Frederick Maxfield Parrish. Part 1.

                                                            Maxfield Parish (c.1920)

In previous blogs, when I looked at the world of illustrators and the lives of some of the leading nineteenth century American exponents such as the Red Rose Girls and Howard Pyle, one name that kept cropping up was the renowned painter and illustrator, Frederick Maxfield Parrish.  He was an influential and prolific American painter and illustrator, who was ranked amongst the most commercially successful and highest paid artists of the US during the 1920s.

Frederick Parrish was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 25th 1870.  His descendent, Edward Parrish, the captain of a trading vessel which journeyed between England and Chesapeake Bay, hailed from Yorkshire, England.  On settling in America he was given three thousand acres of land where Baltimore is now situated.  Today’s artist’s given name was Frederick, but he later, in 1896, adopted Maxfield as his middle name.  This was the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, Susanna Maxfield Parrish.  Later he would use Maxfield as his professional name.  Maxfield was born into a devout Quaker family.  His father was Stephen Parrish, a landscape painter and engraver who ran a coal business and then a stationery shop in Philadelphia for several years.   The room above the shop was one in which he held etching classes.  Stephen Parrish married Elizabeth Bancroft in 1869, and his only child, Frederick Maxfield, was born the following year.

Maxfield’s first art tuition came from his father at the age of three, and years later he recounted that his father was the most influential teacher and that the two of them had an excellent relationship.   During his childhood Maxfield enjoyed drawing and was a very competent draughtsman and a constant doodler!   In 1877 Maxfield and his father travelled to France on a painting trip.  

                                                        Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field (1904)

Maxfield was taken ill as a young child and was confined to his bed for many days.  It is thought that this may have inspired Parrish many years later for the illustrations he completed for Eugene Fields book, Poems of Childhood, one of which depicted a little boy sick in bed and having weird dreams. The cutting out of shapes and figures by the young boy would have remained with him in later life when he used pencil cut-outs as groundwork for his illustrative work in later life.

                                               Etching of Gloucester Harbor by Stephen Parrish (1882)

In spite of Stephen Parrish’s lack of formal art training. In 1877, Stephen Parrish, still in his thirties. sold his shop and business and concentrated on his beloved art. This was a bold, some would say foolish move to become a professional artist having only sold only six paintings by 1879, and on top of this he had to financially support a wife and a nine-year-old son.  He was fortunate however as what was termed the Etching Revival was just beginning in America.  Between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, the Etching Revival was an expression which referred to the rebirth of etching and was all about the huge growth and circulation of the art print as, in itself, an art form, especially in the United States.  In November 1879 Stephen took his first etching lesson from the already successful Philadelphia artist, Peter Moran.

               Illustrated letter from Maxfield Parrish to Henry Bancroft, London, July 22nd, 1884

Stephen Parrish quickly recognised his son’s burgeoning artistic talent.  He and Maxfield would go off on painting trips at the weekends, first around their hometown but later further afield to places such as the Massachusetts coastal districts of Cape Ann, East Gloucester and Annisquam.  Fourteen-year-old Maxfield returned to France with his family in 1884.  They embarked on a two-year European journey during which time they visited England, northern Italy, and Paris.  During the first winter in Paris Maxfield studied art at Dr. Kornemann’s school, regularly visited art museums and attended concerts and operas every week. Besides Maxfield’s love of art he slowly developed a love of music. 

            Illustrated postcard from Maxfield Parrish to Henry Bancroft, Paris, October 24, 1884

During his time in Europe Maxfield wrote many letters and postcards to his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Bancroft and to his cousin Henry Bancroft in Pennsylvania.  Those to his cousin were festooned with whimsical and interesting doodles. Some of the letters are held in a collection of the Delaware Art Museum. This collection consists of 34 letters and postcards written and illustrated by Parrish to his cousin, Henry Bancroft, between 1883 and 15 letters and postcards written between 1902 and 1909 and a drawing by Parrish’s son, Dillwyn.

                                                       Funeral of Victor Hugo, on June 1st, 1885

Whilst Maxfield and his family were living in Paris, the great French writer,  poet, novelist, and dramatist of the Romantic movement, Victor Hugo, died on May 22nd 1885 and on July 1st, he was laid to rest.  Crowds of people turned out for the funeral procession and Maxfield remembered the day and the funeral cortège well:

“…I was fifteen, and climbed a tree on the Champs-Elysées.  The avenue was jammed but I scattered the crowd when a branch of my tree broke with a noise like a pistol shot.  They thought it was the beginning of a nihilist demonstration…”

 Maxfield and his parents returned to America in 1886 and Maxfield continued with his education.  In 1888 he enrolled at the prestigious Haverford College, where he studied architecture and was a member of Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity. Art was not taught at this Quaker college and this fact was commented on by Maxfield who wrote:

“…It would be going too far to state that art was in any way forbidden yet there was a feeling in the air it was looked upon with suspicion, as maybe related distantly to graven images and the like…”

                                                             Thomas Eakins self-portrait (1902)

It was in 1891 when Maxfield Parrish began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and this was almost six years after Thomas Eakins, one of the Academy’s directors, had been forced to resign in 1886, for a number of controversial decisions he had made, the final straw being him removing the loincloth of a male model in a life class where female students were present.  Despite that six-year gap Eakins’ ideas and inspirations were still in evidence at the Academy.  One of these was Eakins’ practice of using photography as a tool in his art. 

                   Photo of Male Figures at the Site of Swimming by Thomas Eakins (1883)

One of the classic examples of Eakins’ use of photography is his 1883 photo entitled Eakins’ Students at the site for the “Swimming Hole”.  In the picture we see Eakins standing slightly away from the others at the left, looking on at his students who are cavorting in the water at Mill Creek near Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

                            The Swimming Hole (The Swimmers) by Thomas Eakins (1885)

From this photograph and other studies which depicted nude boys playing at a variety of outdoor sports he slowly progressed with his famous painting entitled The Swimming Hole, which originally was simply entitled Swimming, and is now part of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Eakins used both male and female nudes, often students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for models, and that was another reason for his downfall as Director of the Academy.

                                                                                         The Oaks

Despite the scandals surrounding Eakins, Maxfield felt that photography could help him with his art and soon he was investigating all the possibilities this tool would afford him.  Being a supreme draftsman, Parrish had the ability to draw a figure with the exactness of a photograph.  The intricacy and time-consuming methods Parrish employed prevented him painting from nature. He was a consummate draftsman with a steady hand and an infallible eye.  He persisted on using the camera as an artistic implement, but as an aid and not a crutch for his art.  When he designed his new house, The Oaks, he ensured that there would be a darkroom in which he developed his film, which he printed on four by five inch glass slides, which could then be projected using a magic lantern.  Once that was done, he was able to move an image around in his composition until it suited him and he could begin the work of drawing and composing from scratch. Projecting the image against a wall or a board allowed him to make arrangement decisions.  Parrish developed great photographic skills and he built up a collection of over eleven hundred glass slides.

In 1892 he enrolled as a student at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).  Initially, Parrish thought that he would carry on studying architecture, but soon he developed a love for drawing and painting and so with architecture forgotten Maxfield concentrated on becoming a professional artist.  Here he received art tuition from many great educators including Robert Vonnoh and Thomas Pollock Anschutz.   His class at the Academy included other aspiring painters such as William Glackens, who would become a renowned realist painter and one of the founders of the Ashcan School of American art, and Florence Scovel Shinn, who later became a well-known American writer, artist, and book illustrator.

Stephen Parrish’s home Northcote – now and in 1906

Maxfield had a long-term friendship with one of his Academy classmates, Elsie Evangeline Deming, who he nicknamed Daisy.  In one of the many letters that they exchanged Maxfield extolled the beauty and tranquillity of the area, Cornish, New Hampshire, where his father had moved and was having his Northcote house built.  

                                                           Aspet, home of Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ home in Cornish, called Aspet (present day)

Stephen Parrish had come to Cornish in 1893, following the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens along with other artists, writers, and musicians who made up what came to be known as the Cornish Colony. From 1893 to 1902 Stephen Parrish spent his time building the house, a shop, a greenhouse, a stable for his horse Betty, a studio, and the extensive gardens. To take advantage of the view Parrish lined up the main garden path with the sunset and set benches around a tall pine at the end of the path.  Maxfield said that just being in the area gave him a sense of optimism and strengthened his aspirations for the future.  In a letter from Maxfield Parrish to his friend Elsie Deming, September 3, 1893, he wrote:

“…Oh, Daisy, you should see our place in the hillsides of New Hampshire. I was there for a week and it went way ahead of expectations. Wilson Eyre is putting us a pretty house upon it which I have not yet seen. Such an ideal country, so paintable and beautiful, so far away from everything and a place to dream one’s life away. Why daddy is a new man with it all and I long to be up there and become identified with it …. I shall go up to Windsor to stay indefinitely, maybe till December. It is a paradise up there in the mountains when the year is old! I hate to think of the city again – ever! My share of outdoor life has been a generous and appreciated one. It has changed me in many ways…”

The town of Cornish became a well-known summer resort for artists and writers, who wanted to escape the hostile summer climate of New York.  Soon, the surrounding area became the centre of the popular Cornish Art Colony

                                               Annisquam Village of Gloucester, Massachusetts

In 1894 Maxfield graduated from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and went to the Annisquam Village of Gloucester, Massachusetts where he and his father, Stephen, had shared a painting studio during the summers of ’82 and ’83.  His father wanted his son to expand his artistic knowledge and suggested he enrolled at the Drexel Institute at which the legendry Howard Pyle, the dean of American illustration,  was lecturing on illustrative work and graphic design.  According to Maxfield’s son, Maxfield Jnr., Howard Pyle after looking at his father’s work  advised him that his classes at the Drexel Institute would be too elementary but Pyle enlisted Maxfield’s help in auditing his classes.  It was during one of these class audits that Maxfield met another of the painting instructors, Lydia Ambler Austin, one of only three women allowed to teach in the prestigious school, who had arrived at the Institute in 1893.

                                                            Lydia Ambler Austin Parrish (1895)

Lydia Ambler Austin, reputed to be a woman of great beauty, was born in Woodstown, New Jersey, to a Quaker farming family in 1872. She was reserved but a very clever and gifted young woman.  It transpires that during her early life, she had been a suffragette and was focused on helping women achieve status in their professions.  Maxfield Parrish was smitten by Lydia.  The story goes that Howard Pyle was involved in preparing the way for the pair to start a relationship which eventually resulted in Maxfield declaring his love for his teacher in 1894.  

                            Cover of the 1895 Easter edition of Harper’s Bazar by Maxfield Parrish.

Howard Pyle had also told Parrish that in his opinion, he was ready to execute a commission for a magazine and Pyle contacted Harper’s Bazar and recommended Maxfield’s work knowing that the magazine was looking for a new artist for their 1895 Easter cover.

Maxfield and Lydia were married on June 1st, 1895 and went on to have four children, three sons, John Dillwyn born December 13th 1904, Maxfield Frederick born August 14th, 1906 and Stephen born November 14th 1909 and a daughter, Jean who was born on June 26th, 1911.   Within a week of getting married, Maxfield Parrish left his wife and travelled to visit European salons and galleries in Paris, London, and Brussels, where he hoped to arrange to exhibit some of his work.  It also gave him a chance to observe the works of the Old Masters.  He was in awe of the great works.  In a letter from Brussels to his wife on June 20th 1895 he wrote:

“…I have been feasting on glorious pictures in a great gallery.  Oh, the masters of the Dutch and Flemish schools knew how to paint!….”

Again in another letter to his wife, this time from Paris, he wrote about his love of the French capital:

“…Here, I am in Paris at last!…………Never has anything appeared to me so vast, so magnificent.  When I arrived here at sunset the city burst upon me as nothing ever did.  The streets are endless and marvels of beauty…”

On his return to America in mid-August 1895, the couple moved to a rented apartment located at Twelfth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia.  Life for this married couple could not have been better.  His artwork was beginning to be appreciated by publishers and he was achieving a steady income for his illustrative work.  Even after Lydia became a married woman she carried on with her art and her teaching as the money she earned help the couple’s finances.

 Maxfield Parrish poster advertising the August 1897 issue of The Century magazine

Besides the Easter cover for Harper’s Bazar, Maxfield had begun receiving commissions illustrate other covers for the magazine.  He also received money from Century magazine for posters and covers he completed in 1896. Maxfield entered this poster design to Century magazine who were holding  competitions to attract new talent. The Century Company’s poster competition for its Midsummer edition of 1896 was won by Joseph Leyendecker. Maxfield Parrish won the second prize, and his poster was used the following year.

         PAFA 1896 Poster Show poster by Maxfield Parrish

The Pennsylvania Academy commissioned Maxfield Parrish to design a poster for their 1896 Poster Show.

Maxfield Parrish’s Very Little Red Riding Hood (1897)

Another poster commission which Maxfield completed in 1897 was for the Mask and Wig Club of Philadelphia. The club which came into existence in 1888 was founded by a small group of University of Pennsylvania undergraduates, who were interested in the stage.  They were talented and ambitious young men of prominent Philadelphia families with no proper outlet for their artistic pursuits! Maxfield was asked to create a poster for their forthcoming play, Very Little Red Riding Hood. 

