This is just a short mini-blog to look at a twentieth century Impressionist from Iceland, Ásgrímur Jónsson
Ásgrímur Jónsson wasat the forefront of Icelandic art. He was a pioneer of Icelandic visual art and the first Icelander to become a professional painter. Ásgrímur was born on March 4th, 1876, in Suðurkot, a small town thirty kilometres south west of Reykjavik.
In 1897 he left home and went to Copenhagen. In 1900, aged twenty-four, he enrolled on a three-year art course at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Once qualified, he toured a number of European countries before settling back down in Iceland in 1910. On his journey home he visited Germany and the cities of Berlin and Weimar and it was during this period that he became influenced by the French Impressionists and the Post Impressionists, especially the landscape works of the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
Ásgrímur’s main painting genre was landscape art and especially that of his native Iceland and through his art many native artists would follow his lead. His depictions of nature were fashioned by the romance of the nineteenth century. He liked to focus his depictions on the changes of light and how it altered the view of the land. He alternated between watercolours and oils but is best known for the former medium.
He was a great believer in Naturalism in art – the broad movement in the nineteenth century which represented things closer to the way we see them. However later his works were characterised by colourful expressionism.
Ásgrímur also worked as a pioneer in the illustration of Icelandic legends and adventures. He pictorially depicted Icelandic Folk Legends delving into the world of elves and trolls who lived in the semi-darkness of the old turf farmhouse and who would kidnap humans. Tales of pastors haunting their wives-to-be, of witches flying to Satanic gatherings, of sheep-rustling and flying bulls. A land where humans live inside hills, where witches flying on jawbones instead of broomsticks, and tales which rarely have happy endings.
Ásgrímur’s works on folklore themes were well received. The art critics delighted in his depictions and that Iceland’s folktale heritage was being addressed, for the first time, by an Icelandic artist. Ásgrímur’s depictions of the appearance of elves and trolls also met with widespread approval from the public who believed he had succeeded in capturing the way that they imagined their folklore characters to be. For Ásgrímur Jónsson it was all about the viewer’s own imagination when they looked at these folklore works and it was a reminder of the beauty of their land when they looked at his landscape paintings. Today the folklore paintings form part of the unique cultural heritage conserved in the collections of the National Gallery of Iceland.
Ásgrímur Jónsson died on April 5th, 1958, aged 82. The Ásgrímur Jónsson’s collection, which is today a department within the National Gallery of Iceland, originated in 1960 when a small gallery was opened in Ásgrímur’s studio and home, which he bequeathed to the Icelandic nation along with all of his works in his own possession upon his death.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The result of this coming together of east and west can be seen in her Impressionist portraits.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It would have been almost impossible to actually paint plein air in oils in the chaotic marketplaces, so Hilda resorted to completing many outdoor pencil and crayon sketches and then later fashioned a completed work when she returned to her hotel. Her painting style had changed and was now more in line with the Post Impressionists. An example of this is her work entitled MoroccoMarketplace with the Pile of Oranges. It is a good example of the changes that her style underwent in Morocco. Now she is painting with flowing brush strokes in thick slabs of impasto, a technique used in painting, where paint is laid on an area of the surface in very thick layers, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. The scene is framed by buildings in the background and strewn across the foreground we see a large pile of oranges. The mountain women are wearing red striped skirts and bright haiks, the large pieces of cotton, silk, or wool cloth worn as an outer garment by some Moroccan women.
In 1914 she completed her painting entitled Men in the Market Place, Tangier. It is set during the late afternoon once all the shops had closed and in front of us are a group of men deep in conversation. She has cleverly used a much-reduced palette of pale blues, creams, browns, and yellows. We do not see the facial feature of the men as they are bathed in a dark grey shadow whilst the buildings behind them are bathed in late afternoon light. Hilda wrote a letter home describing how she had to endure the strong sunlight coming from the low sun. She wrote:
“…’The sun has sunken down in a daffodil bed – feeling he has well earned his rest. (But I have a bone to pick with him – he burnt my arms while sketching till they positively hurt – next time I’ll fool him & put gloves over them). The Moors have turned around from their haggling & marketing, gossiping & dreaming & murmuring to face the setting sun, their lips moving in prayer, their eyes beautiful to look upon – The pale yellow light giving a weird pallidness to the sheet of faces …”
Hilda completed a pastel drawing, Grand Marche, Tangier, which she later copied in oils. When it was exhibited in her show at Paris’ Galerie J. Chaine and Simonson in 1912 it was much admired and was bought by the French government for the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg. Centre stage in the depiction we see two women wearing red-and-white-striped cotton dresses or skirts, covered by white robes. Their legs are bare and they wear red shoes and socks. One of them pulls her white robe tighter across her upper body. The other, who has her back turned to the viewer, is carrying something on her back, which could be her young child. The art critics for the French edition of the New York Herald was impressed by Hilda Rix’s realist art, stating that in his opinion the figures in her compositions must surely have been sketched and later added to the finished work. He further commented:
“…’This artist has the ability to make lifelike images in remarkable compositions bringing outstanding realism and accurate impressions that capture the ‘types’ to be found among the Moroccan people…”
Not everybody loved the painting as the art critic of The Sydney Morning Herald commented that:
“…the drawing and colour are eccentric, after the post-impressionist manner” and described the central figure as “grotesque in its want of finish…”
The paintings which she did during her periods in North Africa led art historians to compartmentalise her as an Orientalist, a term which referred to the depiction of people or places in present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa or the Middle East, by painters from the West. In addition to displaying the results of her trip at the Salon, she also had her Tangier works exhibited in 1913 and 1914 at the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, an art society which staged not only Orientalist paintings, but also encouraged the travel of French artists in the Far East. Her work was illustrated in the Notre Gazette, reflecting her emerging status as an important artist, and there were many column inches in the French about her exhibitions.
Her colourful paintings featuring life in Morocco highlighted the powerful North African light and concentrated on the people and their colourful clothing and sometimes the local architecture. It could be levied against her that many of her depictions were idealised versions of life in Morocco and steered clear of the more squalid aspects of the poverty that pervades the area and yet in Jeanette Hoorn’s 2012 biography, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elsie Rix’s Moroccan Idyll : Art and Orientalism, she takes the opposite view, writing:
“…She did not seek out or embellish her pictures with the “orientalist” stereotypes that she had learned while growing up in Melbourne…In her writing and painting, she actively campaigned against what she saw as the fakery of “orientalism”. Her pastel drawings and oils strive to present an accurate account of the dress, manners and appearance of her subjects…”
Hoorn believed that Rix and her sister were, to a significant extent, counter-orientalist as they endeavoured to portray everyday life in Tangier as they found it, rather than presenting generalised views of the orient. Rix adopted a counter-orientalist position in lectures and articles upon her return to Australia. There were some that viewed her North African depictions as being somewhat abstract and flat and that could well be due to the influence Matisse had on her.
Matisse returned to Morocco in October of that year while it was two years later that Rix returned to North Africa, this time accompanied by her sister, who also sketched and wrote but whose main function was to be company for her sister and provide assistance and protection from enquiring bystanders while Hilda painted. Hilda was surrounded by spectators as she sketched and painted and her audience would, on occasions, halt the flow of the traffic
Another of her works from her second trip to Morocco was her 1914 painting entitled The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier. The searing North African sunlight illuminates the whitewashed buildings and the textured garments worn by the shepherds. Hilda Rix has used a striking palette of pinks, purples and oranges which is an acknowledgement of the Fauvism style of painting. Sadly, a house fire claimed many works from her African series of paintings.
