Theodore Robinson. Part 3 – Monet, Giverny and Robinson’s muse, Marie.

At the Piano by Theodore Robinson (1887)

Whilst Robinson often depicted women at work, other paintings of his  portrayed women at rest, sometimes relaxing at the piano as was depicted in his 1887 painting At the Piano.  The painting was completed whilst he was staying at the home of John Armstrong “Archie” Chanler, a wealthy American writer and activist, and an acquaintance of Robinson who was related to the elite Astor, Livingston, and Stuyvesant families. Chanler was a great supporter of American artists who had come to Paris to follow their artistic dream and it is thought that on occasions had provided financial support to Robinson.

Look at the different textures depicted such as the glistening surface of the piano top and the glowing fabric of the woman’s dress.  We can almost hear the sound of the music as we see the fingers of the lady caress the ivory keys.

The painting was very popular and Robinson believed he knew why.  In his diary entry for September 10th, 1893 he wrote:

“…It is probably the sincerity with which it was done – I remember it seemed to me a sad failure at the time, and at Archie’s rue Dumont d’Urville just before leaving for the country…”

At the Piano by Whistler (1859)

Many believe the inspiration for this work was a painting Robinson may have come across when he was in Philadelphia in 1881 or New York in 1882 when At the Piano by James Abbott McNeil Whistler was being exhibited. Albeit that work, which is a study of Whistler’s half-sister and niece, is much darker in comparison to Robinsons painting which is aglow with delicate light.

Lady in Red by Theodore Robinson (1885)

The model for Robinson’s painting was thought to be Marie a love interest of his during his time in Paris and Giverny although they never married.  Robinson first met Marie at the start of his second visit to France in the Spring of 1884.  She was an artist’s model who lived in Paris.    He first portrayed Marie in a watercolour in 1885 entitled Lady in Red in which she is depicted in profile against a dappled background of leaves and fragile branches.

The Red Gown (also known as His Favorite Model) by Theodore Robinson (1885)

Although that was just a head and shoulder depiction we see she is wearing a red costume which was often seen in other Robinson portraits, such as his painting entitled The Red Gown, and the dress is thought to be one of Robinson’s studio props.

Val d’Arconville by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

Another of Theodore Robinson’s works featuring Marie was his beautiful 1888 work entitled Val D’Arconville, which can be seen at the Chicago Institute for Art.  In this depiction, we see Marie sitting on a flower-filled hillside overlooking the Arconville Valley which is situated southeast of Paris.  In the painting, Robinson used densely layered, broken brushwork, which was a technique he picked up from Monet.  This clever artistic method has the observer of the work relinquish their focus on the woman and their eye is led down the slope, and across the valley.  This was not simply an impressionistic painting which captured momentary effects such as the grass moving in the breeze, it becomes more of a structural work with the inclusion of the houses in the middle ground.

The painting was originally owned by Arthur Astor Carey, a cousin of John Armstrong Chanler, who had taken up residency at Giverny during the summer 1887.  The identity of Marie as the sitter for the painting was confirmed by an entry in Robinson’s diary for June 11th1893 in which he stated:

“…Mrs B. told me of the inspiration she got from a picture of mine (Carey’s, with Marie on the hill-side)…”

Little is known of Marie but in Sona Johnston book In Monet’s Light she quotes from a letter of a fellow American tourist and lodger at Hôtel Baudy who wrote home:

“…By the way, dear, it looks very strange but Mr. Robinson has a model down here who has a little daughter . . . Everyone says that . . . the little girl is the daughter of Mr. Robinson [and] the child looks very like him.”

Robinson had fell heavily for his muse and in a letter to his sister-in-law, Mary, on May 20th, 1887, he wrote:

“…I am in love with a French Girl, it is an affair of some time – and I came close to writing of it to Father but did not.  It is quiet just now and nothing may come of it so you had better say nothing about it – She has the same name as you in French – Marie – but she is as dark as you are fair…”

Nobody ever knew the surname of Robinson’s love as he never wrote it down in any of his letters or in his diary.  Despite his deep love for the young women, nothing came of the relationship.  The couple never married and we will never know why.  Maybe it was because of his failing health or maybe it was because of his poor financial state.  We do know that the relationship was not as Robinson would have liked as he discussed his disappointment with the state of his love life on many occasions over the dinner table with Will Low and his wife.   His relationship with Marie lasted for six years until he finally left France but he continued to correspond with Marie up until his death.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Giverny became a popular spot for artists around mid-1880’s.  It is known that John Singer Sargent visited the village around 1885 and met with Monet and it was the latter’s love of en plein air painting that appealed to Sargent.  It was in that year that Sargent produced his painting entitled Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of the Wood which depicts the great man at work watched over by his future second wife, Alice Hoschedé.

In 1880s and 1890s, American aspiring artists poured into Paris looking for places at its art schools and a chance to work in the ateliers of famous French painters. To them Paris was the Mecca of art and to study at one of the academies or ateliers was a “must have” experience and at the same time it was a sought-after freedom from the rigidity of artistic training at American academies.  For them to study at one of the famed Parisian academies and then to head for the countryside or the coast during the summer months was, for them, their idea of Shangri-La.

In the summer of 1887 a small group of young American artists made their home in Giverny.  How this came about was documented in a book written by the English Impressionist painter, Dawson Dawson-Watson entitled The Real Story of Giverny, based on a conversation he had had with the American artist, John Leslie Breck in 1888.  Breck recounted:

“…In the spring of ’87 [he and] Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, Blair-Bruce, Theo Wendel, and a chap named Taylor whose Christian name I cannot recall, were talking over some place to go for the summer.  All of the usual places, Pont Aven, Etretat, Ecoigu, and Grèz, were rejected because their interest was in finding a new location to paint. After consulting the destination board at the Gare St. Lazare, they agreed that Pont del’Arche was appealing, so they decided to visit the town and see if it was as picturesque as its name.

The train to Pont del’Arche followed the Seine into Normandy and required a change at Vernon. As they approached Vernon, Metcalf pointed out a little village of white houses and a Norman church at the base of the hill on the opposite bank of the river and commented on its loveliness. At Vernon, they were told the village was Giverny. Once aboard the new train they were treated to a second view of Giverny when they crossed the Seine and were doubling back. The painters agreed unanimously that if Pont del’Arche was not to their liking they would return to Giverny the following morning, which was exactly what they did…”

After the initial discovery, other American artists soon followed and many began to extend their visits beyond the summer months.

Robinson’s photograph of the Monet-Hoschedé family gathering at Giverny (c.1892)

In April 1883, forty-two-year-old Claude Monet left his home in the western Paris suburb of Poissy and went to live in the small Normandy farming village of Giverny, a village he had passed thorough many times during his train journeys from Paris to Rouen.  The unpretentious village nestled at the bottom of a hill across the River Seine from the town of Vernon.  It was then made up of simple farms, modest houses, and a Norman church and at the time had a population of less than three hundred residents.  What appealed to Monet about Giverny and the surrounding area was its pastoral charm.  Monet, at this time, had been widowed for four years.  He arrived at Giverny and set up home along with his two children, Jean and Michel, and his former patrons Ernest and Alice Hoschedé.  Ernest Hoschedé, a departments store magnate and art collector had been declared bankrupt in 1877 when his business failed.  With nowhere to live, he and his wife and six children went to live with Claude and Camille Monet and their two children.

Charcoal sketch of Claude Monet by Theodore Robinson (1890)

At the time of Monet’s arrival at Giverny, his artistic career was starting to take off.  Giverny was to be a secluded and peaceful retreat and so he was less than pleased by the summer influx of artists to Giverny.  In his 1993 book Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionists Colony. William Gerdts recalls what Monet told a reporter about the influx of Americans:

“…When I first came to Giverny I was quite alone, the little village was unspoiled. Now, so many artists, students, flock here, I have often thought of moving away…”

However, the great man did not move away. Instead he progressively removed himself to his compound where his garden and lily pond provided all the subject matter he needed for his paintings.

Theodore Robinson’s photograph of Monet (c.1889)

Theodore Robinson agreed with Monet about the downside of the influx of visitors and was set against the idea put forward by John Leslie Breck to establish Giverny as an artists’ colony, and he was quoted as saying:

“…Breck conceived the idea of making an art colony of it [Giverny]. Theo Robinson strenuously objected saying they had found a lovely spot and should keep it to themselves…”

Breck had replied that because everyone had been so damn nice, he wanted them to reap some real financial benefit and not withstanding Robinson’s objection, Breck had persuaded Monsieur Baudy, the owner of Café Baudy they frequented, to build six rooms in the courtyard in back of the building and so Hôtel Baudy came into existence.  He even persuaded the landlord to build a studio for Willard Metcalf.

Theodore Robinson may have objected to making Giverny a hub for artists to visit in the summer for other than selfish reasons, it could well have been due to his own social reserve.  Robinson was not an unfriendly person but was quite happy with his own company.  Robinson, at thirty-one years of age, was older than his friends who had come to Giverny with him and this may have been a factor as to why he had been befriended by Monet.  Robinson, being close to Monet, was probably aware of Monet’s dislike of the village being overrun by visiting artists.  Robinson and Monet’s friendship was an interesting one.  It was not based on Monet being the master and Robinson the pupil.  It was a friendship based on a shared common love – painting, and both appreciated the talent of the other.  It was a friendship that would last even after Robinson returned to America with many letters passing from one to the other.

La Vachère (The Cowherd) by Theodore Robinson (1888)

Robinson returned briefly to New York at the end of 1887, but was back in Paris by early 1888 and had once again re-visited Giverny that summer. One of his paintings he completed during that summer is now considered to be one of his first Impressionist paintings.  It was La Vachére. It is interesting to note that this work highlights a dilemma for Robinson.  Is he an Impressionist painter or an Academic painter?  The painting would seem to be part Impressionism in the way the trees and foliage are depicted as patches of colour and part Academic in the way he depicts the woman.  She is simply a figurative study within an Impressionistic backdrop.  The painting was exhibited in the 1889 Paris Salon.

Autumn Sunlight by Theodore Robinson (1888)

A more impressionist style of painting can be seen in Theodore Robinson’s 1888 work entitled Autumn Sunlight.  In this painting, we see a young woman standing in the woods.  She is what is termed a faggot gatherer, a person who collects firewood, a bundle of which we see at her feet.   The background of speckled light hints at tonalism, which emphasizes atmosphere and shadow. However, the foreground with its myriad of leaves depicted by a montage of broken brushstrokes is pure Impressionism.

