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.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington

In my next two blogs I am going to look at the lives and works of two English painters, the father, Thomas Benjamin Kennington and his son, Eric.   Today I am going to concentrate and examine some of the works of the father and tomorrow, switch to look at the art of his son.

The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Kennington (1891)
The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Kennington (1891)

Often when we watch a tear-jerker type film or read a heartbreaking fictional novel, we tend to be critical of the sugary-sweet, heart-tugging subject.  My featured artist today produced many paintings which, although of the realism genre, also wanted us to be emotionally moved by what we saw before us.  His paintings were often studies of the problems which beset the poor in Victorian England.  Today let me introduce you to the Victorian social realism painter and master of portraiture, Thomas Benjamin Kennington.

Kennington was born in the Lincolnshire fishing port of Grimsby in April 1856.  As a young man he studied painting at the Liverpool School of Art, where he won a gold medal, and the Royal College of Art in London.  He also went to Paris where he enrolled at the Académie Julian and studied under William-Adolphe Bougereau and Tony Robert-Fleury.  Thomas Kennington lived at a time when there were a large number of families living on the “bread line”; a term used denoting the poorest condition in which it is acceptable to live, with some even dying of starvation on the city streets.  The population of Great Britain increased three-fold during the nineteenth century due to many factors, such as an influx of people from Ireland who were escaping the potato famine, life expectancy had increased and infant mortality had decreased.  Jobs were hard to find in the countryside so folks had flocked to the urbanized areas seeking work.  With such a pool of workers, owners and businessmen could pay low wages, often so low that workers could not afford to feed or house their families.  In the middle of the nineteenth century it was estimated that there were more than thirty thousand homeless children living on the streets of London.  However, many of the well-off folk were less than sympathetic with regards their plight and believed that any money given to the poor was simply squandered on drink and gambling and did not, in any way, solve the underlying social problems at all.

Homeless by Thomas Kennington (1890)
Homeless by Thomas Kennington (1890)

Thomas Kennington was a social activist who was disturbed by the poverty he saw around him and decided that, through his art, he would highlight the plight of the poor. The first painting I am showcasing is entitled Homeless which he completed in 1890, whilst living in London.   In 1892 it was sent to Melbourne for the large Anglo-German exhibition which was held in Melbourne’s exhibition centre and the painting is now housed in the Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia.

The setting for the work is unknown but presumed to be London.   In the background, partly hidden by the smog, we see a gas works and a tall chimney belching out smoke.  This is a scene of urban pollution; a gloomy streetscape.  In the foreground we see a woman dressed in widow’s garb supporting a young boy’s body, partly lifting him up from the wet pavement.   The young lad’s face is white and his head has lolled to the side.  He looks to be in a bad way, possibly close to death.  His eyes vacantly stare out but he seems unaware of his surroundings.  The artist has further depicted the depressing state of affairs by limiting the depiction of nature to a lifeless-looking tree at the right of the painting.  It is leaf-less with one of its lower branches broken off and the whole of it is encased in the concrete pavings which will inhibit its growth.

Critics praised Kennington’s painting when it was first exhibited.  The art critic of the Melbourne Argus described the work:

“…full of pathos … both a poem and a sermon…”

while another Melbourne newspaper, The Age, told its readers to study the face of the child and described the work as:

“…a chef d’œuvre of artistic power and human sympathy … a face … that expresses all the patient suffering of a whole class, amongst whom the inheritance of sorrow and privation is patiently accepted and endured…”

Widowed and Fatherless by Thomas Kennington (1888)
Widowed and Fatherless by Thomas Kennington (1888)

Another work of art which focused on how poverty can affect families was summed up in Kennington’s work entitled Widowed and Fatherless, 1888.  In this depiction we have a mother whose husband has died and she is left with the monumental task of rearing her children.  One child is lying on the bed.  Maybe she is asleep or maybe she is very ill. Her sister kneels at the bedside praying, maybe praying that her sister will recover from her illness.  The mother sits in a chair stitching clothes but she cannot take her eyes off her sick daughter.

Orphans by Thomas Kennington (1885)
Orphans by Thomas Kennington (1885)

A very moving painting depicting the plight of the poor is one Kennington completed in 1885 entitled Orphans.  There is a similarity in this depiction of poverty with the 1650 work by the great Spanish painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in his work The Beggar Boy. (See My Daily Art Display January 25th 2011).  Before us we see two young boys.  They could be brothers.  Their clothes are no more than rags.  The older boy’s head is slumped to the side due to his tiredness.  He can hardly keep his eyes open but they stare down at the head of the younger boy who through circumstances beyond his control, is whom he has to look after.  The younger boy, with his rosy red cheeks, sits on the floor and leans against the older boy for comfort, his head and arm rest on the older boy’s thigh.  He stares out at us in a beseeching way.  What is he asking us?  Is it merely sustenance or does he want our love and our protection from the deprivation he is forced to suffer.  On the floor before the two boys is a plate with a piece of dried bread highlighting their plight. This is a prime example of Kennington’s depictions of the urban poor.  The painting was purchased by Henry Tate, the sugar merchant and philanthropist, who established the Tate Gallery in London.

Daily Bread by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1883)
Daily Bread by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1883)

A crust of bread appears in another painting by Kennington, entitled Daily Bread which he completed in 1883.  The title probably derives from the words of the Lord’s Prayer, give us our daily bread.   This is a very emotional depiction of poverty and it was hoped that by depicting such dprivation things would change.  Alas, it was not to happen for many years and even now child poverty and child beggars exist in Great Britain.

In contrast to the abandoned children we saw depicted in the previous paintings, the next painting, simply entitled The Mother, was Kennington’s idea of what family life should be about and how children should be brought up in a safe and loving environment.  This large work (115 x 168cms), which was completed in 1895, depicts a moment in family life when a mother says goodnight to her children.

The Mother by Thomas Kennington
The Mother by Thomas Kennington

This is a form of narrative painting as from about the seventeenth century, genre painting showed scenes and narratives of everyday life. Later, during the Victorian age, narrative painting of everyday life subjects became very popular and such art was often considered as a category in itself termed Victorian Narrative painting.   This theme of what family life should be about was a recurrent theme in Victorian art.  Domesticity was the order of the day focusing on how children and adults should behave within a family environment.  It was hoped that families could learn by what they saw through the medium of visual art.    This huge painting of The Mother by Kennington depicts her as the foundation stone of the family, the person who underpins the family group. The painting also alludes to another idea regarding Victorian family group.   If you look carefully at the dead centre of the work you will see the wedding ring on the mother’s finger and this could be the way in which the artist want to share his belief that marriage was also very important part of the family structure and family values.

In this painting we see the mother tending two of her young children.  Although the mother is the focal point of the painting she is depicted with her back to us.  We do not see her face clearly.  She is being helped by an older daughter, who is learning about the role of motherhood. The lighting of the painting is interesting.  The darker silhouette of the mother is in contrast with the brighter area around the two sleeping children, which is lit up by the light emanating from the lamp held by the mother and which is hidden from our view.   Of course this view of the family is a romanticised view of life in Victorian days and maybe it was more to do with what Kennington believed family life should be rather than the actuality.  This painting belongs to the Aigantighe’s Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania

Thomas Kennington exhibited his works in the Royal Academy of Arts every year from  1880 until his death in 1916.  His paintings were also regularly on show at the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) and the popular Grosvenor gallery in London.   Kennington was a founding member and became the first secretary of the New English Art Club which was founded in 1885 and was one of the founders of the Imperial League of Art in 1909.  This society was set up to protect and promote the interests of Artists and to inform, advise and assist Artists, who have enrolled as members, in matters of business connected with the practice of the Arts  Its role was to aid the artists and the protection of their interests.  Kennington exhibited internationally in Paris and Rome and so good was his work that he was chosen to exhibit at the Universal Expositions held in Paris in 1889, where he was awarded a bronze medal.

Portrait of Elise Kennington née Stevani
Portrait of Elise Kennington née Stevani

Besides his genre pieces which highlighted Victorian poverty, Kennington was an accomplished portraitist.  Many of his portraits featured family members.  In 1883, aged twenty-seven, Thomas Benjamin Kennington married twenty-two year old Swedish beauty, Elise Stevani, who was born in Lund a town in Southern Sweden 1881.

Anne as Alice in Wonderland by Thomas Benjamin Kennington
Anne as Alice in Wonderland by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

His daughter Ann also featured in a couple of his works.  One was with her as Alice in Wonderland.

Portrait of the Artist's Daughter Anne in Russian Costume Holding a Balilaika by Thomas Kennington
Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter Anne in Russian Costume Holding a Balilaika by Thomas Kennington

The other, when she was older, was of her, dressed as a Russian lady holding a balalaika.

My last offering is another interesting work by Kennington which he completed in 1882 and entitled The Ace of Hearts.  There is an element of trickery about this depiction.  We see the lady seated before us staring directly at us  But are we who she is looking at?   Look carefully at the mirror on the wall, above and behind her.

The Ace of Hearts by Thomas Kennington
The Ace of Hearts by Thomas Kennington

The image in the mirror indicated that the lady is looking straight through us, and focusing upon a man who can be seen scratching his neck.  He seems perplexed by what the woman is doing with the cards.  Look at the expression on the lady’s face.  It is one of satisfied triumph as she points to the ace of hearts and we can thus deduce that she was performing a card trick for the gentleman.  He is amazed and she is exultant with her trickery.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington died in London in December 1916 aged 60.  His wife Elise died at the young age of 34 in 1895.  Their son Eric was to go on to be a famous artist and in my next blog I will look at some of his work.

Elderly Nude in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny

Mariano Fortuny
Mariano Fortuny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joaquín Sorolla (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The War Series by George Bellows

Massacre at Dinant by George Bellows (1918)
Massacre at Dinant by George Bellows (1918)

Another exhibition I recently attended whilst in London was one which showcased some of the works by the influential American realist painter, George Bellows.  To me, before I saw this collection of his work, the art of George Bellows was all about his wonderful boxing match scenes and the haunting look at the Pennsylvania Station excavation in New York so I was delightfully surprised by the amazing variety of his works, which were on view.  Today I want to look at a series of paintings and lithographs he completed in 1918, which highlighted German atrocities in the First World War.   Some of these works were on display at the Royal Academy exhibition.  The paintings, when they were first exhibited, shocked the people who saw them and the series caused some controversy, which I will talk about later.

The story behind his War Series paintings was of the German invasion of Belgium during the First World War and depicted some of the atrocities carried out by the invading German troops.  The Belgian town of Dinant, which lies on the Meuse River, was overrun by the German Third Army, led by Lieutenant General Baron Max Klemens von Hausen on August 23rd 1914.  Dinant fell to the German invaders but according to German reports some of the German soldiers, whilst repairing a bridge in the town, were fired upon by locals.  A swift and bloody retribution followed.  The German troops rounded up 612 local residents in the main town square.  This group consisted of men women and children.  In the double Pullitzer Prize Winner, Barbara Tuchman’s 1963 book The Guns of August, she wrote that among those executed that day was Felix Fivet, aged just three weeksold.  The town was then ransacked by the occupying army.

Unlike how it is nowadays, there were no television crews following the battle to send back live feeds of the war with all its brutality.  There were no newspaper pictures of the massacre of Dinant, so how did Bellows and the world hear about this horrific event?  A month after the atrocities in Dinant, the Belgian Government put out three reports on German war crimes committed during the invasion of their country.   The contents of these reports shocked all those who read them and in Britain both Parliament and the newspapers clamoured for an independent British commission to be set up to investigate the atrocities.  The British Prime Minister at the time, Herbert Asquith, bowed to public opinion and set up an inquiry.  In December 1914, James Bryce was asked to chair what was termed, the “German Outrages Inquiry Committee”, which would look into all material and take witness statements appertaining to the massacre of Belgium citizens and to the complicity of the German officers into the behaviour of their troops during the summary executions of civilians.  James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce, was a British academic, historian and Liberal politician and had been, from 1907 to 1913, the British Ambassador to the United States of America and was on friendly terms with the then Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

The report of the Committee was published on May 12th 1915 and the conclusion was that atrocities had been committed by the German army in order to strike terror into the civil population which would, in turn, dishearten the Belgian troops.  The Germans believed that it would quash resistance and extinguish the very spirit of self-defence. The Commission also stated that the German report of the townsfolk firing on German troops was simply used to justify the murder of large numbers of innocent civilians.   However, there was one problem with the compiling of the Commission’s report and this was the documenting of the 1200 eye witness accounts which had been correlated by a team of English lawyers.  A large number of these were excluded as the committee were mindful that their findings had to be reliable, credible and truthful.   For that to happen, the Committee stated that many of the depositions collected had to be omitted, although they were probably true, as they believed that it was much safer not to place reliance on them.   The committee ended their report by concluding:

