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 Tretyakov Gallery – My favourites.

The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The Tretyakov Gallery is one of the world’s richest museums, a veritable treasure house of the finest works of Russian and Soviet art. In all, there are in excess of fifty thousand paintings, sculptures, drawings and engravings in the storerooms and galleries of this great establishment. The magnificent collection of art was founded by Pavel Tretyakov who began to collect art in the mid nineteenth century with a clearly formed conception of founding a museum that would be open to all to see and appreciate. It was to be a gallery for the people whereas entry to the Hermitage in St Petersburg was granted exclusively to visitors in full dress or tailcoats and the titles of all the paintings on show were in the French language. The Hermitage was only for the elite. In my final look at paintings housed in the Tretyakov Gallery I am going to showcase my five favourite works. Although my five previous Tretyakov blogs were solely about portraiture, and I do marvel at the technical ability shown by artists of that genre, the favourite paintings I am showing you today are all quite different, but gems in their own right.

The Appearance of Christ Before the People by Alexander Ivanov (1837-1857)

My first offering is a painting by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov who was born in St. Petersburg on July 16th 1806. It is entitled The Appearance of Christ Before the People (The Apparition of the Messiah) which he started in 1837 and yet did not complete until 1857. This monumental oil on canvas work measures 540cms x 750cms (18ft x 24ft 6ins) and the depiction is set on the banks of the River Jordan. The painting is based on the first chapter of the Gospel According to John (1: 29–31):

“…The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel…”

Ivanov’s fame is inseparable from his great masterpiece. The finished painting is based on hundreds of preparatory studies he made over twenty years, many of which are gems in themselves and are considered by art historians as masterpieces in their own right. This painting and about 300 preparatory sketches are housed in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Art critics believe that the preparatory sketches reveal greater expressiveness and psychological depth than the finished painting itself.

In the middle ground we see the solitary figure of Christ on a rocky mound approaching the gathering. Behind him in the background is a wide plain and the distant mountains. His figure is small in comparison to the others but nevertheless stands out because of it being a lone figure. In the foreground of the picture there are a number of male figures of varying ages, some of whom are already undressed waiting to be baptised.

John the Baptist

The main figure with his wavy black hair, dressed in his animal skin under a long cloak, is John the Baptist. In his left hand he holds a crosier. He is standing on the banks of the River Jordan and has raised his hands aloft and gestures towards the approaching solitary figure of Christ. To John the Baptist’s left, we see a group of apostles: the young John the Theologian, behind him – Peter, further on – Andrew and behind his back – Nathaniel, the so-called “doubter.” To the right of the approaching Christ and below the two soldiers on horseback, we have the Pharisees and scribes who unbendingly reject the Truth. In the centre of the painting we see a haggard old man struggling to his feet buoyed by the words of John the Baptist.

There are two interesting inclusions in the depiction. Firstly, to the right there is a figure that stands nearest to Jesus and it was he who was depicted as the Repin’s good friend, the writer and dramatist, Nikolai Gogol.

Self portrait

Ivanov also included a self-portrait. Just under the raised right hand of John the Baptist, one can make out a seated man with a red headgear – this is Ivanov himself.

In 1858, Alexander Ivanov went with his beloved painting to St Petersburg where it was exhibited. Its lukewarm reception must have been heart-breaking for Ivanov. Just imagine how you would feel if you had spent almost half of your life on one painting and then after all that effort it was not well received. Ivanov died of cholera in St Petersburg on July 3rd 1858, just a fortnight before his fifty-second birthday, not knowing that some years after his death his work of art would be hailed, by the likes of Ilya Repin, the most celebrated Russian painter of his day, as “the greatest work in the whole world, by a genius born in Russia

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1873)

My second choice is a painting by Ilya Repin. In an earlier blog regarding the Tretyakov Gallery I looked at some of Repin’s portraiture but my favourite works by him are his Social Realism works of art. His most iconic and most famous work is one he started in 1870 and completed in 1873. It is his painting entitled Barge Haulers on the Volga, which 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.

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1880-1883)

However, the Tretyakov Gallery houses another great painting by Repin. It is his 1883 work entitled The Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk. Like the Barge Haulers on the Volga it is a monumental painting measuring 175 × 280 cm. It is the annual religious procession in honour of Our Lady of Kursk at which the famous icon, Our Lady of Kursk, is carried twenty-five kilometres from the Korennaya Monastery, south, to the city of Kursk.  The setting for the painting is a time of drought and we see a large group of people crossing the parched earth. The hillside to the right appears to have been recently cleared of timber, and we can see fresh tree stumps in the ground. Further back along the procession we can see another platform, holding what appears to be a circular icon, besides which are two large banners. Further back along the procession we can just make out a large processional cross which is being held aloft.

The icon bearers

The leaders of the procession carry aloft a bier on top of which is the icon inside an elaborate neo-classical case. The light from the many candles inside the glass case gleam and this reflects off the gold riza icon-cover. A riza is a metal cover protecting an icon. To the left we see a line of peasants holding hands in an attempt to prevent any of the crowd getting too close to the icon. We see a peasant holding a stick out in front of him to try and prevent the crippled boy breaking through the cordon.

The priest

 

Following behind the icon are the priests and better-dressed people, some of who clutch icons to their chests. Note how Repin has portrayed one of the priests in a dandified manner as he carefully straightens his hair. Repin has also scornfully depicted the large stout woman in a yellow dress and bonnet carrying an icon behind the priest. She clutches an icon case to her chest.

 

What is interesting about the procession is that there is a great mix of people of various social standing in the community. Look carefully at the painting and observe the various characters Repin 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.

The crippled boy

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, the icon 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 social 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 Repin, the 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. Of his painting Repin wrote:

“…I am applying all of my insignificant forces to try to give true incarnation to my ideas; life around me disturbs me a great deal and gives me no peace – it begs to be captured on canvas…”

David L Jackson wrote in his book, The Wanderers and Critical Realism in nineteenth-century Russian painting, that one art critic at the time wrote with obvious disapproval with regards Repin’s painting and the people viewing it, saying that they were:

“…undesirables who thronged around it at exhibition, noting a preponderance of liberated women with short haircuts, nihilistic young men, and a strong Jewish element; the chief characters of Imperial xenophobia…”

While the American writer and educator, Richard Brettell, wrote about the painting in very unflattering terms, in his book, Modern art, 1851–1929: capitalism and representation, that the painting depicted:

“…fat, gold-robed priests, stupid peasants, wretched cripples, cruel mouthed officials, and inflated rural dignitaries…”

The painting was bought by the leading collector of the time, Pavel Tretyakov for a record 10,000 roubles and there is an interesting tale connected to this purchase. Tretyakov wanted Repin to replace the maids carrying the empty icon-case with “a beautiful young girl, exuding spiritual rapture”. Repin refused !