Hilda and Elise returned to France in 1914. Around this time, whilst she was in her studio at Étaples, she completed a work entitled Grandmère. It is a plein air work which shows an elderly peasant woman in a beautiful garden setting affording the work a luminously colourful background. Many of Hilda’s paintings were bought by the French government, exhibited in the Salon and the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, and she was elected an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Hilda still had studios in Paris and one for the summer months spent in Étaples. The summer of 1914 she was at Étaples but the outbreak of World War I on July 28th 1914 resulted in Hilda, along with her sister Eliseand her mother evacuating to London. If that upheaval was not enough, Hilda had to endure a number of family tragedies. Her mother had been taken unwell during the Channel crossing and was admitted to hospital on arrival in England. Although Hilda’s mother was not fully recovered, she left hospital and went to recuperate at a nursing home. At the same time as the mother was extremely ill, Hilda’s sister Elise contracted typhoid and died on September 2nd 1914, aged 37. Hilda kept the death of her sister a secret from her mother who she believed was too ill to receive such sad news. Her mother slowly recovered and was later told of the death of her daughter. For the next eighteen months Hilda Rix painted few paintings presumably because she spent all her time looking after her mother and was too tired to concentrate on her paintings. She remembered the time saying:
“… I could scarcely put one foot in front of the other and walked like an old thing…”
Finally, in March 1916 Hilda’s mother, Elizabeth died.
Enter onto the scene, Major George Matson Nicholas, a soldier from Melbourne. George, usually referred to as Matson, was the eldest of six brothers. Before he enlisted in the Australian army in April 1915, he had been a schoolteacher. He fought at the Battle of Gallipoli and was wounded. Once recovered he was sent to France where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order at Pozieres, single-handedly capturing an enemy machine gun post. His regiment was based in Étaples, and according to Hilda’s stories, he found her paintings which she had left behind when she had had to quickly abandon her Étaples studios. Then, during his leave he travelled to London in pursuit of Hilda. They met in September 1916, love blossomed between the two, and on October 7th 1916 they married in St Saviour’s, Warwick Avenue in London.
Two days after the wedding Hilda completed a sketch of her husband. Three days after the wedding Major George Matson Nicholas returned to the front and assumed command of the 24th Battalion, He was shot and killed in action at the Normandy town of Flers on the Western Front on November 14th, aged 39.
Hilda was devastated and in a diary entry she wrote that she had lost the will to live. In her grief Hilda Rix Nicholas painted morbid images, symbolic of death and sacrifice in war which contrast markedly with the light and life of her French and Moroccan works. One such work was entitled These gave the world away which she completed in 1917.
Another of her war paintings was Pro Humanitate, the central panel of a triptych. It clearly depicts the futility of war and more personally for Hilda, the tragedy of her short marriage to Nicholas. The work comprised of three panels. The left-hand panel depicted an outdoor scene with a happy couple standing on top of a hill contemplating their future together; the central panel depicts a soldier husband giving his life for the cause of humanity. Hilda Rix has depicted the soldier at the moment of his death with arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose. The right-hand panel of the triptych portrays the heartbroken wife grieving and is watched over by the shadowy figure of her lost hero. Rix Nicholas offered her triptych Pro Humanitate, which depicted Australian soldiers, to the Australian War Memorial, which was building a collection of art commemorating the war, but it was rejected; the acquisitions committee described it as “of too intimate a character for inclusion in a public collection.
She painted a strange and moving painting around 1917 entitled Desolation. This work depicts an emaciated woman crying. She is shrouded in a black cloak and is squatted down staring at us. The setting is a battle-scarred landscape which lacks any vegetation. The National Gallery of Australia holds a charcoal drawing made as a study for the work. In a review, the Arts correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:
“…Desolation is almost gruesome in the grim delineation of the figure typifying all the widowed world in one lone woman. There she sits, lost in an awful reverie, over the stricken battlefield. The work is an epitome of wasteful ruin …”
Sadly, both Desolation and Pro Humanitate were destroyed in a fire.
The other day, I was looking through a list of famous nineteenth and twentieth Australian artists. The compiler of the list believed that the greatestAustralian painters were Sidney Nolan, Peter Booth, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Tom Roberts, Russel Drysdale, Frederick McCubbin, and John Olsen. I had heard of a number of these but what surprised me about the list was that it contained no female artists and so I decided to focus this blog on one such painter.
Emily Hilda Rix Nicholas was born on September 1st 1884, in the Australian city of Ballarat, some twenty-five miles north west of Melbourne. Her father, Henry Finch Rix was born in Woolwich, Kent on January 12th 1848, and her mother, Elizabeth Sutton, was born in Manchester, England in 1853. They had both emigrated as children with their families in the middle of the nineteenth century and the pair met and married in 1876. The couple had their first child, Elsie Bertha in 1877 and Hilda was born seven years later. Henry Rix was a mathematics teacher, an amateur poet and talented sportsman. He was a teacher at Bendigo, Ballarat and at Carlton. After a brief stint teaching in Ballarat, he was a mathematics master at Wesley College Melbourne for ten years between 1874 and 1884. He played for Carlton’s Australian Rules team and later became Inspector of Schools. In the book, A History of State Education in Victoria, Henry Rix was described as:
“…Of the men who have labored and passed away since 1900, Mr. H. F. Rix deserves to be especially remembered. Working under the result system, he foresaw the new day and strove to make it possible. His enthusiasm, his industry, his initiative, his research, and his sympathy made him a great inspector and a leader in educational reforms…”
Henry’s wife, Elizabeth, as well as being an accomplished singer, helped run a successful music business in Ballarat. She played an active part in the Austral Salon, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of women journalists in Melbourne in 1890 as a club for women writers. It then developed into a club whose aim was to introduce aspiring young musicians to an interested audience. She was also a talented amateur painter and had her own studio in Melbourne’s Flinders Street. Hilda and her sister Elsie being brought up in a musical household both learnt musical instruments and would perform at local shows. Elsie, like her mother, had a beautiful voice and performed at the Austral Salon. Hilda, as a small child, developed a love of drawing and painting and she and her sister would often design advertising posters for events at the Austral Salon.
Hilda attended Merton Hall High School, now Melbourne Girls Grammar School and although she was not an exceptional student she did excel in art under the tutelage of a Mr Mather. On leaving Merton Hall in 1902, eighteen-year-old Hilda enrolled on a three-year course at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School where one of her teachers was the foremost Australian Impressionist, Frederick McCubbin. Notwithstanding his standing in the art world, Hilda was critical of McCubban’s teaching style which she referred to as being “vague persuasions”. However her biographer John Pigot, in his 2000 book, Hilda Rix Nicholas: Her Life and Art, writes that the creativity of individuals rather than imitating the style of any one school of painting; he (McCubban) modelled the importance of nationalistic ideas and subjects that would become so prominent in her later painting and McCubban’s work emphasised the painting’s subject over technical considerations.
