Léon Frédéric. Part 1. The Naturalist painter

Self Portrait by Léon Frédéric

My chosen subject today is the life and works of a nineteenth century Belgian artist. He has been designated as a Symbolist painter and yet when I look at his work only some of it seems to fall into that category. Other of his paintings tend towards realism.  So, in this first of two blogs about the artist, I am going to concentrate on his woks of Realism.

The Three Sisters by Léon Frédéric

The artist I am looking at today is Léon-Henri-Marie Frédéric. He was one of the most prominent representatives of the Belgian symbolist school. He was born in the Brussels’ municipality of Uccle, on August 26th, 1856. His parents were Eugène Frédéric, a wealthy jeweller, and Felicie Dufour. Léon was brought up in a crowded Roman Catholic household and at the age of seven, his parents sent him to the Institute of Joséphites in Melle, a Jesuit boarding school. In 1871, at the age of fifteen, he began working as an apprentice to the painter, decorator Charles Albert, and at the same time, attended the evening classes of the Brussels Academy of Art, where he became a pupil of Jules Vankeirsblick and Ernest Slingeneyer. He also worked in the studio of Jean Portaels, the Neo-Classicist painter who at the start of 1878 became the director of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles. In 1875, Léon joined other young painters and they rented a studio and set up a collective, pooling their money so as to employ living models.

The Funeral Meal by Léon Frédéric (1886)

One of the greatest of prizes on offer to young aspiring artists was to win the Prix de Rome. The original Prix de Rome was a scholarship for arts students and was created in 1663 in France under the reign of Louis XIV. The prize, organised by Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, was open to their students. The award winner would win a stay at the Palazzo Mancini in Rome at the expense of the King of France. The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp followed suit in 1832 and organised the the Belgian Prix de Rome with a similar prize being given to the winner. Léon entered the competition on three occasions but without any success. He was devastated, so much so, that his father financed a two year-long study trip for his son in 1876. Léon travelled to Italy in the company of Juliaan Dillens, who had won the Prix de Rome for sculpture the previous year. Léon travelled extensively through Italy visiting Naples, Rome, Florence and Venice. He visited museums and observed the work of the great Italian Masters. His favourite artists were said to have been Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio. He was also influenced by the Italian primitives and that of the English Pre-Raphaelites, and Burne-Jones in particular. As a painter, Léon said pain ting gave him an understanding of the overpowering beauty and harmony of nature with mankind. This sense of accord was balanced by his own artistic vision which expressed a truthfulness to nature.

Old Woman Servant by Léon Frédéric

On his return to Belgium in 1878, Léon joins the Brussels-based artist group known as L’Essor. The group was created in 1876, and was formed by a group of art students who had once studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, although in 1879 this artists group severed all links it had with the Academy. The motto of the group was “a unique art, one life“, and concentrated on the relationship which they believed should unite the Art to Life. The founders of the group wanted their art to be a pictorial condemnation of the bourgeois and conservative Literary and Artistic Circles of Brussels.

In this first blog about Frédéric I am going to concentrate on his artwork which is looked upon as Naturalism and Realism.  In the early days, Léon Frédéric mainly painted realistic scenes of the lives of the less well-off people such as labourers, the homeless and farm workers. He empathised with their grief and depravation but at the same time he was also very inspired by their never-ending and fervent religious beliefs of the old people who lived in these countryside areas. 

Les garçons (The little boys) by Léon Frédéric

He completed a set of five group portraits entitled Les Âges du paysan (The Age of the Peasant) which depict the five different stages in the life of  rural peasants.  Besides the aging process very little changes with their poor attire and their seemingly acceptance of what life has offered them.

Les fillettes (the young girls) by Léon Frédéric
Les promis (The betrothed) by Léon Frédéric
Les époux (The married couples) by Léon Frédéric
Les vieillards (The elderly) by Léon Frédéric

Around this time Léon was inspired by the art of the French Naturalism painter Jules Bastien Lepage and Léon’s 1882 triptych painting Les marchands de craie (The Chalk Merchants) was inspired by the French painter.

Chalk Sellers by Léon Frédéric (Morning, Noon and Evening) (1882-83),

The three paintings incorporate three distinct times in the day of a family of workers. The triptych was hailed as a veritable masterpiece of Realism / Naturalism and, like some of Bastien-Lepage’s work, is particularly sensitive to the plight of the poor. It was exhibited to great acclaim at the Brussels’s Salon in 1882.

Morning by Léon Frédéric

The left-hand panel depicts a poor family of chalk sellers setting out for work. In the background is their small village. It is a harrowing depiction. The mother is wrapped up against the cold and yet her reddened hands are bare. Her face is half hidden by her headscarf but we still meet her penetrating stare, an almost accusing glower. On her back is a heavy basket of chalk which they hope to sell. Behind her is her husband. He has a red beard and wears a wide-brimmed, floppy hat. His eyes look tired and unable to focus. His mouth is partly open as if he is struggling to breathe. He is struggling with life both physically and mentally. He looks resigned to his fate. He carries a basket on his back which contains a very young blonde-haired child. In one hand he holds a wicker basket containing their food. His other hand clasps the hand of his dark-eyed, rosy-cheeked son, a bare-footed child, whose small dirty hand grasps a piece of bread which he is eating.  They all look tired and yet the day’s work has yet to begin.

Noon, lunchtime by Léon Frédéric

The middle panel depicts the family having a modest noontime meal as they sit in some barren fields with a small town in the background. The family from the previous picture have been joined by a woman nursing her baby and her child sitting besides her. Before them is a pot of boiled potatoes which they are eating with their bread. The two women and the children are all bare-footed. The man has taken off his hat and we see he is bald. The women in the centre once again fixes us with a questioning glower, almost as if she is demanding to know why we should be looking at them

Evening by Léon Frédéric

In the right hand panel we see the family returning home after a day’s work. They all have their back to us. Their village is on the left and way in the background a city looms. The wooden basket and the wicker one they carry have been lightened of food and chalk but still it is a wearying trek back to their village. The man staggers with the weight of the young sleeping child he cradles in his arms. The mother looks down at her other child, who walks besides her, hand in hand, to see if he is alright.  This was just one of Frédéric’s paintings which shows that he was aware of social inequality in Belgian society.

Two Walloon Farm Children by Léon Frédéric (1888),

Another of Frédéric’s Naturalist paintings which was influenced by Bastien-Lepage was his beautiful 1888 portrayal of two children, entitled Two Walloon Farm Children. Bastien-Lepage, who was renowned in France as the leader of the evolving Naturalist school, had died after a long illness in 1884, aged just 36 and Frédéric took over the Naturalist mantle. The painting is both exquisite and yet troubling. It is a portrait of child poverty. The two sit on chairs, finger tips touching, wearing white-collared grey smocks. The plain clothes seem clean and but for their dull simplicity, do not insinuate poverty. Their hands and fingernails are dirty suggesting a peasant life which is further alluded to by their rosy cheeks brought about by their outdoor life. The two girls who look out at us seem to be displeased with our attention to their life. It is one of the most moving images of the deprivation which went hand in hand with rural life. Frédéric’s naturalist style of painting brings with it a vision of a harsh, grim lifestyle with all the hardships that poverty brings to the table. It was not the fault of the people but the unstoppable march of industrial modernity. If one look at all his paintings featuring the harsh life suffered by the peasants one does not detect or sense rebellion, just a sense of dejection and resignation and that life for them would carry on through their faith in God.

The Legend of Saint Francis by Léon Frédéric (1882)

During Frédéric’s travels around Italy in 1878 it is thought that he may have visited the Umbrian town of Assisi and seen Giotto’s famed cycle of twenty-eight frescoes on the lower part of the walls of the nave and entrance in the town’s upper church of St. Francis at Assisi. In 1882 Frédéric painted a triptych depicting St. Francis, simply entitled The Legend of Saint Francis. In the left-hand panel we see the saint walking down a country path and the centre panel depicts him feeding the hens. The right-hand panel is more interesting as it recounts the tale of the St Anthony as written in the 14th century book, Fioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of St. Francis) a fifty-three chapter book on the life of the Saint, one of which talks about the Wolf of Gubbio, which according to the book terrorized the Umbrian city of Gubbio until it was tamed by St. Francis of Assisi acting on behalf of God.

Burial of a Farmer by Léon Frédéric

In 1883, Léon Frédéric left Brussles and went to live in Nafraiture, a small rural village in the Ardennes region of southern Belgium, close to the French border, where he lived for several years. Many of Frédéric’s works after his re-location depict poor people and peasants and the artist’s work focused on the harsh reality of peasant life. One of his paintings, thought to have been completed around 1886, focuses on grief and hardship and were thought to have been completed during his time at Nafraiture. The painting was entitled Burial of a Farmer. Sad burial scenes of country folk were popular ever since Courbet’s 1850 large-scale masterpiece, Burial at Ornans, which had gained Courbet great success at the 1850 Salon. Frédéric’s painting differs in that it depicts a procession of mourners at a village funeral in harsh wintry conditions somewhere in the Ardennes. At the head of the procession is the clergyman with the bible tightly grasped in his hand. Next to him are the close family mourners – the wife, rubbing tears from her eyes, her young son almost hidden behind the black clothes of his grandmother. Behind them are other family members, friends, and a smattering of local people. The black clothes of the mourners against the snow almost makes this a monochromatic depiction but there are just the odd splashes of colour, albeit muted, in the clothes of the three children at the right of the painting. Without doubt it is a very moving scene.

In my next blog about Léon Frédéric I will look at his work which compartmentalises him as a Symbolist painter.

Julien and Thérèse Dupré – father and daughter Ruralist painters.

Julien Dupré

What do we want from a depiction in a painting? Do we want absolute truth? For example, should a portrait be of hyper-realsitic quality so it almost look like a photograph or should the portrait artist, through their bold brush marks and splashes of colour, produce a portrait which has not achieved photographic accuracy but is how the artist “sees” the model? What do we prefer in a painting Romanticism or Realism? Is it the same as asking about our taste in films, whether we prefer a *rom-com” or a “blood and guts” movie? Do we really want to be reminded of real life or do we want to be lulled by the happiness of how life should be?

In the Orchard by Edward Stott

Many questions, but it all leads me to the painting genre used by today’s artist. Once again I am looking at an artist who was classified as a painter of Naturalism, not just that, but Rural Naturalism, sometimes termed Ruralism. It was a nineteenth century art genre which was realist in nature and yet allowed artists to pictorially advocate the joys of rural life as an alternative to living amongst the grime of city life. The detractors of Rural Naturalism are quick to condemn the depictions of rural life as unadulterated sentimentality in comparison to the harsher work of the nineteenth century realist painters who depicted the harsh and unforgiving life of peasants as they struggled to work in the fields for their wealthy masters. Rural naturalism was seen in paintings by British artists such as George Clausen, Henry Herbert La Thangue and Edward Stott and in many of the artists of the Newlyn School.

Cows at the Watering Place by Julien Dupré

In France the painters closely associated with Ruralism were Jean-François Millet and Jules-Adolphe Breton. Millet is probably most famous for his works such as The Gleaners, The Sowers and The Angelus which all depict peasant farmworkers in a realistic way and highlight the harshness of peasant life.

The Gleaners by Jules-Adolphe Breton (1854)

The paintings of Jules-Adolphe Breton are also greatly inspired by the French countryside and often depict the traditional farming methods used by peasants but they also imbued the beauty and sublime vision of rural existence. Maybe it was a picture of life which did not really exist but was the preference of many. Think back to my analogy of the rom-com!

The Gossip by Julien Dupré

Today I am looking at the work of a French father and daughter who were noted for their Rural Naturalism paintings. They are Julien Dupré and his daughter Thérèse Marthe Françoise Dupré. Julien Dupré was born in 1851 some thirty-seven years after Millet and twenty-four years after Breton were born but his works of art were often compared to theirs and yet there were subtle differences. Hollister Sturgess, the American writer and former Museum director, in his 1982 book, Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition, wrote:

“…Salon critics rightly perceived Julien Dupré as Breton’s closest follower. Through idealization of form, he invested his peasant women with a heroic aura, though unlike his predecessor, his figures are usually engaged in vigorous action. His landscapes, with their cloudy skies and varied motifs, are also much more active. Their high key color and spontaneous brushwork have a vivacity and freshness that distinguishes them from the somber calm of Breton’s scenes…”

The Goose Girl by Julien Dupré

Julien Dupré was born in Paris on March 18th, 1851. He was the son of Jean Dupré, a jeweller, and his second wife, Marie-Madeleine Pauline Célinie Bouillé. His parents had a jewellery shop in Paris which they had to abandon during the 1870 siege of the French capital by the Prussian forces. Julien enrolled in evening classes at the École nationale des arts décoratifs which then allowed him entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts, where he trained under Isidore Pils, the French history painter and Henri Lehmann, a German-born French historical painter and portraitist.

In the Fields by Julien Dupré(1877)

In 1875 Dupré went to live in Picardy and became a student of Désiré François Laugée. In his early days as a painter he adhered to the academic tradition he had been taught at the École des Beaux-Arts producing many historical and religious works as well as completing portrait commissions and murals. Later he became interested in plein air painting of landscapes and was fascinated with peasant genre subjects. Laugée and his wife had four children. The eldest was their daughter Marie Eléonore Françoise. Julien Dupré became romantically involved with Marie and eventually on May 17th 1876, in Paris, the couple married. They went on to have three children: Thérèse Dupré, Jacques Dupré and Madeleine Dupré. Thérèse Dupré, like her father, became a painter whilst Jacques became a doctor, draughtsman and illustrator and Madeleine a pianist. The year 1876 was also an auspicious year for Dupré as it was the year that he had his first painting exhibited at the Paris Salon.

Peasant Girl with Sheep by Julien Dupré (1895)

Julien Dupré endeavoured to depict the work of peasants in the fields in their harsh reality and to show the bond between peasant farmers and their farm animals. Julien Dupré’s peasant women seen working in the fields is the most enduring of his characterisation. Often, he depicted strong women positioned theatrically and yet elegantly in the forefront 0f his paintings, carrying out strenuous work as pitching sheaves of hay. His finely modelled figures are testament to his academic training, and the quality of his work is due to the influence of the work of Breton and Bouguereau. Dupré also developed a much freer management of the background areas of his paintings often carried out using a palette knife, which indicates the influence of the Impressionists painters. The characters we see depicted in his paintings are not frozen in artificial and unnatural academic poses but are observed equally well in action, as in rest, and by doing so, showing them as everyday working people. In most of his works, the landscapes depicted are idealised but are nevertheless inspired by the countryside of Picardy especially in the region of Saint-Quentin and Nauroy.

Les Faucheurs De Luzerne (The Reapers of Lucerne) by Julien Dupré (1880)

Dupré returned to Paris and worked in his Parisian workshop at 20 Boulevard Flandrin, which he shared with his brother-in-law Georges Laugée. But he loved outdoor life and painting en plein air. He exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon from 1876 to 1910 and won numerous awards. In 1880 he was awarded a third-class medal for his painting, Le Faucheurs de Luzerne and in 1881 he received a second-class medal for his work, La Recolte des Foins. He was honoured with a gold medal at the Paris Fair of 1889 and in 1892 was awarded the Legion of Honour. His works were very popular and many sold internationally especially in America.

An etching based upon The White Cow by Julien Dupré

Marion Spielmann, the prolific Victorian art critic and scholar, in an article  in The Magazine of Art in 1891, entitled The White Cow,  described Julien Dupré as:

… one of the most rising artists of the French School. He is individual in his work, accurate as an observer, earnest as a painter, healthy in his instincts and intensely artistic in his impressions and translations of them… he is always one of the attractions at the Salon………..In The White Cow which was amongst the finest works in last year’s Salon, several of M. Dupré’s merits as a painter are exemplified. The cow – taking a patient and intelligent interest in the operation of milking – is superbly drawn, and her expression admirably rendered. The light and shade, the balance of composition, and the rendering and disposition of the figures combine in this picture to produce a canvas which pleases the spectator the more he examines it…”

Julien Dupré gravestone at Père Lachaise cemetery

Throughout his career Julien Dupré championed the life of the peasant and continued painting scenes in the areas of Normandy and Brittany until his death in Paris on April 15th, 1910. He was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery. His tombstone bears a sculpture of a painter’s palette resting on a wreath of flowers.

Thérèse Marthe Françoise Dupré was the eldest child of Julien Dupré and his wife, Marie Eléonore Françoise Laugée. She was born on March 19, 1877 in Paris, a year after her parents married. From an early age, she came into contact with the many artists who attended her father’s and grandfather’s studio including family members, such as her uncle, the painter Georges Paul Laugée, her aunt Jeanne Eulalie Laugée-Fontaine, and her great-uncle Philibert Léon Couturier.

Le Gardeuse d’oie (The Goose Keeper) by Thérèse Marthe Françoise Cotard-Dupre

There is no doubt that her artistic style was very much influenced by both her father and her uncle, the artist, George Paul Laugée. Just like her father her paintings depicted idealised visions of peasant life in rural France. She started to exhibit her work at the Salon in 1899 and later became a member of the Société des Artistes Français, and in 1907 receiving a third-class medal for one of her works. She married the artist Edmond Cotard on June 2nd 1898, with whom she had two children, Henri Edmond Cotard on October 6th 1899 and François Cotard on January 9th 1905, who both became artists.

