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

Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)

Sientje Mesdag van Houten (c.1905)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head of a Dog by Sientje van Houten (1875)

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

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

Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje van Houten Medag

Still Life with Yellow Roses by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

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

Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje van Houten Medag

Sheep Barn hidden behind Ancient Oaks by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

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

Camelias in Vase by Sientje van Houten Mesdag

Camelias in Vase by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

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

Farm and creek with boat by Sientje van Houten Mesdag

Farm and creek with boat by Sientje Mesdag van Houten

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

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

Sientje and Hendrik Mesdag

Sientje and Hendrik Mesdag

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

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

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Dutch painters, Female artists, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Sientje van Houten, Still life paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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 !!!!!

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Dutch painters, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Adriaen van de Velde. Part 2 – beachscapes and landscapes

In my second blog on the seventeenth century Dutch artist, Adriaen van de Velde I want to look at his landscape and beachscape paintings.

The Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1658)

The Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1658)

Probably his best-known beachscape work is his 1658 painting entitled The Beach at Scheveningen which can be found in the Staatliche Museen, in Kassel, Germany and is looked upon as one of the outstanding works of the Dutch Golden Age.  Scheveningen is a district of The Hague.  It was a fishing village at the time of the painting and it was not until the early nineteenth century that it became a seaside bathing resort.

Of the painting and Adriaen van de Velde, the eminent Dutch art historian Horst Gerson wrote in a 1953 article in the Burlington Magazine, quoting from the eighteenth century German art historian Gustav Waagen’s 1860 book, Handbook of painting.  The German, Flemish and Dutch Schools:

…At the age of nineteen he was already in this department one of the greatest masters that ever lived; the picture dated 1658, in the Kassel Gallery, displaying a tender feeling for nature, a mastery of drawing and a delicacy of chiaroscuro and harmony which are truly astonishing…”

 The setting is a bright but windy summers day on a wide sandy beach which is populated by several visitors who have come to take in the bracing sea air.  In the centre foreground, we see a well-dressed young couple, who are probably on a day trip to the seaside.  To their right we see a group of children playing in a large puddle of water, the remnants of the previous high water.  To the left perched on a hill is a church with its tall steeple, beneath which we see a rider on a horse galloping parallel to the line of dunes.  A covered wagon slowly trundles along the tide line.  Towards the right foreground, we see a group of fishermen, with their trouser legs rolled up, preparing to go into the water with their nets but the most unusual character is the one in the extreme right of the work.  Take a look at him.  His trouser legs are also rolled up.  Is he yet another fisherman or somebody who just wants to paddle and feel the sea caressing his feet.  His hands are clasped casually behind his back.  He is lost in thought as he looks out to sea. Maybe he was once a seafarer and is now remembering those times.

The Beach at Scheveningen by Simon de Vlieger (1633)

The Beach at Scheveningen by Simon de Vlieger (1633)

Depictions of the Scheveningen beach were often seen in paintings by other Dutch artists such as one of Adriaen van de Velde’s tutors, Simon de Vlieger’s 1633 in his work The Beach at Scheveningen.

Painting before restoration

Painting before restoration

Another work entitled View of Scheveningen Sands painted by Hendrick van Anthonissen in 1641, featuring the same beach, has a very interesting story attached to it. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has owned the work since it was bequeathed to them by amateur artist and clergyman Edward Kerrich in 1873.  By chance, the painting came to the Hamilton Kerr Institute, a division of the museum, renowned for paintings research and conservation, because the Dutch Golden Age gallery of the museum was being renovated.

View of Schevningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen (1641)

View of Schevningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen (1641)

The varnish coating on the painting had yellowed and become unsightly.   Initially, what appeared strange to the museum experts about the depiction was why were the people clustered at the sea edge and on the dunes above, on a cold wintry day staring at the tide line.  What were they looking at?  There then followed a long discussion among the experts of the museum about the potential risk of damaging the painting if and when they removed the varnish and some of the over-painting.  However, it was agreed to let the conservator, Shan Kuang, proceed to remove the overpainting, using a scalpel and solvents, working on tiny areas at a time,  under a microscope.  She then discovered that there appeared to be a man standing in mid-air, next to what looked like a sail from a boat.   After more of the over-painting was removed they realised the man was not standing in mid-air but on the back of an enormous whale which had beached in the shallows and what at first was thought to be a sail was in fact the whale’s large dorsal fin.

Carriage on the Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660)

Carriage on the Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660)

There is another Scheveningen beach painting by Adriaen van de Velde in the Louvre entitled Carriage on the Beach at Scheveningen.  This was completed in 1660 and is yet another of his works featuring the popular Dutch seaside resort.  In the painting we can see an imposing carriage making its way along the beach at Scheveningen.  The carriage is being directed by a man in a blue uniform, who sits astride the lead white horse, whilst the driver, who sits atop the carriage, is seen cracking his whip. There is a bit of humour added to this work as we see one of the valets, who is also bedecked in blue livery, running after two hunting dogs, which are happily playing on the sand. It is thought that the carriage was that of William, the young sovereign Prince of Orange, who would later become William III of England (William of Orange).  The tide is out, and we see local villagers walking along the beach.  Children are playing and, in the right foreground, we see a man carrying a large net, coming back from fishing. The composition, which is mainly made up of horizontals, is split by the vertical of the boat mast and the church steeple.  Sunlight comes diagonally from the left of the depiction, illuminating the white horses and casting long shadows of the people and carriage on the sand .  This soft golden light is probably due to the influence of the Dutch Italianate painters of the time such as Jan Both, Karel Dujardin and Nicolaes Berchem who had all stayed in Italy.  They had travelled extensively around the country and had adopted the style of landscape painting that they found there, and then incorporated Italian models and motifs into their own works.  Every detail in the painting has been meticulously drawn by the artist and it was his ability to draw characters that made him popular with other artists of the time who needed figures added to their landscapes or beachscapes – staffage!

Panoramic Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon by Adriaen van de Velde (1661)

Panoramic Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon by Adriaen van de Velde (1661)

However, Adriaen van de Velde is probably best known for his landscape paintings.  His painting, Panoramic Summer Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon, which he completed in 1661 was described by Wolfgang Stechow, the German American art critic, pianist, and violinist, as being:

“…a landscape of such serene beauty and golden softness that its comparison with a Mozart melody will not, the writer hopes, be dismissed as farfetched…”

The setting is a late summer afternoon.  In the work, we see a man astride a horse being given directions.  Man and horse are bathed in sunlight as is the field with its four sheaves of wheat.  Cast in shadow, we also see a woman with child on her back and one by her side and a shepherd who is looking after his small flock of sheep.  In the right middle ground, also in shadow, is a small village on the edge of an expanse of water, with its church and tall steeple.

A River Scene by Salomon van Ruysdael

A River Scene by Salomon van Ruysdael

This type of composition we see before us with a tall tree on one side was dubbed by Wolfgang Stechow as being of a “one-wing composition” pattern which had been favoured by Salomon van Ruysdael.  It is a type of composition in which the large tree in some way acts as an introduction to the viewer to gaze at the panoramic view in the rest of the depiction.  Ruysdael’s landscapes would often have a single tall tree or a group of them to one side of his landscape paintings.  In this painting, van de Velde has counter-balanced the mass of leaves atop the tree on the left with the dense clouds on the right.

Departure for the Hunt by Adriaen van de Velde (1662)

Departure for the Hunt by Adriaen van de Velde (1662)

A painting by Adriaen van de Velde which has elements of a landscape painting but is populated by many figures is entitled Departure for the Hunt, which he completed in 1662.  In all. there are sixteen human figures, eight horses and twenty-three dogs.  However, most are hidden in shadow and only the couple on the left, the man astride the horse blowing the hunting horn and the groom tending the rider-less white horse are illuminated by sunlight.   The painting was last publicly exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1952.  One of the reviewers of the exhibition was Horst Gerson wrote about it in the Burlington Magazine.  He remarked:

“…The well-to-do English collector of the eighteenth century loved to possess a good Adriaen van de Velde with his Wouwermans and Aert van der Neer.  The brilliant colours and the refined technique of these artists appealed to the cultivated taste of the upper-class…”

The "haves" and "have-nots"

The “haves” and “have-nots”

It is a highly colourful depiction and we are prompted to look at the detail of the work with its many figures.  We see beggars in the bottom left of the work trying to cajole the well-dressed couple into helping them financially.  This combination of the two beggars and the wealthy beautifully adorned couple makes us aware of the “haves and the have nots”.  To the right in the foreground we see the amusing scene of one of the dog handlers struggling manfully to control his charges.  It seems he is losing the battle.

 There are so many more paintings I could have included but I though this is just a “taster” to whet your appetite and persuade you to research more of his works.  If you live in London the Dulwich Picture Gallery is exhibiting a collection of his works until January 15th 2017 and I hope to visit there before it closes.  A book which accompanies the exhibition, Adriaen van de Velde, Dutch Master of Landscape was my main source for this blog.

Tomorrow I am off on a three day trip to The Hague to visit the Gemeentemuseum and the Alice Neel Exhibition and see the works of the American artist whom I extensively covered in six blogs a month or so ago and whilst in the Dutch city I hope to visit some other art galleries and feast my eyes on some beautiful Dutch and Flemish seventeenth century art.

Posted in Adriaen van de Velde, Beachscapes, Dutch painters, Landscape paintings, Salomon van Ruysdael | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adriaen van de Velde. Part 1 – Family and early influences.

I think I have already mentioned, on more than one occasion, that of all the different eras in art, my favourite is seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish art with some of my favourite artists, Jan Steen, Albert Cuyp, Jacob van Ruisdael and Paulus Potter all being born in the 1620’s.  Today, it gives me great pleasure in presenting another  talented painter of that time.   The artist I am featuring in this blog was once described as a wunderkind and the Mozart of the art world, for he, like the great composer, was a young genius.  Sadly, also like Mozart, he died young, at the age of thirty-five.  Today I am looking at the life and art of Adriaen van de Velde, whose landscapes are looked upon as being the very best that the Dutch Golden Age produced.  I also want to look at his family and other artists who influenced him.

The brothers van de Velde. Etching by Gerard Darbiche from painting by Ernest Meissonier

The brothers van de Velde.
Etching by Gerard Darbiche from painting by Ernest Meissonier

Adriaen van de Velde was born in Amsterdam in November 1636.  He came from an artistic family with both his father, Willem van de Velde the Elder, and Adriaen’s elder brother, Willem van de Velde the Younger, being marine painters.  Adriaen’s father’s interest in marine painting probably stemmed from the fact that his father, Adriaen’s Flemish-born grandfather, Willemsz van de Velde, was a bargemaster and merchant plying his trade in inland shipping.  His grandfather and his family were Calvinists and when Spain, which was staunch Catholic, took control of Flanders they were forced to move to the Protestant north, to Leiden sometime in the 1580’s.  Adriaen’s father, Willem van der Velde the Elder, was born in Leiden in 1611.  In 1631 he married Judith van Leeuwen and she went on to give him three children, Magdalena who was born in 1632, Willem in 1633 and finally Adriaen in 1636.

Battle of Dunkirk by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1639)

Battle of Dunkirk by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1639)

Willem van der Velde the Elder earliest drawings date back to the 1630’s and 1640’s and they would often feature individual ships of the Dutch fleet. His art also depicted many naval battles, which he had been commissioned to paint by the Dutch admiralty. One trip he made was in July 1653 was during the Battle of Scheveningen, which was the final naval battle of the First Anglo-Dutch War between the fleets of the Commonwealth of England and the United Provinces.  In 1658 Van de Velde accompanied the Dutch navy to Copenhagen when Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer defended the Danes’ right of way into the Baltic against Charles X’s Swedish forces; the drawings that Van de Velde produced of this battle earned him the praise of the Danish king.

Dutch Men of War at Anchor by Willem van de Velde the Elder

Dutch Men of War at Anchor by Willem van de Velde the Elder

His representation of major naval battles continued with the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665. One of his largest commissions, from Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, was to record the Four Days’ Battle in 1666.

The Battle Council on the De Zeven Provincien by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1666)

The Battle Council on the De Zeven Provincien by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1666)

The twenty-four drawings that survive represent moments from the battle itself as well as the individual vessels that gathered around De Ruyter’s flagship. De Ruyter employed the artist again during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, to record the Battle of Solebay on June 7, 1672.and sketch battle scenes first hand and then later, in the comfort of his studio, fashion very detailed pen paintings.  His expertise with pen paintings had him referred to as a ship draughtsman or artist and ship draughtsman rather than a painter.

Dutch Ferry Boat before a Breeze by Simon de Vlieger

Dutch Ferry Boat before a Breeze by Simon de Vlieger

Adriaen’s brother Willem, who was born in Leiden was interested in carrying on the marine painting tradition of his father and was trained by his father and later by Simon de Vlieger, a Dutch designer, draughtsman, and painter, who was most famous for his marine paintings.

Willem and his father remained in Amsterdam until 1672, the year Adriaen died, and then, as a consequence of the economic collapse brought about by the French invasion they were forced to move to England to seek out a living from their artworks.  Two years later, in 1674, he and his father entered the service of Charles II, and Willem the Younger had the use of a studio in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, before moving to Westminster in 1691.

