The Alma-Tadema Ladies. Part 2 – The Two Daughters, Anna and Laurense.

(Detail from full-length portrait) Miss Anna Alma-Tadema by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1883)

In my last blog I looked at the lives of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s two wives, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard and Laura Theresa Epps and how, in a way their two lives were intertwined.  In this second part of the blog I am looking at Alma-Tadema’s Ladies but in this blog I am looking at the lives of his two daughters, Laurense and Anna Alma-Tadema.

In the painting above, entitled Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, which her father completed in 1883 we see fifteen year old Anna, standing at the door of the library at Townshend House.  In her hand is a vase of carnations and she wears an Aesthetic dress probably made of Indian cotton, with a shell necklace.  Look how the artist has mastered the depiction of the different textures of the various surfaces whether it be clothes or inanimate objects.

Hall in Townshend House by Ellen Epps (1873)
Painting of Laurense and Anna painted by the sister of their step-mother

On September 24th, 1863, twenty-seven-year-old Laurens Alma-Tadema married a French lady, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard in Antwerp City Hall and the couple went on to have three children.  Their first-born, a son, died aged six months of smallpox.  The couple then went on to have two daughters, Laurense in August 1865 and Anna in 1867.  Both children were born in Brussels.

Laurense, Anna, their father, and his sister Atje moved to London in 1870, a year after Marie-Pauline’s death.  Lawrence Alma-Tadema re-married in 1871.  His second wife, who was sixteen years younger than him, was Laura Epps the English daughter of a homeopathic doctor.   Laurense and Anna were home-schooled by their father and step-mother.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – The Sculpture Gallery (1874)

In 1874 Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted one of his largest works, The Sculpture Gallery which measured 223 x 174cms.  In this work, which depicts an Ancient Roman temple setting, he has included depictions of his two wives and two children as well as himself.  We see his second wife Laura Theresa wearing a gold armlet in the centre of the work, and to the right of her are her two children Laurense and Anna.  Lawrence Alma-Tadema is seated on the left and to his right, sitting upright hold a purple feather fan is thought to be a portrayal of his late wife, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard who died five years earlier.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study, Townshend House, London, (1884)

Anna developed her father’s and step-mother’s love of art and by the age of seventeen had become a talented artist.  She focused on painting the elaborate interiors of the family home, as well as portraits and flower paintings. Her gift as an artist can be seen in a set of watercolour and pen and ink depictions she completed in 1884 and 1885 of the family’s first London home, Townshend House close to Regents Park.  The detail is truly amazing and these works were almost certainly due to the influence of her father.   Her painting entitled Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study in Townshend House, London was completed by Anna in 1884.  The interior of Townshend House was designed and furnished by her father.  He managed to create a set of ornate and diverse interiors in a variety of styles ranging from traditional Dutch to Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Pompeiian, Byzantine, and Japanese based on his journeys.  The setting in this work is the interior of a comfortable library.  The intricate detail amazes me.  At the back of the room we see a very comfortable couch made even more so with the addition of a fur covering. It is almost a day-bed to be used by a weary reader who has come to the library for some peace and quiet.  The room is bright due to its dual aspect stained-glass windows and in the evening the candle-lights of the bronze chandelier, which Alma-Tadema designed, will illuminate the room.  The room has many pieces of heavy Dutch oak furniture which probably reminded Anna’s father of his birthplace.   On the ceiling to the left there seems to be a Japanese lantern or it could be an upturned parasol.  The floor is covered by a tatami matting, which was used as a flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms.  Hanging from the fireplace is a large palm leaf fan and on top of the fireplace mantle is a vase full of peacock feathers.  Just take your time and look at everything that Anna has painstakingly depicted in this very busy room.

The Drawing Room, Townshend House by Anna Alma-Tadema (1885),

In a small (27 x 19cms) watercolour and ink painting The Drawing Room which Anna completed in 1885 we see another room in Townshend House.   We are standing in the Gold Room and looking through the archway into the Columned Drawing Room albeit the columns themselves are hidden.   In the work we see one of a suite of ornate drawing rooms in the family’s home.  In this work take a close look and see how she has mastered light and the texture of the objects.  Look at how she has depicted the full-length brocade curtain which seems to act as a room-divider.  Look at the way she has illustrated the shiny surface of the floor lit by a light source emanating from an unseen window to the right.  Anna exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893.

The Gold Room by Anna Alma-Tadema (1884)

Finally, we have her work entitled The Gold Room which she completed in 1884.   This watercolour depicts a view into the Gold Room which was named thus because its walls were overlaid with gold leaf.  The centre of the painting is dominated by the large ornate piano which has inlays of ivory and tortoiseshell.  On the right we see a sumptuous full-length curtain made of Chinese silk.  If you look carefully at the window in the background you will see that the leading of it forms the family name, “Alma-Tadema”.  We cannot but be amazed by the talent of this seventeen-year-old girl at how she has managed to create the rich and bright surfaces we see as well as the various textures of the objects.  The inclusion of an antique bust on a pedestal was probably testament to her father’s interest in Roman and Greek history.  The painting was shown at the 1885 Royal Academy exhibition and is housed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City Missouri.

Eton College Chapel by Anna Alma-Tadema

Another 1885 painting highlighted Anna’s ability to replicate detail onto canvas.  It was her watercolour work entitled Eton College Chapel which she completed when she was just twenty years of age and was exhibited at the Royal Academy.  Of Anna and her great artistic skill her father’s biographer, Helen Zimmerman, wrote in her 1902 biography, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema R.A., that she was:

“…a delicate, dainty artist who has inherited much of her father’s power for reproducing detail…”

The Closing Door by Anna Alma-Tadema

In 1886, the family moved to a larger house, No. 17 Grove End Road, St. John’s Wood, London, which had previously been owned by the painter James Tissot.  Anna’s father carried out major refurbishments to the house and had extra studios added so that all four in the family could paint!   A room, thought to be on the upper floor in this house was the setting for Anna’s 1899 painting, The Closing Door.  It is a beautiful painting, full of mystery and atmosphere.  Once one has enjoyed the detail of the inanimate objects in the room our gaze goes to the central character of this work, the lady and soon our head is filled with questions.  So what story is unfolding before us?  Look at the woman – how is she feeling and why?  I suppose we recognise that something has badly upset her.  Look how she has roughly grasped the bead necklace and broken it.  If you look carefully you can see beads on the carpet.  Look at her facial expression –wretchedness, bewilderment, and fear are all recognisable.  So, what has brought her to this state of bleak despondency.  A lover’s tiff, a break-up of a relationship?  All possible.  Maybe if we look at some of the objects on the table we may get a clue.  A small vase of anemones symbolising the death of a loved one for in Greek mythology, the anemone sprang from Aphrodite’s tears as she mourned the death of Adonis.  In Victorian times, the anemone was looked upon as a symbol of dying love or departure of a loved one to the “point of no return”.  So, has her “loved one” died or abandoned her?  Next to the vase is a bottle of violet ink, the colour of which has associations with modesty and humility which probably tells us more about the lady herself.  The final mystery associated with this painting is the door.  Look closely at it and you will see fingers grasping it as if to close it.  Is this another sign of somebody “leaving”?  Or is this somebody about to enter which is causing the lady to be afraid?  So many questions and only the artist knows the answers.

Girl in a Bonnet with her Head on a Blue Pillow by Anna Alma-Tadema (1902),

In 1902 Anna Alma-Tadema painted Girl in a Bonnet with Her Head on Blue Pillow   It is a haunting painting with the girl seeming to stare at us as we observe the work but, on closer scrutiny, it is a blank stare.  She shows little interest at what is going on her around her.  Something is troubling her.  She feels helpless and alone.  Her hands are clasped tightly together in a pleading manner.  What solace does she crave? We, the observers, want to help her but how?  Is this simply about an unknown stranger or is this about the artist herself and her mood?

Following the death of her father in 1912, the value of his paintings fell drastically, and this loss of family revenue adversely affected the finances of his two daughters who lived their latter years in poverty.  Anna Alma-Tadema, who never married, died in 1943, aged seventy-six.

Photograph of Laurence Alma-Tadema from the US Library of Congress

Anna’s elder sister was born Laurense Alma-Tadema in August 1865 but she is always referred to as Laurence Alma-Tadema.  For this portion of the blog there will be few paintings as Laurence, unlike her sister, father and step-mother was not an artist.

Love’s Dream by Laurence Alma-Tadema

She was a novelist, playwright, short story writer, and poet. Her first novel, Love’s Martyr was published in 1886.  She wrote in various genres during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.

The Yellow Book periodical

She also submitted work to various periodicals such as The Yellow Book, a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897.  She also edited a periodical.  Many of her works were privately printed.

She left the family home and went to live in the Kent village of Wittersham in a cottage named The Fair Haven.  She became an active member of the local community, and involved herself with music and plays.  She even had a place built which could accommodate a hundred people and was to be used by the villagers to stage music concerts and plays and where the children of the village could be taught many local handicrafts.  She named it the Hall of Happy Hours.  In 1907 and 1908 she gave a series of readings in America on her literary work The Meaning of Happiness, which proved to be very well-liked by her American audiences.

World War I Propaganda Poster

She was an ardent activist and often spoke on the plight of the Polish people who were being displaced from their homes by the Austro-German troops in World War I.  She was a close friend and ardent admirer of Jan Paderewski, the Polish concert pianist and composer, politician, and spokesman for Polish independence.  Laurense was secretary of the Poland and the Polish Victims Relief Fund from 1915 to 1939 and her name appeared on many of their propaganda posters.  On her book tour in America, she spoke on the plight of the divided Poland and asked her audience to support the Polish people’s cause.

Laurense died in a nursing home in London on March 12th 1940, aged seventy-five.  Laurense like her sister Anna never married and one wonders whether either ever loved somebody and whether they missed “married bliss”.   Laurense’s poem If One Ever Marries Me would make one believe at least she was resigned to a solitary life.

