The Alma-Tadema Ladies. Part 2 – The Two Daughters, Anna and Laurense.

(Detail from full-length portrait) Miss Anna Alma-Tadema by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1883)

In my last blog I looked at the lives of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s two wives, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard and Laura Theresa Epps and how, in a way their two lives were intertwined.  In this second part of the blog I am looking at Alma-Tadema’s Ladies but in this blog I am looking at the lives of his two daughters, Laurense and Anna Alma-Tadema.

In the painting above, entitled Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, which her father completed in 1883 we see fifteen year old Anna, standing at the door of the library at Townshend House.  In her hand is a vase of carnations and she wears an Aesthetic dress probably made of Indian cotton, with a shell necklace.  Look how the artist has mastered the depiction of the different textures of the various surfaces whether it be clothes or inanimate objects.

Hall in Townshend House by Ellen Epps (1873)
Painting of Laurense and Anna painted by the sister of their step-mother

On September 24th, 1863, twenty-seven-year-old Laurens Alma-Tadema married a French lady, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard in Antwerp City Hall and the couple went on to have three children.  Their first-born, a son, died aged six months of smallpox.  The couple then went on to have two daughters, Laurense in August 1865 and Anna in 1867.  Both children were born in Brussels.

Laurense, Anna, their father, and his sister Atje moved to London in 1870, a year after Marie-Pauline’s death.  Lawrence Alma-Tadema re-married in 1871.  His second wife, who was sixteen years younger than him, was Laura Epps the English daughter of a homeopathic doctor.   Laurense and Anna were home-schooled by their father and step-mother.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – The Sculpture Gallery (1874)

In 1874 Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted one of his largest works, The Sculpture Gallery which measured 223 x 174cms.  In this work, which depicts an Ancient Roman temple setting, he has included depictions of his two wives and two children as well as himself.  We see his second wife Laura Theresa wearing a gold armlet in the centre of the work, and to the right of her are her two children Laurense and Anna.  Lawrence Alma-Tadema is seated on the left and to his right, sitting upright hold a purple feather fan is thought to be a portrayal of his late wife, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard who died five years earlier.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study, Townshend House, London, (1884)

Anna developed her father’s and step-mother’s love of art and by the age of seventeen had become a talented artist.  She focused on painting the elaborate interiors of the family home, as well as portraits and flower paintings. Her gift as an artist can be seen in a set of watercolour and pen and ink depictions she completed in 1884 and 1885 of the family’s first London home, Townshend House close to Regents Park.  The detail is truly amazing and these works were almost certainly due to the influence of her father.   Her painting entitled Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study in Townshend House, London was completed by Anna in 1884.  The interior of Townshend House was designed and furnished by her father.  He managed to create a set of ornate and diverse interiors in a variety of styles ranging from traditional Dutch to Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Pompeiian, Byzantine, and Japanese based on his journeys.  The setting in this work is the interior of a comfortable library.  The intricate detail amazes me.  At the back of the room we see a very comfortable couch made even more so with the addition of a fur covering. It is almost a day-bed to be used by a weary reader who has come to the library for some peace and quiet.  The room is bright due to its dual aspect stained-glass windows and in the evening the candle-lights of the bronze chandelier, which Alma-Tadema designed, will illuminate the room.  The room has many pieces of heavy Dutch oak furniture which probably reminded Anna’s father of his birthplace.   On the ceiling to the left there seems to be a Japanese lantern or it could be an upturned parasol.  The floor is covered by a tatami matting, which was used as a flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms.  Hanging from the fireplace is a large palm leaf fan and on top of the fireplace mantle is a vase full of peacock feathers.  Just take your time and look at everything that Anna has painstakingly depicted in this very busy room.

The Drawing Room, Townshend House by Anna Alma-Tadema (1885),

In a small (27 x 19cms) watercolour and ink painting The Drawing Room which Anna completed in 1885 we see another room in Townshend House.   We are standing in the Gold Room and looking through the archway into the Columned Drawing Room albeit the columns themselves are hidden.   In the work we see one of a suite of ornate drawing rooms in the family’s home.  In this work take a close look and see how she has mastered light and the texture of the objects.  Look at how she has depicted the full-length brocade curtain which seems to act as a room-divider.  Look at the way she has illustrated the shiny surface of the floor lit by a light source emanating from an unseen window to the right.  Anna exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893.

The Gold Room by Anna Alma-Tadema (1884)

Finally, we have her work entitled The Gold Room which she completed in 1884.   This watercolour depicts a view into the Gold Room which was named thus because its walls were overlaid with gold leaf.  The centre of the painting is dominated by the large ornate piano which has inlays of ivory and tortoiseshell.  On the right we see a sumptuous full-length curtain made of Chinese silk.  If you look carefully at the window in the background you will see that the leading of it forms the family name, “Alma-Tadema”.  We cannot but be amazed by the talent of this seventeen-year-old girl at how she has managed to create the rich and bright surfaces we see as well as the various textures of the objects.  The inclusion of an antique bust on a pedestal was probably testament to her father’s interest in Roman and Greek history.  The painting was shown at the 1885 Royal Academy exhibition and is housed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City Missouri.

Eton College Chapel by Anna Alma-Tadema

Another 1885 painting highlighted Anna’s ability to replicate detail onto canvas.  It was her watercolour work entitled Eton College Chapel which she completed when she was just twenty years of age and was exhibited at the Royal Academy.  Of Anna and her great artistic skill her father’s biographer, Helen Zimmerman, wrote in her 1902 biography, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema R.A., that she was:

“…a delicate, dainty artist who has inherited much of her father’s power for reproducing detail…”

The Closing Door by Anna Alma-Tadema

In 1886, the family moved to a larger house, No. 17 Grove End Road, St. John’s Wood, London, which had previously been owned by the painter James Tissot.  Anna’s father carried out major refurbishments to the house and had extra studios added so that all four in the family could paint!   A room, thought to be on the upper floor in this house was the setting for Anna’s 1899 painting, The Closing Door.  It is a beautiful painting, full of mystery and atmosphere.  Once one has enjoyed the detail of the inanimate objects in the room our gaze goes to the central character of this work, the lady and soon our head is filled with questions.  So what story is unfolding before us?  Look at the woman – how is she feeling and why?  I suppose we recognise that something has badly upset her.  Look how she has roughly grasped the bead necklace and broken it.  If you look carefully you can see beads on the carpet.  Look at her facial expression –wretchedness, bewilderment, and fear are all recognisable.  So, what has brought her to this state of bleak despondency.  A lover’s tiff, a break-up of a relationship?  All possible.  Maybe if we look at some of the objects on the table we may get a clue.  A small vase of anemones symbolising the death of a loved one for in Greek mythology, the anemone sprang from Aphrodite’s tears as she mourned the death of Adonis.  In Victorian times, the anemone was looked upon as a symbol of dying love or departure of a loved one to the “point of no return”.  So, has her “loved one” died or abandoned her?  Next to the vase is a bottle of violet ink, the colour of which has associations with modesty and humility which probably tells us more about the lady herself.  The final mystery associated with this painting is the door.  Look closely at it and you will see fingers grasping it as if to close it.  Is this another sign of somebody “leaving”?  Or is this somebody about to enter which is causing the lady to be afraid?  So many questions and only the artist knows the answers.

Girl in a Bonnet with her Head on a Blue Pillow by Anna Alma-Tadema (1902),

In 1902 Anna Alma-Tadema painted Girl in a Bonnet with Her Head on Blue Pillow   It is a haunting painting with the girl seeming to stare at us as we observe the work but, on closer scrutiny, it is a blank stare.  She shows little interest at what is going on her around her.  Something is troubling her.  She feels helpless and alone.  Her hands are clasped tightly together in a pleading manner.  What solace does she crave? We, the observers, want to help her but how?  Is this simply about an unknown stranger or is this about the artist herself and her mood?

Following the death of her father in 1912, the value of his paintings fell drastically, and this loss of family revenue adversely affected the finances of his two daughters who lived their latter years in poverty.  Anna Alma-Tadema, who never married, died in 1943, aged seventy-six.

Photograph of Laurence Alma-Tadema from the US Library of Congress

Anna’s elder sister was born Laurense Alma-Tadema in August 1865 but she is always referred to as Laurence Alma-Tadema.  For this portion of the blog there will be few paintings as Laurence, unlike her sister, father and step-mother was not an artist.

Love’s Dream by Laurence Alma-Tadema

She was a novelist, playwright, short story writer, and poet. Her first novel, Love’s Martyr was published in 1886.  She wrote in various genres during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.

The Yellow Book periodical

She also submitted work to various periodicals such as The Yellow Book, a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897.  She also edited a periodical.  Many of her works were privately printed.

She left the family home and went to live in the Kent village of Wittersham in a cottage named The Fair Haven.  She became an active member of the local community, and involved herself with music and plays.  She even had a place built which could accommodate a hundred people and was to be used by the villagers to stage music concerts and plays and where the children of the village could be taught many local handicrafts.  She named it the Hall of Happy Hours.  In 1907 and 1908 she gave a series of readings in America on her literary work The Meaning of Happiness, which proved to be very well-liked by her American audiences.

World War I Propaganda Poster

She was an ardent activist and often spoke on the plight of the Polish people who were being displaced from their homes by the Austro-German troops in World War I.  She was a close friend and ardent admirer of Jan Paderewski, the Polish concert pianist and composer, politician, and spokesman for Polish independence.  Laurense was secretary of the Poland and the Polish Victims Relief Fund from 1915 to 1939 and her name appeared on many of their propaganda posters.  On her book tour in America, she spoke on the plight of the divided Poland and asked her audience to support the Polish people’s cause.

Laurense died in a nursing home in London on March 12th 1940, aged seventy-five.  Laurense like her sister Anna never married and one wonders whether either ever loved somebody and whether they missed “married bliss”.   Laurense’s poem If One Ever Marries Me would make one believe at least she was resigned to a solitary life.

 If no one ever marries me,—

And I don’t see why they should,

For nurse says I’m not pretty,

And I’m seldom very good—

 If no one ever marries me

I shan’t mind very much;

I shall buy a squirrel in a cage,

And a little rabbit-hutch:

 I shall have a cottage near a wood,

And a pony all my own,

And a little lamb quite clean and tame,

That I can take to town:

 And when I’m getting really old,—

At twenty-eight or nine—

I shall buy a little orphan-girl

And bring her up as mine.

————————–

I visited the exhibition At Home in Antiquity which features many paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.   It is being held in London at the Leighton House Museum until October 29th.  It is a “must-see” exhibition of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s works as well as works by his daughter and second wife.

 

 

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Josefina Holmlund

Just in case you haven’t read my previous blog featuring the Welsh artist,  Sally Moore, let me explain why this blog, like the previous one, is much shorter in length than my usual ramblings.

When I decide on a subject for my blog I look for three criteria to be met.  Firstly, and on a personal note, I need to be interested in the person or their art.  Secondly, I need to be able to find enough information with regards the life of the artist and their family upbringing and lastly, I need to have enough copies of their works to be able to populate the blog.  Without all three criteria, I tend to reluctantly disregard the artist as the subject of my blogs.  Having said this blog and the last one featured two artists but  did not meet with all the criteria – the missing criterium is the limited information I have about their life, but because I liked their work so much I decided to feature them albeit in much shorter blogs.  Today I am looking at the life and work of the nineteenth century Swedish landscape painter, Josefina Holmlund.

Josefina Holmlund

Josefina Holmlund was born in Stockholm in 1827.  Her parents were Nils Holmlund and Johanna Helena Holmlund (née Torsslow) and she had one sister, Jeanette.  Josefina trained as a painter and studied under Teodor Billing, a former student of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm who was a realist landscape painter and who depicted many scenes from Skåne, Lapland and Värmland.  Her other tutor in those early days was Olof Hermelin, who was an ardent advocate for national Swedish values ​​and became a prominent portrayer of the domestic landscape mainly in Uppland and Södermanland

Vaxholm fortress by Josefina Holmlund

In the 1850’s, Josefina attended the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Stockholm where one of her professors was Edvard Bergh who started his career in law but later studied at the Royal Academy in Stockholm.  He founded the landscaping school at the Royal Academy and this school was characterised by the Swedish landscape painting of the time.  The fact that Josefina studied art at the Academy is unusual as the establishment did not officially allow entry for women before 1864.

In 1863, aged thirty-six, she travelled to Dusseldorf and went to live with her sister Jeanette.  Jeanette Holmlund who was also a painter had married the Norwegian landscape painter Nils Björnsson Möller.  Whilst living with them Josefina became influenced by her brother-in-law’s art.  She continued with her artistic studies and became strongly influenced by the “Dusseldorf School of painting”, which referred to a group of painters who either taught or studied at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art in the 1830s and 1840s, when the Academy was directed by the German Romantic painter Wilhelm von Schadow. The work of the Düsseldorf School is typified by finely meticulous yet imaginary landscapes.  Such landscapes often had religious or allegorical stories set in the landscapes. Members of the Düsseldorf School were great believers in plein air painting, and tended to use a palette with relatively subdued and even colours. that was a national romantic emphasis that depicted dramatic nature scenes, waterfalls and rapids with rocks.

Mountain Landscape with Rapids by Josefina Holmlund

Josefina captured the starkness of life in the mountains and the ferocity of the rapids in her painting, Mountain Landscape with Rapids in which we see the fast flowing water of the rapids fall spectacularly over a waterfall at the side of which is a small, log-built cottage, with smoke billowing from the chimney.  By the side of it a lady, laden with wood she has collected heads home.

The Düsseldorf School emerged as part of the German Romantic movement.  Depictions by these artists had a national romantic emphasis that depicted dramatic nature scenes, waterfalls and rapids with rocks.  One can see in some of Josefina Holmlund’s paintings the influence of the Dusseldorf School.

She went on to make many trips to Holland, Norway and Scandinavia and the breath-taking countryside she discovered during her many journeys featured in her landscape works.

Josefina Holmlund never married and died in 1907, aged 78.

Fjord Landscape with Farm by Josefina Holmlund (1870)

Many of her landscape paintings featured the breath-taking “V” shaped fjords such as Fjord Landscape with Farm, the one she completed in 1870.  There is a beautiful tranquillity about this depiction.

Fjord Landscape by Josefina Holmlund

Another painting of hers which I like is one featuring the tranquillity of the fjord which has lost its “V” shape as it is further from its source and closer to the sea.  In this work we see a steamer, puffing out smoke from its tall funnel as it chugs across the wide expanse of water.  In the right foreground we see a man making his way down to his row-boat.  On the bank of the fjord on the right mid-ground of the painting we can just make out a man and woman standing next to their boat and boathouse.

Kustbild med Båt (Coastel Scene with Boat) by Josefina Holmlund (1879)

Josefina painted a beautiful and evocative sunset scene in 1879 entitled Kustbild med båt, (Coastal scene with boat).  Dark storm clouds almost obliterate the setting sun the rays of which force their way through to create a golden halo on the surface of the fjord.  Despite the prospect of an on-coming storm, a small sailing ship in the foreground sets out on its perilous journey.  In the left mid-ground we see a small cottage perched on the rocky bank of the fjord. Look at the myriad of colours, such as silver, greys and gold, she has used in depicting the water.

On the Bridge by Josefina Holmlund

Her ability to depict water with shimmering reflections is palpably shown in her painting entitled On the Bridge.

Sommarlandskap med Gärdesgård Intill en Väg by Josefina Holmlund (c.1855)

As well as her paintings of the fjords and lakes she completed many works featuring the countryside.  One of my favourites is Sommarlandskap med Gärdesgård Intill en Väg (Summer Landscape with Fence next to a Road) which she completed around 1855.

Cottage in the Woods by Josefina Holmlund (1879)

Often her countryside landscapes featured family life as in the case of her 1879 painting, Stuga vid skogsbryn (Cottage in the Woods) which is a depiction of idyllic life in the woods devoid of the noise and pollution of city life.  I think it is her portrayal of what life should be like.

Hide and Seek by Josefina Holmlund

Happiness attained from life in the woods is once again brought to the fore in her painting entitled Kurragomma (Hide and Seek), which combines the beauty and serenity of nature with the laughter and playfulness of three children as they amuse themselves with the game of hide and seek.

Village Street by Josefina Holmlund

Another work of hers which I like for its simplicity is Village Street.

In my next blog I am going to look at the life and works of Charles Leickert, the nineteenth century painter of the Dutch landscape.

Sally Moore

Catnapping by Sally Moore

When I decide on a subject for my blog I look for three criteria to be met.  Firstly, and on a personal note, I need to be interested in the person or their art.  Secondly, I need to be able to find enough information with regards the life of the artist and their family upbringing and lastly, I need to have enough copies of their works to be able to populate the blog.  Without all three criteria, I tend to reluctantly disregard the artist as the subject of my blogs.  Having said all that, the next two blogs feature artists who did not meet with all the criteria – the missing criterium in both cases was the limited information I had about their lives, but because I liked their work so much I decided to feature them albeit in much shorter blogs.

All at Sea by Sally Moore

In this blog, I am looking at the work of a living surrealist artist and as I told you in an earlier blog about another living artist, Neil Simone (My Daily Art Display – May 24th 2017), who coincidently could also be classed as a surrealist, I try and avoid blogging about painters who are still alive, for fear of upsetting them!!!  My featured artist today is the Welsh-born surrealist painter Sally Moore.

Still Waters by Sally Moore

Although my favourite art tends to be landscapes, seascapes, and genre paintings I am fascinated by surrealist art and I am mesmerised by the thought process which goes into the depictions.  The Tate’s short description of the term surrealism encapsulates the very essence of the art form:

“…A twentieth-century literary, philosophical and artistic movement that explored the workings of the mind, championing the irrational, the poetic and the revolutionary…”

One of the most famous surrealist artists was the twentieth century Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico and his take on surrealism was:

“…Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life…”

Bittersweet Offerings by Sally Moore

Sometimes it is a mistake to compartmentalise art or the works of an artist and maybe Sally Moore would not want her art to be categorised as Surrealism and perhaps she would be unhappy that I am typecasting her as a Surrealist painter.  If so, I apologise in advance and just say that her exquisite depictions are quirky, amusing and cleverly thought out.

 Sally Moore was born in Barry, South Wales in 1962. She studied art at the Ruskin School of Art, in Oxford.  The Ruskin School of Art dates to 1871, when John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, as well as an art patron, draughtsman, and watercolourist, first opened his School of Drawing. Sally subsequently won a scholarship to study at the British School in Rome.

Head with Bees by Sally Moore (1996)

Her paintings from the very start of her career were popular with both the critics and public alike and, early on, she won awards at the National Eisteddfod.  More awards soon followed including one for her painting Head with Bees at the 1996 Discerning Eye Exhibition in London.  The Discerning Eye Exhibition differs from many other exhibitions as six selectors (judges) make their choice of small works as their interpretation of the best of contemporary British art and each selected section is hung separately so that there may be a distinct identity with its combination of established and less established or even unknown artists.  The Discerning Eye has one limitation and that is the paintings must be small in size giving more artists a chance to exhibit and also allowing the works to be small enough to be bought, carried back under arm and hung in any home or office space. Each judge was asked to pick over half of his selection from less established names.  Her painting was selected as winner by artist and art critic, William Packer, one of the six judges/selectors.

This Charming Man by Sally Moore

In 2005, she won the Welsh Artist of the Year Award.

Her artworks are painstaking in style and much time is spent on the detail and this of course limits her output and thus the number of solo exhibitions she has held.  She says she often has a umber of works on the go at the same time.   I was fortunate to go to her exhibition the other week at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff, which contained sixteen of herpaintings.  Although small in quantity, the quality of the work was excellent and the subjects fascinating.

Fishy Business by Sally Moore

The one aspect of her work you will soon notice is that she includes herself in most of her paintings!

Home Histrionics by Sally Moore

Not all her paintings feature humour and in two of her works she looks at the state of people’s minds and behaviour when they are experiencing a personal trauma.  In two of her works, Beneath Suspicion and Home Histrionics, she looks at the behaviour of people, who we have all come across at some time, people who seem to revel in their catastrophes, to such an extent they almost seem to flourish on it. In a way Home Histrionics ridicules such characters.

Beneath Suspicion by Sally Moore

When asked whether she based the depictions on somebody she knew, she answered:

“…They are loosely based on a friend of mine who enjoys complex relationships with men and follows a specific pattern of destructive behaviour.  She gets herself in these ludicrous situations and seems to relish the drama it creates, when it’s all driven by fake emotion…”

Captive by Sally Moore

My favourite work by Sally Moore is the quirky painting entitled Captive.

Her work is probably best summed up by her fellow Welshman and Visual Artist, Keith Bayliss, who commented:

“…Sally’s paintings are intriguing, there is a drama being enacted, a story unfolding. Sometimes the stage set is a domestic one, or an everyday scene, a seemingly familiar and therefore reassuring picture. We are drawn in as eager observers, only to realise that we have become participants in the story.

Her work displays an interest in, and a deep knowledge of, three visual art traditions, the Narrative, the Surreal and the Symbolic, marrying all together through her use of highly personal imagery. Her paintings are painstakingly crafted, taking months to produce one glowingly detailed art work. The paintings are icons of magical realism, the known with the mysterious. In making art she is making sense of the world and we, in viewing the work become part of that process, part of the drama…”

But maybe I should leave the last word to the artist herself when she describes what she wants to achieve through her work:

“…Each painting is a mini psychological drama, often absurd, sometimes surreal and invariably humorous. I hope that my paintings may both unsettle and amuse the viewer…”

To find out more about Sally Moore and her art have a look at her website:

https://sallymoorepainter.co.uk

and in the “About” page there is a video which she made in 2013 in collaboration with film-maker Mark Latimer entitled The Domestic Surrealist which documents Sally’s thought processes which goes into each of her works of art.

 

 

 

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850 – 1936)

In my last blog I looked at the life of the nineteenth century American painter, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke.  Today I want to look at the life of one of her contemporaries, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, who was born just six years earlier.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe was born December 10th, 1850 in a small log cabin farmhouse, built by her father, near Irving Cliff in Honesdale, in rural north-eastern Pennsylvania.  It was a picturesque area, which the historian, writer and author of the short stories, Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irvine, described as:

“…Honesdale is situated between high hills on a plain through which two romantic mountain streams flow, uniting in the village and forming the Lackawaxen River. There are two wide basins where the streams unite, and the water was formed into the two most picturesque lakes. From the Eastern shore of one of these, Lake Dyberry, a solid ledge of serried and moss-grown slate rock rises almost sheer to the height of nearly 400 feet…”

Peasant Girl Before a Gate by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Jennie was the only child of William Brownscombe, originally a farmer in the English county of Devon who had left England to seek his fortune in America in 1840 and his American wife Elvira Brownscombe (née Kennedy), who was said to be a direct descendent of an original Mayflower passenger.  Her mother who was a talented writer and amateur painter, nurtured her daughter’s interest in poetry and art.  Her early exploration of drawing is mentioned in the entry for Jennie Brownscombe in the 1897 book, American Women Fifteen Hundred Biographies:

“…She was studious and precocious, and about equally inclined to art and literature. She early showed a talent for drawing, and when only seven years old she began drawing, using the juices of flowers and leaves with which to colour her pictures. In school she illustrated every book that had a blank leaf or margin available…”

Jennie won awards for her art at the Wayne County Fair  when she was a high school student.

The New School-Mistress by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1873)

In 1868, when Jennie was eighteen years old, her father died.  To help herself and her mother financially, Jennie began selling illustrations to book and magazine publishers based on the landscape around her home and Irving Cliff.  One such illustration appeared in the illustrated journal, Harper’s Weekly, of September 20th 1873, entitled The New School-Mistress.   She also accepted a post as a school teacher at the high school in Honesdale.  Eventually she moved to New York to study art.  To get an idea of what this young aspiring artist was like we need to see the description of her given by art historian, Florence Woolsley Hazzard in her article on Brownscombe for the three-volume biographical dictionary, Notable American Women 1607-1950, in which she described the young artist:

“…she was slender, with a thin face in which large brown eyes and a dimpled chin were distinctive, and reserved in manner. She lived simply with one companion or servant…”

Jennie Brownscombe left home and went to New York where she studied under the Paris-born academic-style painter Victor Nehlig who had come to America in 1850 and opened up a studio in New York city, and was elected as an academician in the National Academy of Design.  In May 1871 Jennie graduated from the School of Design for Women of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art more commonly known as the Cooper Union or Cooper Institute which was a privately funded college located in Cooper Square in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City.

Portrait of a Young Woman in Pink and Green by Jennie Brownscombe (1898)

For the next four years, until 1875, Jennie was enrolled at the National Academy of Design where she attended the Antique and Life Schools and studied painting under the tutelage of the American painters, Thomas LeClear and Lemuel Wilmarth, who was the director of the Academy.  The Academy also paid Jennie to teach some of the classes and this helped defray the cost of her tuition.  Whilst at the Academy Brownscombe won the first prize, the Charles Loring Elliott Medal, in the Antique School and the first prize, the Suydam Medal in the Life School, which was given annually by the Academy for achievements in life drawing and painting in the Life studies school.

Unfortunately, the Academy encountered financial problems at the end of the 1874/5 academic year and could no longer afford to employ Wilmarth and there was even talk that come the start of the next academic year in the autumn the Academy would not re-open.  With the uncertainty as to whether the Academy, due to financial pressures, would cancel all classes temporarily, forcing students to forgo drawing from life for a significant period of time, something had to be done.  Apart from this uncertain future, many of the students were also unhappy with the rigid artistic teaching at the Academy believing the favoured academic-style was too conservative especially in comparison with what was happening at the time with the art in Europe with the birth of Impressionism.  And so, in 1875, Lemuel Wilmarth and a group of artists, most of whom were students at the National Academy of Design, and many of whom were women, founded The Art Students League and Wilmarth was confirmed as its first president.

The present Art Students League of New York Building, West 57th Street, New York

Jennie Brownscombe was one of the founder members of the Art Students League.  Another founder member was the sculptor and illustrator James Edward Kelly whose comments about Jennie were published in 1925 in the Fiftieth Anniversary of the League publication.  He recalled the young artist:

“…Although I used to see Miss Jennie Brownscombe when she came to Harper’s Art Department, and as a student at the old Academy, I always visualize her sitting at her easel – working,  working, ceaseless and untiring.  The outcome was a series of paintings and etchings showing the halcyon days in the home life of America…”

The League opened its school with studio space on the top floor of a building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street. Things were somewhat cramped and classes were conducted in just one small room.  It proved so popular that many more art students joined and by the end of the first semester the League had to rent the whole of floor to accommodate this new influx of artists.  Jennie returned to the National Academy of Design in 1879 and remained there as a student until mid-1881.

After completing her studies at the Academy, Jennie travelled to France and studied in Paris under the Polish-born American painter, Henry Mosler, who became well-known for his Breton peasant depictions.  Jennie returned to the United States but an eye injury curtailed her art until 1884 at which time she returned to painting in her studio in New York City.  Whilst living in New York she found time to make regular visits back to her mother who was still at the family home in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Her mother died in 1891.

The Homecoming by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1885)

Jennie Brownscombe’s art was of various genres.  Many of her works focused on the observance of rural family life and it was the sentimentality of these works which appealed to buyers who liked to remember those trouble-free days.  A good example of this is her 1885 painting, The Homecoming, which depicts the return of a husband and the greeting he received from his wife and child on the doorstep of their log cabin.  Everything we see in the painting oozes with happiness and contentment –  what’s not to like about it?

Ready for the Oven by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

In another depiction of contented homeliness,  Ready for the Oven, we see a lady in the kitchen.  She holds a pie, which she has just made and is about to put it into the oven to bake.  Again, this is a work depicting the joy that can be had by simply staying at home and looking after one’s family.  It is a depiction of a clean and well organised country kitchen and the rural idyll.  A lot of her genre works featuring rural life were about a clean and contented homely American lifestyle and is in stark contrast to the rural/ peasant kitchens we see depicted in some of the Dutch genre paintings where realism seemed to mean showing less than clean interiors and chaotic lives, often caused by the demon alcohol.  So, what did people want from their paintings – idyllic sentimentality or realistic hell on earth?

Love’s Young Dream by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

One of the most popular example of Brownscombe’s idyllic but sentimental depictions is her idealized painting depicting rural family life which is entitled Loves Young Dream.  The painting has two distinct parts to it.  In the right foreground, and squeezed in, we have the porch of a wooden house and three people whilst on the left and in the background the space is open and clutter-free as we look towards the hills shrouded in mist but it is this openness which gives us the sense of vast sweeping and unspoilt countryside and set up of the painting highlights the isolation of the small house.

We see a young woman standing on the outside step of her modest wooden home.  Her expression is one of yearning, as she looks out at the winding country lane which leads to her family home.  In the distance, we can just make out a man on horseback approaching. Could this be who she is awaiting?  On the right of the painting we see an elderly couple sitting on the porch. One, probably her mother, looks up from her knitting and looks at the young woman and probably worries about her daughter’s expectations.  She is completely oblivious to the fact that the cat is playing with her ball of wool.  The other person on the porch is an elderly man who is completely engrossed in his book and has no time to observe his daughter, wife or the approaching rider.

The New Scholar by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1879)

In another example of her genre paintings we have The New Scholar which captures what school days were like in a rural community in the past.  In the work, we see a very young girl heading to her lessons. She is new to the school and is somewhat frightened at the reception she would receive from her fellow pupils. She walks towards the school room door, head down, but surreptitiously eyeing some of her fellow pupils whilst they line her approach and blatantly study her.   This is yet another beautifully portrayal of individuals.  This work is housed in the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The First Thanksgiving held at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts by Jennie Brownscombe

In some works, she would produce depictions of special moments of American history such as the arrival of the first settlers in her painting The First Thanksgiving held at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts which commemorated the event which took place in early autumn of 1621, when the 53 surviving Pilgrims celebrated their successful harvest, which was an English custom.  Another reason for the depiction by Brownscombe could have been the colonial roots of her mother’s family.

In the painting, we see a group of Puritans in dark and dour-looking clothes gathered around a table being blessed by a pastor.  The idealisation of the depiction shows friendly native Americans looking on at the ceremony and are ready to participate in this communal meal. In the background, we see a solitary log cabin set amongst the yet to be developed New England countryside.  This is a quintessentially American depiction and paintings like this were very popular with American public.  Brownscombe sold the reproduction rights to more than a hundred of her genre and historical works which were then used by publishers to produce prints or incorporate them in calendars and greeting cards.

Washington Greeting Lafayette at Mount Vernon, 1784 by Jennie Brownscombe

Brownscombe was among a group of artists of the Colonial Revival Movement, which was a cultural movement which was both an architectural and decorating style. It was very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was motivated by a romantic adoration of the early American past. Paintings were created by artists depicting early American scenes.  Colonial heroes like George Washington and colonial history were popular subjects for artists, inspired by the 1876 centennial, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.  Jennie Brownscombe’s painting Washington Greeting Lafayette at Mount Vernon is a classic example of Colonial Revival Movement painting.

Colonial Minuet by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Brownscombe developed a structured lifestyle geared up to her artistic life.  She would travel to Italy and spend the winters in Rome and it was during one such winter she met the American still-life and landscape artist George Henry Hall who had a studio in the Italian capital.  They became close friends and Hall who was twenty-five years her senior, became her mentor.  During the summer months, the two of them would return to Hall’s American residence, in Kaaterskill Clove Valley, in New York’s eastern Catskill Mountains, lying just west of the village of Palenville.   When Hall died in 1913 at the age of eighty-eight, he bequeathed the house and studio to Brownscombe.

Children Playing in the Orchard by Jennie Brownscombe (1934)

In 1932 Jennie Brownscombe suffered a stroke which temporarily stopped her painting but two years later in 1934, when she was eighty-four years old, she completed a work for the Lincoln School in her hometown of Honesdale entitled Children Playing in the Orchard.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, who never married, died on August 5th, 1936 four months before her eighty-sixth birthday and was buried next to her parents in the Glen Dyberry Cemetery in Honesdale next to her parents.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (c.1930)

I end this story with a quote from the blog The Jellybean Tree which perfectly sums up the life and work of Jennie Augusta Brownscombe and why her paintings appealed to so many:

“…Jennie Brownscombe was a pilgrim in her own way, making a name and life for herself in a time when most women were still housewives and mothers. She tapped into a talent and nostalgia that warmed the hearts of her viewers. Artists like Brownscombe place a mirror to our lives, forcing us to see the beauty in every day. Creative types can sometimes become bogged down with visions of the fantastic. A reminder of the subtle grace of life is always welcome…”

Hendrik Willem Mesdag. Part 2 – his wife, Sientje Mesdag van Houten.

Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)
Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)

My blog today is somewhat shorter than usual as I decided to concentrate solely on the life and works of Hendrik Mesdag’s wife Sientje van Houten, an artist in her own right and not just “Mrs Mesdag, wife of the marine painter Hendrik Mesdag”.

Hendrik Willem Mesdag married Sientje van Houten in April 1856 and seven years later in September 1863 their only child, Klaas was born.  In June 1864, her father Derk, a wealthy Groningen timber merchant, died and left her a substantial inheritance which she realised in 1866.    This change in her financial situation allowed Hendrik to leave his father’s bank where he had been working for sixteen years and concentrate on his painting and eventually become a professional artist.  He even managed to have one of his paintings, which had been accepted at the 1870 Salon, awarded a gold medal.

Sientje van Houten-Mesdag in her studio (c.1903)
Sientje Mesdag van Houten in her studio (c.1903)

Sientje had accompanied her husband when he went to stay in Brussels to study under Willem Roelofs.  Their house in Rue Van de Weyer was often the focal point for Dutch and Belgian painters, and it could well have been the conversations on art at these soirées that  stimulated Sientje’s mind and enhanced her artistic talent. She, like her husband, not only received instruction from Roelofs but also from Hendrik’s cousin the professional artist, Laurens Alma-Tadema.

Winter Scene by Johannes Christiaan d'Arnaud Gerkens (1875)
Winter Scene by Johannes Christiaan d’Arnaud Gerkens (1875)

She accompanied her husband when he spent the summer of 1866 at the Oosterbeek artist colony and again in the summer of 1868 on the island of Nordeney where she, like Hendrik, spent time painting and sketching seascapes.   The couple moved to The Hague in 1869, where they lived in a house on Anna Paulownastraat and later in a house on Laan van Meerdervoort.  Her husband, who wanted to concentrate on seascapes, later hired a studio room facing the sea at the Villa Elba in Scheveningen where he and Sientje would spend hours painting and sketching. In order to improve her artistic proficiency, Sientje took drawing lessons from their family friend and painter Christian d’Arnaud Gerkens.

Head of a Dog by Sientje van Houten (1875)
Head of a Dog by Sientje Mesdag van Houten (1875)

Life could not have been better for Hendrick Mesdag and his wife Sientje and yet fate would play a fateful trick on the couple.  On September 24th 1871, tragedy struck when their beloved eight-year-old son Klaas, died of diphtheria.  It must have been a devastating time for Hendrik and Sientje.  Who knows whether Sientje wanted to totally immerse herself into something which would deaden the pain of loss but following the death of Klaas, she devoted all her time painting.  She had been in contact with art from an early age through both her father, who had a modest art collection, which she and her siblings would have seen and of course she had lived with her husband and watched him paint.

Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje van Houten Medag
Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

At first, Sientje concentrated on landscape painting and would often leave home and go on painting trips in the Scheveningen dunes with her friend and artist, Harriet Lido who was constantly giving her artistic advice.     Sientje Mesdag-van Houten initially focused on landscape painting and travelled to areas such as Drenthe, Overijssel and the Veluwe region in Gelderland. Besides her love of landscape painting she also liked to paint still lifes.  Over the years, she became increasingly accomplished as an artist and her self-confidence grew to such an extent that she began to submit her paintings to national exhibitions in Europe and America and was happy to partake in group exhibitions held by the Dutch Drawing Society and the Pulchri Studio.  Her husband was also a member of the Pulchri Studio and on a number of occasions both husband and wife exhibited together.  She was also the president of Our Club, a meeting place for cultured women. Mesdag-van Houten kept in touch with other women painters and dedicated herself to the cause of the ‘poor female artist’ and became the leading light and mentor for many young aspiring female artists who would gather at her studio for advice on their artwork

Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje van Houten Medag
Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

She was in close contact with many art dealers and her paintings were sought after by their clients, especially her still lifes.  In 1881 she helped her husband paint the amazing 1680 square metres panoramic painting of Scheveningen which has become known as Panorama Mesdag, but more about this work in the next blog.  Her painting entitled Cottages at Sunset and Heath near Ede was well received at the 1889 Paris Exposition and was awarded a bronze medal.

Camelias in Vase by Sientje van Houten Mesdag
Camelias in Vase by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

Sientje, like her husband Henrik, were avid collectors of art and eventually amassed almost three hundred and fifty works of art as well as objet d’arts, porcelain and artefacts from Holland and Asia.   Their favourites were works by the French Barbizon School artists.  This massive collection dated back to the time she had gone to live with her husband in Brussels whilst he was receiving artistic instruction from Willem Roelofs.  Their joint collection grew to such a size that in 1887 they had a museum built next to their house in Laan van Meerdervoort in The Hague.  In 1903 Sientje and Hendrik donated the collection and the museum to the Dutch state, since which time it has been called The Mesdag Collection and having visited it a few weeks ago I can assure you  it is well worth a visit.

Farm and creek with boat by Sientje van Houten Mesdag
Farm and creek with boat by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

In 1904, Sientje Mesdag-van Houten celebrated her seventieth birthday at the art society, Pictura, and during the celebration they announced that they would name a room in their new building after her. The Pulchri Studio also mounted a retrospective exhibition of her work. For many years Sientje had been simply referred to as Hendrik Mesdag’s wife but in an interview she was very forthright about how she should be remembered, as noted by the interviewer who stated:

“…Despite her marriage to a renowned marine painter, she does not wish to go down in art history as Mesdag’s wife, but as an independent “heroine of art” who follows her own path and seeks recognition for her original artistic convictions…”

Sientje and Hendrik Mesdag
Sientje and Hendrik Mesdag

Sientje van Houten continued to paint all her life.  She died on March 20th 1909, aged 74 and she was buried at the Oud Eik and Duinen Cemetery in The Hague, where later her husband Hendrik and her brother the liberal politician Samuel van Houten would also be interred.  There is no doubt that in her day, she was one of the best known and well regarded female artist.  Sadly, despite her protestations, soon after she died her standing in the art world declined and she was once again viewed as “the wife of Hendrik Mesdag, the marine painter”.  There was however a renewed interest in her life and oeuvre in 1989 when art historians discovered more information regarding her life and artwork.

In my final blog about Hendrik Mesdag I will be focusing on his seascapes and his love of Scheveningen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…O is for O’Keefe.

an artist divine.

Her paintings

are perfect and

drawings are fine…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………….to be continued.

 

Mary Cassatt’s Mother and Child works. Part 1

Mary Cassatt 1844 - 1926
Mary Cassatt
1844 – 1926

Having just become a grandfather for the third time last week I thought I would look at a painter who depicted mother and child in such a loving way and with breathtaking brilliance.  My featured artist is the American painter Mary Stevenson Cassatt. In my next two blogs I will look at her paintings which feature children or mothers and their children. Despite never having married or having any children herself, she managed to capture, in her works of art, the essence of a mother-child relationship.  These paintings were not sugary idealisations of mother and child but a realistic and natural representation of that great love between the two.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt (1878)
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt (1878)

My first offering is just of a child and it is her oil painting entitled Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.  She completed it in 1878 whilst living in Paris and submitted it for inclusion at that year’s Exposition Universelle, but it was rejected.  She was furious at the rejection as she had been confident about its acceptance having already had some of her works accepted at earlier Salons.  She was scathing of the three-man judging panel and later, in a letter to Ambroise Vollard, the Parisian art dealer, she wrote of her annoyance:

“…It was the portrait of a friend of M. Degas. I had done the child in the armchair and he found it good and advised me on the background and he even worked on it. I sent it to the American section of the big exposition [of 1878], they refused it … I was furious, all the more so since he had worked on it. At that time this appeared new and the jury consisted of three people of which one was a pharmacist ! …”

This rebuff by a jury system, which of course was similar to the way in which artists had paintings accepted for the Salon exhibitions, annoyed Cassatt and this is probably why she became friends with the Impressionist artists (although she and her friend Degas always referred to the group as the Independents) who railed against the Académie and its jurist system of accepting works into the annual Salon exhibitions.  The failure to have the work accepted by the jury was not only a rejection of Cassatt’s efforts but, unknown to them, it was a snub to Degas himself, who had helped her with the painting’s background and the light source we see from the rear windows. He had also supplied the model who was the daughter of one of his friends. It is thought that she exhibited the work two years later, in 1879, at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris, as Portrait de petite fille.

Paris at the time was revelling in the arrival of all things Japanese.  Woodcut prints, fans, clothing and silk screens were all in great demand and Cassatt was an avid collector of these prints.  In this painting we can see the Japanese influence in the way Cassatt has close-cropped all four sides of the work even though it meant having parts of each of the four colourful blue arm cut out of the painting.  The chairs are arranged in such a way that they form a circle around an oddly dull-grey coloured floor.  The upper part of the windows in the background is also cropped.  The only things to avoid this cropping technique are the little girl and her pet griffon dog, which lies lethargically on the adjacent armchair.  I like the way the child is depicted.  Although the setting and the furniture have been carefully “stage-managed”, the girl herself seems to be less “posed”.  The only manipulation of the child would be the clothes she wears which would probably not be her ordinary daytime attire.  Whilst modelling for this painting, she has been made to wear fashionable clothes with a tartan shawl which match her ankle socks.  Her hair has been well groomed and now has a bow in it.  Her shoes are highly polished and the light catches their metallic buckles.  However, it is a realistic pose.  The young girl is slumped in the armchair and she exudes an uninterested demeanour obviously tired of posing for the artist.  She is almost sullen in her deportment as she stares into space.  How many times have we witnessed children slumped in an armchair or a couch complaining they have nothing to do and are bored?   How many times have we looked upon our children in a similar pose and told them to “sit up and look lively”?  This is such a life-like pose and is testament to Cassatt’s observational powers.  The painting is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt (1897)
Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt (1897)

My next offering is Mary Cassatt’s 1897 work entitled Breakfast in Bed which is now housed at the Huntington Library and Art Collection, San Marino, California.  In this oil painting we see a young mother lying in bed, with her arms wrapped around her young child. Is the embrace a sign of motherly love?  Maybe the embrace is to hold her secure from falling off the bed but I am going to hazard a guess that the mother just wants to hold the child still so she does not run off and cause some mischief !   It is interesting to look closely at the faces of the mother and child.  Their expressions are so different.  The mother lies back with her head on the pillow and gives her child a sideways glance.  She looks tired almost as if she is unable to lift her head from the pillow.  It could be that she has returned to bed after making herself a cup of tea and brought her child with her so she doesn’t have to wonder what the lively toddler is up to when out of sight.  The mother’s tired expression tells us that she would just like another thirty minutes of peace and quiet but looking at the child’s expression it will be an unfulfilled aspiration.  In contrast, look at the child.   She is wide awake, her eyes alert as she concentrates on something which is outside the painting.  I am sure she is pondering on her next act of devilment.

 

Mary Cassatt's Modern Woman Mural
Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman Mural

Mary Cassatt left her homeland, America, and had been living in Paris since 1866.  As an artist she did not become famous back in her homeland until 1893 when she was commissioned to paint a mural for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition and Fair at Chicago.  The position of the proposed mural was the tympanum over the entrance to the Gallery of Honour in the Women’s Building.  A tympanum is the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, which is bounded by a lintel and arch.  Her mural, which measured 12ft x 58ft, was in the form of a triptych. The central panel of the triptych was a depiction of an orchard setting and entitled Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science.  The Women’s Building at the exhibition was a showcase of women’s advancement throughout history and Cassatt’s mural was an allegorical work in which we see women picking fruit from trees and handing it down to younger women who were collecting it.

Central panel of triptych
Central panel of triptych

This central panel was meant to symbolise women picking “fruit” from a contemporary “tree of life” and passing it (knowledge) on to a younger generation.  Unfortunately after Exhibition, the Women’s Building was pulled down and Cassatt’s mural was lost but fortunately some black and white photos were taken of the work.

Baby reaching for an Apple by Mary Cassatt (1893)
Baby reaching for an Apple by Mary Cassatt (1893)

So what has all this go to do with my theme of mother and child?  The reason is simple.  My next featured painting by Cassatt was a kind of spin-off from the lost Exhibition mural.  It is entitled Baby Reaching for an Apple and was also completed by Mary in 1893 and now resides in the Virginia Museum, Richmond, Virginia. In the painting we see the mother holding down the branch of the apple tree to allow her young child to reach up and grasp the fruit.  There is a beautiful contrast in colour between the green of the background and the leaves of the tree with the lustrous pink of the mother’s dress, her face and the baby’s body. Note the difference in subdued tonality of the lower part of the mother’s dress with the much brighter pink of the dress that encloses her upper torso and this is reciprocated in the background with the much darker green of the lower half in comparison to the brighter green of the upper background.  Cassatt has obviously spent much time depicting all the apples hanging from the branches.  All are different, all are beautifully painted.  It is a very tender depiction.

Maternal Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)
Maternal Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)

My final offering for this blog is a painting which Mary Cassatt completed in 1891 and is entitled Maternal Caress.  It is a colour drypoint and aquatint on cream laid paper, which is presently housed in The National Gallery of Art in Washington.  It is a small work measuring just 36.8 x 26.8 cm (14.5ins x 10.5ins).  Once again this work harks back to the Japanese influence in her work.  Cassatt had seen the exhibition of Japanese woodcuts, which were on display at the École des Beaux-Arts, and it’s is apparent that she wanted to similarly create prints that captured these somewhat audacious designs. The background wallpaper is an orange-brown with a floral motif, which matches that of the upholstery of the armchair.   Against the wall lies a wooden bed with the white fluffed-up bedding which has a softening effect on the depiction.  The mother and child take centre stage in the painting and Cassatt has spent a lot of time creating the intricate detail of the print of the woman’s dress which gives it a hint of Japonism.

It is not known who modelled for this work but it could have been a friend or relative of hers as she often got them to pose with their children for her paintings.  Once again this is a realistic depiction.  It lacks sentimentality.  There is nothing idealized with the mother/child pose we see before us.  It is, to some extent, simply an awkward hug of a child as he seeks comfort from his mother.  She looks very concerned.  Her eyes are closed as if she could not bear to look at her distraught child.  Her left arm is wrapped tightly around her child hoping that the body to body contact will offer some reassurance to her young charge.  Her right arm supports the bottom of the naked child.  The child desperately throws his or her arms around the neck of the mother desperately seeking reassurance.  This genre of mother/child paintings and prints was very popular at the time and Mary Cassatt sold many prints of this work.

In my next blog I will continue looking at works by Mary Cassatt and her fascination with the Mother and Child theme.