The Outing Magazine Last Rose of Summer cover by Maxfield Parrish, (1899). Oil, gouache and ink on paper laid on board

The Outing Magazine commissioned Parrish to provide a cover illustration for their 1899 Last Rose of Summer edition.  In the poster, Maxfield used his own face and figure to portray a youth in Grecian costume examining a rose he holds in his hand. The figure is shown sitting below one of the massive oaks on the artist’s property, flanked by two plaster lions the artist had moulded in his studio.  The depiction harks back to the 1805 poem by the Irish poet, Thomas Moore:

‘Tis the last rose of summer,

Left blooming alone;

All her lovely companions

Are faded and gone;

No flower of her kindred,

No rose-bud is nigh,

To reflect back her blushes

Or give sigh for sigh!

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one.

To pine on the stem;

Since the lovely are sleeping,

Go, sleep thou with them;

Thus kindly I scatter

Thy leaves o’er the bed,

Where thy mates of the garden

Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,

When friendships decay,

And from love’s shining circle

The gems drop away!

When true hearts lie wither’d,

And fond ones are flown,

Oh! who would inhabit

This bleak world alone?

………………..to be continued.

Alphonse Mucha. The Slav Epic cycle. Part 3

My fifth and final blog about Alphonse Mucha’s looks at the last six monumental paintings in his Slav Epic cycle and I will talk about the current fate of all twenty of the works of art. 

         The Slav Epic’ cycle No.15 The Printing of the Bible of Kralice in Ivančice by Alphonse Mucha

His fifteenth painting of the Slav Epic was entitled The Printing of the Bible of Kralice in Ivančice which he completed in 1914. The Bible of Kralice, also called the Kralice Bible, was the first complete translation of the Bible from the original languages into the Czech language. It was translated by the Unity of the Brethren and later printed in the town of Kralice nad Oslavou, a village in the Vysočina Region of the east-central Czech Republic. The first edition had six volumes and was published between 1579 and 1593.  The Unity of the Brethren was formed in Bohemia in 1457 and were followers of the teachings of Jan Hus and Petr Chelčicky.  The Brethren deemed that education was the key to true faith. The translating of the Bible into the Czech language occurred in the Bohemian town of Ivančice, which coincidentally was Alphonse Mucha’s birthplace. It had a two-fold importance.  Firstly, it kept the Czech language alive and secondly, it brought the teaching of the holy book to those people whose mother tongue was Czech.  In this painting, Mucha has depicted his hometown of Ivančice on a beautiful sunny autumn day. The Brethren are hard at work, gathering around the printing press to inspect the first printed pages.

            Young man reading to the blind man

Look to the couple of figures in the left foreground.   One is a young student who is readings to an elderly blind man. The young man looks out at us with a grim expression.  It could well be that his dour countenance is seemingly foretelling the forthcoming persecution of the Hussites and the Unity of the Brethren in the seventeenth century.

                                                       The Last Days of Jan Amos Komenský in Naarden

The persecution of the followers of Jan Hus and the Unity of the Brethren came about around 1619 when the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II became King of Bohemia.  Once in power, he set about reinstating the Roman Catholic Church in the predominantly Protestant region, prompting a revolt which culminated in 1620 with the Battle of White Mountain near Prague. Thirty thousand Bohemians defending religious liberty were crushed by King Ferdinand’s large and powerful imperial army of 25,000 soldiers. Twenty-seven noblemen involved in the insurrection were executed and Protestants were given the order to either convert to Catholicism within three days, or they must leave Bohemia.  In Alphonse Mucha’s sixteenth painting in the Slav Epic cycle, entitled The Last days of Jan Amos Komenský [Comenius] in Naarden, which he completed in 1918, he has featured one of the country’s most celebrated religious exiles.

Komenský was one of the Bohemian Unity of the Brethren’s spiritual leaders. His belief was that education was the answer to true faith and his pioneering approach to teaching gained him a reputation throughout Europe, above all among his fellow exiles. Komenský spent the last years of his exile in the Dutch town of Naarden. He would spend his days walking along the coast, and when he was unable to walk any more, he asked friends to carry him in a chair down to the coast.  In Mucha’s gloomy depiction we see Komenský slumped in his chair, facing the sea.  It is all about loss.  Loss of freedom, loss of his beloved Bohemia and he is well aware that death is imminent.  Around him we see his followers, his fellow exiles who realise their leader will not be with them much longer.  They just need to comfort each other at this sad time.  The flickering light of their lamp offers them a vague hope that one day they will be allowed to return to their beloved homeland, Bohemia.

                                                 The Holy Mount Athos by Alphonse Mucha

The Holy Mount Athos features in Alphonse Mucha’s seventeenth work in his Slav Epic cycle which he completed in 1926.  Mount Athos has been inhabited since ancient times and is known for its long Christian presence and historical monastic traditions, which date back to at least AD 800 and the Byzantine era. It is a sacred, monastery-dotted peninsula in north-eastern Greece. From 1342 until 1372 Mount Athos was under Serbian administration. Mucha was moved by the temple’s spirituality when he visited the peninsula himself in 1924.

In this painting, we see depicted a crowd of Russian pilgrims paying homage in one of the peninsula’s temples. Floating above the weary pilgrims who have climbed the mountain are angels, some of whom are holding images of other Mount Athos monasteries in the nearby area.  The pilgrims in the procession move in a semi-circle towards four high priests at the rear of the temple. In the hands of each of the priests is a relic which the pilgrims are allowed to touch. The darkness of the temple is lit up by a stream of light, which is filtering through the apse from the left, highlighting the figures of angels. On the ceiling of the temple, we see the figure of the Virgin Mary. 

                                     Blind Man and Youth

In the foreground, a young boy props up a blind old man.  The pair have a striking resemblance to the two figures in the foreground of his 15th painting of the Cycle.

          The Slav Epic cycle No.18 The Oath of Omladina under the Slavic Linden Tree (1926)

The eighteenth painting Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic’ cycle No.18: The Oath of Omladina under the Slavic Linden Tree which he completed in 1926 is all about the Omladina society, a Bohemian radical organisation.  This Bohemian (Czech) nationalist youth organisation was created in the 1880s. The group was looked upon as being anti-Austrian and anti-clerical and was part of a fast-growing nationalistic revival that was being whipped up at the turn of the century.  Gatherings became more violent and in December 1893.  The Governor declared a proverbial martial law and, after a political murder on the 23rd of December, Omladina was connected to the murder of police informer Rudolf Mrva. With a carte blanche to prosecute, the government arrested 76 Omladina “conspirators” aged 17–22 and charged two working class Omladina members with the actual murder.  The trial began on January 15, 1894 in a closed military tribunal and the leaders were arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to prison. 

Alphonse Mucha chose to depict the group of youths in a less violent and confrontational way.  We see them kneeling in a circle and holding hands as they pledge allegiance to the goddess Slavia. Slavia sits in a linden tree in the background symbolising divination. The young people are surrounded by members of patriotic and political organisations, and beyond them sit figures dressed in folk costume representing the Czech people. Look at the foreground and you will see a male and female figure sitting on either side of the wall.  These figures are modelled by Mucha’s children, on the left, his daughter Jaroslava and on the right, his bare-chested son Jiří, in front of whom is his mother.  The figure of Jaroslava is seen playing a lyre and Mucha uses this image of his daughter in his poster advertising 1928 exhibition at Prague’s Trade Fair.

                                                                            Abolition of Serdom in Russia

It is strange to consider that the nineteenth painting in the Slav Epic, The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia is the most contemporary of Alphonse Mucha’s works and yet it was first of the twenty painting cycle that he completed, in 1914.  Mucha,  during his various visits to countries to collect information for his series of paintings, visited Russia in 1913 and to his horror, he found that the great Slavic nation of Russia, a nation he had so admired, was in fact overwhelmed with poverty and suffering and considerably less progressive than the countries in the rest of Europe.  Tsar Alexander II had been crowned ruler in 1855 and set about trying to improve the conditions of all the people.  He introduced the Emancipation Reform of 1861 in Russia which was the first and most important of the liberal reforms passed.  The reform effectively abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire.  The people were unsure whether things would improve for them and, in this painting, Mucha has depicted a subdued crowd of Russian peasants looks on anxiously as the official reads the edict. In the hazy background we can see the iconic buildings of St Basil’s cathedral and the Kremlin. The sun is barely visible in this foggy atmosphere.  Maybe this was Mucha’s way of symbolising a glimmer of hope for a happier and sunnier future for the Russian people.  In the left foreground Mucha has depicted a mother cosseting her child which symbolises both the fear and hope associated with future generations.

                                                 Apotheosis of the Slavs by Alphonse Mucha

The last painting, the twentieth, in The Slav Epic cycle, The Apotheosis of the Slavs,  was completed by Alphonse Mucha in 1926.  It was to be the culmination of the project and he sought to bring together all the themes addressed in the previous nineteen works and celebrate the independence of the Slav nations.  It is an unusual work comprised of four different parts, each characterised by four different colours. Each of the sections represent a successive period in Slav history.  In the bottom right-hand corner of the work which comprises of shades of blue we have the early years of Slav history.  The top left-hand corner bathed in reds denotes the bloodshed of the Hussite wars during the Middle Ages.  Below the figures in the red shaded area we see other figures which are in shadow and they represent the enemy and the repeated merciless attacks inflicted on the Slavic tribes.  The final-coloured quadrant is a band of yellow in the centre of the painting which lights up the Czech and Slovak soldiers returning from World War I, which signalled the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the dawn of a new age for the Slavic people. In the bottom left foreground, we see young boys who wave green branches at them. It is a painting of hope for the Slav nation and the bare-chested figure at the centre of the work is the personification of the new, strong, and independent republic, guided and protected by a Christ figure which we see in the central background.

In 1928 the complete cycle was displayed for the first time in the Trade Fair Palace in Prague.    Alphonse Mucha died in July, 1939. Shortly before his death he was interrogated by the Gestapo, as he was an important exponent of public life in Czechoslovakia.  During World War II, the Slav Epic was wrapped and hidden away to prevent seizure by the Nazis.

Following the Czechoslovak coup d’état of 1948 and subsequent communist takeover of the country, Mucha was considered a decadent and bourgeois artist, at odds with the principles of socialist realism, (not to be confused with the term,  social realism).  Socialist realism was a form of modern realism imposed in Russia by Stalin following his rise to power after the death of Lenin in 1924, characterised in painting by rigorously optimistic pictures of Soviet life painted in a realist style.

                                  Moravský Krumlov Castle, home to Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic

After World War 2, the paintings were moved to the chateau at Moravský Krumlov by a group of local patriots, and the cycle went on display there in 1963.  Recently, the city of Prague has waged a decade-long legal battle over the work which intensified in early 2010.  Much consideration has been given to relocating the Slav Epic from Moravský Krumlov where it has been on show for almost fifty years, to the Czech capital, Prague. The works would be seen by many more people in Prague with the influx of tourists but the city does not have a suitable venue which could accommodate all twenty monumental works.  Notwithstanding that problem, the city of Prague requested the return of the Slav Epic for restoration work and subsequent display.

After a lengthy court battle between John Mucha (the painter’s grandson) and the city of Prague, it was confirmed that the capital held rights to ownership of The Slav Epic. It would therefore seem unlikely that the city would relinquish the paintings and move them back to the Moravian town.   On January 22nd 2021, Prague City Museum Director Magdalena Jurikova said that the canvases are being stored in a “secret location” in Prague after a temporary exhibition from 2018 to 2020. Jurikova says the paintings will be moved to the town of Moravsky Krumlov in the spring of 2021 for another temporary display while the Prague government builds a final resting place for the Slav Epic.  It is intended that the works will be displayed in the Thomas Heatherwick-designed Savarin development, a new regeneration project in the historic centre of Prague, which is due to open in 2026.

I would be interested to hear from anybody who has actually seen the Slav Epic collection of paintings.


Much of the information for the last five blogs regarding the life of Alphonse Mucha and his Slav Epic series of paintings came from the excellent website The Mucha Foundation

Alphonse Mucha. The Slav Epic. Part 2.

          Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel: Truth Prevails by Alphonse Mucha (1916)

We have now reached the eighth in the series of twenty paintings by Alphonse Mucha in his Slav Epic cycle.  This monumental painting (8.1 x 6.1 metres), which he completed in 1916, was entitled Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel: Truth Prevails.  Jan Hus was another outspoken clergyman who criticized the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. His Czech-language sermons inside the nondescript Bethlehem Chapel in Prague’s Old Town electrified congregations. In 1415, after clashing repeatedly with church leaders, he was charged with heresy and burned at the stake.

                                               Burning at the stake of Jon Huss (Spiezer Chronik)

Jan Hus, sometimes anglicized as John Hus or John Huss, born in 1374, was, like Jan Milíč of Kroměříž, the subject of the previous work,  one of the most influential clergymen of the Czech Reformation and one who rejected the Catholic Church’s excesses and argued that the Bible was the only true source of God’s word. In 1414 he was summoned before the Council of Constance, to defend his teaching. He came to the Council with a safe pass issued by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, and yet the Council declared him a heretic for his teachings and he was burned at the stake the following year. People were outraged by his execution and it provoked a rebellion among Czech nationalists which culminated in the Hussite Wars fought between the Christian Hussites, the followers of Jan Hus, and the combined Christian Catholic forces of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, the Papacy, European monarchs loyal to the Catholic Church, as well as various Hussite factions.

The setting of the painting is the of the high Gothic interior of the Bethlehem Church with a reticulated vault on three rows of octagonal columns.  The Bethlehem Chapel was founded in 1391 in Prague by the burgher Jan Kříž and the courtier Hanuš of Műhlheim,  In the painting we see Jan Hus leaning out over the edge of the four-sided pulpit, fervently preaching to a spellbound audience in Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel in 1412.  Another listener is the founder of Bethlehem Chapel, the tradesman Jan Kříž – an old man seated in the front left.   Jan Žižka, the future military leader of the Hussites, stands near the wall with a fresco of St George and the Dragon, on the left while Queen Sophia, wife of King Váklav IV, sits listening intently with her ladies-in-waiting on either side.

                                                   The Meeting At Krizky by Alphonse Mucha (1916)

The Meeting At Křížky is depicted in the ninth painting of the Slav Epic cycle.  It is connected to the eighth painting as it is about the cruel execution of Jan Hus in July 1414, who was burnt at the stake for his condemnation of the excesses of the Catholic Church, which created widespread fury amongst his followers in Czech lands, so much so that an underground movement opposing papal authority swiftly built up.  They were declared heretics by the Papacy and the Council of Constance ordered that they be removed from their parishes. Charles University in Prague was also closed to ensure that their teaching ceased. Riots ensued and Hus’ followers began to gather in remote places outside the city walls in order to mount their rebellion.  This painting by Mucha depicts one such secret gathering outside of Prague on September 30th 1419.  To the right of the painting, standing aloft on a makeshift stage above a gathering of people, a preacher named Koranda, who is dressed in a brown cloak and who appeals to the crowd to take up arms against the Catholic Church.  In the background we see that dark clouds blacken the landscape foretelling the bloody times and devastation that was to come.  The Hussite Wars, as they were known, went on for twenty-one years with the peace treaty not being signed by the combatants until July 1436.

                                          After the Battle of Grunwald by Alphonse Mucha (1924)

There are more battles featured in the tenth painting of the Slav Saga cycle.  The painting is entitled After the Battle of Grunewald which Alphonse Mucha completed in 1924.   Yet again the battle/war was brought on about ownership of land and religion, a recurring theme which still holds good today.   The German Catholic military order of the Teutonic Knights, a Catholic religious order founded as a military order around 1192 in Acre, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, had settled in the Baltic area in the early 1400s with the intention spread the word of Christianity among the pagan tribes in the region, and to Poland and Lithuania beyond. However, the people of these lands did not want to hear the message and tried to defend their lands from Catholic colonisation.  The Slavs, the Poles, led by King Władysław II and the Lithuanians, led by Grand Duke Vytautas, decided to fight this colonisation and Christianisation together and the they signed a treaty of intent. On July 15th 1410, these allied nations defeated the German-Prussian Teutonic Knights in a fierce battle at Grunewald in Poland,  most of whom were killed or taken prisoner.  Mucha chose to depict the scene of the battle the following morning. The Polish king Wladyslaw stands, shell-shocked, in the middle of the body-strewn battlefield and covers his face in horror. His country may be free, but this freedom has come at a terrible cost.

                       The Slav Epic No. 11 After the Battle of Vítkov by Alphonse Mucha (1916)

The eleventh painting in the Slav Epic cycle, After the Battle of Vítkov, which Mucha completed in 1916, is once again focused on war and death on the battleground.  The fact that it was painted during the First World War was probably Mucha’s own observation of the horrors of war and the bloody fighting in the trenches.   Once again, it is all about Jan Huss, his execution in 1415 and the subsequent rise of the Hussites. King Wenceslas IV was the ruler of Bohemia from 1363 and was ruling at the time of Hus’ execution.  He died in August 1419 and was succeeded by his brother Sigismund, King of Hungary. However, the Czech people, who held him accountable for the death of Jean Hus, refused to accept his claim to the throne. However, Sigismund had the powerful backing of the Catholic Church and the German army.  Feeling all-powerful, Sigismund launched a crusade against the Hussite movement and succeeded in occupying Prague Castle where he was crowned king.  The following year, the Hussites and Sigismund fought at Vítkov Hill on the outskirts of Prague. The Hussites were led by their military leader Jan Žižka, and together with the army of Hussite and they succeeded in defeating Sigismund and his men, forcing them to retreat which led to Sigismund’s abdication.  Mucha’s depiction of the battle is a melodramatic one which portrays the solemn mass given by the priest that led the Czech soldiers from Prague. The priest holds up high, a receptacle in which the consecrated Host is exposed for adoration, known as a monstrance.  He is surrounded by clergy who lie in supplication on the ground at the sight of the monstrance. In the beautifully depicted background, we see that the rising sun is piercing the clouds and generating an almost celestial spotlight on the figure of Jan Žižka, the victorious leader, who we see standing to the right of the composition.  Lying on the ground of the battlefield we see the abandoned weapons of the conquered army.  Look at the left foreground and you will see a mother nursing her child.  She has turned her back on the religious celebration. Maybe she has a foreboding that her fellow countryfolk will suffer further bloodshed as the Hussite Wars continue. Little does she know the wars will last for another seventeen years.   

                                  The Slav Epic cycle no.12: Petr of Chelčice by Alphonse Mucha (1918)

The Slav Epic cycle No.12: Petr of Chelčice was completed by Mucha in 1918  and instead of this work depicting the brutality of war it tends to focus on the tragic results of war.  In the case of Chelčický, Mucha was mainly intrigued by the radical political thinker’s uncompromising pacifism and principled rejection of any kind of physical conflict.  It could well be that Alfonse Mucha wanted, through his paintings, to remind the world of the doctrine of pacifism and the teachings and principles of the Unity of the Brethren, also known as the Evangelical Unity of the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren. The Hussite movement was made up of several parts, one of which became known as the Unity of the Brethren.  The roots of this radical and pacifistic branch within the early Hussite movement go back to its ideological father Petr Chelčický.   Petr of Chelčice was a pacifist who came from Bohemia who was passionately opposed to any form of war and military action in the name of religion. Alphonse Mucha supported the beliefs of Chelčice’s and chose to depict the more sinister side of the Hussite Wars through his Slav Epic paintings and as is the case in this work, he concentrated, not on the glory of battle, but on the effect of war on the lives of innocent victims. 

The painting is a story about the attack on the village of Vodňany (now in the southern Czech Republic) in 1420, by the Tabor army. The Taborites were a radical Hussite faction within the Hussite movement led by Jan Žižka. The village was then plundered and burned down.  forcing the inhabitants to flee their homes, taking the bodies of the injured and dead to the nearby town of Chelčice. In the painting we see these grief-stricken and angry gathered around the bodies of their loved ones along with the few possessions that they have managed to bring with them. Petr Chelčicky, who stands at the centre of the composition with a Bible under his right arm, offers comfort to the victims and implores them not to give in to vengeance.  In the background the sky is dark and smoke can be seen from the burning houses of the village of Vodňany

                                  The Slav Epic’ cycle No.13 The Hussite King Jirí z Podebrad (1923)

After almost thirty years of war between the papal armies and the Hussites, the Papacy of Rome was forced to acknowledge the strength and determination of the Hussites and officially recognise the beliefs of the Utraquist Church in a treaty called the Basel Compacts.  In the city of Jihlava, on July 5th 1436, the Compacts of Basel came into being.  It was an agreement between the Council of Basel and the Utraquists, the moderate Hussites, which was ratified by the Estates of Bohemia and Moravia on 5 July 1436. The agreement authorized Hussite priests to administer the sacramental wine to laymen during the Eucharist.  The Slav Epic’ cycle No.13: The Hussite King Jiří z Podĕbrad which Mucha completed in 1923 is all about the election in 1458 in Bohemia of its first native Czech king in around 150 years.  He was Jiří z Podĕbrad, who proved to be an extremely popular ruler. In 1462, King Jiří sent a delegation to Rome to confirm his election and the religious privileges that had been granted to the Utraquist Church in the Basel Compacts. Not only did Pope Pius II refuse to recognise the treaty; he sent one of his cardinals back to Prague to order Jiří z Podĕbrad to ban the Utraquist Church and return the kingdom of Bohemia back to the rule of Rome. 

In this painting, Mucha depicts the Prague visit of Cardinal Fantin’s to the royal court and his subsequent clash with King Jiři. Cardinal Fantin stands arrogantly in red robes as the king kicks over his throne in anger and defiance. His refusal to acknowledge the papal authority is met by awe and astonishment among the members of his court. In the right foreground we see a young boy looking out at us.  He has slammed shuts a book entitled Roma, symbolising the period of cooperation with Rome had come to an end.

        The Slav Epic’ cycle No.14 The Defence of Sziget by Nikola Zrinski by Alphonse Mucha (1914)

For Alphonse Mucha’s No.14 in his Slav Epic’ cycle, entitled The Defence of Sziget by Nikola Zrinski we have move forward a century in Slavic history, to the year 1566.  It was the year that the Turkish army advanced upon the city of Sziget in southern Hungary.  Their aim was simple.  They wanted to expand the Ottoman Empire eastwards. Under the leadership of the Croatian nobleman Nikola Zrinski, the inhabitants of Sziget and the surrounding area gathered within the city walls and closed the gates. They held the city walls for nineteen days until the Turkish soldiers finally broke down the fortifications.   Zrinski refused to surrender to the Turks and tried to force their way out of the besieged city but despite his courageous efforts to push his he and his men were killed in a ferocious assault. When Zrinski’s wife Eva saw that the Turks had taken the city, she decided to set fire to the city walls, killing countless soldiers and for a time halting the Turks’ advance into Central Europe.  The painting by Mucha depicts the actions of Eva to sacrifice the city and many of its inhabitants in order to protect her country from the Turks. A column of black smoke bellows up from the spot where she has thrown a burning torch. To the left of the column, the men prepare for the final assault while, to the right, the women attempt to hide from the Turks.

…………………………………….to be concluded

Alphonse Mucha. The Slav Epic Part 1.

                                                               Alphonse Mucha in New York in 1908

During his time working on an Austro-Hungarian commission to paint the murals for the Bosnia-Herzegovina’s pavilion at the 1900 Paris World Fair, Alphonse Mucha had a dream that one day he would complete a series of paintings which would depict the true story of the struggle of the Slav people which would truthfully depict their history and civilisation through a series of twenty monumental paintings.  His early research for his project began the year before the 1900 Paris World’s Fair and to do his research he travelled around the Balkans collecting stories and researching customs of the Slavic people.  Many of the areas were that populated by the Southern Slavs, regions that had been annexed by Austria-Hungary two decades earlier.  They were regions which now fall under the rule of countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and North Macedonia. It was during these early travels that Alphonse Mucha developed the inspiration for his new project – The Slav Epic, a true pictorial history of the Slavs.

Alphonse Mucha working on Slav Epic, no. 6, The Coronation of Serbian Tsar Štěpán Dušan as East Roman Emperor 

For his project to materialise Alphonse needed financial support and when he was in America between 1904 and 1909, he had received that from Charles Crane, a wealthy Chicago-based businessman and philanthropist who was extremely interested in the progress of political affairs in Eastern Europe and the ethos of the Slavonic people.  The Slav Epic as it was known took Alphonse fifteen years to complete.  In 1911 he started by renting a large spacious studio and an apartment in Zbiroh Castle in Western Bohemia which afforded him the space he needed to work on the giant canvases, some of which measured 6 metres by 8 metres.  His plan was to produce twenty paintings depicting crucial episodes from the Slavic past, stretching from ancient times to the present day, ten canvases would represent episodes from Czech history and ten would focus on historical episodes from other Slavonic regions.

So, in the next three blogs I will discuss the twenty-painting series.  I suppose I should apologise in advance if you feel they tend to be “history” blogs rather than art blogs but these twenty monumental works are history paintings and you need to understand what is being depicted by the artist.

      The Slav Epic’ cycle No.1 The Slavs in Their Original Homeland by Alphonse Mucha (1912)

Alphonse Mucha completed his first canvas in the series, which was entitled The Slavs in Their Original Homeland, in 1912.  It was a monumental painting measuring 8.1 x 6.1 metres.  The idea for this first of the series was to focus on the Slavic people in the 4th to 6th centuries. It was during this time that the Slavic tribes were agricultural folk who lived in the marshlands between the Vistula River, the Dnepr River, the Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea.   Their villages were under endless assaults by Germanic tribes from the West who would burn their houses and steal their livestock.

                         The terrified couple (detail from The Slavs in Their Original Homeland)

In the foreground of the painting, we see a terrified couple, dressed in white, hiding in the bushes as their village burns on the horizon.  They press themselves against the ground to avoid detection but the shrubland offers them little or no hiding place.  They are the survivors of one of these attacks. Look at their facial expressions.  Look how Mucha has depicted their terror and defencelessness as they look out at us, imploring our help.  In the left background, flames from their burning homes can be seen rising into the star-covered sky.  In the central background we see the depiction of the warring invaders who show no mercy as they slaughter the fleeing villagers, the females of the village are herded and will have to suffer the long and brutal journey to the slave markets.  In the upper right of the painting, we see depicted a pagan priest with two youths by his side symbolising war and peace and these figures foreshadow the peace and freedom that will eventually come to the Slav people when they have battled for their rightful independence.

                   The Slav Epic’ cycle No.2 The Celebration of Svantovít by Alphonse Mucha (1912)

The second painting in the series, The Celebration of Svantovit is all about the spreading out westwards of the Slav people.  In the city of Arkona on the north east tip of the island of Rujana, which is the present-day German isle, Rügen, they built a temple, Jaromarsburg,  dedicated to the Slavic pagan god Svantovít. It was situated at the tip of the Cape Arkona and was protected on three sides by cliffs and from the land side by a 25-metre-high Slavic burgwall.  Every autumn pilgrims from as far as Spain would make a pilgrimage to the temple to celebrate the annual harvest festival.  From around the 9th century to the 12th centuries, the Jaromarsburg became a cult site for the Rani, a Slavic tribe, dedicated to their god Svantevit.   In 1168 the Danish army attacked Rujana and destroyed the Slavic temple.   When Mucha painted this work, the temple had developed mythical status and was looked upon as a symbol of former Slavic glory. Alphonse Mucha’s painting is not so much about the Slavic temple but about the pilgrims who visited the site and the impending doom.  In the foreground, occupying a third of the space, we see the pilgrims dressed in white clothing.  They seem quite unaware of what is going on above them.  In the sky we see the gods who are besieged by the enemy who are being led by a pack of wolves. Some of the Slav gods in the upper central portion are bound, while others look distressed or hang their heads in sadness.  Look how Mucha’s has contrasted the mood.  The sky is dark and there is an ominous feel about it whereas the sun-soaked pilgrims are enjoying their arrival at the pilgrimage site heedless of the troubles that is about to befall them.

                Woman cradling her baby.

However, in the central foreground, one of the pilgrims, a young mother holding her child in her arms stares out at us.  She looks distressed as though she alone is aware of the looming downfall of the city.

 The Slav Epic’ cycle No.3:  Bishop Absalon topples the god Svantevit at Cape Arkona by Laurits Tuxen

In 1168, the Danes, commanded by King Valdemar I the Great and Bishop Absalon of Roskilde, attacked the island and destroyed the temple of Svantovít. Eventually, the Baltic region came under Germanic rule, and the pilgrimage site and Svantovít came to symbolise the former glory of the Baltic Slavs.  A painting by Laurits Tuxen depicts a Christian Bishop overseeing the destruction of the pagan image during the purge of paganism and the supplanting it with Christian beliefs. Churches were established and the castle and its temple destroyed.  

   The Slav Epic’ cycle No.3: Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy in Great Moravia by Alphonse Mucha 

Alphonse Mucha’s third painting of the Slav Epic series, which he completed in 1912, was the Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy in Great Moravia, is populated with many figures and tells the story of Methodius and his brother Cyril who had translated the Bible into the Slavic language.  The setting of the painting is Velehrad, a town which was once deemed the capital of the Slavic state of Great Moravia.  The time of this gathering is somewhere around 880 AD.  In an attempt to prevent the demise of the Slav language, Prince Rostislav commissioned two learned monks from Salonika, Cyril, and Methodius, to translate the Bible into Old Church Slavonic. This move was not popular with the German bishops and Methodius was summoned to Rome to stand up for the translation. He was successful and succeeded in securing Rome’s permission to continue his work.  The pope appointed him archbishop of Great Moravia for his efforts. It was their translation of the bible which afforded the Slavic people the chance to read it.

           Methodius and his two acolytes

Methodius and Cyril were instrumental in the survival of the Slavic tongue in centuries to come, and they became the Slav people’s most popular saints.  In the painting we see Methodius, the bearded figure on the left, almost hidden behind a small tree.  Two of his followers kneel either side of him, holding his hands. 

                                                         The King listens

Prince Svatopluk who was the successor of Prince Rostislav, sits on a throne to the far right of the depiction.  He is listening carefully to a priest who stands before him reading out a letter from the Pope John VIII.  Two German priests sit either side of Svatopluk.  Their faces are shaded and almost hidden in darkness, and they can hardly hide their anger at what is going on. These Germans had been making their way through Moravia with the intention of eradicating the Slavic language for good. They wanted to force the Slavs to learn the German language if they wanted to practice Christianity.  Floating above this scene, in the upper left corner, we have four members of the divine realm.  We can see the Pope sitting on his throne. Beside him, sits the Byzantine emperor, who was the head of the Orthodox Church. Surrounding the great religious leaders are Slavs who had suffered forced Germanification and who now cry out for comfort. In the centre of this ethereal world, we see stylized images of Methodius and Cyril as Saints.

                                                        The four figures

Represented in the top right of the painting are the stylised figures of rulers who supported the spread of Christianity in the Slavic language: Boris of Bulgaria and Igor of Russia and their wives. In the foreground, a figure of a youth with a clenched fist and a circle in his right hand symbolises the strength and unity of the Slav people.  

                              Slav Epic No.4:   Tsar Simeon of Bulgaria by Alphonse Mucha (1923)

The fourth painting in the Slav Epic cycle is entitled The Bulgarian Tsar Simeon.  After the death of Methodius, around 885 AD, Prince Svatopluk withdrew his support for the Slavonic translation of the New Testament and banished his followers from Moravia. Fortunately, the Bulgarian Tsar Simeon, who was known for his passion for Byzantine literature, gave them refuge and encouraged them to continue their work.  In this painting, Mucha immortalises the expelled followers of the Slavonic liturgy in the Byzantine frescos that adorn the walls of the basilica. He places Tsar Simeon at the centre of the composition, communicating with his scholars and scribes in the foreground while the official members of the church and court are relegated to the background.  

                      The Slav Epic’ cycle No.5: King Premysl Otakar II of Bohemia by Albert Mucha (1924)

Alphonse Mucha’s fifth painting in The Slav Epic series, King Premysl Otakar II of Bohemia, jumps ahead four hundred years from the previous work and is set in the second half of the thirteenth century.  It features King Přemysl Otakar II of Bohemia.  He had two nicknames; the Iron King for his military valour and the Gold King because of the vast fortune he had amassed from his silver and gold mines of Kutná Hora. More importantly, in the mind of Mucha, Otakar was responsible for instituting close links between the various Slavic monarchies in the 13th century which ultimately led to peace for future generations of Bohemians. The painting depicts the great ceremony held on the occasion of the marriage of his niece Kunhuta of Brandenburg to the son of Hungary’s King Béla IV and the king took the opportunity to invite various Slavonic rulers in the hope that the get-together would help forge lasting coalitions between all those who came to the grand ceremony.  We see King Přemysl Otakar II greeting his guests as they arrive at the wedding. Stood at the centre of an opulent tent with a built-in chapel, the king holds hands with two guests in a gesture of friendship.

 The Slav Epic’ cycle No.6: The Coronation of Serbian Tsar Štěpán Dušan as East Roman Emperor by Alphonse Mucha

Another grand ceremony is depicted in Alphonse Mucha’s sixth painting of the series.  It is The Coronation of Serbian Tsar Štěpán Dušan as East Roman Emperor.  Štěpán Dušan was responsible for expanding the Slavic territory in the 1300s and for establishing a code of law that was valid throughout his empire. In 1346, following successive military victories against the Byzantine Empire, he crowned himself Tsar of the Serbs and Greeks in Skoplje.  In this work, Mucha depicts the procession following the Tsar’s coronation. Dušan stands in the middle of the procession with two men on either side holding regal robes. The procession is led by young girls in Serbian folk costume and their inclusion is thought to be Mucha’s belief that the younger generation will carry forward Pan-Slavic ideals.

                               The Slav Epic’ cycle No.7:   Milíč of Kroměříž by Alphonse Mucha (1916)

The seventh painting of Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic series is dedicated to Jan Milíč of Kroměříž.  He was a learned young theologian who held positions of responsibility in the church and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor,  Charles IV.  He became disillusioned by the workings of the church and was horrified by the immorality and indulgences of the clergy.  So much so, Milíč resigned from his duties and decided to devote the rest of his life to the city’s poor and speak out against the misdemeanours of the church.  Legend has it that in 1372, by the sheer power of his oratory, Milíč managed to persuade an alleged three hundred prostitutes in Prague to repent, and on the site of a former brothel which was located in Konviktská Street, he, with the help of Charles IV, established a refuge for repentant sinners, a chapel and convent dedicated to Mary Magdalen.  In the painting, Mucha depicts the building of the refuge for repentant prostitutes. Atop the structure we see the humble figure of Milíč, wrapped in a blue shroud with a long grey beard.  He stands aloft alongside the structure’s architect, preaching to those down below.  The repentant women replace their jewellery with white habits, signifying their newly found purity, whilst in the foreground, a woman in red is gagged to prevent her from gossiping.

…………………………………….to be continued.


Much of the information for this came from the excellent website The Mucha Foundation

Alphonse Mucha. Part 2

             Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Paris (World’s Fair) 1900

The year 1900 was a momentous one for Paris as it staged the Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Paris (World’s Fair) between April 15th and November 12th.    The event was to be a grand celebration of the past century’s achievements and a look forward to the innovations of the new century.  The planning had begun in 1892 and it had been fully budgeted by 1896.  At this time Alphonse Mucha had already burst on to the Parisian art scene and in 1897 had held a highly successful one-man exhibition at the Galerie de la Bodinière followed by a major show at the Salon des Cent.

Everyone was excited by the forthcoming event and La Plume magazine, a French bi-monthly literary and artistic review, dedicated a special issue to the exhibition and Alphonse Mucha, whose illustration appeared on the cover of the January 1898 edition, and was a ‘hot’ topic within the city’s artistic circle.

Alphonse Mucha’s design for the Menu for the Bosnian Pavilion Restaurant at the Paris Exhibition 1900

Alphonse was inundated with commissions for projects appertaining to the World’s Fair from both local companies and the French government.  Some were for posters advertising the event and also the installation of display stands and the design of exhibition halls, which provided him with an opportunity to work with a three-dimensional space.

Bosnia & Herzegovina Pavilion at the Paris Exhibition 1900 interior view with Mucha’s wall paintings (1900)

Beside the peripheral commissions Mucha was tasked with painting the murals for the Pavilion of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was a region that had come under the control of Austria-Hungary in 1878 and was one of three pavilions exhibited by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For Alphonse Mucha, this was a highly prestigious commission.  Mucha transformed the pavilion into a commemoration of the history and the cultural diversity of Bosnia and Herzegovina which pleased the Austro-Hungarian leaders but Mucha would rather have highlighted the Slavic struggle against that vast nation.  He could well have thought about that as he planned the murals for the pavilion and maybe he promised himself that in the near future he would tell the real story of the persecution and suffering of the Slav nation and the Slav people.  His grand plan would not start until 1911 and it would take him fifteen years to complete.  It would be known as The Slav Epic

                    Facade of the jeweler’s boutique Georges Fouquet located at 6 rue Royale, Paris

Georges Fouquet, a prominent Parisian jeweller and jewellery designer had worked together with Alphonse Mucha on a number of jewellery pieces for Fouquet’s stand at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. After the 1900 Paris Exposition, Georges Fouquet who was best known for his Art Nouveau creations opened a new jewellery store at 6 rue Royale in Paris which was right across the street from the famous restaurant, Maxim’s. He approached Mucha to design all aspects of his shop, both exterior and interior, as well as the contents including the furniture, light fittings and show cases.  

                    Interior of Georges Fouquet’s shop designed by Alphonse Mucha

The centrepiece of the design was two peacocks, which were the traditional symbol of opulence.  They were made of bronze and wood with coloured glass decoration. To one side of them was a shell-shaped fountain, with three gargoyles spouting water into basins, surrounding the statue of a nude woman. The shop opened in 1901, but, sadly for Georges, it was at a time when tastes were beginning to change, and the yearning to have Art Nouveau pieces was superseded by people wanting jewellery with more naturalistic patterns.  Mucha’s shop designs remained in place until 1923 when it was replaced with more up-to-date fittings. 

                                                      Interior of Georges Fouquet’s Paris jewellery store

Realising that Mucha’s designs for the shop’s interior were of importance in art history, most of the original decoration were preserved. In 1941 Fouquet gave each piece of Mucha’s revolutionary design to the Musée Carnavalet for safekeeping. In 1989 the Musée Carnavalet completed the painstaking job of reconstructing the boutique. It remains one of the most spectacular examples of Art Nouveau decorative design.  It is still on display at the museum.

                                             Documents Decoratifs by Alphonse Mucha published in 1902

Alphonse Mucha’s reputation as an artist was now established and he became one of the most popular and successful of Parisian artists.  He became inundated with commissions for theatre posters, advertising posters, decorative panels, magazine covers, menus, postcards, calendars. He even started to provide designs for jewellery, cutlery, tableware, fabrics etc which were in so much demand that he conceived the idea of creating a handbook for craftsmen, which would offer all the necessary patterns for creating an Art Nouveau lifestyle.  His book, Documents Décoratifs, a style book published in Paris in 1902, was by the Librairie Central des Beaux-Arts, and is an encyclopaedia of his decorative work. The Documents Décoratifs is comprised of 72 exquisite plates of elaborate designs for brooches and other pieces, with swirling arabesques and vegetal forms, with incrustations of enamel and coloured stones.  It epitomized everything the Art Deco movement is remembered for: decor, women, flowers, natural forms, structures, jewellery.  Alphonse also spent an increasing amount of his time teaching, first at the Académie Colarossi and later, with Whistler, at the Académie Carmen.

                                Portrait of Mucha’s Wife, Maruska (1908)

In 1902, Alfonse Mucha accompanied his friend Auguste Rodin to Prague on the occasion of Rodin’s exhibition at Jan Kotera’s new Mánes Pavilion in Prague.  A gala night was held at the National Theatre of Prague to welcome the renowned sculptor and it was here that Alphonse Mucha first met Marie Chytilová, an aspiring artist, who was studying at the School of Applied Arts in Prague and who admired the work of Mucha.

Marie Chytilová in Mucha’s studio in rue du Val-de-Grâce, Paris. 1903

A year later whilst visiting Paris with her family, Marie solicited the help of her uncle, the eminent Czech art historian Dr. Karel Chytil, to arrange art classes with Mucha.  Alphonse agreed and got Maria to also to take classes at the Académie Calarossi where he was teaching and they spent each of the remaining days of her month-long sojourn together.  Love blossomed between the two despite an age difference of twenty-two years.  However, despite the intense amour between Alphonse and Marie, he left her in Europe whilst he made his first trip to America thanks to letters of introduction, which he had received from Baroness Salomon de Rothschild.  There must have been some great pull which made him abandon Marie and cross the Atlantic, and to find that reason we must go back to when he was painting his murals at the Paris World Fair for the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion and his promise to himself that he would one day complete a series of paintings which would illustrate the Slav fight for independence.  He needed financial backing and where better to go to find funds – America.

                                                                          Charles Richard Crane in 1909

Alphonse Mucha was by no means an unknown artist in America.  In fact, he was a celebrity in the United States as his posters had been widely displayed during Sarah Bernhardt’s annual American tours since 1896. He stayed at a rented studio near Central Park and continued to paint as well as giving interviews and lectures. More importantly, he was able to contact Pan-Slavic organizations with regards to his money-raising idea to support his proposed Slavic Saga series of history paintings. At one of the Pan-Slavic banquets held in his honour he was introduced to Charles Richard Crane, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who was a passionate Slavophile. Crane was enthusiastic with Mucha’s vision for a series of monumental paintings depicting Slavic history, and he became Mucha’s most important patron. 

Cours Mucha poster at Académie Colarossi

Alphonse returned home to Paris in May 1904, to complete some commissions but in January 1905 he returned to America.  During this visit he gives classes, known as the cours Mucha, at the New York School of Applied Design for Women, similar to those he held at Académie Colarossi.  He was enjoying life in America and wrote to his folks back in Moravia:

“…You must have been very surprised by my decision to come to America, perhaps even amazed. But in fact, I had been preparing to come here for some time. It had become clear to me that that I would never have time to do the things I wanted to do if I did not get away from the treadmill of Paris, I would be constantly bound to publishers and their whims…in America, I don’t expect to find wealth, comfort, or fame for myself, only the opportunity to do some more useful work…”

        Alphonse and Marie on their wedding day, June 10th 1906.

On June 10th 1906, forty-five-year-old Alphonse Mucha, and twenty-three-year-old Marie Chytilová married shortly after his return to Prague from New York.  Marie was everything Alphonse could have wanted.  She was extremely attractive, she was well-educated and well-read, musical, a great lover of art, and from an old Czech family. 

                                                                               Husband and wife

She was to become his muse and was incredibly supportive of his art.  For their honeymoon, the couple travelled to the highlands of South Bohemia and stayed in the small village of Pec.  Once the honeymoon was over the couple travelled to Chicago where Alphonse was given a post as teacher at the Art Institute

                                    Portrait of Maruška, the artist’s wife by Alphonse Mucha (1905)

Alphonse painted a number of portraits of his wife.  One such painting was entitled Portrait of Mucha’s wife, Maruška.   Maruška is a diminutive of ‘Marie’.

Tragedy – study for a mural for the German theatre New York (1908)

In 1908 Alphonse also worked on a large decoration project, for the interior of the German Theatre of New York.  He was commissioned to produce five large decorative panels, the stage curtain, and decorative elements for the foyer, the corridor, the staircase, and the auditorium. The three large allegorical murals would be depicted in the Art Nouveau style, and would represent Tragedy, Comedy and Truth.  In his depiction, Tragedy, the female protagonist is modelled on the lead tragedienne of the Max Reinhardt Theatre, Miss Reichl.

                                              Painting of Josephine Crane Bradley as Slavia (1908)

In that same year, 1908, Charles Crane commissioned Mucha to make two separate portraits in a traditional Slavic style of his two daughters, Josephine, and Frances.  The painting of Josephine, as the Slav goddess, Slavia, was to mark her marriage to Harold C. Bradley.   The portrait was to be incorporated into the interior decoration of a new house that Crane was building for the newlyweds.   It was looked upon by critics as his finest work in America.

   Alphonse Mucha-designed artwork on a 1920 Czechoslovak Republic 100 Czechoslovak korun note

In fact, ten years later, when Mucha was asked to design the Czechoslovak 100-koruna banknote he once again used her portrait as a model for Slavia.

       Mucha’s daughter Jaroslava is born on March 15th 1909 in New York.

On March 15th 1909, in New York, Alphonse and Marie hade their first child, a daughter, Jaroslava

Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans)

That same year (1909) Alphonse was commissioned to design a poster depicting the highly paid prominent American actress, Maude Adams, in her role as Joan of Arc in a translation of Friedrich Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans).  The play was staged on June 22nd for a crowd of around two thousand spectators in a one-night gala performance at Harvard University Stadium.  The portrait served as a poster for the event and Alphonse was also responsible for designing the costumes and sets.  The painting depicts the medieval heroine, Joan of Arc, gesturing in amazement at the apparition behind her, which was inspiring her to lead French troops into battle. The stylized floral patterns, swirling hair and garments, and flat, graphic quality of the composition was typical of Mucha’s work and he also designed the complementary frame.

                                      Zbiroh Castle with the town of Zbiroh in the left background.

In 1909 Alphonse Mucha leaves America satisfied that he had Charles Crane’s financial backing for his grand plan to paint a series of works outlining the Slav struggles.   Alphonse rented a studio and apartment in Zbiroh Castle, a 12th century château in West Bohemia. He began by visiting the places he intended to depict in the cycle such as Russia, Poland, and the Balkans, including visits to the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos.   He now spent all his free time studying all the books he could find with regards the history of the Slavs and also contacted specialists in the field, such as Ernest Denis who Alfonse meets in Paris in 1911.  Ernest Denis was considered to be one of the most highly regarded 20th-century historians of the Slav world in France and who played a major role in the establishment of the Czechoslovak state in 1918.  Alphonse’s dream of the Slav Saga series of paintings had now started.  For anybody who might look upon Alphonse Mucha as an illustrator and a poster designer, the next three blogs will change that opinion…………………

………………………….to be continued.


Much of the information for this came from the excellent website The Mucha Foundation

 

Alphonse Mucha. Part 1

                              Alphonse Mucha in his Paris studio on Rue de Val de Grace (c. 1899)

The artist I am looking at today is a Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist, who spent the first part of his artistic life living in Paris during the Art Nouveau period and where he became best known for his stylized and decorative theatrical and advertising posters.  This was all to change when, at the age of 43, he returned to his homeland of the Bohemia-Moravia region in Austria where he dedicated himself to completing a series of twenty monumental paintings, known as The Slav Epic, which pictorially portrayed the history of the Slavic people.  I will talk about that great series in the later blogs but for today let me tell you about the early life of Alphonse Marie Mucha and his wonderful illustrative work.

Alphonse Maria Mucha was born on July 24th 1860 in the small town of Ivančice in the southern Moravia region,  which is now the Czech Republic, but then was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His father Ondřej Mucha was an usher at the Ivančice courthouse and his mother Amálie was the daughter of a miller.  Alphonse was the eldest of five children.  He had three sisters, Anna, Andéla and Antoine and one brother, August.  He also had two stepsisters from his father’s first marriage.  Alphonse was gifted musically.  He was an alto singer and also a talented violinist.  He also enjoyed drawing.

                                                          Crucifixion by Alphonse Mucha (1868)

One of his earliest works is entitled Crucifixion which he completed around the age of eight.   It can be seen from the depiction that the young boy was influenced by the Catholic Church and its teachings.  As a young boy he was inspired by the Catholic rituals and later in life he recalled attending church for the Easter celebrations:

“…I used to kneel for hours as an acolyte in front of Christ’s grave. It was in a dark alcove covered with flowers heavy with intoxicating fragrance and wax candles were burning quietly all round with a sort of sacred light which illuminated from below the martyred body of Christ, life-size, hanging from the wall in utmost sadness… How I loved to kneel there with my hands clasped in prayer. No-one in front of me, only the wooden Christ hanging from the wall, no-one who would see me shutting my eyes and thinking of God-knows-what and imagining that I am kneeling on the edge of a mysterious unknown figure…”

                             Choirboys at Gymnázium Slovanské in Brno by Alphonse Mucha (1872)

 After primary school he was to move into secondary schooling but this had to be paid for and his parents just did not have the funds as they were already paying for the education of his two stepsisters.  However, as he was such a good musician his music teacher arranged for him to meet to Pavel Křížkovský, the choirmaster of St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno, who was impressed with Alphonse.  Alphonse’s family had hoped that through Křížkovský, their son would be able to become a member of the choir and with this would come a monastery scholarship which would pay for his secondary education.  Unfortunately for Alphonse, Křížkovský was not able to admit him and get him funding as he had already attained sponsorship for another musician.  However, Křížkovský arranged for twelve-year-old Alphonse to be interviewed by the deputy choirmaster of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul,  Leoš Janáček, who admitted him as a cathedral chorister and funded his studies as a boarder at the Gymnázium Slovanské, the high school in Brno.  Alas, nature took its course and eventually the teenager’s voice broke and he had to leave the choir but instead played the violin during the church services.

Although it was due to his musical talents that Alphonse was able to complete his schooling he still believed in a possible artistic future and he set about gaining employment as a theatrical scene designer.  The next step for him was to gain some formal artistic tuition and so, in 1878, aged eighteen, he applied to enrol on a course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, but was rejected.   They harshly advised him to follow a different career path.  In 1880, aged 19, he travelled to Vienna, which at the time was looked upon as the political and cultural capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Here Alphonse was taken on as an apprentice scenery painter for the Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt painting workshop, which produced stage scenery and theatre curtains, a company which made sets for Vienna theatres.   Vienna to Alphonse was like a breath of fresh air and he enrolled at some of the city’s art classes..

                                                                  Hans Makart, Self-portrait, (1878)

Now living in this large city, Alphonse was able to visit art galleries and theatres, tickets to which were given to him by his employer.  During his visit to the galleries, he came across the works of Hans Makart, the renowned 19th-century Austrian academic history painter, designer, decorator, who was famed for his monumental works of portraiture. Like many artists in the late nineteenth century, Alphonse began to experiment with photography as an aid to his artwork.  

                             The fire catastrophe at the Ring Theatre in Vienna (December 8th 1881)

In 1881, just a year after he arrived in Vienna, fate once again stepped into Alphonse Mucha’s life when a fire destroyed the Ring Theatre, which was the main customer of the firm he worked for.  Within the series of theatre fires in the 19th century, the catastrophe at the Ring Theatre in Vienna was the worst because of at least 450 fatalities. There are several crucial points, which led to a disaster in this extent: The fire was not reported immediately, the people in the theatre were not informed in time, the emergency lighting was not working, the architectural structure of the building made the way out long and complicated, and the theatre staff was unable to cope with this case of emergency. 

                          Decorative murals at the Hrušovany Emmahof Castle

Alphonse was now made redundant and had to decide whether to remain in Vienna or head back home to Ivančice.  In the end, he did neither but took a train through Austria and into Moravia.  By the time he arrived at Mikulov in southern Moravia his money had run out and he had to alight from the train.  He needed somewhere to stay in the town but had no money.  Fortunately, he was able to “pay” for his board and lodgings by sketching some portraits.  His portraiture was seen by Count Eduard Khuen-Belasi, the local landowner and he was so impressed by the standard of Alphonse’s work that he commissioned him to paint murals for his Hrušovany Emmahof Castle near Hrušovany nad Jeviškou and his Gandegg Castle in the Tyrol, as well as reconstructing the Castle’s portraits and the decorative murals.  So amazed with Alphonse’s work, the Count decided to sponsor Alphonse’s formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts for two years.  Following the completion of his studies in 1887 the Count arranged for Alphonse to go and study in Paris at Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi.

                                         Portraits of Saints Cyril and Methodius                                                    St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pisek, USA by Alphonse Mucha (1887)

The Count funded Mucha’s  expenses until the end of 1889 at which time the flow of money stopped and it is thought that the Count wanted Alphonse to become independent and survive by his work alone.  It was a blow to Alphonse who had for the last three years, no financial worries.  He now had to balance his income against expenditure and learnt to survive on a diet of lentils and beans and began to eke out a living by providing illustrations for a variety of magazines and books.  However, his hard work paid off and he was soon able to establish himself as a successful and reliable illustrator.

Sarah Bernhardt as Gismonda poster by Alphonse Mucha

Was it sheer luck, or fate once again, that on December 26th 1894 Alphonse happened to be at Lemercier’s printing works, when Sarah Bernhardt, the star of the Parisian stage, called de Brunhoff, the printer’s agent, with an immediate demand for a new poster for her production of Gismonda.  Unfortunately for Lemercier all his regular artists were on holiday and so in an act of desperation he approached Alphonse to produce the poster.  The poster was of a long narrow format (216 x 74cms) and the subtle pastel colours and the ‘halo’ effect around the subject’s head were to remain features of Mucha’s posters throughout his life.  It was a depiction which oozed both grandeur and solemnity and was in stark contrast to other garish street posters of the time.  This Art Nouveau advertising poster was for the four-act comedy, Gismonda, by Victorien Sardou, which was being staged at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris. Sarah Bernhardt was both director and actor. This poster by Mucha was produced to promote the new production which opened on January 4, 1895.  Mucha portrayed Bernardt as an exotic Byzantine noblewoman wearing a splendid dress and an orchid headdress with a palm branch in her hand. This costume was worn in the last act, the climax of the comedy, in which she joined the Easter procession.  The Gismonda poster which Alfonse Mucha created was a sensation and it was so popular with the Parisian public that collectors bribed bill stickers to obtain them or simply went out at night and, using razors, cut them down from the hoardings.  Bernhardt was delighted with Mucha’s work and continued to use this poster for her American tour in 1896.  She offered Mucha a five-year contract to produce stage and costume designs as well as posters.

Champagne Ruinart poster by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

This Champagne Ruinart poster is one of Mucha’s earliest commissions from the printer and lithographer Ferdinand Champenois and was included in the seminal Exposition d’Affiches Artistiques Françaises & Etrangères Moderns & Retrospectives held in Rheims in November 1896.

                                             JOB cigarette papers poster by Alphonse Mucha (1897)

Alphonse Mucha’s success with the Sarah Bernhardt posters precipitated in many more commissions for advertising posters. He designed posters such as the one for JOB cigarette papers…

Moët Chandon Crémant Impérial poster by Alphonse Mucha (1899)

…and for Moët-Chandon champagne.

                             Champenois poster by Alphonse Mucha

At the turn of the twentieth century, Alphonse Muhca continued to create posters for Ferdinand Champenois, who had his premises at 66 Boulvd. St. Michel, Paris.  He signed an exclusive contract with the company to produce commercial and decorative posters.  With Gismonda ‘le style Mucha’ was launched.  Mucha was established as the preeminent exponent of Parisian Art Nouveau.  This 1897 lithograph depicts a beautiful young girl in a sophisticated pink dress with red and blue embroidery. The girl wears pink and red flowers in her dark blonde hair and is surrounded by the heavy floral ornamentation and spirals characteristic of much of Alphonse Mucha’s work.  Over the next decade Mucha illustrated posters and decorative panels, books, magazine covers, advertisements, theatre programmes, menu cards, calendars, and postcards many using Champenois as his printer.

          Calendar illustration designed by Alphonse Mucha for La Plume

Alphonse also designed a calendar which featured a woman’s head around which were the twelve signs of the zodiac in a halo-like disc. The rights for the illustration were sold on to Léon Deschamps, the editor of the arts review La Plume, who brought it out with great success as the magazine’s calendar for 1897. This was Mucha’s first work under his contract with the printer Champenois and was originally designed as an in-house calendar for the company.  The majestic beauty of the woman is emphasised by her regal bearing and elaborate jewellery.  It became one of Mucha’s most popular designs; at least nine variants of this lithograph are known, including this one which was printed without text to serve as a decorative panel.  Between 1896 and 1904 Alphonse Mucha created over one hundred poster designs for Champenois. These prints were sold in various formats, ranging from expensive versions printed on Japanese paper or vellum, to less expensive versions which combined multiple images, to calendars and postcards.

                       Railroad poster advertising travel to Monaco and Monte-Carlo (1897)

His posters almost always depicted beautiful women in sumptuous settings with their hair generally curling in arabesque forms and filling the frame. In 1897 Alphonse produced a poster for the railway line between Paris and Monaco-Monte-Carlo but it neither showed a train nor any identifiable scene of Monaco or Monte-Carlo. It simply depicted a beautiful young woman in a dream-like pose, surrounded by whirling images of flowers, which implied the turning wheels of a train.

            Poster for Alphonse Mucha’s 1897 retrospective exhibition at the Salon des Cent

Alphone Mucha’s reputation as an illustrative artist grew and he was invited to exhibit his work in the Salon des Cent exhibition in 1896, and a year later he had a major retrospective in the same gallery exhibiting 448 works. The art magazine La Plume made a special edition devoted to his work, and his exhibition travelled to Vienna, Prague, Munich, Brussels, London, and New York, which boosted his international reputation.

                                  Jewelelry designs by Mucha in Documents Decoratifs (1901)

In 1899 Alphonse entered into a collaboration with the jeweller Georges Fouquet to make a bracelet for Sarah Bernhardt in the form of a serpent, made of gold and enamel, similar to the costume jewellery Bernhardt wore in Medea.

                               Cascade pendant designed by Alfons Mucha for Fouquet jewelers, (1900)

The Cascade pendant designed for Fouquet by Mucha in 1900 is in the shape of a waterfall.  It is composed of gold, enamel, opals, tiny diamonds, paillons, and a barocco or misshapen pearl.

………………………to be continued


Much of the information for this came from the excellent website The Mucha Foundation

Ralph Hedley. Part 2.

                                       In School by Ralph Hedley (1883)

Another of Hedley’s paintings projecting school life was his 1883 work, In School.  The boy in the painting was John Irwin, the younger brother of Tom Irwin, who worked at Ralph Hedley’s woodcarving shop.

                         The Ballad Seller, the Black Gate by Ralph Hedley (1884)

Hedley used Irwin in a number of his painting. one of which was his 1884 work known as The Ballad Seller.  The setting is the Black Gate in Newcastle with Castle Garth in the background.  The red roofs of Castle Garth can be seen behind the Black Gate in Ralph Hedley’s depiction. The Black Gate formed the entrance to the street, which had been built inside the castle walls. There was only a short stretch of street left standing by the time Hedley painted this picture. It has now all been demolished, though the outline of the street can still be seen.  It is thought that Hedley made many plein air sketches for the background.  In the painting we can see the rough wooden fence that had been put up around the Black Gate in 1883 by the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries during the renovation work.  Hedley’s painting depicts broken and missing stones as well as damaged window glass.  The Black Gate of the Norman castle, which was completed at the end of the thirteenth century, had become run down.  However, the painting is all about the trade of selling ballads.  Ballad sellers were looked upon in the eighteenth century as impoverished, uneducated, and morally-lacking people who were allegedly conspiring with pickpockets.  It was suspected that whilst plying their trade, they hoped to distract their audience with their songs while the pickpockets went to work.  Later, they would share their ill-gotten gains.  Ralph Hedley would have witnessed poor women street sellers having to take their children with them, like the baby in the ballad-seller’s arms in this picture.  John Irwin was once again used as a model for one of the boys.

                             Shoeing a refractory horse (Shoeing the Bay Mare) by Ralph Hedley (1883)

Older brother Tom Irwin was himself the model for one of the men in Hedley’s 1885 painting Shoeing a refractory horse in the stocks – Shoeing the bay mare.  He was the man standing on the right wearing the brown cap, velvet jacket and velvet trousers.  He was seventeen years of age when he modelled for the work.  Tom Irwin, who worked at Ralph Hedley’s woodcarving workshop, and his family arrived in Newcastle around 1880.  He remembered the first meeting with Hedley and how the artist had admired their clothes:

“… When we came from the country where we had been farming, we brought several quaint articles of clothing, caps, clogs, baskets etc, which proved invaluable to your father’ work, and… which we know were much appreciated by him… “

                                    Going Home by Ralph Hedley (1888)

Ralph Hedley believed that art should be a pictorial record of the working lives of local people, and his paintings were particularly valuable for the record they provide of everyday life on Tyneside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  His 1888 painting, Going Home, is a depiction of two coal miners returning home from working at the pit at Blaydon, near Gateshead. The younger of the two men wears a cap to protect his head from the low beams, and he wears a pair of shorts because of the heat in the mine. In his hand is a safety lamp and a sack to kneel on. This was an extremely popular painting and a print of it was made the following year which proved extremely popular with the public.

                                                   Go, and God’s will be done! by Ralph Hedley (1891)

One of Ralph Hedley’s 1891 paintings, Go, and God’s Will be Done, fascinates me as there is a story behind the depiction.  At first glance there is obviously something dramatic happening in this painting, but what is it all about?  On the floor in the left foreground a cat sleeps peacefully before the fire, unaware of the chaotic happenings going on in the room.   This is the home of a lifeboatman and in the bed is his wife who is very ill.  The husband, in his shirt sleeves, leans over to talk to her.  Next to him stands a lifeboatman who has come to take him away to their lifeboat.  The door of his cottage is held open by his daughter and we can see that outside there is a gale force wind blowing over rough seas, in which is a boat in trouble.  The call has gone out for all the local lifeboatmen to rush to launch the lifeboat and the wife’s husband is torn between his duty to his sick wife and his duty to the lifeboat rescue.  The painting is based on the English poet and journalist, George Roberts Simms poem, The Lifeboat.  The words of the poem which Hedley has illustrated so beautifully are:

“…I didn’t move, but pointed to the white face on the bed-

“I can’t go, mate,” I murmured; “in an hour she may be dead,

I cannot go and leave her to die in the night alone.”

As I spoke Ben raised the lantern, and the light on my wife was thrown;

And I saw her eyes fix strangely with a pleading look on me,

While a tremblin’ finger pointed through the door to the ragin’ sea,

Then she beckoned me near and whispered “Go, and God’s will be done!

For every lad on that ship, John, is some poor mother‘s son…”.

So how did the story end?   It had a happy conclusion.  The husband went with the lifeboat and helped to save the crew of the sinking ship. One of them was his long-lost son, and when he took him home, his mother was overjoyed and recovered from her illness.  The poem was quoted in the exhibition catalogues when the work was exhibited in 1891 and 1892, in Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, and South Shields, and in the Royal Academy.  The painting is now in the collection at Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.

                       Ars Longa. Vita Brevis by Ralph Hedley (1900)

Hedley completed an interesting work in 1900 entitled Ars Longa, Vita Brevis which was exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy Exhibition.  It would almost be classed as a Vanitas painting focusing on the unstoppable transience of life but it does not have the usual Vanitas symbols such as burnt out candles and skulls.  And yet the title of the painting, Ars longa, Vita Brevis meaning Art is long, life is short is the perfect title for a Vanitas work.  The painting is one that elicits our sympathy for the aging artist we see before us.  Look how the depiction evokes this feeling.  The setting is a small drably-coloured attic space in which we see the artist sitting on his bed in front of an easel.  He loosely holds his palette and brushes and yet he has to rest them on his knees.  He has nodded off to sleep in the middle of his work.  Is it that he is tired or is it a sign that he has almost given up on life?  What are his circumstances and what are his thoughts?  Is he lonely and without friends?  Does he mull over his past life and consider past decisions that he has made and which have brought him to this point in his life?  I will leave you to decide.

                                                                          Duty Paid by Ralph Hedley (1886)

In the foreground of his 1886 painting, Duty Paid, we see a man has come to an office on the quayside to collect a parcel brought in by the ship. He puts his money on the table which is due in Custom’s Duty and one of the Customs officers meticulously fills in details of the payment in a ledger. On the other side of the table, another official seals the parcel with red wax, evidencing that duty has been paid. This is a typical Ralph Hedley depiction of local people and local scenes. His oeuvre provided us with an important record of life in the region in that period between the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

     John Graham Lough in His Studio by Ralph Hedley

One of the strangest paintings by Ralph Hedley depicted John Graham Lough an English sculptor who was recognised for his funerary monuments and a variety of portrait sculpture. He also produced ideal classical male and female figures.  Lough had come to London in 1824 to study the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.  He was living and had his studio on the first floor of a house in his Burleigh Street lodgings, above a greengrocer’s shop, and it was there that he embarked on a mould for his massive statue of Milo of Croton based on his studies of the Elgin Marbles and the work of Michelangelo.  According to Joshua Lax’s 1884 book, Historical and Descriptive Poems, this was the sculptor’s big chance at being a successful sculptor.   The biggest problem Lough faced was that his studio was too small and the ceiling height was too low for him to complete the statue.   Joshua Lax explains:

“…With the recklessness of a bold genius reduced to desperation, he actually broke through the ceiling of the room above him and made for himself sufficient space to work at his statue. The owner began to take steps for instituting legal proceedings, and even consulted Mr. Brougham (afterwards Lord Brougham) for this purpose. Brougham went to look at the Milo, and see for himself what Lough had done… The news of the strange affair soon spread, and, before long, the whole street where Lough’s room was situated was lined with the carriages of ladies and gentlemen, who had come to view the place, and to see Milo…”

In the painting we see the unhappy landlord and his lawyer, Henry Brougham at the base of the sculpture whilst the sculptor is at work on the upper part of the work, unrepentant with his destruction of the ceiling in his lodgings.

                                                         The Tournament by Ralph Hedley (1898)

In 1898 Hedley completed a painting which was to realise the highest price for one of his paintings at auction, (£43,020 at Bonhams in 2004).  It was entitled  The Tournament.  Hedley was influenced stylistically by the Newlyn school and other social realist painters.  He also focused on life in his much-loved Newcastle and the surrounding Tyneside area for his subject matter. The scope of his depictions was enormous.  It ranged from the uncompromising realism of workers on the dockside and miners to the delightful naivety of children at play, as we see depicted in The Tournament.

                                                           One-time home of Ralph Hedley in Newcastle.

Ralph Hedley’s involvement with the Bewick club, as successful exhibitor, committee member and eventually as president, guaranteed him a number of wealthy patrons for both his wood carvings and his paintings. However, his work was also loved by the working class, the subject of many of his works, and they gained access to his work through the many reproductions of his most well-known works could be found in local papers, tea promotions and adverts for cigarettes. He became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and exhibited a number of paintings at the Royal Academy.