The Rooks have Returned by Alexei Savrasov (1871)

My third choice is a landscape work. It is Alexsei Savrasov’s 1871 painting entitled The Rooks have Returned, which is considered to be one of his finest works. Savrasov is looked upon as one of the most important of all the 19th century Russian landscape painters and is regarded as being one of the early architects of the “lyrical landscape”, sometimes referred to as “mood landscape”. In 1870 Savrasov became a member of the Peredvizhniki group of Russian realist artists who had protested about academic restrictions, and, with other disenchanted aspiring artists, formed an artists’ cooperative, which eventually evolved into the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions in 1870, which allowed the artists to break away from government-sponsored academic art. In December 1870, Savrasov and his wife went to Yaroslavl and later, Nizhny Novgorod, which was close to the Volga River. The artist was overwhelmed by the splendour of the beautiful Russian countryside and spent much of his time outdoors painting landscapes en plein air.

The painting, The Rooks have Returned, depicts the start of Spring, evidenced by the return of these birds. Savrasov’s landscape works were influenced by the great English landscape painter, John Constable.  This painting is considered by many critics as being the high point in Savrasov’s artistic career. The depiction we see before us is a simple, and depicts the somewhat inconsequential occurrence of birds returning home in spring to an extremely unpretentious landscape, but it was Savrasov’s way of communicating the change of seasons from Winter to Spring. Simple and yet beautiful. Ivan Kramskoy, the Russian painter and art critic who was the intellectual leader of the Russian democratic art movement wrote that the landscape in “The Rooks Have Come Back” was the best he’d ever seen; and despite the fact that there were similar landscapes painted by other renowned Russian artists, only “The Rooks” mirrored the artist’s soul. Another famous Russian painter, the classical landscape painter, Isaac Levitan commented about its simplicity saying that although the painting was very simple, beneath its simplicity there is the tender artist’s soul, who loves nature and values it.  The painting enhanced Savrasov’s reputation as a landscape painter and it contributed to the success of the first exhibition organized by the Peredvizhniki.

My final two choices are both historical painting by Vasily Surikov which Pavel Tretyakov bought for his Gallery. Surikov was born in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia on January 24th 1848 and at the age of twenty-one, he moved to Moscow. Many believe that he was the greatest Russian historical painter. The paintings like many others by Surikov have one thing in common – the depiction of crowds. He once wrote:

“…I cannot see individual historical figures acting without the people, without the crowd, I want them all out in the street…”

Boyaryna Morozova by Vasily Surikov (1887)

Both these works of art I have chosen hang in the Tretyakov Gallery. The first one is his monumental 1887 work entitled The Boyarynia Morozova which measures 304 x 588cms. A boyarynia is a woman of high nobility.
Tzar Alexey Mikhailovich Romanov who ruled between 1645 to 1676 was the father of Peter I the Great, and he started the reforms in Russia; one of which was intended to subordinate the church to the tsar. The reforms resulted in the Russian Orthodox Church split into Nikonians (those who followed the new course set down by the tsar, the name comes from the revolutionary patriarch Nikon) and the Old-Believers who were against the radical changes. The changes included the revision of icons and holy books, and there were even changes in the divine service. It was also deemed that making the sign of the cross should be done with three fingers, instead of two. In the picture the Boyarynya and her supporters are shown with two fingers up, which means they are Old-Believers.

Boyaryna Morozova

The painting depicts the arrest of Feodosia Morozova, one of the most well-known of the Old Believers in 1653. She is being driven, bound in chains, on a simple peasant sledge through a narrow Moscow street. She has been condemned to a terrible death and is now being exposed to shame and abuse. She remains unbending in her beliefs and we witness her as she sweeps her hand upwards with two outstretched fingers – the sign of the schism. She looks pale and emaciated but still her eyes sparkle defiantly. Few of her followers dare to copy her gesture as they are afraid to openly show their support with the woman because of the brutal oppression by the authorities. However, a beggar to the right holds up his two fingers in a gesture of solidarity whilst others bow their heads in grief.

The Morning of the Streltsy Execution by Vasily Surikov (1881)

The second work by Surikov, and my final choice, is his 1881 painting entitled The Morning of the Streltsy Execution.  Surikov’s very large historical work (218 x 379cms) depicts an event during the reign of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, the second Streltsy Uprising of 1698. The Streltsy were infantry units which were formed in the 16th century by the Russian Tsar Ivan IV ‘Ivan the Terrible’. These units were considered elite units. Over time the Streltsy became a power behind the throne and in 1682 they attempted to prevent Peter the Great from coming to the throne in favour of his mentally disabled half-brother, Ivan. Whilst Peter the Great was on a scientific tour in western Europe during 1697 and 1698, the four thousand men from the Streltsy-regiments of Moscow rebelled. The rebellion was crushed, Peter the Great cut short his tour and returned to Moscow to punish the rebels with savage reprisals, including public executions and torture. Surikov’s painting depicts the crushing of the rebels. The setting is Red Square, with the large Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the background. The stone platform on the left is the Lobnoye Mesto, a 13-meter-long stone platform situated on Red Square in Moscow in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. On the right, on horseback, we can see Tsar Peter the Great, with his advisors standing next to him. To the left we can the Streltsy rebels on carts, their family and loved ones surround them agonising over their impending fate. Fifty-seven Streltsy were executed in Red Square by hanging, with seventy-four more to follow four days later. Many Streltsy were also whipped, drawn and quartered, and buried alive, with the total number of executions eventually reaching 1,182. Six hundred were sent into exile. The Streltsy-regiments were then disbanded.

Of all the world’s Art Galleries the Tretyakov in Moscow is one to visit.

Balthasar Denner – Portrait artist committed to the truth.

When an artist paints a landscape, seascape or cityscape he has to decide whether what he produces is a topographically accurate depiction of what he is looking at or an idealized version. He may consider adding or removing something or placing some feature in a different place to enhance the finished product. He may decide that such action would create a more agreeable balance. He is the artist and it is his choice. The one caveat of course is that if it is a commissioned piece he may have to discuss what he proposes to change with the person who is paying for the painting.

Portraiture is defined as the art of representing the physical or psychological likeness of a real or imaginary individual. Portraiture is also subject to the vagaries of idealism and verism. Idealistic portraiture often comes in the form of the backdrop and the accessories which surround the sitter and which, in some way, enrich the status of the sitter. Expensive furnishings, expensive tableware, expensive and fashionable clothes and jewellery worn by the sitter gives the viewer the feeling that the subject is prosperous and wealthy. Globes and books on a table near to the sitter can give the impression that they are learned and well-travelled. The figure of the sitter can be adjusted to make them look younger, more handsome or more beautiful.

Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci by Botticelli (c.1476)

One of the most famous idealised portraits was Botticelli’s depiction of Simonetta Vespucci, nicknamed la bella Simonetta. She was an Italian noblewoman from Genoa, the wife of Marco Vespucci of Florence and the cousin-in-law of Amerigo Vespucci. She was famous as the greatest beauty of her age in Northern Italy, and the model for many paintings by Botticelli and other Florentine painters. Speculation has it that the portrait of Simonetta is actually just an idealized version which emerged as the perfect beauty through Botticelli’s mind eye. The Italian Master achieved the flawless complexion of Simonetta by using a special mixture, terre verte – a green, earthy tone – to under paint, and afterward layered the flesh- like tones over it to create diverse shades of pink, yellow, and orange. Botticelli made use of fine lines and shapes to unobtrusively build up contrasts and fashion the depth and texture of the portrait. Apart from Botticelli, she also served other painters as an inspiration. She died young and childless at twenty-three. She presumably did not appear in public quite this perfectly styled. Her coiffure with beads, ribbons, feathers and artificial hairpieces would have been too elaborate and high-flown even by Florentine standards. Her outfit is much more likely to have been a nymph costume in the antique or classical-mythological style. This portrait is looked upon as the ideal of contemporary female beauty. Look at the way the artist has depicted her eyelashes and how she turns her body slightly towards us. It is the perfection of idealised beauty

Portrait of an Old Woman by Balthasar Denner

The opposite to idealism is verism. Verism is a term which dates back to the Roman Empire and is from the Roman Latin word verus meaning true and from Italian term verismo, meaning realism in its sense of gritty subject matter. In modern times the Italian term verismo, gives the sense of stark uncompromising subject matter. In portraiture verism is a form of realism in which a veristic portrait depicts a sitter with warts, wrinkles and all instead of a highly idealised depiction of smooth flawless skin.  Veristic portraits do not attempt to idealize or beautify the subject; instead they represent all features of the individual, including wrinkles, imperfect proportions, balding, and blemishes of the skin

In this blog I am looking at the life of a great seventeenth century German portrait artist, who completed a number of veristic portraits. Today’s blog is all about Balthasar Denner, who will be remembered for his half-length and head-and-shoulders portraits of elderly men and women. Denner tended to focus attention on the face and if clothing was to be included in the depiction, he would leave that to other artists, including, in later years, his daughter, Catharina.

Three Children of Alderman Barthold Hinrich Brockes by Balthasar Denner

A good example of this collaboration can be seen in a painting he completed in 1724 entitled Three Children of Alderman Barthold Hinrich Brockes, on the back of which is an inscription stating that he painted the heads of the children, Jacob van Schuppen later in Vienna painted the bodies and costumes, and the background is from Franz de Paula Ferg. The flowers in the hands of the children were painted by Franz Werner Tamm.

Old Man with an Hourglass by Balthasar Denner

Balthasar Denner was born on November 15th 1685 in Altona, now a suburb of Hamburg but, at the time Altona was part of the Danish kingdom and second only to Copenhagen in size. He was one of eight children but was the only son. His mother was Catharina Wiebe. His father was Jacob Denner, a Mennonite minister who was involved with the business of dyeing cloth. At the age of eight Balthasar was involved in an accident which resulted in him walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Following the accident, he was laid up in bed for a long period and to the pass the time he began to draw and started to copy the works of the Dutch painters, Abraham Bloemaert and Nicolaes Berchem whose works were very popular at that time.

Denner received his first artistic training from Frans van Amama, a Dutch painter. In 1696, at the age of eleven, Balthasar and his family left Altona and went to live in Danzig, where his father worked for a while as a Mennonite pastor. When he was thirteen years old Balthazar took up oil painting. The family returned to Altona in 1701 and Balthasar was put to work as a clerk for his uncle who was a prosperous merchant. Denner remained in the Hamburg suburb until 1707 at which time, aged twenty-two, he went to live in Berlin and that year became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. This state arts academy was established in 1696 in Berlin by prince-elector Frederick III and was the third oldest art academy in Europe. At the start of his artistic career Denner concentrated on painting miniatures which became very sought-after items.

Balthasar Denner self-portrait (1719)

In 1709, Balthasar Denner obtained his first significant commission – to paint the portraits of Christian August, the uncle and guardian of Karl Friedrich, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf, and his sister Marie Elisabeth, the later Abbess of Quedlinburg. On completion of the portrait, Denner’s client was so captivated by the finished result that he invited him to Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig to paint other portraits, and in 1712 Denner completed a memorable group portrait which included twenty-one individuals from the Duke’s court. The group portrait is now housed in Schloss Rastede, near Oldenburg in Germany and it was this painting which greatly enhanced the reputation of Balthasar Denner as an exceptionally talented portrait painter.

Portrait of Frau Denner by Balthasar Denner

During his stay in Berlin, he would frequently return to his home town of Altona. In 1712, in Hamburg, he married Esther de Winter and the couple went on to have six children, five daughters and a son. After the destruction of Altona in 1713, burnt to the ground by Swedish troops, during the Great Nordic War which had begun in 1700 between the forces of Sweden and the might of Russia and its allies, Norway and Denmark, Balthasar moved from Altona to Hamburg.

Old Woman by Balthasar Denner

Denner travelled a great deal in the next ten years following up commissions from wealthy clients. In 1714 he made a trip to Amsterdam and later, in 1720 he visited the court in Wolfenbüttel and Hanover. Whilst in Hanover he became acquainted with many Englishmen who were living in the German city and it was through these friendships that he and his family were invited to come to London. His painting of an Old Woman circa 1720 received great acclaim. On his way to England he met the Dutch painter, Adriaen van der Werff, who the great art historian, Arnold Houbraken, considered was the greatest of the Dutch painters and such acclaim was the prevailing critical opinion throughout the 18th century. Van der Werff, on seeing Denner’s portrait, compared it to the Mona Lisa.

Head of an Old Man by Balthasar Denner

The work also caused great excitement in London and it was sent to Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor. Denner received 5875 guilders and in 1725 and was commissioned to paint an old man as a pendant piece for the same amount of money. Denner stayed in the English capital for seven years but eventually returned to Hamburg complaining that he could no longer endure the smog which beset London

Old Woman with fur by Balthasar Denner

In 1729 he was invited to visit the court in Blankenburg am Harz en Dresden and later travelled to Berlin. The wealthy and the European nobility all wanted to be painted by him and have their portrait hanging in their stately homes. Around 1740 he painted ten copies of the twelve-year-old Peter III (Russia) which were sent to all the European courts and one was sent to the court of Petersburg. In 1742 he the court of St Petersburg offered Denner a position as court painter with an immense salary but he declined the offer
In 1743 he painted Adolf Frederick, King of Sweden. Two years later, around 1745 he returned with his family to lived in his birthplace, Altona and it was here that three of his children died. It was a time of great sadness, and such was his grief that Denner, for a whole year, would never put brush to canvas.

Selfportrait by Balthasar Denner

Balthasar Denner died on April 14th 1749 aged 63, in Rostock. At the time of his death there were forty-six unfinished paintings in his Altona studio. Klara Garas the Hungarian art historian, and one-time Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest described Denner’s portraiture:

“… ‘Denner’s genre figures and character heads depicting wrinkled old women and men were particularly popular and were admired for their detailed execution and meticulous accuracy. They ensured the artist international success and attracted especially high fees: Emperor Charles VI of Austria is believed to have sent 600 ducats from Vienna in payment for a typical head of a woman, an extraordinary sum at that time…”

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.

Walter Langley the Social Realist painter and the Newlyn Art Colony

Walter Langley, from a chalk drawing by Hubert Vos. From Newlyn and the Newlyn School, Magazine of Art, 1890

In eighteenth century France, Rococo was the popular style of art. Painters such as Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher had given art lovers a highly ornate and decorative form of art with its elegant, delightful, if somewhat voyeuristic, depictions of the good life. There was a playfulness about the depictions and all thoughts of seriousness was substituted by eroticism. The minority who were able to live the lifestyle shown in the Rococo paintings were pleased with what they saw but of course this was not real life for many of the citizens. Change had to come, and it did in the form of Realism. One of the leaders of this movement was the French artist, Gustave Courbet and he set out a manifesto, La Réalisme which stated that art should be about truth and depictions must be objective records. Realism was to be an art in which the painter put on his canvas what he saw, “warts and all” and not be concerned as to whether it was appropriate or inappropriate. This new form art was to move away from bourgeoise tastes.

The Artist’s Studio by Gustave Courbet (1855)

Probably Courbet’s most famous painting was pure Realism. It was entitled The Artist’s Studio, which he completed in 1855. The work baffled many, so much so Courbet clarified the ideas behind the depiction, declaring:

“…It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death…”

The group to the right……..

The painting depicts two groups of men and women. In the first group on the right, there is the bearded profile of the art collector Alfred Bruyas, and behind him, facing us, the philosopher Proudhon. Jules François Felix Fleury-Husson, who wrote under the name Champfleury.  He was a French art critic and novelist, and a prominent supporter of the Realist movement in painting and fiction, and is seated on a stool, while the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire is absorbed in a book. In the right foreground we see a couple who exemplify a pair of art lovers, and in the background, near the window, we see a couple unashamedly wrapped in a loving embrace and they have been included to symbolise free love.

…………….and to the left

However, the group on the left symbolise the reality of life. There is a priest, a merchant, a hunter, and even an unemployed worker and a beggar girl symbolising poverty. These last two insertions were controversial. Look on the floor by the dog and you will see a dagger, a guitar and large hat with a black plumed feather. Courbet added these items alluding to what was often seen in Academic art.

Courbet and the landscape painting

In the centre, Courbet sits at his large-scale painting of a beautiful landscape with its blue sky and verdant background and this is in direct contrast to the depiction of his grimy and crowded studio. This is a reminder of the difference between real life and an idealised life. This work was destined to be exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition but was rejected on the ground of it being too big but maybe it was because it was too controversial. Courbet, however, was determined that the work should be seen by the public and so, not to be deterred, Courbet, at his own expense, built a Pavilion of Realism close to the official Universal Exhibition site and showed this work and thirteen others including his famous A Burial at Ornans.

Hope by Frank Holl (1883)

From this eighteenth century Realist movement came Social Realism which developed to pictorially arouse concerns about the squalid living conditions suffered by urban poor, and farming and fishing communities. In Britain, artists such as Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer, Frank Holl, and William Small were at the forefront of this movement. In America the beginnings of Social Realism started life with the Ashcan School painters, who in the early 20th century depicted through their art, the everyday, stark, and unglamorous truths of city life. Artists such as John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Bellows, and George Luks were prominent members of this diverse group who painted scenes from everyday life.

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1870-1873)

In Russia, Social Realism came in the form of paintings by Ilya Repin who declared that the reason for his art was to show and criticize all the monstrosities of our vile society of the Tsarist period.  One of his most famous Realist paintings was his 1883 work entitled Barge Haulers on the Volga.

Waiting for the Boats by Walter Langley (1885)

The reason for this introduction regarding Realism and Social Realism is that the artist I am looking at today is an English Social Realist painter. His name is Walter Langley. He was born in Birmingham, England on June 8th, 1852. Although attending normal school, because of his interest in drawing and painting and artistic ability, at the age of ten, he was also enrolled for evening classes at the Birmingham School of Design. He left school at the age of fifteen and was taken on as an apprentice to a lithographer, August Heinrich Biermann, but still continued with his classes at the School of Design. Langley began to teach himself to paint, and first exhibited three water colours at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists in 1873. His wish was to become a professional artist and that year, at the age of twenty-one, he won a scholarship to the National Art Training School in South Kensington, now known as the Royal College of Art. It was there that he took part in a two-year design course and began to exhibit his works of art.

Photographic portrait of Clara, Walter Langley’s first wife, taken in the studio of Robert Preston photographer

It was also around this time that he married Clara Perkins, with whom he had four children.

Hard Times by Hurbert von Herkomer (1885)

In 1875, when his course had ended he had to decide whether to stay in London or return home. The decision was made for him as August Biermann, his former employer, offered Langley a partnership in his lithographer business and so he returned to Birmingham to resume his career as a lithographer. However, Langley did not give up his love of painting and, because he decided that he needed to make progress with his artwork, he enrolled in classes firstly at the Midland Art Guild and then at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. It was during this period that Langley became influenced by the works of Realist painters and one who had his works exhibited at the Birmingham Society  was the German-born British realist painter, Hubert Von Herkomer, who took a realistic approach to the conditions of life of the poor.

A Reverie by Walter Langley (1883)

Langley would have probably continued his career as a lithographer but in 1876 the demand for such items fell drastically and he soon realised that his artwork was needed to bring him a living wage. In 1877, Langley married Clara Perkins and the couple went on to have four children. In 1879 he left Biermann’s lithographer business and concentrated on his art. In his early years Walter Langley painted rural scenes close to his home in Birmingham and it was not until the summer of 1880 that he first visited Newlyn in Cornwall with his friend William Pope whilst on a sketching holiday.

Memories by Walter Langley (1906)

In 1881 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, which is one of the oldest Art Societies in the United Kingdom. The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists played an important part in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and Sir John Everett Millais and Sir Edward Burne-Jones both served as presidents. Other eminent presidents were the painters, Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Between the Tides by Walter Langley (1901)

Whilst plying his artistic trade in Birmingham a well-known and wealthy Victorian photographer, Robert White Thrupp, approached him and offered him a commission of £500 to go to Cornwall and paint a series of twenty pictures of the local Newlyn scenes and so in 1881 Langley left his wife and family behind in Birmingham, and rented a property, Pembroke Lodge. The Penwith Local History Group wrote about Langley’s new home:

“…Pembroke Lodge was a grand house that had been home to bankers and gentry since it was built in 1791.Langley’s first year’s rent of £62 (payable in advance) gave him two parlours, two kitchens, a dairy, pantry, four good bedrooms, and a dressing room. It also had a studio in the garden. The house was a good size for Langley, his wife Clara and their four children who moved into their new home in March 1882. Clara had not long given birth to her fourth child, a son Cecil born in February that year. The other children were son Lorraine (born September 8, 1877), daughter Eleanor (born March 15, 1879) and son Gabriel (born November 21, 1881)…”

Thoughts Far Away by Walter Langley

Once settled in, Langley began to paint local scenes and portraits featuring the people of Newlyn, most of which depicted the women and their role in the community. Langley could empathize with the plight of the fishermen and their families because 0f his own working-class origins in Birmingham and his socialist beliefs.

Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves, by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his first paintings he completed after his arrival at Newlyn was his 1882 watercolour work entitled Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves. It is a depiction of a local woman, believed to be Grace Kelynack. It is a portrait of great compassion and one that detects Langley’s understanding of the plight of the elderly. There is a sense of loneliness and solitude in this depiction of the woman as she ponders the hardships she has had to endure during her long life. In the painting we see her sitting at a table, with her right elbow on an open Bible. She rests her cheek on her fist as she gazes downwards, lost in her own thoughts. It was the first work that Langley exhibited in London and was widely acclaimed by both critics and the public. The watercolour painting led to Langley being elected to the prestigious Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour.

The Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Forbes (1885)

Walter Langley soon became a leading figure in the Newlyn School, which was an art colony of artists based in or near Newlyn. Another of the founding members of the Newlyn School was Stanhope Forbes who arrived at the Cornish fishing village in 1884.

Amongst the Missing by Walter Langley (1884)

Like other artist colonies such as the Barbizon and Skagen Schools, as well as the artist colonies scattered along the coast of Britany, the attraction of Newlyn was its fantastic light, and mild climate which made it an ideal location for plein air painters. It also provided many opportunities to paint seascapes, and for the Realist painters, the chance to record the harsh life endured by the fishing community. Another attraction was the ability to live there cheaply and employ local people as models at much lower rates than would have been the case in big cities. This magnetic pull towards Newlyn was summed up in the Victorian writer, Mrs Lionel Birch’s 1906 book, Stanhope A. Forbes, and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, in which she quotes Stanhope Forbes’ take on Newlyn:

“…I had come from France and, wandering down into Cornwall, came one spring morning along that dusty road by which Newlyn is approached from Penzance. Little did I think that the cluster of grey-roofed houses which I saw before me against the hillside would be my home for many years. What lode-some of artistic metal the place contains I know not; but its effects were strongly felt in the studios of Paris and Antwerp particularly, by a number of young English painters studying there, who just about then, by some common impulse, seemed drawn towards this corner of their native land… There are plenty of names amongst them which are still, and I hope will long by, associated with Newlyn, and the beauty of this fair district, which charmed us from the first, has not lost its power, and holds us still…”

The Old Book by Walter Langley

Walter Langley was always an advocate of the working class and was noted for his left-wing views. Whilst a young man in Birmingham, he was influenced by the stance taken by the firebrand politician and advocate of trade unionism, Charles Bradlaugh, a radical socialist who fought for the rights of the working class. It was these strong-held beliefs of Langley that ensured he empathized with the harsh life of the Newlyn fishing folk and their families. It was through his paintings depicting their hard life and their worries that classed him as a Social Realist painter.

For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his most poignant paintings is a watercolour entitled For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep which he completed in 1883 and focuses on the plight of wives and mothers who are left behind when their husbands and sons head out to sea. The title of the painting comes from a line of a poem by Charles Kinsley, The Three Fishers:

Three fishers went sailing out into the West,
Out into the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who lov’d him the best;
And the children stood watching them out of the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And there’s little to earn, and many to keep,
Though the harbour bar be moaning.
Three wives sat up in the light-house tower,
And they trimm’d the lamps as the sun went down;
They look’d at the squall, and they look’d at the shower,
And the night wrack came rolling up ragged and brown!
But men must work, and women must weep,
Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
And the harbour bar be moaning.
Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
For those who will never come back to the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep—
And good-by to the bar and its moaning.

Old fisherman at Newlyn Harbour (c.1906)

Newlyn was a mix of the good and the bad. The good was the picturesque landscape and the bad was the terrible poverty suffered by the local people who struggled to eke out a living from the fish they caught. Add to this the ferocious storms and tumultuous seas which brought death to many of the fishermen and made widows out of many of the women.

His one-year commission was completed at the end of 1885 and he moved back to Birmingham to be with his wife and children. He returned for a brief visit to Newlyn in 1886 to complete his unfinished watercolour which was shown at the Institute’s Spring Exhibition that year. In the Spring of 1887, Walter Langley, along with his family, moved permanently to Newlyn,

But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand by Walter Langley (1888)

Another title of one of Langley’s paintings was based on a poem. His 1888 work, But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand was a line from Tennyson’s poem Break, Break, Break which he wrote in 1835 and was about his sorrow at the death of his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Hallam, who tragically died at the age of twenty-two:

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O well for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead,
Will never come back to me.

Fradgan, Newlyn in 1906

On his return to Newlyn with his family, he was unable to secure suitable accommodation in Newlyn and decided to live in Penzance but as his work and models lived in Newlyn he bought a small cottage in Fragdan, the old part of the coastal village, which he converted into his studio.

Cornish Light, The Nottingham 1894 Exhibition

In June 1890, he brought his family back to Newlyn, and took a two-year lease on Pembroke Lodge. When the lease expired Langley moved his family to Penzance. In 1894, along with other Newlyn artists, he exhibited his work in the exhibition Painters of the Newlyn School at Nottingham Castle. In David Tovey and Sarah Skinner’s 2015 book, Cornish Light – the Nottingham 1894 Exhibition Revisited they discuss the exhibition:

“…The 1894 Nottingham Castle exhibition of Cornish painters was, in its way, ground-breaking. It brought a burgeoning new style and range of subjects to a much wider public and fostered awareness of painters from Newlyn, St Ives and Falmouth.
Much of the work was, in typical Victorian style, both art and social commentary and much of it is romanticised – craggy-faced fishermen gaze knowingly towards the horizon and the young women working on the shore have suspiciously lustrous complexions…”

This was the high-point of the Newlyn Colony’s achievements.

Self-portrait by Walter Langley
Courtesy of Archivi Alinari, Firenze

In 1895, forty-three-year-old Langley was invited, by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, to contribute a self-portrait to hang alongside those of Raphael, Rubens, and Rembrandt in their Medici Collection of portraits of great artists.

That same year, Langley’s wife Clara died at the young age of 45. This left Langley a widower with four children. Two years later, Langley married his second wife Ethel Pengelly in St Johns Parish Church Penzance on June 24th, 1897. The couple went on to have one child. During 1904 and 1905, Langley made visits to Holland and a trip to Belgium in 1906.

Walter Langley in his studio

Walter Langley died in Penzance on March 22, 1922, a couple of months before what would have been his seventieth birthday. Today his work is described as being fundamental to the representation of the Newlyn School and he was, together with Stanhope Forbes, the most unswerving in style and his large output of works depicting life around Newlyn.


Besides the normal internet sources I gained a lot of information from the websites of the Penlee House Museum and the Penwith Local History Group.

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.

Federico Zandomeneghi – the Italian Impressionist

Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)
Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)

When I was in Germany, just before Christmas, I bought myself a desk calendar which gave you a new painting every day.  I was fascinated by today’s picture of a young girl reading entitled Lesendes Mädchen (Girl Reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi.  I had never heard of the artist and thought it would be interesting to look at his life and his some of his beautiful works of art. He would become known for his many pastel portraits of ladies and children.

Federico Zandomeneghi
Federico Zandomeneghi

Federico Zandomeneghi was born in Venice in June 1841. He came from a family line of sculptors.  Pietro, his father, was a neoclassical sculptor as was his grandfather Luigi but unlike his father and grandfather Federico, and much to their annoyance, he favoured painting to sculpture.  In 1856, at the age of fifteen, he enrolled on a painting course at the Academia di Belle Arti in Venice and then later studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, where he studied under the neoclassical-style painter Giralamo Michelangelo Grigoletti and Pompeo Marino Molmenti.  Venice was under Austrian rule when Napoleon was defeated in 1814 and it became part of the Austrian held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.   Venice was firmly under the control of Austria and as such the Venetian citizens were conscripted into the army.  To escape conscription, Federico fled his city in 1859 and went to Pavia, where he enrolled at the university.  In 1860, when he was nineteen years of age, he joined the military forces of Guiseppe Garibaldi as one of the volunteers in The Expedition of the Thousand, part of the Risorgimento, the push for Italian unification.  As a Venetian this was looked upon as a kind of treachery. His flight from Venice in 162 to Florence to avoid conscription resulted him being charged, in absentia, with desertion.

Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,
Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,

As a young aspiring artist Federico wanted to mix with other artists in the Tuscan city and by doing so assimilate their views of art.  One of the favoured meeting places for the artists was the Caffè Michelangelo .  It was here that the Macchiaioli met.  The Macchiaioli, which literally means patch-  or spot-makers, was a  group of rebellious Italian artists based in Tuscany during the second half of the 19th century and was formed more than ten years before the French Impressionists came onto the scene.  They rebelled against academic artistic training and many art historians believe they brought about a breath of fresh air into Italian painting.  They ignored the type of painting which was popular at the time such as Neoclassicism and Romanticism.  They were looked upon as the founders of modern Italian painting.  The Macchiaioli believed that areas of light and shadow, or macchie were the most important parts of a painting and when Italian artists spoke of macchia they were talking about the sparkling quality of a drawing or painting.

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)
The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Zandomeneghi is now housed at the Pinaconteca Brera in Milan.  It is a fine example of verismo the nineteenth century Italian painting style and was a style frequently used by the Macchiaioli.  It is a style of painting we would term as realism.  It features a group of poor people, men, women and children sitting on the steps of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven), one the oldest basilicas in Rome.   

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There was a strong connection with French art as many of the Macchiaioli were influenced by the French artists such as Courbet and Corot who belonged to the Barbizon School as well as other nineteenth century plein air painters whose works the Macchiaioli artists were able to see when they visited the French capital.  En plein air painting was at that time a ground breaking method of painting but its proponents believed that it allowed for a new vibrancy and naturalness in the reproduction of light which would have been lost if the painting had been carried out in a studio.   Some of the members of the Macchiaioli, like Federico, had fought alongside Garibaldi in his effort to attain Italian unification.  Many of the works of the Macchiaioli featured grand battles scenes of the Risorgimento as well as landscapes and genre paintings featuring both the bourgeoisie and peasants.

Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)
Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)

Another painting completed by Zandomeneghi whilst he was living in Florence is one of my favourites.  It is entitled Palazzo Pretorio and was completed in 1865.  It can now be found in the Museo d’Arte Moderna, Ca’ Pesaro, Venice.   The work of art was exhibited that year in the rooms of the Società Veneta Promotrice (Venetian Promoter of Fine Arts) which was based in Palazzo Mocenigo at San Benedetto.   The depiction of light and shade we see in the painting was strongly influenced by the Macchiaioli artists of Florence.

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Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)
Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)

Whilst in Florence and through his association with the Macchiaioli artists, Federico Zandomeneghi met the Italian art critic Diego Martelli.  Martelli was a great supporter of the painters of the Macchiaioli and would often invite them up to his large Tuscan estate in Castiglioncello which was an ideal setting for their en plein air painting sessions.  Martelli wrote fervently about realism in art and favoured the works of Gustave Courbet as well as the plein air artists of the Barbizon School.    He made a number of trips to Paris and its thought that he persuaded Zandomeneghi to leave Florence and go to live in the French capital.  Through their correspondence Zandomeneghi introduced Martelli to the works of the Impressionists so much so that it is said that Martelli was one of the first and leading supporters of Impressionism in Italy.

Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)
Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)

Like Zandomeneghi, Martelli became good friends with Degas who painted his portrait in 1879.  The Degas portrait is unusual in as much as the sitter is viewed from above which is somewhat unflattering as it accentuates the corpulence of Martelli.  We see Martelli sitting unsteadily on a small stool.  To his left is a table, scattered on which are numerous objects belonging to the sitter.  The addition of these items was a trademark of Degas’ portraits as he felt it told viewers more about the subject of the portrait.  The painting is now housed in the Scottish National Gallery.

The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)
The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)

In 1874, Federico, now thirty-three years of age, moved to the art capital of Europe, Paris, and little did he know then, he would never return to his Italian homeland.  On his arrival in Paris, as was the case when he arrived in Florence, he wanted to immerse himself into the life of an artist and mix with the artists of Montmartre.   To be an artist in the French capital at this time was a chance to witness the birth of what would later be termed by the art critic, Louis Leroy, as Impressionism.

Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle
Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle

The year 1874 was the year of the Impressionist’s first annual exhibition in Paris.  Federico would often frequent the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle.  It was here that he first met and befriended Edgar Degas, who was seven years his senior.    It is said that we are often drawn to people who have the same characteristics and the same looks upon life and as such Degas and Federico Zandomeneghi were well matched.  Both were recalcitrant and often boorish and this similarity of behaviour ensured they would remain life-long friends!  Although great friends with Degas, Federico was more influenced by the works of Renoir and Mary Cassatt and the way they portrayed women in their art work.  This was to lead to many of his works featuring females going about with their daily chores or being immersed in reading.  Zandomeneghi liked to portray through his artwork, and like that of the Impressionists, the elegant high society of the French capital but his paintings were not imitations of the Impressionists’ works.  He had his own inimitable style.

Place d'Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)
Place d’Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)

The Impressionists had by 1879 held three annual exhibitions and Degas persuaded Federico to exhibit some of his work at the fourth annual exhibition at the Avenue de l’Opéra, during the months of April and May in 1879.  Besides Federico there were three other “first appearances” exhibiting at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, the husband and wife Impressionists Félix and Marie Braquemond  and Paul Gaugin.  Federico went on to exhibit at the fifth (1880), sixth (1881) and the eighth and final exhibition in 1886.  To sell one’s work one has to have a good dealer and through the good auspices of his Impressionist friends Federico was taken on by the gallery owner and art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel who acted as his sole agent.   It was this Parisian art dealer who changed the fortunes of Federico when he exhibited the Italian artist’s work in America.   In the 1890’s, having had to supplement his income from the sale of his paintings by providing illustrations for Paris fashion magazine, once his work was seen in America he was inundated with commissions.  It was around this time that Federico changed the medium in which he worked, now favouring in pastels.

Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)
Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)

Zandomeneghi will always be remembered for his female portraiture.  He seemed to concentrate his depictions of women who were mothers going about their everyday life.  He often liked to show in his paintings the ease in which women interacted with each other.  There was a warmth about his pictorial depiction of females and this may be because of the way he was influenced by the works of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.  Enrico Piceni,  the Italian writer and art critic who wrote a biography about Zandomeneghi and who, in 1984, wrote a book entitled Three Italian friends of the impressionists : Boldini, De Nittis, Zandomeneghi, wrote of Zandomeneghi’s work:

“…Zandomeneghi knows how to differentiate himself from his closest colleagues, Degas and Renoir, by surpassing the glossy and even fierce chronicle style of the first thanks to adding a warm and affectionate emotional involvement in the subject, and by transferring the deification of the ideal woman typical of the second in a more bourgeois reality interwoven with truth but able to transform a simple story in a tremor of poetry…”

A good example of the way Zandomeneghi depicted a close relationship between two women is in his 1895 work entitled Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation).  Before us, we see two women locked in conversation.  There is a gentleness about the scene.  There is no wild animation.  We feel drawn into the scene as a friend who is being admitted into their private world.  Both women are wearing light fashionable wide-sleeved shirts which were all the fashion in the 1890’s.    This painting highlights the beautiful technique Federico was to often use.  There is a lightness of touch and the artist demonstrates an amazing insight in the way he portrays the mood of the sitters.  The two women in the painting are totally absorbed in their conversation.  Their hands touch. They only have eyes for each other in this intimate and yet non-sexual depiction.   The art critic and writer Francesca Dini in her 1989 book,   Zandomeneghi, la vita e le opera, wrote of this work:

“…Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation), is among the most famous works produced by the Venetian painter at the beginning of his relationship with Durand-Ruel. The brilliance and chromatic refinement of the composition are emphasized by the balance of the scene and the richness of the materials chosen for the dresses of two young women, who are wearing light shirts with wide sleeves ‘double sboffo’, very fashionable in the last decade of the century. The provenance of the painting is notable as it belonged, among others, to the greatest admirers and collectors of paintings by the artist…”

Federico Zandomeneghi died in Paris on the last day of 1917, aged seventy-six.  It was not until 1914, three years before his death, that he was given his first one-man show which was at the Venice Biennale of that year in his native country.

There were so many paintings by Zandometeghi I could have showcased but I have just chosen some of my favourites but I hope you will search out more of his works.

Vasily Perov. Part 2 – portraiture and humour

Self-Portrait (1851)
Self-Portrait (1851)

In my last blog I looked at Perov’s early life and his artwork which is often categorised as critical realism because of the way his paintings  focused on the peasants and how they had been let down by the Church, its clergy and the State.  For one of these works he was awarded the Gold Medal by the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts and also a scholarship for him to travel to Europe and study European art.  He went to Paris where he spent a considerable amount of time but once again his art focused on poverty, this time, poverty in France.  Perov was now moving away from his anti-clerical depictions, and his barbed narrative works which poured scorn on the Church.  He now wanted to concentrate on the poor themselves and left the observer to decide on the reason for the poverty.

Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)
Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)

One of his most famous paintings, which he completed whilst in France, was one entitled Savoyard which he finished in 1863.  In Perov’s painting we see a young boy sat slumped on some stone steps.  The absence of any movement allows us to focus on the child without any distractions.  The child is asleep.  His feet stick out in front of him and this allows us to see the tattered hems of his trousers and because of the way is feet rest on the pavement we are given a view of the soles of his shoes, which are holed.  The painting itself is made up of dark sombre tones of smoky blue, green and grey.

Street Beggar by Gavarni
Street Beggar by Gavarni

It is thought that Perov’s painting was influenced by the work of Paul Gavarni, a French engraver, who had his illustrations published in a collection of London sketches, featuring life in London at the time.  The sketches and accompanying illustrations were first published as a magazine series in 1848 and later they were collected in one volume, edited by essayist and journalist Albert Smith, which was first published in Paris, in 1862, a year before Perov’s arrival in the French capital.  It was entitled Londres et les Anglais.  One of the sketches was the Street Beggar and its thought that Perov had this in mind when he worked on the Savoyard.

Perov’s arrival in Paris in 1863 coincided with a great upheaval in French art.  The Hanging jury at that year’s Salon had been ruthless in their choice of paintings which could be admitted.  Those which were cast aside were ones deemed to have not been of the quality or type they wanted.  That year, the jury had been more ruthless than they had been in the past, rejecting two-thirds of paintings.  This resulted in vociferous protests from the artists who had had their works rejected.  It was so bad that Napoleon III stepped into the argument and placated the disgruntled artists by offering them a separate exhibition for their rejected works.  It became known as the Salon de Refusés (Exhibition of rejects) and that year this exhibition exhibited works by Pissarro, Fantin-Latour, Cezanne and included Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Whistler’s Symphony in White,no. 1. 

The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant's House by Vasily Perov (1866)
The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House by Vasily Perov (1866)

Perov returned home early from his European tour in 1865 and in 1866 produced a wonderful painting entitled The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House.  This was a move away from his focus on poverty and more to do with the fate of women.  In the painting we see a governess standing before the master of the house, a merchant who is to be her new employer.  This painting depicts the awkward encounter between the governess, who has probably graduated from a school for governesses, where they are taught to act like nobility, and the merchant who has no noble blood and is the face of the nouveau riche.   She presents herself well. She clutches a letter of introduction in her hands. She oozes an air of timidity and subservience, which is a trait that would be required if she was to become a member of the household.  However her demure stance with head bent down is befitting that of a lady.  She stands before, not only the master of the house, a bloated man, but behind him stands his family.  The children of the family are to be her pupils and by the looks of them she was going to be in for a difficult time.  The master of the house and his three children are dressed elegantly and the furnishings we see are fine and elegant and are part of merchant’s plan that they be elevated in status from mere merchants to something approaching nobility. Perov has changed the subject of his biting satire from the clergy of the Church to the oppressive merchant classes and the poor treatment they bestow on their employees.

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

The painting was purchased by thirty-four year old Pavel Tretyakov, a Russian businessman, patron of art, avid art collector, and philanthropist who gave his name to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.   This work along with his Troika painting earned Perov the title of Academician.

Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)
Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)

In the late 1860’s Perov began to concentrate on portraiture, initially of peasants and the title Wanderer was given to three of his works which featured peasants, all different and yet all emotive in their own way, one of which is shown above.  As Perov travelled around he came across a variety of fascinating characters and he was able present them on canvas and highlight their individualism and their way of life.

Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)
Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)

In the early 1870’s Perov’s portraiture focused on cultural greats of Russia but it is interesting to note in these next two paintings they were totally devoid of any background accoutrements which would have added a sense of vanity in the sitter.  In 1872 he completed the Portrait of Dostoyevsky, a the Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher. It was Dostoyevsky’s literary works which influenced Perov in the way they explored human psychology in the troubled political, social, and spiritual atmosphere in Russia during the 19th-century.

Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)
Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)

And in 1871 he finished his Portrait of Alexander Ostrovsky, a Russian playwright who was generally thought to have been the greatest writer of the Russian realistic period, which existed against the background social and political problems.  It started in the 1840’s under the rule of Nicholas I and lasted through to the end of the nineteenth century.   The painting is now housed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)
Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)

In all his genre works he always managed to tug at your heart strings with his moving depictions.  Another of his heart-rending scenes was completed in 1874 and was entitled Old Parents Visiting the Grave of their Son.  It is said that nobody should suffer the agony of burying their children and in this work we feel the loss of the mother and father as they stand, heads bowed, at the side of the son’s grave.  This painting, like many of his other works, are to be found at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Having received his academician’s degree in 1867, Perov went on in 1871 to gain the position of professor at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.   It was through Perov’s teaching at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture that he managed to influence and nurture the young aspiring artists in his charge.  Many of the great Russian artists had been taught by him or were influenced by his style of painting

Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)
Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)

As always I have the dilemma of which paintings to show you and which ones to leave out.  I just hope the blog will get you to search the internet for more of his works.   My final offering is one that features Perov’s sense of humour.  It is in complete contrast to his works which looked at poverty and the impoverished existence of the peasant classes.   It is a painting entitled Amateur which he completed in 1862.  It is both humorous and fascinating.   Before us we see a man slouched in a chair, chewing on the end of his maulstick, eyes narrowed as he looks at his work.  His wife stands beside him holding a baby.  She too is closely examining the canvas.    From the way the man is dressed along with the background details of the room we gather that this is an upper-middle class couple.  Another give away to the man’s social status is the way Perov has depicted him.  Well dressed, highly polished shoes and overweight.  Perov’s depiction of this man is similar to the master of the household, the merchant, whom he depicted in The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House- overweight, through all the food he had been able to buy and eat, whereas in most cases Perov portrayed the poor peasants as thin undernourished people.

Vasily Grigorevich Perov died of tuberculosis  in Kuzminki Village which is now part of Moscow and was laid to rest at Donskoe Cemetery.  He was fifty-eight years old.

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.