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.

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilia Repin (1873)

My blog today continues, as promised, with the Social Realism Movement in art.  Social Realism is a very broad term for painting or literature that comments on contemporary social political or economic conditions, usually from a left-wing viewpoint, in a realistic manner.  It was a way in which artists were able to draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor, and who were critical of the social structures that maintain these conditions.  As I am looking at a work by a Russian painter today it is important that we understand that Social Realism and Socialist Realism are quite different.  Social Realism evolved from the French Realism of the second half of the nineteenth century whereas Socialist Realism never came into being until the mid 1930’s when in 1934 Joseph Stalin made Socialist Realism the official art form of the USSR and later by the other Communist parties worldwide.  Socialist Realism demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man’s struggle toward socialist progress for a better life.   It was important to the communist regimes that Socialist Realism Art emphasized not just realism but the optimism and heroism of the people and the dictate was that all forms of experimentalism in art was to be looked upon as being degenerate and totally pessimistic.

One group of Soviet Realist artists, of which today’s featured painter was one, was the Peredvizhniki, which was also known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English.  This group of painters was formed in 1863 in St Petersburg as a protest at the academic restrictions of the official art center, the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.  Sounds familiar?  It should be, as in the past I have talked about the breakaway of artists from Academic control in both France and England.  The St Petersburg Academy, like other Academies in Western Europe, was associated with neoclassicism.   Neoclassicism was based on the ideal of beauty seen in ancient Greek and Roman art and looked to the Italian Renaissance.  The St Petersburg Academy of Arts was no different.  It wanted its student to depict not Russian subjects but more traditional art-historical themes: classical history, legends and myths.  In 1863, fourteen artists broke away from the Academy in protest of the proposed topic for the annual Gold Medal competition, which was to be the mythological subject of the Entrance of Odin into Valhalla. These fourteen painters believed that this subject was too remote from the real life of Russia and that the academic style of neoclassicism was much too constricting.   Having left the Academy, they organized themselves into a society on cooperative principles and developed their own educational program and in 1870 set up a touring group to exhibit their work known as the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions. The Society maintained its independence from state support and their travelling exhibitions allowed them to take their art, which illustrated the contemporary life of the people from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, to the provinces.

The artists adopted the style, which could be termed critical realism. Their aim was to depict their homeland and the life and history of their people from a truthful and democratic standpoint. The artists depicted the working class folk in a favourable and often heroic light but at the same time tore into their corrupt upper classes and aristocracy depicting them as oppressors and enemies of the workers.  Their paintings often highlighted the totally unacceptable and unbearable living conditions that the working class people had to endure.  It should be remembered that even though the first Russian Revolution was still more than 30 years away, and that unlike other Western European countries, Russia was a country where the political freedom to express oneself was strictly prohibited. However things were changing.  Tsar Nicholas I died in 1856 and a year later the Russian armies were defeated in the Crimea.  There was a hint of reform in the air but it was only in the arts, whether it be paintings, literature or the theatre that there was an opportunity to express one’s views.  With this in mind the members of the Peredvizhniki believed it was their duty to effect change to the living conditions of the working class. Our featured artist today, Ilya Repin wrote succinctly that artists come from the people and that the people expect art should reflect a clear understanding of conditions and nature.

Today’s featured work is second painting by Repin which I have looked at in a blog.   The first one was a painting, entitled Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk  (My Daily Art Display of August 29th 2011)   Today’s work is entitled Barge-Haulers on the Volga which he completed in 1873.   An alternative title is Burlacks on the Volga.   A burlak was a Russian nickname for a person who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries. The word itself came from the Tatar word bujdak, ‘homeless’.  Before us is a river scene. The barge in the painting’s title is relegated to a minor role in the right background and if you look closely you will see in the distance, behind the barge, a small steam-powered boat, which makes us realise that at the time of the painting we were at the onset of the industrial age and the days of using human beings to haul barges was coming to an end.

The Barge Pullers

It is a magnificent portrayal of a group of eleven men, dressed in rags and bound with leather harnesses, who struggle with their backbreaking task at hand, the towing of a barge along the waters of the River Volga.  This painting is looked upon as being one of the best works of the Peredvizhniki movement.   The men we see before us are simply human pack mules.  This painting focuses on the difficult life endured by the peasantry at that time.  Look how Repin has portrayed the barge haulers.   It is a hot day and the men seem to be at the point of collapse and exhaustion as they lean forward in a desperate effort to keep the laden barge moving.   The painting is not just a testament to the peasant’s heroic efforts but it is a damning condemnation of the people that have set them this inhumane task.

The young optimist

There is an added touch of heroism.  Look at the line of men.  All but one of them is dressed in drably-coloured clothes.  In the middle of the line one man stands out from the others.  He is a fair-haired young man, dressed in slightly brighter colours.  He is not exhausted and bent over like the others.  He stands upright and proud as he looks out over the river.  He is not humiliated by his menial  and backbreaking task.  His spirit, unlike the others, is not broken.  He scans the horizon and in this gesture we realise he is not just scanning the river, he is looking to the future – his future. 

Repin, who was twenty-six at the time he started this work, formulated the idea for this painting during a summer holiday he spent near Stavropol, close to the river Volga in 1870.  He had spent three months there with his brother Vasily and friends. During that time he took a boat trip down the Volga and watched the gangs of barge haulers. Initially he made many oil sketches of the area and the men working on the riverbanks and the people we see in the painting were real people.  One was a former soldier, one and artist and one a defrocked priest.  The former priest’s name was Kanin, who became a good friend of Repin, and he can be seen as the lead hauler of the group wearing a bandana.  From the dialogue Repin had with the barge haulers he was shocked to find that at one time most of them had held relatively important positions in society but had since fallen on hard times.  Although not shown in this painting, there would often be women employed as barge haulers and the number in a barge-hauling gang would normally be more than the eleven Repin has depicted.

Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, who was looked upon as the most respected Russian critic during his lifetime, said of the way Repin depicted the barge haulers:

“…They are like a group of forest Hercules with their dishevelled heads, their sun-tanned chests, and their motionlessly hanging, strong-veined hands. What glances from untamed eyes, what distended nostrils, what iron muscles!…’

and of the painting itself, Stasov commented:

“….with a daring that is unprecedented amongst us [Repin] has abandoned all former conceptions of the ideal in art, and has plunged head first into the very heart of the people’s life, the people’s interests, and the people’s oppressive reality… no one in Russia has ever dared take on such a subject…”

Despite its critical message of how the upper classes badly treated its workers, the painting was bought by the Tsar’s second son.   After the Russian Revolution the art collection of the grand duke was nationalized and it is now housed in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Repin commented on the paintings of the Russian Social Realist artists and what they achieved, saying:

 “…The pictures of those days made the viewer blush, to shiver and carefully look into himself…. They upset the public and directed it into the path of humaneness…”

Salon I by Otto Dix

The Salon I by Otto Dix (1921)

Today I am looking at a painting by an artist whose work has frequently shocked the public.  His art often focused on the First World War and the aftermath of it on the people of Germany.  It was not his intention to shock people with what was depicted in his paintings.  It was simply his intention to tell the truth through his art and ensure that people would not ever forget the price citizens had to pay when their governments took them to war.  Of his controversial paintings, he said:

“I’m not that obsessed with making representations of ugliness. Everything I’ve seen is beautiful.”

“I did not paint war pictures in order to prevent war. I would never have been so arrogant. I painted them to exorcise the experience of war.”

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.”

My featured artist today is the German painter and printmaker Otto Dix.  Dix was born in December 1891 in Untermhaus, Germany, which is now a part of the city of Gera.  He was the eldest son of Franz Dix, an iron foundry worker and Louise Dix, who was a seamstress and amateur artist.  His mother had also written poetry in her youth.  Otto had a cousin, Fritz Amann, who was a portrait and genre painter and so, from an early age, Otto Dix was exposed to the world of art.  At the age of fifteen Dix started a four year apprenticeship with the landscape painter Carl Senff and it was whilst at Senff’s workshop that Dix started painting his first landscapes.   At the end of his apprenticeship in 1910 he enrolled at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts and supported himself financially by painting portraits and selling them to local people.  Whilst there he studied under Richard Guhr, the painter and sculptor and Dix attended his figurative and decorative painting classes.

World War I broke out in 1914 and Otto Dix enthusiastically enrolled in the German army.    His first assignment, as a non-commissioned officer, was to join up with a field artillery regiment in Dresden.  In the autumn of 1915 he was assigned as a non-commissioned officer of a machine-gun unit in the Western front and took part of the Battle of the Somme. He was seriously wounded on a number of occasions. In 1917, his unit was transferred to the Eastern front where he remained until the end of hostilities with Russia. He then returned with his regiment to the western front and took part in the German Spring offensive. He earned the Iron Cross (second class) for valour and reached the rank of vice-sergeant-major.  By the end of the conflict, he had been wounded on five separate occasions.  Dix was horrified and very much affected by the horrific sights he had witnessed during the four years of the war and these visions caused him to have many persisting nightmares well after the end of hostilities.

It was these nightmares and his traumatic experiences during the fighting that comes through clearly in many of his subsequent works, including a portfolio of fifty etchings called War, published in 1924.  At the end of the war, Dix returned to Gera, but in 1919 he moved to Dresden, where he studied at the Dresden Art Academy.   It was whilst studying art in that city that he met the Expressionist painter, Conrad Felixmüller, who was one of the youngest members of the New Objectivity movement.   Felixmüller was also a member of the Communist Party of Germany and his paintings often dealt with the social realities of Germany’s Weimar Republic. He became a mentor to Otto Dix and managed to bring together Dix and a number of like-minded Expressionist artists to form the city’s most radical art group, the Dresden Secessionist Group.  A year later Dix met George Grosz and it was around this time that Dix began to integrate collage aspects into his work.

The Trench by Otto Dix (1923)

In 1922 Dix moved from Dresden to Dusseldorf where he found a more lucrative market for his works of art.  A year later, in 1923 he completed a painting which shocked the public and establishment alike.  It had been commissioned by the city of Cologne and was entitled The Trench.  It depicted dismembered and decomposed bodies of soldiers after an overnight battle in a German trench.  For many, it was a gruesome and offensive depiction of death in the trenches.  He began the painting it in 1920 whilst he was living in Dresden but did not complete it until three years later.  Such was the uproar that the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, which had commissioned the work, had to hide it behind a curtain.  The mayor of Cologne at the time and the future German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, cancelled the city’s purchase of the work and the Museum director, Hans Secker, was sacked.

Otto Dix’s work, like that of his friend and contemporary George Grosz was extremely critical of the present-day German Weimar society.   His paintings would draw attention to the more miserable side of life and the hopelessness felt by the ordinary German people following on from their defeat in war.   The depictions seen in his paintings often graphically showed prostitution, violence, old age and death.  He also focused his attention on the German veterans of the war who would wander the streets of Berlin physically disfigured and mentally unable to cope with life.  These were the forgotten men who had served their purpose and who were now abandoned by society.   These paintings of his were somewhat sad and depressing and yet realistic.

The War Cripples by Otto Dix (1920)

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in the early 1930’s they regarded Dix as a degenerate artist and his depictions of the defeated German soldiers and his portrayal of the low-life of Berlin were considered unpatriotic and for this reason they had him sacked from his post as an art teacher at the Dresden Academy.  He later moved to live on the shores of Lake Constance.   In 1937, in Munich the Nazis held an art exhibition of what they called Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art.  The purpose of the exhibition was to let the Germans know that some forms and pieces of art were not accepted by the “highest race”, and that this art was “degenerate”.  It was often termed Jewish or Bolshevistic art.  During the “Entartete Kunst” campaign over 20 thousand works by more than 200 artists of that time were confiscated. Dix’s 1923 painting The Trench and his 1920 work entitled, Kriegskrüppel (War Cripples) were shown at that exhibition.  They were later burned.  Dix was forced to join the Nazi-controlled Imperial chamber of Fine Arts in order to be able to work as an artist at all and had to promise to paint only landscapes. However, he still painted an occasional allegorical painting that criticized Nazi ideals. In 1939 he was arrested on a trumped-up charge of being involved in a plot against Hitler but was later released.  During World War II, Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm. He was captured by French troops at the end of the war and released in February 1946. Dix eventually returned to Dresden. After the war most of his paintings were religious allegories or depictions of post-war suffering. Otto Dix died in Singen, Germany, in 1969, aged 77.

For My Daily Art Display featured painting today I have not chosen one of his gruesome but telling war paintings but a painting which looks at the fall-out from war for individuals, in this case females of the defeated nation.  The painting is entitled The Salon I and was completed in 1921, just three years after the end of World War I,  Dix had often examined the life of women in the aftermath of war, many of whom desperate for money to feed themselves and their family turned to prostitution.  In his painting we see four such women, garishly dressed, sat around a table which is covered with an expensive tablecloth, which evokes middle-class décor.  Except for one, they are all passed their prime.

These four scantily dressed prostitutes, decked out in bangles, necklaces and other cheap trinkets look bored.   They sit there in silent contemplation.  In the short term they wonder who their next client will be and how will they be treated.  In a longer term they wonder what will eventually happen to them and how was it possible that they have been reduced to this way of life.  The female to the left of the painting is overweight and was a character often seen in Dix’s works.  She gives us an inviting smile as she supports her breasts giving them an uplift which may make them more tempting to her next client.  The woman to the right of the painting is pitilessly depicted by Dix.  Her best years are far behind her and no amount of make-up can hide the wrinkles of old age.  Her diaphanous negligee does little to hide her sagging breasts.  Next to her wearing a red band and bow around her forehead is a young woman.  We ask ourselves why somebody with her looks and manner should end up in this brothel.  Her eyes and facial expression hide the truth from us.  We are left to decide for ourselves what necessitated her to sell her body.

All in all, it is a depressing work of art but before we condemn Otto Dix for choosing such a subject we need to remember why he did it.  At the very beginning of this blog I gave you his reasoning behind his often gruesome and shocking art.  He was horrified by what he experienced during his four years at war and he fervently hoped that it would never happen again and in his own way he needed to remind everybody about the horror of war or as is the case in today’s featured painting, he wanted to remind people about the terrible aftermath of war especially for the defeated.  Maybe we should consider again his reasoning for his art.  Dix wrote:

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.”

Sadly nobody really paid attention to the horrors of the First World War as twenty years later we stumbled blindly into yet another major conflict.

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin

Religious Processionin in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)

Ilya Efimovich Repin was born in 1844 in the town of Chuhuiv, now part of eastern Ukraine.  His parents were a family of military settlers.  Military Settlements in thise days were places which allowed the combination of military service and agricultural employment.   At the age of twelve, his art training took the form of an apprenticeship with the local icon painter, Ivan Bunakov and throughout his life religious representations remained of great importance to him.   When he was 19 he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and studied portraiture.  It was whilst at that artistic establishment that the Rebellion of the Fourteen took place in September 1863  The rebellion consisted of fourteen young artists who left the Academy in protest against its rigid neoclassical dicta and who refused to use mythological subjects for their diploma works.. The rebel artists insisted that art should be close to real life and they formed the Society of the Peredvizhniki to promote their own aesthetic ideals.  In order to reach the widest audience possible, the society organized regular travelling exhibitions throughout the Russian Empire. Later, Repin would be become a close friend and associate with some of them and fifteen years on after returning from Europe he would join the group.  But for the time Repin remained at the Academy and in 1871 won the prestigious Major Gold Medal award and received a scholarship to study abroad.

Repin went abroad in 1873 travelling around Italy before settling in Paris.  It was whilst he was in Paris that he came in contact with the Impressionists and their works which had a lasting effect upon his use of light and colour and he witnessed their first exhibition in 1874.  Although he never joined the group and was often critical of their style, which he considered too distant from reality, he was greatly influenced by some of the artists’ en plein air style of painting.  In 1876 he left Paris and returned home to Russia, settling down in Moscow.  During his period in Moscow he visited the country estate of Abramtsevo belonging to Savva Mamontov a wealthy Russina patron of the arts (See Valentin Serov – My Daily Art Display Feb 24th).    Following the Bolshevik Revolution Repin went to Kuokkola, Finland to live in the estate he had built and which he called Penates.  Repin produced his greatest works during the latter two decades of the nineteenth century although he continued painting well into the twentieth century.  Repin died in 1930 in Kuokkla, at the age of 86.   After the Winter War between Russia and Finland and the Continuation War between the two countries between 1939 and 1944, Kuokkala became Russian. In 1948, it was renamed Repino in honor of today’s artist Ilya Repin

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Religious Procession in Kursk Province and was completed by Repin in 1883.  This massive oil on canvas painting measures 175 x 280cms.   The setting for the painting is a time of drought and we see a large group of people crossing the parched earth.   The leaders of the procession carry aloft a miracle-working icon to a church which lies nearby.  What is interesting about the procession is that there is a great mix of people of various social standing in the community.   Scan the painting, look at the various characters Repkin has depicted.  He, by his portrayal of how the people are dressed, stresses the difference in their social status and highlights life’s inequalities.  Some are in rags whilst others are bedecked in rich caftans.  We focus our eyes on the young hunchback as he struggles along with his makeshift crutch totally focused on the icon, which is being held on the shoulders of the monks.  To him, it may mean salvation.  To him, life cannot get any worse and for him this procession will lead him to a better existence.  Compare that with the posture of the cavalry officer atop of his horse who oozes a kind of sanctimonious piety,  his attitude appears to be of one who only half believes in the power of the icon and who probably, unlike the hunchback, needs little that the icon can possibly offer anyway.  This is a “them and us” scene, a “have and have not” scenario, which Repin liked to depict in his realist paintings.  This was part of a slow build up to the revolution which would take another twenty years to arrive with its 1905 initial uprisings leading eventually to the ultimate revolution in 1917 which finally destroyed the Tsarist rule and the inequalities of life.  For Repkin this procession we see before us in this painting maybe an allegory for the slow but unyielding forward advance of the working classes towards social change.

Repin was a Realist painter and focused much of his work on the social dilemmas of his country.  He was aware of the inequalities of the Tsarist system and although that same system treated him well, he was aware that for a vast majority of his people, life was unfair.  Ivan Kramskoi, the Russian artist and critic and leading light of the Society of the Peredvizhniki of which Repin was a member, said of his Repkin’s perception of life’s inequalities:

“…Repkin has a gift for showing the peasant as he is.  I know many painters who show the moujik [Russian peasants], and they do it well but none can do so with as much talent as Repin…”

The painting hangs in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and I would so like to stand in front of the painting and absorb the atmosphere that Repkin has conjured up in this magnificent work.

The Floor-scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte

The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte (1875)

Although I am sure people love to see the paintings of the so-called “Masters”, I believe it is good to look at the works of lesser known artists and by doing so, one can discover hidden gems.  After Renoir’s famous painting Luncheon of the Boating Party,which I featured yesterday,  I decided today that I would look for a painter, who until yesterday had been unknown to me.  However, I do understand that this may be due to my simple lack of artistic knowledge and in fact the artist is well known to you, if so, I apologise!

It is often the case that when I am researching a painting I come across another artist, whom I have never heard of, and that is the reason for my choice of artist today.  Amongst the guests at Renoir’s luncheon was his friend and lesser known Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte and I decided to make him my artist of the day and I want to look at his unusual painting entitled Les raboteurs de parquet [The Floor Planers].

Caillebotte was born in Paris in 1848 and brought up in a very respectable and very wealthy upper-class family environment.  His father, Martial had inherited the family textile business.  Martial Caillebotte had been widowed twice before he met and married Gustave’s mother, Céleste.  When Gustave was eighteen his father moved the family home from Paris to the town of Yerres, a south-eastern suburb of Paris on the Yerres River,  an area which was familiar to the family as they had spent many summers there.

Gustave studied law when he was twenty years old and passed all his exams two years later. That year, he was drafted into army to fight in the Franco-Prussian War.  It was after the war and on leaving military service that Gustave wanted to concentrate on art and study painting.  He set up an artist’s studio in the family home and in 1873 he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  The following year his father died and in 1878 his mother passed away, at which time the three brothers shared the family fortune.  It was also around this time that Gustave met and became friends with Edgar Degas and came into contact with the Impressionists, a group of artists who had rebelled against Academicism art and academic painters, whose works were exhibited in the Paris Salon.  This group of artists had their own Impressionist exhibitions, the first of which was held in 1874.

In 1876 the Impressionists held their second exhibition and Caillebotte exhibited eight of his paintings including today’s featured work, The Floor Scrapers, which he completed in 1875.  The style of this work belongs to the Realism genre but unfortunately for Gustave the art establishment only considered peasants and farmers from the countryside as acceptable subjects in works of art which highlighted the realism of working-class life.

The Floor-scrapers, sometimes known as The Floor-strippers  was painted in the artist’s family home.  It is a painting which depicts working class people hard at work and although that in itself was not an unusual subject for French paintings as it had been done many times before but the difference was that in previous French paintings, the depiction of the hardships of the working class was all about working class farmers or country peasants.  This painting depicts the urban working class and as such it was one of the first such representations.  Caillebotte presented his painting for the exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1875 but it was rejected.  The Jury of the Salon were shocked by its crude realism and some went so far as to describe it as being vulgar and offensive.  The artist was both disappointed and angered by their stance and decided that exhibiting his works at the Paris Salon was not going to be the future course for his paintings.  Instead, he decided to align himself with another group of French artists, who like him, were disillusioned by the narrow views of the academics and had formed themselves into their own artistic group – the Impressionists.

The work of art today is simply a painting depicting men hard at work.  Here we see three men stripping the varnish off the floor of the artist’s new apartment.  There is neither a moralising message nor is there a left wing political message.  Caillebotte is merely showing the men hard at work carrying out a strenuous task.  This is why the artist was looked upon as one of the most gifted French realist painters of his time.  Look how Caillebotte has depicted the musculature of the upper body of his three workers as they perform their back-breaking task on their hands and knees.  See how the artist has made the light of the late afternoon streams through the long balcony window and illuminate their backs.   It harks back to the heroes we saw centuries earlier when we looked at the paintings of the heroes of Antiquity. France, like Britain, had just gone through an Industrial Revolution and with urbanization came a new social class which was termed la classe ouvrière or working class and it was in complete contrast to the bourgeoisie.  The hard working men we see in Caillebotte’s painting may have been brought up in the countryside and therefore they were used to exhausting and strenuous work and had moved to the city to seek their fortunes.

At the time of this painting, France was in its Second Empire stage and Paris was undergoing massive change under the Haussmann’s Renovation of Paris which was the great modernisation plan for the city which had been commissioned by Napoleon III.  The project encompassed all aspects of urban planning, both in the centre of Paris and in the surrounding districts: streets and boulevards, regulations imposed on facades of buildings, public parks, sewers and water works, city facilities, and public monuments. The planning was influenced by many factors, not the least of which was the city’s history of street revolutions.  This was a time of great change and in a way Caillebotte wanted to change art and what had been previously unacceptable, he wanted to be accepted but he was a little ahead of his time as far as this painting was concerned.  There is a great contrast in colours used in the painting from the light blue walls to the dark browns of the floor and the men’s clothes.   I note that a bottle of wine and a glass has been added – a French prerequisite to help with a day’s work !

Eastward Ho and Home Again by Henry Nelson O’Neil

Today I am offering you two paintings by Victorian painter Henry Nelson O’Neil.   The reason for the joint display is that the works are connected and the story behind them is intertwined.

O’Neil was born in Russia to English parents in 1817.  He returned to England at the age of six and when he was nineteen years of age studied at the Royal Academy Schools.He was a historical painter, that is to say the subject matter in most of O’Neil’s paintings depicted a momentous moment in history.  At one time, the genre of  history painting was traditionally regarded as the highest form of Western painting and the works would fit into the most esteemed position in the pecking order of painting genres.   These historical works were thought of as corresponding to the epic in literature.

In the 1840’s O’Neil was a co-founder of The Clique, which was a group of like-minded young artists, based around the St John’s Wood area of London, who regularly met to peruse each other’s works and offer their own critiques.  The coming together of this group was in some ways an act of rebellion against the Royal Academy and in what they saw as its imposition of artistic restrictions.  This group wanted to add more realism to their work.  They wanted their works to have greater emotional intensity which at the time was frowned upon by the Academy establishment.   I had already mentioned this group when I looked at a painting by Richard Dadd (June 29th) another co-founder of The Clique.  This group of artists denounced the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their works and O’Neil was the most vociferous in his opposition to their art.  As with most things, The Clique eventually broke up but Henry O’Neil still believed in its principles and he continued to embrace highly emotional scenes in his works and this can be seen clearly in my two featured paintings today.

Eastward Ho by Henry O'Neil (1857)

The two works I am featuring today in My Daily Art Display are entitled Eastward Ho and Home Again.  The first was painted by O’Neil in 1857 and the latter completed the following year.  Eastward Ho focuses on the embarkation of British troops on a ship at Gravesend on their way to India to fight in the First War of Independence, known as the Indian Mutiny.    For the British people this was a just war and brought about a fierce feeling of patriotism amongst the people, who were shocked by India’s challenge to British rule and British supremacy on the sub-continent.  Sadly as in most conflict the populace are whipped up into a frenzy of righteousness by the media of the day and the young men and now young women on both sides go off to fight with a sense of belief that theirs is a just cause, their God is on their side and anyway it will all be over soon and it will be other people who will be killed, not them.  In this case they were fighting for their Empire.   The painting however was well received with the Illustrated London News describing the work and its popularity as:

“….a national epic. No wonder it is so popular that such crowds assemble around it, scanning every feature of the various actors, till at last they begin to imagine themselves present at, and participators in, the scene…”

The newspaper of the day, The Times, put it:

“….Hope and aspiration are busy among these departing soldiers, and if mothers and wives, and sisters and sweethearts, go down the side sorrowing, it is a sorrow in which there is no despair, and no stain of sin and frailty…..”

In the first painting, we see the soldiers boarding the ship bound for India and their loved ones bidding them emotional farewells.  It is a poignant scene for despite the bravado and sense of duty of the young men going off to fight their just cause with nothing but a rousing sense of duty, we observe their loved ones who are going to be left behind reluctantly letting their fighting men’s fingers slip from their grasp as they move down the gang plank.  For the men we can only see in their faces optimism and patriotism whilst in the faces of the women we see fear and a sense of foreboding.

Home Again by Henry O'Neil (1858)

O’Neil buoyed up by the success of Eastward Ho decided to work on a “follow-up” painting depicting the return of some of the fighting men to their loved ones a year on.  The soldiers are seen going down the gangway of their troop ship.  The main character appears to be the bearded soldier in khaki uniform with his Kilmarnock “pork-pie” cap under a white cotton Havelock, which was worn to afford the wearer’s neck protection from the blazinga nd merciless Indian sun.

However at this juncture not all the men returned and for many wives and girlfriends there was nobody to wait for on the quayside.  Sadly as we are only too aware of in our present time, some young fighting men who return are not the same men, physically or mentally, as those who went out, once full of optimism.   Although O’Neil wanted to be faithful to his beliefs of Realism painting he knew that for the painting to be well received he had to concentrate on the joyous return of the fortunate ones and play down the sadness of the bereaved and the portrayal of the badly injured.  He was applauded for the painting’s lack of, what the media termed,  overemotional sentimentality.  The Times of the day commented:

“…..The crowd round the picture delight to spell out the many stories it includes – its joyous reunitings, its agonies of bereavement; the latter kept judiciously down…..”

O’Neil’s follow-up work was another outstanding success and it was taken on tour around the country and it was estimated that almost sixty thousand people went to see it.  In 1860 the two paintings were exhibited side by side in Piccadilly, London where viewers had to pay six pence to view the two works.  Numerous prints of the two paintings were made and sold.

What fascinates me about the two paintings is that O’Neil has deliberately depicted some of the same people in both works.  Below I have highlighted two examples of this.  Maybe if you look closer you will find more examples of this.

The injured soldier being helped down the gangway (above left) and his wife waving him off (above right)

In another example below, the Chelsea Pensioner on the gangway waving goodbye to his son (below left) and again waving to him from the quay as he returns safely back home (below  right).

The paintings are beautiful examples of O’Neil’s work no matter what we think of his portrayal of war and those who go off to fight and I love the comparison between the emotions shown in the two works – joyous optimism that the men off to fight for their country against the somewhat muted return with its relief and sadness.

O’Neil fared well as an artist and managed to have almost a hundred paintings accepted into exhibitions at the Royal Academy, an establishment, although as a member of The Clique, he once criticised.   He was made an Associate of the Academy two years after exhibiting these two featured paintings.  O’Neil died in 1880 aged 63.

In some ways it is sad to note that nothing has changed in 150 years.  At the onset of battle campaigns the media focus on the adventure of war but now thankfully, despite the wishes of various governments,  they are not adverse to recording the devastating affect such wars have on individuakls and their families.

Charity by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Charity by Williiam Adolphe Bouguereau (1865)

It used to be the “in thing” when one talked about what one was studying to reel off a list of “-ologys”.  It always sounded very impressive.  In the art world there is the tendency to group artists in “-isms” and not so long ago I even bought a book, entitled isms, Understanding art.  Would you believe there were 52 “isms” listed and a few more words that they gave up trying to add the ism suffix.    The featured artist in My Daily Art Display today is described as a dedicated follower of Academicism and Realism with a touch of Classicism.  He is the French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Bouguereau was born in the Charente-Maratime seaport of La Rochelle in 1825.  His family were wine and olive merchants and as he grew older it was expected that he would join the family firm.  But for his uncle Eugène, a local priest, we may never have had the pleasure of seeing the works of this talented French painter.  His uncle managed to interest the young William-Adolphe in biblical and historical stories and even organised for the boy to attend the local high school.  Whilst at the school Bouguereau began to develop his artistic talents which not only impressed his teachers but also his father.  The course of the boy’s life changed and he was enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux and later with some financial assistance from his family along with money he made from some of his paintings he took himself off to Paris where he was accepted at the École des Beaux Arts

Bouguereau enjoyed painting and drawing figures and decided that to improve his technique he would attend anatomical dissections.  During this time he studied under Francois-Edouard Picot, the renowned French painter whose artistic forte was the depiction of mythological, religious and historical subjects.  Bouguereau had his first introduction into the genre we now term Academicism.  He went on to win the prestigious Prix de Rome with his painting Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes and the travelling stipend that went with it in 1850 and he went off to Italy and the Villa Medici in Rome which housed the French Academy.  It was Napoleon Bonaparte who located the Academy in this building and both the building and the grounds were renovated so that future French artists who won the Prix de Rome could come here for a year, soak up the Italian atmosphere and have the opportunity to study and copy the art and sculptures of the Masters of the Italian Renaissance.  It was during this time that Bouguereau, as well as studying the art of the ancient, Greek, Etruscan and Roman times,  was able to immerse himself in classical literature.  This period of his life was forever going to have a profound effect on his life and be inspirational in his choice of subjects that he would depict in his future works of art.  Bouguereau throughout the rest of his artistic life was going to strictly adhere to the tenets of Academicism.  So what is Academicism?  It is a genre of art which promoted Classical ideals of beauty and artistic perfection and by doing so establishes a clear hierarchy within the visual arts.  Academicism preferred the grand narrative or history painting genre and advocated life drawings and classical sculpture.

Bouguereau with his portraiture, especially those of women, was very popular and successful as he had the ability to merge together a true likeness of the sitter with a certain amount of beautification without it being too obvious.  He was inundated with commissions from wealthy patrons for portraits of them or their family and most of these still remain in private hands.  His artistic standing increased over the years and he was made a Life Member of the Academy in 1876 and in 1885, was made Commander of the Legion of Honour and Grand Medal of Honour, the highest decoration in France.   His art was now bringing in great financial rewards and he had built up a formidable list of clients and art dealers who were willing to handle his work.  In 1875 he started teaching drawing  at the Académie Julian which had been established in 1868 as a private school for art students, both male and female (although taught separately) and its teachings prepared the students for the entrance exam for the prestigious École des Beaux Arts

In 1856 when he was 31 years of age he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon and the couple went on to have five children.  In 1877 his wife and infant son died and in 1896 at the age of seventy-one he remarried, this time to an American, a fellow artist and academic, Elizabeth Jane Gardner who was twelve years his junior and one of his former pupils.   In 1905, Bouguereau died of a heart attack at the age of 79.  He had a long and full life over the course of which he completed in excess of eight hundred paintings.

My Daily Art Display showcases Bouguereau’s painting entitled Charity which he first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865.  I saw this work in the Birmingham Municipal Art Gallery a few weeks ago.  Before us, at the centre of the painting, sitting on the steps of the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, we see a woman with three children huddled together.  This is a pyramidal composition which we are viewing from a low viewpoint.  The woman in the way she is dressed reminds me of the Virgin Mary and with the baby in her lap I can almost believe that I am looking at a secular Madonna.  She stares straight out at us.  The soft features of her face plead with us to, in some way, help her with her burden.  Look how the artist has portrayed the two young children.  They have been depicted in begging poses, which are meant to tug at our heart strings.  However they seem to be reasonably well dressed and we see no signs of the clothes being ragged.  I do note that they are all bare-footed and the shirt and the chemise worn by the young boy and girl have been pulled down slightly, revealing bare shoulders but this to my mind adds to the lack of realism.  This painting found no favour with Bouguereau’s contemporary realist painters.  They castigated him for depicting the woman and children in their spurious begging poses.  They said the depiction looked completely “stage managed” and lacked the brutal reality of beggars and their terrible impoverished lifestyle.  To them, Bouguereau had sold out his Realism ideals.  To them this depiction of poverty and begging was highly idealised.  Notwithstanding whether he had “sold-out” his Realism principles in thisn instance, I still think this is a superb painting and of course I can assure you it looks even more beautiful when you stand close up to it.

I will end the blog today with Bouguereau’s thoughts about art in general and how it had affected him and given him so much pleasure.  He commented:

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

The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison) by Robert Henri

The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison) by Robert Henri (1906)

Robert Henri, a leading figure of the Ashcan School in art, was born Robert Henri Cozad in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1865.  His father John Cozad was a real estate developer and founded the town of Cozaddale, Ohio and later when the family moved west, he founded the Dawson County town of Cozad in the state of Nebraska.  Robert had one brother, also named John, and was a distant cousin of Mary Cassatt, the much admired artist and printmaker.  In October 1882, Henri’s father became embroiled in a dispute with a rancher over the right to pasture cattle on land claimed by the family. When the dispute turned physical, Cozad shot Pearson fatally with a pistol. Cozad was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but the mood of the town turned against him. He fled to Denver, Colorado, and the rest of the family followed shortly afterwards.  In order to disassociate themselves from the scandal, family members changed their names. The father became known as Richard Henry Lee, and his sons posed as adopted children under the names Frank Southern and Robert Earl Henri.  In 1883 the family moved again, first to New York City and then on to Atlantic City, New Jersey.

At the age of  twenty-one, Robert began studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia under the tutelage of  Robert Anschutz, the painter who also taught several well-known painters including Everett Shin, George Luks and George Bellows who along with Henri would become known as the Ashcan School.  Two years later in 1888 Robert Henri travelled to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian and later he was admitted to École des Beaux Arts.  It was during this time that he embraced Impressionism.

In 1891 he returned to America and settled down in Philadelphia and began teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.  He became friendly with a group of artists and newspaper illustrators and they, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shin and John French Sloan, became known in artistic circles as the Philadelphia Four.  In 1898 he married Linda Craige who was a student attending one of his private art classes, and they set off on a two-year long honeymoon/vacation in France.

In 1902 he started teaching at the New York School of Art and many “soon to be famous” artists were taught by him, including Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Louis Fancher, Stuart Davis and Norman Raeburn.  Sadly in 1905 after a long period of poor health his wife Linda died.

A year later in 1906 Robert Henri was elected to the National Academy of Design which would later be known as The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts but his tenure at this establishment was short lived for when works of art by his painter friends were rejected for the Academy’s 1907 exhibition, he resigned labelling the Academy as a “cemetery of art” and threatened to stage his own art exhibition.

He carried out his threat the next year, 1908, when he and his friends staged a landmark exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York entitled The Eight after the eight artists who displayed their works).  Besides his own works and those of the Philadelphia Four who had moved from Philadelphia to be with Henri, the other exhibitors were Maurice Prendegast, Ernest Lawson and Arthur B Davies.  The exhibition was a sensation and these painters would soon become associated with the Ashcan School, which was a realist artistic movement and was best known for its portrayal scenes of daily life in the city of New York.  The name “Ashcan” was first used to describe the artistic movement some years later by the American cartoonist and writer, Art Young.

In May 1908 Henri married for a second time, this time to Marjorie Organ a twenty-two year old Irish immigrant.  Henri continued to paint and teach art  in various establishments and when he was sixty-four he was chosen, by the Arts Council of New York, as one of the top three living American artists.  A year later in 1929 Robert Henri died of cancer aged 65 and in 1931 the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged a Memorial exhibition of his work to honour this giant of American Art.

My Daily Art Display for today is a work by Robert Henri called The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison) which he completed in 1906 and was one of the paintings I saw at the National Gallery this week at their small exhibition entitled An American Experiment.   It is a life-sized oil on canvas painting (196cms x 98cms) and is quite dark.  The model for the painting was Josephine Nivison who studied with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art the previous year.  After Henri befriended her, she and some other students from his class travelled with him to Europe.  Miss Nivison later married another influential painter, Edward Hopper (see my blog Nighthawks on Jan 23rd) and she helped promote his work and acted as his model.

In the picture her body is undefined due to the all-encompassing heavy black artist’s smock she is wearing which reaches down to her feet.  We are just able to glimpse the white collar and the red patterned shoulder of her dress she wears under the smock.  Against a plain brown background, she clutches hold of her paintbrushes in her left hand as she looks out at us with a very determined expression.

This painting was one of only a few Robert Henri painted in 1906, the year after his wife’s death.

Three Women in Church by Wilhelm Leibl

Three Women in Church by Wilhelm Leibl

 

The artist featured in My Daily Art Display today is Wilhelm Maria Hubertus Leibl.  He was born in Cologne in 1844 and became one of Germany’s greatest Realist painters of that time.

Originally apprenticed as a locksmith and later as a precision instrument maker, Wilhelm decided to follow his love of art, gave up his apprenticeship, and took to studying and training to become an artist.  His first teacher in Cologne was the painter and author, Herman Becker.  When Leibl was nineteen years of age he moved to Munich and became a student at the Academy of Fine Arts.   He studied under many art tutors including Anschutz, Straehuber and von Piloty.  The standards of his works of art fluctuated and every so often he would produce a gem.  The first such treasure was his painting entitled Aunt Josephia which he completed around 1864 and now hangs in the Walter-Richartz Museum in Cologne.   He was praise for his clever depiction of the woman’s hands which added to the expression, mood and the characterisation of the sitter.  Whilst later at the Academy he taught art to the students but a lot of his free time was spent visiting the Alte Pinakothek to study the works of art of the Masters.  His favourite art-genre was the Baroque Period and the works of van Eyck, Rubens and de Vos but also he had an affinity with the great portraiture artists such as Frans Hals and Diego Velazquez.

In 1869 he produced his portrait of Frau Gedon, which hangs in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.  This work of Leibl was shown at the Grosse International Kunstausstellung and Gustave Courbet, the French Realist painter judged it to be the best exhibit.  So impressed by it, Courbet invited Leibl to join him in Paris.  Whilst in the French capital Leibl spent much time studying the works  of his host Courbet and those of  Édouard Manet and these artists and their paintings inspired Leibl for the rest of his life.

Leibl only remained in Paris for a year as 1870 saw the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War that July.  Despite returning to Munich, Leibl continued to keep in touch with the French Art world and regularly submitted his own works to the Paris Salon.    In Munich he and his artist friends Carl Schuch, Wilhelm Trübner and Johann Sperl formed an artistic group known as the “Leibl Circle”.  This group’s passion for art was for art’s sake.  Their ethos was simple – art should be convincing exclusively through it formal qualities.  It was at the time of his return to Munich that Leibl started to experiment with etchings but his love of this artistic medium waned after a few years.  In 1873, at the age of twenty nine he left the city life of Munich and moved to Grassling, a countryside suburb of the city.  He enjoyed the country and village lifestyle and spent the rest of his life in various small villages around southern Bavaria and it was during those years that he painted the local peasantry in a sombre realistic style.  Leibl’s standing as an artist was principally dependent on the French critics, since his artistic reputation in Germany fell long before his standing went into decline in France.  Sadly, he never gained the acknowledgement he merited in his homeland .   Leibl died in 1900 in Wurzburg at the age of fifty-six.

My Daily Art Display today is Leibl’s oil on mahogany painting entitled Three Women in Church which took him almost three and a half years to complete and was finally exhibited in 1882, and now hangs in Hamburg’s Kunsthalle.  This was to be Leibl’s greatest masterpiece.  It is a haunting piece by an artist who, at the age of thirty eight, was at the zenith of his career and this work of art enhanced his reputation as one of Germany’s greatest Realist painters.

The three women are painted in great detail, despite, as he told his sister in a letter, the poor lighting inside the church.  The three women, all of different generations, are wearing their local costumes.  Look at their faces as they sit deep in prayer.  See how Leibl, by his attention to facial details, has portrayed their piousness.  They are all dressed in their “Sunday-best” clothes, looking their best for their church visitation.  This is a wonderful example of Realism painting depicting simple Bavarian country folk at prayer.  It emphasizes emotion and individuality and I hope you agree that this painting is a joy to behold.

Portrait of Francesco Giamberti San Gallo, Musician and Portrait of Giuliano da San Gallo, Architect by Piero di Cosimo

Yesterday I offered you a painting by Piero di Cosimo and most of My Daily Art Display was taken up with the story behind the painting and the painting itself without touching on the life of the artist.  Today, to make amends, I am giving you not just one painting by Cosimo but two portraitures ,but first, just a little about the artist himself.

Piero di Cosimo, also known as Piero di Lorenzo was born in Florence in 1462.  His father Lorenzo was a goldsmith.  He was apprenticed to the artist Cosimo Rosseli, his godfather and a painter of the Quattrocento, which takes in the artistic styles and cultural events of the 15th century. It was from Rosseli that Piero di Lorenzo derived his more common name “Cosimo”.   In 1481 Pope Sixtus summoned Rosseli to Rome where he was commissioned to decorate part of the Sistine Chapel.   Rosseli took Cosimo with him and he helped Rosseli with the fresco of the Sermon on the Mount, painting the background landscape.

In Rome Cosimo developed a love for the Renaissance painting genre completing many works appertaining to Greek Mythology, one of which was showcased yesterday in My Daily Art Display.   He is best known for his idiosyncratic paintings featuring fanciful mythological inventions in a world inhabited by satyr, centaurs and primitive men.  He was a superb painter of animals and a master of portraiture as one can see by today’s paintings.

Cosimo was an eccentric.  He was a solitary person, a loner, who preferred his own company.  He didn’t like people to see him at work and would lock himself away for days on end.  He was untidy and his studio rooms were dirty but he seemed oblivious to the chaotic circumstances of his life. He also had an irrational fear of fire and rarely cooked his food and he was terrified of thunderstorms.  Piero di Cosimo died of the plague in 1522, aged sixty.

Portrait of Francesco Giamberti San Gallo, Musician (1482)

My Daily Art Display today is paired portraits painted by Cosimo.  Portraits featuring two people at that time were usually male and female and often man and wife.   This set of paired portraits is a rare example of a portrait pair featuring two men, actually father and son, from different generations.    They are the only surviving portraits, which have been irrefutably accepted as being the work of Cosimo.   Both are wood panel paintings, one is entitled Portrait of Giuliano da San Gallo, Architect  (the son) and the other is Francesco Giamberti San Gallo, Musician  (the father), a cabinet maker, architect and musician in the service of Cosimo de Medici family.  The name “San Gallo” was added later to the family name “Giamberti”.  The name derived from the Porta San Gallo, one of the gates of the city of Florence, near which the Giamberti family had their house.

Portrait of Giuliano da San Gallo, Architect (1482)

 

Portrait of Giuliano da San Gallo, Architect  by Cosimo was completed in 1482.  This highly successful architect and master builder to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Florentine ruler, stands at a balustrade, turned three-quarters towards the observer.  On the balustrade are the tools of his architectural trade, namely a compass and a quill.  In the background there is an undulating Tuscan landscape which abuts a mountain range.  His appearance is formal and dignified.  He looks self-confident and somewhat aloof.  Note the detail reproduction of the cloth on the upper part of his sleeve.  Note also the effort Cosimo has put in with regards his appearance, the wrinkles around the eyes and the silvery tints in his graying hair.

Francesco Giamberti San Gallo, Musician belongs, like the other portrait, belongs to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam but has been loaned out to the National Gallery in London.  The painting was completed circa 1482 and was commissioned by the son Giuliano on the death of his father in 1480, the intention being that it would form a portraiture pair with his own earlier portrait carried out by Cosimo.  The father is painted in profile which gives a clear outline of the face offset against the background.   This clear-cut portrait shows an old man with sunken cheeks.  He is formally dressed which makes some art historians believe that the father had already died and the portrait was based on the death mask of the father.  His face has signs of light gray stubble and we can see the veins on his temple and his ear lobe.  His ear is almost bent double by the weight of his hat.  As was the case in the son’s portrait the father is side on to a balustrade on which are the “tools of the father’s trade” – not the tools of a cabinet maker or architect but the “tools” of a musician – a sheet of music for Francesco Giamberti often composed music for the Medicis on special occasions.

The two paintings are outstanding in the way the faces contrast sharply against the background landscape and sky.  Note the silken cover on the balustrade of both portraits.  Observe how the pattern of the striped silken fabric seems to run continuously through both portraits.  It is thought that after Cosimo completed the portrait of the father, Francesco along with the tools of his trade he went back to the portrait of the son, Giuliano and added this ornamentation and his “tools of the trade” to his portrait in order to achieve a commonality between the two paintings .  So why did Giuliano commission the painting of his father?  Was it for him to remember him or is it as some art historians postulate that it was to enhance his own reputation by emphasising his own intellectual heritage and thus improving his own standing as an architect.  Maybe that is an unjustified and a cynical view of the situation.  You must decide !