Susan Valadon, Part 1 – The early years

Suzanne Valadon aged 24

Suzanne Valadon aged 24

In my next few blogs I want to look at the life of a female who was both a great artist and artist’s model and whose name is synonymous with the artistic world of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century Montmartre.  She was, and still is, loved by the feminist movement who applaud her guts and determination.  She is Suzanne Valadon.   I want to spend time and look at the artistic friends she made during her life and how they adored her.  She was, to many artists, a model, a muse and, in some cases, a willing lover.   To fully understand why her lifestyle was as it was, one must go back and examine her family roots and look at her early childhood which was , as is the case for nearly all of us, the sewing and the germination of the seed which would eventually blossom and shape our lives. 

To examine her early life one needs to scrutinize the circumstances of her birth and for that it is necessary to look into the life of her family.   Her mother was Madeleine Valadon who was born in the small rural village of Bessines, close to the town of Limoges.  What we know of Madeleine comes from her own lips later in life and because she frequently changed the facts one needs to be careful as to what to believe.   She maintained that as a teenager she had once been married to a man from Limoges named Courland and that he died in jail when she was just twenty-one years of age but by which time she had given birth to a number of his children.  After his death Madeleine reverted back to her family name of Valadon and returned to her family home.  As a young girl, she was taught to read and write by nuns who also taught her to stitch and sew. She then fortuitously managed to secure employment as a live-in seamstress to the well-to-do Guimbaud family who lived nearby.  It was a position which she was pleased to accept and felt no grief for having to leave her children in their less than salubrious family home whilst she was living in comparative comfort close by.   She soon established herself as the head of the servants in the Guimbaud household and, unlike them, even dined with the family.  She remained in this employment for thirteen years but it came to an end when she once again became pregnant.   According to her, the father of the child was a local miller who was killed in an accident at work.  In later life she viewed the accident which killed him as divine retribution for making her pregnant!     

Naturally the small Bessines community was shocked by the news of her pregnancy and lack of a husband to act as a father figure to her newborn.  The Guimbaud family however treated her well and she remained in their house until her child, a daughter, was born.  According to the official records, the child was baptised Marie-Clémentine Valadon on September 23rd 1865.   It was not until she was nineteen years of age that Marie-Clémentine started calling herself Suzanne and this apparently was the suggestion of her friend, the artist, Henri Toulouse Lautrec.    It is also interesting to note that despite that documented official registration of her birth Suzanne always maintained she was born in 1867. 

Madeleine Valadon with her daughter Suzanne

Madeleine Valadon with her daughter Suzanne

Madeleine Valadon left Bessines with her baby in January 1866 and headed for Paris.  She never looked back.  She never saw or communicated with her family, her other children or her former employer, the Guimbaud family, ever again and one can only wonder why she wanted this complete break from her past. 

The windmills of Montmartre, taken in 1839 by Hippolyte Bayard

The windmills of Montmartre, taken in 1839 by Hippolyte Bayard

She arrived in Paris confidant that she would be able to earn a living as a seamstress.   Madeleine Valadon was amazed at the sight that greeted her to the north of the capital city – a hill on top of which were a number of windmills, a vista which was similar to the rural views back home.  The steep hill she viewed was the Mount of Martyrs, named after the execution of the first bishop of Paris, St Denis and his faithful lieutenants, St Rustique and St Éleuthère in the third century – Montmartre.  Madeleine settled into lodgings at the base of the hill in the Boulevard de Rochechouart and then, with a glowing reference from the Guimbaud family, set off to procure employment as a seamstress.  Her plans did not come to fruition as jobs were scarce and finally, in desperation, she had to settle for the menial job as a scrub-woman, cleaning floors whilst the wife of the concierge of her lodgings looked after Suzanne. 

Madeleine, no doubt aware that for her daughter to succeed in life she had to be educated, and so arranged for a priest to teach her to read and write and then had her attend the convent run by the nuns of St Vincent de Paul as a day pupil for a continuance of her education and to be taught, as she was, to become a seamstress.  However, once again her plans went awry with the start of the Franco-Prussian War which culminated in the siege of Paris by the Prussian army at the end of 1870 and the ousting of the French government, which retreated from Paris and based itself in Bordeaux.  In May 1871, following the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War and the lifting of the Prussian siege of Paris, the French government returned to Versailles on the outskirts of Paris ready once again to rule the capital.  However many of the Parisians, who had suffered during the Paris siege, blamed their government for their misery and deprivation which they had to endure.  They remembered with bitterness the days they had to scavenge for food eating dogs, cats and rats to survive.  Out of this sense of bitterness and betrayal came the rise of the Communards.  The Communards were a group of working class disaffected Parisians who did not want the French government to return to control Paris.  They were very active around the area where Madeleine and Suzanne lived and their bloody determination that the defeated French government would not return to Paris from their bolt-hole at Versailles set up a clash which was in fact a mini civil war and which claimed the lives of more than twenty thousand Parisians. 

Suzanne, during these times of turmoil, had still attended the St Vincent de Paul convent for her lessons and during the Paris siege had been fed by the nuns from their home-grown produce.  However during the Paris Commune clashes between the government forces and the Communards the fighting had been so intense that the nuns barricaded themselves in the convent and closed it down to the day pupils and so Suzanne like many others lost their opportunity for learning and being fed.  Suzanne, who was six years of age and like many children of her age, revelled in not having to go to school.  Her mother, on the other hand, despaired and began to drink heavily.   At the end of the Paris Commune struggle at the end of May 1871 and with it, the return to law and order under the French government, the St Vincent de Paul nuns felt it safe to re-open their convent to their day pupils and Suzanne, who had enjoyed the freedom from the discipline of school life and the boredom of lessons reluctantly had to return to the confines of the convent.  She rebelled and was frequently absent preferring to play in the streets and on the hill of Montmartre with new friends both children and adults.   She mixed with the lowest elements of society, the prostitutes, the beggars and the thieves and loved every minute of it.  Later in life she recalled those times:

“…From that day the streets of Montmartre were home to me.  It was only in the streets that there was excitement and love and ideas – what other children found around their dining room tables…” 

Suzanne lived a feral existence.  She was small in stature and had a fierce temper and would often succumb to uncontrollable rages and on the streets of Montmartre she was often referred to as “The Little Valadon Terror”.   Her mother Madeleine became more morose and apathetic as the years passed.  She lost total interest in life and frequently descended into an alcoholic haze.  She rarely cleaned their lodgings and seldom did any laundry.  She begrudged cooking and having to feed Suzanne and when they ate at meal times they would normally eat apart.  Nothing Suzanne would do would lift her mother’s spirit.   Despite this lack of maternal love for Suzanne the two lived together for almost sixty years.  In later life Suzanne often depicted her mother in paintings.  She would nearly always portray her as being old, wrinkled and toothless but showed her hard at work. 

Le Moulin de Galette by Vincent van Gogh (1886)

Le Moulin de Galette by Vincent van Gogh (1886)

Montmartre since the beginning of the 19th century was the centre of artistic life and drew artists, musicians and writers to it like a magnet.  Studio garrets shot up everywhere in which the artists would paint day in and day out and in the late evenings would look for some respite and so bars and music and dance halls, such as the notorious Moulin Rouge.  