La Lessive (The Laundry) by Thérèse-Marthe-Françoise Cotard-Dupré

One of her best-known compositions is her painting entitled La Lessive (The Laundry). Like many of her works, they suggest that she was very familiar with the tasks she depicted in her works. The painting when sold at Bonhams of New Bond Street, London in 2015 achieved a record price for one of her paintings of $66,153.

While her father was a prolific artist, his daughter’s artistic output was much more meagre for one has to remember she was a wife and a mother. She was married at the age of twenty-one and became a mother when she was twenty-two and so the output of her work was severely restricted by her responsibilities as a wife and a mother.

The Milkmaid by Thérèse Marthe Françoise Cotard-Dupre

Her depiction of the peasant farmers, both male and female, as healthy and strong and rarely tired who seem to carry out their tasks with smiles on their faces is obviously an idealised view of peasant life. Such happy depictions of peasant life helped to ease the conscience of wealthy landowners whereas gritty Realist depictions of the down beaten peasant may have gnawed at their consciences.

Fermiere et Enfant by Thérèse Marthe Françoise Cotard-Dupre

She lived for a long time in Saint Quentin in Northern France where she copied and studied the pastels of the great Quentin De la Tour. She created many commissioned works, such as portraits, landscapes, peasant scenes. Unfortunately, many were lost during the First World War.

Thérèse-Marthe-Françoise Cotard-Dupré died, aged 43 on April 13th, 1920 in Orly near Paris in the clinic of Dr. Piouffle specializing in the care of alcoholics.  She was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in the vault with her mother and father.

The Krohg Family – Part 1 – Christian Krohg. The early years and life at Skagen

Christian Krohg

The art of one of the painters I am looking at today was compartmentalised as being works of a Naturalism genre and also of a Realism genre. So what is Naturalism and how does it differ to Realism when appertaining to art?

The best way to describe Naturalism is to say that it is a type of art that pays attention to very accurate and precise details. It is painting which is true to what we see without any falsification or artistic interpretation.  That sounds like Realism !

Naturalism was an artistic movement, which came into being in the mid-nineteenth century and embodied things closer to the way we observed them. Prior to this, depictions of landscapes or human beings tended to be idealised or rendered according to precepts resulting from the traditions of classical art. Naturalism was a denouncement of the fantasy world of Romanticism, which had flourished from the late eighteenth century into the first half of the nineteenth century. Naturalism is also often associated with plein air painting.

But is this not the definition of Realism? The two are close but Realism, especially Social Realism, focuses more on social realities and concentrates on content rather than the methodology of the work. Realism tends to deliberate on who or what is being painted rather than how it was painted and realist depictions often muse over ordinary people, who are often struggling with life. Often Realism paintings have a moralistic story to tell and they then tend to be viewed as a commentary on the social and political life of the day. Naturalism tends to be more about how the work has been painted ensuring that it is true to life.

Self Portrait by Christian Krohg

Christian Krohg was born in Vestre Aker, a district of the city of Oslo on August 13th 1852, the son of the journalist and publisher, Georg Anton Krohg and Sophie Amalie Holst. His paternal grandfather, Christian Krohg was a lawyer, government minister, and had at various times served as Minister of the Interior and Minister of Finance.

Christian was the second-born of their children and had four sisters, Anna Helene Nicoline, born in June 1850, Stine Marie, born in December 1854, Nanna born in January 1859, and Sophie Amalie Holst born in April 1861. Christian’s mother died on April 28th 1861, seven days after having given birth to Sophie and maybe in memory of her mother she was also named Sophie Amalie Holst. In June 1868 more sadness was to befall Christian’s family when Christian’s younger sister, Nanna, contracted tuberculosis and died, aged nine.

Still life with a D.O.M. Bottle by Christian Krohg (1883)
The D.O.M. stands for Deo Optimo Maximo which means – To God most good, most great.

Following his normal schooling Christian went to the Royal Frederick University (now the University of Oslo) in 1869 to study law, the plan, probably fostered by his father, being that he would become a lawyer, like his grandfather.   However for Christian his main interest was art and maybe through an agreement with his father that if he studied for a law degree he would be allowed to also attend art classes at the local drawing schools. He attended both Johan Fredrik Eckersberg’s private art school from 1869 to 1870 and later the drawing class of Julius Middelthun, the Norwegian sculptor, at the Royal School of Art and Design of Christiana (Oslo).

Braiding her Hair by Christian Krohg (1888)

On April 13th 1873, during his university studies, Christian’s father Georg died, aged fifty-six. The following year, at the end of his five year law course, he attained a law degree but instead of practicing law he decided to travel to Germany with his friend and fellow artist, Eilif Peterssen and they both enrolled at the Baden School of Art in Karlsruhe, where two of his professors were Karl Gussow, the German Realist painter, and Hans Gude, the Norwegian Romanticist painter and one of Norway’s foremost landscape painters. Gude spent most of his adult life as a professor of art and was a leading figure in the advancement of Norwegian art. To young, aspiring Norwegian artists of the mid and late nineteenth century, Gude was a god and they would travel to Germany to enrol on courses taught by him at academies in Dusseldorf, Berlin and Karlsruhe.

Georg Brandes – sketch by P S Krøyer (1900)

Christian Krohg remained at the Baden School of Art in Karlsruhe for a year before moving on to the Berlin Academy in 1875, a move that had already been made by his former professor, Karl Gussow. Krohg remained in Berlin for three years. Whilst there he made friends with the German symbolist painter, Max Klinger and the Danish writer and philosopher, Georg Brandes.   Brandes writings were centered on the concept of realism and were diametrically opposed to the world of fantasy in literature. He was looked upon as the founder of the Cultural Radicalism movement. According to Aarhus Universitet’s Institut for Kultur og Samfund, Cultural Radicalism can be looked upon as:

“…Cultural radicalism must be understood from its cultural and philosophical origins in the modern breakthrough in the last half of the 19th century, as well as from the actual roots of rationalism of enlightenment. In Denmark, cultural radicalism has rooted in the bourgeois radicalism of the 1870s and in the intellectual environment around the brothers Georg and Edvard Brandes and Viggo Hørup. The bourgeois radical ideas constituted a cultural battle against the authority of the church and the state, and they concerned in particular the right to individual expression, freedom of opinion and tolerance, and criticism of what was considered to be a restricted, oppressive and colorless civil culture…”

Charles Lundh in Conversation with Christian Krohg by Christian Krohg (1883)
Charles Lundh, a Norwegian painter, lived together with Christian Krohg and the Swedish painters Johan Krouthén and Oscar Björck in a house in Skagen in 1883

Krohg was very attentive to the views of Brandes and became more aware of the social and political problems of the time. These views were enhanced by the poor quality of his living standards during his time in Berlin, which almost bordered on out and out poverty   More importantly for Krohg it was his friendship with Georg Brandes that led to him being introduced to Emile Zola, the great French writer, playwright and journalist.  Zola was interested in the world of art and as a journalist in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, he produced many newspaper articles defending the art of Cézanne, Manet, and the emerging Impressionists, such as Monet, Renoir and Degas, all of whom were being criticised by the artistic elite. It was also Zola who first coined the term Naturalism, defining it as a literary movement, which gave emphasis to observation and the methodology used in the fictional portrayal of reality.

Farewell by Christian Krohg

It was in the following year, 1876, that Krohg exhibited his painting entitled A Farewell. For the time he concentrated on his portraiture and two works of note was his 1876 portrait of Lucy Eyeberg and his depiction of his friend Georg Brandes which he completed in 1879

The year 1879 was of great importance to Christian Krohg as it was during that summer that he first went to Skagen, a Danish fishing community on the north coast of Jutland. Christian and his fellow Norwegian painter and former fellow student in Karlsruhe, Frits Thaulow, travelled to Skagen in Thaulow’s small sailboat and remained there through to the end of autumn. Skagen had become a summer meeting place for artists in the late 1870’s and remained such up until the end of the nineteenth century.

Dining room in Brøndums Hotel (ca. 1891) showing some of the group and the panel of their portraits

It was because of its favourable natural light that it was so popular with the plein-air artists from Scandinavia, such as husband and wife artists, Anna and Michael Ancher, Peder Severin Krøyer and his wife Marie, Karl Madsen and Viggo Johansen, as well as painters from northern Europe.  It was this fascination with the changing natural light that had also inspired the Impressionists. Many of the Skagen artists had spent time in Paris and they were influenced by the French Barbizon artists and the world of Realism. This style of painting was contrary to the inflexible conventions set out by academies such as The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, which believed students should adhere to painting in the favoured Academic styles of Historicism and Neoclassicism. Michael Ancher, Karl Madsen and Viggo Johansen had also studied at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen.

