Georgia O’Keefe. Part 2 – Alfred Stieglitz, Lake George and New York Skyscrapers

Georgia O'Keefe (c. 1920)
Georgia O’Keefe (c. 1920)

Georgia O’Keefe’s annoyance at the high-handed attitude of Alfred Stieglitz in exhibiting ten of her charcoal abstract works in his gallery alongside other artists’ paintings, without her permission, in May 1916 soon cooled off and maybe Stieglitz decided to make amends by offering Georgia a solo exhibition at his gallery. She agreed and in April 1917 she had her first solo show. It was the final exhibition at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery as shortly afterwards it closed.

Evening Star by Georgia O'Keefe (1917)
Evening Star by Georgia O’Keefe (1917)

Georgia had initially been completing works in black and white insisting that colour would detract from the work itself. However for this solo exhibition she submitted oil paintings and watercolours which she had been working on whilst living in Texas. As far as the use of colour was concerned she admitted:

“…I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other ways – things I had no words for…”

Georgia had been living in Canyon, Texas, a small town south of Amarillo and in the autumn of 1916 she had taken up a post as head of the art department at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) and remained there until February 1918. The rugged area around Canyon such as the Palo Duro Canyon fascinated O’Keefe and she visited there many times gaining inspiration for her paintings. She would spend hours witnessing the bright and shimmering sunrises and flaming sunsets and it could have been this explosion of colour that changed her mind about restricting herself to black and white drawings

Sunrise by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
Sunrise by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz although living thousands of miles apart corresponded regularly and once again fate played a part in the course of her life. In this case fate came in the form of an influenza epidemic which, in 1918, was sweeping across America and which killed around 750,000 people. Georgia was struck down by it in the February and her recovery was slow and prolonged and she eventually had to give up her teaching post. Alfred Stieglitz was very concerned about Georgia’s health and sent his friend and fellow photographer Paul Strand to Texas to try and persuade Georgia to leave Texas and come to New York where he would support her health-wise and financially. She acquiesced and although still very ill arrived in New York in June 1918 and went to live in a studio which belonged to Stieglitz’s niece. Stieglitz slowly nursed Georgia back to health and during this time the couple fell in love.

Lake George, Autumn by Georgia O'Keefe (1927)
Lake George, Autumn by Georgia O’Keefe (1927)

When she was well enough she went to live with Stieglitz at his Lake George home in upstate New York. It was more than just a house and home; it was a former farm covering thirty-six-acres. It was situated along the western shore, in the southern section of the thirty-mile-long glacial lake, which was popularly known as “the Queen of American lakes”. It was here that she convalesced amongst the peace and tranquillity of the flower-filled meadows and forest areas around his family home. It was here that she would return from the bustling New York city every summer for the next sixteen years. She enjoyed to take long walks through the wooded hillsides, often took on strenuous hikes up Prospect Mountain so as to gain sight of spectacular views of the lake below, a lake on which she also enjoyed to row upon. Georgia had first been introduced to the Lake George area back in 1907, when she was a student at the Art Students League and had received a scholarship to paint in the region. O’Keefe and Stieglitz would spend the winters in their apartment in New York and from April to September or October would live in the large house on the banks of Lake George.

Georgia painting at Lake George (1918)
Georgia painting at Lake George (1918)

However there were many people descending on the property during the summer months. Relatives and friends of Stieglitz and his family were always coming and going throughout the summer months so much so the peace and tranquil life O’Keefe had hankered for was lost. Georgia desperately wanted a calm and quiet time alone to concentrate on her work. The problem was resolved when she persuaded Stieglitz to allow her to use a small wooden farm building which was part of the estate for her own private studio. It was on its own, in a field on a hill above the house. She had found solitude at last where she could shut out everybody and concentrate on her work. Her pleasure at being at Lake George was clear in a letter she wrote in 1923, to her friend, the American novelist and short story writer, Sherwood Anderson:

“…I wish you could see the place here – there is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees – Sometimes I want to tear it all to pieces – it seems so perfect – but it is really lovely – And when the household is in good running order – and I feel free to work it is very nice…”

My Shanty, Lake George by Georgia O'Keefe (1922)
My Shanty, Lake George by Georgia O’Keefe (1922)

Georgia produced a number of works featuring her new summer surroundings and even one, in 1922, of this new” bolt hole”. It was entitled My Shanty, Lake George. It is a simple yet atmospheric depiction of the isolated old farm building which became her summer studio, away from the distractions of the big lake house. In a way it is a reflection of O’Keefe’s desire for solitude. There is a noticeable contrast between the man-made object and nature. The flat geometric depiction of the building is in complete contrast to the curves of the trees and the hills. There is also a great contrast in colour. The sombre dark colours of the building itself is in contrast with the softer pinks and oranges used for the wildflowers and the greens of the grass in the foreground. The darkness of the shanty is however vividly lightened by the intense white window frame and mullion and they serve as the paintings focal point. In the background we can see blue-black sweep of the hills, above which are dark storm clouds.

Georgia O’Keefe painted many pictures featuring Lake George. As far as the composition is concerned they were often very similar. The top third of the painting was dedicated to the mountains. The middle ground of the work was a depiction of the lake and in the foreground were the trees.

Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape) by Georgia O'Keefe (1922)
Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape) by Georgia O’Keefe (1922)

However in the case of her 1922 painting, Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape) the well tried composition changed and the shoreline of the lake disappears and the work almost becomes an abstract one. The colours and tonal quality of this work are so beautiful that if trees had been added to the foreground they would have been a distraction and detracted from the overall depiction.