L'Absinthe by Degas (1873)

L’Absinthe by Degas (1876)

The Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes, was a meeting place for the up and coming artists of the time including the “new kids on the block”, the Impressionists and it was outside this establishment that Degas depicted the two drinking companions in his famous 1876 work L’Absinthe  (See My Daily Art Display June 7th 2011).  Another popular establishment was Le Chat Noir, which opened in November 1881 in Boulevard Rochechouart, the same street where Madeleine and Suzanne lived and was run by the entertainment impresario, Rodolphe Salis.  The Divan Japonais, a café-concert (a combination of a concert hall and a pub) was a haunt of the French painter, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.  Probably one of the most popular was the Moulin de la Galette.  This was originally a windmill, one of the thirty windmills on La Butte de Montmartre, which Madeleine saw as she arrived from Limoges.  The windmill owners then added a goguette (a wine shop) which also sold galettes (flat round crusty pastries) and later incorporated a dance hall and restaurant.  It was here that Suzanne Valadon reminisced that she had first set eyes on Degas whom she described as:  

“…a small round-shouldered man, fragile and sad-eyed, in pepper-and-salt tweeds, his throat swathed in woollen scarves…”

In 1874, at the age of nine, Madeleine took Suzanne to an atelier de couture where she was apprenticed as a seamstress.  Suzanne hated the life and made numerous attempts the workplace but unlike the nuns the workhouse owner would beat her when she was dragged back to the factory by her mother.  She stayed there for three years but eventually left and took jobs as a waitress in a café, a push-cart vendor of vegetables and working with horses at a livery stable.  It was this last job in which one of her jobs was to walk the horses around the streets.  People would stop on the street and watch this small young girl with her large horses.  Suzanne, ever the entertainer, was not content with just walking the horses but began to perform acrobatic tricks upon the horses to gain more notice and a modicum of applause.   In later years, she reckoned that a circus owner witnessed one of her “performances” and offered her a job.  She loved this new colourful and exciting life.  Although her role at the circus/carnival was a horse riding act, one day she was asked to stand in for a trapeze artist who had been taken ill.  She had done some trapeze work and so agreed.  Unfortunately the performance went badly and she fell, injuring her back and her circus life came to an end. 

                                                                        …………………… to be continued.

Having been chastised the other day for not acknowledging some of my sources I thought I had better behave myself today and tell you that most of my information came from a book I read (and I am still reading it) on the life of Suzanne Valadon entitled The Valadon Drama, The Life of Suzanne Valadon, written by John Storm in 1923.

Other sites I visited to find some pictures were:

http://lapouyette-unddiedingedeslebens.blogspot.co.uk/

http://youngbohemia.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/suzanne-valadon_8445.html

http://www.messynessychic.com

The Blog:  It’s about time

http://bjws.blogspot.co.uk

 

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Female artists, Female painters, French painters, Suzanne Valadon | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Elderly Nude in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny

Mariano Fortuny

Mariano Fortuny

My featured painting today is a reminder to me of the glorious and unexpected summer weather we have been having these last five weeks and the rejuvenation of my battered and old body from basking in the sunlight.  The painting is entitled Elderly Nude in the Sun and was painted in 1871 by the Catalan painter Mariano Fortuny.  Fortuny is looked upon as one of the most esteemed and internationally renowned of the nineteenth century Spanish painters.

Mariano José María Bernardo Fortuny y Marsal was born in the Spanish coastal town of Reus in June 1838.  He came from an impoverished background and attended the local school where, among other subjects he was taught, he was given his first rudimentary lessons in drawing.  He was orphaned at the age of twelve when both his parents died and he went to live with his paternal grandfather, Maria Fortuny i Baró, who was a cabinet maker and amateur artist.   His grandfather continued to look after his grandson’s education sending him to watercolour classes run by a local artist, Domingo Soberano.  He also had him work in the studio of the silversmith and miniaturist, Antonio Bassa.  

As well as being a joiner his grandfather built up a collection of wax figurines which he had made and travelled the country selling them.  He spent much of his time teaching his grandson the art of making these wax figures.  On one of Mariano and his grandfather’s sales trips in September 1852 they visited the nearby city of Barcelona.  It was during this visit that Mariano met the sculptor Domingo Talarn who was so impressed with Mariano’s handiwork that he arranged for him to be paid a small monthly stipend which enabled him to attend the Escuela de Bellas Artes where he started on a four-year art course.  It was here that he studied under the Spanish artist, Claudio Lorenzale y Sugrañes.    

In 1857, aged 19 Mariano won an art scholarship which allowed him to travel to Rome the following year and, for the next two years he studied the art of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods.  At the end of his Italian stay he received a commission from the regional Catalan government to travel to Morocco and record the conflict between the Spanish and Moroccan armies which had broken out at the end of 1859. In the Catalan and Basque regions of Spain thousands of young men with a burning sense of patriotism rushed to the army recruiting centres to sign up for the Spanish army to help their country defeat the Moroccans and the Catalan government wanted to have recorded pictorially their brave fight for their country.  Fortuny travelled to Morocco in 1860 and completed numerous pencil sketches, highly colourful watercolours and small oil paintings of the Moroccan landscape and its people as well as the battle skirmishes.  When he returned home to Catalonia these sketches were shown at exhibitions in Madrid and Barcelona. 

Battle of Teutan by Mariano Fortuny

Battle of Teutan by Mariano Fortuny

Fortuny used a number of his battlefield sketches to build up a monumental history painting, measuring 300 x 972cms, entitled Battle of Teután which recorded the Spanish and Moroccan armies large scale clash in January 1860 which culminated in the fall of the Moroccan town of Teután to the Spaniards.   Fortuny began work on this painting in 1862 but never fully completed it, adding and altering it constantly over the next twelve years.  On his death in Rome in 1874 the painting was found in his studio.  The Catalan government purchased the work and it can now be seen in the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña, in Barcelona. 

In 1867 whilst in Madrid, Mariano Fortuny married Cecilia de Madrazo.   She came from a long line of painters.  She was the daughter of the great painter Federico de Madrazo, a one-time director of the Prado Museum.  Cecilia’s brother was the realist painter Raimundo de Madrazo who became a highly successful portraitist and genre painter in a Salon style.  In May 1871, Cecilia gave birth to a son, named Mariano after his father.  Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo went on to become one of the foremost Spanish fashion and tapestry designers. 

Fortuny was based in Rome until about 1870 after which he made a number of trips.  He then went to live in Paris but when the Spanish-French governmental relations began to break down, he decided to move his family back to Spain and for a two year period, he and his family lived in Granada.  He made a return trip to Morocco in 1872 and later to Rome.   By this time, Fortuny was disturbed and somewhat depressed with the necessity of churning out paintings which were saleable as he wanted the freedom to paint what he liked rather than what was popular and easy to sell.  In a letter to his friend, the prolific French art collector, Baron Davillier, he wrote of his dilemma: 

“…I want to have the pleasure of painting for myself.   In this lies true painting…”

In the summer of 1874 he headed back to Italy and his studio in Rome but stopped off at Portici, a coastal town on the Bay of Naples, where he spent time painting scenes of the Bay and the town.   Sadly, it was here that he contracted malaria which led to his death in Rome in November 1874, at the young age of 36.  

