Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 1. Early life

Self Portrait by Christoffer Eckersberg (1811)
Self Portrait by Christoffer Eckersberg (1811)

Let me start this blog with a question.  When you look around a large art gallery how long do you stand before each painting?  Is it just a cursory glance or do you study the artistic technique of the artist and examine the brush strokes which many artists believe are like the painter’s fingerprints?   I suppose a lot depends on the size of the gallery with all the works on show at the major ones being impossible to see in one visit and of course one has to also take into account whether one is likely to return to the gallery on another occasion.  The reason for this question is that a fortnight ago we were in Hamburg, staying for three nights in a hotel opposite the Hamburger Kunsthalle which is said to be the largest art museum in Germany.  Such a large collection and such a limited time to feast our eyes on the many paintings so what was to be the strategy – rush and see as many as possible or be selective and miss out on many unknown painters?  Fortunately, I didn’t have to decide as when we arrived and looked out the hotel bedroom window there were many large signs unfurled telling people that the museum was still closed and would not open until May 1st after seventeen months of renovations!!!

Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition
Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition

However all was not lost as a small number of rooms had been opened for a visiting collection of the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and this turned out to be one of the best exhibitions I had ever seen.  The exhibition entitled Eckersberg – Fascination with Reality contained about 90 paintings and 40 drawings and prints from all the artist’s creative periods, and included all of the artist’s major works.  Because people may have been waiting for the official re-opening of the museum to visit the exhibition, there were no crowds and it allowed time to study each one of Eckersberg’s works without any “gallery rage” caused by hordes of people pushing to get better views.  In my next few blogs I will look at the life of Eckersberg and showcase some of his historical paintings, his portraits, seascapes and landscapes which made him one of Denmark’s greatest artists.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was born in 1783 in Blåkrog, a small Danish town in the parish of Varnæs in Southern Jutland.  Later the family moved a short distance to the town of Blans.  He lived with his mother, Ingeborg Nielsdatter and his father, Henrik Eckersberg, who was a carpenter and house painter.  Christoffer studied as a painter for three years from the age of fourteen under the guidance of Jes Jessen of Aabenraa, who was well known for his a floral paintings, portraiture and historical works.  When Eckersberg was seventeen, Christoffer became apprenticed to the Flensborg artist, John Jacob Jessen.  During these early years of training Christoffer had one goal in mind – to be accepted as a pupil at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen, which was inaugurated in 1754, and was the leading artistic establishment of Denmark.  During his early training he had put together a portfolio of his work and that along with some money given to him by local people of the village, he set off in 1803 for Copenhagen.  The entrants’ panel of the Academy were impressed by his portfolio of work, so much so that he was accepted into the Academy without having to pay a fee.

Whilst studying at the Academy Eckersberg was influenced by the works of the late portrait and landscape painter, Jens Juel, a court painter and professor at the Academy but who had died a year before Eckersberg’s arrival.  The other great influence was one of Eckersberg’s professors, Nickolai Abildgaard, a neo-classical and royal history painter.  The highlight of Eckersberg’s six year stay at the Academy came in his final year, 1809, when he was awarded the academy’s Gold Medal and with that came a stipend for travel to Rome which he received in 1812.  After completing his studies he concentrated on completing a number of historical, mythological and biblical paintings.

Loke and Sigyn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)
Loke and Sigyn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

One such work was entitled Loki and Sigyn who were husband and wife characters in Norse mythology.  Sigyn was a goddess and the wife of Loki and the tale is about her role in assisting Loki during his period of captivity. The mythology around this pair of characters is rather gruesome.  The story goes that when the gods captured Loki, they turned one of Loki’s sons, Vali into a wolf. The wolf then ripped apart Narfi, Loki and Sigyn’s son. The boy’s entrails hardened into an iron chain, and the gods used this grotesque fetter to bind Loki in a cave deep beneath the earth. The gods then placed a snake above Loki that would drip venom onto his head.  In order to save her husband from the dripping venom from the snake’s mouth, Sigyn sat by Loki’s side with a bowl to catch the drops of venom so that they wouldn’t touch her husband’s head. Every so often, however, she would have to leave the cave to pour out the bowl. In her absence, a few drops of poison would fall onto Loki’s forehead. This caused him to writhe in agony, which in turn caused earthquakes on the earth’s surface.

Farm in Spejlsby on Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)
Farm in Spejlsby on Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

Prior to his European travels Eckersberg completed a commission for Frantz Christopher von Bülow, Chief of the General Staff for King of Denmark, Frederick VI.  The commission was a set of twelve scenes of the island of Møn, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea.  One of these paintings was entitled Farm in Spejlsby on Møn, a depiction of a rainbow over the farmstead in a small village on the north of the island.  The farm has been hit by a rainstorm and yet the farm itself is bathed in sunlight.  Neither of the milkmaids in the foreground seems to be phased by the storm as they chat away, nor is the man with the basket who casually strolls along the path towards the farmhouse.  It is thought that Eckersberg completed the work in his Copenhagen studio from a sketch he made the previous year.

View of Møns Klint and Sommerspiret by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1809)Another landscape Eckersberg completed in 1809 featuring the island was entitled The Cliffs of the Island of Møn. View of the Summer Spire.  The chalk cliffs on the eastern coast of the island, known as Møns Klint, and the surrounding woodlands and pasture lands has attracted an estimated quarter of a million visitors every year and is the favourite location for artists as it was in the nineteenth century.  Christopher von Bülow had his Nordfeld estate near the cliffs so this was probably the reason for Eckersberg depiction.  It gave the artist the chance to depict the elements of nature which made the area so loved.  The high white limestone peak we see in the background is the Sommerspirit or Summer spire which rises to a height of 102 metres.  Unfortunately this natural wonder can no longer be seen as in January 1988 it crashed into the sea due to coastal erosion below its base.  Maybe there is a touch of humour in the painting as we Eckersberg depicting a petrified woman shrink back from the edge of the cliff in fear, despite the soothing overtones from her male companion.

View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg ( 1809)
View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg ( 1809)

Another of his paintings depicting a scene on the island of Møn was View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn. This is acknowledged as one of the most romantic and picturesque views of the gardens at Liselund Manor.  Liselund is a landscaped park, in which there are several exotic buildings and monuments. The park is situated close to Møns Klint on the northeast side of the island.  The park was created in the 1790s by French nobleman Antoine de Bosc de la Calmette for his wife Elisabeth, commonly known as Lisa, and Liselund, roughly translated, means Lise’s grove.  The park is considered to be one of the finest examples in Scandinavia of Romantic English gardening.  Before us we see the cleft with the small waterfall which is framed by luxuriant trees.  In the foreground we see three visitors to the park fascinated by what they see before them.  The format of this landscape painting is unusual with it being portrait format instead of the usual landscape format.

Having completed his paintings of the island of Møn, Eckersberg set off on his Grand Tour of Europe, the first stop of which was Paris.  What Eckersberg soon learnt was that the new contemporary French painting of the time was so radically different to that of his Danish role models, Juel and Abildgaard. French paintings had a greater clarity of colour, bright light and clear-cut contours.  One of the stars of French art at this time was Jacques-Louis David and Eckersberg, through his patron had not only arranged for him to meet the great Neoclassical-style painter but had also had arranged for Eckersberg to be tutored by him in his life classes where students were taught how best depict the human body and the resulting change in a manifest change to Eckersberg’s style of history painting.

Three Spartan Boys by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)
Three Spartan Boys by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

Eckersberg’s time spent in Jacques-Louis David’s life classes must have honed his skill for that type of art as in 1812 he produced Three Spartan Boys.  This was one of the first paintings in which he translated what he had learnt at those life classes of David.  A year after completion, the painting was exhibited in Copenhagen with the title, Three Spartan Youths Practicing Archery.  Etude from Nature.  The first part of the title ensures the painting is looked upon as a history painting but the second part of the title alludes to the fact that it is a modified and elaborated figure study.  See how the three youths strike different poses and we, as viewers, see them from different angles and thus admire the artist’s skill at his depiction of their bodies.  Note to the inclusion of a landscape background to this work.

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David
Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David

Such an inclusion could be the result of Eckersberg having studyed the works of Jacques-Louis David who would also add landscape backgrounds to his historical paintings, one example of which was his painting entitled Leonidas at Thermopylae which Eckersberg probably only saw an unfinished version as it was not completed until 1814.