Emmeline Obermeyer (c.1910)
Emmeline Obermeyer (c.1910)

On face value, this falling in love between Georgia, the artist and Alfred, the photographer and living together in New York and the family home at Lake George seems an idyllic situation but there was one problem, one major problem – Stieglitz was already married! In November 1893, after a great deal of pressure from his family who wanted to see him settle down with a wife, Alfred Stieglitz had married Emmeline Obermeyer. He had known her for a number of years and she was the sister of his close friend and business associate Joe Obermeyer. It was not a marriage based on love. They were an oddly matched couple and in his book, The Love Lives of the Artists: Five Stories of Creative Intimacy, Daniel Bullen writes about this mismatch:

“…Stieglitz was twenty-nine – and she had always been sheltered by her family’s considerable brewery wealth, so they were incompatible from the beginning. Stieglitz had already lived with a prostitute, and Emmy was not his choice of wife. She had not met him on artistic grounds, and she refused to pose nude for him: by various accounts, they did not consummate their marriage for between one and four years…”

As far as Emmy was concerned, it was a case of unrequited love. She loved him. He didn’t love her. Emmy had inherited money from her late father who had run a brewing empire. Could it be that Emmy’s wealth smoothed over Stieglitz unhappiness with the marriage, especially as around this time, his own father had lost a large amount of money on the Stock Market? The marriage was doomed to fail despite the couple having a daughter Kitty in 1898. They had nothing in common. They had no shared interests. Stieglitz soon tired of his wife and they spent long periods of time apart as he carried on with his photographic career, travelling all over Europe. Richard Whelan in his 1995 biography of the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography, wrote that Stieglitz resented her bitterly for not becoming his twin.

Katherine, daughter of Alfred and Emmeline Stieglitz
Katherine, daughter of Alfred and Emmeline Stieglitz

Despite his unhappiness at being trapped in a loveless marriage and his open relationship with O’Keefe, Stieglitz could not extricate himself from his marriage to Emmy until September 1924, six years after he had originally filed for divorce. Alfred and Georgia married in late December 1924. Georgia had been somewhat reluctant to enter into marriage as she saw no point in formalising their relationship as she and Stieglitz had lived together for six years and survived the scandal attached to his extra-marital liaison. The marriage took place at the home of their friend and fellow artist, John Marin.

There was little or no pomp and ceremony to the occasion. Nobody was invited to a reception or help celebrate the marriage. In fact there was no honeymoon following the event. In her 1989 biography of the artist, Georgia O’Keefe, A Life, Roxanna Robinson, quotes O’Keefe as saying that she and Stieglitz married in order to help soothe the troubles of Stieglitz’s daughter Katherine, who at that time was being treated in a sanatorium for depression and hallucinations.

Shelton Hotel by Georgia O'Keefe (1926)
Shelton Hotel by Georgia O’Keefe (1926)

The following year, 1925, Georgia and Stieglitz moved their New York home to the Shelton Hotel in New York, taking an apartment suite on the 28th floor of the new building and it was here and the summer home at Lake George that the couple would spend the next 12 years. One can just imagine how their dual aspect apartment in the hotel, with vistas to the north and south, afforded them spectacular panoramic views of the vibrant city. Georgia began to paint pictures of the city skyscrapers, including the Shelton Hotel itself, the Radiator Building and the Ritz Tower all from a low-level viewpoint.

Radiator Building - Night, New York by Georgia O'Keefe (1927)
Radiator Building – Night, New York by Georgia O’Keefe (1927)

Her depiction of the Radiator Building in 1927, entitled Radiator Building – Night, New York is a haunting study of the magnificent building on West 40th Street, in midtown Manhattan which was completed three years earlier in 1924. The painting depicts a night scene of the building in which the illuminated windows shimmer against the dark of the building and the darkness of the night. To the right of the building we see steam and smoke slowly rising upwards from some ventilation system whilst in the left hand background searchlights scan the night sky and a red neon sign glows in the left background.

This type of painting by Georgia O’Keefe led her to be connected with an informal group of American artists who were inspired by the size and scale of modern American structures, such as bridges and skyscrapers. They were known as Precisionists or Immaculates and it was during the 1920’s and into the early 1930’s that Precisionism blossomed. Sometimes it was referred to as Cubist-Realism.

My next blog, the third part of Georgia O’Keefe’s life story, will focus on her large flower paintings and will explore her relationship with Stieglitz and her decision to live apart from him and head for the desert state of New Mexico which was to influence her later art.

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Georgia O’Keefe. Part 1 – The early years and the “Specials”

Georgia Totto O'Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)
Georgia Totto O’Keefe
photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)

If I was to ask you who was the most quintessential American artist, I wonder whom you would choose. Would you go for one of the nineteenth century Hudson River School artists such as Frederic Church, Asher Durand and Thomas Cole or would you select one of the pioneering and tenacious American female painters who fought hard to gain a foothold in the male dominated world of art, such as Mary Cassatt and Elizabeth Jane Gardner. Perhaps you would decide on one of the great twentieth century painters such as Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper or the folk artist Grandma Moses. Then of course, let us not forget, there is John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler and naturally there are the modern greats of American art such as Rofko, Warhol, Pollock and de Kooning. I suppose it is impossible to single out one from the list of artists who paint in so many different genres. However, for me, the painter who symbolises America is Georgia O’Keefe and in my next blogs I will look at her life and feature some of her best-loved paintings.

The O'Keefe farmhouse. outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin
The O’Keefe farmhouse.
outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, the second of seven children. She was the eldest of five girls and had a younger and elder brother. Her father, who was of Irish descent, was Francis Calyxtus O’Keefe, who ran a successful farmstead on the outskirts of the village of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, along with his wife Ida Ten O’Keefe (née Totto), whose maternal grandfather was a Hungarian count. The farm was spread over 1700 acres of land on which they raised cattle, horses and grew crops. When Georgia was five years of age she attended the small one-roomed South Prairie Town Hall school. She progressed well and she and her siblings were constantly being pushed to learn by their mother, who would read stories to her children and play the piano for them. In fact Georgia went on to play both piano and violin.

At the age of eleven Georgia developed an interest in drawing and painting and so her mother arranged private art tuition for her and two of her sisters, Ida and Anita. Georgia revelled in what she learnt, She then attended the Sacred Heart Academy in nearby Madison as a boarder and in a conversation with a friend and fellow 8th grade pupil she talked about her future dreams:

“…I am going to be an artist!…..I don’t really know where I got my artist idea…I only know that by that time it was definitely settled in my mind…”

The O'Keefe's house in Williamsburg
The O’Keefe’s house in Williamsburg

In 1902 her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia but Georgia, who was fifteen years old, stayed behind for a short time with her aunt. Soon after she re-joined her parents in Peacock Hill, a suburb of Williamsburg and enrolled as a boarder at the private Chatham Episcopal Institute for Girls. She continued to love art and her artistic talent was recognised by all and her fellow students elected her art editor of the school yearbook. In her yearbook was written the telling verse:

“…O is for O’Keefe.

an artist divine.