 If no one ever marries me,—

And I don’t see why they should,

For nurse says I’m not pretty,

And I’m seldom very good—

 If no one ever marries me

I shan’t mind very much;

I shall buy a squirrel in a cage,

And a little rabbit-hutch:

 I shall have a cottage near a wood,

And a pony all my own,

And a little lamb quite clean and tame,

That I can take to town:

 And when I’m getting really old,—

At twenty-eight or nine—

I shall buy a little orphan-girl

And bring her up as mine.

————————–

I visited the exhibition At Home in Antiquity which features many paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.   It is being held in London at the Leighton House Museum until October 29th.  It is a “must-see” exhibition of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s works as well as works by his daughter and second wife.

 

 

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The ter Borch family

Gerard ter Borch the Elder by Moses ter Borch (1660)

Today I am looking at a dynasty of Dutch artists – the ter Borch family.  The head of the family was Gerard ter Borch the Elder who was born in Zwolle in 1583.  At the age of eighteen he travelled to Italy and stayed in Rome and Naples for the next eleven years drawing and painting local landscapes.  On his return to his home town of Zwolle he married Anna Bufkens and five years later, in 1617, she gave birth to their son Gerard.

The Sacrifice of Abraham by Gerard ter Borch the Elder (1619)

During his final years in Italy and after his return to The Netherlands, many of the paintings by Gerard ter Borch the Elder featured scenes from the Bible, one of which was his 1619 painting entitled The Sacrifice of Abraham.

Head of a Girl by Gerard ter Borch the Elder (1628)

Gerard ter Borch the Elder was a talented draughtsman and this can be seen in his drawing, Head of a Girl, which he completed around 1628 and is thought to be a portrait of Sara, his daughter (by his second wife) who was four years old at the time.

Head of a Little Girl Wearing a Necklace by Gerard ter Borch the Elder (c. 1630)

Ter Borch the Elder, like many artists of the time used family members as their models and again we can see an example of this in another of his pen and ink drawings entitled Head of a Little Girl Wearing a Necklace.

Little Girl at a Table Holding a Slice of Melon by Gerard ter Borch the Elder (1630’s)

A third example of Ter Borch’s draughtsmanship is his 1630’s work entitled Little Girl at a Table Holding a Slice of Melon.  This small (12 x 9cms) drawing is done using black chalk, brown ink washes and black ink.  The brown wash is used to shade one side of the girl’s face and to cover the background. This wash reinforces the effect of light falling on her face and her clothing. The girl stares off to the right of the painting at something which is fascinating her. Other items of food lie in front of her. She is dressed simply, wearing a wide white collar over her dress.  Her hair is tied behind her head with a bow, but some loose strands have escaped and lie across her forehead.

In the late 1630’s Gerard ter Borch the Elder almost gave up his painting although he did oversee the artistic education of his children.

Self Portrait of Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1688)

The eldest of the Ter Borch children was Gerard ter Borch the Younger, the only child from his father’s first marriage to Anna Bufkens, and I suppose if I was to talk about a Dutch artist by the name of ter Borch you would probably assume that I was referring to Gerard ter Borch the Younger as he was probably the most accomplished member of this talented and prosperous Dutch artistic family.  He was born in Zwolle in 1617. His mother died when he was just four years old and was looked after by his father.  Gerard Junior proved to be a talented painter even before his teenage years. In 1632, he went to Amsterdam to study painting and two years later, when he was seventeen years old, he went to Haarlem to study with the painter and engraver Pieter de Molijn and there, he entered the Guild of St Luke of Haarlem the following year.

The Suitor’s Visit by Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1658)

In 1635 ter Borch the Younger travelled to London where he worked alongside his uncle, Robert van Voerst, the royal engraver of Charles I.  Many of his travels took him to Italy, France and Spain, the latter visit being an invitation to the Spanish royal court to produce a portrait of King Philip IV which gives you an idea as to how highly he was thought of as an artist.  Ter Borch received a knighthood and a gold chain and medal from the king of Spain for his artistic efforts.

The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648by Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1648)

Around 1646 Gerard Ter Borch the Younger was living in Münster, Westphalia, and it is here he completed one of his most famous paintings, The Swearing of the Oath of Ratification of the Treaty of Münster which can be seen in the National Gallery in London. The Treaty of Munster, which was signed in May 1648, was a momentous time in the history of The Netherlands as it finally recognised the country’s independence. This treaty and the treaty signed in Osnabruck ended the Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648 in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years’ War between 1568 and 1648 between Spain and the Dutch Republic, with Spain formally recognizing the independence of the Dutch Republic.

The oil on copper painting is set in the Ratskammer (council chamber) of the Town Hall of Münster and depicts the portraits of seventy-seven men. In the foreground, standing behind the table, dressed in black, we see the six Dutch delegates.  To the right of the table stand the two Spanish.  Both sets of men are ratifying the treaty simultaneously.  A Franciscan monk stands behind the Spaniards on the extreme right.  What appeals to me about this work is that Ter Borch has taken the liberty of including himself in the work on the far left, gazing out at us!!!!

In his earliest works, Ter Borch depicted barrack-room scenes whereas most of his later genre scenes, focused on the more refined elements of Dutch society.

An Officer Dictating a Letter by Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1658)

Gerard ter Borch the Younger was also a leading proponent of genre scenes often featuring depictions of soldiers at rest in their barracks or the local taverns.  These works were generally small and upright in format and typically depict two or three elegantly clad, full-length figures engaged in an activity such as letter writing or music making.  The depiction of letter writing was extremely popular.  The reason for this probably stems from the belief that letter writing was predominately a form of relaxation among the middle and upper classes and these social classes had expanded during this period which saw the Dutch economy prosper.  An example of this is his 1658 work Officer Dictating a Letter.  They are executed with great sensitivity of touch and show an interest in the psychology of the sitters.

Portrait of a Lady and a Girl by Caspar Netscher (1679)

Ter Borch also painted many small-scale, full-length portraits. His most important student was Caspar Netscher (Dutch, 1639 – 1684), who learned many of his master’s techniques for rendering luxurious textures and who painted, in addition to his original compositions, many signed copies of Ter Borch’s works.

The Concert, Singer and Theorbo Player by Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1657)

Later in the 1650’s he often depicted more genteel scenes featuring wealthy members of Dutch society.  One such painting was entitled The Concert: Singer and Theorbo Player which he completed around 1657 and can now be found in The Louvre.  The setting is a cosy and relaxed bourgeois interior. Hanging in the background we see a large luxuriant tapestry.  The table in the left foreground is covered by a sumptuous oriental carpet with its colourful, geometric design that appealed to northern painters and which signified the wealth of the household. The two young women in the painting are giving a musical performance.  The lady standing on the left is playing a theorbo, a plucked string instrument of the lute family.  Seated at the table is her companion who is following the score, her hand is raised as she beats the time presumably as she prepares to break into song.  On the right of the painting, and looking towards us, is a young servant who has brought the ladies a glass of beer on a tray.

A Maid Milking a Cow in a Barn by Gerard ter Borch the Younger (c.1654)

Another genre work from around 1654 by Gerard ter Borch the Younger was A Maid Milking Cows in a Barn.   In the barn, we see a young woman squatting down in the process of milking a brown and white spotted cow. Another cow stands close by, waiting its turn. This work is a classic example of the ability of the artist to expertly depict different textures.  Look at how he has portrayed the various objects dotted around the foreground of this work such as the jaggedly sculpted stool and the wooden basin which is filled with water.  Look too at the chipped ceramic crock pot, and the shiny metal hinges of the buckets. The painting is housed in the Getty Centre, Museum East Pavilion in Los Angeles

Jan van Duren by Gerard ter Borch (1667)

Gerard ter Borch the Younger also painted many small-scale, full-length portraits such as the pendant portraits he completed around 1667 of Jan van Duren, a member of the upper ruling class of the Dutch town of Deventer and his wife Margaretha van Haexbergen.  Van Duren is dressed in the opulent clothing one associated with an affluent regent and in the other work, his wife is equally well adorned.

Margaretha van Haexbergen by Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1667)

In both cases the background is bare which avoids anything that may have detracted from the subject/patron and in the same way, the settings are minimal with just a simple velvet covered table, atop of which is a hat, in one and a fringed velvet chair in the other.  The overall appearance of both portraits is one of simplicity, elegance, and dignity.

Gerbrand Pancras, Formerly Known as Hendrick Casimir II, Prince of Nassau-Dietz by Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1670)

Another of Gerard ter Borch’s portraits is one entitled Gerbrand Pancras, Formerly Known as Hendrick Casimir II, Prince of Nassau-Dietz which is housed mat the Manchester Art Gallery.  The three-quarter length, three-quarter right-side portrait is of a young man dressed in blue and silver clothes which are decorated with pink ribbon.  The man stands looking out at us, some would say condescendingly, with a silver-topped walking stick in his right hand whilst his left-hand rests on his hip. Lying to the side of him is a table, covered by a red cloth, on which is a black hat dressed with a white feather. The inscription states that he is 12 years old.

Anna Bufkens, the first wife of Gerard ter Borch the Elder and the mother of Gerard ter Borch the Younger died in 1621, aged 34.  Shortly after the death of his first wife, ter Borch the Elder re-married.  His second wife was twenty-two-year-old Geesken van Voerst.  The couple went on to have two daughters, Anna in 1622 and Sara in 1624.  It was around this time that Gerard Snr’s painting output declined although he would still afford his children artistic training.   He also assumed the position held by his aged father, Harmen, the Licencemaster of Zwolle, a position Gerard ter Borch the Elder would hold for about 40 years until his death.

The Milkmaid by Gesina ter Borch (1669)

Seven years later, in 1628, Gerard ter Borch the Elder’s second wife died aged just twenty-nine years of age.  Following shortly on from her death, forty-five-year-old Gerard married for a third time.  His third wife was twenty-one-year-old lady from Deventer, Wiesken Matthys.  There seems some doubt about how many children they had ranging from five to ten but I found that they had a daughter Gesina in 1631, a daughter Catharina in 1634, a son Harmen in 1638, a third daughter Jenneken in 1640 and a son Moses in 1645.  There was also talk about another son Mattijs but I cannot find a birth date for him.

Gesina ter Borch was born on November 15th, 1631 at the family home in Sassenstratt in the town of Zwolle, where she would live all her life.  She was the eldest child of Gerard ter Borch the Elder and his third wife, Wiesken Matthijs.  When her father died in 1662 and her brothers had left home, she lived in her parental home with her mother, sister Catharina and her late sister, Jenneken’s three children.  She never married.

Page from Gesina’s poetry album

Gesina became a great talent in the art of draughtsmanship and when she painted she favoured the medium of watercolours.  Her paintings which were mainly for her and her family’s pleasure and were usually small in size but vibrant in colour.  She had not received any formal artistic training except for the tuition afforded to her by her father who had also taught his sons, Gerard the Younger, Harmen and Moses.

Farmer’s wife and child in a landscape by Gesina ter Borch (1669)

Gesina over time collected her pen and ink and watercolour drawings as well as her poetry in three albums, Materi-Boeks, the first of which was begun in 1646 when she was just fifteen years of age.  Her art books were a combination of her art and her scrapbook.   She printed drawings of her family members, newspaper clippings, children’s and friends’ artwork, and many copies of her half-brother Gerard’s work and that of her brother Moses.

Moses ter Borch by Gerard ter Borch the Younger and Gesina ter Borch (1667)

The one painting she is probably best known for was her posthumous portrait of her youngest brother Moses ter Borch which is in the Rijksmuseum.  It was a collaborative work with her step brother Gerard ter Borch the Younger.  Moses, who was born in 1645 and died in 1667, aged twenty-two, during the storming of Fort Languard near Felixstowe in England. He had served in the Dutch navy which had been fighting against the English since 1664. It is a painting full of symbolism and meaning.  Time is alluded to by the inclusion of a pocket watch, death is symbolised by the skull, loyalty by the inclusion of a small lap dog looking lovingly at his master and eternity by the depiction of the ivy on the rocks. Moses ter Borch was buried in Harwich.

Moses ter Borch off the coast of Harwich by Gesina ter Borch (c.1667)

In the above collaborative portrait, one can tell that Gesina’s stepbrother Gerard probably was the greater of the two contributors to the work but a quite simplistic portrait of her brother and his death can be seen in her painting which was part of one of her albums.

Self portrait by Moses ter Borch (c.1661)

Moses himself was also an artist and when he was about sixteen years of age completed a self-portrait.

Self portrait, the so-called portrait of Jan Fabus by Moses ter Borch (1661)

He also completed many sketches, some were oil sketches like his very small (8 x 7cms) work with the strange title, Self Portrait, the so-called Portrait of Jan Fabus which he completed in 1661.

Sketch of soldiers by Harmen ter Borch (1650)

The final artist of the family was Harmen ter Borch.  He was the eldest son of Gerard ter Borch and his third wife, Wiesken Matthys and the sister of Gesina and Moses.  There are several his sketches in the Rijksmuseum including one depicting soldiers which he completed when he was just twelve years old.

Beestenconcert by Harmen ter Borch (1653)

Another, the Beestenconcert was completed in 1653 when he was fifteen years old.

The Broken Bridge by Harmen ter Borch (1655)

But probably my favourite is his colour sketch entitled The Broken Bridge which he painted in 1655 when he was seventeen years old

With such a number of artists in one family, one wonders whether family life was a very competitive environment.  Gerard ter Borch the Younger was by far the greatest of the family artists but it is good to remember that he had some talented siblings.

Hendrick Willem Mesdag. Part 1 – The early years, family and influences

Hendrik Willem Mesdag
Hendrik Willem Mesdag

If you are a young aspiring artist I wonder what your dreams are.  You obviously hope that your painterly skills will improve over the following years.  Maybe you dream that your love of painting could become your main livelihood but for that to happen maybe it needs some sort of financial breakthrough.  Perhaps you hope that one day you could also afford to build up a collection of paintings created by well-known artists and that your collection grows to such an extent that you house them in your own museum.   An impossible dream?  The artist I am looking at today achieved all this, so sometimes what you wish for does come true.

Hendrik Mesdag at work in his studio
Hendrik Mesdag at work in his studio

Hendrik Willem Mesdag was born in Groningen on February 23rd 1831.  His father Klaas, who originally was a grain merchant, later became a very successful stockbroker and banker, and was also active in politics, but maybe more importantly, for the future path of his sons Hendrick and Taco, he was an art collector, amateur painter and draughtsman.   Hendrick’s mother was Johanna Wilhelmina van Giffen, who came from a wealthy family of silversmiths.  Sadly, she died at the age of 35, when Hendrik was just four years old.  Hendrik had an elder brother Taco who was born in 1829, a younger brother Gilles, born in 1832 and a sister, Ellegonda, who was born in 1827.  His cousin was the renowned painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the two men and their wives would remain friends throughout their lives.  As schoolchildren, both Hendrick and his older brother Taco showed and early artistic talent and their father decided to send them for some artistic training.  They both received drawing lessons from the Dutch painter, Cornelis Bernardus Buys who had also tutored Jozef Israels and later received drawing tuition from the Dutch painter and photographer, Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger.  However, for Hendrik, once he left school at the age of nineteen, art became just an enjoyable pastime, as he believed that his future, like that of his father, lay in banking.  Hendrik Mesdag joined his father’s bank where he remained for the next sixteen years.

Hendrik and Sientja (1906)
Hendrik and Sientja (1906)

On April 23rd 1856, when Hendrik was twenty-five years old, he married Sina (often known as Sientja) van Houten, who was three years his junior.  Her father, Derk van Houten, was a wealthy timber merchant who owned a large sawmill just outside Groningen.  She was the eldest of seven children brought up by a wealthy family, and she, like her husband, would become a painter later in life.  Hendrik’s love of art during his days as a banker did not diminish, in fact in August 1861 he enrolled as a pupil at the Academie Minerva, a Dutch art school based in Groningen.  On September 25th 1863 Sientje gave birth to their son Nicolaas, who was called Klaas.

In 1864, a year after she gave birth to her son, her father died and left her an inheritance which she finally received in 1866, the size of which was enough to allow her husband Hendrik to give up his job in his father’s bank and concentrate on his painting. You may wonder what Hendrik’s father thought of his son’s decision to quit the world of banking and take up a more hazardous life as an artist.  Maybe that can be answered by a passage in a letter he wrote to his son on October 9th 1868:

“…Keep up the good work and fulfil if possible my hope that you will someday become a true artist…”

In the Spring of 1866, Hendrik wrote to his cousin Laurence Tadema-Alma asking for some help with his desire to become a professional artist:

“…‘I’m 35 years old. I’ve a wife and child. I’ve been trained for business, but am not cut out for it. I’m a painter; help me…”

Tadema-Alma arranged a tutor for Mesdag.  He was Willem Roelofs, the Dutch painter, water-colourist, etcher, lithographer, and draughtsman and was one of the forerunners of the Dutch Revival art and one of the founders of the art society known as The Hague Pulchri Studio.  Roelofs agreed to train Mesdag but he didn’t come cheaply.  Roelofs wrote of his tuition agreement saying:

“…‘In the autumn (September) I’m expecting a new pupil, a cousin of Tadema, Mr Mesdag from Groningen. The 1,200 francs His Honour gives me is nothing to sniff…”

 

Roelofs wrote from Brussels to Mesdag on May 27th 1866 to tell him he looked forward to tutoring him:

“…As I’ve already told Alma-Tadema, nothing would give me greater pleasure than helping you with your study of landscape, and I hope to be able to stimulate you to make progress in our art…”

Woodcutters by Hendrik Mesdag (c.1866)
Woodcutters by Hendrik Mesdag (c.1866)

Before starting his tuition, Hendrik Mesdag took his wife Sientja on a short break to Oosterbeek, a small village on the outskirts of Veluwe in eastern Netherlands which was famed for its beautiful landscapes. At that time, Oosterbeek was the site of one of the first Dutch artist’s colonies. The artists there were followers of the French Barbizon naturalist tradition, and it attracted painters, such as landscape painter Johannes Warnardus Bilders, who was one of the the first to settle there and they were inspired by the open air and were able to capture the fluctuations of light. Bilders soon became an inspiration to many other painters who flocked to the region.  This would have been an ideal place for Mesdag to practice his en plein air painting.  Mesdag wrote Roelofs in May 1866, to tell him about his Oosterbeek plans.  Roelofs heartily approved of Mesdag’s plan to spend the summer making sketches directly from nature, and replied to his letter:

“…since, if you were here, I could advise you to do nothing better…”

After his summer sojourn in Oosterbeek, Mesdag and his wife and child move to Brussels in September 1866 where he began his three-year studies under Roelofs.

We know a little of the initial training and advice Mesdag was given by Roelofs as in the 1996 edition of the Van Gogh Museum Journal there is a quote from the van Houten archives of the dbnl (digitale bibliotheek de Nederlandse lettern) in which Roelofs advice to Mesdag is quoted:

“…Try and rid yourself of all so-called manner and, in a word, try and imitate nature with feeling, but without thinking about others’ work. Paint studies of parts, a bit of land for instance, a stand of trees or something of the kind, but always in such a way that it can be grasped in connection with the entire landscape […]. – These studies [are] in order to become acquainted with nature bit by bit. – Further studies of a whole, preferably very simple subjects. – A meadow with the horizon and a bit of sky […]. Paint all these studies not so you can bring home something beautiful […] but for yourself…”

Interior with Staircase by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)
Interior with Staircase by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)

Willem Roelofs was a great follower of the Barbizon School and the Barbizon artists whose paintings faithfully reproduced nature in their depictions.  Roelofs wanted Mesdag to go away and paint depictions of his own surroundings.  There was nothing to be fanciful about the depictions.  Roelof just wanted Mesdag to paint realistic depictions of his everyday life and what was happening around him.  One example was his 1868 painting Interior with Staircase.

