The Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London – Part 1.

Today’s blog came in to being thanks to Lady Luck.  Last week I went to London for two days.  The first day was spent with my daughter and her new baby leaving the second day free for me to roam around some art galleries.   It was March 19th and that was the day of the opening of the Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery.  I hadn’t planned my visit to coincide with that day and anyway, I had already checked on the internet to find, not unexpectedly, that I could not book tickets to the exhibition on its opening day.  However I decided to visit the gallery when it opened to see what literature they had regarding the exhibition and I was very surprised, but delighted, to be told that I could buy a ticket to visit the exhibition there and then.  I jumped at the offer.  It was a superb exhibition spread over seven rooms filled with the most magnificent paintings.  In my next two blogs, I want to feature some of my favourite works which were on display and look at the background to the depictions, in the hope that I can tempt you to visit this exceptional exhibition.

The Family of Darius before Alexander by Veronese (1565-7)
The Family of Darius before Alexander by Veronese (1565-7)

The first painting I want you to look at was one Palo Veronese completed around 1567.  It is entitled The Family of Darius before Alexander.  Veronese received the commission for this work from Francesco Pisani, the bishop of Ostia and a patron of the arts, for his residence Palazzo Pisani in Montagnana.  It is thought that this monumental work, which measures 236cms x 475cms (approximately 7.5ft x 16.5ft), was hung high up on the wall of the main room (probably the only room which could accommodate such a large work) on the piano nobile, the main floor of the house.  Its positioning meant that observers had to look up at the painting and from that viewpoint the depiction of the characters must have been amazing.

The event that is depicted in this work features Alexandra the Great and his first encounter with the abandoned womenfolk of the defeated Persian king, Darius III.  The meeting was written about by many Roman and Greek scholars and this work by Veronese was probably based on the writings of Valerius Maximus, a 1st century Roman historian.  It is an account of what happened following the Hellenic leader, Alexander the Great’s victory over the Persian army, led by Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333BC.  Although far outnumbered by the Persians, Alexander’s troops won the battle and Darius, rather than be killed fled the battlefield abandoning his family and his troops.  Although it may seem strange that the female members of the royal family were at the battle but it was the custom for royal Persian women to accompany their father/husband while they went to war.   When Darius made a hasty retreat from the battlefield, without a care for his family, his mother, wife and children were then captured by Alexander.   Darius later wrote a number of letters to his conqueror asking for the return of his family but Alexander would not agree unless Darius acknowledged him as the new Emperor of Persia.

In the meantime the female captives, Darius’mother Sisigambis, his wife Stateira and their two daughters, Stateira II and Drypteis were abandoned.  In the painting we see the four women meeting Alexander and his friend Hephaestion for the first time.  The four women at the centre of the painting are Darius’s family and they have approached Alexander asking for mercy.  Behind them stand their servants and a dwarf.   On the right we see Alexander, who is dressed in red, standing next to Hephaestion.  In between the two parties is an elderly man, dressed in blue, who is introducing the women to Alexander.   It is thought that this figure is a portrait of Veronese’s patron, Francesco Pisani.  The story of the event tells of the Darius’ mother initially mistaking Hephasteion for Alexander and in the painting we can see Alexander pointing to his friend who has stepped back in surprise at Sisigambis’ mis-identification.

For most of the characters in this tale, all ended well.  Alexander married Darius’s daughter Stateira II, whilst his other daughter Drypteis became the wife of Hephasteion.  Sadly all didn’t end well for Darius III who, after the defeat, was assassinated by one of his satraps (governors), Bessus, who then pronounced himself King of Kings of the Persian Empire.  He was later captured and executed on the orders of Alexander for his crime, regicide.

Veronese’s depiction of the scene arranges the figures gracefully across the surface of the painting, and with the exception of Alexander who wears classical armour, the protagonists are sumptuously dressed in modern fashion.  Veronese chose an outdoor setting for the meeting with its classical architecture similar to what he saw in his home town Verona.

The Martyrdom of Saint George by Veronese (c. 1565)
The Martyrdom of Saint George by Veronese (c. 1565)

The second work I am featuring is one Veronese completed around 1565 and is entitled The Martyrdom of St George.   It is a colossal work measuring 431cms x 300 cms (approximately14ft high x 10ft wide).  Veronese was probably commissioned to paint this for the high altar of San Giorgio in Braida, a Roman Catholic church in Verona, by the Venetian architect Michele Sanmicheli.

To set the scene I rely on a passage from Carlo Ridolfi, the Italian art biographer, 1648 book entitled Le Maraviglie dell’Arte, (The Marvels of Art) in which he describes the work:

“…in the church of San Giorgio Paolo painted for the high altar the saintly knight on his knees, stripped by henchman, persuaded by priests to offer incense to the idol Apollo, his face reveals an unvanquished soul, unafraid of the tyrant’s threats, strengthened by seeing the Virgin flanked by the Theological Virtues in the sky…”

In the painting we are not seeing the actual gruesome death of Saint George, who was a Roman soldier, but the lead up to his martyrdom.  The scene has an architectural background and the it is framed by two armoured horseman who enter the painting at the extreme left and right of the work.  Amongst the people we see a couple of men with turbans and a black page boy which gives a Middle Eastern feel to the setting and Veronese may have decided on this as legend had it that the martyrdom of St George took place on April 23rd 303AD in the town of Nicomedia, which is now the north-west Turkish town of Izmit.  High up on the extreme left of the painting we see the statue of Apollo which St George has been asked to worship.  Behind the statue is the unfurled Roman standard with its acronym in golden letters, S.P.Q.R., derived from the Latin phrase:

Senatus Populusque Romanus, (The Senate and People of Rome)

St George, who is kneeling on the ground, is stripped of his armour, which lies before him on the ground.  He is now bare-chested.  Look at Veronese’s portrayal of the saint.  Look how he has lovingly depicted the saint’s face with a look of kindness which is in direct contrast to the way he has depicted the harsh and ugly faces of the priest and executioner.  Behind St George is the priest dressed in a maroon cloak and cowl.  He leans towards his prisoner and points to the statue of Apollo and asks St George for the final time to worship the God, Apollo, and by so doing, saving his own life.   To the right of, and behind St George, we see the executioner. He is eagerly awaiting the priest decision.  The executioner has drawn his sword from its scabbard which he hands back to one of his henchmen.  Another man ties the hands of St George.  St George is unmoved by the threat and can be seen looking up to the heavens where he sees a vision of St Peter and Saint Paul, who sit either side of the Virgin and Child.  Below them are the three virtues, Faith Hope and Charity.  Hope, like the Virgin, look down on the soon to be executed St George.  Below them we see a small angel heading downwards to St George holding a wreath and palm branch, which are symbols of martyrdom.

It is a very moving scene and one can just imagine the painting in place at the high altar.  The observer would have had to look upwards over the altar towards the painting.  The observer’s eyes would then catch a glimpse of St George and follow the upward direction he is focusing on, towards Heaven and the Virgin Mary.  The painting which is housed in the Roman Catholic church of San Giorgio in Braida in Verona was trucked over to London for the exhibition.

Supper at Emmaus by Veronese (c. 1555)
Supper at Emmaus by Veronese (c. 1555)

The third painting I am showcasing is another monumental work, measuring 242cms x 416cms (approximately 8ft x 14ft).  It is Supper at Emmaus and this often painted scene was completed by Veronese around 1555.  The depiction based on the biblical story portrays the moment when the risen Christ, having comes across two of his disciples, thought to be Luke and Cleopas, on the road to Emmaus, joins them for supper.  We see Christ at the head of the table being served by the servant whilst at the opposite end of the table sit Cleopas and Luke who have just realised the identity of their fellow diner.  This supper scene has been depicted in paintings by all the great Italian painters, such as Caravaggio, Titian, and Tintoretto as well as other European artists such as Durer, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Jordaens.  However this painting of the Emmaus Supper by Veronese incorporates into the scene a group family portrait.  There are three men, who maybe brothers, a woman, ten children and an infant in the arms of the woman.  They are all dressed in contemporary 16th costumes.  It could be that is a family who has commissioned the work.  Where the work was to be hung is unknown but thought to be in the main hall of one of the new Venetian palaces.

The combination of the biblical scene with a secular scene works well and there is a lavishness about the secular depiction giving it a grand and stately appearance.  There is an element of humour about the depiction as we look down below the supper table at the two young girls who play with the large dog.  To the left, in the background, we witness a prelude to the supper as we see the two disciples with Christ as they make their way through the countryside to the village of Emmaus and the inn.

It is interesting to note that Veronese liked adding ordinary people into religious scenes and liked to incorporate his love of richness and ornamental embellishment in his religious works as in this painting.  However,  it was to get him into trouble with the Inquisition, who viewed the combining of secular and religious depictions into another of his painting in which, according to them, he had crowded “irrelevant and irreverent” figures into the work.  They took a dim view of it and they looked upon it as a sign of disrespect towards the Catholic Church.  I will tell you more about that painting in another blog.

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese (c. 1572)
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese (c. 1572)

My final offering today is another religious painting by Veronese, which again has been the subject for many of the great painters, such as Caravaggio and Gerard David.  It is based on a passage from the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-15) which is a follow-on from the story of the three magi who had brought gifts to the newborn child, and had now departed:

“…When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,  where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son….”

During their flight the Holy Family stopped for a rest and it is at their resting place that the various artists have depicted the scene.  Veronese completed his painting entitled The Rest on the Flight into Egypt around 1572.  We see Joseph sitting next to Mary who cradles the Christ Child.  They are all in need of sustenance but had nothing to eat or drink.  They sit in a palm grove, in the shade of a palm tree, which is emblematic of martyrdom.  It is laden with dates but they are too high up for them to reach.  Joseph’s water canteen is empty and they have nothing to drink.  Then a miracle occurs.  The tree bends downwards and we see one young angel dropping down dates whilst another gathers them up to give to the Holy Family to eat, whilst the Virgin Mary nurses the Christ Child.  A spring of water appears below them allowing Joseph to re-fill his canteen. Behind the couple is an ass and to the right of the picture there is an ox, a reference to the animals at the manger when the Child was born in Bethlehem.  Another young angel can be seen in the left of the painting, spreading out the baby’s clothes on a branch so they would dry.

Light filters through the leaves of the palm trees and in the background to the right the sky is the most beautiful blue.  This colour used by Veronese for the skies and clothes in some of his paintings is truly breathtaking and it is what struck me most about his work.  In this work, this beautiful rich blue colour is used again for the cloak of the Virgin Mary. Below the sky line in the right of the painting we see ancient buildings and obelisks which are meant to signify the far off land of Egypt, the country to which the couple are heading. It is a truly beautiful work of art.

In my next blog I will look at some more of Veronese’s paintings which were on show at the exhibitions, including some of his smaller works.

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Mary Cassatt – Mother and Child – Part 2

Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt

As a follow-on from my previous blog I want to feature some more works by Mary Cassatt which feature the close relationship between mother and child. Mary Cassatt had always been enthusiastic about painting mothers and their children and this passion was once more awakened when, in 1880, Cassatt’s brother, Alexander, arrived in Paris with his young family. Their arrival renewed Cassatt’s interest in depicting children, and her nephews and nieces now provided the opportunity for Cassatt to study and paint children from life. She would often use her brother’s family as models. She would also use local women as her models for her paintings rather than employ professional models as, first of all, she did not believe that professional models would agree to sit for her, but secondly and more importantly, she was of the opinion that professional models posed self-consciously and that would destroy her objective of producing a natural mother and child portrait. As in most of her paintings, Cassatt did not seek to glamorise or sentimentalise her subjects; instead she wanted to depict the mothers as honest, clean-living, good-looking women.

Emmie and her Child by Mary Cassatt (1889)
Emmie and her Child by Mary Cassatt (1889)

The first mother and child work by Mary Cassatt that I am featuring is one she completed in 1889, entitled Emmie and Her Child. We can clearly see the influence of Impressionism in this work. Before us, we see a young child sitting on his or her mother’s knee. Look how relaxed the young child is as he gazes out at something off-canvas. The child rests his right hand on the mother’s chin. It seems to be almost an unconscious gesture. It assures him of her presence. It is not a demanding or needy gesture. His left hand is placed on his mother’s hand which encircles his waist. He is at ease. He feels secure in the close presence of his mother. The mother looks down lovingly at her child. She wraps her arms around her child offering comfort. She too is relaxed, content and happy.

There is a pleasing tranquillity about the depiction of mother and child. This tranquillity is enhanced by the colours Cassatt has utilised in this work. There is a lot of white but it is not a glaring brilliant white as it has been toned down by the grey, blue and brown she has added to the white. The white of the mother’s dress has also been toned down by the incorporation of a floral pattern of red roses, the colour of which almost optically masks the white of the dress. Although the white of the mother’s dress and the tinged white of the jug and bowl on the shelf in the background are less than pure it is the colour of the child’s vest which retains the pure white colour and thus makes it stand out. This pure white colour also reflects the light upwards on to the child’s face which thus cleverly captures our attention.

Baby's First Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)
Baby’s First Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)

My next featured work by Mary Cassatt is entitled Baby’s First Caress and was completed two years after my previous offering, in 1891. The first thing I noticed about this work was the similar way in which Cassatt has depicted the baby reaching up to touch and cup his mother’s chin with his tiny but pudgy hand. However, unlike the first painting, the baby boy is concentrating on his mother’s face. It is as if he is mesmerised by it and needs to feel the texture of his mother’s skin so as to glean some knowledge about her face. At the same time that he is touching her face she is holding his foot in her left hand, maybe soothingly stroking it with her thumb to give him some reassurance whilst her right arm which is out of sight cradles his back and keeps him secure on her knee. If we look closely, we can just make out the fingers of the mother’s right hand which the baby grasps in his right hand. She looks down at him with a loving expression. This work, unlike the first painting which was in oil, is in pastel. Once again the brilliant white of her dress has been toned down by strokes of blue as well as the hint of a red floral pattern. This has subdued the brightness of her dress and therefore does not distract us from the depiction of mother and child.

