James Tissot. Part 3 – Life in England

Young Lady in a Boat by James Tissot (1870)

At the end of the 1860’s Tissot was still producing charming portraits of elegant young ladies. One such paintings were exhibited by Tissot in the 1870 Salon. It was entitled Jeune Femme en bateau (Young Lady in a Boat). It depicts a young lady in a boat wearing a fashionable early nineteenth century costume. Behind her sits her pet pug dog. This type of dog symbolised a sign of affluence and prestige. Look at her face – what is she thinking, why is she in the boat? Maybe she is on her way to meet her lover. We need to also to take into account the alternative title to this painting which was Adrift. So, could this mean her tryst with her beau is not going to go too well.

Le dejeuner sur l’herbe By Manet (1863)

The other work of Tissot which was exhibited at the 1870 Salon was his painting, Le Partie Carrée (The Foursome). There is a similarity between this work and Edouard Manet’s 1862 work, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) which had shocked critics and public alike seven years earlier.

The Foursome by James Tissot (c.1870)

For Tissot his depiction was a light-hearted look at eighteenth-century French manners and for that reason it proved a hit with the public. In this depiction, the female on the right lifts her glass high as she downs a glass of champagne, whilst her partner raises his glass to the man opposite in a celebratory toast. The man on the left raises his glass whilst his other hand is wrapped around the waist of his lady and cups her breast. She seems amused and looks boldly out at us with a questioning stare. Is she challenging us to censure her? It is interesting to note that she focuses us with a bold and defiant gaze which is mirrored by that of the woman in the boat in the previous painting. It is as if she is saying “if you don’t like what you see, hard luck!!!”.

A street in Paris in May 1871 by Maximilien Luce

By 1870 things were going well for Tissot. He was being celebrated as a great figurative painter and his paintings of elegant young ladies were selling well. What could go wrong for him? The answer for him and the rest of the people of France was war. Napoleon III, the Emperor of France since 1852, in a dispute over matters involving Spanish succession, declared war on Prussia in July 1870, having unwisely been counselled by his military advisers that the French army could defeat Prussia and that such a victory would, at the same time, restore his declining popularity in France. However, by January 1871, after a four month siege of Paris by the Prussian army, the fighting was over and the French were defeated. But worse was to come for those who had suffered the Prussian army’s siege of Paris. At the cessation of hostilities between the Prussian army and the French army, the latter was allowed to form a National Assembly. The Parisians, tense and irritable after the long strain of the siege, were horrified by the action of rural France in electing a monarchist assembly committed to what they regarded as a dishonourable peace. They vowed to end the rule of the National Assembly and the infamous and bloody Paris Commune was formed. The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from March 18th to May 21st 1871. The working class of Paris seized power of their own city and established the world’s first workers’ government. It all came to a bloody conclusion in May with the storming of the Parisian barricades by the army. It was estimated that twenty-five thousand died during the siege many summarily executed after the battle was over.

The First Man I saw Killed by James Tissot (1876)

So how did all this affect Tissot? Tissot, during the siege of the capital by the Prussian forces, saw active service when he joined two companies of the Garde Nationale, first the Eclaireurs de la Seine and later the Tirailleurs de la Seine, which included many patriotic artists who committed themselves along with a few talented lawyers, and traders to defend the city. Tissot recorded the horrors of battle with a small number of sketches and watercolours, which were later turned into prints and illustrations.

During the Paris Commune Tissot was rumoured to have become one of the violent revolutionary Communards. So why was he thought to have sided with the revolutionaries. Some believe it was an act of self-preservation and that of safeguarding his property, whilst others believed it was a supreme act of patriotism. What is known is that when the bloody collapse of the Paris Commune came in May 1871, Tissot fled the city and it was this hasty retreat that aroused suspicions of him being a Communard. The Parisian art market was ruined and life as an artist in the French capital was in disarray and so, in June 1871, Tissot arrived in London, almost penniless.

A Dandy by James Tissot (c.1873)

Tissot found sanctuary at the Cleve Lodge, Hyde Park Gate home of his friend Thomas Gibson Bowles, whom he had known and had occasionally carried out commissions for caricatures of prominent men for the magazine Vanity Fair, which was founded by Bowles. Tissot stayed with Bowles for several months and also was given a job of producing cartoon portraits for the Vanity Fair magazine. One such was his caricature entitled A Dandy.

George Whyte Melville, The Novelist Society by James Tissot (Vanity Fair September 1871)

Another was published in the September 21st, 1871 edition of Vanity Fair – a caricature of George Whyte-Melville, the Scottish novelist and poet. Although this was not the type of art that Tissot wanted to concentrate on, it provided him with financial support during his early stay in England.

Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby by James Tissot (1870)

Tissot’s reputation as a very talented portrait painter was further enhanced with the showing of two male portraits in the 1872 London International Exhibition. One of the paintings was a small (20ins x 24 ins,) portrait which had been commissioned by his friend Thomas Bowles.  It was of Bowles’ close friend, Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, the debonair soldier, who was a captain in the privileged Royal Horse Guards, the cavalry regiment that protected the monarch. It was Burnaby who suggested naming Bowles’ magazine Vanity Fair and it was he who lent half of the necessary £200 in start-up funding.  Burnaby then volunteered to go to Spain to chronicle his adventures for the satirical magazine. We see Burnaby depicted in his “undress” uniform as a captain in the 3rd Household Cavalry. He is the epitome of an elegant gentleman in a relaxed male conversation. The painting was eventually purchased by London’s National Portrait Gallery from Bowles’ son (and Burnaby’s godson), George, in 1933.

Gentleman in a railway carriage by James Tissot (1872)

The other Tissot work in the exhibition was also a portrait entitled Gentleman in a Railway Carriage (Portrait of Captain ***) which he completed in 1872 and is now housed at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester Massachusetts. The figure in the painting has never been identified but once again it is a portrait of a well-dressed elegant man. He is wearing a fur coat and over his knees is a travelling rug, on top of which is a book. He holds onto a strap and this very fact gives us the feel of the train rattling along at speed. He studies his pocket watch and we wonder is he late or is the train on time. This portrait is beginning to look like a narrative piece in which a story behind the depiction is beginning to emerge.

Tissot’s reputation as a talented painter was soon recognised in England thanks to his illustrations in Vanity Fair and his meetings with Thomas Bowles’ wealthy connections. In 1873, Tissot finally exhibited works at the Royal Academy which he had completed whilst living in England, .