Her paintings

are perfect and

drawings are fine…”

In 1905, Georgia, now seventeen years of age, graduated from high school and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here that she honed her skills as an artist and studied composition, anatomy and life drawing. Her anatomical drawing class tutor was John Vanderpoel, the Dutch-American artist and teacher, who was best known as an instructor of figure drawing and whose 1907 book, The Human Figure, became a standard art school resource. Georgia O’Keefe excelled at the Academy and all was going well until the summer of the following year when she went home and contracted typhoid and was so ill that she was unable to rejoin the Academy. She had to remain at home to recuperate for more than twelve months.

Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O'Keefe (1908)
Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O’Keefe (1908)

When she finally got her health back in 1907, she decided to resume her art career but instead of returning to Chicago she enrolled at the Arts Student League of New York which was one of the top art colleges of the time. One of her tutors was William Merritt Chase, who was one of the foremost art teachers of his generation. At this institution aspiring young artists were trained in the European tradition, namely, learning to paint portraits and still-lifes. Once again her artistic talent shone through and the following year she won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). Her prize was a scholarship to attend the League’s outdoor summer school at Lake George, in upstate New York, east of the Adirondack Mountains.

In 1908 things changed for Georgia. The Arts Student League of New York wanted to keep to the European tradition of art tuition, copying in the style of the Old Masters. It was a conservative formula and one will never know whether it was this rigid mimetic way of teaching art that disillusioned Georgia, but at the end of her year’s tuition in the autumn of 1908, she decided that she no longer wanted to become a professional artist. Another reason for giving up on her art studies was that her father’s business had collapsed and the family was in need of an extra income and so Georgia gave up her studies and embarked on a career as a commercial artist in Chicago where she spent her time designing adverts and company logos. She did not paint another picture for four years.

Georgia O'Keeffe, aged 30
Georgia O’Keeffe, aged 30

This artistic drought ended in 1912 when she attended a summer course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville where one of the classes was run by Alon Bement of the Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. It was Bement who introduced O’Keefe to the radical thinking of his colleague, Arthur Wesley Dow, the head of the Faculty of Fine Arts at New York’s Columbia University Teachers College. Dow believed in the Modernist approach to art and postulated that rather than just copying nature, art should be created by the various elements of composition such as line, mass and colour. He put his thoughts into words in his 1899 book entitled Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. He summed his thoughts up in the introduction to the second edition of the work which came out in 1912. He wrote:

“…Composition … expresses the idea upon which the method here presented is founded – the “putting together” of lines, masses and colors to make a harmony. … Composition, building up of harmony, is the fundamental process in all the fine arts. … A natural method is of exercises in progressive order, first building up very simple harmonies … Such a method of study includes all kinds of drawing, design and painting. It offers a means of training for the creative artist, the teacher or one who studies art for the sake of culture…”

Georgia O’Keefe who had tired of the mimetic teachings of the academy was enthralled by Dow’s ideas and her love for art was rekindled. In 1912, she moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she had accepted a position as supervisor of art in the city’s public schools. She took up a post in the August of 1912 as an art teacher at City Public School of Amarillo but she returned to the University of Virginia’s to attend the summer course the following year; this time as an assistant to Bement and in the autumn of 1914 she went back to New York and enrolled for two semesters at Columbia University Teachers’ College where she studied under Dow himself. It was around this time that she discovered the work of Arthur Garfield Dove. Dove, an American modernist painter, who has often been labelled as the first American abstract artist. He placed great emphasis on the artist’s subjective experience of his surroundings and on the intrinsic emotional power of colour and line rather than just copying from nature. To Georgia this was not just a revelation but it was the kind of art, which she believed in and it was to influence her art for the rest of her life. For her, it was inspirational, and she happily set off on a new artistic journey. She was excited at the new ideas which flooded her brain and described how she felt:

“…I said to myself ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me – so natural to my way of thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew – to strip away what I had been taught – to accept as true my own thinking……. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown – no one to satisfy but myself…”

You can sense her joy. You can sense her feeling of casting off the shackles of rigid academic teaching. You can sense the elation in the way she saw her future.

Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915
Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915

In September 1915, she accepted a teaching post at Columbia College, South Carolina and it is around this time she begins to experiment with her art, producing a series of amazing cutting-edge charcoal abstract drawings. One such drawing was entitled Drawing XIII which was completed in 1915. In this work we see that the image is sub-divided into three parallel sections. The left hand section has wavy vertical lines which reminds one of a meandering river although some say it is more like a vertical flickering flame reaching upwards. The central part of the work consists of four rounded bulbs which if we continue with our thoughts of nature could then be construed as round top hills. An alternative to this premise is that they are four densely foliated trees. The right hand section comprises of a series of jagged lines which could be a representation of mountains and so in a way this drawing may be a bird’s eye view of a range of mountains and a flowing river with trees separating the two.

Early No. 2 by Georgia O'Keefe (1915)
Early No. 2 by Georgia O’Keefe (1915)

Another of her charcoal works was entitled Early No. 2 which she also completed in 1915. O’Keefe has followed the advice of Arthur Dow and focused on the lines, shapes and tonal values which she, like Dow, believed were the fundamentals of the picture. Her reasoning behind these early drawings being in black and white and devoid of colour was her belief that colour would distract viewers from what she had hoped to create. It was all about curves and geometrical shapes and the clever balance between areas of the work which were light and shaded.

No. 12 Special by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
No. 12 Special by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Georgia O’Keefe was proud of her first foray into this new world of art and she would often refer to these early drawings as “Specials” indicating how much they meant to her. She mailed some of these drawings to her friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had been a Columbia classmate of hers. Pollitzer, who was now a photographer in May 1916, took them to show the internationally reknowned photographer and art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz, who had his gallery, 291, at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York. Stieglitz was impressed with what he saw and described them as:

“…the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered ‘291’ in a long while…”

Special No. 15 by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
Special No. 15 by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Unbeknown to O’Keefe, Stieglitz exhibited her drawings at his gallery alongside works by other artists. When O’Keefe found out about this, she was not best pleased but later forgave him. This initial collaboration between artist and gallery owner was to be a turning point in Georgia O’Keefe’s artistic life.