Elderly Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny (1871)

Elderly Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny (1871)

My featured work today by Mariano Fortuny is entitled Elderly Nude in the Sun which he completed in 1871 whilst living in Granada.   Fortuny was, at this time, at the height of his fame and his works were in great demand.  This painting was one of many life studies he completed at the time.  It is a painting which can be attributed to classical realism.   Note the marked difference to the finish Fortuny has afforded the painting.  The lower part of the torso is just roughly sketched whilst the detail of the man’s upper body and face are finished in such exquisite detail to make the work come to life.  It is an amazing work and reminded me so much of the pained expression and emaciated figure one associates with the crucified Christ.  Before us we have an old man with an old body which is well past its prime.  There is a contemplative expression on the man’s face as he faces the sun with his eyes tightly closed.  I have to admit that my initial and somewhat fleeting glance at the man’s facial expression made me believe it was one of anguish.  However if one looks more closely I think it is more a look of quiet acceptance and even a look of pleasure as the sun’s rays warm up his frail body.  Although it is a somewhat emaciated body we have before us, there is something truly beautiful about Mariano Fortuny’s depiction.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Art History, History Paintings, Realism, Realism Artists, Spanish painters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Poor Fisherman by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The Poor Fisherman by Pierre Puvis de Chevannes (1881)

The Poor Fisherman by Pierre Puvis de Chevannes (1881)

My last blog looked at the early life of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes as well as feature a series of four large wall paintings he completed in the 1860’s.  In today’s blog I will conclude his life story and feature one of his best known paintings entitled The Poor Fisherman.  

Following the success of his wall paintings for the Musée de Picardie he went on to complete many other wall painting commissions, such as the staircase of the Hôtel de Ville at Poitiers.  In 1874 the Department of Fine Arts in Paris commissioned him to paint a number of wall paintings depicting the childhood and education of St Geneviève, the patroness of Paris, for the church of Saint Genevieve, which is now the Pantheon.  Puvis procured a second commission  for work in the Pantheon in 1896, depicting Genevieve’s accomplishments in old age which consisted of a single composition coupled with a triad of panels, the whole of which surmounted by a frieze. 

One of his largest commissions came in 1891 when Charles Follen McKim a partner in the architect firm of McKim, Mead and White, who had designed the new Boston library, went to Paris and approached Pierre Puvis to provide wall paintings for the grand staircase and loggia of their new building.  Puvis agreed to carry out this extensive commission despite being sixty-seven years of age.  Then Puvis had a change of heart when he accepted a commission for work in the Paris City Hall and so the following year, 1892, the Americans had to send over another representative to Paris to ask Puvis not to renege on his original agreement. After prolonged negotiations in July 1893 Puvis put pen to paper and the contract for the wall paintings was finalised, agreeing to pay the artist the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand francs.  Puvis completed his Paris City Hall commission in 1894 and in 1895 he began on the paintings which were to adorn the walls of the Boston Library.  To ensure that the wall paintings blended in with the internal architecture the architects sent Puvis samples of the marble which was to be used for the staircase and its surroundings.  Puvis worked on the wall paintings at a purpose built studio at Neuilly, just outside of Paris and completed them in 1898.  They were then shipped out to America.   Puvis never saw for himself his paintings in situ in the Boston library.   For a much more detailed account of this commission it is worth having a look at:

http://cool.conservation-us.org/jaic/articles/jaic36-01-005.html 

Pierre Puvis did not exclusively work on large-scale wall paintings, he would often relax by carrying out smaller easel paintings and today I am featuring one such work which he completed in 1881 and entitled The Poor Fisherman, which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Although not the size of one of his wall paintings, it is still a large work, measuring 155 x 192 cms.

The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1859)

The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1859)

In the painting we see a forlorn-looking man, head bent, standing up in his boat with his hands clasped together in front of him as if in prayer and it is his stance along with the connection between Christ and his Apostles and fishermen, which gives the painting a somewhat religious feel to it.  Is he praying for success in his forthcoming fishing expedition or as some would have us believe it could be that it was noon and, as a practicing Catholic, the fisherman was reciting an Angelus prayer.  This supposition is based on the similar stance of the figures seen in Millet’s 1859 The Angelus painting.   On the bank there is a woman, his daughter, collecting flowers and his sleeping baby, lying on his back in a bed of wild flowers. One is struck by the bleak landscape and the contrast between the seemingly happy female as she picks the flowers, the peacefully sleeping child with the troubled poverty-stricken fisherman as he bows his head down in silent contemplation.   

The work was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1881 and received a mixed reception and was not sold until 1887 when the French State purchased the work whilst it was on show at the French art dealer, Durand-Ruel’s showroom.  So what is there not to like about the work?  Is it just too depressing?  Does it fail to conform to the artistic norm?  In an article in the December 1916 issue of the The Art World magazine entitled “A Trivial Work of Art: The Poor Fisherman by Puvis de Chavannes, the art critic Petronius Arbiter summed up the painting:

“…It is an absolutely trivial work; and, coming from him, was a complete surprise and much criticized at the time. In the first place the lines of the composition are so zigzag that the work is irritating instead of soothing to the eyes. Then the sprawling of the badly drawn child over a low shrub, every leaf and branch of which would prick out of it all sense of sleep or even of comfort, is absurd.  Then the head of the mother is too large, and the hair that of a man rather than that of a woman. Then the man looks ‘sawed-off,’ for he is represented as standing with his knees against a seat in the boat. But where is the rest of his lower legs? The boat is either not deep enough or his lower legs are abnormally short, or sawed-off. This is also manifestly absurd. Then the head is so childishly constructed as to be ridiculous. Moreover, what is he doing – praying, fishing, philosophizing over his destiny, or what? The whole thing is childish to a degree. Here we have a meaningless ‘individuality’ with a vengeance…”

However the article’s author begrudgingly had some good words to say about the work:

“…The picture has but one redeeming feature – its charming colour.  A delicate general tone of mauve pervades the whole creation and the gradation of the tones in the water are so skilfully painted that we are drawn into the far distance whether we will or no.  That is, the values of the picture are remarkably true…”

Le Pauvre Pêcheur by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1881)  The National Museum of Western Art

Le Pauvre Pêcheur by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1881) The National Museum of Western Art

The artist painted another version of The Poor Fisherman in which he depicts just the fisherman and his baby child which this time lies in the botom of his boat.  This copy can be seen at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes died in October 1898 aged 73.   Shortly before his death he married his long time companion, Princess Marie Cantacuzène.   She died just a few months before her husband.

Following my last blog, which looked at the early life of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, I was ticked off by the author Aimée Brown Price for using information from her books on the artist and not acknowledging the fact.  To defend myself I have to say up until receiving her email I had no idea she had written these books and probably took her information unknowingly from a third-party source.  However to rectify my misconduct I have given you below the title of her books on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and I am sure if you want to read a more detailed account of the life and works of the artist they will be invaluable.

Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Volume I: The Artist and his Art.  Volume II:  A Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780300115710, box set, two volumes, 750 pp. 1200 illustrations.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Art History, French painters, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Part 1 Wall paintings

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1882) aged 58.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1882)
aged 58.

In my previous couple of blogs I looked at two married couples, all four of whom were artists who based themselves around Copenhagen and the Skagen area of northern Denmark.  The two wives, Anne Ancher née Brøndum and Marie Krøyer née Tiepcke both spent time studying art in various Paris ateliers, one of which was run by the French painter, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes and so I thought over the next two blogs it would be interesting to look at his life story and examine some of his truly beautiful works of art.  In this first part I am going to concentrate on a series of his decorative works – his first set of wall paintings which can be seen at the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, a town in the Picardy region of northern France.  Pierre-Cécile Puvis, as it was not until somewhat later in life that he attached the ancestral name of his Burgundian forefathers “de Chevannes” to his surname, was born in Lyon, into a wealthy bourgeois family in December 1824.  His mother was Marguerite Guyot de Pravieux and his father, Marie-Julien-César Puvis de Chavannes, who was the Chief Engineer of Mines for the region.  His father’s wealth would ensure that Pierre never wanted financially for the rest of his life.  Pierre was the youngest of four children.   He had two sisters, Joséphine and Marie-Antoinette and a brother Edouard.     He went to school at the Lycée Royal and the Collège Saint-Rambert, in Lyon.  Later he attended the Lycée Henri IV in Paris and in 1842 at the age of eighteen Pierre Puvis had obtained his baccalaureate.  By 1843 both Pierre’s parents were dead.  His mother died in October 1840 and his father died three years later in Nice.   In 1843 he briefly enrolled at a law school in Paris but left after a few months. His father had had high hopes that his son would follow in his engineering footsteps.   However, any hopes of proceeding on to an engineering career via the l’Ecole Polytechnique in Lyon were dashed when he was struck down with a serious illness whilst studying for the entrance exam.  For most of 1844 and 1845 he had to convalesce at the home of his sister Joséphine and her husband Esprit-Alexandre Jordan in Mâcon in central France.   

In 1846 his life was to change as for part of his recuperation he decided to go on a trip to Italy.   It was during his journey around Italy that he fell in love with the art that he saw, and the frescos and murals stimulated his interest in painting and so, on his return to Paris, he announced his intention to become a painter.  The first painter he approached for an apprenticeship was the French history painter and portraitist Emile Signon but he was turned down and told to seek out Ary Scheffer who eventually arranged for Pierre to be trained at the atelier of his brother, Henri Scheffer.   In 1848 Pierre embarked on a second trip to Italy, this time accompanied by the painter Louis Bauderon de Vermeron.  On returning from Italy in late 1848, he worked at Eugène Delacroix’s studio but this only lasted a fortnight as Delacroix was taken ill and the studio was closed and Pierre went to work at the atelier of the French history painter Thomas Couture.  In 1850, Pierre Puvis set up his very own studio in rue St Lazare and in that year he had his first work, Dead Christ, exhibited at that year’s Salon. 

Later in the 1850’s Pierre Puvis, art changed and he concentrated on large decorative pieces for large houses or other important establishments.  These were neither frescos nor murals but were painted canvases which were then affixed to the wall.   These wall paintings were often secured to walls by a method known as marouflage where the canvas was “glued” to the wall by an adhesive which when it dries is as strong as plaster or cement.  The terminology marouflage comes from the French word, maroufle, which is the word to describe the sticky substance which has congealed at the bottom of artist’s paint pot.  

Le Paix (Peace) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1861)

Le Paix (Peace) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1861)

In 1861 Pierre Puvis produced two large paintings, each measuring 3.4 x 5.5m, one entitled Peace and the other, its companion piece was entitled War.  The work entitled Peace depicted an idyllic land with figures from ancient times relaxing in a peaceful landscape, with not a care in the world.  In the background we can see people riding horses, running and dancing whilst in the foreground we observe goats being milked.  Fruit is plentiful and we see it being gathered up.    Life in this state of peace and tranquillity could not be better and it is thought that Pierre Puvis based his work on Virgil’s fourth Eclogue in which the poet described such a place: 

“…..the uncultivated earth will pour out

her first little gifts, straggling ivy and cyclamen everywhere

and the bean flower with the smiling acanthus.

The goats will come home themselves, their udders swollen

with milk, and the cattle will have no fear of fierce lions….”

La Guerre (War)  by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1861)

La Guerre (War) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1861)

In the work entitled War things couldn’t have been more different.  Gone is the idyllic landscape, now supplanted by a background showing a gloomy and desolate landscape in which we can see homes burning.  In the left mid-ground we see a soldier in all his armour, with his red cloak fluttering behind him as he pitilessly kills civilians.   In the foreground we see women on their knees begging for mercy as three riders sound their horns.  Could it be they are the attackers sounding off in a triumphal fashion or are they fleeing the enemy and urging their people to hurry along?  Behind the horsemen we see a column of stragglers, some being carried, fleeing the enemy.  Look at the beast on the ground to the left of the women.  See how by showing the white of its eye we get a sense of its fear whilst the other animal, next to it, raises its head, its neck stretched to the limit, as it bellows for mercy.  The French State purchased Peace and because Puvis did not want his pair of paintings to be separated he donated War to the French State.  Following the completion of Peace and War in 1861, Pierre Puvis found himself without any commissions so decided to paint two more works to act as companion pieces to Peace and War

Le  Travail (Work) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1863)

Le Travail (Work) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1863)

He entitled them Work and Repose and submitted them to the Salon of 1863. 

Le Repos (Repose) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1863)

Le Repos (Repose) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1863)

At around this time in Amiens a new museum, Musée de Picardie, was being built and one of its architects, Arthur-Stanislas Diet, approached Pierre Puvis to see if all four of these works could be placed on the wall of the museum’s monumental main staircase and the gallery.  He agreed.  The French State loaned the first two paintings to the museum and Pierre Puvis donated the other two works. 

La Paix by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1867) Philadelphia Museum of Art

La Paix by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1867)
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Four years later in 1867, Pierre Puvis produced smaller versions of Peace and War which can now be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

La Guerre by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1867) Philadelphia Museum of Art

La Guerre by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1867)
Philadelphia Museum of Art

In my next blog I will feature some of Pierre Puvis’ smaller works and continue with his life story.

Posted in French painters, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Wall paintings | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Skagen Painters, Part 2 – Mr and Mrs Krøyer

Double Portrait of Maria and P.S. Krøyer by Maria and Peter Severin Krøyer (1890)

Double Portrait of Maria and P.S. Krøyer by Maria and Peter Severin Krøyer (1890)

As promised in my last blog featuring the Skagen husband and wife painters, Michael and Anna Ancher, My Daily Art Display today features another married couple who resided in Skagen, Denmark and were leading lights of the Skagen artist commune.   Their names were Marie and Peder Severin Krøyer. 

Marie Martha Mathilde Triepcke was one of three children born to German parents in the Danish capital of Copenhagen in June 1867.   She developed an early love for art and following normal schooling she decided that her future lay as an artist.  For a female to train to become an artist in Denmark in those days was very difficult as women were not allowed to enrol on art courses at the Danish Royal Academy of Art and so she had to study drawing and painting at private schools.  One of these art schools was the Kunstnernes Frie Studieskoler,  a Copenhagen art school which had opened in 1882 as a protest against  the policies and rigid dictates of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts  and by so doing offered an alternative to the Academy’s rigid educational program.  The artist who looked after the new students was the Danish painter, Kristian Zartman.  Another teacher at the art school when Maria attended was the young artist Peter Severin Krøyer.   During her time at these private art establishments she received tuition in model drawing as well as some landscape, still life and portraiture. She and other artists, both male and female, were encouraged to spend time in the countryside and paint en plein air.  In 1887, when she was twenty years of age she made her first trip to Skagen which had by this time become home to  a flourishing artist colony. 

Two years later in December 1888 at the age of twenty-one she left Denmark and travelled alone to Paris to live and further her artistic education.  She studied at a number of studios including those of the French painters, Gustave Courtois and Alfred Roll.  One of the studios she worked in was run by the French painter, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and it was whilst working in his atelier she became great friends with a fellow co-worker Anna Ancher, who along with her husband Michael, featured in my last blog.  Marie soon became one of the Parisian “Scandinavian artistic-set” and one of these fellow artists was Peter Severin Krøyer whom she had met before in Copenhagen.   Who knows why, but suddenly the relationship between Peter and Marie intensified and they fell in love.  It was a whirlwind romance because in July 1889, within six months of their Paris meeting they were married. 

Peter Severin Krøyer was sixteen years older than Maria.   Although he is often looked upon as a Danish painter, in fact he was born in the Norwegian town of Stavanger in July 1851.   His entry into the world was not without trauma as when he was just a young baby; he was taken from his mother, Ellen, as she was considered unfit to look after her son due to being mentally ill.  Peter went to live in Copenhagen where he was brought up by his maternal aunt and her husband.  At the age of nine, because of his love of drawing, they arranged for him to attend art classes at a private school.  A year later, he was enrolled at the Copenhagen Technical Institute.  From there he attended the Royal Danish Academy of Art and in 1870, at the age of nineteen, he completed his formal studies.  He, like many aspiring artists, began exhibiting his work at the Charlottenborg Palace in Copenhagen and his big breakthrough came in 1874 when the tobacco magnate Heinrich Hirschsprung bought one of his works.  Hirschsprung would become one of Peter Krøyer’s patrons and funded his early European travels.   This connection with Hirschsprung also had a connection with his wife-to-be Marie, as her childhood school friend was Ida Hirschsprung whose uncle was Heinrich and it was through Ida that Marie came into social contact with the Hirschsprungs and their circle of friends including  Peter Krøyen. 

The Duet by Peter Krøyer (1877)

The Duet by Peter Krøyer (1877)

Marie Triepcke actually sat for Krøyen for his 1877 painting entitled The Duet.  She is the woman in red at the left of the painting.

For the next five years Krøyer travelled extensively visiting Spain and Italy as well as spending summer months in Brittany, all the time honing his artistic skills.  During the late 1870’s he would also come across the “new kids on the block” – the young French impressionists such as Monet, Sisley, Degas and Renoir.  However Krøyer was more attuned to the academic painters of the time.   After roaming for those five years he finally returned “home” to Denmark and in late 1881 and in the summer of 1882 he went to Skagen.  He was so enamoured by this area that he bought himself a home there and it was here that he spent his summers before returning to his Copenhagen apartment in the winter months to work in his studio.    Between 1882 and 1904 Krøyer was a leading figure at the newly founded Kunstnernes Frei Studieskoler where he oversaw the life drawing classes which allowed students to draw and paint images of live nudes, an art form which, at the time, was not allowed at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Marie Krøyer returned to Skagen with her husband Peter in 1891 and became part of the Skagen artists’ commune.  Once married, her artistic output lessened for she was concentrating on interior design and floral still-life painting which could be incorporated into interior design.  Another reason could have been her feeling artistically inferior in comparison to her husband, or maybe she was just overwhelmed by the burden of motherhood and looking after the house and her husband.  She was quite disheartened for she was quoted as once saying:

“…I sometimes think that the whole effort is in vain, we have far too much to overcome … what significance does it really have if I paint, I shall never, never achieve anything really great … I want to believe in our cause, even if at times it may be terribly difficult…”

    In 1895 she gave birth to a daughter, Vibeke and the family moved to a cottage in Skagen Vesterby where she spent time designing the interior of their home.  Her life with her husband became very challenging due to a decline in his mental health and his frequent incarceration in mental homes.   Her husband’s eyesight also began to gradually fail in 1900.      In 1902 during a journey to Italy Marie met the Swedish composer and violinist Hugo Alfvén.  She and Alfvén became lovers but Krøyer refused to give his wife a divorce.  This changed in 1905 when he found out that his wife was pregnant with Alfvén’s child.  Once divorced, Marie moved from Denmark and went to live with her husband and their baby daughter Margita in Tällberg, Sweden. 

The couple had a new home built there, which became known as Alfvénsgården, and Maria created the interior design and furnishings of the building.  The couple lived together unmarried for seven years before finally marrying in 1912 and their life together lasted twenty-four years until in 1936 they divorced.  Marie retained her beloved Alfvénsgården and remained there until she died in Stockholm in May 1940, a few weeks before her 73rd birthday.  On her death the house reverted to her daughter Margita and when Margita died the house went to Vibeke, Marie’s daughter from her marriage to Peter Krøyer. 

Peter Severin Krøyer died in November 1909, aged 58, at which time his sight had completely failed and he was blind. 

Hip, Hip Hurrah; An Artist's Party on Skagen by Peter Krøyer (1886)

Hip, Hip Hurra by Peter Krøyer (1886)

One of Krøyer’s best known works entitled Hip Hip Hurrah: An Artist’s Party on Skagen came about from his love of photography and his newly bought camera which he purchased in 1885.  It was during a garden party at the house of Michael and Anna Ancher that he took the photograph which captured the celebrating guests.  Delighted with the photograph, Krøyer decided to convert it into a large scale painting and wanted to bring in his models to Ancher’s garden so as to do some preliminary sketches.  Michael Ancher would not go along with the plan and would not countenance the intrusion of the artist and his models into his private garden so Krøyer had the table moved to his garden and set about the work.  It took him three years to complete the “stage-managed” work which in some ways resembles Renoir’s 1881 Luncheon of the Boating Party (see My Daily Art Display Aug 2nd 2011).  The garden party guests are seen celebrating and raising their glasses in a toast.  In the painting we have many of the leading members of the Skagen artist colony.  With her back to us is Martha Johansen who was along with Maria Triepcke and Anna Ancher one of the triumvirate of great female Skagen painter.  Standing on the far side of the table are the Skagen painters Viggo Johansen, the Norwegian Christian Krogh and dressed in brown Krøyer himself.  The man in the white suit is Degn Brøndum, Michale Ancher’s brother in law.  Next to him is Michael Ancher.  On this side of the table we have the Swedish painter Oscar Björck, and the Danish painter Thorvald Niss.  The lady leaning back is Helene Christensen, the local schoolteacher and wife of painter Karl Madsen and closest to us, dressed in white is Anna Ancher and her four year old daughter Helga.  As in many of the Skagen paintings the feature of this work is not the people but the Skagen sunlight which streams through the trees casting shadows on the white tablecloth and shimmers on the bottles and glasses. 

Self Portrait by Marie Krøyer (1889)

Self Portrait by Marie Krøyer (1889)

In contrast to Peter Krøyer’s depictions of his beautiful wife Marie, often seen strolling along the Skagen beaches, Marie’s 1889 Self Portrait is much more sombre and severe.  Half her face is in shadow in this work and it could reflect her state of mind at the time she painted the work. 

Summer Evening on Skagen's Southern Beach by Peter Krøyer (1893)

Summer Evening on Skagen’s Southern Beach by Peter Krøyer (1893)

In contrast to this dark portrait we have Peter Krøyer’s painting entitled Summer Evening on Skagen’s Southern Beach which he completed in 1893.  The idea for this work came to Krøyer during one of the many dinner parties he attended after which the diners would take twilight stroll along the shoreline.  It is an idyllic setting and we see Peter’s wife Marie.  Once again like paintings I featured by Michael Ancher and his wife the colour blue featured a lot in Krøyer’s painting during his stay in Skagen.  This twilight period when day starts to lose out to night was often referred to the “blue hour” which was how they say saw the sky and sea merge into one shade of blue.

Brøndum’s dining room with (left to right) Degn Brøndum (brother of Anna Ancher), Hulda Brøndum (sister of Anna Ancher), Anna Ancher, Marie Krøyer, P.S. Krøyer, and Michael Ancher, ca. 1890s; Image courtesy of Skagens Museum

Brøndum’s dining room with (left to right) Degn Brøndum (brother of Anna Ancher), Hulda Brøndum (sister of Anna Ancher), Anna Ancher, Marie Krøyer, P.S. Krøyer, and Michael Ancher, ca. 1890s; Image courtesy of Skagens Museum

I finish this blog with a photograph of my four Skagen artists, which I have featured in my last two blogs, sitting around a dining table at the Brondum hotel once owned by Anna Ancher’s parents

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The Skagen Painters – Part 1: Mr and Mrs Ancher

Often in my blogs I have talked about artists’ colonies, places where artists congregated, visited and sometimes lived.  In England, I looked at some artists who lived and painted in Newlyn and St Ives.   In France there was the commune of Barbizon, close to the Fontainebleau Forest, just a short train ride from the French capital, which was home to the leaders of the Barbizon School, the painters Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet.  There was also the artist colony in Brittany at Pont-Aven, where great artists such as Gaugin and Émile Bernard plied their trade.  In fact, in most countries, there were areas favoured by artists, usually because of the beautiful landscape and the special light which could be savoured by the en plein air painters during the long summer days.  Today and in my next blog, I am focusing on another artist commune and two husband and wife couples who were considered the leading figures of the artistic group.  Let me introduce you to four painters who formed part of the Skagen commune of artists.   They were Michael Peter Ancher and his wife Anna and Peder Severin Krøyer and his wife Marie.   

Skagen, Denmark

Skagen, Denmark

Skagen, which is part of Jutland, is at the most northerly tip of Denmark.  It is a finger of land, which juts out into the sea and is looked upon as the divider between the great waterways of the Skagerrak and Kattergat straits, the former connecting with the North Sea and the latter which leads in to the Baltic Sea.  It was at this place that the artists discovered an exclusive and exceptional quality of light.   The Norwegian naturalist painter and illustrator, Christian Krohg, best summed up the allure of Skagen for painters when he described the area:

 “…This country is mild, smiling, fantastic, mighty, wild, wonderful and awe-inspiring…it is Skagen – there is no other place on the face of this earth like it…”

This unspoilt area was a magnet to artists who flocked to this picturesque destination in the late 19th century in an attempt to escape city life.  For them it was a bolt-hole and an opportunity to artistically catalogue a beautiful untouched area, which they believed one day would vanish. 

My blog today focuses on Michael and Anna Ancher a talented couple of Skagen School painters. 

Michael Peter Ancher was born in June 1849 at Rutsker, a small Danish village on the island of Bornholm.  Once he had completed his classical education he set his sights on becoming an artist and in 1871, aged twenty-two, he enrolled on a four-year art course at the Royal Danish Academy of Art.  It was whilst on this course that he developed a liking for genre painting, paintings which depicted everyday life.   One of his fellow students at the Academy, who befriended him, was Karl Madsen and it was he who persuaded Ancher to accompany him to Skagen in 1874.  Ancher’s journey to Skagen with his friend was to influence both his future life as well as his art.  Ancher fell in love with Skagen and he decided to make it his home.  Skagen was not just a home to artists but was also one for many writers who loved the tranquility of the area and found it conducive in their quest to write a good book or poetry.  Hans Christian Andersen often visited Skagen but another writer who was to play a part in Michale Ancher’s paintings was the poet and dramatist, Holger Henrik Herholdt Drachmann who had come to Skagen to write and learn to paint.  Drachmann was in awe of the bravery shown by the local fishermen and sailors and often wrote about them in prose and verse. 

Will he round the point ? by Michael Ancher (c.1879)

Will he round the point ?
by Michael Ancher (c.1879)

In 1879, five years after settling down in Skagen Michael Ancher  painted one of his most famous works, a painting which featured the hazardous life of the local fishermen.  It was entitled Vil han klare pynten (Will he Round the Point?).  This work was to be Ancher’s great artistic breakthrough.   It was such a popular work that no fewer than two buyers were about to acquire the work before a third one stepped in and took the painting.  So who were the proposed buyers?   Initially the Copenhagen Art Association were going to buy the painting but agreed to relinquish their grip on the work when the Danish National Gallery stated that they wanted to purchase Ancher’s painting.  However they too had to step aside when the king, Christian IX, expressed a “wish” that he should own the work!  In the painting we see a dozen men, on Skagen’s southern shore, as the waves lap around their feet.  They are all dressed in fisherman’s garb and they are all staring worriedly out to sea worrying about the safe return of one of their comrade’s boats. 

The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes by Michael Ancher (1883)

The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes by Michael Ancher (1883)

As with many small fishing communities the fishermen also acted as lifeboatmen who put their lives on the line for those in peril on the high seas.  Ancher depicted such an occasion in his 1883 work entitled Redningsbåden køres gennem klitterne (The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes) in which we see the fishermen arduously hauling their horse-drawn lifeboat cart over the snow-covered sand dunes so that it can be launched into the dark and threatening sea.  It is mid-winter and the skies are dark and menacing and in the right background we catch glimpse of the stricken ship.  Two men at the tail of the line of fisherman shout to persons unknown, who are outside the picture, and this gesture adds to the sense of urgency and tension of the moment.   

The Drowned  by Michael Ancher (1896)

The Drowned
by Michael Ancher (1896)

The final work by Michael Ancher featuring the heroism of the Skagen fishermen was completed in 1896 and entitled The Drowned FishermanThe painting is inspired by the death in 1894 of the Skagen fisherman and lifeboatman, Lars Kruse.    Kruse was famous throughout Denmark because of a book written by Holger Drachmann which told of Kruse’s heroism as a rescuer.  Michael Ancher had already painted a number of portraits of Kruse but this final painting of the Kruse will be the best remembered.  Kruse had become the chairman of the Skagen lifeboat and had, through the time as a rescuer, received many awards for the bravery he had shown during his rescue work.  An engraving on one of his awards summed up his courage stating:

  “…Humble in word, proud of his deed, Christian in deed,  Man in his boat…” 

Lars Kruse was killed in 1894 whilst trying to land his boat on Skagen’s North Shore in a winter storm.  Through Drachmann’s book and Ancher’s painting the name of Lars Kruse lives on in the memory of the Danish people.   After over almost twenty years of depictions of Skagen fishermen carrying out their perilous job, this painting of Kruse’s death was the last one by Michael Ancher to feature the local fishermen. 

Shortly after Michael Ancher first visited Skagen in 1874, he met fifteen year old Anna Kristine Brondum, a native of Skagen and one of six children of Erik Andersen Brøndum and his wife Ane Hedvig Møller, who ran a local grocery business and the Brondums Guesthouse.   He had been invited to Anna’s confirmation and from that first meeting friendship blossomed.   Anna, although still young, and Michael had one shared passion – art.   In 1875, at the age of sixteen, Anna began a three year drawing and painting course at the Vilhelm Kyhn College of Painting in Copenhagen.  This college, known as Tegneskolen for Kvinder (Painting School for Women) was started in 1865 by the Danish landscape painter, Vilhelm Khyn, at a time when women were not allowed to enrol on art courses at the Danish Academy of Art.  On returning to her family home in Skagen her friendship with Michael Ancher developed rapidly.  They were engaged in 1878 and in 1880 the couple were married.   Three years later, in 1883, their daughter Helga was born.  Anna was determined to buck the trend which seemed to decree that after the birth of a child the mother should give up all her dreams and solely concentrate her life on the upbringing of her children and the task of looking after her husband and house.  Anna refused to give up her art.   The following year Michael, Anna and their baby daughter, Helga went to live in a house in Markvej.    The family lived there for 30 years. In 1913 they had the house extended to make more space for Michael and Anna’s art.

Sunlight in the Blue Room by Anna Ancher (1891)

Sunlight in the Blue Room by Anna Ancher (1891)

In 1891 Anna Ancher completed a beautiful painting which featured her eight year old daughter Helga.  It was entitled Sunlight in a Blue Room.   In the painting we see Helga sitting in the blue room of the Brøndum’s Hotel which was once run by Anna’s parents.  She actually completed a number of portraits of her mother, Ane, in this very room.   We see Helga sitting quietly drawing on a pad.  She too, like her mother and father before her, would study art in the Danish capital.   However, the beauty of this painting is the way in which Anna has captured the light which streams through the window.  It is a painting of the interior and only the shadows on the wall give us a hint about the exterior. 

Grief by Anna Ancher (1902)

Grief by Anna Ancher (1902)

One of the most moving paintings I came across by Anna Ancher was one she completed in 1902 simply entitled Grief.   It was based on a dream she once had – or maybe it was a nightmare.  The old woman kneeling on the right is Anna’s mother, Ane Brøndum and it could be that the woman on the left is a self portrait.  Anna had been brought up in a very religious household although once away from the family environment and studying at art college, she questioned her religious beliefs especially as she had become surrounded by radical and often atheistic artists who formed the Skagen artistic commune.  In some ways this questioning of her early religious family background may have caused her to feel ill at ease and out of this could have come this dream which compares her with her mother.  One is old, one is young, one is fully clothed whist the other is naked.  The contrast is plain to see as the two people gather around a cross.  Is the younger girl praying for forgiveness for her loss of faith or just simply praying that she should be understood?  Is the old lady literally praying for the soul of her grow-up child?  Is that how Anna envisaged her relationship with her mother? 

Mrs Ane Brøndum in the Blue Room by Anna Ancher (1913)In 1913 Anna painted two portraits of her mother who was then 87 years old.  They are very intimate depictions of her elderly mother, and completed just three years before she died. 

Portrait of Anna Hedwig Brondum by Anna Ancher (1913)

Portrait of Anna Hedwig Brondum by Anna Ancher (1913)

Michael Ancher died in 1927, aged 78 and Anna Ancher died eight years later in 1935, and the house the lay empty.  However their daughter Helga Ancher, who died in 1964, stipulated in her will that any money that she left should be used to create a fund to be known as The Helga Ancher Foundation. The money in the Fund was to be used to renovate her parents’ house and it should house all the paintings by her mother and father that she owned.  In 1967, three years after Helga’s death her wish was fulfilled and the museum was opened.

In my next blog I will look at the works of two other Skagen painters, Peder Severin Krøyer and his wife Marie, who were also great friends of the Anchers.

 

 

Posted in Anna Ancher, Art, Art Blog, Art display, Danish artists, Michael Ancher, Skagen painters | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falb by Jens Juel

Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falb by Jens Juel (1797)

Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falb by Jens Juel (1797)

My featured painting today is one I saw when I was in Copenhagen last week.  It was a large scale work measuring 253 x 336cms, and was certainly very impressive.   The first thought which came into my mind when I stood before it was that it reminded me of the painting  Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough, which I had seen at the National Gallery in London and which I had featured in My Daily Art Display (May 5th 2011).  Today’s featured painting by the Danish painter Jens Juel, like Gainsborough’s work, is what is termed a conversation piece.  Conversation pieces were very popular in the 18th century.  They were informal portraits, usually depicting two or more full-length characters, often family members, who were seemingly engaged in conversation in domestic interiors or garden settings.   In many ways it was a means for the people depicted to show off their wealth and social status.  In some ways the people who commissioned the paintings were often depicted in the work, and wanted to stimulate a conversation about themselves.   Today’s painting also reminded me of the William Hogarth series of six works entitled Marriage à la Mode, which I featured in my blog (May 4th  –  9th 2011) that told the tale of a merchant desperate to be part of the aristocratic class.  My painting today is by the great Danish artist Jens Juel which he completed in 1797.  It is entitled  Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falb, often simply referred to as The Ryberg Family.   Jens Juel, who was mainly known for his portraiture, was active during the years preceding what was to become known as the Danish Golden Age, which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars and lasted until around 1850.   

Jens Jorgensen Juel was born in May 1745 in Balslev on the Danish island of Funen.   It is said that he was born illegitimately, the son of Vilhelmine Elisabeth Juel.  She had been employed at the Wedellsborg estate.  Jens’ father is unknown.  Some believe he was a member of the Wedell family whilst others believe he could have been Lord Jens Juel, the Danish diplomat or that Jens was the son of the local vicar.   For the first year of his life Jens lived with his mother at the house owned by her brother, Johan Jørgensen, a schoolteacher.  When Jens was one year old his mother married Jørgen Jørgensen, also a school teacher who worked and lived in the nearby village of Gamborg and it was here that Jens Jorgensen Juel grew up. 

Like many artists, Jens showed an early fascination with drawing and his parents decided to encourage this interest by arranging for an apprenticeship for their son with the German painter Johann Michael Gehrmann, who had a studio in Hamburg, a city, which at the time was under Danish sovereignty.  He remained at Gehrman’s studio for five years, after which, in 1765, he returned to Denmark and attended the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen and during his five-year stay at this establishment he won two gold awards for his paintings and a travel bursary.   One of Juel’s tutors at the Academy was Carl Gustaf Pilo, a Swedish painter, who had for twenty years been Court painter for King Frederik V of Denmark, and who was famous for his portraits of the Danish royal family.   It could well have been through Pilo’s influence that Juel received his first royal commission in 1769 for a portrait of the Queen of Denmark, Queen Caroline Mathilde, the wife of King Christian VII. 

With the prize money he received from the Academy, Juel left Denmark in November 1772 and set off on a European tour.  He wintered in Hamburg before going to Dresden where he remained until 1774.  From Dresden he went to Rome and it was here he met up with a fellow former Danish Academy art student, the Neo-Classical painter, Nikolai Abildgaard.  Juel remained in Rome for two years during which time he was able, for the first time, to draw directly from a nude model, a technique which was not available at the time in Denmark.   He left Rome in 1776 and went to Paris before moving to Geneva in the Spring of 1777.  It was in Geneva where he stayed with his friend, Charles Bonnet, the Swiss naturalist and philosopher and during his stay he helped illustrate some of Bonnet’s books.   Juel left Geneva in late 1779.  Throughout his European sojourn he completed many portraiture commissions and his reputation as a leading portraitist grew steadily.  Finally in March 1780, after eight years away from his homeland, he returned to Copenhagen via Hamburg.  Whilst living in the Danish capital, he received more royal commissions to paint the portraits of members of the royal family as well as portraiture commissions from leading members of the nobility.  He also completed some landscape works and the royal family were so impressed by his artwork that he was made court painter in 1780. 

In 1782 he was elected a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Art and two years later he became one of its professors.  Jens Juels married in 1790, a time which marked the height of his artistic career.  He held the post of Academy director for two periods during the 1790’s. Jens Juel died in December 1802, at the age of 57 and was buried at the Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen. 

Having looked at the life of the artist it is time to turn our attention to the people in today’s featured painting.   The painting, which he completed in 1797, is considered to be his greatest landscape work.   We see before us three people and of course the title of the work, Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falbe, reveals their identity.   Seated on a park bench, to the left, is the corpulent gentleman, Niels Ryberg and standing before him is his son, Johann Christian and his son’s wife, Engelke.  In the background we have what was probably the most important aspect of the painting for Ryberg, the depiction of one of his vast estates – Hagenskov on the island of Funen.  As was the case in Gainsborough’s work, Mr and Mrs Andrews, which was commissioned by Robert Andrews at the time of his marriage to Frances Carter and featured their estate lands, Ryberg in a way, when he commissioned the painting from Juel, wanted to show everybody what his wealth had achieved.  It sounds as if he was simply a boastful person but his life story is an amazing rags-to-riches tale and you will begin to realise that he was in fact a very generous man who was simply and rightly proud of what he had achieved. 

Niels Ryberg was not always rich and did not come from an aristocratic background.   In fact he was born Niels Bertelsen (but later adopted the surname “Ryberg” after his birthplace) in 1725 in the village of Ryberg on the Salling peninsular of Jutland in north-west Denmark, the son of Bertel Christensen and Vibeke Nielsdatter.  His father was of peasant-class, a tenant farmer on the local estate and young Niels, who like his father, had the lowly status of a serf on the estate.  He left the estate when he was around eleven years of age and went to live with his mother’s brother Axel Moller.  Historians seem to be divided as to why he left his parents home.  Some say it was to avoid military service whilst others believed it was simply to cast off the shackles of serfdom which living with his uncle, who had bought his freedom from the squire and landowner, had achieved.  Axel Moller, who lived in Alborg, ran a successful grocery business and Niels soon became a willing assistant to his uncle.  He remained with him, learning the trade until 1750, when at the age of twenty-five, he moved to Copenhagen where he plied his trade as a merchant, first as a simple stall-holder and then managed to acquire his own fixed premises.  He also dabbled in insurance underwriting.  Still he had not made his fortune, money was tight and he lacked capital to expand.  However his big break came in 1755 when he entered into partnership with a very profitable trading company, Thygesen,  and so the Ryberg & Thygesen company was formed.  The company prospered and grew.  In 1764, Ryberg married Margaret Dorothea Eight, the daughter of a local businessman in Eckernförde. She gave birth to their son Johan Christian Ryberg in 1767 but sadly she died shortly after the birth, aged just 18.   In 1775 Ryberg went into business on his own until 1789 at which time he invited three family members to join him in his newly formed Ryberg & Co.  His business boomed so much so that he was employing more than a hundred and fifty staff.  From being a market stall trader he had now risen to become a prosperous merchant, shipowner, banker and insurance man. 

Ryberg never forgot his poor upbringing and when he bought the Hagenskov estate, now known as Frederiksgave, he did everything to help the life of his workers.  He provided them with finance and materials such as timber and stone to build their farms and provided the money to improve the growing ability of the soil.  He didn’t stop there as he also built them mills and schools for their children and provided them with medical care.  He did the same on another estate, Øbjerggård, on South Zealand,  which he bought, and on which he built a large linen factory in which his people were employed.  It was one of the first of its kind in Denmark.

My featured painting today was completed in 1797 at the height of Rybergs commercial success and at a time when he was about to hand over the control of his business to his son.   Maybe that he is seated symbolises that he was now going to take a rest from the business world.  His son stands with his left arm outstretched behind his wife’s back maybe indicating with some pride what his father had achieved.   Maybe now, knowing the care and time Niels Ryberg had given to his staff and workers, you will look upon him, not as a boastful person full of his own purpose, smug about his own wealth and desirous of being looked upon as being part of the aristocracy (like the merchant character in Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode) but as a man who had, through hard work, had managed to provide a better quality of life for himself and for those around him. 

Niels Ryberg died peacefully in his sleep in August 1804, aged 59.   He was buried in his family chapel of the Dreslette church on Funen.  So what happened to his empire?   When Ryberg died his only surviving son, Johan headed up his father’s business empire but the success of his father was not upheld by his son as Ryberg & Co. went bankrupt in 1820.  Although the collapse of Ryberg’s empire was not caused directly by Denmark’s war with England, it had been supported by numerous loans given to it by the Danish government.  The collapse of the Danish economy culminating in Denmark’s declared State bankruptcy due to the cost of the war meant that they could no longer support the likes of Ryberg’s empire.  They called in their loans and the company eventually collapsed and Ryberg’s beloved estates were taken by the State.  

During my research into this painting I came across a very interesting website which gave me a lot of background information and one I recommend you should visit.   It is:

http://historyman.dk/the-story-behind-the-painting/

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