Daniel Ridgway Knight

Daniel Ridgway Knight (c.1908)

In my last blog I looked at the life and works of the Social Realist painter Walter Langley and his depictions of the hard life endured by the Cornish fishermen and their loved ones. Today I am looking at an American artist whose paintings could not be more different. Daniel Ridgway Knight chose to depict pretty young women enjoying life. The depiction of these ladies in beautiful countryside setting, lit up by dazzling sunlight  was, although very popular, so different to the work of artists of the Realism genre. So why would people want to buy paintings depicting scenes which in reality were just something we would like life to be? Maybe that is the answer to the question. Maybe whilst enduring real life with all its hardships we hanker after the perfect life even if it is just an imaginary idyll. If you had to choose a painting to hang on the wall of your lounge would it be one which depicts poverty or one which depicts sunny meadows awash with flowers and beautiful women?

The Well by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1880)

Daniel Ridgway Knight was born into a strict Quaker home, on March 15th, 1839, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a town thirteen miles north of Maryland and the Mason-Dixon line. He attended local schools and his family intended that he would either work in a local hardware store or in his uncle’s ship building company, but for Daniel his love of art was his overriding passion and in 1858, at the age of nineteen, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Fellow students at that time included Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, and William Sartain. Knight also became one of the earliest members of the Philadelphia Sketch Club which was founded by six students of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in November 1860 and is still in existence today.

Daniel Ridgway Knight

One of the PAFA students who became a friend of Daniel Knight was Lucien Grapon, a Frenchman, and he would often talk to Daniel about his homeland and how Daniel would love to live in France, with its great social life, fine ladies, and its even finer wines. Daniel must have been seduced by the thoughts of life in France as in 1861 he set sail for France, a journey many of his fellow PAFA students would later take. Cassatt and Eakins went to France in 1866.

Maria on the Terrace with a Bundle of Grass by Daniel Ridgway Knight

On arrival in Paris, Daniel Knight enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and attended classes run by Alexander Cabanel as well studying in the atelier run by the Swiss artist, Marc Gabriel Charles Gleyre. During his time in Paris Knight made a number of friends with fellow artists such as Renoir and Sisley. He also took trips to the artist colony at Barbizon where he was influenced by the works of the plein air painters. His stay in France lasted just two years but was curtailed when he received grave news from home about  the state of the American Civil War which had started the year he left for France.   Even more worrying for Knight was that by 1863 the war had spread north with the soldiers of the Confederate army, led by General Robert E Lee invading his home state of Pennsylvania. In a patriotic gesture, twenty-four-year-old Knight returned to Philadelphia and on August 17th, 1864, enlisted in the Union Army as a Private in Company K, 5th Cavalry Regiment Pennsylvania. When not engaged in battle Knight took the opportunity to make sketches of the battle scenes as well as portraits focusing on the facial expressions of his fellow soldiers. Knight later presented many of his sketches at meetings of the Philadelphia Sketch Club.

Harvest Scene by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1875)

At the end of the Civil War, Daniel was discharged from the Union army and he returned to Paris to complete his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. On completion, he went back home to Philadelphia and opened a workshop where he worked on his portrait commissions and also held classes for aspiring painters.

The Burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1867)

In 1867 Daniel Knight completed an historical painting, The Burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which depicted an infamous incident in the Civil War. On July 30, 1864, Brigadier General John McCausland and 2,800 Confederate cavalrymen entered Chambersburg and demanded $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks. The residents of Chambersburg failed to raise the ransom, and McCausland ordered his men to burn the town. Flames destroyed more than 500 structures leaving more than 2,000 homeless. Chambersburg was the only Northern town the Confederates destroyed. The attack inspired a national aid campaign and spurred the Union Army to a more aggressive approach that finally won the war.

Un Deuil (Bereavement) by Daniel Ridgway Knight,(1882)

It was at his Philadelphia studio that he first met Rebecca Morris Webster, the daughter of Colonel Thomas Webster Jnr, who was one of his students. On September 20th, 1871 the couple married in St Luke’s Church Philadelphia. For the next twelve months Daniel took on many portrait commissions and with the money he earned from them, he had enough for two boat tickets for himself and his wife and they returned to France where they would remain for the rest of their lives.

Ridgway Knight painting in front of the front facade of his house in Poissy, [1883]

Daniel and Rebecca first went to live in Saint Germain Des Prés, on Paris’ Left Bank and then later in 1872, they settled in Poissy, where Walter had bought a vast 17th century house. The property had belonged before him to the Arbien-Caulaincourt family. The house, which until the early 1920’s, was located at what is now, 24 avenue Meissonier and was sometimes referred to as the Abbey Castle.

Daniel Ridgway Knight in his studio (c.1889).

To ensure that he was able to capture the true colours of the daylight which may have been lost in studio painting he built a glass-enclosed studio, separate from the house, so he could paint comfortably “indoors” while still capturing the true colours fully in its natural surroundings. This would allow him to position his models there notwithstanding the weather conditions outside even during the coldest winter’s day, and still make the best use of the natural light. Such protection from inclement weather in a controlled environment made for a perfect studio. His models would be dressed in peasant costumes and sometimes he would actually use local girls to sit for him.

The Poissy enclosure of the abbey, years 1870-1880. From left to right, Meissonier’s house, Ridgway Knight’s house (center) and Notre-Dame collegiate church.
Photo Agnès Guignard

The French Classicist painter, Ernest Meissonier, had occupied the neighbouring property since 1846 and it still exists. Meissonier completed most of his paintings in his studio there as well as conducting art classes for his students. In the photograph above, dated around 1880, we see three buildings. On the left is Meissonier’s house, Daniel Ridgway Knight’s house can be seen in the centre and to the right is the Notre-Dame collegiate church, which was once the l’abbaye aux dames.  It was a truly magnificent building which Knight spent years and much money on restoring and refurbishing it.

Article from The Decorator and Furnisher March 1886

The interior of his house was commented on, and a sketch made of the elaborate main staircase in the March 1886 edition of the New York published magazine The Decorator and Furnisher:

“… In our illustration will be seen a rough sketch of a fine old staircase in the house of the excellent painter Mr. Daniel Ridgway Knight, of Philadelphia, Mr. Knight has settled at Poissy (Seine-et- Oise), near his master Meissonier. His house is a part of the old Abbey of Poissy, a splendid dwelling, with lofty rooms, which Mr. Knight has filled with choice furniture and objects of art. The staircase, broad enough for four people to walk up it abreast, has an elegant wrought-iron balustrade, and Mr. Knight has completed the decoration with a fine old German wrought-iron lantern, the potence of which is peculiarly graceful and delicate in design. The walls of the staircase and entrance-hall are hung with red cloth, over which several fine pieces of tapestry are stretched, with, on the landings, a profusion of flowers and plants. -In the sketch the balustrade and the lamp alone appear; the accessories are barely indicated…”

The Knight family on the steps of their house in Poissy, [1883].

His neighbour was the painter Ernest Meissonier who had bought his large mansion which was sometimes known as the Grande Maison. The Grande Maison included two large studios, the atelier d’hiver, or winter workshop, situated on the top floor of the house, and at ground level, a glass-roofed annexe, the atelier d’été or summer workshop. Meissonier, not only became a good friend of Daniel Ridgway Knight but acted as his artistic mentor. Daniel Knight and his wife Rebecca went on to have three children, all boys. Louis Aston Knight was born in August 1873. His godfather and godmother were the son-in-law and daughter-in-law of Meissonier, Gustave Méquillet and Jeanne Gros. Louis became a very talented and successful landscape painter.  Charly Meissonier Knight, was Rebecca and Daniel’s second child, born in 1877, and Meissonier himself was his godfather.  He later became a well-known architect and made a speciality of restoration of houses in Paris and country chateaux. The youngest child, Raymond Knight, was born in 1878 but died at the age of thirty-six in 1914.

The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet (1857)

By 1874, Knight had to decide what he wanted to paint. In the early days he was happy with his historical paintings and on his return to Philadelphia after the Civil War he had made money with his portrait commissions but now he wanted to do something altogether different. That year he again visited Barbizon and saw the works of Jean-Francois Millet with his depiction of French peasantry and he believed he should follow this theme for his paintings. The one thing he didn’t like about Millet’s depictions was that Millet’s works were of the Realism genre and the artist had focused on the hardships suffered by the peasants.

The Reapers by Jules Breton (c.1860)

Knight decided that his depictions of the peasantry would focus on the joys of the countryside and the happiness of the peasants whether they were at work or enjoying their leisure time. He was influenced by the works of the French artist, Jules Breton and, although he too is classed as a Realist painter, his depictions, which are also heavily influenced by the French countryside and the peasants working the land, are, in the main, a celebration of the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence, as can be seen in the painting above, The Reapers which he completed around 1860.

Les Laveuses by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1875)

Meissonier was a great believer in Knight’s talent as an artist and one day set him a challenge to produce a large painting from a sketch he had made. The result was Les Laveuses (Washerwomen) which resulted in Knight’s first big success at the Salon in 1875.

Hailing the Ferry by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1888)

In 1888 Daniel Ridgway Knight painted several large paintings for major exhibitions, and Hailing the Ferry, was regarded as one of his masterpieces. When it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1888, it was awarded the third-class gold medal. He was also awarded a Gold Medal at the Munich Exhibition that same year for this work. It can now be seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The depiction is of two peasant girls calling for the ferryman on the other side of the river. The beauty of this work is how Knight captured all the elements of the subdued light and colour, together with the way he added the finely detailed figures which highlighted his constant focus on detail.

Coffee in the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1924)

Daniel Knight’s genre scenes were very popular with buyers on both sides of the Atlantic and they enhanced his reputation as a great painter. One of his popular works was entitled Coffee in the Garden. The setting is the outside of a rural house/café. The pink and grey colour of the rough plaster of the building contrasts with the various colourful flowers in the window boxes and plant pots which brighten the building’s façade. In the background our gaze is carried along the River Seine.  We can see the calm waters of the river meandering quietly on its journey along the wide valley towards the sea. In this work we see a group of three women sitting around a wooden table on cane-bottom chairs and a wooden stool. A young boy approaches them carrying a large pot of coffee. The ladies await patiently holding their empty porcelain cups in readiness. To the left we see a carved wooden table bearing a tureen of soup, a ladle, and a pile of empty shallow bowls. Next to the tureen are two empty bottles and a broken loaf.

Portrait de femme (Mme Knight ) by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1892)

In the mid-1890’s, Daniel Ridgway Knight signed a contract with the well-known and much respected art dealers, Knoedler, who had many galleries in New York and Paris. The company would act as sole agents to sell all his paintings. This was an added boost to his income stream and shortly after the contracts were signed Knight decide to buy another large house.

Julia in the Corner of the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight

It was around 1896 that Daniel Knight and his family left their home in Poissy to live in their new home at Rolleboise, some forty kilometres down river from Poissy. The Knight family’s new residence had breathtaking views of the River Seine as it was positioned atop an elevated headland overlooking the river. His home had a beautiful garden and terrace that overlooked the Seine and it was that view that often appeared in his painting. It was a stunning vista which overlooked the cascading rooftops below, and, all the way along the River Seine which flowed between miles and miles of fields, meadows, and lines of trees. Besides carrying on with his own paintings, Knight held classes at his house for aspiring artists and this led to the foundation of the Rolleboise School.

The Sheperdess of Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1896)

One of his first paintings after he moved to his new home was his 1896 work, The Shepherdess of Rolleboise. In the painting, which combined a grey and silver palette, we see a French shepherdess. Her youth and loveliness are seen against a pastoral background on the bank of the River Seine. As she gazes out at the water her charges feed themselves on the grassy bank. The work was exhibited at the 1896 Salon and was well received. It was Knight’s take on peasant life that appealed to the many American buyers who would rather witness the beauty and romanticism of peasant life rather than the harsher realities of their lives depicted by the Realism painters of the time. Knight’s work was closer to the Naturalism genre which was practiced by the great French painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage.

A Garden above the Seine, Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight

In 1889 Knight was awarded a Silver Medal at the Paris Exposition and was knighted in the Legion of Honour, and later in 1914, becoming an officer. In 1896 he received the Grand Medal of Honour at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Daniel Ridgway Knight died in Paris on March 9th, 1924, a week before his eighty-fifth birthday. Ridgway Knight’s paintings continued to be popular in the twentieth century, particularly in America and still, even now, realise high prices at auction.

Advertisements

Theodore Robinson. Part 2 – Naturalism, Realism and Giverny

Theodore Robinson

……………………Theodore Robinson returned with some of his fellow students to the Fontainebleu Forest in the summer of 1878 to carry on with their en plein air painting but probably the highlight for Robinson that September was his trip to Italy with his fellow École des Beaux-Arts student Kenyon Cox.  They visited Turin, Milan, Verona and Bologna on their way to Venice.  In his 1986 book, An American Art Student in Paris, The Letters of Kenyon Cox 1877-1882, H.Wayne Morgan quotes from a letter Cox sent to his family after he had returned to France on December 15th 1878 and from it we have an insight into the physical health of his erstwhile fellow traveller, Robinson.  Cox wrote:

“…Robinson has come back from Venice very much used up.  He caught some sort of fever there and was sick for some days in a little German hotel, waiting for money to leave with, confined to his bed, unable to eat anything…….and almost afraid he should get out alive.   He is very thin and feeble, but I hope if he takes care of himself and lives better he will come around…”

Suzette (Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Robinson left Europe and returned to New York in late 1879 and rented a studio on Broadway hoping to establish himself as a professional artist but his financial situation became dire and he had to close his studio and return to his family in Evansville where he would paint local scenes but also dabbled with illustrative work.  One such illustration, Suzette, appeared in the August 31st 1880 issue of the Harper’s Young People magazine  in conjunction with a children’s story Viola’s Sketch.   The original black chalk drawing with white heightening, on grayish blue paper, mounted on board can be found at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.   It depicts an outdoor scene with a young girl, turned to the right, in a humble frock intent on sewing.  Her hair is styled in a long braid and she stands in wooden shoes, looking downward wistfully at her work.  The simple depiction of this guileless peasant girl probably harks back at Robinson’s academic training in Paris and the rustic genre imagery we have seen in the works of Jean-François Millet

However, Robinson’s life was at a low point, both physically and mentally as indicated in letters he sent to his friends.  One such friend was Will Low a fellow student at Carolus-Duran’s atelier in Paris.  In his 1908 book, A Chronicle of Friendship, Low wrote that on hearing of his friend’s predicament he had to:

“…extricate Robinson from the surroundings where….he was fast relapsing into a vegetable state…”

And so, Low arranged for Robinson to take a teaching position in New York at Mrs Sylvanus Reed’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies, a latter day finishing school for young women.  In May 1881 Robinson was elected to the Society of American Artists and following the short spell of teaching he began to work for the muralist and stained-glass window maker John La Farge.  He and his friend Will Lowe worked on a La Farge commission from Cornelius Vanderbilt to decorate his New York 5th Avenue home and following this they worked on Vanderbilt’s Tarrytown residence on the Hudson River.  Robinson then went on to work for the decorative painting company run by Prentice Treadwell and he works on architectural decorations in Boston, Albany and on decorations for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York as well as commissions for the well-heeled nouveau-riche industrialists.

Daisy Field, Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

In May 1881 Robinson’s mother died and he returned briefly to Evansville to be with his family but returned to New York that August.   During these periods of employment Robinson still carried on with his own paintings and spent time in the summer travelling around New York State, Vermont and made painting trips to Nantucket with fellow artists in the summer of 1882 painting local island life.

Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

Theodore Robinson spent the summer of 1882 on Nantucket Island and produced several paintings based on local scenes, including the one above.  The depiction of the rider and his mount at rest under the tree is a depiction of tranquillity and serenity.  In the distance, on the horizon, we can just make out the sea which lends itself to the belief that the setting was somewhere on the New England coast, probably Nantucket Island.  The painting can now be found at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

Flower of Memory by Theodore Robinson (1881)

He completed a beautiful work in 1881 entitled Flower of Memory which is a romantic (if somewhat schmaltzy) depiction of a young lady in an Empire dress, standing alone in a garden.  This sort of depiction was very popular with folk in America at this time and could well have epitomised the figures he was painting as a decorative artist for the La Farge and Treadwell commissions.

A Poacher by Theodore Robinson (1884)

However, Robinson’s art was not dominated by cloying sentimentality in his depictions as he was very much a believer in the realism portrayed in works such as those by Winslow Homer on of his favourite painters.  This is borne out when we look at his 1984 work, The Poacher.

French Impressionism had permeated towards America and Impressionist paintings had started to become sought-after items.  The influential Parisian art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel had organised a large exhibition of works of Manet, Monet, Pissaro  and Renoir in Boston in September 1883.  So just as Impressionism was arriving on the American shores in the Spring of 1884, Theodore Robinson, who had saved enough money to buy himself a sea passage, left the country to return to France where he would remain for the next eight years with just the occasional visits back to New York.  During his stay in France he would also make trips Belgium and Holland where he would take in the Flemish and Dutch art scene.

By the end of the 1870’s the leading exponent of the style of art known as Naturalism, which is the depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting, was Jules Bastien-Lepage.  When Robinson arrived in France in 1884 the popularity and standing of Lepage was escalating, and his works of art were in great demand, a fact that Robinson must have been well aware of and there is no doubt that Lepage’s works influenced Robinson.   Lepage’s popularity and the sale of his artwork increased even more in December 1884 when he tragically died of stomach cancer at the young age of forty-four and this adulation culminated in 1885 with a retrospective of his paintings at the Hotel de Chimay in Paris which proved to be a runaway success.

Le petit Colporteur endormi (The little sleeping pedlar) by Bastien-LePage

Often Lepage’s works depicted rural peasants and urban labourers  and these detailed portrayals lacked sentimentality and yet brought home to the observer an honest if somewhat blunt snapshot of the life of the less well-off. Such was their popularity they appeared regularly at the Salon  exhibitions.

In 1886 Robinson’s good friend Will Low along with his wife arrived in Paris and Robinson was there to greet them as they alighted from the train at Gare St. Lazaire.  Such was his friendship with Low that for the next twelve months he lived with them at their rented accommodation on Rue Vernier in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.   Robinson’s work during his time in France was diverse.  There was the sentimentality of works like Flower of Memory which as I said earlier probably originated from his time of painting mural decorations for La Farge and Treadwell.  There was his landscape work which derived from his en plein air painting at the Fontainebleau Forest during his summer breaks from the Paris Academy and finally there was his interest in genre painting and the depiction of peasants and urban dwellers at work or at home which he became interested in during his trips to Flanders and the Netherlands.

A Cobbler of Old Paris by Theodore Robinson (1885)

His 1885 painting A Cobbler in Old Paris is a prime example of Robinson’s look at urban life.  The focal point for the work is the woman who leans in through the open window to talk to the cobbler.  One should almost look at this work as a part still life painting with the cobblers workbench littered with still life objects, the tools of his trade, as is the wall in the background filled with the racks of shoes.  This type of scene of tranquil everyday life was popular in Victorian times and Robinson completed many similar works.

Young Girl with Dog by Theodore Robinson (1886)

In his 1886 painting, Young Girl with Dog, Robinson has preserved Bastien-Lepage’s method of honestly and frankly portraying an un-idealized figure seen in a landscape.   There is also an American source of inspiration that would have been well-known to Robinson. This small vertical format containing the standing figure illuminated under a dappled light is evocative of a series of watercolours produced by Winslow Homer in the summer of 1878 when he was invited to stay at Houghton Farm in upstate New York, the home of his patron Lawson Valentine.

Weary by Winslow Homer (1878)

One such work by Homer was entitled Weary.  Robinson was not only an early admirer of Homer’s watercolours, but it is rumoured that he purchased one of the watercolours in 1894.  Robinson first visited Giverny, a small Norman village, which was situated on the banks of the River Seine halfway between Paris and Rouen in 1885 when he and a friend of Claude Monet, Monsieur De Conchy visited the French painter. Claude Monet had moved there in 1883 with his two young sons Jean and Michel.   Pierre Toulgouat who was a descendent of Monet, wrote of the time in his 1948 book, Skylights in Normandy:

“…in 1885, his [Monet’s] friend, De Conchy came to visit him, accompanied by the young American painter, Theodore Robinson – and Robinson, particularly, was to remain a faithful Givernois, until his death, painting there when he could and writing longingly of it when he had to be away…”

In June of 1886 Robinson was in Paris and managed to visit Monet’s work at the Fifth International Exhibition of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit and came away captivated by Monet’s works especially their colour and luminosity

Portrait of Madame Baudy by Theodore Robinson (1888)

In June 1887 Robinson moved out of Paris and went to live in Giverny. He moved into rooms at the newly-opened Hotel Baudy, which lay in the centre of the village and was run by Angélina Baudy.  Giverny and the surrounding area, for Theodore Robinson, was all about the simplicity of the landscape, the colours and the light and he would love to go off and explore and paint.  He loved everything about the area.  He loved the hills and fields, the old buildings, the people and the animals and would immerse himself in the area painting as much as he could in the ever changing conditions of light and weather.

Valley of the Seine, Giverny by Theodore Robinson (1887)

A fine example of this is his 1887 painting Valley of the Seine in which we see a minute figure in white which somehow secures a pattern of one horizontal and several diagonals that contain and depict several hillside swaths of yellow and grey, and a triangle of blue sky. For his portrayal of the countryside Robinson has used muted earthen colours, ones that he would use in many of his later paintings.

La Vachère (The Cowherd) by Theodore Robinson (1888)

During his stay around the Giverny area Robinson depicted many of the residents of the area.  Most of his paintings featured women at work, sometimes seen gathering wood and fruit sometimes tending the farm animals or doing the laundry.  An example of this is his large 1888 painting entitled La Vachère (The Cowherd) 219 x 152cms (86 x 60 ins) which is housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Before us we see a young woman and a cow both surrounded by foliage that glistens in the reflected light.  Look how Robinson has cleverly left an opening between the trees in way of the girl’s head.  It enhances the young woman’s profile and frames her face as well as adding depth to the depiction.  The addition of the cow into the depiction is almost as if the animal is vying for supremacy in the painting but it is completely ignored by the girl.

In The Grove by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

One strange thing about this painting is that shortly after he completed the work Robinson painted the same woman in the same setting but without the cow!  Maybe he thought the animal detracted from the beauty of the female. The picture, which is much smaller, is entitled In the Grove and is also part of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s collection.

In my final look at Theodore Robinson’s life in the next blog, I will look closer at his relationship with Claude Monet and showcase more of his later works.

Sir George Clausen. Part 1. Rustic Naturalism and the influence of Jules Bastien-Lepage

Sir George Clausen       (Self Portrait)
Sir George Clausen
(Self Portrait)

There is something very intriguing about “–isms” when talking about genres in art.  We are all aware of them common ones such as realism, impressionism, cubism, etc.  In fact I have an art history book about “-isms”.  Today I want to introduce you to another “-ism” which is not mentioned in the knowledgeable tome.  It is ruralism, often referred to as Rural Naturalism, an art genre through which artists pictorially champion life away from the grime of cities and, through their paintings, exalts life in the countryside.   One of the great exponents of ruralism is the subject of my next two blogs, the English painter, Sir George Clausen.

George Clausen was born 8 William Street, Regents Park, London in April 1852, the son of Jorgen Johnsen and Elizabeth Clausen.  His father, an artist and interior decorator, was of Danish extraction and his mother was of Scottish descent.  Up until the age of fourteen and a half, George attended St Mark’s School in Kings Road Chelsea.  In 1867, three months before his fifteenth birthday he started a five year apprenticeship in the Chelsea drawing office of Messrs. Trollope, a firm of interior decorators.  During this period he was trained in drawing by John Cleghorn, whose job title was a copyist and limner, an old term for a painter of ornamental decoration, a book illustrator or somebody who illuminates manuscripts.  Cleghorn had an artistic background having studied at The Royal Academy Schools.  George Clausen had a thirst for artistic knowledge and to supplement Cleghorn’s tuition, also attended evening classes at the National Art Training School, South Kensington, which in 1896, would become the Royal College of Art.  One of the jobs Clausen was involved in was to decorate the home of the English genre, history, biblical and portrait painter, Edwin Long.  Clausen’s boss, an Irish man called Brophy, gave Clausen the task to paint some lilies on the panels of a door in Edwin Long’s house.  Clausen remembered this time and it must have made an impression on him, for sixty years later in his Autobiographical Notes which appeared in the Spring 1931 edition of the Artwork magazine he recalled the time:

“…Long looked at my work and said ‘May I see your sketchbook?’   He gave it back to me and said ‘Did you ever think of becoming an artist?’  I said ‘Yes, but I saw no opportunity of getting the training.’  Long said ‘I think you’d have a chance. And if I were you I’d try for a scholarship at South Kensington.’  Brophy readily agreed.  I had already taken medals in design, and I was worked up in my spare time, and obtained a two years’ scholarship in decorative painting at £50 a year!…”

Clausen was not enamoured by the training he received during the two year course at South Kensington School of Art.  He believed that there was not enough teaching and lacked structure as students were left to get on with things themselves.

The Baylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long (1875)
The Baylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long (1875)

He did however keep in contact with Edwin Long and did a lot of research work for him with regards some of Long’s large biblical paintings.  Long would pay Clausen for his help and also tutored him.  Long realised that Clausen’s artistic ability needed to be carefully nurtured and believed, for Clausen to receive the best artistic tuition, he needed to leave England and move to Antwerp and attend the Antwerp Academy of Art.

George Clausen accepted the advice and travelled to Holland and Belgium and for a short period enrolled at the Antwerp Academy where he studied under the tutelage of Professor Joseph van Lerius.  His sketches and paintings around this time were heavily influenced by Dutch subjects such as the coastal fishing villages and he exhibited a number of these at the Dudley Gallery, which was originally located in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London.   It  was completed in 1812 and financed by Earl of Dudley to house his valuable collection of pictures during the erection of his own gallery at Dudley House in Park Lane. It was known for its promotion of French and Dutch artists.

High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuyder Zee, Holland by George Clausen (
High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuyder Zee, Holland by George Clausen (1876)

One example of Clausen’s “Dutch period” was his small (47 x 84 cms) oil on canvas painting entitled High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuider Zee, which he completed in 1876 and is part of the Nottingham Castle Museum collection.  The work was the result of a summer holiday Clausen had taken to the island of Marken, in the Zuider Zee, with his friend and fellow artist Dewey Bates.  They had visited the village of Volendam on a Sunday, where there was a celebration of a High Mass.  The mass was so well attended that the church was full and many parishioners were left outside.  In the painting we see into the fully occupied church as well as a group of fishermen with their wives and children kneeling on the cobbled street outside the main entrance door.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the first work he had ever submitted to the prestigious establishment, and the art critic of The Times, seeing the work of art and Clausen’s name immediately believed he was a Dutch artist painting a scene from his homeland and wrote :

“…a very clever Dutch painter, hitherto only known in this country by two drawings exhibited at the Dudley Gallery…”

The art critic of the Spectator was full of praise writing:

“…a quiet thoughtful picture, in every sense of the word. A work of true art and deep feeling…”

Whilst in Europe George Clausen made many visits to Paris.  His paintings around this time showed that he had been influenced by the likes of Whistler and William Quiller Orchardson, a well loved Scottish portraitist and painter of domestic and historical subjects.  He was also very interested in the rustic natural depictions of the Scottish artist John Robertson Reid and Léon Augustine Lhermitte, a French realist painter, whose primary subject matter was of rural scenes depicting the peasant worker.

La Pensée by George Clausen (1880)
La Pensée by George Clausen (1880)

In 1880 Clausen exhibited his work La Pensée at the Grosvenor Gallery in London.  It was a difficult depiction for an artist with the model seated in an interior.  The figure is not seated parallel to the plane of the picture and the rear wall.  It is a work of art full of detail.  Look at the right background and you can see the edge of an elaborate chimney piece.  In the left background there is a drop leaf table and on the floor a goat skin rug.  The lady sits upright in the chair looking out at us whilst grasping a knot of violets in her right hand which rests in her lap.  This is the key to the title of the painting (Thought).  Here is a lady lost in thought about her lost love.

Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill by George Clausen (1881)
Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill by George Clausen (1881)

Clausen often used this model for his paintings and one I particularly like featuring her was completed in 1881 and entitled a Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill.  It was exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy exhibition.  This London street scene was an ambitious work featuring not just the main female model, who walks along the street accompanied by a small child, but a number of other characters some at rest, some at work, including labourers digging up the cobbles in the road and, directly behind the main character, a flower seller.

Les Foins by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1877)
Les Foins by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1877)

When Clausen exhibited La Pensée at the Grosvenor Gallery amongst his fellow exhibitors was Jules Bastien-Lepage who was exhibiting nine paintings, including Les Foins (Haymaking), which depicts resting haymakers.  This painting had been exhibited at the Salon in 1878.  Clausen, like the critics, were enthralled by this work of rural or rustic naturalism.  Clausen shortly after moved to the countryside and went to live in the Hertfordshire village of Childwick Green.  He later wrote in his 1931 Autobiographical Notes about his new surroundings and the new opportunity and challenges it gave him as a painter

“…One saw people doing simple things under good conditions of lighting: and there was always a landscape.  And nothing was made easy for you: you had to dig out what you wanted…”

The Gleaners by George Clausen (1882)
The Gleaners by George Clausen (1882)

Soon his sketchbooks were full of sketches and paintings depicting workers in the countryside surrounding his house.  One of Clausen’s first works depicting labourers in the fields was completed in 1882 and was entitled The Gleaners.  The work was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1882.  It was greeted with great acclaim by the critics and art reviewers.  In Vol. V 1881-2 of The Magazine of Art, the reviewer wrote about how Clausen sympathetically depicted the labourers:

“…He shows us a little company of the poor not in picturesque rags but in garments of fact, gleaning modern English fields…”

Pauvre Fauvette by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1881)
Pauvre Fauvette by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1881)

In 1881 Bastien-Lepage completed a work entitled Pauvre Fauvette.  He often painted the peasants from the town he was living in at the time, Damvillers which is situated in north-eastern France. In his painting we see a very small young girl, the ‘little wild girl’ of the painting’s title.  Her job is to patiently and quietly guard a cow, which we see on the other side of the tree.  In a way it is a depiction of isolation in the way the artist has depicted the small child, even dwarfed by the tall thistles.  She stands alone next to a leaf-less tree surrounded by  a very barren landscape.  It is a pitiful depiction and we note her haunted and sad eyes and the way she tries to cover herself up and keep herself warm in a threadbare blanket leads us to believe it could have been a cold winter’s day.

The Stone Pickers by George Clausen (1887)
The Stone Pickers by George Clausen (1887)

The next work I am featuring was also probably influenced by Bastien-Lepage’s work above.  It was one which Clausen began in the autumn of 1886 and completed in 1887.  It was entitled The Stone Pickers.  On completion Clausen sent it to Goupil, the art dealer and in 1887 it was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, London and also appeared at the second New English Art Club exhibition of 1887.  It is now housed at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.  The model for the painting was Polly Baldwin and the setting was at Cookham Dene.  Look how in this work the girl has sacking wrapped around her lower body to keep her warm, similar to the attire of the child in Bastien-Lepage’s painting.  Stone pickers were sent out into the fields to pick up loose stones prior to ploughing.  In Clausen’s painting we see a young girl depositing stones, which she had picked up, on to a pile.  In the background we see another woman bent down picking up stones from the field. One can only imagine what a backbreaking and tedious job the women had to endure.  Many artists of the time liked to depict hard working labourers/peasants at work in the fields,  This was the essence of rustic realism or rustic naturalism.  Look at the expression on the young girl’s face as she looks down at the pile of stones.  It is a sad and almost haunted expression.  Behind her there is a can containing water and a wicker basket containing food for her lunch.  Our eyes are drawn to this area because of the red colour of what could be a table cloth.

In my next blog I will complete Clausen’s life story and have a look at some more of his works of art.

 

The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet

The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet (1857)

My Daily Art Display for today starts off with a general knowledge question for you.  What or who  is a gleaner?  The reason I ask is because that is the title of today’s painting by Jean-François Millet.  Don’t know?  I must be honest I thought by looking at the picture a gleaner was somebody who cut the corn crops but actually that is not the case.  A gleaner is a person who collects left-over crops from farmer’s field after they have been harvested.  It was traditionally part of the natural cycle of the agricultural calendar undertaken by the poor, and was regarded as a right to unwanted leftovers. Although the practice of agricultural gleaning has gradually died away due to a number of historical factors (including industrialisation and the organisation of social welfare for the poor), there are nonetheless still people in the present day that we might understand to be gleaners.  Can you imagine what a back-breaking task this was for the poor and needy ?  Actually modern day gleaning is practiced by humanitarian groups who collect food from supermarkets that would otherwise be thrown away, and distribute the gleaned food to the poor and hungry.

The painting of peasant life which was one of Millet’s favourite  subjects was first shown in 1857 but the art critics gave it a very mixed reception.   The setting was the village of Barbizon on the edge of the Fontainebleau Forest on the outskirts of Paris, which attracted many en plein-air Impressionist painters of that time.  Many observers were a trifle uncomfortable with the subject, that of the very poor having to carry out such an arduous task.   The subject of works of art in those times was often dominated by the depiction of the rich in all their finery and many considered the depiction of poor country women in their ragged clothes grotesque and believed such representations should not be gracing galleries.  The difference in the social standing between the women and a landowner is highlighted by the large stacks of wheat which has been harvested and will earn the owner lots of money in comparison to the scavenging women who just want food to live.   The distaste of the subject is brought home by Griselda Pollock in her book Millet,saying,  that at the time, the French author and art critic Paul de Saint Victor commented:

“…His three gleaners have gigantic pretensions; they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty … their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved…”

If we look back in the Old Testament Bible we come across the tale of Ruth who was a gleaner but in the bible she is the personification of virtue and modesty but Millet’s gleaners are simply shown as women who, because of their desperate circumstances, are forced to act as gleaners to survive the hardships of life.

Millet’s three women are show in the field, presumably having been given permission by the landowner, scavenging for “forgotten” ears of corn which the harvesters had failed to collect.   We see them in the foreground, bent over double, scouring the ground before them for the elusive grains.  Each woman is shown at various stages of their task.  The woman furthest away is bending down to pick up the grain, the middle woman is picking up the grain and the nearest woman has just straightened up. 

The lone horse rider to the right, in the background, is probably the landowner’s overseer, who makes sure the harvesting operation runs smoothly and that the female gleaners only take what they are entitled to.  He has distanced himself from the workers, which reminds us of the social distinction between management and worker.  Millet, through the way he has depicted the scene has represented the class structure of a farming community.  His three women embody an animal force deeply absorbed by a painstaking task. The contrast between wealth and poverty, power and helplessness, male and female spheres is forcefully rendered by the artist.

The angled light from the sun illuminates the large haystacks and in some ways gives the three gleaners a kind of statuesque appearance highlighting their hands, shoulders and backs whilst enhancing the colours of their clothes and caps.

The Gleaners is an example of the Naturalism genre of painting.   Naturalism is the representation of the world with a minimum of abstraction or stylistic distortion.  It is characterised by convincing effects of light and surface texture and by the evocation of feelings and moods.  It is an approach to art in which the artist tries to represent objects as they are actually observed rather than in a conceptual format.

Have you a favourite painting you would like me to add to My Daily Art Display?   If so let me know what it is and why you like it.