Interior with Wife and Child by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)
Interior with Wife and Child by Hendrik Mesdag (1868)

Another early work by Mesdag was entitled Interior with Wife and Child which was also completed in 1868.

Fate again played a hand in the course of the artistic life of Mesdag for in the summer of 1868 he and his family went to Norderney for a holiday.  Norderney is one of the German East Frisian islands off the North Sea coast.  For Mesdag it was a veritable epiphany, for it was here that Mesdag discovered his love of the sea and seascapes and when he returned to Brussels he began to collect paintings which depicted the sea and it was from this time that he decided that he wanted to become a seascape artist. Mesdag became fascinated by the sea itself.  He was enthralled by the constantly changing shape of the waves and his sketches of the sea were testament to the realism of his art.  He constantly strived to improve his depictions of the sea and the waves and how they were constantly changing and in an interview for the De Nieuwste Courant in March 1901 he was quoted as saying:

“…at home I had spent an entire winter fumbling at a work; it was a coastline, but very naively painted. Then I said to myself: “You have to have the sea in front of you, everyday, to live with it, otherwise all this will come to nothing…”

Near the Lighthouse by Hendrik Mesdag (1873)
Near the Lighthouse by Hendrik Mesdag (1873)

It was probably then that he knew that he had to live by the sea.  Mesdag completed his three-year study course with Roelofs in Brussels in 1869 and the family moved to The Hague where he knew that there would be an abundance of sea views at the nearby coastal village of Scheveningen.  Hendrik also gained admission to The Hague’s Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society.   The society had been formed in 1847 because of mounting dissatisfaction among the young artists in The Hague who complained about there being little or no opportunities for training in art and developing their artistic skills and so the Pulchri Studio was established.  It was also to be an artistic talking-shop where artists could exchange views and ideas.

Mesdag had completed some seascapes but felt they were not good enough to exhibit and so spent hour after hour trying to perfect his depiction of the sea and elements of landscape paintings.  In another letter, dated June 1869, to his friend Verwée he talked about the pleasure it had brought him to be near to the coast, despite the sometime inclement weather:

“…Nature is so beautiful here, but the weather has been awful so far…”

Les Brisant de la Mer du Nord by Hendrick Mesdag (1870)
Les Brisant de la Mer du Nord by Hendrick Mesdag (1870)

For an aspiring artist, the one thing which would enhance their reputation was to have one of their paintings exhibited at the Paris Salon.  Mesdag failed to get any work exhibited at the 1869 Salon and so was very hesitant in deciding to try again the following year. It was only in March 1870 that he made up his mind to exhibit two paintings, one of which was to be ‘la grande marine’ entitled Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord and the other was Journée d’hiver à Schéveningue.   He sent both entries to the Paris Salon via Brussels, where his friend, Verwée saw them at a local art dealer’s gallery.   Verwée was unconvinced by the Journée d’hiver à Schéveningue, but thought the large seascape, Les Brisant, was excellent and this approbation pleased Mesdag.

Mesdag not only had his two paintings accepted but, to the surprise of many, was later awarded the gold medla for Les Brisant. The painting marked the start of Hendrik’s illustrious career as a seascape painter and this work is now considered as the first masterworks of The Hague School.  Mesdag started on this beautiful work in November 1869 as he mentioned in a letter to his good friend Alfred Jacques Verwée, a Belgian painter who was known for his depictions of animals, landscapes, and seascapes.  In the letter, dated November 15th 1869, Hendrik wrote to Verwée, as quoted in the 1989 book by Johan Poort, Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915): Oeuvrecatalogus:

“…Impressed by one of those bad days, I have painted over that large marine painting you saw. It is now much improved…”

Hotel Rauch
Hotel Rauch on Scheveningen beach front

The inspiration for this work was the North Sea at Scheveningen which was a short distance from The Hague where he lived.  So that he could spend an unlimited time at the coast, he rented a room in the Villa Elba which had a view of the sea.  Later he would move to the Hotel Rauch, located at the Scheveningen beach. Until his death in 1915, Mesdag visited the sea frequently to seek inspiration for his paintings. From his room he could observe the sea in every weather condition.

Les Brisant is a painting with a broad format, measuring 90cms x 181cms.  It is painted from a low point of view as if the artist sat or stood on the beach at the waterline with their brushes and easel, albeit we see nothing of the shore and yet through the change in tone of the colour we can see the change in depth of the water.   This low vista causes the horizon we see depicted just below the vertical centre of the work.  The one thing these two aspects achieve is it allowed Mesdag to ensure that the breakers fully stood out in this seascape. In the midground, just below the horizon we see the crest of the waves being caught by the wind.  We can tell that the depiction is during a period of adverse weather as the sky is both grey and stormy.  There are no humans in the depiction and yet if we look closely at the central foreground we see a piece of driftwood being battered towards the shore by the ferocity of the sea.  Look also to the central horizon and we can just make out a small ship battling the seas and struggling to survive.  These two elements bring home the ferocity of nature and the brutal nature of the sea that claimed so many of the lives of the fishermen of Scheveningen.

The Wave by Gustave Courbet (1869)
The Stormy Sea (The Wave) by Gustave Courbet (1869)

One knows that Mesdag was seduced by the view of the sea but what made him choose this motif for his painting?  Some believe that he was aware of the painting, The Stormy Sea (The Wave) by Gustave Courbet which the French painter completed whilst staying at Etreat and which he submitted to the Salon in September 1869 and received rave reviews around the world and maybe Mesdag realised that concentrating on the waves and sea would bring him similar acclaim, which we know was correct, as his submission gained a medal at the Salon.

In my next blog I will be looking at more of Hendrik Mesdag’s seascape works often featuring Scheveningen and their fishing folk.  It was this genre that Mesdag was mainly known for.   I will also look at the paintings done by his wife Sientje and look at the amazing and spectacular Scheveningen Panorama which Mesdag, with the help of his wife and a few friends completed and which measures an incredible 14 metres x 114 metres !!!!!

Sir George Clausen. Part 2 – More rural works and the War artist

Sir George Clausen       1852 - 1944
Sir George Clausen
1852 – 1944

In this concluding part looking at the life and works of George Clausen, later Sir George Clausen, I will focus on his love of depicting workers labouring in the fields in a genre of art which was often referred to as rustic naturalism and have a look at a couple of works he completed whilst he was employed as a war artist.

Agnes Mary Webster by George Clausen (1882)
Agnes Mary Webster by George Clausen (1882)

In 1881 George Clausen married Agnes Mary Webster of Kings Lynn and they went on to have three sons and a daughter.  Clausen had met her brother, Alfred, at South Kensington Art School where he was also studying art.  The following year Clausen painted his wife’s portrait.

Henry La Thangue, an English landscape painter, who had visited Brittany to paint and was a friend of Stanhope Forbes, another landscape artist, persuaded Clausen to take a trip there to discover the countryside and light the French area had to offer.  And so, in 1882, Clausen sett off for Brittany with his wife and visited the artist colony at Quimperlé, a small town, fifteen kilometres east of the other popular haven for artist, Pont Aven.   Here they met up with the Dublin-born artist, Stanhope Forbes who, two years later, moved to Newlyn in Cornwall and became a leading figure in that growing colony of artists.  Stanhope Forbes was excited that Clausen was to join him at Quimperlé writing to his mother in September 1882:

“…Thangue tells me he is sending G.Clausen the painter and his wife.  Very glad as he is a really good painter in fact belongs to the sacred band whom even I admire…”

 It was whilst here that Clausen produced a number of wonderful paintings depicting local peasant farm workers and their families.

Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé by George Clausen (1882)
Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé by George Clausen (1882)

One such work was entitled Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé which he completed in 1882.  This is a portrait of a young girl seen standing in a field, hand on hip, holding an earthenware pot.  She is dressed in a peasant costume, the quality of which indicates that she is from a family of limited means.  She is surrounded by tall spherical flowering onion plants. It is interesting to look closely at the way Clausen has depicted the pose of the young girl.   This is not the pose of a professional model.  This is a peasant girl displaying the uncomfortable pose of a young child, which makes the image of her appear so realistic.  There is no harshness about the way Clausen has depicted her facial expression.  It is a face that exudes gentleness.  What must be going through the child’s mind as she poses for this foreigner, the artist?

The Return to the Fields by George Clausen (1882)
The Return to the Fields by George Clausen (1882)

The next featured work of Clausen is a small watercolour (35 x 26 cms) which he again completed in 1882.   The painting, entitled The Return from the Fields depicts two young workers carrying bundles of brushwood which had been obtained by thinning out the copses.  This brushwood was used for hedging, or as beating implements used for fire fighting or sometimes used to construct sheep hurdles.  That year, the painting was exhibited at Institute of Painters in Watercolours, in London, under the title of Boy and Man and the art reviewer of the Magazine of Art commented favourably on the work:

“… the most artistic work on the walls……a small drawing, but it is so strong, and at the same time so tender and full of feeling, that it arrests attention more powerfully than the other pictures together.  It is evidently inspired by Millet…….he has struck the right road…”

Head of a Peasant Woman by George Clausen (1882)
Head of a Peasant Woman by George Clausen (1882)

Clausen painted two close-up portraits of peasant labourers.  The first was entitled Head of a Peasant Woman which he completed in 1882.   This is a wonderful portrait.  It is a triumph of realism as Clausen has depicted the woman, “warts and all”.  We see her weather beaten face caused by the many days and weeks of working the fields and her wrinkled bow is testament that she has endured a hard and worrisome life.  She doesn’t look directly at us as she rests her hands on a long stick.  The ring on her wedding finger glints in the sunlight.

Labourers after Dinner by George Clausen (c.1882)
Labourers after Dinner by George Clausen (c.1882)

The second portrait was an oil and canvas study of a young boy who was to figure in a work entitled Labourers after Dinner.  This painting is held in a private collection in Australia and I have not been able to find a colour copy of it so have just scanned a black and white version which I found in a magazine.   The painting was the first indication that Clausen was moving away from the emotional depiction of peasant pictures which had been popularised in England and France by Jules Bastien-Lepage.  Clausen veered towards more naturalistic, if brutal, genre subjects. This work was one of the most studied of Clausen’s early compositions.   It is a depiction of a boy sitting between his mother and father who were taking a rest from their work in the fields.  The controversial Irish novelist and art critic, George Moore, on seeing the painting, wrote scathingly about the group depicted in the painting in his 1893 book entitled Modern Painting. In it he commented on the depiction of the boy’s mother and father:

“…the middle aged man and woman who live in mute stupidity – they have known nothing but the daily hardship of living and the vacuous face of their son tells how completely the life of his forefathers has descended upon him…”

Head of a Peasant Boy by George Clausen (1884)
Head of a Peasant Boy by George Clausen (1884)

A “vacuous face” wrote Moore.  I will let you decide as the oil sketch Clausen made prior to the large scale painting, entitled Head of a Peasant Boy is awash with detail.  George Moore was not a lover of realism in art as in the same book he condemned it saying:

“…Realism, that is to say the desire to compete with nature, to be nature, is the disease from which art has suffered most in the last twenty years.  The disease is now at wane, and when we happen upon a canvas of the period like Labourers after Dinner, we cry out, ‘What madness! Were we ever as mad as that?”…”

Harsh words indeed and yet I like this painting.

The Shepherdess by George Clausen (1885)
The Shepherdess by George Clausen (1885)

Clausen was a founder member of the New English Art Club (NEAC) of London which was set up in 1885 in competition with the Royal Academy.  It was a club which attracted many young inspiring artists who were returning to England after their artistic studies in Paris.  One of Clausen’s first paintings to be exhibited at an NEAC exhibition was The Shepherdess which he completed in the Spring of 1885 and which is now art of the National Museums, Liverpool collection.   Clausen had sold the painting to John Maddocks an artist and art collector, and borrowed it back to show at the exhibition.  The orchard in which the young girl stands was to feature in a number of Clausen’s works.  In 1891, the art critic of The Magazine of Art, Butler Wood, commented on the work:

“…admirable specimen of Mr Clausen’s best manner, and displays feeling and atmosphere.  His colour scheme is simple, yet satisfactory and skilfully elaborated.  The girl’s figure is modelled with almost sculpturesque strength and the face painted with that ruddy glow of health which he is so clever at rendering…”

In 1891 Clausen moved from the Berkshire village of Cookham Dean and went to live in Widdington, a small picturesque village in the county of Essex.  He had been exhibiting most of his works at the New Gallery and the NEAC but as his paintings became larger in size they were not easily accommodated at these venues and so he had to once again look at exhibiting his larger works at the Royal Academy in London.  Clausen had fallen out with the Royal Academy years earlier over their teaching methods and their strict and antiquated rules but now, with an ever expanding family, he needed the support of the Academy if he was to sell his larger works.  In 1895, Clausen was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.  The art world noted his election to an establishment he had once roundly criticised but many saw Clausen as an excellent addition to the RA.  The scholar and prolific art critic of the time, often referred to as “one of the most powerful figures in the late Victorian art world”, Marion Spielmann, wrote about Clausen’s appointment in the February 1895 edition of weekly illustrated newspaper, The Graphic:

“…Mr Clausen was…… a signatory of the open letter which years ago set fire to the inflammable material which we young hot-bloods had….pile up  against the door of the Academy…. much amelioration has been brought since then;  the girls may now study from the semi-nude; then standard of probationership has been raised….”

Clausen now worked within the Academy system, a system which he had once heavily criticised.   He gave up his time, a couple of months each year, to teach students at the Royal Academy Life School Between 1904 and 1906 and in that year he became Professor of Painting at the Academy and, because of the large number of students who attended his lectures, was regarded as one of the most popular professors since Joshua Reynolds.

Bird Scaring by George Clausen (1896)
Bird Scaring by George Clausen (1896)

One of the works Clausen completed in 1896 was entitled Bird Scaring: March, and which is housed in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.  In Victorian days bird scarers were employed by farmers to act as human scarecrows. Their task was simple; they just had to position themselves in the farmer’s field and scare off the birds which swoop down to eat the farmer’s crops.  This onerous job was for very young children who had to be working in the fields, dawn to dusk, no matter what the weather was like.  In the painting we can see the young boy who, despite the cold weather, wears only sack-cloth.  A small fire has been lit on the ground to keep him warm.  The blue/grey smoke from the fire wafts behind him giving us the sense that it is not only cold but also windy.  He is energetically swinging around, holding a wooden clapper in his right hand which made sufficient noise to deter birds from landing nearby.

Youth Mourning by George Clausen (1916)
Youth Mourning by George Clausen (1916)

For my next two featured works by Clausen you will notice a complete change of style.  The first one was completed in 1916 and entitled Youth Mourning.  The work you see is not the original version but one altered on the request of the purchaser.  Clausen, who was sixty-four when he painted this work was too old for military service in the First World War, however he was not untouched by the many tragedies of the Great War for his son-in-law, the husband of his daughter Kitty, was killed in battle in 1915 and it was that sad event which moved him to paint this work.  It was his personal expression of grief for the thousands who perished during the conflict.  This was an artistic departure of his favoured rustic naturalism style and more towards the French Symbolist genre.

In the original work there were three white crosses in the ground just behind the female and further in the background many more white crosses could be seen.  When the owner of the work, a Mr C.N.Luxmoore, who bought this and many other paintings from Clausen presented it to the Nation in 1929 the crosses had been painted out just leaving a barren shell-holed hillside.  We have no definitive reason why the owner got Clausen to re-paint part of the work.   The resulting work has a powerful symbolic aura of anguish and sorrow captured by the nude female figure hunched over in the foetal position.  The finality of death is depicted by the barrenness of the landscape where nothing lives.

In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918 by George Clausen (1918)
In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918 by George Clausen (1918)

George Clausen was later appointed an official war artist and took part in the ambitious British War Memorials Committee art scheme in 1918. He produced a large 183 x 318cms oil on canvas work in 1918 entitled In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918.  This urban scene once again is huge shift away from rustic idylls of the countryside we saw in his earlier works.  The painting was a commission Clausen received from The Ministry of Information who said they wanted a “Uccello” sized work of art which would be exhibited in the Hall of Remembrance.  Clausen visited the gun factory on a number of occasions and had originally intended that the painting would be in an upright format but eventually realised that it had to be of a horizontal format.  The work was finally completed in December 1918 and was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition of 1919-20.  Critics believed it was one of the best works on display.  In 1926, due to his successful war commission he was commissioned to paint murals, notably Wycliffe’s English Bible for the Houses of Parliament and on completion of this task he was knighted.  He continued to regularly exhibit work at the Royal Academy during the 1930’s.

My Back Garden by George Clausen (1940)
My Back Garden by George Clausen (1940)

One of last paintings by Sir George Clausen was one he completed in 1940 entitled My Back Garden.  It was a depiction of the back garden of his house at 61 Carlton Hill, London.  He was eighty-eight years of age when he painted this picture.  It was almost a farewell painting as a year later; he had left his beloved house and garden because of the almost continuous bombing of London by the Nazis.  He decided that he and his wife should move to Cold Ash, a Berkshire village some two miles from the town of Newbury and seventy miles west of London.  Clausen continued to sketch and complete watercolours which he sent off for inclusion in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions of 1942 and 1943.   Clausen’s wife’s health had deteriorated in 1939 and she remained poorly until her death in March 1944.  Sir George Clausen died eight months later in November 1944, aged 92.   In June 1944, just five months before Clausen’s death, he was approached by Kenneth Clark, the Director of the National Gallery, proposing a retrospective exhibition of his work at the National Gallery.  Clausen was delighted with the proposal and wrote back to Clark:

“… I think such an exhibition as you suggest would be more appropriate when I am dead and indifferent to praise or censure !   However I will help you all I can…”

Sadly the exhibition never took place.

C R W Nevinson. Part 2 New York

Portrait of C R W Nevinson by  Ronald Ossory Dunlop
Portrait of C R W Nevinson by Ronald Ossory Dunlop

In my last blog I looked at the early life of Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson and featured some of his paintings which depicted the horrors of the First World War.  Today I want to conclude his life story and look at some of his other works of art which had nothing to do with war but which I find have their own beauty.

Nevinson had been taken ill in 1912 and was moved to Buxton to convalesce and it was whilst partaking of the healing waters at the Hydro that he met Kathleen Knowlman who had accompanied her father to the health resort.  With the outbreak of war in 1914, Nevinson, being a conscientious objector, had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in November 1915.  It was in this capacity that he had helped tend the wounded who had been brought home from the Front.  He was stationed at the Third General Hospital in London but was always aware that soon he would be called to leave the relative safety of England and travel to France.  Fully realising his possible death at the Front he decided that he should be married before he met his fate !  On November 1st 1915 he married Kathleen Knowlman.  It turned out that he was never sent to the front as he was invalided out of the army following bouts of pericarditis and rheumatic fever which he contracted in January 1916 which left him crippled and for a time he began to think he would never walk again.  He recalled the time in his 1935 autobiography, Paint and Prejudice:

“…I was now crippled completely. I began to think I should never walk again. Everything was tried on me while I lay helpless on my bed…”

Temples of New York by C R W Nevinson (1919) Drypoint. Trinity Church facade from the back, which faces Wall Street
Temples of New York by C R W Nevinson (1919)
Drypoint. Trinity Church facade from the back, which faces Wall Street

With the ending of the First World War in 1918, the public’s desire for his war paintings and their harrowing depictions of the suffering of the troops waned. Maybe people just wanted to forget about the previous four years and did not want to be reminded of the brutality of war.   For Nevinson, his favoured and once much appreciated subject matter had dried up and he had to make a decision as what to do next.   Paul Nash, a contemporary of Nevinson and also a war artist, summed up the war artists’ dilemma when he talked about the ‘struggles of a war artist without a war’.   At the end of the war, Nevinson went to Paris looking for new inspiration but soon tired of the French capital, a place he had visited as a child with his mother.  In the spring of 1919, he decided to visit America and in particular New York.  He had received an invitation from David Keppel to visit the American city to stage an exhibition of his War prints.  David Keppel who with his father, Frederick Keppel, were print publishers and owned a four-storey gallery on 4 East 39th Street in Manhattan.  They had exhibited many of Nevinson’s war prints which proved very popular with the American public.

Nevinson was made very welcome on his arrival and according to David Boyd Haycock in his 2009 book about the artist, A Crisis of Brilliance, relates how Nevinson was welcomed as a ‘war hero and victimised genius of modern European art, come to discover the USA and reveal it to itself ‘   Nevinson, on his arrival in New York, was taken aback by the city’s architecture, so much so when questioned by a local journalist of how he liked the city he commented that he loved the buildings so much he believed the city had been built for him.  Nevinson would roam around the city constantly sketching and after a month long stay in America, he returned to London and converted his sketches into paintings.   On his return to London he was to receive sad family news.  Whilst he was in America his wife had given birth to a son, Anthony Christopher Wynne on 21st May 1919. His mother, Margaret, recorded that the child only lived for fifteen days, which, as she put it, had been “just enough time to get fond of him.”   Nevinson later wrote in his autobiography:

“…On my arrival in London I was met by my mother, who told me my son was dead…”

 And he later added in a somewhat morbid fashion:

“…I am glad I have not been responsible for bringing any human life into this world…”

The Soul of the Soulless City (New York - an Abstraction) by C R W Nevinson (1920)
The Soul of the Soulless City (New York – an Abstraction) by C R W Nevinson (1920)

One of Nevinson’s depictions of  New York, which he completed back in London in 1920 before he returned to America that October to set up his second exhibition of work at Frederick Keppel & Co, New York gallery, was entitled The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’).  The painting depicts an idealised view of a section of the elevated railway which ran through Manhattan. It was an unusual work with a narrow chromatic range reliant mainly on shades of greys and browns with just merest hint of blue for the skies between the tops of the skyscrapers.  The way he has depicted the skyscrapers with their complex faceting harks back to Picasso and Braque’s cubism of a decade earlier.  There is something very powerful and impressive about the way Nevinson has depicted the railway line receding dramatically into a cluster skyscraper blocks.  There is a sense of speed about the disappearing railway track.  Nevinson, was associated with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti  and his concept of futurism, who wanted  to revolutionize culture including art and make it more modern. The new ideology of Futurism was an art form which stressed modernity, and the virtues of technology, machinery, and speed and we can see in this work that Nevinson was a great believer of the ideals of futurism.

When the work was first exhibited at the Bourgeois Galleries in New York it was entitled New York – an Abstraction.  It was not received well.  According to David Cohen in his 1999 The Rising City Urban Themes in the Art and Writings of C.R.W.Nevinson’, C.R.W.Nevinson The Twentieth Century, one critic went as far as to dub the painting  “inhuman, metallic and hard”.  Later when he exhibited the work in London in 1925 at the Faculty of Arts Exhibition, Grosvenor House, London, it was given the title of The Soul of the Soulless City and this change was almost certainly made by Nevinson himself and although it has been likened to Karl Marx’s comment on religion being the “heart of the heartless world”, it could also be because Nevinson had fallen out of love with the American city.

New York, Night by C R W Nevinson (c.1920)
New York, Night by C R W Nevinson (c.1920)

Another work by Nevinson with New York as its subject is New York, Night which he completed somewhere between 1919 and 1920.  This work which was completed around the same time as the previous work and was painted at the time when Nevinson was still in love with New York.   There can be no doubt about his initial love affair with New York for Nevinson was quoted by David Cohen in his 1999 book, C.R.W. Nevinson, The Twentieth Century:

 “…New York, being the Venice of this epoch, has triumphed, thanks to its engineers and architects, as successfully as the Venetians did in their time..Where the Venetian drove stakes into his sandbanks to overcome nature, the American has pegged his city to the sky. No sight can be more exhilarating and beautiful than this triumph of man…”

 The painting depicts the busy harbour of New York at night.  It is a view I have witnessed many times from the bridge of a ship as the city’s skyscrapers loom large ahead as we enter the port.   In the painting we see the giant buildings through the smoke and steam emanating from the funnels of the small tugs and ferries which ply their way up and down the Hudson River.  It is a mystical and atmospheric scene.  It is a scene depicting industry.  This is a scene of modernity, loved by the futurists.  In the foreground we see jibs of cranes busily working on the loading and unloading of cargo vessels berthed at Brooklyn, across the river from Manhattan.

Looking through Brooklyn Bridge by C R W Nevinson (1920)
Looking through Brooklyn Bridge by C R W Nevinson (1920)

Nevinson built up a collection of prints of Manhattan, another of which is the drypoint print entitled Looking through Brooklyn Bridge.  This work and another entitled Under Brooklyn Bridge are housed in the British Museum and were part of a set of ten drypoints of the city of New York which were commissioned by Frederick Keppel.  Whenever I visit New York I always take time to walk across this bridge and never fail to be enthralled by the views on offer when crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  What first strikes you about this work is how the bridge is the central “character” as it dwarfs the people we see walking across it.  In the background, through the mist, we see the colossal skyscrapers of Manhattan looming before us.  In the evening light they lack colour and are just presented as grey giants.  It is a cold depiction.  There is no warmth about it.  It is an inhospitable scene and the mist which gives a haziness to the skyscrapers also gives a feeling that the air may also be polluted.  The people are wrapped up in warm clothes and the wooden walk way looks wet as if the rain has been beating down on the massive structure.  The man in the foreground holds an umbrella but probably due to the strong winds, dare not open it to protect himself. Nevinson has managed to convey the massive structure as a monument to the permanence of the new Industrial time and it contrasts with the temporary nature of the people, who appear on it as mere shadows as they hurry from one side to the other.

Like a lot of artists, Nevinson did not take criticism and rejection well and his love for New York and America disappeared.  Not only were his paintings attracting criticism, he himself was also becoming disliked for his ill-conceived outbursts.  He often suffered periods of depression and would often be volatile.  He had an unfortunate habit of bragging and publicly aired embellished claims of his war experiences, which people found hard to accept and together with his depressive and temperamental personality, he became an unpopular figure on the New York art scene.   Whether it was because of the poor reviews or his growing dislike for the people around him, he decided to leave America.

So who was to blame for Nevinson’s falling out of love with America and the Americans.  Maybe the answer lies in the 1920 catalogue introduction to an exhibition of Nevinson’s work by the art critic Lewis Hind.  Of Nevinson he wrote:

“…It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists…”

In Julian Freeman’s biography on Nevinson he talked about the artist’s mental state during the last couple of decades of his life:

“…From 1920 until 1940 they carried his strident, maverick diatribes, aimed at society at large, and at the establishment in all its forms… and the variety, salacity, and often uncompromising savagery of his egocentric articles remains enormously entertaining. However, his autobiography is marked and marred by a strong undercurrent of confrontational right-wing xenophobia, and some of his private correspondence in the Imperial War Museum in London is explicitly racist: true signs of the times to which he was such a conspicuous contributor…”

I will leave the last word to the artist himself who, in his 1937 autobiography,  Paint and Prejudice,  wrote:

“…My prices have always been humble, but it has been possible up to the present to lead the life of a millionaire. Far from being a starving artist, a great deal of my time has been taken up in refusing food and drink, affairs with exquisite women, and wonderful offers of travel or hospitality. But I have always been driven mad by the itch to paint. Painting has caused me unspeakable sorrows and humiliations, and I frankly loathe the professional side of my life. I am indifferent to fame, as it only causes envy or downright insult. I know the necessity of publicity in order to sell pictures, because the public would never hear of you or know what you were doing unless you told them of it. But publicity is a dangerous weapon, double-edged, often causing unnecessary hostility and capable of putting you into the most undignified positions. Until of late I have had to fight an entirely lone hand. When I exhibited at the Royal Academy it was a revelation to me how well the publicity was done through the dignity of an institution rather than through the wits of an individual. But I suppose that now I shall always remain the lone wolf. I have been misrepresented so much by those who write on art that the pack will never accept me. Incidentally, because I painted I have earned something like thirty thousand pounds for the critics, curators, or parasites of art. Ninety per cent of their writings has consisted of telling the public not to buy my pictures and of charging me with every form of charlatanism, incompetency, ignorance, madness, degeneracy, and decadence. It is useless to deny that this has had its effect..”

A Winter Landscape by C R W Nevinson (1926)
A Winter Landscape by C R W Nevinson (1926)

His post-war career was not so distinguished.  He never achieved the adulation that was bestowed on him due to his war paintings.  Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson died in October 1946 aged 57.

Georges de la Tour. Part 2. Religious works and tenebrism

My featured artist today would often bring into play the tenebrism style in his works of art.  The term tenebrism comes from the Italian word tenebroso, meaning dark or gloomy and figuratively can be translated as “mysterious” and is a word used to primarily describe dark tonality in a work of art.  Tenebrism was developed to add a sense of drama to an image through a spotlight effect.  Tenebrist works of art first came on the scene in Rome around 1600 and some of the earliest examples were by Caravaggio.  The dark backgrounds to his works and the shadows cast across the subjects of his painting where in complete contrast to small areas of light, often from an unidentified source, which lit up part of the main depiction.  Caravaggio’s tenebrist style was taken up by a number of his Italian contemporaries such as the father and daughter painters Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi and the great Dutch Master, Rembrandt von Rijn.  Many of the artists from outside Italy who came to Rome and Naples to study art also experimented with tenebrism.  Georges de la Tour was a masterful exponent of this style of painting.  In some ways his tenebrist style was slightly different from that of Caravaggio in as much as he would often include the source of light in his painting.  Although Georges de La Tour spent his entire artistic career in provincial France, far from cosmopolitan centers and artistic influences, he developed a poignant style as profound as the most illustrious painters of his day. In his lifetime his work appeared in the prominent royal collections of Europe. La Tour’s early training is still a matter for speculation, but in the province of Lorraine he encountered the artist Jean Le Clerc, a follower of the Italian painter Caravaggio.

Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges De La Tour (1640)
Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges De La Tour (1640)

One great example of Georges de la Tour’s tenebrist style can be seen in his work entitled Magdalene with the Smoking Flame which Georges De La Tour, completed in 1640 and which can now be found in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  In this work we see a depiction of Mary Magdalen, not as an aged woman living a hermit-style life in her grotto, but as a contemplative young woman.  This is a depiction of a vivacious young woman who sought the pleasures of the flesh in her early days.  Her arms and legs are bare.  There is a sense of melancholia and loneliness about her demeanour.  She sits with her left elbow resting on the table with her hand supporting her chin as she gazes fixedly at the burning flame.  Maybe she is mentally examining her past life.   Look how the artist has managed to achieve differing textures which have been brought to life by the light of the candle.  Observe the textural difference between her heavy red skirt and thin white, wrinkled blouse which contrasts with the blemish-free smoothness of Magdalene’s flesh.  On her knees rests a skull which is always looked upon as symbolising our own mortality and the inevitability of death.  On the table there are books of Scripture, a wooden cross and a leather scourge which alludes to Christ’s suffering and his eventual crucifixion.  These latter two items add to the sombre mood of the work.  However, besides Magdalene, the main subject of the work is the oil lamp which smokes and emits the light that brings a modicum of luminosity to the dark painting.  Flame from a candle is often looked upon as symbolising enlightenment and purification but in this depiction there is a smoky element to the flame which may lead us to believe that enlightenment and purification of Magdalene’s mind and soul are not yet complete.     Although our eyes too are drawn to the candle we should look at other aspects of the work and see the mastery of the artist in the way he depicts the various textures.   We have the well-polished skull and the leather cover of the books both of which reflect the candlelight.

Christ in the Carpenter's Shop by Georges de la Tour (1645)
Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop by Georges de la Tour (1645)

Another haunting work of Georges de la Tour in his tenebrist style is Christ in the Carpenters Shop, completed in 1645 and which hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.  It is a depiction of Joseph, a descendant of the house of David, husband of Mary and “foster father” to Christ, who was a carpenter in Jerusalem. In Georges de la Tour’s depiction we see Joseph leaning forward, busy drilling a hole in a block of wood with his auger, the shape of which mirrors the shape of a cross.  He is in his workshop watched over by Jesus whose face radiates in the large frame.  Once again the depiction of the two characters is swathed in darkness with only their faces and upper bodies lit up by the flame of the candle held by the boy.

Jesus holding the candle
Jesus holding the candle

 Jesus is seated and holds a candle to illuminate what Joseph is doing.  It almost seems that it is the face of Jesus which is illuminating the scene and not the light of the candle.  The act of holding up the light for Joseph to see by has an allegorical reference to Jesus Christ being the Light of the World as mentioned in the New Testament (John 8:12):

“…I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life…”

The contrast between the two figures is striking.  The bearded Joseph, a large hulk of a man, is bent over towards his young helper in an almost threatening stance brought upon by the physical exertion of working the auger.   In total contrast Jesus is depicted as gentle youngster watching Joseph’s every move.  The candlelight illuminates the young face of Jesus.  There is purity and innocence in the way the artist has depicted the face of Jesus.  What is also fascinating about the depiction of the young Christ is the way de la Tour has depicted the luminescence of Jesus’ left hand which is shielding the flame. Although this is probably looked upon as a religious work because of its title, it could well have been a simple genre piece looking with strong realism at a young boy watching his father at work.  If we look at the floor, on which we see carpenter’s tools, a wooden ladle and a curled wood shaving.  It could almost be deemed as an excellent still-life work.

The Dream of St Joseph by Georges de la Tour (c. 1640)
The Dream of St Joseph by Georges de la Tour (c. 1640)

The Dream of St Joseph was a work completed by Georges de la Tour around 1640.   The work was based on a dream that Saint Joseph had, as recounted in Matthew’s New Testament gospels.   According to Matthew, Joseph had three dreams.  One was to tell him he was to be Mary’s husband and the father of the Christ Child.  The second dream was to warn Joseph that he must take Mary and Jesus, leave Bethlehem and go to Egypt and the third and final dream the angel told Joseph to take his family back to Nazareth as all was now safe.  :

Matthew 1:20-21

 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 2:13

 “…When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him…”

Matthew 2:19-20

 “…After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt  and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead…”

We are not sure as to which of the dreams is depicted in this painting and it matters not.  However some art historians who have researched the works of de la Tour have offered a different reasoning behind the work claiming that in early art catalogues the painting had a much simpler title, An Old Man Asleep, Woken by a Girl Carrying a Candle.  So is this a religious or secular work?  In the painting we see two people, an old man and a child.  The old man on the right is seated next to a small table.  His eyes are closed.  His mouth is slightly open.  He is asleep and possibly lost in a dream world.  His right elbow rests on the table and his head is resting in his right hand.  On his lap we see an open book with the fingers of his left hand still lightly gripping a page.   Standing in front of him is a child, probably a girl, dressed in the garb of a biblical character.

Dream-like apparition appearing to St Joseph
Dream-like apparition appearing to St Joseph

She stares at the sleeping man and has her arms outstretched in a prayer-like manner. There is something strange about her posture.  It is almost as if she is casting a spell over the sleeping man.   It is simply a depiction of a man and a child.  There are no sign of halos on the head of the child signifying her as an angel and so one can understand why some people cast doubts on the biblical connotation of the work.

What fascinates me about this work of art is the tenebrist style Georges de la Tour has used in his lighting of the depiction.  The light from the candle flickers and is partially hidden by the one of the girl’s outstretched arms but it still manages to light up her face in a haunting manner.  She becomes apparition-like which of course lends to the idea that she is in the old man’s dream.  Once again, as in the last painting the girl’s fingertips become translucent and the page held in the man’s hand is illuminated.   It is a fascinating work and I will leave you to decide whether you believe it is a religious work and hence it’s current title or whether it is simply a secular work of art and hence its original title.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Georges de la Tour (1644)
Adoration of the Shepherds by Georges de la Tour (1644)

There can be no such doubt with regards to my final featured work by Georges de la Tour.  The birth of Jesus and the presence of shepherds is a religious scene which has been depicted numerous times by different artists.   This painting, Adoration of the Shepherds, was completed by Georges de la Tour around 1644 and can now be found in the Louvre. The first thing we notice about this work is the amazing candlelight illumination which is associated with tenebrism.  As we look at the work we feel the tranquillity and contemplative mood of those around the newborn baby.   Mary is to the left of the painting, her hands clasped in prayer.   Opposite her is the elderly bearded figure of Joseph.  He holds a lit candle in his right hand whilst his left hand guards the flame from being extinguished.  Once again, as seen in previous works, the light from the candle filters through between the fingers of his hand.  His depiction of the visiting shepherds is a triumph of realism.  They crowd around the crib with their presents.  The one holding a staff has brought a sheep.  The one next to him, slightly in the background has brought a flute, which he clutches to his chest and the shepherdess, or it could be a serving girl, has come with food in the shape of a covered terrine.  Next to the crib the lamb chews at an ear of corn which is providing bedding for the infant.  There is a simplicity to this scene and this could well be due to the omission of the wealthy trio of visiting kings, dressed in their fine clothes, and holding their expensive gifts which are often included in depictions of the baby in the manger paintings.  It is thought that Georges de la Tour’s depiction emanates from the Christmas tradition when villagers dressed up as shepherds and shepherdesses to re-enact the Nativity scene and this premise is borne out by the way he has depicted the shepherds in fine contemporary clothing which is in contrast to the plain red gown worn by Mary.  Note the small shadow cast by the candlelight on her gown.  It is of a trèfle or trefoil, a three-leaved plant, which is part of the crib bedding and is probably a symbolic reference to the Holy Trinity.

In this and my previous blog I have featured two distinct types of paintings by Georges de la Tour and I will leave you decide which you prefer.

Georgia O’Keefe. Part 4 – New Mexico and later life.

Georgia O'Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1920)
Georgia O’Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1920)

In this final look at the life and works of the American artist Georgia O’Keefe I want to examine her love affair with New Mexico and how it influenced her art.  She had been living in New York during the winter months and in the summertime she and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, would move to his large family home at Lake George in upstate New York.  However by the end of the 1920’s Georgia had depicted all she could of the Lake George area and was looking for a new challenge, something fresh to influence her work.   Her reason for giving up her summer sojourns at Lake George could well be that she had tired of having to share the space with Stieglitz’s family and friends, who also passed time at Lake George during the summer months.  I already told you in the previous blog that in order to pacify Georgia, Stieglitz had agreed to her moving out of the large family home and live and work in a farm building on the estate, which she called her Shanty.  The desire to move away from Lake George and Stieglitz could have been Georgia’s desire to escape the suffocation of Stieglitz’s family and friends but another reason could have been that she was having health problems as in 1927 she had to undergo two breast operations.  Another contributory factor could be Georgia’s unhappiness at Stieglitz having become infatuated with a young woman Dorothy Norman, forty-four years his junior.

Rebecca Strand
Rebecca Strand

Fate took a hand in 1929.  Her friend and fellow artist, Rebecca Strand, the wife of photographer, Paul Strand, who was a close friend of Alfred Stieglitz, suggested that she and Georgia take a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Georgia liked the idea of escaping Lake George that summer and so in the May the two set off on the long train journey to the New Mexico town.  Not long after arriving in Santa Fe, the two women received an invitation from Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy American writer and patron of the arts, to come and visit her and stay a while at her large twelve-acre property in Taos, New Mexico.  Mabel Luhan was a great hostess who liked to surround herself with artists and writers.  Taos was a small town, situated on a high plateau in the north-central region of New Mexico, whose inhabitants at the time were mainly native Indians.  It had become, since the beginning of the twentieth century, a favourite destination of artists because of its unspoiled landscape and clear light and in 1915 the Taos Society of Artists was formed.  The English writer and playwright, D.H. Lawrence, fell in love with the area waxed lyrically on the effect it had upon him:

“…The moment I saw the brilliant proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.   There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty……In the magnificence fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new…”

Georgia O’Keefe also could not have been happier with what she saw at Taos.  Mabel Dodge Luhan had even provided her two visitors with a studio within her large house. Georgia found Taos and the surrounding area simply inspirational and so different from the places she had previously visited.  She spent her time during her five-month stay wandering around the area visiting the small Indian villages on foot or sometimes on horseback constantly sketching and developing ideas for her work.  Travelling by foot or horse restricted the distance she could travel so Georgia learned how to drive and bought herself a Ford Model A car, and from then on, distance was no longer a problem.

The D.H. LawrenceTree by Georgia O'Keefe (1929)
The D.H. LawrenceTree by Georgia O’Keefe (1929)

One of the places Georgia visited was the Kiowa Ranch, which was owned by Mabel Dodge Luhan and who had gifted it to the English writer D.H.Lawrence and his wife Frieda in 1924.  It is situated near the town of San Cristobal, some twenty miles north west of Taos.  It has become known as the D.H. Lawrence Ranch.  One of the great natural phenomena on the ranch was the great pine tree, which stood in front of, and towered over the ranch house.  This beautiful specimen became known as the Lawrence Tree, as he used to sit writing at a table at its base and in Rachel Maurer’s The D.H. Lawrence Ranch she quotes the English writer’s description of the tree he loved so much:

“…The big pine tree in front of the house, standing still and unconcerned and alive…the overshadowing tree whose green top one never looks at…One goes out of the door and the tree-trunk is there, like a guardian angel. The tree-trunk, the long work table and the fence…”

Georgia O’Keefe wonderfully captured the tree in her 1929 painting, The D.H. Lawrence Pine Tree.  Of it, she said:

“… There was a long weathered carpenter’s bench under the tall tree in front of the little old house that Lawrence had lived in there. I  often lay on that bench looking up into the tree…past the trunk and up into the branches. It was particularly fine at night with the stars above the tree…”

At first glance, the depiction of the tree almost resembles an octopus with its long tentacles stretching out amidst its ejected black ink. Once you look closer you begin to realise that what you are looking at are the branches of a tree as they stretch upwards into the cloudless night sky.  Georgia achieved this depiction by painting it whilst lying down on a long carpenter’s bench at the base of the tree and looking up at the star-filled sky through its branches and the dark mass of pine needles.  It is a beautifully evocative work of art.  The painting now hangs at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Photoraph of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, Taos, NM
Photoraph of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, Taos, NM

Another place which fascinated O’Keefe during her 1929 visit to Taos was the San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church at Ranchos de Taos with its massive adobe buttresses and two front-facing bell towers,which was completed in 1816.  This building is a National Historic Landmark, dating back to Spanish Colonial times.

Photograph of the rear view of the church
Photograph of the rear view of the church

It is a well-preserved adobe building in the heart of the community at the central plaza of the Ranchos de Taos Historic District and is re-mudded every spring.  O’Keefe was fascinated by the buildings of the indigenous people and completed a series of six paintings featuring the church from different angles, some in the clear light of day with cloudless blue skies, others with a cloud covering.

Ranchos Church, No. II, NM, by Georgia O'Keefe (1929)
Ranchos Church, No. II, NM, by Georgia O’Keefe (1929)

O’Keefe wanted her work to highlight the natural harmony of the building with the surrounding nature and she has cleverly captured just that by merging the rounded forms of the sand coloured building with the similarly coloured ground.

Grey Hills by Georgia O'Keefe (1942)
Grey Hills by Georgia O’Keefe (1942)

From 1929 to 1949, O’Keefe regularly returned to New Mexico each summer although she found the growing artist colony of Taos at odds with her desire for isolation and tranquility and so in 1931 she began to spend her summers in the Rio Grande Valley, which lay west of Taos and rented a small cottage in the village of Alcalde.  Georgia O’Keefe was fascinated by the barren landscape with its red sand hills and the flat-topped tablelands.  This was the New Mexico Badlands, which was a type of arid terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils had been considerably scoured by both wind and water.What she saw before her may have been inhospitable and infertile but it was the colours which fascinated her and inspired her paintings.  Of this factor she once said:

“…All the earth colours of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands.  The light Naples yellow through the ochres – orange and red and purple earth – even the soft earth greens…”

Small Purple Hills by Georgia O'Keefe (1934)
Small Purple Hills by Georgia O’Keefe (1934)

In 1934 she completed a painting entitled Small Purple Hills, which depicts the stark, desolate and yet colourful rocky formation.

Another series of her paintings depicting the dark and forbidding landscape with its grey and black hills, was her series of paintings entitled The Black Place.   They were depictions of the Bisti De-Nazin Badlands, a desolate wilderness area in Navajo country, some 150 miles north west of her Ghost Ranch home.  Georgia loved the place and its isolation and made a number of camping trips between 1936 and 1949, sometimes alone, other times with her friend and assistant, the writer, Maria Chabot, who lived with her at Ghost Ranch, from 1940 to 1943.

Black Place II by Georgia O'Keefe (1944)
Black Place II by Georgia O’Keefe (1944)

The painting Black Hills II, completed in 1944, was one in the series of six, which she completed between 1944 and 1945, and Chabot, in her book, Maria Chabot—Georgia O’Keeffe: Correspondence 1941–1949, described the work:

“… the black hills—black and grey and silver with arroyos of white sand curving around them—pink and white strata running through them. They flow downward, one below the next. Incredible stillness!…”

In 1946, Ms. Chabot agreed to organize the rebuilding of an adobe hacienda on a hilltop in Abiquiu.  The town sits on a plateau at an elevation of 6,400 feet, overlooking the Chama River Valley in Rio Arriba County in New Mexico and forty-eight miles northwest of Santa Fe.  This was to become Georgia O’Keefe’s winter home.  It had originally been two buildings, one of which had been a home to pigs and this was converted into her studio, bedroom and bathroom, whilst the other building was transformed into her kitchen and living rooms and guest bedrooms.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses by Georgia O'Keefe (1931)
Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses by Georgia O’Keefe (1931)

In the first part of this four-part blog on Georgia O’Keefe I asked you to name the most quintessential American artist and I had chosen her, not because of her floral paintings, but for her rugged landscapes but most of all for her works which depicted the skulls, horns and antlers of cattle and other animals which she collected up from the desert and which reminded me so much of the Wild West and American history.  There are two in particular that I like.  The first of these is Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, which she completed in 1931 and can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago.  The previous year Georgia O’Keeffe had witnessed a devastating drought in the Southwest that caused the starvation and death of many animals.  All around the skulls and carcasses of the dead animals littered the landscape. Georgia was enthralled by what she witnessed and had a number of these bones shipped back to New York so she could depict them in her paintings. Of this collection of skulls and bones she commented:

“…To me they are as beautiful as anything I know…The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable…”

 In Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, O’Keeffe incorporated a somewhat ghoulish aspect by embelishing the skull of the cow with two artificial flowers, the type which often adorned graves in New Mexico.

Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills by Georgia O'Keefe (1935)
Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills by Georgia O’Keefe (1935)

The second painting I like is entitled Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills, which she completed in 1935 and is housed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In this painting we see an enlarged ram’s skull and antlers depicted floating over a mountainous landscape and a grey cloudy and threatening sky.  Once again, as was the case in a number of flower paintings some art historians alluded to the depiction of the lower part of the ram’s skull having a resemblance to the female genitalia!

In May 1946 the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York held a retrospective of her work.  Sadly a month later, Alfred Stieglitz died of a cerebral thrombosis and Georgia returned to New York, where she remained for almost three years in order to settle his estate.  In the spring of 1949 she returned to her beloved New Mexico.  She lived at her house in Abiquiu during the winter and spring and then moves back to her Ghost Ranch during the summer months.

Up until 1956 Georgia, who was then sixty-six years of age, had never travelled outside of America but that was all to change for long periods during the rest of her life she travelled around the world.  In 1962, O’Keeffe was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and four years later she became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science.  In the autumn of 1970, the Whitney Museum of American Art granted her a retrospective exhibition.  The exhibition was a great success and revived her popularity with the American public.

Georgia O'Keefe (1887 - 1986)
Georgia O’Keefe
(1887 – 1986)

Her final foreign journey to Costa Rica came about in 1983 when she was ninety-six years of age !  In 1984, for health reasons, she had to leave her Abiquiu hacienda and she moved to Santa Fe.  Georgia O’Keefe died on March 6th 1986 at the age of 98.  In compliance with her last wishes her ashes were scattered over the land around her beloved Ghost Ranch.

This ends my four-part look at the life of Georgia O’Keefe.  There are many books about her life and works and one I can recommend is O’Keefe by Britta Benke.

In my next blog I will be looking at another female artist who was known for her flower and plant paintings.  However unlike Georgia O’Keefe this artist concentrated on detailed and botanically accurate depictions of her subjects and I suppose instead of labeling her as a floral painter she is better described as a botanical painter.