Odysseus' Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, by Christoffer Eckersberg (ca. 1812)
Odysseus’ Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, by Christoffer Eckersberg (ca. 1812)

Another of Eckersberg’s historical paintings at this time was one entitled Odysseus’ Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, which he completed around 1812.  Book XIX of the Odyssey tells of the return of Odysseus, in disguise as a poor beggar to his home and to his erstwhile wife Penelope.  Odysseus continually refers to Penelope as the honourable wife of Lord Odysseus.   Odysseus has a bath and helped by his old nurse Eurykeia who recognizes a scar on Odysseus’ thigh and therefore knows the beggar is her lost master. Odysseus grabs her by the throat and tells her to keep what she saw from all others or else he will kill her.   In his painting, Eckersberg captures the moment when the old nurse is about to blurt out Odysseus’ name and so he covers her mouth with his hand as he looks over to Penelope to see if she has been alerted to the nurse’s discovery but she has her head in her hand still grieving for her lost husband.

Pont Royal seen from Quai Voltaire by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)
Pont Royal seen from Quai Voltaire by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

Whilst in Paris Eckersberg did complete a number of historical paintings but his love for landscape work was not forgotten and in November 1812 he produced a beautiful painting entitled Pont Royal seen from the Quai Voltaire from sketches he made that summer.  It is a view from the Left Bank of the Seine looking across the river towards the Louvre and the Tuilleries.  As a landscape it is a change of style for him. It is an early example of his use of linear perspective which allowed him to give a sense of depth to the depiction.  As an artist and recorder of a view, he has adopted a very soberly observed position.  The details in the work are given to us in far greater detail than his usual landscape style.  He portrays light shining in from the left casting numerous shadows and his depiction of the clouds bears witness to his careful inspection of nature.  The painting was exhibited at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen in 1814.

In my next blog I will follow Eckerberg’s journey to Rome and look at more of his works of art.

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Alexandre Cabanel. Part 2 – the Prix de Rome and his return to Paris

I had reached the part in Alexandre Cabanel’s life story with him staying in the Villa Medici in Rome studying art, gifted to him as a reward for coming the “Second –First prize” winner in the Prix de Rome competition.  For Cabanel,  life in Rome was all about his art and very little to do with the outside distractions of the Eternal city.  He had admitted to his close friend Alfred Bruyas that he was lonely and just had his art as company.

Triumph of Galatea by Raphael (Villa Farnesina) (1514)
Triumph of Galatea by Raphael (Villa Farnesina) (1514)

One of the requirements of the artists, who had been awarded the Prix de Rome scholarship to further their studies at the Villa Medici, was that they would submit work for examination annually and those artists who were history painters would also make copies of ancient sculptures and the Old Masters.  Cabanel had already done this sort of thing before coming to Rome when he would copy works of art by Velazquez, and Titian which he saw at the Louvre.  Cabanel was a great lover of the works of Raphael and took the opportunity, whilst in Rome, to copy Raphael’s frescoes which adorned the Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere district of the city.  At this time in his life, Raphael was Cabanel’s favourite artist of the past.

Orestes by Alexandre Cabanel (1846)
Orestes by Alexandre Cabanel (1846)

As a history painter Cabanel had to study and draw life-sized figures from nature.  They also had to present, on an annual basis, one finished drawing based on a work by an Old Master, and one drawing from the antique. The works of art that the student produced were first exhibited at the Villa Medici in the April. Their work was then sent back to Paris in the May to be judged at the Institute and following that they were exhibited to the public in the autumn.    In 1846, Cabanel’s submission was entitled Orestes, who was the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and who was the subject of many Ancient Greek plays and appeared in many stories by Homer.  Much to Cabanel’s horror his painting was severely criticised by the judges of the Academy who said it was an oversized and inept composition.  The painting is housed in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.

The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel (1847)
The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel (1847)

The next year, 1847, stung by the criticism but not deterred, Cabanel submitted a work entitled The Fallen Angel which is also part of the Musée Fabre collection.  Cabanel’s inspiration for this work was John Milton’s 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost and the fallen angels, Moloch, Belial, Mulciber, Mammon and Beelzebub.  In the work we see the “fallen” angel – fallen from grace and banished by God.  It is a classic portrayal of a naked man by an academic artist with the crafted way he depicts the musculature of the figure.  The angel has both arms raised and his fingers of his two hands interlocked hiding most of his face.  Despite this shielding of his facial expression, it does not hide from us his feelings as we can judge his mood by what we see in his eyes.  There is a look of vengeance and anger in his eyes.  He knows someone will pay for his ejection from the side of God.  He retains his pride but thinks about retribution. The subject shocked the exhibition jurists as no students had ever submitted from Rome a painting which featured the Devil.  This was a history painting submission and certain rules had to be followed and the jurists and academics who examined the work criticised it for bordering on a style of Romanticism.  In her book on Cabanel, Procès verbaux de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts (Minutes of the Academy of Fine Arts), Sybille Bellamy-Brown quoted the Academics’ remarks about the painting.  They stated:

“…The movement is wrong, the draughtsmanship imprecise, the execution deficient…”

Once again Cabanel was distraught at not being able to understand their criticism.  He wrote of his feelings with regards the criticism to his friend Alfred Bruyas, especially as he had worked tirelessly on the painting:

“…That’s my reward for all the trouble I gave myself not to submit an average piece of work…”

John the Baptist by Alexandre Cabanel (1849)
John the Baptist by Alexandre Cabanel (1849)

In 1849, his annual submission was a religious work entitled John the Baptist ,which like the other two works can be found at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.  In this work we see John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, surrounded on either side by his followers, both old and young.    To the left of the painting we see a staff planted firmly in the ground.  It takes the form of a cross and from the cross flutters a banner on which is written Agnus Dei, (Lamb of God).  The depiction is a dramatic one and, finally for Cabanel, it was well received by the Académie members back in Paris.  Cabanel, as a winner of the Prix de Rome, also had the right to be admitted to the Salon and works he submitted for inclusion at the Salons did not have to be scrutinised by the Salon jurists.  This work featured in the 1850 Salon and at the end of the exhibition was bought by the French State.

The Death of Moses by Alexandre Cabanel (1850)
The Death of Moses by Alexandre Cabanel (1850)

In his final year, 1850, his annual painting submission was The Death of Moses.  Set in the wilderness, the painting depicts Moses dying in the presence of God whilst in the background we see the Promised Land that the Lord said he would never see due to his lack of belief in the Lord.   Angels surround the dying Moses and comfort him.  The inspiration for such a depiction almost certainly came from the works of art by Michelangelo and Raphael which Cabanel had seen during his five-year sojourn in Rome.   For Cabanel, this was a major work of art and one, which in the beginning, began to worry him as to whether he could deliver the finished product.  His self-doubt can be seen in a passage from a letter he wrote to his brother:

 “…I have imposed upon myself a large, very difficult, formidable task, since I seek to represent the image of the Eternal Master of the sky and the earth—to represent God—and next to Him, one of His most sublime creatures, deified in some way by His contact. This should give you an idea of my all-absorbing preoccupations. Still, this terrible task advances, but not without cruel mishaps. I know that that’s how it is on the path where my instincts have led me, and which is undoubtedly the most beautiful of all the arts, but one has to be strong and love it passionately in order to handle the obstacles one encounters…”

Cabanel left Rome and returned to Montpellier in 1851 and later that year returned to Paris.  He submitted his painting, The Death of Moses to the 1852 Salon and it received rapturous reviews.  The well respected and influential journalist and art critic of the time, Théophile Gautier, wrote in La Presse littéraire of May 16th 1852:

“…The Salon painting that most directly follows on from elevated, serious, profound art, whose prototypes are Michelangelo and Raphael is The Death of Moses by Monsieur Cabanel, Prix de Rome winner in 1845.  In his case, his stay at Rome, which sometimes can be detrimental to young artists, has indeed been profitable.  One can see how he has eaten the bread of angels and nourished himself on the marrow of lions…”

This was praise indeed and coming from such an influential source, Cabanel’s career in Paris could not have begun any better.

The Glorification of St. Louis by Alexandre Cabanel (c.1853-55)
The Glorification of St. Louis by Alexandre Cabanel (c.1853-55)

In 1855 the World Exhibition came to Paris for the first time.  It went on to be held in the French capital on four other occasions.  The Exposition Universelle, as it was known in France, was an international Exhibition held on the Champs-Élysées from May to November.  Part of this World Fair would be dedicated to exhibits of fine art and Cabanel quickly realised to have his paintings exhibited at such an event would gain him world-wide notoriety.  He submitted two of his works of art.  The first one was entitled The Glorifcation of Saint Louis which had been commissioned by the French state for the Gothic chapel of Sainte-Chapelle at the royal Chateau de Vincennes.  The chapel and the subject of the painting were connected as it was at this chapel that Louis IX’s relics of the Crown of Thorns were initially kept.  Cabanel also had an ulterior motive for painting this picture as it now established a connection between himself and the reigning monarch Napoleon III.  Cabanel knew that his future success would be assured if his art went hand in hand with a good working relationship with the monarchy.

Christian Martyr by Alexandre Cabanel (1855)
Christian Martyr by Alexandre Cabanel (1855)

The second work of Cabanel which appeared at the Exposition Universelle was entitled Christian Martyr.  Although the title would lead one to believe this was yet another work depicting the killing of a martyr it didn’t for it shows a group of Christians, at dusk, lifting the body of a martyred female believer from a boat up to a group of fellow believers above who are ready to carry her into a burial chamber.   The woman dressed in a dark yellow tunic lies lifelessly in the arms of the men who are lifting her up.  Her head lolls downwards and her face has the grey-green pallor of death.  It is a moving depiction and we see an elder standing behind the group of rescuers, with his arms outstretched in prayer for the soul of the martyr.  The man to the right of the scene leans against the parapet anxiously searching into the distance for the approach of the authorities.

The two paintings were also exhibited at the Salon of 1855 and The Christian Martyr painting was subsequently purchased by the Societé des Arts et des Sciences at Carcassonne for its Musée des Beaux Arts.

In my next blog I will continue to look at the life of Cabanel, his portraiture and one of his most famous works, The Birth of Venus.

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 I gleaned most of my information for this blog and the next ones about Cabanel from a great book I came across entitled Alexandre Cabanel – The Tradition of Beauty which was published to coincide with La tradition du beau exhibition of Cabanel’s paintings, which was held at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne in 2011 and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier in 2010.

I also came across an excellent website which goes into much greater detail about Cabanel and is well worth a visit.  It is:

Stephen Gjertson Galleries

http://stephengjertsongalleries.com/?page_id=2851

Kristian Zahrtman and Leonora Christina

Kristian Zahrtmann
Kristian Zahrtmann

My blog today is a mixture of art and history. It is about a late nineteenth century Danish painter Kristian Zahrtmann and his fascination with Leonora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV of Denmark and Kirsten Munk. Zahrtmann was a painter, who produced landscapes, street scenes as well as many fine portraits but he was especially known for his history painting and especially paintings which featured legendary, and often tragic, females in Danish history.

Self portrait (1914)
Self portrait (1914)

Peder Henrik Kristian Zahrtmann was born in March 1843 in Rønne, a Baltic Sea town on the west coast of the Danish island of Bornholm. His mother was Laura Pouline Jesperson and his father, Carl Vilhelm Zahrtmann, was a doctor on the island. He was the eldest of nine children, having two sisters and six brothers. On completion of his normal schooling, at the age of seventeen, he left the Rønne Realskole and enrolled at the Sorø Academy on the Danish island of Zealand and it was here that he began to study painting under the tutorship of the Danish landscape painter and drawing master, Hans Hader. He graduated from the Academy in 1862 and a year later received his doctorate.

Following his graduation he went to live in Copenhagen and for the six months of the winter of 1863 he enrolled at the Technical Institute in Copenhagen where he studied drawing and design under the Danish artist, Christian Hetsch and architect Ferdinand Vilhelm Jensen. At the same time, he received private instruction from the genre painter Wenzel Ulrich. A year later he enrolled on a four-year course at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen. He graduated from the Academy in 1868 when he was twenty-five years of age and it was in this year that he first exhibited some of his first work at the Charlottenborg, the palace in which was situated the Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Jammers Minde The hand written autobiography of Leonora Christina
Jammers Minde
The hand written autobiography of Leonora Christina

It was around this time that Zahrtmann became great friends with aspiring Danish painters Otto Haslund and Pietro Krøhn with whom he shared a studio. It was this friendship that in some way was the starting point of this blog about Zahrtmann and the 17th century Danish princess Leonora Christina for it was they who gave Zahrtmann, for his birthday, a copy of Jammers Minde, which literally translated means A Memory of Lament. It was a posthumous autobiography written by Leonora during her twenty-two year solitary incarceration in the Blue Tower in Copenhagen Castle and which was not published until 170 years later, in 1869. So who was Leonora Christina and why was the daughter of the king imprisoned for over two decades of her life?

Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower by Kristian Zahrtmann
Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower by Kristian Zahrtmann

To find the answer to this we need to go back to King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway who succeeded his late father, Frederik II, at the age of eleven and ascended to the throne eight years later. He married his first wife Anne Catherine in 1597, when he was twenty years of age, and the couple went on to have seven children, four of whom died in infancy. Anne Catherine died in 1612 and three years later, in December 1615, Christian IV remarried. His second wife was Kirsten Munk, the daughter of a wealthy court official, who had been living with her family at the royal palace in Copenhagen . Although she was of the nobility, she held no title and so when she married the widowed king, Christian, it was a marriage between people of different social classes and the marriage was termed a morganatic marriage (similar to the present day marriage between Prince William and the “commoner” Kate Middleton). This difference in class between husband and wife could well have been the reason why the wedding ceremony was a private affair and not a full-scale church wedding. Kirsten Munk bore the king twelve children, ten of whom survived infancy, two sons and eight daughters. Leonora Christina was the couple’s fifth child, born in July 1621.

Leonora Christina i Fængselet (Leonora Christina in Prison) by Kristian Zahrtmann (1875)
Leonora Christina i Fængselet (Leonora Christina in Prison) by Kristian Zahrtmann (1875)

Leonora Christina, like four of her sisters, did not marry princes from one of the many European monarchies but instead her father allowed them to marry powerful and wealthy Danish noblemen in an attempt to assure their allegiance to the monarchy. Leonora’s husband, whom she married in 1636 when she was just fifteen years old, was the thirty-eight year old Corfitz Ulfeldt, the son of the Danish chancellor. They had actually been engaged since she was nine years old! Corfitz Ulfeldt held great powers at the royal court but became more and more ambitious and grasping and it was these traits along with some bad political decisions which had him and the king fall out. Christian IV died in February 1648 and it was two months before the king’s second son, Leonora’s half brother, Frederick, from his first marriage, was elected the new King of Denmark and Norway. He became King Frederick III. During that two month transition period Corfitz Ulfeldt, as Steward of the Realm, the country’s de-facto prime minister, virtually ruled Denmark.

Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerard van Honthorst (1647)
Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerard van Honthorst (1647)

Corfitz Ulfeldt’s avarice and naked ambition during his rise to power irritated the new king and a perceived plot against the new monarch by Ulfeldt caused the latter, out of fear for his life, to flee the country with his wife Leonora and their family. Ulfeldt then forged a close alliance with Charles X of Sweden, Denmark’s old enemy, and offered his financial support with money which was thought to have been embezzled from the Danish state. This money was to help Charles facilitate the war against Denmark which began in July 1657. At the end of the conflict in 1658, Sweden had won its most celebrated victory, and for the vanquished, Denmark/Norway, they had suffered a humiliating and costly defeats of all time, having to cede territory to Sweden under the Treaty of Brömseboro. Ulfeldt even took part in these treaty negotiations, during which he took great pleasure in denigrating his former homeland. This, however, was to be his ultimate undoing. Ulfeldt, now feted by the Swedish monarch, once again became too ambitious and fell out with Charles X, who ordered his arrest and was condemned to death. In 1660, Ulfeldt decided that the lesser of two evils was to escape from Sweden with his wife Leonora Christina and return to his homeland, Denmark, and try and make his peace with Frederick III. Frederick was not amused and had the couple imprisoned for a year. Their release came after Ulfeldt paid a hefty fine which saw him and his wife almost reduced to a poverty-stricken existence. Their imprisonment had been both degrading and cruel and once released Ulfeldt plotted his revenge on Frederick. His act of treason against the Danish monarch was discovered and he was condemned to death in absentia. He escaped the jaws of death but died in a Rhine boating accident during one of his flights from impending arrest.

Leonora Christina in the Garden of the Frederisborg Palace by Kristian Zahrtmann (1887)
Leonora Christina in the Garden of the Frederisborg Palace by Kristian Zahrtmann (1887)

So what happened to Leonora Christina? After her and her husband’s release from prison Ulfeldt persuaded Leonora to go to England, seek an audience with Charles II and see if she could recover money he had lent the English monarch. Charles was unwilling to help and had Leonora arrested at Dover on her way back to the Continent. She was eventually hand over to Frederick and the Danish state, which as they still could not find Ulfeldt, instead decided to punish his wife and had her locked away in solitary confinement in the infamous Blue Tower at Copenhagen’s Castle. The conditions in the prison were both degrading and vile. So why was she so severely punished for the wrongdoings of her husband? Throughout her incarceration she blamed her downfall and her imprisonment, not on her half brother, the monarch Frederik, but on his wife Sophie-Amalie and the queen’s desire for revenge. Why this animosity between Leonora and Sophie-Amelie?

Sophie Amalie von Braunschweig-Lüneburg  with a slave by Abraham Wuchters (c.1670)
Sophie Amalie von Braunschweig-Lüneburg with a slave by Abraham Wuchters (c.1670)

Leonora had been her father’s favourite daughter and when her mother, Kirsten Munk, was banished from Copenhagen by her husband for infidelity, Leonora took on the role and power as the First Lady of Denmark. When her father died and Frederick came to the throne things changed. When you are at the pinnacle there is only one direction one can go – down! Frederick married Sophie-Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who became Queen of Denmark and Norway. She and Leonora, who had seen her power usurped by another woman, became bitter enemies and she probably played a leading part in having Leonore incarcerated.

Leonora Christina paa Maribo Kloster (Leonora Christina at Maribo Cloister)  by Kristian Zahrtmann (1883)
Leonora Christina paa Maribo Kloster (Leonora Christina at Maribo Cloister)
by Kristian Zahrtmann (1883)

Leonora Christina’s sworn enemy, Sophie-Amalie died in February 1685 and one of Leonora’s daughters went to the king, Christian V, the son of the late Frederick III and Sophie-Amalie, and begged for the release of her mother. The king agreed and in May 1685 and she went to live at a monastery run by the nuns of the St. Birgitte-order. It was here that Leonora completed her autobiography, Jammers Minde, which she had started to write during her long imprisonment. Leonora Christina died in March 1698 and was buried in the crypt of the monastery which is now the church at Maribo on the Danish island of Lolland. It is believed that some time later her sons had her body removed from the church and laid to rest in a secret location where her husband had been interred. Leonora’s last years in imprisonment improved due to the attitude of the new king Christian V and his wife, the queen-consort, Charlotte-Amelie despite his mother, Sophie-Amelie’s everlasting vindictive nature. In her autobiography Leonora wrote about her indebtedness to the king and queen improved situation:

“…My most gracious hereditary King was gracious enough several times in former years to intercede for me with his royal mother, through the high ministers of the State. Her answer at that time was very hard; she would entitle them “traitors”’ and, “as good as I was, and would point them to the door. All the favours which the King s majesty showed me — the outer apartment, the large window, the money to dispose of for annoyed the Queen Dowager extremely; and she made the Kings majesty feel her displeasure in the most painful manner…”.

Dronning Sophie Amalies død, (The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie)  by Kristian Zahrtmann (1882)
Dronning Sophie Amalies død, (The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie)
by Kristian Zahrtmann (1882)

Zahrtman was fascinated by the book and completed a number of paintings of the way he envisaged Leonora during her captivity and like Leonora, Zahrtmann blamed Sophie-Amalie for Leonora’s downfall and the artist depicted the deathbed scene of Leonora’s nemesis. The state of the dying queen mother and the pain-wracked expression on her face presumably comforted Zahrtmann !

For anybody who would like to read the translation of Leonora’s autobiography I believe there is a Guttenburg e-book available:

 http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/38128?msg=welcome_stranger

Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. Part 2 – Pedro Américo

In my last blog I talked about my visit to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro and featured one of the great Brazilian artists, Victor Meirelles.  Some would have us believe that he was the greatest Brazilian artist of all times, whilst others would put forward the name of Pedro Américo for that honour.  A number of Américo’s works were on show at the museum so in this blog I want to look at his life and feature some of his paintings I saw as well as look at others, which are on show in other Brazilian cities.

Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello
Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello

Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello was born in April 1843 in the municipality of Areia in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Paraíba.  As far as the art world was concerned he was simply known as Pedro Américo.  He was one of six children of Daniel Edward Figueiredo, a merchant and Feliciana Cime.  He was brought up in an artistic household with his father a keen violinist, who taught him music and drawing and through art books got him interested in the paintings and lives of the Old Masters.  Américo’s biographers all agree that he was an avid learner and soon developed a precocious talent for drawing. As far as drawing was concerned he was a gifted child and some believed he was a child prodigy.  His amazing artistic ability soon became common knowledge in Rio and when, in 1852, a scientific expedition to the north east of Brazi, led by the French naturalist, Louis Jacques Brunet,  arrived in Rio the leader visited Pedro’s home to see his work.  He also tested his draughtsmanship by getting the young boy to copy a few objects.  Brunet was so impressed with the results that he signed him up as an auxiliary draughtsman on his scientific expedition  during which time he would pictorially document the flora, fauna and landscape encountered on the journey.  Pedro Américo had yet to celebrate his tenth birthday but with his father’s blessing, he set off on the twenty-month expedition.

The artistic work he produced was so good that he was awarded a place at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes, but being too young his placement was postponed for a year and as a stop-gap, he attended the Colégio Pedro II in Rio de Janeiro, where he studied Latin, French, Portuguese, arithmetic, drawing and music.  In 1856 he took up his place on a three-year course of Industrial Design at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.  At the academy he honed his skill as a draughtsman and painter and his progress was rapid.  He was an outstanding student and won many medals for his work.

The court of the Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II came to hear about Pedro Américo’s artistic talent and the emperor, who was a great art lover and patron of the arts, was amazed by his artistic skill and before Pedro had completed his studies the Emperor had arranged to finance a European scholarship for him. Pedro accepted the travel scholarship, the terms of which were, in return for a three-year funding, he would attend the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts, conform to the rigid disciplines of the Academy and regularly send back works he had completed, such as life studies and copies of the paintings of the Old Masters, so that it could be verified that he had been hard working and that he was progressing with his art.  Going to Europe and attending the Académie was the greatest gift an artist could receive.

Pedro Américo arrived in Paris in May 1859 and aged just sixteen enrolled at the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  It was at this prestigious school of art that he was taught by the great French painters of the time, such as the neo-classical historical painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hippolyte Flandrin and the battle painter Horace Vernet.  Not satisfied with just improving his art he also wanted to expand his knowledge with regards other subjects.  He availed himself of the opportunity to study physics at the Paris Institute of Physics and he also attended the University of the Sorbonne.  Here he studied architecture, theology, literature and philosophy, with tutors in these fields such as the French philosopher, Victor Cousin and the French physiologist, Claude Bernard. Pedro Américo took advantage of the opportunity of attending lectures on physics by Michael Faraday and on archaeology by Charles Ernest Beule.  Besides his artistic talent, one must never overlook Pedro Américo’s all-round intelligence.   His essay Refutation of the Life of Jesus by Renan won him the decoration of the papal order of the Holy Sepulchre.   He gained a bachelor’s degree in natural science from the Sorbonne, with his thesis Considerações Filosóficas sobre as Belas Artes entre os Antigos (Philosophical Considerations on the Fine Arts among the Ancients).

A Carioca by Pedro Américo (1882)
A Carioca by Pedro Américo (1882)

During his time at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, he won a number of prizes for his works of art.  One of the paintings Pedro Américo completed, around 1863, whilst studying at the Académie and which he sent back home for inclusion in the seventeenth General Exhibition, held at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio, was entitled A Carioca.   Carioca is a Brazilian word that is used to refer to the native inhabitants of the city of Rio de Janeiro.  It was a painting of a nude woman who was to symbolize the Brazilian indigenous population.  It was painted in a classical style, and could well have been influenced by Turkish Bath, a painting which his former tutor, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, which he had completed a year earlier.  With this work Pedro had probably aimed to turn the classical theme of a nymph from Greek mythology into a Brazilian theme.  The work received a Gold medal and Pedro decided that he would give the painting to the Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who had agreed to fund his training in Europe.  His gift however was not well received by the court officials who were shocked by the full frontal nudity and they considered the painting to be shockingly immoral and not fit for the walls of the palace.   The painting was returned to Pedro Américo, who had by then moved to  Florence.  The painting was eventually sold to Emperor Wilhelm of Prussia.   In 1882, almost twenty years later, Pedro Américo painted another version of the work, which he completed in 1882, and which is shown above.  This work is housed at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio.

Moses and Jochebed by Pedro Américo (1884)
Moses and Jochebed by Pedro Américo (1884)

Another of his paintings in a classical style was one he completed in 1884, which is entitled Moisés e Jocabed (Moses and Jochebed).   The painting is based on the Old Testament story of Jochebed, who was the mother of Moses and her dilemma regarding the news that the Egyptian Pharaoh, being afraid that the Jews in his country would one day join a foreign army and rise up against the Egyptians, ordered all male Hebrew babies to be killed.  Jochebed had just given birth to a son, Moses, whom she believed was going to be murdered, and so took a basket and coated the bottom with tar, to make it waterproof. Then she put the baby in it and set it among the reeds on the bank of the River Nile.  The story goes on to tell that at that same time, the Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing in the river and one of her maidservants saw the basket and brought it to her.  In the painting we see mother standing by the river with her baby, agonizing over decision.

After time spent in Italy, Pedro Américo returned to Rio in 1864 and took up the post as the Chair of Drawing at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.   However the following year he had once again left Brazil and was to be found in Europe.  This time he had set up home in Brussels and attended the University where he gained a Doctorate of Science in 1868.

The Emperor's speech (Pedro II of Brazil in the oppening of the General Assembly) by Pedro Américo (1872)
The Emperor’s speech (Pedro II of Brazil in the oppening of the General Assembly) by Pedro Américo (1872)

The following year Pedro Américo set off to return to Brazil but made a stop-over in Lisbon where he stayed at the home of one of his former tutors, Manuel de Araujo Porto Alegre.  A year on, Pedro was still in Lisbon and was now married to his host’s daughter, Carlota.  The couple went on to have two children, a daughter Carlota and a son, Eduardo.  The couple returned to Rio in 1870, where he once again gave lectures at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.  The subject of his lectures included aesthetics, archaeology and the history of art.  As another way of earning money he also provided caricatures for the satirical magazine, A Comédia Social (The Social Comedy).  He  completed a number of portraiture commissions including one of Emperor Dom Pedro II completed in 1872, entitled, Speech from the Throne.

Batalha de Campo Grande by Pedro Américo (1871)
Batalha de Campo Grande by Pedro Américo (1871)

He continued to paint historical works including the large painting (332cms x 550cms) Batalha de Campo Grande in 1871 which is housed in the Imperial Museum at Petrópolis, a city, north west of Rio.    The Emperor and his government were so pleased with the finished work that they made Pedro Américo Pintor Histórico da Real Câmara (Historical Painter of the Royal Chamber) and this led to him being commissioned to paint a historical work depicting a battle scene.  The battle scene he chose to depict was one which took place close to the River Avai and was a battle between the Triple Alliance forces (Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina) and those of Paraguay.  His fellow artist Victor Meirelles had been commissioned, at the same time, to paint another scene from this six-year long war (Battle of Guararapes) – see my previous blog.

Battle of Avaí by Pedro Américo (1877)
Battle of Avaí by Pedro Américo (1877)

Pedro Américo accepted the commission but decided that he needed time away from his homeland in order to concentrate on the commission.  He and his wife left Brazil and travelled to Florence.  The Italian government provided him with a studio in a room at the Convent of the Santissima Annunziata, and it was here he remained for three years whilst he concentrated on the monumental historical work.  Pedro Américo completed the war scene which was entitled Battle of Avai in 1877 and it was exhibited in the Italian city in the presence of the Brazilian emperor, Pedro II.  The painting was then shipped to Rio de Janeiro where it was exhibited at the Exposicao Geral de Belas Artes the annual exhibition of the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.   The exhibited work met with mixed reviews.  Most loved it and were in awe of its size but there were a few detractors who accused Pedro Américo of plagiarism as they believed the work was too similar to a battle scene depiction entitled Battle of Montebelo.  Notwithstanding the adverse comments, Pedro Américo’s battle scene is an amazing work of art.  This monumental painting measures 600cms x 1100cms (almost 20ft high and 36ft wide).  It is a monster of a painting, full of detail and one’s eyes dart from place to place on the canvas to try and take in all the details.

The two war paintings on display at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.
The two war paintings on display at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.

Standing in the long room at the museum one can see the two monumental paintings depicting battles during the Paraguayan War by Victor Meirelles and Pedro Américo almost side by side.  It is an amazing spectacle.

David and Abishag by Pedro Américo (1879)
David and Abishag by Pedro Américo (1879)

In 1879 Pedro Américo completed another painting based on an Old Testament story.  It was about the elderly King David.  In the book of 1 Kings verse 1-4,  it is written:

“…When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his attendants said to him, “Let us look for a young virgin to serve the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.”

Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful young woman and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The woman was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no sexual relations with her…”

In November 1889, Dom Pedro II’s reign came to an end with a military coup.  The Empire was dead and from the ashes of the Empire rose the Republic of Brazil.  It was a time of reform.  It was a time when those who had been close to the Emperor were ostracised as a  consequences of such an association.  Like my previous featured artist, Victor Meirelles, who like Pedro Américo had been a favourite of the Emperor and closely associated with the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, he was dismissed from his post.  Later however Pedro was elected a member of parliament for Paraíba but due to the onset of ill health rarely attended meetings. For health reasons he left Rio in 1894 and returned to Florence where he lived out his days and as well as painting found time to write two novels.  He died in October 1905 aged 62.

Adolphe-William Bouguerau. Part 3. A change of genre

Rest in Harvest by William Bouguereau (1865)
Rest in Harvest by William Bouguereau (1865)

This is my third and final look at the life and works of the Classical French artist, Adolphe-William Bouguereau.  In Part 1, I looked at his History painting Dante and Virgil and in Part 2 looked at one of his many religious works, The Flagellation of Christ. Today I want to look at a completely different type of work he began to paint at the start of the 1850’s.  Why, if his classical History paintings were so successful, did he want a change of artistic genre?  The simple answer has to be money.  The commissions he once received from the church for his monumental religious works and the private commissions for his large History paintings had dwindled and he had a growing family to support.  He needed to increase his income.

In my last blog I looked at Bougereau’s early life.  I had reached the stage when through the financial backing of his aunt and money he had accrued by painting small portraits of the parishioners, who attended his curate uncle, Eugène’s church, he could head to the art capital of the world, Paris, and continue his studies.  The year was 1846 and Bouguereau was almost twenty-one years of age.  Through the recommendation of his former tutor at L’École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture in Bordeaux, Jean-Paul Alaux, he was accepted into the studio of François-Edouard Picot at Paris’ École des Beaux Arts.  Picot’s reputation had been built on his mythological, religious and historical paintings and so was the ideal mentor to Bouguereau who had always admired the academic History works of art. His enrolment at the prestigious art school was a dream come true for Bouguereau as such an acceptance into this celebrated art establishment was the ultimate goal of all aspiring artists and it was the beginning of becoming accepted by the official artistic fraternity.

His artistic training at L’École des Beaux Arts was the standard academic type with its rigid tenets regarding the importance of draughtsmanship, life drawing, technical proficiency and ultimately the training to become a classic History painter and Academic portraitist.  Many artists found the strict regimentation of the tuition too authoritarian and suffocating but Bouguereau was a true believer in the academic training and remained so all his life.  In 1850, at his third attempt, Bouguereau was awarded one of the two Premier Grand Prix de Rome for the best Historical painting.  It was entitled Zénobie Retrouvée par les Bergers sur les Bords de l’Araxe  (Zenobia Discovered by Shepherds on the Bank of the River Araxes).  His prize was a three year stay at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, during which time he also had the opportunity to travel around Italy and its countryside and studied and made copies of the works of the great Renaissance masters.

Fraternal Love by Bouguereau (1851)
Fraternal Love by Bouguereau (1851)

One of Bouguereau’s first paintings which saw a change in his style was completed in 1851 and was entitled Fraternal Love which can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  What immediately comes to mind when you look at the scene before you?   Is it a religious or secular work?   We know that Bouguereau was a very religious man and had painted many religious works so is this simply another one?  Is this the Virgin Mary with the blonde-haired Christ Child and maybe St John?  And yet the title is a secular one with no reference to members of the Holy Family.  So let us just contemplate what we are looking at.  We see a mother and her two boys.  The younger child, who sits on his mother’s lap, holds his elder brother’s face between his chubby hands and kisses him.  The mother looks down lovingly at this demonstrative display of filial love.  She is wearing a blue dress which of course makes us immediately think of the colour blue which we see in most portrayals of the Virgin Mary.

The painting was purchased by the Boston merchant and avid art collector, Thomas Wigglesworth and at the time when he purchased the painting it was known as Madonna and Child with John the Baptist but one must remember that Bouguereau’s gave the painting the secular title of Fraternal Love and by doing so transformed the painting from a religious one into a secular genre scene and by doing so enhanced its selling prospect as there were now far more buyers who would purchase a secularized Virgin Mary than the very religious portrayal of her in Christmas Nativity scenes.

Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist by William Bouguereau (1882)
Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist by William Bouguereau (1882)

However Bouguereau did paint religious works featuring the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child and it is interesting to compare the secular painting, Fraternal Love, with the one he painted thirty years later, in 1882, entitled Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist, which is housed in the Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.  The Christ Child in this religious work still has the curly blonde hair and John the Baptist the curly dark hair which we saw in the Fraternal Love painting.  Once again we see the close connection between the two children.  The setting for this painting, in comparison with his secular work, has a more formal setting.  It is an inside setting unlike the outside scene of Fraternal Love.  In this work the Virgin Mary is seated on a white marble throne which almost takes up the full width of the work.  Behind the throne is beautiful ornate tapestry.  The inclusion of such details adds a sense of traditional art of the great Masters which he must have witnessed during his time in Italy.  The painting is a depiction of tenderness between mother and child.  Look at the pose of the Christ child as he looks down at his friend, John the Baptist.  Even at this early age, one recognises a close bond of friendship between the two.  It has to be more than just a mere coincidence that Bouguereau has depicted the Christ child with his arms fully extended outwards in a fashion that reminds us of the crucifixion that will come in the future.

In 1854 Bouguereau returned to Paris.  Two years later, in 1856, aged 31, he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon.  The couple went on to have three sons, Georges, Adolphe-Paul and William-Maurice and two daughters, Henriette and Jeanne-Léontine.   Sadly his younger daughter, Jeanne-Léontine, died in 1866 when she was just five years old, Georges died in July 1875,  aged sixteen, but the saddest of all was that his forty-year old wife Nelly died giving birth to their fifth child, William-Maurice, in 1877 and he died a seven months later.

Pieta by Bouguereau (1876)
Pieta by Bouguereau (1876)

Two of Bouguereau’s greatest works derived from the sorrow he suffered at the death of family members.  In both works he has utilised religious themes to present to the world his grief and feeling of loss.  His 1876 work entitled Pietà was thought to be based upon the Virgin and Christ of Michelangelo’s marble Pietà. Bouguereau completed the painting shortly after the death of his son Georges.

Vierge Consolatrice - The Virgin of Consolation by William Bouguereau (1875)
Vierge Consolatrice – The Virgin of Consolation by William Bouguereau (1875)

In 1877 Bouguereau dedicated a painting to his late wife Nelly who died in childbirth and his youngest William-Maurice who was seven months old when he too passed away.  It was entitled Vierge Consolatrice (Virgin of Consolation).  In the work we see the black-clad Virgin of Consolation, once again sitting on a white marble throne behind which is a large colourful tapestry.  Lying across her lap is a young woman who grieves utterly inconsolable at the death of her child, the body of whom we see lying naked at the Virgin’s feet.  The Virgin has raised her hands in prayer.   She is the intermediary between the mother and heaven.  At first glance one would be forgiven if we looked upon this work as being merely an over-sentimental painting but understanding the circumstances surrounding it, one becomes more understanding and less cynical.  It is thought that Bouguereau, who was a staunch Catholic, gained some solace from this work after the death of his wife and baby.

The Elder Sister by William Bouguereau (1869)
The Elder Sister by William Bouguereau (1869)

In 1869, before the tragic and untimely deaths of his wife and three children, Bouguereau painted a portrait of two children and used his twelve-year old daughter Henriette and her newly born brother Adolphe-Paul as models.   The work was entitled La soeur aînée (The Elder Sister) and hangs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.  According to the museum, this is one of the highlights of their collection and was an anonymous gift from a lady in memory of her father.  We see Henriette sitting, perched on a rock, cradling a sleeping infant on her lap.  The capped head of the baby lolls slightly in sleep.  Henriette looks directly out at us and smiles.  She, although bare-footed, wears clean clothes.  Her skin is without a single blemish.   Even at such an early age, one knows that she will grow up to become an exquisite beauty.  The painting has a tranquil countryside setting.  Everything is “just perfect” in the depiction of the children and the background.  This portrayal strays from realism.  It is more an idealised depiction.  Bouguereau has cleverly used a various mix of colours and merged them in such a way to create an image which has a softness to it.  There is an earthiness about the work.  The colour of Henriette’s frock/tunic clothes is the brown of the ground.  It seems to almost merge in with the colour of the foreground.

For Bouguereau, the 1870’s were a very sad time in his life with the deaths of his wife and three of his children.  The only high point for him during that decade was his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l’Institut de France.  Throughout his life Bouguereau was a staunch defender of the Academy and all that it stood for and the honour of being elected to become a member of the institute was one he cherished.  He wrote:

“…To become a member of the Institut…is the only public distinction I ever really wanted…” 

The Bohemian by William Bouguereau (1890)
The Bohemian by William Bouguereau (1890)

In 1890, Bouguerau completed  a work entitled The Bohemian which is sometimes referred to as Consuelo.   The young girl depicted in the painting almost fills the whole canvas.   She is a young gypsy girl and we see her seated on a stone bench on the Quai de Tournelle, which lies on the left Bank of the Seine.  In the background, across the river, we see Notre Dame cathedral and in the mid-ground we can just make out the Pont de l’Archevêché which straddles the Seine and links up the Left Bank with the Île de la Cité.  The girl looks out at us with a somewhat forlorn expression.  One cannot help but be moved by her dejected appearance.  Her clothes are shabby but the thickness of the fabric serves the purpose of keeping her warm.  Her dress is a dull grey but her multi-coloured shawl lightens up her appearance.   Her feet are uncovered which leads us to believe she is a beggar.  This assertion is further enforced as we see on her lap a violin which is the tool of her trade – begging for money.  This is not simply a painting about poverty.  In this work Bouguereau not only condemns the humiliation brought about by poverty but lauds those who strive to free themselves from destitution by virtues of their own endeavours.

One interesting aspect of this work is that we know it was changed by the artist.  How do we know that?  There is a photograph of this painting when it was “initially completed” by Bouguereau in 1889.  Bouguereau had decided to employ the photographers, Braun & Clement to photograph his complete collection of unsold works.  The photograph of The Bohemian showed a wall of bare stone behind the girl, which completely cut off any view of the River Seine or the bridge spanning it to the Île de la Cité.   It is thought that having not sold the painting that year a prospective buyer in 1890 asked for a “better” background to be added to the scene.   Bouguereau complied with the request and repainted part of the work.  There is also sign that the “8” and the “9” had been altered and over-painted with the numerals “9” and “0”, changing the completion date from 1889 to 1890.

The Young Shepherdess by Bouguereau (1885(Bouguereau painted many works featuring peasant girls.  This was an extremely popular subject in 19th century paintings.  For French artists of the time, including William Bouguereau the country peasant was somebody who lived a simple and honest life and got by through their laudable work ethic.  For the city dwellers who had not rubbed shoulders with a peasant they formed their visual understanding of who peasants were from the shepherds and shepherdesses with their multi-coloured clothes whom they saw depicted in Italian opera and theatre.  Bouguereau’s depiction of peasants was almost all of women and girls.  The setting for his portrayals of them and what they wore was often the same –  simple white blouses, overdresses of muted colours and thick material, set off by multi-coloured and multi-patterned shawls.  The female peasant was depicted bare-footed and  standing, seated or lying in some country scene such as a field or wood.  Bouguereau tended to steer clear of any other countryside indicators such as farming equipment or farm animals such as grazing sheep or cows.

Bouguereau, like all artists, needed to sell his work.  His clients were often middle and upper-middle class Parisians and the one thing the buyers did not want to be reminded of was the inequalities of life.  They did not want to be made to feel guilty about the social realities of their life and those of the peasant classes.   Unlike some of his contemporaries who were social realist painters and wanted to “accuse” through the depiction of the lower classes in their paintings highlighting how they suffered under an unjust economic system, Bouguereau’s depiction of peasant girls was all about their beauty, and little to do with any resentment or  condemnation of the class system.  His depiction of the peasant class was often very moving if, on occasions, heart-rending, but the peasants were never depicted as being threatening.   An artist and contemporary of Bouguereau, René Ménard,  wrote of Bouguereau’s depiction of the female peasants:

“… Rusticity is not with this painter and instinctive sentiment, and he paints a patched petticoat he yet suggests an exquisitely clean figure:  the naked feet he gives peasant-women seem to be made rather for elegant boots than for rude sabots; and, in a word, it is as if the princesses transformed into rustics by the magic wand in fairy tales had come to be models for his pictures, rather than the fat-cheeked lasses whose skin is scorched by the sun and whose shoulders are accustomed to heavy burdens…” 

After the death of his wife Nelly in 1877, Bouguereau lived in his house in Paris with his mother and two surviving children, Henriette and Adolphe-Paul and had taken up a post as professor at the Académie Julian in Paris.   This was a more liberal art establishment which allowed women to attend classes.  He was well thought of by his students, especially the women who idolised him.   The female artists were very appreciative of his training method and the skill he used when working with them in a lead-up to them establishing professional artistic careers.   Many of his female students were Americans and one in particular, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, fell under his spell.  She, as well as being a student of Bouguereau, was also friendly with his late wife.   Elizabeth was twelve years younger than Bouguereau.  Between teacher and student, there developed a mutual admiration which turned to love.  He told his mother and daughter Henriette that he intended to marry Gardner.  The only rock blocking this path of true love was Bouguereau’s mother.  She was a very religious person who had never been happy with the way her son had depicted so many nude figures in his classical works.  When it came to Bouguereau falling for another woman after his wife’s death, she was vociferous in her opposition to Bouguereau and Gardner marrying or living under the same roof as her and his children and so the pair’s courtship had to become more discreet and lasted almost twenty years until Bouguereau’s mother died.  Shortly after her death, in 1896, the couple married.  He was 71 and she was 59.

His daughter Henriette also married around that time, and Bouguereau was happy with her choice of husband.  However in 1900, tragedy was to strike again with his son Adolphe-Paul, who was a lawyer,  suddenly dying.  He was just thirty years old.  Bouguereau was devastated and it precipitated a deterioration of his health.  Despite this, he continued to paint and exhibit his works at the Salon.  He contracted a heart disease which although he fought hard to survive, he died a few months short of his eightieth birthday, in August 1905 at his home in rue Verdière in La Rochelle, the town where he was born.

Near the end of his life he described his love of his art:

“…Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable…” 

Bouguereau was a workaholic.  He once sent a letter to his first wife in which he wrote:

“…When I cannot work, I am unhappy…”

And in a diary entry he wrote:

“…I rise every day at seven and breakfast then paint all day, with a light lunch at three which doesn’t interrupt my work…” 

He was always a firm believer in Academic art and Academic teaching.  He never wavered and he was often ridiculed for this view of how art should be.  La peinture bouguereauté was the derisory term given to French Salon artists and to students who painted badly!

During his lifetime he painted eight hundred and twenty-six paintings. To many people, Bouguereau was one of the greatest classical painters of his time, and some even compared him to Raphael.   However along with his admirers he had his fair share of detractors who criticized him. One such group of artists were the Impressionists who were hell-bent to rid themselves of  the shackles of traditional schools of painting. To them artists like Bouguereau were a regressive influence and hindered their move towards a new style of art.  To many people Bouguereau’s art was overburdened with sentimentality and that it was over-romanticizing.  To some, however, his art is full of beauty, compassion and piety.  I will leave you to decide which view you subscribe to.

As usual I have collated lots of information from the internet and reference books but most of the information was gleaned from an excellent book I treated myself to and which is yet another addition to my collection.  If you are interested in Bouguereau and his work I do suggest you buy it.  It is not expensive but is a true gem.  The title is Bouguereau and is by Fronia E. Wissman, an author who has written or contributed to a number of books about French artists.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Part 2 – The painter of Religious Scenes and his painting The Flagellation of Christ

Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)
Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)

My blog today looks at another of Bouguereau’s great history paintings.  This is one of his religious works and has all the ferocity of his painting Dante and Virgil, which I featured in my last blog.  Whether you are a lover of religious historic paintings or not, I defy you to be unmoved by the beauty of this work.  Bouguereau was a devout catholic and looked upon his religious paintings as a form of his worship of both God and mankind.  Bouguereau’s religious belief can be plainly seen in his religious works.  The painting I am featuring today is entitled The Flagellation of Christ, which he completed in 1880. Before I discuss the painting let me tell you a little about his life.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau was born in the French Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle in November 1825.  His father was Theodore Bouguereau, a seller of wine and olive oil.  His father struggled to make much money from his business and because of the financial hardship and family tensions William was sent to live with his uncle Eugène Bouguereau, who was curate in the town of Montagne, some twenty kilometres from Bordeaux.   This enforced move to his uncles was to prove highly fortuitous for the young boy as it was his uncle who introduced him to the world of Roman and Greek mythology and had him read the stories from the Old and New Testaments.  At the age of thirteen, William’s uncle arranged for him to attend the high school at Pons where he attended his first drawing classes under the guidance of Louis Sage, a young classical painter who had once studied under Ingres.   He remained at the school for three years.  In 1841, he eventually moved to Bordeaux where his father had set up his business and once again William was with his family.  William joined in his father’s business but at the same time, in 1842, he was allowed to enrol on a two-year part-time course at the city’s École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture.  Here he studied under  Jean-Paul Alaux, the French landscape painter and lithographer.  He could not attend full-time because of his promise to help his father during the day, and so, he only attended art classes in the early morning and in the late evening.  Despite being a part-time student he excelled in what he did and in 1844 he won first prize for the best History painting with his depiction of Saint Roch.     Following this award William Bouguerau realised that his future was indelibly tied to art.  To earn some money for himself he designed lithographic labels for jars of jams and other preserves.

Bouguereau realised that to progress with his art he needed to be in Paris which was, at that time, considered the capital of the art world.   However to live in the French capital required money, a commodity he lacked.  His father’s business was not successful enough for him to give his son the money but fortunately for William, his uncle Eugène, the curate, once again proved to be his salvation.  He arranged for William to paint portraits of his parishioners for a fixed fee and after months of portraiture he had amassed nine hundred francs.  A similar sum was given to him by his aunt and he was all set to head to Paris.

The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)
The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)

In my third and final blog about Bouguereau I will finish his life story but for today I want to focus on another of his great History paintings, his religious work entitled The Flagellation of Christ.   He exhibited this work at the 1880 Paris Salon.  It is a monumental work measuring 390 x 210 cms (almost 13ft high and 7ft wide).  One can easily imagine how it stood out from all the other works on show at the exhibition. This is acknowledged as being one of Bouguereau’s greatest religious works.  In this painting, Bouguereau has depicted Christ, tied to a column.  Christ’s body hangs down almost lifelessly with his feet dragging on the ground.  His head droops backwards.  His eyes are blank and unfocused. He is utterly powerless.  He can do little to stop the ferocious onslaught.  Unlike Bouguereau’s painting Dante and Virgil which I featured in the last blog, he has made no attempt to exaggerate the musculature in his portrayal of Christ’s body.  The body of Christ is that of a normal human being.  It is just like ours and in doing this Bouguereau has allowed us more easily to empathise with Christ’s suffering and pain.

A look of concern
A look of concern

We see Christ’s tormentors, two men, who stand on either side of him, arms raised in mid swing with their knotted rope whips airborne.  In the right foreground we see a third man kneeling.  He is in the process of tying up birch branches which will be used later to flagellate their prisoner.  Look at his facial expression.  It is one of concern.  It appears that maybe he is not convinced that what he sees before him is justified.  It is if he is beginning to question his part in the flogging.    In the background an inquisitive crowd gather to witness the flogging.  This is not a leering and jeering crowd we have seen in many of the crowd scenes in Northern Renaissance works.  This group of people cannot be likened to the snarling mob we have seen in earlier Passion of Christ depictions.

A child looks on
A child looks on

An old man in the crowd, maybe the father, lifts a baby aloft for him or her to get a better view.  There is little sign of compassion on the faces of the crowd.  Maybe they have accepted the charges that have been laid against Christ and feel that he needed to be punished.  However there is one exception.

Look closely at the far left of the background.  We see a young boy in a long green tunic who has turned away in horror of what is happening and has burrowed his head in the clothing of the woman who has wrapped her arm around him in a comforting gesture.  Maybe it is his mother.  Maybe she is horrified by what her young son has witnessed and is trying belatedly to protect him.  In the mid-background, there is a man wearing a white vest and grey headband.  He grips a sheath of birch branches and is readying himself to take part in the flogging.  There are a number of examples where the artist has decided to insert his own image into a work and Bouguereau has done the same in this painting.

The artist looks on
The artist looks on

Look at the face in the background to the right of the man wearing the white top and head band.  There, gazing between the spectators is a man with red hair and a red beard.  His brow is furrowed signifying his unease of what he sees before him.  This is believed to be the face of the artist himself.  He, like us, looks on at the terrible scene.

The size of the work almost certainly precluded the sale of it to a private individual and in 1881 Bouguereau gave it to the Society of Friends of the Arts in his home town of La Rochelle.  This majestic work can now be found at the Baptistery of La Rochelle Cathedral, France. 

