Hendrik Willem Mesdag. Part 2 – his wife, Sientje Mesdag van Houten.

Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)
Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)

My blog today is somewhat shorter than usual as I decided to concentrate solely on the life and works of Hendrik Mesdag’s wife Sientje van Houten, an artist in her own right and not just “Mrs Mesdag, wife of the marine painter Hendrik Mesdag”.

Hendrik Willem Mesdag married Sientje van Houten in April 1856 and seven years later in September 1863 their only child, Klaas was born.  In June 1864, her father Derk, a wealthy Groningen timber merchant, died and left her a substantial inheritance which she realised in 1866.    This change in her financial situation allowed Hendrik to leave his father’s bank where he had been working for sixteen years and concentrate on his painting and eventually become a professional artist.  He even managed to have one of his paintings, which had been accepted at the 1870 Salon, awarded a gold medal.

Sientje van Houten-Mesdag in her studio (c.1903)
Sientje Mesdag van Houten in her studio (c.1903)

Sientje had accompanied her husband when he went to stay in Brussels to study under Willem Roelofs.  Their house in Rue Van de Weyer was often the focal point for Dutch and Belgian painters, and it could well have been the conversations on art at these soirées that  stimulated Sientje’s mind and enhanced her artistic talent. She, like her husband, not only received instruction from Roelofs but also from Hendrik’s cousin the professional artist, Laurens Alma-Tadema.

Winter Scene by Johannes Christiaan d'Arnaud Gerkens (1875)
Winter Scene by Johannes Christiaan d’Arnaud Gerkens (1875)

She accompanied her husband when he spent the summer of 1866 at the Oosterbeek artist colony and again in the summer of 1868 on the island of Nordeney where she, like Hendrik, spent time painting and sketching seascapes.   The couple moved to The Hague in 1869, where they lived in a house on Anna Paulownastraat and later in a house on Laan van Meerdervoort.  Her husband, who wanted to concentrate on seascapes, later hired a studio room facing the sea at the Villa Elba in Scheveningen where he and Sientje would spend hours painting and sketching. In order to improve her artistic proficiency, Sientje took drawing lessons from their family friend and painter Christian d’Arnaud Gerkens.

Head of a Dog by Sientje van Houten (1875)
Head of a Dog by Sientje Mesdag van Houten (1875)

Life could not have been better for Hendrick Mesdag and his wife Sientje and yet fate would play a fateful trick on the couple.  On September 24th 1871, tragedy struck when their beloved eight-year-old son Klaas, died of diphtheria.  It must have been a devastating time for Hendrik and Sientje.  Who knows whether Sientje wanted to totally immerse herself into something which would deaden the pain of loss but following the death of Klaas, she devoted all her time painting.  She had been in contact with art from an early age through both her father, who had a modest art collection, which she and her siblings would have seen and of course she had lived with her husband and watched him paint.

Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje van Houten Medag
Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

At first, Sientje concentrated on landscape painting and would often leave home and go on painting trips in the Scheveningen dunes with her friend and artist, Harriet Lido who was constantly giving her artistic advice.     Sientje Mesdag-van Houten initially focused on landscape painting and travelled to areas such as Drenthe, Overijssel and the Veluwe region in Gelderland. Besides her love of landscape painting she also liked to paint still lifes.  Over the years, she became increasingly accomplished as an artist and her self-confidence grew to such an extent that she began to submit her paintings to national exhibitions in Europe and America and was happy to partake in group exhibitions held by the Dutch Drawing Society and the Pulchri Studio.  Her husband was also a member of the Pulchri Studio and on a number of occasions both husband and wife exhibited together.  She was also the president of Our Club, a meeting place for cultured women. Mesdag-van Houten kept in touch with other women painters and dedicated herself to the cause of the ‘poor female artist’ and became the leading light and mentor for many young aspiring female artists who would gather at her studio for advice on their artwork

Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje van Houten Medag
Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

She was in close contact with many art dealers and her paintings were sought after by their clients, especially her still lifes.  In 1881 she helped her husband paint the amazing 1680 square metres panoramic painting of Scheveningen which has become known as Panorama Mesdag, but more about this work in the next blog.  Her painting entitled Cottages at Sunset and Heath near Ede was well received at the 1889 Paris Exposition and was awarded a bronze medal.

Camelias in Vase by Sientje van Houten Mesdag
Camelias in Vase by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

Sientje, like her husband Henrik, were avid collectors of art and eventually amassed almost three hundred and fifty works of art as well as objet d’arts, porcelain and artefacts from Holland and Asia.   Their favourites were works by the French Barbizon School artists.  This massive collection dated back to the time she had gone to live with her husband in Brussels whilst he was receiving artistic instruction from Willem Roelofs.  Their joint collection grew to such a size that in 1887 they had a museum built next to their house in Laan van Meerdervoort in The Hague.  In 1903 Sientje and Hendrik donated the collection and the museum to the Dutch state, since which time it has been called The Mesdag Collection and having visited it a few weeks ago I can assure you  it is well worth a visit.

Farm and creek with boat by Sientje van Houten Mesdag
Farm and creek with boat by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

In 1904, Sientje Mesdag-van Houten celebrated her seventieth birthday at the art society, Pictura, and during the celebration they announced that they would name a room in their new building after her. The Pulchri Studio also mounted a retrospective exhibition of her work. For many years Sientje had been simply referred to as Hendrik Mesdag’s wife but in an interview she was very forthright about how she should be remembered, as noted by the interviewer who stated:

“…Despite her marriage to a renowned marine painter, she does not wish to go down in art history as Mesdag’s wife, but as an independent “heroine of art” who follows her own path and seeks recognition for her original artistic convictions…”

Sientje and Hendrik Mesdag
Sientje and Hendrik Mesdag

Sientje van Houten continued to paint all her life.  She died on March 20th 1909, aged 74 and she was buried at the Oud Eik and Duinen Cemetery in The Hague, where later her husband Hendrik and her brother the liberal politician Samuel van Houten would also be interred.  There is no doubt that in her day, she was one of the best known and well regarded female artist.  Sadly, despite her protestations, soon after she died her standing in the art world declined and she was once again viewed as “the wife of Hendrik Mesdag, the marine painter”.  There was however a renewed interest in her life and oeuvre in 1989 when art historians discovered more information regarding her life and artwork.

In my final blog about Hendrik Mesdag I will be focusing on his seascapes and his love of Scheveningen.

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Félix Vallatton. Part 2. The Nabis, woodcuts and the “dreadful nudes”

Self-portrait with the dressing gown by Félix Vallotton (1914)
Self-portrait with the dressing gown by Félix Vallotton (1914)

During the 1890’s Vallotton, besides painting and writing art criticism, spent much of his time working with woodcuts.  The woodcuts he produced were looked upon as being very innovative and established him as a leading exponent of this type of art.  Japonism was sweeping through the French art world during the last part of the nineteenth century and Vallotton’s work was influenced by the Japanese woodcut In 1890 there had been a large exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts and like many people in France, Vallotton built up a collection of these prints.

La Paresse by Félix Vallotton (1896)
La Paresse by Félix Vallotton (1896)

Vallotton’s subjects ranged from domestic scenes to street crowd demonstrations in which police are depicted clashing with anarchists and from portrait heads to bathing women.  In his 1896 woodcut entitled La Paresse (Laziness) he depicts a naked women relaxing face down on a bed whilst stroking a cat.

Le Mensonge (The Lie) by Félix Vallatton (1896)
Le Mensonge (The Lie) by Félix Vallatton (1896)

The high point of his woodcuts was probably reached in 1898 when he produced a series of ten interiors entitled Intimités (Intimacies), for the La Revue blanche, the avant-garde French art and literary magazine, which was published between 1889 and 1903 and had many influential contributors such as Toulouse Lautrec.  The set of woodcuts dealt with the tensions between men and women and they proved so successful that they were circulated in magazines and books in Europe and America.

This set of woodcuts was a great success and for many critics there was a greater appreciation of them in comparison to his paintings.  The ten woodcuts were dark with some white lines cut through the black background.  Vallotton, through his woodcuts, wanted to bring out the continuing tensions between man and woman and that was further enhanced by the evocative titles he gave the individual works, such as Le Mensonge (The Lie), L’Argent (The Money) and L’ Irreparable (The Irreparable).  In a way it was his way of denigrating love between man and woman, blaming the woman for being insincere and scheming creatures who often brought an element of spitefulness and dominance into a relationship.

Bathers on a Summer Evening by Félix Vallotton (1892)
Bathers on a Summer Evening by Félix Vallotton (1892)

Around 1892 Vallotton became associated with the Nabis art movement.   The group came about around 1888 and was composed of disaffected artists who had passed through the Académie Julian and been subjected to the rigid representational methods being taught at that establishment.  Founder members of the Nabis, which was a Hebrew word meaning prophet, were Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis.  The Nabis were inspired by the broad planes of unmediated colour, using thick and bold outlines that were seen in Japanese prints.

Clair de lune (Moonlight) by Félix Vallotton (1895)
Clair de lune (Moonlight) by Félix Vallotton (1895)

Two examples of Vallotton’s take on the Nabi style art were his 1893 work entitled Das Bad. Sommerabend (Bathers on a Summer Evening), and his 1895 symbolist work Moonlight which can be found at the Musée d’Orsay

Bathers on a Summer Evening depicts women bathing in an open-air brick pool.  The painting was exhibited at the 1893 Salon des Indépendents exhibition and its subject caused a furore but at the same time it successfully enhanced Vallotton’s reputation as an artist.  In some way this painting is looked upon as a caricature of the traditional paintings of Salon artists such as Seurat and Renoir .  The painting is housed in the Kunsthaus, Zurich.

Mme. Felix Vallotton by Félix Vallatton (1899)
Mme. Felix Vallotton by Félix Vallatton (1899)

In 1899 Félix Vallotton married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques née Bernheim.  Gabrielle was the daughter of Alexandre and Henriette Bernheim and was one of six children.   Alexandre Bernheim came from Besancon and was an art dealer and friend of a fellow countryman of Besancon, Gustave Courbet.   Gabrielle was eighteen months older than Félix Vallatton and had married Gustave Rodrigues Henriques in February 1883 and the couple had three children, Max, Joseph and Madeleine.  Gustave died in 1894 at the young age of 34 leaving his widow financially comfortable.  Gabrielle and Félix married five years later in 1899.  Félix wrote to his brother Paul and told of his relationship with Gabrielle.  He wrote:

“…I love her very much which is the main reason for this marriage, and she loves me also, we know each other very profoundly, and we trust each other.  In short, I regret nothing and I nourish the highest hopes…”

In 1899, the year of his marriage to Gabrielle he painted a picture of her sitting at a table.

As I mentioned in my last blog about Vallatton, what drew me to him was the headline of a 2007 essay in The Guardian newspaper by the writer Julian Barnes:

The neglected, enigmatic Swiss artist Félix Vallotton was a fine painter of still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Shame about his dreadful nudes, writes Julian Barnes

I was intrigued to find out what was “dreadful” about Vallatton’s portrayal of nudes.

Models Relaxing by Félix Vallatton (1905)
Models Relaxing by Félix Vallatton (1905)

In 1905 Vallatton’s neo-classical style painting Models Relaxing was exhibited at the Ingres retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in Paris.

Le bain turc by Ingres (1863)
Le bain turc by Ingres (1863)

One of Ingres’ works Turkish Bath was also on view at the exhibition.  It is said that Vallatton was moved to tears by this Ingres’ work and maybe that was the reason that two years later, in 1907, Vallatton completed his own painting entitled Turkish Bath.

The Turkish Bath by Félix Vallatton (1907)
The Turkish Bath by Félix Vallatton (1907)

The women in his painting were not hand maidens of a harem but were women of the 1900’s with their fashionable hairstyles.

The Rape of Europa by Félix Vallatton (1908)
The Rape of Europa by Félix Vallatton (1908)

Controversy was not far away when his nude paintings were exhibited,  At the beginning of the twentieth century  one exhibition of his work only allowed over 18 years of age visitors to enter and witness the naked women !  Depicting his nudes as part of mythology did not decrease the censure of the critics.  An example of this is his 1908 painting entitled The Taking of Europe which is housed in the Kunstmuseum Bern.

Perseus Slaying the Dragon by Félix Vallatton (1910)
Perseus Slaying the Dragon by Félix Vallatton (1910)

Another of Vallatton’s paintings featuring a nude but with mythological connotations was his version of the story of Perseus slaying the dragon, a story which had featured in many pasintings before.  Vallatton completed his up-to-date version of Perseus Slaying the Dragon in 1910 and it is now owned by the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève .

Woman with a Black Hat by Félix Vallatton (1908)
Woman with a Black Hat by Félix Vallatton (1908)

Vallatton painted hundreds of pictures featuring nude or semi-nude females and the one I like the most is his 1908 work entitled Woman with a Black Hat.  The woman’s face is flushed as if she is embarrassed to appear semi naked before the artist.  It adds to he vulnerability and in a way enhances her beauty.

Landscape Semur by Felix Vallotton (1923)
Landscape Semur by Felix Vallotton (1923)

Vallatton kept a register of all the works he completed and by the time of his death the list catalogued almost 1600 works.  I have looked at his portraits and his penchant for painting nude females but of all his works, for me, his landscapes stand out.  It was in his latter years that Vallatton produced most of his landscape works, such as Landscape Semur which he completed in 1923.

Square in Les Andelys with the Chateau Gaillard by Félix Vallatton (1924)
Square in Les Andelys with the Chateau Gaillard by Félix Vallatton (1924)

Another interesting painting was completed a year later in 1924 and entitled The Chateau-Gaillard in Andelys.  Since 1909, Vallatton had a summer home in Honfleur and in 1924 whilst en route to his summer residence he passed through the small village of Andelys which lay on the banks of the Seine.  He had first visited the village eight years earlier.  The village is dominated by the ruins of Chateau Gauillard, a fortress built by Richard the Lionheart in 1196.  It is situated on a hill overlooking Andelys.  The ruins fascinated Vallatton who produced a number of paintings and sketches featuring the once mighty fortress.  The painting is housed in the Musée A.G. Poulain de Vernon in Vernon, a town about 30 kilometres south of Andelys.

Nature morte a la peinture chinoise by Félix Vallatton (1925)
Nature morte a la peinture chinoise by Félix Vallatton (1925)

Another art genre that interested Vallatton in the early twentieth century was Still Life painting.  In 1925 he completed a work entitled Nature morte a la peinture chinoise (Still Life with Chinese painting).  Like many still life paintings the artist has challenged himself by having to paint a white napkin, with all its creases and folds, looking as if it is laying over the edge of the table.  The Chinese painting mentioned in the title can be seen in the background.

Parrot Tulips by Felix Vallotton
Parrot Tulips by Felix Vallotton

One of my favourite still life paintings by Vallotton was a work entitled Parrot Tulips.  I love the richness of the colours used and love to study the way Vallotton has depicted the individual items which crowd the scene.

Vallotton’s life came to a close at the end of 1925.  His brother Paul’s daughter Marianne recalled the time:

“...It was the end of of the year 1925 and the weather was grey and gloomy, but in accordance with our old custom, we were getting ready to celebrate Christmas, when on 21 December my father received a letter , whose opening lines I quote:

‘ …My dear Paul, after examining me twice, they have decided to operate.  It has been arranged for next Saturday morning the 26th.  It would be nice if you could be here, for various reasons…’ “

Félix Vallotton died three days after his operation on December 29th, three days before his sixtieth birthday.  According to Marianne Vallotton his last words to her father, his brother Paul were:

“…Don’t you think this is an amusing way to celebrate the centenary of the death of Jacques-Louis David?…”

The French painter died on December 29th 1825.

There were just so many apintings to include but so little time or space to accommodate them.  To see more I can recommend the excellent book on the life of Félix Vallotton by Nathalia Brodskaïa entitled Félix Valloton, The Nabi from Switzerland.  It was from this biography that I have been able to put together these two blogs on this talented Swiss painter.

Earlier I had mentioned the headline of an essay in The Guardian newspaper written by Julian Barnes.  It is said that in a few years time he will be curating an exhibition of Félix Vallotton’s work at the Royal Academy in London and it will certainly be an exhibition not to be missed.

Anne Vallayer-Coster. The Queen of Floral Still-Life works

Anne Vallayer-Coster
Anne Vallayer-Coster

At the end of 1362 the Florentine writer, Giuseppe Boccaccio, he of The Decameron fame, (see my Daily Art Display Feb 21st 2012), had completed his book, De mulieribus claris (Of Famous Women), a biography of famous (and infamous) women, some real, some mythological.  In it he wrote about three female artists and commented:

“…Art is Alien to the mind of women, and these things cannot be accomplished without a great deal of talent, which in women is usually very scarce…”

In this blog I am returning to look at female artists and I am featuring a highly talented lady whose superb artistic talent rubbishes Boccaccio’s theory.  Today, I am looking at the struggle she, like other female painters of the time, had fighting their way through to success in a male-dominated field.  One of my favourite paintings is by the eighteenth century French female artist Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (See My Daily Art Display November 21st 2012) and recently I have been reading about a contemporary of hers, the very talented 18th century French painter who, like Le Brun, gained the patronage of Marie-Antoinette, the wife of the French monarch, Louis XVI.   She is Anne Vallayer-Coster.   Such royal patronage was the ultimate prize for aspiring painters as it led to many lucrative commissions.  However, unlike Le Brun, Anne Vallayer was not solely a portraitist but was an exceptional still-life and floral painter.

Anne Vallayer-Coster was born in Paris in December 1744.  She was the second of four daughters.  Her mother was a painter of miniatures.  Her father, Joseph Vallayer, was a goldsmith working at the Gobelins Manufactory Company in Paris, and the family lived on the grounds of the Gobelins Manufacturing complex, which produced the finest tapestries as well as luxury objects, which often adorned the royal palaces.  In 1757 the family moved to another area of Paris and Anne’s father started to trade in jewellery.  His business soon expanded with royal patronage and was granted the right to produce metal products for the military.

Anne Vallayer became interested in sketching and painting at an early age and her mother encouraged her by arranging for her to have private tuition from an art teacher, Madeleine Françoise Basseporte, a one-time pupil of the great French botanical painter, Claude Aubriet, and she, like him, was made the Royal Painter at the court of Louis XV, teaching the royal princesses to paint flowers.  Anne Vallayer learnt well from Basseport and she too was to become a talented botanical artist.  Her next art tutor was the landscape painter Claude Joseph Vernet.  In a short period of time Anne Vallayer became an accomplished artist concentrating on floral still-life works.  Her works were a beautiful juxtaposition of the flowers and inanimate objects such as books, musical instruments, tableware and furnishings.  The inanimate objects Vallayer included in her floral depictions allowed her to highlight her artistry by depicting the various different surfaces, such as glass, pewter, and silver and how the light played differently on each of them.   The still-life works often included aspects of trompe-l’oeil affording depth perception.

Attributs de la musique by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1770)
Attributs de la musique by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1770)

In 1770, when she was just twenty-six years of age, such was her artistic talent that a number of her tutors and fellow artists suggested that she should apply to become a member of the Académie Royale.  To gain admittance to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture she submitted two reception pieces.  They were still life works entitled Les attributs de la peinture, de la sculpture et de l’architecture (The Attributes of Painting), and Attributs de la musique (The Attributes of Music).

Les attributs de la peinture, de la sculpture et de l'architecture by Anne Vallayer-Coster  (1769)
Les attributs de la peinture, de la sculpture et de l’architecture by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1769)

It could be that Anne Valleyer was quite canny when she put forward to the Académie elders her reception piece The Attributes of Painting, as all the objects we see depicted are references to the various arts taught at the academy. The brushes and palette symbolize painting, the bust and torso epitomize sculpture, and the building plans signify architecture. The books and portfolios of drawings symbolize the scholarly facet of the fine arts.  It is thought that the bust is a self-portrait of Anne.

Her works met with great acclaim and the honourable Academicians unanimously elected her.  This was an extraordinary endorsement as there was a “four female artist at any one time cap” on admissions to the Académie at this time.    This achievement was recognised in the twice-weekly gazette and literary magazine Mercure de France of that year, when the journal paid tribute to her achievement, writing:

“…the disadvantages of her sex notwithstanding, she has taken the difficult art of rendering nature to a degree of perfection that enchants and surprises us…”

This should have been the happiest time of her life but the sudden death of her father overshadowed the joyous news.   With the main family breadwinner now gone, her mother had no choice but to take over the family business, whilst Anne helped the family finances with the sale of her paintings.

However, despite her being admitted to the Academy she, unlike the male Academicians, was still not allowed to take part in any of the establishment’s drawing courses which involved nude models, as women drawing nude men was considered indecent.  So with the drawing course out of her reach she was not able to break into the highest genre of art as set down by the Académie, historical paintings, and so she continued with her favoured art genre, still-lifes as well as some portraiture and landscapes and as an Academician she was now allowed to exhibit some of her work at the biennial Paris Salon exhibitions.  This she did starting in 1771 and went on exhibiting regularly there until 1817.  In a review of her work shown at the 1771 exhibition, the prominent French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot wrote:

“…if all new members of the Royal Academy made a showing like Mademoiselle Vallayer’s, and sustained the same high level of quality, the Salon would look very different…”

Portrait of Marie-Adelaide-Louisa de France, called Madame Adelaide by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1780)
Portrait of Marie-Adelaide-Louisa de France, called Madame Adelaide by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1780)

She completed a number of portraits of the royal family including one of Marie-Antoinette.  It is said that the queen disliked her portrait.  The French critics who were complimentary with regards her floral works, were  dismissive of her figurative work.  With this in mind and being aware that she had major rivals in that genre, including two fellow Academicians, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adelaide Labille-Guiard,  who were the favoured female portraitist of the time,  she decided to concentrate on her still-life painting.

Art was a very important facet in the life of the upper class and nobility.  A thorough knowledge of which artists were in vogue and who were the up-and-coming artists was of great importance.  Soon through word of mouth in Court circles and the glowing evaluations of her artistic ability, the floral still-life work of Anne Valleyer came to the attention of Queen Marie-Antoinette.  Anne Valleyer received a number of painting commissions from Marie-Antoinette and many members of the royal court as well as a number of wealthy art collectors.  As was the case with Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the artist and queen became friends and in fact, it was the queen who, at a ceremony at Versailles in 1781, witnessed and signed off the marriage contract between Anne and her betrothed, Jean-Pierre-Silvestre Coster, a wealthy lawyer and respected member of a powerful family from Lorraine.

A Vase of Flowers, two Plums on a Marble Table top by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1781)
A Vase of Flowers, two Plums on a Marble Table top by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1781)

In total, Anne Valleyer-Coster painted over one hundred and twenty floral still-life works.  One painting which she completed in 1781 entitled A Vase of Flowers and Two Plums on a Marble Tabletop was used as a model by Gobelins for one of their tapestries.

Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1776)
Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1776)

To fully appreciate the talent of Anne Valleyer-Coster as an artist take a look at a work she completed in 1776 entitled Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and GrapesThis still-life painting was one of a pendant pair and was commissioned by a high-ranking official of the entourage of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Both paintings were exhibited at the Salon of 1777, the year after they were completed.  One has come to recognise her expertise in the way she depicts flowers but in this painting we see how accomplished she was when it came to her bas-relief imités.

Detail of bas-relief imités on vase
Detail of bas-relief imités on vase

Look carefully  at the vase and the depicted bas-relief work.  In sculptural terms, Bas-relief is a form of sculpture in which a solid piece of material is carved so that objects project from a background.    This painting combines a number of different elements.  We have the exquisite floral painting.  We have the still-life depiction of the terracotta vase and the various fruit and finally we have the bas-relief imités depicted on the vase.  The skill of the artist in completing such a work is dramatic and totally eye-catching.

Vase of Flowers and Conch Shell by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1780).  Metroppolitan Museum of Art, New York
Vase of Flowers and Conch Shell by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1780).
Metroppolitan Museum of Art, New York

Another famous work of hers is Vase of Flowers and Conch Shell, which she completed in 1780.  This work of art is thought to be one of three small oval paintings of flowers and fruits which she exhibited in the Salon of 1781. The flowers are a selection of anemones and marguerites.  Look carefully how she has depicted the light reflecting on the gilt of the blue porcelain vase and the vase itself and how it shimmers on the multi-coloured conch shell.  She has paid close attention to the various textures of the objects on display and how the light reflects differently on their surfaces.

Garden Still Life, with Implements, Vegetables, Dead Game, and a Bust of Ceres (The Attributes of Hunting and Gardening by Anne Valleyer-Coster (1780)
Garden Still Life, with Implements, Vegetables, Dead Game, and a Bust of Ceres (The Attributes of Hunting and Gardening by Anne Valleyer-Coster (1780)

A number of her paintings are in British galleries but her still-life work, Garden Still Life, with Implements, Vegetables, Dead Game, and a Bust of Ceres (The Attributes of Hunting and Gardening) can be found in Basildon Park, Berkshire, a country house run by the National Trust of Great Britain.

BasildonPark
BasildonPark

The Palladin-style house itself is worth a visit.  It was built between 1776 and 1783 for Sir Francis Sykes, a wealth English landowner, Member of Parliament and who was once the Governor of Kasimbazar, India.  Valleyer-Coster received this painting  commission along with its companion piece, A Still Life of a Vase of Flowers, Fruit, and a Bust of Flora, on a Table in an interior from Joseph-Marie Terray, abbé de Molesme,  who was the directeur-général des Bâtiments du Roy and contrôleur–général des finances.   The National Trust came by this work of art when it was allocated to them by the UK Government who, in 2010, had taken it in lieu of inheritance tax from the state of Lord and Lady Iliffe, the previous owners.  The setting is a park and in the work we see a rake and scythe propped up against a plinth.  In the foreground there is a variety of vegetables, a cardoon or wild artichoke, a gourd, a marrow, a melon, a cabbage, a tomato, along with a sickle.  On the plinth itself besides the bust of a young woman with an ear of corn in her hair, we see depicted  a gun, game-bag, two dead partridges and a hare.

When the fall of the ancien régime came during the French revolution all those close to Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were in great danger and many of the artists, such as Vigée Le Brun, had to go into exile to save themselves.  Anne Valleyer-Coster was fortunate in as much as, regardless of her closeness to the queen, who along with her husband, Louis XVI, was hated by the common people, she managed to survive the bloodshed of the French Revolution.   However, along with the fall of the French monarchy, went her primary patrons and her lucrative commissions dried up completely.  She, as an artist, was forgotten during these turbulent times.

Still Life with Lobster by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1781)
Still Life with Lobster by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1781)

It is interesting to note that a painting, Still Life with Lobster, which she completed in 1781.  Many believe it to be her best still-life work.  In 1817 she exhibited it in that year’s Paris Salon.  This painting came into the hands of Louis XVIII after he had been restored to the French throne in 1814.  Some art historians believe Vallayer-Coster gave it to the king as an expression of her joy as somebody who had remained loyal to the Bourbon cause throughout the turbulent years of the Revolution and the following Napoleonic imperialism. However, it should be noted that she had produced two works of art in 1804 for Napoleon’s Empress Josephine.  In the work, she has included many of the previous objects she had incorporated in earlier still life works. 

Anne Valleyer-Coster was one of the greatest still-life painters of the eighteenth century and art historians believe that her work was influenced by the great Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin who died in 1779 and who is still considered to be one of the greatest French still-life and genre painters. She imitated his dark and shadowy tabletops on which were her arrangements of fruit, bread and dead game. In her later years she turned to a more unrestrained lavishness which was seen in Dutch floral painting.  She died in  Paris in 1818, aged 73 and will always be remembered for her still-life works with their distinctive colouristic brilliance and their almost photographic quality.  If you are lover of still-life and floral paintings, you will love her beautiful works of art.

Alexandre-François Desportes. The Animal and Still Life painter.

Alexandre-François Desportes
Alexandre-François Desportes

When I looked at works by Gabriel Metsu in a recent blog I featured a couple of scenes which depicted hunters.  Scenes with hunters were very popular at the time especially with the upper classes and nobility as hunting was a pastime of the rich and so any painting which depicted the hunter alluded to wealth.  Hunting in the eyes of the nobility was one of the last symbols of class distinction.   It was not just the portrayal of the hunter and the hunt which was popular with the wealthy classes but also the portrayal of the hunted – the prey and the hunting dogs.    Today I am featuring the works of the French painter and decorative designer who specialised in animal paintings. Alexandre-François Desportes.

Dog and Wild Duck by Alexandre-François Desportes   (c. 1720)
Dog and Wild Duck by Alexandre-François Desportes (c. 1720)

Alexandre-François Desportes was born in Champigneulle, a small town fifty kilometres south of Reims, on February 24, 1661.   His father was a farm labourer.  When François was twelve years of age his father sent him to Paris to live with his uncle.  Shortly after his arrival at his uncle’s home he took ill and was confined to bed.  To while away his time his uncle gave him an engraving and told his nephew to try and copy it.  François’ effort was so good that his uncle arranged for him to study art under the Flemish painter Nicasius Bernaerts.  Bernaerts was an accomplished artist who had studied with Frans Snyders, the Flemish painter, famous for his depiction of animals and hunting scenes.  Bernaerts carried on the painting tradition of Snyders and had worked at Gobelins, the Parisian tapestry manufacturers, where his cartoons of animals were often used as designs in their tapestries.  He was to greatly influence the future work of François Desportes.  Whilst studying under Bernaerts, Desportes was put to work copying Flemish paintings, particularly those depicting animals and hunting scenes.  He was also encouraged to sketch flowers direct from nature and paint floral still-lifes.  Desportes never found this period of his life very fulfilling as Bernaerts, who although only in his mid-fifties, was often ill and his health was further impaired by his alcoholism and very rarely offered practical advice or assistance to his students.   Bernaerts died in 1678, aged 58.  After the death of Bernaerts, Desportes continued his artistic training at the Académie Royale where he was able to learn about traditional classical drawing but was also able to continue with his favoured painting method – en plein air.  Desportes had to fund his schooling, as well as buy food and pay for his lodgings, and to do this he earned money by designing stage scenery, gained portrait commissions and commissions to paint decorations in Paris hotels

During the 1680’s he assisted the French painter Claude Auran III in supplying paintings for Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duc de Vendôme’s Chateau d’Anet.  Artists survive on commissions and without commissions they struggle to make ends meet.  France at the end of the seventeenth century struggled financially as it had been a century of costly wars.  France and Spain clashed during the Franco – Spanish war (1635 – 1639) and again between 1683 and 1684 during the War of Reunions.  The French and the Dutch clashed between 1672 and 1678 and France went into battle with most of its neighbours in the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697).  Wars cost money – lots of money and in consequence, the French government had no money left for grand artistic endeavours, which meant that lesser known painters, who had yet to establish their reputation, struggled to make a living.  Desportes did struggle but despite his financial hardship, Alexandre-François Desportes married Eléonore-Angélique Baudet.  His wife was a linen and lace maker and through her occupation she was able to support her husband and allow him to search out commissions and carry on with his studies.

Self-Portrait as a Huntsman by Alexandre-François Desportes (1699)
Self-Portrait as a Huntsman by Alexandre-François Desportes (1699)

Desportes luck changed when in 1695 he received an invitation from the French ambassador to Poland to come to the court of the Polish king John III Sobieski who was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania.  Desportes was commissioned to paint portraits of the king, his wife Maria Kasimiera and some of the palace courtiers.  His stay at the royal court lasted less than a year as the Polish king died in June 1696.  Desportes was summoned to return to France by Louis XIV.  Desportes had spent a number of years painting portraits of wealthy people and he intended to carry on doing this when he returned to his homeland.  However he soon found that the art establishment was awash with highly skilful portraitists and realised that it would be difficult to obtain portraiture commissions and so he decided to revert back to the training he received from Nicasius Bernaerts – the depiction of animals and still life painting and as a twist to this he would incorporate the two in his artistry.  In August 1699 Desportes was received into the Académie Royale as an animal painter and his reception piece was Self Portrait as a Hunter.  The painting, in which we see the thirty-eight year old artist seated in a landscape with his two hunting dogs and a large array of dead game, was a move away from the normal self-portrait as he has used the setting and what has been included in the work was a tribute to his own skill as a specialist animal painter as well as being a talented landscape artist.  He was advertising his abilities!

Backyard of the royal menagerie of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV by Pierre Alexandre Aveline
Backyard of the Royal Menagerie of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV by Pierre Alexandre Aveline

Louis XIV had started to have his palace at Versailles built in 1664 and he decided to incorporate a menagerie within the palace’s park.  The design of his menagerie was in line with other Baroque menageries of the time with its circular layout, in the centre of which was a magnificent pavilion. People were able to walk along the paths which surrounded this central building, and alongside them were the cages which housed the wild animals.  The king had been very impressed with the animal paintings of Desportes and commissioned him to complete five works of art which depicted animals and hunting scenes for the menagerie pavilion.  Desportes, like a present day method actor who immerses himself into his character, often went on hunting trips with Louis XIV so that he could realise the thrill of the hunt.  During the hunt he would carry with him a small notebook in which he would make on-site sketches of the hunt “trophies” – the dead animals, which could then be used later for still-life depictions of the game that resulted from the day’s hunt,  Louis XIV would then choose the best sketches and Desportes would go off and complete an oil on canvas painting of the king’s chosen subject.   Four such paintings, Deer Kill, Boar Hunt, Wolf Hunt and Hounds Guarding a Dead Deer,  still survive and are housed in the private Paris museum, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature).

Bonne, Nonne and Ponne by Desportes
Bonne, Nonne and Ponne by Desportes

Louis XIV was so pleased with these paintings that in 1702, he commissioned Desportes to paint six works, portraying the portraits of the hunting dogs which were his personal favourites.  In one such work entitled Bonne, Nonne and Ponne we see the king’s three favourite hunting dogs chasing and flushing out pheasants and partridges from the long grass.  The king was so pleased with the work Desportes produced for him that he awarded him a pension and two years later he made Desportes a councillor of the Académie Royale.

Dogs, Dead Game and Fruit by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)
Dogs, Dead Game and Fruit by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)

Desportes reputation as an artist spread outside of France and soon he was in high demand.  In 1712 he visited London and stayed for six months working on commissions.  When Louis XIV died in 1715, Desportes carried on working for the Regent of France, Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, who was ruling for the infant Louis XV, the grandson of Louis XIV and over time provided many paintings for the royal residences at Versailles, Marly, Meudon, Compiègne and Choisy.  It was not just hunting scenes that Desportes had mastered for he also spent time painting still-life works featuring the dead “trophies” brought back from the hunt cleverly arranged alongside floral displays or displays of vegetables lying on a table or even in landscape settings.  Two such paintings, Dog, Dead Game and Fruit and Dog with Flowers and Dead Game completed in 1715, can be seen in the Wallace Collection in London.

Dog with Flowers and Dead Game by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)
Dog with Flowers and Dead Game by Alexandre-François Desportes (1715)

These pendant pictures were commented on by the Revue Universelle des Arts in 1857 as being:

“…incontestably the finest which came from the brush of Desportes…”

The two works were bought by Captain Richard Seymour-Conway,  the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1857 for his country house, Château de Bagatelle,  in France and at the time he commented on his acquisitions saying:

“… a little rubbish for the country…. beautiful of the sort and perfect for my shooting place…”

There is an interesting connection between the buyer of these paintings and where they are housed today for the purchaser of the paintings, Lord Hertford, also owned a house in London known as Manchester House, situated in Manchester Square.    He was an avid art collector and built up a sizeable collection of European art.  On his death in 1870, his illegitimate son, who had acted as his secretary, Sir Richard Wallace, inherited his father’s unentailed estates, and large collection of art in 1871. Wallace added to the collection himself, and in 1897, after his death, the works of art were donated to the nation by his widow. They are now housed in what was his London home, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, and are part of the Wallace Collection.

Still Life with Silver  by Alexandre-François Desportes (c.1720)
Still Life with Silver
by Alexandre-François Desportes (c.1720)

Several of his still-life paintings which combined game with fruit or flower displays also featured some beautiful pieces of silverware which came from Louis XIV’s collection.  One such painting is entitled Still Life with Silver and was completed around 1720.  Before us is a buffet laid out with an array of objects in silver, porcelain, and semi-precious stone as an array of fruit.  The gold and silver vessels are displayed on a tiered console table which is weighed down with fruit and flowers. The composition is monumental in scale, measuring  262cms x 187cms (almost 8ft x 6ft).  This is what one might have seen as a centrepiece on the table if we had attended a royal banquet.  At the centre we can see the dragon-handled tureen and vermeil salvers both of which are in the Régence style of 1715-23.

Still-Life with Ewer by Alexandre-François Desportes (1734)
Still-Life with Ewer by Alexandre-François Desportes (1734)

Alexandre-François Desportes died in April 1743, aged 82.  He left a legacy of paintings and sketches as well as his cartoons which were used as designs for tapestries made up at the famous Parisian tapestry company, Gobelins.  Many of his designs were also used at the Savonnerie company, the Parisian carpet factory at Chaillot, which manufactured the most prestigious European manufacturer of knotted-pile carpets.

Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly

 

Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly (1651)
Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly (1651)

Vanitas is an explicit genre of art in which the artist uses gloomy and moody symbolic objects in order that the viewer becomes very aware of the brevity of life and the inevibility of death.   The origins of the term vanitas can be traced back to the Latin biblical adage from the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:2):

“…vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas…”

which when translated means:

“…vanity of vanities; all is vanity…”

This specific artistic genre was very popular in the 16th and 17th century especially in the Netherlands, Flanders and France.

My Daily Art Display blog today looks at one of the works by the great Dutch still life and vanitas painter David Bailly.   Bailly was born in Leiden in 1584.  His father, Pieter, a Flemish immigrant from Antwerp, was a writing master.  Being a practicing Protestant he had fled from the Catholic Spanish rule of his homeland to the safer, more tolerant Northern Netherlands, eventually settling in the town of Leiden.  It was whilst living here that he married Willempgen Wolphaertsdr. and the couple went on to have four children, Anthony,  Anna, Neeltgen and David.  In 1592 David’s father took up the position as writing master at the University of Leiden.  He remained there until 1597 at which time he changed careers and became fencing master at a school run by the mathematician Ludolph van Cuelen, which was an establishment set up to train aspiring army officers in the various facets of warfare.

David’s initial training in drawing came from his father and in 1597, at the age of thirteen, he trained at the Leiden studio of the Dutch draughtsman and copper engraver, Jacques de Gheyn II.  David Bailly soon came to believe that his future did not lie as a draughtsman but as a painter and he was somewhat fortunate to live in the town of Leiden which was the home of many established and aspiring artists.  The leading artist in Leiden at the time was Isaac van Swanenburgh, who with his three sons, had set up a thriving studio in the town.  However it was not to this family concern that young David sort employment and tuition but instead his father arranged his son to become an apprentice to the painter and surgeon, Adriaen Verburgh.   In 1602 David moved to Amsterdam and became an apprentice in the city studio of the very successful portraitist and art dealer, Cornelius van der Voort. 

At the end of 1608, then aged twenty-four, David Bailly, now a journeyman painter, set off on his own Grand Tour, all the time seeking out commissions.  He travelled around Europe visiting a number of German cities such as Frankfurt, Nuremburg and Augsburg before crossing the Tyrolean Alps into Italy where he visited Venice and Rome.  In all, his journey lasted five years and it was not until 1613 that he returned to the Netherlands.

Once back home his work concentrated on drawing and painting portraits and vanitas still-life works and would often, as is the case in today’s featured work, combine the two genres.  His portraiture at the time consisted of many works featuring some of the students and professors of the University of Leiden.  He built up a very illustrious clientele which was testament to his artistic ability.  Bailly also had a number of pupils, two of whom were his nephews Harmen and Pieter van Steenwyck, who rank amongst the best still-life Dutch Golden Age painters.  In 1642 David Bailly married Agneta van Swanenburgh.  The couple did not have any children.  In 1648, he along with other artists including Gabriel Metsu, Gerard Dou, and Jan Steen founded the Leidse Sint Lucasgilde  – Leiden Guild of St Luke.  David Bailly died in Leiden in October 1657, aged73.

The painting I am featuring today is entitled Vanitas Still Life with a Portrait of a Young Painter which was completed by David Bailly in 1651 when he was sixty-six years of age and six years before he died.  It is now housed in the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden.    It is a fascinating painting full of symbolism.  To the left of the painting we have, what some believe, is a self-portrait of the artist himself, but of course as we know Bailly’s age when he painted the work we know this was a depiction of himself as a young man in his early twenties.    In his right hand he holds a maulstick, or mahlstick, which is a stick with a soft leather or padded head, used by painters to support the hand that holds the brush.  In his other hand he holds upright on the table a framed oval portrait of himself as he was at the time of painting this work.  So in fact the man sitting on the left of the painting and the man in the frame are one and the same and the inclusion of both images in the painting simply reminds us of the transience of life.    

Behind the framed self-portrait we have another oval painting, that of a young woman and this has always interested art historians.  It is believed to be a portrait of his wife Agneta in her younger days.  However at the time the painting was completed Bailly’s wife was gravely ill, in fact, it could well be that she had already died.  Look closely at the wall in the right background, just behind the half empty fluted glass, can you make out a ghost-like portrait of a woman, en grisaille, painted on it, across which drifts the smoke from the extinguished candle?  This is another classic vanitas symbolisation.  This could well be alluding to the fact that his wife had died from contracting the plague.  On the table we also see a standing figure of Saint Stephen bound to a tree, pierced with arrows.  So what is the connection with St Stephen and the other objects on the table?   One theory is that there was a link between Saint Stephen and the plague, which killed so many people in Europe, including Bailly’s wife.    The infections produced by the bubonic plague caused people to compare the “random attacks” of the plague with attacks by arrows and these folk desperately sort out a saint who was martyred by arrows, to intercede on their behalf and so prayers were offered up to St Stephen for him to intercede.   

This is a vanitas still-life painting and we see the usual vanitas symbolism amongst the objects depicted in the work of art.   Vanitas works allude to the transience of life.  Time passes.  It cannot be halted.  We all must eventually die.  Look at the background of the painting.  Look at the angle of the wall as it vertically divides the painting.  To the left, the painting is brightly lit and we have the young man, the aspiring artist, with his unused artist’s palettes hanging on the wall.  To the right of the vertical divide, the room is in shadow and we have the portrait of the old artist.  On the vertical line we have a bubble, which is a classic metaphor for the impermanence and fragility of life. 

There are many other items to note.   On the wall we see a print of Franz Hals 1626 painting, The Lute Player.  There is a plethora of objects on the table including a picture of a bearded man which could have been a portrait of Bailly’s father or maybe one of his teachers.  On the table, there are also many noteworthy items indicating death such as the skull, the extinguished candle, the tipped-over Roemer glass, the grains of sand of an hour glass running down and the wilting flowers.  There are also reminders of the luxuries of life which are of little use to us once we are dead, such as the coins and the pearls as well as items that have once helped us to relax and add to our enjoyment such as the pipe and the book, as well as the art in the form of paintings and sculpture. Sadly, pleasure and wealth are short-lived and ultimately unimportant.   This is about the temporality of life.    Overhanging the table in the foreground is a scroll with the words:

VANITAS VANIT(AT)VM

ET OMNIA VANITAS

which remind us of the words from the  book of Ecclesiastes I quoted at the start of this blog.

So the next time you decide to have somebody take your photograph, think carefully what you would place by your side or on a nearby table so as to convey a subtle and symbolic message to the people who will view the photograph in years to come.

 


The Scottish Colourists, Part 4 – George Leslie Hunter

Cottage, near Largo by G.L.Hunter  (c.1920)
Cottage, near Largo by G.L.Hunter (c.1920)

In my blog today I conclude my look at the group of early twentieth century Scottish artists, who would later be grouped together and known as the Scottish Colourists.  The fourth member of this group was George Leslie Hunter.   Hunter was born in Rothesay, a town on the west coast Scottish Isle of Bute, in 1877.  He was the youngest of five children, born to William Hunter, a chemist by trade and his wife, Jeanie Hunter (née Stewart).  His initial schooling was at Rothesay Academy.  In February 1892, Hunter’s elder sister Catherine died and this was followed shortly after with the death of his elder brother.  Both iwho were in their early twenties were thought to have died from an influenza pandemic which had been sweeping the country.  Although his mother and father had been toying with the idea of emigrating, these tragic events were the final push they needed to leave Scotland and in September that year they set sail for California via New York to start a new life.  The family arrived in California where Hunter’s father bought an orange farm east of Los Angeles.  George enjoyed life in America and spent most of his time sketching and enjoying the favourable Californian climate.   He did not undertake formal art training, and was largely self-taught.  When he was nineteen years of age he managed to get work as an illustrator for some local magazines.  The father’s farming venture lasted just eight years before Hunter’s parents decided to return home to Scotland.  However George, who had developed a love of art, was enjoying life in America so much that he decided not to return with his parents but instead decided to stay on and in 1900 he moved to San Francisco where he became part of the Bohemian lifestyle of the Californian city.   The following year he had some of his artwork exhibited at the California Society of Artists exhibition.

To earn money Hunter illustrated work for the Californian magazines, Overland Monthly and the Sunset magazine.  The latter was a promotional journal for Southern Pacific Transportation Company, designed to combat all the negative publicity regarding the “Wild West” life in California. In 1904 Hunter went to New York with friends and then on to Paris and it was whilst in the French capital that Hunter took up oil painting and became determined to become a professional artist.  On his return to California in 1905, he started to build up a large collection of his work which he intended to exhibit at his first solo exhibition which was to be held at the Mark Hopkins Institute the following year.  However tragedy struck in the form of the great Californian earthquake in April 1906 which devastated San Francisco and destroyed his studio and most of his artwork.

Fruit and Flowers on a Draped Table by G.L.Hunter (1919)
Fruit and Flowers on a Draped Table by G.L.Hunter (1919)

Hunter returned to Glasgow and rejoined his mother.  He continued his self-education as a painter and carried earning a living as an illustrator.  Many of his initial oil paintings were of the still life genre.  He liked to experiment with these works, revelled in the use of colour and often would incorporate the technique used by the Dutch still-life masters, such as Willem Kalf, Jan Davidsz de Heem and the great Willem van Aelst.

Still Life with Nautilus Cup by William Kalf (1662)
Still Life with Nautilus Cup by William Kalf (1662)

These still life painters often composed their colourful depiction of floral and fruit arrangements with a drab and dark background to afford the greatest contrast.  They used the chiaroscuro technique to dramatic effect and for Kalf it was his delightful way in which he  combined in his paintings humble objects such as simple kitchen utensils with luxurious objects such as crystal glassware and exquisite silverware.    Hunter would probably have seen examples of the Dutch masters in the museums of Glasgow and would have found them inspirational for his work.   Although this may be construed as “copying” by Hunter and could be looked upon as a form of plagiarism, in fact it was not, for he was simply studying the great works of art and taking what he had seen back into his own works.

Hunter met fellow Colourist, Samuel Peploe, through mutual friends, the artists, Edward Archibald Taylor and his wife Jessie Marion King when he was in Paris in 1910 but it was over a decade later before the two became close friends.  Hunter’s professional artistic career really started in 1913 when he was fortunate to be introduced to Alexander Reid, an influential Glasgow art dealer.  That year he held his first solo exhibition in Glasgow at Reid’s gallery.   Three years later, in 1916, Hunter exhibits more work at the gallery and later showed at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts.  The review of the exhibition in the March edition of the Bailie newspaper commented on Hunter’s work:

“…He has three of four examples of still life that are superlatively strong…. they show a mastery of form and colour that takes one back to the triumphs of the Dutchmen…”

It was through exhibitions like these that Hunter connected with a group of affluent collectors who would continue to buy his works of art over the next fifteen years.

Portrait of Alexnder Reid by Vincent van Gogh (1887)
Portrait of Alexnder Reid by Vincent van Gogh (1887)

During the post-First World War days, Hunter became influenced more and more by the works of the modern French painters he had seen whilst visiting Paris, in particular Matisse, Cezanne and van Gogh.   In 1922 he went on an extended tour of Europe, visiting the French Riviera, Florence and Venice.  Glasgow art dealer Alex Reid and Parisian gallery owner, Ettienne Bignou, were developing a business relationship around this time and decided to stage an exhibition of the works of Peploe, Cadell and Hunter, entitled Les Peintres De l’Ecosse Moderne at the Galerie Barbazanges in June 1924.  Following this Hunter held a joint exhibition the next year with Peploe and Cadell at the Leicester Galleries in London.

Provencal Landscape by George Leslie Hunter (c.1929)
Provencal Landscape by George Leslie Hunter (c.1929)

During the period between 1924 and 1927 Hunter carried out a lot of his work in Fife and around Loch Lomond.  Whether it was due to the cold climate of Scotland or just his desire for the chance to savour the bright light and warm weather in southern France,  he became restless and left Scotland and based himself in the small Provencal village of Sainte-Paul-de-Vence.  From there he would set off on daily sketching trips around the many picturesque Provencal villages.  Most of the paintings he completed were sent back to Alex Reid in Glasgow for him to sell.  In 1929 he made the trip to New York for his exhibition at the Ferargil Galleries, which was critically acclaimed as an outstanding success.  From New York he returned to France but in November 1929 he suffered a breakdown and his health began to deteriorate and he is forced to return to Glasgow where he was looked after by his sister.

Reflections, Balloch by George Leslie Hunter (1930)
Reflections, Balloch by George Leslie Hunter (1930)

During the last couple years of his life Hunter concentrated once again on painting scenes around Loch Lomond and the village of Balloch which is situated at the southern tip of the loch.  He had painted scenes in this area five years earlier but now his later works show a greater clarity and are unfussy in composition.  In his work, entitled Reflections, Balloch, Hunter has concentrated the main focus of the work on the sparkle of light and reflections on the surface of the loch.  Many of these later works featuring the loch also incorporated houseboats and this series of paintings has been acknowledged as some of his best. His fellow colourist Samuel Peploe praised it at this time, saying:

“…that is Hunter at his best, and it is as fine as any Matisse…”

In 1931 Hunter travelled to Paris for the last time so as to be present at the highly successful exhibition Les Peintres Ecossais from which the French government bought a landscape of Loch Lomond for their national collection.  Buoyed by the success of the exhibition, of which he played a leading part, he began to make tentative plans to move from Scotland and go to live in London.  His spirits were high, he believed his luck had changed and he viewed the future with great optimism.  He was quoted at the time as saying:

“…I have been kicking at the door so long and at last it is beginning to open…”

Sadly before he could savour what he believed would be the start of a new life, he died in a Glasgow nursing home in December 1951, aged just 54.

This is my final blog about the four Scottish Colourists.  It cannot be emphasised enough the importance France played in their art.  In the book Scottish Colourists 1900-1930, one of the authors, Elizabeth Cumming, a lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, commented on this fact, writing:

“…Without their French contacts and experience, none of the Scottish Colourists would have developed their art as we know it.  For all, visiting and living in France invested their ideas with a new vision.  For Cadell, it meant developing an empathy with stylistic sophistication.  For Hunter, visiting the south of France especially injected light airiness into his landscapes.  For Peploe, two years of life in Paris opened a door to the intellectual possibilities within traditional subjects.  And for Fergusson, living in France for far longer than any of the others, it became the crux of his existence…”

 

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Rachel Ruysch

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Rachael Ruysch (1703)

My Daily Art Display moves into unfamiliar territory on two counts.  My featured artist is a woman and up to now, I have showcased only a few paintings by women and secondly the work is a still-life painting, a genre which I have rarely selected for my daily blog.  I marvel at the intricacy of the painting and I have no doubt that the detailed work which goes into still-life paintings is equal if not greater than in other painting genres.

My featured artist today is the Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch.  Art historians who have studied the art of the Dutch Golden Age have placed her in the top three female artists of that period.  The other two being and Maria van Oosterwijk, another specialist in flower still-life paintings and Judith Leyster, the genre painter who painted a few portraits and who also produced a single still life work. Ruysch  is widely looked upon as the most talented female in the history of still-lifes of flowers and fruits and among the greatest exponents of either sex of this genre.  True praise indeed!!

 Rachel was born in The Hague in 1664.  She came from a wealthy family and was one of twelve children.  Her mother was the daughter of Pieter Post, a Dutch painter of landscapes and battle scenes, before becoming a talented classical-style architect.  Her father Frederick Ruysch, a talented amateur painter was also a renowned Dutch botanist and anatomist.  He accepted a professorship in Amsterdam and so when Rachel was just three years old the family all moved there.    Her father was an expert in anatomical preservation and the creation of dioramas,  three-dimensional full-size or miniature models, sometimes enclosed in a glass showcase, and which would house human parts which had first been preserved and embalmed in liquor balsamicum.   Rachel took an interest in her father’s work and would often help him to decorate the collection with flowers, fishes, seashells and the delicate body parts with lace.  With his trained scientific eye, Rachel’s father was able to observe and record nature with a high degree of accuracy, and it was a talent that he inspired in his daughter. This talent was to greatly influence her works of art in the future, for her still-life floral paintings would be characterized by realism.  Another reason for Rachel’s love of plants and flowers was that she and her family lived in a district of Amsterdam called Bloemgracht, which means “flower canal”. This area was of great natural beauty and was a favourite place of artists

In 1679, at the age of fifteen she had developed a love for art and was exceptionally talented even at that young age.  Recognising his daughter’s artistic aptitude, her father arranged an apprenticeship for her with William van Aelst, a renowned painter, who specialized in still-life works with flowers or game.  Van Aelst, who moved to Amsterdam in 1657, was famous for creating elaborate still-life paintings that featured spiralling compositions and avoided the convention of symmetrical arrangements of depicted bouquets.  Van Aelst taught her the necessary skill of composing a bouquet in a vase but in his less formal manner that produced a much more realistic and tangible effect. In their more realistic works, some flowers and leaves were allowed to droop over the sides of vases, while others were revealed from the back, and by so doing, produced a more rounded shape. Later in her artistic journey, Ruysch would build upon van Aelst’s compositional innovations and this would instil a vitality into her paintings.

Rachel remained a pupil of his until his death four years later in 1683.  Her earliest art works started to appear around 1680 and by the time she was eighteen years of age in 1682 she was producing a number of independently signed paintings and her successful artistic career had just begun.

 In 1693, aged twenty nine she married the lace dealer and portrait painter, Juriaen Pool.  The couple moved to The Hague where they both enrolled in the city’s Guild of St Luke, the professional artists’ organization which regulated the sales and handled the promotion of the artists’ works.  By all accounts their marriage was a happy one and the couple went on to have ten children.  Even though, as she claimed, she essentially raised her children on her own, her life of domesticity and all the chores that went with it coincided with her most creative artistic period. Her large family seemed in no way to get in the way of the quality of her work

In 1708, both Rachel and her husband were invited to Dusseldorf, where they became court painters to the Elector Palatine of Bavaria, Johann Wilhelm.   This proved to be a very successful period in their lives and they remained there and worked for him until his death in 1716, at which time they returned to Holland.  Flower painting emerged as part of the Baroque movement and was especially popular in the late 17th century.   The reason for its popular emergence was the increase in the number of more affluent merchants and middle classes, as well as the growing interest in plants that resulted from the developing science of botany.  It was also around this time in northern Europe, especially Holland, that there was a marked increase in the importation of many new and exotic plants. The Dutch had developed a wide variety of flowers and gardening became increasingly popular. Often, gardeners would commission artists to paint pictures of their best or rarest flowers.

In light of her situation, she was fairly productive throughout her lifetime. She finished her final painting in 1747, when she was 83. By the time she died, she had produced more than 250 pictures, an average of about five pictures a year, which was a considerable number of works for someone creating flower paintings in painstaking detail.

Rachel Ruysch had to overcome two problems which were common in the artistic world of northern Europe at the time.  Firstly she had to overcome the fact that she was a woman and artistic painting was considered a male province.  Secondly, during this period, art was divided into two categories – “greater” and “lesser”.  Into the “greater” category one found paintings of religious and historical themes and compartmentalised in the “lesser” category were portraits, landscapes and still-lifes.  It was this “lesser” category which was deemed fit for female artists.  Women artists who painted were considered to be just painting as a hobby and were completely incapable of artistic genius. However Rachel Ruysch triumphed and became a highly regarded artist who made her mark in the male world of the Dutch Old Masters, becoming one of the greatest flower painters in either gender.

Ruysch died in 1750 at age 86, and during her lifetime she gained widespread fame, and her artistic works were highly valued.   Despite the fact that flower paintings today is still  considered as a lesser form of artistic expression, Ruysch’s reputation as a great painter remains intact.   During the 20th century, there was great interest in her works and her paintings are still featured in major exhibitions in Europe.  She is thought to have produced over 250 paintings in her life but only about 100 are known to still exist, and most of these are in museums or private collections. When any of her paintings do come up for sale they make headlines. In France her 1710 painting Still Life of Fruit with a Birds Nest and Insects went for the equivalent of $508,000.

My Daily Art Display painting by Rachel Ruysch is entitled Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, which she painted in 1703.  This painting, which measures 85cms x 68cms, has an opulent arrangement of flowers and fruit but could never have existed in nature as the various flower specimens and fruit blossomed and bore fruit in different seasons.  This blossoming was simply a figment of the artist’s imagination.  There is a technical perfection about this painting which had come from Rachel’s extensive botanical training.  The painting now hangs in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, in Vienna