Ane Gaihede by Christian Krohg (1888)

The early members of the Skagen artistic community had been befriended by Brøndum family, who were the owners of a local shop/bar and soon it became the meeting place for the Skagen painters and their literary friends. Peder Severin Krøyer became very friendly with the Brøndum’s fifteen-year-old daughter Marie and six years later the pair were married.

Woman cutting bread by Christian Krohg (1879)

Christian Krogh became a regular summer visitor to Skagen during the mid and late 1880’s and it was during those times that he focused on one family, the Gaihede family, for the subject of many of his works. Husband and wife, Niels and Ana Gaihede, along with their son Rasmus and daughter-in-law, Tine and their two children Ane and Sofus. One such painting featured the matriarch of the family Ana Gaihede who modelled for Krohg’s 1879 painting Woman Cutting Bread. Sixty-six year old Ana is seen in three-quarter length profile against a blank background, save for three small pictures, which allows us to focus completely on the subject of the work. It is a fascinating depiction, which gives us an insight into the people and their culture of the time.

The Net Mender by Christian Krohg

In another of Krohg’s works featuring the Gaihede family, The Net Mender, we see both Ana and her husband Niels depicted. In this 1880 work Niels can be seen repairing his fishing net whilst Ana sits stony-faced in the background making balls of fibre, which will be used in the repairing of the net. The walls of their home are a dull grey and the only thing breaking up the monotony of the colour are a few magazine pictures of animals and boats which may have been for the benefit of Sofus their six-year-old grandson. Looking at the interior furnishings of the home and the dress of the two characters one can detect a frugal standard of living, maybe not poverty-stricken but one in which every krone counts.

Niels Gaihede by Christian Krohg (1888)

Christian Krohg won a state stipend in 1881 and travelled to Paris, where he taught at an art school for women. In those days most of the prestigious art establishments denied women access to art tuition and Krohg could see the error of this dictate and wanted to be supportive of the female cause. Maybe Krohg was sympathetic with regards the plight of women in general as it is known that at about this time he was also becoming more and more interested in painting pictures which highlighted people’s struggle with everyday life and especially the great effort women had to make just to survive.

The Sick Girl by Christian Krohg (1881)

In 1881 he completed a very poignant painting entitled The Sick Girl. It was the depiction of a girl who had been struck down by tuberculosis and was dying. Krohg would be painfully aware that this killer disease had also taken his youngest sister, Nanna, thirteen years earlier. It is a haunting depiction. The girl sits upright in a wooden chair with a cushioned back. A thick woollen blanket covers the lower part of her body. Look at the girl’s tight-lipped facial expression. It is a mixture of sadness and fear. Maybe she is aware that her life is ebbing away. Her hands are tightly clasped together, as if in prayer, as she clutches the stem of a pale pink rose, the leaves and petals of which are starting to fall to the ground. The rose like the girl is dying.  One cannot help but be moved by such a depiction.

Babord litt (Port side) by Christian Krohg (1879)

During his time in the French capital he became influenced by the works of Édouard Manet and his modern scenes, which were often controversial. Even now, Manet is looked upon as the father of modernism. During his stay in Paris Krohg had two of his works accepted for the 1882 Salon. One of which was entitled Port Side, which he had started whilst living in Berlin but did not complete until 1879 whilst living in Skagen. It is a depiction of great detail. Look how Krohg has portrayed the clothes worn by the seaman. They have been well worn and impregnated with oil and dirt. They are old and have had to be patched and these details, along with the backdrop of the rough seas, add to the atmospheric mood of the work and we can sense how the bow of the vessel is about to dive headlong into the unforgiving swell.

Girl with a Rake by Jules Breton (1859)

During his stay in Paris Krohg had been very interested in the works of the leading French Social Realist painters of the time, Jules Breton, who was known for his depictions of peasant themes, Jules Bastien-Lepage, a painter noted for his sentimental naturalistic paintings of rural life and Léon Lhermitte, whose main theme for his paintings was also rural scenes depicting peasants at work.

Sovende mor med barn (Sleeping mother with child) by Christian Krohg (1883)

Krohg’s developing interest was the plight of women and their everyday trials and tribulations, which had to be overcome just to survive. Tiredness is one of the greatest afflictions that beset mothers with small children and Krohg’s 1883 painting Mother and Child highlights this perfectly. The work is housed in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

Trett (Tired) by Christian Krohg (1885)

Again exhaustion features in his 1885 work simply entitled, Tired, which shows a young woman who has fallen asleep during working on her sewing machine.

In the second part of the blog about Christian Krohg and his family I will be looking at his fascination with and his depiction of “fallen women” and how it got himself into trouble with the authorities.  I will also look at the life of his wife, Oda, and his unusual and sometimes turbulent marriage.

Frits Thaulow. Part 2 – the realist landscape painter.

Frits Thaulow at work

Many of Thaulow’s best known Norwegian scenes are from Åsgårdstrand, a town 100 km south of Oslo.  It had become a significant centre for artists and painters from the 1880’s. The town had been home to many internationally famous painter, such as Edvard Munch, Christian Krogh, and Hans Heyerdahl, who had either visited or lived in the town.  Again, like Skagen, the reason it was popular with painters was because of its unique light which the best artists wanted to depict in their works.

Street in Kragerø by Frits Thaulow (1882)

Thaulow visited the Norwegian coastal town of Kragerø which was, and still is, a place where people went to “get away from it all”.  It was a location which the great Norwegian painter Edvard Munch fell in love with, calling it ” Perlen blandt kystbyene (The Pearl of the Coastal Towns). The town of Kragerø is characterized by clear, blue water and beautiful views.

Houses in Kragerø by Frits Thaulow (1882)

However, in one of Thaulow’s paintings of the town, Houses in Kragerø, we see a more realistic depiction of it.  Gone are the blue water and beautiful views and instead we see an everyday view of the backs of the old houses with clothes pegged to a washing line fluttering in a strong breeze.  There is a lack of bright colours, a lack of blue skies, just a simple depiction of an area of the town, “warts and all”.

Haugsfossen ved Modum by Frits Thaulow (1883)

In 1883 after a visit to Blaafarveværket, a cobalt mining and industrial company located at Amort in Modum in the Norwegian county of Buskerud, some thirty miles west of Oslo.  Here there is the spectacular Haugsfossen waterfall and it was here that Thaulow completed his 1883 painting entitled Haugsfossen ved ModumIt is a spectacular painting and once again we witness Thaulow’s great talent when it comes to painting scenes which include stretches of water.  The green tones used for the water when combined with shades of white in contrast to the black rocks allow us to imagine the ferocity of the water has it hurtles down the waterfall, carrying with it fallen logs.

Rialto by Frits Thaulow (1895)

Thaulow travelled to Venice on a number of occasions in the 1890’s and made many sketches and paintings of the city highlighting the city’s canals and architecture and completed many paintings of that city.  In 1892, Thaulow returned once again to France but this time to make it his home.  Originally, he lived in Paris but soon tired of the hustle and bustle and preferred a quieter life in the smaller towns of Dieppe, Montreuil-sur-Mer, Quimperle in Brittany and further south, the town of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne.

Back Mills, Montreuil-sur-Mer by Frits Thaulow (1892)

Frits Thaulow had met Claude Monet when he was in Paris and a friendship between the two plein-air painters developed.   Both Thaulow and Monet painted in Normandy with Monet preferring to base himself on the coast and depict the stormy sea and the windswept coastal landscapes whereas Thaulow preferred the tranquillity of painting on quiet rivers.

A Stream in Spring by Frits Thaulow

Thaulow’s weather tends to be calmer which in a way was more in keeping with his temperament. Thaulow said of himself:

“…I am more drawn to the gentle and harmonic than to the vigorous…”

Thaulow had urged Monet to paint in Norway, and the French artist finally acquiesced and travelled there in the winter of 1895, to visit his stepson, Jacques Hoschedé, who lived in Christiania. It proved a disastrous visit because of the severe winter climate with the temperature at minus twenty degrees Celsius when he arrived and because of the amount of snow falling, painting outdoors was a very difficult chore for Monet.  One of the works completed during the visit was Sandvika.  This small town just south-west of Oslo, looks as though it had been done in a blizzard.