“…Our function is ended when we have stated what the evidence establishes, but we may be permitted to express our belief that these disclosures will not have been made in vain if they touch and rouse the conscience of mankind, and we venture to hope that as soon as the present war is over, the nations of the world in council will consider what means can be provided and sanctions devised to prevent the recurrence of such horrors as our generation is now witnessing…”

The report was translated into many languages and circulated throughout the world.   Some later historians believed that the Bryce Commission report was a piece of propaganda and that the lurid accounts of German atrocities were designed to bolster the resolve of those already fighting in the war and to encourage those countries, including the powerful USA, to end their neutrality.

America had declared its neutrality in 1914 with Woodrow Wilson making his speech to the nation on August 18th 1914.  In the speech he said:

“…I venture therefore my fellow countrymen to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides.   The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls.  We must be impartial in thought as well as action, must put a curb on our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another…”

The United States of America finally gave up its stance of neutrality in April 1917.

So what has this report to do with the George Bellow paintings?  The answer is that Bellows based the depictions in his paintings on the Bryce Commission report.   In 1918 Bellows created a series of works, known as his War Series, depicting German war atrocities in order to stir outrage and embolden America in World War I.   The set consisted of five large paintings, which were his largest works ever completed.   Besides these oil paintings he also completed 20 lithographs and 42 drawings about the Great War.   At the time war paintings tended to focus on the heroic victors and glory in battles won and so Bellow’s War Series was a complete turnaround and many found them offensive.

Another artist, Francisco de Goya, a century earlier, had produced works highlighting the brutality of war.  In all he completed eighty-two etchings between 1810 and 1820 but,for political reasons, they were never exhibited until 1863, some thirty-five years after Goya’s death.  They depicted not only the atrocities of the French army which had invaded Spain but the inhuman treatment men inflicted on their fellow men.  Prints of these works by Goya would have been on display at galleries in New York and it is very likely that George Bellows would have seen them.

One Can't Look by Francisco de Goya (1863)
One Can’t Look by Francisco de Goya (1863)

In Bellow’s work, Massacre at Dinant, we see the foreground is littered with the dead bodies of women and children.  In the background we see the skies darken at the moment of death.  In the centre of the painting we see the clergy with their arms stretched aloft beseeching an end to the killings.  Their pleas fall on deaf ears and they are powerless to prevent the massacre.  It is a brutal depiction and horrifies all who stand before it. Although Bellows has not depicted any German soldiers in the painting, if one looks to the far left of the work one can see their bloody bayonets and rifles appearing on the scene.   This depiction of the “approaching” rifles could be taken directly from one of Goya’s lithographs entitled One Can’t Look (No se puede mirar), in which we see the bayoneted rifles just coming into the right hand side of the etching.

The Barricade by George Bellows (1918)
The Barricade by George Bellows (1918)

Another painting from his War Series was entitled The Barricade, in which we see a line of naked human beings, arms held aloft, acting as human shields for the uniformed German soldiers, with their guns raised, who stand and crouch behind them.   As a propaganda piece it worked well evoking both pity and rage in the mind of the viewer.  The message to the American public was clear – can we stand by and let this kind of thing happen or should we join the battle and end such atrocities.

Return of the Useless by George Bellows (1918)
Return of the Useless by George Bellows (1918)

In his painting Return of the Useless, Bellows depicted Germans soldiers unloading sick and disabled labour-camp prisoners from a rust-red boxcar.   These were Belgian citizens who were being returned home as they were no longer physically fit to work for the Germans.   Box-cars were familiar sights on the American railroads but this work depicted the box-car as a transport system for German prisoners.    Look how Bellows has cleverly used the same colour, red, for the rusty box-car as he used for the flushed face of the German soldier who is venting his anger on the fallen and cowering man and the bloodied skin of some of the prisoners.  Cast your eyes towards the interior of the box car.  Here we see an elderly man supporting a young female who is on the point of collapse.  Another woman sits on the floor her arms wrapped around a child.  A young woman is stepping out of the boxcar and her arms are raised in horror as she watches the German guard bring down the butt of his rifle on to the fallen man, who pathetically looks up and begs for mercy.

