The Lake by L S Lowry

The Lake by L S Lowry (1937)

I don’t know about you, but for me, when I wake up and the sun is shining and the sky is a clear blue, I feel great.  Life is good.  I want to get out and do things.  I have an urge to go into the garden and make things look good.   On the other hand, when I get up and it is cold, pouring with rain and the sky is covered in black clouds I start to feel slightly depressed and extremely unmotivated.  I know that anything I do will not be done with any degree of enjoyment simply because I am not in the right frame of mind.  For that reason, and so as to clear my mind, I will often turn to a DVD and watch a film which helps me escape reality.   Although I am not an artist I would imagine that if you are experiencing life at its worse for whatever reason it may be transmitted subconsciously into your work of art.  It could be that your painting reflects your state of mind.  All this leads me to the second painting I am featuring by the artist L S Lowry.

This painting was the first one I came across when I walked into the Lowry Gallery at Salford Quays, just outside of Manchester.  I was so impressed by it that throughout my hour-long walk around the gallery I kept wanting to return to it and search for things that had escaped my attention during my initial viewing.  It was painted by Lowry in 1937 at a very distressing period of his life.  His father had died five years earlier and this had badly affected his elderly mother who just took to her bed and stayed there until she died in late 1938.  Lowry’s never really bonded with his father and their relationship does not appear to have been a loving one.  I get the feeling they exchanged pleasantries but there was never a warmth in their relationship.  Lowry probably turned to his mother, whom he dearly loved, for comfort but sadly he never received the love and affection that a child should receive from his mother.  She had always wanted daughters and was dissatisfied with her lot in life having been saddled with a son.  She rarely praised Lowry for his artistic achievements and maybe if she had shown just a modicum of pride for her son’s artistic success then maybe Lowry would have led a much happier life.

Despite all this, she demanded that Lowry and only Lowry attended to her needs when she spent her last seven and half years bedridden.  He would comb and brush her hair, bathe her and tend her bed sores.  I don’t believe she even appreciated what her son did for her and this period in his life must have affected him both mentally and physically. He was a man under great stress.

So to look at this painting knowing what life was like for Lowry at the time may give you some idea why there is a somewhat depressing feel to the work.  It is possible that his mental stress and depression percolated into the painting and in a way was the reason for its bleakness.  We are looking at a view of the Irwell Valley.  We see the smoke-polluted atmosphere of an industrial area.   It is a very moody painting.  It is a very depressing work of art.   It is an environmental nightmare set against an industrial background.  Look at the foreground with its fences and what look like blood-red coloured tombstones dotted around.  The telegraph poles remind us of crucifixes.  The water in the middle ground looks dirty and stagnant and we see an abandoned half-sunken boat to the left.  On the left shore we see men queuing for work at a time when jobs were few and far between.  On the far side of the lake we see Agecroft Colliery which had been opened in 1844 but had to close in 1932 with a great loss of jobs.  It was re-opened in the late 1940’s due to the country’s lack of coal supplies.  As our eyes scan the picture we are drawn to the red mill on the skyline.  Look how Lowry has intertwined churches and the town hall with the mill chimneys, which spew out black polluting smoke, and the winding tower of the colliery, which sits by its slag heap.  It is an interesting juxtaposition of industrial architecture and residential buildings.

It is a very dark and “dirty” picture and after looking at it for a while I feel I need to go and wash my hands to cleanse myself of the grime which emanates from the painting.  The more I look at the painting, the more I am sure that there was transference of the artist’s state of mind into what he offered us in his painting.

The Floor-scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte

The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte (1875)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)

For the second consecutive day I want to present a painting to you which has a connection with a poem.  My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Found Drowned and was painted by the Victorian painter George Frederic Watts in 1850.  It is almost certain that the idea for the painting came from Watts having read The Bridge of Sighs, the poem written by Thomas Hood just before his death in 1845.

Watts was born in London in 1817 and his Christian names came from the fact that he was born on the composer, George Frederic Handel’s birthday.  He was brought up in an impoverished household, did not attend school, being taught at home by his father.  Despite these early setbacks in life, he achieved acceptance into the Royal Academy when he was eighteen years of age.  In 1843 he won first prize in an artistic competition to design a mural for the Houses of Parliament and although this never came to fruition, the monetary value of the prize enabled him to travel to Italy.  He remained in Italy until 1847 at which time he returned to London.

On his return to London he made the acquaintance of Henry Prinseps, an amateur artist and director of the East India Company, along with his circle of friends and in 1850, Prinseps, his wife Sara, along with some of her sisters and Watts obtained a twenty-one year lease on Little Holland House which belonged to Henry Fox, 4th Baron Holland, and a friend of Watts.  The house, not only became a place for them to all live and entertain their friends, but it gave Watts a studio for his painting.

In 1864 Watts painted portraits of the Terry sisters, Kate Terry and her famous actress sister Ellen Terry.  Watts was besotted by Ellen and despite the fact that she was still a little way short of seventeen years of age and he was thirty years her senior, they married.  The marriage was doomed to failure and a year after the marriage she eloped with her lover forcing Watts to sue for divorce.

In the early 1870’s when the lease ran out on the Little Holland House, Watts acquired another house in London and also one in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight.  In 1877 his divorce with Ellen Terry finally came through and nine years later at the age of 69 Watts re-married, this time his bride was Mary Fraser-Tytler,  a Scottish designer and social reformer, some thirty-three years his junior!   In 1891 he bought land in Guilford, Surrey and they named the establishment Limnerslease, which was a combination of the words “limner” meaning artist and “leasen” meaning glean and by it they had built the Watts Gallery which was a museum dedicated to his work.  It was the first and only remaining purpose-built gallery in Britain devoted to a single artist.  It eventually opened in April 1904, shortly before the death of Watts.

So that is the story of today’s artist and so now let us study his poignant painting and understand why he should depict such a heart-rending scene.  When Watts returned to London from Italy he was traumatized by the extremes of riches and poverty that he could see all about him.  It moved him and he realised that through his art he could bring home the inequalities of life.

The background of the painting is the London skyline and we are viewing it from under Waterloo Bridge and in the distance we can just make out Hungeford Suspension Bridge.  Waterloo Bridge had been a common place for suicides with people throwing themselves off the structure into the Thames.  In the foreground Watts has painted a “fallen woman”, a reasonably common subject in Victorian paintings.  She has drowned and been washed up on the shores of the Thames. Was it an accident or had life proved just too much for her to bear?  In those days, female suicides caused by adulterous relationships or financial hardship, which then led to prostitution, were not uncommon happenings.   Her body is lit up and is in stark comparison to the darkened background.  Her dress still floats in the murky polluted waters.  She is lying on her back with her arms stretched out in a cruciform adding religious symbolism to the picture.  In her left hand she is clutching hold of a chain, attached to which is a heart-shaped locket and this again makes us believe that unrequited love may have had some bearing on the situation.  In the night sky we see a very bright pin-point of light which could be a star of the planet Venus and Watts probably added this as a symbol of hope that maybe there will be a better after-life for the dead woman.  Look at the young woman’s face.  It appears calm.  Maybe at last she is at peace with herself.

It is interesting to note that the title of the painting Found Drowned was legal phraseology often used by coroners when there is no conclusive evidence of suicide, such as a note, and thus the coroner’s report avoids the stigma attached to suicides, which would automatically rule out a Christian Burial.

I end today’s blog with the Thomas Hood’s poem Bridge of Sighs which it is believed was the basis of Watts’ painting.  Read it through and then look at the painting and see if you agree that there is a connection between the two.

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve’s family—
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!

Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God’s providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

In she plunged boldly—
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran—
Over the brink of it,
Picture it—think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro’ muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix’d on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr’d by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.—
Cross her hands humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behaviour,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!

The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison) by Robert Henri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Snow, The Battery by George Bellows

Blue Snow, The Battery by George Bellows (1910)

A few days ago I featured the art of Samuel Luke Fildes who in his early artistic days was a Social Realist painter.  His paintings and illustrations for The Graphic magazine dwelled on the plight of the poor in his native England and what they had to endure.  Today I am featuring an American artist of around the same era who wanted to paint pictures of real life in New York City.  He is George Wesley Bellows, the American realist painter.

George Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1882 and after passing through the various school years arrived at Ohio State University at the age of nineteen.  It was here that his sports prowess came to the fore and at one time it was thought that he may take up baseball professionally.  During his time at the university he funded himself by working as a commercial illustrator.  However Bellows had one aim in life and that was to become an artist, so much so, that he quit the university just before he was due to graduate and moved to New York to study art.

He enrolled in the New York School of Art and became a student of Robert Henri.  It was through Henri that Bellows came into contact with a group of artists known as The Eight and later became paert of  The Ashcan School.  The Eight was a group of artists whose fame derives from, and for what they will always be remembered for, their one and only joint exhibition in 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery in New York.  The exhibition was a sensation and it is now looked upon as one of the most important events in the development of twentieth-century American art

The Aschcan School was a loose collection of realist painters associated with Robert Henri.  The term “Ashcan” was first used by Art Young the American socialist writer and cartoonist when he was writing about this art movement.  They were however unified with their desire to be truthful with their art and depict the city of New York and its working-class neighbourhoods as it was and not just an idealised and formal portrayal of these suburbs.  They wanted us to see life in the raw.  The scenes of the city painted by Bellows highlighted the crudity and disorder of life amongst the working class.  This was American Realism, and he and his fellow Ashcan artists believed that their art should be similar to journalism showing the city as it was, “warts and all”.  In a way this group, including Bellows was determined to rebel against American Impressionism which was so popular at the time.  Their art did not focus on light but in general their art was darker in tone and brought the seamier side of life to the fore with subjects such as prostitution, drunks and overcrowded tenements cluttered with lines of washing.  Bellows also painted pictures of boxing matches which with their dark and atmospheric backgrounds brought out the bloody savagery of the sport.  In some of their works they depicted the poor and their struggle with everyday life.  These were the equivalent to the English Social Realism genre of art of which Samuel Luke Fildes was a leading figure.

The painting of George Bellows I am featuring today is not one of his Social Realism paintings.   My featured painting of George Bellows is entitled Blue Snow, The Battery which he completed in 1910The setting for the painting is Battery Park which lies adjacent to the financial district of the city.  There is a breathtaking beauty about this work of art.  His imaginative and powerful use of blue energizes the scene of the southern tip of Manhattan.  Bellows painted a number of scenes with New York City under snowfall and as with my featured painting it is amazing how he has developed a strong sense of light and visual texture contrasting the white and blue of the snow and the dark grimy outline of the old buildings.  It is a beautiful strong composition which is normally housed at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Bellows went on to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago but spent half the year at the home he built in Woodstock, New York. He illustrated novels including a number for H G Wells.   In 1925, at the young age of 42 he died of peritonitis after failing to tend to a ruptured appendix.

I hope to see some of his art when I visit the National Gallery in London tomorrow where thay have a small exhibition of works by George Bellows and the Ashcan painters, entitled An American Experiment.