Sandvika, Norway by Monet (1895)

It is interesting to note the colours used in the painting – cold blues and lavender whereas Thaulow often used gold and yellow in his winter scenes giving it a slightly warmer feeling.  Maybe Monet just wanted to make sure we knew how cold and uncomfortable it was to paint winter scenes in such conditions whereas Thaulow was more forgiving.

The Akerselven River in the Snow by Frits Thaulow

Despite the adverse conditions, Monet painted twenty-nine Norwegian scenes during his two-month stay and these included at least six views of Sandvika.  It is thought that the iron bridge we see in the foreground may have reminded Monet of the Japanese bridge at his home in Giverny.  Monet never returned to Norway – he had had enough of the cold and inhospitable climate.

Evening in Camiers by Frits Thaulow (1893)

The Normandy coastal village of Camiers, which lies about ten miles south of Boulogne-sur-Mer, was visited by Thaulow in 1893 and that year he completed a painting depicting the village, entitled Evening in Camiers in which we see the sun setting over the dunes and rose-tinted houses caught up in the evening sunlight.

Thaulow the Painter and his Children by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1895)

Through an 1895 painting by Jaques-Emile Blanche we get an insight into Thaulow’s family life.   In the portrait, Thaulow the Painter and his Children, also known as The Thaulow Family, Frits Thaulow appeared with his daughter Else, aged 15 from his first marriage and two of the children from his second marriage, Harold then aged 8 and Ingrid aged 3.  The third child from his second marriage, Christian, was only born that year and does not appear in the work. The painting is housed in the Musée d’Orsay.  Blanche’s portrait was presented at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1896, was greeted with unanimous critical acclaim, which prompted Blanche to say later that this work was the one that “made him a painter”.

The Adige River at Verona by Frits Thaulow

In the 1890’s Thaulow travelled to various European cities constantly sketching and painting what he observed.  On his trip through northern Italy in 1894, he visited Verona on his way to Venice and completed a painting entitled The Adige River at Verona.  In this work Thaulow used only muted colours and understated tonal harmonies which depict the view of the fast-flowing Adige River as it passes beneath the five arches of the sixteenth century Ponte della Pietra.  In the background, we can see the Duomo of S. Maria Matricolare, and to the right the Sanmicheli’s campanile.

Small town near La Panne by Frits Thaulow (1905)

In the summer of 1905 Frits Thaulow spent some time with his family at La Panne, a small Flemish coastal resort. He had bought himself a small car and with this new-found transport was able to drive himself and his family to small Belgian towns in the area always looking for subjects for his paintings.  One such painting was his 1905 work entitled Small Town Near La Panne.  In the painting, we see small town houses nestled on the river bank and in the mid-ground a small arched bridge.  Thaulow made three versions of this scene all slightly different in the way he depicted the bridge and the houses.

Evening at the Bay of Frogner by Frits Thaulow (1880)

Thaulow received several honours for his artistic work including his appointment as commander of the 2nd Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav in 1905. He received the French Legion of Honour, Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus from Italy and the Order of Nichan Iftikhar from Tunisia.

Johan Frederik “Frits” Thaulow
1847-1906

Thaulow developed diabetes in 1897, a time before insulin had been developed and his condition worsened over the next nine years Thaulow died in Volendam, in the Netherlands on November 5th 1906, aged 59.

Thaulow was a painter working within the framework of Realism, to which he made an original contribution. He forged a friendship with Monet and Rodin and was a valuable connection between Norwegian and French art.

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.

Vasily Perov, Part 1 – the critical realist

Portrait of Vasily Perov by Igor Kramskov (1881)
Portrait of Vasily Perov by Igor Kramskov (1881)

For my blog today, I am returning to Russia and featuring one of its greatest nineteenth century artists, Vasily Grigoryevich Perov.  He is known as one of the great critical realism artists of his time.

Perov was born in 1834 in the town of Tobolisk, a Siberian town, which lies east of the Urals.  Perov was the illegitimate child of Baron G K Kridiner, the provincial prosecutor for the region of Arzamas.  Perov, who was born prior to his mother and father’s marriage, was given the surname of his godfather, Vasilyev and yet, Perov himself disliked the name and had it changed to Perov, which was his nickname as a child as he was an excellent hand writer and a talented calligrapher.  Pero in Russian means pen.

Sermon in a Village by Vasily Perov (1861)
Sermon in a Village by Vasily Perov (1861)

In 1846, Vasily Perov received his first painting lessons, at the age of twelve, at the Alexander Stupin Art School in Arzamas. Stupin was a painter of the classicism genre, whose school was the first of its type in provincial Russia.  From there, in 1851, Perov moved to Moscow and entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which was one of the largest educational institutions in Russia.  It was here that he studied under Sergey Zaryanko, a Russian painter of Belarusian birth.   Whilst at the academy, he won a number of awards for his work from the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts and his major award was when he won the Grand Gold medal for his diploma work in 1861.  The work was a set of preliminary sketches and the finished painting, Sermon in a Village.  He was also awarded a scholarship to travel abroad to enhance his knowledge of European art.

The Sermon in a Village is not simply a depiction of the congregation listening to a sermon.  In the centre foreground we see a nobleman asleep, head slumped forward on his chest.  He has no interest in the sermon.  He is just present to be seen.  Sitting next to him is his dutiful wife, prayer book in hand,  who plays coy as an admirer standing behind her flirts with her.  Look at the woman who stands behind the sleeping nobeleman.  She pulls her veil away from her ear and leans forward to try and hear the sermon.  Next to her one of the nobleman’s footmen tries to prevent her getting to close to his master. Earlier paintings depicting Russian clergy depicted them with veneration and the utmost respect so this mocking depiction of the church clergy by a young up and coming artist was frowned upon by the Establishment but it was accepted as an exhibit and won the artist, Perov, a European trip.

The Village Religious Procession at Easter by Vasily Perov (1861)
The Village Religious Procession at Easter by Vasily Perov (1861)

The preliminary sketches and painting, which won him the Gold Medal, were not his initial submission.  His original submissions were preliminary sketches for another of his works, The Village Religious Procession at Easter.  However the Academy rejected these because of their overt criticism of the Church and the clergy.  One needs to understand that Perov wanted to not only highlight the plight of the poor and the deprived, he wanted to condemn the role of the Church and its leaders who led a comfortable life and, in his mind, offered little comfort to the poor.  Despite the St Petersburg Academy’s rejection of his preliminary sketches for the The Village Religious Procession at Easter, he completed the work in 1861.

This oil on canvas work was his way of recording his belief that the clergy had forgotten their duty to parishioners.  It was blatantly an anti-clerical depiction.  The setting is a dull landscape.  The discordant movement of the participants in the procession together with the gloomy sunset accentuates the unattractiveness of the whole scene.  Before us, we see a drunken mix of clergy and their congregation embarking on a parade of icons through the village. Some of the people in the parade are carrying icons and gonfalons (a type of heraldic flag or banner, often pointed, swallow-tailed, or with several streamers, and suspended from a crossbar).  In the foreground of the painting, the peasants stagger past us towards a precipice with half-closed eyes.  It is as if they are all blind. We can make out a woman with an icon that has lost its face. A little further on, we observe the figure of a poor man carrying an icon upside down, albeit, we can still make out the “all-seeing” eye on the gonfalon and maybe Perov left it in to remind people that nobody can escape the Supreme Judgment.  The leader of this group is a drunken priest who we can see on the right, standing on the steps of the wooden building, hanging onto the upright structure to stop him falling.  We can also see, despite the desperate efforts of one of his helpers, that he has stepped on and crushed the Easter egg.  He has abandoned his “flock”.

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)
Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)

The painting was exhibited at the Society for the Encouragement of Artists in St Petersburg but the curators were told to remove it on grounds that it was an “immoral” work, which criticised the Church and its clergy.  Even the press were banned from reproducing it in their newspapers; such was the power of the Church at the time.  Twenty years later Ilya Repin completed his famous work, Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk (See My Daily Art Display Aug 29th 2011), which again compared the lot of the downtrodden peasant class and the wealth of the clergy.

In 1862, Perov chose to go to France and also visited some German cities.  He returned home in 1864, even though his scholarship would have funded a longer stay in Europe.  Maybe he missed his homeland.

Perov lived through the 1860’s in Russia and was well aware of the social problems in his beloved country and he began to highlight the plight of the poor and downtrodden as well as contrast that to the wealth of the Russian church and its hierarchy.  Perov’s paintings carried strong social implication and thus his realistic depictions became an important landmark in the history of Russian painting.

Marriage à la Mode by William Hogarth (c.1743)
Marriage à la Mode by William Hogarth (c.1743)

Perov, at this time, had become influenced by the work of Pavel Fedotov,  who is now looked upon as the founder of critical realism in Russian art.  Perov was also aware of the genre scenes by the Old Dutch masters, often depicting poverty.  Another painter who influenced him was the English painter William Hogarth, the eighteenth century pictorial satirist and social critic whose work ranged from realistic portraiture to what is referred to as Sequential Art, which uses images arranged in sequence for graphic storytelling or to communicate information, a kind of narrative art. One example of this is Hogarth’s almost comic strip series which questioned the morals of the privileged (see – Marriage a la Mode – My Daily Art Display May 4th – 9th 2011).

On his return to Moscow he became one of the founder members of a group, known as the Peredvizhniki, often referred to as The Wanderers or The Itinerants.  This group of artists were influenced by the liberal ideas of the philosopher and critic, Nikolay Chernyshevsky and the philosopher, Vissarion Belinski.  They established the first Free Society of Artists in Russia. In a way it was a group, which felt it their duty to portray, through their art, the necessity of denouncing the social order in Tsarist Russia.  Other great Russian artists which were part of this group and have featured in My Daily Art Display were, Ilya Repin, Alexei Savrasov, Isaac Levitan and the landscape painter, Ivan Shishkin.  This group of young artists, who in protest at Academic restrictions formed themselves into a co-operative.  Perov’s influence on the art of the time, developing realism in art during the last five decades of the nineteenth century, cannot be underestimated.

The Drowned Woman by Vasily Perov (1867)
The Drowned Woman by Vasily Perov (1867)

The height of Perov’s success as a realist and genre painter came around the latter part of the 1860’s.  In 1867 Perov produced the highly emotive work entitled The Drowned Woman.    In Perov’s painting we see a policeman, who has just dragged the body from the river.  He is sitting, smoking his pipe, and looking down on the dead woman.  The artist wants us, like the policeman, to think what might have been the circumstances of the young woman’s death.  Had life been just too hard to bear?   The casualness of the policeman’s demeanour gives us the idea that the dragging of a lifeless body from the river was a common occurrence.  It should be remembered that what we see in Perov’s depictions of social inequality was mirrored in the literature of the time by the likes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose writing explored human psychology at a time of the difficult political and social mood of 19th-century Russia.

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)
Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)

The subject of this work by Perov harks back to a work by the English realist painter, George Frederic Watts, and his 1855 work Found Drowned, a portrayal of a fallen woman, who drowned and whose body was discovered on the shores of the Thames.  (See My Daily Art Display July 4th 2011).

The Last Journey by Vasily Perov (1865)
The Last Journey by Vasily Perov (1865)

In 1865 Perov produced another heart wrenching oil on canvas work entitled The Last Journey, which can now be seen in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  It is a depiction of both sorrow and condemnation.  There is an overwhelming sense of bereavement as we see a horse-drawn sleigh driven by an old woman.  We just see the back of her, hunched over, driving the horse.  She is taking the wooden coffin, which contains her recently deceased husband and breadwinner, to his final resting place.  Also on the sleigh are two children who, like the woman, face an uncertain future.  Their pet dog follows on.  The painting is gloomy matching the atmosphere of the story behind the depiction. Dark clouds are seen above the funeral cortege.  It is thought that Perov got the idea for this painting when he read the book, The Red Nose Frost, published in 1863 by Nikolai Nekrasov.  It is in two parts, the first part tells about a funeral of a young peasant and in the second part of the widow fight for survival in the forest. Nekrasov was a Russian poet, writer, critic and publisher.  His intensely empathetic poems about peasant life made him the hero of the freethinking and revolutionary circles of Russian intelligentsia.

Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)
Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)

I am completing this first part of my blog about Vasily Perov by featuring one of his greatest and certainly his largest genre painting (123 x 168 cms).  It has the simple title, Troika, which is the Russian word for “group of three”, and was completed in 1866 and now resides in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  It is a pictorial social commentary, which in this case, focuses on child labour.  We see children pulling a sled piled high with heavy barrels.  They face us.  Look at the way Perov has depicted their faces.  There is of course a child-like quality about them but one cannot fail to notice the pain and suffering their task is causing.  The air of gloom is added to by Perov’s background – The backdrop, the gloomy walls of the monastery create a mood of hopeless melancholy.  The children are being used and humiliated by this onerous task.

In my next blog I will showcase more of Perov’s paintings and look at the final years of his life.

Domenico Induno

Today I am featuring an artist which many of you, like me, will have not heard of before.  He, you will discover, had an artistic connection with my last featured artist, Francesco Hayez.  He also had another thing in common with Hayez.  He had a fervent belief in Risorgimento, the resurgence of a unified Italy.  The artist in question is the Italian nineteenth century painters, Domenico Induno.

Domenico Induno, who had a younger brother Gerolamo, also a painter, was born in Milan in May 1815.  He began working as an apprentice goldsmith to Luigi Cossa, who, in 1831, convinced by Domenico’s burgeoning artistic talent, persuaded him to enrol on an art course at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan.  Whilst at the Brera he studied under the Lombard sculptor, Pompeo Marchesi and the Italian artist and professor of painting, Luigi Sabatelli.  It was also at the Brera that Domenico Induno studied under Francesco Hayez who had been teaching at the establishment since 1822.  Hayez was a great influence on Domenico and even allowed Domenico to have a studio in the Hayez residence.  Hayez was also able to help Domenico to progress with his artistic career by introducing him to the leading Milanese art dealers and collectors.

The Chaste Susanna by Domenico Induno
The Chaste Susanna by Domenico Induno

It was through the influence of Hayez that Domenico initially concentrated on depictions of biblical stories and depictions of ancient history.  Like Hayez, Domenico was a great believer in Risorgimento (Italian Unification) and he and his brother, Gerolamo, took part in the 1848 Cinque Giorante uprisings in Milan. (see the previous blog with regards Cinque Giorante).  After the failure of the five day uprising and maybe because of their involvement, the brothers went into voluntary exile, initially travelling just across the Italian-Swiss border to Astano in Switzerland where they stayed with a fellow artist Angelo Trezzini and his sister Emilia, later to become Domenico’s wife.  Trezzini had also been a student at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts from 1844 to 1846 and had served his apprenticeship in the same studio as the Induno brothers.

From Astano Domenico Induno moved to Florence but returned to Milan at the end of 1859.  Domenico now concentrated on genre scenes with their powerful depictions of the everyday life of the common folk and the world of the lowly and poor.   He began to participate regularly in the Brera exhibitions and those held by the branches of the Società Promotrice di Belle Arti in Florence, Turin and Genoa.

Pane e lacrime by Domenico Induno (1855)
Pane e lacrime by Domenico Induno (1855)

One of his most beautiful and most moving paintings of this genre was one which he completed around 1854, entitled Pane e lagrime (Bread and Tears).  It is a depiction of suffering and there is an emotional beauty about this work. Yes it is a depiction full of sentimentality and to some it would be denigrated as being mawkish and syrupy but for me it is a painting which depicts the reality of life for the less fortunate.  The setting is a small stone-walled room.  The woman, the mother of the child, is crying as she sits on the bed.  The fire remains unlit and we can tell that the room is cold as on her knees is a muff or hand-warmer which she has been utilising in order to keep her hands warm.  Look at her facial expression.  It is one of unhappiness.  It is one that makes us believe that she is almost about to give up on her life. She is distraught and despondent with her “lot in life”.  She looks to a framed picture on the wall, probably a religious work.  She is beseeching help from the subject of the painting although we are aware that none will be forthcoming.   Before her stands her child clutching a piece of bread, probably the only food he or she has been given.  The painting was bought by Francesco Hayez, who presented it to the Brera in 1854.  The following year it was exhibited at the Exhibition Universelle of 1855 in Paris and in 1891 it appeared in the Induno brothers’ retrospective exhibition in Milan.

The Post Boy by Domenico Induno (1857)
The Post Boy by Domenico Induno (1857)

Another of Domenico Induno’s paintings came up at the Christies London auction in June 2006 and realised £60K, well above its £18K-£25K estimate.  The painting is entitled The Post Boy and we see the main character sitting and relaxing at a table outside a house or inn.  In his left hand he holds his whip with which he controls his horse and carriage and tucked under his left arm is his bugle sounded when he and the post has arrived in town.  In front of him are two young children, the elder of whom , a girl, is listening to his stories, whilst the younger hangs on to her apron.  On the floor we see some small fowl pecking away at some food.