Hilda Rix’s work was so good that, although still a student, she had some of her drawings shown at annual exhibitions at the Victorian Artists’ Society and the Austral Salon. To earn herself some money she worked as a professional illustrator submitting her work for inclusion in textbooks and periodicals. Hilda was always with pencil and sketch pad and in her early days would persuade extended family members to sit for her whilst she sketched their portraits. Studies in two sketchbooks from her early years in Melbourne are now held at the National Library of Australia and in 2012 one of Rix’s early sketchbooks survives and pages from it were reproduced in Karen Johnson’s book, In Search of Beauty: Hilda Rix Nicholas’ Sketchbook Art
For most would-be artists who lived away from Europe such as Americans and Australians the Holy Grail was to visit and study art in Paris and London. Hilda’s father Henry decided to offer her a chance to sample the European art world and, in 1906, planned a family trip to England which, being as he was an educator, would also afford him the opportunity to study British education reforms. All his plans came to nought as Henry died that year, on February 27th aged just fifty-eight. His death at such a relatively young age precluded his widow from receiving a pension. After many discussions the family managed to cobble together money from an inheritance, money earnt from their rental income from their home, and finally money Hilda and her mother raised by selling off their many works of art and they were able to set sail for England early in 1907.
For Hilda, going to Europe to study art was only part of the solution to her improving her artistic skills, she needed to find a good teacher who was willing to tutor her. Before she left Australia, she spoke to Arthur Streeton, the Australian landscape painter who was the leading member of the Heidelberg School, which was also referred to as Australian Impressionism. He suggested that on arrival in London she contacted John Hassall, an English illustrator, who, in 1901, had opened his own New Art School and School of Poster Design in Kensington. When Hassall looked at Hilda’s work he was impressed by its quality and agreed to mentor her. She remained with him until the end of 1907 at which time, she, her mother and sister left England and travelled to Paris and rented an apartment in Montparnasse
In Paris Hilda made many friends who were involved in the art world, such as fellow Australian, Emanuel Phillips Fox. Fox had arrived in Paris in 1896 and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he gained first prize in his year for design. The following year he trained at the École des Beaux-Arts where two of his tutors were William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme, who were considered the greatest artists of their time. He returned to Australia in 1890 but returned to London after receiving a commission to paint a scene of the landing of Captain Cook in Australia, which had the strange caveat that he must paint the work abroad.
The 1902 painting, The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, depicts a wholly European perspective on the inauguration of relations between the British visitors and the local Aboriginal men of Botany Bay. In a post-Federation display of nationalistic projection, it shows Captain Cook stepping onto Australian land as part of a shore party, heroically interceding between the threatening local men who brandish spears and his own marines who aim to shoot them.
Hilda Rix also met Fox’s wife, Ethel, an English-born Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter.
In Paris Hilda enrolled at the Académie Delécluse, operated by academic painter Auguste Joseph Delécluse. It was an atelier-style art school which was very supportive of women artists, and, in fact, it allotted more space to women students than to men. Men and women were trained separately, and it had two studios for women and only one for men. It was an extremely popular place to learn, especially among English and American women artists. At the height of its popularity, it was one of the four best-known ateliers in Paris. From this artistic establishment, Hilda moved to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where one of teachers was the Swiss-born illustrator Théophile Steinlen. She also studied at Académie Colarossi. It was around this time that Henri Matisse had a studio in the French capital and, as was the case with other professional artists, he also sometimes attended Colarossi’s to gain access to their models which he could use, free of charge, for his work. Matisse would also open the door of his studio to aspiring artists whom he would offer tuition and have them experiment with the techniques of Post Impressionism. It could well be that this is where Hilda first met Matisse.
Whilst living in Paris, the family would travel to Italy and other parts of France including Étaples, the fishing port in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France which was so popular with artists. In 1909 Hilda Rix met and became very friendly with a Dutch architecture student Wim Brat. Their initial love ended when Hilda realised how her fiancé was a “mother’s boy” and was completely dominated by her, a woman who strongly disapproved of Hilda. Inevitably, Hilda broke off the engagement. Notwithstanding this personal setback, Hilda continued with her painting and exhibited her work at the 1911 Paris Salon. The painting, Return of the Hunt, was completed by Hilda in 1911 and depicts a woman on horseback in chocolate brown leather gloves with a large hare slung over her back.
Hilda Rix, accompanied by her sister and mother, took up residence in the rural art colony of Étaples the summer of 1910. Here she met Henry Ossawa Tanner, a well-established American artist in France, who was viewed as one of the leaders of the Étaples artists’ colony and a member of the art organization, the Société Artistique de Picardie. It was not just France and Italy which seduced artists, many started to cross the Mediterranean to paint and sketch in North Africa. Hilda Rix made two painting trips to the African continent. The first was in January 1912 when she travelled with a group of artists, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, and his wife, who were visiting Morocco via Madrid, Cordoba, and finally Algeciras, they had hoped to take a boat to Tangiers but the weather was too bad, which forced the travellers to Gibraltar for what proved a rough crossing to the Moroccan port.
Tanner being an African American and Rix being a female made them unconventional and exceptional travel and work companions on this journey. They stayed in Tangier and the northern port town of Tétouan. Matisse and Hilda Rix stayed in the Grand Hôtel Villa de France for most of February and March. They both painted views from the windows of their rooms at the hotel. Both of them worked on portraits and would use the same models and utilised an unused room in the hotel which the owner allocated to them. The room became a temporary studio space.
An example of the similar portraiture was Hilda’s painting, Hamido Sleeps and Matisse’s work, Moroccan Amido. In both cases the young model was a stable-hand at their Tangiers hotel.
In Matisse’s painting the young man stands easily and naturally, his slim long-legged form is emphasised by the narrow canvas format the artist has used. In the painting, Matisse captures the dark skin, the bright white shirt, the pure colours of the waistcoat and short trousers.
Hilda loved Tangier and spent hours sketching and painting in the open-air markets. She wrote home about how she loved Tangier and its market, writing:
“…Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me completely – have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh how I do love it all! … Oh the sun is shining I must out to work…”
Hilda Rix was fascinated by the buying and selling in the marketplace as well as the multitude of colours of the clothes worn by the people. In a letter home, dated February 12th 1912, she wrote:
“…”See how most of them are covering their faces – They have mostly cream draperies & perhaps orange waistcoats and little tight mauve green trousers – (tight at ankle) – Some may be wonderfully dressed under[neath]…”.
In a postcard she sent home a week later she wrote:
“…’Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me absolutely – Have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh I do love it all! …”
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.
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.”
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…”
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…”
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…”.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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,
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Today I am looking at the life of the nineteenth century American painter, and an important illustrator during the “golden age” of American illustration in the 1880s and 1890s. He was a leading American Impressionist, although he baulked at that “title”. Let me introduce you to Frederick Childe Hassam.
Frederick Childe Hassam was born on October 17th 1859 in the family home on Olney Street on Meeting House Hill, Dorchester, the upper middle-class suburb of Boston. He was the son of Frederick Fitch Hassam and Rosa Delia Hassam (née Hawthorne) who hailed from Maine. His father, a Boston merchant and hardware store owner, collected Americana well before this hobby became a popular pastime and he passed this interest in history along to his son. Hassam was educated at Dorchester’s Meeting House Hill School and Dorchester High School, where he studied French, German, Latin and Greek while playing several sports. Childe had his first lessons in drawing and watercolour whilst a pupil at the Mather public school in Dorchester, although his parents showed little interest in his art.
