Peder Balke. Part 1 – His early life and struggles to become a painter

Peder Balke (1804-1887)
Peder Balke
(1804-1887)

I suppose if you are a landscape or seascape artist it is ideal to be living amongst glorious scenery or rugged coastlines which inspire you to paint and is much better than having to move to an artist colony in some idyllic area to find inspiration.   The artist I am featuring today was fortunate enough to come from a country of amazing natural beauty which he often depicted in his works of art.  Today let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Norwegian painter, Peder Balke, who specialised in landscape and seascape paintings with a romantic and dramatic connotation.

Peder Balke was the younger son of Anders Thoresen and Pernille Pedersdatter and born August 28th 1804.  He was christened Peder Andersen on November 4th.  Information about his early years was given by Balke in a dictated version of his life story, seventy years later.  He reminisced:

“… I was born on the island of Helgøya, in Nes in the country of Hedmark on 4 November 1804 in poverty, my situation in life being therefore less than enviable.  Yet the nearly influence of an affectionate and conscientious mother with constant good advice and exemplary admonitions was of the greatest benefit to my youthful and perhaps exceptionally lively temperament – for it is in these years of one’s development that the seeds are sown of both good and evil, though only later in life does one value their significance correctly…”

Christiania Viewed from Ekeberg by Peder Balke (c.1829)
Christiania Viewed from Ekeberg by Peder Balke (c.1829)

He did not have an easy start to life his family being part of the lowest ranks of the peasant society.  His parents were simple farm labourers working on a farm called Svennerud on the island of Helgøya, which lies in the middle of Lake Mjøsa, , some 60 kilometres north of Christiania (now Oslo)  and is Norway’s largest and one of the deepest lakes in the country.  The family owned nothing.  They had no lands to grow their own crops.  They were simply impoverished land-less servants of the farmer.   The family predicament was one his father could not tolerate and when Peder was young, he abandoned the family and is never mentioned in his son’s dictated autobiography.  In 1812, when Peder was eight years old, because Norway and Denmark were in an alliance with France, their ports were blockaded by the British, as part of Britain’s war against Napoleon.  This prevented much needed corn from entering the country and this, along with a severe and early frost of 1812 which destroyed the Norwegian corn harvest, meant that for the next two years the country suffered a terrible famine.  This severe time was remembered well by Balke who wrote:

“….wretched times, when war and years of hardship oppressed people and it goes without saying that this suffering and national scourge affected the poor most severely.  My mother, who had to look after herself and two children- for I had a brother who was seven years older than me ……like so many others we had therefore to resort to substitutes which are less easy for humans to digest, and I and my brother went into the forest to remove bark from the trees, which was dried and ground and Mother baked bread with it.  It goes without saying that food of this kind resulted in disease such as dysentery etc…”

The Mountain Range 'Trolltindene' by Peder Balke (c.1845)
The Mountain Range ‘Trolltindene’ by Peder Balke (c.1845)

Being from such a peasant class there was no possibility of schooling for Balke but his mother taught him to read and write.  When he was old enough he would try to earn some money for the family by helping out on the neighbourhood farms, but pay was poor, and he would also go fishing to bring food to the table.

It was thought Peder’s maternal grandfather was an painter/decorator and that was the first influence on him.  Another relative, Anders Skraedderstuen, who had a nearby smallholding was also a painter and took on seventeen year old Peder as an apprentice for two years.  Peder was employed to paint but also learn the skills involved in fine interior decorations.  There was always work for him as the farm owners were becoming richer and building themselves large homes which they needed decorating.  Peder travelled extensively from farm to farm to carry out commissions.  One such farm was the Vestre Balke farm at Toten which was owned by Anders Balke.  The Balke family took to Peder and soon he was not just looked upon as a workman but as a son.  This close tie pleased Peder and it was at this time that he changed his surname to Balke.  Although now living with his “new family” he always remembered to go back and visit his mother and help her out financially.

Landscape with Mill and Rapids by Peder Balke (1840)
Landscape with Mill and Rapids by Peder Balke (1840)

In winter there were no commissions to be had so it was then that Balke travelled to Christiania to buy paints, stencils and the latest in ornaments ready for the following summer.  At this time there was no place in the capital where Balke could study art but he did manage to find rooms in a house owned by Ole Nielsen in Gudbrandsdalen.  Nielsen was a talented painter and over a period of seven months he taught Balke the fundamentals of drawing and painting.  Balke recalled the time later in his autobiographical notes:

“…From this kind man I received many tips hitherto unknown to me that had an appreciable effect on my later evolution in the profession of painter…”

Moonlight on the Coast at Steigen by Peder Balke (1842)
Moonlight on the Coast at Steigen by Peder Balke (1842)

Life and business were good for Peder Balke, so much so, he employed several apprentices but as in life itself there were always ups and downs and the “down” at this time was the threat of military service.  Balke did not want anything to do with this and tried all sorts of ploys to get himself out of fighting for his country.  His eventual get-out was by becoming a qualified craftsman and seeking citizenship in Christiania.  So, in 1826, aged twenty-two, Balke left Toten and moved to the capital and was accepted as a journeyman by the Lubeck-born painter and engraver, Heinrich August Grosch and studied to become a master painter of the town, thus acquiring citizenship and best of all, be exempt from military service providing he completed his two year course to the satisfaction of Grosch.   Balke tired of working for Grosch switched to working for Jens Funch.  In 1827, with the money he had saved, he enrolled in an elementary drawing class at the Royal School of Drawing and received tuition at the Kongelige Tegneskole from the former military officer and painter Captain Jacob Munch, who was pleased with Balke’s progress.  With his savings almost gone, Balke returned to Toten and asked his benefactor Anders Balke for some financial help.  Anders and two other farm owners decide to financially back Balke, in the form of a letter of guarantee for a sum of money which Balke needed to continue his studies and in return he promised to decorate their farm buildings.

Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl  (1827)
Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl (1827)

Balke returned to Christiania and with the letter of guarantee met with Professor Jens Rathke a renowned natural scientist and professor at the university who was well known for his generosity.  He agreed to take the letter of guarantee and lend Balke the funds he needed.   Balke was to late recall that he was never asked to repay the sum he had borrowed and commented on Rathke’s invaluable support:

“… For that as well as for all the other kindnesses that man bestowed on me I have always been and always will be grateful to him…”

Jens Rathke also persuaded Balke to take a trip around large parts of central Norway in order to study nature.  Balke first toured the Telemark area in the south east of the country an area which he later recalled had awakened his profound interest in Norway’s wonderful natural life, and the astonishing beauty it reveals in all directions.  Later he explored central Norway and the Gudbransdalen Valley.  He continually recorded his travels with a large number of sketches which he would later combine in his paintings.

Seascape by Peder Balke (c.1860)
Seascape by Peder Balke (c.1860)

In 1829, military service still loomed large as Balke had not managed to qualify as a painter-decorator within the prescribed two year period.  His only course of action to avoid military service was to try and enrol at an academy and study landscape painting.  Rathke advised Balke to apply to the Stockholm Academy and agreed to finance Balke’s application.  Balke studied for a short time under the Swedish landscape painter, Carl Johan Fahlcrantz.  Whilst in Stockholm Balke visited the summer residence of the country’s ruler Karl Johnan in Djurgärden where he viewed the king’s art collection and was much enamoured by a painting by the German landscape painter, Johan Christian Ezdorf.  Ezdorf, who was also a student of Fahlcrantz, had a great love for the Nordic scenery and often depicted it in his works of art.

Balke was enjoying life in Stockholm and in his memoirs he wrote:

“…I used the time to pay frequent visits to the city’s art academy and art galleries, as well as a number of private collections of paintings where I was made welcome, and I also executed some small paintings which I had the satisfaction of selling…”

In my next blog I will continue to look at the life and works of Peder Balke and examine the reasons why he gave up being a professional artist in favour of politics.

I can recommend an excellent book about the artist and his work entitled Paintings by Peder Balke, from which I derived most of my information about this Norwegian painter.

 

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Judith Leyster and Tulip madness

The Merry Company by Judith Leyster (1630)
The Merry Company by Judith Leyster (1630)

Of my featured artist today, the Dutch Golden Age writer and poet Theodorus Schrevelius wrote in his 1648 book about the history of Haarlem entitled Harlemias:

“…There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called “the true Leading star in art…” 

Judith Jans Leyster was born in Haarlem in July 1609.  She was the eighth child of Jan Willemsz Leyster who was a cloth maker and owner of a local brewery, which was called Ley-ster (guide or leading star).  It is thought that her initial artistic tuition came from Frans Pieter de Grebber.   De Grebber, a member of the local painters’ guild, Haarlem Guild of St Luke, was a landscape artist and portraitist, who also designed tapestries. The reason for this belief is that the chronicler of life in Haarlem at that time, Samuel Ampzing, mentioned Judith Leyster in his 1628 book about life in Haarlem, Beschrijvinge ende Lof der stad Haelem in Holland.  He commented that Leyster, then 19 years old, was a painter who had “good and keen insight”.   It was interesting to note that he also made the comment: “Who has ever seen paintings by a daughter?” which alluded to the fact that it was very unusual for a female to become a professional painter and furthermore, in 1633, she was one of only two females in the 17th century who had been accepted as a master in the Haarlem Guild of St Luke.  The first woman registered was Sara van Baabbergen, two years earlier.

It was around this time that Judith’s family left Haarlem and moved some forty kilometres to the southwest and went to live in Vreeland, a town close to the provincial capital Utrecht.  Utrecht in the 1620’s was the home of the group of artists known as the Utrecht Caravaggists.  These painters, such as Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick ter Brugghen, and Gerrit van Honthorst had spent time in Rome during the first two decades of the 17th century and, in the Italian capital, it was a time when Caravaggio’s art was exerting a tremendous influence on all who witnessed his works and by the early 1620s, his painterly style of chiaroscuro, was wowing the rest of Europe.   Whether Judith Leyster mixed with these painters or just picked up on their style is in doubt as the family stayed in the Utrecht area less than twelve months, moving to Amsterdam in the autumn of 1629 but two years later Judith returned to her home town of Haarlem.

It is known that she met Frans Hals when she was in Haarlem but although many of Leyster’s work resembled Hals’ work, both in style and genre, art historians are not in agreement as to whether she was ever actually Hals’ pupil or simply an admirer.  Leyster’s paintings were secular in nature and she never painted any religious works.   Although she is known to have painted a couple of portraits she was, in the main, a genre painter, recording on canvas the life of everyday people.  They were, generally speaking, joyous in their depiction and were extremely sought after by wealthy merchants.

Self Portrait by Judith Leyster (1835)
Self Portrait by Judith Leyster (1835)

Her famous self-portrait was completed around 1630 when she was twenty-one years of age and could well have been her entrance piece for the Haarlem Guild of St Luke’s.  In the work, she is at her easel, palette and an array of eighteen paint brushes in her left hand.  Her right arm is propped against the back of her chair and a brush, held in her right hand is poised ready to carry on painting the work we see on her easel.  She has turned towards us.  She is relaxed and seems to have broken off from painting to say something to whoever is in her studio.  The first things we notice are that the clothes she is wearing.  These would not be the ones she would wear when she was painting.  They are too good for such a messy job to be worn by somebody who is painting.  Her skilful depiction of her clothes allude to her social status and her depiction of them is a fine example of the up-to-date female fashion. Also consider, would a painter working on a painting really be clutching all eighteen of their brushes at the same time?   Of course not!   This is more a painting in which Judith Leyster is intent on promoting herself.  Through this self- portrait she is eager to reveal herself, her painterly skills and her social standing.  In this one painting she is advertising her ability to paint a merry genre scene as seen by the painting of the violin player on the easel.  This depiction of a musician was similar to the one depicted in her 1630 work entitled The Merry Company, which she completed around the same time as this self-portrait.  Of course this being a self-portrait it has also highlighted her ability as a portraitist.  It is interesting to note that when this painting was subjected to infrared photography it was found that the painting on the easel was Leyster’s own face and so one has to presume she originally intended that this painting would be a quirky “self-portrait within a self-portrait”, but presumably, Leyster on reflection, decided to have the painting on the easel represent another facet of her painterly skills – that of a genre painter.  This was her most successful and profitable painting genre with its scenes of merrymakers.  It was this type of work which was extremely popular with her clientele, who wanted to be reminded of the happy and enjoyable times of life.  Although Leyster was proficiently skilled as a portrait artist the art market was already crowded with popular portraitist and so, probably for economic reasons, she decided to concentrate on her genre paintings.

Judith Leyster's signature
Judith Leyster’s signature

Around 1629 she set up a studio on her own and started to add her own signature to her works.  Her signature or moniker was an unusual and clever play on her surname “Leyster”.  Lei-star in Dutch means “lode star” or “polestar” a star often used by sailors to navigate by and she was often referred to as a “leading star” in the art world, and so she used this play-on-words to create a special signature: a monogram of her initials with a shooting star.  She must have been successful at selling her works of art as soon she had employed three apprentices.  It is interesting to note that she had a falling out with Frans Hals who had “illegally” poached one of her apprentices and the whole matter ended up in court at which time Hals was made to apologise and make a payment to her for his action.

The Jolly Toper by Judith Leyster (1629)
The Jolly Toper by Judith Leyster (1629)

Judith Leyster completed many genre pieces in which she portrayed people as being happy with their lot in life.  Settings were often inside taverns but whereas with other Dutch artists who tended to portray the tavern dwellers with a moralistic tone around the evils of drink and the repercussions of becoming a heavy drinker, Leyster wanted to focus more on people enjoying themselves.  A good example of that was her 1630 painting which is in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum entitled The Jolly Toper or The Merry Drinker which is considered to be one of her finest works.

The Merry Drinker by Frans Hals (1628-30)
The Merry Drinker by Frans Hals (c.1628)

However with this painting came the assertion by many critics that she was merely a copier of Frans Hals style of painting, such as her choice of subjects and her brushwork.  Hals had completed his own painting The Merry Drinker in 1630 so I will leave you to decide whether there are more similarities between Leyster and Hal’s paintings other than the subject matter.

The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster (c.1639)
The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster (c.1639)

Although Leyster’s genre scenes would often focus on happiness and merriment with no moralistic judgement, she did occasionally focus on the darker side of life and a good example of this can be seen in her 1639 painting which is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, entitled The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier).  It is a vanitas work, meaning it is a work of art which in some way symbolises the brevity of life.   In the work we see two men dressed in festive clothing having an enjoyable time drinking and smoking.  The fact that they are not just celebrating but are also dressed up for the occasion has led people to believe that this merriment is taking place on the Dutch holiday of  vastelaovend, which we know as Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent.  This was the day when people took advantage of the last day of merrymaking before the forty days of Lent abstinence and fasting.  However it is not just the two revellers that Leyster has depicted in the drinking scene, for between them we see a skeleton.  The skeleton holds an hour-glass in one bony hand and a skull and a lit candle in the other.  The candle both casts a shadow on the seated drinker but at the same time lights up the cavalier’s face.   The skull, burning candle and hour-glass are classic symbols of a vanitas painting which have the sobering effect of reminding us of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death.  There is no interaction between the drinkers and the skeleton which is probably an indication that as they have imbibed so much alcohol the thought of death never crosses their mind.  Look at the expression on the face of the cavalier dressed in red.  It is one of blankness and stupidity which we have often witnessed when we look into a face of a drunkard.  At that moment in time, he has no concern about his own mortality.   One final comment about this work is that it is a good example of how Leyster utilised a style of painting which was associated with the Italian painter Caravaggio and his Dutch followers, the Utrecht Caravaggists, whom Leyster would have seen earlier in her career.  It is known as tenebrism which is where the artist has depicted most of the figures engulfed in shadow but at the same time, have some of them dramatically illuminated by a shaft of light usually from an identifiable source, such as a candle as is the case in this painting, or from an unidentifiable source, off canvas.

A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel by Judith Leyster (c.1635)
A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel by Judith Leyster (c.1635)

On a lighter note I offer you another painting with a moral, but somewhat more humorous, which Judith Leyster completed around 1635 and is entitled A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel.  It is a visual joke with a moralising tale.  It is one of those paintings, typical of Dutch genre scenes, in which you have to look carefully at all who and what are depicted in the painting so as work out what is going on.  See if you can fathom it out.

The two main characters are a boy and a girl.  The boy has a cheeky smile on his face.  He has enticed the cat to join them by waving a wriggling eel which he now holds aloft, having grabbed the cat.   The little girl has now grabbed the tail of the cat, which in a state of shock and fear.  It is desperate to get away from the pair of young tormentors and has extended its claws and about to scratch the boy’s arm in an attempt to escape his clutches.  The young girl who has a face of an older woman, admonishingly wags her finger at us – so why is she so censorious?   It is believed that she is smugly warning us against foolish and mischievous behaviour alluding to the Dutch saying: ‘He who plays with cats gets scratched’.  In other words he who seeks trouble will find it. Although children are depicted in this moralising scene, it is more a warning to adults about their behaviour and many Dutch artists who painted genre scenes with a moral twist frequently used children to put over their moral message.

In the late 1630’s, a strange phenomenon occurred in the Netherlands, which had been brewing for a number of years.   It became known as Tulpenwoede (tulip madness) which saw the price of tulip bulbs rocketing.   It all began when some tulip contracts reached a level which was about 20 times the level of three months earlier.   In one particular case a rare tulip known as Semper Augustus, which had been valued at around 1,000 guilders per bulb  ten years earlier was fetching a price of 5,500 guilders per bulb in  January 1637.  This meant that one of these bulbs was worth the cost of a large Amsterdam house.  Many people, who watched the rising value of the tulip bulb, wanted part of the action.  People used their life savings and other assets were cashed in to get money to invest in these bulbs, all in the belief and expectation that the price of tulip bulbs would continue to rise and they would suddenly become rich.  Alas as we have all seen when a thing is too good to be true, it usually is, and by the end of February 1637 the price of a tulip bulb had crashed and many people lost their savings.

Tulip by Judith Leyster
Tulip by Judith Leyster
from her Tulip Book

However the rising value of the tulip bulb came as a boon to floral artists for if people could not afford the actual tulips for their gardens or pots the next best thing was to have a painting of them and even better still would be to have a book full of beautiful depictions of different tulips.   Judith Leyster realised that the public’s love of tulips could be advantageous for her and she produced her own book of tulips.

Flowers in a vase by Judith Leyster (1654)
Flowers in a vase by Judith Leyster (1654)

In 1636 Judith Leyster married Jan Miense Molenaer, another genre painter, and the two of them set up a joint studio and art dealing business.  They moved to Amsterdam as the opportunity to sell their works of art was better and there was also a greater stability in the art market.  Judith went on to have five children and the role of mother and housekeeper meant that her art output declined.  Until recently it was thought that her artistic output had all but ceased, that was until the run-up to a Judith Leyster retrospective at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem a number of years ago when a beautiful floral still life which she painted in 1654 surfaced.  It had been hidden from public view in the collection of a private collector.

Judfith Leyster and her husband remained in Amsterdam for eleven years.  They then moved to Heemstede in the province of North Holland, where in 1660, at age 50, Leyster died.

John Peter Russell. Part 1. Van Gogh and portraiture

John Peter Russell
John Peter Russell

Last week I watched a documentary on television about the death of Vincent van Gogh.  You have probably seen something similar or read a book on his somewhat mysterious death.   Did he commit suicide?  Was it an accident?  Was he murdered?  Why was the gun never found?  What, if anything, did Doctor Gachet have to do with his death?  Why did both Doctor Gachet and Vincent’s brother Theo allow Vincent to lie in agony for three days at his lodgings with the bullet still in his body rather than rush him to hospital to have it removed?  However the subject of my blog today is not about Van Gogh’s death.  During the documentary it showed a portrait of the great artist and said that it was Van Gogh’s favourite depiction of himself.   What really stimulated my curiosity was to hear that the portrait was completed by a friend of his, an Australian painter by the name of John Peter Russell.  I had never heard of this artist and I could not comprehend how an Australian artist could feature in the Dutchman’s life and so I decided to find out more about him.  In this first of my two part blog on Russell I want to look at his early life and a couple of his portraits including the one of van Gogh.   So come with me on a voyage of discovery and learn about how a former foundry worker in Australia came to paint a portrait of the great Dutch Master.

The story begins at the beginning of the 19th century in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.  It was here that John Peter Russell’s grandfather, Robert Russell, had his foundry and engineering works. Robert and his wife Janet Russell (née Nicol) had eleven children, one of whom, John, was our featured artist’s father.   In 1830 Robert’s business hit financial problems due to a downturn in demand and he decided to immigrate to Canada.  His intended destination changed on the advice of a friend and instead of heading west to Canada he and his family took the steamer Anne Jamieson and sailed to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and arrived in the port of Hobart in June 1832.  Robert Russell along with his sons, Robert, Peter and John started up an engineering works in Tasmania which proved very successful.  In 1838 in order to expand the business the family moved to Sydney and established the firm, Russell Brothers with an engineering works and a foundry on the banks of the Tank Stream, a tributary of Sydney Cove. 

John Russell married and English girl, Charlotte Elizabeth Nichol, and they went on to have four children of which John Peter Russell, the subject of today’s blog, was the eldest.   He was born in June 1858 in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst.  John Peter was educated at the Goulburn School in Garrooriagang, a private boarding school for the “sons of gentlemen”.  After completing his education in 1876, the eighteen year old travelled to England and was apprenticed at the engineering company, Robey & Co. of Lincoln and eventually became a qualified engineer.   It was also around this time that he began to take an interest in sketching and painting.   In 1879 John Peter Russell’s father died and left his children a sizeable inheritance. 

In 1881, John Peter Russell who thanks to his inheritance was financially sound and did not need to continue as an engineer.   He decided to pursue his love of art and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Arts at the University College of London.  Whilst at the Slade he studied under the Dijon-born French painter and sculptor, Alphonse Legros.  Legros would delight his students by showing them his quick preliminary oil sketches (known as ébauches) of the head portraits he had done and it was this type of painting which grabbed Russell’s interest. 

In August 1883, after completing his art course at the Slade, Russell decided to set off on his travels.  His fellow travellers were his brother Percy, an architect, Tom Roberts, a fellow aspiring artist who would later become a leading figure of the Australian Heidelberg School of Impressionism and who, like Russell, had emigrated with his family from the UK to Australia when he was fourteen years of age.  Tom Roberts had returned to his birthplace, London, to study art at the Royal Academy Schools.  Another person in the travel party was the physician and friend William Maloney who would later become a Labour MP.    Their first port of call was Spain where they encountered two Spanish art students Laureano Barrau, who would become a leading Spanish Impressionist painter and the Catalan painter Ramon Casas who would later be known for his paintings depicting crowd scenes. 

In 1885 Russell went to live in Paris and for the next eighteen months studied at the Atelier Cormon, which was run by the French painter, Fernand Cormon.  It was an “academic” studio in which Cormon endeavoured to instil in his students the necessary artistic “rules” which would ensure that their paintings found favour with the Paris Salon jurists.  Many great painters, such as Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, and Toulouse Lautrec studied under Cormon during Russell’s tenure.  Russell who had studied portraiture at the Slade School of Art was still interested in portraiture and would often paint portraits of his friends and fellow students.    In March 1886 whilst Russell was attending the Atelier Cormon another student enrolled – Vincent van Gogh.  Vincent had moved to Paris and went to live with his brother Theo in his apartment in rue Laval on Montmartre in order to study at Cormon’s studio.   A great and long-lasting friendship developed between Van Gogh and Russell.  In October 1886, Russell finally persuaded Van Gogh to sit for him.  The resulting work was the beautiful crafted portrait of the Dutchman which I spoke about at the beginning of the blog. 

Vincent van Gogh by John Peter Russell, 1886
Vincent van Gogh by John Peter Russell, 1886

Although Russell had painted portraits of his friends it is believed that he wanted to paint Van Gogh’s portrait as the depiction of the Dutchman’s face would be a challenge with its craggy and somewhat haggard appearance.     Russell had seen some of Van Gogh’s own head and shoulder portraits and self portraits and liked the way the Dutchman had used an academic style in his portraiture, incorporating darkened background as a contrast to the lighter skin tones and so decided to use this same technique on his own depiction of van Gogh.  He has given Van Gogh such a penetrating gaze as he stares out at us which in some ways makes us feel slightly uncomfortable.  It is almost a censorious gaze as if he is questioning our presence.    What I think adds to the beauty of this portrait is how Russell has got van Gogh to look over his shoulder for the pose and of course to remind every one of the sitter’s profession he had the Dutchman hold a paintbrush.  Vincent van Gogh was delighted with Russell’s finished portrait.   On September 6th 1889, ten months before his death, Vincent wrote to Theo and in it he mentioned the Russell portrait: 

“……….Afterwards, what are we beginning to glimpse timidly at the moment that is original and lasting – the portrait. That’s something old, one might say – but it’s also brand new. We’ll talk more about this – but let’s still continue to seek out portraits, above all of artists, like the Guillaumin and Guillaumin’s portrait of a young girl, and take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me.….”

The painting, which is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has itself darkened over the years as on a recent microscopic examination it was discovered that, above the head of van Gogh, there had been inscribed in red the words:

 

                                       VINCENT

                                                                      AMITIÉ

 

                                      J.P.RUSSELL  PINTOR

 Paris 1886

 

Also according to the Museum curators, a friend of John Peter Russell and van Gogh, the British artist Archibald Standish Hartrick, had seen the original portrait soon after it had been completed and he said that Vincent was depicted in the portrait wearing a striped blue suit !   According to the museum curators there is a hint of blue near the mid base of the work.

Russell and Van Gogh were great friends for the short time they were together and after they went their separate ways they continued to correspond.  One of the last letters Vincent wrote to Russell on February 1st 1890 just five months before his death and when he was in the mental hospital in St Rémy.

My dear friend Russell

Today I’m sending you a little roll of photographs after Millet  which perhaps you may not know.  In any event, it’s to recall us, my brother and myself, to your good memory. Do you know that my brother has since married and that any day now he’s expecting his first-born? May it go well – he has a very nice Dutch wife.  How it pleases me to write to you after a long silence.   Do you remember the time when, almost simultaneously, you I think first and I afterwards, met our friend Gaugin?    He’s still struggling on – and alone, or almost alone, like the good fellow he is. Am sure, though, that you don’t forget him.  He and I are still friends, I can assure you, but perhaps you’re not unaware that I myself am ill, and have more than once had serious nervous crises and delirium. This was why, having had to go into an asylum for the insane, he and I separated. But prior to that, how many times we talked about you together!   Gaugin  is currently still with one of my fellow-countrymen called De Haan, and De Haan praises him a great deal and doesn’t find it at all bad to be with him.  You will find article on canvases of mine at the Vingtistes.   I assure you that I myself owe a lot to things that  Gaugin told me as regards drawing, and hold his way of loving nature in high, very high esteem. For in my opinion he’s worth even more as a man than as an artist. Are things going well with you? And are you still working a lot?  Although being ill isn’t a cause for joy, I nevertheless have no right to complain about it, for it seems to me that nature sees to it that illness is a means of getting us back on our feet, of healing us, rather than an absolute evil.  If you ever come to Paris,  take one of my canvases from my brother’s place if you wish, if you still have the idea of making a collection for your native country one day.  You’ll remember that I’ve already spoken to you about it, that it was my great desire to give you one for this purpose. How is our friend  MacKnight?   If he’s still with you, or if there are others with you whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, give them my warm regards. Above all, please remember me to Mrs Russell and believe me, with a handshake in thought,

Yours truly,

Vincent van Gogh

c/o Doctor Peyron

St-Rémy en Provence.

Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) by Auguste Rodin
Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) by Auguste Rodin

Whilst living in Paris, Russell had become very friendly with two Parisian sculptors, Auguste Rodin and Emmanuel Frémiet and it was whilst visiting their studios that he encountered one of Rodin and Frémiet’s’ favourite models, Marianna Mattiocco della Torre. Rodin had, in 1888, encapsulated her beauty in a bronze bust entitled  Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) and Frémiet had used Marianna as the model for his bronze life-sized Jeanne d’Arc statue which is at the Place des Pyramides in Paris. 

Equestrian statue of Joan of Arc by Emmanuel Frémiet (1899)
Equestrian statue of Joan of Arc by Emmanuel Frémiet (1899)

Marianne who was born in Cassino, Italy was in her early twenties when she met Russell in 1885 and three years later, on a cold Parisian day in February 1888, John Peter Russell and Marianna Mattiocco became husband and wife.  By the end of the year the happy couple had left Paris and set up home at Belle Isle, the largest of the Breton islands, off the west coast of Brittany.  It was here that Russell had their home built and because he was the first non-Frenchman to settle on the island his house was known as Le Chateau Anglais. 

Dadone by John Peter Russell (1900)
Dadone by John Peter Russell (1900)

The second portrait by John Peter Russell I want to show you is entitled Dadone and was completed around 1900.  The question is who or what is Dadone?  The word “dadone” I believe, but I am by no means certain, is an old fashioned Italian slang for “ancestor” or literally “old one” and therefore indicates that the subject has some sort of family relationship with Russell. 

Les deux Mattiocco by John Peter Russell (1902)
Les deux Mattiocco by John Peter Russell (1902)

The answer to the question can be found in a double portrait which was painted by Russell a few years later, entitled Les deux Mattiocco which has, at the top of the work, the inscription ‘Maria Peppa-Y-Pascal Mattiocco’.  The painting, which depicts an elderly couple, is of Russell’s father and mother-in-law, Pasquale and Maria Mattiocco.   

The date of the Dadone painting is thought to be 1900 as there is a preliminary sketch for the work in existence, inscribed, ‘JPR 00’ dating it at 1900 and it is thought that the final painting was completed shortly afterwards.

In the painting, Dadone, we see an inscription in the top right corner of the work:

Dadone

        J R

                Fecit

The inscription indicates the title of the work, the initials of the artist and the word “fecit” meaning he or she made it and the word is used formerly on works of art next to the artist’s name. 

This beautifully crafted portrait by Russell is an affectionate and personal depiction of his wife’s father.  The main colours used by Russell in this work are white, blue and greys profile.  The bony structure of his head is framed by the imperious greying hair and beard, which along with dark bushy eyebrows give his father-in-law such a distinguished appearance.  His eyes are dark and there is a hint of tiredness about them, which has been brought on by age. 

In my next blog, the second part of my look at the life and work of John Peter Russell, I will examine his newly found interest in seascapes and landscapes once he had moved out of Paris and went to live on the Breton island of Belle-Ile where he met with many artists such as Monet and Matisse. 

For further information regarding Russell’s friendship with Vincent van Gogh there is a book you may like to read.  As yet I haven’t read it but I am sure it would be fascinating.  It is:

A Remarkable Friendship:  Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell by Anne Galbally

There is also an interesting short video on YouTube about the Van Gogh portrait and the inscriptions that were originally on it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6z46c93SXQ

Amedeo Modigliani. Part 4 – His lovers and the tragic end.

Modigliani - the woman's
Modigliani – the woman’s man

Today’s blog is the final one of four about the life of Amedeo Modigliani, the Livorno-born artist, who at the age of twenty-two moved to Paris where he lived out the last fourteen years of his life.  As an artist he employed a number of models for his works of art and like many artists of the time the relationship between artist and model became much more than just a working relationship.   Mothers were horrified if their daughters agreed to model for the artists, as an artist’s model was looked upon as just being one step from being his lover and thus the artist model was accused of almost prostituting herself in the name of art.  It is almost certain that Modigliani had very close and intimate relationships with his models as he believed, in the case of his female nude portrayals, to achieve a great painting he had first to make love to the model !  I wonder if that is how he sold that argument to the model !!!  However one must remember that Modigliani for all his faults and transgressions was an extremely handsome man.  Although the models, who sat for his nude collection, are unknown we do know that he had intimate and serious relationships with three named women and it is those ladies, who featured in many of his works of art that I would like to highlight in today’s blog. 

Anna Akhmatova.by Modigliani (c. 1911)
Anna Akhmatova by Modigliani (c. 1911)

In 1910, whilst living in Paris, Modigliani met Anna Akmahtova.  Anna was born Anna Gorenko, in Odessa in 1889, and was five years younger than Modigliani.  She came from a well-to-do family and from an early age was fascinated by poetry.  Her love of poetry was denounced by her parents as being foolish, self-indulgent and something which would they feared would have a corrupt influence on their daughter.  However she persisted and started writing poetry when she was just eleven years of age and had her first works published when she was seventeen. She would become one of Russia’s greatest twentieth century poets.   

Anna Akhmatova as ‘Acrobat’ by Modigliani
Anna Akhmatova as ‘Acrobat’ by Modigliani

The one person who constantly encouraged Anna to write her poetry was the young Russian poet, Nikolay Gumilev.  However, to placate her parents all her writings were published under her pseudonym, Akhmatova, which was the surname of her maternal grandmother.  After a prolonged “chase” Nikolay finally persuaded Anna to marry him but in a letter to her friend she outlined how she was unsure that she had made the right decision.  She wrote about her feelings for her future husband:

“…He has loved me for three years now, and I believe that it is my fate to be his wife. Whether or not I love him, I do not know, but it seems to me that I do…” 

The couple were married in Kiev in April 1910.  Her family were totally against the marriage and refused to attend the service.  The young couple left Russia and travelled to Paris for their short honeymoon and it was then that she met and became a friend of Amedeo Modigliani, who like her, had a love of poetry.  Modigliani was undoubtedly attracted by her beauty as well as her poetry.  She was slim and elegant and everywhere she went in Paris, men’s heads would turn to admire her good looks.  Her husband was unimpressed by this attention and especially with the attention Modigliani gave his wife.  Anna returned to Russia with her husband but she and Modigliani continued to correspond for the next twelve months.  He was obsessed with her.  His letters to Anna became ever more intense and passionate and Anna recalled her short time with him during her honeymoon and their correspondence.  In a letter to a friend, she wrote:

“…In 1910, I saw him very rarely, just a few times. But he wrote to me during the whole winter. I remember some sentences from his letters. One was: Vous êtes en moi comme une hantise (You are obsessively part of me). He did not tell me that he was writing poems…”

In 1911 she returned alone to Paris and met up with Modigliani and this was the start of a short but passionate love affair.  Their affair had to remain a secret.  She dared not be seen in public with Modigliani in the guise of his lover in case word of it got back to her husband in Russia.  The affair lasted just two months and Anna returned to St Petersburg and her husband and never saw Modigliani again.

Beatrice Hastings
Beatrice Hastings

The second lady with whom Modigliani had an affair was Beatrice Hastings.  Beatrice was born in London in 1879, and was five years older than Modigliani.  She was the fifth of seven children.  Her real name was actually Emily Alice Haigh, but she used Hastings as her pen name.  Her father was John Walker Haigh, a Yorkshire wool trader.  He and his family immigrated to South Africa in the 1880’s.  Beatrix was a writer, poet and literary critic, and wrote extensively for the weekly British political and literary magazine, New Age.   During her life, she had a number of lovers, both men and women.  She was a fiery and self-willed character and in her youth caused her parents innumerable problems.  She was briefly married to Alexander Hasting, whom she said was a boxer.  Although a headstrong person she was also very able and was a talented singer and a gifted pianist.  She moved to Paris in April 1914 as a correspondent for the New Age journal, just before the onset of the First World War.  She contributed a regular column until 1916, entitled Impressions de Paris, which went down well with the English public who wanted to know about the bohemian lifestyle of the Parisian literati and the bohemian lifestyle of the Montmartre artists. 

Beatrice Hastings by Modigliani (1915)
Beatrice Hastings by Modigliani (1915)

Beatrice first set eyes on Modigliani in July 1914 when she was in the Café Rosalie in Paris.  Later she was introduced to him by a mutual friend, the sculptor, Ossip Zadkine, at La Rotonde café, which was situated in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris.  It was a famous café, opened in 1911 by Victor Libion, and was a favourite haunt of the aspiring writers and artists of the time, such as Picasso and Diego Rivera.   In her memoirs, Beatrix recalled those first meetings with Modigliani.  She wrote:

“…A complex character.  A swine and a pearl.  I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy.  Not at all impressed.  Didn’t know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious, greedy.  Met him again at the Café Rotonde. He was shaved and charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture, blushed to his eyes and asked me to come and see his work  And I went.  He always had a book in his pocket.  Lautremont’s Maldoror.  The first painting was of Kisling.  He had no respect for anyone except Picasso and Max Jacob.  Detested Cocteau.  Never completed anything good under the influence of hashish…”

Modigliani was thirty and she was thirty-five when they first met.   He was down on his luck, almost penniless despite his mother still sending a monthly allowance but which was frittered away on alcohol and drugs.   The sale of his paintings had almost dried up and what he did sell went for a few francs.  His former patron Paul Alexandre, an avid buyer of his work, had gone to fight at the Front and at this time, he had nobody to promote or sell his art. 

Portrait of Beatrice Hastings before a door bny Modigliani (1915)
Portrait of Beatrice Hastings before a door bny Modigliani (1915)

Beatrice and Modigliani had a stormy love affair, which was to last until 1916.  In 1915 Modigliani moved in to Beatrix’s flat in the Rue Norvain which was on the Butte Montmartre.  In those two years they were together, Beatrice became Modigliani’s favourite model and he immortalised her in many of his paintings. 

Jeanne Hébuterne
Jeanne Hébuterne

Modigliani’s final love affair was with Jeanne Hébuterne.   Jeanne was born in Paris in April 1898 and was fourteen years younger than Modigliani.  Her elder brother André was an aspiring artist and he introduced Jeanne to many of the artists who lived around Montparnasse, some of whom she modelled for.  Following her own desire to become an artist she enrolled in 1917 at the Académie Colarossi and it was whilst studying at this establishment that she was introduced to Modigliani.  If nothing else, Modigliani was a woman’s man who had a certain magnetism and charisma which charmed the females he encountered.  She was nineteen and he was thirty-three.  She was a very beautiful young woman with the most amazing almond-shaped eyes.  She was slim, pale-skinned and had long light-brown braids.  Jeanne soon fell under his magical charm and before long, the pair became lovers.  They were very much in love and after a short while, she moved in to his lodgings on Rue de la Grande Chaumière.  Her parents, who were staunch Catholics, were horrified with this turn of events – their daughter had taken up with a penniless artist, shared his bed and to make things worse he was Jewish. 

Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace by Modigliani (1917)
Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace by Modigliani (1917)

Jeanne was all Modigliani could ask for.  Besides her beauty which he admired, she seemed to be his soul mate.  For her it was a case of “unconditional love”.  She asked for very little in return from Amedeo and she put up with his excessive drinking.  In 1918, despite the terror of the First World War, Jeanne became pregnant.  If the horrors of war and being pregnant were not enough of a burden, Modigliani’s health was in decline.  It was fortuitous that two years earlier Modigliani had struck up a friendship with a Polish émigré and small-time art dealer Léopold Zborowski.  The art dealer had initiated a deal with Modigliani, that in return for his paintings, he would provide him with comfortable lodgings and studio space.  Now in 1918, Zborowski once again came to Modigliani’s rescue by arranging for him and Hébuterne to leave Paris and go to the warmer climes of Provence in Southern France and it was here on November 29th 1918, in the town of Nice that Jeanne gave birth to Modigliani’s daughter, Jeanne. 

Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne by Modigliani (1919)
Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne by Modigliani (1919)

Modigliani, Jeanne and their daughter returned to Paris in the Spring of 1919 and that summer Jeanne became pregnant once again.  In August of that year Modigliani was supposed to have gone to London to be present at an exhibition of some of his work but by then he was much too ill to travel.  Although he continued to paint, it was becoming increasingly more difficult as he would frequently have to stop to lie down and rest.  Eventually by the end of 1919 he was bed-ridden.  On January 22nd 1920 he was found unconscious in the apartment and was rushed to the pauper’s Hôpital de la Charité.  Two days later he died.  The medical report stated that he choked on his own blood.  The official cause of death was tubercular meningitis.  Reputedly his last words harked back to his love for the country where he was born.  His dying words being:

“…Italia, Cara, Italia…”

Amedeo Modigliani 1919. The  year before his death
Amedeo Modigliani 1919.
The year before his death

His girlfriend, Jeanne Hébuterne,whom he had promised to marry, and who was eight months pregnant with Modigliani’s second child was inconsolable.  She had been staying at her parents’ apartment whilst Modigliani was in hospital and her loss was so great that at 3am the day after her lover had died, she threw herself out of her parents’ fifth floor apartment window, killing herself and her unborn child.  Her parents had her buried in a grave in the Paris suburb of Bagneux with little ceremony, mortified and embarrassed at the life she had led with Modigliani and the way in which she had decided to end her own life.  Modigliani’s mother was unhappy that her son and the mother of his child were not at rest together and fought hard for this to be achieved.  Modigliani’s mother was also adamant that Jeanne’s daughter should be recognised as her son’s child. 

Amedeo Modigliani and Jeanne Hébuterne's  grave at Piere Lachaise Cemetry Paris
Amedeo Modigliani and Jeanne Hébuterne’s grave at Piere Lachaise Cemetry Paris

After three years of arguing with Jeanne’s parents, the body of Jeanne Hébuternes was exhumed and laid to rest in Modigliani’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and their daughter, Jeanne Hébuternes, who by this time was three and a half years old was recognised as Modigliani’s daughter, took his surname and inherited her share (one-fifth) of the proceeds from the sale of his paintings.  The dealers retained four-fifths! 

Having read so much about Modigliani I have tried hard not to be too judgemental.  It would be easy to say that he brought about his own downfall with his extensive use of drugs and bouts of heavy drinking but I think we need to look more carefully at his physical state before we pass judgement.  From his pre-teens days we know he had been unwell with pleurisy and later tuberculosis.  Tuberculosis at the time was a killer disease which was highly infectious and one train of thought is that Modigliani’s use of drugs and alcohol was not only to ease his suffering but was to mask his illness.  Unfortunately we are only too well aware how one can become drug and alcohol dependent and that, as was the case of Maurice Utrillo who had suffered a similar addiction due to mental issues, happened to Modigliani who had become totally reliant on alcohol and drugs. 

I have enjoyed looking at all Modigliani’s paintings and despite some who believe his drug and alcohol abuse added to his artistic talent I believe that had he been a well man, drug and alcohol-free, and lived longer, then who knows what masterpiece.

For those of you who would like to read more about Modigliani, try looking at these websites:

http://www.geni.com/people/Olimpia-Lumbroso-Modigliani/6000000014620610421

http://chez-edmea.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/jeanne-hebuterne.html#.UjAUzn80QWf

http://artinthestudio.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/modigliani-part-two.html

http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/11174/lot/53/

http://secretmodigliani.com/bio2.html

http://ineedartandcoffee.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/cubisms-birthplace-bateau-lavoir.html

http://www.abcgallery.com/M/modigliani/modigliani10.html

http://www.modigliani-drawings.com/paul_alexandre.htm

http://www.modigliani-drawings.com/Introduction.htm

http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2011/02/modigliani-finds-a-dealer/

Amedeo Modigliani. Part 3. The female nude paintings

I have changed my intended blog for today.  At the end of my last blog, I said that in the next one I would conclude Modigliani’s life story and look at some of the women in his life.  However, after careful consideration, I decided that it would not be right to end Modigliani’s life story without looking at his favourite artistic genre, the painting of female nudes.  In all between 1916 and 1919 he completed no fewer than twenty-six paintings of female nudes, some of whom are seated whilst others are seen lying back languorously.

We know that Amedeo’s love of painting females nude started back in Livorno where, at the age of fourteen, he attended the Villa Baiocchi workshop of the artist Guglielmo Micheli.  Later in 1902, when his mother took him away from their home in Livorno to aid his failing health, they visited Florence and in May 1902, just before his eighteenth birthday, he enrolled at the Scuola Libera di Nudo of the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti which was the beginning of his serious study of life drawing and which cultivated his love of painting female nudes.  In 1903 when he was in Venice he enrolled at the life drawing classes at the Accademia di Belle Arti and three years later, when he arrived in Paris at the end of 1906, he attended the Académie Colarossi where he attended life drawing classes.  The Académie Colarossi was a private institution, founded at the end of the nineteenth century, which offered its students an alternative to the very formalised state Academies.  It was very progressive and it is certain that Modigliani received some alternative approaches on how to depict the female nude.  In the Académie Colarossi life-drawing classes the students were encouraged to decide themselves on how the model should pose.  This was totally contrary to the strict rules and formalisation imposed by the likes of the state Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Without doubt, Modigliani’s most powerful compositions are his female nude paintings.  There is something simplistic and yet graceful about them but such simplicity does not decrease the erotic and sensuous nature of the works.  In many cases one feels that he has drawn upon earlier female nude paintings by other great artists for the resultant poses of his sitters.  The Italian art critic Giovanni Scheiwiller, who wrote a biography of Modigliani, wrote of the artist’s nude paintings and the artist’s relationship with his sitters, saying:

“…[it was] a completely spiritual unity between the artist and the creature he has chosen as his model…”

This bond between Modigliani and his models of course led to many racy stories of his penchant for the fairer sex and his belief that to completely capture  the inner beauty of his female sitter he must first make love to them!  It is maybe this kind of legend that contributes to our desire to see his work. 

Nude on a Blue Cushion by Modigliani (1917) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Nude on a Blue Cushion by Modigliani (1917)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Let us first look at Amedeo Modigliani’s oil on linen work entitled Nude on a Blue Cushion, which he completed in 1917.  It is part of the Chester Dale Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  The naked female lies back against a blue cushion and looks out at us with a challenging stare.  There is no hint of her being shy or introverted.  The look she gives us is one that almost suggests that she is tempting us with her body, which she is very proud of.  

Olympia by Edouard Manet (1863)
Olympia by Edouard Manet (1863)

If one looks at the famous 1863 painting, Olympia, by Edouard Manet (see My Daily Art Display Oct 12th 2011) we see in the sitter’s posture the same brazen look as she awaits her next client. 

Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) by Modigliani (1917) Gianni Mattioli Collection, Milan
Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) by Modigliani (1917)
Gianni Mattioli Collection, Milan

In his 1917 work entitled Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) Modigliani has depicted the female laying back on a red blanket.  Her right arm lies at the side of her head whilst her left hand is placed beneath her head.  She is unashamedly offering her body to us.

La Maja Desnuda by Goya (c1800)
La Maja Desnuda by Goya (c1800)

This pose is very like Goya’s female nude painting entitled, La Maja Desnuda (My Daily Art Display Sept 9th 2012), which he painted around 1800.  She too lies naked before us albeit her upper torso is propped up by cushions but she, like Modigliani’s female has her hands behind her head.   Despite her very revealing pose, there is a certain vulnerability about Modigliani’s female in this work.  Her eyes are closed and we have therefore no idea of what she is thinking.  Our eyes are drawn to her red lips which are full and slightly pouted.  In a way it is as if she is giving herself to us.  She is offering us her ultimate gift – her body. 

Nude with Coral Neclace by Modigliani (1917) Allen Memorial Art Museum Oberlin College, Ohio
Nude with Coral Neclace by Modigliani (1917)
Allen Memorial Art Museum Oberlin College, Ohio

In another female nude painting which Modigliani completed in 1917 entitled Nude with a Coral Necklace and which is housed in the Allen Memorial College at Oberlin, Ohio, we can see a similarity between the pose of the Modigliani’s female sitter with the poses of the females in two of the greatest nude paintings of all times, Giorgione’s 1508 painting entitled, Sleeping Venus

Sleeping Venus by Giorgione (c.1508)
Sleeping Venus by Giorgione (c.1508)

and Titian’s 1558 work entitled, Venus of Urbino (My Daily Art Display Feb 15th 2011). 

Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)
Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)

In all three cases the models left hand is placed between her thighs in an effort to retain a modicum of modesty.  In the Modigliani’s work our eyes are drawn to her breasts because of his use of red to depict the areolas.  Unlike the other nude works the face of the women in this painting shows a hardness which I believe counteracts any sensuality.  Her facial expression differs from the other female nudes.  Her almond shaped eyes and tight-lipped mouth warn us off.  There is no hint of a “come-hither” look about this woman. 

Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise by Modigliani (1918)
Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise by Modigliani (1918)

His nude painting Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise was completed by Modigliani in 1918 in some ways reminds one of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

Botticelli's Venus
Botticelli’s Venus

Although in this work she is seated, she, like Botticelli’s nude, inclines her head slightly to one side and her right hand lies across her body, over her heart and touches her breast.  There is a definite sensuality about Modigliani’s painting in the way he has depicted the woman with her head at an angle.  She clutches her white chemise in an attempt to cover herself but she has failed.  The strap of the chemise has slid down her left shoulder.  Her right breast is fully exposed whilst her right hand hides her left breast from our view.   The way Modigliani has depicted her mouth with reddened lips, which are slightly parted, adds to the eroticism of this work.  Her facial expression is one of inquisitiveness as if she is questioning our presence. 

Female Nude by Modigliani (1916)
Female Nude by Modigliani (1916)

Of all his female nude paintings, my favourite is the one which hangs in the Courtaulds Gallery in London.  It is simply entitled Female Nude and was completed by Modigliani in 1916.  The female in this work is seated, which is unlike most of his other female nude works.  Her head rests on her shoulder.  Her eyes are closed.  Her full lips touch the delicate skin of her chest.  Her long black hair cascades down her back, but a few strands lie delicately across her right breast.  The unknown female sitter holds a demure expression.  Hers is an hour-glass figure.  The shading and the skin tone Modigliani has used reveals a slight swelling of her stomach.   She is a veritable beauty.  Once again the figure has an elongated face, a trademark of Modigliani.  Her cheeks are flushed with a rose-coloured tint.  Is this a sign of her embarrassment at posing for Modigliani or is she just being coy?  The painting was completed a year before he set about painting his large series of female nudes and was at a time when he was engaged in painting portraits of his friends and lovers. 

Vénus (Nu debout, nu médicis) by Modigliani (1917)
Vénus (Nu debout, nu médicis) by Modigliani (1917)

Modigliani’s works command very high prices.  The Modigliani Venus which he completed in 1917 when it last came up for sale had an estimated price of between $6 and $9 million but it sold for $14,200,000  and his work Nu assis au collier (Seated Nude with Necklace) had, in 1995, sold for $12.5 million. 

Seated Nude on Divan by Modigliani (1917)
Seated Nude on Divan
Nu assis sur un divan (La Belle Romaine)
by Modigliani (1917)

However the highest price paid for a Modigliani nude came in November 2010 when his painting Nu assis sur un divan (La Belle Romaine), came up at Sotheby’s New York auction.  Its estimated price was $40 million but with five bidders competing for the work its sale price reached $68.9 million, four times the price it realised when it was sold at Sotheby’s in 1999.    

Price Evolution in Modigliani's paintings
Price Evolution in Modigliani’s paintings

I came across an interesting graph (above) on the website (http://secretmodigliani.com/auctions.html) which showed how Modigliani’s paintings have consistently risen in value.   Who says art is a bad investment?   

Poster for Berthe Weill's 1917 exhibition of Modigliani's works
Poster for Berthe Weill’s 1917 exhibition of Modigliani’s works

I could not end this blog about Modigliani’s nude paintings without recounting the well known tale of Modigliani’s first and only, one-man show which his patron and friend, Leopold Zborovski had managed to cajole the art dealer Berthe Weill to hold at her Paris gallery, Galerie B. Weill.  Weill had first opened her gallery in 1901 and in 1917 moved to a more spacious one at 50 rue Taitbout in Paris’ 9th arrondissement, close to the Paris Opera.  Weill was dedicated to the cause of giving young up-and-coming artists, like Modigliani a chance to become recognised.  Over almost forty years, until the gallery closed in 1939, works by all the modern greats such as Raoul Dufy, Kees van Dongen, André Derain, Georges Braque,Vlaminck, Diego Rivera and mother and son Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo had their works exhibited at her gallery. 

Modigliani’s one man show was set for December 3rd 1917 and being exhibited at it were thirty drawings and paintings including a number of his female nude paintings, one of which was in the window of the gallery and attracted a lot of public attention.   Unfortunately for Weill and Modigliani, across from the gallery was a police station and the police, to their horror, soon noticed the crowds gathering to look through the window of the gallery at the nude figures.  The police commissioner ordered Weill to close the exhibition describing the paintings as being “filth”.  So why this strange decision and this prudish statement?  Female nudes had been painted for many years and life classes were part of the artistic syllabus at the formal Academies?   However that was the nub of the matter as the Academies taught that the female nude should be depicted only in certain poses and Modigliani’s nudes did not conform to that dictate but even more horrifying to the police commissioner was that Modigliani had depicted his female nudes as having pubic hair…shocking!!!!!   Modigliani had gone back to the pre-Academy days when strict rules regarding the posture of female nudes did not exist.   Goodness knows what the police commissioner would have made of the works of Egon Schiele !!!!!  Despite Weill’s argument that it was art, the commissioner of police would not change his mind and the exhibition closed before it began !

My final look at the life of Modigliani in my next blog will take in his final years and look at some of the women with whom he developed a close relationship.

                                                                                ……to be continued.

Elderly Nude in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny

Mariano Fortuny
Mariano Fortuny

My featured painting today is a reminder to me of the glorious and unexpected summer weather we have been having these last five weeks and the rejuvenation of my battered and old body from basking in the sunlight.  The painting is entitled Elderly Nude in the Sun and was painted in 1871 by the Catalan painter Mariano Fortuny.  Fortuny is looked upon as one of the most esteemed and internationally renowned of the nineteenth century Spanish painters.

Mariano José María Bernardo Fortuny y Marsal was born in the Spanish coastal town of Reus in June 1838.  He came from an impoverished background and attended the local school where, among other subjects he was taught, he was given his first rudimentary lessons in drawing.  He was orphaned at the age of twelve when both his parents died and he went to live with his paternal grandfather, Maria Fortuny i Baró, who was a cabinet maker and amateur artist.   His grandfather continued to look after his grandson’s education sending him to watercolour classes run by a local artist, Domingo Soberano.  He also had him work in the studio of the silversmith and miniaturist, Antonio Bassa.  

As well as being a joiner his grandfather built up a collection of wax figurines which he had made and travelled the country selling them.  He spent much of his time teaching his grandson the art of making these wax figures.  On one of Mariano and his grandfather’s sales trips in September 1852 they visited the nearby city of Barcelona.  It was during this visit that Mariano met the sculptor Domingo Talarn who was so impressed with Mariano’s handiwork that he arranged for him to be paid a small monthly stipend which enabled him to attend the Escuela de Bellas Artes where he started on a four-year art course.  It was here that he studied under the Spanish artist, Claudio Lorenzale y Sugrañes.    

In 1857, aged 19 Mariano won an art scholarship which allowed him to travel to Rome the following year and, for the next two years he studied the art of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods.  At the end of his Italian stay he received a commission from the regional Catalan government to travel to Morocco and record the conflict between the Spanish and Moroccan armies which had broken out at the end of 1859. In the Catalan and Basque regions of Spain thousands of young men with a burning sense of patriotism rushed to the army recruiting centres to sign up for the Spanish army to help their country defeat the Moroccans and the Catalan government wanted to have recorded pictorially their brave fight for their country.  Fortuny travelled to Morocco in 1860 and completed numerous pencil sketches, highly colourful watercolours and small oil paintings of the Moroccan landscape and its people as well as the battle skirmishes.  When he returned home to Catalonia these sketches were shown at exhibitions in Madrid and Barcelona. 

Battle of Teutan by Mariano Fortuny
Battle of Teutan by Mariano Fortuny

Fortuny used a number of his battlefield sketches to build up a monumental history painting, measuring 300 x 972cms, entitled Battle of Teután which recorded the Spanish and Moroccan armies large scale clash in January 1860 which culminated in the fall of the Moroccan town of Teután to the Spaniards.   Fortuny began work on this painting in 1862 but never fully completed it, adding and altering it constantly over the next twelve years.  On his death in Rome in 1874 the painting was found in his studio.  The Catalan government purchased the work and it can now be seen in the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña, in Barcelona. 

In 1867 whilst in Madrid, Mariano Fortuny married Cecilia de Madrazo.   She came from a long line of painters.  She was the daughter of the great painter Federico de Madrazo, a one-time director of the Prado Museum.  Cecilia’s brother was the realist painter Raimundo de Madrazo who became a highly successful portraitist and genre painter in a Salon style.  In May 1871, Cecilia gave birth to a son, named Mariano after his father.  Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo went on to become one of the foremost Spanish fashion and tapestry designers. 

Fortuny was based in Rome until about 1870 after which he made a number of trips.  He then went to live in Paris but when the Spanish-French governmental relations began to break down, he decided to move his family back to Spain and for a two year period, he and his family lived in Granada.  He made a return trip to Morocco in 1872 and later to Rome.   By this time, Fortuny was disturbed and somewhat depressed with the necessity of churning out paintings which were saleable as he wanted the freedom to paint what he liked rather than what was popular and easy to sell.  In a letter to his friend, the prolific French art collector, Baron Davillier, he wrote of his dilemma: 

“…I want to have the pleasure of painting for myself.   In this lies true painting…”

In the summer of 1874 he headed back to Italy and his studio in Rome but stopped off at Portici, a coastal town on the Bay of Naples, where he spent time painting scenes of the Bay and the town.   Sadly, it was here that he contracted malaria which led to his death in Rome in November 1874, at the young age of 36.  

Elderly Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny (1871)
Elderly Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny (1871)

My featured work today by Mariano Fortuny is entitled Elderly Nude in the Sun which he completed in 1871 whilst living in Granada.   Fortuny was, at this time, at the height of his fame and his works were in great demand.  This painting was one of many life studies he completed at the time.  It is a painting which can be attributed to classical realism.   Note the marked difference to the finish Fortuny has afforded the painting.  The lower part of the torso is just roughly sketched whilst the detail of the man’s upper body and face are finished in such exquisite detail to make the work come to life.  It is an amazing work and reminded me so much of the pained expression and emaciated figure one associates with the crucified Christ.  Before us we have an old man with an old body which is well past its prime.  There is a contemplative expression on the man’s face as he faces the sun with his eyes tightly closed.  I have to admit that my initial and somewhat fleeting glance at the man’s facial expression made me believe it was one of anguish.  However if one looks more closely I think it is more a look of quiet acceptance and even a look of pleasure as the sun’s rays warm up his frail body.  Although it is a somewhat emaciated body we have before us, there is something truly beautiful about Mariano Fortuny’s depiction.

The Poor Fisherman by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The Poor Fisherman by Pierre Puvis de Chevannes (1881)
The Poor Fisherman by Pierre Puvis de Chevannes (1881)

My last blog looked at the early life of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes as well as feature a series of four large wall paintings he completed in the 1860’s.  In today’s blog I will conclude his life story and feature one of his best known paintings entitled The Poor Fisherman.  

Following the success of his wall paintings for the Musée de Picardie he went on to complete many other wall painting commissions, such as the staircase of the Hôtel de Ville at Poitiers.  In 1874 the Department of Fine Arts in Paris commissioned him to paint a number of wall paintings depicting the childhood and education of St Geneviève, the patroness of Paris, for the church of Saint Genevieve, which is now the Pantheon.  Puvis procured a second commission  for work in the Pantheon in 1896, depicting Genevieve’s accomplishments in old age which consisted of a single composition coupled with a triad of panels, the whole of which surmounted by a frieze. 

One of his largest commissions came in 1891 when Charles Follen McKim a partner in the architect firm of McKim, Mead and White, who had designed the new Boston library, went to Paris and approached Pierre Puvis to provide wall paintings for the grand staircase and loggia of their new building.  Puvis agreed to carry out this extensive commission despite being sixty-seven years of age.  Then Puvis had a change of heart when he accepted a commission for work in the Paris City Hall and so the following year, 1892, the Americans had to send over another representative to Paris to ask Puvis not to renege on his original agreement. After prolonged negotiations in July 1893 Puvis put pen to paper and the contract for the wall paintings was finalised, agreeing to pay the artist the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand francs.  Puvis completed his Paris City Hall commission in 1894 and in 1895 he began on the paintings which were to adorn the walls of the Boston Library.  To ensure that the wall paintings blended in with the internal architecture the architects sent Puvis samples of the marble which was to be used for the staircase and its surroundings.  Puvis worked on the wall paintings at a purpose built studio at Neuilly, just outside of Paris and completed them in 1898.  They were then shipped out to America.   Puvis never saw for himself his paintings in situ in the Boston library.   For a much more detailed account of this commission it is worth having a look at:

http://cool.conservation-us.org/jaic/articles/jaic36-01-005.html 

Pierre Puvis did not exclusively work on large-scale wall paintings, he would often relax by carrying out smaller easel paintings and today I am featuring one such work which he completed in 1881 and entitled The Poor Fisherman, which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Although not the size of one of his wall paintings, it is still a large work, measuring 155 x 192 cms.

The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1859)
The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1859)

In the painting we see a forlorn-looking man, head bent, standing up in his boat with his hands clasped together in front of him as if in prayer and it is his stance along with the connection between Christ and his Apostles and fishermen, which gives the painting a somewhat religious feel to it.  Is he praying for success in his forthcoming fishing expedition or as some would have us believe it could be that it was noon and, as a practicing Catholic, the fisherman was reciting an Angelus prayer.  This supposition is based on the similar stance of the figures seen in Millet’s 1859 The Angelus painting.   On the bank there is a woman, his daughter, collecting flowers and his sleeping baby, lying on his back in a bed of wild flowers. One is struck by the bleak landscape and the contrast between the seemingly happy female as she picks the flowers, the peacefully sleeping child with the troubled poverty-stricken fisherman as he bows his head down in silent contemplation.   

The work was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1881 and received a mixed reception and was not sold until 1887 when the French State purchased the work whilst it was on show at the French art dealer, Durand-Ruel’s showroom.  So what is there not to like about the work?  Is it just too depressing?  Does it fail to conform to the artistic norm?  In an article in the December 1916 issue of the The Art World magazine entitled “A Trivial Work of Art: The Poor Fisherman by Puvis de Chavannes, the art critic Petronius Arbiter summed up the painting:

“…It is an absolutely trivial work; and, coming from him, was a complete surprise and much criticized at the time. In the first place the lines of the composition are so zigzag that the work is irritating instead of soothing to the eyes. Then the sprawling of the badly drawn child over a low shrub, every leaf and branch of which would prick out of it all sense of sleep or even of comfort, is absurd.  Then the head of the mother is too large, and the hair that of a man rather than that of a woman. Then the man looks ‘sawed-off,’ for he is represented as standing with his knees against a seat in the boat. But where is the rest of his lower legs? The boat is either not deep enough or his lower legs are abnormally short, or sawed-off. This is also manifestly absurd. Then the head is so childishly constructed as to be ridiculous. Moreover, what is he doing – praying, fishing, philosophizing over his destiny, or what? The whole thing is childish to a degree. Here we have a meaningless ‘individuality’ with a vengeance…”

However the article’s author begrudgingly had some good words to say about the work:

“…The picture has but one redeeming feature – its charming colour.  A delicate general tone of mauve pervades the whole creation and the gradation of the tones in the water are so skilfully painted that we are drawn into the far distance whether we will or no.  That is, the values of the picture are remarkably true…”

Le Pauvre Pêcheur by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1881)  The National Museum of Western Art
Le Pauvre Pêcheur by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1881) The National Museum of Western Art

The artist painted another version of The Poor Fisherman in which he depicts just the fisherman and his baby child which this time lies in the botom of his boat.  This copy can be seen at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes died in October 1898 aged 73.   Shortly before his death he married his long time companion, Princess Marie Cantacuzène.   She died just a few months before her husband.

Following my last blog, which looked at the early life of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, I was ticked off by the author Aimée Brown Price for using information from her books on the artist and not acknowledging the fact.  To defend myself I have to say up until receiving her email I had no idea she had written these books and probably took her information unknowingly from a third-party source.  However to rectify my misconduct I have given you below the title of her books on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and I am sure if you want to read a more detailed account of the life and works of the artist they will be invaluable.

Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Volume I: The Artist and his Art.  Volume II:  A Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780300115710, box set, two volumes, 750 pp. 1200 illustrations.