Alfred Jacob Miller and the Rendezvous

Self Portrait by Alfred Miller (c.1850)
Self Portrait by Alfred Miller (c.1850)

It is often strange that a chance meeting or a chance happening can affect one’s life but for my featured artist today his life was changed when he met a man who offered him a chance to go on a “holiday adventure”.  Intrigued?   Then come and join me as I look at the life of the nineteenth century American painter Alfred Jacob Miller and explore the world of mountain men and the famous rendezvous of trappers.

Miller was born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 2, 1810.  Like many artists I have featured, as a child, he loved to paint and sketch.  Apparently when he was at school he loved to create caricatures of his teachers which often got him into trouble.  It is said that his first art lessons were given to him by the talented American portrait painter, Thomas Sully in Philadelphia.

Portrait of Colonel Alexander Smith by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)
Portrait of Colonel Alexander Smith by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)

Miller worked on his portraiture and an example of this early work can be seen in his companion pieces Portrait of Colonel Alexander Smith and his wife Portrait of Lydia Lloyd Murray which he was commissioned to paint in 1833.

Portrait of Lydia Lloyd Murray by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)
Portrait of Lydia Lloyd Murray by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)

Colonel Alexander Smith served in the Morgan Volunteers which was a militia based in Baltimore part of the Maryland militia, a group of men which is probably the equivalent of the current National Guard.  Colonel Smith paid Miller $75 for the pair of paintings.  The two paintings are now housed in the Walters Museum in Baltimore.

Little is known about Miller’s early years except that his talent as an aspiring artist was blossoming.  In his 1832 book Six Months in America, the seasoned traveller and travel writer, Godfrey Vigne wrote:

“…At Baltimore I visited the studies of two very promising young artists: Mr Hubbard, an Englishman, is certainly the better painter; but has the advantage of four or five years of experience over Mr Miller, who is an American , quite a boy; and whom, I think, at least an equal genius.  He has had little or no instruction.  If sent to Europe as he certainly ought to be, I will venture to predict, that at some future period he will be an ornament to his native city; and which he certainly never will, or can be, if he does not leave it…”

Whether or not Vigne spoke to Miller about the advantages of travelling to Europe to study art is not known but it is quite likely.  The seeds must have been planted in Miller’s mind for in 1833, at the age of twenty-three, with the financial backing of his parents, he did leave the shores of America and head for Europe in order to enhance his knowledge of his true love, art.  Whilst in Europe, he visited Switzerland, the Italian cities of Bologna, and Rome where he studied religious art at the Gallerie Borghese.  He also made many sketching trips through the Lazio region, north of the Italian capital, Venice and spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, where he attended life classes at the École des Beaux Arts.  During his stay in the French capital, Miller like other visiting painters would spend time at the Louvre and other galleries copying the works of the Old Masters.

A Baltimore Watchman by Alfred Jacob Miller
A Baltimore Watchman by Alfred Jacob Miller

Miller loved to sketch, in fact he was a prolific sketcher and filled many sketchbooks with his sketches, most of which were accompanied by his own captions.  Above the sketch, Baltimore Watchman,  on which, he scribbled in pencil:

“…Recollections” and “One of the Dogberry’s of 1825 Balto”.

Below the figure he scrawled:

“…”after crying the hour of ten, he slept soundly in his box– until roused again…”

The Two Friends by Alfred Jacob Miller
The Two Friends by Alfred Jacob Miller

Many of his sketches depicted theatre life but also life in the home.  One poignant sketch of his was entitled The Two Friends.

Bridge of Sighs by Alfred Jacob Miller (c. 1834)
Bridge of Sighs by Alfred Jacob Miller (c. 1834)

Another moving sketch was entitled Bridge of Sighs which shows a woman committing suicide by jumping from a bridge.  Miller’s scribbled notes at the bottom of the sketch are a quote from the Thomas Hood 1844 poem Bridge of Sighs:

 “…It was pitiful, near a whole city full, Friend, had she non….”

Thomas Hood’s poem also inspired the English painter, George Frederick Watts to complete his moving 1850 painting, Found Drowned (see My Daily Art Display, July 4th 2011)

Miller returned to Baltimore in 1834 and opened his own portrait studio but his portrait business was poor and so, in December 1836, he decided to relocate to New Orleans and ply his trade in that city.  Miller set up lodgings on the second floor of L. Chittenden’s dry-goods store on Chartres Street in New Orleans.  This also acted as his studio.  However, money was still tight as his optimism that commissions would soon roll in was unfounded and his financial plight was such that he painted the landlord’s portrait in lieu of his rent.  In return his landlord also allowed Miller to place some of his works of art in the shop window.  Maybe this was fate for Miller’s artwork attracted a passer-by who came into the shop and watched Miller at work.  The man was Captain William Drummond Stewart.  He was the second son of Sir George Stewart, seventeenth Lord of Grandtully and fifth baronet of Murthly.  William Stewart was a Scottish adventurer and retired British military officer, who had travelled around the American West in the 1830’s.  He told Miller that he was about to set off to attend the annual rendezvous of fur trappers and traders in the Rocky Mountains in the summer and needed an artist to accompany him and record the trip.

Attack by Crow Indians by Alfred Jacob Miller (1837)
Attack by Crow Indians by Alfred Jacob Miller (1837)

Miller’s painting Attack by Crow Indians has a fascinating story to go with it.  Miller did not witness the scene himself, which happened during an earlier expedition of Captain Stewart’s who then recounted the story to Miller who converted his words into a painting..  In fact Miller made a number of versions of Stewart’s story.  The account of the story appears in the book entitled Broken Hand by LeRoy Hafen.  In it he tells of what happened a century earlier:

“…a band of young Crows invaded the camp while Fitzpatrick was away and Stewart was in charge. They carried off stock, pelts, and other property. They encountered Fitzpatrick on their return and stripped him of everything of value as well. As Stewart described the incident, the Crow medicine man had told the braves that, if they struck the first blow, they could not win. Thus, they had to provoke Stewart or someone in his party into striking the first blow. Stewart stood firm, refusing to strike. The Crows left, and the captain survived a situation in which he would have surely lost the battle. Fitzpatrick managed to talk the Crows into returning most of what they had taken…”

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These annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, which began in 1822 and went on for fifteen years, happened in various locations during the spring and early summer months.  The rendezvous was originally organised by a St. Louis businessman and politician William H. Ashley.  The idea was that the trappers, who lived in the wild collecting furs, would not have to leave the mountains to come to the cities to sell or exchange their wares for much needed rations but would instead exchange their produce at an annual fair in the mountain regions.  Ashley advertised for men who were willing to seek adventure as trappers and stay in the mountainous wilderness for up to two or three years.

Aricara by Alfred Jacob Miller
Aricara by Alfred Jacob Miller

These “Rendezvous” were a kind of trading fair organised by the fur trading companies at which the trappers and so-called mountain men would exchange their furs and hides, which they had collected during the year, for supplies which would allow them to survive the harsh winters.  The fur trading companies would then move the furs and hides to places in the Pacific Northwest or the ports on the northern Missouri river.   It was a time of celebration when the trappers and their wives and children as well as Native Indians would come to the Rendezvous after a long season of hunting.  The fur trading companies, as well as bringing food, weapons and ammunition, would also bring whisky which no doubt enhanced the celebrations.  The trapper and mountain man, James Pierson Beckwourth, who narrated his life story, which was then made into a book in 1856 entitled  The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians, told of the merriment:

“…“Mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent…”

Where the Clouds Love to Rest by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1850)
Where the Clouds Love to Rest by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1850)

William Stewart had been present at four previous rendezvous but due to the failing health of his brother , the then lord of Grandtully and baronet of Murthly, he had an inclination that this 1837 one maybe his last and so believed that the event should be recorded pictorially by an artist – hence Alfred Jacob Miller.    Miller also knew he had little to lose by leaving New Orleans and so readily agreed to take part in the adventure.  The Rendezvous in the spring of 1837 was to take place on the banks of the tributary of the Green River an area which is at the centre of the Rocky Mountain region and is now part of Wyoming.  Stewart, Miller, representatives from the American Fur Company and the caravan of goods set off for St Louis in April 1837.  On arriving at St Louis, William Stewart introduced Alfred Miller to Governor William Clark, an American explorer, soldier, Superintendant of Indian Affairs and territorial governor.  His collection of artefacts and paintings by George Catlin, who was an American painter, author, and traveller who specialized in portraits of native Americans in the Old West.  They  had a great influence on Miller.  From St Louis the fur company’s caravan headed across what is now known as Kansas and finally arrived at the Platte River.  From there they headed into western Wyoming and finally arrived at their destination, the valley Horse Creek with its backdrop of the Wind River Mountains part of the Rocky Mountain range.

Antoine Clement the great Hunter by Alfred Miller
Antoine Clement the great Hunter by Alfred Miller

Throughout the journey Miller was continuously sketching the exquisite mountainous terrain, the people who were part of the caravan and of course the mountain men and Indians who had come to exchange their furs and hides.  At the rendezvous site the fur trappers and Indians were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Fur Company’s caravan.  These people made excellent sitters for Miller’s portraits.  One such person whose portrait Miller completed was Antoine Clement who had been one of the scouts and buffalo hunters who had supplied the people on the travelling caravan with food during their journey.  Clement was a half caste, his father was French, his mother a native Indian.  All in all Miller’s stay at Horse Creek lasted three weeks and then after two weeks on a hunting trip with William Stewart they returned to New Orleans.

The Lost Greenhorn by Alfred Jacob Miller
The Lost Greenhorn by Alfred Jacob Miller

One painting Miller converted from one of his sketches was The Lost Greenhorn.  The story behind the painting was given in Miller’s 1837 book entitled The West of Alfred Jacob Miller:

“…On reaching the Buffalo District, one of our young men began to be ambitious, and although it was his first journey, boasted continually of what he would do in hunting Buffalo if permitted. This was John (our cook), he was an Englishman and did no discredit to that illustrious nation in his stupid conceit and wrong-headed obstinacy. Our Captain, when any one boasted, put them to the test, so a day was given to John and he started off early alone. The day passed over, night came, – but so did not John. Another day rolled over, the hunters returning at evening without having met him. The next morning men were dispatched in different quarters, and at about two o’clock, one of the parties brought in the wanderer – crest fallen and nearly starved;- he was met by a storm of ridicule and roasted on every side by the Trappers. Thus carrying out that ugly maxim of Rochefoucault’s ‘There is always something in the misfortune of our friends not disagreeable to us’…”‘ 

Hunting Buffalo by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)
Hunting Buffalo by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)

Once back in the Louisiana city Miller set to work on his large collection of sketches he had made whilst at the rendezvous and completed an album of eighty seven of the watercolour sketches.   William Thompson Walters, an American businessman and art collector, whose collection was to form the basis of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore where many of Miller’s paintings are housed, commissioned two hundred watercolours from Miller paying him twelve dollars per painting.  Each sketch was accompanied by Miller’s descriptive text.  It took Alfred Miller almost two years to complete the commission which William Walters then had bound in three leather volumes.

