The Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin

The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (c.1432)
The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (c.1432)

I travel a lot around Europe and during my stays in the various towns and cities I always try and spend some time in the local art galleries.  The one thing that I do enjoy, which is not often afforded to me in my own country, is the ability to visit local churches in which, especially in France and Italy, one can find beautiful works of art, frescoes and exquisite altarpieces.  In this blog I want to look at one of the great altarpieces of the fifteenth century.  It was not a huge work of art destined for a church or cathedral but a small devotional work which was to be placed in a room of a wealthy merchant, who had commissioned the altarpiece.   The altarpiece I am referring to is an Annunciation triptych known as the Mérode Altarpiece.  The work, which was completed sometime between 1425 and 1428, is now part of the Metropolitan Museum collection in New York and the exquisite and beautiful work is attributed to the early Netherlandish painter, Robert Campin and his workshop assistants.

Robert Campin is often referred to the Master of Flémalle.  The title “Master of….” was term often used by art historians to attribute an anonymous work or even groups of works.  It was a common attribution used in the nineteenth century by German art historians when discussing Early Netherlandish paintings.    So how did Campin end up with his title?   It is believed that it was due to the fact that three paintings in the Städliches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt were said to have come from the abbey of Flémalle, a town close to Liège, but have since been attributed to Campin.

Robert Campin was born around 1375 but it is not until thirty years later that his name appears in records.   It seems that he settled in Tournai, the Walloon town of Belgium.  Tournai is unlikely to have been his birthplace as records show that in 1410 he bought citizenship of the town, which he would not have had to do if it had been his birthplace.  Some would have us believe he was born in Valenciennes, now a French town bordering Southern Belgium.  This assertion is based upon the fact that the name Campin was very common surname at the time in that town.  In the records, Campin’s profession was given as a Master Painter and we know he became a free master of the local Corporation of Goldsmiths and Painters and in 1423 became the sub-dean of the society and later held the post of Eswardeur.  During his early years at Tournai, Campin worked for the municipality painting banners and he went on to be employed to paint sculptures in various churches, including the town’s Church of St Brice, and a number of municipal buildings, notably the Halle des Doyens in Tournai .  This colouring of sculptures was termed polychromy.  He had a good working relationship with the local sculptors including the famous sculptor, Jacques de Braibant.

Robert Campin was good at what he did and soon he and his work became very popular and he received many commissions.  His wealth grew and through his commissions and his investments Campin owned a number of properties in Tournai.  His standing in the community was high.  He was warden of the church of St Pierre as well as procurator of the Convent of the Haute-Vie.  All was going so well for Campin.  He was running a large successful workshop and had skilled apprentices including a young painter, Rogier de le Pasture who is believed to be Rogier van der Weyden. So life was good until he got involved in local politics and the disturbances in the city between two political factions.  Sadly for him he backed the losing side and for his part in the 1429 disturbances and his reluctance to testify against the leaders of the uprising he was sentenced to go on a pilgrimage to Saint-Gilles in Provence.  Such a sentence was common in those days as it was thought that during such a pilgrimage one could think about one’s wrong-doings.  The local authorities never forgave Campin for his part in the uprising and for a number of years hounded him.

It came to a head three years later, in July 1432.   Campin was in trouble again.  This time it was because of his adultery.  He was married to Ysabiel de Stocquain but at this time was living with another woman, Leurence Polette.  The courts took a dim view of this sexual liaison and he was charged with adultery and was once again sentenced to go on a twelve-month pilgrimage.  This would have ended his artistic work and the closure of his workshop but this time he was saved from this banishment.  His saviour was none other than Margaret of Burgundy, the Countess Dowager of Hinault and the powerful daughter of Philip the Bold and wife of William of Bavaria and his pilgrimage sentence was reduced to a fine.   Maybe it was one court appearance too many for after this last incident little was heard of Campin in the archives of Tournai and his lucrative commissions dwindled.  Robert Campin died in Tournai in 1444.

And so to the featured work of art by Robert Campin and his workshop assistants, the oil on oak panel entitled The Annunciation Triptych often referred to as The Mérode Altarpiece which was completed around 1432 and is now housed in the Cloisters museum and gardens, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is given over to the art and architecture of medieval Europe that largely date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century.  The building and its cloistered gardens are located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan.  Although termed an altarpiece, because of its small size (centre panel is 64cms x 63cms and each wing is just 64cms x 27cms), this was never destined for the altar of a church or cathedral.  This was destined for a devotional room in a private house.  It is one of Campin’s greatest works. It is thought that originally the painting which comprised of just the central panel was completed around 1430 and then later on the request of the prospective buyer, two hinged wings were added and the work became a devotional triptych.  It is also understood that the paintings depicted on the wings were painted by different artists, probably Campin’s assistants at his workshop.

The centre panel (The Annunciation) by Robert Campin
The centre panel (The Annunciation) by Robert Campin

The centre panel is a depiction of the Annunciation, which was a common subject for paintings in the fifteenth century.   In this depiction Campin has decided the setting of the scene should be a place of domesticity recognisable to people of his time and not set in some palace-like location.  The setting is not, as often depicted, the bed chamber of Mary but a living room.  Maybe Campin wanted observers of this altarpiece to empathise with Mary and for that she needed to be looked upon as an ordinary young woman – hence no halo!  The room is clean and tidy and in some ways defines Mary as a diligent and house-proud female.  Look closely at this panel and the first thing which may strike you as being strange is the depiction of Mary.  She is sitting on a cushion on the floor and not on the bench to her left.  This could be to illustrate her humility. She is totally absorbed in reading a book but is so careful not to dirty the tome by touching it and so she holds it in a white cloth.   She is wearing a long red dress and Campin has cleverly depicted the folds of the dress with the light playing on them so that they form a bright white star.  As she sits and reads from her book she seems quite oblivious to the presence of the Angel Gabriel who is to her right dressed in the vestments of a deacon.  Between Gabriel and Mary there is a sixteen-sided table which some art historians believe alludes to the sixteen main Hebrew prophets.  On the table there is an open book and a scroll, which could have been reference works which were used by Mary as she read her book.   The act of reading what was probably a religious work and the presence of a reference book and scroll open on the table portray Mary as a learned and devout woman.

There is a blue patterned majolica pitcher on the table in which there is a lily.  The lily represents the purity of Mary.   Margaret Freeman, Curator of The Cloisters, comments on the symbolism of the lily quoting St Bernard who wrote:

“…Mary is the violet of humility, the lily of chastity, the rose of charity and the glory and splendour of the heavens…”

Detail of central panel
Detail of central panel

We see a highly-polished bronze fifteenth century Flemish candlestick holder with its newly extinguished candle on the table.  The flame, which had once been present, represented God and now it is gone, to be replaced by the tiny Christ Child which enters the room on the rays of the sun which beam through the window at the left of the painting.  It is a symbol of the Incarnation.

15th century Flemish bronze hanging-laver
15th century Flemish bronze hanging-laver

In the left background we see, hanging in an alcove, a highly polished bronze laver.  This was the implement originally used by priests when they washed their hands and feet before entering into and coming out of a holy place.  Campin’s depiction is of a 15th century Flemish laver. Once again the highly polished laver and candle holder are testament to Mary being a hard working woman who took pride in her house.

The central panel’s Annunciation scene depicts the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she is about to conceive the Christ Child. The Holy Spirit, in the form of the Christ Child, which impregnates Mary, appears descending towards Mary on rays of light emanating from the round window to the left of this centre panel.

Christ Child descending into room on a beam of light
Christ Child descending into room on a beam of light

When I first looked at this centre panel I completely missed the small figure of the Christ Child with a wooden cross on his back reminding us of the future crucifixion.   So why this inclusion?   It has been included in this depiction of the Annunciation as what we see before us is also about the Incarnation, the point in time when God becomes man.

Lion finial
Lion finial

There are other little pieces of iconography which are easily missed.  Look at the bench seat which Mary rests against.  Look at the small carved lions on the top of the arms of the bench.  These carvings are known as finials and mark the top or end of some object.  Some art historians believe that such an inclusion of the finials refers back to the throne of Solomon.  These finials have appeared in many paintings – take a look at the top of the arms of the seat in the background of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

The left panel
The left panel – the donor and his new wife

Now look at the left hand panel of this triptych and we see a man and a woman kneeling down in prayer.  It is generally agreed that the man is the person who commissioned Campin to produce the work and the lady next to him is his new wife, so new that it is thought she was added later. – but who are they?  The answer seems to come from various clues dotted around the triptych.  If you look back at the central panel and the transom of the left hand window at the back of the room you will see a coat of arms.   This was the coat of arms of the Engelbrecht or Ingelbrecht family of Mechelen who according to records were living in Tournai at the time the altarpiece was being painted and the man was Jan Engelbrecht, a wealthy and prosperous businessman.  The painting is thought to have been a wedding gift for his wife and one reason why he commissioned a depiction of the Annunciation could be because of the family name Engelbrecht which translated means “angel brings”.  Behind the couple we see a man wearing a straw hat.  He is wearing the badge of Mechelen and is believed to be a Mechelen town messenger.

Right panel of triptych - Saint Joseph at work
Right panel of triptych – Saint Joseph at work

In the right-hand panel, we see Saint Joseph, who we know was a carpenter.  Again, like the central panel, there is an air of domesticity about the depiction with Joseph busying himself with his carpentry.  He sits at his bench busily drilling holes in a piece of wood.  On the table next to him we see all the tools of his trade.  Art historians believe each has its own symbolic meaning – the saw refers to the implement that St Peter used to cut off the ear of Malchus, during Christ’s betrayal and arrest; the log alludes to the cross of the crucifixion; the nails, hammers, chisels, pliers and screwdrivers are all likely references to the instruments of the Passion.

Mousetrap and tools
Mousetrap and tools

Also on the table there is a mousetrap and another on the window ledge, which Joseph has previously made.  According the American art historian, Meyer Schapiro, Joseph fashioning mousetraps had a theological meaning and talks about how Saint Augustine used the mousetrap metaphor to explain the redemption of man by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.  He explained the necessity of the Incarnation and that human flesh was the bait for the devil who by seizing it brings about his own ruin. Saint Augustine wrote:

“…The devil exulted when Christ died, but by this very death of Christ the devil is vanquished as if he had swallowed the bait in the mousetrap.  He rejoiced in Christ’s death, like a baliff of death.  What he rejoiced in was his own undoing.  The cross of Lord was the Lord’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death…”

View from window of St Joseph's workshop
View from window of St Joseph’s workshop

In my last blog I looked at some works by Joachim Patinir in which he combined biblical scenes with landscapes and townscapes but for Patinir the landscape was the most important part of the depiction.  Look now how Campin has in some way combined a small townscape with this religious work. Look at the scene as seen through the window behind Saint Joseph.  The window of Joseph’s workshop overlooks a city square around which are various houses, churches and shops. This is not a depiction of a town in the Holy Land at the time of Mary but of a town in 15th century Flanders.  It could be that Campin had incorporated a scene from his birthplace, Valenciennes or Tournai or possibly Mechelen, which was the town of the commissioner of this work.

So that is the Annunciation triptych or the Merode Triptych and I suppose the only question you have is why “Mérode Triptych” and not The Engelbrecht Triptych?  The answer to that is simple.  In the nineteenth century, this altarpiece was owned by Augustine Marie Nicolette, princess van Arenberg, having been given it by her father as a wedding present when she married Charles Antoine Ghislain de Mérode.

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Joachim Patinir – the early landscape artist.

Joachim Patinir  c.1480 -1524
Joachim Patinir
c.1480 -1524

When I visit local art galleries around my neighbourhood they are packed with landscape works from various local artists.  As it is Wales a few sheep and the odd shepherd are “thrown in” as a prerequisite for Welsh landscape paintings.  My featured artist today was one of the earliest landscape painters and although his paintings often incorporated religious themes which were commonplace in northern Renaissance art, his forte was his splendid detailed, visually fascinating landscapes.   He is considered one of the first modern landscape specialists. Let me introduce you to the great sixteenth century Flemish landscape painter Joachim Patinir (often referred to as Patenier) of whose style the English art historian Kenneth Clarke described as:

“…the first painter to make landscapes more important than his figures…”

So how well thought of as an artist was this sixteenth century painter? Felipe de Guevara was a sixteenth century Spanish humanist, art writer, patron of the arts and a connoisseur of Netherlandish painting and in his manuscript of 1560, which two hundred years later, was published in book form, Comentarios de la pintura, he wrote that he regarded Patinir as on being par with the great Netherlandish painters Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden.  Praise indeed!  So who was this man who achieved such great standing?

In all biographies the opening paragraph usually contains a date of birth and it is at this point, with this artist, that one hits a brick wall as his actual date of birth is unknown and his birth date, which often varies from book to book, is somewhat of an educated guess.

According to the 1521 diary of Albrecht Dürer, who described Patinir as the good painter of landscapes there was, at that time, a portrait of Patinir as a man in his forties and that would then put Joachim Patinir’s birth date somewhere around 1480.  If Patinir’s birth date is uncertain so is his birthplace albeit the consensus of opinion is that he was born in either the town of Dinant or the nearby village of Bouvignes on the River Meuse.  It is interesting to note that Dinant is situated at a point on the River Meuse where the river cuts deeply into the western Condroz plateau.  The town lies in a steep sided valley sandwiched between the rock face and the river and the spectacular landscape around this town came to influence Patinir in his landscape works.

The first concrete facts we have of him was that he was serving an apprenticeship in the Antwerp Guild of Painters in 1515, a city in which he was to live all his life.  During his time he met and worked with other great Netherlandish artists of the time such as Gérard David, Hieronymus Bosch, Quentin Matsys

The Temptation of St Anthony by Joachim Patinir  (c. 1520-24)
The Temptation of St Anthony by Joachim Patinir (c. 1520-24)

My first offering of Patinir’s work is one entitled Landscape with the Temptation of Saint Anthony Abbot which he completed somewhere between 1520 and 1524 was one of the few paintings which was signed by the artist. The painting now resides at the Museo Nacional del Prado. This work of art was not a solo effort by him, but a collaboration with Quentin Matsys, who painted the figures, which we see in the foreground.  St Anthony, who had given up his worldly possessions and devoted himself to a contemplative life, is depicted sitting on the ground.  He is surrounded by temptation in the form of three courtesans who try to seduce him.  One of the women holds out an apple which symbolises temptation reminding us of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  A demon-like monkey pulls at his clothes.   Lying on the ground we see a discarded rosary symbolising the possible abandonment of faith.  Although our eyes are initially drawn to the large figures in the foreground and as we try to work out what is going on, they soon move to take in the wondrous landscape in the middle ground and background which is a setting for various events in the life of the saint. Cast your eyes to the central middle ground and one can make out Anthony and his hut which is under attack by an army of demons.  To the right of that scene we see St. Anthony sitting at the water’s edge of a lake on which is the royal barge carrying the queen and her ladies-in-waiting, some of whom are naked; all part of a seduction scene.  The rocky landscape and the river hark back to the geography of his birthplace.  The painting was acquired by the Spanish king, Philip II in 1566 and was hung in the Escorial Palace.

Landscape with St Jerome by Joachim Patinir (c. 1517)
Landscape with St Jerome by Joachim Patinir (c. 1517)

Patinir often incorporated hermit-style life depiction in his landscape works.  This was a very popular subject in Northern European devotional works of art. This next painting focuses on these two elements.  It is his Landscape with St Jerome painting, which he completed around 1517, and which also can be found in the Prado in Madrid.  The work combines an extensive landscape background, with its vibrantly coloured and decidedly naturalistic vista, with the tale of Saint Jerome.  In this work we see the moment in time when Saint Jerome, seen huddled under a rocky outcrop, removes the thorn from the paw of the lion.  Patinir’s depiction of the saint is not as we would expect to observe him.   Jerome, who was a cardinal in the Catholic Church and eminent theological scholar, was often depicted alone, dressed in his red ceremonial robes, studiously at work in his room.  However, in this work Jerome is dressed in the rags of a hermit living outside his battered wooden shelter.  As was the case in the first painting I featured, our eyes soon leave Jerome and the lion and focus on the way Patinir has beautifully depicted, in great detail, the landscape which surrounds the saint. Perched on rocky plateau is a monastery, supposedly a depiction of the one at Bethlehem where Jerome once worked.   The painting seems to have three well defined colour patterns.  The foreground is the darkest made up of various tones of brown and black depicting Jerome’s shelter attached to the high and dark rocky outcrop.  The middle ground is full of green of differing shades from the dark greens of the tree foliage to the lighter greens of the fields further away which surround a small village.  The background is predominantly lighter with blues and greys depicting the sea and the far-off mountains although to the left we see the black clouds of an approaching storm.  This change in colours from the darkness of the foreground to the lightness of the background creates perspective in the work.  Once again the high craggy outcrops hark back to the geography of his birthplace, Dinant which nestled snugly between the high rocky cliffs which protruded out towards the River Meuse.

Charon crossing the River Styx by Joachim Patinir (1524)
Charon crossing the River Styx by Joachim Patinir (1524)

My third offering is fundamentally a landscape work and yet this has a mythological connotation.  It is entitled Charon Crossing the River Styx and was completed by Patinir around 1524.  Again, like the two previous works, it can be found in Madrid’s Prado museum.  This is not a devotional work and was probably originally commissioned by a wealthy merchant and scholarly connoisseur who was also an avid art collector.  The painting is divided into three vertical parts, the centre of which is the River Styx and the outer parts represent the banks on either side of this great mythological waterway.   The River Styx was one of the five rivers that separated the world of the living from the world of the dead. In Greek mythology, it was written that the River Styx wound around Hades nine times. The name of the river derives from the Greek word stugein which means hate, and so, Styx, was the river of hate. To the left of the river is the swamp-like and rugged bank of Paradise and to the right of the river is that of Hell

Charon and the Soul
Charon and the Soul

Our eyes immediately home in on the sandy-coloured boat and its occupants which are midway between the two banks.  The boatman is Charon, the old ferry man who ferries the dead onto the underworld, and we see him crossing the river Styx towards the underworld, where the dragon-tailed three-headed dog, Cerebus, stands guard, allowing all souls to enter but none to leave. We can see Cerebus curled up in his lair at the entrance to the gates of Hell, which is depicted in the right background of the painting, burning brightly.

The Angel pointing the way
The Angel pointing the way

Along with Charon in the boat is the soul of a recently deceased person. The soul is looking around and has to decide on to which bank it wants to disembark.  If you look carefully at the left bank you will notice an angel perched on a mound pointing towards another waterway and another land.  This water is the Fountain of Life and it is part of Paradise.  We can see peacocks and ravens on this land and these symbolise Resurrection and Redemption.  The angel is canvassing that this should be the soul’s land of choice.  Now, if we look on the right bank that also seems to be calm and peaceful with birds flying around the trees.  Cerebus is out of sight but on the ground near the foot of the trees is a small monkey which is a symbol of the devil and that for the soul in the boat should be warning enough.  Unfortunately, looking at the way Charon is steering the boat, the soul has made the wrong choice!  The background story is interesting but for me the beauty of this work is not the characters in it but the artist’s depiction of the landscape.

Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Joachim Patinir
Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Joachim Patinir

My fourth and final offering of works by Joachim Patinir is entitled Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching and one version of this work can be found in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique – Brussels, but the one below is from the collection of  the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in the lower right hand corner of this version we see a crest.   It is the crest of the wealthy Rem family and it could well be the wealthy merchant, Lucas Rem, the sixteenth century Augsburg merchant and art collector had this version painted for himself and had the family crest added to it.

Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Joachim Patinir with the Rem Crest
Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Joachim Patinir with the Rem Crest

In the painting, we have a bird’s eye view of St John the Baptist preaching to a group of followers but what I like most about the painting is the beautifully depicted imaginary landscape which acts as a backdrop to the religious scene,   Once again it crosses my mind that the religious story plays a secondary role to Patinir’s depiction of the landscape.  Once again we see a similar landscape to that in his other works – tall rocky outcrops closely bordering on to a river, which because of the religious nuance of the painting could have represented the River Jordan and on the left bank, although not clear in this picture, is a depiction of the baptism of Christ, in the Jordan river, by John the Baptist.

We observe St John, bent over, leaning heavily against a sturdy branch of a tree.  It is almost as if he is leaning against a lectern or pulpit rail as he looks down upon his followers who sit entranced by his words.  In the foreground to the left of the painting we see a tree which is dying around which is a vine.   This is thought to allude to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden which withered and died once Adam had taken a bite of the apple offered to him by Eve.  According to legend, the tree eventually came back to life once Jesus Christ had died on the cross and in so doing, had atoned for the sins of the world.

Both John the Baptist and his audience are in the shade as the bright light we see lighting up the meandering river, which wends its way towards the horizon, is incapable of penetrating the thick tree canopy above the group.  As was the case in the earlier painting, Patinir has used different colour combinations to craft perspective.  Dark browns and greens in the foreground around the people gradually change to lighter greens of the banks of the river and then in the distance lighter blues and greys become the dominant colours.

Bayard Rock, Dinant
Bayard Rock, Dinant

There is a fascinating delicacy about Patinir’s landscape work and as I have said before this favoured landscape depiction of the artist probably stemmed from what he remembers of his birthplace around Dinant and the rock structure there known as the Bayard Rock, which looms above the town and the River Meuse.

In German, Patinir would be classified as a painter of Weltlandschaft which translated means world landscape.  The Weltlandschaft painters completed works depicting panoramic landscapes as seen from a high viewpoint.  These works of art typically included mountains and lowlands, water, and buildings. As in Patinir’s works, the subject of each painting is usually a Biblical or historical narrative, but the figures included in the work are secondary to their surroundings and they were often made-to-order by secular patrons.  The landscapes in these works were not geographically accurate.  In her 2005 book, Seventeenth-century Art and Architecture, Anne Sutherland Harris, a professor of Art History, describes this form of art:

“…They were imaginary compilations of the most appealing and spectacular aspects of European geography, assembled for the delight of the wealthy armchair traveller…”

So again I ask – was Patinir a religious painter who liked to add a landscape background to his work or was he a landscape painter who liked to add, or get somebody else to add, figures appertaining to religious and mythological stories?  Perhaps his friend Albrecht Dürer had the answer to this conundrum when he described his friend as:

“…der gute Landschaftmaler…

(the good painter of landscapes)

Marianne North the botanical painter

Marianne North     1830-1890
Marianne North
1830-1890

The artist I want to look at today could, I suppose, be labelled simply as a floral painter but in fact because of her desire for accuracy in floral detail she is often referred to as a botanical painter.  Even today, in the age of photography, botanical art still thrives and with so much destruction of habitats around the world, which nurtured rare flora, the necessity to record such species in detail is of paramount importance.  My featured artist today is the Victorian artist Marianne North.

The House at Hastings
The House at Hastings

Marianne North was born at Hastings Lodge in Hastings, England on October 24th 1830.  Her father Frederick North, an Old Harovian, was a wealthy landowner, local magistrate and, on a number of occasions, a Liberal Member of Parliament for Hastings.  His wife Janet (née Marjoribanks), was the daughter of Sir John Marjoribanks M.P., 1st Baronet of Lees in the County of Berwick.  She had been widowed when her first husband Robert Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire died in a coaching accident 1818. She and her first husband had a daughter, Janet Shuttleworth.  Marianne North came from a long line of nobility and many of her ancestors’ portraits hung in the family dining room.  She was devoted to her father and in her autobiography, A Vision of Eden, she wrote of him:

“…My first recollections relate to my father.  He was from first to Last the one idol and friend of my life…”

Marianne had an elder brother, Charles and a younger sister, Catherine.  It is believed that she did not receive any formal education, except for a short period in a school in Norwich, which she hated.  Marianne was adamant that she taught herself all that was to be learnt, writing in her autobiography:

“…Walter Scott or Shakespeare gave me their versions of history, and Robinson Crusoe and some other old books my ideas of geography…”

Flowers of the Angel's Trumpet and humming birds, Brazil by Marianne North
Flowers of the Angel’s Trumpet and humming birds, Brazil by Marianne North

However the status and wealth of her father ensured that his children were well educated and often had the opportunity to mix with artists and musicians.  Marianne was said to have had a penchant for singing and as a child was given vocal lessons by Charlotte Helen Sainton-Dolby, the well-known English contralto, composer and singing teacher.  Unfortunately as a teenager her singing voice gave way and she began to concentrate on her other love – drawing and painting.  Life was good for Marianne.  As a young teenager, she had basked in a life of prosperity.  It was a privileged life.  Winters were spent at their Notting Hill house in London.  In the spring, they would move back to their large family home in Hastings.  During the summer months she and her family would either spend time on their farmhouse in Rougham, Norfolk, which had once been the laundry of Rougham Hall, once owned by her ancestors.  Alternatively, they would stay at Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire which had been inherited by Marianne’s step-sister, Janet.  In the late summer of 1847 Marianne’s father took his family on a European tour which lasted almost three years.  Throughout this time Marianne studied flower painting, botany, and music.  On arrival back to London Marianne wanted to continue with her love of drawing and painting and it was arranged for her have some lessons in flower painting from a Dutch painter, Miss van Fowinkel and the English flower painter, Valentine Bartholemew, who had held the position of Flower Painter in Ordinary to the Queen from 1849 until his death thirty years later.

Marianne’s mother, Janet, who had increasingly become an invalid, died in January 1855.  The relationship between mother and daughter was nowhere as strong as the one between her and her father.  Marianne talked about her mother in her autobiography and commented:

“…On the 17th of January 1855 my mother died.  Her end had come gradually; for many weeks we felt it was coming.  She did not suffer, but enjoyed nothing, and her life was a dreary one.  She made me promise never to leave my father…”

Doum and Date Palms on the Nile above Philae, Egypt by Marianne North (c. 1880)
Doum and Date Palms on the Nile above Philae, Egypt by Marianne North (c. 1880)

With her mother gone, Marianne, aged twenty-four, took on the role as the lady of the house, looking after her father and the running of the household.   Her father, who had been the Liberal MP for Hastings on a number of occasions, would during the parliamentary recess take his two daughters off on long trips around Europe.     One of their favourite destinations was the valleys around the southern slopes of Mont Blanc and Monta Rosa.    By this time Marianne’s brother Charles had married and his father had given him the old house in Rougham. Marianne’s sister Catherine had married in 1864 and her father, Frederick North, narrowly lost his Hastings parliamentary seat by just nine votes at the General Election in July 1865 and this gave him the opportunity to set off on another voyage of discovery with Marianne travelling through Europe and the Mediterranean isles of Corfu and Cyprus before reaching Syria and Egypt.

Papyrus Growing in the Ciane, Syracuse, Sicily by Marianne North (1870)
Papyrus Growing in the Ciane, Syracuse, Sicily by Marianne North (1870)

Three years after his defeat in the General Election Frederick North was re-elected as MP for Hastings in 1868.   Marianne’s father was sixty-eight years old and his health had begun to deteriorate but this did not stop him from taking a holiday to Southern Germany with Marianne.  However during their Bavarian sojourn, he became ill and Marianne was advised to take him back home to Hastings, which she did.  Frederick North died on October 29th.  Marianne was devastated for not only had she lost her father, she had lost her greatest friend.  She recalled his death in her autobiography, writing:

“…The last words in his mouth were, ‘Come and give me a kiss, Pop, I am only going to sleep’.  He never woke again and left me indeed alone…”

She recalled how much her father had meant to her and one can feel her deep sorrow.  She wrote:

“…For nearly forty years he had been my one friend and companion, and now I had to learn to live without him, and to fill up my life with other interests as I best might.  I wished to be alone, I could not bear to talk of him or anything else…”

The Aqueduct of Morro Velho, Brazil by Marianne North (1873)
The Aqueduct of Morro Velho, Brazil by Marianne North (1873)

Marianne North carried on with her two great loves, travelling and painting the flora she saw during those voyages of discovery.  In July 1871 she set off on a long journey which would last over two years.  She arrived in Canada, travelled on to the United States, and later the Caribbean island of Jamaica. From there, in 1872, she journeyed to Brazil where she spent much of her time drawing in a remote forest hut. She eventually returned to England in September 1873. Throughout her time on her travels she would be constantly sketching the flora of the area and the landscapes.

Roadside Scene under the Cocoanut Trees at Galle, Ceylon by Marianne North (c.1877)
Roadside Scene under the Cocoanut Trees at Galle, Ceylon by Marianne North (c.1877)

In the spring of 1875 she was once again off on her travels.  This time she visited Tenerife, and later that year started her first round-the-world trip taking in the west coast of America, Japan, Borneo, Java, and Ceylon, and did not return home until March 1877.  Although she loved being in the house in Hastings and spent much time in the garden she had a wanderlust and in September 1878 this travel bug bit once again and she set off by ship to India, where she stayed for nearly six months,

Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens, London
Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens, London

By this time Marianne had built up a large collection of drawings which she had completed during her extensive travels.  As they were so popular she held an exhibition of her work in a London gallery.  Having been overwhelmed by their popularity she came up with the idea that they should be housed in a permanent collection and with this in mind she approached Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of the Kew Botanical Gardens in London and offered to present them with her art works and to fund the building of a gallery to house them.  This was agreed and the architect James Fergusson submitted designs for the building and building work started in 1880.  Sir Joseph Hooker as well as being a director of Kew Gardens was a good friend of Charles Darwin and he was introduced to Marianne and it was on his suggestion that she should visit Australia, and New Zealand to discover and sketch the native flora and vegetation.  Marianne took up his suggestion and once again left her homeland and sailed to the antipodean.

Inside the Marianne North Gallery
Inside the Marianne North Gallery

On her return to England she set about arranging her paintings inside the newly completed gallery building at Kew and on July 9th 1882 it opened to the public as the Marianne North Gallery.

The Wild Tamarind of Jamaica with Scarlet Pod and Barbet by Marianne North (1872)
The Wild Tamarind of Jamaica with Scarlet Pod and Barbet by Marianne North (1872)

She resumed her travels visiting South Africa in 1883 and the following winter she was in the Seychelles.  All this travelling and having to endure constantly changing climatic conditions eventually affected her health and, during her later years, she was unable to live a pain-free existence.  She began to lose her hearing and in 1888 began to suffer from liver disease which finally claimed her life.  Marianne North died on August 30th 1890 aged 60.  Maybe it would be fitting to leave the last words to her sister Catherine who wrote about her sister:

“…The one strong and passionate feeling of her life had been her love for her father.  When he was taken away she threw her whole heart into painting and this gradually led her into those long toilsome journeys.  They no doubt shortened her life; but length of days had never been expected or desired by her, and I think she was glad, when her self-appointed task was done, to follow him whom she had faithfully loved…”

I have only been able to attach a few of Marianne’s numerous sketches and I am sure a visit to her gallery at Kew Gardens would be an amazing experience.  For those of you who might not be able to make that journey may I suggest you get hold of her autobiography, the book which I have been reading and from which I gleaned  most of the facts about this talented painter.   It was not an expensive book and well worth the money. It is called A Vision of Eden; The Life and Work of Marianne North.

Georgia O’Keefe. Part 4 – New Mexico and later life.

Georgia O'Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1920)
Georgia O’Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1920)

In this final look at the life and works of the American artist Georgia O’Keefe I want to examine her love affair with New Mexico and how it influenced her art.  She had been living in New York during the winter months and in the summertime she and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, would move to his large family home at Lake George in upstate New York.  However by the end of the 1920’s Georgia had depicted all she could of the Lake George area and was looking for a new challenge, something fresh to influence her work.   Her reason for giving up her summer sojourns at Lake George could well be that she had tired of having to share the space with Stieglitz’s family and friends, who also passed time at Lake George during the summer months.  I already told you in the previous blog that in order to pacify Georgia, Stieglitz had agreed to her moving out of the large family home and live and work in a farm building on the estate, which she called her Shanty.  The desire to move away from Lake George and Stieglitz could have been Georgia’s desire to escape the suffocation of Stieglitz’s family and friends but another reason could have been that she was having health problems as in 1927 she had to undergo two breast operations.  Another contributory factor could be Georgia’s unhappiness at Stieglitz having become infatuated with a young woman Dorothy Norman, forty-four years his junior.

Rebecca Strand
Rebecca Strand

Fate took a hand in 1929.  Her friend and fellow artist, Rebecca Strand, the wife of photographer, Paul Strand, who was a close friend of Alfred Stieglitz, suggested that she and Georgia take a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Georgia liked the idea of escaping Lake George that summer and so in the May the two set off on the long train journey to the New Mexico town.  Not long after arriving in Santa Fe, the two women received an invitation from Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy American writer and patron of the arts, to come and visit her and stay a while at her large twelve-acre property in Taos, New Mexico.  Mabel Luhan was a great hostess who liked to surround herself with artists and writers.  Taos was a small town, situated on a high plateau in the north-central region of New Mexico, whose inhabitants at the time were mainly native Indians.  It had become, since the beginning of the twentieth century, a favourite destination of artists because of its unspoiled landscape and clear light and in 1915 the Taos Society of Artists was formed.  The English writer and playwright, D.H. Lawrence, fell in love with the area waxed lyrically on the effect it had upon him:

“…The moment I saw the brilliant proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.   There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty……In the magnificence fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new…”

Georgia O’Keefe also could not have been happier with what she saw at Taos.  Mabel Dodge Luhan had even provided her two visitors with a studio within her large house. Georgia found Taos and the surrounding area simply inspirational and so different from the places she had previously visited.  She spent her time during her five-month stay wandering around the area visiting the small Indian villages on foot or sometimes on horseback constantly sketching and developing ideas for her work.  Travelling by foot or horse restricted the distance she could travel so Georgia learned how to drive and bought herself a Ford Model A car, and from then on, distance was no longer a problem.

The D.H. LawrenceTree by Georgia O'Keefe (1929)
The D.H. LawrenceTree by Georgia O’Keefe (1929)

One of the places Georgia visited was the Kiowa Ranch, which was owned by Mabel Dodge Luhan and who had gifted it to the English writer D.H.Lawrence and his wife Frieda in 1924.  It is situated near the town of San Cristobal, some twenty miles north west of Taos.  It has become known as the D.H. Lawrence Ranch.  One of the great natural phenomena on the ranch was the great pine tree, which stood in front of, and towered over the ranch house.  This beautiful specimen became known as the Lawrence Tree, as he used to sit writing at a table at its base and in Rachel Maurer’s The D.H. Lawrence Ranch she quotes the English writer’s description of the tree he loved so much:

“…The big pine tree in front of the house, standing still and unconcerned and alive…the overshadowing tree whose green top one never looks at…One goes out of the door and the tree-trunk is there, like a guardian angel. The tree-trunk, the long work table and the fence…”

Georgia O’Keefe wonderfully captured the tree in her 1929 painting, The D.H. Lawrence Pine Tree.  Of it, she said:

“… There was a long weathered carpenter’s bench under the tall tree in front of the little old house that Lawrence had lived in there. I  often lay on that bench looking up into the tree…past the trunk and up into the branches. It was particularly fine at night with the stars above the tree…”

At first glance, the depiction of the tree almost resembles an octopus with its long tentacles stretching out amidst its ejected black ink. Once you look closer you begin to realise that what you are looking at are the branches of a tree as they stretch upwards into the cloudless night sky.  Georgia achieved this depiction by painting it whilst lying down on a long carpenter’s bench at the base of the tree and looking up at the star-filled sky through its branches and the dark mass of pine needles.  It is a beautifully evocative work of art.  The painting now hangs at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Photoraph of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, Taos, NM
Photoraph of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, Taos, NM

Another place which fascinated O’Keefe during her 1929 visit to Taos was the San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church at Ranchos de Taos with its massive adobe buttresses and two front-facing bell towers,which was completed in 1816.  This building is a National Historic Landmark, dating back to Spanish Colonial times.

Photograph of the rear view of the church
Photograph of the rear view of the church

It is a well-preserved adobe building in the heart of the community at the central plaza of the Ranchos de Taos Historic District and is re-mudded every spring.  O’Keefe was fascinated by the buildings of the indigenous people and completed a series of six paintings featuring the church from different angles, some in the clear light of day with cloudless blue skies, others with a cloud covering.

Ranchos Church, No. II, NM, by Georgia O'Keefe (1929)
Ranchos Church, No. II, NM, by Georgia O’Keefe (1929)

O’Keefe wanted her work to highlight the natural harmony of the building with the surrounding nature and she has cleverly captured just that by merging the rounded forms of the sand coloured building with the similarly coloured ground.

Grey Hills by Georgia O'Keefe (1942)
Grey Hills by Georgia O’Keefe (1942)

From 1929 to 1949, O’Keefe regularly returned to New Mexico each summer although she found the growing artist colony of Taos at odds with her desire for isolation and tranquility and so in 1931 she began to spend her summers in the Rio Grande Valley, which lay west of Taos and rented a small cottage in the village of Alcalde.  Georgia O’Keefe was fascinated by the barren landscape with its red sand hills and the flat-topped tablelands.  This was the New Mexico Badlands, which was a type of arid terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils had been considerably scoured by both wind and water.What she saw before her may have been inhospitable and infertile but it was the colours which fascinated her and inspired her paintings.  Of this factor she once said:

“…All the earth colours of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands.  The light Naples yellow through the ochres – orange and red and purple earth – even the soft earth greens…”

Small Purple Hills by Georgia O'Keefe (1934)
Small Purple Hills by Georgia O’Keefe (1934)

In 1934 she completed a painting entitled Small Purple Hills, which depicts the stark, desolate and yet colourful rocky formation.