…………….to be continued.

 

Kristian Zahrtman and Leonora Christina

Kristian Zahrtmann
Kristian Zahrtmann

My blog today is a mixture of art and history. It is about a late nineteenth century Danish painter Kristian Zahrtmann and his fascination with Leonora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV of Denmark and Kirsten Munk. Zahrtmann was a painter, who produced landscapes, street scenes as well as many fine portraits but he was especially known for his history painting and especially paintings which featured legendary, and often tragic, females in Danish history.

Self portrait (1914)
Self portrait (1914)

Peder Henrik Kristian Zahrtmann was born in March 1843 in Rønne, a Baltic Sea town on the west coast of the Danish island of Bornholm. His mother was Laura Pouline Jesperson and his father, Carl Vilhelm Zahrtmann, was a doctor on the island. He was the eldest of nine children, having two sisters and six brothers. On completion of his normal schooling, at the age of seventeen, he left the Rønne Realskole and enrolled at the Sorø Academy on the Danish island of Zealand and it was here that he began to study painting under the tutorship of the Danish landscape painter and drawing master, Hans Hader. He graduated from the Academy in 1862 and a year later received his doctorate.

Following his graduation he went to live in Copenhagen and for the six months of the winter of 1863 he enrolled at the Technical Institute in Copenhagen where he studied drawing and design under the Danish artist, Christian Hetsch and architect Ferdinand Vilhelm Jensen. At the same time, he received private instruction from the genre painter Wenzel Ulrich. A year later he enrolled on a four-year course at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen. He graduated from the Academy in 1868 when he was twenty-five years of age and it was in this year that he first exhibited some of his first work at the Charlottenborg, the palace in which was situated the Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Jammers Minde The hand written autobiography of Leonora Christina
Jammers Minde
The hand written autobiography of Leonora Christina

It was around this time that Zahrtmann became great friends with aspiring Danish painters Otto Haslund and Pietro Krøhn with whom he shared a studio. It was this friendship that in some way was the starting point of this blog about Zahrtmann and the 17th century Danish princess Leonora Christina for it was they who gave Zahrtmann, for his birthday, a copy of Jammers Minde, which literally translated means A Memory of Lament. It was a posthumous autobiography written by Leonora during her twenty-two year solitary incarceration in the Blue Tower in Copenhagen Castle and which was not published until 170 years later, in 1869. So who was Leonora Christina and why was the daughter of the king imprisoned for over two decades of her life?

Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower by Kristian Zahrtmann
Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower by Kristian Zahrtmann

To find the answer to this we need to go back to King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway who succeeded his late father, Frederik II, at the age of eleven and ascended to the throne eight years later. He married his first wife Anne Catherine in 1597, when he was twenty years of age, and the couple went on to have seven children, four of whom died in infancy. Anne Catherine died in 1612 and three years later, in December 1615, Christian IV remarried. His second wife was Kirsten Munk, the daughter of a wealthy court official, who had been living with her family at the royal palace in Copenhagen . Although she was of the nobility, she held no title and so when she married the widowed king, Christian, it was a marriage between people of different social classes and the marriage was termed a morganatic marriage (similar to the present day marriage between Prince William and the “commoner” Kate Middleton). This difference in class between husband and wife could well have been the reason why the wedding ceremony was a private affair and not a full-scale church wedding. Kirsten Munk bore the king twelve children, ten of whom survived infancy, two sons and eight daughters. Leonora Christina was the couple’s fifth child, born in July 1621.

Leonora Christina i Fængselet (Leonora Christina in Prison) by Kristian Zahrtmann (1875)
Leonora Christina i Fængselet (Leonora Christina in Prison) by Kristian Zahrtmann (1875)

Leonora Christina, like four of her sisters, did not marry princes from one of the many European monarchies but instead her father allowed them to marry powerful and wealthy Danish noblemen in an attempt to assure their allegiance to the monarchy. Leonora’s husband, whom she married in 1636 when she was just fifteen years old, was the thirty-eight year old Corfitz Ulfeldt, the son of the Danish chancellor. They had actually been engaged since she was nine years old! Corfitz Ulfeldt held great powers at the royal court but became more and more ambitious and grasping and it was these traits along with some bad political decisions which had him and the king fall out. Christian IV died in February 1648 and it was two months before the king’s second son, Leonora’s half brother, Frederick, from his first marriage, was elected the new King of Denmark and Norway. He became King Frederick III. During that two month transition period Corfitz Ulfeldt, as Steward of the Realm, the country’s de-facto prime minister, virtually ruled Denmark.

Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerard van Honthorst (1647)
Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerard van Honthorst (1647)

Corfitz Ulfeldt’s avarice and naked ambition during his rise to power irritated the new king and a perceived plot against the new monarch by Ulfeldt caused the latter, out of fear for his life, to flee the country with his wife Leonora and their family. Ulfeldt then forged a close alliance with Charles X of Sweden, Denmark’s old enemy, and offered his financial support with money which was thought to have been embezzled from the Danish state. This money was to help Charles facilitate the war against Denmark which began in July 1657. At the end of the conflict in 1658, Sweden had won its most celebrated victory, and for the vanquished, Denmark/Norway, they had suffered a humiliating and costly defeats of all time, having to cede territory to Sweden under the Treaty of Brömseboro. Ulfeldt even took part in these treaty negotiations, during which he took great pleasure in denigrating his former homeland. This, however, was to be his ultimate undoing. Ulfeldt, now feted by the Swedish monarch, once again became too ambitious and fell out with Charles X, who ordered his arrest and was condemned to death. In 1660, Ulfeldt decided that the lesser of two evils was to escape from Sweden with his wife Leonora Christina and return to his homeland, Denmark, and try and make his peace with Frederick III. Frederick was not amused and had the couple imprisoned for a year. Their release came after Ulfeldt paid a hefty fine which saw him and his wife almost reduced to a poverty-stricken existence. Their imprisonment had been both degrading and cruel and once released Ulfeldt plotted his revenge on Frederick. His act of treason against the Danish monarch was discovered and he was condemned to death in absentia. He escaped the jaws of death but died in a Rhine boating accident during one of his flights from impending arrest.

Leonora Christina in the Garden of the Frederisborg Palace by Kristian Zahrtmann (1887)
Leonora Christina in the Garden of the Frederisborg Palace by Kristian Zahrtmann (1887)

So what happened to Leonora Christina? After her and her husband’s release from prison Ulfeldt persuaded Leonora to go to England, seek an audience with Charles II and see if she could recover money he had lent the English monarch. Charles was unwilling to help and had Leonora arrested at Dover on her way back to the Continent. She was eventually hand over to Frederick and the Danish state, which as they still could not find Ulfeldt, instead decided to punish his wife and had her locked away in solitary confinement in the infamous Blue Tower at Copenhagen’s Castle. The conditions in the prison were both degrading and vile. So why was she so severely punished for the wrongdoings of her husband? Throughout her incarceration she blamed her downfall and her imprisonment, not on her half brother, the monarch Frederik, but on his wife Sophie-Amalie and the queen’s desire for revenge. Why this animosity between Leonora and Sophie-Amelie?

Sophie Amalie von Braunschweig-Lüneburg  with a slave by Abraham Wuchters (c.1670)
Sophie Amalie von Braunschweig-Lüneburg with a slave by Abraham Wuchters (c.1670)

Leonora had been her father’s favourite daughter and when her mother, Kirsten Munk, was banished from Copenhagen by her husband for infidelity, Leonora took on the role and power as the First Lady of Denmark. When her father died and Frederick came to the throne things changed. When you are at the pinnacle there is only one direction one can go – down! Frederick married Sophie-Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who became Queen of Denmark and Norway. She and Leonora, who had seen her power usurped by another woman, became bitter enemies and she probably played a leading part in having Leonore incarcerated.

Leonora Christina paa Maribo Kloster (Leonora Christina at Maribo Cloister)  by Kristian Zahrtmann (1883)
Leonora Christina paa Maribo Kloster (Leonora Christina at Maribo Cloister)
by Kristian Zahrtmann (1883)

Leonora Christina’s sworn enemy, Sophie-Amalie died in February 1685 and one of Leonora’s daughters went to the king, Christian V, the son of the late Frederick III and Sophie-Amalie, and begged for the release of her mother. The king agreed and in May 1685 and she went to live at a monastery run by the nuns of the St. Birgitte-order. It was here that Leonora completed her autobiography, Jammers Minde, which she had started to write during her long imprisonment. Leonora Christina died in March 1698 and was buried in the crypt of the monastery which is now the church at Maribo on the Danish island of Lolland. It is believed that some time later her sons had her body removed from the church and laid to rest in a secret location where her husband had been interred. Leonora’s last years in imprisonment improved due to the attitude of the new king Christian V and his wife, the queen-consort, Charlotte-Amelie despite his mother, Sophie-Amelie’s everlasting vindictive nature. In her autobiography Leonora wrote about her indebtedness to the king and queen improved situation:

“…My most gracious hereditary King was gracious enough several times in former years to intercede for me with his royal mother, through the high ministers of the State. Her answer at that time was very hard; she would entitle them “traitors”’ and, “as good as I was, and would point them to the door. All the favours which the King s majesty showed me — the outer apartment, the large window, the money to dispose of for annoyed the Queen Dowager extremely; and she made the Kings majesty feel her displeasure in the most painful manner…”.

Dronning Sophie Amalies død, (The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie)  by Kristian Zahrtmann (1882)
Dronning Sophie Amalies død, (The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie)
by Kristian Zahrtmann (1882)

Zahrtman was fascinated by the book and completed a number of paintings of the way he envisaged Leonora during her captivity and like Leonora, Zahrtmann blamed Sophie-Amalie for Leonora’s downfall and the artist depicted the deathbed scene of Leonora’s nemesis. The state of the dying queen mother and the pain-wracked expression on her face presumably comforted Zahrtmann !

For anybody who would like to read the translation of Leonora’s autobiography I believe there is a Guttenburg e-book available:

 http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/38128?msg=welcome_stranger

Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese

Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese (1573)
Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese (1573)

The 16th century the art scene of Venice was dominated by three artists, Titian, Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Tintoretto and it was these three painters who managed to tender for and win most of the public and religious commissions, which were on offer during that period.  My featured painting today was one of Veronese’s most controversial paintings.   It was intended to be a monumental work depicting the Last Supper but as you will now read that Veronese, three months after its completion, had to hastily change the title of the painting.  The work, which is now entitled Feast at the House of Levi, is a massive work of art measuring 555cms x 1280cms (18’6″ x 42’6″) and was far too big to be included in the recent Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London but I have been fortunate enough to stand in front of this amazing work a few years ago when I visited the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.  It is a truly magnificent painting.

Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice
Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

In 1573, Paolo Veronese, who was at the time forty-five years old, was awarded the commission to paint a depiction of the Last Supper for the rear wall of the refectory of the fourteenth century Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, sometimes known as the pantheon of doges, as twenty-five of them have been buried there. It is one of the largest churches in the city of Venice. The building of this great church started around 1333 but was not completed until November 1430 as the construction was halted on many occasions due to the never-ending plagues that the city suffered during the 14th century.  This painting by Veronese would replace Titian’s painting, The Last Supper, which had been lost in a fire in 1571.  According to the writing on the base of the pillars, to the left and right in the foreground of the painting, the work was completed by Veronese on April 20th 1573.  When I looked at some of the Veronese paintings at the National Gallery exhibition in my previous two blogs, I talked about the artist’s penchant for combining secular depictions in some of his religious works, such as his painting, Supper at Emmaus, and in today’s painting we can see that this theme was once again adopted, much to the horror of the Catholic Church.  So let us look in more detail at this immensely impressive work.

Dog looking at cat which appears under Last Supper table
Dog looking at cat which appears under Last Supper table

In the painting we see a monumental triple-arch background through which one can see more magnificent buildings of Venice cityscape.  This was more than likely inspired by buildings designed by the great Italian architects of the time, Andrea Palladio and Jacopo Sansovino, who designed many of the Venetian buildings in the sixteenth century.   In the foreground of the painting and on either side of the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper, we witness a scene of great merriment, with jesters and blackamoors, along with the nobility of Venice enjoying their own sumptuous feast.  Veronese has simply combined the Last Supper with Christ and his Apostles with a typical Venetian dinner party.  The first thing that strikes you about this work is the large number of figures that have been included in the work, one could say, almost crammed into the work and because the work is somewhat cluttered by human beings, the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper seems almost lost in the melee and this is part of the reason why it did not find favour with the Church.  One realises that the artist must have derived great joy from including all these various figures, all doing different things and for him this maybe what the painting was about and that the Last Supper was just a bi-product of the work.  Maybe we can glean an understanding of Veronese’s modus operandi by his description of his work as an artist when he described what he did, saying:

“I paint and compose figures”

Jester with parrot
Jester with parrot

The Church’s displeasure of the completed work was not just that the depiction of the Last Supper, in the central background of the painting, seems almost to play a secondary and minor role in the work; it was that they were horrified by some of the numerous other characters who populated the work.  Veronese’s inclusion of this assortment of characters into such a famous religious scene was looked upon by the Church as being irreverent, bordering on blasphemous. One has to remember that this period marked the beginning of the Counter Reformation which was the Catholic Church’s attempt to strongly and vociferously oppose the Protestant Reformation and to move towards a re-definition of good Catholic values.  The Church was very wary about anything which could be perceived as mocking the Church and its values.  This counter-reformation movement attempted to elevate the moral and educational standards of the clergy and by so doing enable it to win back areas endangered by Protestantism.  So when Veronese added a plethora of people, some of whom seemed to be drunk, as well as dogs, a cat, midgets, and Huns to the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper at the house of Simon, the elders of the Church were horrified.  Veronese was summoned to appear before the Inquisition on July 18th 1573 which was sitting in the Chapel of S. Teodoro.

One of the first questions posed by his inquisitors was whether he knew why he had been summoned before them.  Veronese replied:

“…I fancy that it concerns what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the prior of the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I did not know, but who informed me that he had been here, and that your Most Illustrious Lordships had ordered him to cause to be placed in the picture a Magdalene instead of the dog; and I answered him that very readily I would do all that was needful for my reputation and for the honour of the picture; but that I did not understand what this figure of the Magdalene could be doing here…”

 The inquisitors were not pacified by his answer and began to question him in more detail.  They asked him why he had included two German soldiers seen on the stairway, standing guard bearing halberds, in the right foreground.  One has to remember it was the German Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestan Reformation fifty-five years earlier and it was he who had been a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church, constantly criticising the ways of the Catholic clergy and the Catholic doctrine.   The Inquisition wanted to know why such frivolous things as a dwarf with a parrot on his arm, a dog which sits before Christ’s table staring at the cat which has appeared under the tablecloth had been included in a deeply religious scene.  Veronese had all the answers ready.  As far as the German soldiers he answered:

German guards with halberds
German guards with halberds

“…We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants…”

The inclusion of the two Germans in the painting was considered by the inquisitors an even greater sin than the other inclusions the inquisitors questioned Veronese again as to their inclusion.

“…Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?…”

Veronese realised he was now on dangerous ground but skilfully replied:

“… I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters…”

Veronese was probably now becoming a little fearful at the way the questioning was going and so decided to go down the line of – if you think I have blasphemed with my painting, what about the much beloved Michelangelo’s work in the Vatican.  Veronese expanded:

“…In Rome, in the Pope’s Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling…”

Other diners

The Inquisitors however would not criticise Michelangelo’s work, merely saying that in the depiction of the Last Judgement, which Veronese was referring to, it was only natural that the people were without clothes and that the work had been inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They then turned on Veronese stating that there was no indication that his work had been so inspired by the Holy Spirit and that he needed to make some changes to it.  They then compared Michelangelo’s work with his and commented:

“…There are neither buffoons, dogs, weapons, nor other absurdities. Do you think, therefore, according to this or that view, that you did well in so painting your picture, and will you try to prove that it is a good and decent thing?..”

A little trickier was the question as to why he would include a jester with a parrot on his wrist in such a “sacred” work.  However, he was not to be browbeaten and simply answered:

“…He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures…”

 Veronese did however agree with his inquisitors that there was only Christ and his twelve apostle present at the table during the Last Supper but forwarded the reason for the inclusion of so many characters.  He said that the painting was to be so large that he had to fill the space with something, saying:

“…when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention…” 

The inquisitors countered Veronese’s argument by asking him whether he thought he had the right to mock the Last Supper by including irreligious figures, such as buffoons, dwarves, a dog, a cat and worst of all Germans.  Veronese replied:

“…No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures…”

The way in which Veronese had depicted the Last Supper seen in the central background was also criticised by the Inquisition.  This was not similar to the portrayal of Last Supper à la Leonardo.  Veronese’s table scene was more of an everyday festive scene and this was not lost on the inquisitors who wanted to know what was going on at the supper table.  They started by questioning Veronese as to who was sitting down with Christ.  He answered:

“…The twelve apostles…”

They then questioned what the person, Saint Peter, on the right hand of Christ was doing.  The artist responded:

“… He is carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other part of the table and Christ holds a plate to see what Saint Peter will give him…”

On questioning what a third person at the table was doing he merely commented:

“…. He is picking his teeth with a fork…”

In a desperate final attempt to justify the inclusion of all the extra people, both normal and strange, he pointed out that such elements that displeased the Inquisition, such as the dog, the dwarf, the blackamoors, the man with the nosebleed, who is seen holding a handkerchief at the left of the picture, were all in the foreground or the sides of the painting, and did not, in any way, form an incursion into the religious depiction of Christ at supper at the centre of the work.

Venetian guest arriving for supper
Venetian guest arriving for supper

With a terrible sense of foreboding the questions came to an end and Veronese awaited his fate. So, it was much to his surprise that at the end of the interrogation Veronese was told that he was a free man.  However as the Inquisition could not accept his argument for adding what they termed “anti-conformist elements” he was given three months to correct the painting at his own expense.  They required him to paint out the dog, and replace it with the Magdalene.  He was also to expunge the German soldiers and it was all to be done within three months. Paolo Veronese, who had feared torture and even death because of his heretical depiction of the Last Supper, couldn’t believe his luck.  So how had he managed to escape the full force of the Inquisition?  Maybe the answer lay in the fact that the Inquisition had much reduced powers in Venice and the inquisitors knew that they could only threaten and not use the brutal methods of torture that was taking place in other countries such as Spain and Italy.  They simply wanted to frighten Veronese in the hope that he would think twice before he again combined secularity with religious scenes.  The Inquisition in Venice was also fully aware that every judgement they made was scrutinised by the Venetian Senate, who were ready to drastically curtail their powers, if they dared to take away the liberty of a Venetian subject and, of course,  Paolo Veronese was one such subject.

Date on column and reference to Luke's Gospel
Date on column and reference to Luke’s Gospel

Veronese never made any of the major changes to his painting that the Inquisition had demanded, but in deference to Ecclesiastical sensibilities and not wishing to push his luck, he added the inscription across the top of the pillars at the head of the staircases, the ones which also showed the date of completion.  The inscription read:

Fecit D.Covi Magnum Levi                       Luca Cap. V

This was in reference to a passage in Luke’s gospel of the New Testament (Luke 5: 27-29):

“…After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.  Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them…”

He then merely changed the title of the work from The Last Supper to Feast at the House of Levi and by doing so was able to retain the dog and removed the need for it to be replaced by a repentant Magdalene prostrating herself on the floor before Christ.  Veronese’s decision not to make the changes pleased both the friars who loved the painting, and for the majority of Venetians who resented Rome’s inquisition.   The painting remained in the refectory of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo until Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops marched into Venice in 1797 and he ordered it be taken back to Paris.   It was returned to Venice a decade later and remained in the church until 1815, at which time it was acquired by the Accademia Galleries in Venice, its current home.

One final thought as to why Veronese would add so many people into a religious scene.   A decade earlier, in 1563, he had completed a similar monumental religious commission for the monks, entitled the Wedding at Cana, which now hangs in the Louvre.  It is interesting to note that it was the monks who had asked him to squeeze as many figures into their painting, as possible.  This was however at a time when the Inquisition and the upholding of Counter-Reformation ideals had yet to reach Venice.

The Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London. Part 2

In art, the hackneyed phrase “size matters” is not relevant as some of the most beautiful works of art are quite small. In my first look at the Veronese exhibition at London’s National Gallery I focused on some of the artist’s monumental works which were on show. In today’s blog I want to look at some of the smaller paintings which were on display at the exhibition.

Mary Magdalen in the Wilderness by Veronese (c. 1585)
Mary Magdalen in the Wilderness by Veronese (c. 1585)

The first painting I want to feature is Veronese’s oil on canvas work entitled Mary Magdalene in the Wilderness which he completed around 1585 and is on loan to the exhibition from a private collection in Genoa. The scene is a cave, bathed in moonlight, which is home to Mary Magdalene. Legend had it that after the death of Christ, his resurrection and finally his ascension into heaven, she, along with her brothers Lazarus and Maximin, fled the Holy Land in a rudder-less boat and one without a sail and landed at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue near the city of Arles. From there she went to Marseille before living for thirty years in a cave in the Saint Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume Mountains. According to legend, during her self-imposed exile, she went on a strict period of fasting and that but for occasional visits by the angels, and the comfort bestowed by celestial visions, she might have died. The only food she received was the Holy Eucharist which was given to her by angels.

In the painting, we see Mary Magdalene leaning back against a shelf as she converses with the angel who has descended to offer her a modicum of comfort. Veronese has retained her youth and beauty despite what would have been her real age. She is depicted as being semi-naked although she attempts to cover up her nakedness with her hair and diaphanous clothing. Her legs are bare and her breast is exposed and this portrayal of her is probably meant to remind us of her previous immoral life. Look at the shelf behind her. On it we can just make out a number of items. There is an alabaster jar which is the traditional attribute of Mary Magdalene, reminding us of the jar of very expensive aromatic oil, pure nard, with which she anointed the feet of Christ. Also on the ledge there is a skull and an hour glass, both Vanitas symbols alluding to the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Propped up against the skull is a crucifix reminding us of the death of Christ which Mary Magdalene witnessed first-hand.

It is thought that the painting, which was purchased around 1736 by the Doria family, was enlarged during the eighteenth century so that it fitted snugly within decorated plasterwork of one of the rooms of their Strada Nuovo palace in Genoa.

The Finding of Moses by Veronese (c.1580)
The Finding of Moses by Veronese (c.1580)

My next featured work is one entitled The Finding of Moses which Veronese completed around 1580 and is part of the Prado collection in Madrid. This small cabinet-sized painting (57cms x 43cms) is another of his religious works and is based on the Old Testament story (Exodus 2:5-6):

“…Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So she had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children’…”

The painting depicts the moment when the Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, and her ladies-in-waiting have plucked the basket, made of bulrushes and pitch, from the reeds on the edge of the Nile River. The basket was the one in which the baby, Moses had been placed by his Hebrew mother, Jochebed, in order to save him from the slaughter of all male Hebrew children ordered by the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Although this obviously a religious work it has secular connotations and this secularising of the work made it one of Veronese’s most popular subjects. He completed many versions of this depiction, some small like this one, others much larger. This painting has combined the pomp and ceremony often seen in secular works with a story from the bible. The Pharoah’s daughter and her royal attendants are lavishly dressed in sumptuous gowns. Bithiah, as the Pharoah’s daughter, is the most lavishly dressed in stunning orange and white damask gown. To her left is one of her attendants, dressed in blue, holding a blanket ready to wrap up the baby who is being cradled by another attendant who can be seen crouching down with Moses in her arms. The background at the left of painting depicts a river flowing through a large town and is crossed by a bridge. This could well be based on city of Verona, which has many bridges straddling the fast-flowing Adige River.

In the left foreground we see one of her black servants holding the basket which had once carried the baby down river. To the right of the painting Veronese has included a dwarf in the company of the women. Dwarves were often present at 16th century European courts and depicted in paintings of the time. It is thought that this version of the painting was commissioned by Marquis and Marchioness della Torre of Veneto. Its emergence in Spain dates to the 1666 inventory of the Alcázar of Madrid.

Portrait of a Lady 'La Bella Nani' by Veronese (c. 1560)
Portrait of a Lady ‘La Bella Nani’ by Veronese (c. 1560)

My third offering is a portrait which Veronese completed around 1560. It is entitled Portrait of a Lady, ‘La Bella Nani’ and this work is considered to be Veronese’s greatest stand-alone female portrait. Venetian portraiture of Venetian courtesans was very popular at this time with works by the Italian painter of the Venetian school, Palma Vechio, the Italian painter of the Venetian Renaissance, Paris Bordone and Titian. This portrait by Veronese was often likened to Titian’s 1536 work entitled La Bella. In both these paintings the female sitter exudes a sense of opulence by the sumptuous and expensive clothes they wear. Veronese’s woman is standing with her left hand spreading her gossamer veil whilst her right hand is at her breast. Her hair is set tightly, and bejewelled with pearls. She wears a velvet dress which is deep ultramarine in colour and has gold epaulets; The colour of the dress was originally blue although over time sunlight has caused the painting to darken and the beautiful ultramarine dress seems black with just a hint of blue woven in. Veronese’s clever and complex layer of glazes makes the expensive material of the dress shimmer in the light. Her make-up is perfect with rouge on her cheeks she wears an assortment of jewellery, including a large gold piece hanging at her waist. Her wrists are adorned with gold bracelets, on her fingers there are gold rings and around her neck we see a string of pearls. The combination of the jewellery and clothes transforms her into what we would now term a fashion idol. As was the case with Titian’s female, we do not know who the sitter for Veronese’s portrait was but it will almost certainly be a female member of the Venetian aristocracy.

La Bella by Titian (1536)
La Bella by Titian (1536)

Whereas Titian’s woman looks out at us in a somewhat provocative manner, the female in the Veronese’s portrait has a somewhat restrained look as she averts her eyes from the observer. There is a look of sadness in her expression as she stares into the distance. She seems lost in thought and somewhat troubled. She does not seem to be at ease and maybe was a reluctant model, who has had to acquiesce to her husband’s demand that she should have her portrait painted. Her status as a married woman is confirmed by the ring she wears on her left hand. She looks tired and there are lines around her eyes. There is a vulnerability about this woman which makes us question whether wealth has given her all that she desired.

This painting by Paolo Veronese hangs at the Louvre and is in the same room as Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, Mona Lisa and one of Veronese’s monumental works, Wedding at Cana. The question as to whether she is a wife of an aristocrat is questioned by the curators of the Louvre who believe it could just be an idealised portrait of a woman by Veronese bringing together all the attributes that make for a beautiful woman. Their view is quite simple:

“…The figure is in fact a depiction of all the criteria of beauty sought after in Venice at the time: blond hair, a pearly complexion and radiance, as well as sweetness of character, reserve, or the quasi-shyness appropriate to any married woman…”

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c.1570)  National Gallery, London
The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c.1570) National Gallery, London

My final offerings are a pair of paintings by Veronese based on the dream of Saint Helena. One is housed at the National Gallery, London whist the other can be found in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, in Rome. The Dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery was completed around 1570 and the Vatican painting of the same name was thought to have been completed by the artist five or six years later. The story behind the depiction tells of the Flavia Julia Helena, the Empress mother of Constantine the Great, receiving a visitation from an angel in her dream. The angel tells Helena that she should leave home, travel to the Holy Land in search of the relic of the true cross on which Christ was crucified. She set off for Palestine in 326AD on a part spiritual part diplomatic visit on behalf of her son Constantine and, after a two year search, found the cross. Since then, the imagery of the saint has always been associated with the relics of the cross.

In Carlo Ridolphi’s seventeenth century book, La Maraviglie dell’Arte, he talks about a painting of Saint Helena in the house of the Contarini family of Padua. Of the painting, he states:

“… a scene of Saint Helena, who while sleeping dreams of a vision of the Cross held by two angels, that saintly queen nursing such a saintly thought in her mind, even though she was resting…”

We can see by looking at the two works, only the one which is housed in London’s National Gallery has a depiction of two angels and so this could well be the work which Ridolphi was talking about.

Veronese, with great skill, depicts the dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery painting by separating the work into two distinct areas. The foreground represents the “here and now” and in it we see Saint Helena, eyes closed, asleep on a window seat with her head supported by her right hand and her right elbow resting on the window sill. The view through the square window is the space which depicts the dream scene and in her dreams she sees two angels struggling to hold a very heavy and substantial wooden cross. It is a somewhat bare composition but the inclusion of Saint Helena lends an elegance to the depiction. The colours Veronese has used for Helena’s gown are fairly subdued, albeit the cool greens on one hand and the warm golds, rich pinks and oranges, on the other, harmonise perfectly. Look how Veronese has cleverly highlighted the garment with flecks and whirls of white and examine carefully the way he has skilfully depicted the folds of Helena’s gown.

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c. 1580)  Pinacoteca Vaticana
The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c. 1580) Pinacoteca Vaticana

In the Vatican’s Dream of Saint Helena we see Helena seated in a luxurious palace location. This work is completely different to the starkness and sparseness of the London version. In this painting the background consists of a decorated wall covering. To the left there is a fluted column and behind the chair is a bronze statue. Veronese’s depiction of her in this painting is one of an opulently dressed empress. She wears a glorious brocade dress with a red mantle. A jewelled crown sits atop her head. She is seated asleep in a chair, and once again, as in the London painting, her head is supported by her hand. In the right foreground we see the rear view of an angel who appears to be walking into the picture dragging along a large wooden cross. This is the vision Saint Helena is dreaming about and through Veronese’s two depictions we are privy to that dream.

In my next blog I am staying with Veronese and looking at a painting which was 42 ft (1280 cms) wide was far too large to be transported to London.  It was a painting which combined a secular scene with a religious story and by so doing fell afoul of the Inquisition. His inquisitors were not amused!