Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 2. Morocco and many family tragedies

Morocco, marketplace with pile of oranges by Hilda Rix Nichols painted during one of her two trips to Tangier

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 Morocco Marketplace 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.   

                            Men in the Marketplace by Hilda Rix (1914)

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 …”

                                                       Grande Marché, Tangier by Hilda Rix (1916)

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…”

 Moroccan Market Scene by Hilda Rix Nicholas (crayon and pastel on paper)

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.

                           Moroccan Loggia by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1912-1914)

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. 

                             Hilda Rix painting in Tangier market place (1914)

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

                                         The Arab Sheep Market Tangier by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

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.

                                Grandmère by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

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 with her mother and sister during European trip.

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.

Hilda and Matson after the marriage

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.   

Major George Matson Nicholas charcoal and pastel drawing by Hilda Rix Nicholas drew this portrait of her new husband two days after their wedding on October 9th 1916

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.

                                           These Gave the World Away by Hilda Rix Nicholas, (1917)

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.

                                               Central panel of Pro Humanitate by Hilda Rix Nicholas (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.

                                                           Desolation by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1917)

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.

…………………………….to be continued.

The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel) by Paul Gaugin

The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob and the Angel) by Gaugin (1888)

The featured artist in My Daily Art Display blog today is the much loved French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin.  This is the first time I have featured a painting by the artist which I am sure is very remiss of me.  I have spent a great deal of time researching Gaugin’s life.  There are numerous books and articles about his life and what I found strange is that they don’t all agree on some of the lesser known facts.  I have tried to bring together the masses of information I have discovered about the great man and I have made an informed guess as to which is the true version of some of the things that happened to him.  My collated version of his life is a little too long to put into one blog so over the next few weeks I will serialise the fascinating tale of his life and on each occasion include one of his major works.  So let me start at the beginning…………………………

Aline Gaugin, mother of Paul Gaugin

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in June 1848.  His father, Pierre Guillaume Clovis Gaugin was a radical French journalist working as an editor for the liberal-leaning, anti-Bonapartist National newspaper. His mother was Aline Maria Chazal, who was half French and half Peruvian Creole and who like her husband had strong political convictions. Paul Gaugin was the youngest of the couple’s two children, and their only son.   Gaugin’s maternal grandmother, who lived in Peru, was Flora Tristan.  She was the daughter of a Peruvian nobleman, and came from a very powerful and wealthy Peruvian dynasty.   She was a socialist writer and activist and also one of the founders of modern feminism.

In 1848 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte came to power which caused a great deal of political unrest.  It ended in a coup d’état and revolution in 1851 and the dissolution of the French Assembly along with the imposition of Napoleon III on his people.  Gaugin’s father held strong political against Napoleon III and he frequently expressed such opinions in newspaper articles.  In August 1849 because of the political turmoil, he and his family fled Paris and headed for Peru with the idea of setting up a newspaper in Lima.   Gaugin’s father, Clovis, suffered a sudden heart attack during the voyage and died, aged 35, leaving Paul, his mother and sister Marie to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima with Paul’s great-uncle and his family. Gaugin’s mother sought protection and help for her family from  the powerful and wealthy Don Pio Tristan Moscoso, the head of their extended family, who had family connections with the president of the country.

Despite the Gaguins sharing the exclusive and wealthy lifestyle of the Moscosos in Lima, when an opportunity arose to return home to France at the end of 1854, Aline seized it.  She was well aware that her presidential cousin was losing political power and that Don Pio’s promises to leave her a comfortable legacy might come to nothing.  Gaugin’s mother Aline decided that her best opportunities of an independent life lay in Europe.   Around this time she had also received word that her late husband’s father, Guilliame Gaugin, a retired merchant and widower, who was close to death, wanted to make his only grandchildren, Paul and Marie, his heirs.  Aline Gaugin realised that her future and that of her family now lay not in Peru but back in France.

In 1855 Aline, Marie and Paul Gaugin returned to Orléans, and went to live with their paternal grandfather.   While living there Paul and Marie attend an Orléans boarding school as day students. Their grandfather Guillaume died within months of their return to France, and it was also around this time that Aline’s great-uncle, Don Pio de Tristan Moscoso, died in Peru.  In 1859, Paul Gauguin enrols in the Petit Séminaire de la Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, which was one of the top boarding schools located a few miles outside of Orléans, where he completed his education over the next three years.  His mother leaves Orléans and moves to Paris, and her children live with her there while on school breaks.  With the money she has received in her father-in-law’s will and because she was a trained dressmaker, she opens her own dressmaking business on the rue de la Chaussée in Paris in 1861.  Aline Gaugin falls ill in 1865 and retires to the Parisian countryside of St Cloud, a western suburb of Paris.  It is whilst living here that she meets and is befriended by a Parisian financier, Gustave Arosa, a wealthy Jewish businessman of Spanish descent who has his summer residence near to her home.