An Interesting Story by James Tissot (c.1872)

The most well received of his exhibited works was An Interesting Story which he completed in 1872. The depiction, which is housed in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,  is set in the eighteenth century and it is a comedy of manners. Three figures dominate the depiction. A man, shown as a red-coated officer, is seen studying a map which lies on a table. He is recounting a story to two elegantly dressed young ladies. They seem completely disinterested in what they are hearing and find it difficult to hide their boredom. One looks away whilst the other tries to stifle a yawn.  It was the type of painting loved by the English public, who were fond of eighteenth century historical and literary scenes with a touch of humour. The art critic of the Athenaeum described the painting as:

“…a capital piece of humorous characterisation…”

The Tedious Story by James Tissot (1872)

Buoyed by the success of the painting Tissot produced several variations on the same theme, such as his 1872 work, The Tedious Story, with its similar River Thames backdrop.

Wapping on Thames by James McNeil Whistler (1861)

Such River Thames backdrops were used by other artists. The most famous one is probably the American artist James Whistler who in 1864 had his painting, Wapping on Thames, exhibited at the 1864 Royal Academy Exhibition and the Exposition Universelle in 1867. The background to his painting was a Wapping dockyard on the River Thames, close to where Whistler was living. Whistler set up his easel at an inn known as The Angel and he created the scene en plein air. The inn overhung the south bank of the Thames where it widens after the Pool of London and then winds out to sea. I love the juxtaposition of the contrasting colours used – bright turquoise for the water and sky against the oranges and browns used to depict the ships’ masts, rigging and dockyard buildings. The female in the painting was Joanna Hifferman, who was an artist’s model Whistler often used and who would become the artist’s lover. Next to her is Alphonse Legros, the French painter, and they are both in conversation with a sailor.

The Captain’s Daughter by James Tissot (1873)

Tissot was fascinated by the Thames and depicted it in many of his paintings. Maybe it reminded him of his childhood and the port of Nantes which he visited regularly. For Tissot the Port of London docks and the dockside buildings offered him so many artistic possibilities. At the 1873 Royal Academy Exhibition Tissot exhibited two paintings, both of which featured dockside backgrounds. The setting for the painting The Captain’s Daughter is the porch of the Falcon Tavern at Gravesend on the Thames. Tissot completed the work that year, and in it we see the Captain sitting discussing his daughter with her young sailor suiter, whilst they drink some wine. The daughter, tired of the conversation, stands up and gazes absentmindedly out over the river.

The Last Evening by James Tissot (1873)

The other Tissot painting exhibited at the 1873 Royal Academy Exhibition is probably Tissot’s best known London pictures. It is entitled The Last Evening and is one of his many shipboard paintings. It is a narrative piece and it is up to us to guess what is going on. There is enough of an ambiguity about the depiction to tease us into believing we alone know what is happening. The setting is a ship the night before it is about to set sail. Look at the way Tissot has skilfully painted the background of the ships and their rigging. In the foreground we see a young lady wearing a chequered jacket sitting in a Bentwood rocking chair. Next to her sitting in a wicker chair is a young sailor who only has eyes for the pretty lady. He stares passionately at the girl. In the mid-ground, sitting on a bench are two elderly men deep in discussion. One of the elder men is probably the father of the lady in the chair, the other, a member of the ship’s crew. Leaning over the back of the bench is a young girl who could be the lady’s younger sister, or could she be her daughter? The painting is housed at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery.

James Tissot was prospering in London.  His art was loved and sold well.  In my next blog I will look at what made him suddenly return to France if life was so good to him in England.

..…………..to be continued

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James Tissot. Part 2- A change of style and japonisme

Self Portrait of James Jacques Joseph Tissot (c.1898)

At the end of Part 1 of this blog about Tissot I told you that around 1863 he decided to change his artistic style. He decided to abandon his medieval style championed by the likes of the Belgian painter Henri Leys and enter the world of modern day portraiture.

Portrait of Mlle L.L… by James Tissot (1864)

This change of style can be seen in the two outstanding paintings he exhibited at the 1864 Salon, both of which are housed in the Musée d’Orsay. One was entitled Portrait of Mlle L.L… often referred to as Young Lady in a Red Jacket, and this is now looked upon as one of Tissot’s most esteemed portraits. It is an unusual depiction and the first two questions we may ask are what is the young woman sitting on and then who is this Maemoiselle L.L.? The answer to both these questions is still unknown! The young woman’s pose is one of effortlessness, with her right arm dangling loosely over her skirt, and a there is a sense of detachment about her, but her inscrutable gaze is as engaging as it is captivating. Tissot’s depiction of her clothes, the fashionable black satin skirt contrasted by the red bolero with the bobble-fringe was all the rage for all things Spanish in the 1860’s. As usual the addition of items surrounding the lady such as the books coupled with her bold stare leads us to believe that she was independent by nature.

Dominique Ingres 1856 portrait of Mme Moitessier

The lady was truly one of Tissot’s great images of the nineteenth century woman and, because of the way she is depicted, it is often compared to Dominique Ingres 1856 Portrait of Mme Moitessier. In Le Grand Journal of June 1864, the art critic Jules Castagnary wrote about Tissot’s change of style:

“…Mr Tissot, the crazy primitive of the most recent Salons has suddenly changed his manner and moved closer to Mr Courbet, a good mark for Mr. Tissot…”

The Two Sisters by James Tissot (1863)

The second portrait by Tissot exhibited at the 1864 Salon was entitled The Two Sisters.  We see the two females, dressed in white, standing by a stream. Once again there is a prevailing air of innate stylishness and sincerity about Tissot’s depiction.

Symphony in White, No. 1 – The White Girl (Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan) by Whistler

The two figures seem to blend in with their surroundings and the painting is often likened to Whistler’s Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, (Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan), which was exhibited at the Salon des Refusés in 1863 and known to be one of Tissot’s favourites. Once again, we see the Tissot’s depiction of the females as being stylish, sophisticated and well-bred.

Spring by James Tissot (1865)

Tissot’s friendship with James Whistler meant that he received the latest art news from his friend who had been living in London since 1859. One of Whistler’s near neighbours was the pre-Raphaelite painter Rossetti and soon Tissot became interested in the works of the pre-Raphaelites and how their works concentrated on the beauty of their subjects and less about narratives attached to the depiction. In 1865 Tissot’s painting Spring was shown at the Salon and this had an undoubted connection to Millais’ 1859 work with a similar title.

Apple Blossoms or Spring by John Everett Millais (1859)

The similarity of the two was remarked upon by the art critics.