Indian Lodge by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)
Indian Lodge by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)

Miller was interested in the lifestyle of the Native Americans and his painting entitled Indian Lodge looks at the Indian lodge and its construction with its upright supports which act to hold the supporting bond timbers at differing heights and this design allows for a sloping circular roof.  There is an aperture at the centre of the roof which allows light to filter in and allows smoke from the fires to exit the space.   The painting depicts groups of Indians scattered around the large space, some standing, some seated some immersed in game playing.

William Stewart returned to the Rocky Mountains for the 1838 Rendezvous but whilst there he learnt of the death of his brother back in Scotland.  William Stewart had suddenly become the new laird of the family’s estates of Murthly, Grandtully, and Logiealmond.  Stewart, now Sir William Stewart, returned home to Scotland and commissioned Alfred Miller to paint a series of large oil paintings which would be on display at Murthly Castle.  In 1840, Miller was invited to stay at Murthly Castle by its new owner and whilst there he could continue with his paintings.  He accepted the invite and was Sir William’s guest until the autumn of 1841 at which time he returned to Baltimore where he was to live the rest of his life and where he established himself as a leading portraitist of the time.

After his 1837 Rendezvous expedition, Miller worked for many years converting many of his two hundred sketches he had made whilst out West  into oil paintings.  The public loved them and he received many commissions.  He also sold several of his works of art to Charles Wilkins Webber, the American explorer and writer who had them made into illustrations for his 1851 book The Hunter-Naturalist: Romance of Sporting; or, Wild Scenes and Wild Hunters.

In 1839 the Apollo Gallery in New York held an exhibition featuring eighteen of Miller’s large oil paintings depicting scenes from his 1837 expedition with Stewart.  The paintings were owned by Stewart who agreed to loan them to the gallery.  So popular was the exhibition that it was extended to allow more people to view Miller’s work.

Alfred Jacob Miller spent the next thirty years working hard on converting his sketches into oil paintings to satisfy all the commissions he received.  He also continued with his portraiture work.  He is now looked upon as one of the earliest and most significant painters to record pictorially the American West.  He was the only artist to go on a Rendezvous expedition and depict the fur traders, Native Indians  and mountain men.  His art played a major role in educating people back East about life in the American West.

Alfred Jacob Miller died in Baltimore in June 1874, aged sixty-four.

Artist's Studio - The Critic by Alfred Jacob Miller (1840)
Artist’s Studio – The Critic by Alfred Jacob Miller (1840)

I am going to conclude this blog with one of my favourite paintings of his.  It is not an American West landscape nor is it one of the mountain men or Native Americans.  It is a painting he completed around 1840 entitled Artist’s Studio – The Critic and in some way it is an amusing look at a cleaner who is appraising a painting which is in the studio of an artist in which she is the cleaner.  We see her pausing from sweeping the floor to look at a painting on the easel.

If you live near Baltimore and like what I have shown you it would be worth visiting the Walters Art Museum on Charles Street.  I would be interested to hear what you thought of the collection of Miller’s artwork.

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Félix Vallatton. Part 2. The Nabis, woodcuts and the “dreadful nudes”

Self-portrait with the dressing gown by Félix Vallotton (1914)
Self-portrait with the dressing gown by Félix Vallotton (1914)

During the 1890’s Vallotton, besides painting and writing art criticism, spent much of his time working with woodcuts.  The woodcuts he produced were looked upon as being very innovative and established him as a leading exponent of this type of art.  Japonism was sweeping through the French art world during the last part of the nineteenth century and Vallotton’s work was influenced by the Japanese woodcut In 1890 there had been a large exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts and like many people in France, Vallotton built up a collection of these prints.

La Paresse by Félix Vallotton (1896)
La Paresse by Félix Vallotton (1896)

Vallotton’s subjects ranged from domestic scenes to street crowd demonstrations in which police are depicted clashing with anarchists and from portrait heads to bathing women.  In his 1896 woodcut entitled La Paresse (Laziness) he depicts a naked women relaxing face down on a bed whilst stroking a cat.

Le Mensonge (The Lie) by Félix Vallatton (1896)
Le Mensonge (The Lie) by Félix Vallatton (1896)

The high point of his woodcuts was probably reached in 1898 when he produced a series of ten interiors entitled Intimités (Intimacies), for the La Revue blanche, the avant-garde French art and literary magazine, which was published between 1889 and 1903 and had many influential contributors such as Toulouse Lautrec.  The set of woodcuts dealt with the tensions between men and women and they proved so successful that they were circulated in magazines and books in Europe and America.