Domenico Induno was a firm advocate of the Risorgismento and the triumphant Unification of Italy, which finally happened in 1861 following the Spedizione dei Mille (Expedition of the Thousand).  This expedition was lead by Giuseppe Garibaldi and with him were 1,000 men, mostly idealistic young northerners.  His troops overthrew the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and by so doing, allowed southern Italy and Sicily to become united with the north. The Spedizione dei Mille was one of the most dramatic events of the Risorgimento.  After this victory, the states of the Italian peninsula were united under king Victor Emmanuel II of the Savoy dynasty and he proclaimed all his territory to be the Kingdom of Italy.  Many artists including the Induno brothers and Hayez pictorially depicted some of the defining moments of the struggle for unification

L’arrivo del Bollettino di Villafranca (The arrival of the bulletin of the peace of Villafranca)  by Domenico Induno (1862)
L’arrivo del Bollettino di Villafranca (The arrival of the bulletin of the peace of Villafranca) by Domenico Induno (1862)

Domenico Induno completed one such painting in 1862.  It was entitled L’arrivo del Bollettino di Villafranca (The arrival of the bulletin of the peace of Villafranca) and can be found in the Museo del Risorgimento in Milan.  The painting was hailed as a great success and was purchased by Vittorio Emanuele II, the king of the unified Italy.  He bestowed on Domenico Induno an order of chivalry known as a Knight of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.  There were a number of versions of the painting by Induno but all have one thing in common.  It was all about the people.  It was no grand history painting depicting the witnessing of the agreement between the two emperors.  Induno had once again shown his desire to express the importance of the common people who had had to endure war and now could relax and enjoy peace.  The setting is outside the door of an inn where the reading of the bulletin about the treaty is taking place.    The ordinary people of Villafranca gather around to hear the news about the treaty and the ending of the conflict.

The Return of the Wounded Soldier by Domenico Induno (c.1854)
The Return of the Wounded Soldier by Domenico Induno (c.1854)

Another painting by Domenico Induno combines a genre work with a historical work about the fight for Risorgimento.  It is entitled The Return of the Wounded Soldier and was completed around 1854.  Induno depicts a soldier sitting slumped in a chair at the bedside of his wife.  She, like him, does not seem to be in the best of health.  A crucifix on a ribbo0n hangs above the bed head.  Their young child stands forlornly by her mother’s bedside. Their home exudes an air of poverty.  Paint is peeling off the walls.  Light streams through the open window and illuminates the soldier’s red tunic.  A woman anxiously looks out of the window maybe a doctor has been summoned and she awaits sight of his arrival.   The war has taken its toll on the family and although the soldier has managed to survive the many battles, his and his family’s future looks bleak. This is a genre painting which has a strong element of realism.  This is not a work of art glorifying the Risorgimento but one which pictorially narrates the suffering and the sacrifices made by the ordinary people during such a cause.

Domenico Induno died in Milan in November 1878 aged 63.

Elderly Nude in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny

Mariano Fortuny
Mariano Fortuny

My featured painting today is a reminder to me of the glorious and unexpected summer weather we have been having these last five weeks and the rejuvenation of my battered and old body from basking in the sunlight.  The painting is entitled Elderly Nude in the Sun and was painted in 1871 by the Catalan painter Mariano Fortuny.  Fortuny is looked upon as one of the most esteemed and internationally renowned of the nineteenth century Spanish painters.

Mariano José María Bernardo Fortuny y Marsal was born in the Spanish coastal town of Reus in June 1838.  He came from an impoverished background and attended the local school where, among other subjects he was taught, he was given his first rudimentary lessons in drawing.  He was orphaned at the age of twelve when both his parents died and he went to live with his paternal grandfather, Maria Fortuny i Baró, who was a cabinet maker and amateur artist.   His grandfather continued to look after his grandson’s education sending him to watercolour classes run by a local artist, Domingo Soberano.  He also had him work in the studio of the silversmith and miniaturist, Antonio Bassa.  

As well as being a joiner his grandfather built up a collection of wax figurines which he had made and travelled the country selling them.  He spent much of his time teaching his grandson the art of making these wax figures.  On one of Mariano and his grandfather’s sales trips in September 1852 they visited the nearby city of Barcelona.  It was during this visit that Mariano met the sculptor Domingo Talarn who was so impressed with Mariano’s handiwork that he arranged for him to be paid a small monthly stipend which enabled him to attend the Escuela de Bellas Artes where he started on a four-year art course.  It was here that he studied under the Spanish artist, Claudio Lorenzale y Sugrañes.    

In 1857, aged 19 Mariano won an art scholarship which allowed him to travel to Rome the following year and, for the next two years he studied the art of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods.  At the end of his Italian stay he received a commission from the regional Catalan government to travel to Morocco and record the conflict between the Spanish and Moroccan armies which had broken out at the end of 1859. In the Catalan and Basque regions of Spain thousands of young men with a burning sense of patriotism rushed to the army recruiting centres to sign up for the Spanish army to help their country defeat the Moroccans and the Catalan government wanted to have recorded pictorially their brave fight for their country.  Fortuny travelled to Morocco in 1860 and completed numerous pencil sketches, highly colourful watercolours and small oil paintings of the Moroccan landscape and its people as well as the battle skirmishes.  When he returned home to Catalonia these sketches were shown at exhibitions in Madrid and Barcelona. 

Battle of Teutan by Mariano Fortuny
Battle of Teutan by Mariano Fortuny

Fortuny used a number of his battlefield sketches to build up a monumental history painting, measuring 300 x 972cms, entitled Battle of Teután which recorded the Spanish and Moroccan armies large scale clash in January 1860 which culminated in the fall of the Moroccan town of Teután to the Spaniards.   Fortuny began work on this painting in 1862 but never fully completed it, adding and altering it constantly over the next twelve years.  On his death in Rome in 1874 the painting was found in his studio.  The Catalan government purchased the work and it can now be seen in the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña, in Barcelona. 

In 1867 whilst in Madrid, Mariano Fortuny married Cecilia de Madrazo.   She came from a long line of painters.  She was the daughter of the great painter Federico de Madrazo, a one-time director of the Prado Museum.  Cecilia’s brother was the realist painter Raimundo de Madrazo who became a highly successful portraitist and genre painter in a Salon style.  In May 1871, Cecilia gave birth to a son, named Mariano after his father.  Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo went on to become one of the foremost Spanish fashion and tapestry designers. 

Fortuny was based in Rome until about 1870 after which he made a number of trips.  He then went to live in Paris but when the Spanish-French governmental relations began to break down, he decided to move his family back to Spain and for a two year period, he and his family lived in Granada.  He made a return trip to Morocco in 1872 and later to Rome.   By this time, Fortuny was disturbed and somewhat depressed with the necessity of churning out paintings which were saleable as he wanted the freedom to paint what he liked rather than what was popular and easy to sell.  In a letter to his friend, the prolific French art collector, Baron Davillier, he wrote of his dilemma: 

“…I want to have the pleasure of painting for myself.   In this lies true painting…”

In the summer of 1874 he headed back to Italy and his studio in Rome but stopped off at Portici, a coastal town on the Bay of Naples, where he spent time painting scenes of the Bay and the town.   Sadly, it was here that he contracted malaria which led to his death in Rome in November 1874, at the young age of 36.  

Elderly Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny (1871)
Elderly Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny (1871)

My featured work today by Mariano Fortuny is entitled Elderly Nude in the Sun which he completed in 1871 whilst living in Granada.   Fortuny was, at this time, at the height of his fame and his works were in great demand.  This painting was one of many life studies he completed at the time.  It is a painting which can be attributed to classical realism.   Note the marked difference to the finish Fortuny has afforded the painting.  The lower part of the torso is just roughly sketched whilst the detail of the man’s upper body and face are finished in such exquisite detail to make the work come to life.  It is an amazing work and reminded me so much of the pained expression and emaciated figure one associates with the crucified Christ.  Before us we have an old man with an old body which is well past its prime.  There is a contemplative expression on the man’s face as he faces the sun with his eyes tightly closed.  I have to admit that my initial and somewhat fleeting glance at the man’s facial expression made me believe it was one of anguish.  However if one looks more closely I think it is more a look of quiet acceptance and even a look of pleasure as the sun’s rays warm up his frail body.  Although it is a somewhat emaciated body we have before us, there is something truly beautiful about Mariano Fortuny’s depiction.

Joaquín Sorolla (part 2)

Portrait of Joaquín Sorolla by José Jiménez Aranda (1901)
Portrait of Joaquín Sorolla by José Jiménez Aranda (1901)

By 1885, Joaquín Sorolla had settled down to life in Rome but during that year he also spent the spring and summer in Paris.  At this time in the French capital, the Impressionists were in the ascendancy after they and their art had been criticised and they had had to survive an initial period of ridicule, commercial failure and outright denunciation.    However, the Impressionists had now managed to establish their status some eleven years after they held their first Impressionist exhibition at Nadar’s studios and whilst Sorolla was in Paris he saw much of thire work but it was not the Impressionist painters who would influence him.   Whilst in the French capital he visited the retrospective exhibitions of two non-Impressionist painters, the French Naturalist painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage, who had died the previous year, and Adolf von Menzel the German painter who, along with Caspar Davisd Friedrich, was considered one of the two most prominent German artists of the 19th century and was also the most successful artist of his era in Germany.

Sorolla returned to his home town of Valencia on two occasions during the late 1880’s and on the second visit in 1888 he proposed to and married Clotilde Garcia del Castillo the daughter of his mentor, the photographer Antonio Garcia.  Joaquín and Clotilda had first met in 1879 when he had started work in her father’s workshop.   Joaquín finally returned from Italy and in 1890 the couple settled in Madrid.   Sorolla style of painting became more individualistic with him tending towards social realism works. 

Another Marguerite by Joaquín Sorolla (1892)
Another Margarita by Joaquín Sorolla (1892)

For a good example of a social realism work by Sorolla one only has to look at his beautifully executed painting entitled Another Margarita which he completed in 1892.  He exhibited the work at the Madrid National Exhibition that year and was awarded a first-class medal.  This was also Sorolla first major painting to be exhibited in America and it was awarded the first prize at the Chicago International Exhibition, where it was acquired and subsequently donated to the Washington University Museum in St Louis.    The story behind the depiction is of a woman who has been arrested for suffocating her small son and Sorolla actually witnessed the woman being transported to jail.  There is an air of gloom about the manacled woman as she sits slumped on the wooden bench of the train carriage being watched by her two guards who sit behind her.  In contrast to the dark and depressing depiction of the three individuals, the carriage itself is lit up by the warm light which streams through the windows at the rear of the compartment and which bathes the entire space.

The Return of the Catch by Joaquin Sorolla (1894)
The Return of the Catch by Joaquin Sorolla (1894)

His realist art also embraced what the Spanish termed costumbrismo, which was the pictorial interpretation of local everyday life, mannerisms, and customs.   This kind of art depicted particular times and places, rather than of humanity in an abstract form.   In many instances costumbrismo was often satirical and often moralizing, but it was careful not to offer or even imply any particular analysis of the society it depicted, unlike proper realism art.  In less satirical works costumbrismo took on a romantic folklore flavour.  A fine example of this type of work was a painting entitled The Return of the Catch which Sorolla completed in 1894 and which received critical acclaim when it was shown at the 1895 Paris Salon.   It was subsequently acquired by the Musée du Luxembourg.  He painted a number of similar pictures depicting Valencian fisherman at work bathed in the dazzling Mediterranean light such as his 1894 painting entitled Return from Fishing and his 1903 painting, Afternoon Sun.

Sad Inheritance by Joaquín Sorolla (1899)
Sad Inheritance by Joaquín Sorolla (1899)

By 1895 Joaquín and Clotilda had three children.  Their daughter Maria was born in 1890, their son Joaquín in 1892 and their youngest child Elena in 1895.  In 1899 Sorolla painted what was to become his most famous and most moving picture.  It was entitled Sad Inheritance and I talked about this work in My Daily Art Display of Jan 31st 2011.  It is a poignant work featuring a monk and a group of children, crippled by polio, who are seen bathing in the sea at Valencia.   Sorolla received his greatest official recognition for this work of art, the Grand Prix and a medal of honour at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, and a year later he received the medal of honour at the National Exhibition in Madrid in 1901.

In my third and final blog about Joaquín Sorolla I will feature some of his family portraits, look at the Sorolla Museum in Madrid and conclude the life story of this wonderful Spanish artist.

The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet

The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet (1849)

For my third look at Realism art and Social Realism art I am going back to the land of its inception, France.   The emergence of this form of art came about in France around 1848, the year King Louis-Philippe lost the French crown and was replaced by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who became President of the French Second Republic.  The monarchy had gone, even if it was just for a few years, as Louis-Napoleon had himself crowned Napoleon III.  With the change of ruler came the promise of greater democracy. The French people were excited with the change and were now baying for this pledged greater democracy under the new regime.  Realism in art also arrived with the Realist artists who democratised their art by depicting in their paintings subjects from everyday lives of the working class.   These painters rejected what had gone before them.  They neither wanted to paint idealized pictures, which had no bearing on reality but was what was being taught and expected from the students at the École des Beaux-Arts, the state-sponsored art academy and exhibited at the official Salons, nor did they want to carry on with the exotic themes of Romanticism.

For these Realist artists, they wanted their paintings to be a direct reflection on modern life.  The great French painter and leading proponent of Realism art, Gustave Courbet, described what art should be, saying:

 

“…painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things..,”

Gustave Courbet is my featured artist today and I wanted to look at his painting The Stonebreakers.  Sadly it no longer exists as it was destroyed by Allied bombing on a transport convoy in February 1945, whilst it was being transported to the Königstein Castle, near Dresden, for safe keeping along with 154 other paintings.   When The Stonebreakers was exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1850, it was attacked as un-artistic, crude, and socialistic, so let us look at why this view was taken by the critics.

Courbet wanted to depict the lifestyle of working class people in his paintings.  However, he wanted to depart from the idealized depiction of these poor farm workers and peasants who in the past had always been depicted smiling happily as they got on with the most arduous and often dangerous jobs, for little remuneration.   The problem of course with this artistic style was although it appealed to people who sympathised with the lot of the working class, the buyers of art were often the rich and upper classes, who through association were the very people who treated their workers badly.   His Realism art works were looked upon as being anti-authoritarian and politically threatening.  When he put forward two of his large paintings A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio for inclusion in the 1855 Salon, the Salon jurists rejected them. Courbet was so angered by the jurists’ decision that he withdrew his eleven accepted submissions and displayed the paintings privately in his Pavillon du Réalisme, not far from the official international exhibition.   In his exhibition catalogue, which described his works, he wrote an introduction which, in essence, was a Realist manifesto.  He stated:

“…his goal as an artist was to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own estimation…”

The realist paintings of Courbet found no favour with the Establishment.  Courbet’s critics firmly believed that he was bringing about an artistic and moral decline by painting what they deemed distasteful and inconsequential subjects on a grand scale. They accused him of nurturing a “cult of ugliness” against much beloved concepts of Beauty and the Ideal.   His critics even went as far as to state that this Realism was nothing less than the enemy of art.  However there were some high placed supporters of Courbet’s work.  The French socialist politician at the time, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an advocate of workers’ associations and co-operatives as well as individual worker / peasant possession over private ownership or the nationalization of land and workplaces, saw The Stonebreakers painting and commented:

“… The Stonebreakers was an irony directed against our industrialized civilization … which is incapable of freeing man from the heaviest, most difficult, most unpleasant tasks, the eternal lot of the poor...”
The Stonebreakers was painted by Gustave Courbet in 1849 and shows two peasants breaking rocks into gravel to be used as a base in the construction of roads. One appears to be in his sixties and the other much younger.  The painting could not be described as colourful.  Courbet has used monotonous colours and by doing so has reflected the languishing tone of the painting.  We are not distracted by a colourful landscape.  Our eyes are fixed upon the two men as they carry on with their backbreaking work.    In no way was Courbet’s depiction of the men idealized or romanticized.  What we see is the gritty uncompromising truth.  The job of a stonebreaker was considered the lot of the lowest in French society.   Their differing ages symbolizes the circle of poverty, which will haunt the lower classes throughout their lives.  Those born into poverty would remain so for the rest of their life.   It is a glimpse into the world of the rural unskilled labourer.   The workers are dressed in ragged clothes.  Their ragged clothes and the little meal laid out in the right midground of the work underline their impoverishment. Look how Courbet has depicted the boy as he struggles with the heavy basket of gravel.  It is almost beyond the boy’s strength while the old man exhaustedly bends his knee to work.   One is now too old and almost lacks the strength to wield the hammer whilst the other is almost too young and almost lacks the strength to carry his burden.  This is realist art at its finest.  Courbet has not resorted to ancient heroes for his portrayal of heroism he has taken two simple men whose lot in life was manual labour and who were carrying out their task as best they could.

Despite Realist art not being favoured by the bourgeoisie or the Academies, it found an audience in France who was showing an interest in the plight of the working poor especially following the labourers uprising against the bourgeois leaders of the newly established Second Republic in 1848.  Their demands were simple – a redistribution of property and better working conditions.  The labourers’ uprising lasted just three days and many lives were lost. They did not achieve their demands but suddenly the plight of the working class labourer was centre stage and Courbet’s painting which came a year after the failed uprising could not have arrived at a more fortuitous time.