After his spell at the boarding school in Orléans, Paul Gaugin attends the Loriol private school in Paris where he prepares for the very demanding École Navale’s entrance examination.  It is probably at this juncture in Gaugin’s life that he receives his first artistic training as part of the exam is to be able to draw from plaster casts and live models as well as technical drawing and map making.  He doesn’t succeed in the exams but in December 1865, aged 17, Gaugin is accepted as a pilotin (officer cadet) in the merchant marine and his first positioni is on the vessel Luzitano which plied its trade between Le Havre and South America and Martinique.  He eventually reaches the rank of second lieutenant at the age of eighteen.  His mother Aline dies in July 1867 aged 42 whilst her son is away and in her will she entrusts Paul Gaugin and his sister Marie to the guardianship of Gustave Arosa.  Gaugin’s arrives back in Le Havre in December 1867 and he leaves the ship.  In January 1868, Gauguin joins the French navy to fulfil his military service requirement and in that March becomes a sailor third-class aboard the vessel, Jérôme-Napoléon in Cherbourg.  At the start of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, Gaugin serves in the French Naval campaigns in the Mediterranean and North Sea.

In April 1871 Gauguin completes his military service and returns to his late mother’s home in St Cloud, only to find it has been destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War.  He then moves back to Paris and takes an apartment near to where his former guardian Gustave Arosa lives with his family.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Gustave Doré (1855)

I will leave Gaugin’s life story at this point in time, 1871, and look at My Daily Art Display’s featured painting which Gaugin completed in 1888.  It is entitled La Vision après le Sermon (La Lutte de Jacob avec l’Ange) [The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel].  It can now be found in Edinburgh, hanging in the National Gallery of Scotland which purchased the painting in 1925 for a mere £1150.  The depiction of Jacob battling the angel had been depicted in paintings and murals before.  Rembrandt painted the scene in 1659 and Eugène Delacroix painted a mural of the scene in 1861 which can be seen in the Church of St-Sulpice in Paris, which of course has received thousands of visitors since the church was featured in the book The Da Vinci Code.  Works of art concerning the subject were also painted by Gustave Doré in 1855 and Gustave Moreau in 1878.  The latter two could well have been seen by Gaugin.

The painting before us by Gauguin has no identifiable light source and it is dominated by heavily-outlined flat areas of pure and contrasting colours.  The perspective Gaugin uses is sharp and by doing this he forces us to look at the paintings background and Jacob’s tussle with the angel.  The grass instead of being green is red.

The Plum Garden in Kameido by Hiroshige (1857)

A tree lying across the painting, bottom right to top left creates a strong diagonal as it dissects the painting, separating the real world from the imaginary one.  At the time of this painting France was being flooded with all things Japanese and it is thought that the way the tree dissects the painting in Gaugin’s work is something he may have seen in the woodblock print of The Plum Garden in Kameido by the Japanese artist Ando Hiroshige.  To the left of the tree we see a solitary cow and a group of Breton women wearing their traditional headdresses.  Each design of headdress denotes the ladies class, marital status, standing in society as well as which part of the area the woman comes from.   The women have emerged from a church service and on the far right of the painting is the priest who has just delivered the sermon.  On the other side of the tree we have the imaginary world created in the minds of the people after hearing the priest’s sermon about Jacob’s struggle with the Angel.

Here we see Jacob wrestling the angel and it is thought that Gaugin’s portrayal of the pair wrestling could have been based on one of the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai’s prints of sumo wrestlers in his 1888 publication The Manga.  The story of Jacob and the Angel comes from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 32, in which we are told that Jacob is frantically trying to prove to the angel that he has repented for his sins and will not allow the Angel to leave until he has been successful.

This painting is all about what Gaugin believes the women will be thinking on leaving the church after hearing the priest’s sermon.  Gaugin loved the simple faith of the peasants and their spiritualism.  He believed that art should be about the inner meaning of the subjects, and not necessarily about their obvious outward appearance. He explains his thoughts about this painting in a letter he wrote to Vincent van Gogh in September 1888.

“…I have just painted a religious picture, very clumsily; but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the church of Pont-Aven. Naturally they don’t want it. A group of Breton women are praying, their costumes a very intense black. The bonnets a very luminous yellowy-white….. An apple tree cuts across the canvas, dark purple with its foliage drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with greenish yellow chinks of sunlight. The ground (pure vermilion). In the church it darkens and becomes a browny red. The angel is dressed in violent ultramarine blue and Jacob in bottle green. The angel’s wings pure chrome yellow.  The angel’s hair chrome  and the feet flesh orange…”

Gaugin offered the painting to the local curé of the church in Nizon, Pont Aven but he was horrified by the depicted scene and declined the offering!