The provenance of this work is quite interesting. The painting had belonged to Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer. She was an art collector, fervent feminist and a patron of Impressionist art. After her father’s death in 1874, when she was eighteen years of age, her mother took Louisine and her sister to Paris. She attended the Marie Del Sarte’s boarding school where she became friends with a fellow student, also an American, Emily Sartain, and it was through this friendship that Louisine met Mary Cassatt. The two became inseparable and would often tour the Parisian art galleries and during one such visit Louisine met Degas. Cassatt convinced Louisine to invest in some of Degas’ works. It was good advice as in her autobiography Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a collector, Louisine wrote that one of the works by Degas which she bought was a pastel, La Repetition de Ballett, and it cost her 500 francs (about $100 US) which was almost her week’s stipend. In 1965 her grandson George Frelinghuysen sold it for $410,000! After that first foray into the world of a buyer of artworks, Louisine and Mary Cassatt made many more art purchases and the pair of art lovers travelled all over Europe together. Louisine was introduced to other aspiring artists such as Monet and Manet. Louisine returned to America in 1880 and concentrated on becoming an art collector. Three years later she married Henry O. Havemeyer of the American Sugar Refining Company. In the years that followed she and her husband built up one of the most important private art collections. When she died Louisine’s most of the art collection went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and yet this work, Baby’s First Caress, did not, as Louisine bequeathed it to her daughter Elektra, who was the wife of the great polo player and member of the Vanderbilt family, James Watson Webb. The painting was then bequeathed to the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut where it is currently housed.

Portrait of Mrs. Havemeyer and Her Daughter Electra by Mary Cassatt (1895)
Portrait of Mrs. Havemeyer and Her Daughter Electra by Mary Cassatt (1895)

In 1895 Cassatt painted a portrait of Louisine and her daughter Electra.

Chateau Beaufresne
Chateau Beaufresne

Although based in her rue de Marignan apartment in Paris in the winter, with the occasional visit to Grasse in Provence if the winter weather was really bad, Mary Cassatt bought herself a summer residence in 1893. It was the Chateau Beaufresne which was situated fifty miles north-west of Paris in the commune of Mesnil-Théribus in the Oise department. She loved her summer home and stayed there 33 years up until 1926, the year she died. Of the country house she once said:

                                     “…I have two loves, my country and Beaufresne !…”

Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby by Mary Cassatt (1902)
Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby by Mary Cassatt (1902)

My final offering is an oil painting by Mary Cassatt which she completed in 1902 and is entitled Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby. It was at Chateau Beaufresne that she completed this mother/daughter work. Reine Lefebvre was a local woman and neighbour and featured in a number of Cassatt’s works between 1902 and 1903 as well as being depicted in a number of preparatory sketches for this finished work. This oil painting of Reine and her baby was the culmination of many sittings and many preparatory sketches. We see the mother with her arms crossed together around the legs of the baby forming a platform for her to sit upon. She wears an orange robe and the simple flecks of white paint give it a polka-dot appearance. The addition of what looks like a red collar or scarf around Reine’s neck cleverly draws our eyes towards the faces of the mother and baby. The artist wants us to concentrate on the faces of her two characters. The lack of any objects in the plain dark background means that we focus purely on mother and baby.

Cassatt’s desire for realism extends to the depiction of the baby, which she has been portrayed as still having a fat stomach, which infants often have during the early days. The baby has wrapped her arms around Reine’s neck. They both focus on a point off-canvas. Reine’s eyes look tired. Once again Cassatt has avoided sentimentality in this work and the mother’s weary look is a true depiction of the tiredness that often goes hand in hand with a mother coping with a young baby. It would have been so simple to portray Reine as a person full of life with a loving smile for her baby but this portrayal of her is a realistic one and one that Cassatt believed was the way to depict a mother with her child. It is an honest portrayal and lacks sentimentality and hype.

In my two blogs featuring the mother/child portrayals by Cassatt I have constantly talked about her determination to avoid sentimentality which was often seen in works by other artists. The writer Joris-Karl Huysman was forthright in his condemnation of such artists who over-sentimentalised mother and child portrayals when he wrote about the way them. He wrote:


“…The bunch of English and French daubers have put them in such stupid and pretentious poses!…”


He went on to acknowledge the realism of Mary Cassatt’s work with its hint of Japonisme, writing:
“…[her works were]… irreproachable pearls

Mary Cassatt’s Mother and Child works. Part 1

Mary Cassatt 1844 - 1926
Mary Cassatt
1844 – 1926

Having just become a grandfather for the third time last week I thought I would look at a painter who depicted mother and child in such a loving way and with breathtaking brilliance.  My featured artist is the American painter Mary Stevenson Cassatt. In my next two blogs I will look at her paintings which feature children or mothers and their children. Despite never having married or having any children herself, she managed to capture, in her works of art, the essence of a mother-child relationship.  These paintings were not sugary idealisations of mother and child but a realistic and natural representation of that great love between the two.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt (1878)
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt (1878)

My first offering is just of a child and it is her oil painting entitled Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.  She completed it in 1878 whilst living in Paris and submitted it for inclusion at that year’s Exposition Universelle, but it was rejected.  She was furious at the rejection as she had been confident about its acceptance having already had some of her works accepted at earlier Salons.  She was scathing of the three-man judging panel and later, in a letter to Ambroise Vollard, the Parisian art dealer, she wrote of her annoyance:

“…It was the portrait of a friend of M. Degas. I had done the child in the armchair and he found it good and advised me on the background and he even worked on it. I sent it to the American section of the big exposition [of 1878], they refused it … I was furious, all the more so since he had worked on it. At that time this appeared new and the jury consisted of three people of which one was a pharmacist ! …”

This rebuff by a jury system, which of course was similar to the way in which artists had paintings accepted for the Salon exhibitions, annoyed Cassatt and this is probably why she became friends with the Impressionist artists (although she and her friend Degas always referred to the group as the Independents) who railed against the Académie and its jurist system of accepting works into the annual Salon exhibitions.  The failure to have the work accepted by the jury was not only a rejection of Cassatt’s efforts but, unknown to them, it was a snub to Degas himself, who had helped her with the painting’s background and the light source we see from the rear windows. He had also supplied the model who was the daughter of one of his friends. It is thought that she exhibited the work two years later, in 1879, at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris, as Portrait de petite fille.

Paris at the time was revelling in the arrival of all things Japanese.  Woodcut prints, fans, clothing and silk screens were all in great demand and Cassatt was an avid collector of these prints.  In this painting we can see the Japanese influence in the way Cassatt has close-cropped all four sides of the work even though it meant having parts of each of the four colourful blue arm cut out of the painting.  The chairs are arranged in such a way that they form a circle around an oddly dull-grey coloured floor.  The upper part of the windows in the background is also cropped.  The only things to avoid this cropping technique are the little girl and her pet griffon dog, which lies lethargically on the adjacent armchair.  I like the way the child is depicted.  Although the setting and the furniture have been carefully “stage-managed”, the girl herself seems to be less “posed”.  The only manipulation of the child would be the clothes she wears which would probably not be her ordinary daytime attire.  Whilst modelling for this painting, she has been made to wear fashionable clothes with a tartan shawl which match her ankle socks.  Her hair has been well groomed and now has a bow in it.  Her shoes are highly polished and the light catches their metallic buckles.  However, it is a realistic pose.  The young girl is slumped in the armchair and she exudes an uninterested demeanour obviously tired of posing for the artist.  She is almost sullen in her deportment as she stares into space.  How many times have we witnessed children slumped in an armchair or a couch complaining they have nothing to do and are bored?   How many times have we looked upon our children in a similar pose and told them to “sit up and look lively”?  This is such a life-like pose and is testament to Cassatt’s observational powers.  The painting is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt (1897)
Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt (1897)

My next offering is Mary Cassatt’s 1897 work entitled Breakfast in Bed which is now housed at the Huntington Library and Art Collection, San Marino, California.  In this oil painting we see a young mother lying in bed, with her arms wrapped around her young child. Is the embrace a sign of motherly love?  Maybe the embrace is to hold her secure from falling off the bed but I am going to hazard a guess that the mother just wants to hold the child still so she does not run off and cause some mischief !   It is interesting to look closely at the faces of the mother and child.  Their expressions are so different.  The mother lies back with her head on the pillow and gives her child a sideways glance.  She looks tired almost as if she is unable to lift her head from the pillow.  It could be that she has returned to bed after making herself a cup of tea and brought her child with her so she doesn’t have to wonder what the lively toddler is up to when out of sight.  The mother’s tired expression tells us that she would just like another thirty minutes of peace and quiet but looking at the child’s expression it will be an unfulfilled aspiration.  In contrast, look at the child.   She is wide awake, her eyes alert as she concentrates on something which is outside the painting.  I am sure she is pondering on her next act of devilment.

 

Mary Cassatt's Modern Woman Mural
Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman Mural

Mary Cassatt left her homeland, America, and had been living in Paris since 1866.  As an artist she did not become famous back in her homeland until 1893 when she was commissioned to paint a mural for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition and Fair at Chicago.  The position of the proposed mural was the tympanum over the entrance to the Gallery of Honour in the Women’s Building.  A tympanum is the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, which is bounded by a lintel and arch.  Her mural, which measured 12ft x 58ft, was in the form of a triptych. The central panel of the triptych was a depiction of an orchard setting and entitled Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science.  The Women’s Building at the exhibition was a showcase of women’s advancement throughout history and Cassatt’s mural was an allegorical work in which we see women picking fruit from trees and handing it down to younger women who were collecting it.

Central panel of triptych
Central panel of triptych

This central panel was meant to symbolise women picking “fruit” from a contemporary “tree of life” and passing it (knowledge) on to a younger generation.  Unfortunately after Exhibition, the Women’s Building was pulled down and Cassatt’s mural was lost but fortunately some black and white photos were taken of the work.

Baby reaching for an Apple by Mary Cassatt (1893)
Baby reaching for an Apple by Mary Cassatt (1893)

So what has all this go to do with my theme of mother and child?  The reason is simple.  My next featured painting by Cassatt was a kind of spin-off from the lost Exhibition mural.  It is entitled Baby Reaching for an Apple and was also completed by Mary in 1893 and now resides in the Virginia Museum, Richmond, Virginia. In the painting we see the mother holding down the branch of the apple tree to allow her young child to reach up and grasp the fruit.  There is a beautiful contrast in colour between the green of the background and the leaves of the tree with the lustrous pink of the mother’s dress, her face and the baby’s body. Note the difference in subdued tonality of the lower part of the mother’s dress with the much brighter pink of the dress that encloses her upper torso and this is reciprocated in the background with the much darker green of the lower half in comparison to the brighter green of the upper background.  Cassatt has obviously spent much time depicting all the apples hanging from the branches.  All are different, all are beautifully painted.  It is a very tender depiction.

Maternal Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)
Maternal Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)

My final offering for this blog is a painting which Mary Cassatt completed in 1891 and is entitled Maternal Caress.  It is a colour drypoint and aquatint on cream laid paper, which is presently housed in The National Gallery of Art in Washington.  It is a small work measuring just 36.8 x 26.8 cm (14.5ins x 10.5ins).  Once again this work harks back to the Japanese influence in her work.  Cassatt had seen the exhibition of Japanese woodcuts, which were on display at the École des Beaux-Arts, and it’s is apparent that she wanted to similarly create prints that captured these somewhat audacious designs. The background wallpaper is an orange-brown with a floral motif, which matches that of the upholstery of the armchair.   Against the wall lies a wooden bed with the white fluffed-up bedding which has a softening effect on the depiction.  The mother and child take centre stage in the painting and Cassatt has spent a lot of time creating the intricate detail of the print of the woman’s dress which gives it a hint of Japonism.

It is not known who modelled for this work but it could have been a friend or relative of hers as she often got them to pose with their children for her paintings.  Once again this is a realistic depiction.  It lacks sentimentality.  There is nothing idealized with the mother/child pose we see before us.  It is, to some extent, simply an awkward hug of a child as he seeks comfort from his mother.  She looks very concerned.  Her eyes are closed as if she could not bear to look at her distraught child.  Her left arm is wrapped tightly around her child hoping that the body to body contact will offer some reassurance to her young charge.  Her right arm supports the bottom of the naked child.  The child desperately throws his or her arms around the neck of the mother desperately seeking reassurance.  This genre of mother/child paintings and prints was very popular at the time and Mary Cassatt sold many prints of this work.

In my next blog I will continue looking at works by Mary Cassatt and her fascination with the Mother and Child theme.

Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. Part 2 – Pedro Américo

In my last blog I talked about my visit to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro and featured one of the great Brazilian artists, Victor Meirelles.  Some would have us believe that he was the greatest Brazilian artist of all times, whilst others would put forward the name of Pedro Américo for that honour.  A number of Américo’s works were on show at the museum so in this blog I want to look at his life and feature some of his paintings I saw as well as look at others, which are on show in other Brazilian cities.

Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello
Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello

Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello was born in April 1843 in the municipality of Areia in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Paraíba.  As far as the art world was concerned he was simply known as Pedro Américo.  He was one of six children of Daniel Edward Figueiredo, a merchant and Feliciana Cime.  He was brought up in an artistic household with his father a keen violinist, who taught him music and drawing and through art books got him interested in the paintings and lives of the Old Masters.  Américo’s biographers all agree that he was an avid learner and soon developed a precocious talent for drawing. As far as drawing was concerned he was a gifted child and some believed he was a child prodigy.  His amazing artistic ability soon became common knowledge in Rio and when, in 1852, a scientific expedition to the north east of Brazi, led by the French naturalist, Louis Jacques Brunet,  arrived in Rio the leader visited Pedro’s home to see his work.  He also tested his draughtsmanship by getting the young boy to copy a few objects.  Brunet was so impressed with the results that he signed him up as an auxiliary draughtsman on his scientific expedition  during which time he would pictorially document the flora, fauna and landscape encountered on the journey.  Pedro Américo had yet to celebrate his tenth birthday but with his father’s blessing, he set off on the twenty-month expedition.

The artistic work he produced was so good that he was awarded a place at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes, but being too young his placement was postponed for a year and as a stop-gap, he attended the Colégio Pedro II in Rio de Janeiro, where he studied Latin, French, Portuguese, arithmetic, drawing and music.  In 1856 he took up his place on a three-year course of Industrial Design at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.  At the academy he honed his skill as a draughtsman and painter and his progress was rapid.  He was an outstanding student and won many medals for his work.

The court of the Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II came to hear about Pedro Américo’s artistic talent and the emperor, who was a great art lover and patron of the arts, was amazed by his artistic skill and before Pedro had completed his studies the Emperor had arranged to finance a European scholarship for him. Pedro accepted the travel scholarship, the terms of which were, in return for a three-year funding, he would attend the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts, conform to the rigid disciplines of the Academy and regularly send back works he had completed, such as life studies and copies of the paintings of the Old Masters, so that it could be verified that he had been hard working and that he was progressing with his art.  Going to Europe and attending the Académie was the greatest gift an artist could receive.

Pedro Américo arrived in Paris in May 1859 and aged just sixteen enrolled at the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  It was at this prestigious school of art that he was taught by the great French painters of the time, such as the neo-classical historical painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hippolyte Flandrin and the battle painter Horace Vernet.  Not satisfied with just improving his art he also wanted to expand his knowledge with regards other subjects.  He availed himself of the opportunity to study physics at the Paris Institute of Physics and he also attended the University of the Sorbonne.  Here he studied architecture, theology, literature and philosophy, with tutors in these fields such as the French philosopher, Victor Cousin and the French physiologist, Claude Bernard. Pedro Américo took advantage of the opportunity of attending lectures on physics by Michael Faraday and on archaeology by Charles Ernest Beule.  Besides his artistic talent, one must never overlook Pedro Américo’s all-round intelligence.   His essay Refutation of the Life of Jesus by Renan won him the decoration of the papal order of the Holy Sepulchre.   He gained a bachelor’s degree in natural science from the Sorbonne, with his thesis Considerações Filosóficas sobre as Belas Artes entre os Antigos (Philosophical Considerations on the Fine Arts among the Ancients).

A Carioca by Pedro Américo (1882)
A Carioca by Pedro Américo (1882)

During his time at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, he won a number of prizes for his works of art.  One of the paintings Pedro Américo completed, around 1863, whilst studying at the Académie and which he sent back home for inclusion in the seventeenth General Exhibition, held at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio, was entitled A Carioca.   Carioca is a Brazilian word that is used to refer to the native inhabitants of the city of Rio de Janeiro.  It was a painting of a nude woman who was to symbolize the Brazilian indigenous population.  It was painted in a classical style, and could well have been influenced by Turkish Bath, a painting which his former tutor, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, which he had completed a year earlier.  With this work Pedro had probably aimed to turn the classical theme of a nymph from Greek mythology into a Brazilian theme.  The work received a Gold medal and Pedro decided that he would give the painting to the Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who had agreed to fund his training in Europe.  His gift however was not well received by the court officials who were shocked by the full frontal nudity and they considered the painting to be shockingly immoral and not fit for the walls of the palace.   The painting was returned to Pedro Américo, who had by then moved to  Florence.  The painting was eventually sold to Emperor Wilhelm of Prussia.   In 1882, almost twenty years later, Pedro Américo painted another version of the work, which he completed in 1882, and which is shown above.  This work is housed at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio.

Moses and Jochebed by Pedro Américo (1884)
Moses and Jochebed by Pedro Américo (1884)

Another of his paintings in a classical style was one he completed in 1884, which is entitled Moisés e Jocabed (Moses and Jochebed).   The painting is based on the Old Testament story of Jochebed, who was the mother of Moses and her dilemma regarding the news that the Egyptian Pharaoh, being afraid that the Jews in his country would one day join a foreign army and rise up against the Egyptians, ordered all male Hebrew babies to be killed.  Jochebed had just given birth to a son, Moses, whom she believed was going to be murdered, and so took a basket and coated the bottom with tar, to make it waterproof. Then she put the baby in it and set it among the reeds on the bank of the River Nile.  The story goes on to tell that at that same time, the Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing in the river and one of her maidservants saw the basket and brought it to her.  In the painting we see mother standing by the river with her baby, agonizing over decision.

After time spent in Italy, Pedro Américo returned to Rio in 1864 and took up the post as the Chair of Drawing at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.   However the following year he had once again left Brazil and was to be found in Europe.  This time he had set up home in Brussels and attended the University where he gained a Doctorate of Science in 1868.

The Emperor's speech (Pedro II of Brazil in the oppening of the General Assembly) by Pedro Américo (1872)
The Emperor’s speech (Pedro II of Brazil in the oppening of the General Assembly) by Pedro Américo (1872)

The following year Pedro Américo set off to return to Brazil but made a stop-over in Lisbon where he stayed at the home of one of his former tutors, Manuel de Araujo Porto Alegre.  A year on, Pedro was still in Lisbon and was now married to his host’s daughter, Carlota.  The couple went on to have two children, a daughter Carlota and a son, Eduardo.  The couple returned to Rio in 1870, where he once again gave lectures at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.  The subject of his lectures included aesthetics, archaeology and the history of art.  As another way of earning money he also provided caricatures for the satirical magazine, A Comédia Social (The Social Comedy).  He  completed a number of portraiture commissions including one of Emperor Dom Pedro II completed in 1872, entitled, Speech from the Throne.

Batalha de Campo Grande by Pedro Américo (1871)
Batalha de Campo Grande by Pedro Américo (1871)

He continued to paint historical works including the large painting (332cms x 550cms) Batalha de Campo Grande in 1871 which is housed in the Imperial Museum at Petrópolis, a city, north west of Rio.    The Emperor and his government were so pleased with the finished work that they made Pedro Américo Pintor Histórico da Real Câmara (Historical Painter of the Royal Chamber) and this led to him being commissioned to paint a historical work depicting a battle scene.  The battle scene he chose to depict was one which took place close to the River Avai and was a battle between the Triple Alliance forces (Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina) and those of Paraguay.  His fellow artist Victor Meirelles had been commissioned, at the same time, to paint another scene from this six-year long war (Battle of Guararapes) – see my previous blog.

Battle of Avaí by Pedro Américo (1877)
Battle of Avaí by Pedro Américo (1877)

Pedro Américo accepted the commission but decided that he needed time away from his homeland in order to concentrate on the commission.  He and his wife left Brazil and travelled to Florence.  The Italian government provided him with a studio in a room at the Convent of the Santissima Annunziata, and it was here he remained for three years whilst he concentrated on the monumental historical work.  Pedro Américo completed the war scene which was entitled Battle of Avai in 1877 and it was exhibited in the Italian city in the presence of the Brazilian emperor, Pedro II.  The painting was then shipped to Rio de Janeiro where it was exhibited at the Exposicao Geral de Belas Artes the annual exhibition of the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.   The exhibited work met with mixed reviews.  Most loved it and were in awe of its size but there were a few detractors who accused Pedro Américo of plagiarism as they believed the work was too similar to a battle scene depiction entitled Battle of Montebelo.  Notwithstanding the adverse comments, Pedro Américo’s battle scene is an amazing work of art.  This monumental painting measures 600cms x 1100cms (almost 20ft high and 36ft wide).  It is a monster of a painting, full of detail and one’s eyes dart from place to place on the canvas to try and take in all the details.

The two war paintings on display at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.
The two war paintings on display at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.

Standing in the long room at the museum one can see the two monumental paintings depicting battles during the Paraguayan War by Victor Meirelles and Pedro Américo almost side by side.  It is an amazing spectacle.

David and Abishag by Pedro Américo (1879)
David and Abishag by Pedro Américo (1879)

In 1879 Pedro Américo completed another painting based on an Old Testament story.  It was about the elderly King David.  In the book of 1 Kings verse 1-4,  it is written:

“…When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his attendants said to him, “Let us look for a young virgin to serve the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.”

Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful young woman and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The woman was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no sexual relations with her…”

In November 1889, Dom Pedro II’s reign came to an end with a military coup.  The Empire was dead and from the ashes of the Empire rose the Republic of Brazil.  It was a time of reform.  It was a time when those who had been close to the Emperor were ostracised as a  consequences of such an association.  Like my previous featured artist, Victor Meirelles, who like Pedro Américo had been a favourite of the Emperor and closely associated with the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, he was dismissed from his post.  Later however Pedro was elected a member of parliament for Paraíba but due to the onset of ill health rarely attended meetings. For health reasons he left Rio in 1894 and returned to Florence where he lived out his days and as well as painting found time to write two novels.  He died in October 1905 aged 62.

Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes, Part 1 – Victor Meirelles

MUSEU NACIONAL DE BELAS ARTES Rio de Janeiro
MUSEU NACIONAL DE BELAS ARTES
Rio de Janeiro

Ten days ago I had a holiday in search of some sun and hot weather and arrived in Rio.   Besides the usual things to do like swim in the sea, visit Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer and take cable car journeys to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain I went to the main art gallery in the city, Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes.  One travel book said it held 18,000 works of art and sculpture whilst another put the figure at 20,000.  Drawn in by those figures and having little or no knowledge about Brazilian art it was a destination I did not want to miss.  The building housing this vast collection was in the centre of the city and when we walked in we were told the collection was on the second and third floor.  Whether I am not good at counting but I would estimate the total number of artworks to be about 500 with about 200 sculptures so what happened to the others?  There was room after room of empty white walls so maybe there was once a large collection but it has now disappeared.  I am sure somebody will tell me where they all went.  Before I show you some of the fine works which were on display I have another complaint!  How many art galleries have you been to that have no shop or café?  Well this was a first for me.  I so wanted to buy some catalogues to find out about the works which were on display so I asked about the whereabouts of the shop only to be told that unfortunately there wasn’t one….unbelievable !!!!

In my next couple of blogs I am going to put those disappointments behind me and concentrate on what was good about the museum.  There were many beautiful paintings on display including two monumental historical works by two different Brazilian painters, which were displayed along one wall of a very long room.   The first work was by Victor Meirelles and was entitled Battle of Guararapes which he completed in 1879.  It measured 494cms x 923cms and the other, which was even bigger was entitled, Battle of Avaí and was by the Brazilian artist Pedro Américo.  This one measured 600cms x 1100cms.  However today I want to concentrate on the art work of Victor Meirelles.

Victor Meirelles
Victor Meirelles

Victor Meirelles de Lima was born in August 1832 in Nossa Senhora do Desterro, which is now known as Florianópolis, a town on the island of Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil.  His parents, Antonio Meirelles de Lima and Maria da Conceição, were impoverished Portuguese immigrants.

He showed an early talent for art and in 1849, aged 17, he attended the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro.  It was here that he specialised in genre and historical painting. This Academy was founded by the then present ruler of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves, Don João VI, around 1816.  It was the main official institution of Brazilian academic art.  It had come to fruition with the arrival of the Missão Artistica Francesca (French Artistic Mission), which arrived in Brazil in 1816 and had suggested the creation of an art academy which would be modelled on the French Académie des Beaux-Arts.  It, like its French counterpart, would have graduation courses both for artists and craftsmen for such diverse activities modelling, decorating and carpentry.  The leader of the mission and the instigator of this plan was Joachim Lebreton who had fallen foul of the post-French revolutionary leaders and had sort exile in Brazil.  Like the French Academy the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio awarded as a prize to the best artists a travel scholarship.

Saint John the Baptist in Prison by Victor Meirelles (1852)
Saint John the Baptist in Prison by Victor Meirelles (1852)

Victor Meirelles was a brilliant scholar and in 1852 won the travel scholarship to Europe with his painting São João Batista no Cárcere (St. John the Baptist in Prison) and in June 1853 he set off on his artistic journey.  His first port of call was Le Havre and then after a brief stay in Paris headed to Rome.

His initial studies were at the Piazza Venezia studio of the Italian painter and author of books on art theory, Tommaso Minardi but Meirelles found his tuition too dogmatic and he felt artistically constrained and felt that he lacked the prospect of developing his own artistic ideas.   He then moved to the studio of Nicola Consonni  who was a member of Rome’s Guild of St. Luke.  Again Meirelles found his mentor too strict but the one thing he did gain was the opportunity to improve his life drawing skills as Consonni gave his students drawing sessions with live models.  The ability to master the art of figure drawing was a prerequisite to becoming a talented historical painter.  Meirelles left Rome and moved to Florence where the museums were overflowing with the works of the great Italian Masters such as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese and he spent much of his time copying their works. One of the stipulations of the Travel Prize was that he would regularly send back to Rio work he had completed as proof of his artistic progress and this he had done during his three-year European stay.  The Brazilian government was so impressed with the work they received, that they granted him a further three year scholarship in Europe.

In 1856, Meirelles moved from Florence to Milan and then on to Paris where he studied at the ateliers of the French historical painter and portraitist, Léon Cogniet and the Paris-based Italian historical painter, André Gastaldi.  Meirelles was a dedicated student whose whole life was devoted to learning about art and when his extended scholarship came to an end the Brazilian government on seeing the work he had sent to them agreed to a further two year scholarship extension.  They were well aware that Meirelles was going to become one of Brazil’s finest painters.

First Mass in Brazil by Victor Meirelles (1861)
First Mass in Brazil by Victor Meirelles (1861)

It was during this final scholarship extension that Meirelles painted his most famous work, Primeira Missa no Brasil,  (The First Mass in Brazil), which was exhibited at the 1861 Paris Salon. In fact it was the first work by a Brazilian artist to appear at the Salon.  It is now housed at the art museum in Rio.  The painting depicts the official historic version of the discovery of Brazil as a heroic and peaceful event, celebrated in harmony by colonists and native Indians.  Meirelles had based his depiction on some resources he found about the Brazilian Indian at the Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris.   In the work we see the monk Henrique de Coimbra celebrating mass on April 26, 1500. The painting made Meirelles’s name and has illustrated many history books, stamps, bank notes, catalogues and magazines.  It is such an iconic work and is probably the best known painting in Brazil.

Dom Pedro II by Victor Meirelles (1864)
Dom Pedro II by Victor Meirelles (1864)

Following his artistic success with his painting, Meirelles returned to Brazil in 1861 as an artistic hero because of  this painting.  He was awarded the Imperial Ordem da Rosa (Knight of the Order of the Rose) by Emperor Dom Pedro II and he became one of the Emperor’s favourite painters, and in 1864 he completed a portrait of the Emperor.

Moema by Victor Meirelles (1866)
Moema by Victor Meirelles (1866)

He was appointed Honorary Professor of the Academy, and shortly after promoted to Acting Teacher of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro.   He continued painting important historical works, which for many Brazilians pictorially recounted their history. In his 1866 work entitled Moema he highlighted the sad plight of the Brazilian indigenous population and their clashes with the Dutch and Portuguese colonists.  It was a work of art which was known as Indianism which was the term used which refers to the idealisation of the indigenous people of Brazil,d who were sometimes portrayed as mythical national heroes.  In nineteenth century Brazilian literature the indigenous people of the country were chosen to represent the new nation.  Indianism was a form of Romanticism in Brazilian art.

Battle of Guararapes by Victor Meirelles (1879)
Battle of Guararapes by Victor Meirelles (1879)

In 1875 Meirelles was commissioned to produce a historical work based on a seventeenth century battle between the Dutch colonizers and the Portugeuse/Brazilian army.  He went to the area where the conflict had occurred in order to produce a topographical accurate background and began making preliminary sketches for his monumental historical work which became known as Batalha de Guararapes (Battle of Guararapes).  Meirelles completed the work four years later. It was a depiction of the First Battle of Guararapes which took place in 1648 in the Guararapes Hills in the north-east of the country and was part of the Pemambucana Insurrection between the Dutch army who had colonized much of the area and the Portuguese army.  However it was not the Portuguese army per se as the forces fighting the Dutch colonizing army were in fact considered the origin of the Brazilian Army, because it was the first time where whites, blacks and Indians joined forces to fight for Brazil, their land, instead of fighting for Portugal.

The painting had a surface area of 45 square metres, measuring 494cms x 923cms.  I stood before this work and marvelled at the detail that went into it.   It really is an awesome work of art.

Naval Battle of Riachuelo"by Victor Meirelles (1883)
Naval Battle of Riachuelo by Victor Meirelles (1883)

Being known as a strong supporter of the Empire and because of his loyalty to the national cause, Meirelles was also commissioned in 1868 by the Brazilian government to create an historical work which featured Brazil’s crucial naval victory during its war with Paraguay.  The Battle of Riachuelo took place on the Paraná River in June 1865 and it was a turning point in the war between Paraguay and the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.  The war which had begun in 1864 lasted six years.  Meirelles travelled to the region of the conflict so as to gather impressions of the landscape and the military environment. He installed a workshop on the ship Brazil, which was the flagship of the Brazilian fleet, and remained on board for six months preparing sketches for the painting.

Everything was going well for Meirelles until on November 15, 1889, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca headed a military coup which led to the downfall and exile of the sixty-eight year old Emperor Dom Pedro II .  The Empire had fallen and was replaced by a Republic.  As was the case with many French artists who had connections with the family of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, they too quickly fell out of favour with the onset of the French Revolution.  Whereas When Emperor Dom Pedro was ruler of Brazil his patronage of Victor Meirelles was a boon to the artist but when the Emperor was deposed artists connected with the Emperor and the court were cut adrift.  Meirelles also lost his position at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, the spurious reason for his sacking was that he was too old.  He was just fifty-seven years of age.  Victor Meirelles de Lima died in Rio de Janeiro on February 23rd 1903 aged 70.  It was a Sunday morning and the Carnival was in full swing but few mourned the passing of the once iconic artist.

Victor Meirelles Museum, Florianapolis
Victor Meirelles Museum, Florianapolis

Today, besides his work which is on display at the Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes in Rio de Janeiro, there is a museum dedicated to him and his work in his birthplace, Florianapolis.  The museum is in a house, built of stone masonry, bricks and stucco, fences which have openings with a wooden roof with tiles. It was acquired by the Union in 1947 and National Heritage and National Art in 1950  The works of Meirelles are exhibited on the upper floor whilst the ground floor contains works by contemporary artists.  The mission of the Victor Meirelles Museum, set in its Museum Plan, is set out as:

“…To preserve, research, and the life and work of Victor Meirelles, and disseminate, promote and preserve the historical, artistic and cultural society, and also stimulate reflection and experimentation in the arts, heritage and contemporary thought, contributing to the expansion of access to the most different cultural events and for training and exercise of citizenship…”

It is good that the country that once hailed Meirelles as an iconic artist and then abandoned him have finally realised the contribution he made to the history and life of Brazil.

Seymour Joseph Guy

At the Opera by Seymour Joseph Guy (1887)
At the Opera by Seymour Joseph Guy (1887)

I was looking at the website of a person who had commented on one of my blogs and I was fascinated by a painting he had posted.  I had to find out more about it and the artist who had painted it.  The title of the work is At the Opera and the creator of the work was the nineteenth century English-born,  American genre painter, Seymour Joseph Guy.  Genre paintings are works, which depict one or more persons going about their every day life.  They could be scenes in the kitchen, at the market or in a tavern and they are nearly always realistic depictions, lacking any sense of idealisation.  They are “warts and all” depictions of life.  Seymour Joseph Guy’s later works, which were often quite small “cabinet pieces”, concentrated mainly on depictions of children.  His works were meticulous in detail.

 Seymour Joseph Guy was born in 1824 in England, in the south London borough of Greenwich.   His father was Frederick Bennett Guy who owned an inn as well as a number of commercial properties.   His mother was Jane Delver Wilson.  Seymour had an elder brother, Frederick Bennett Guy Jnr. and a younger brother, Charles Henry.  When Seymour was five years old, his mother died and he and his brothers were brought up by their father.  Four years later their father died and the executors of their late father’s will were John Locke who was the owner of the inn called the Spanish Galleon and a local cheese merchant and friend of Seymour’s father, John Hughes.   It is the thought that the three orphaned boys came under the legal guardianship of one of these gentlemen.  Seymour’s schooling was at a local school in Surrey and it was during these early informative years that he took an interest in art and he liked to spend time drawing dogs and horses.   He enjoyed drawing so much that, when he was thirteen years old, he made it known that he would like to become an artist, or maybe a civil engineer.  This choice of career did not go down well with his guardian who actively discouraged the teenager, going as far as stopping his pocket money so he couldn’t buy any pencils and sketchbooks and that he believed would force his charge to abandon his artistic plans.  Seymour was not to be put off and despite his lack of pocket money; he managed to earn enough to buy his own drawing materials by becoming a part time sign-painter.

Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes by Seymour Joseph Guy (c.1863)
Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes by Seymour Joseph Guy (c.1863)

Seymour Guy continued with his ambition to become a painter and in his late teenage years received some artistic tuition from Thomas Butterworth.  Butterworth, who had served as a seaman in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars period, lived in Greenwich and was a marine painter.  His guardian decided that a good career for Seymour, and in line with his artistic ambitions, would be to become an engraver.  However the cost of an apprenticeship to learn the engraving trade was prohibitive and this proposed profession had to be abandoned and instead his guardian arranged for Seymour to begin a seven-year apprenticeship at an oil and colour firm which oversaw the making of pigments, preparing binders, as well as combining the two skills in order to make paint either by hand-grinding them or using a steam driven machine.   This was a valuable experience for Seymour as he learnt the intricacies and expertise of mixing various pigments which he would himself use in the future for his own paintings.

In 1845 Seymour’s legal guardian died. It was also a time, when having reached the age of twenty-one, the brothers’ late father’s estate was split between them.  In Seymour’s case this also coincided with the end of his seven-year apprenticeship at the colour factory.    Seymour Guy was twenty-one years of age and now had sufficient money to pursue his dream of becoming a professional painter.  A friend offered to sponsor him to enable his entrance to the Royal Academy but instead he decided to work on his own and so he obtained a copying permit and took his easel and brushes to the British Museum where he copied some of the works of art.  Understanding that working alone was not the answer to learning about art he also enrolled at the studio of the portrait and historical painter, Ambrosini Jerome, who had received a number of commissions from the English royal family.  Seymour Guy was to work with Jerome for the next four years.

The Crossing Sweeper by Seymour Joseph Guy (c.1860's)
The Crossing Sweeper by Seymour Joseph Guy (c.1860’s)

In 1852, aged twenty-eight, Seymour married Anna Maria Barber, who was the daughter of William Barber, an engraver.  The couple went on to have nine children, many of whom were used by Seymour as models for his genre paintings.  Two years later in 1854, Seymour moved his family from London to New York and settled in Brooklyn.  Here he set up his studio in Brooklyn Heights, played a leading role in the art life of the city and founded the Sketch Club and it was during these early times in Brooklyn that he met and became a close friend of another genre painter, John George Brown.  Brown who was also English-born had left his home in Durham and immigrated to America in 1853.  This close bond of friendship probably stemmed from them both being English born, and both genre painters who liked to concentrate on small-scale works which gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their intricate minute workmanship.   In those early days in Brooklyn Seymour Guy also completed a number of portraits of leading local figures.

In 1861, the two friends, Seymour Guy and John Brown, decided to move their studios from Brooklyn to the more fashionable Manhattan.  Seymour Guy had his studio on Broadway whilst John Brown moved into the Tenth Street Studio Building. Two years later Guy decided to leave his Broadway studio and move into the Tenth Street Studio Building.  The Tenth Street Building, which was on 51 West 10th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, was constructed in 1857 and was the first modern facility designed exclusively to the needs of artists.  Soon it became the hub of the New York art world and would remain so for the rest of the nineteenth century.  It was to be the home for many famous American artists including Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, William Merritt Chase and Albert Bierstadt.

Summer Issue by Seymour Joseph Guy (1861)
Summer Issue by Seymour Joseph Guy (1861)

The genre work of John Brown with its depiction of young children in rural settings influenced Seymour Guy for around about 1861 he too started to produce similar depictions. Around this time, the two artists made a number of ferry trips across the East River,  to escape the manic setting of the big city, to the tranquil setting of Fort Lee in New Jersey.  The two artists liked the peace and quiet so much that they decided to quit Manhattan and move home to the New Jersey countryside.  Brown went in 1864 and Seymour Guy followed with his family two years later.  Seymour Guy and his family lived the quiet existence in the country for seven years until in 1873 when they moved back to Manhattan where they remained for the rest of their life.

Seymour Joseph Guy died in 1910, aged 86, by which time his art was out of vogue and he was almost completely forgotten as an artist.   During that first decade of the twentieth century Guy’s health had begun to fail and his role as an artist seemed simply to have acted as an elder statesman to younger artists who sought out his vast knowledge about the art and the craft of painting. One of the most complimentary eulogies to him following his death appeared in the Century Association’s annual journal, which stated:

“…He is remembered with deep affection by artists who came to him as to an older man of recognized position. He was most genial, cordial, and ready to place himself and the methods of his art at their disposal, rejoicing in their companionship and keeping himself young through participation in their pursuits. For twenty-two years he was of the rare artistic fellowship of The Century, though of late years, through the infirmities of age, seldom here…”

The Contest for the Bouquet.  The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room  by Seymour Joseph Guy (1866)
The Contest for the Bouquet. The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room by Seymour Joseph Guy (1866)

In 1866 Seymour Guy completed a painting entitled The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room, which is a combination of a group portrait and a genre work.  It is a conversation piece sometimes referred to as a narrative painting.  Seymour had received the commission from the head of the family, Robert Gordon, a British-born financier and an avid collector of American art, who was also a founding trustee of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The commission was for the portrait of Gordon’s wife, Frances, and four of their children.  In this charming family portrayal we see the three older children of Robert Gordon playfully fighting to gain hold of a small floral corsage.  The elder boy, who is by far the tallest, holds the flowers aloft out of the reach of his sister whilst his brother stands on a chair to help him reach the “prize”.   To the right we can see the youngest child sitting on her mother’s lap, clinging to her, in order to avoid her three siblings.  The setting is the family dining room and appears to be around breakfast time as the three older children are already dressed in their school clothes.

The Story of Golden Locks by Seymour Joseph Guy
The Story of Golden Locks by Seymour Joseph Guy

The final two paintings I am featuring were set in the same room.  The painting The Story of Golden Locks by Seymour Guy was completed around 1870 and in it we see a young girl reading the story of Goldilocks to two young boys, probably her brothers.  The storyteller is very animated and for the two young listeners it has probably turned the story telling into a somewhat nightmarish tale.  Look at their faces.  They are wide-eyed, unsure whether they want to hear more.  Maybe the frightening shadow of the girl’s head on the curtain above their bed has added to their trepidation.  On the chair next to the bed is the girl’s doll which lies in a drawer and this is thought to allude to the fact that the storyteller has finished with children’s toys and is transitioning between childhood and womanhood.

Making a Train by Seymour Joseph Guy (1867)
Making a Train by Seymour Joseph Guy (1867)

My final selected work by Seymour Guy was completed in 1867 and is entitled Making a Train.  There is an innocence about this painting although I am sure its content, the semi-nudity of a female child, would be criticised as being too salacious if it had been exhibited now.  In the same attic room as the setting for the previous work we see a young girl standing by her bed with a dress which has been lowered so that it drags along the ground like the train of a ball gown.  She looks over her shoulder to see the finished effect.   The painting is lit up by the light from an oil lamp which sits on a book on a wooden chair, to the right of the picture.  Once again Guy is depicting this young girl as moving from childhood to womanhood.  In the cabinet to the left of the picture we see a doll which has been put away.  This is the end of the era of playing with toys.  Now the interest is in fine clothing.  Her small breasts are both an evocation of her child-like innocence but also the start of her journey towards being a young woman.  In an era when realist painters liked to portray children as often sickly, dirty and poor street urchins many would have found favour with this work which depicts the young, clean, and healthy girl enjoying dressing-up.  It is thought that Seymour Guy’s daughter Anna modelled for this work.

For a further and much more detailed look at the life of Seymour Joseph Guy have a look at the website below, from which I got most of my information:

http://www.themagazineantiques.com/articles/seymour-joseph-guy/