The family’s fortunes changed dramatically on November 9th 1872 with the sudden outbreak of fire in the basement of a commercial warehouse in the city. The fire burnt for twelve hours and in that time had destroyed 65 acres of Boston’s downtown, 776 buildings and much of the financial district, including Childe Hassam’s father’s business. For financial reasons, Childe had to drop out of high school without qualifying, and get a job, so as to help his family in their time of dwindling finances. His father arranged for his son to work in the accounting department of publisher Little Brown & Company, but his lack of ability to work with figures soon ended that career. Childe had talked to his parents about his love of painting and sketching and eventually persuaded his father to allow him to take up an artistic career. Childe Hassam managed to secure a position as an apprentice wood engraver with George Johnson. In a short time, Childe had proved himself to be an accomplished draughtsman producing designs for commercial engravings such as images for letterheads and newspapers.
It was around 1879 that Hassam began painting in oil but his favourite medium was watercolours. Childe Hassam’s initial formal art studies began in 1878 when he joined the Boston Art Club. The institution was founded in 1854 by local artists in order to instigate a democratic organization where there would be a collaboration in the promotion, selling and education of art. From there he enrolled at the Lowell Institute in Boston which ran classes in freehand practical design.
In 1882, Childe Hassam took part in his first public group exhibition at the Boston Art Club. Other artists at the Boston Art Club, at that time were nationally prominent painters such as William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Maurice Prendergast, and John Singer Sargent. Following his success at this exhibition Childe Hassam submitted some of his watercolour paintings for his first solo exhibition held at the William & Everett Gallery in Boston.
In 1882, Hassam became a freelance illustrator and founded his first studio. His illustration forte was his illustration of children’s stories for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Monthly magazine, and The Century. He continued to develop his technique while he attended the drawing classes at the Lowell Institute, which was a division of MIT, and at the Boston Art Club, where he took life painting classes.
The following year, his friend Celia Thaxter convinced him to drop his first name, Frederick, and thereafter he was known simply as “Childe Hassam”. He also began to add a crescent symbol in front of his signature.
Because of his formal art training was limited he was advised that he should travel to Europe and enhance his artistic knowledge. The advice came from fellow Boston Art Club member, Edmund Henry Garrett, an American illustrator, bookplate-maker, and author as well as a highly respected painter, who was renowned for his illustrations of the legends of King Arthur. Garrett persuaded Hassam to accompany him to Europe in the summer of 1883. The two travelled extensively through Great Britain, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain and during their journey they would study the Old Masters at various museums and create watercolours of the various European landscapes. While in Paris he was very much influenced by the painterly brushstrokes and pure colours of the Impressionists and it was noticeable that around this time his palette brightened and he discovered a love for depicting city subjects which would stay with him all his life. In all, Childe Hassam completed sixty-seven watercolours and these were exhibited at his second one-man exhibition in 1884.
After a long courtship, Hassam married Montreal-born Kathleen Maude Doan in February 1884 and during their lifetime together, she organised the Hassam household, arranged all her husband’s travel itineraries and looked after the other domestic tasks. She featured in a number of his paintings including his 1888 work, Geraniums, which he presented at the Salon exhibition that year.
During the early 1880s, the couple lived in Boston, and Hassam became one of a small number of American artists to paint watercolours of urban street scenes. Although he believed that his paintings had improved, he decided to return to Paris and seek further artistic tuition. In 1886 he and Maud arrived at the French capital for the start of their three year stay and Hassam attended classes at the Académie Julian, where he studied under the influential instructors Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. To make ends meet Hassam would send his oil and watercolour painting back to Boston to be sold. The money he received for them was enough for he and Maud to afford to stay in Paris. During his time in Europe, he continued to prefer mundane street and horse scenes, shunning some of the other depictions favoured by the Impressionists, such as opera, cabaret, theatre, and boating.
In 1887 he completed his painting Le Jour de Grand Prix Day which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Whereas he normally painted using a darker more tonal palette, in this work he used light colours to encapsulate the impression of a bright sunny day. The setting was the journey to Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne and the Grand Prix de Paris horse race which was held annually in June at the Longchamp track. The affluent racegoers bedecked in their finery can be seen riding atop the horse-driven coaches which travel along the tree-lined avenue Bois de Boulogne, which is now Avenue Foch. In the top left of the painting we catch a glimpse of Arc de Triomphe. A slightly larger version of the painting, which is in the New Britain Museum of American Art collection, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1888. Of the painting Childe Hassam said;
“…I am painting sunlight. . . a ‘four in hand’ and the crowds of fiacres filled with the well-dressed women who go to the ‘Grand Prix…”
He also liked to paint garden and “flower girl” scenes, some of which included a depiction of his wife, Maude, an example of which is his 1889 painting entitled Geraniums which he presented at the Salon exhibition that year. During his three-year stay in the French capital he managed to exhibit at all three Salon exhibitions.
The couple returned to America in 1889 and went to live in a New York City studio apartment a studio apartment at Fifth Avenue and Seventeenth Street. Hassam began making paintings and etchings of New York city. Hassam saw the city as a place of similar beauty and excitement to Paris especially in the fashionable neighbourhoods along Fifth Avenue and at Washington Square. It was from this apartment window that Hassam painted the view outside. His 1915 painting entitled Fifth Avenue Winter depicts the bustling Manhattan thoroughfare which was quickly becoming a popular shopping district around the time he made this work. His composition features flecks of colour and blurred forms to depict reflected light and rapid movement. The accelerated pace of modern city life is evoked by the depiction of the street full of streaming traffic, including two green double-decker buses at lower right. The fashionable street was the route taken at that time by horse-drawn carriages and trolley buses. It was one of his favourite paintings and he exhibited it several times. The work now hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Around 1892, Hassam painted a view of the busy thoroughfare in Winter. The work entitled Fifth Avenue in Winter now hangs at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art
Childe Hassam and his wife lived in New York for the rest of their lives. He would work on his illustrations in his studio and when, weather permitting, he would go out and paint landscapes en plein air. Not long after settling in the city, Childe Hassam became involved in the setting up of The New York Watercolour Club in 1890 and became its first president. The organisation, unlike the American Watercolor Society, accepted both men and women into its ranks and the Club’s first exhibition was held that year. The organisation’s exhibitions were jury-selected affairs and thus the standard of the works on show was much higher than other artistic societies. The New York Watercolor Club’s exhibitions were held in the building which was constructed as the result of the founding of the American Fine Arts Society at 215 West 57th Street in 1889. Other art organizations headquartered in the building were the American Federation of Arts, American Watercolor Society, Artists’ Aid Society, Mural Painters, and the Art Students League of New York. Its galleries also held National Academy of Design, Architectural exhibitions.
Hassam’s painting Washington Arch, Spring which he completed in 1893 is an example of why he was termed an Impressionist and also highlights his love of cityscapes and ones which depict the hustle and bustle of life on the tree-lined avenue settings which were often seen in French Impressionist paintings. The marble Roman triumphal arch is situated in Washington Square Park, in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan, New York City. The depiction of the Stanford White designed arch reminded Hassam’s of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Hassam lived just north of the Square, and so he was able to watch the various stages of its construction, transitioning from first a temporary wood and plaster structure, to the eventual beautiful marble structure which was completed in 1892. The depiction is unusual in a way as the Arch which is at the end of Fifth Avenue is partially blocked by trees. In the work, Hassam included several pedestrians along with a street cleaner and a horse-drawn carriage.
At the beginning of the 1890’s Childe Hassam focused a number of his paintings with floral depictions and many were set in the gardens of his friend, the New England poet, Celia Laighton Thaxter who lived with her father at his Appledore Hotel on the Isles of Shoals, a group of small islands and tidal ledges situated approximately 6 miles off the east coast of the United States, straddling the border of the states of Maine and New Hampshire. He painted images from Appledore Island. He said that he found the rocks and the sea are the few things that do not change and that they are wonderfully beautiful.
Among them is the 1901 view Coast Scene, Isles of Shoals, the first painting by Childe Hassam to enter the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. The oil painting is done in luminous colours, and depicts the remote Isles of Shoals off the rocky shoreline of New England, which was a favourite haunt of Childe Hassam at the end of the 19th century and where he painted a series of similar coastal scenes. Childe Hassam liked to journey out of the city and he loved to visit places such as Newport, Portsmouth, Old Lyme, Gloucester, and other New England and this urge to free himself from the bustling city made him decide to buy a summer residence.
Childe and Maude Hassam first visited East Hampton in 1898 at the invitation of his friend and fellow artist Gaines Ruger Donoho. During the next two decades the couple returned to Long Island during the spring and autumn as the guest of New York businessman Henry Pomroy. In 1919, Hassam and his wife Maude purchased Willow Bend, an eighteenth-century shingled cottage at 48 Egypt Lane. The house was sold to the Hassams by Donoho’s widow who lived next door. Childe Hassam moved into “Willow Bend” in May of 1920 and remained in the house until that October. This became their annual routine which they would maintain for the rest of his life. While in East Hampton, Hassam sought inspiration from his surroundings and found beauty in the local architecture, the uneven coastline, and the wild landscape of eastern Long Island. During his six month stays in East Hampton, Hassam produced a series of works that focused on his home and its surrounding landscape. Though Hassam rejected being associated with French Impressionists, there is an obvious influence seen in his painting Old House, East Hampton, a typical East Hampton clapboard home, with its rich colours and quick brushstrokes.
Hassam’s interest in flag subjects dates back to his time spent in Paris from 1886 to 1889. Inspired by the flags and banners displayed on Bastille Day in the area where he lived. Just Off the Avenue, Fifty-third Street, May 1916 is the first work in the flag series that Hassam painted during the First World War. The sun-dappled street, trees and façades of the grand brownstones are painted in a vibrant palette characteristic of Hassam’s technique at the height of his abilities. In the work. We see a refined residential street in New York, a favoured subject of the artist. Hassam depicts decorations for the patriotic parade that took place along Fifth Avenue and he has immersed the viewer in an atmosphere of nationalistic pride.
During the First World War Childe Hassam created his famous images of flags of the United States and its allies which some scholars have characterized as Hassam’s contribution to the war effort. One such painting was his 1917 work entitled Allies Day, May.
In 1920 Hassam received what he deemed to be the greatest honour of his career when he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Academy is an honour society of the country’s 250 leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. Each year it elects new members as vacancies occur. When Childe Hassam died, he bequeathed several hundred artworks to the Academy.
Frederick Childe Hassam died in East Hampton, Long Island on August 27th 1935, aged 75. His wife Maude passed away eleven years later on October 13th 1946. She was 84.
The artist I am looking at today is George Hendrik Breitner, the nineteenth century Dutch painter, who was best known for his realistic depiction of Amsterdam street and harbour scenes. He was also of great importance in what was later termed Amsterdam Impressionism.
George Hendrik Breitner was born in Rotterdam on September 12th, 1857. He and his younger brother, Godfridus, were the children of Johan Wilhelm Heinrich Breitner and Marie Anne Henriette Gortmans. His father worked in the grain business and George, after finishing primary school, joined the Palthe & Haentjes, grain company, as a clerk. At the age of seventeen George went to the Delft Polytechnic School for vocational training. George showed a great talent for drawing and in January 1876, aged eighteen, partly because of the intercession of the artist Charles Rochussen, his father agreed to have him enrolled on a four-year course at the Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten (Royal Academy of Art) in The Hague. He was an exemplary student and won a number of awards including a second prize for composition and two years later took the first prize in a live model competition. In October 1877 he obtained his teaching certificate and during 1878 and 1879 he taught art at the Leiden Art Society (Ars Aemula Naturae), originally the Leiden Guild of St. Luke.
In 1880 Breitner was expelled from the Art Academy for misconduct, his misdemeanour said to have been that he had destroyed the regulations-board. Around that time, he shared lodgings of the Dutch landscape painter of the Hague School, Willem Marisat, at the Oud Rozenburg house in The Hague. Marisat became Breitner’s friend and tutor. It was through Marisat that Breitner was accepted as a member of the Pulchri Studio, an important artist’s society in that city.
It was here that he met fellow member Hendrik Mesdag, a one-time banker but later an accomplished artist, whose forte was his maritime paintings, one of which, Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord (The Breakers of the North Sea), gained him the gold medal at the 1870 Paris Salon. In 1880, Mesdag had been commissioned by a group of Belgian entrepreneurs to paint a panorama depicting a view over the village of Scheveningen which lay on the North Sea coast close to The Hague. It was such a large project that Mesdag put together a team of artists including his wife Sientje, Theophile de Bock, Barend Blommers and twenty-three-year-old George Hendrik Breitner. The finished work which measured 14 metres high and 120 metres around, was completed in 1881 and I talked about in my My Daly Art Display blog
In 1882, Breitner made the acquaintance of another distinguished artist, Vincent van Gogh, and the two would often go on sketching trips around the poorer and seamier side of The Hague. In a letter to his brother Theo in February 1882, Vincent wrote:
“…. At the moment I quite often go to draw with Breitner, a young painter who’s acquainted with Rochussen as I am with Mauve. He draws very skilfully and very differently from me, and we often draw types together in the soup kitchen or the waiting room &c…”
For Breitner his models were the poorer working-class folk such as labourers and servant girls who plied their trade in the lower working-class areas of the city. Breitner preferred these working-class models such as labourers, servant girls and people from the lower-class districts. Interest in the fate of the common people, which many artists felt in that period, was cultivated by the social conscience of French writers such as Émile Zola and the realism paintings of Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet. Breitner believed that through his paintings he would create history. His desire to become famous for his realistic paintings of the poor can be seen in his letter he sent to his patron, the grain merchant, Adriaan Pieter van Stolk, dated March 28th 1882. Breitner wrote:
“…Myself, I will paint the people on the street and in the houses, they built, life above all, I’ll try to be Le peintre du peuple or I’ll be better because I want to be. History I wanted to paint and I will too, but history in its most extensive sense. A market, a quay, a river, a gang of soldiers under a glowing sun or in the snow…”.
In May 1884 Breitner left The Hague and travelled to Paris. His stay in the French capital lasted only six months during which time he attended Atelier Cormon where he liked to depict the toiling workhorses or demolition scenes, using dark tones . He completed a number of paintings featuring the streets of the city with its horse and cart transportation. His desire to paint scenes of everyday life in the French capital was enhanced by his interest in and inspiration from the writings of Zola, Flaubert and especially Edmund and Jules de Goncourts with their book, Manette Salomon, being a favourite of Breitner.
In the late 1880’s, Breitner’s new hometown, Amsterdam, was beginning to expand, new industries were shooting up and it was pulsating with life. Breitner was afforded the ideal opportunity to record pictorially the changes. Now living in the city, he took the opportunity to hone his artistic talents by enrolling for a short period at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of August Allebé, an exponent of realism and impressionism. Breitner’s cityscape paintings of that era, although maybe not topographically accurate, were emotional depictions, full of colour and movement. His depiction of the common people was somewhat different as he used greys and browns to portray the hard and laborious tasks, they had to perform to earn a meagre wage. His paintings were often both emotional and sensitive.
Breitner’s 1902 painting, Construction Site in Amsterdam, highlights the building boom in Amsterdam. He based the painting on a series of photographs he took of a construction site in the city. Although it may have been thought to be an en plein air work, the painting was in fact carefully created in his Prinseneiland studio. Through the use of his photographs and sketches, he was able to portray an ever-changing city.
One of the painters he liked at this time and whose work influenced him was the Dutch painter and photographer associated with the Amsterdam Impressionism movement, Willem Witsen, whose best works include serene views of Amsterdam, such as his depictions of the canal areas Herengracht and Leidsegracht.
In the late 1880’s, beside his cityscape works, Breitner embarked on painting nudes.
In 1893, he completed a series of paintings featuring Japanese girls, a beloved theme of many painters in those days. Japonism, which referred to the French term, japonisme, which denotes the assimilation of iconography or concepts of Japanese art into European art and design. Most of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists painters were influenced by this phenomenon.
Breitner was Inspired by Japanese prints he had seen between 1893 and 1896 and completed thirteen paintings featuring a girl in a kimono. In each the young woman assumes different positions and the kimono often are of different colours. In the above 1894 work, Girl in a White Kimono, what stands out the most in the depiction is the exquisitely embroidered, white silk kimono with red-trimmed sleeves and an orange sash. For this painting and many in the series, Breitner utilised the services of seventeen-year-old Geesje Kwak, a seamstress who was also one of his regular models.
In his earlier days during his time in The Hague, Breitner had been criticised in the media for his drawings and his attempts at Impressionism and even his patron had pressed him just to paint what the public wanted. Breitner baulked at this advice and his relationship with van Stolk ended. In the late 1880’s, then living in Amsterdam, there was a change in his fortune and with every passing month, he gained more and more recognition as a talented artist. In 1886 Breitner completed one of his great masterpieces, De Gele Ruiters (The Yellow Riders). It was a monumental work measuring 115 x 76 cms and featured the elite mounted artillery corps seen galloping down the sand dunes at breakneck speed. Breitner took full advantage of their black-and-red busbies and the gold braid on their uniforms, which adds to the vitality of the charge.
We witness the sand being kicked up by the hooves of the horses at the front which clouds our view of the horsemen who follow and all we can make out of them are the flashes of black, yellow and red of the following troops. In the October 16th 1886 edition of the Netherlands Spectator, the Dutch poet and art critic, Carel Vosmaer, wrote
“…But what a momentum and storm in the movement, what a feeling for the poetry of such a tingling, dusty, turbulent group!..”
In the same year Breitner was invited by the avant-garde Société des XX (Vingtistes) to show his work in Brussels. More and more was written in the press about him and his work. At the turn of the century, George Breitner was forty-two-years-old and at the high point in his artistic career. So, what was he like as a person ? In his biography of the artist, Breitner, by Arthur van Schendel, he quoted the description of the artist by people who knew him, writing:
“…often fierce and brusque in his performance, sometimes suddenly rigid and closed, living among bouts of passion and despondency and always possessed wholeheartedly for his art…”
In 1901 an exhibition of his work was held, a highly successful retrospective at Amsterdam’s Arti et Amicitiae, one of the largest clubs for artists and art lovers in the Netherlands. At this time Breitner would use his photographs as a preparation for a painting. He built up a collection of people and cityscapes form a historical document of life in the city of Amsterdam at the end of the 19th century and it was these which helped to document city life at the turn of the century. These photographs and his cityscapes often appeared in historical publications.
On September 18th, that same year, 1901, George Hendrik Breitner married Maria Catharina Josephina Jordan in Amsterdam. His wife was nine years younger than him. The couple had no children.
Breitner painted a portrait of his wife, which, in my eyes, seems less than flattering.
A more flattering portrait was done by Breitner’s friend Willem Witsen.
Witsen also completed a portrait of George Breitner.
In 1903 Breitner decided to move away from Amsterdam and relocate to Aerdenhout, a small town located in the dunes between Haarlem and the seaside town of Zandvoort, some twelve miles west of Amsterdam. His decision to move away from the city was because his friend and fellow artist, Marius Bauer, had moved there and wanted Breitner to join him. However, Breitner missed Amsterdam and in 1906 he returned to the city.
In 1904 Breitner completed his work entitled Rokin with the Nieuwezijdskapel, Amsterdam. The Rokin is a canal and major street in the centre of Amsterdam and is a recurring theme in Breitner’s works. Breitner would spend much time in this area, sketching and photographing people and buildings. The art gallery Van Wisselingh & Co. was found in this area as was his artist’s society Arti et Amicitiae which can be seen in the background. The painting fetched 415,200 euros at Christie’s Amsterdam auction in April 2005.
Although Breitner was successful as an artist and enjoyed a great reputation during his life, he did encounter financial difficulties during his life and this led to the establishment of a support committee for him and his wife. On June 5, 1923, George Hendrik Breitner died of a heart attack, aged 65. George Breitner is seen as one of the most important painters in the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century – but internationally he is less well known as an artist.
Alfred Sisley returned to France late on October 18th, 1874 after his four-month summer holiday spent in London. Sisley had been living in the town of Louveciennes since 1872 but in the winter of that year, Sisley and his family moved to 2 avenue de l’Abreuvoir in Marly-le-Roi, a commune in the Île-de-France region, in north-central France, located in the western suburbs of Paris, 18 kilometres from the centre of Paris.
Many art historians believe that during the time Sisley lived in Marly-le-Roi between 1875 and 1880, he produced his finest works. In the late autumn of 1874 Sisley completed a work featuring the town of Noisy-le-Roi which lay about 4 kilometres south-west of Marly-le-Roi. It was entitled The Church at Noisy-le-Roi: Autumn. In some ways, it is an unusually constructed work. The subject of the painting, the church has been placed in the mid-ground and there is no visual access to it from the foreground. Our view towards it through the foreground landscape is restricted by the fence line and a number of squat trees. The painting was exhibited at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris on 24 March 1875 along with works by Renoir, Monet, and Morisot. It was purchased by Paul Durand Ruel and submitted to the Salon jurists in 1876 but was turned down. The painting was sold on a number of occasions including an 8500 francs sale to Baron Henri de Rothschild in 1899. It was later bought by Sir William Burrell, a Scottish shipping merchant and philanthropist, who in 1944 gave it to the City of Glasgow Corporation. The one proviso was that this work and the whole of his collection was to be housed in a building far enough from the city centre so that the works could be shown to their greatest advantage, and to avoid the damaging effects of air pollution at the time.
It took the trustees more than 20 years trying to find a suitable resting place for Burrell’s collection, one which met all the criteria set out in the Trust Deed. A venue was finally found in 1967 when the Pollok Estate was given to the city of Glasgow. The Trustees also had to waive certain terms of the deed which allowed the current site, in Pollok Park to be used. The park was only three miles from the city centre but within the city boundaries.
