Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1805)British Museum

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1805)
British Museum

I try to visit my children, who live in London, every couple of months and take the opportunity to visit new art exhibition at one of the many city galleries.  As they are all away on extended breaks in far-off lands I will not be heading south until the end of January and this will sadly mean I will miss the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, Cotman in Normandy which is an exhibition of works by the watercolourist, John Sell Cotman, which ends on January 13th.  For most of the twentieth century, Cotman was the most widely admired English watercolourist, surpassing even Turner in popularity.

John Sell Cotman was a marine and landscape painter, mainly in watercolour, who was born in Norwich in 1782.  He was the eldest of ten children.  His father, Edmund Cotman, formerly a barber but latterly a draper by trade, had married Ann Sell.   He initially studied at the Norwich School, which is one of the oldest schools in the world having been founded in 1096.   John’s father had intended that once his son had completed his education he would join him in his family business.  However during his time at school John Cotman had developed a love of art and being determined that he would not spend his working life behind a shop counter, at the age of 16, left home and went to London to study art.

Whilst in London he managed to earn a living by colouring aquatints for Anglo-German lithographer and publisher, Rudolph Ackerman, who in 1795 established a print-shop and drawing-school in The Strand.   Ackermann had set up a lithographic press and begun a trade in prints. It was whilst he was in London that he also met Doctor Thomas Monro, who was an avid art collector.   He was Principal Physician of the Bethlem Royal Hospital and one-time consulting physician to King George III.  Besides being an amateur painter and art collector he was also a patron to a number of young aspiring artists including Thomas Girtin.  He had a house in Adelphi Terrace, London where he had his studio and a country house in Merry Hill, a suburb of Bushey just fifteen miles from the capital.  Monro liked to surround himself with other artists and J.M.W. Turner was a frequent visitor.  He ran an art Academy where he would offer evening art classes, some of which were attended by John Sell Cotman.

John Sell Cotman managed to gain the patronage of Monro and through him met many of the leading British artists of the time and it was through his friendship with Turner, Girtin and Peter de Wint that Cotman continued his artistic development.  He enjoyed taking trips out to sketch and it is believed that in 1800 he accompanied Thomas Girtin on a sketching trip to North Wales. Considering Cotman had had no formal art tuition it is amazing the artistic standard he had reached for someone of such a young age for when he was aged just eighteen, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy  showing five works, four depicting scenes from the Surrey countryside and one was of Harlech Castle.   The following year, 1801, John Cotman joined the Brothers, a sketching society, founded by Thomas Girtin, for both professional artists and talented amateurs. During the next two summers he spent much of his time travelling around Wales, sketching scenes many of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801 and 1802.

For the next three summers John Cotman spent time at Brandsby Hall in North Yorkshire, which was the home of Francis Cholmeley, an avid art collector and a patron of Cotman.  During his stay at the Hall, Cotman acted as the drawing tutor to the Cholomeley family.  Whilst there he also met the politician and art collector, Walter Ramsden Hawkesworth Fawkes, whose stately home was Farnley Hall and who was a very close friend of the artist, J.M.W. Turner who often stayed at Farnley Hall.

The success he had hoped for in London never materialised and in 1806 Cotman returned to his hometown of Norwich and earned his living as an art tutor.  On returning home he also joined the Norwich Society an art society formed the previous year by the Norfolk landscape painter John Crome.  This society met fortnightly, held artistic discussions and organised exhibitions of their work.  John Cotman became the vice president and he and Crome were the leading lights of the society.  The ethos of the Society was laid down as being:

“…An Enquiry into the Rise, Progress and present state of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, with a view to point out the Best Methods of study to attain to Greater Perfection in these Arts…”

The artistic styles of Crome and Cotman were different and the Society members were, to some extent, divided into those who followed Crome’s realist manner, and those working in the more free style of Cotman, who was not above painting pictures of places he had not personally visited, working from other artists’ sketches.  The subjects of the Norwich School painters were typically landscapes, coasts and marine scenes from around Norwich and Norfolk.  John Cotman became president of the Norwich Society of Artists in 1811.

In 1809, Cotman married Ann Mills, the daughter of a farmer from the nearby village of Felbrigg and the couple went on to have five children.  During his time as a drawing master he taught the local banker, botanist and antiquary Dawson Turner and his children.  They became close friends and Dawson Turner introduced him to many prospective students. Cotman issued the first of his sets of etchings in 1811. He moved from Norwich and for the next ten years he lived in the Norfolk coastal town of Yarmouth and this gave him the opportunity to complete a number of seascapes.   It was around this time that Cotman concentrated on printmaking.  The majority of his etchings were architectural in nature, with numerous ones of old Yorkshire and Norfolk buildings.  It is more than likely that this move towards etchings and printmaking was due to, and inspired in part by, his friend and patron, Dawson Turner.   In 1817, Cotman , with help from his patron, made the first of three tours of Normandy and out of these journeys came a book in 1822 entitled, Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, one of various books he illustrated with his etchings.

In 1824, for business reasons he moved back to Norwich.  Cotman took up painting again with renewed energy, in watercolour and in oil; he exhibited more frequently in the city and also in London. In January 1834, through the good auspices of J.M.W.Turner, he gained the post of Master of Landscape Drawing at King’s College School in London, which he held until his death.  He and his family moved home to the London borough of Bloomsbury. Two years later, his eldest son Miles Edmond Cotman was appointed to assist him.  The taking up of the position at King’s College could not have come at a more fortuitous time as Cotman was beginning to have financial problems.   Sadly, with these financial problems, which had afflicted him during most of his working life, came bouts of depression, ill health and despondency brought on by the poor sales of his work.  During John Cotman’s tenure at King’s College he taught many artists including Dante Rossetti.  His last visit to his homeland of Norfolk was in the autumn of 1841, just nine months before his death in London in July 1842.

The 20th century art historian and painter, Charles Collins Baker, said of John Sell Cotman:

“…a great colourist, whose earlier palette produced that rare plenitude that only masters of exquisite simplicity and restraint compass: from his palette the brown glebe, the black reflection of massed trees in a still river, the grey and gold of weathered stone and plaster, the glinting gold on foliage and the gilded green of translucent leaves have a special and supernal quality of dream pageants rather than of actuality…”

Preliminary sketch of Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman

Preliminary sketch of Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is a watercolour entitled Greta Bridge (22cms x 33cms), which Cotman completed in 1805 can be found in the British Museum. A second version of the painting, a much larger one, (30cms x 50cms), was completed by Cotman in 1810 and is housed in the Norwich Castle Museum.  Both watercolours recreate the rural solitude and tranquillity of the Greta area of North Yorkshire, where Cotman spent the summers of 1803 – 1805.   The Greta Bridge in this painting  spanned the river Greta in North Yorkshire near the gates of Rokeby Park. John Cotman had arrived at Rokeby on the evening of 31 July 1805, accompanied by his friend and patron, Francis Cholmeley. It had been arranged in advance that the two men were to stay as guests of the owner of Rokeby Park, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt.  Cotman stayed at the house for about three weeks and when his hosts left on business, he remained nearby, taking up lodgings in a room at the local inn, which is the large building to the left of the bridge. Cotman then continued the work he had begun along the river Greta that skirts the park.  It is a wonderfully balanced composition depicting the Greta Bridge, with its striking, single arch, which runs horizontally across the picture, in some way dividing it in two and yet uniting it into a single scene.  The arch of the bridge epitomizes a great feat of engineering, which Cotman, with his love of architecture, admired. The structure we see before us was designed by John Carr of York, and built in 1773 for Morritt’s father, John Sawrey Morritt, who was a well-known collector of classical antiquities. The bridge replaced a Roman single-arched bridgeof the same design.  Cotman had a love of bridges and sketched many.  For him, a bridge was a meeting point or landmark for travellers, and would often be a point of reference on maps where rivers and roads meet. Cotman was fascinated by the interaction of this man-made feature and how it harmoniously interacted with a natural setting

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1810)Norwich Castle Museum

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1810)
Norwich Castle Museum

The foreground of the painting is dominated by its rocky intrusions. In the background, above the bridge we see in the 1805 version, a forest of trees and  large white clouds and yet in the 1810 version a mountain ridge, which, in reality, does not actually exist, has substituted the individual clouds. So why did he make this fundamental change and add the idealised rocky structure?  It is believed that Cotman decided to add the mountain ridge in the later watercolour so as to strengthen the sense of perspective and by so doing have the viewers eye drawn through the landscape, starting from the rocks in the foreground, through the arch of the bridge to the trees in the middle ground as far as the mountain ridge and the sky in the background.

Although John Sell Cotman and Turner were strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Girtin, Cotman’s landscape style in comparison to Turner’s was different.  Cotman’s landscapes were not as detailed as either Girtin’s or Turner’s.  In his landscapes, Turner’s was more precise with the details.  Many believed his “every-single-branch-and-bud” precision was somewhat overwhelming, and said that the result was that the viewer stared at the same copse for too long.   In contrast, Cotman’s landscapes could be taken in with just a single glance.  In today’s work one can see the beauty of the watercolour despite the lack of minute detail.  In these watercolours, Cotman strived to capture the feeling and atmosphere of a place through the use of pattern and abstract shapes. Look how he has painted the boulders, which we see in the river.  They are smooth, rounded shapes sprinkled with spots of colour.  Cotman’s technique of using colour washes has accentuated the smooth roundness of the landscape.  His trees are rounded and block-like, in varying shades of green and brown and in the 1810 version the mountain ridge in the background is softly shaped.

This watercolour is a prime example of his balanced and sensitive technique which he used in his landscape work.   In this work he has used very muted colours for his high cloudy sky, which echo the colour of the river surface.  Below the dark clouds we see a suggestion of better weather to come with a hint of blue sky and thick white clouds.  The watercolour is built up in distinct patches of restrained colour, held in a precise pattern of tone and line, which were the hallmarks of Cotman’s inimitable style. The presence of the sun and the large trees around the flowing river causes crisp shadows on the building, bridge and water surface.

I love this watercolour and would love to visit Norwich were a number of his works are housed.  It would also be good to visit the Greta River area and take in the landscape, which inspired this talented artist.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Art History, English artist, John Sell Cotman, Watercolour paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vincent van Gogh, the Copyist. Part 2 – Delacroix’s Pietà

Pieta (after Delacroix)  by van Gogh (1889)

Pieta (after Delacroix) by van Gogh (1889)

In my last blog I looked at how Vincent van Gogh had copied three Japanese woodcut prints and had incorporated his own inimitable style to his versions.  In my blog today I want to look at the versions he painted of a painting by one of his favourite European artists –Eugène Delacroix.

In February 1888, Vincent, tired and disillusioned with life in the French capital, moved to Arles and went to live at No. 2 Place Lamartine in the Yellow House which he had rented.   He invited Paul Gaugin to join him but the latter was rather reluctant.   Vincent’s brother, Theo, was worried about Vincent living alone and so in October pays Paul Gaugin to visit his brother and stay with him.   For the next two months, Gauguin and Van Gogh worked harmoniously together, spending all their time painting and discussing art.

However personal tensions grew between the two men and two days before Christmas Day, Van Gogh experienced what was termed a psychotic episode in which he threatens Gauguin with a razor.  Gaugin fearful for his life left the house but was followed by Vincent.  When Gauguin turned around he saw Van Gogh holding a razor in his hand.  Hours later, Van Gogh went to the local brothel and paid for a prostitute named Rachel. With blood pouring from his hand, he offered her his ear, asking her to “keep this object carefully.” The police found him in his room the next morning, and admitted him to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital.  Gaugin was horrified by the incident and immediately returned to Paris. Vincent’s brother arrived on Christmas Day to see Van Gogh, who was weak from blood loss and having violent seizures. The doctors assured Theo that his brother would live and would be taken good care of, and on January 7, 1889, Van Gogh was released from the hospital.  He was now alone and became very depressed and only his painting relieved the dark moods he was experiencing.   He would paint at the yellow house during the day and return to the hospital at night.  However, the local people of Arles viewed Vincent as somebody mentally disturbed and a risk to the people of the community and petitioned him to leave the town.  Reluctantly he decided to move from Arles and go to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, a former monastery, in the town. Whilst there, he completed numerous oil paintings and drawings.

Pieta by, Eugene Delacroix (1850)National Museum of Oslo

Pieta by, Eugene Delacroix (1850)
National Museum of Oslo

It was whilst Van Gogh was confined to the asylum at Saint-Rémy that he decided to work on a painting based on the Piétà by Eugène Delacroix.   Van Gogh loved the work of Delacroix.  He loved how the French artist used bold and vibrant colours in his works.  In numerous letters to his brother, Theo, he would extol the virtues of Delacroix’s works asking him to buy lithograph prints of Delacroix’s works.   Vincent had in his possession a lithograph by Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf of Delacroix’s  Pietà.  Célestine Nanteuil was a 19th century French painter, engraver and illustrator closely tied to the Romantic Movement in France.  It is believed that the reason Van Gogh decided to paint his own Pietà was because of an accident he had with his copy of the lithograph.  He wrote a letter to Theo in which he says:

“…The Delacroix lithograph La Piétà, as well as several others, fell into my oils and paints and was damaged. This upset me terribly, and I am now busy making a painting of it, as you will see…”

Van Gogh decided that his Pietà was not going to be an exact copy of Delacroix’s work but more of a variation of the French artist’s painting.   Van Gogh described Delacroix’s Piétà in a letter, dated September 19th 1889, to his sister Willemien.  Vincent van Gogh talked about his copying of other artists’ works and describes the Delacroix’s Pietà:

“…I’ve painted a few for myself, too, these past few weeks – I don’t much like seeing my own paintings in my bedroom, so I’ve copied one by Delacroix  and a few by Millet.  The Delacroix is a Pietà, i.e. a dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted corpse lies bent forward on its left side at the entrance to a cave, its hands outstretched, and the woman stands behind. It’s an evening after the storm, and this desolate, blue-clad figure stands out – its flowing clothes blown about by the wind – against a sky in which violet clouds fringed with gold are floating. In a great gesture of despair she too is stretching out her empty arms, and one can see her hands, a working woman’s good, solid hands.  With its flowing clothes this figure is almost as wide in extent as it’s tall. And as the dead man’s face is in shadow, the woman’s pale head stands out brightly against a cloud – an opposition which makes these two heads appear to be a dark flower with a pale flower, arranged expressly to bring them out better…”

Van Gogh’s positioning and the demeanour of the Virgin Mary, cradling her dead son, as well as the background in his version remain the same as in the lithograph but Van Gogh has added his own colours and “swirling” style.   We see before us the tortured body of Christ after the crucifixion but look at the way Van Gogh has given him red hair and a red beard.  Some art historians believe that the dead Christ in Van Gogh’s Pietà is actually a self-portrait.  It could well be that Van Gogh empathized with the sufferings of Christ and how Christ had been misunderstood.  He could probably see a similarity between the latter days of Christ’s life and his own final years.  It should be remembered that Van Gogh was creating his Piétà from studying the black and white print of Célestine Nanteuil lithograph and so he was free to choose his own colour scheme.  He used bold blues which contrasted strongly with the golden yellows of the background.  Look how he has decide to emphasize lines and curves and we see the outline of the slumping Christ follows the curvature of the rock on which Christ’s body rests.

I wonder if Van Gogh believed that like Christ, he would be reincarnated, in as much as he believed that he would eventually recover from his bouts of mental illness.

This painting is unusual in another way for Van Gogh was not known for his religious works.  However the asylum at Saint-Rémy was once a monastery and was run by an order of nuns and this could have been another reason for Van Gogh to embark on this religious painting.  In a letter to his brother on September 10th 1889 he talks about his mental problems, of Delacroix and why he decided to turn to religion for the subject of his painting:

“…Work is going very well, I’m finding things that I’ve sought in vain for years, and feeling that I always think of those words of Delacroix that you know, that he found painting when he had neither breath nor teeth left.  Ah well, I myself with the mental illness I have, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and I tell myself that this doesn’t prevent one from practising the role of painter as if nothing had gone wrong. 

When I see that crises here tend to take an absurd religious turn, I would almost dare believe that this even necessitates a return to the north. Don’t speak too much about this to the doctor when you see him [Doctor Peyron then director of the asylum was due to meet Theo in Paris] but I don’t know if this comes from living for so many months both at the hospital in Arles and here in these old cloisters.  Anyway I ought not to live in surroundings like that, the street would be better then. I am not indifferent, and in the very suffering religious thoughts sometimes console me a great deal. Thus this time during my illness a misfortune happened to me – that lithograph of Delacroix, the Pietà, with other sheets had fallen into some oil and paint and got spoiled…”

Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf lithograph of Delacroix’s  Pietà

Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf lithograph of Delacroix’s Pietà

Vincent van Gogh was never apologetic for “copying” the works of other artists, such as, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, Jacob Jordaens, Émile Bernard, Gustave Doré , Eugène Delacroix and some of the Japanese printmakers.   He would compare his copying to that of a musical performance with the original artists as the composers and himself as a simple musician interpreting the instructions of the composer.   He made two copies of the Piétà.  The one which belonged to the Van Gogh family hangs in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and the other is part of the Vatican Museum of Modern Art collection.  The latter copy was donated to the Catholic Church by a New York parishioner in the 1930’s.  This Vatican copy is much smaller than the one held at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and much darker in colour but this could be the result of poor restoration and cleaning.   Van Gogh’s lithograph print which was damaged can also be found in the Van Gogh museum.

Van Gogh liked his finished “copies” of the Delacroix Piétà and took it with him when he finally left the asylum, against doctor’s orders, in May 1890 to go and live in Auvers-sur-Oise.  It was one of the few works he kept with him and remained with him until his death, two months later, in July 1890.  The rest of his large collection he had painted over those last twelve months at the asylum were parcelled up and sent to his brother.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Delacroix, Religious paintings, Vincent van Gogh | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Vincent van Gogh, the copyist – Part 1 – Japonisme

The Courtesan (after Eisen) by van Gogh

The Courtesan (after Eisen) by van Gogh

“…good artists copy but great artists steal…”

This was a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso and one supposes that his utterance referred to the fact that every artist is influenced by what has been done before or during their lifetime. I suppose in some way we all borrow because it has all been done before and we are not the originators but to make an artistic element your own, you have to interpret it your own way with your own approach and in my next two blogs I am looking at an artist who did just that.

My Daily Art Display today looks at three works by Vincent van Gogh which he completed during the latter years of his life.   When we think of van Gogh we think of his Sunflower series or works depicting life at Arles but my blog today looks at some of his works which were based on paintings by Japanese artists.   They are not exact copies of the actual paintings but they are his versions of them and the likeness between Vincent’s works and the originals is clearly observable and in the title he gives them he always attributes them to the Japanese printmaker.  In a way the copies were his translation of the originals.  Through his use of colour and technique, which often incorporated his trademark “swirls”, he made them his own and for many, including his brother Theo, they were his finest works.  So why did Van Gogh decide to make his own copies of other artists’ works?  I suppose to find the answer to this question one has to understand what was happening at the time and the situation Vincent found himself when he made these “copies”.

Around the time Van Gogh was born there was a fashion known as Japonisme emerging in Western Europe.  The term Japonisme, or Japonism, was a French term that was first used by Jules Claretie in his book L’Art Francais en 1872, and it referred to the influence of Japanese art on Western art.   The Japonisme trend became very popular in France and the Netherlands.  One has to remember that up until the mid nineteenth century there was no trade between Europe and Japan as the political and military power of Japan was in the hands of the shoguns, and the country was virtually isolated from the rest of the world.  It was not until 1854 that the Japanese rulers sanctioned trade with the West and it was then that Japanese art with its woodcuts, ornamental fans, and delicately painted screens became available to the people in the likes of France and the Netherlands.  This love of Japanese artwork became even more fashionable following the great World’s Fair in 1862, which was held in London, where such Japanese art was on display.  At around this time the Japanese woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e became popular.  They featured many motifs from those of landscapes and the Japanese love of nature to those illustrating the pleasures of city life such as theatres, restaurants, teahouses, geisha and courtesans and were often simply used as posters advertising theatre performances and brothels.  Sometimes they featured portraits of popular actors and beautiful teahouse girls. They became very popular in Europe and a source of artistic inspiration for the artists of the time, whether they were Impressionists, Post Impressionists or Cubists.

Vincent van Gogh loved Japanese art.  His brother, Theo, ran an art gallery in Montmartre and it was here that Vincent first came into contact with ukiyo-e.   He was also fortunate that his apartment was situated next to the Bing Gallery where the German owner Samuel Bing, an art dealer and importer of Japanese artworks, had thousands of Japanese prints for sale. Van Gogh would spend hours there studying and admiring this “new” form of art and he soon became an avid collector of ukiyo-e and built up a collection of hundreds of prints.  He even organized an exhibition of his own collection in the spring of 1887 at the Café du Tambourin, a popular meeting place of artists.

Left: Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge by HiroshigeRight:The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by van Gogh

Left: Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge by Hiroshige
Right:The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by van Gogh

Van Gogh especially liked the works by Utagawa Hiroshige and in 1887 completed his version of Hiroshige’s Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge, which was part of his collection.   Van Gogh simply entitled his work The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige).  With his version, van Gogh filled the border of his painting with a number of calligraphic figures which he had copied from other prints in his collection.  In van Gogh’s version, he used different colours which were far brighter than those used by Hiroshige and van Gogh spent more attention to colour contrasts which he used to enhance his version.

Hiroshige's-Plum-Tree

Left: Plum Park in Kameido by Hiroshige
Right: Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige).by van Gogh

Another of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints which van Gogh copied as a painting was 亀戸梅屋舗 Kameido Umeyashiki (Plum Park in Kameido), which was published in November 1857.  It was number 30 in a series of 119 ukiyo-e prints made by Utagawa Hiroshige and Hiroshige II.  Hiroshige II was Utagawa’s student and adopted son.   Utagawa Hiroshige died in 1858 and his adopted son completed the series.  This series of woodcut prints was published in serialized form between May 1856 and April 1859 and was entitled One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.   Edo was the former name of Tokyo, and it was a series of depictions of famous sights around the Japanese city.  In 1887, Van Gogh rendered his own version of this print under the title Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige).

Title page of Paris Illustré (May 1886)

Title page of Paris Illustré (May 1886)

My final example of Van Gogh’s love of Japanese woodcut prints and his desire to produce his own version is his copying of Keisai Eisen’s print entitled A Courtesan, Nishiki-e,  which was made around 1820.  Van Gogh probably came across this print when it appeared on the front cover of the May 1886 special edition of the Paris Illustré with the front page title of Le Japon.  It was this print which Van Gogh used for his painting entitled The Courtesan (after Eisen).  Vincent’s painting is another fine example of his interest and love of Japanese art.

Van Gogh's tracing for The Courtesan(Van Gogh Museum)
Van Gogh’s tracing for The Courtesan
(Van Gogh Museum)

To produce a copy of Eisen’s work van Gogh actually traced the picture on the magazine’s front cover and then enlarged it.  He then set about giving the courtesan Nishiki a colourful kimono and placed her against a framed bright yellow background.  The framed painting of the woman is then surrounded by a watery landscape along with water lilies, a frog on a lily pad and a pair of cranes wading in the water and in the centre top of the background we can just make out two men in a boat.  It is not unusual to have frogs depicted sitting serenely on lily pads or wading birds such as cranes in watery scenes but van Gogh’s choice of these two types of creatures was not purely accidental as in France, during his time, prostitutes were often referred to as grues which is the French word for cranes, and grenouilles, which is French for frogs, and therefore van Gogh could be reminding us that Nishiki was a courtesan, an escort or mistress of a wealthy client, a euphemistic term for a prostitute.

In my next blog I will look at some of the European painters whose work inspired van Gogh to render his own version of their paintings.

I suppose you may wonder why I should choose van Gogh for the Christmas edition of my blog when a more seasonal painting by Thomas Kincaid would have been more appropriate.  Actually there is a connection between van Gogh and this Christmas and that is because for my Christmas present to myself.   I bought myself the six-volume edition of Van Gogh’s letters.  Very expensive, totally inexcusable but then, maybe I deserved the present!!!!!

 Happy Christmas to you all.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Dutch painters, Hiroshige, Japanese art, Keisai Eisen, Vincent van Gogh | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philosophy, a Self Portrait by Salvator Rosa

Philosophy, a Self-portrait by Salvator Rosa (c.1645)

Philosophy, a Self-portrait by Salvator Rosa (c.1645)

Today’s featured work is another self-portrait, this time by the 17th century Italian Baroque painter, poet and printmaker, Salvator Rosa.  Salvator Rosa was a man of many talents and possibly one of the most daring and inventive artists of the Italian 17th century.   Although in Britain, he is often best remembered for his unparalleled wild landscapes and mountain scenery, and it was just those scenes which Horace Walpole, the English art historian, antiquarian and politician so memorably wrote that what he witnessed during his 1739 journey crossing the Alps into Italy, some fifty years after Rosa’s death was so like the landscape works of the late artist:

“…Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings – Salvator Rosa…

But Rosa was not simply a landscape painter.  It was Rosa who invented a series of new types of painting – novel allegorical pictures, which were characterised by poignant and melancholy poetry; whimsical portraits of romantic and mysterious figures; grisly and shocking subjects, which demonstrated the more sinister side of 17th-century triumphalism. Many believe that no other artist has managed to create windswept landscapes of such expressive and emotional power, or figures of such brooding intensity as those depicted in the artwork of Salvator Rosa.

Salvator Rosa was born in 1615 in Arenella, a hill-top suburb of Naples.  His father, a land surveyor, Vito Antonio de Rosa, believed that his son would be well-served if he became a priest or a lawyer and with this in mind enrolled him into the convent run by the Somascan Fathers.  Although his father had mapped out his future life, young Salvator had his own ideas for his future and had shown a liking and a propensity for the arts and a love of sketching and painting.  His first formal artistic tuition was given to him by Francesco Francanzano, the artist who had married Salvator’s sister and then he studied at the Naples studio of the Baroque painter Aniello Falcone.  Falcone although having painted numerous religious works and frescos for Neapolitan churches, will be primarily remembered as the first specialist of battle paintings.  It was this painting genre that won him an international acclaim and he was dubbed L’ Oracolo delle Battaglie.  It was also this genre that inspired Salvator Rosa. Falcone’s battle paintings generally depicted war as a disorderly struggle between unknown soldiers, and by so doing, created a depiction which was described as ‘the battle scene without a hero’.

In 1632 when Salvator was seventeen years of age is father died and his mother and five siblings, without their husband and father’s financial support, became destitute.  Salvator continued to work for and be mentored by Falcone and helped him with his battle paintings.  It is believed that the Rome-based painter Giovanni Lanfranco saw some of Rosa’s work and suggested that he would be best served artistically if he moved to and based himself in the Italian capital.  Rosa took Lanfranco’s advice and moved to Rome in 1634 and stayed there for two years.  In 1636 Rosa returned to Naples and concentrated on landscape painting.  There was a romantic and haunting element to his landscape work, often populated by shepherds, soldiers, brigands, and mythological characters. In general his landscapes avoided the idyllic and pastoral calm countrysides depicted by the likes of Claude Lorrain and Paul Brill and the contrast between his work and theirs was often commented on.     Claude Lorrain and Paul Brill created brooding, melancholic fantasies, awash in ruins and brigands. By the eighteenth century, the contrasts between Rosa and artists such as Claude was much remarked upon.   The 18th century Scottish poet and playwright wrote about such differences in his 1748 poem, The Castle of Indolence.  He wrote:

“…Whate’er Lorraine light touched with softening hue

Or savage Rosa dashed, or learned Poussin drew…”

I featured one of Salvator Rosa’s landscape painting, River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl in My Daily Art Display of May 10th 2012.

At the age of twenty-three Salvator returned to Rome and worked on commissions including an altarpiece for the bishop of Viterbo, a town to the north of the capital.  The bishop treated him as his protégé and Rosa received many commissions from the Catholic Church.  It was during his stay in Rome that Rosa further developed his multi-talented skills, not just as an artist but as a musician, a writer and a comic actor.  Rosa founded a company of actors in which he regularly participated. He wrote and would often take part in his own satirical plays.  The plays were often political in nature and often lampooned the wealthy and powerful, and it was his devilish satire which gained him the reputation of a rebel, pitting himself against these influential people. However these acidic satires made him some powerful enemies including Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous and powerful architect and who was at that time, the most powerful artist in Rome.   He, like Rosa, was also an amateur playwright and it was during the Carnival in 1639 that Rosa ridiculed Bernini’s plays and his stature as a playwright.  Eventually Rosa had made too many enemies in the Italian capital and decided it was just too dangerous to remain in the city.

He left Rome and travelled to Florence, where he remained  for the next eight years.  One of his most influential Florentine patrons was Cardinal Giancarlo de’ Medici, who was a great lover and supporter of the Arts.  Rosa worked for the Cardinal at his palace but was still allowed the freedom to spend time on his own landscape paintings and he would go off and spend the summers in the Tuscan countryside around Monterufoli and Barbiano.   It was whilst living in Florence that Rosa did some work for Giovanni Battista Ricciardi who was at the centre of the literary and theatrical life of Florence and Salvator soon became part of Carlo’s circle of friends. Rosa used his own house as a meeting place for local writers, musicians and artists and it became known as the Accademia dei Percossi, or Academy of the Stricken.

He left Florence in 1646 being unhappy with the ever increasing restrictions put on him and his artistic and literary work by the Medici court.  Initially, he went back to Naples where he remained for three years before returning to Rome once again in 1649 for it was here that he believed his writings and paintings would win him even greater fame.  However, one of Salvator Rosa’s problems was himself for he often had a tempestuous relationship with his patrons, frequently ignoring their demands. Another of his quirks was that he refused to paint on commission or to agree a price beforehand.  He frequently rejected interference from his patrons in his choice of subject.  In a book by Francis Haskell, a twentieth century art historian,  entitled, Patrons and Painters: Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, Haskell quotes from a letter Rosa wrote to one of his patrons, Antonio Ruffo, explaining his thoughts on his art and commissions:

“…I do not paint to enrich myself but purely for my own satisfaction. I must allow myself to be carried away by the transports of enthusiasm and use my brushes only when I feel myself rapt…”

The 17th century Florentine art historian Filippo Baldinucci could not believe Rosa’s attitude to his patrons and wrote:

“…I can find few, in fact, I cannot find any, artists either before or after him or among his contemporaries, who can be said to have maintained the status of art as high as he did… No one could ever make him agree a fixed price before a picture was finished and he used to give a very interesting reason for this: he could not instruct his brush to produce paintings worth a particular sum but, when they were completed, he would appraise them on their merits and would then leave it to his friend’s judgment to take them or leave them….”

In his later years Rosa spent much time on satirical portraiture, history paintings and works of art featuring tales from mythology.   In 1672 he contracted dropsy and died six months later.  Whilst lying on his deathbed he married Lucrezia, his mistress of thirty years, who had borne him two sons. He died in March 1673 just a few months short of his fifty-eighth birthday.   From the absolute poverty he endured on the death of his father he had managed to accumulate a moderate fortune by the time of his death.

My featured painting today is a self-portrait by Salvator Rosa which he completed around 1645 whilst he was in Florence.  Rosa stands before us wearing a cap and gown symbolising a man of learning.  His giant-like figure is silhouetted against a turbulent sky, dark with the threat of a storm.  Rosa looks at us, tight-lipped.  His distinctive swarthy looks are easily recognisable from his other self-portraits.  His face is gaunt and yet animated.  He is brooding and like the weather depicted in the background, he looks as though a storm is also brewing within him. He looks somewhat angry.  His demeanour is challenging and rather scornful.   His dark hair is matted and his face is depicted with unshaven stubble.  The artist had obviously decided to portray himself as an “angry young man” intensely proud of his unshaven image.  His posture could possibly be likened to one of anti-establishment and could be compared to present day photographs we see of angry and sullen rock stars

His right hand rests on a stone tablet on which has been carved a Latin epigram:

“…Aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio..”

Which when translated reads:

“…Be quiet, unless your speech be better than silence…”

This epigram comes from the Ancient Greek historian and teacher, Dionysius of Halcarnassus.

The painting can be seen at the National Gallery in London.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Italian artists, Salvator Rosa, Self Portraits | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)

Let me introduce you to a female artist, whom I am ashamed to admit, I had never heard of, but whom Giorgio Vasari, the Italian biographer of artists, made the following comment:

“…[She] has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavours at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, colouring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings…”

My featured artist today is the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Her christian name came from a strong family connection to ancient Carthaginian history and her parents named their first daughter after the tragic Carthaginian figure who lived and committed suicide during the Second Punic War.  Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, a city in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, around 1532.  Her father was Amilcare Anguissola and her mother was Bianca Ponzone.  Both parents came from affluent and noble families and they lived a privileged and affluent lifestyle.  Sofonisba was the oldest of seven children.  She had one brother, Asdrubale and five sisters, Elena, Lucia, Europa, Minerva and Anna Maria.   All of her sisters except Minerva became artists.

Having come from such an advantaged family background was somewhat unusual for women artists of the sixteenth century, as any of note, tended to be daughters of impoverished artists.  The family wealth coupled with the father’s belief that all females should be educated ensured that Sofonisba received an all-round and extensive education, including studying drawing and fine art.   The fact that she came from a wealthy and privileged background did not however avoid the restrictions imposed by the Italian art establishment, such as forbidding female artists from studying anatomy or attending life drawing classes as it was deemed inappropriate for a female to view a naked model, which consequently meant a female could not study the human anatomy to the same extent as a male artist could and because of this she was unable to carry out the complex multi-figure compositions which were at the heart of the popular large-scale religious and historical works.  With those obstacles in mind, Anguissola decided to concentrate on portraiture using female models, which were accessible to her, and instead of historic settings she concentrated on having her sitters shown in homely and unceremonious settings.  Self-portraits and portraits of family members were her most frequent subjects and it was not until much later in life that she turned to paintings incorporating religious themes.

Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)

Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)

At the age of fourteen Sofonisba and her sister Elena attended the studio of Bernardino Campi, the Italian Renaissance religious painter and portraitist who was based in Cremona.  She pictorially recorded the time she was with Campi in her double portrait depicting her mentor painting a portrait of her.  The work, entitled Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, was completed by her during her last year as his pupil in 1550, when she was just eighteen years old.   After Campi, Sofonisba studied under the Italian artist Bernardino Gatti, often known as il Sojaro, and continued being tutored by him for three years, eventually leaving him when she was twenty-one years of age.

In 1554, Anguissola journeyed to Rome, where she spent her time sketching various scenes and people. The highlight of her stay in the Italian capital was when she was introduced to the great Master himself, Michelangelo Buonarotti.   We know the two met as in the Buonarrotti Archives held in Florence there is a letter, dated May 1557, from Sofonisba’s father Amilcare to Michelangelo in which he writes thanking him for spending time with his daughter:

“…honourable and thoughtful affection that you have shown to Sofonisba, my daughter,

to whom you introduced to practice the most honourable art of painting…”

Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)

Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)

Intrigued by her artistic talent Michelangelo asked her to sketch him a picture of a weeping boy and the result was her sketch entitled Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish.  Sofonisba rose to the challenge and sketched her young brother, Asdrubale, being bitten and being comforted by one of his sisters.  Michelangelo was so impressed with the drawing that he gave her some sketches from his notebook and asked her to copy them in her own style.  She complied with his request and the results of her efforts again astounded the Master and because he recognised how artistically talented she was, for the next two years, he agreed to mentor her.  Again we have been made aware of the high regard in which Michelangelo held Sofonisba’s work as in a letter dated May 1558, (held in the Buonarrotti Archives) her father wrote to Michelangelo thanking him for praising his daughter’s artwork:

“…[you were] kind enough to examine, judge, and praise the paintings done by my

daughter Sofonisba…”

In 1558, aged twenty-six, Sofonisba Anguissola left Rome and went to Milan and it was here she received a commission to paint a portrait of Ferdinand Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba.  The sitter was so pleased with the resulting painting that he recommended her to Philip II, the King of Spain.  Court officials invited Sofonisba to come to Madrid and be part of the Spanish court.  This fact alone is clear evidence of Sofonisba’s artistic talent and her success, as it would have been unheard of that such a powerful leader as Philip II would countenance an insignificant artist being invited to join and live at the Spanish court and paint for his new Queen.

Late in December 1559 she arrived in the Spanish capital and took up her role at the Spanish court as a court painter as well as being one of the attendants to the Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Infanta Isabella, and later as a lady-in-waiting to her mother, Philip’s new queen, his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois (the Queen consort, Isabel of Spain) who was an accomplished amateur portrait painter.  This shared love of art between Sofonisba and Elisabeth flourished and Sofonisba would often offer artistic advice and give the queen some artistic tuition.   Sofonisba soon received many official commissions to paint portraits of the king and queen’s family and courtiers.  These were very different to her earlier portraiture work which were very informal as Philip and his wife wanted the portraits he had commissioned Sofonisba to paint to show the wealth and power of the sitters by paying attention to background and peripheral objects such as fine and sumptuous clothing, jewelled adornments and priceless furnishings.  This type of portraiture took time and skill but the finished products were always well received by the sitters.

Her artistic talents were also recognised by another powerful leader, Pope Pius IV who asked Sofonisba to paint a portrait of the Queen consort, Isabel, and have it sent to him.  Giogio Vasari in his book, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects) quotes a letter the pontiff sent Sofonisba thanking her for the painting and praising her work.  In the letter he wrote:

“… Pius Papa IV. Dilecto in Christo filia.

 We have received the portrait of our dear daughter, the Queen of Spain, which you have

sent… We thank you and assure you that we shall treasure it among our choicest possessions,

and commend your marvellous talent which is least among your numerous qualities

 Rome, 15 October 1561…”

In 1571 Sofonisba married Don Francisco de Moncada, who was the son of the Prince of Paterno, Viceroy of Sicily.  King Philip II facilitated the marriage, and paid her dowry of twelve thousand pounds.  She remained at the Spanish court for a further seven years after which time, and with Philip’s permission, she and her husband left Madrid and travelled to Palermo, Sicily. They arrived in Palermo in 1578 but sadly her husband died the following year.  The year following her husband’s death, Sofonisba decided to visit her family back in Cremona and embarked on a sea passage from Palermo to Genoa.   She never made it back home as she fell in love with the young captain of the ship and the couple married shortly after, in January 1580, in Pisa.  Sofonisba was forty-seven years of age and was much older than her seafaring husband.  The couple settled down at the seaport of Genoa and with her husband’s money, along with a pension from Philip of Spain, the pair had a comfortable lifestyle and Sofonisba had her own quarters including an art studio within her husband’s family’s large house.  Her reputation as an accomplished artist spread throughout Europe and she received many visits from young aspiring painters.  The couple moved to Palermo and were visited in 1624 by the Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck, who at the time was twenty-five years old and travelling around the island of Sicily recording his travels in words and sketches in his diary.  At the time, Sofonisba was ninety-two years old and van Dyck sketched Sofonisba sitting in a chair.   All around the sketch he wrote notes in Italian, a rough translation of which is:

“…portrait of the painter Signora Sofonisba, done from life in Palermo in the year 1624, on 12 July: her age being 96 years, still with her memory and brain most quick, and most kind, and although she has lost her sight because of her old age, she enjoyed to have paintings put in front of her, and with great effort by placing her nose close to the picture, she could make out a little of it…”

It is interesting to note that according to van Dyck, Sofonisba was 96 years old in 1624 and this of course would make her birth date 1528 which is some four years earlier than the date given in a number of reference books.

Page from van Dyck's sketchbook

Page from van Dyck’s sketchbook

Van Dyck recorded in his diaries that her eyesight was weakened (it is thought she suffered from cataracts) but for a lady of 92 (or 96!) she was still mentally alert.  She had completed her last work in 1620 and had become a patron of the arts.  On November 16th 1625, Sofonisba died in Palermo aged 93.

On her birth centenary seven years later, her husband had a plaque placed on her tomb which read:
“…To Sofonisba, my wife…who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man…

Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman…”

Sofonisba was not only appreciated in her own lifetime but continues to be appreciated in modern society albeit I had to admit her name was new to me, which gives you some idea as to my artistic knowledge!

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today is an early self portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola which she completed in 1556 and is entitled Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel.  It is housed at the Museum-Zamek in the town of Lancut in south-east Poland.

This is one of many self portraits by the artist, which she sent as gifts to prospective patrons as she could not respectably enter into competition with male artists for paid commissions.   Around this time, there was a highly respected author, Baldassare Castiglione, the count of Casatico, an Italian courtier and diplomat, who held great sway with the public with regards manners at the court and how one should behave if of noble birth.  The book, which had a widely circulated publication in 1528, was entitled The Courtier.  In a way it was also a torch-bearer for women’s equality as it advocated the same education for aristocratic women as that offered to aristocratic men and one can only presume that Sofonisba’s father had read the book and agreed with its conclusions as he made sure that his daughters were not only educated in Latin, classical literature, history, philosophy, math, and sciences, but also that they were schooled in the courtly arts, such as music, writing, drawing, and painting.  Castiglione had written in his book about how aristocratic women of the court should dress.  He wrote:

“…she should always dress herself correctly and wear clothes that do not seem vain and frivolous…”

We can see by the way Sofonisba has depicted herself in this self portrait, wearing a modest black gown, lace collar and cuffs, the absence of jewellery and a simple hairstyle, which precluded any hint of easy virtue, that she had taken on board the advice given by Castiglione in his book.

Sofonisba looks out at us, brush in hand.  She is in the act of painting and is simultaneously the subject and object, the painter and the model of the painting.  Her painting is a re-working of the legend of St Luke the Evangelist, who it was believed, was the first to have painted a portrait of the Virgin but in this painting she has taken on the role of St Luke  and we see her painting of the Virgin and Child resting on the easel.

I love this self portrait.  There is nothing fancy about Sofonisba’s portrayal of herself.  It is an understated depiction.  It is a somewhat discreet portrait of a virtuous noblewoman and its beauty and exquisite artwork challenged the belief in those days that women artists lacked artistic skills.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Female artists, Female painters, Italian artists, Portraiture, Sofonisba Anguissola | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Desiderius Erasmus and Pieter Gillis by Quinten Massys

Desiderius Erasmus by Quinten Massys (1517)

Desiderius Erasmus by Quinten Massys (1517)

We are in the run-up to Christmas and many of us will be struggling to come up with ideas for the perfect gift for a beloved friend.  The problem is even further exacerbated if the friend is wealthy and wants for very little.  What do you give somebody who has everything?  What gift can you give someone which will forever remind him or her of your close and enduring friendship?  My featured painting today is all about this.  It is about three friends, two of whom want to give the third a gift; a memento of their friendship and so they decided to present their friend with two portraits of themselves, known as a friendship diptych.  To make their gift even more special they decided to commission the foremost painter of the time to carry out the work.  The two gift givers were the humanists, Desiderius Erasmus and Pieter Gillis and the recipient of their gift was Thomas More.  The artist they commissioned to paint the friendship diptych was the Flemish painter Quinten Massys.

The beneficiary of the two paintings was Thomas More, an Oxford University graduate.  During his time at university he wrote comedies and studied both Greek and Latin literature.  In 1494, after he had obtained his university degree, he returned to London and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn and in 1501 became a barrister.    He was a very religious man and at one time had decided to give up his career in law and become a monk and for a time lived at a Carthusian monastery.  His mental torment between following a secular or religious life was finally decided three years later when he chose to serve his country as a parliamentarian and entered Parliament in 1504.

Pieter Gillis by Quinten Massys (1517)

Pieter Gillis by Quinten Massys (1517)

In 1499, whilst Thomas More was living in London he met the Dutch Renaissance humanist and scholar, Desiderius Erasmus.  This initial meeting of the two men turned into a lifelong friendship and they continued to correspond on a regular basis during which time they worked collaboratively to translate into Latin and have printed some of the works of the Assyrian satirist, Lucian of Samosata.  It was through his meeting with Erasmus that Thomas More met Erasmus’ friend, Pieter Gillis, a fellow humanist, a printer by trade and town clerk of Antwerp.  One of Thomas More’s most famous compositions was his two-volume work entitled Utopia.  It is a depiction of a fictional island and its religious, political and social customs and was More’s way of commenting upon the social and political ideas of the day as well as highlighting and satirising the failings he saw all around him.  In the first volume, entitled Dialogue of Counsel, it began with correspondence between More himself and others, including Pieter Gillis.  The whole idea of the book came to Thomas More whilst he was staying at the Antwerp home of Gillis in 1515.  On his return to England in 1516, Thomas More completed the work and the first edition was edited by Erasmus and published in Leuven.  Thomas More dedicated this work to Pieter Gillis.

In 1517, a year after the publication of the first edition of More’s work, Desiderius Erasmus and Pieter Gillis, decided to send portraits of themselves to Sir Thomas More. This friendship diptych would act as a virtual visit to their English friend in London and they approached Quinten Massys to carry out the two paintings as he was the leading Antwerp painter at that time. Erasmus’ portrait was the first to be completed because the portrait of Gillis was constantly being delayed due to him falling ill during the sittings.  The two men had told Thomas More about the paintings which may not have been a wise move as More constantly queried them as to the progress of the paintings and became very impatient to receive the gift.  The two works were finally completed and were sent to More whilst he was in Calais.

The portrait of Erasmus, which is part of the Royal Collection and is currently on show at the Dürer to Holbein; The Northern Renaissance Exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London, depicts Erasmus working in his study. The way in which Massys has portrayed Erasmus was a popular way of depicting St Jerome, and so the setting used in the portrait probably alludes to the fact that Erasmus had just published a new edition of the writings of St Jerome.

It is interesting to look at the books on the shelves in the background.  On the upper shelf of the Erasmus painting there is a book which has the inscription Novum Testament which alludes to Novum Testamentum Graece, the first published edition of the Greek New Testament produced by Erasmus in 1516.  On the lower shelf there are three books.  The bottom tome has the inscription Hieronymus which refers to Erasmus’s editions of the New Testament and St Jerome; on top of that book there is one with the inscription Λουκιανός which is the Ancient Greek word for Lovkianos or Lucian and refers to Erasmus and Thomas More’s collaboration in translating Lucian’s Dialogues.   The inscription on the uppermost book is the word Hor, which originally read Mor.  The first letter was probably altered during an early restoration, for besides Mor being the first letters of Thomas More’s surname they almost certainly refer to the satirical essays written by Erasmus whilst staying with Thomas More in his London home in 1509 and entitled Enconium Moriae (Praise of Folly).  This collection of essays was considered one of the most notable works of the Renaissance.  We see Erasmus writing in a book.  This depiction has been carefully thought out for the words one sees on the page paper are a paraphrase of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the handwriting is a careful replication of Erasmus’s own hand, and the reed pen he holds was known to be Erasmus’s favourite writing tool.  If you look closely, in the folds of Erasmus’ cloak you can just make out a purse.  It could be that Erasmus wanted the artist to include this in order to illustrate his generosity.  Erasmus and Gillis made a point of informing Thomas More that they had split the cost of the painting because they wanted it to be a present from them both.  If you look at the two paintings side by side then one can see that Massys has cleverly continued the bookcase behind the two sitters and this gives the impression that the two men depicted in the two separate panels occupy the same room and are facing each other.

The Friendship Diptych

Copy of The Friendship Diptych
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

If we were to look now at the two paintings of Erasmus and Gillis, side by side, we would question whether they were in fact two halves of a diptych as they have different dimensions.  This has been explained away by the fact that the Royal Collection painting of Erasmus has been cut and the one of Gillis, which is in the private collection of the Earl of Radnor at Longford Castle, has been extended but it is believed that the original dimensions of both had matched perfectly. Furthermore, both panels have the brand of Charles I on the reverse and the fact that they were together in the seventeenth century seems to confirm that they constitute the original friendship diptych.

The artist, Quinten Massys also spelled Matsys or Metsys, was the foremost artist of his day in Antwerp.  He was born around 1466, in the town of Louvain which is situated in the Flemish Province of Brabant in Belgium.   His father Joost Massys was a blacksmith and his mother was Catharina van Kincken and they had four children.  For a time Quentin helped his father in his blacksmith and metalwork business.  Little is known about Massys’ early life and what we do know could be based on fanciful legends!  One such story was that Quentin abandoned working as a blacksmith and became an artist in order to impress a young lady, an artist’s daughter, who found art and artists romantic.  However a more mundane reason for Quinten to give up as a blacksmith was given by the painter, art historian and biographer of Netherlandish artists, Karel van Mander, in his 1604 Schilder-Boeck, who wrote that Quinten was a sickly youth and lacked the physical strength needed by somebody working in the metalwork and blacksmith profession.

Quinten Massys moved to Antwerp where he was admitted to the Antwerp St Lukas Guild.  He married when he was twenty-six years of age.  His wife was Alyt van Tuylt and the couple went on to have three children, two sons, Quinten and Pawel and a daughter Katelijne.  His wife died in 1507 and Quentin remarried a year later.  His new wife was Catherina Heyns and she and Quinten went on to have a further ten children, five sons and five daughters.  Shortly after their father’s death, two of his sons, Jan and Cornelis went on to become artists and members of the Antwerp Guild.

Thomas More was knighted in 1521 and in 1523, he became the speaker of the House of Commons and in 1525 chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Seventeen years after Thomas More received his friendship diptych from Erasmus and Gillis, he was dead.  He had risen to power under Henry VIII but had fallen foul of the English ruler in 1534 by refusing to swear to the king’s Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy, statutes which made Henry the supreme head of the Church of England.  Sir Thomas More believed that the supreme head of the church was the Pope and this stated belief lead to him being indicted for treason on charges of praemunire, which was the offense of introducing foreign authority into England and was intended to reduce the civil power of the Pope in England.  The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which was the usual punishment for traitors who were not the nobility.  However Henry VIII commuted this to execution by decapitation. Sir Thomas More was executed on 6 July 1535.   His last words were a declaration that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first”

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Portraiture, Quinten Massys | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

La Fornarina by Raphael Sanzio

La Fornarina by Raphael (1520)

La Fornarina by Raphael (1520)

My Daily Art Display today features an Italian lady, Margarita Luti.  She became known as La Fornarina which in Italian means “the baker’s daughter”.  She was the daughter of Francesco Luti, a local baker from Siena who worked in the Roman district of Santa Dorotea.  The reason she became famous was not because of her father’s occupation but because she modelled for and was the mistress of the great Italian High Renaissance painter, Raphael Sanzio.  It was well documented that Raphael Sanzio was a very passionate man and had many mistresses in his time.  In the book, The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, the biographer described the artist and how his love of women affected his work:

“…Raphael was a very amorous man who was fond of women and he was always quick to serve them. This was the reason why, as he continued to pursue his carnal delights, he was treated with too much consideration and acquiescence by his friends. When his dear friend Agostino Chigi commissioned him to paint the first loggia in his palace, Raphael could not really put his mind to his work because of his love for one of his mistresses; Agostino became so desperate over this that, through his own efforts and with the assistance of others, he worked things out in such a way that he finally managed to bring this woman of Raphael’s to come and stay with him on a constant basis in the section of the house where Raphael was working, and that was the reason why the work came to be finished…”

Although Margarita Luti is not actually named by Vasari her name does appear in scribbled notes on the original pages of the manuscript which would become his second edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.  The painting entitled La Fornarina, by Raphael hangs in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and a further copy can be found in the Galleria Borghese, in Rome.  The work was completed around 1520 when Raphael was thirty seven years of age.  This was also the year in which on Good Friday, April 6th he died. Before us is a portrait of a beautiful young woman who is almost nude.  Her skin is flawless as alabaster. Her cheeks are flushed and pink, She stares out to her left and smiles, presumably at the artist as he works on her portrait.

Venus Pudica

Venus Pudica

She is pictured with an oriental style hat on which is attached a large jewel Her breasts are bare. Her right arm crosses her body and her right hand pulls a diaphanous veil over her stomach and abdomen in a gesture which mirrors the posture of women as seen in classical sculptures such as the Venus pudica, apose that became the custom for the nude Aphrodite figures in the Late Classical period.   It is a very suggestive pose and I am not sure whether she is attempting to cover her breast or in fact she is turning it slightly towards us and her lover, Raphael.  Or could it be that her right hand is pressed against her heart as she looks at Raphael as a gesture of her love for him?  Her left hand rests between her thighs, the fingers splayed out and outlined by the deep, bloody-red of her discarded gown.  On her left arm there is a narrow leather band on which is the name of the artist – RAPHAEL URBINAS.  On the third finger of her left hand she appears to be wearing a ruby wedding band.   The presence of a ring was only discovered in the early part of the twenty-first century when the painting underwent some X-Ray analysis during restoration and cleaning work.

The fact that Raphael painted her with a wedding ring would have been very controversial at the time for six years earlier, in 1514; he had become engaged to marry.   He had been pressured by Cardinal Medici Bibbiena’s to marry one of his nieces, a lady named Maria Bibbiena.   Raphael did not want to refuse the Cardinal, but managed to postpone the matter, saying that he would prefer to wait three or four years before entering into marriage.  However after stringing along the cardinal and his niece for four years, Raphael had to agree to the marriage, but managed to keep putting off the date for the big occasion with a string of excuses.   So why had this engagement lasted six years without it ever ending in marriage?  There are a number of theories.  One is that Raphael had already married Margarita Luti in secret years earlier and therefore could not marry Maria Bibbiena.  Another possible reason is that his engagement to Maria had brought him additional status.  He was made a “Groom of the Chamber”, a papal valet, which in itself afforded him status at court and more importantly an additional income.  He would not want to jeopardise that.  He was also made a knight of the Papal Order of the Golden Spur, an honour which was also bestowed on the artists Titian and Vasari.   All such honours would have been lost if he had had to admit to being already married.  So why was the ring on the sitter’s finger not discovered immediately?  It was not just the ring, which was painted out, as the restoration work also uncovered that the myrtle branches we see filling the background of the painting and which are thought to be symbolic of love and marriage were not always there.  The X-Ray analysis of the painting show that originally there had been a landscape background, similar to that seen in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
The reason for the over-painting is that it is thought that the work which was found in Raphael’s studio when he died had “finishing touches,” added, including a cover-up of the Margarita Luti’s ring finger by his student, Giulio Romano, who then went on to sell the painting.

Raphael Sanzio died in April 1520 possibly even on April 6th, the day of his 37th birthday.  There are numerous speculative explanations as to the cause of his death.  Probably the most bizarre was put forward by Vasari when he postulated that Raphael died on his 37th birthday after a wild night of celebratory sex with Margarita causing him to lapse into a fever and when a doctor arrived Raphael was too embarrassed to admit to what had brought on this feverish state and then had been given the wrong medicine by the doctor which went on to kill him.  Other historians, who also disagree of the date of his death, have put his demise down to working too closely with arsenic and lead based paints or overwork or heart failure.

And so I leave you with one of the world’s greatest artists and his portrait of the love of his life, but is it?  Is this a portrait of the little baker’s girl who became Raphael’s lover?  Some would disagree.  Some art historians, including Doctor Claudio Strinati, superintendent of the National Museums of Rome, now believe that the way in which Raphael’s has depicted the lady is too refined to have been just done for his own pleasure and in fact, due to the quality of the work, was a commission for a wealthy and influential patron and that patron could have been his friend Agostino Chigi.  According to this theory, the woman in the painting was not Margarita Luti but Chigi’s long-time mistress, and later his wife, Francesca Ardeasca.  We know that Chigi had commissioned Raphael to work at his new “palace”, the Villa Farnesina, and the two had become friends so much so that when the lovelorn Raphael’s mind was so distracted having been parted from his beloved Margarita whilst working on the commission, Chigi had supplied a room in his palace for Margarita so that he could better focus on the work in hand.

So is this enchanting portrait of the dark-eyed woman we see before us today Raphael’s paramour or his patron’s wife?  Is this a painting carried out for love or for money?  We will probably never know for sure as there are no other portraits of Chigi’s wife, Francesca, and therefore no possibility to compare likenesses.  Maybe this doubt adds to the mystification of the portrait and I will let you make up your own minds.

Having extolled the beauty of some other women in featured paintings in early blogs I look at this lady and question her purported beauty but as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” I will again allow you to decide and leave you with the comments made by French writer, Gustave Flaubert who wrote about La Fornarina in his satirical work entitled Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas):

“…Fornarina.  C’était une belle femme; inutile d’en savoir plus long…”

(Fornarina. She was a beautiful woman. That is all you need to know)

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