Ships in a Gale by Willem van de Velde the Younger

Ships in a Gale by Willem van de Velde the Younger

Adriaen van de Velde, although initially taught by his father, wanted to paint something different and decided to concentrate on landscape art and some believe, for that reason, it was arranged that he went to study at the studio of Jan Jansz Wijnants.

Landscape with Two Hunters by Jan Wijnants

Landscape with Two Hunters by Jan Wijnants

Wijnants was an Italianate landscape painter who took his inspiration from the art of the Dutch painters who had travelled to Italy and consciously adopted the style of landscape painting that they found there.  They then incorporated Italian models and motifs into their own works.  However, this is disputed by many as Wijnants was only five years older than Adriaen and the two were unlikely to be master and pupil.  What is agreed is that the two collaborated on some works.

Cattle in a Meadow by Paulus Potter (1652) Oil on wood.

Cattle in a Meadow by Paulus Potter (1652)
Oil on wood.

One artist of that era who was a great influence on Adriaen was Paulus Potter who was eleven years his senior.  Paulus Potter was a Dutch painter who specialized in animals within landscapes, usually with a low vantage point.  He lived in Amsterdam from 1852 to 1854 which would be about the time when sixteen-year old Adriaen would be looking for a tutor and a studio to work in.  Many believe Potter could have taken Adriaen under his wing and tutored him.

Standing Bull by Adriaen van de Velde (c.1657)

Standing Bull by Adriaen van de Velde (c.1657)

Adriaen van de Velde besides being a talented landscape painter was also an accomplished draughtsman. He was actively involved in the practice of staffage.  So what is staffage?  Staffage is when an artist adds human or animal figures as subordinate elements to a landscape painting in order to give the painting a livelier appearance. Staffage was commonly used by 16th- and 17th-century landscape painters, who would often include religious and mythological scenes in their works. Staffage was frequently painted into a picture, not by the landscapist, but by another artist and this where Adriaen came into his element for he was extremely talented when it came to drawing animals and humans and added figures and animals into paintings by Meindert Hobbema, Jacob van Ruisdael, Willem Verboom and other contemporary artists.

Kneeling Female by Adriaen van de Velde

Kneeling Female by Adriaen van de Velde

Adriaen van de Velde was one of only a few seventeenth century landscape artists whose surviving graphic collection of works include figure studies. Many of his figure studies and sketches, which were later used in his paintings, still exist.  Adriaen completed many female nude studies and was always interested in posture and how it affected the female form.  A nude female sketch of his can be found in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford entitled Kneeling Female Nude.

The Annunciation to the Virgin by Adriaen van de Velde (1667)

The Annunciation to the Virgin by Adriaen van de Velde (1667)

It is thought that this sketch could have been a preliminary sketch he used when painting The Annunciation to the Virgin which he completed in 1667 and which now hangs in the Rijksmuseum.

Vertumnus and Pomona by Adriaen van de Velde

Vertumnus and Pomona by Adriaen van de Velde

Adriaen completed a work which highlights his ability to depict the female form.  It is entitled Vertumnus and Pomona and was completed in 1670.  Vertumnus and Pomona is a story of seduction and deception from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the two featured in many 17th century Dutch paintings. Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasons and change, assumed multiple guises as he attempted to woo the recalcitrant wood nymph Pomona.

The Migration of Jacob by Adriaen van de Velde (1663)

The Migration of Jacob by Adriaen van de Velde (1663)

Besides his wonderful landscapes Adriaen completed many religious works and his “stand out” painting would probably be one he completed in 1663 entitled The Migration of Jacob.  The depiction is based on the story in the Old Testament (Genesis XXXI, 17-18):

“…Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan Aram to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan…”

Jacob left Paddan Aram in Northwest Mesopotamia, fleeing from his father -in-law, Laban whom he had worked for,  for more than twenty years. The bible story continued:

“…When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods.  Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. So he fled with all he had, crossed the Euphrates River, and headed for the hill country of Gilead…”

In the painting, we see a large procession meandering through the countryside.  It is headed by Jacob who with his wives, possessions and cattle are on a journey to reach his father, Isaac, who lived in Canaan.  Jacob, wearing the white turban sits astride the bay horse and we see him talking to his favourite wife, Rachel.  She is riding the white horse whilst she breast-feeds her child, Joseph.  The figures in the painting are in the shadows whilst the two main protagonists and those who are herding the sheep, are bathed in sunlight.  If one did not know the story one would believe it is a peaceful procession slowly crossing the landscape but Adriaen has add dark threatening clouds to give the idea that there is an urgency to this “convoy” and that not all is well.  Laban, after three days, realised that his daughter and son-in-law have left taking with them many of his possessions and gives chase.  What happened next ?   I will leave you to consult the Old Testament book of Genesis to find out !!

Agony in the Garden by Adriaen van de Velde

Agony in the Garden by Adriaen van de Velde

Another religious work by the artist was Agony in the Garden. This picture belongs to the principal group of large-scale religious works by him which he completed in the 1660s for the secret Catholic places of worship in and around Amsterdam. These commissions for religious works by the Catholic Church followed on from his marriage in 1657 to a Catholic lady, Maria Pietersz Ouderkerck, at which time he also converted to Catholicism.

In my next look at the works of Adriaen van de Velde I will be concentrating on what he was best known for  – his exquisite landscapes.

Posted in Adriaen van de Velde, Dutch Italianate painters, Dutch painters, Jan Wijnants, Landscape paintings, Religious paintings, Seascape, Simon de Vlieder, Willem van de Velde the Elder, Willem van de Velde the Younger | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Alice Neel. Part 6. The latter years

 Alice Neel (1900-1984)

Alice Neel
(1900-1984)

Alice Neel had been receiving money for her involvement with the Works Project Administration (WPA).  The WPA was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people, mostly unskilled men, to carry out public works projects.  The WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.  At its height in 1936, this federal project, the Federal Art Project employed over 5,300 artists. The Arts Service Division created illustrations and posters for the WPA writers, musicians, and theatres. However, with the onset of World War II, mass unemployment ended as millions of men joined the services and so President Roosevelt decided that there was no longer a need for such a national relief programme and the WPA was closed down at the end of 1942.  Alice was out of work and had then to turn to the state for public assistance which she kept drawing on for the next decade.

Photograph of Alice Neel sitting before her paintings which was used in the inviation to the exhibition

Photograph of Alice Neel sitting before her paintings which was used in the inviation to the exhibition

In March 1944 Alice held a solo exhibition at the New York Pinacotheca Gallery run by Rose Fried.  This was her first solo exhibition since 1938.  There were twenty-four of her works on display. The exhibition received mixed reviews.  An article in the prestigious art magazine, ArtNews, described her work:

“…Neel’s paintings at Pinacotheca have a kind of deliberate hideousness which make them hard to take even for persons who admire her creative independence … Nor does the intentional gaucherie of her figures lend them added expression. However, this is plainly serious, thoughtful work and in the one instance of The Walk, it comes off extremely well…”

As Bob Dylan once said The Times They are a-changin and this was the point in time that Alice Neel found herself.  After the 1944 Alice Neel’s retrospective exhibition at the Pinacotheca, gallery director Rose Fried never showed anything with a figure in it.  According to Neel, Rose had become a pure abstractionist and the works that Alice produced were no longer wanted.  The art world was changing; it had almost completely turned its back on Social Realism which had been the art form that had made Neel’s work so popular in the 1930’s.  So, Alice had to change but as another famous lady politician once said, “this lady is not for turning” and Alice likewise would not change her artistic style to suit others. In an interview with Eleanor Munro for her 1979 book Originals, American Women Artists, Neel is quoted as saying:

“…I never followed any school.  I never imitated any artist.  I never did any of that…”

Sam and Hartley By Alice Neel

Sam and Hartley By Alice Neel

For Alice Neel, she knew what she wanted to paint and nobody or nothing was going to alter her artistic desires even though New York was now awash with European émigré artists who were leaders in the world of Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism such as Max Ernst, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali, all of who had fled across the Atlantic to avoid the rise of Nazism.  Alfred Barr had founded the MOMA and in October 1942, millionaire, Peggy Guggenheim, who was married to Max Ernst, had arrived in New York from war-torn Europe had opened a new gallery/museum.   It was called The Art of This Century Gallery.  The Art of This Century Gallery was situated at 30 West 57th Street in Manhattan and occupied two commercial spaces on the seventh floor of a building that was part of the midtown arts district which included the Museum of Modern Art, and three of the four galleries were dedicated to Cubist and Abstract art, Surrealism and Kinetic art, with only the fourth, the front room, being a commercial gallery.

During the 1950’s Alice Neel was kept under surveillance by the FBI.  In a memo from their Miami office based on a 1954 letter sent to them by an informant they concluded that Alice Neel was:

“…a muddled romantic, Bohemian type Communist idealist who will carry out loyally the Communist sympathiser type of assignment, including illegal work if ordered to do so…”

Their file on her and her activities remained open until the early 1960’s.

My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)

My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)

In March 1953, Alice’s mother comes to live with her in her Spanish Harlem apartment.  Sadly a year later Alice snr. aged 86, died from complications brought on by a broken hip.  For Alice, this was yet another traumatic moment in her life  She had always had to battle with depression and the death of her mother triggered the onset of the debilitating malaise for the next few years.  Physically she put on weight and sought the comfort of alcohol.

Alice often complained that she could not get any gallery space for her works of art.  She painted prolifically but still wanted to exhibit them.  The problem was that her genre of art had lost its appeal with the public.  She was going through a difficult period with mental health issues and was attending therapy sessions with a psychologist, Dr Anthony Sterrett.  He spent time with her trying to make her become more self-confident and self-assertive and it was he who persuaded Alice to contact Frank O’Hara to see if he would sit for her.  O’Hara was an American writer poet and art critic who was working as a reviewer for the prestigious art magazine, Artnews, and who, in 1960 was Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art.  This position at the MOMA made him a prominent figure in New York City’s art world. He was looked upon as a leading figure in the New York School, which was an informal group of artists, writers and musicians who drew inspiration from jazz, surrealism, abstract expressionism, action painting and contemporary avant-garde art movements.

Frank O'Hara by Alice Neel (1960)

Frank O’Hara by Alice Neel (1960)

Alice completed two portraits of O’Hara in 1960 and they were looked upon as her breakthrough works.  In the painting, Frank O’Hara, Alice has beautifully and faithfully captured his distinguishing and unique profile.  The side view is hawk-like which is softened slightly by the bunch of lilac behind his head.

Frank O'Hara No.2 by Alice Neel (1960)

Frank O’Hara No.2 by Alice Neel (1960)

In stark contrast, the second portrait, Frank O’Hara No.2 is a more shocking depiction of the man.  Our eyes are immediately drawn to his bad teeth, which looked like tombstones, his sharp nose and somewhat wild eyes.  To be brutally honest, at first, he comes over as being ugly, even, dare I say, repulsive, but there is a vulnerability about Neel’s depiction of him.

Six years later, in the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, O’Hara was struck by a jeep on the Fire Island beach, after the beach taxi in which he had been riding with a group of friends broke down in the dark.  He died the following day.

Kate Millett by Alice Neel (1970)

Kate Millett by Alice Neel (1970)

In America, the 60’s was dominated by the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War with its protests which swept the country.  It was also a time when the second wave of the modern feminist movement emerged.  It was a time when there was the growing cry for equal opportunity for women and it soon became one which could not be ignored.   Enter Katherine Murray “Kate” Millett, best known as Kate Millett.  She was an American feminist writer, educator, artist, and activist. She attended Oxford University and was the first American woman to be awarded a postgraduate degree with first-class honours by St. Hilda’s.  She is probably best known for her ground-breaking 1970 book Sexual Politics, which was her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University.

Time magazine cover

Time magazine cover

This book became a bible for feminism and feminist protest was such a hot topic that in August 1970, Time magazine decided that Kate would be the face of the feminist movement and therefore should appear on the cover of their magazine.  Millet was unimpressed by the way she was heralded as the embodiment of the movement and refused to pose for a painting by Alice Neel which would be used for the cover.  She believed that no one person could presume to represent the objectives of the feminist movement.  Time magazine was not to be put off by her refusal and instead asked Neel to complete the portrait, using a photograph.  After the publication of the magazine Alice Neel and her art was always linked with the feminist movement but as Alice once quipped, she had been a feminist before there was feminism!

Andy Warhol by Alice Neel (1970)

Andy Warhol by Alice Neel (1970)

The year 1970 was also the year that Alice Neel painted one of her most famous works, a depiction of Andy Warhol.  The painting can be found at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and rather than me trying to describe the painting I have reproduced the words of the museum’s audio-guide which was put together by Trevor Fairbrother, an independent curator and writer:

“…It’s an interesting year for both of these artists. Alice Neel was seventy years old when she painted it, and in a sense, was just hitting her stride as an important American realist. She’d had an incredible career since the thirties, but she hadn’t really had much recognition until the wave of feminist interest in the arts in the sixties. And suddenly she was a forebear for a whole new generation of feminist artists and writers.  The late sixties were much harder on Warhol. He’d been shot two years before Neel painted this portrait—an attempted assassination by a member of his artistic circle. In posing shirtless for Neel, he exposes the corset that he was required to wear for the rest of his life. He also bares his aging body, his chest sagging so that he almost appears to have breasts.  She shows him—I think it’s this kind of essence of loneliness and vulnerability, but at the same time I think she knows that he knows that everybody is looking at him. He was very much invested in famous artists. He wanted to be a kind of brand-name Pop artist, and he certainly is that now, long after his death. He, Warhol, in a sense is rising to her challenge to sit for her, to be painted and to take his clothes off. And so, in a sense, he’s doing a brave thing, but he’s also―he’s getting through it by shutting his eyes and being very focused internally.  I think part of the soulfulness of this picture is the fact that it might seem unfinished. I wouldn’t say it’s unfinished. I think she decided she had what she needed, and she stopped where she was ready to stop. The picture doesn’t need more…” 

Fame came to Alice Neel late in life and she believed she had the right to bask in the glory.  Her son Hartley recounted his mother’s feelings about this sudden fame:

“…She felt it was something she deserved.  She basked in it.  She really enjoyed it.  When we were young, she struggled, waiting around for some critic to review her work, up or down.  All of the sudden they were saying good things about her.  Her paintings were on the walls, and people were buying her work.  It was all different.  She wasn’t bitter.  She had a very upbeat attitude toward the whole thing…”

Self-portrait by Alice Neel (1980)

Self-portrait by Alice Neel (1980)

On October 14th 1980 at the Harald Reed Gallery on East 78th Street in New York a benefit dinner for the Third Street Music School Settlement was being held at which was the debut of an art exhibition entitled Selected 20th Century American Self Portraits, one of which was Alice Neel’s nude self-portrait which she had begun five years earlier.

She looks out at us completely oblivious or unconcerned about what we are thinking about why an eighty-year-old woman would want to depict herself naked.  Does she feel vulnerable?  There is no sign of that in her facial expression, in fact Neel’s steely gaze rivets us.  She exudes an air of self-confidence, despite her less than picture-perfect body.  We see her sitting regally in an upholstered chair with its hard vertical-striped arms which tend to accentuate her yielding and bounteous rolls of flesh.   It is a “warts and all” portrait.   She does not hide the visible signs of aging.  Instead she has decided to reveal herself with characteristic truthfulness and somewhat defencelessness. Yet there is also a sense of pride in this depiction.  In her right hand she holds a paintbrush whilst her left hand grasps a rag and, as we see no easel or canvas in the depiction, the two serve as artistic elements. The only personal accessory depicted is the presence of her eyeglasses which may have been added by her to remind us of her frailty and that she has passed her prime.

The painting was of course controversial and caused a stir but it also was testament that it was an audacious work by an artist who at the time was at the top of her form.  The other unusual aspect of this work was that beside a few pencil-sketched self-portraits, it was her first self-portrait painting.  The painting now resides at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington.

Loneliness by Alice Neel (1970)

Loneliness by Alice Neel (1970)

In 1970 Alice completed a work entitled Loneliness, which she ironically referred to as a “self-portrait”.  It was about this time that her younger son Hartley had married Ginny and moved to Massachusetts.

Ginny in a Striped Shirt by Alice Neel (1969)

Ginny in a Striped Shirt by Alice Neel (1969)

Throughout her life Alice continued with her portraits of her family.  Her future daughter-in-law, Hartley’s wife, Ginny featured in her 1969 work, Ginny in a Striped Shirt.  Ginny was a feminist who looked upon Alice as a role model and they became good friends even before she became involved with Hartley.

Pregnant Woman by Alice Neel (1971)

Pregnant Woman by Alice Neel (1971)

Her other daughter-in-law, Nancy, Richard’s wife and Alice’s assistant during the last two decades of her life, was depicted in Alice’s 1971 painting, Pregnant Woman.  In the work, we see an image of her husband looming in the background.

In 1980 Alice Neel’s physical health takes a turn for the worse and after a series of tests it is decided that she had to be fitted with a pacemaker to regulate her heart rate. Four years later in 1984, during a routine visit to the Massachusetts General Hospital to have her pacemaker checked, X-rays indicate that she has advanced colon cancer which has already spread to her liver. She immediately undergoes surgery and afterwards returns to Vermont to stay with Hartley, Ginny and their children while she recuperates.

From the Spring to the Summer of 1984 she returns to New York and Spring Lake. With the help of her son and his wife, Richard and Nancy, and despite her rapidly deteriorating health, she continues with her busy schedule including an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show

Among her many commitments, interviews for the ArtNews article continue, and, on June 19th, she makes a second appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’ during which she insists that Johnny Carson visit her in New York to sit for a portrait. In July, she had to receive chemotherapy which further weakened her.  Despite her weakened condition, she continues to paint.

Alice Neel died in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment on October 13th 1984 surrounded by her family and was buried in a private burial ceremony at a cemetery near her studio in Vermont.  On February 7th 1985, a memorial service for her is held at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

My look at the life and works of Alice Neel has been a long journey stretching over six blogs and yet I know I have missed so much out about her life and because she was a prolific artist I know I have only scratched at the surface with regards her works of art.  I have been careful not to be judgemental with regards her lifestyle which probably added to her problems but she had a difficult and often sad life which often was beyond her endurance.  She however always wanted to do her own thing and I leave you with one of her quotes:

“…”I had a very hard life, and I paid the price for it, but I did as I wanted,” Miss Neel said then. ”I’m a high-powered person…”  

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I have used numerous internet sources to put together this and the other blogs on the life and art of Alice Neel and I am currently reading a fascinating book about the artist by Phoebe Hoban entitled Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. It is a very interesting read and one I can highly recommend.

Alice Neel’s art is being shown at several exhibitions in America but there are also a series of exhibitions of her work travelling around Europe at the current time including one I am due to visit next month:

Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, Holland

(November 5th, 2016 – February 12th 2017)

Posted in Alice Neel, American artists, Art, Art Blog, Art History, Female painters, Figurative painters, Portraiture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Alice Neel. Part 5. Sam Brody, the new man in her life, family portraits and “he said, she said”

It is almost five weeks since I published Alice Neel.  Part 4 and the reason for the delay was not my lost interest in the subject but having to suffer the trauma of house moving!

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Alice Neel and Sam Brody (1940)

Alice Neel and Sam Brody (1940)

The year was 1940 and another man entered Alice Neel’s life.  He was the photographer and film critic Sam Brody.  Brody was born in London on New Year’s Day 1907.  His parents were Abraham and Sophie Brodetsky (later shortened to Brody).  He was raised by Russian Jewish parents who had immigrated to America in 1920, via Paris and London when Sam was thirteen years old.  His father was a journeyman tailor who eked out a living in various sweatshops and he and his family struggled financially and maybe because of this lifestyle Brody’s father was a great believer of Marxism, a philosophy he would pass on to his son who would cling to those beliefs for the rest of his life.

The Workers Film and Photo League

The Workers Film and Photo League

Sam Brody was a founding member of the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL) which was an organization of filmmakers, photographers and writers which began in 1931 dedicated to using film and photography for social change and presenting, in a documentary-format, the Great Depression from a Marxist perspective. These documentaries focused on the burning issues of the time such as the U.S. Labour Movement, the National Hunger marches of 1931 and 1932 and the Bonus March 1932. Much of the output was not for general release was shown more at Communist Party and trade union events.  There was also a philanthropic aspect to the work of the WFPL organisation as they joined up with Workers International Relief group to show their films at fund raising events.

Sam, Snow (How like Winter) by Alice Neel (1945)

Sam, Snow (How like Winter) by Alice Neel (1945)

It was in January 1940 that Alice Neel met Sam Brody at a Works Progress Administration (WPA) meeting.  Alice was introduced to him by her friend, the sculptor, Blanche Angel, who told her that Brody was an excellent photographer and would be an ideal choice to take some photos of her new son, Richard. This was just two months after her lover and father of her new-born child, José Negron had walked out the family home.  According to Alice Neel, there was an immediate magnetism between her and Brody (not corroborated by Brody!) and she was very forthright in her 1959 interview with the photographer, Jonathan Brand about him and how she had attracted him:

“…He was such a show off, such and intellectual.  He came home with me that night.  And of course he fell in love with me immediately.  He was very gallant when he fell in love.  He brought me flowers, and he came every day.  He told me he had divorced his wife because she had an affair with a travelling salesman…”

Sadly for Alice, the last fact was not true.  However, a few weeks after their initial meeting Brody moved into Alice and her son’s East 107th Street New York apartment.  Although José, the father of Alice’s son had moved out he kept returning for visits in order to give Alice some money and during his visits, as Brody would angrily term it, he would “serenade” her with his guitar.  Brody’s anger with José relationship with Alice may seem reasonable to many but for the fact that he had lied to Alice with regards his marital status.  Brody had married a Russian woman Claire Gebiner in 1927 and the couple had two children, a son Julian and a daughter Mady.  Even when Brody moved in with Alice he would visit Claire and his family every afternoon.  For a long time neither Alice nor Claire knew of each other’s existence!

Sam and Hartley by Alice Neel

Sam and Hartley by Alice Neel

Alice was drawn to Sam Brody as she considered him to be an intellectual and believed in his fight for worker’s rights and his support for the downtrodden.  On the other hand, she soon realised that Brody had a fiery temperament and the two would have many fierce and passionate arguments which turned into unbridled screaming matches.  Ironically, despite Brody “two-timing” Alice and Claire, he was jealous of Alice’s previous relationships with the likes of John Rothschild and her previous lover and father of her child, José Negron and it was said that Brody and Rothschild had come to blows.  What is more sinister about Brody’s relationship with Alice was that he took out his jealousy on Alice’s son Richard whom he derived a violent dislike.  In the documentary Alice Neel, Richard Neel recalled this violence:

“…He used to kick me under the table all the time.  He kicked me under the table and one time I screwed up enough courage to say ‘Stop kicking me under the table’.  Well she [Alice] had to go out that evening and he beat me up.  He really did………. It was intermittent but it was physical violence and it was directed at Alice and it was certainly directed at me…”

Sam and Richard by Alice Neel (1940)

Sam and Richard by Alice Neel (1940)

Neel who was painfully aware of the treatment of her son by Brody painted a very moving picture of the two entitled Sam and Richard in 1940.  In the work we see a venomous looking Sam tightly grasping the terrified Richard.  Richard almost became blind due to dietary deficiencies when he was one-year old and this must have added to his pain.

In January 1941 Alice became pregnant with Sam Brody’s child and on September 3rd a son, Hartley Stockton Neel was born.  The joy of this birth was tempered by the fact that soon after the event Brody’s wife Claire caught sight of her husband wheeling the pram and lovingly lifting Hartley out of the carriage.  Claire, as one can imagine, was devastated.  Not only was her husband two-timing her but he had a child with another woman.

Phillip Bonosky, the writer and friend of Alice,  wrote about Sam Brody in his journal and described him and his behaviour towards Alice’s children:

“…A Jew…. who is obviously a pathological case of some sort.  I met both the boys [Richard and Hartley].  The eldest one [Richard] is almost totally blind as a result of a dietary deficiency when he was just one year or so old.  The youngest boy’s father [Brody] who seems to flit about the country pounces down on them from time to time and while he is there, he tortures and abuses the eldest child and showers psychopathic affection on the younger one, his own.  Alice herself is torn by her feelings for and against him and doesn’t know what to do…”

Hartley on the Rocking Horse by Alice Neel (1943)

Hartley on the Rocking Horse by Alice Neel (1943)

Hartley featured in a number of his mother’s paintings.  In a 1943 painting Hartley on the Rocking Horse we see her younger son on a rocking horse. Look at his facial expression.  Is it one of joy to be astride the horse?  I rather think his wide-eyed facial expression is not one of delight but more one of fear that he may fall off and he may have had to be coaxed to stay on the “beast”.  If you look carefully at the mirror in the background you will see that the artist has added a mirror-reflection of herself.

Richard at Age Five by Alice Neel (1946)

Richard at Age Five by Alice Neel (1946)

Two years later in 1945 Neel painted a portrait of her five-year old son, Richard entitled Richard Age Five. His troubled upbringing can be seen in the demeanour of the youngster.  Look carefully at the depiction.  See how he clings to the back of the chair.  Look at his wide-eyed expression.  There is a vulnerability about the child and knowing the background of his upbringing and his bad relationship with his mother’s lover, Brody, we can sympathise with what he had to endure.

Hartley with a Cat by Alice Neel (1967)

Hartley with a Cat by Alice Neel (1967)

Twenty-five-year-old Hartley appeared in another work painted by his mother in 1967 entitled Hartley with a Cat.

Alice Neel holding her daughter Santillana (1927)

Alice Neel holding her daughter Santillana (1927)

Alice gave birth to four children.  Her first-born child Santillana died of diphtheria just days before her first birthday and never featured in any of Alice’s paintings although there is a 1927 photographs of her and her mother.

Isabetta by Alice Neel (1934)

Isabetta by Alice Neel (1934)

Her second born child Isabetta, who was born in 1928, featured in just one painting by Neel and this 1934 work is a controversial depiction of the six-year old.  For those of you who have not read the early blogs on Alice Neel, Alice and her Cuban husband Carlos Enriquez had Isabetta in November 1928 but soon after Carlos took his daughter to live with his family in Cuba and Alice, who had a major mental breakdown and was hospitalised never regained custody of her daughter.  Neel was rarely given access to her daughter except on one occasion in 1934 when mother and daughter were together long enough to paint the most extraordinary and, some would say, scandalous portrait. The little girl stands naked with her hands planted firmly on her hips in what looks like a rebellious pose, one that makes it clear that despite what is offered to her to stand still, she is having none of it.  Isabetta defiantly focuses her fierce blue gaze fixes on her mother almost as if she is questioning why should she stand before her naked.  Look out the artist has depicted her child’s hands.  The fingers are claw-like giving the child a more sinister air.  What was going through Alice Neel’s mind when she painted this portrait?   I struggle to understand why a mother would depict her daughter in such a fashion.  Only she knows.

It is obvious to all mothers the trauma the loss of her child affected Alice but we should not discount the trauma the child suffered with the loss of her mother.  Did she feel abandoned?  Isabetta and her mother met once more when she was ten years old.  It was not a good visit maybe because Alice was heavily pregnant with Richard and Alice and Isabetta never bonded.  There were to be many traumatic times in Isabetta’s life including, when she was eighteen years old, her proposed nuptials were called off by her fiancé’s parents, two weeks before the wedding.  Maybe the separation from her mother and other setbacks she had to endure stayed with her all her life as in 1982, aged 54, she committed suicide. Her mother, Alice, was to die two years later.

Two Girls in Spanish Harlem by Alice Neel (1941)

Two Girls in Spanish Harlem by Alice Neel (1941)

Whilst living in the Spanish Harlem district of New York Alice painted many studies of the inhabitants such as her 1941 double portrait of two young girls, Carmen and Hilda entitled Two Girls in Spanish Harlem (Carmen and Hilda) which was a beautiful example of her artistic ability.

Spanish Family by Alice Neel (1943)

Spanish Family by Alice Neel (1943)

I particularly like her 1943 painting entitled Spanish Family which depicts a mother and her three children.  Look how Neel has portrayed the facial expressions of the four characters.  Words are not needed to express how they all feel.  None are smiling.  The mother looks despondent and we get a feel of what life must have been like for her during those hard times.

Fire Escape by Alice Neel (1948)

Fire Escape by Alice Neel (1948)

A 1948 painting by Neel, entitled Fire Escape, deviated from her normal figurative work and shows a tenement building close to where she lived.

Dead Father by Alice Neel (1946)

Dead Father by Alice Neel (1946)

On May 3rd 1946 Alice Neel’s father, George, died, aged eighty-two and the day following the funeral in Colwyn Alice painted his portrait, Dead Father. In Patricia Hills book Alice Neel, she quotes Alice talking about the painting:

“…He was a good and kind man and his head still looked noble.  I didn’t set out to memorize him, because I was too affected.  But the image printed itself…”

My Mother by Alice Neel (1946)

My Mother by Alice Neel (1946)

That same year Alice completed a painting of her newly-widowed mother.

My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)

My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)

Six years later, in 1952, she completed another depiction of her mother, Alice snr.

In the title of this blog I added “he said, she said”.  The reason for this is that most of the information I got for these blogs about Alice Neel came from the book Alice Neel.  The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban and during my delving into the many internet sites about the artist I came across one by David Brody who was the son of Sam Brody and Sondra Herrera whom he married after his liaison with Alice Neel ended in 1958.  He was unhappy with what Phoebe Hoban had written about his father and for the sake of being even-handed I thought you should have a look at what he wrote:

http://www.sambrody.com/hoban.html

In my next blog I will take a final look at the paintings and life of this great American figurative artist.

 

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Alice Neel. Part 4 – José Santiago Negrón

Alice Neel (1900–1984) was one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century. Her psychologically charged portraits tell intimate and unconventional stories, as much about people living on the margins of society and in subcultures as about the New York cultural elite and her own family. Alice Neel led an exceptionally interesting life as a single parent and a feminist in a time when the world of art was largely male-dominated.

Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Alice Neel Exhibition 10.6.2016 – 2.10.2016

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Fishing Pier, Spring Lake by Alice Neel (1938)

Fishing Pier, Spring Lake by Alice Neel (1938)

Alice spent the summer of 1934 with her mother and father in a cottage at Spring Lake, New Jersey, a short distance from the beach.  She was still with John Rothschild, who had help fund the buying of the single storey, red-shingle cottage in 1935 and he, besotted with Alice, had left his second wife in the summer of that year. Sadly for John, it was a one-way relationship as she was often very rude to him and would often refer to him as the “money man” but she would never dispense of his company even when she had other love interests, and to be fair to her, he too had many other affairs whilst being close to Alice.

John with Hat by Alice Neel (1935)

John with Hat by Alice Neel (1935)

Neel completed a portrait of John in 1935 entitled John with Hat in which we see him in a white suit wearing a hat with the sea as the background.  In an interview with Patricia Hills in 1982, Neel talked about the painting and voiced her dislike of Rothschild’s character:

“…I painted him in a hat, that’s when I decided to get rid of him……I thought anybody that could take that much joy out of the hat and suit, there was something wrong with him……He was utterly empty.  He really had the makings of a voyeur in that way…”

Of course she didn’t dump John.  Maybe sense prevailed or as she put it:

“…But I didn’t really get rid of him because he kept pursuing me and I had such a hard life that it was very nice to go to Longchamps or the Harvard club for dinner…”

Kenneth Fearing by Alice Neel (1935)

Kenneth Fearing by Alice Neel (1935)

It was the 1930’s and America at this time was in the middle of the Great Depression and the labour classes were suffering badly.  One of the great poets and novelist of the time, who encapsulated in his work those desperate times, was Kenneth Fearing and he was depicted in a 1935 painting by Alice Neel.  Fearing was a fervent left wing radical and Marxist and co-founder of the Partisan Review, a literary and arts magazine with close ties with the Communist Party, USA.  He championed the cause of the downtrodden worker and is depicted in one of his favourite haunts, a late night coffee shop. Fearing is illuminated by a single lightbulb, a symbol of enlightenment and modernism.  It is a painting of symbolist iconography.   We see him wearing his large artsy-type glasses, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, reading a book which is propped up in front of him.   Alice Neel depicted a skeleton squeezing blood out of Fearing’s heart, which was meant to symbolise his heartfelt feelings for all the people who were suffering during the troubled times of the Depression.  Fearing may not have been impressed by this iconography as when he saw the work he told Neel to remove what he termed “that Fauntleroy” from his heart.  However, Neel was adamant about the inclusion saying:

“…The reason I put it there was that even though he wrote ironic poetry, I thought his heart bled for the grief of the world…”

 There are a number of minor “characters” depicted in the work including, in the foreground, a baby, which was said to be Fearing’s son who was born that year, and a newlywed couple. The rest of the cast of characters formed part of a tormented world, a world of disorder and chaos, which we see going on around Fearing whilst he quietly reads his book.  In the foreground there are some disfigured soldiers and bleeding corpses.  In the right background we can see police beating civilians.