Another series of her paintings depicting the dark and forbidding landscape with its grey and black hills, was her series of paintings entitled The Black Place.   They were depictions of the Bisti De-Nazin Badlands, a desolate wilderness area in Navajo country, some 150 miles north west of her Ghost Ranch home.  Georgia loved the place and its isolation and made a number of camping trips between 1936 and 1949, sometimes alone, other times with her friend and assistant, the writer, Maria Chabot, who lived with her at Ghost Ranch, from 1940 to 1943.

Black Place II by Georgia O'Keefe (1944)
Black Place II by Georgia O’Keefe (1944)

The painting Black Hills II, completed in 1944, was one in the series of six, which she completed between 1944 and 1945, and Chabot, in her book, Maria Chabot—Georgia O’Keeffe: Correspondence 1941–1949, described the work:

“… the black hills—black and grey and silver with arroyos of white sand curving around them—pink and white strata running through them. They flow downward, one below the next. Incredible stillness!…”

In 1946, Ms. Chabot agreed to organize the rebuilding of an adobe hacienda on a hilltop in Abiquiu.  The town sits on a plateau at an elevation of 6,400 feet, overlooking the Chama River Valley in Rio Arriba County in New Mexico and forty-eight miles northwest of Santa Fe.  This was to become Georgia O’Keefe’s winter home.  It had originally been two buildings, one of which had been a home to pigs and this was converted into her studio, bedroom and bathroom, whilst the other building was transformed into her kitchen and living rooms and guest bedrooms.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses by Georgia O'Keefe (1931)
Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses by Georgia O’Keefe (1931)

In the first part of this four-part blog on Georgia O’Keefe I asked you to name the most quintessential American artist and I had chosen her, not because of her floral paintings, but for her rugged landscapes but most of all for her works which depicted the skulls, horns and antlers of cattle and other animals which she collected up from the desert and which reminded me so much of the Wild West and American history.  There are two in particular that I like.  The first of these is Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, which she completed in 1931 and can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago.  The previous year Georgia O’Keeffe had witnessed a devastating drought in the Southwest that caused the starvation and death of many animals.  All around the skulls and carcasses of the dead animals littered the landscape. Georgia was enthralled by what she witnessed and had a number of these bones shipped back to New York so she could depict them in her paintings. Of this collection of skulls and bones she commented:

“…To me they are as beautiful as anything I know…The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable…”

 In Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, O’Keeffe incorporated a somewhat ghoulish aspect by embelishing the skull of the cow with two artificial flowers, the type which often adorned graves in New Mexico.

Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills by Georgia O'Keefe (1935)
Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills by Georgia O’Keefe (1935)

The second painting I like is entitled Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills, which she completed in 1935 and is housed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In this painting we see an enlarged ram’s skull and antlers depicted floating over a mountainous landscape and a grey cloudy and threatening sky.  Once again, as was the case in a number of flower paintings some art historians alluded to the depiction of the lower part of the ram’s skull having a resemblance to the female genitalia!

In May 1946 the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York held a retrospective of her work.  Sadly a month later, Alfred Stieglitz died of a cerebral thrombosis and Georgia returned to New York, where she remained for almost three years in order to settle his estate.  In the spring of 1949 she returned to her beloved New Mexico.  She lived at her house in Abiquiu during the winter and spring and then moves back to her Ghost Ranch during the summer months.

Up until 1956 Georgia, who was then sixty-six years of age, had never travelled outside of America but that was all to change for long periods during the rest of her life she travelled around the world.  In 1962, O’Keeffe was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and four years later she became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science.  In the autumn of 1970, the Whitney Museum of American Art granted her a retrospective exhibition.  The exhibition was a great success and revived her popularity with the American public.

Georgia O'Keefe (1887 - 1986)
Georgia O’Keefe
(1887 – 1986)

Her final foreign journey to Costa Rica came about in 1983 when she was ninety-six years of age !  In 1984, for health reasons, she had to leave her Abiquiu hacienda and she moved to Santa Fe.  Georgia O’Keefe died on March 6th 1986 at the age of 98.  In compliance with her last wishes her ashes were scattered over the land around her beloved Ghost Ranch.

This ends my four-part look at the life of Georgia O’Keefe.  There are many books about her life and works and one I can recommend is O’Keefe by Britta Benke.

In my next blog I will be looking at another female artist who was known for her flower and plant paintings.  However unlike Georgia O’Keefe this artist concentrated on detailed and botanically accurate depictions of her subjects and I suppose instead of labeling her as a floral painter she is better described as a botanical painter.

 

Georgia O’Keefe. Part 3 – Floral paintings and sexuality

White Trumpet Flower by Georgia O'Keefe (1932)
White Trumpet Flower by Georgia O’Keefe (1932)

In my third look at the life and works of the American artist, Georgia O’Keefe, I want to concentrate on the art she is probably most remembered for, her flower paintings. The depiction of flowers in works of art has always been a popular genre. In past blogs I looked at two famous female artists, Rachel Ruysch (My Daily Art Display October 3rd 2011) and Judith Leyster (My Daily Art Display December 3rd 2013), who were amongst the greatest floral painters of their time. Also from the Netherlands there were the father and son floral painters, Jan van Os and Georgius van Os. At some time, many of the great names in art completed floral works, such as Manet’s lilacs, Monet’s lilies, Hokusai’s cherry blossom, Dürer’s tuft of cowslips, van Gogh’s sunflowers, Fantin-Latour’s roses and so on. So what is so special about O’Keefe’s floral depictions? The answer is that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings featured close ups of parts of a flower rather than the whole flower and they are stand-alone depictions and not part of a still-life work. She seemed to integrate photographic methodologies such as cropping and close-ups into her floral works. She believed by enlarging the flower the true beauty of the specimen would be hard to ignore. Of her technique she once said:

“…A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower… still, in a way, nobody really sees a flower, really, it is so small….So I said to myself, I’ll paint what I see, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it, even busy New Yorkers [will] take time to see what I see of flowers. When you [referring to critics and others who wrote about these paintings] took time to really notice my flower you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower, and I don’t…”

So where did all her ideas for depicting flowers in such a manner start? It could be that she remembered her art teacher she had at her convent school in Madison, back in 1901, when she was fourteen years old. The teacher brought in a wild flower, a jack-in-the-pulpit plant, and asked her teenage students to study it from all angles and told them of the importance of this close scrutiny. O’Keefe was fascinated and drew it from all different angles and then concentrated on drawing just parts of the flower rather than the whole specimen.  This was the beginning of her journey into floral painting.

Jack in the Pulpit IV by Georgia O'Keefe (1930)
Jack in the Pulpit IV by Georgia O’Keefe (1930)

Almost thirty years after this classroom incident, in 1930, Georgia actually completed a series of six painting entitled Jack-in-the Pulpit, five of which can now be found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The first in the series began with the striped and hooded bloom and was a carefully detailed botanical depiction of the flower but as the series continued the depiction of the flower moved further away from a realistic depiction of it and became almost mass of colour.

Jack in the Pulpit No.1 by Georgia O'Keefe (1930)
Jack in the Pulpit No.1 by Georgia O’Keefe (1930)

As the series developed, the depictions became less detailed and more of an abstract rendering of the flower with the haloed pistil depicted against a sombre black, purple and gray background. The works shown above show the transition in the way she depicted the flower.   In fourth of the series one can see that it has less botanical detail than the first three works and is tending towards abstraction. O’Keefe explained the transition writing:

“…“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way – things that I had no words for…”

Red Canna  by Georgia O'Keefe (1924)
Red Canna by Georgia O’Keefe (1924)

It was around the early 1920’s during her summer visits to Lake George with Alfred Stieglitz that she started painting flowers in her own imitable style. She would concentrate on the head of the flower and “zoom in” on its centre and then enlarged it, so it completely filled the canvas, often cropping the depiction. She painted all types of flowers from the exotic black irises and red Canna lilies to the more mundane such as poppies, daffodils and roses.

The painting Red Canna Lilies, which she completed in 1924 and is now housed in the University of Arizona Museum of Art, has such great magnification it almost appears to be an abstract work of art with just a series of overlapping lines and a myriad of tones.

Petunia No.2 by Georgia O'Keefe (1925)
Petunia No.2 by Georgia O’Keefe (1925)

It was in 1924 that O’Keeffe began to make paintings in various sizes. The one thing they had in common was that all of them tended to focus on the centres of flowers. Petunia No. 2, which she completed that year, was one of her first large-scale flower paintings and she had it accepted into an exhibition organised by Alfred Stieglitz at the Anderson Galleries on Park Avenue, New York. The gallery was owned by the American publisher, Mitchell Kennerley and Stieglitz, who had not had his own exhibition space since 1917, borrowed rooms from Kennerley’s gallery and later in 1925 permanently rented a small room at the gallery which he called the Intimate Gallery. Stieglitz idea for the Intimate Gallery was that it should be a place for local artists to exhibit their work and by so doing create a sense of an artistic community, almost an artist’s cooperative. It was to be a less formal exhibiting place where patron and artists could mix and build up a good working and very personal relationship.

Stieglitz had gathered together a collection of works for his December 1925 exhibition, both artistic and photographic. He had called upon his friends to join him in supplying works for the exhibition. Including himself, there were seven contributors in all. They were John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove, the modernist painters, the watercolourist Charles Demuth as well as his fellow photographer Paul Strand, and of course, not forgetting his wife, Georgia O’Keefe. The exhibition, at the time, was one of the largest exhibitions of American art ever organised and was entitled Alfred Stieglitz Presents Seven Americans: 159 Paintings, Photographs, and Things, Recent and Never Before Publicly Shown by Arthur G. Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Charles Demuth, Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. The exhibition lasted for three weeks and had numerous visitors but few of the painting sold.

Two Calla Lily on Pink by Georgia O'Keefe (1928)
Two Calla Lily on Pink by Georgia O’Keefe (1928)

In the mid 1800’s an herbaceous perennial plant, native to southern Africa was introduced into America. It was the Calla Lily. It had such an exotic looking flower that it soon became a favourite subject of floral painters and photographers. Over time Georgia O’Keefe completed numerous renditions of the flower, so much so, the lily became her insignia in the eyes of the public, and the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias took up that theme in his caricature of O’Keeffe as “Our Lady of the Lily“, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1929. Two Calla Lilies on Pink was one of her painting depicting this exotic flower. She completed it in 1928 and is an amazing piece of floral art full of subtle merging of colours and tones. The flower petals lie against a pink background which enhances the beauty of the work. Look how O’Keefe has managed to merge a green colour in the white of the petals and by doing so cleverly highlighting them. Again these white and green tinged petals of the two flowers seem to be pierced by the emergence of two bright yellow pistils as they rise upwards. It was this kind of depiction with its sexual connotation that was to lead to controversy. How could floral paintings cause such controversy?

Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow by Georgia O'Keefe (1923)
Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow by Georgia O’Keefe (1923)

Another example of her work which some people believed lent credence to the sexual nuance of her paintings was one entitled Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow which she completed around 1923 and is part of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston collection. It is looked upon as one of her best works. Is it a floral painting? Is it a close up of the inner part of a flower? It is this ambiguity which is fascinating and has led some critics to argue that it is an abstract work and that the undulating folds are based upon female genitalia. Georgia O’Keefe was adamant that none of her floral works of art had anything to do with male or female genitalia and grew weary of those people who maintained the sexual link even after she had denied such a connotation. In Ernest Watson’s biography of Georgia, Georgia O’Keefe, American Artist, he tells how, in 1943, she dismisses the sexual association with her floral paintings even if it mean people paid closer attention to the works of art. She is quoted as saying:

“…Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t…”

Some people will not accept what she has said and have ignored her denial of sexuality in her work. Randall Griffin, a Professor in the Department of Art History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specialises in American Art History, in his recent biography (Phaidon) on O’Keefe explained in a chapter entitled The Question of Gender:

“…It now seems abundantly clear that, in spite of her vehement denials, O’Keeffe meant some of her paintings (not just the flowers) to look vaginal…..Works such as Abstraction Seaweed and Water – Maine and Flower Abstraction overtly allude to female genitalia…”

So I guess I will leave you to form your own opinion as to the sexuality of her floral works.
In my final look at Georgia O’Keefe’s life and her paintings I will explore her life in the hot desert lands of New Mexico and how it influenced her art.

Georgia O’Keefe. Part 2 – Alfred Stieglitz, Lake George and New York Skyscrapers

Georgia O'Keefe (c. 1920)
Georgia O’Keefe (c. 1920)

Georgia O’Keefe’s annoyance at the high-handed attitude of Alfred Stieglitz in exhibiting ten of her charcoal abstract works in his gallery alongside other artists’ paintings, without her permission, in May 1916 soon cooled off and maybe Stieglitz decided to make amends by offering Georgia a solo exhibition at his gallery. She agreed and in April 1917 she had her first solo show. It was the final exhibition at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery as shortly afterwards it closed.

Evening Star by Georgia O'Keefe (1917)
Evening Star by Georgia O’Keefe (1917)

Georgia had initially been completing works in black and white insisting that colour would detract from the work itself. However for this solo exhibition she submitted oil paintings and watercolours which she had been working on whilst living in Texas. As far as the use of colour was concerned she admitted:

“…I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other ways – things I had no words for…”

Georgia had been living in Canyon, Texas, a small town south of Amarillo and in the autumn of 1916 she had taken up a post as head of the art department at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) and remained there until February 1918. The rugged area around Canyon such as the Palo Duro Canyon fascinated O’Keefe and she visited there many times gaining inspiration for her paintings. She would spend hours witnessing the bright and shimmering sunrises and flaming sunsets and it could have been this explosion of colour that changed her mind about restricting herself to black and white drawings

Sunrise by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
Sunrise by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz although living thousands of miles apart corresponded regularly and once again fate played a part in the course of her life. In this case fate came in the form of an influenza epidemic which, in 1918, was sweeping across America and which killed around 750,000 people. Georgia was struck down by it in the February and her recovery was slow and prolonged and she eventually had to give up her teaching post. Alfred Stieglitz was very concerned about Georgia’s health and sent his friend and fellow photographer Paul Strand to Texas to try and persuade Georgia to leave Texas and come to New York where he would support her health-wise and financially. She acquiesced and although still very ill arrived in New York in June 1918 and went to live in a studio which belonged to Stieglitz’s niece. Stieglitz slowly nursed Georgia back to health and during this time the couple fell in love.

Lake George, Autumn by Georgia O'Keefe (1927)
Lake George, Autumn by Georgia O’Keefe (1927)

When she was well enough she went to live with Stieglitz at his Lake George home in upstate New York. It was more than just a house and home; it was a former farm covering thirty-six-acres. It was situated along the western shore, in the southern section of the thirty-mile-long glacial lake, which was popularly known as “the Queen of American lakes”. It was here that she convalesced amongst the peace and tranquillity of the flower-filled meadows and forest areas around his family home. It was here that she would return from the bustling New York city every summer for the next sixteen years. She enjoyed to take long walks through the wooded hillsides, often took on strenuous hikes up Prospect Mountain so as to gain sight of spectacular views of the lake below, a lake on which she also enjoyed to row upon. Georgia had first been introduced to the Lake George area back in 1907, when she was a student at the Art Students League and had received a scholarship to paint in the region. O’Keefe and Stieglitz would spend the winters in their apartment in New York and from April to September or October would live in the large house on the banks of Lake George.