The Germans Arrive by George Bellows (1918)
The Germans Arrive by George Bellows (1918)

The Germans Arrive, another painting in the series, was based on an actual account from the Bryce Commission and gruesomely illustrated  a German soldier restraining a young Belgian teenager whose hands had just been severed.   This and the other paintings in the series suffered much criticism accusing Bellows of taking liberties when capturing on canvas, the horrific scenes of war. One notable detractor was the American artist and author,  Joseph Pennell, who argued that because Bellows had never been at the battlefront and therefore had not witnessed at first hand the events he painted, he forfeited the right to paint them. Bellows responded sarcastically that he had not been aware that the great Leonardo da Vinci “had a ticket of admission to the Last Supper”.

The final painting in his War Series is entitled Murder of Edith Cavell.   Edith Cavell was head of the Training School for Nurses in occupied Brussels.

Murder of Edith Cavell by George Bellows (1918)
Murder of Edith Cavell by George Bellows (1918)

On August 5th 1915, she was arrested for assisting Belgian, British, and French soldiers to escape from the country. Two months later, she was shot by the German authorities. News of her execution spread round the world, and in October of that year, The New York Times published 41 stories and her case became a cause célèbre.   George Bellows included this incident in a series of 12 lithographs and one full scale painting for his War Series.    In 1959 the Princeton University Art Museum found and acquired Bellow’s finished, full-size drawing (53.5 x 68.5 cm.) for this print. It is interesting to note that Bellows did not complete the oil painting of the scene until after he had finished the full scale drawing and lithograph print.  The painting now belongs to the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The work depicts a dark and somewhat chaotic prison cell with its grates and bars covering the windows and door.   We see on the flight of stairs leading down to the room the angelic figure of Cavell, dressed in white with her hand to her breast, enacting the classic gesture of humility.  Behind her and to the left, on a landing, we can see some soldiers and a priest clutching his bible. At the foot of the stairs there are more soldiers, one of whom holds a sword.   On the floor in the foreground we see some wounded prisoners lying on the floor guarded by soldiers in the left foreground.

George Bellow’s War Series paintings and lithographs, which he completed in the summer of 1918 whilst he was residing at his home in Middletown, Rhode Island, were ambitious in nature in the beloved tradition of grand manner history works.  His intention was to stir up both the public’s outrage and sympathy.  However the credibility of the images depicted in these paintings went hand in hand with the credibility of the Bryce Commission Report and that was to be called into question after the war had ended.  Many of the reports of German atrocities were then looked upon as merely Allied propaganda, simply designed to bolster the resolve of those Allied nations which were participating in the war and to encourage those nations to commit to the war effort , which up until then, had preferred to remain neutral,   Later, many Americans believed that their country had been tricked and manipulated into joining the conflict and unfortunately for George Bellows he and his War Series were regarded as part of this deception.  In 1925, the American art critic and historian, Virgil Barker commented on the series saying:

“…[they were] ill-judged in their appeal to the passion of hatred as anything produced in America’s most hysterical war years…”

However I will close with a more favourable comment on the War Series.  The art critic G.D.Cotton saw the initial exhibition and wrote about the works in the American Art News in September 1918.  He commented:

“…[the works] are brutal, full of horror, but reeking with truth, which adds to their poignancy.   After one has recovered from the shock of the subject themselves one sees that the pictures are full of strange beauty, conceived in bigness of vision that is rare and inspiring.  The whole exhibition is one to stiffen the spines of the enlisted men who are here and make them realize what they face ‘Over There’…

I can sincerely recommend you go and see the George Bellows exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London which runs until June 9th 2013.  See what you make of these War Series paintings and lithographs and at the same time, take in many of Bellow’s other beautiful works.

The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet

The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet (1849)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin

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

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

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

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

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

The Barge Pullers

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

The young optimist

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

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

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

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

and of the painting itself, Stasov commented:

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

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

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

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

Salon I by Otto Dix

The Salon I by Otto Dix (1921)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trench by Otto Dix (1923)

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

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

The War Cripples by Otto Dix (1920)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin

Religious Processionin in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)

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

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

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

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

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

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