In December 1872 Sisley had painted four pictures showing floods at Port-Marly. In 1876 there was another flood and Sisley executed seven paintings as documentary evidence of its different stages, from the first rise in water level to the return of the river to its normal course. Being well settled in Marly-le-Roi, Sisley was there to witness the great floods of 1876. In March that year, the Seine burst its banks and flooded many of the riverside villages and towns including the neighbouring village of Port-Marly. In his 1876 painting, La barque pendant l’inondation (Boat in the Flood) he depicts a wine merchant’s house, À St Nicolas, which almost looks like it is resting on the mirrored surface of the flood waters. The artist produced six paintings of this event. He cleverly captured the great expanse of water with moving reflections that transformed the peaceful house of a wine merchant into something mysterious and poetic. Sisley’s viewing point gave him an oblique-angled view of the scene which meant that the wine-merchant’s shop becomes the predominant feature of the work and Sisley has been able to depict architectural aspects of the building, especially the upper section. The light colour tones are offset by the black pigment used for the window openings giving a sharp contrast between light and dark. The industrialist, Ernest Hoschedé, originally owned the painting. He was one of the first major supporter of the Impressionists’ art. His wife Alice became Monet’s second wife. A year after Hoschedé bought the painting his business collapsed and he became bankrupt. The painting was later sold by Durand-Ruel to the wealthy art collector, Comte Isaac de Camondo who had amassed a large number of works by the French Impressionists. He bequeathed this work and a number of other paintings from his collection to The Louvre in 1908, three years before his death. The painting was transferred to its current home, Musée d’Orsay, in 1986.
The work we see above, The Flood at Port-Marly is housed in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid. In the painting we see the rue de Paris in Port-Marly. On the right, behind the trees, we can see the overflowing River Seine. The sky is littered by wind-swept clouds which scurry across the sky. Sisley was able to give a marked emphasis to the movement of the clouds through the use of a low horizon line. We can see the road and how the water has flooded the pavements. The sun has reappeared and the water level is starting to recede, which allowed Sisley to set up his easel in the middle of the street and once again return to the use of a central perspective which can be found in many of his paintings. This technique derives from the classical tradition of French landscape painting. In September 1876, shortly after Sisley had concluded his series on the floods at Port-Marly, Stéphane Mallarmé, a French poet and critic, published an article on the Impressionist artists in the London magazine The Art Monthly Review. He said of Sisley:
“…He captures the fleeting effects of light. He observes a passing cloud and seems to depict it in its flight. The crisp air goes through the canvas and the foliage stirs and shivers…”
Sisley’s relationship with the Impressionists can be gauged by a set of statistics. At the first exhibition in 1874, Sisley exhibited five paintings, in the second exhibition in 1876 he had eight paintings displayed and in the third Impressionist Exhibition seventeen of his works were displayed. He did not exhibit any of his paintings at the fourth, fifth or sixth shows. So why? It is thought that two of the reasons could have been the lack of critical acclaim and success at the first three exhibitions but maybe more importantly there was a fragile sense of unity and some tension between the painters at these joint exhibitions. The fourth, fifth and sixth exhibitions were dominated by Degas and the works on show tended to be figure painting rather than landscape painting so this could also be a reason for Sisley backing away. There were few Impressionist artists that had a foot both in the figurative and landscape camps but Pissarro was the one exception and he exhibited at all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions. Sisley was also aware that he had to sell more works and become more well known to dealers and so turned back to the Salon. In a letter to the French journalist, author, and art critic, Théodore Duret Sisley wrote:
“…I am tired of vegetating, as I have been doing for so long. The moment has come for me to make a decision. It is true our exhibitions have served to make us money and in this have been useful to me, but I believe we must not isolate ourselves too long. We are still far from the moment we shall be able to do without the prestige attached to official exhibitions. I am therefore determined to submit to the Salon…”
Following the third Impressionist exhibition Sisley tried to get his works accepted by the Paris Salon jurists but failed. In October 1878 Sisley left Marly and moved to avenue de Bellevue in Sèvres, a town in the southwestern suburbs of Paris. Sisley’s finances were deteriorating fast. His paintings only sold for small amounts. He was borrowing money so that he and his wife were able to survive and, to make things worse, some of the lenders were demanding repayment of his debts. In 1880 Sisley could no longer afford to live in Sèvres and moved his family to Moret-sur-Loing, a town south of Paris on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau.
Paul Durand-Ruel kept buying paintings from the Impressionists and having them exhibited at various exhibitions and then hopefully selling them on for a profit. However, around the late part of the 1870’s the sale of his paintings was much lower in comparison to the number he had purchased and so he had to source some finance to cover his future buying plans. He turned to Jules Feder, the head of the Union Générale bank in Paris and an important early collector of Impressionist art. In 1880, Feder advanced a great deal of money to Paul Durand-Ruel, enabling the dealer to resume purchasing work from the Impressionists. Immediately upon receiving Jules Feder’s support Durand-Ruel acquired thirty-six paintings from Sisley. This all changed in February 1882 when Union Générale bank collapsed which, in turn, brought about the collapse of the French Stock Exchange, and triggered a general recession, and Jules Feder, the head of the bank, was ruined and because of that Durand-Ruel had to pay the banker back all the money that he had advanced him. Durand-Ruel, with no money to buy further Impressionist paintings, resulted in an extremely uncertain few years for the artists whom Durand-Ruel had supported, particularly Sisley… For the next several years Durand-Ruel was unable to advance money to the Impressionist painters he had always generously supported, and those works he did buy were at much reduced prices and because of this, Sisley was especially hard-pressed to make ends meet.
Things were changing for Sisley. Paul Durand-Ruel purchased his last painting by Sisley, Saint-Mamme’s from the River Loing, for 200 francs in February 1886. The Impressionists were starting to go their own ways. Renoir and Monet had gained public recognition whereas Sisley had not. This must have hurt Sisley and according to John Rewald in his 1961 book, The History of Impressionism, Sisley had become suspicious and sulky not even seeing his old companions anymore. The French art critic of the time, Arsène Alexandre wrote:
“…he [Sisley] added to his woes by creating imaginary ones for himself. He was irritable, discontented, agitated…..He became utterly miserable and found life increasingly difficult…”
Whereas Monet and Pissarro came back into Paul Durand-Ruel’s fold, Sisley refused. Durand-Ruel and his sons had bounced back and in the 1890’s once again had a successful network of connections in Europe and America who bought from the company. Probably due to his state of depression, Sisley ignored the opportunity to return to Durand-Ruel and benefit from the sales of his work. It was the beginning of the end. Sisley’s wife Eugénie died of cancer in October 1898. Sisley, who was ill himself, did not attend the funeral. He had been attending a doctor for five months but in November 1898 he suffered a massive haemorrhage and his health was deteriorating rapidly. Sisley died of cancer on January 29th 1899, aged 59. Sisley was buried on February 1st 1899 at the cemetery in Moret attended by his children and fellow artists such as Monet, Renoir, and Tavernier.
Sisley had been in the process of gaining French citizenship before he died, but on his death. remained an English citizen. His son Pierre settled his estate. According to records at Dammarie-les-Lys, the regional archives for Seine-et-Marne, Sisley’s legacy to his children comprised of his wardrobe, worth 50 francs, furniture worth 950 francs and money obtained from his paintings worth 115,640 francs, making it a total of 116,640 francs, equivalent to £4,665.
I end this blog with the words of Monet who, a week before Sisley’s death, wrote about Sisley to his friend Gustave Geffroy, the French journalist, art critic, historian, and novelist:
“…Sisley is said to be extremely ill. He is truly a great artist and I believe he is as great a master as any who have ever lived. I looked at some of his works again, which have a rare breadth of vision and beauty, especially one of a flood, which is a masterpiece…”
The year is 1870 and on July 19th France had declared war on Prussia. The war went badly for France and the siege of the Paris ended in an armistice on January 28th 1871. It was a crushing defeat for the French and for the Parisians three months of further violence and bloodshed was to follow from March to May of that year with the uprising known as the Paris Commune. Alfred Sisley lost everything that he owned at his apartment in Bougival. Like so many others, his house was looted and destroyed by the occupying forces. As mentioned in the previous blog, worse was to follow as in 1871 his father’s business collapsed and his father became bankrupt and later died penniless. Alfred Sisley had now to rely on the sale of is paintings for he and his family to survive. Artists needed a way to exhibit and sell their works and at one time the Paris Salon was the only and the way to do that and that depended on their work being accepted by the Salon jurists, but then came the art dealers with their private galleries and this meant the artists did not have to rely on the Salon to market their work.
Enter Paul Durand-Ruel who was to play a part in Alfred Sisley’s life in the 1870’s. Durand-Ruel was born in Paris, on October 31st, 1831, the son of shopkeepers Jean Durand and Marie Ruel. It was in their shop that they allowed famous artists to display their paintings and sketches. In the 1840’s, their shop soon became a regular rendezvous for artists and collectors alike, so much so that Jean Durand decided to turn their shop into an art gallery. Their seventeen-year-old son, Paul, joined the family business in 1848. It must have been an exciting time for the young man as he was sent all over Europe to seek out new artists and sell their paintings. In the mid-nineteenth century, his father’s gallery specialized in paintings produced by the landscape artists of the Barbizon School, such as Corot. Paul Durand-Ruel knowledge of art grew and in 1863 he was acknowledged as the firm’s resident art expert. Following the death of his father in 1865, Paul Durand-Ruel took over the business.
During the Franco-Prussian War Durand-Ruel left Paris and escaped to London. It was in the English capital that he met up with a number of exiled French artists including Charles-François Daubigny, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro. Paul set up his own London art gallery at 168 New Bond Street and in December 1870, he staged the first of ten Annual Exhibitions of the Society of French Artists. Soon Durand-Ruel became acquainted with their works and through them met their fellow artists.
Paul Durand-Ruel returned to Paris, and there, he secured Impressionism’s place in history through tireless promotion across Europe and the United States and enthusiastic Americans ensured its success. Durand-Ruel discovered, promoted, protected, advocated, and finally exported the work of Sisley, Renoir, Monet, Degas, and Pissarro. Of al the art dealers, he was by far the most committed to their art. He invested in it at a time when all they had to show were refusals and derision at their efforts. It was an interesting relationship between Durand-Ruel and the artists. It was almost a one-way association. He offered them passionate and financial support, the painters repaid him with the only thing they had: their loyalty, which in a way, counted for nothing since he was almost the only dealer who wanted their work. Often, he would over-pay for their finished paintings so as to keep their prices up, but he was rarely able to sell it on. He admitted he was not a good businessman and once said that if he had died when he was in his mid-fifties, he would have died penniless. This was mainly due to the Paris Bourse crash of 1882 which was the worst crisis in the French economy in the nineteenth century. Durand-Ruel was forced to repay the money he had borrowed from Jules Feder, 0ne of the struggling directors of the ill-fated l’Union Générale bank, which eventually collapsed. It was a bank established by Catholic grandees in 1876 to compete with the famous German-Jewish Rothschild bankers.
However, everything changed for Durand-Ruel around 1892 when he succeeded in establishing the market for Impressionism in the United States. The first official French Impressionist exhibition in the United States opened at New York City’s American Art Association from April to May, 1886, and later, in 1887, it moved to the New York City’s National Academy of Design with additional works of art. Of the American buying public Durand-Ruel is quoted as saying:
“…Without America, I would have been lost, ruined, after having bought so many Monets and Renoirs. The two exhibitions there in 1886 saved me. The American public bought moderately . . . but thanks to that public, Monet and Renoir were enabled to live and after that the French public followed suit…”
In 1887, Paul Durand-Ruel opened a New York City gallery at 297 Fifth Avenue named Durand-Ruel & Sons; two years later, in September 1889, it moved to 315 Fifth Avenue, and finally, in 1894, to 398 Fifth Avenue. The gallery was managed by his three sons, Charles, Joseph, and Georges.
Alfred Sisley may not have lived to share the American public’s recognition enjoyed by the likes of Renoir, Monet and Degas but they still liked his atmospheric landscapes which were shown at many of the American exhibitions and were part of many private collections before 1914.
In July 1874, Sisley made a return trip to London with his friend the famous French Opéra-Comique singer, Jean-Baptiste Faure, an avid collector of Impressionist paintings. Faure bankrolled their trip by buying six of Sisley’s works. The pair stayed initially in South Kensington before moving to Hampton Court. Hampton Court was a popular leisure resort with good accessibility to central London. In that year Sisley completed a painting depicting part of the bridge joining Hampton Court with the small village of East Molesey on the south side of the river Thames. It was entitled Une Auberge à Hampton Court (Hampton Court Bridge: The Castle Inn). The Castle Inn, which some believe could have been where the pair were staying, is the focal point of the painting. The relaxed leisurely feeling is depicted by the elegantly clothed figure as he saunters down the road towards us. Sisley has overpainted the light grey ground with bright tones. Look how Sisley has emphasised the broad gravel street by placing his figures to the very edge of it and by doing this he has established a broad vacant zone directly in front of us.
Another work painted by Sisley in 1874 featured the opposite end of the bridge at Hampton Court and is entitled Hampton Court Bridge: The Mitre Inn. The bridge in the painting was the third one on this site having been built in 1865. This was replaced by the current bridge, constructed of reinforced concrete, faced with red bricks and white Portland Stone, in 1933. The inn is the red brick building on the left. There was an inn at each end of the bridge. On the south end was the Castle Inn (previous painting) and on the north end there stood the Mitre Inn. In this painting we once again see the depiction of part of the cast iron bridge which spanned the Thames at Hampton Court and it is thought that Sisley painted this view whilst on the terrace of the Castle Inn.
This viewpoint was used by him for his painting, Regatta at Hampton Court. The large trees on the left and centre of the painting hide the entrance to Hampton Court, one of the royal palaces.
By far one of the quirkiest paintings of the bridge by Sisley was his work entitled Under Hampton Court Bridge. The dramatic depiction is painted from beneath the cast iron and brick bridge and the view between the avenue of bridge piers is of the far riverbank and a pair of rowing boats.
Three paintings of the Hampton Court bridge by Sisley, a bridge which was not known for its beauty, with one commentator of the time asserting that
“…it was one of the ugliest bridges in England, and a flagrant eyesore and disfigurement both to the river and to Hampton Court…”
However, for Sisley it was a structure worthy of his time and effort.