                                                                                          Blue Plaque

Ralph Hedley died on June 11th 1913 aged 64 at his terraced home in 19 Belle Grove Terrace, Newcastle-on-Tyne.  There is a blue plaque commemorating Ralph Hedley who lived in the house from 1888 to his death in 1913.

Ralph Hedley. Part 1

                                                            Self portrait by Ralph Hedley (1895)

In this blog I am once again returning to nineteenth century social realism art.  Today’s artist was a genre painter who was also known for his wood carvings and book illustrations. Let me introduce you to the English painter, Ralph Hedley.

Ralph Hedley was born in the North Yorkshire village of Gilling West near Richmond on New Year’s Eve 1848, the son of carpenter, Ralph Hedley, and his wife Anne Hedley.  The Farrier’s Arms in Gilling West was the first house Ralph lived in.  Around the age of two, Ralph and his family left Yorkshire and moved to Newcastle upon Tyne where the Industrial Revolution had opened up new opportunities for work. 

                                                      Iron and Coal by William Bell Scott (1855–60)

Ralph attended school up to the age of thirteen and then became an apprentice at the wood carving workshop of Thomas Tweedy and during his evenings he attended art and design classes at the Government School of Art in Newcastle upon Tyne, where the principal was the Scottish poet and artist, William Bell Scott, a landscape and history painter who had also painted scenes from the Industrial Revolution in his work.  The Industrial Revolution had changed the life of the population.  Changes which were good for some but for others who had moved to the cities to grab the new opportunities for work there had been adverse consequences due to the rapid growth of dense urban areas with their problems of public health, housing, crime, and poverty.  William Bell Scott greatly influenced Ralph Hedley.  And at the age of 14 Ralph was awarded a bronze medal by government’s Department of Art and Science.

On completion of his apprenticeship with Thomas Tweedy, Hedley set up his own woodcarving and architectural sculpture business, which proved a great success.  As a wood carver, he received many commissions for decorative work in churches.  In 1874. Hedley married his wife Sarah Storey and they had six children, three boys and three girls. One daughter died in an accident, but the other five would all take up woodcarving as well, and two of his sons, on the death of their father, would take over the running of the workshop.

                                          The Newsboy by Ralph Hedley (1879)

Despite working as a wood carver, Hedley loved to spend his free time painting, and he had many of his works accepted into the Royal Academy’s exhibitions.   Hedley had more than fifty of his paintings displayed at the Royal Academy between 1879 and 1904. In 1879, he completed his painting entitled The Newsboy accepted by the Royal Academy’s jurists for inclusion at that summer’s exhibition.  It is a humorous depiction of a very young boy who has succumbed to tiredness and fallen asleep on some stone steps as he waits to offer people his newspapers.

                                      The Newsboy by Ralph Hedley (1892)

Thirteen years later Hedley returned to the subject with his 1892 version of the The Newsboy.  An article about this picture appeared in the Evening Chronicle of 27 January 1930:

“…For years this young newsboy stood against the hoardings which then occupied a site practically opposite the Central Station…..Seen almost invariably with a sack around his shoulders this young seller of ‘Chronicles’ became a familiar figure…”

                 Blinking in the Sun (Cat in a Cottage Window) by Ralph Hedley (1881)

In 1881 Hedley completed one of his best-loved paintings, Blinking in the Sun (Cat in a Cottage Window) sometimes referred to as Ralph’s Cat.  This tabby cat has that lazy, “loving-the-sunshine” expression on its face which every cat lover will recognise as their feline searches out the warmest spot they can find. Its sleek fur looks like it is a well cared for feline.  The cat is sitting on the windowsill of an old stone cottage next to an old earthenware pot of geraniums and narcissi and a Chinese vase of red tulips.

                                                                      Thomas Bewick by James Ramsay

Ralph Hedley and a number of fellow Newcastle artists set up the Bewick Club in 1884, an art group named after Thomas Bewick, the famous Northumbrian wood engraver. The club held a number of exhibitions which attracted large numbers of artists from the region.  The works on show varied from landscapes and seascapes to genre depictions that had a sense of gritty realism.  The raison d’être of the Club was to promote the needs of professional artists and to urge not only the patronage of rich individuals but of the interested less wealthy local population.

                           Chancel and Reredos, The Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, Newcastle.                        Photograph by Peter Loud, as captured from his impressive panoramic virtual tour of the cathedral.

Between 1882 and 1889 Ralph Hedley’s skills as a wood carver were put to use in the renovation of the interior of the Chancel and Reredos of the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, Newcastle.  His workshop carved the choir and rood screen for the scheme by architect Robert James Johnson.  John McQuillen, author of The Church of St. Nicholas, With a Brief Sketch of the History of Newcastle wrote of Hedley’s role in the internal renovations:

“…The richly-carved woodwork, a creation in which grace and strength are united, is strictly in keeping with the severe style of the chancel, and in accord with ecclesiastical traditions, was executed by Mr Ralph Hedley, and splendidly upholds his craftmanship and artistic feeling…”

Hedley’s great-granddaughter, Clodagh Brown, said that Hedley was responsible for the exceptionally fine wood carving in the choir, including the rood screen, Bishop’s throne, and canons’ stalls with misericords.  For more details of Hedleys work in the cathedral take a look at Victorian Web page: 

 http://victorianweb.org/painting/hedley/woodcarvings/1.html

What I believe was Hedley’s greatest contribution to society was his pictorial history of everyday life in Tyneside during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. When he died in 1913, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle recognised the importance of his work, writing:

“…What Burns did for the peasantry of Scotland with his pen, Ralph Hedley with his brush and palette had done for the Northumberland miner and labouring man…”

                                                                 Out of Work by Ralph Hedley (1888)

The Industrial Revolution in Britain was a period deemed to be between 1780 and 1830.  It was an episode in British history which saw the transition from being agricultural to being industrial.  There was a movement of the population from the rural areas to the urban areas.  The standard of living for those working-class people who came to the city in search of work was of a poor standard and to make matters worse, work was hard to come by and when you achieved employment, the wages were meagre and barely enough to survive and support your family.  These hard times were ones Hedley depicted in his paintings.  One example of this is his 1888 painting entitled Out of Work with an alternative title, Nothing to do.  The setting is the dockside of the River Tyne.  The four men had queued for a job that morning but were not hired.  Now all they have to do is to sit around and wait to re-apply for work the next morning.  Look at their distraught expressions.  They know they have to return home to their families and break the bad news.

                                                            Seeking Situations by Ralph Hedley (1904)

Another of Hedley’s work which focused on the plight of the unemployed is his 1904 painting, Seeking Situations.  The setting for Hedley’s work is what we would now call a “Job Centre”.  In it we see a number of men, some only young lads who may be looking for their first job, and a single female.  They are all studying the job adverts which are posted on the information boards.  According to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle which owns the painting, the setting is in fact the Victoria City Library, a building which was situated close to the artist’s studio in Newcastle.  It is interesting to look carefully at the various individuals Hedley has depicted.  In the foreground there is a bearded gentleman who is slightly hunched over.  Looking at the way he is dressed, he does not look like a manual worker and probably held, at one time, a supervisory role.  He looks sad and dejected.  He is walking away from the noticeboards having not been able to find any suitable employment.  His age and reduced ability are probably working against him.  Contrast his hunched and crestfallen demeanour with that of the young man to the right of him.  Again, by his clothes we know he is not a manual worker.  He is dressed in typical office-clothes.  His appearance and mood could not be more different to that of the bearded gentleman.  He looks pleased and eager as he spots a job description which would suit him perfectly.  He hastily writes down the information.  The only woman depicted in the painting is dressed well and has a refined air about her.  She is probably looking for shop work rather than factory work.  This compassionate but entirely unemotional work was a great example of social realism and is one of Ralph Hedley’s best-known paintings.

                                                                  Barred Out by Ralph Hedley

Young children of working-class families and their lot in life was depicted in many of Hedley’s paintings, as was there time at school.  A fine example of this genre was his 1896 painting with the unusual title, Barred Out.   The title is all about a widespread custom, up to the 19th century, known as the ‘barring-out’ of the schoolteacher by his pupils. On a certain day agreed by the school authorities, the pupils planned to bar the classroom door with the teacher outside and refused to let him in until he agreed to their terms, which were usually for a half-holiday, or something similar.  In Hedley’s painting we see schoolchildren enjoying the North-East custom of barring the teacher from the classroom on the 29th of May,  until the holidays for the next year had been agreed. One boy is wearing a Northumberland hat with a red pom-pom. Ralph Hedley has depicted the setting as a shabby country classroom in which children of many different ages are being taught together. The children’s clothing albeit shabby and multi-patched does not detract from the depiction of happy and healthy children.  However, although some of the children’s clothes are patched, they seem happy and healthy.

………………….to be continued

Ernest Biéler

                                           The Braiding of Straw by Ernest Biéler

If you went into a room, on the walls of which were a large number of paintings by the great artists of the past but without identifying labels, how many do you think you would recognise?   If there were three painting in the room done by each artist, although not grouped together, how many would you be able connect to each artist.   For the art history aficionados, maybe the brushstrokes would act like fingerprints.  Maybe the colours used by the individual artists would lead you to solve the quest.  If they are figurative paintings maybe an artist has his/her own way of depicting them.  The reason for those questions is that my artist today has such recognisable paintings that I am sure after reading this blog and looking at his paintings you will be able to identify his work when you see it.  Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Swiss painter Ernest Biéler.  He was a multi-talented artist, draughtsman, and printmaker. He worked in oil, tempera, watercolour, gouache, ink, charcoal, pastels, acrylic and pencil. He also created mosaics and stained-glass windows.

Portrait of Nathalie Biéler, the artist’s mother by Ernest Biéler(1906)

 

Portrait of Samuel Biéler,the artist’s father by Ernest Biéler (1906)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ernest Biéler was born on July 31st, 1863, in Rolle in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is located on the north-western shore of Lake Geneva between Nyon and Lausanne.  His father, Samuel Biéler, was a veterinarian and his mother Natalie de Butzow, of Finnish-Polish descent, was a teacher of music and art. Ernest’s maternal grandfather was in the diplomatic corps, and was a one-time Finnish ambassador to Switzerland until his sudden death, which  brought difficult financial times to the family.

                                                       Paysage a Saviese by Ernest Biéler (1925)

Samuel Biéer and his wife Nathalie had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. With finances tight, Ernest’s father moved his family to Lausanne, where he had been offered a well-paid post as a lecturer in zoology at the University of Lausanne. Although little is known with regards Ernest Biéler’s early childhood, it is understood that in 1880, aged seventeen he graduated from the College of Art in Lausanne and then, went to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian.

                                                                                               Savièse

Often in our lives we do something that unbeknown to us at the time will affects our future plans.  For twenty-one-year-old Ernest Biéler the time was the summer of 1884 during a walking holiday in the high peaks of the Vallais region, in the southwest of Switzerland. To its south lies Italy and the Aosta Valley and Piedmont and to the southwest France the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes of France.  During his hike, Ernest visited the remote mountain village of Savièse. 

                                    Girl with Scarf by Ernest Biéler

From there, the beautiful landscapes stretched in all directions, and the people that inhabited the village seemed to almost have circumvented civilization.  The village, its people and the spectacular landscape had a great effect on Biéler and would feature in many of his works.  This village was to become a great part of his life and through his depictions of the village and the people it would cement his place in the art world which was what he had always strived for.

         Devant l’église de Saint-Germain à Savièse (Outside the Church of Saint-Germain in Savièse)                                                                                           by Ernest Biéler (1886)

Biéler was fascinated by the Savièse folk and their traditions.  Add to this the ideal outdoor conditions with the brilliant light, which was ideal for plein air painting  He went back to the Savièse in the autumn of 1886 and completed numerous sketches that he would use later for one of his masterpieces.  He organised for the following summer to have a large stretcher delivered to his Paris studio for him to complete his ambitious work. Biéler completed the painting in his Parisian studio using his preliminary sketches.  The finished work entitled Devant l’église de Saint-Germain à Savièse (Outside the Church of Saint-Germain in Savièse) was extremely large, measuring 204 x 302cms. The setting for this work was not one particular church in a particular village but rather a commonplace church with its mighty stone pier and its arched doorway.  Before us we see a large group of women gathered together in the warm sunlight.  They are all turned out in their dark blue Sunday dresses and are following the mass from the outside.  Some are diligently studying their prayer books whilst others have been designated as child minders.  By its composition and handling, the work was bound to arouse the interest of avant-garde circles: the figures are made monumental by the close framing.  Look at the way Biéler has referenced the effect of the intense sunlight. The way the folds of the clothes reflects this penetrating light.  The effect of the light can be seen in the way the artist has added the bluish shadows, applied in broad brushstrokes, to the walls.  We can see in this work how Biéler was influenced by the French Impressionists.   The painting was seen by a counsellor of state from Vaud, Eugène Ruffy, who bought it for the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne.  The one stipulation of the sale was that Biéler was allowed to keep the painting for a while so that he could present it at the Salon of 1887 in Paris.

                                                                 Retour du bapteme by Ernest Biéler

Many painters in the late nineteenth century clung to the beauty of rural life and religious ceremonies in a way of counteracting the swiftly changing world due to industrialisation which witnessed rural people leaving their communities to search for their dreams in the towns and cities.  Biéler and many artists such as Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet depicting such ceremonies and village communities was a way of remembering the peaceful times in rural communities.

                                                             Mother and Child by Ernest Biéler

In 1892, Biéler was struggling financially and had to sell his property to pay off the many debts he had accumulated. He left Paris and settled in Geneva and was fortunate enough to receive a commission to paint the ceiling in the new concert hall, the Victoria Hall. The building came about thanks to the Consul of England, Daniel Fitzgerald Packenham Barton, who was based in Geneva and had two great passions, navigation, and music, and being one of the extremely rich could satisfy both of them. He arranged that the Geneva architect John Camoletti built the Hall, and he dedicated it to his sovereign Queen Victoria.   In 1894, the building was completed.  The theme of Biéler’s ceiling paintings was Harmonia, queen of Thebes, the mythical figure of harmony.

                                 Sketch for the ceiling of the Victoria Hall mural by Ernest Bieler (1893)

On September 16th 1984, the concert hall was engulfed in flames that partly destroyed the interior décor. That night the interior of the Hall was devastated and the world-famous organ simply melted and collapsed. It was soon decided to restore the interior of the hall as far as possible in the original style, which was flamboyant and heavily decorated. The City having decided to restore the building, also decided that the ceiling décor which had been painted by Ernest Biéler had to be replaced by a contemporary work by Dominique Appia.

                                                               Naked, Ringing the Bell by Ernest Biéler

One original ceiling image which caused a controversy at the time was Biéler’s painting, Naked, ringing the bell.  However, the commission was hailed a success and Biéler’s reputation grew, bringing financial rewards.

                                                                     La Râclette, by Ernest Biéler (1903)

In 1896, Biéler rented a house for a workshop in Savièse, and immersed himself in village life but he had to return to Paris so as to carry on with his studies at the Académie Julian.  Along with fellow artists, such as Édouard Eugène Francis Vallet, Raphaël Ritz, and others, Biéler founded the Ecole of Savièse. This name became synonymous with his unique style of work, in which we see an extraordinary level of detail, that became extremely popular with the public.  In the first decade of the twentieth century, Ernest Beeler began building a large house of his own in Savièse with his own workshop and various auxiliary facilities.   In 1900, aged 37, he exhibited two works that earned him a silver medal in the Paris Salon and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour.

                                                                   Vue de Savièse by Ernest Biéler

Around 1906, Biéler became undecided about his painting style.  Should he abandon his realistic painting style in favour of modernism, which rejected history and conservative values such as realistic depiction of subjects and which adopted a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.  When asked whether he was a realist or an idealist, he simply replied:

“…An artist can strive for both. One does not exclude the other. The national feeling has nothing to do with art…”

                                               Le vieux duc de savize cloutiergranois by Ernest Biéler

In 1909, at the age of 46, Ernest Biéler married a Parisian divorcee, Michelle Laronde, who already had a young son and was an art tutor.  They decided to live in Paris rather than the village of Savièse.  The reason, as he wrote to a friend, was because his new wife was “too urban to live in Savièse.” In fact she did not want to have anything to do with Switzerland which caused a problem for Biéler, as his main source of income was from Switzerland, where he was still receiving numerous commissions, and for that reason he had to stay for long periods in Switzerland without his new wife.

                                                        Deux jeunes Valaisannes by Ernest Biéler

The second decade of the twentieth century proved to be a problematical and difficult period for Biéler.    In 1911 his father died.  Seven years later his mother died and during that intervening period war raged in Europe.  In 1916, Biéler reluctantly decided to leave his wife and the French capital and move to Vevey, a Swiss town, close to Lake Geneva and about thirty miles north-west of his beloved Savièse.  In 1917 he buys a house in Montellier-sur-Rivaz.  Now living apart from his wife, there followed the inevitable divorce in 1921.

                                   L’Eau mysterieuse (Mysterious Waters) by Ernest Biéler (1912)

During this decade, it was not just these personal problems of death and divorce that he had to deal with, he also had an artistic setback.  He had been working for four years on his exceptionally large (146.3 x 376.4 cms) painting, L’Eau mysterieuse (Mysterious Waters).  Although it was acclaimed when it was shown in Paris in 1912 and subsequently bought by the Gottfried Keller Foundation, after it was exhibited in Switzerland, it failed to persuade him to remain in the French capital.  Biéler had meant the work to be an art nouveau manifesto with the aim to establish in Paris the importance of this graphic style and of the seldom-used medium of egg tempera.  The work is painted on sheets of paper mounted on canvas and set within a large wooden frame which had been fashioned to Biéler’s instructions. Its long, narrow format recalls the works seen on cassoni, or marriage chests which are a rich and showy Italian type of chest.  These long and narrow paintings had been revived by the English Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. The smooth-flowing depiction is of thirteen princesses fanning out in the foreground which is offset by a number of the trees in the background. The basin into which the women stare, occupies nearly half of the painting.  The setting is autumn with fallen leaves on the ground and the surface of the pond.  The women are kneeling, gazing into the pond, fascinated by their own reflections and worry at what they see – their unstoppable ageing.  However, this depiction is all about Ovid’s myth of Narcissus, enchantment and the feminisation of heroes which was popular at we entered the twentieth century.

                                              Jeune Chevrier (Young Goatherd) by Ernest Biéler

In 1917 Ernest set up shop in a vast studio in Montellier near Rivaz and there he began producing the great decorative works that will ensure him lasting fame. He created stained-glass windows for churches (Saint Francis, Lausanne; Saint Martin, Vevey; Saint Germain, Savièse), mounted-canvas ceilings (Victoria Hall, Geneva; Theatre of Bern) and frescoes (Jenisch Museum, Vevey; the main hall of the Greater Council, Sion).  

                                                       L’Homme des Camps by Ernest Biéler, (1917)

From 1923, Beeler spent the last 25 years of his life in Savièse. In 1928, when he was sixty-five years of age, he married for the second time.  His second wife was Madeleine de Kerenville, who was 20 years his junior.

Ernest Biéler died in Lausanne on June 25th, 1948 and is buried in St. Martin’s Cemetery in Vevey.

Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 4.

                                                                            Hilda Rix Nicholas (1910)

Many of Hilda’s works were sold and the success of the exhibition led to many of her Australian works of art touring London and British regional art galleries.   The most prestigious of these being at the Royal Academy in London and at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers,

                                                                          His Land by Hilda Rix Nicholas

A solo exhibition of her work was on view in December 1924 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, and one of the works on display was His Land, which was described as having “the rare quality of conveying the spirit of life in the Commonwealth.  Back in Australia, the December 5th 1925 edition of the Newcastle Morning Herald printed an article about the painting and the exhibition:

AUSTRALIAN WOMAN ARTIST.

Something of the beauty and grandeur of life in Australia is to be found in the art exhibition opened at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton-place, by the Australian High Commissioner. The artist. Mrs.Hilda RIx Nicholas, is an Australian and her works possess the rare quality of conveying, the spirit of life in the Commonwealth as well as portraying) that life pictorially. “His Land.” The most important work of the exhibition. might almost be termed great. It is a perfect example of the difficult art oil figure and’ landscape combination. In the foreground ‘is a young settler on horseback; contemplating a vast sunlit valley, which stretches away to the distant Blue Mountains. A. J. Munnings himself could not have painted horse and rider better. The trees, fields, and mountains are brightly coloured, and the whole picture. seems.to convey, the sunny heat-laden atmosphere of Australia.

It was not just in English galleries that her work was exhibited,  for in Paris, she appeared at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Spring exhibition in Paris, in which she had eight works, a very large number for a single artist. The Société not only hung many of her paintings and drawings, she was elected an Associate to the organisation in that year.

            Les fleurs dédaignées by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

One of her most famous paintings was completed in 1925 whilst she was living in Paris.  It was entitled Les fleurs dédaignées (The scorned flowers).  It was a monumental painting, the largest of all her works, measuring 193.0 x 128.5 cm (76 x 51 inches).  Rix Nicholas concentrated on details of costume and decoration.  The ornate eighteenth-century-style floral dress we see on the model was created by the artist specifically for the painting.  The female stands indoors before an early twentieth-century pastiche of a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry, which was once owned by the artist.   So, what is going on in the depiction we see before us?  Look at the female.  Her pale skin appears smooth and without blemish, almost like a porcelain doll.  Her head looks so small in relation to her voluminous dress.  The model for this work was a Parisian professional model and a prostitute, apparently with a reputation for being moody and cantankerous and this comes across as we study her face.  She stands upright in a dignified but arrogant manner.  She pouts.  What is she thinking? Look at her facial expression, is it an expression of contempt or maybe sullenness?   On the floor at her feet, we can see a bouquet of flowers which she has discarded and which are mirrored in the pattern of her dress.  What was the artist’s reason for that?   Are they from her lover who she has now rejected?  Look at her gaze.  Who is she looking at out the corner of her eyes?    So many unanswered questions.  Many art historians have had their say but few agree and so it is up to you to come up with answers!

When the work was displayed in Sydney in 1927, the art correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald of June 27th wrote:

“…For combination of grace, dramatic strength, and clearness in technique this picture would be difficult to surpass. There is nothing finicky about it; it tells its story with vivid directness. As a background to the figure Mrs. Rix Nicholas has set a piece of antique tapestry, so that the trees on either side lean in arch-wise over the head, the face and shoulders stand out clearly against an expanse of sky, and behind the body and limbs extends a countryside full of towers and rivers and trees. The quaint conventionality of this background accords exactly with the late eighteenth-century costume, all sprigged with roses and heliotrope; and the whole mass of detail harmonies [sic] perfectly with the type of the model’s face. It is a cold, selfish face. The artist has brought out with revealing strokes an expression of vindictive malice which is for the moment resting there; and the hands, the fingers of one grasped tightly by the other, give a clear indication of nervous tension within. The treatment of flesh tones and the general arrangement [sic], drawing attention gently but not too obtrusively to the columbines scattered on the polished floor—those are excellent…”

The painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 from the artist’s son, Rix Wright.

                                               Le Bigdouen by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

During her period in France Hilda put together a number of new paintings including portraits of traditional life and costume, whilst she spent her summers in Brittany.  Before she left Europe, she had Le Bigouden, a painting she completed in 1925, hung at the Royal Academy’s 1926 Summer Exhibition.  Le Bigouden and La Bigoudène were the names given to men and women who inhabited the Pont-l’Abbé region of Brittany

                                                      The Fair Musterer by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1935 )

At the end of 1926, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Dorothy Richmond returned together to Australia. They decided to continue with their painting adventures and bought a car, modified it to hold all their painting paraphernalia and set off to roam New South Wales and Queensland and paint the Australian landscape from Canberra and the Monaro plains to the south, up into central Queensland .  Hilda returned to Delegate where she had spent time before setting sail to Europe.  Once again, she met up with farmers, Neil, and Edgar Wright.  For Hilda it was a welcome return to the man she loved and On June 2nd 1928 she and Edgar Wright married in Melbourne.   In 1930, Hilda and her husband had their only child, a son, whom they named Rix.  Hilda stopped painting during their son’s infancy but once he became a young boy, she resumed with her art.  Coincidentally, her friend and travel companion, Dorothy Richmond, married Edgar Wright’s cousin, Walter, and settled in the same region.

                 The Shepherd of Knockalong by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1933)

Hilda and Edgar Wright went to live in a property called Knockalong in the Tombong valley which was situated close to Delegate.  It was a large and successful pastoral station, run by Edgar and his station hands and he is represented as the Shepherd of Knockalong in Hilda’s 1933 painting.  The painting, which is one of the first works that Hilda Rix Nicholas produced, following her return to painting in 1934, after the birth of her only child,  was one of many which depicted the life on the land in the Monaro of New South Wales, which is one of the centres of Australia’s rich and productive farmland.

                                                    Rix – The artists son by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1948 )

Their son, Rix attended boarding school at Tudor House and then at Geelong Grammar. It was whilst attending the grammar school that he fell in love with sculpting. in fact, he created the two gateway sculptures that still adorn the entrance today.  There was a differing of opinion between mother and father as to what their son’s future path should be.  His father wanted him to take over the Merino stud and his mother wanted him to pursue an art career. In the end, to keep both happy, he combined his love for the southern Monaro landscape and his sculpting He managed the property and when he had free time, he created his sculpted works of art.

                                                                     The Shearer by Rix Wright (1949)

Rix created The Shearer when he was just 19 years old. Cast in bronze, The Shearer bends at the hip over a held sheep, its fleece almost entirely removed and laying at its feet.

Hilda carried on producing works of art for the next twenty-five years and had them shown at numerous exhibitions but by the time of her last exhibition, her love of painting was diminishing and the thoughts of what she had achieved and what was her future began to depress her.  In a letter to her son she talked of that depression, writing:

“…Not doing anything creative is nearly killing me. The trouble is that there is no one near me who cares whether I ever do any more work or not … I feel the artist in me is dying and the dying is an agony … only one’s self knows the craving and the best part in one is aching unsatisfied…”

                   Rix Wright, son of Hilda Rix Nichols Wright

At this juncture in her life, with her health deteriorating, and her fervour for art fading, she did exhibit for the final time in 1954 in Sydney.  It was a group exhibition with two of her oil paintings shown alongside her son’s sculpture The Shearer also on display.

Hilda Rix Nicholas Wright died in Delegate on 3 August 1961, a month before her seventy-seventh birthday.