Winter Landscape by Theodore Robinson (1889)

Robinson returned to New York in December 1888.  He rented a studio in Manhattan.  His artistic output was less than it had been during his days in Giverny but produced works that he exhibited at the American Watercolor Society in the Spring of 1889.  Come the summer of 1889, Robinson was back in Giverny and it was during that year that he completed his beautiful work entitled Winter Landscape.  The work depicts ta view of the village of Giverny after it had succumbed to a freak snowstorm.  The red rooves of the houses were suddenly transformed to a patchwork of white and the entire village is swathed in a icy-looking purple-blue ambience.  Once again Robinson had returned to New York that winter and entered this painting at the Society of American Artists annual exhibition.  It won the Webb Prize, an award given for the best landscape in the exhibition, painted by an American artist under forty years of age.  He also received a monetary prize amounting the three hundred dollars.  Ironically this was one of the pure landscapes Robinson painted without a person or persons being part of the scene and the category for the prize stipulated that only “pure” landscape paintings would be accepted by the judges!

Capri and Mount Solaro by Theodore Robinson (1890)

Robinson was back in Giverny, once again a resident of Hôtel Baudy, for the summer of 1890 but the highlight of the year for him was his trip to Italy and the south of France.  During that winter journey Robinson visited Capri and from that stop-over produced the painting Capri and Mount Solero.  This landscape work was a depiction of the town and mountain as seen from a hillside which looks across from the town.  Again, in this work, we see the juxtaposition of his two styles.  We have the geometrical depiction of the village and the flat-roofed houses and yet we have the Impressionism style loose brushstrokes which are used to depict the foliage.

Capri by Theodore Robinson (1890)

For the first three months of 1891 Robinson was in Frascati, a town twenty kilometres south-east of Rome.  It was in March 1891 that Monet contacted Robinson, summoning home:

“…[Spring] is close … and I hope you are not going to delay taking possession again of your little house…….”

Robinson returned to Giverny in April 1891 after a brief stay in the French coastal town of Antibes.  Once again, having arrived back in Giverny, he took up residence at the Hôtel Baudy where he stayed until December, at which time he returns to New York.  The year 1891 was one of the most productive for Robinson and it was in that year that he once again began to dabble with photography.  He wrote to his family explaining why:

“…Painting directly from nature is difficult as things do not remain the same, the camera helps retain the picture in your mind…”

Two in a Boat Theodore Robinson (1891)

His use and dependency on photography varied but was mainly for use in his figurative work.  In some cases, it was found that he drew a grid of squares on the photograph and on the canvas or sheet of paper he was to draw on so that he could transfer a composition with great accuracy.  One painting he completed using this method to depict the two figures was Two in a Boat which he completed whilst in Giverny in the summer of 1891.  The depiction is of two women reading while lounging in a skiff floating on the Seine or Epte rivers. The method Robinson used to complete the work is given by the Phillips Collection in Washington which houses the painting:

“…The relationship between Two in a Boat and the photograph from which it derived offers a vivid example of Robinson’s painting process. He lightly scored the photograph and the canvas with graphite and sketched in the composition, using the grid as a measure. The grid and under-drawing are visible throughout, because Robinson’s pink primed canvas was left exposed in many areas, particularly in the lines defining the interior of the occupied boat and the figures. The painting differs slightly from the photograph: Robinson excluded a fourth boat to the starboard side of the skiff and the branch falling diagonally from the top left corner; furthermore, the photograph’s strong contrast has been replaced by an overall tone of violet and green…”

Robinson was pleased with the painting and exhibited it in the Society of American Artists’ 1895 annual exhibition and in his one-person exhibition at Macbeth’s later that year.

On May 13th, 1892, Robinson departed for what would prove to be his last summer in Giverny and the following month celebrated his fortieth birthday.  Celebrate was probably not the best way to describe this milestone in his life as he was suffering from a bout of severe depression and self-doubt.

La Debacle (also known as Marie at the Little Bridge) by Theodore Robinson (1892)

In 1892 Robinson completed one of his best known and best loved paintings.  It had the strange title of La Débâcle and later a subtitle of Marie at Little Bridge was added.  The sitter for this work was again his muse, Marie, Robinson’s great love and regular model.  In the painting, we see a fashionably dressed young woman seated on the stone foundation of the bridge over the River Epte, which runs close to Giverny.  Something or someone has disturbed her although we have no clue to what or who it is.  Clutched in her hand is the most recent novel written by Emile Zola entitled La Débâcle which had just come on sale that year.  The title of the book refers to the ignominious defeat of France in its battle with Prussia in 1870.  However, there may be another reason for the title of the painting as Robinson had proposed to Marie on a number of occasions and had been spurned and in a way that was Robinson’s own Débâcle.  It was also the year Robinson left Giverny and France for the last time but with him on his final journey back to America was this painting.

The Wedding March by Theodore Robinson (1892)

Also in 1892 Robinson produced what is probably his best-known work, The Wedding March.  The painting was based on the wedding of the American painter, Theodore Earl Butler to one of Monet’s stepdaughter, Susan Hoschedé.  In a letter to his friend he described the event:

“…There was a double ceremony – first at the Mairie – then at the church.  Nearly all the wedding party were in full dress……Most of the villagers and all the pensionnaires were there – guns were fired, two beggars held open the carriage doors and received alms…”

Although one may have thought that Robinson painted the work using a photograph of the processional march but in fact he painted it from memory. In the painting, we see the procession from the orange-sided Mairie, or City Hall, on its way to the old Norman church down the lane which has since been named the rue Claude Monet. In the depiction, we see Monet himself escorting the bride at foreground while Butler and Madame Hoschedé bring up the rear. The unidentified girl in the middle is thought to be the youngest Hoschedé daughter.

Gathering Plums by Theodore Robinson (1891)

Robinson arrived back in America on December 12th, 1892.  He had hoped to survive financially through the sale of his paintings but this was not to be and due to ever increasing financial difficulties Robinson was forced to teach a summer class for the Brooklyn Art School.  Robinson was a shy person who favoured his own company and so due to this and his lack of confidence, teaching was not a favourite occupation, but beggars cannot be choosers.

Père Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge (1891)

For the next three years, Theodore Robinson continued to paint and teach at various colleges but his health was beginning to fail.   During the winter of 1895, asthma was increasingly consuming more of Robinson’s strength. In his final letter to Monet in February 6th, 1896 he wrote to the great man saying that he hoped to return to Giverny but it was not to be. He finally succumbed to the respiratory ailment that he had been suffering from all his life and he died on April 2nd, 1896 at the New York home of his cousin, Agnes Cheney. Robinson’s funeral was held on 4 April at the Society of American Artists in New York, and his body was then sent to Evansville, Wisconsin for burial.  His death came just six weeks before what would have been his forty-fourth birthday.

Theodore Robinson has long been considered the first American Impressionist.

 

 

 

 

Posted in American artists, Art, Art Blog, Art History, Monet, Theodore Robinson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Theodore Robinson. Part 2 – Naturalism, Realism and Giverny

Theodore Robinson

……………………Theodore Robinson returned with some of his fellow students to the Fontainebleu Forest in the summer of 1878 to carry on with their en plein air painting but probably the highlight for Robinson that September was his trip to Italy with his fellow École des Beaux-Arts student Kenyon Cox.  They visited Turin, Milan, Verona and Bologna on their way to Venice.  In his 1986 book, An American Art Student in Paris, The Letters of Kenyon Cox 1877-1882, H.Wayne Morgan quotes from a letter Cox sent to his family after he had returned to France on December 15th 1878 and from it we have an insight into the physical health of his erstwhile fellow traveller, Robinson.  Cox wrote:

“…Robinson has come back from Venice very much used up.  He caught some sort of fever there and was sick for some days in a little German hotel, waiting for money to leave with, confined to his bed, unable to eat anything…….and almost afraid he should get out alive.   He is very thin and feeble, but I hope if he takes care of himself and lives better he will come around…”

Suzette (Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Robinson left Europe and returned to New York in late 1879 and rented a studio on Broadway hoping to establish himself as a professional artist but his financial situation became dire and he had to close his studio and return to his family in Evansville where he would paint local scenes but also dabbled with illustrative work.  One such illustration, Suzette, appeared in the August 31st 1880 issue of the Harper’s Young People magazine  in conjunction with a children’s story Viola’s Sketch.   The original black chalk drawing with white heightening, on grayish blue paper, mounted on board can be found at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.   It depicts an outdoor scene with a young girl, turned to the right, in a humble frock intent on sewing.  Her hair is styled in a long braid and she stands in wooden shoes, looking downward wistfully at her work.  The simple depiction of this guileless peasant girl probably harks back at Robinson’s academic training in Paris and the rustic genre imagery we have seen in the works of Jean-François Millet

However, Robinson’s life was at a low point, both physically and mentally as indicated in letters he sent to his friends.  One such friend was Will Low a fellow student at Carolus-Duran’s atelier in Paris.  In his 1908 book, A Chronicle of Friendship, Low wrote that on hearing of his friend’s predicament he had to:

“…extricate Robinson from the surroundings where….he was fast relapsing into a vegetable state…”

And so, Low arranged for Robinson to take a teaching position in New York at Mrs Sylvanus Reed’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies, a latter day finishing school for young women.  In May 1881 Robinson was elected to the Society of American Artists and following the short spell of teaching he began to work for the muralist and stained-glass window maker John La Farge.  He and his friend Will Lowe worked on a La Farge commission from Cornelius Vanderbilt to decorate his New York 5th Avenue home and following this they worked on Vanderbilt’s Tarrytown residence on the Hudson River.  Robinson then went on to work for the decorative painting company run by Prentice Treadwell and he works on architectural decorations in Boston, Albany and on decorations for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York as well as commissions for the well-heeled nouveau-riche industrialists.

Daisy Field, Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

In May 1881 Robinson’s mother died and he returned briefly to Evansville to be with his family but returned to New York that August.   During these periods of employment Robinson still carried on with his own paintings and spent time in the summer travelling around New York State, Vermont and made painting trips to Nantucket with fellow artists in the summer of 1882 painting local island life.

Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

Theodore Robinson spent the summer of 1882 on Nantucket Island and produced several paintings based on local scenes, including the one above.  The depiction of the rider and his mount at rest under the tree is a depiction of tranquillity and serenity.  In the distance, on the horizon, we can just make out the sea which lends itself to the belief that the setting was somewhere on the New England coast, probably Nantucket Island.  The painting can now be found at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

Flower of Memory by Theodore Robinson (1881)

He completed a beautiful work in 1881 entitled Flower of Memory which is a romantic (if somewhat schmaltzy) depiction of a young lady in an Empire dress, standing alone in a garden.  This sort of depiction was very popular with folk in America at this time and could well have epitomised the figures he was painting as a decorative artist for the La Farge and Treadwell commissions.

A Poacher by Theodore Robinson (1884)

However, Robinson’s art was not dominated by cloying sentimentality in his depictions as he was very much a believer in the realism portrayed in works such as those by Winslow Homer on of his favourite painters.  This is borne out when we look at his 1984 work, The Poacher.

French Impressionism had permeated towards America and Impressionist paintings had started to become sought-after items.  The influential Parisian art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel had organised a large exhibition of works of Manet, Monet, Pissaro  and Renoir in Boston in September 1883.  So just as Impressionism was arriving on the American shores in the Spring of 1884, Theodore Robinson, who had saved enough money to buy himself a sea passage, left the country to return to France where he would remain for the next eight years with just the occasional visits back to New York.  During his stay in France he would also make trips Belgium and Holland where he would take in the Flemish and Dutch art scene.

By the end of the 1870’s the leading exponent of the style of art known as Naturalism, which is the depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting, was Jules Bastien-Lepage.  When Robinson arrived in France in 1884 the popularity and standing of Lepage was escalating, and his works of art were in great demand, a fact that Robinson must have been well aware of and there is no doubt that Lepage’s works influenced Robinson.   Lepage’s popularity and the sale of his artwork increased even more in December 1884 when he tragically died of stomach cancer at the young age of forty-four and this adulation culminated in 1885 with a retrospective of his paintings at the Hotel de Chimay in Paris which proved to be a runaway success.

Le petit Colporteur endormi (The little sleeping pedlar) by Bastien-LePage

Often Lepage’s works depicted rural peasants and urban labourers  and these detailed portrayals lacked sentimentality and yet brought home to the observer an honest if somewhat blunt snapshot of the life of the less well-off. Such was their popularity they appeared regularly at the Salon  exhibitions.

In 1886 Robinson’s good friend Will Low along with his wife arrived in Paris and Robinson was there to greet them as they alighted from the train at Gare St. Lazaire.  Such was his friendship with Low that for the next twelve months he lived with them at their rented accommodation on Rue Vernier in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.   Robinson’s work during his time in France was diverse.  There was the sentimentality of works like Flower of Memory which as I said earlier probably originated from his time of painting mural decorations for La Farge and Treadwell.  There was his landscape work which derived from his en plein air painting at the Fontainebleau Forest during his summer breaks from the Paris Academy and finally there was his interest in genre painting and the depiction of peasants and urban dwellers at work or at home which he became interested in during his trips to Flanders and the Netherlands.

A Cobbler of Old Paris by Theodore Robinson (1885)

His 1885 painting A Cobbler in Old Paris is a prime example of Robinson’s look at urban life.  The focal point for the work is the woman who leans in through the open window to talk to the cobbler.  One should almost look at this work as a part still life painting with the cobblers workbench littered with still life objects, the tools of his trade, as is the wall in the background filled with the racks of shoes.  This type of scene of tranquil everyday life was popular in Victorian times and Robinson completed many similar works.

Young Girl with Dog by Theodore Robinson (1886)

In his 1886 painting, Young Girl with Dog, Robinson has preserved Bastien-Lepage’s method of honestly and frankly portraying an un-idealized figure seen in a landscape.   There is also an American source of inspiration that would have been well-known to Robinson. This small vertical format containing the standing figure illuminated under a dappled light is evocative of a series of watercolours produced by Winslow Homer in the summer of 1878 when he was invited to stay at Houghton Farm in upstate New York, the home of his patron Lawson Valentine.

Weary by Winslow Homer (1878)

One such work by Homer was entitled Weary.  Robinson was not only an early admirer of Homer’s watercolours, but it is rumoured that he purchased one of the watercolours in 1894.  Robinson first visited Giverny, a small Norman village, which was situated on the banks of the River Seine halfway between Paris and Rouen in 1885 when he and a friend of Claude Monet, Monsieur De Conchy visited the French painter. Claude Monet had moved there in 1883 with his two young sons Jean and Michel.   Pierre Toulgouat who was a descendent of Monet, wrote of the time in his 1948 book, Skylights in Normandy:

“…in 1885, his [Monet’s] friend, De Conchy came to visit him, accompanied by the young American painter, Theodore Robinson – and Robinson, particularly, was to remain a faithful Givernois, until his death, painting there when he could and writing longingly of it when he had to be away…”

In June of 1886 Robinson was in Paris and managed to visit Monet’s work at the Fifth International Exhibition of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit and came away captivated by Monet’s works especially their colour and luminosity

Portrait of Madame Baudy by Theodore Robinson (1888)

In June 1887 Robinson moved out of Paris and went to live in Giverny. He moved into rooms at the newly-opened Hotel Baudy, which lay in the centre of the village and was run by Angélina Baudy.  Giverny and the surrounding area, for Theodore Robinson, was all about the simplicity of the landscape, the colours and the light and he would love to go off and explore and paint.  He loved everything about the area.  He loved the hills and fields, the old buildings, the people and the animals and would immerse himself in the area painting as much as he could in the ever changing conditions of light and weather.

Valley of the Seine, Giverny by Theodore Robinson (1887)

A fine example of this is his 1887 painting Valley of the Seine in which we see a minute figure in white which somehow secures a pattern of one horizontal and several diagonals that contain and depict several hillside swaths of yellow and grey, and a triangle of blue sky. For his portrayal of the countryside Robinson has used muted earthen colours, ones that he would use in many of his later paintings.

La Vachère (The Cowherd) by Theodore Robinson (1888)

During his stay around the Giverny area Robinson depicted many of the residents of the area.  Most of his paintings featured women at work, sometimes seen gathering wood and fruit sometimes tending the farm animals or doing the laundry.  An example of this is his large 1888 painting entitled La Vachère (The Cowherd) 219 x 152cms (86 x 60 ins) which is housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Before us we see a young woman and a cow both surrounded by foliage that glistens in the reflected light.  Look how Robinson has cleverly left an opening between the trees in way of the girl’s head.  It enhances the young woman’s profile and frames her face as well as adding depth to the depiction.  The addition of the cow into the depiction is almost as if the animal is vying for supremacy in the painting but it is completely ignored by the girl.

In The Grove by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

One strange thing about this painting is that shortly after he completed the work Robinson painted the same woman in the same setting but without the cow!  Maybe he thought the animal detracted from the beauty of the female. The picture, which is much smaller, is entitled In the Grove and is also part of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s collection.

In my final look at Theodore Robinson’s life in the next blog, I will look closer at his relationship with Claude Monet and showcase more of his later works.

Posted in American artists, Art, Art Blog, Art History, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Naturalism, Realism, Realism Artists, Theodore Robinson, Winslow Homer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Theodore Robinson. Part 1 – the early years of the American Impressionist

Theodore Robinson

When we think of Impressionism and Impressionist painters we immediately think of French artists and if I was to ask you to name a few French Impressionist painters, I guess you wouldn’t have a problem and the names of Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Bazille, Pissaro and Cézanne would easily roll off your tongue.  However, if I was to ask you to cite some famous American Impressionists I guess the names of Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent would come immediately to mind, some may even suggest William Merritt Chase or John Henry Twachtman but, especially if you were not an American, it would become a struggle to think of the names of any other American Impressionist.  In my blog today I am looking at the life and work of one of the first American Impressionists, Theodore Robinson, albeit he is not the best known.  Lovell Birge Harrison, the American genre and landscape painter, teacher, and writer and prominent practitioner and advocate of Tonalism wrote about Robinson in a 1916 article in Century Magazine, saying:

“…The one who always stands out most vividly in my own mind …[is] Theodore Robinson, who is now taking his place beside Inness, Wyant, and Winslow Homer as one of our American old masters…”

Self Portrait by Theodore Robinson (c.1887)

Robinson was one of the most skilful and gifted American artists of the nineteenth century. He said he always knew he would become an artist and once said of himself that perhaps he was born to make sketches.  His accomplishments as an artist take on an even greater meaning considering that he was a man who would have to battle all his life against poor physical health.

Harbour Scene by Theodore Robinson (1876)

Theodore Pierson Robinson was born on July 3rd 1852 in the small northern Vermont town of Irasburg which lies twenty-five miles south of the US-Canada border.  He was the third of six children of Elijah and Ellen Brown Robinson.  Sadly, his two sisters and one of his brothers died in childhood, leaving just Theodore and his two brothers Hamline and John.  In 1843, his father, who had worked on the family farm in Jamaica, trained to become a minster in the Methodist congregation but due to ill health had to give up the ministry and he became a shopkeeper opening is own clothing store.

Young Woman Reading by Theodore Robinson (1887)

In 1855, whilst still a very young child, Theodore and his family moved from Vermont and went to live in the small town of Barry, Illinois and two years later they moved again, this time to Evansville, southern Wisconsin, another small town that was first settled in the 1830s by New Englanders who were attracted to the area by its unspoiled wooded landscapes.  Another reason for the move to the countryside of Wisconsin was because of Theodore’s health.  As a young child, he had developed asthma which had weakened him and would trouble him for the rest of his life.  He enrolled at the local seminary where his artistic talent was first noted, winning  prizes for penmanship.   He would also often sketch portraits of friends and family as well as the parishioners who came to the local Methodist church.

In 1869, aged 17, after he had completed regular schooling, and because of his burgeoning artistic talent,  along with his mother’s dogged perseverance, he enrolled as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Unfortunately, he did not stay there long as his asthma worsened, a chronic condition that he had suffered with since childhood, and so it was decided that he should move away from polluted air of city life and move to the cleaner drier mountain air of Denver, Colorado.  It must have done the trick for a few years later, he did return to Evansville where he carried on with his portraiture work which he would sell and with the money he earned he would put it aside for his art college fund.  In 1874 he moved to New York where he enrolled at the National Academy of Design.   This establishment was founded in 1825 by a group of artists including Samuel F. B. Morse, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, Martin E. Thompson, all students of the American Academy of Fine Arts, who had grown increasingly impatient with the constraints of the Academy, and in 1825 they had left to found the National Academy of Design. The idea for its existence was said to be

“…to promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition…”

On the Housatonic River Connecticut by Theodore Robinson (1877)

Whilst there, Robinson studied under Lemuel Everett Wilmarth and when not at the Academy would spend hours sketching in nearby Central Park.  We have seen with many of the European academies, the narrow and rigid academic training in art was not for everybody with some aspiring young artists wanting more freedom with regards what was being taught and how it was being taught.  As far as Robinson and several his fellow students were concerned there was a two-fold problem with the American Academy of Fine Art.   Firstly, the Academy was run by a group of older artists who were landscape painters and concentrated on teaching that artistic genre despite many of the students, including Robinson, wanting more emphasis on figurative painting.  Secondly, the students believed that their prospects to exhibit, and ultimately sell their work, was being limited by the Academy.  Another reason could have been that in 1874 the Academy temporarily suspended activities.  Rumours flew around that the establishment was in financial trouble and so its students felt they had nowhere to turn and wondered about their future.  In 1875, this dissatisfaction and confusion about the future lead Wilmarth, along with a group of his students, including Robinson, to form the Art Students League. This Art Students League met and held its classes in a small rented space over a shop at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.  It was so small a space that a daily schedule of studio instruction had to be organised, with women studying in the afternoon and men at night. However, this alternative organisation allowed these painters a greater influence on their curriculum and would also allow them greater access to exhibition space.

Suzette (also known as Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Theodore Robinson fulfilled one of his artistic goals two years later in 1876 when he went to study art in Paris, a city looked upon at the time as the centre of the world of art.  Most American art students during the second half of the nineteenth century viewed their study in New York as a stopping-off point on their artistic journey before they headed to Europe.   The first art tutor Robinson studied with in Paris was the French painter, August Carolus-Duran, whose studio was in the Boulevard Montparnasse.  Carolus-Duran was renowned for his elegant portrayal of members of French high society and people travelled from far and wide to become one of his sitters.

Portrait of Mrs Astor by August Carolus-Duran (1890)

Carolus-Duran was probably well known to artists in America for his 1890 portrait of the American banker’s wife, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the doyenne of American high society in the latter half of the 19th century, who maintained the stance of “old money” in the face of changing times and values when the nouveau riche were coming to the fore.   Also, studying under Carolus-Duran, at that time, were John Singer Sargent, the landscape and genre painter Carroll Beckwith and the muralist and author Will Hicock Low.   It was Low who recalled being with Theodore Robinson at that time in Carolus-Duran’s atelier, when he wrote in his 1908 book A Chronicle of Friendship, 1873-1900:

“…Among the new arrivals one year was Theodore Robinson, who, timidly, with due respect for my two years experience in Paris student life, sought my acquaintance… Frail, with a husky, asthmatic voice and a laugh that shook his meager sides and yet hardly made itself heard, yet blessed with as keen a sense of humor as anyone I have ever known, Robinson was received at once into our little circle. At first he seemed almost negative, so quietly he took his place among us, but once the shell of diffidence was pierced few of the men had thought as much or as independently…”

Arabs Arguing by Jean-Leon Gérome

Theodore Robinson was only with Carolus-Duran for a short time and rumour has it that they did not agree on some aspects of the artistic training,  Robinson moved on and became a student at the École des Beaux-Arts, and a pupil at the atelier of the French painter and sculptor, Jean-Léon Gérome, an artist, who had always been a great believer and follower of the painting style known as Academicism, a style of painting and sculpture produced under the influence of European academies of art. Gérome was noted for his portraiture and his history paintings which often featured Arabian scenes, which was known as Orientalism, and was an art genre of Academic art, popular in the nineteenth century which represented the Middle East.  The fact that Robinson was accepted into this atelier is testament to his artistic ability as it was the most admired studio and the one that most American students wanted to attend.

Spinning by Theodore Robinson

In 1877 Theodore Robinson achieved another of his artistic goals, one which every art student strived for; he had a painting, Une Jeune Fille, accepted at that year’s Salon. One can only imagine how delighted he was to get his painting hung at the Salon.  In a letter to his mother he wrote of his joy:

“…My picture is accepted and I tremble with joy…”

The Bridge at Grèz-sur-Loing by Corot (c.1860)

Robinson went on to exhibit his works at five more Salons during the 1880’s.  Following the time spent on his Salon entry and its inclusion at the 1877 Salon, Robinson decided to take a break from his studies and head out of the city and delve into the nearby countryside around Fontainebleau.  He and some of his fellow artists, Will Low, Birge Harrison and Walter Launt Palmer travelled to the village of Grèz which was on the banks of the River Loing on the southern edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, some fifteen kilometres south of Barbizon.  At the time, this was an area that was awash with artist colonies such as those at Barbizon, Grèz-sur-Loing, Montigny-sur-Loing and Thomery but at this time, Grèz was the most popular with artists who wanted to spend the day painting en plein air and the evening spent talking about art.  This popular idyll was described in the book Theodore Robinson’s La Debacle, 1892: an American Artist in France by Betsy Kathryn Koeninger, in which she quotes the words of the Scottish painter John Lavery, a student at the Académie Julien who stayed in the village in the early 1880’s.   He described the ambience of the village and its surroundings:

“…a pleasant place surrounded by large fields of white and yellow water lilies and poplars and willows. There was also the much-painted bridge… a ruined castle and an ancient church… [and] Madame Chevillon’s Inn with its long garden down to the water’s edge where guests could sit in bathing dress to eat after a swim or a sail in a skiff…”

Farmhouse at Grèz by Theodore Robinson

Robinson’s friend and colleague from the Academy, Birge Harrison, who had travelled to Grèz with him and remembers him, wrote an article in the December 1916 edition of the Century Magazine, entitled With Stevenson in Grèz.  He wrote:

“…Robinson was far from handsome in the classic sense. An enormous head, with goggle-eyes and a whopper-jaw, was balanced on a frail body by means of a neck of extreme tenuity; and stooping shoulders, with a long, slouching gait, did not add anything of grace or of beauty to his general appearance.” It was not Robinson’s physical prowess that interested Harrison, but his strength of character. “[Out] of those goggle-eyes shone the courage of a Bayard, and in their depths brooded the soul of a poet and dreamer, while his whole person radiated a delightful and ineffable sense of humor…”

Another visitor to Grèz that summer was the writer Robert Louis Stevenson and he and Theodore Robinson immediately became good friends.

Once summer was over Robinson returned to Paris and his studies at Gérome’s studio and to copying the paintings of the Masters at the Louvre.  The climate in Paris during that winter was harsh and Robinson, a poverty-stricken artist, lived in poor conditions and suffered with colds and asthma attacks, all of which affected his work and he wrote to his mother:

“…When I’ve taken cold and cough all night my work is greatly interfered with not to mention the inconvenience it causes…”

On the Canal by Theodore Robinson

In 1878, Robinson decided to send one of his paintings to the Society of American Artists first exhibition.  The group had been founded the previous year by artists of attending the National Academy of Design which they believed did not satisfactorily meet their needs, and was far too conservative in its thinking.  This was the same reasoning behind the formation of the Art Students League which Robinson helped Wilmarth to organise in 1875.  The Society of American Artists was very valuable to those American artists who, having studied art in European cities, were returning home but discovered that there were inadequate prospects to exhibit their work. Robinson became a regular contributor to their annual exhibitions.

In my next blog I will be looking more at Theodore Robinson’s life and a very important and influential friendship he had with his French neighbour.

————————————————————————————–

Apart from the usual internet sources I found many details about Theodore Robinson’s life in an essay written  for the catalogue of the Theodore Robinson exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York in March 2000 by the American writer and art curator, D. Scott Atkinson.

Posted in American artists, Art, Art Blog, Art History, Impressionists, Theodore Robinson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Jean-Baptiste Pillement

The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)

The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)

Louis XIV, known as the Sun King died in 1715, at the age of seventy-seven after reigning for seventy-two years.  He had outlived all his legitimate children and two of his eldest grandchildren so his crown passed to his youngest grandchild, Louis Duke of Anjou, who became Louis XV at the age of five (the same age his grandfather was when he became Louis XIV) and his kingdom was ruled by his maternal great-uncle, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans as Regent of France, until Louis reached maturity in 1723.  The Duke of Orléans had a passion for beauty and cheerfulness and he tried to dismantle the godliness enforced by Louis XIV at his sumptuous home in Versailles. Following numerous wars under the previous monarch, France turned away from these imperial aspirations and instead, concentrated on more personal, and enjoyable pastimes. With this more relaxed political life and the letting-up of private morals, the change was mirrored by a new style in art, one that was intimate, decorative, and often erotic.  It was the era of Rococo.

Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)

Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)

Members of the new royal court began to decorate their sophisticated homes in a lighter, more delicate manner. This new style which came into being around the start of the 18th century has been known since the last century as “rococo,” from the French word, rocaille, for rock and shell garden ornamentation. The rococo style emphasized pastel colours, sinuous curves, and patterns based on flowers, vines, and shells. Artists moved away from depictions of lofty grandiloquence and instead focused on the pleasures of both colour and light, and also moved away from depictions of momentous religious and historical subjects and concentrated more on informal, friendly and relaxed mythological scenes as well as  joyous views of daily life, and elegant sophisticated portraiture.  When we think about rococo art we think of Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard but today I am looking at the life and works of a lesser known rococo artist, Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)

The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)

Jean-Baptiste Pillement was born in Lyon, France on May 24th 1728.  He received his first artistic training as a teenager from the French painter, Daniel Sarrabat in Lyon.  The training he received gave him an excellent foundation in the Rococo style of genre painting which had become so popular through the works of Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher.  In 1743, aged fifteen, Pillement moved from his home town to Paris where he was taken on as a design apprentice at the Manafacture des Gobelins, a tapestry factory, which is best known as a royal factory supplying the court of the French monarchs.   In 1745 he left Paris and travelled to Spain and remained there for five years. He spent those years moving from city to city earning money sometimes as a designer other times as a painter.

Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin
by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

One recurring theme depicted in his paintings was that of rugged landscapes, shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats cross fast flowing streams by way of rickety bridges, on either side of the cascading water we see lush green vegetation all of which was bathed in the golden glow of sunlight.

In 1750, after five years in Spain, the twenty-two-year-old Pillement journeyed to Lisbon where he was to remain for four years.  In 1754 Pillement left the Iberian Peninsula and travelled to London.  The favoured artistic genre of the English at that time was landscape painting and this meant that Pillement’s Rococo-style of romanticised landscape art was in much demand.  One of the popular artists at that time whose work was to influence Pillement was Nicolaes Berchem, the highly regarded and prolific Dutch Golden Age painter who painted numerous works depicting pastoral landscapes in the seventeenth century.

Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem

Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem

Berchem was part of the second generation of “Dutch Italianate landscape” painters who had travelled to Italy to take in the romanticism of the country and who would later return home to the Netherlands with sketchbooks full of drawings of classical ruins and pastoral imagery. Like Pillement, a century later, Berchem’s works were based on the Arcadian landscapes of the French painter Claude Lorrain which would typically depict shepherds grazing their flocks among Classical ruins, bathed in a golden sunlit haze.

The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During his sojourn in the English capital he became friends with the English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer David Garrick and his wife, the dancer, Eva Maria Weigel.  Garrick had become quite wealthy through his acting and this allowed he and his wife to buy a palatial estate in Richmond-on-Thames which became known as Garrick’s Villa.  Eva Marie Weigel became an art collector and furnished the house with paintings, many of which were by Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In 1763, Pillement was once again on the move, this time leaving London and travelling to Vienna.  His reputation as a successful painter gave him the opportunity to move in royal circles and was employed at the Imperial Court of Maria Theresa and Francis I.

Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In the eighteenth century, prints of designs was the foremost way of spreading information. They were often published monthly and were collected into folios or volumes, and people could order them by subscription. There was a massive demand throughout Europe, for these prints.   Pillement, whilst living in England, soon realised that the fashion there was the same as that in France, and, at the time, was the love of chinoiseries.  It was around 1764 that Pillement, according to his memoirs, had discovered a new method of printing on silk with fast colours.   Pillement’s illustrations were a blend of fanciful birds, flora & fauna, incorporating large human figures and chinoiserie.  The word, chinoiserie came from the French word Chinois, meaning “Chinese” and is a European version and simulation of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions, especially in the field of decorative arts.  It first became popular during the 17th century and this trend was further commercialised in the 18th century with the boom in trade with China and East Asia.   The chinoiserie style is associated with the Rococo style with its cheerfulness, its concentration on materials, and often depicts times of great pleasure and leisure time.

One of Jean Baptiste Pillement's Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l'usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.

One of Jean Baptiste Pillement’s Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l’usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.

These beautiful and intricate designs were used by engravers and decorators not only on porcelain and pottery, but also on textiles, wallpaper and silver. Pillement published many albums, of these illustrations, the most famous being Œùvre de fleurs, ornements, cartouches, figures et sujets chinois which was published in 1776.

After Vienna, Pillement’s next stop, in 1765, was Poland and the city of Warsaw where he once again worked for the royal court of the Polish king, Stanislaw II, who commissioned him to decorate the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the nearby Ujazdowski Castle.

Inside Le petit Trianon

Inside Le petit Trianon

Pillement was forever on the move.  He worked in Saint Petersburg, the Piedmont, Milan, Rome and Venice as well as returning to his homeland where he was employed by Marie Antoinette to furnish the Petit Trianon, a small château located on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles which was built between 1762 and 1768 during the reign of Louis XV.   Its purpose was to house Louis XV’s long-term mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who sadly died four years before its completion.  However, all was not lost, as the Petit Trianon was subsequently occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry. When Louis XV died in 1774 he was succeeded by his son Louis-Auguste who became Louis XVI and when he came to the throne he gave the Petit Trianon to his wife Marie Antoinette whom he had married in 1770 when he was just fifteen years of age, the same age as his bride. In 1778 Pillement was nominated Court Painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, in which capacity he provided paintings for the Petit Trianon at Versailles.

A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During the 1780’s Pillement was living once again on the Iberian Peninsula where he completed many of his most treasured works of art.  In Portugal, he became one of that country’s leading landscape and marine artists. He was also named Court Painter to Queen Maria I and King Pedro III, at last accepting the honour and pension that he had declined when he lived and worked in the country some thirty-five years earlier. It was during this second stay that he also gained a reputation as one of Portugal’s finest teachers of art.

Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)

Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)

He eventually returned to France in 1789 but instead of returning to Paris  he settled in a small town of Pézenas, in the Val d’Hérault in the Languedoc region.  In 1800, aged 72, he returned to his birthplace, Lyon, where he continued to paint.  On September 1st 1801 the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte signed a famous decree, Decree of 14 Fructidor, the so-called Chaptal Decree, named after the famous chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who was the minister for the interior from 1800–04.  The decree offered the fifteen newly founded museums the art treasures which had been captured from “the enemies of the Republic”.  In the main, these were post-Revolution confiscations effected in France, but also included artwork which had been seized elsewhere in Europe by the Republican and, later, Napoleonic armies. In Lyon, in 1801, the founding of the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon. The institution also fulfilled local aspirations, such as recalling the city’s prestigious Roman past and furnishing models for the silk industry, which was in crisis at that time.  And at the beginning of 1803, the Louvre Museum began to send a total of 110 paintings to be housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon.  Jean-Baptiste Pillement was employed at the museum to give art lessons which he continued doing for the rest of his life.

Fête Champêtre black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Fête Champêtre
black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Pillement achieved success not only as a landscape painter but was also one of the most influential decorators of the eighteenth century. His chinoiseries, arabesques and flower paintings providing elegant leitmotives for furniture makers, tapestry weavers, and particularly when he returned late in life to the south of France, he did much work for the silk industry of Lyon (Manufacture de Soie et des Indiennes), where he ended his distinguished career.

River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement

River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement

Jean-Baptiste Pillement died in Lyon in 1808, aged 80.  He will be remembered for his exquisite and delicate landscapes, but most of all for his engravings done after his drawings, and their influence in spreading the Rococo style and particularly the taste for chinoiserie throughout Europe.

In Maria Gordon-Smith’s 2006 book, Pillement, she commented:

“…the name Jean Pillement can evoke visions of Arcadian landscapes, luminous seascapes, and highly polished pastels and drawings. To the cognoscenti of decorative arts, Pillement is recalled as having been the most prolific and successful master of Rococo fantasy of his time. His designs were adopted by countless leading artistic manufactories, and their charm has never waned…”

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, French painters, Jean-Baptiste Pillement, Rococo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wilson and the Ferrieres Collection

The Wilson Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery

The Wilson
Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery

When I have to travel to meetings in the UK and have an overnight stay, I try and go to local art galleries and see what is on offer.   I am often somewhat disappointed with the collections.  I suppose I expect too much.  It is my own fault.  I should realise I am not going to find a hidden Uffizi or Prado in a provincial town as I am aware that building up an art collection is a costly affair in this day and age.  So, to my great surprise and pleasure, yesterday I discovered a real gem.  I was in Cheltenham for a meeting and had the afternoon free so decided to go and find their art gallery.   It is called The Wilson and it has a small but wonderful collection of paintings many of which are from an era I particularly love – seventeenth and nineteenth Dutch and Flemish works of art.  My blog today is all about the gallery and some of these paintings.

Baron Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrieres

Baron Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrieres

For a gallery to become established it obviously needs a collection of paintings and this almost always means it has to have a benefactor who has bequeathed the gallery a large number of works of art.  The regency spa town of Cheltenham and The Wilson had the second Baron de Ferrieres to thank for their foreign painting collection.  He died in Cheltenham in 1864 and left his large art collection to his son the third Baron, Charles Conrad Adolphus du Bois de Ferrieres, who in 1898 donated forty-three paintings and a sum of £1000 to the town of Cheltenham to set up a gallery to house the works of art, and so it was his generosity that today’s gallery began life and was able to house such a rich collection of work.

Trees, Castle and Skating Figures by Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder

Trees, Castle and Skating Figures by Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder

The first painting I am showcasing is entitled Trees, Castle and Skating Figures by Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder (1807-1868).  Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek the Elder was a 19th-century Dutch landscape painter who was born in Middelburg and was the son of the painter, Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek who gave him his early art lessons.  Marinus had two brothers, Barend Cornelis and Hermanus who were also artists.  Koekkoek was primarily based in Hilversum and Amsterdam, where he later died.

Fortified Building on the Banks of a Canal by Cornelis Springer

Fortified Building on the Banks of a Canal by Cornelis Springer

Fortified Building on the Banks of a Canal is another fine example from the Ferriers collection.  It was painted around 1850 by the Dutch landscape artist, Cornelis Springer who was born in Amsterdam in 1817.  Springer became a member of the Amsterdam painters collective Felix Meritis and won a gold medal for a painting of a church interior in 1847. He was the most skilled of the Dutch townscape painters in the nineteenth century.  He consistently strived for topographical accuracy in his townscapes and this he achieved by many hours studying the design plans of the original buildings.  His townscapes have a meticulous style with attention to light and atmospheric conditions.  In this work Springer has somewhat abandoned his normal detailed depiction of the buildings an sought to concentrate the light and atmosphere which makes the depiction more Romantic that topographically correct.

Dutch Street Scene by Adrianus Eversun

Dutch Street Scene by Adrianus Eversun

Adrianus Eversen was a pupil of our previous painter, Cornelis Springer and spent most of his life painting in Amsterdam.  He, like Springer, was known for his townscapes and street scenes.  However, unlike Springer most of his townscapes lacked topographical accuracy.  In his painting, Dutch Street Scene, which he completed in 1858, we see a row of buildings which the artist has depicted with architectural accuracy but the setting was probably just a figment of his imagination rather than a real street.  He completed many paints of this ilk which were simply entitled “Dutch street scenes”.

A fête champêtre was a popular form of entertainment in the 18th century, and took the form of a kind of garden party. This form of entertainment was especially prevalent at the French court where at Versailles large areas of the park were landscaped with follies, pavilions and temples to have the capacity for such revelries.

Fête Champêtre: Cavaliers and Women Round a Gaming Board by Joseph le Roy

Fête Champêtre: Cavaliers and Women Round a Gaming Board by Joseph le Roy

The term fête champêtre comes from the French expression for a “pastoral festival” or “country feast” and this may be construed as being a simplistic form of entertainment, but in the eighteenth century, a fête champêtre was usually a very graceful and stylish form of entertainment which would sometimes involve whole orchestras hidden from sight amongst the trees and participants would be in fancy dress.  Joseph Anne Jules Le Roy (1853-1922), the Parisian-born painter, was a specialist in military scenes and animals and in this painting of his we see those two themes.  In his painting, Fête Champêtre: Cavaliers and Women Round a Gaming Board we see depicted the fête champêtre in the grand manner with the people dressed in Flemish seventeenth century costumes.

Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering) by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1721)

Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering) by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1721)

This was different to the sumptuous costumes depicted by the French artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau’s in his 1721 painting, Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering). 

A Flemish Fair by of Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh

A Flemish Fair by of Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh

The next painting which is also part of the Ferrieres Collection comes from an earlier period.  This is thought to be a late sixteenth century work and is attributed to Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh.  He was a Dutch Renaissance painter who was born in Leiden in 1537 and died in the same town in 1614.  The work, entitled A Flemish Fair, reminds me of works by one of my favourite artists, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was a contemporary of Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburgh.  The depiction of fairs in paintings was very popular in the last decade of the sixteenth century.

Ruins over the River Birchel at Zutphen by Everhardus Koster

Ruins over the River Birchel at Zutphen by Everhardus Koster

Everhardus Koster (1817-1892) was a Dutch painter who specialized in sea and river scenes.  He studied at Frankfurt-am-Main’s Stadelsches Kunstinstitut and would later become a member of the Amsterdam Academy and for twenty years was the director of Het Pavijoen in Haarlem, he served as Director of the various museums that were formerly housed in the Villa Welgelegen.  One of his paintings, Ruins over the River Birchel at Zutphen is part of the Ferrieres Collection.

Willem van Mieris (1662-1747) was the most successful genre painter of his generation and a leader of the painters of Leiden. He was a master of cabinet pieces. In this painting, A Hurdy-Gurdy Player Asleep in a Tavern, which is dated 1690, the setting is the interior of an inn.  Van Mieris has meticulously depicted the numerous details of the inn itself as well as the table laden with food.   Not only is this a genre painting but it is also an extremely talented example of a still life featuring a meal of herring and plaice, a bun of bread and the brown German stoneware jug on the table and let’s not forget the authentic portrayal of the hurdy-gurdy. So what is the painting all about?

A Hurdy-Gurdy Player Asleep in a Tavern by Willem van Mieris

A Hurdy-Gurdy Player Asleep in a Tavern by Willem van Mieris

Surrendering to the effects of alcohol he has imbibed, the old hurdy-gurdy player has fallen asleep with his instrument on his lap.  The sleeping musician, a simple beggar, is dressed in rags.  Behind him the female maidservant holds aloft a pouch of money which she may have just taken from the sleeping musician.  She is ecstatic.  Two other tavern revellers look on in the background.  Hurdy-gurdy players were a frequent theme in Dutch peasant painting. They were people who would liven up happy gatherings with the primitive and penetrating sound of their instrument.  Willem shared his liking of depicting lively tavern scenes such as this one with his father Frans van Mieris the Elder. Willem painted several hurdy-gurdy players set in an inn.

The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, seated reading by Gerald Gardiner

The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, seated reading by Gerald Gardiner

Besides the Dutch and Flemish paintings bequeathed to The Wilson there were some interesting works that the museum had acquired over time.   The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, seated reading is a work by Gerald Gardiner.  Gardiner worked at the Cheltenham School of Art teaching drawing and painting from 1927 until his death in 1959.  It is a painting which exudes the quiet domestic atmosphere of life at home.  This work was painted at the Bisley home of Gerald and Evelyn Gardiner and is an example of the artist’s depiction of a night-time scene with his wife enjoying the company of her book, showing up the light, reflections and shadows which are cast by the gas lamp and fire as his wife reads.  It wonderfully encapsulates an atmosphere of domestic bliss and, for us, nostalgia as we see Evelyn reading a book by gas-light in front of the fire. Gardiner was particularly interested in painting night-time scenes and here he balances a powerful composition and the subtle effects of light. Gerald Gardiner was born in 1902. He studied at Beckenham School of Art and the Royal College of Art where he was awarded an Associateship with Distinction in 1926. In 1927 he was appointed second master at the Cheltenham School of Art, in charge of the drawing and painting department, later becoming Painting Master, where he worked until his death

Village Gossip by Stanley Spencer (c.1939)

Village Gossip by Stanley Spencer (c.1939)

Stanley Spencer was one of the most original artists of the modern age and it was good to see one of his works hanging in The Wilson.  Spencer’s paintings have special characteristics; we are urged to work out the story behind each painting and the work on show, Village Gossip is no exception.   It was painted around 1939 whilst he was on holiday in the Gloucestershire village of Leonard Stanley.  I will leave you to work out what you think is going on this painting.  Look at the body language of the woman on the right with her arms tightly folded across her chest.  Look at the accusing stance of the elderly man and woman on the left.  Even the small girl points towards the young man in an accusatory gesture. He bows his head in a somewhat remorseful manner.  What is he being accused of?

There were so many other excellent works of art on show at The Wilson and if ever you are in or around Cheltenham, I urge you to pay it a visit.

Posted in Adrianus Eversun, Art, Art Blog, Art Galleries, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, Cornelis Springer, David Hockney, Dutch painters, Everhardus Koster, Ferrieres Collection, Flemish painters, Gerald Gardiner, Isaac Claesz. van Swanenburgh, Joseph le Roy, Marinus Koekkoek, The Wilson, Watteau, Willem van Mieris | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Louis-Léopold Boilly

Self-portrait by Léopold Boilly (1805)

Self-portrait by Léopold Boilly (1805)

My artist today is the prolific late eighteenth century French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly, who was best known for his genre scenes featuring life in the French capital during the French Revolution and the French Empire. He is also renowned for his revolutionary use of lithography.

Boilly was born on July 5th 1761 in La Bassée, a commune in the Nord department of northern France, sixty kilometres south-east of Calais.  His father was wood carver and it was he, who gave Léopold his first lessons in art, and soon during his early teens young Boilly was producing many good works of art, a fact that came to the attention of the Austin friars at the monastery in Douai, a town close to his home. By 1774, word of Boilly’s artistic talent reached the bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Louis François Marc Hilaire de Conzié, who offered him a place to live and paint in Arras.

Also around this time, living and working in Arras, was the Flemish-born artist Guillaume-Dominique-Jacques Doncre, who made a living from painting portraits of the members of the Conseil of Arras and members of the local aristocracy but who also specialised in trompe-l’oeil paintings.  It is thought that maybe Léopold Boilly studied under Doncre as the young artist developed a liking for trompe l’oeil works.

A trompe l'oeil by Dominique Doncre

A trompe l’oeil by Dominique Doncre

Trompe l’oeil, (French for “deceive the eye) is a style of painting invented by the ancient Greeks whereby the artist creates an illusion of space often showing apparently three dimensional objects and spaces in a way which the eye accepts as realism in the context of their surroundings.  It was particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Low Countries and Northern France.  This trompe l’oeil by Dominique Doncre, above was completed in 1785.  At first sight it looks like a collection of items set out randomly on his “noticeboard”.  Two horizontal straps seem to be holding the items in place including what looks like an engraved page featuring the artist himself and we know it is Doncre as the words “ego sum pictor (I am the painter) are beneath the portrait.  On a card below the pair of spectacles, he has also signed and dated the painting.  It is a simple work with no hidden message.

A trompe-l'oeil by Léopold Boilly

A trompe-l’oeil by Léopold Boilly

Léopold Boilly completed several trompe l’oeil paintings of his own and my favourite is one with a cat gazing through a hole in the canvas caused by a log which has pierced it.  On the top bottom of which are fish hanging from the stretcher.

The Visit received by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1789)

La Visite reçue (The Visit received) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1789)

In 1785, aged twenty-four, Boilly went to live in Paris and there, two years later, he married Marie-Madeleine Desligne, the daughter of a merchant of Arras. In 1787 Boilly received a lucrative commission. The nobleman and lawyer, Antoine Joseph François Xavier Calvet de Lapalun had decided to refurbish his family residence in Avignon and he was advised by one of his former clients to incorporate an art collection into the re-modelling of the large house and at the same time arranged for his friend a number of  introductions with some of the most influential Parisian art dealers who would be able tosell him the finest works of art.  One of the artists chosen to provide works for the residence was Léopold Boilly.  The former client, the Marquis Alexandre de Tulle de Villefranche, gave Calvet de Laupin a present of two of Boilly’s works, La Visite reçue and La Visite rendue.  Calvet de Laupin was so pleased with the works that he commissioned Boilly to complete a further nine genre paintings of the same ilk.

The Visit Returned by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1787)

La Visite rendue (The Visit Returned) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1787)

All eleven genre works featured the many facets of love, all of which are set in an upper-middle class milieu.  The people depicted in the various scenes look as if they are actors appearing in a stage play.  These were not, unlike Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode, an eleven-episode story.  Each were simply variations on the theme of love and left the viewer to decide what was happening in the painting.   The setting of the two works I have included had been dictated to Boilly by Tulle de Villefranche while Calvet de Lapalun himself described the settings he wanted for the final seven works.

The Suitor's Gift by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1790)

The Suitor’s Gift by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1790)

In 1790 Boilly completed a work entitled The Suitor’s Gift.  In it we see a beautiful, elegantly dressed young woman looking out at us knowingly as she receives the attentions of a suitor. He is obviously a very generous suitor for on the table in front of the young woman we see a luxurious gift box which lies open. It had been lovingly wrapped, as we see several strands of pink ribbon lying over the side which had once secured the gift.  In the box and resting on the front edge of it are two white roses and this presumably symbolises the young lady’s innocence and adolescence. The young woman’s face is flushed and it is this and her full and rounded cheeks that suggests she is very young, certainly in comparison to her much older suitor.

The knowing look

The knowing look

Her hair is worn loosely and is softly curled with a pink ribbon tied around the crown of her head. Her clothes are elegant and lady-like.  She is attired in a graceful pink corseted gown over which is a thin gauze overskirt, which still allows us to see the colour of the gown.  She stares out at us and by doing so turns away from her suitor.  Is it coyness we are witnessing or is she taking in what she has just been given.  Maybe she is deciding whether the gift meets with her expectations.

Her prospective beau, whom we can just make out in the background shadows, crouches down at the side of the table.  Is he kneeling in a kind of devout reverence?  Look at his expression.  It is one of a man who is keenly awaiting to find out whether his gift had been well received by the young woman.  It would appear by the way his left hand is grasping a crucifix which he wears around his neck that he is looking for divine help in his quest to please the lady. From the demeanour of the pair we get a feel for the relationship.  Look how the woman smiles.  It is a knowing smile.  She knows she has the upper hand in this partnership.  Maybe it is this thought that makes us revise our opinion of her.  Maybe she is not as innocent and vulnerable as we first thought.  At first sight we felt a little pity for her being pestered by an elderly man but maybe it is he whom we should be pitying for it seems she may well play him for a fool!

Boilly’s reputation as an artist who artistically recorded contemporary life in the French capital steadily grew and by often having his paintings on display at various exhibitions he ensured the public would not forget him.  Boilly began exhibiting his work at the Salon in 1791, which was the first year it was open to all artists, previously the exhibition was only open to the work of recent graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts but control of the Salon was taken away from the Academy by the National Assembly, which ordered the exhibition opened to all artists.

Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1798)

Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1798)

In 1798 Boilly put forward his painting Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey for exhibition at that year’s Salon.  This genre of multi-figure or group portraits was popular with many Dutch and British artists and in this work of fiction, Boilly has imagined what it would have been like if all the young aspiring artists of the time had met up at the studio of his contemporary the French artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey, who we see dressed in red standing behind the man sitting at the easel.  The studio’s classical decoration is the work of architects Percier and Fontaine whom we see depicted standing on the left.

Arrival of the Stagecoach by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1803)

Arrival of the Stagecoach by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1803)

Boilly regularly exhibited at the Salon until 1824 and he received a gold medal at the Salon of 1804 for his painting Arrival of the Stagecoach.  The work depicts a major event in Parisian life – the daily arrival of a stagecoach in the crowded courtyard of the Messageries in rue Montmartre (which is now Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires).  This was a place where stagecoaches converged from all over France and Europe in the early 19th century. In the painting, we see the stagecoach is in the parking space reserved for coaches coming from northern France and Belgium, indicated by the inscription on the wall.

This is an interesting study of Parisian life.  Boilly has depicted a throng of people some of whom are waiting to board the stagecoach.  By their attire, we can see the various social classes.  At the centre of the painting we see a bourgeois being welcomed by his wife; on the left-hand side, we see a soldier with his arm around a flower seller or maybe she is a maid from the local hostelry, who by the way she is ignoring him, has only eyes for the well-dressed military officer with the plumed hat to her left.  Unfortunately for her, he is totally disinterested in her. There is still one passenger, an elderly lady, sitting in the coach.  Maybe she is awaiting assistance to help her debark, maybe someone was supposed to be there to meet her but has not arrived.

The young delivery men can be seen on top of and at the side of the coach helping to unload packages which have been brought in by the coach.  We see another by the side of the military officer almost brought to his knees by the weight of the case he is carrying on his shoulder.  He was a portefaix, an old term for a porter.   These workers were known as gagne-deniers, unskilled workers, often peasants from the countryside who have come to the city to earn a living and often were paid a mere pittance.   Now look at the characters on the far right of the painting. The man is the epitome of elegance albeit bordering on being a dandy. The lady with him has a pug on a leash, which was at the time the height of fashion. The little girl standing with them has turned her back on them and seems totally disinterested in the adult conversation.

Boilly continually showed an interest in the bustling life of Paris and in this work and others he highlighted the developing role of transport in the early 19th century with the Napoleonic wars and the development of capitalism. This painting which describes an everyday urban event, a scene which falls within the domain of genre painting which, at the time and in view of the Paris Salon academicians was considered inferior to history painting.  Despite that, the work won the gold medal at the Salon in 1804 and was ultimately acquired by the Louvre in 1845.

The Triumph of Marat by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1794)

The Triumph of Marat by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1794)

Boilly was thirty-three at the height of the Reign of Terror period during the French Revolution in 1794.  He was a half-hearted supporter of the Revolution, and that year he was denounced to the Société Républicaine des Arts by a fellow artist, the Jacobin fanatic Jean-Baptiste Wicar, for having painted “obscene works revolting to republican morality.”  He was condemned by the Committee of Public Safety for these erotic undertones and for the frivolity of his work as well as his penchant for depicting the bourgeois in his early paintings. He was saved from literally a “fate worse than death” when his accusers searched his home and found his overtly flattering painting of Jean-Paul Marat, Triumph of Marat, the rabble-rousing radical journalist and politician and hero of the Revolution.  Although Boilly survived the incident, his wife died during these anxious times.  Boilly remarried in 1795.

The Movings by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1822)

The Movings by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1822)

In 1822 Boilly completed a painting entitled The Movings which highlighted the plight of the poor.  In the painting, we see several families, who were unable to pay rent, and so were forced to move out of their homes with their belongings and travel the streets of Paris in search of new shelter. The painting depicts a palpable tension of a social drama and Boilly has created this by adding the opposing constituents in the setting.  In the left background, we see the mirage-like image of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Rome. Most of the figures in the work appear to be moving away from the Roman church. However, the owners of the front wagon, possibly a lowly and poor family that appears to have come from outside the city in search of work, move towards the distant mirage of the church and it is this connection that suggests that the arriving family’s search for a better financial future will prove futile, as well-paid job opportunities, like the church, are just an illusion.  This was how Boilly saw life at that juncture of time.

Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers) by Louis-Léopold Boilly

Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers) by Louis-Léopold Boilly

Boilly was not only a fine artist but he was also a fine businessman and all through his career, he could change his artistic style to coincide with what was popular at the time with the public and made money by selling engraved reproductions of his genre paintings.  One of the strangest form of his art was his depiction of grimacers.  Grimacer is the French word meaning “to pull a face” and it fascinated Boilly, who produced many amusing works focused on the grimacers.   The lithograph above,  Les Amateurs de Tableaux (Lovers of Paintings) is part of his collection Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers).  In the painting, we see several grotesque looking characters, open-mouthed, brows furrowed as they concentrate on a small painting, some peering through monocles and spectacles.  It was thought that Boilly was poking fun at the so-called “amateur art connoisseurs”.

Les Grimaces by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1823)

Les Grimaces by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1823)

In other similar works, the artist made many studies of facial expressions and the result was humorous but often cruel caricatures of contemporary society.  In his lithograph, Les Grimacers, he even included himself (top left)

The Artist's Wife by Louis-Léopold Boilly (c.1799)

The Artist’s Wife by Louis-Léopold Boilly (c.1799)

Boilly was a talented portrait artist and received many lucrative commissions for his portraits.  It is said that he completed more than five thousand portraits during his lifetime.  One of my favourites is one he completed around 1799 entitled The Artist’s Wife in His Studio, which featured his wife.

In the 1820’s Boilly was one of the first French artists to experiment with lithography to reproduce his paintings.  He last exhibited at the Salon in 1824 and in the spring of 1828 he sold his collection of Dutch, Flemish, and French paintings and decorative objects, as well as thirty-seven of his own paintings. The monarchy of Louis-Philippe awarded him the cross of the Légion d’honneur in 1833. He died in Paris on January 4th 1845 aged eighty-four.  His youngest son, Alphonse Boilly was a professional engraver who apprenticed in New York.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Boilly, French painters, Portraiture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gerda Gottlieb and Einar Wegener

Gerda and Einar

Gerda and Einar

The artist I am looking at today was unknown to me.  The more I read about her the more I realise I should have been aware of her especially after the recent publicity.  Howeve,r so that I am not cast alone as the “unknowledgeable one” I wonder how many of you have heard of Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb.  Well, have you?   I am not going to totally give away why you, like me, should have known her until a little later in the blog.  Today’s blog is not just about her but also about her first husband Einar Wegener.

Gerda Wegener (née Gottlieb)

Gerda Wegener (1886 – 1940)

Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb was born on March 15th 1886 in the small rural town of Hammelev in the eastern part of central Jutland. She was the daughter of Emil Gottlieb, a clergyman in the Catholic Church and Justine Gottlieb (née Osterberg). Although she had three other siblings they all died before adulthood.  Life as the daughter of a clergyman was a very conservative one.  Probably, because of her father’s profession, the family moved around the country.  Whilst still a child the family moved the short distance south from Hammelev to the coastal town of Grenaa and later to the central Jutland town of Hobro.

Gerda showed a love of art and an unusual artistic talent at a young age and began to receive some local artistic training. In 1903, when she was seventeen years of age, and had completed her schooling, she managed, after a lot of cajoling, to have her parents agree to allow her to carry on with her art studies and enrol at the newly opened women’s college at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.  Gerda proved to be a very talented student and in 1904 some of her work was exhibited in the Kunsthal Charlottenborg which is the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art.  It was at this artistic academy that fate was going to change her life for it was here that she met and fell in love with a fellow Academy student Einar Wegener.

Einar Wegener

Einar Wegener

Einar Mogens Andreas Wegener was born a male (important to note!) on December 28th 1882 in the small Danish town, Vejle, which is situated in the southeast of the Jutland Peninsula and lies at the head of Vejle Fjord.  He was the youngest of four children. By all accounts Einar was a precocious child who, like Gerda, showed an early artistic talent. He trained as a painter at the Vejle Technical School, and on graduating in 1902 enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen.

Capri, Italy by Einar Wegener (c.1920)

Capri, Italy by Einar Wegener (c.1920)

In his own works Einar Wegener often painted landscapes from the place where he came from, and later scenes from the countryside in France. Einar Wegener received Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes Efteraarsudstilling (the Artists Fall Exhibition), Vejle Art Museum and in the Saloon and Salon d’Automme in Paris . These two aspiring young artists would often paint together although their interest in art differed.

Landscape by Einar Wegener (1908)

Landscape by Einar Wegener (1908)

Einar liked to paint landscapes whereas Gerda preferred illustrative work, the type she would have seen in fashion magazines.  Her main influences derived from her love of French eighteenth century Rococo art depicting well dressed women in luxurious and colourful clothes painted by the great French artists of that time such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, Francois Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.  Having a love of illustrative work she also admired the work of a contemporary of hers, the British Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley

The Morning Dream, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

The Morning Dream, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Beardsley, a major figure in Aestheticism and Art Nouveau, was influenced by the pre-Raphaelite painter and illustrator, Edward Burne-Jones and the woodcuts of the Ukiyo-e movement in Japanese art.  He had a distinctive style contrasting the subtle use of line with bold masses of black.  Many of his illustrations were classed as decadent and as an author he wrote an erotic novel, Under the Hill, and illustrated it with pornographic pictures.

Costumes Parisiens - illustration by Gerda Wegener (1914)

Costumes Parisiens – illustration by Gerda Wegener (1914)

Gerda Weneger had a refined and decadent character style, inspired by the English illustrator and her paintings split the views of the critic and public, some of who were excited with her work whilst it offended others, believing it to be simply pornographic. However in a lot of her erotic work Wegener often ensured that the ladies depicted had a disarming and somewhat enchanting twinkle in their eyes which countered the possible pornographic nature of the work. There is a distinct sense of fun and joie de vivre in Wegener’s work.

Lesbian illustration by Gerda Wegener

Lesbian illustration by Gerda Wegener

Gerda now lived in a bohemian area of Copenhagen populated by actors and dancers as well as artists her early works often depicted long-limbed heavily made-up, colourfully dressed exuberant females who were full of joie de vivre rather than art’s normal depictions of somewhat lifeless women.  In some way this could have been her challenge to the art establishment’s depiction of women, even challenging society’s concepts of women and challenge the standards of the time. Her book and magazine illustrations included ones which focused on high fashion and which were acceptable and loved by the public but she also produced illustrations featuring lesbianism and erotica which were often frowned upon my many parts of society.  There was a belief that Gerda herself was a lesbian.

Lili Elbe (1926)

Lili Elbe (1926)

Although I had never heard of Gerda and Einar Wegener they have become well-known not for their art but his sexuality which was brought to life in the 2016 biographical romantic film, The Danish Girl, which was based on the fictional book, of the same name, written in 2000 by David Ebershoff.    The book and the film also derived their information from a 1931 book about Einar.   The biography of Einar Wegener (Lili Elbe) was published in Denmark in 1931 under the title Fra mand til kvinde (From Man to Woman).  This was actually an autobiography edited by Niels Hoyer (real name Ernst Ludwig Hathom Jacobson) who had put together many manuscripts and letters after Lili’s death.  So when did the problematic sexuality of Einar first surface?  The Danish Girl film and book probably over simplified the beginnings of Einar’s doubt about his own sexuality but they refer to the day when he was asked to pose for his wife.  He described the occasion:

“…About this time Grete painted the portrait of the then popular actress in Copenhagen, Anna Larsen. One day Anna was unable to attend the appointed sitting. On the telephone she asked Grete, who was somewhat vexed: ‘Cannot Andreas pose as a model for the lower part of the picture? His legs and feet are as pretty as mine…”

Einar was very reluctant but Gerda finally persuaded him.   When Anna turned up unexpectedly at their studio she was very impressed with Einar’s portrayal of her and nicknamed him Lili.  On seeing (Einar, whose middle name was Andreas), she reportedly said:

 “…You know, Andreas, you were certainly a girl in a former existence, or else Nature has made a mistake with you this time…”

Two Cocottes with Hats (Gerda and Lili) by Gerda Wegener

Two Cocottes with Hats (Gerda and Lili) by Gerda Wegener

Gerda was so pleased with Einar as a female model she persuaded him to model for her on a number of future occasions.  Wegener’s fashion industry paintings featured beautiful women dressed in chic attire, one of the most popular of which was a captivating lady with a stylish short bob, full lips, and haunting almond-shaped brown eyes. Who would have believed that this exquisite beauty was her husband, Einar, who posed as her fashion model while donning women’s clothing. It was through these experiences that her husband Einar came to realize his true gender identity and began living his life as a woman. Einar’s sexuality became even more complicated when he and Gerda would go to parties as two females and often Gerda would introduce Lili Elba as Einar’s sister.

Gerda and Einar married in 1905 whilst they were still students at the Academy.  She was nineteen and he was twenty-two.

Portrait of Ellen von Kohl by Gerda Wegener

Portrait of Ellen von Kohl by Gerda Wegener

In 1907, Gerda completed a portrait entitled Portrait of Ellen von Kohl but although as we look at it now you will be surprised to know it caused quite a controversy and sparked the Peasant Painter Feud which was a national debate covered in the pages of the Danish newspaper Politiken.  It was all about ‘distasteful’ paintings of excess, (the smouldering look of Ellen von Kohl was seen as being too lascivious!) for the favoured norm at the time was for realism favoured representations of ‘ordinary people in the countryside’. The debate became so heated that the portrait was rejected by both the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, which was the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art, and also the Den Frie gallery, which was founded by the Association of Danish Artists, in protest against the admission requirements for the Kunsthal Charlottenborg.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Gerda completed her art course at the Academy in 1907 and once again fate was going to play a part in her future as in 1908, soon after leaving the Academy she entered and won a drawing competition organised by the leading Danish broadsheet newspaper Politiken. It was competition to draw ‘Copenhagen Woman’.  The newspaper was so pleased by her winning entry that they offered her a job as a regular contributor and soon she established herself as a capable cartoonist and illustrator.  This was just the start of her career as the recognition launched her into the fashion magazine industry and soon she became a leading illustrator of women’s high fashion in the Art Deco style of the time

Although the bohemian quarter of Copenhagen, where the couple lived, had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards life, the pair eventually moved to the more liberal Paris and soon Gerda and Einar began to live as two women.  In the French capital, Gerda was able to further her art career and, some would have us believe that she became a more active lesbian.

Lili and Gerda by Gerda Wegener

Lili and Gerda by Gerda Wegener

Besides posing as a woman for his wife’s paintings, Einar only dressed as Lili and was a tremendous hit on the bourgeois Parisian scene, with all its decadence, art, and sex. It soon became common knowledge that Lili and Einar were the same person but for Einar he had the satisfaction in knowing he would not be ridiculed.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Sadly for Einar simply dressing as a woman was not enough and he was suffering mental torment as Lili slowly took over his life.  For him, Einar was slowly dying and Lili was taking control.  Einar viewed himself as an artist but, as his alter-ego Lili, he viewed things very differently.  He described Lili as:

 “…thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman”, prone to fits of weeping and barely able to speak in front of powerful men…”

Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the magazine La Baionette

Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the magazine La Baionette

Life in Paris was good for Gerda who found success as a portrait painter, fashion illustrator and caricaturist and received many commissions for illustrations from La Vie Parisienne, a French weekly magazine founded in Paris in 1863, Le Rire, the successful humour magazine, La Baïonnette, the magazine which started a few years after Gerda and Einar moved to Paris, as well as the elite Journal des Dames et des Modes, a favourite of artists, intellectuals, and high societyHer success guaranteed a degree of fame and soon she was the primary breadwinner of the couple.

Self portrait by Gerda Wegener

Self portrait by Gerda Wegener

Andrea Rygg Karberg, art historian and curator at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Denmark has no doubt about the artistic ability of Gerda Wegener, saying:

“…Gerda was a pioneer who spent two decades as part of the Parisian art scene and revolutionised the way women are portrayed in art.  Throughout history, paintings of beautiful women were done by men.  Women were typically seen through the male gaze. But Gerda changed all that because she painted strong, beautiful women with admiration and identification – as conscious subjects rather than objects…”

Café by Gerda Wegener

Café by Gerda Wegener

With her new lesbian lifestyle in the avant-garde French capital, Gerda Wegener’s art became considerably more racy and scandalous. In addition to her fashion world portraiture that was featured in many fashion magazines, Wegener completed paintings featuring nude women often depicted in erotic, some would say lewd, poses. These paintings were termed “lesbian erotica,” and were published in art books, the most notorious being the Adventures of Casanova.  Some of these risqué paintings were exhibited publicly and the erotic nature and lesbian theme of the works often led to a public outcry.  Far from being taken aback by such vociferous criticism of her work by sections of the public, Gerda revelled in the notoriety.

Illustration by Gerda Wegener

Illustration by Gerda Wegener

The phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity” may be correct as far as the sale of her work but for Gerda there was a price to pay.  Christian X, the King of Denmark, became aware of Gerda’s marriage to Einar Wegener when he, Lili Elba, had legally become a woman, and so the king declared their marriage invalid in October 1930. Maybe the time had come to an end for Gerda and Einar’s marriage anyway but in 1930 following the annulment, the couple parted ways amicably.

Femme a la Rose by Gerda Wegener

Femme a la Rose by Gerda Wegener

Gerda Wegener following the end of her marriage to Einar married an Italian military officer, Major Fernando Porta, and the couple went to live in Morocco. She continued to paint and would sign her paintings as ‘Gerda Wegener Porta’. The marriage was not a happy one and did not last long with couple divorcing in 1936.

Indian couple seated on a balcony by Gerda Wegener Porta

Indian couple seated on a balcony by Gerda Wegener Porta

She returned to Denmark in 1938, but by then, her paintings and illustrations were no longer in demand and sadly Gerda just managed to eke out a meagre living by painting and selling postcards.  She managed to exhibit her work one last time in 1939.  She had no children and her latter years were spent alone in relative obscurity and with the loneliness came her reliance on alcohol.  Gerda Wegener died on July 28th 1940 in Frederiksburg, Denmark aged 54, a few months after the German army marched into Denmark.  She was buried alone at Solbjerg Park cemetery in Copenhagen.

Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe (1882 - 1931)

Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe
(1882 – 1931)

Einar Wegener continually struggled with his sexuality and believed that Lili Elba was his true self.  It was no longer enough to dress as a woman, he believed that the only way to be at peace with himself was to undergo revolutionary sex reassignment surgery and for that he had to travel to Germany.  In 1930 he attended Dr Ludwig Levy-Lenz clinic in Berlin where he was castrated and had his penis surgically removed.  The following year, 1931, he underwent further surgery, vaginoplasty, which was a procedure that results in the construction of the vagina.  Sadly for Einar these surgical procedures were carried out at a time before antibiotics and he died in Dresden of an infection on September 13th 1931, aged 48.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Danish artists, Einar Wegener (Lili Elbe), Female painters, Gerda Gottlieb, Gerda Wegener, Illustrations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment