Lilla Cabot Perry. Part 2.

                                                 Portrait of Alice Frye Leach by Lilla Cabot Perry (c.1880)

It was in 1889 that Lilla Cabot Perry first encountered Claude Monet’s work at the prestigious Galerie Georges Petit in Paris which staged a Monet/Rodin collaboration exhibition (Claude Monet-Auguste Rodin, centenaire de l’exposition de 1889), that opened on June 21st.  It was also in that summer of 1889 that Lilla and her husband first met the great French painter.  According to an article written by Lilla, which appeared in the March 1927 edition of the American Magazine of Art, a young American sculptor who was living in Paris mentioned to her and her husband that he had a letter of introduction to meet Monet but he was very nervous and shy with going on his own to the great man’s house so asked the couple if they would accompany him on his visit.  Lilla and Thomas Perry were delighted to accept the invitation as they had greatly appreciated what they had seen at the Claude Monet-Auguste Rodin exhibition.

In the article Lilla recounts her first impressions of Monet.  She wrote:

“… The man himself with his rugged honesty, his disarming frankness, his warm and sensitive nature, was fully as impressive as his pictures and from this first visit dates a friendship which led us to spend ten summers at Giverny.  For some seasons, indeed, we had the house and garden next to his and he would sometimes stroll in and smoke his afternoon-luncheon cigarette in our garden before beginning on his afternoon work…”

The Impressionism style that Lilla encountered with the art of Monet was an epiphany moment for her. She immediately took to this style even though it was still rejected and scorned by the art world around her.  The way the Impressionists managed the colour and light was a great inspiration to her and during those summer days at Giverny she also worked with many American artists, who had found their way to the small French town to sample the joys of plein air painting in the rural surroundings, such as Theodore Robinson, John Breck, and Theodore Earl Butler.

                                               La Petite Angèle, II, by Lilla Cabot Perry (1889)

One of her painting during her time in Giverny was her 1889 work entitled La petite Angèle II.  It is impressionistic in style with its free form brushstrokes that capture the impression of light and colour.   Claude Monet, inspired Perry to work en plein air, and use impressionistic brushstrokes, soft colours, and poppy red. If you look through the window depicted in this work you should note the early stages of what would become Lilla’s love affair with the way the Impressionists treated landscape depictions.

Angela by Lilla Cabot Perry, 1891, High Museum of Art.jpg
                                                                  Angela by Lilla Cabot Perry, (1891)

A similar work by Lilla was entitled Angela.  It was a portrait of one of her favourite models in Giverny. The clearly defined figure posed in a freely brushed and light-filled setting typifies academic American Impressionism of the time.

A Little Girl in a Lane in Giverny - Lilla Cabot Perry Painting
                                            A Little Girl in a Lane in Giverny by Lilla Cabot Perry

In late 1889 Lilla Cabot Perry and her husband left Giverny and embarked on a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands.  In 1891 she returned to Boston with her family bringing home a painting by Monet and a number of landscapes works by John Breck.  Once back in Boston she began to spread the word of Impressionism especially the works of Monet.  However, like many art critics in France, Impressionism was not favoured by either the American critics or the buying public and Lilla had to begin with a hard-sell of his works.  She would exhibit his works at her home and give talks about him and the world of Impressionism to the Boston Art Students’ Association. 

                      Portrait of Baroness R by Lilla Cabot Perry, (1895)

Whether Bostonians accepted the merit of Monet’s work or not, the one thing for sure was that they appreciated the paintings of Lilla Cabot Perry, especially her portraiture.  Several of her paintings were exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and were greeted with great acclaim.   In 1897 she exhibited work at the St Botolphs Club in Boston and the art critic of the Boston Evening Transcript wrote:

“…Mrs Perry is one of the most genuine, no-nonsense, natural painters that we known of………………Such work must be taken seriously…”

The Letter, 1893 - Lilla Cabot Perry
                                           The Letter (Alice Perry) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1893)

Lilla Perry’s artistic success in 1889 had made it possible for her to be one of the select few young artists to be admitted to Alfred Stevens’ class in Paris.  The works of Lilla Perry were often influenced by the time she spent with Stevens. A good example of this is her 1893 painting entitled The Letter [Alice Perry] and the way she has depicted the chair, especially the careful attention she has paid to  the colouration of the wood, and the way she has depicted her youngest daughter’s clothes in such detail.  It is a loving portrait of a nine-year-old daughter by her mother.

Black-and-white interior photograph of a light-skinned adult woman in profile with dark hair in a bun and a light-color dress. She stands in front of an easel and holds a palatte and brushes in her left hand. She rests her right hand on a painting of a light-skinned young girl.
                                                                       Lilla Cabot Perry at work (c.1890)
Lilla Cabot Perry, 1896 - Haystacks, Giverny.jpg
Haystacks, Giverny by Lilla Cabot Perry (1896)

In 1894, sheonce again exhibited her impressionism paintings at the St. Botolph Club in Boston together with other Impressionism artists, including Edmund Tarbell, Phillip Hale, Theodore Wendel, and the British-born painter Dawson-Watson. Three years later, and in the same gallery, Lilla held a solo exhibition.  On show were her Impressionist-style portraits and landscapes. 

Giverny Landscape, in Monet’s Garden by Lilla Cabot Perry (1897)

This proved to be a major turning point for Lilla Perry as it showed that her work was gaining the recognition of the American art world and that Impressionism was finally being acknowledged as a legitimate artistic expression. Lilla Perry was a devoted Impressionist painter and she loved the work of the Impressionists, especially the works of her friend Claude Monet.  Now back in America she took every opportunity to endorse French Impressionism and urged her friends to invest in their work.  She also gave many lectures and wrote essays for journals and magazines supporting this French art movement.

In a Japanese Garden by Lilla Cabot Perry (1901)

Between 1868 and 1872, Lilla’s husband, Thomas Perry, was a tutor in German at Harvard and from 1877 to 1881, he was an English instructor in English as well as being a lecturer in English literature from 1881 to 1882. Thomas Perry was offered a new challenge in 1897 when he was presented with the opportunity to take up a teaching position in Japan as an English professor at the Keio Gijuku University in Tokyo.  Lilla and her husband along with their three children left America and travelled to Japan.  Not only was this and exciting time for her husband it was also a stimulating time for Lilla and offered her new opportunities to paint.

In 1898, he became professor of English literature in the Keio University, in Tokyo, Japan.  The Perry family lived in Japan for three years and Lilla immersed herself in its artistic community.  Lilla Perry met Okakura Kakuzō, one of the Imperial Art School co-founders and became an honorary member of the Nippon Bijutsu-In Art Association, an artistic organization in Japan dedicated to a Japanese style painting known as Nihonga.

Portrait of a Young Girl with an Orange by Lilla Cabot Perry (1898-1901)

Such an involvement in the Japanese art and Asian art in general helped Lilla develop her unique style which fused western and eastern artistic traditions.

Child in Kimono by Lilla Cabot Perry (1898)

The result of this coming together of east and west can be seen in her Impressionist portraits.  

Lilla Cabot Perry, Mount Fuji with Gravestones, Harvard.jpg
Lilla Cabot Perry, Mount Fuji with Gravestones, 1898-1901

It was not just her portraiture that Lilla focused on during her three-year stay in Japan, she also completed a number of landscape works.  By far her most favoured subjects were ones depicting Mount Fuji.  Of about eighty paintings she completed whilst in Japan, thirty-five depicted the iconic mountain.

Open Air Concert by Lilla Cabot Perry (1890)

Lilla and her family left Japan for America in 1901 and settled back into their house in Boston.  Her three daughters were now all in their twenties and their mother had completed a number of paintings feature all of them or as individuals. In an early painting entitled Open Air Concert, which she completed in 1890, she depicts her three daughters in a garden setting with her eldest, Margaret, with her back to us, posed playing the violin.

The Trio, Tokyo, Japan by Lilla Cabot Perry (1901)

Almost ten years later Lilla’s three musically-talented daughters featured in her 1901 painting entitled The Trio, Tokyo, Japan (Alice, Edith and Margaret Perry).  In 1903 Lilla and Thomas Perry bought a farm in Hancock, New Hampshire.  She said she immediately fell in love with the area as it reminded her of Normandy, an area she knew well from her days at Giverny. 

Portrait of Mrs Joseph Clark Grew (Alice Perry) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1905)

Alice Perry, Lilla’s youngest daughter featured in her mother’s portrait entitled Portrait of Mrs. Joseph Clark Grew [Alice Perry].  Joseph Grew married Alice Perry on October 7th, 1905 and became her husband’s life partner and helper as promotions in the diplomatic service took them around the world.   The couple went on to have two daughters, Lilla Cabot in 1907 and Elizabeth Alice in 1912.  Lilla’s portrait of her daughter won her a bronze medal at the prestigious International Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis.

Portrait of William Dean Howells by Lilla Cabot Perry (1912)

In the first decade of the twentieth century Lilla Cabot Perry divided her time between Boston and France but her health had started to deteriorate possibly due to all the travel she was doing but also because of financial problems.  Her inheritance had dwindled and she was the main source of the family income through the sale of her paintings.   The financial difficulties the family were experiencing meant that she had to spend a lot of her time completing portraiture commissions to make up for the money that her family was losing in investments.  She once declared that she had had to complete thirteen portraits in thirteen weeks, four sitters a day at two hours each.   It also rankled with her that she had to concentrate on portraiture as her Impressionistic landscapes were viewed as too experimental by her conservative patrons.  An example of her portraiture work around this time was her 1912 Portrait of William Dean Howells, the prolific American novelist, playwright and literary critic.

See the source image
Portrait of Edith Perry Ballantine and Edward Ballantine by Lilla Cabot Perry

In 1923 Lilla was struck down with diphtheria and at the same time she was struggling to support her middle daughter, Edith, who had suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to a private mental health institution in Wellesley, Massachusetts.  Lilla spent two years convalescing in Charleston, South Carolina.

Lilla Perry, like many other nineteenth century painters, was unhappy with the new avant-garde trends in Modern art such as Fauvism led by Henri Matisse and André Derain and so in 1914 she, along with Edmund Tarbell, William Paxton and Frank Benson, helped form the ultra-conservative Guild of Boston Artists in order to oppose the art world’s avant-garde trends.  In 1920 Perry received a commemoration for giving six years of loyal service to the Guild.

A Snowy Monday by Lilla Cabot Perry

During her time convalescing she discovered a new inventiveness for her landscape works, what she termed as “snowscapes.” These beautiful winter landscapes laden with snow became a craving 0f Lilla’s and she would go to extreme lengths to capture winter scenes en plein air, even bundling herself up in blankets and hot water bottles in order to capture the beauty of a 4 a.m. sunrise. One of her most famous “snowscapes” was her 1926 work entitled A Snowy Monday.

Lilla Perry by Frederick A Bosley (1931)

Her summer home in Hancock soon became her main residence and she and her husband Thomas settled into village life in the picturesque New Hampshire foothills.   Thomas Perry died of pneumonia on May 7th 1928, aged 83.  Lilla Cabot Perry continued to paint prolifically until her death on February 28th, 1933.   Lilla and Thomas Perrys’ ashes are buried at Pine Ridge Cemetery in Hancock.

Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 4.

                                                                            Hilda Rix Nicholas (1910)

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

                                                                          His Land by Hilda Rix Nicholas

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

AUSTRALIAN WOMAN ARTIST.

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

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

            Les fleurs dédaignées by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

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

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

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

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

                                               Le Bigdouen by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

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

                                                      The Fair Musterer by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1935 )

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

                 The Shepherd of Knockalong by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1933)

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

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

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

                                                                     The Shearer by Rix Wright (1949)

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

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

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

                   Rix Wright, son of Hilda Rix Nichols Wright

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

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

Fern Isabel Coppedge. Part 2.

                                                      The Coal Barge by Fern Isabel Coppedge

One of Fern Coppedge’s later paintings, The Coal Barge, which she completed around 1940, featured the Delaware Canal.  The sixty-mile canal and the coal barges, which ploughed their way down its length, were an important means of transporting anthracite coal from north-eastern Pennsylvania to Philadelphia.  This barge trade lasted a hundred years and started in 1932 and in its heyday, over three thousand mule drawn boats travelled up and down this waterway carrying more than one million tons of coal every year.  This mode of transport became obsolete with the transporting of coal by rail.  This depiction of the canal and towpaths was a favourite depiction of many artists at the time.  There was a connection between Fern and the mules, which were used to tow the barges, as her studio was in a barn which once housed the working animals.

                                            Evening Local, New Hope by Fern Isabel Coppedge (C.1930)

In 1933 Fern completed a painting entitled Evening Local, New Hope which originally had the title, Five O’clock Train, which pictorially presents historical documentation of the schoolhouses which were in the New Hope-Solebury School District.  The painting depicts New Hope Elementary School which can be seen on the hill off West Mechanic Street in New Hope.  The building is no longer a school but is now the home of the New Hope Jewish congregation Kehilat NaHanar known locally as the “Little Shul by the River.”

                                                         The Opalescent Sea by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Coppedge divided her time between her Boxwood home in Lumberville, her studio in the coastal town of Gloucester where she often spent summers, and a studio in Philadelphia which she used during exhibitions.  In 1916 Fern spoke about her plein air painting at the Massachusetts fishing town of Cape Ann, Gloucester, and how she had many ardent onlookers.  She wrote:

“…In the waters shown in my paintings, there were a number of lobster traps. The fishermen were so much interested in the development of the picture of this familiar scene that in order to have an excuse to see it they would bring me a freshly boiled lobster, and the old sea captains would entertain me with thrilling stories of stormy nights spent in their little fishing schooners on the Newfoundland Banks and the Georges…”

                                       The Philadelphia Ten.
                             Fern Coppedge, back row on left)

In 1922 Fern was accepted into the all-women art society known as the Philadelphia Ten and exhibited regularly with them through to 1935.   They were an exclusive and progressive group of female artists and sculptors who ignored society rules of the time by working and exhibiting together. 

Coppedge once talked about her favoured methodology of painting and how she favoured working plein air to capture the essence of nature, notwithstanding inclement weather conditions:

“…I may erase most of my sketch, but after I have it the way I want it in charcoal, then I work over the entire canvas with a large brush. I use thin paint in trying to get the right value. I test different spots to see whether the scene should be painted rich or pale. Then I proceed with the actual painting using paint right from the tube. I hold the brush at arm’s length and paint from the spine. That gives relaxation…”

                                            Winter Solitude, Lambertville by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Pennsylvania Impressionism was an American Impressionist movement of the first half of the 20th century that was centred in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, particularly the town of New Hope. The movement is sometimes referred to as the “New Hope School” or the “Pennsylvania School” of landscape painting. Fern Coppedge was the only female member of The New Hope School.  She was part of that art movement and devoted numerous pictures to her Bucks County environment especially her winter scenes and she would suffer for her art with her plein air painting in the sub-zero conditions.   She was fascinated with the beauty of the snow.  There is no doubt that the extreme cold winters challenged her devotion to plein air painting.   She tried to get round this and carry on painting as long as she could by removing the back seat of her car to paint from an enclosed warm area. In cold windy conditions she would often tie her canvases to trees to fight off the wind and would wear her unfashionable but fit-for-purpose bearskin coat.  It was said by a local art critic for The New Hope magazine in November 1933:

“…We remember seeing Mrs. Coppedge trudging through the deep snow wrapped in a bearskin coat, her sketching materials slung over her shoulder, her blue eyes sparkling with the joy of life…”.

                                              Carversville by Fern Isabel Coppedge

There was a difference between her paintings and the other New Hope Impressionists.  Unlike other New Hope Impressionists, Fern Coppedge looked at the landscape scenes she was to paint with different eyes than them.    Of course, the first thing she acknowledged was what the eyes saw or the true photographic image.  However, she would also want an input from her imagination and how the scene felt like to her, and it was this power of imagination that led her to paint scenes with colours and tones which did not exist in reality.

       The Brook at Carversville by Edward Redfield (ca. 1923), (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

An example of her differing style can be seen if you compare her depiction of Carversville with the depiction of the same place by her fellow New Hope School artist, Edward Redfield.

Often her scenes would not be topographically correct.  Again, it was down to her power of imagination which countered reality and the finished result was an idealised version of the scene which was all about pleasing the artist.  In her mind, the depiction was a battle between what was actually there in front of her against what she imagined should be there.  Instead of depicting building using true brown and grey colours, Fern preferred to use pink and turquoise to, as if by magic, brighten facades. A travesty of art ?  Maybe we should think of how nowadays we adjust photographs, using photo editing packages, to achieve, not a true result, but a result we find more pleasing !  The fact her paintings sold so well is testament that the buying public had no problem with her idealisation or colour shifts.

                                                 Back Road to Pipersville by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Fern joined “The Philadelphia Ten” in 1922 and exhibited regularly with them for the next thirteen through 1935. The Philadelphia Ten, which was founded in 1917, was both a unique and forward-thinking group of women artists and sculptors who ignored the rules of society and the art world by working and exhibiting together for almost thirty years. Their work was varied and included both urban and rural landscapes, portraiture, still life, and a variety of representational and myth-inspired sculpture.  The group of local female artists started with eleven founding members, who were all alumnae of either the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (known today as Moore College of Art and Design), but over the years the membership rose to thirty artists, twenty three who were painters and seven who were sculptors.

                                               The Golden Arno by Fern Isabel Coppedge (c. 1926)

In the summer of 1925, Coppedge travelled to Italy and immersed herself in painting local scenes.  She stayed in the city of Florence, which was a base for her travels around Tuscany, ever recording pictorially the beauty of the Tuscan landscape.  It is thought that during her time in Tuscany Fern was inspired to change her painting style.  She began to simplify the natural elements she saw before her, often flattening them and she also became much more audacious when it came to her colour choices.  One of my favourite works from this period is Coppedge’s painting entitled The Golden Arno.  She had sketched views of the great Italian river as it passed through Tuscany and the painting was completed back in her home studio.  Coppedge talked about this painting and how it came about:

“…From my hotel, overlooking the Arno in Florence—looking from the balcony window—I saw the Arno River flowing gently like molten gold. It was late afternoon, and lazy Italian boatmen floated past in the dark, sturdy barges, wending their way down the river. Along the opposite bank were charming old stucco houses in colours of pale and rusty yellow, rose, pink, and old red. Tiled roofs, arched doorways and deeply recessed windows, balconies, towers and turrets against the background of cypress trees—all mirrored in the waters of the Arno. Church towers and ancient castle walls patterned against the hills inspired me and thrilled me with an irresistible desire to put on canvas my impressions…”

         The Literary Digest March 1st 1930 edition with Fern Coppedge’s picture on the front cover

In 1926, the painting of the Arno was included in an exhibition of The Philadelphia Ten.  It received great praise from both viewers and art critics. The painting was later exhibited in exhibitions in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and it is now regarded as one of her best works. It was also reproduced on the cover of The Literary Digest in March of 1930. The painting was acquired by her local high school, mostly likely after the school opened in 1931.  Around 1934, Fern stopped exhibiting with The Philadelphia Ten and instead focused on exhibiting at her studio,

                                                  Lamplighters Cottage by Fern Isabel Coppedge (1928)

During her artistic career she received several awards including the Shillard Medal in Philadelphia, a Gold Medal from the Exposition of Women’s Achievements, another Gold Medal from the Plastics Club of Philadelphia, and the Kansas City H.O. Dean Prize for Landscape.

Coppedge died at her New Hope home on April 21st, 1951 at the age of 67.  Her husband, Robert W. Coppedge, died in New Hope, Pennsylvania in 1948. The Coppedges, who were married in 1904, remained husband and wife for 44 years.  Fern Coppedge was one of America’s most prolific painters, having completed over five thousand works during her lifetime.  I will leave the last word on Fern Coppedge and her paintings to Arthur Edward Bye, an American landscape architect born in the Netherlands who grew up in Pennsylvania who said:

“…Man and his activities seem pleasantly remote but not absent in her landscapes. She fills them with houses and churches, lanes, bridges, and canals. They have therefore, that suggestion of human life, coloured with brightness, exuberant, which best answers the needs of most of us…”


Most of the information for this blog came from the website Pennsylvania through the eyes of Fern I Coppedge.

Fern Isobel Coppedge. Part 1

Fern Isabel Coppedge in her studio

My featured artist today was one of the Pennsylvania Impressionists, an artistic movement of the first half of the 20th century that was centred in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, particularly the town of New Hope. Often the movement was referred to as the New Hope School or the Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painting.  Leading artists of the movement taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. There was a difference between Pennsylvania Impressionism and Impressionism practiced in other parts of America as, with the former, the personification of their art was the thick brushwork and the way they almost had a dedicated concentration on landscape painting.  Today’s artist was one of the great American painters of her time and although she has been tagged with the term, Impressionism, Fern Isabel Coppedge has of late been labelled as a follower of Colourism,  which is a painting style characteristic for its use of intense colour, and for making colour itself the main compositional language in the resultant work of art.  Thus, her paintings are looked upon as part Impressionism part Colourism, which is a painting style characteristic for its use of intense colour, and for making colour itself the main compositional language in the resultant work of art. Coppedge’s paintings offered up her bold and unorthodox use of bright vibrant colours similar to Fauvism, which is also characterised by strong colours and fierce brushwork.

Gloucester Harbour by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century American painter, Fern Isabel Coppedge, a landscape artist, who was famed for her depiction of the villages and farms of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, often blanketed with snow, as well as her harbour scenes of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she spent her summers.

Fern (Kuns) Coppedge, Dessie (Kuns) Garst, George Dilling Kuns, Margaret Effa Kuns, Vada Dilling Kuns, Maria (Dilling) Kuns, John L. Kuns, Mary (Kuns) Klepinger

Fern Isabel Kuns was born on July 18th 1883 in the small town of Cerro Gordo which lies about twelve miles east of the central Illinois city of Decatur.  Her parents were John Leslie Kuns and Maria Anna Dilling.  Fern was one of six children.  She had four sisters, Margaret Effa, Dessie, Vada, and Maria and one brother, George Dilling.  Sadly, the first-born of John and Maria’s family was a boy, Joseph, who died in 1873 aged ten. 

Home of Fern Kuns and Family in McPherson, Kansas (c.1900)

Her father had a small farm which he had inherited from his father, but was constantly struggling to make ends meet, so much so that in 1886, when Fern was aged three, he had to sell the farm, at a loss, so as to feed the family and pay for their education.  John and his family moved west to California in the hope of finding work but nought came of it, although Fern’s eldest sister Margaret, nine years Fern’s senior, said that life in California was the best year of her childhood.  When potential opportunities did not work out for their father, they headed back east and arrived in Kansas. In 1889, the Kuns’ finally settled in McPherson, Kansas and occupied a house on the campus of McPherson College.

Watercolour by Margaret Effa Kuns (c.1935)

When Fern was thirteen years old, she went back west to Palo Alto in California where her sister Margaret Effa was studying at Leland Stanford University.  Fern,  still too young to leave the school system, enrolled at the Pasadena High school.  During her stay in California she enjoyed the company of her elder sister, Margaret Effa, and was fascinated watching her painting in a watercolour class.  This was what first instance which eventually made Fern fall in love with painting and drawing.  Effa encouraged her sister’s newly found love of art and would take her to museums to study famous paintings.

An early insight of Fern’s early work can be gleaned by a comment she once made about her art and her unusual views of the use of colours.  She said:

“…People used to think me queer when I was a little girl because I saw deep purples and reds and violets in a field of snow. I used to be hurt over it until I gave up trying to understand people and concentrated on my love and understanding of landscapes…”

Robert William Coppedge

In 1900, at the age of seventeen, Fern Kuns went back to Kansas and, upon her return to the Midwest, she studied at McPherson College and later the University of Kansas.   Shortly after her return to Kansas, she met her future husband, Missouri-born, Robert William Coppedge, a high school science teacher, botanist, and amateur artist.  On January 2nd, 1904, Fern Kuns and Robert Coppedge were married in her parents’ home in McPherson, and the ceremony was followed by a four-course wedding breakfast. Fern and her husband moved east to the Kansas state capital, Topeka.  Robert continued with his teaching profession whilst Fern continued with her love of painting and four years later, when they moved to Illinois, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1908 to 1910. 

Back Road to Pipersvill by Fern Isabel Coppedge

From Chicago she moved to New York, where she enrolled at the Arts Student League.  She studied with the artist, muralist and illustrator, Frank Vincent DuMond and the Impressionist painter, William Merritt Chase.  In 1917, Fern spent time studying at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where one of her tutors was the Pennsylvania artist and art teacher, Daniel Garber and that year she had some of her artwork accepted into that year’s annual exhibition.  In that summer she studied at the Art Students League summer school in Woodstock where winter painting specialist, John Fabian Carlson, was director.  Carlson was one of the great interpreters of the wooded landscape and was a great influence on Fern Coppedge.

Pigeon Cove by Fern Isabel Coppedge (c.1930)

In 1917 Fern visited Pennsylvania for the first time. She immediately fell in love with its picturesque-wooded hills and the many old-fashioned Bucks County towns which reminded her a little of her home state, Kansas. She remained in Pennsylvania for over thirty years and went on to own homes in Philadelphia, and the Bucks County towns of Lumberville, where she purchased a home and art studio in 1920, which she named Boxwood, sometimes referred to as The Boxwood Studios. 

Lumberville in Winter by Fern Isabel Coppedge

In her painting,  Lumberville in Winter, we see depicted a yellow building which is believed to be her first Boxwood studio which had once been a Quaker meeting house dating to the 1700s and is featured in several other works by the artist.  The small two-storey building would feature in many more of her paintings.  Living close to her in the small village of Cuttalossa was her former tutor, Daniel Garber.

October by Fern Isabel Coppedge (after restoration work)

There is an interesting story about Fern Coppedge’s painting entitled October.   In May, 2011, a man with a small but pleasant oil painting entitled October, fresh from a New Jersey estate, walked up to the owner of a hot dog stand in North Carolina, Alison Bledsoe.  The hot dog lady, looked at the dirty landscape of a bridge, some yellow leafed trees, and some brightly coloured houses. She was not quite sure if the interesting painting was worth buying, but as it was not expensive she purchased it.   Seven months later, on December 4, 2011, Les and Sue Fox of West Highland Art Auction Brokers and authors of The Art Hunters’ Handbook, in cooperation with Alasdair Nichol of Freeman’s Auctioneers, sold the professionally cleaned New Hope, Pennsylvania bridge scene by Fern Isabel Coppedge for $29,800 at auction. 

The Tow Path by William Langson Lathrop
Landscape painter William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938) moved to New Hope in 1898, where he founded a summer art school, which became known as The New Hope School

Nine years later, in 1929, Fern Coppedge moved seven miles down-river to the small town of New Hope.  It  was a  town located along the route of the Old York Road, the former main highway between Philadelphia and New York City.  At the time when George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776, it was known as Coryell’s Ferry, after the owner of the ferry business, and got its current name after a fire destroyed several mills in 1790. It was said that once the mills were rebuilt, there was a “new hope” for this small town on the Delaware river.  The town would later be joined by a bridge to Lambertville, on the New Jersey side. Artist William Langston Lathrop and his family moved to New Hope in 1898 and founded an art school and he is now considered the father of The New Hope School

Snow And Sunshine by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Fern Coppedge lived on North Main Street in the centre of New Hope, in an early American style stone house and studio which she had built and was designed by architect Henry T. MacNeill in 1929.  This too was named Boxwood !   Over the years Fern Coppedge painted a number of pictures of her Boxwood home, at which she held many exhibitions of her work.  In 1907 Daniel Garber, who had once tutored Fern at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1900’s,  joined the early group of American Impressionists who would evolve into The New Hope School of Pennsylvania Impressionists. Fern became a member of the group and at the time she was the only female member of the New Hope School. Members of the New Hope School lived and painted in a number of Bucks County towns near New Hope, including Lumberville and Carversville. But the “New Hope School” name stuck and that is what these talented artists who followed in the footsteps of the French Impressionists are now called.

………………………to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog came from the website Pennsylvania through the eyes of Fern I Coppedge.

The Red Rose Girls. Part 3. Jessie Willcox Smith.

The third of the Red Rose Girls was Jessie Willcox Smith.  She became one of the most prominent female illustrators in the United States, during the celebrated ‘Golden Age of Illustration‘.  Jessie was the eldest of the trio, born in the Mount Airy neighbourhood of Philadelphia, on September 6th 1863, the youngest of four children.  She was the youngest daughter of Charles Henry Smith, an investment broker, and Katherine DeWitt Willcox Smith.  Her father’s profession as an “investment broker” is often questioned as although there was an investment brokerage called Charles H. Smith in Philadelphia there is no record of it being run by anybody from Jessie Smith’s family.  In the 1880 city census, Jessie’s father’s occupation was detailed as a machinery salesman.  Jessie’s family was a middle-class family who always managed to make ends meet.  Her family originally came from New York and only moved to Philadelphia just prior to Jessie’s birth.  Despite not being part of the elite Philadelphia society, her family could trace their routes back to an old New England lineage.  Jessie, like her siblings, were instructed in the conventional social graces which were considered a necessity for progression in Victorian society.   It should be noted that there were no artists within the family and so as a youngster, painting and drawing were not of great importance to her.  Instead her enjoyment was gained from music and reading.  Jessie attended the Quaker Friends Central School in Philadelphia and when she was sixteen, she was sent to Cincinnati, Ohio to live with her cousins and finish her education.

The Princess and the Goblin, by George McDonald, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith, (1920)

On completion of her education, instead of returning to the family in Philadelphia, she remained in Cincinnati to look for a job.  Jessie had always been fond of children and managed to secure a position as a kindergarten teacher which would fulfil her need for money whilst doing a job she loved.  However, the belief that all young children are angelic was soon dispelled and she found her charges obstreperous and ill-mannered and soon realised that teaching at a kindergarten was not for her.  One of her friends was interested in art and soon she had managed to inveigle Jessie into the pastime and soon she showed a certain amount of promise as a budding artist.  She remembered this change of direction writing:

“…I knew I wanted to do something with children but never thought of painting them, until an artist friend saw a sketch I had made and insisted I should stop teaching (at which I was an utter failure) and go to art school – which I did…”

John Rogers figurine

Jessie Smith returned to Philadelphia to look for some artistic training and initially wanted to study sculpture.  At the time there was a popular small table-top sculptures called Rogers Group which were relatively inexpensive, mass-produced figurines in the latter 19th which graced the parlours of homes in the United States.  These figurines, often selling for as little as $15 a piece were affordable to the middle class.  They were sculpted in more affordable plaster and painted the colour of putty to hide dust.  She did try her hand at sculpture but soon realised it needed a certain talent, one which she was lacking.  She wrote:

“…my career as a sculptor was brief for my clay had bubbles in it and burst when it was being fired. ‘Heavens’ I decided, ‘ being a sculptor is too expensive!  I will be a painter…’ ”

An illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith from A Child’s Garden of Verses is a book written by Robert Louis Stevenson

However, Jessie realised that to become a painter she needed formal artistic training and it was difficult for that to happen for a woman in 1884.  It was the age-old story.  Men who wanted to train to become professional artists had academies and teachers to support them but for women, up until the 1850’s, there were few institutions which catered for women and anyway, it was generally thought to be totally ill-advised for a woman to contemplate or prepare for a professional career, art or otherwise.  Life was mapped out for women.  Acquire certain accomplishments which would attract a man, marry that man and give him children, and then be educated at home in the skills needed to look after one’s husband and children.  For women of the middle and upper-class who were interested in art, then a private tutor could be hired but studying in mixed life-drawing classes was deemed unsuitable for women as was sketching nude statuary.

Edwin Forrest House, formerly the home of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.

Despite this, twenty-one-year-old Jessie Willcox Smith, on October 2nd 1884, enrolled at The Philadelphia School of Design for Women, which was housed in a fashionable Philadelphia neighbourhood in an imposing mansion that had once been the home of actor, Edwin Forrest.  The School had begun when Sarah Worthington King Peter, the wife of the British consul in Philadelphia, established an industrial arts school in her home in 1848 so as to teach a trade to women, who were without a means of supporting themselves.  It was not in direct competition with the Pennsylvania Academy as its emphasis was on decorative pattern and ornament and until 1886 steered clear of controversial life-drawing classes.  After a year at the School of Design, Jessie hankered for more than it could offer her.  She wanted to study the techniques associated with Fine Art and so decided that she had to enrol at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

Thomas Eakins, circa 1882

She managed to persuade her parents to fund her tuition and in 1885 she enrolled in the class of the brilliant but controversial painter, Thomas Eakins.  Master and student were so different.  Jessie Willcox Smith was a conservative and shy young woman whilst her tutor was brash, carefree and provocative and cared little for the Academy’s attempt to reign him in.  Eakins represented an outrageous departure from the social norms which had structured Jessie Smith’s life.   Many complaints had been levelled at Eakins and his teaching methods especially those regarding female students.  The following year, 1886, forty-one-year-old Eakins was sacked by the Academy.   It is interesting to note that although there is no doubt her artistic ability flourished under the tutelage of Eakins she viewed him with disdain, once confiding in a friend that she thought he was a “madman”.  Jessie did attend Eakins’ life-drawing classes but of the life models used, once declared:

“…I always wished there were children in the life classes, the men and women were so flabby and fat…”

After Eakins was dismissed from the Academy, he held private classes at his studio and many of his former students attended them, but not Jessie.  She presumably did not agree with Eakins’ way of teaching and decided to remain at the Academy and study under Thomas Anshutz and James B. Kelly, two of Eakins’ former students.

Jessie Willcox Smith graduated from the Academy in June 1888.  She looked back on her time at the Academy with a certain amount of disappointment.  Although her technique had improved, she had hoped to be part of an artistic community in which artistic collaboration would be present but instead she found dissention, scandal and in the wake of the Eakins’ scandal, institutionalized isolation.  Jessie talked very little about her time at the Academy.  It had been a turbulent time and she had hated conflict as it unnerved her and made her extremely distressed.  This desperation to avoid any kind of conflict in her personal and professional life revealed itself in her idealistic and often blissful paintings.  Jessie wanted to believe life was just a period of happiness.

Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith for the book of verse, The Seven Ages of Childhood

In 1909 a book of verse entitled The Seven Ages of Childhood by Carolyn Wells with accompanying  illustrations by Jessie Wilcox was published.

After graduation, Jessie became interested in illustration and in 1889 took a job with the advertising department of Ladies’ Home Journal, one of the leading American women’s magazines.   In 1894, nearly six years after graduating, she learned that Howard Pyle, the noted illustrator, was starting a School of Illustration at the Drexel Institute and she was accepted into the inaugural class along with Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Good Housekeeping Magazine. May 1921.

Her illustrations appeared on the covers of Good Housekeeping  resulting in most people becoming familiar with her art. For over 15 years she painted the covers for one of America’s most popular magazines. Month after month, from December of 1917 through March of 1933, a new Jessie Willcox Smith image was on the newsstands and in countless homes.

The Red Rose Girls were finally together.  In my next blog I will look at their time at the Drexel Institute with Howard Pyle and their life together.

……………………to be continued


Most of the information I used for this blog came from an excellent book by Alice A. Carter entitled The Red Rose Girls, An Uncommon Story of Art and Love.

Remedios Varo. Part 4 – A new life in Mexico

Remedios Varo at work in her studio

Varo arrived in Mexico at the end of 1941 having had to flee the oppression of Vichy France and the Nazis.  She had been accepted by the Mexican government and granted the status of a political exile for one year but which could be renewed. She was allowed to find work with the exception of bars, cabarets and restaurants providing she did not displace any Mexican workers.    It is estimated that Mexico accepted more than fifteen thousand refugees into its country.  The majority of them could be termed the “intelligentsia”, who brought with them a much-needed stimulus to both the economic and cultural development of the country.  Many of these exiles believed that one day in the near future they would be able to return to France and Spain and so many of these exiles kept together rather than try to assimilate with Mexicans and their culture.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

These exiled artist from Europe were not loved by everybody and the most popular Mexican artist of the time, Diego Rivera and his partner Freda Kahlo. who held the position of being the reigning leaders of Mexican artistic culture rejected what they deemed as the foreign colonializing influences of the newly arrived European artists.  Kahlo who had been in Paris in 1939 for her own exhibition at the Pierre Colle gallery and who had been a guest of André Breton was surprisingly scathing about the Surrealist painters.  In a letter from Kahlo to Nikolas Murray, a Hungarian-born American photographer and her long-time lover, in the March of that year, she wrote:

“…They make me vomit.  They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore……I’d rather sit on the floor in the market at Toluca and sell tortillas, than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris…”

Leonora Carrington

One of Remedios’ closest friends when she arrived in Mexico was the English Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, who like Remedios had to flee from the Vichy and Nazi controlled France and find refuge in Mexico.  Leonora and Remedios, who had first met in France in the late 1930’s, got together nearly every day and the two women formed an intense connection and would talk about their dreams for the future.  

In her early days in Mexico, Remedios did few paintings and spent most of her time writing.  She and Leonora Carrington would write fairy tales, collaborated on a play, invented Surrealistic potions and recipes, and influenced each other’s work. The two women, together with another of their friends, the photographer Kati Horna became known as “the three witches”

Women’s Tailor by Remedios Varo (1957)

Once in Mexico, Varo took on a variety of jobs, hand painting furniture and restoring pre-Columbian artifacts. In 1942, she worked with Marc Chagall, a fellow refugee from Air-Bel in Marseilles, designing costumes for Leon Massine’s ballet, Aleko.  Remedios completed a painting in 1957 entitled Women’s Tailor which shows the wild imagination she had when it came to costume designs.  The setting is a showroom in an haute-couture fashion house and we see the dress designer proudly parading his models wearing his dresses in front of a potential client.  She had always loved designing and making clothes and would often design clothes for many of the exiled Surrealist costume parties.

Insomnia by Remedios Varo (c.1947)

Remedios Varo’s main source of income in the late 1940’s was the work she did for Casa Bayer (the Bayer pharmaceutical company).  She was tasked with illustrating their promotional literature.  One example of this was her work, Insomnia, which was incorporated into a pamphlet advertising Bayer’s sleeping pills, which included the words warning of the trauma of insomnia:

“…Sensing that someone has been observing them, they open tired eyelids, searching the nocturnal shadows !   Undefined anxiety fills the solitude of the dark, dry rooms, devoid of warmth…” 

Rheumatism Lumbago Sciatica by Remedios Varo (1947)

Another pamphlet Remedios illustrated was one focusing on back pain which Bayer pharmaceuticals could alleviate.  The horrors of the ailment were summed up by Bayer in their leaflet:

“…As if sharp nails are being driven into flesh…..into the joints, into the bones, into the nerves…..!!!  These are the sensations that one can suffer, Rheumatism….lumbago….sciatica….! !…”

Rheumatic Pain by Remedios Varo (1948)

Remedios Varo’s illustration for the 1947 Bayer pamphlet entitled Rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica, added greater force to the words.  In the work we see a man depicted running through a boulder-strewn field with pointed objects piercing his feet and body.   In the background there is a castle with conical towers and crenelated walls which harks back to the Spanish castles of Varo’s childhood. 

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

It is also believed that Varo drew inspiration for this depiction of spikes and nails entering the man’s body from Freda Kahlo’s 1944 work Broken Column which she painted as a reminder of how her body had been broken and put together again after she was involved in traffic accident whilst riding on an old wooden bus, which collided with a streetcar. Several people were killed, and Kahlo suffered nearly fatal injuries—an iron handrail impaled her through her pelvis, fracturing the bone. She also fractured several ribs, her legs, and her collarbone which was to leave her in pain for the rest of her life.

Allegory of Winter by Remedios Varo (1948)

She also illustrated the Bayer calendar with depictions of the coming of Winter and the coming of Spring. 

Signature of “Uranga” on Bayer painting

It is interesting to note that all the commercial illustrations she did for Bayer and other companies were signed “Uranga”, her mother’s maiden name.  Varo was determined to clearly separate her commercial work from her own art which she was happy to sign in her own name.

Although Remedios was beginning to enjoy life in Mexico, her second husband Benjamin Péret was homesick for France and wanted to return there with Varo but his financial situation would not allow him to purchase a passage on a ship to France.  He wrote to his old friend André Breton, who had been exiled in America and the Caribbean until 1946, when he had managed to return to Paris.  Péret’s letters to Breton were sad and pleading.   In March 1947 he wrote:

“…It’s true I have not written for a long time, but what’s the use of writing to give always discouraging news:  abominable material circumstances, no hope of prompt return…”

In October 1947 he wrote again to Breton telling of his poor financial situation:

“…I still can’t make any arrangements for return, for lack of money.  As soon as this is possible, I’ll let you know…”

Breton and other friends of Péret finally rallied around and staged an exhibition for him at the Paris Galerie Rive Gauche.  Artists, such as Picasso, Miro, Tanguy, Dominguez and Breton contributed works, the sale of which was enough to pay for a single one-way passage and by late 1947 Péret was ensconced once again in his beloved Paris.  Remedios Varo refused to accompany her husband for she had made her home in Mexico and did not or could not return to her homeland which held so many bad memories for her.  Her relationship with Péret had been going downhill for some time.  Varo’s close friend, Kati Horna, a Hungarian photographer, explained why Remedios’ relationship with Péret had run its course:

“…Péret was so intellectual, so distracted, that although he was a kind and generous man, he did not participate actively.  He was always lost in thought, his head in the clouds, thinking weighty thoughts…”

Portrait of Jean Nicole by Remedios Varo

Varo had already started a new relationship before her husband had taken his leave of Mexico.  The new love of her life was a French pilot and adventurer, Jean Nicholl, a fellow refugee whom Péret and Varo had sheltered

Remedios Varo with Jean Nicole in the jungle, Venezuela – 1949

To get over the break with her husband, Remedios travelled with her new friend/lover Jean Nicolle to Venezuela at the end of 1947.  Her brother Rodrigo was living in Venezuela, working as an epidemiologist and had brought with him his family and his mother.  It is quite possible Remedios’ mother was horrified when she met her daughter and her new flamboyant lover who was fourteen years younger than her, and who were now living together.  Her mother’s Catholic sensibility must have taken a big hit, knowing her daughter’s first marriage had ended in divorce, her second partner had left her and gone back to Paris and now she was living with a third man!       Her answer was a plea for her daughter to attend mass with her.  Remedios did accompany her mother to church – but just the once.   Remedios’ stay in Venezuela came to an end at the start of 1949.

Walter Gruen (1952)

Around the time of their return from Venezuela, Remedios and Jean Nicolle’s relationship began to peter out and soon they became separated and eventually their romantic interlude came to an end.  A new man came in to Remedios’ life, an Austrian political refugee Walter Gruen whom she had first met in the early 1940’s.  However, they did not become closer until Péret had left for Paris in 1947, her relationship with Jean Nicolle had been downgraded to just a friendship and Gruen’s first wife, Clari had died in a tragic drowning accident.

Sala Margolin

Gruen had once been a medical student in Austria until Hitler came to power which put and end to his studies.  He decided that his life was in danger and managed to escape Europe and settle in Mexico.  He arrived with no possessions and very little money.  Initially he worked in a tyre shop and persuaded the owner that he could make extra money by selling phonograph records as well as tyres and Gruen and the owner set up a record shop at the front of the store.  Soon Gruen’s finances improved, so much so, he bought the tyre shop owner out and by the early 1950’s Gruen had transformed the tyre store into one of Mexico’s most prestigious music stores.  Gruen named his store Sala Margolín after the tyre store owner who had given him his first chance in Mexico.  Remedios moved in with Gruen in 1951 and lived in an apartment block on calle Alvaro Obregón close to Sala Margolín in a middle-class neighbourhood. 

Remedios Varo on her terrace.

They occupied two apartments on either side of a landing, one of which had a high-ceiling third floor studio which had a door leading out to a small terrace, where Remedios would spend hours on end painting.  Walter and Remedios married in 1952.  Remedios was adamant that despite Gruen having a lucrative business she would contribute equally to their living expenses.  Gruen gave Remedios his unwavering support which allowed her to free herself from her commercial work and devote herself entirely to her own artistic vision.

This was the start of Remedios Varo’s great painting years.

………..to be concluded


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo. Part 3. Escape and flight from oppression.

Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo’s six year old marriage to Gerado Lizarraga was in decline and she started a romantic relationship with the young Spanish surrealist painter Esteban Francés, and a short time later, she left the marital home and she and Esteban went to live together in a room in a small house in the city.  Whilst there, the two lovers produced a number of surrealist works.  Remedios also became friendly with a group of surrealist artists known as the Logicophobists, who wanted to bring about a close connection of art with metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, and although she never became an official member of the group in 1936 she exhibited three of her work with theirs at the Catalonia de Barcelona gallery.

The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 17th 1936 between two political groups.  The Republicans who supported the Second Republic of Spain which had been founded in 1932 following a bloodless coup and the Nationalists, led by General Franco, who opposed it.  Remedios’ young brother, Luis, joined Franco’s army but was killed shortly afterwards.  Remedios was devastated by the death of her brother and could never understand why he decided to fight under the banner of the “enemy”.

Benjamin Péret

In October 1936, Remedios Varo met Benjamin Péret, a French poet, a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement.  Péret had married the Brazilian singer Elsie Houston in April 1928.  Her brother was Mario Pedrosa, a Trotskyist activist, and the next year, Péret and his brother-in-law founded and hosted the Communist League of Brazil, which was based upon the ideas of Trotsky.  Péret was eventually arrested, imprisoned and expelled from Brazil as a “communist agitator” on December 30th, 1931, a few months after the birth of his son Geyser.  He returned alone to France and carried on with the political struggle as a Trotskyist and participated in the Spanish Civil War as one of the many Trotskyists and anarchists, who claimed to fight for a classless society.   When Remedios and Péret first met she was twenty-seven and he was thirty-seven. 

André Breton

Péret was a close friend of the Surrealist painter, André Breton.  In 1937, Péret returned to Paris and Remedios went with him, breaking off her ties with her husband Gerardo and her lover, Esteban Frances, but the latter later decided to follow the couple to Paris. Remedios and Péret were now lovers but the couple’s life was marked by poverty and political uncertainty.  She described the position she found herself in the French capital:

“…It is not easy to live on painting in Paris…Sometimes I did not have more food in an entire day than a small cup of coffee with milk. I call this ‘the heroic epoch’…That bohemian life that is supposed to be necessary for the artist is very bitter…”

Esteban Francés

It is Spring 1937 and Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret are safe in Paris having escaped the mayhem in Spain caused by the Civil War.   Remedios, through her close relationship with Péret, was accepted into the heart of the Surrealist group.   She commented on her lowly position within the inner sanctum:

“…My position was the timid and humble one of a listener; I was not old enough nor did I have the aplomb to face up to them, to a Paul Eluard, a Benjamin Péret or an André Breton.  Here was I with my mouth gaping open within this group of brilliant and gifted people…”

The Souls of the Mountains by Remedios Varo (1938)

Whilst living in Paris she shared a Montparnasse studio with Péret and Francés and although this ménage-a-trois caused rivalries Remedios managed to enjoy life in Paris.  In 1938 she completed a painting entitled The Souls of the Mountains. In this work, mountains are portrayed as slim volcanic tubes which are seen rising from a light-impregnated mist. Out from the inside of the tallest pair of these mountains emerge a head of a woman each bearing a resemblance to the artist.  Remedios experimented not just with what she depicted but also how she depicted things.  In this work she has used a Surrealist technique known as fumage.  The technique of fumage was invented by the Austrian surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen in the late 1930s and is achieved by passing a flame quickly across a surface fresh with oil paint.  Paalen found that the smoke would trace unique marks in the wet surface.  In this work by Varo the fumage technique created clouds swirling around the cylindrical mountains, linking the stony peaks and is suggestive of dreams and apparitions. 

Again, we try and get into the head of the artist and work out what the painting is all about.   The encased females in the painting appear to be imprisoned all alone inside the mountain.  Remedios continually harked back to the past and on her feeling of imprisonment within the family home, the constraints made upon her at her convent school and the feeling of isolation and this depiction reminds us of her struggle to break free.  The mountains have a phallic shape and this could be Remedios’ take that she lives in a male-dominated world and that female artists of the time were not looked upon as real painters but were compartmentalised as being the “spouses of artists”.  The overall dark and depressing palette of the depiction was chosen by Remedios so as to give the work a feeling of isolation and disheartening confinement.  The title of the work gives us a clue that the depiction is about a life force under oppression which is deprived of its freedom and entitlement to be acknowledged.  Remedios believes that the souls in the painting should be released from their incarceration so that they may be able to express themselves fully and without any restrictions from their surroundings.  Likewise, Remedios believes female artists should be freed from the restrictions of a patriarchal society.

Left to right: Victor Serge, Benjamin Péret, Remedios Varo and André Breton in front of the Villa Air-Bel (c.1940-41)

So, what was life like for Remedios Varo and her Surrealist group ?  Maybe the late American art historian, Robert Goldwater summed it up in his publication, Reflections on the New York School, Quadrum 8.  He wrote about the group:

“…international in character, bohemian in a self-confident, intensive fashion….. living as if they had no money worries….[Yet they] existed on the margin of society……As thee latest issue of a long line of romantics, they accepted this situation as a condition of creativity and made it a positive virtue.  They carried with them a warmth of feeling, an intensity and concern for matters aesthetic, a conviction of the rightness of their own judgements and an unconcern for any other…”

This encapsulates Remedios Varo’s lifestyle at the time.  She believed fervently in the importance of art and she was reliant on spontanaity and put her trust in her subconscious instincts. At the time, Péret was working as a proof-reader as the sale of his paintings did not bring in enough money to survive and he would often have to beg for food.  When Remedios joined him, she too had to endure this lifestyle but she didn’t care as she loved this bohemian way of life and revelled in the company of the extraordinary and stimulating group of people with whom she was surrounded.  They too were mesmerised by her and during this time she had a number of love affairs.  However, her joie de vie was to be short lived as politics and war were to change her life once again.  Hitler was on his march towards European domination and with his annexation of the Sudetenland and the takeover of Austria, people in France feared the worst.  By July 1939, the worst had arrived and Parisians were told that if they were able, they should get out of their city which was now paralysed with anxiety.  It was an even more dangerous time for foreigners who lived in the French capital.  They were threatened with deportation back to their own countries.  Remedios, being a former Republican sympathiser, could not return to Spain where the right-wing Nationalists under Franco now ruled with an iron fist and where summary executions of Republican sympathizers were common.   Her former husband, Lizarraga, had fled from Franco’s armies and arrived in France but, as a Spanish refugee, he found himself interred in a French concentration camp. 

 In February 1940, Péret, being an outspoken Communist, was recalled to military service but three months later he had been incarcerated in a military prison in Rennes for his political activities. On June 14th 1940 the Nazis entered Paris.  An independent French government was established in Vichy and the Franco-German armistice was signed.  Included in the treaty was an article which required the Vichy French government to surrender on demand any fugitive wanted by the Third Reich.  Remedios was now in great danger for her connections with Péret.  She knew that because of her left-wing Republican views and past actions, she would not survive if she was deported to Spain and yet to remain in Paris would ultimately mean a journey to an internment camp.  Her friends tried everything to save Remedios from arrest but during the Winter of 1940 she was taken in by the police.  She was eventually released but she knew, despite wanting to stay behind until Péret was released, she had to get out of the French capital.

Oscar Dominguez

She did manage to escape the chaos in June 1940 and through help from her friend, Oscar Dominguez.  She managed to get a ride in a car owned by an American couple who were also escaping from Paris.  She arrived on the south coast at the small fishing village of Canet-Plage which lay close to Perpignan.  It was here she stayed with a number of Surrealist painters who had taken refuge on the Mediterranean coast.  Soon she and a Romanian Jew, Victor Brauner, who had also fled south, paired off and went to live together in Marseilles.  This was yet another of her love affairs.  As a reminder of their time together he gave her a watercolour, probably a portrait of her, and he wrote on it:

“…To my very dear friend Remedios with the memory of an indelible period of my life.  Your admiring friend, Victor Brauner, Marseille, Oct 1941…”

Remedios kept Brauner’s watercolour and a letter from him all her life.

Victor Brauner

Varo and Brauner were now part of a large group of intellectuals, artists and Jews who were trying to escape the Nazis.  They were joined by Péret at the end of the year.  He had managed to bribe the Nazi guards and then made a long and dangerous journey south.  The city of Marseilles was bursting with refugees all desperate to get out of the country.  They were living on little food and the fear of being caught in random but regular police roundups. 

 

Villa Air-Bel

Varo and Péret eventually found refuge at the Villa Air-Bel, a large residence outside the city which was being used by a group calling themselves the Emergency Rescue Committee.  This was a group that officially helped refugees legally obtain visas so they could leave France. The group’s secret agenda was to get those people on the Gestapo’s blacklist – specifically writers, artists and political activists, out of the country, by any means possible,   The organisation was led by an American, Varian Fry.  Fry was one of the founding members and as soon as the Committee was set up, they established a list of people to save in priority, mainly artists and writers, who had fled Germany and Occupied France to hide in the South.

Group of artists posing on the grounds of the Villa Air-Bel near Marseilles (1941)

Remedios Varo, now back with Péret, was in great danger.  Many of their fellow refugees had gained passage to America but Péret had been refused entry to America due to his previous communist activities.  As each month passed in Marseilles the danger of being arrested by the Vichy police became ever greater.  They knew they had to escape.  Their perilous situation was documented in notes in the files of the Emergency Rescue Committee:

“…He [Péret] is in immediate danger as his democratic ideas are opposed to the Vichy government, and he faces persecution.  He and his family [referring to Varo, although Péret did not marry Remedios Varo until 1942, after the death of his first wife] are in danger of starvation, as the problem of the food supply in their region is acute…”

Remedios Varo’s immigration papers (1942)

The Emergency Rescue Committee recognised the couple as “qualified as intellectuals and worthy of attention” and proceeded to try and attain visa for them so as they could leave France.  It was a long and torturous fight to get the documentation and took six months to achieve.  However, it was not just the visas they needed but money, again something they did not have.   Once again it was up to the Emergency Rescue Committee to get them financial help from their American backers.   Their fund-raising pamphlets were quite clear with their message which displayed hard-hitting headlines such as:

“…Wanted by the GESTAPO, Saved by America…”

The pamphlet then asked for contributions of $350, as the price of a life of one escapee.

SS. Serpa Pinto

Remedios and Péret’s thoughts then turned to Mexico as a place of refuge.  They had a number of things going for them with this idea.  Varo spoke Spanish.  The President of Mexico had stated that he would accept all Spanish refugees and to any members of the International Brigade living in France, who had once fought against Franco.  So, the destination for Péret and Varo was decided, now all they needed was to get there and procure a safe sea passage across the Atlantic.  For this to happen they had to travel from Marseilles to Casablanca and then board a ship to Mexico.  They eventually made it to Casablanca and on November 20th 1941, a year after they had arrived in Marseilles, they set sail from Casablanca on the Portuguese freighter Serpa Pinto.  The couple arrived in Mexico at the end of 1941.  They had been battered by the ferocious winter seas of the Atlantic Ocean crossing and also fearful of being attacked by Nazi naval ships.  Remedios remembered the ordeal in a later interview, she said:

“…I came to Mexico searching for the peace that I had not found, neither in Spain – that of the revolution – nor in Europe – that of the terrible war – for me it was impossible to paint amidst such anguish…”

…………..to be continued


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo: Part 2. Lovers and war.

Remedios Varo

Whilst attending the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid Remedios met Gerrado Lizarraga, a fellow student.  He was a Basque from Pamplona, a lanky, long-nosed man, known for his honesty and great sense of humour.  During the time at the Academia she remained living at home and it was during her years at the Academia that she realised she had to break free of the family.  She desperately wanted her independence.  As an unmarried twenty-one-year old woman she was expected to live at home with her family and remain under their tight control.  She realised that marriage was the only way out of this restrictive situation.  

Rupture by Remedios Varo (1955)

This constant battle against a restrictive lifestyle whether it be life at the convent school or life at home whilst attending the Academia must have played on Remedios’ mind for many years.  In 1955 whilst living in Mexico she completed a painting entitled Ruptura (Rupture) which recalled life in “captivity” and the escape.  In this work we see her character in a similar situation that reminded her of her own experience whilst in Madrid.  Before us we see a hooded figure in a brown travelling cloak leaving a building, from which dead leaves and old papers flutter away in the breeze.  Look at the faces in the windows, all staring out at the departing figure.  For Remedios, this was what life was like in her teenage years. – constantly being watched over and spied upon.  She would later write about how she would hide her diaries under a loose stone on the floor of her bedroom and how she had sprinkled sugar on the floor by her door to see if anybody had entered her room while she was absent.   The figure in the painting is going down a long flight of steps.  The setting is a winter’s day, the trees having shed their leaves.  On either side of the steps are high stone walls which are covered in vegetation.  These imposing walls suggest constraint and incarceration, the very feelings which Remedios had during her late teenage years  Climbing up the walls we can see a number of snails carrying their large shells, their “homes”, on their backs and is a memory of the burdens Remedios had to carry through her early years.  Although there would have been parental control and the convent school would have kept an eye on what she was doing, much of Remedios’ perceived spying would be just a figment of her imagination.

I took advantage of all that I learned, in painting the things that interested me on my own, which could be called, together with technique, the beginning of a personality.”

Gerardo Lizarraga and Remedios Varo (1930)

The year she left the Academia, 1930, was also the year she married her boyfriend and fellow student and political activist Gerardo Lizárraga.  They got married in the Basque city of San Sebastian, a place she knew well from her family summer holidays.  He was three years older than Remedios and was a politically committed artist and his bohemian and carefree lifestyle appealed to Remedios.   For Remedios, marriage enabled her to escape the overwhelming control of her parents, especially her mother.  She was fascinated by Surrealism and the surrealist ideas which were beginning to permeate Spanish art from France, especially Paris.   She wanted to fully immerse herself into the world of Surrealism and so in 1931 she and Lizárraga moved to Paris.  Remedios wanted to experience art tuition other than that pedalled by the Academia de San Fernando and signed up for courses at the Accademia de la Grande Chaumiere, a free art school which was legendary throughout Paris. However, she only lasted there a few three weeks.  She felt overwhelmed and under too much pressure and decided that life for her and her husband in Paris should simply be an opportunity to immerse themselves in what Remedios later recalled was a poor bohemian lifestyle, one which allowed them to remain self-assured and untroubled by life. It was a chance to savour an unrestricted life free from her parents.

Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Paris.

Like her early departure from the teaching at the Accademia de la Grande Chaumiere, she decided that after a year in the French capital it was time to return to Spain.  In 1932 Remedios and her husband went back, not to Madrid, but to Barcelona which had a much more unconventional and innovative feel to it.   Barcelona was the closest to Paris in its avant-garde atmosphere.  It had become the intellectual and artistic centre of Spain and of course it gave a sufficient distancing from her parents. 

Esteban Francés

Another man entered Remedios’s life soon after she and her husband arrived in Barcelona. He was the Catalan artist Esteban (Esteve) Francés who was born in Portbou, a small town close to the French border.  Later he and his family went to live inland to the larger town of Figueras, in North Eastern Spain, also the birthplace of Dali. In 1925, at the age of twelve, he moved to Barcelona where, after a brief period studying law, he enrolled at the art and design school, Escola de la Llotja.  He was nineteen when he first met Remedios Varo, and later they shared a studio in Barcelona in the Plaza de Lesseps.  

Composición surrealista by Esteban Frances (1934)

He, like Varo, had a great interest in the avant-garde world of Surrealism.  Although Remedios lived with her husband, she and Esteban became lovers.  This affair marked the first time Remedios had broken the stern moral code under which she had been raised.  It was to be first of many open relationships she maintained throughout her life.  Being a member of the bohemian set, Varo flouted conventional morals and had few recriminations.

Composition by Remedios Varo (1935)

Remedios Varo completed one of her earliest surrealist compositions in 1935 with her pencil on paper artwork, simply entitled Composition.   It is a strange depiction of a bone-like tree, a flaccid stretched-out figure and insect/human hybrids all of which flow like a dream one into the next.

L´Agent Double (Double Agent) by Remedios Varo (1936)

Remedios had fully engaged herself in the Surrealist movement and had joined the group known as Logicofobista, whose aim was to epitomise the mental state of the internal soul in a Surrealist style. It was during her time spent as a member of this group that Remedios Varo produced her painting L´Agent Double (Double Agent).  Trouble had been brewing in Spain since the early 1930’s which, in 1936 culminated in an almost three-year very bloody civil war.  In 1936 Remedios Varo completed this work which reflected the political tensions in Spain at that time.  The setting is a small enclosed room which has a separate image on each of the walls and the floor.  The back wall is covered with full fleshy female breasts and a small bushy tree, suggesting a hairy pubic triangle.  To the right, coming through the window an elongated red arm holding a ball-like object, from which a sperm-like tail is attached which wriggles away into a small dark opening low down on the far wall.  On the opposite wall we see a large-handed figure, part heavy-limbed male, part curvaceous female standing up, nose pressed hard against the surface of the wall.  It seems to be trapped within the confines of the room.  Climbing up the back of this figure is a giant bumblebee.  Looking at the floor we see a woman’s head rising out of a crack in the floor surface.  It is the first self-portrait of Varo to appear in one of her paintings.  Many more would follow over the years.  She cautiously looks out and on either side of her head we see vapour or roots rising.  This part of the painting is also a reminder that as a child and a teenager Remedios used to hide things, such as her writings and diary, from her family under a stone, part of the floor in her bedroom. 

It is easy to describe what we see before us but a little more difficult to make sense of what we see.  The year 1936 was the start of the Spanish Civil War, a war which was to see about 200,000 people die as the result of systematic killings, mob violence, torture, or other brutalities.  Fighting and killings however, had preceded that date in the struggles between the left-wing sympathisers of the Republican Government also known as the Loyalists who supported the Spanish government and the right-wing Nationalists led by General Franco.  Spies and secret agents for both sides were ever present.  In the painting entitled Double Agent we are posed the question as to who the double agent is.  Is it the figure appearing from out of the floor and who has the perfect vantage point to see what is going on.  Has she trapped the part man, part woman? Or is it the figure with its nose pressed to the wall that has trapped her.  Or are they both trapped by the creature with the long far-reaching hand?  It is all about entrapment and of the fear of treachery and double agents at a time in Spain when one did not know who your ally was and who was your enemy.  It was a painting which juxtaposes eroticism with distorted unreal and unrelated objects.  Welcome to Surrealism !

Benjamin Péret

Enter the life of Remedios Varo of a man who was to play an important part of her life.  He was Benjamin Péret, a French poet, Parisian Dadaist and a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement and a close friend of André Breton.  Péret had met Varo in October 1936, through her friendship with Oscar Dominguez, an artist from the Spanish Canary Islands who had close connections with Gaceta de arte, a Tenerife journal devoted to all Surrealist activities.  Péret had come to Spain in 1936, a month before the civil war had begun, along with many other left-wing foreigners who wanted to fight for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists.  He was a Communist activist and had been jailed in Brazil for his subversive activities.  Soon a love affair between Varo and Péret began.  Péret was nine years older than Varo but was in love with her.  In a letter, dated October 15th 1936 to André Breton, the French writer and poet, who was concerned for the safety of his friend in Barcelona and wondered when he would return to the safety of France.  Péret repiled in a letter:

“…I am involved in a love story that holds me here until the young person can accompany me to Paris, so I can say nothing of my return…”

Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret (1936)

Péret wrote love notes in his books which he gave to Remedios.  He was absolutely besotted with her and in his book of love poems, Je sublime, there was a dedication “to Remedios Lizarraga” and part of one of the poems, Source, Péret wrote:

“… It’s Rosa weather with a real Rosa sun

And I’m going to drink Rosa with a Rosa meal

Until I fall into a Rosa sleep

Dressed in Rosa dreams

And the Rosa dawn will wake me like a Rosa

Mushroom

In which Rosa’s image will be surrounded

By a Rosa halo…”

Remedios was equally in love with Péret.  So what was the thing that forged this love affair between the two ?  For Varo it was probably the fact that Péret was a published poet, a French Surrealist and a close friend of Breton.  He was a romantic who had dedicated poems to her.  He had left France to fight as a revolutionary defending her country.  For Péret she was an attractive younger woman who doted on him.  What more could he ask for ? Péret moved back to Paris in early 1937 and in the Spring of that year, Remedios Varo decided to join him, leaving her homeland, her husband and also her one-time lover Estéban Francés, who would later follow her to Paris.

Eyes on the table, by Remedios Varo (1938)

Remedios Varo had escaped the chaos and blood-letting of the Spanish Civil War which had taken the life of her younger brother and moved to the safety of the French capital.  However, unknown to her at the time, Paris and France was to be almost the death of her………….

………………………….to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo. Part 1: Surrealism, the early days, family life and schooling.

Remedios Varo

We all have our favourite art genre and within that genre we also probably have our favourite artists.  For me, I like the Golden Age painters of The Netherlands and the Scandinavian artists who were known as the Skagen painters.  For some people narrative paintings are their favourites for others they prefer paintings that have various symbols depicted, each conveying a hidden meaning.  Today I am going to look at an artist who is famous for her painting genre, a genre which is both equally strange and yet somewhat fascinating.  Let me introduce you to the Spanish surrealist painter Remedios Varo who was born María de los Remedios Varo y Uranga.

André Breton (photo by Henri Manuel) 1927

Before I look at the life and works of Varo, first let us try to understand Surrealism.  Surrealism was founded in Paris by the French writer and poet André Breton in 1924.  Breton had been a leading light in the Dadaist movement, an artistic movement which was practiced by a group of European writers, artists, and intellectuals in protest against what they saw as a senseless war, World War I, which had claimed an estimated 37.5 million lives.  Out of Dadaism was born Surrealism, which was an artistic and literary movement.  The Surrealists wanted to put an end to the overbearing dictates of modern society by destroying its mainstay, that of rational thought.  Surrealism was preoccupied with spiritualism, the thoughts of Sigmund Freud with regards psychoanalysis and the political thoughts surrounding Marxism.  Surrealists wanted to achieve the creation of art which came from the artist’s unconscious mind and that lacked any reasoned thoughts.  Surrealism was a forerunner of Automatism which is the avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art, especially by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations.  Breton maintained that Surrealism was pure psychic automatism.

Varo family
Back: Remedios and older brother Rodrigo Jnr
Front: Mother, paternal grandmother, younger brother Luis and father

In a series of blogs, I will be looking at the life and work of Remedios Varo.  María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga was born on December 16th 1908 in the small walled village of Anglès which lies ten kilometres west of Girona and eighty kilometres north-east of Barcelona. The village is situated in a Pyrenees valley close to the River Ter.  Remedios was the daughter of Rodrigo Varo-i-Zayalvo who hailed from Cordoba in Andalucía and his wife Ignasia Uranga Bergareche, a large woman of strong character, who came from a Basque family but was actually born in Argentina.  Remedios was the middle child of three, having an older brother Rodrigo Jnr., who would later become a doctor and a younger brother, Luis, who would sadly die in the Spanish Civil War.  Her mother gave her daughter the name Remedios in dedication to La Virgen de los Remedios as a remedy to help her forget the sadness associated with the death of her older daughter who died when she was very young.  Remedios’ connection with her two brothers was very different.  Probably because her older brother, Rodrigo, looked in horror at her life as a bohemian artist, their relationship was not a close one.  On the other hand, Remedios was very close to her younger brother Luis.

Postcard

Remedios’ father was a hydraulic engineer and it was his work on the nearby canal and lock systems which had brought the family to Anglès.  In his line of work, he had to travel all around the country as well as to North Africa.  His wife did not want to be left at home during her husband’s frequent business trips so she and the children would travel with him.  The constant “wanderings” of the family and the disruption it caused had an overpowering effect on Remedios.  She missed her home, and so, as she should did not want to forget her home life in Anglès, all her life, no matter where she went, she always kept with her a childhood postcard of the street in Anglès where she lived.

Father, older brother and Remedios (1912)

Remedios Varo’s religious upbringing was a tale of two parental beliefs.  Her mother, Ignasia, was a devout Catholic whereas her father, Rodrigo, was more receptive to religious beliefs of different faiths.  Remedios was very close to her mother but did not believe in her narrow Catholic beliefs favouring her father’s more varied and less dogmatic religious viewpoint. Varo’s father wanted his daughter to attend a “free” school which was independent from both the State and the Church and which many believed gave a more rounded education and were educationally superior to Catholic schools, but her mother demanded Remedios attended a Catholic school.  Her mother’s will must have been acceded to as Remedios attended a Roman Catholic convent school run by nuns.  A strict belief in Catholicism was demanded of the pupils and to counter this Remedios would immerse herself in books by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, which spun stories of fantasy worlds.  She also liked to read about mysticism and alchemy.  It was the strict regimented existence at the Catholic convent school which led, in 1931, to her painting the triptych in which she ridiculed the restraints of convent schooling.

Toward the Tower by Remedios Varo (1961)

The three paintings formed the autobiographical triptych entitled Embroidering Earth’s Mantle.  The first of the three works was entitled Towards the Tower and Varo depicts a pack of identical girls following their leader in a trance-like state, bicycling away from a beehive tower in which they were once held captive.  All the girls face the same way, except one, Varo’s inclusion of herself as the heroine.  She depicts herself as the independently minded rebellious one.  Leading the pack of schoolgirls is the Mother Superior and a strange looking man who has a sack over his shoulder from which we see flocks of blue-coloured birds escaping and hovering over the party of cyclists.  Look at the bicycles.  They are fabricated, in part, from the stiffened fabrics of their own clothes. 

Embroidering Earth’s Mantle by Remedios Varo (1961)

In the central panel of the triptych, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, we observe the same young women.  This time the setting is a room in the tower where the convent girls are made to work.  The setting is what could be termed a medieval scriptorium, a room devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts commonly handled by monastic scribes.  It is a cramped and isolated space in which the young women are weaving out the surface of the earth under the intense supervision from the Great Master who reads from the book of instructions whilst at the same time, stirring a boiling broth in the same alchemical vessel from which the women draw their embroidery thread.  Behind him a veiled figure sits playing a flute.  Each and every young woman works alone embroidering images of the landscape onto a continuous fabric which tumbles 0ut from table-height battlements around the sides of the tower.  This act of embroidering and needlework was considered to be a skill suitable for cultured young women

Hidden image of the lovers

Varo has added an ironic twist to the painting although it may not be very clear in the main picture.  Remedios’ rebellious heroine in this triptych has embroidered an upside-down image of her and her lover within the folds of the cloth that emerge from her table.

The Escape by Remedios Varo (1962)

In the final panel, Varo reveals The Escape; Varo’s heroine has successfully fled with her lover on a fantastical furry inverted umbrella which floats on a foggy mist.  Both the clothes of the girl and her lover billow behind them in the wind and act as sails.  For Varo the triptych is all about imprisonment and the chance to liberate herself from the strict academic confines of convent school life and her determination to free herself from the facelessness of being one among a homogenous many.  It was her determination to escape isolation and be free.  Her freedom was to come in 1930 when she was twenty-one and left home after marrying Gerrado Lizaraga a fellow art student.

Portrait of Grandmother Doña Josefa Zejalvo by Remedios Varo (1926)

In order to keep his daughter, Remedios, amused on his business trips he would allow her to redraw his blueprints, and at the same time explain the function of the various systems. Remedios’s knowledge grew as did her inquisitiveness.    This was the start of her artistic tuition.  Her father was a hard taskmaster and would make his daughter repeat technical drawings until they were right.  Over time her draughtsmanship  constantly improved and her pencil lines gradually became more accurate as she became self-assured.  This infused in her the lifelong characteristic of meticulousness.  She had started to become a perfectionist.    Besides his training of Remedios in draughtsmanship, her father encouraged her love of art, by taking her to museums and art galleries.

Mother and daughter – Pencil sketches by Remedios Varo (1923)

By 1924 the family had relocated to an apartment on calle Segovia, one of Madrid’s main streets and because fifteen year old Remedios had shown a love of art the family arranged for her to attend the city’s Escuela de Artes y Oficios (School of Arts and Crafts) and later the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, where she became one of the first female students of the academy.  Like all the major art Academies of Europe, the Academia was known for its strict observance of the methodology of the Old Masters.  They would not compromise and those who became disruptive were expelled.  The year Remedios started at the Academy was the same year that fellow student, Salvador Dali, returned from his one-year expulsion for leading a student protest over a professional appointment at the Academia.  Two years later he was permanently expelled.  Despite this strict observance of academic art Remedios became interested in Surrealism.  Of her education at the Academy, she said:

“…”I took advantage of all that I learned, in painting the things that interested me on my own, which could be called, together with technique, the beginning of a personality…”

In Janet A. Kaplan’s book, Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys she quotes a story from Remedios teenage years, an erotic fantasy she had endured in a dream:

“…One night, a strange being entered through the window and threw itself on top of me; it was like the devil.  I resisted, but his eat was immense.  The following day and with out having said anything at the table my grandmother said to me ‘Remedios, what has happened to you?  Your hair is burned’…”

All her life Remedios would believe in the power of such dream images and in her mind, there was little to differentiate between reality and dreams.

Pencil sketches of Paternal grandmother by Remedios Vara (1925 and 1923)

Her “personality” was her strong attraction to Surrealism, which had gained a foothold in the Madrid art culture.  Whilst studying at the Academia she would make many visits to the Prado and became fascinated with the works of Primitive painters, including tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art.  She also loved the works of Hieronymus Bosch and also the mainstream art of El Greco and Goya.  In 1930, she graduated from the Academia with a drawing teacher diploma.

…………………………….. to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Hudson River School – The Hart Family

Part 3.  Julie Hart

“…Mrs. Julie Hart Beers Kempson became the only woman artist of the century to specialize in landscape. It is perhaps not surprising to find so few women landscapists, since the rigors of painting outdoors and the unseemliness of women engaging in this activity during the Victorian era acted as a deterrent…”

William H. Gerdts,
Women Artists of America 1707-1964 (Newark: Newark Museum, 1965)

The above extract is from the article in the 1965 Newark Museum catalogue Women artists of America, 1707-1964 that accompanied the exhibition.  It was written by the American art historian and former professor of Art History at the City University of New York Graduate Center, William Gerdts.

Cabin in Autumn, Upper Hudson Valley by Julie Hart Beers (1910)

In my final blog regarding the artistically talented siblings of the American Hart family I want to look at the life and work of the youngest child of James and Marion Hart, Scottish immigrants who had settled in Albany, N.Y., in 1831. Julie Hart was born in 1835, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and was the only one of her siblings to have been born in America. She, as we have seen in the two previous blogs, had two talented artists as brothers, William Hart and James McDougal Hart. The world of Fine Art in America, in the nineteenth century, was a male-dominated institution. There were female painters but they were looked upon purely as hobbyists rather than being serious professional painters. It was believed by many men that women had better things to do than paint professionally – raising children, keeping house and looking after their hard-working husbands. Most art academies didn’t admit women, and neither did the art societies that linked artists with patrons, which was a prerequisite to the financial success of an aspiring artist. So, in the early part of the nineteenth century, women artists signed their work with just a first initial and a surname so as to conceal their gender, thus hoping that their ability as an artist would not be downgraded once the sex of the artist was known. For women to succeed in the world of Fine Art they needed both their family and/or financial backing to launch them professionally. Often, they were the sisters, daughters and wives of better-known male artist. There was no formal training for women at art institutions so once again they relied on family members or friends to help develop their talent. Julia Hart was fortunate enough to have her two elder brothers, who were aligned with the Hudson River School of art, to teach and mentor her and so, as a teenager, she became interested in plein air landscape painting.  She was one of very few professional women landscape painters in nineteenth-century America

The Old Birch Tree by Julia Hart Beers (1876)

In 1865 the American Civil War had ended and the Reconstruction had begun. Americans unfettered by the trials of war were once again relishing the joys of tourism and travel. They would often explore the great landscapes. One such area was the banks of the Hudson River which had started its 319-mile journey from the Adirondacks towards its outflow between Manhattan and Jersey City. It was the upper reaches including the Adirondacks, Catskills and White Mountains which tempted both tourists and artists alike. The artists, who were looked upon as being part of the Hudson River School, wanted to capture the beauty on canvas and the tourists wanted pictorial mementos of their journeys. These areas of beauty were often steep-sided hills and mountains and for female artists who came to the region for some plein air sketching and painting, they had to overcome the challenge of decorous dressing versus suitable attire for their arduous painting trips. These women ventured on their own or alongside male relatives into the wilderness, painting the breath-taking scenery that inspired America’s first art movement. Julie Hart was one of those women.

Hudson River at Croton Point by Julie Hart Beers (1869)

Julie Beers married in 1853, when she was eighteen years old. Her husband, also a painter, was Marion Beers. Marion, like Julie’s brothers, helped teach his wife artistic techniques which were to serve her well in the future. In the mid 1850’s Julie, like her two brothers, relocated to New York city and set up a studio. Since her marriage, Julie signed all her paintings “Julie H Beers
It is thought that Julie’s first exhibition was held at the National Academy of Design (NAD) in 1867, following which she had her paintings exhibited at the NAD annual exhibitions in each of the following twelve years. She also exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum in 1867 and 1868 and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1868.

Still Life with Fruit by Julie Hart Beers (1866)

Besides being a renowned landscape painter Julie was also a talented still life artist as can be seen by her 1866 painting Still life with Fruit.

Basket of Roses by Julie Hart Beers (ca. 1860’s).

Another of her still life paintings, completed around the same time was entitled Basket of Roses.

Cabin by the Forest by Julie H Beers

Her husband, Marion Beers died in 1876 and the following year Julie married Peter Kempson and the newly-weds moved to Metuchen in New Jersey.  Julie Hart Beers Kempson proved that women landscape painters were the equal of men, despite the harshness of painting en plein air in the wild and often barely accessible landscapes along the Hudson River.  Sadly her paintings did not receive affair and objective assessment during her lifetime and she was not truly valued in her own time, but notwithstanding that transgression, her talent and dedication as an artist which not only produced outstanding works of art, but also led the way for the female landscapists who would follow her.

A Quiet Pond by Julie Hart Beers (1873)

I will end this blog as I started it, with a quotation.  This one is from Jennifer Krieger, Managing Partner at Hawthorne Fine Art in New York City. Her article entitled Women Artists of the Hudson River School formed part of the catalogue which accompanies the 2010 exhibition, Remember the Ladies: Women of the Hudson River School, which was held at Cedar Grove, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, New York. She wrote about the trials and tribulations of female artists and their struggle to carry out plein air painting in remote areas of the Hudson River valleys. She wrote:

“…These artists managed to make their way through vast, unexplored stretches of the American landscape and to shimmy up trees (for better views) in spite of their long skirts. Rather than complain about all that society had placed in their way…… [They] were all intent on honoring the beauty of the natural world they had experienced so directly. Rather than to complain about all that society had placed in their way, women artists pushed forward to accomplish their goals. As a result of their determination, our own cultural topography has been immeasurably enriched…”

A Hudson River Scene by Julie H Beers

Julie Hart Beers Kempson demonstrated that women landscape painters were the equal of men, even given the hardships of painting outdoors.  While largely undervalued in her own time, her talent and dedication not only produced outstanding works of art, but also broke important ground for the female landscapists who would follow her.