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.

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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.

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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

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Danish artists, Marie Tiepcke, Norwegian painters, Peter Severin Krøyer, Skagen painters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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/

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Danish artists, Jens Juel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Portrait of an Infanta, Catherine of Aragon by Juan de Flandes

Portrait of an Infanta, Catherine of Aragon by Juan de Flandes (c.1496)

Portrait of an Infanta, Catherine of Aragon by Juan de Flandes (c.1496)

Today, as promised, I am featuring another beautiful and yet quite simple portrait that I came across when visiting the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.  The work was one of many which hung amongst other fifteenth century paintings.   The reason it stood out for me was because of the beauty and innocence of the eleven-year old sitter whose life and future had been mapped out for her at the age of three.  She was born into an age when planned betrothals and marriages between royal houses was the norm.  Her life, like that of her mother, was to be a life of great turmoil.  The girl in my featured painting is Catherine of Aragon who was the daughter, and youngest surviving child of Queen Isabella I of Castile and her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon. 

Catherine was born in December 1485 in the small town of Alcalá de Henares some twenty miles from Madrid.  She was the youngest of five children having one brother, John and three sisters, Isabella, Joanna and Maria.    Even at the tender age of three plans were being formulated by her parents to arrange a beneficial betrothal for her.  Not necessarily beneficial to her but beneficial to her country and her parents.  Catherine’s parents were cousins and belonged to the House of Trastámara, a powerful dynasty of kings in the Iberian Peninsula.  Isabella was the half sister and heiress to Henry IV of Castile and Ferdinand was the son of John II of Aragon.  The two of them were betrothed and went on to marry in 1469 in an attempt to consolidate two of the main royal houses, for in 1474 on the death of Isabella’s half brother Henry, she became Queen of Castile and through a prenuptial agreement based on jure uxoris (literally,by right of his wife”) Ferdinand became, not the Prince Regent, but the King of Castile.  Five years later when his father died Ferdinand also became King of Aragon and this unification became the basis of what we know as modern Spain.

According to two of her biographers, Alison Weir (The Six Wives of Henry VIII) and Antonia Fraser (The Wives of Henry VIII), Catherine was “quite short in stature with long red hair, wide blue eyes, a round face and a fair complexion”.   Catherine, through her mother’s side of the family, was connected to the English royal family and so her parents turned to the English royal house for a suitable husband for their daughter.   They also believed that an alliance with England would safeguard them against the predatory French.  Their efforts to find a husband for their daughter found favour with Henry VII the current ruler of England who believed a liaison with the Catholic rulers of Spain and the house of Trastámara would be very advantageous for the English House of Tudor.  And so, in 1488, when Catherine was just three years of age, she was betrothed to King Henry VII’s oldest son Arthur, the Prince of Wales, who at the time was two years of age !   In May 1499 Catherine and Arthur were married by proxy.  She was still six months away from her fourteenth birthday and he was a few months short of his thirteenth birthday.  It was not until 1501 that Catherine left Spain and travelled to London to meet her future husband Arthur although they had been corresponding for a number of years.  They married that November and went to live in Ludlow Castle but five months after the ceremony Arthur died of what was termed “sweating sickness” which was a highly virulent disease that had reached epidemic proportions in England at that time.  Catherine was also struck down by the illness but survived. 

The rest of Catherine of Aragon’s life, her marriage and divorce from Henry VIII, Arthur’s brother, has been well documented and I will not speak more about her life.  The portrait that I am featuring today is a painting of the young girl herself, entitled Portrait of an Infanta, Catherine of Aragon.  It was completed around 1496 when she was about eleven years old.  The artist was the Flemish painter, Juan de Flandes.  Little is known about the artist except that his name would indicate he was born in and spent his early life in Flanders.  It is not until 1496 that we have some documented evidence of his life for his name appears as a court painter in the royal household accounts of Queen Isabella of Castile.   It is thought that Juan de Flandes had, like many other European painters, come to Spain and to the royal household of Isabella and Ferdinand and along with them had worked on a number of religious paintings, including the forty-seven small (each approximately 21cms x 16cms) panelled polyptych entitled The Polyptych of Isabella the Catholic, which has since been split up into its many parts and which only twenty-seven survive. 

Juan de Flandes never returned to his homeland and worked for the royal Spanish household until Isabella died in 1504.  From there he moved to Salamanca where, for the next three years, he worked on the main altarpiece for the city’s university chapel.  During this period he also received commissions for work on an altarpiece for the Salamanca cathedral.   Then four years later, in 1509 he lived in Palencia with his wife.  In Palencia, he again completed a number of commissions for the Catholic Church.   Juan de Flandes is thought to have died in 1519 aged 54. 

My featured painting is a beautiful work which captures Catherine’s beauty and innocence and comes before the traumatic and sad life which she was to endure.   There is even some doubt that the portrait is of Catherine.  Some say that it could be of her sister Joanna but at the time of the painting (1496) Joanna would have been seventeen years of age and the girl in the painting does not look that old.   Also if we look at the work we can see she is delicately holding a rose and this is thought to symbolise her future intended connection with the English House of Tudor, the Tudor Rose.  Other art historians such as the Elisa Bermejo tend to believe that the rose is just symbolic of the youthfulness of the sitter whilst others believe that it is indeed Catherine and this painting was just a betrothal portrait. 

Portrait of Young Catherine of Aragon by Michael Sittow (C. 1504) Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

Portrait of Young Catherine of Aragon
by Michael Sittow (c.1504)
Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

One of the other Nertherlandish-style  painters who was at Queen Isabella’s court with Juan de Flandes was Michael Sittow and he too painted a portrait of the young Catherine, some seven years later, and one can see a definite likeness between his and Juan de Flandes’ portraits. 

I love Juan de Flandes’ portrait of the young Catherine and stood before it for many minutes contemplating what was going through the young girl’s mind as she sat before the artist, totally unaware of what life in the future held for her.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Flemish painters, Juan de Flandes, Portraiture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)

When you walk around an art gallery I wonder how long you spend in front of each painting.  I suppose it depends on the type of painting and whether it is part of a crowded special exhibition when you are jostled from one painting to the next by a crowded sea of viewers.  I suppose it also depends on your time management as if you are coming to the end of your allotted time you tend to jump from one picture to the next in a desperate attempt to not miss a single one, although in a way your hurried state probably means that the last few painting remain just a blur in your mind.   So why do I ask this question about time management and carefully appreciating the paintings before us?   The answer is that during a recent visit to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid I had left the room, which housed the fifteenth century art collection till last and I was constantly aware that my time at the museum was running out.   I found myself flitting from one painting to another and I have to admit by doing so I failed to take in the beauty of the works in that section of the gallery.   That was until I came across two stunning works which I could hardly drag myself away from.  They were just such beautiful paintings.  Yes, I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder but for me they were truly exquisite.   I stood before them, totally mesmerised by their intrinsic charm and so I am dedicating my next two blogs to those two 15th century works. 

The Wdding Medalion

The Wdding Medalion

Today I want to offer you a beautifully crafted portrait by the 15th century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio entitled Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni which he completed in 1490 and which is now part of the permanent collection at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.   Giovanna was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni who came from the wealthy Florentine banking family and whose father, Giovanni was Domenico Ghirlandaio’s patron.  We know this is the image of Giovanna as at the time of her marriage to Lorenzo a series of bronze portrait medals with her image were made to commemorate the event and the likeness of the figure on the medal and in the painting is undeniable.   Lorenzo and Giovanna married in June 1486 but sadly she died giving birth to her second son in 1488, at just twenty years of age.  As the portrait was completed after she died, it is thought that it could be looked upon as a kind of remembrance painting.   The painting hung in her husband’s private rooms in the Tornabuoni Palace.

We see Giovanna before us, half-length, in a somewhat rigid profile.  In her hands she clasps a handkerchief.  Giovanna is dressed in the most sumptuous way.  She wears a giornea which is an open-sided over-gown, which is brocaded.  The design on the brocade features the letter “L” and a diamond.   The “L” is her husband, Lorenzo’s initial and the diamond was the Tornabuoni family emblem.  There is no doubt that she is one of Florence’s élite by the way she wears her hair in the very latest Florentine fashion.  The jewels she wears around her neck comprise of two rings and pendant which were given to her by Lorenzo’s family as a wedding gift.  If you look closely at the pendant she wears you will also notice a matching brooch designed in the shape of a dragon which lies on a shelf behind her.   The jewel with its dragon, two pearls and a ruby formed a set with the pendant hanging from a silk cord around her neck.   Behind her, on the shelf, is a prayer book which is thought to be the libriccino da donna (little ladies’ book).  Above the book hangs a string of coral beads which have been identified as a rosary.   Ghirlandaio’s inclusion of this prayer book and the rosary in the painting was testament to Giovanna’s religious beliefs and her piety. 

What did Ghirlandaio think of his sitter?  Will we ever know?  Actually the answer lies within the painting itself because just behind Giovanna’s neck we can see attached to the shelf a cartellino.   A cartellino (Italian for small piece of paper) was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, often as though attached to a wall or parapet in a painting.  On the cartellino added by Ghirlandaio in this painting are the words:

ARS UTINAM MORES

ANIMUMQUE QUE EFFINGERE

POSSES PULCHRIOR IN TERRIS NULLA TABELLA FORET

 

which translates to:

 

“…Would that you, Art, could portray her character and spirit ;  for then there would be no fairer painting in the world..”.

At the bottom there is the date:

“MCCCCLXXXVIII”. (1488)

By these words there is no doubt Ghirlandaio is excusing himself to Giovanna for his belief that he has not been able to show her real inner beauty.  These are fine words from our artist but in fact they were not quite his own as they are a slight variation on the words of an epigram (a short and concise poem) of the Latin poet Marcus Galerius Martial, whose works were all the rage with the Florentine aristocracy of the day.

My featured artist today was born Domenico di Tommaso Curradi di Doffo Bigordi.  The name was derived in part from his father’s surname Curadi and the surname of his grandfather Bigordi.  He was born in Florence in 1449, the eldest child of Tommaso Bigordi and Antonia di ser Paolo Paoli.  His father was a goldsmith and was well-known for creating metallic garland-like necklaces which were worn by the ladies of Florence, and it was for that reason that Domenico was given the nickname Il Ghirlandaio (garland-maker).   Domenico worked in his father’s jewellery shop and it was during his time there that he started sketching portraits of customers and passers-by.   According to the famous biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari, Domenico’s father decided to afford his son some formal artistic training and had him apprenticed to the Florentine painters, Alesso Baldovinetti and later Andrea del Verrocchio.

Domenico will always be remembered for his exquisite detailed narrative frescos in which he would incorporate portraits of the local aristocracy resplendent in their finery.  Many of his frescos appeared in local Florentine churches.  In 1482, he also completed a Vatican commission for Pope Sixtus IV – a fresco in the Sistine Chapel entitled Calling of the First Apostles.  The frescos he will probably be best remembered for were two major fresco cycles, which he completed with the help of his brothers, Davide and Benedetto along with his brother-in-law, Bastiano Mainardi, who was one of Domenico’s pupils.

 

The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Girlandaio

The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Ghirlandaio

The first of these frescos was for the Sassetti Chapel in the church of St Trinita in Florence.  It had been commissioned by Francesco Sassetti, a rich and powerful banker who worked for the Medici family.  This cycle of frescos was in six parts and depicted the life and times of St. Francis of Assisi, who was Sassetti’s patron saint. Seen within the frescos were a number of portraits of members of the Sassetti family along with some of the leading figures from the Medici family.  To look at the two families within the frescos one would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Sassettis and the Medicis were very close, which of course was precisely the allusion Francesco Sassetti had wished to convey.  Alas for him, the close bond between the two families was all in his mind!

Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The second fresco cycle, Ghirlandaio’s last, and many art historians believe was his greatest, was commissioned to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence by another banker, Giovanni Tornabuoni, who was related by marriage to the Medicis.   There was a connection between the two fresco cycles as Sassetti had the rights to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church and he had wanted to have the frescos in the church depict the life of St Francis.   However the church was in trust to the Dominican order and they refused to allow such a design, so it was then that Sassetti decided to have the St Francis frescos painted instead in the Sassetti Chapel of the St Trinita Church in Florence and he sold the rite to decorating the Capella Maggiore to Giovanni Tornabuoni

 Ghirlandaio had not even completed the Sassetti fresco cycle when he was given this second large scale commission and he had to bring in most of the workers from his large Florentine studio to help him in this four-year project which was finally completed in 1490.  

The reason for talking about this fresco cycle is that I want you look closely at Ghirlandaio’s fresco, the part entitled Visitation.  Look at the third woman from the right.  Do you recognise her?   It is a full length portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni who was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni whose father, Giovanni was the commissioner of the fresco work and who was also my subject of today’s featured work.

The painting had a number of owners but in 1907 the American millionaire financier and philanthropist and founder of the J.P. Morgan bank,  J. Pierpont Morgan bought it in 1907.  It is believed that he adored the painting as it reminded him of his first wife, Amelia Sturgis, who like Giovanna had died very young.  She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, just four months after she and J.P. had married.   It entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection from the Morgan Library, New York, in 1935.

Whereas J.P. Morgan had his painting on view in his home to remind him of his wife I have a print of it on my breakfast room wall to remind me of Giovanna’s beauty as I serve guests with their breakfasts.

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