In the Studio by Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens (1857)

Having been influenced by the Middle Age-style of the works of the Belgian artist, Henri Leys, in the late 1850’s Tissot became enamoured with the artistry of another Belgian painter, Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens, in the late 1860’s. Stevens’ works focused on pretty, fashionably-dressed young women. His stylish young women were always portrayed wearing beautiful clothes and soon Tissot followed suit.

Jacques Joseph Tissot. Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née, Thérèse Feuillant by James Tissot (1866)

A good example of this style was Tissot’s painting entitled Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon which he completed in 1867 and now hangs in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The subject of the painting was Thérèse-Stephanie-Sophie Feuillant, the Marquise de Miramon. She was from a wealthy bourgeois family and inherited a fortune from her father and in 1860 married René de Cassagnes de Beaufort, Marquis de Miramon. The setting is the Château de Paulhac, Auvergne, the residence of her husband’s family. She is wearing a rose-coloured, ruffled peignoir, or dressing gown. A black lace scarf and silver cross hang round her neck. What is also interesting are some of the accoutrements we see depicted, all of which have been shown for a specific reason. There became an obsession with Japanese art and design that swept France and the rest of Europe after trade with Japan resumed in the 1850s, the country having been closed to the West since about 1600. This trend was known as japonisme. It was the love of Japanese art and design and the collecting of all things Japanese was all the rage. Tissot decided to include a touch of japonisme in this portrait. Directly behind her, standing on the floor, is a Japanese screen depicting cranes on a gold ground. The lady rests her left elbow on the mantlepiece which draws our eyes to it and on it we see several pieces of Japanese ceramics. Also on the mantle is a terracotta bust which alludes to the noble heritage of her spouse. Alongside the Japanese screen we can see an expensive Louis XVI stool and on it is some needlework which we are to believe belongs to the lady and thus tells us that she is a wealthy lady of leisure. The work was completed in 1866 and the following year Tissot wrote to the Marquis and asked if he could borrow the work and have it exhibited at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The Marquis agreed and later,  Tissot carried out a number of portrait commissions for the Marquis.

Tissot was not only and avid collector of Japanese art and artefacts. This is borne out in a letter Rossetti wrote to his mother in November 1864 about his time in Paris and his visit to Madame Desoye’s rue de Rivoli shop:

“…I have bought very little – only four Japanese books….. I went to the Japanese shop but found all the costumes there were being snapped up by a French artist, Tissot, who it seems is doing three Japanese pictures, which the mistress of the shop described to me as the three wonders of the world, evidently in her opinion quite throwing Whistler into the shade…”

Japonaise au Bain (Japanese Girl Bathing) by James Tissot (1864)

So we know that japonisme began to influence Tissot’s style of painting and one of the “three wonders of the world” paintings was thought to be his 1864 work Japonaise au Bain (Japanese Girl Bathing). The model Tissot used for this work was not a Japanese girl but a Parisian model dressed in a kimono. This was simply a transference of one of Tissot’s Parisian beauties whom he had used before and converted her into a Japanese beauty. This painting which some would declare as being slightly pornographic was his only depiction of a female nude.

Young Lady Holding Japanese Objects by James Tissot (1865)

Tissot however did use a Japanese lady in his 1865 painting entitled Young Lady Holding Japanese Objects.

Prince Akitake Tokugawa by James Tissot (1864)

In 1868 Tissot’s reputation of painting Japanese scenes had been acclaimed by critics and public alike and he was offered the post of gwa-gaku (drawing master) to Prince Akitake who was the young brother of the last Tokugawa Shogun, who had led the Japanese Imperial Commission to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. At the end of his seven month tenure as tutor Tissot painted a watercolour portrait of his fourteen-year-old pupil which was mounted as a hanging scroll in green and gold silk.

The Circle of the Rue Royale by James Tissot (1868)

Now that Tissot was recognised for his modern portraiture he became inundated with commissions and one of the most important commission he received was for a group portrait of members of an exclusive Parisian all-male club, of which the Marquis de Miramon was a member. The painting, which was completed in 1868, was entitled The Circle of the Rue Royale. The setting for the painting was one of the balconies of the Hôtel de Coislin that still overlooks the Place de la Concorde. The terms of the commission were quite bizarre. Each one of the twelve members of the club depicted paid 1000 Francs for the painting to be made, and the final owner was to be determined via a special draw. In the painting, the Marquis de Miramon is sitting to the left of the sofa, wearing a top hat. Baron Hottinger, is seated to the right of the sofa, and it was he who won the draw and kept the painting. The painting remained in his family until it was acquired by the Musée d’Orsay in 2011. Once again we see the attention Tissot has paid to accurately depicting the men’s clothing and this probably goes back to the fact that both his mother and father were involved in the fashion industry. The clothing worn by wealthy men of the time along with the fashion accessories were a sign of their social status and one presumes they wanted Tissot to capture every minute detail. This type of portrait is often referred to as a conversation piece. Works of this kind usually depict informal groups, often family members or friends. The people depicted are sometimes, but not always, engrossed in conversation. James Tissot was now forging ahead as one of the most talented and respected portrait painters of his generation, was one of the most sought-after portraitists of chic Paris society, partly due to his skill for placing his proud, if somewhat arrogant, sitters in lavish settings evocative of wealth and sophistication.

Portrait of Eugène Coppens de Fontenay by James Tissot (1867)

Although Tissot may be best known for his depiction of fashionable young ladies he was equally accomplished when it came to male portraiture and an example of this is his 1867 Portrait of Eugène Coppens de Fontenay, the Belgian industrialist, Catholic politician and president of the exclusive Jockey Club in Paris. The painting is now housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In my next blog about James Tissot I will look at his hasty departure from France and his time in England.

..……………………………… to be continued.


Most of the information I am using comes from Christopher Wood’s 1986 biography of Tissot which is an excellent read, full of beautiful pictures.

James Tissot. Part 1. The early years.

Self portrait by James Tissot (1885)

My artist today is the French nineteenth century painter Jacques Joseph Tissot. In the introduction to Tissot’s biography by Christopher Wood, he writes:

“…Tissot was an assiduous and highly competent painter, most of whose pictures are of pretty, elegant women; his work is visually attractive, without being too demanding intellectually…”

It is that last phrase which is probably the reason that Tissot’s work was loved by the public but was panned and scorned by the art historians and art critics. His country of birth, France, look upon him as just a minor artist saying that his work is too anglicised. It probably rankles with the French art critics that Tissot spent eleven years in London during which time most art historians believe he produced his finest work and accordingly was a financial success.

Jacques Joseph Tissot was born on October 15th, 1836 in Nantes, which, at the time, was a prosperous seaport on the Loire estuary. He was the second of four sons. His father was Marcel Théodore Tissot and his mother, Marie Tissot (née Durand). His father, who was born in 1807, came from Trévilliers, a small mountain village in the Franche Comté region of eastern France, close to the Swiss border. As a young man Marcel left home to seek his fortune and through his hard work was a very successful man. He met and married his wife, Marie Durand, a Breton lady, and daughter of an impoverished royalist family. Marcel and Marie set themselves up in the drapery business and she began to design ladies’ hats. So successful were the couple that in 1845 they returned to Marcel’s birthplace and bought themselves a substantial estate, Chateau de Buillon near Besançon.

Jacques Joseph Tissot was brought up in the family home in Nantes. During his early life Tissot inherited a number of traits which were to help him through life. From his father he acquired a business acumen which was to serve him well during his life and make him one of the shrewdest and financially successful of all the nineteenth century painters. From his mother, who was a very pious Catholic, she instilled in him religious feelings which were to change the course of his later life. His parents through their drapery and design business instilled in their son his love of female fashion and elegance. His final great influence was the port of Nantes itself. For a young boy the port and its ships must have been awe-inspiring and many of his paintings completed whilst living in London thirty years later featured scenes of ports and the ships. Nantes was also blessed with great Medieval and Gothic architecture and young Tissot often sketched the buildings and in fact his early career choice was to become an architect.

He was educated at a Jesuit boarding school but proved to be just an average student. At the age of seventeen he had set his mind to becoming an artist and as was the case in so many stories about artists, his parents were dead set on opposing his choice for his future. His father was adamant that his son’s proposed choice of career was a total waste of time and, but for Tissot’s mother, her son would not have been able to follow his favoured profession.

Jeune homme nu assis au bord de la mer by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1836)

In late 1856, at the age of twenty, Jacques Joseph Tissot travelled to Paris to embark on artistic training. His two main tutors were Louis Lamothe, the history painter with whom Tissot studied both Italian and Flemish Primitives at the Louvre and spent many hours copying them. He also studied under Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin. Flandrin’s most celebrated work was his 1836 painting,   Jeune homme nu assis au bord de la mer (Young Male Nude Seated beside the Sea) which he completed whilst in Rome during his five-year stay, which was granted to him for winning The Prix de Rome in 1832. Tissot spent a short time attending the Ecole des Beaux Arts and it was here he became a close friend of James McNeill Whistler and it was through him that he met the leading French artists of the time such as Fantin-Latour, Alphonse Legros and Gustave Courbet. Whistler also introduced Tissot to a number of English painters such as Edward Poynton and George du Maurier, the illustrator and novelist. It is widely believed that Tissot’s friendship with Whistler and his English friends made him change his name to the anglicised version, James Tissot

Portrait of James Tissot by Edgar Degas (1868)

Another of his friends was the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas who painted a portrait of Tissot in 1868. Theirs was a stormy relationship which came to an abrupt end in 1895 when Degas discovered that Tissot had sold one of Degas’ paintings which had been given to him by the artist as a gift. Degas may also have been a little jealous of Tissot’s success in his art sales which were far greater than his own.

Self portrait by Henri Leys

Tissot was now seeking new subjects and a new mode of painting and was strongly influenced by the work of the Belgian painter and engraver Jan August Hendrik Leys (Henri Leys), who was a leading representative of the historical or Romantic school in Belgian art. Leys was notable for his history and genre paintings which were often referred to as style troubadour which was a somewhat mocking term for French historical painting of the early 19th century with idealised depictions of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This was also a style favoured by the young Alma-Tadema who was, at the time, based in Antwerp.

The Trental Mass for Berthal de Haze by Henrik Leys (1854)

Leys won a gold medal at the Exhibition Universelle in Paris in 1855 for his historical painting Les Trentains de Berthal de Haze (The Trental Mass of Berthal de Haze). A trental mass was a Roman Catholic mass for the dead on the thirtieth day after death or burial. The art critics appreciated the high quality of his reconstructions of times past through his beautiful depictions of early costumes and architecture, as well as the true-to-life postures and facial expressions of his characters combined with the vividness of the colours he used.

Marguerite in Church by James Tissot (1860)

From 1859 and for the next five years Tissot paintings featured depictions of historical and religious scenes, many of which derived from Goethe’s Faust. Such depictions were very popular at the time and paintings featuring these subjects were often exhibited at the Paris Salon and London’s Royal Academy. Tissot incorporated, in a number of his paintings, scenes from Faust and Marguerite, an 1855 romantic opera, which was popular with a number of painters, such as Ari Scheffer. The libretto was written by Michel Carré and loosely based on the Faust legend, but simply focuses on Faust’s romantic encounter with Marguerite (Gretchen in Goethe’s original drama) and the tragic results of their liaison. The character of Marguerite was looked upon by the French public as a romantic but ill-fated figure who was a vulnerable victim of her fate.

The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite by Tissot (1860)

Although the public may have liked these works which appeared at the Paris Salon the art critics were less impressed, nevertheless one of Tissot’s first “Faustian” paintings, The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite attracted the attention of an important patron, Comte de Nieuwekerke, a high-level civil servant in the Second French Empire. who persuaded the French government to buy the painting for the Musée de Luxembourg. This was such an honour for Tissot as up until then he had never achieved  a medal for his works exhibited at the Salon.

During the Service (also known as Martin Luther’s Doubts) by James Tissot (1860)

Tissot was not deterred by criticism of his Henri Leys painting style and continued with his historical paintings. In 1861 he entered two of his works at the Salon. One, which he completed in 1860, was entitled Martin Luther’s Doubts. In this depiction by Tissot we see the gloomy figure of Luther leaning against a stone pillar, seemingly lost in thought, and completely isolated from the congregation. It is a depiction of the alienation of the man and this theme of estrangement featured in many of Tissot’s works. This is a depiction of a man, termed as a heretic, who openly rejected several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church three centuries earlier.

Voie des fleurs, voie des pleurs (Way of Flowers, Way of Tears) by James Tissot (1860)

His second work at that year’s Salon was a more unusual painting entitled Voie des fleurs, voie des pleurs (Way of Flowers, Way of Tears), often referred to as the Dance of Death. This is an amazing composition with all the figures silhouetted on a hillside with the skeletal figure of Death with his billowing white shroud, bringing up the rear with a coffin slung on his back. Although a very theatrical depiction it was one of only a few of Tissot’s early works which was well-liked by the art critics.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by James Tissot (1862)

Buoyed with the success and the sale of his Faust and Marguerite painting, Tissot decided to carry on with his historical style paintings and in 1863 produced three large-scale works for that year’s Salon, one of which was The Return of the Prodigal Son. It is a remarkable multi-figured painting which is part biblical (the story) part theatrical as the setting looks like a theatre stage set with its medieval buildings. It is a pure Henri Leys-style of painting and one of the last of the type Tissot would complete. The critics on both sides of the Channel were unimpressed. The critic of the London art’s Journal, The Athenaeum stated that it was affected, false and artificial and went on to rebuke him saying that he was wasting his talents by imitating so bizarre a school of painters as that of ancient Flanders. That was the final straw as far as Tissot was concerned and he decided to abandon the Middle Ages for his depictions and instead concentrate on modern life.

The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: The Return (1882)

Twenty years later however, he did return to the subject of the Prodigal Son with his 1882 work, The Return of the Prodigal Son in Modern Life:  The Return,  in which he depicts the prodigal son returning repentant to his father, in a contemporary context. The son’s ship has just come in and his father awaits him at the quayside.  This painting is now housed in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington DC.

..…………….. to be continued

 


Most of the information I am using comes from Christopher Wood’s 1986 biography of Tissot which is an excellent read, full of beautiful pictures.

Hans Andersen Brendekilde

Hans Andersen Brendekilde

As I have said before, I choose the subject for my blogs based on having sufficient information about the artist and also access to a large selection of his or her work. Without those two criteria the blog would be somewhat empty. I also prefer to feature “unknown” (at least, to me) artists. However, once in a while, there comes a time when I look at a painting and have the overwhelming desire to share it with you, even before knowing whether my two criteria could be achieved. Today’s blog is one of those occasions.

My featured artist today is the nineteenth Danish painter Hans Andersen Brendekilde although at birth his name was simply Hans Andersen but later added to his surname the name of his birth village, Brændekilde.    He was born on April 7th, 1857, on the island of Funen, the third largest Danish island,which lies five miles south-west of the island’s main town, Odense. He was brought up in an impoverished household and had to try and support the family by doing jobs, which included working in the house of a farmer doing chores. His father, Anders Rasmussen, was a maker of wooden shoes and his mother was Maren Nielsdatter.

L. A. Ring painting near Aasum smithy by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1893)

As a child, Hans was interested in carving figures of animals out of wood. When he was attending the local school one of his teachers discovered his talent as an artist and sent him to a school in Odense. Here he became a good friend of Axel Blumensaadt, and it was Axel’s mother who helped fund Hans to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where he initially studied sculpture.

Portrait of L.A. Ring by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

He became a friend and associate of painter Laurits Andersen, and in 1881 he left behind sculpting to take up painting. Laurits Andersen and Hans Andersen held a joint exhibition, but because of the confusion of their surnames they both decided to add their birthplace to their name and so Laurits who was born in the Zeeland village of Ring became known as Laurits Andersen Ring (L.A. Ring) and Hans took the name Hans Andersen Brendekilde (H.A. Brendekilde). Their paintings at their first exhibition now had their “new” designated surnames to avoid confusion.

In the summer of 1882 Hans and some other artists were invited to stay on a farm in Rugelund by its owner and soon an artist colony was formed. For Hans it was not just a chance to paint and mix with fellow artists it was a chance to be well-fed. It was also a chance to see first-hand the harsh working environment of the rural workers which he would later depict on many of his canvases. But all was not doom and gloom in his works for often, in comparison to his gritty social realism works, other paintings by Brendekilde highlighted the pleasures of living in the countryside.

Udslidt by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1889)

But let us have a look at probably his most famous work, the one which drew me to looking into his life. It was his social realist painting entitled Udslidt (Worn Out) which he completed in 1889.

In this heart-rending depiction we see a day-labourer lying crumpled on the rock-strewn ground of the barren field where he had been working. His onerous task, with other peasants, would have been to remove the stones from the ground, prior to ploughing and planting, and put them in piles awaiting disposal. The field although barren takes up eighty per cent of the picture. Look at the detail Brendekilde has incorporated in his depiction of the ground. However, what is more emotive is the portrayal of the two figures in the foreground. The elderly peasant worker has stumbled and fallen to the ground. He is dressed in shabby clothes which are covered in dirt. One of his wooden clogs has fallen off during his fall. The heavy stones he had been carry in his apron, lie on the ground next to him. He had finally been overcome by exhaustion or maybe he has suffered a heart attack. A woman, maybe his wife or daughter or just a co-worker, has rushed to his aid. She is kneeling next to him and cradles his head.

A scream for help

Her mouth is open wide as she screams for somebody to come and help. Her impassioned plea has yet to be answered and she is both overwhelmed with fear for the man and her own helplessness.  The picture was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and also at The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

It received a mixed reception. Many people lavished praise on the artist for the work whilst the “monied-people” and the bourgeois press thought the painting was over-melodramatic and condemned it for its blatant political stance about the life of the poor and downtrodden which they obviously didn’t want to be reminded about.

Fortrykt by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1887)

Another of his works with a depiction in a similar vain is his 1887 painting simply entitled Fortrykt which literally translated now means “pre-printed” but it is more likely that the artist was using the word to mean “supressed” or “subdued”. The painting was completed two years before the previous work Worn Out and again dwells on the hardship suffered by the rural peasant class, who were the social losers and who were way down the social ladder. Four people dominate the foreground and we may surmise that they are a young woman and her child along with her mother or older sister and her father. The older woman and the seated father are dressed in old clothes and have been working in the fields gathering bits of grain to take home.

The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet, (1857).

They are the gleaners, as depicted in Millet’s famous 1857 painting,  The Gleaners.  Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. It is the Biblically-derived right to glean the fields and was reserved for the poor; a right, enforceable by law, that continued in parts of Europe into modern times. The young woman is dressed in finer clothes and has not been working in the field. She is talking to her father and her mother raises her head to listen. The father sits on a bag of grain and looks exhausted and yet there seems to be an air of resignation about him. He has accepted his lowly lot in life. Has his daughter told him something he didn’t want to hear? Is it something to do with young child who, whilst amusing herself, is sitting on a pile of coats?

The First Anemones by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1889)

At the end of the nineteenth century Brendekilde painted several cutting social-realist works. At other times he depicted the everyday life of poor people without critical undertones. These were more to do with the happier memories Brendekilde had of rural life when lack of money could not detract from the pleasures of immersing oneself in nature such as his 1889 springtime painting, The First Anemones.

A Spring Day by Hans Anderson Brendekilde (c.1890)

Again, we see a similar setting in his work A Spring Day when the villagers, dressed in their “Sunday-best” clothes take a pleasurable walk through the forest.

Autumn by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

Another fascinating and evocative work is his 1908 oil painting, Autumn. It is a combination of a landscape and sombre realist style painting in which we see an elderly lady standing by an open grave in a cemetery. It is a dark autumn day and we see the leaves from the nearby trees lying all around. There is a gale blowing which is stripping the leaves from the trees which are leaning over due to the ferocity of the wind. In the middle ground one can see the church and the green grass of the graveyard. Two black crosses have been blown over and lie abandoned against a hillock. Some graves seem to have been tended whilst others look abandoned. The old woman through her age and the strength of the wind is bent over and she clutches at her dress whilst holding on to her walking cane. She gazes into the excavated hole in the ground. The question the artist poses is what are her thoughts. Has she lost a loved one who will be buried in this plot or is she contemplating her own end of life. Could this even be termed a vanitas painting?  One of the pleasures of looking at a painting is to try and decide for ourselves what we see in a depiction and work out what the artist was trying to convey.

A Wooded Path In Autumn by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1902)

The autumn season often featured in Brendekilde’s painting.  He enjoyed depicting this colourful time of the year.  A time when the normally green leaves of many deciduous trees and shrubs slowly turn to various shades of red, yellow, purple, black, orange, pink, magenta, blue and brown, during a few weeks in the autumn season, before they fall to the ground.  Brendekilde beautifully captures that moment in his 1902 painting entitled A Wooded Path in Autumn.

A Short Respite by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

Elderly people often featured in Brendekilde’s paintings and another of my favourites is his painting entitled A Short Respite in which we see an old man taking a rest from his gardening chores looked on by his wife.

Soap Bubbles by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1906)

It was not just the elderly who featured in Brendekilde’s works of art, nor were the subjects of his painting always sombre.  In later life, he would concentrate on idyllic village scenes often depicting happy children, innocent children, and these proved very popular with the public.

Home with Dinner by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

In many of his paintings featuring children he also included one or two elderly people. Maybe he remembered his childhood days and how elderly relatives and neighbours played a part in his life. It seems strange now that some look upon paintings depicting an older person with a child as something suspicious and unnatural. Gone are the days when we accept unconditionally that our young children and an elderly person such as a relative can form a bond and in some ways learn from each other.

Fishing Village by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

Brendekilde died on 30 March 1942, aged 84,  in Jyllinge, a town located on the eastern shores of Roskilde Fjord,  some 40 km west of Copenhagen.

Mary Adshead – the great muralist.

Mary Adshead

The artist I am showcasing today, Mary Adshead, was an exceptionally gifted person. She was an artist who moved seamlessly between easel painting and murals.   She was a portrait painter.  She painted on furniture and glass.  She was a postage stamp designer.  She was a book illustrator and devised and designed advertisements and stage sets but will probably be best remembered as a muralist.

Mary was born in Bloomsbury, London, on February 14th, 1904. She was the daughter and only child of Stanley Davenport Adshead and Annie Adshead. Her father was a well-known neo-Georgian architect and talented amateur watercolourist, who trained in Manchester and London and for four years was clerk of works for the vast mansion at Rosehaugh, Argyll, during which time he met his wife, Annie, who was the village school mistress. In 1909, Stanley became Associate Professor of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool, and in 1912 became the Lever Professor of Civic Design. He moved back to London in 1914 and became the first Professor of Town Planning at University College, London, and remained there until his retirement in 1935.

Stanley Davenport Adshead (1927)

From the age of six, Mary was determined to become an artist and spent much of her time drawing and she produced many sketchbooks of cartoons and illustrations to stories.  The family would spend their summer holidays in the New Forest. Her mother and father’s relationship was often stormy and Mary found herself acting as a go-between, passing messages from one parent to the other.  At the age of twelve, she attended Putney High School and remained there for three years.    At the age of fifteen she went to Paris with her mother and both lived in a hotel in the French capital for six months whilst Mary attended the Lycée Victor Dury.

Ludus Pro Patria by Puvis de Chavannes (c.1883)
This painting which is housed at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, replicates the central portion of a mural, Ludus Pro Patria (Patriotic Games), which was installed in the stairwell of the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, France

Whilst in Paris she visited many of the famous art galleries and was greatly influenced by the murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.  In the Autumn of 1921, when she was seventeen years old, her father took her to meet Henry Tonks the principal at the Slade School of Art, which was part of the University College, London, where Stanley Adshead was a professor.  Henry Tonks, a former surgeon, had a reputation for being very harsh with his students and a fierce taskmaster.  Mary brought along a portfolio of work which she had put together whilst in Paris but Tonks was not impressed.  However through a lot of arm-twisting by her father Tonks agreed to allow her to enrol on his art course.  This was a great relief to Mary and her father who, because he was a professor at the UCL, would not have to pay for his daughter’s tuition.

Poster artwork; Country joys on Londons Underground, by Mary Adshead, 1926

During the early phase of her course Mary did not work as hard as she should and was happy to hang out with a set of wealthy girls who looked on the art and course as simply a pleasant hobby.  Soon she realised that she was wasting valuable time and began to knuckle down and Tonks began to be very impressed with her work. Mary and fellow student, Rex Whistler won the joint first prize in the Slade’s Summer painting competition in 1924 and as a result, when their time at the Slade came to an end, Henry Tonks arranged for them to undertake a joint mural commission at the Highway Boys’ Club in London’s East End.

Mary Adshead 1926 mural:
A Tropical Fantasy:
for Charles Reilly’s Dining Room
Mural (panel 1 of 6)

Once she had completed that commission, more followed and her next one, in 1924, was to create a mural based on a desert island theme, which became known as A Tropical Fantasy. It was commissioned by Charles Reilly, the professor of architecture at Liverpool University, and one-time colleague of Mary’s father.  It is now housed at the Liverpool University Victoria Art Gallery. It is one of just a few of her murals to survive. That same year she completed a large mural entitled The Housing of the People, which was exhibited at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

Bank Underground station, advertising mural by Mary Adshead which was situated next to escalator (1926)

She designed posters for the Underground Group and London Transport in the period 1927-37 and also carried out decorative works at Bank and Piccadilly Circus Underground Stations.

An English Holiday – Village Inn, 1928

 

One of her most lauded and often considered as her finest work was a commission she received in 1928 from Lord Beaverbrook, the millionaire Canadian-British newspaper publisher and politician, for a mural to cover the walls of his dining room at his Newmarket House, Calvin Lodge. He had decided that the mural should depict scenes of Newmarket life such as the horse racing and the fair and should depict his well-known and famous friends and it was that last instruction which was to be the stumbling-block to this project.

An English Holiday – The Puncture by Mary Adshead (1928)

The resultant panels, collectively titled An English Holiday, were true masterpieces combining humour with an insight into a life of privilege and elegance. They were described at the time as being in ‘the manner of English 18th-century sporting prints and acquatints. The paintings were packed with activity.

Village Inn by Mary Adshead

 

In Village Inn, a gentleman cyclist flirts with a country maid. In another one we see Arnold Bennett playing the harmonium for a crowd of gypsies. In another we see Lady Louis Mountbatten waiting by her car, the tyre of which had punctured and is being offered assistance by a swaggering, bearded character who looks very much like the painter Augustus John. More bizarrely Churchill is depicted astride an elephant. All of the characters are making their way to the Newmarket racecourse to meet Lord Beaverbrook.

 

 

 

However, Lady Diana Cooper, a good friend of Lord Beaverbrook and who also appeared picnicking in one of paintings persuaded him not to install the murals. Her argument being that as he was so cantankerous and quarrelsome, he was bound to, sooner or later, argue with one or more of the people depicted in the murals and then he would be forced to look at their depictions every time he dined. He listened to her advice and returned the panels to Adshead and paid the two-thirds rejection fee.

The panels were reassembled and exhibited at the large Peter Jones Department store in Central London in 1930 before being rolled up and relegated to a cupboard in the Adshead’s house where years later all but three were destroyed by fire.

The Little Boy and his House by Stephen Bone and Mary Adshead

In 1929 Mary Adshead married the painter Stephen Bone, the son of the artist and etcher Sir Muirhead Bone. Stephen and Mary had been students together at the Slade. The couple went on to have three children, two sons, Quentin and Sylvester and a daughter, Christina.  Mary and Stephen collaborated on a couple of children’s books, namely The Little Boy and His House in 1936, The Silly Snail and Other Stories in 1942 and The Little Boys and Their Boats in 1953 in which Mary provided the illustrations.

 

Chateau Poulet, near Forcalquier, Haute Provence by Mary Adshead

During their early married life, the couple made many painting and sketching tours during their travels through Europe.  Mary received many commissions through her architect father and also through the good auspices of her father-in-law who was always singing her praises in his circle of artist friends.  Her father-in-law, Muirhead Bone was well known for helping young aspiring artists such as Stanley Spencer, Gwen John and Cristopher Nevinson.

Morning after the Flood by Mary Adshead (1928)

Mary Adshead’s first solo exhibition was held in 1930 at the Goupil Gallery and included the painting The Morning after the Flood which is now part of the Tate collection. This decorative painting by Mary Adshead was characteristic of the style taught at the Slade Art School when she was a student. The tutors at the Slade had students set out figurative compositions that had connections with Biblical tales. This work was set the day after the Great Flood when Noah’s boat with his family and animals had come to rest on dry land.  One art critic wrote that her figure painting combined a fashionable primitivism, loosely derived from Stanley Spencer with a fluency and humour rarely found among her contemporaries.

Self Portrait by Mary Adshead (1931)

Her talent as a portrait artist can be seen in her 1931 self-portrait.

Portrait of Daphne Charlton,by Mary Adshead (c.1935)

Other portraits she completed include one of Daphne Charlton, the painter who studied at the Slade and who was a close friend of Stanley Spencer.

One of her favourites was one she did of her three children.

Victoria Pier, Colwyn Bay prior to demolition (pre-2017)

There is actually connection between Mary Adshead and her father and a place near where I live. The connection is the Victoria Pier Pavilion at Colwyn Bay, North Wales. The original pier was started in 1899 and was completed two years later. A 600-seat ‘Bijou’ theatre was built at the pier head in 1917 for the purposes of light entertainment. This original pavilion was completely destroyed by fire in 1922. This disaster forced the owners, the Victoria Pier Company, into bankruptcy and the pier was taken over by Colwyn Bay Urban District Council which arranged to re-build the structure. Eleven years later this second pavilion was destroyed by fire and a second blaze a few months later destroyed the theatre.

The mural decorations by Mary Adshead in the auditorium of Colwyn Bay Pier

Not to be deterred by these two disasters, the Colwyn Bay Urban District Council set about rebuilding, and the third pavilion was opened on Tuesday 8 May 1934 at a cost of £16,000. Now to the connection !

Inside Victoria Pavilion, Colwyn Bay with murals by Mary Adshead and Eric Ravilious

The third pavilion was designed by architect Stanley Davenport Adshead, Mary’s father, and Mary and Eric Ravilious were commissioned to paint some Art Deco murals for the interior of the pier building. The pier was badly damaged by the gales and sea in 2017 and started to collapse and it was decided to dismantle the whole structure.

Sections of murals from Colwyn Bay pier pavilion

The Art Deco murals created by Eric Ravilious and Mary Adshead, back in 1934, from inside the pavilion, have all been successfully removed and are currently awaiting restoration.

Mary Adshead and Stephen Bone

Stephen Bone, Mary’s husband, was a landscape painter and for a while was very successful but later the market for his work dried up and he became depressed and began to look upon himself as a failure. Stephen Bone died of bowel and liver cancer on 15 September 1958 at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. He was just fifty-three years old.

Travelling with a Sketchbook by Mary Adshead

After the death of her husband, and with her children all grown up, Mary embarked on a tour of America. During the adventure she carried her sketchbook and filled it with drawings of her journey. When she returned to England she published a book about her travels entitled Travelling with a Sketchbook.

1952 8d Wilding definitive stamp designed by Mary Adstead

Between 1948 and 1963 she submitted designs for a number of Post Office stamp issues including the Universal Postal Union stamps of 1949, the Festival of Britain stamp of 1951 and four denominations of the Wilding definitive stamps of 1952, which featured the Dorothy Wilding photographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II .  Adshead’s design for the 8d, 9d, 10d and 11d were chosen.

 

Mary Adshead
(1904 – 1995)

In her latter years, lameness caused by painting off ladders hampered her work and life, but, ever purposeful, she would crawl where she could not walk with a stick, curious glances notwithstanding.  Despite this affliction Mary Adshead remained an active working artist until the end of her life.  She died in London on September 3rd 1995, aged 91.