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel (1935)

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel (1935)

Another communist to feature in one of Neel’s 1935 paintings was the Irish labour organiser, Pat Whalen, a longshoreman who had organised many dock strikes.  He sits at a bare wooden table in his creased and shabby coat and open-necked shirt. The background is bare.  This painting is all about the man and his face, his furrowed brow and piercing blue eyes.   She depicts him staring into the middle-distance of a promised future, his heavy, oversized fists clenched over a copy of the Daily Worker, which was the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) newspaper.

José Santiago Negron by Alice Neel

José Santiago Negron by Alice Neel

In September 1935, Alice Neel moved alone to an apartment in West 17th Street in New York. She would not countenance John moving in with her so he moved to his own apartment close by.  Alice would return to Spring Lake every summer but not to the small cottage but to a larger house she bought later.     It was shortly after her arrival in New York that Alice and John Rothschild visited the nightclub, La Casita, and there, performing in a band, was José Santiago Négrón a handsome Puerto Rican nightclub singer and guitarist. Alice was immediately attracted to the “beautiful Latino”.   He was slender, dark and handsome.  He was also ten years younger than Alice and was married with a young child, Sheila.  Alice acknowledged the similarity between him and her first husband as quoted by Cindy Nemser, the American art historian and writer and founder and editor of the Feminist Art Journal:

“…You know what he was?  He was a substitute for my Cuban husband although he was completely different…”

During an interview with the American art historian Patricia Hills, Neel recounted that first meeting with Negron and her successful seduction of the Puerto Rican:

“…I went to the nightclub with John [Rothschild] and I had on a silver lame dress that was beautiful and José was charmed with all this wealth and elegance.   Toward José I made my one aggressive action.  I went down there one night, to that nightclub, and I knew José was going to want to come home with me, and he did…”

Sheila by Alice Neel (1938)

Sheila by Alice Neel (1938)

In a very short time Negron left his wife Molly and child Sheila and moved in with Alice.

Nazis murder Jews by Alice Neel (1936)

Nazis murder Jews by Alice Neel (1936)

In September 1936 Alice Neel completed a work entitled Nazis Murdered Jews in which she depicts a Communist organised torchlight protest at which she and some of her Works Progress Administration (WPA) colleagues took part.  Neel was one of the few artists of the time that highlighted the fate of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

Tragedy once again struck Alice in 1937.  In January that year she became pregnant, much to her delight but much to the prospective father, José Negrón’s displeasure.  He threatened to leave her.  In July, six months into the pregnancy she had a miscarriage.  Her unborn daughter had been strangled by her own umbilical cord.  Add to this heartbreak, the fact that Alice and José had money problems and this was also causing stress to their relationship.  Notwithstanding this, Alice became pregnant again at the end of 1938.  She must have been in a quandary as to what to do as it is known that her friend John Rothschild gave her money for an abortion and although she accepted the gift, she spent it on a phonograph!

Elenka by Alice Neel (1936)

Elenka by Alice Neel (1936)

The imminent birth of her child made Alice and José abandon the bohemian life of Greenwich Village and move to a quieter apartment in East 107th Street in the Spanish Harlem neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan and it is in this area where she would remain for the next twenty-four years.  This neighbourhood proved a wonderful place for her to paint pictures of her surroundings and the many characters who lived there.

Life with José Negrón was good.  In a 1969 interview she mused joyfully about those days referring to her then unborn child:

“…I was out in nightclubs every night.   I did the tango, the rhumba, all those dances.  Richard is the product of nightclubs…”

The Family by Alice Neel (1938)

The Family by Alice Neel (1938)

On September 14th 1939 Alice gave birth to her first son.  Alice and José called him Neel Santiago but this strange combination of Christian name and surname, Neel Neel, was later dropped and he became known as Richard Neel.  In December 1935, less than three months after the birth of his son, José Negrón walked out of the relationship with Neel,  This was the second time he did this, having left his wife Molly and their daughter, Stella, to live with Alice.  José Negrón’s nephew Ralph Marrero commented on the relationship break-up:

“…I don’t think Alice was interested in staying in touch with José.  Alice was more interested in her art and José was interested in himself…”

Alice put a different spin on the event in an interview with Jonathan Brand in 1969.  She stated:

“…Of course José should never have done what he did.  It was wrong…..He never should have left like that.  I could have tried to stop him but the whole thing sickened me.  I thought it was so frivolous.  We had lived together for five years…..why pick this time when this little kid is maybe four or five months old and just leave like that?  I thought it was frightful…”

José Negrón had never married Alice but would later  go on to marry two more times and, although born a Catholic, ended up becoming an Episcopal priest.

T B Harlem by Alice Neel (1940)

T B Harlem by Alice Neel (1940)

One of the most moving paintings Alice Neel did featuring José Negrón’s family was one entitled T.B. Harlem which she completed in 1940, a year after José had left the family home.  It was a painting which drew attention to the poverty and social isues of the time and yet never lost sight of the individuality of the sitter.   In this painting, Neel depicted José’s brother Carlos Negrón. Carlos was just twenty-four at the time of the painting and had, two years earlier, moved from Puerto Rico to Spanish Harlem.  At this time tuberculosis spread in overcrowded urban neighbourhoods, and at the time of the painting, the only available treatments to counteract the disease were radical. In the painting we see Carlos with a bandage on his chest covering the wound from his thoracoplasty, a procedure that was originally designed to permanently collapse the cavities of pulmonary tuberculosis by removing the ribs from the chest and by so doing, rest the tuberculosis-infected lung by removing ribs.  Although it is a good likeness of Carlos, Neel distorted and elongated his neck and arms. In the painting Alice has used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten Carlos’ silhouette and the lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Carlos’ face conveys a sense of dignity.  His right hand lies across his chest in a pose which we saw in traditional images of the martyred Christ.

………to be continued.

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I have used numerous internet sources to put together this and the following blogs on the life and art of Alice Neel and I am currently reading a fascinating book about the artist by Phoebe Hoban entitled Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. It is a very interesting read and one I can highly recommend.

Alice Neel’s art is being shown in a number of exhibitions in America but there are also a series of exhibitions of her work travelling around Europe at the current time:

Painter of Modern Life at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

(June 10th – October 2nd 2016)

and at the

Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, Holland

(November 5th, 2016 – February 12th 2017)

Posted in Alice Neel, American artists, Art, Art Blog, Art History, Figurative painters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments