mother’s hand in a comforting gesture, is pleading with her to forgive her errant sister, Olivia.  The vicar’s second son Moses, stands at the far right of the painting, by the open door of the house and looks somewhat bemused and unable to know what to do for the best.  The family dog lies under the table looking up aware of the commotion.

So how was the painting greeted by the art establishment in 1828?  The literary magazine of the time, The Athenaeum commented on the work:

“…A very interesting picture, cleverly composed, and well painted. The mother’s struggle between pride and tenderness, is admirably expressed, not only in her face and features, but throughout the whole figure; not more in the stiffness and erectness of carriage, than in the clenching of the hand on the knee. The patient and benevolent Dr Primrose, of Goldsmith, is finely characterised in the figure and head of the father: the affectionate sister, kneeling by her mother’s side, and anxiously interceding, is a picture of amiable loveliness; while Olivia, abandoned to shame, sorrow, and penitence, neglected in her attire, and with face averted, and concealed on her father’s shoulder, while her hand is most expressively held by his, forms, with the figure of the indulgent parent, a group replete with delightful expression. The hobbledehoy simplicity of Moses, and the panting and vague consciousness of the younger urchins, must not be overlooked; they are also most happy. The whole picture, in short, is full of truth, sentiment, and feeling…”

Winter Harmony by John Henry Twachtman

Winter Harmony by John Twachtman (C.1890-1900)

When we hear the word Impressionism we immediately think of French painters such as Monet, Renoir, Cassatt, Degas et al, but how much do we know about American Impressionists and their works?  How did the Impressionism Movement become important for a time in America?  To find the answer, we probably have to go back to the mid-nineteenth century as it was after the Civil War ended in 1865 that America developed a healthy economy and this was never more so than in the North where many of the victors, who had made their fortunes from the war, had become extremely wealthy.  As is the case nowadays, it is often not just enough to be wealthy, one had to flaunt one’s wealth.   The newly wealthy Americans wanted not just to be recognised as rich, they also craved to be looked upon as sophisticated which didn’t automatically go hand-in-hand with wealth.  So the rich Americans sat in their large magnificent houses and realised that it wasn’t enough to just have a large building, they realised that what they filled their homes with could help in their quest for sophistication and what could be more sophisticated than having their house filled with European art and furnishings.  American artists soon realised that European style art was a saleable commodity and many crossed the Atlantic to Europe, especially Paris, to study the latest artistic techniques.

It was also around this time in Paris that French Impressionism was born.  Impressionist art was a style in which the artist captured the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it. Their paintings were full of colour and, in the main, the paintings depicted outdoor scenes. There was a wonderful brightness and vibrancy about the works of the Impressionists.  The images we saw on their canvases were without detail but were painted in bold colours.   In the 1870’s there were already two American painters who had been seduced by the Impressionist style of art and were considered great exponents of this style.  They were Mary Cassatt and the Italian-born son of American ex-patriots, John Singer Sargent.

During the mid-1880s, French Impressionist art became very popular with American collectors who began to appreciate this new style, and more American artists realised that they had to take on board this new phenomenon.   Soon, exhibitions of Impressionist works were held in American cities and the paintings sold well.

Today I am going to look at a work of a less well known Impressionist, the American painter, John Henry Twachtman.  John Twachtman was born in Cincinnati in 1853.  His parents, Frederick Twachtman and his mother Sophie Dröge were German immigrants who had arrived in the country in the late 1840’s.  His father had many different jobs including being a policeman, a storekeeper and a cabinetmaker but his most lucrative work was as a window-shade decorator at the Breneman Brothers factory, and when his son, John, was fourteen years of age he joined his father in the business,  as well as attending classes at the Ohio Mechanics Institute.  John developed a love for art and persuaded his parents to allow him to enrol for a part-time course at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati and this is when he met and was mentored by an already successful American realist artist, Frank Duveneck who invited Twachtman to share his studio in Cincinnati.

In 1875, when he was twenty-four years of age, he and Duveneck, who was just five years his senior, travelled to Europe to study European art.  First stop was Munich where Twachtman studied for two years at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Art tutored by the German genre and landscape painter, Ludwig von Löfftz.  This artistic establishment was a long-standing center of artistic excellence and was one which attracted increasing numbers of aspiring American artists.   From there he, Duveneck and another American student attending the Academy, William Merritt Chase, travelled to Venice in the spring of 1877 and spent much of their time painting en plein air.

Twachtman returned to America in 1878 and for a brief time taught at the Women’s’ Art Association in Cincinnati. He also joined the Cincinnati Etching Club where he became friendly with Martha Scudder, a Cincinnati artist and daughter of a local physician.    Martha had studied at the School of Design and also in Europe, and had, on a number of occasions, exhibited her work.   In 1880, Twachtman married, Martha Scudder.  Soon after she married she gave up her artistic career and simply devoted herself to bringing up her family.  John and Martha had two children: a son, J. Alden Twachtman, who was born in March 1882 and went on to became a painter and architect and a daughter, Marjorie, who was born in Paris in 1884.    In 1880 John and Martha left America on honeymoon and went to Europe and Bavaria where Twachtman helped out as an art teacher in Duveneck’s school.  Twachtman tired of the Munich style’s painting especially its lack of draughtsmanship and so he upped roots and moved to Paris, where in 1883 he enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he studied under Gustave Boulanger, the French figure painter who was renowned for his classical and Orientalist subjects.  Another of his tutors was the French figure painter, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre.

Twachtman returned to the United States in 1887 and remained there for the rest of his life settling in Connecticut where he established an informal art school at Holly House, a boarding house for artists at Cos Cob, a small fishing village near Greenwich.  This became a magnet for young aspiring artists, who came and were taught by Twachtman.  Ten years later in 1897, Twachtman along with Childe Hassan and J Alden Weir became founder members of a group known as the Ten American Painters generally known as The Ten.  This group was considered to be a sort of Academy of American Impressionists who had broken away from the more conservative Society of American Artists.  From 1899 onwards, although living on his farm in Greenwich, Twachtman spent most of his last summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts and it was here that he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1902, aged 49.

The painting by John Twachtman, which I am featuring today, is one of his many winter landscapes.  This one is entitled Winter Harmony and was completed by the artist in the last decade of the nineteenth century.  It now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  The painting features a pool on the artist’s property and was to be depicted in a number of his works.

Disappointed Love by Francis Danby

Disappointed Love by Francis Danby (1821)

Francis Danby was an English painter, born in 1793, in a small village near Waterford, Ireland, where his father owned a farm.  When he was fourteen years of age his father died and he along with his mother and twin brother moved to Dublin.  Whilst living in Dublin, Francis Danby enrolled at the Royal Dublin Society’s Schools of Drawing where he received artistic training.  It was at this establishment that he met the renowned Irish landscape painter James Arthur O’Connor and it was through his mentorship that Danby developed a love of landscape painting. Danby also struck up a friendship with another fellow student, George Petrie, and they along with O’Connor left Dublin in 1813 and travelled to London.  By all accounts the trip had not been well planned financially and their funds soon ran out and they had to head back to Ireland, on foot, but on the way they stopped off in Bristol.  It was in this city that Danby managed to supplement his meagre worth by painting watercolours of the local scenes and selling them to the locals.  At the same time as selling some of his work, he kept back what he considered to be his best paintings and sent them to various London exhibitions.

The works of Francis Danby, which were shown at various London sites, received favourable reviews and were soon in great demand.  It was whilst still living in Bristol around 1818 that Danby joined an informal association of artists based around Bristol, which had been founded by the English genre painter, Edward Bird, known as the Bristol School or Bristol School of Artists.  In 1821, Danby had a painting of his first exhibited at the Royal Academy.  It was entitled Disappointed in Love and is My Daily Art Display’s featured work today.  In 1824 Danby left Bristol and moved to London.  It was around this time that Danby gave up his naturalistic and topographically accurate landscapes and moved towards poetic landscape painting.  Poetic landscapes gave one the geography and architecture of landscapes from a subjective point of view, using elements of myth, fantasy or the picturesque. Claude Lorrain is usually looked upon as the originator of this style and this style of painting culminated in the Romantic landscape of the 19th century.   A Poetic Landscape presents us with an imaginary place and for that reason the artists did not have to worry about topographical accuracy and it allowed them the opportunity to transform the characteristic features of, for example, Italian geography and architecture, and turn them into mythical or pastoral fantasy. This painting genre allowed artists to exaggerate the shape and height of mountains, delete or redesign buildings and objects, insert dramatically placed trees or human figures, and throw strongly contrasted lighting effects over it all. The public liked this style of landscape painting and did not care about the topographical veracity of what they saw.  People, at the time, preferred this style to the topographical landscape with its dryly objective recording of what was actually there.

Another artistic genre Danby began to draw on was the large biblical scenes such as his 1825 painting The Delivery of Israel,  which was exhibited at the Royal Academy and which led to him being elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy.  In the next two decades Francis Danby produced many large biblical and apocalyptic paintings which were to rival his contemporary and renowned “high priest” of apocalyptic art, John Martin.

Francis Darby, already an Associate Member of the Royal Academy was put up for election in 1829 to become a Royal Academician.  When the votes were counted, he was devastated to find he had lost out by one vote to John Constable,  who was elected instead of him.  This year, 1829, was an annus horriblis for Danby as this was also the year that his marriage to his wife Hannah failed and he took himself a mistress.  Hannah went off with another artist Paul Falconer Poole who had spent some time in the Danby household.  London Society was scandalised by the goings-on at Danby’s household and in 1830 he went into self-imposed exile in Paris along with his mistress.  From 1831 to 1836 Danby worked out of Geneva reverting back to his topographical watercolour landscape art work.

The Deluge by Francis Danby

In 1837 he returned to Paris and a year later went back to living in London.  It was in that year he produced his famous work, The Deluge, which re-established his reputation amongst the art community.  This massive canvas, measuring 2.85m x 4.52m, depicted an area of harsh and violent weather and writhing, diminutive bodies trying to save themselves from the stormy waters.  The painting put Danby briefly back in the limelight.  However for Danby,  life as an artist was becoming too much for him and in 1847, aged 54, he left London and went to live in Exmouth, Devon.

Whilst living in Devon Danby still found time to paint concentrating on landscapes and seascapes but he also took up boatbuilding.  Francis Danby died in Exmouth, in 1861, aged 67.  To the end of his life Danby constantly had money problems and was embittered that he never gained the recognition he deserved from the Royal Academy and was never elected as a Royal Academician.  The final straw came two days before he died when he learnt that his ex-wife’s husband, Paul Falconer Poole had been elected a Royal Academician !

My Daily Art Display painting for today is by Francis Danby which he completed in 1821 and is entitled Disappointed Love.  The painting was the first painting Francis Danby exhibited at the Royal Academy, and it became one of his best-known works. Before us, we see a heartbroken young woman who has just been jilted.  Her hands cover her face as she sits weeping on the bank of a  lily pond surrounded by dark and murky woodland.  The occasional small white flowers, dotted around, struggle to lift the dark green and browns of the undergrowth.  This gloomy undergrowth mirrors the depressed mind of the young girl.   Her long dark tresses hang down over her white dress.   On the ground beside her we see her discarded bonnet, her scarlet shawl , a miniature portrait of her lover and other letters which she has not yet destroyed.    Her sad figure dressed in white is reflected in the water and in some way it seems that the water is drawing her to it so that she can end her life and her misery, in an Ophelia-like fashion.  Floating on the surface of the pond are pieces of a letter which she has torn up and discarded.  Eric Adams wrote a biography in 1973 on Francis Danby entitled Francis Danby: varieties of poetic landscape and he believes the setting for the painting was on the banks of the River Frome on the outskirts of Bristol and that the model for the painting was a model at the Bristol Artists newly founded Life Academy.  There was a lot of criticism of the painting, not so much for the poetical nature of the work but for its technical faults, in particular the lack of proportion of the plants in the foreground.

When the painting was put forward to the Royal Academy jurists to see if it should be allowed in to the 1821 Exhibition it was not wholly loved.  An account of the jurist’s comments on seeing Danby’s painting was reported some twelve years later as:

“…An unknown artist about ten years ago sent a very badly painted picture for the exhibition.  The committee laughed, but were struck by “something” in it and gave it admission.  The subject was this.  It was a queer-coloured landscape and a strange doldrum figure of a girl was seated on a bank, leaning over a dingy duck-weed pool.  Over the stagnant smeary green, lay scattered the fragments of a letter she had torn to pieces, and she seemed considering whether to plump herself in upon it.  Now in this case, the Academicians judged by the same feelings that influence the public.  There was more “touching” invention in that than in the nine-tenth of the best pictures exhibited there the last we do not know how many years.  The artist is now eminent…”

To my mind it is a beautiful painting, full of pathos, and one cannot but feel sympathy for the young girl.  It was for this reason that I was surprised to read an anecdote about this painting and the depiction of the girl.  Apparently the Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, was being shown the painting by its owner, the wealthy Yorkshire cloth manufacturer, John Sheepshanks and commented that although he was impressed by the deep gloom of the scene, it was a shame that the girl was so ugly.  Sheepshanks replied:

“..Yes, one feels that the sooner she drowns herself the better…”

How unkind !

This painting along with the rest of his outstanding art collection was presented to the Victoria & Albert Museum

Hope by George Frederic Watts

Hope by George Frederic Watts (1886)

George Frederic Watts was a Victorian painter and sculptor who was closely associated in his later years with the Symbolism Movement.  Symbolism came about in the 1880’s but by the end of the century it had almost died away having been overshadowed by the birth and rise of Modernism.  The Symbolist movement was a reaction against the literal representation of objects and subjects, where instead there was an attempt to create more suggestive, metaphorical and evocative works.  Symbolic artists based their ideas on literature, where poets such as Baudelaire believed that ideas and emotions could be portrayed through sound and rhythm and not just through the meaning of words. Symbolist painter styles varied greatly but common themes included the mystical and the visionary. Symbolists also explored themes of death, debauchery, perversion and eroticism. Symbolism moved away from the naturalism of the impressionists and demonstrated a preference for emotions over intellect.

George Frederic Watts was born on February 23rd 1817 in Marylebone, London and his Christian names were those of the great musician George Frederic Handel who was born on that date some 132 years earlier.  His mother and father struggled financially and this was not helped by the poor health of his mother who was to die when George was very young.   His father was a piano maker and took it upon himself to educate his son at home.  Much emphasis was placed on a conservative Christian upbringing and a love for classical literature.  Unfortunately, as is so often the case, his father’s compelling desire to force his Christian views on his son, eventually made George turn completely away from organised religions.

At the age of ten, George had some informal tuition from William Behnes, a local sculptor where he practiced drawing from the sculptures.  This training proved a godsend as by the age of sixteen he was able to support himself from the sale of his portraits.  In 1835, aged eighteen years of age, George Watts enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools.  Although Watts never enjoyed his time at the establishment and would often fail to attend he did exhibit some of his works at the 1837 Royal Academy Exhibition.  It was whilst studying art that he met and became great friends with Alexander Constantine Ionides, an art patron and collector.  Ionides commissioned many paintings from Watts and became one of his earliest patrons.

By 1840 Watts had moved away from portraiture and concentrated on historical paintings.  In 1843, he entered the first competition to design murals for the new Houses of Parliament.  Entries were to be of a narrative genre which endorsed patriotism and thus would be appropriate to the new legislative building.   His entry, Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome, gained him first prize in the competition and the prize money helped fund his artistic study trip to Italy where he remained for four years.  During his stay in Italy he learnt the secrets of fresco painting and completed many large scale paintings depicting scenes from Romantic literature.  However, he never gave up on his other artistic loves, portraiture and landscape painting.

Watts returned to London in 1847 and once again entered the Houses of Parliament competition.  This was the fourth one organised by the monarch and the government.  Watts won the competition with his entry Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Encounter the Danes at Sea.   Watts suffered from bouts of depression and he expressed his personal struggle with the illness in a series of four paintings which evoked a social realism theme.  One of these works entitled Found Drowned was my featured painting in My Daily Art Display of July 4th 2011.  In 1851 he went to live with his friend Henry Thoby Prinsep and his wife Sara at Little Holland House.  He lived with them for the next twenty-four years and it undoubtedly provided Watts with a secure environment for him to work and relax and provide a safe haven away from the rigours of the real world.  Little Holland House was a favourite meeting place of the young Pre-Raphaelite artists and literary people like Tennyson and it gave Watts then ideal opportunity to paint portraits of the aspiring literary and artistic luminaries of the day.

In 1878 Watts took part in the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris and submitted nine paintings and one sculpture.  He became an instantaneous celebrity on the European art scene.  During the 1880’s,  he produced many symbolic paintings which displayed close links to the work of his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the other Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones.

In 1886 at the age of 69 Watts re-married, to Mary Fraser-Tytler, a Scottish designer and potter who was some thirty three years his junior.   In 1891 he bought a house in Compton, near Guilford, in Surrey and in 1904 had a gallery built nearby which became known as the Watts Gallery and which was dedicated to his work.  The Watts Gallery is still a very popular venue for art lovers. George Frederic Watts died that year aged 87, shortly after the gallery opening.

Hope is looked upon as certainly the most influential, and outstanding if not most unusual of all George Frederic Watts’ paintings. This portrayal of the poignant musician has struck a chord with audiences and critics ever since it was first displayed at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886.  In 1887 at the Royal Jubilee exhibition held in Manchester the painting took pride of place in the middle of an entire wall dedicated to Watts’ work.  Numerous reproductions were made of this painting and many who saw it were deeply affected by what they saw and Watts received many letters from people who were greatly moved by the emotional impact it had on them. In the painting Watts has personified Hope as a young woman seated on a globe, hunched over, appearing to be almost asleep.  She wears a blindfold which symbolises her blindness and to the mental state she embodies. What was it about this work that such an effect on people?  It has to be Watts’ portrayal of this hunched, isolated, blindfolded and barefoot woman who appears to be on the edge of despair.  So why the title Hope?   Maybe in this case it is not hope meaning one’s optimistic thoughts but more of a feeling of almost despair; a hoping against hope.   As we take in the picture of the girl bent over listening to the music from her lyre we wonder why Watts has chosen the title.  The bluish grey background induces a melancholy mood. One critic commented that the painting did not evoke a feeling of hope and should have been entitled Despair.  Maybe that was the reason that in another version of his painting he has added a single star to the background to symbolise hope.  The girl, Hope, bends her ear to catch the music from the last remaining string of her almost shattered lyre. It is the faintest of hope as symbolised in her musical instrument which now with just one string left for her to make music and once that has broken, all hope of her producing a musical sound has disappeared.

Did the painting appeal to those who had almost lost hope themselves and in some way empathised with the vulnerability of the woman in the painting?  Watts had always sought, through his paintings, to communicate his message to as many people as possible. Some would criticise this aspect as being somewhat patronizing but Watts was a great master of narrative paintings and this was probably the reason why his conventional patriotic works he put forward for the Houses of Parliament were so successful.  Watts was surprised by the critical acclaim and popularity of his painting and attempted to follow up his success with Hope with two other works entitled, Faith and Charity, the other two “theological virtues” but they neither received the critical acclaim that his Hope painting achieved nor were they as popular with the public.

This version of the painting can be found in the Tate Gallery, London.

Peasant Girl Lighting a Fire. Frost, by Camille Pissarro

Peasant Girl Lighting a Fire. Frost by Camille Pissarro (1888)

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today is entitled Peasant Girl Lighting a Fire. Frost, which was painted by Camille Pissarro in 1888 and can now be found in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  At this time Pissarro was still a leading light of the Impressionist movement, a movement he had helped to form.   However it was two years prior to this work that Pissarro began to become interested in the experimental work of young artists, who had adopted the fragmented brushstroke technique which Georges Seurat and Paul Signac were trying out, known as pointillism , a technique Pissarro used in parts of this painting.  For a more in depth look at pointillism see My Daily Art Display October 21st 2011 for a painting by Georges Seurat and November 29th 2011 for a painting by Paul Signac. Pissarro had been introduced to Seurat and Signac in 1885 and in the following years he began to work in the pointillist style which had then been adopted by the Neo-Impressionists.  By the time Pissarro was in his sixties he found that this pointillism technique too restricting and in the last ten years of his life he returned to a purer Impressionist style.
Camille Pissarro was fifty-eight years of age when he completed today’s featured work of art.  Ten years earlier his style of painting was such that he would portray nature in his landscapes by a myriad of smaller comma-like brushstrokes built up on the surface of the canvas such as his 1877 work, The Red Roofs (see My Daily Art Display of November 30th 2010).  Pissarro was concerned that these works lacked clarity and so he decided to change the way he worked.  He spent time working in collaboration with Degas, who was, of all the Impressionists, a great believer and advocate of figure painting and the primacy of the human figure at the expense of landscape background.  It was maybe the views of Degas that led to Pissarro to complete some works in which the human being(s) took pride of place in the painting, as is the case with today’s featured work.

The painting depicts two peasant girls working in a field in a cold and frosty winter morning and we see one of them tending a fire.  Pissarro often painted peasant women at work.  Two fine examples of this are his 1881 work entitled Girl with a Stick and the 1893 painting entitled Woman with a Green Shawl.  His portrayal of peasants received some criticism for copying the ideas of Jean-François Millet but Pissarro firmly contested such a notion.  However in general art critics looked upon his works as true representations of peasant life.  Look at the beautiful way in which Pissarro has depicted the landscape.  At the time of this painting Pissarro was extremely interested in the pointillism technique of Seurat and Signac and he used this method to present us with a sumptuous backdrop to the two girls.  The painting has a light and airy feel to it and there is a subtle delicate nature to the work.  The work was painted in Eragny just north-west of Paris where Pissarro and his family lived for a time.

In the far distance we can see the low hills topped by irregular spaced bushy trees.  In the middle ground, we observe grazing cows in the meadow, a line of poplar trees at the foot of the hills and possibly a hidden stream running horizontally across the mid ground.   Notwithstanding the backdrop, the focus of the painting is on the two girls in the foreground, who almost appear to stand next to us.  The scene is lit up by the sun, somewhere out of sight, to the left, which throws off long blue shadows across the field.  It is a wintry sun and still low in the sky, hence the long shadow of the girl in the foreground, which disappears off the painting to the right.    Although it emits light, the sun gives off little warmth and so our two young workers are wrapped up well.  The temperature is even colder due to the wind chill factor.  Look how the girls skirt and the smoke from her small fire are blown horizontally by the wind which comes from the left of the painting.  One can imagine how cold it is with the driving wind on a wintry day. We almost shiver as we look at this work of art.

The girls are both well wrapped up against the morning’s wintry chill.  The girl on the right, who seems no more than a child, is warming her hands by the fire.  She wears a blue dress and a thick dark brown coat.  She has a dark woolen hat on her head which is pulled down to protect her ears from the icy wind.   The older girl, who is closest to us and because of her height, is the main focus of our attention.  She has taken a branch from the pile behind her, and is about to break it up and add it to the fire.  She wears a pink skirt with a blue apron.  She too has protected her head, wearing a white scarf tied beneath her chin.  Her final layer of protection is a pink and white shawl from which emerge long black sleeves of her dress.

The colour combinations Pissarro uses to achieve the colour we see is fascinating.  The girls pink dress is made up of a combination of yellow, blue and pink.  The green grass of the meadow is achieved by using a combination green, blue, yellow, pink and white.  The only orange Pissarro used was for the flames of the fire.

Pissarro fled the traumas of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and, like Monet, went to live in London.   It was whilst in London that he saw a number of paintings by Turner.  Pissarro later commented on Turner’s works and was amazed by the way Turner succeeded in conveying the snow’s whiteness, not just by the use of white alone but by combining a host of multi-coloured strokes, dabbed in, one against the other, which when looked at from a distance, created the desired effect.  It is in this painting that Pissarro has, without the actual presence of snow, managed to give us a crystalline frost of a cold winter’s morning encapsulated in an aura of diamond blue.

Francesca da Rimini by Ary Scheffer

Francesca da Rimini by Ary Scheffer (1835)

What is your perception of Hell?  Do you think of it as a huge furnace full of burning souls, or simply a place of deprivation?  We do not know and I don’t believe we will ever know what it is like or whether it or its sister-place, Heaven, really exists and so with this lack of evidence we can then formulate in our own minds what it is all about without fear of contradiction.  One person who did just that was Durante degli Alighieri, better known simply as Dante Alighieri.  In the first part (Inferno) of his epic poem entitled Divine Comedy he tells of his journey he made through Hell with the Roman poet Virgil acting as his guide.  Many artists have painted pictures based on Dante’s Inferno with its concentric circles full of various types of sinners.  To get to the gates of Hell Dante and Virgil had to cross the river Acheron which could only be achieved by being transported by ferry, piloted by Charon.  My Daily Art Display (September 6th 2011) depicts the two men being ferried across the river made famous in the painting,  The Barque of Dante or Dante and Virgil in Hell by Eugène Delacroix.

According to Dante, Hell is situated within the Earth, it is made up of nine circles of torment.  The circles are concentric, and represent a gradual increase in evilness.  The outer circle, or the first circle is the resting place of those who were never baptised, the second circle was for people whose sin was one of Lust.  As Dante and Virgil moved inwards they came across circles which housed the souls who had committed the sins of Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery.  It is interesting to note that for Dante, an Italian male, those who committed the sin of Lust were only in the second circle, as presumably in Dante’s mind, Lust was not that bad a sin!  The inner most part of this Hell ends at the centre of the earth, where Satan is held in bondage.   The sinners who populated each of the circles were punished in a fashion fitting their crimes, a system of contrapasso; derived from the Italian words contra and patior meaning  “suffer the opposite” a sort of poetic justice.

My featured painting today is about two lovers from Dante’s Divine Comedy who Dante and Virgil meet, trapped in the stormy darkness of the Second Circle of Hell (Lust)It is here that those overcome by lust during their time on earth have been sentenced to remain. Dante condemns them, and those like them, calling them “carnal malefactors” for letting their sexual appetites affect their reasoning. These hapless souls are blown to and fro by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without hope of rest and this symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly.  It is here that Francesca da Rimini tells Dante the story of how she and her lover Paolo ended up in this Second Circle of Hell.

Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are depicted in the 1835 painting by Ary Scheffer, which is entitled Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld or simply Francesca da Rimini. .    The story goes back to the time when Francesca’s father, Guido I da Polenta was lord of Ravenna but had been at war with a rival  family,  the Malatesta family.  Peace between the two families finally came about and to cement their relationship Guido agreed that one of his daughters, Francesca, should marry Giovanni Malatesta, the son and heir of the Malatesta clan.  Although Giovanni was an able man and would on the death of his father become ruler, he was ugly and deformed.   The friends of Francesca’s father told him that if Francesca was to set eyes on Giovanni prior to the marriage, she would never go through with it. So the two fathers hatched plan and sent Giovanni’s younger brother Paolo to Ravenna with authorisation to marry Francesca in Giovanni’s name.   Paolo, unlike his elder brother was handsome and courteous and Francesca immediately fell in love with him. The marriage took place and the marriage contract signed and bride and bridegroom returned to Rimini, with Francesca still unaware of the deception.

In the morning following the wedding she became aware of the deception.  She was furious that she had been deceived and to make matters worse she realised that she had fallen in love with Paolo.  Giovanni left Rimini on business leaving Paolo and Francesca together and they both realised that they loved each other.   Their lovemaking was witnessed by Giovanni’s servant who sent word to his master, who then secretly returned home.  He went to Francesca’s room in which were the two lovers.  He banged on the door and shouted her name.  They recognised Giovanni’s voice.  Paolo pointed to a trapdoor in the floor that led to a room below. He told Francesca to go open the door as he planned his escape.   However as he jumped through the open trapdoor part of his jacket got caught on a piece of iron.  Francesca, unaware of his Paolo’s predicament, opened the door for Giovanni, believing she would be able to make excuses, now that Paolo was gone. When Giovanni entered the bedchamber he noticed Paolo caught by his jacket on the trap door.   He immediately ran towards the trapdoor and with his rapier drawn thrust it at Paolo intending to kill him. Seeing what Giovanni intended to do, Francesca quickly ran between the two brothers to try to prevent it. But Giovanni’s rapier was already thrusting downwards towards the hapless Paolo but before it struck him the blade passed through Francesca’s bosom. Giovanni was totally distraught by what he had done for he still loved Francesca.  He withdrew the blade of the sword from her body and immediately plunged it into his brother, killing him.  The next morning, amidst much weeping, the two lovers were buried in the same tomb.

In the painting we see Dante and Virgil standing to the right hand side watching as the two, almost-naked, lovers cling to each other.  Art critics at the time praised this exceptional work by Scheffer, and it was to become one of his most famous and most admired works.  Scheffer went on to produce several replicas of it.  The original painting can be found at the Wallace Collection, London.