The vanitas paintings of Evert Collier

Self-Portrait with a Vanitas Still-life by Evert Collier (1684)

For those of you who have been following my blog over the years, you will know of my love of Flemish and Dutch art. Many of you would be able to conjure up names of some of the great Netherlandish artists such as the Flemish painters Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Memling, Quentin Massys, and David Teniers or the Dutch painters such as Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer, van Gogh and Rembrandt, to mention just a few. My other artistic love is paintings with symbolism and so in the blog today, I want to introduce you to a lesser known Dutch painter many of whose paintings were awash with a myriad of symbolic objects.

Self portrait by Evert Collier (1682)

My painter I am looking at today is the seventeenth century artist, Evert Collier, who is famous for his vanitas and trompe-l’œil still life works and today I will look at his vanitas paintings. Edwaert Colyer, a Dutch painter possibly of English descent, (who later anglicised his name to Edward Collier) was born in Breda in January 1642 and baptised Evert Calier. He trained in Haarlem and eventually became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke.

Portrait of Vincent Laurenz van der Vinne by Frans Hals (ca 1655}

One of the greatest influences on Collier was a fellow painter of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, Vincent Laurensz. van der Vinne. Initially van de Vinne trained as a weaver but then decided to concentrate on painting and in his late teens.  He studied under Frans Hals, who actually painted his portrait around 1660, which is now housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
The paintings of van der Vinne which survive today are mostly still lifes and genre scenes. They often include many aspects of trompe l’oeil and, in many instances, incorporate vanitas items.

Vanitas with a Royal Crown by Vincent Laurensz. van der Vinne (c.1649)

Vanitas paintings are subtle moralistic depictions which were very popular at the time and were those works of art which, through their symbols, depicted the impermanence of life, the pointlessness of pleasure and were meant to remind people that death is inevitable. In a way they were to counter the wealth and profligacy of many of the well-to-do citizens. The word vanitas comes from the Latin noun ’emptiness’, ‘futility’, or ‘worthlessness’, which was the traditional Christian view being that earthly goods and lavish pastimes are merely fleeting and worthless moments in the great scheme of life. Such prosperity was countered by the words of condemnation from the bible (Ecclesiastes 1:2):

“…Vanity of vanities”, says the Preacher, “vanity of vanities!
All is vanity.…”

Vanitas Still Life by Evert Collier

The first work by Collier I am showing is one simply entitled A Vanitas Still Life which was completed by him in 1689. Let us study the work and look at the amazing detail. Look at the way Collier has depicted the string of pearls and the other jewels spilling out of an open casket. Next to the casket we see a Nautilus cup, so called as it was a cup made from a carved and polished nautilus shell and then mounted by goldsmiths on a thin stem of gold or silver to add to the extravagance. In front of the Nautilus cup we see a skull, crowned with laurel. The skull lies on top of an upturned crown, below which we see closed bellows and the jewelled hilt of a sword. The hilt of the sword traps a note to the edge of the table. The Latin inscription on the note is a salutary warning:

NEMO ANTE MORTEM BEATUS DICI. POTEST
(No one can be called happy before death)

It is a warning about not calling anyone blessed or happy, beatus, before he’s experienced all that life has had to offer.

Lying on the table behind the open casket, although not very clear in the picture, is a smouldering taper, wound with ivy. To the right of the skull one can just make out an open book.

So, what does it all symbolise? In one word, our mortality. The presence of the skull is a memento mori or reminder of death and immediately defines the work as a vanitas still life. But there are more symbolism in this work other than the skull representing death.

Nautilus cup

It is the association of the skull and the items of extreme wealth, such as the gold-stemmed Nautilus cup, casket overflowing with precious jewels and the gold crown which together remind us that wealth and power are futile in the face of death, which harks back to the passage in the book of Ecclesiastes in the bible.

Crown, skull, bellows and sword hilt.

Look at the richness of colour in this work. The glimmering pearls, the black and red gemstones, and the pearly grey shimmer of the Nautilus cup, which is adorned by golden figures. The whites and the golds of the crown and jewelled-bedecked sword hilt glitter in the light and are picked up in the gilded tassels of the table cloth.

As one looks at the painting one is seduced by the riches before us but one cannot get over the sight of the skull, symbolising death and the expiring taper which symbolises the transience of life, all of which serve as a warning that we should not be beguiled by such earthly wealth. Even the bellows is symbolic as they are used to pump life into a dying fire but in the painting, the bellows lie closed and of no use.  The down-turned crown symbolises, which once represented power and kingship, has been symbolically overturned by death and even the bejewelled sword which once was an emblem of power and earthly might is rendered ineffectual by death.

But the painting is not all symbolising doom and gloom. There are also symbols of hope. The laurel wreath atop the skull and the open book present an encouraging note that fame achieved through learning can conquer death and this is corroborated by the note on the stone pillar:

FINIS CORONAT OPUS
(the end crowns the work)

which is a variant of the well-known Vanitas maxim:

Vita Brevis, ars longa
(Life is brief but art endures)

Vanitas still life by Evert Collier (1662)

Above is an early work by Collier, painted in 1662, during a period when he produced some of his best work. In this depiction he includes a candlestick, musical instruments, Dutch books, a writing set, an astrological and a terrestrial globe and an hourglass, all of which are on a table covered by a heavy ornate table covering. Once again these decorative and expensive objects indicate that wealth, knowledge and power are all earthly, temporary and ultimately meaningless. The tempus fugit theme is symbolised by the burning candle, pocket watch and hourglass which also represents the brevity of life; the violin with a broken string signifies the transient pleasure of music whilst the money bag denotes the worldly riches. The scholarly books and globes represent the vanity of learning, and the military flag denotes worldly power. On a piece of paper at far right one can once again read the words from Ecclesiastes:

Vanitas Vanitatu Et Omnia Vanitas
[Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity]

The Vanitas work above by Collier is housed in the Denver Art Museum.  This one, although having a number of Vanitas symbols, does not have a skull.  Look at how Collier has given through this work the idea of it being 3-D when we know it is simply a 2-D painting.  Such “artistic trickery” is known as trompe d’oeil (trick of the eye).

Vanitas painting by Evert Collier (1703)

Collier moved to London in 1693, where he lived almost ten years. In 1702, Collier returned to Leiden, where he worked productively for four years. However, due to circumstances, the artist was forced again to move to London. There, in September 1708, Evert Collier died, aged 66 and was buried in the cemetery of the church of St James’s Piccadilly.