Bouguereau never lost his love of Greek and Roman mythology which he had been brought up on from early age by his uncle Eugène.   As I said earlier, Bouguereau was a very religious man and religious imagery was a persistent theme in his paintings.   Often his religious works focused on sad and moving events and it is believed they mirrored the anguish and suffering he endured with the loss of loved ones in his own life, which I will talk about  next time.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Part 1 – The History Painter and his painting, Dante and Virgil

Self Portrait by William Bouguereau (1879)
Self Portrait by William Bouguereau (1879)

In my next three blogs I want to look at the life and some of the works of one of the greatest and most prolific nineteenth century French painters, Adolphe-William Bouguereau.   At a time when many of his contemporaries were railing against academic art, Bouguereau was a staunch supporter of it.  He was a pure traditionalist.  So why did he support the establishment’s stance on art and the establishment’s method of training aspiring artists when many of his contemporaries were vociferous in their condemnation of all that the art establishment stood for?  To answer that question, one must look at the way art was taught in France or more precisely in the case of Bouguereau,  how it was taught in Paris which was then considered the art capital of the world.  Artistic training in that city was centred on the government-sponsored art school, the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, which was founded in the mid seventeenth century as the Académie des Beaux-Arts and once it had become independent from the government in 1863 changed its name to L’École des Beaux-Arts.

Viila Medici, the French Academy in Rome
Viila Medici, the French Academy in Rome

It was here that young men (women were not admitted until 1898) were taught how to draw.   The actual teaching of putting paint on canvas was carried out in private studios which were often run by the professors of the school.   Artistic training was thorough and aspiring artists had to reach high standards before they were allowed to proceed with the course.  They would also have to enter work into a number of in-house competitions.  The most prestigious award being the Prix de Rome, which was given to the artist who submitted the best History painting.  Bouguereau won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1850, with his painting  Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes. His reward was the chance to attend the Villa Medici, which was the French Academy in Rome, and remain there for four years.  During that time the student would have the opportunity to study the classical art of the Italian Renaissance masters.  The reason why the French art establishment believed that this was so important was their belief that no artist had ever achieved the level of excellence attained by the likes of Raphael, Titian or Michelangelo.  In their opinion, every aspiring artist was duty bound to emulate this type of art.

The Parisian art establishment which oversaw the running of L’École des Beaux-Arts issued artists with an official list detailing which genre of paintings they considered more important than others.  This hierarchy of genres was headed by History painting and the reason for that was that it somehow represented all the artistic skills the young artists had been taught during their passage through the Academy system. History paintings were generally very large works, and thus were nearly always destined to be hung in public places such as in churches, or the spacious rooms of government buildings or on gallery walls. History paintings delved into the world of classical, mythological, literary and religious events which had taken place in bygone days. Within this top-placed genre there was the allegorical works which, through their depiction, carried symbolic messages about good and evil. It was in these works that the depiction of nude figures, were considered acceptable and it was from years of studying the human figure in life drawing classes at the Academy that the aspiring artists were able to skilfully show off what they had been taught.

Once an artist had trained at the academy, he and later she, had to face up to the fact that to survive they had to sell their work.  In the past the government, the church and the wealthy aristocracy were the buyers of art works but it soon became obvious that their commissioning power was becoming limited and the new buyers of art were the Parisian people of middle and upper-class standing who had the money and wanted to fill their grand houses with fine art.  So where could these new buyers get their hands on fine works of art?  Parisian art dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Adolphe Goupil did not become buyers and sellers of art until the mid nineteenth century.  Before then the most prestigious way of selling your paintings was to get them accepted at the Paris Salon’s annual exhibition.  Simply referred to as the Salon, it began in 1725 as the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. These were massive exhibitions in which artist’s works, once they had passed the scrutiny of the Salon jurists, were exhibited floor-to-ceiling and on every available inch of wall space.   Potential buyers were then able to see, in one space, the art work that was on offer.  One can therefore realise that for a work to sell, not only had it to be pleasing on the eye of a potential buyer but it had to have been hung in a prominent position at the Salon exhibition.  The advantage the History painters had over others was the monumental size of their works which often dwarfed their “competition” and therefore were always placed in a prominent position.  

Dante And Virgil by William Bouguereau (1850)
Dante And Virgil by William Bouguereau (1850)

In my next two blogs I want to look at two monumental history painting completed by Bouguereau, one secular, the other religious, but both follow the artistic traditions laid down by the Academy.   Today I am featuring the secular work, entitled Dante and Virgil in Hell, which is housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  This is a truly breathtaking work and is a prime example of classic art with so much attention paid to the musculature of the human body.  The first thing that strikes one about this painting is its unfettered ferocity, which has the effect of either you wanting to turn away from it in shock or you stare at it in a mesmeric state.

The setting for the work comes from Dante Alghieri’s 14th century epic poem, The Divine Comedy, which recounts the journey made by Dante through Hell along with his guide the ancient Roman poet, Virgil.  The poem tells us that Hell is made up of nine concentric circles within the bowels of Earth.  Each of the circles houses people who have committed certain types of sin.  Bouguereau’s painting depicts the two travellers arriving at the Eighth Circle of Hell.  This is the Circle which houses the deceased falsifiers.   This Circle, nicknamed Malebolge (evil pouches) is unlike the other Circles for it is surrounded by a wall of dull iron-coloured stone, and the valley itself is divided into ten secondary circles or pouches.  The setting for Bouguereau’s work is the tenth pouch of the eighth Circle of hell. We see Dante and Virgil watching a fight between two damned souls. 

So who are the two main characters depicted fighting in the painting and why are they condemned to stay in this Circle of Hell, which is the home of alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and imposters?  Dante Alghieri would have known about the two men.  One is Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist from Sienna who was put to death by public burning at the stake in August 1293.  The other is Gianni Schicchi who is condemned to Hell for impersonating Buoso Donati and making his will highly favourable to himself.  The story goes that after the wealthy Florentine, Buoso Donati, died in 1299; his relatives conducted a frenetic search for his will.  The will was eventually found but to the relatives’ horror Donati had left most of his money and possessions to the local monks. The relatives then turn to the scheming but ingenious Gianni Schicchi, who has the gift of mimicry, to help them find a solution and save their inheritance.   Schicchi has no love for the money-grabbing relatives but however agrees to impersonate Buoso Donati, as nobody, other than the relatives, knows of his death.  Schicchi successfully passes himself off as the deceased Donati and changes the will.  The irony is that Schicchi, in changing the will, ends up giving himself most of the possessions belonging to the dead man.  The relatives were powerless to do anything as they were involved in the deception!   This usurping the identity of a Donati in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance has condemned him to the Eighth Circle of Hell.

The bite to the throat
The bite to the throat

The foreground of the painting is well lit and like the powerful light almost acts as a spotlight which has picked out the two fighting adversaries, Schicchi and Capocchio, in the foreground,.  Capocchio, the heretic and alchemist is attacked and bitten on the throat by Gianni Schicchi, the usurper.  He acts like a vampire.  In the background shadows we see Dante and Virgil standing together.  Virgil is dressed in a red cloak and hat and Dante is dressed in grey.  Virgil looks down at the fighters but Dante has covered his mouth in horror at what he sees before him.  However Dante’s eyes are not fixed on the fighting but at something to the right, out of picture.  So what is he looking at?   Maybe it is more naked writhing bodies similar to those which we see below the winged demon.  

Dante and Virgil the onlookers
Dante and Virgil the onlookers

Virgil has taken hold of Dante and wants him to move on away from this horrific scene.  Hovering above them is a flying demon which we see depicted against the fiery red background of Hell. 

The smiling flying demon
The smiling flying demon

The demon has a wide smile as he sees the men below tearing each other apart.  On the floor by the fighting couple we see a man wracked in pain, the punishment for his past sins. 

Nails dig into flesh and draw blood
Nails dig into flesh and draw blood

Look carefully how Bouguereau has embellished the muscle structure of the two men.  Look how the distortion of the bodies in their over-elaborate poses has added an animal-like ferocity to the painting.  I particularly like the way Bouguereau has exaggerated the depiction of Schicchi’s violent stretching of Capocchio’s skin, his finger nails starting to draw blood whilst his knee, which has slammed into Capocchio’s back, bends his victim’s spine.

The 19th century French art critic and poet Théophile Gautier was very complimentary about Bouguereau’s painting, saying:

“…Gianni Schicchi throws himself at Capocchio, his rival, with a strange fury, and Monsieur Bouguereau depicts magnificently through muscles, nerves, tendons and teeth, the struggle between the two combatants. There is bitterness and strength in this canvas – strength, a rare quality!..” 

It is a magnificent work of art albeit a very disturbing one.   In my next blog I will feature another of Bouguereau’s history paintings, a religious one, which like today’s work has an undeniable feel of savagery, which makes the viewer nervously unsettled by what they see before them.