This set of woodcuts was a great success and for many critics there was a greater appreciation of them in comparison to his paintings.  The ten woodcuts were dark with some white lines cut through the black background.  Vallotton, through his woodcuts, wanted to bring out the continuing tensions between man and woman and that was further enhanced by the evocative titles he gave the individual works, such as Le Mensonge (The Lie), L’Argent (The Money) and L’ Irreparable (The Irreparable).  In a way it was his way of denigrating love between man and woman, blaming the woman for being insincere and scheming creatures who often brought an element of spitefulness and dominance into a relationship.

Bathers on a Summer Evening by Félix Vallotton (1892)
Bathers on a Summer Evening by Félix Vallotton (1892)

Around 1892 Vallotton became associated with the Nabis art movement.   The group came about around 1888 and was composed of disaffected artists who had passed through the Académie Julian and been subjected to the rigid representational methods being taught at that establishment.  Founder members of the Nabis, which was a Hebrew word meaning prophet, were Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis.  The Nabis were inspired by the broad planes of unmediated colour, using thick and bold outlines that were seen in Japanese prints.

Clair de lune (Moonlight) by Félix Vallotton (1895)
Clair de lune (Moonlight) by Félix Vallotton (1895)

Two examples of Vallotton’s take on the Nabi style art were his 1893 work entitled Das Bad. Sommerabend (Bathers on a Summer Evening), and his 1895 symbolist work Moonlight which can be found at the Musée d’Orsay

Bathers on a Summer Evening depicts women bathing in an open-air brick pool.  The painting was exhibited at the 1893 Salon des Indépendents exhibition and its subject caused a furore but at the same time it successfully enhanced Vallotton’s reputation as an artist.  In some way this painting is looked upon as a caricature of the traditional paintings of Salon artists such as Seurat and Renoir .  The painting is housed in the Kunsthaus, Zurich.

Mme. Felix Vallotton by Félix Vallatton (1899)
Mme. Felix Vallotton by Félix Vallatton (1899)

In 1899 Félix Vallotton married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques née Bernheim.  Gabrielle was the daughter of Alexandre and Henriette Bernheim and was one of six children.   Alexandre Bernheim came from Besancon and was an art dealer and friend of a fellow countryman of Besancon, Gustave Courbet.   Gabrielle was eighteen months older than Félix Vallatton and had married Gustave Rodrigues Henriques in February 1883 and the couple had three children, Max, Joseph and Madeleine.  Gustave died in 1894 at the young age of 34 leaving his widow financially comfortable.  Gabrielle and Félix married five years later in 1899.  Félix wrote to his brother Paul and told of his relationship with Gabrielle.  He wrote:

“…I love her very much which is the main reason for this marriage, and she loves me also, we know each other very profoundly, and we trust each other.  In short, I regret nothing and I nourish the highest hopes…”

In 1899, the year of his marriage to Gabrielle he painted a picture of her sitting at a table.

As I mentioned in my last blog about Vallatton, what drew me to him was the headline of a 2007 essay in The Guardian newspaper by the writer Julian Barnes:

The neglected, enigmatic Swiss artist Félix Vallotton was a fine painter of still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Shame about his dreadful nudes, writes Julian Barnes

I was intrigued to find out what was “dreadful” about Vallatton’s portrayal of nudes.

Models Relaxing by Félix Vallatton (1905)
Models Relaxing by Félix Vallatton (1905)

In 1905 Vallatton’s neo-classical style painting Models Relaxing was exhibited at the Ingres retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in Paris.

Le bain turc by Ingres (1863)
Le bain turc by Ingres (1863)

One of Ingres’ works Turkish Bath was also on view at the exhibition.  It is said that Vallatton was moved to tears by this Ingres’ work and maybe that was the reason that two years later, in 1907, Vallatton completed his own painting entitled Turkish Bath.

The Turkish Bath by Félix Vallatton (1907)
The Turkish Bath by Félix Vallatton (1907)

The women in his painting were not hand maidens of a harem but were women of the 1900’s with their fashionable hairstyles.

The Rape of Europa by Félix Vallatton (1908)
The Rape of Europa by Félix Vallatton (1908)

Controversy was not far away when his nude paintings were exhibited,  At the beginning of the twentieth century  one exhibition of his work only allowed over 18 years of age visitors to enter and witness the naked women !  Depicting his nudes as part of mythology did not decrease the censure of the critics.  An example of this is his 1908 painting entitled The Taking of Europe which is housed in the Kunstmuseum Bern.

Perseus Slaying the Dragon by Félix Vallatton (1910)
Perseus Slaying the Dragon by Félix Vallatton (1910)

Another of Vallatton’s paintings featuring a nude but with mythological connotations was his version of the story of Perseus slaying the dragon, a story which had featured in many pasintings before.  Vallatton completed his up-to-date version of Perseus Slaying the Dragon in 1910 and it is now owned by the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève .

Woman with a Black Hat by Félix Vallatton (1908)
Woman with a Black Hat by Félix Vallatton (1908)

Vallatton painted hundreds of pictures featuring nude or semi-nude females and the one I like the most is his 1908 work entitled Woman with a Black Hat.  The woman’s face is flushed as if she is embarrassed to appear semi naked before the artist.  It adds to he vulnerability and in a way enhances her beauty.

Landscape Semur by Felix Vallotton (1923)
Landscape Semur by Felix Vallotton (1923)

Vallatton kept a register of all the works he completed and by the time of his death the list catalogued almost 1600 works.  I have looked at his portraits and his penchant for painting nude females but of all his works, for me, his landscapes stand out.  It was in his latter years that Vallatton produced most of his landscape works, such as Landscape Semur which he completed in 1923.

Square in Les Andelys with the Chateau Gaillard by Félix Vallatton (1924)
Square in Les Andelys with the Chateau Gaillard by Félix Vallatton (1924)

Another interesting painting was completed a year later in 1924 and entitled The Chateau-Gaillard in Andelys.  Since 1909, Vallatton had a summer home in Honfleur and in 1924 whilst en route to his summer residence he passed through the small village of Andelys which lay on the banks of the Seine.  He had first visited the village eight years earlier.  The village is dominated by the ruins of Chateau Gauillard, a fortress built by Richard the Lionheart in 1196.  It is situated on a hill overlooking Andelys.  The ruins fascinated Vallatton who produced a number of paintings and sketches featuring the once mighty fortress.  The painting is housed in the Musée A.G. Poulain de Vernon in Vernon, a town about 30 kilometres south of Andelys.

Nature morte a la peinture chinoise by Félix Vallatton (1925)
Nature morte a la peinture chinoise by Félix Vallatton (1925)

Another art genre that interested Vallatton in the early twentieth century was Still Life painting.  In 1925 he completed a work entitled Nature morte a la peinture chinoise (Still Life with Chinese painting).  Like many still life paintings the artist has challenged himself by having to paint a white napkin, with all its creases and folds, looking as if it is laying over the edge of the table.  The Chinese painting mentioned in the title can be seen in the background.

Parrot Tulips by Felix Vallotton
Parrot Tulips by Felix Vallotton

One of my favourite still life paintings by Vallotton was a work entitled Parrot Tulips.  I love the richness of the colours used and love to study the way Vallotton has depicted the individual items which crowd the scene.

Vallotton’s life came to a close at the end of 1925.  His brother Paul’s daughter Marianne recalled the time:

“...It was the end of of the year 1925 and the weather was grey and gloomy, but in accordance with our old custom, we were getting ready to celebrate Christmas, when on 21 December my father received a letter , whose opening lines I quote:

‘ …My dear Paul, after examining me twice, they have decided to operate.  It has been arranged for next Saturday morning the 26th.  It would be nice if you could be here, for various reasons…’ “

Félix Vallotton died three days after his operation on December 29th, three days before his sixtieth birthday.  According to Marianne Vallotton his last words to her father, his brother Paul were:

“…Don’t you think this is an amusing way to celebrate the centenary of the death of Jacques-Louis David?…”

The French painter died on December 29th 1825.

There were just so many apintings to include but so little time or space to accommodate them.  To see more I can recommend the excellent book on the life of Félix Vallotton by Nathalia Brodskaïa entitled Félix Valloton, The Nabi from Switzerland.  It was from this biography that I have been able to put together these two blogs on this talented Swiss painter.

Earlier I had mentioned the headline of an essay in The Guardian newspaper written by Julian Barnes.  It is said that in a few years time he will be curating an exhibition of Félix Vallotton’s work at the Royal Academy in London and it will certainly be an exhibition not to be missed.

Félix Vallotton. Part 1- The early years and portraiture

Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1897)
Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1897)

The artist whose paintings I am looking at in this blog is the Swiss-born artist and printmaker Félix Edouard Vallotton.

Vallatton was born in Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva, in December 1865, three days before the New Year. His parents  and grandparents hailed from the little town of Vallorbe in the Swiss canton of Vaud.   His family’s social status was given as conservative middle class.  Félix’s father, Adrien owned a chandlery and grocery shop and would later branch out as a chocolatier and own and run a chocolate factory.   Félix and his older brother Paul lived at the family’s home in Lausanne, situated in the centre of town in the small town hall square, the Place de la Pelouse.  Family memories of the young Félix Vallatton told of him being a very delicate and sensitive child and because of this and the presence of the smallpox epidemics, which had ravaged Europe, he was probably cosseted by his family.  Félix, as a young boy enjoyed to draw and paint and besides his normal scholastic subjects, he attended evening classes for drawing.

Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1885)
Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1885)

In 1882, at the age of sixteen, having completed his school education, he persuaded his father to take him to Paris so that he could learn more about painting and drawing.  He had passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux Arts but decided that he would prefer to attend the Académie Julian because of its teaching of real art and naturalism.  His father managed to have his son enrol at the prestigious academy, which at the time had the most respected art tutors.  Félix was to study under three great French figure painters, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Guillaume Bougereau and Gustave Boulanger.  As a student he was known to be hard working but very reclusive.  His tutors looked upon him as a model student and had great hopes that he would win the Prix de Rome prize as the outstanding student of the year.  For young Vallotton life was not all fun and games and monotony had begun to set in, even at this early stage.  He wrote to his brother Paul;

“…So far I have not seen much apart from some museums.  The botanical gardens, which did not make much impression on me, one or two theatres, which I visited with father, the Pantheon, which is magnificent and which affords a marvellous view on a fine day.  Every day I follow the very same route and see the very same things…”

In an early letter to his brother there is a hint of lack of self-confidence when he tells his brother how things are developing academically.  He wrote:

“…The professor is pleased with me, but I am not pleased with myself and sometimes feel sad……My heart sinks when I think of what I am about to study and realise that I am nothing compared with the great artists who startled the world at the age of fifteen…”

Vallotton may not be confident in his own ability but one of his tutor’s assessment of him was quite different.  Lefebvre told Vallotton’s father that:

‘…Monsieur, I hold your son in high esteem, and have only had occasion to compliment him up to now.  I think that, if I had such a son, I would not be worried about his future at all and would unhesitatingly be prepared, with the bounds of possibility, To make sacrifices over and over again, in order to help him…”

Lefebvre ended the conversation with a prediction:

“…I am so interested now in those who are prepared to work – your son is one of those and I repeat he will bring you fame…”

People who suffer from lack of self confidence, often need somebody to be there to boost their morale and Vallotton had that in the person of Charles Maurin, a fellow student at the Académie Julian, albeit eight years his senior.  Vallotton and Maurin became friends and part of a letter from Maurin to the younger Vallotton highlights the elder artist’s moral support.  He wrote to Vallotton:

“…Whatever you lack it is certainly not artistic flair.  It is rather some quality of character (please allow me to mention this to you).  (I would like you to be as open with me).  From your last letter it emerges that you lack strong will and you are creating difficulties for yourself.   But that is not the case.  You do have willpower but it does not manifest itself…”

Life as an art student in the big city was a struggle for Vallotton.  He had constantly to turn to his father for money to pay for lodgings, to buy food and pay for models.  He tried to find some work to help his financial situation but it was never enough.  In 1888 Felix wrote to his parents bemoaning his lot in life and one can sense an air of depression

“…I practically never go out.  I work from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon.  This has not produced any great results so far, everything must work out soon…”

Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach by Félix Vallotton (1885)
Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach by Félix Vallotton (1885)

In 1885, at the age of nineteen, Vallotton’s luck changed.  It was due to his portrait of one of his neighbours, Monsieur Ursenbach, a mathematician and Mormon.  That year, he submitted the Portrait of Mr Ursenbach to the Salon jury and with his former tutor, Jules Lefebvre, one of the jurists, the work was accepted and subsequently displayed.   It is an interesting work.  The setting for the portrait is the sitter’s colourless and featureless room.  Ursenbach can be seen sitting in his armchair in a stiffly upright pose, looking uncomfortable with a stern expression on his face.  His hands rest steadily upon his knees as he stares off to the left of the painting.  It is this unusual demeanour of Ursenbach which probably caught the eye of visitors to the Salon exhibition.  Critics were divided on its merits but for Vallatton himself when he later listed all his paintings in chronological order, this was the first on the list.

The Artist`s Parents by Félix Vallotton (1886)
The Artist`s Parents by Félix Vallotton (1886)

Like many portrait artists before him, the young artist completed many portraits of his own family members.  His family portraits, such as the 1886 one of his parents, The Artist`s Parents,  featuring Alexis and Mathilde, were tender and showed the closeness he was to his parents.

Paul Vallotton by Félix Vallotton (1886)
Paul Vallotton by Félix Vallotton (1886)

In the same year that he completed the portrait of his parents he completed a portrait of his brother Paul.

Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1891)
Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1891)

Over the years, he also painted many self portraits and one of my favourites is his 1891 painting, Mon portrait.  Portraiture was a way Vallotton began to earn money and he completed many commissions in Paris and back in his home town of Lausanne.  Many of his Paris commissions were attained through his Swiss ex-patriot friends who were living in the French capital.  One such friend and fellow student was the Swiss artist, Ernest Bieler and it was he who persuaded the artist and close acquaintance, Auguste de Molins, to write a letter of introduction on behalf of Vallotton to Renoir and Degas.  De Molins had known the Impressionists as he had exhibited works at the First Impressionist Exhibition.  In his letter to Degas, de Molins wrote:

“…My protégé is absolutely alone in Paris without any connections at all apart from his contacts at the studio, which is far from enough to satisfy his intellectual needs.  The studio is all very well, but there comes a time when close relations with a master are somewhat more important even far more important…”

Vallotton never used the letters of introduction.

Felix Jasinski in His Printmaking Studio - Felix Vallotton (1887)
Felix Jasinski in His Printmaking Studio – Felix Vallotton (1887)

In 1886 Vallotton met Felix Jasinski, an engraver and painted his portrait, entitled Felix Jasinski in His Printmaking Studio.  Jasinski went on to teach Vallotton all about the art of engraving and the two would work together on many projects.   Vallotton’s own catalogue of works began to list his engravings from 1887 and according to a letter to his parents in late 1889 he told them that he had begun to work on commissions for a publisher.  Money was to be made through his engraving work and by 1891 the amount of wood engravings completed by Vallatton was almost more that the number of paintings he had completed.

The Port of Pully by Félix Vallotton (1891)
The Port of Pully by Félix Vallotton (1891)

His early works were not restricted to portraiture. Vallotton, being Swiss-born, loved to paint landscapes featuring the mountains and views of his homeland, especially around Lausanne and Lake Geneva.  Often they were for commissions given to him by Swiss people but often he would keep them for himself.  In 1891 he completed a painting, Port of Pully, one of the eastern suburbs of the city of Lausanne.  The painting depicts the lake front  located on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Outskirts of Lausanne by Félix Vallotton (1893)
Outskirts of Lausanne by Félix Vallotton (1893)

Another beautiful landscape work by Vallotton was completed in 1893 and was entitled Outskirts of Lausanne.  In the painting we view Lake Geneva from a meadow.  The yellow and greens of the foreground are in contrast to the still blue water of the lake in the background.  There is an air of tranquillity about this depiction.  One can imagine sitting in the meadow, which is bathed in sunlight, and just relaxing and leaving the cares of the world behind.

The reason for me writing a couple of blogs about Félix Vallotton was that I was fascinated by the heading of a 2007 article in The Guardian newspaper by Julian Barnes which shouted out:

Better with their clothes on

The neglected, enigmatic Swiss artist Félix Vallotton was a fine painter of still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Shame about his dreadful nudes, writes Julian Barnes.

and so in my next blog I will continue with Vallotton’s life story and look at more of his paintings including some of his “dreadful nudes” !!!

Much of the material I have used for this blog came from an excellent book entitled Félix Vallotton by Nathalia Brodskia, an art historian attached to the hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Federico Zandomeneghi – the Italian Impressionist

Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)
Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)

When I was in Germany, just before Christmas, I bought myself a desk calendar which gave you a new painting every day.  I was fascinated by today’s picture of a young girl reading entitled Lesendes Mädchen (Girl Reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi.  I had never heard of the artist and thought it would be interesting to look at his life and his some of his beautiful works of art. He would become known for his many pastel portraits of ladies and children.

Federico Zandomeneghi
Federico Zandomeneghi

Federico Zandomeneghi was born in Venice in June 1841. He came from a family line of sculptors.  Pietro, his father, was a neoclassical sculptor as was his grandfather Luigi but unlike his father and grandfather Federico, and much to their annoyance, he favoured painting to sculpture.  In 1856, at the age of fifteen, he enrolled on a painting course at the Academia di Belle Arti in Venice and then later studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, where he studied under the neoclassical-style painter Giralamo Michelangelo Grigoletti and Pompeo Marino Molmenti.  Venice was under Austrian rule when Napoleon was defeated in 1814 and it became part of the Austrian held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.   Venice was firmly under the control of Austria and as such the Venetian citizens were conscripted into the army.  To escape conscription, Federico fled his city in 1859 and went to Pavia, where he enrolled at the university.  In 1860, when he was nineteen years of age, he joined the military forces of Guiseppe Garibaldi as one of the volunteers in The Expedition of the Thousand, part of the Risorgimento, the push for Italian unification.  As a Venetian this was looked upon as a kind of treachery. His flight from Venice in 162 to Florence to avoid conscription resulted him being charged, in absentia, with desertion.

Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,
Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,

As a young aspiring artist Federico wanted to mix with other artists in the Tuscan city and by doing so assimilate their views of art.  One of the favoured meeting places for the artists was the Caffè Michelangelo .  It was here that the Macchiaioli met.  The Macchiaioli, which literally means patch-  or spot-makers, was a  group of rebellious Italian artists based in Tuscany during the second half of the 19th century and was formed more than ten years before the French Impressionists came onto the scene.  They rebelled against academic artistic training and many art historians believe they brought about a breath of fresh air into Italian painting.  They ignored the type of painting which was popular at the time such as Neoclassicism and Romanticism.  They were looked upon as the founders of modern Italian painting.  The Macchiaioli believed that areas of light and shadow, or macchie were the most important parts of a painting and when Italian artists spoke of macchia they were talking about the sparkling quality of a drawing or painting.

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)
The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Zandomeneghi is now housed at the Pinaconteca Brera in Milan.  It is a fine example of verismo the nineteenth century Italian painting style and was a style frequently used by the Macchiaioli.  It is a style of painting we would term as realism.  It features a group of poor people, men, women and children sitting on the steps of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven), one the oldest basilicas in Rome.   

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There was a strong connection with French art as many of the Macchiaioli were influenced by the French artists such as Courbet and Corot who belonged to the Barbizon School as well as other nineteenth century plein air painters whose works the Macchiaioli artists were able to see when they visited the French capital.  En plein air painting was at that time a ground breaking method of painting but its proponents believed that it allowed for a new vibrancy and naturalness in the reproduction of light which would have been lost if the painting had been carried out in a studio.   Some of the members of the Macchiaioli, like Federico, had fought alongside Garibaldi in his effort to attain Italian unification.  Many of the works of the Macchiaioli featured grand battles scenes of the Risorgimento as well as landscapes and genre paintings featuring both the bourgeoisie and peasants.

Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)
Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)

Another painting completed by Zandomeneghi whilst he was living in Florence is one of my favourites.  It is entitled Palazzo Pretorio and was completed in 1865.  It can now be found in the Museo d’Arte Moderna, Ca’ Pesaro, Venice.   The work of art was exhibited that year in the rooms of the Società Veneta Promotrice (Venetian Promoter of Fine Arts) which was based in Palazzo Mocenigo at San Benedetto.   The depiction of light and shade we see in the painting was strongly influenced by the Macchiaioli artists of Florence.

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Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)
Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)

Whilst in Florence and through his association with the Macchiaioli artists, Federico Zandomeneghi met the Italian art critic Diego Martelli.  Martelli was a great supporter of the painters of the Macchiaioli and would often invite them up to his large Tuscan estate in Castiglioncello which was an ideal setting for their en plein air painting sessions.  Martelli wrote fervently about realism in art and favoured the works of Gustave Courbet as well as the plein air artists of the Barbizon School.    He made a number of trips to Paris and its thought that he persuaded Zandomeneghi to leave Florence and go to live in the French capital.  Through their correspondence Zandomeneghi introduced Martelli to the works of the Impressionists so much so that it is said that Martelli was one of the first and leading supporters of Impressionism in Italy.

Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)
Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)

Like Zandomeneghi, Martelli became good friends with Degas who painted his portrait in 1879.  The Degas portrait is unusual in as much as the sitter is viewed from above which is somewhat unflattering as it accentuates the corpulence of Martelli.  We see Martelli sitting unsteadily on a small stool.  To his left is a table, scattered on which are numerous objects belonging to the sitter.  The addition of these items was a trademark of Degas’ portraits as he felt it told viewers more about the subject of the portrait.  The painting is now housed in the Scottish National Gallery.

The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)
The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)

In 1874, Federico, now thirty-three years of age, moved to the art capital of Europe, Paris, and little did he know then, he would never return to his Italian homeland.  On his arrival in Paris, as was the case when he arrived in Florence, he wanted to immerse himself into the life of an artist and mix with the artists of Montmartre.   To be an artist in the French capital at this time was a chance to witness the birth of what would later be termed by the art critic, Louis Leroy, as Impressionism.

Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle
Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle

The year 1874 was the year of the Impressionist’s first annual exhibition in Paris.  Federico would often frequent the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle.  It was here that he first met and befriended Edgar Degas, who was seven years his senior.    It is said that we are often drawn to people who have the same characteristics and the same looks upon life and as such Degas and Federico Zandomeneghi were well matched.  Both were recalcitrant and often boorish and this similarity of behaviour ensured they would remain life-long friends!  Although great friends with Degas, Federico was more influenced by the works of Renoir and Mary Cassatt and the way they portrayed women in their art work.  This was to lead to many of his works featuring females going about with their daily chores or being immersed in reading.  Zandomeneghi liked to portray through his artwork, and like that of the Impressionists, the elegant high society of the French capital but his paintings were not imitations of the Impressionists’ works.  He had his own inimitable style.

Place d'Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)
Place d’Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)

The Impressionists had by 1879 held three annual exhibitions and Degas persuaded Federico to exhibit some of his work at the fourth annual exhibition at the Avenue de l’Opéra, during the months of April and May in 1879.  Besides Federico there were three other “first appearances” exhibiting at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, the husband and wife Impressionists Félix and Marie Braquemond  and Paul Gaugin.  Federico went on to exhibit at the fifth (1880), sixth (1881) and the eighth and final exhibition in 1886.  To sell one’s work one has to have a good dealer and through the good auspices of his Impressionist friends Federico was taken on by the gallery owner and art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel who acted as his sole agent.   It was this Parisian art dealer who changed the fortunes of Federico when he exhibited the Italian artist’s work in America.   In the 1890’s, having had to supplement his income from the sale of his paintings by providing illustrations for Paris fashion magazine, once his work was seen in America he was inundated with commissions.  It was around this time that Federico changed the medium in which he worked, now favouring in pastels.

Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)
Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)

Zandomeneghi will always be remembered for his female portraiture.  He seemed to concentrate his depictions of women who were mothers going about their everyday life.  He often liked to show in his paintings the ease in which women interacted with each other.  There was a warmth about his pictorial depiction of females and this may be because of the way he was influenced by the works of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.  Enrico Piceni,  the Italian writer and art critic who wrote a biography about Zandomeneghi and who, in 1984, wrote a book entitled Three Italian friends of the impressionists : Boldini, De Nittis, Zandomeneghi, wrote of Zandomeneghi’s work:

“…Zandomeneghi knows how to differentiate himself from his closest colleagues, Degas and Renoir, by surpassing the glossy and even fierce chronicle style of the first thanks to adding a warm and affectionate emotional involvement in the subject, and by transferring the deification of the ideal woman typical of the second in a more bourgeois reality interwoven with truth but able to transform a simple story in a tremor of poetry…”

A good example of the way Zandomeneghi depicted a close relationship between two women is in his 1895 work entitled Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation).  Before us, we see two women locked in conversation.  There is a gentleness about the scene.  There is no wild animation.  We feel drawn into the scene as a friend who is being admitted into their private world.  Both women are wearing light fashionable wide-sleeved shirts which were all the fashion in the 1890’s.    This painting highlights the beautiful technique Federico was to often use.  There is a lightness of touch and the artist demonstrates an amazing insight in the way he portrays the mood of the sitters.  The two women in the painting are totally absorbed in their conversation.  Their hands touch. They only have eyes for each other in this intimate and yet non-sexual depiction.   The art critic and writer Francesca Dini in her 1989 book,   Zandomeneghi, la vita e le opera, wrote of this work:

“…Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation), is among the most famous works produced by the Venetian painter at the beginning of his relationship with Durand-Ruel. The brilliance and chromatic refinement of the composition are emphasized by the balance of the scene and the richness of the materials chosen for the dresses of two young women, who are wearing light shirts with wide sleeves ‘double sboffo’, very fashionable in the last decade of the century. The provenance of the painting is notable as it belonged, among others, to the greatest admirers and collectors of paintings by the artist…”

Federico Zandomeneghi died in Paris on the last day of 1917, aged seventy-six.  It was not until 1914, three years before his death, that he was given his first one-man show which was at the Venice Biennale of that year in his native country.

There were so many paintings by Zandometeghi I could have showcased but I have just chosen some of my favourites but I hope you will search out more of his works.