Georgia painting at Lake George (1918)
Georgia painting at Lake George (1918)

However there were many people descending on the property during the summer months. Relatives and friends of Stieglitz and his family were always coming and going throughout the summer months so much so the peace and tranquil life O’Keefe had hankered for was lost. Georgia desperately wanted a calm and quiet time alone to concentrate on her work. The problem was resolved when she persuaded Stieglitz to allow her to use a small wooden farm building which was part of the estate for her own private studio. It was on its own, in a field on a hill above the house. She had found solitude at last where she could shut out everybody and concentrate on her work. Her pleasure at being at Lake George was clear in a letter she wrote in 1923, to her friend, the American novelist and short story writer, Sherwood Anderson:

“…I wish you could see the place here – there is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees – Sometimes I want to tear it all to pieces – it seems so perfect – but it is really lovely – And when the household is in good running order – and I feel free to work it is very nice…”

My Shanty, Lake George by Georgia O'Keefe (1922)
My Shanty, Lake George by Georgia O’Keefe (1922)

Georgia produced a number of works featuring her new summer surroundings and even one, in 1922, of this new” bolt hole”. It was entitled My Shanty, Lake George. It is a simple yet atmospheric depiction of the isolated old farm building which became her summer studio, away from the distractions of the big lake house. In a way it is a reflection of O’Keefe’s desire for solitude. There is a noticeable contrast between the man-made object and nature. The flat geometric depiction of the building is in complete contrast to the curves of the trees and the hills. There is also a great contrast in colour. The sombre dark colours of the building itself is in contrast with the softer pinks and oranges used for the wildflowers and the greens of the grass in the foreground. The darkness of the shanty is however vividly lightened by the intense white window frame and mullion and they serve as the paintings focal point. In the background we can see blue-black sweep of the hills, above which are dark storm clouds.

Georgia O’Keefe painted many pictures featuring Lake George. As far as the composition is concerned they were often very similar. The top third of the painting was dedicated to the mountains. The middle ground of the work was a depiction of the lake and in the foreground were the trees.

Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape) by Georgia O'Keefe (1922)
Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape) by Georgia O’Keefe (1922)

However in the case of her 1922 painting, Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape) the well tried composition changed and the shoreline of the lake disappears and the work almost becomes an abstract one. The colours and tonal quality of this work are so beautiful that if trees had been added to the foreground they would have been a distraction and detracted from the overall depiction.

Emmeline Obermeyer (c.1910)
Emmeline Obermeyer (c.1910)

On face value, this falling in love between Georgia, the artist and Alfred, the photographer and living together in New York and the family home at Lake George seems an idyllic situation but there was one problem, one major problem – Stieglitz was already married! In November 1893, after a great deal of pressure from his family who wanted to see him settle down with a wife, Alfred Stieglitz had married Emmeline Obermeyer. He had known her for a number of years and she was the sister of his close friend and business associate Joe Obermeyer. It was not a marriage based on love. They were an oddly matched couple and in his book, The Love Lives of the Artists: Five Stories of Creative Intimacy, Daniel Bullen writes about this mismatch:

“…Stieglitz was twenty-nine – and she had always been sheltered by her family’s considerable brewery wealth, so they were incompatible from the beginning. Stieglitz had already lived with a prostitute, and Emmy was not his choice of wife. She had not met him on artistic grounds, and she refused to pose nude for him: by various accounts, they did not consummate their marriage for between one and four years…”

As far as Emmy was concerned, it was a case of unrequited love. She loved him. He didn’t love her. Emmy had inherited money from her late father who had run a brewing empire. Could it be that Emmy’s wealth smoothed over Stieglitz unhappiness with the marriage, especially as around this time, his own father had lost a large amount of money on the Stock Market? The marriage was doomed to fail despite the couple having a daughter Kitty in 1898. They had nothing in common. They had no shared interests. Stieglitz soon tired of his wife and they spent long periods of time apart as he carried on with his photographic career, travelling all over Europe. Richard Whelan in his 1995 biography of the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography, wrote that Stieglitz resented her bitterly for not becoming his twin.

Katherine, daughter of Alfred and Emmeline Stieglitz
Katherine, daughter of Alfred and Emmeline Stieglitz

Despite his unhappiness at being trapped in a loveless marriage and his open relationship with O’Keefe, Stieglitz could not extricate himself from his marriage to Emmy until September 1924, six years after he had originally filed for divorce. Alfred and Georgia married in late December 1924. Georgia had been somewhat reluctant to enter into marriage as she saw no point in formalising their relationship as she and Stieglitz had lived together for six years and survived the scandal attached to his extra-marital liaison. The marriage took place at the home of their friend and fellow artist, John Marin.

There was little or no pomp and ceremony to the occasion. Nobody was invited to a reception or help celebrate the marriage. In fact there was no honeymoon following the event. In her 1989 biography of the artist, Georgia O’Keefe, A Life, Roxanna Robinson, quotes O’Keefe as saying that she and Stieglitz married in order to help soothe the troubles of Stieglitz’s daughter Katherine, who at that time was being treated in a sanatorium for depression and hallucinations.

Shelton Hotel by Georgia O'Keefe (1926)
Shelton Hotel by Georgia O’Keefe (1926)

The following year, 1925, Georgia and Stieglitz moved their New York home to the Shelton Hotel in New York, taking an apartment suite on the 28th floor of the new building and it was here and the summer home at Lake George that the couple would spend the next 12 years. One can just imagine how their dual aspect apartment in the hotel, with vistas to the north and south, afforded them spectacular panoramic views of the vibrant city. Georgia began to paint pictures of the city skyscrapers, including the Shelton Hotel itself, the Radiator Building and the Ritz Tower all from a low-level viewpoint.

Radiator Building - Night, New York by Georgia O'Keefe (1927)
Radiator Building – Night, New York by Georgia O’Keefe (1927)

Her depiction of the Radiator Building in 1927, entitled Radiator Building – Night, New York is a haunting study of the magnificent building on West 40th Street, in midtown Manhattan which was completed three years earlier in 1924. The painting depicts a night scene of the building in which the illuminated windows shimmer against the dark of the building and the darkness of the night. To the right of the building we see steam and smoke slowly rising upwards from some ventilation system whilst in the left hand background searchlights scan the night sky and a red neon sign glows in the left background.

This type of painting by Georgia O’Keefe led her to be connected with an informal group of American artists who were inspired by the size and scale of modern American structures, such as bridges and skyscrapers. They were known as Precisionists or Immaculates and it was during the 1920’s and into the early 1930’s that Precisionism blossomed. Sometimes it was referred to as Cubist-Realism.

My next blog, the third part of Georgia O’Keefe’s life story, will focus on her large flower paintings and will explore her relationship with Stieglitz and her decision to live apart from him and head for the desert state of New Mexico which was to influence her later art.

Georgia O’Keefe. Part 1 – The early years and the “Specials”

Georgia Totto O'Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)
Georgia Totto O’Keefe
photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)

If I was to ask you who was the most quintessential American artist, I wonder whom you would choose. Would you go for one of the nineteenth century Hudson River School artists such as Frederic Church, Asher Durand and Thomas Cole or would you select one of the pioneering and tenacious American female painters who fought hard to gain a foothold in the male dominated world of art, such as Mary Cassatt and Elizabeth Jane Gardner. Perhaps you would decide on one of the great twentieth century painters such as Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper or the folk artist Grandma Moses. Then of course, let us not forget, there is John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler and naturally there are the modern greats of American art such as Rofko, Warhol, Pollock and de Kooning. I suppose it is impossible to single out one from the list of artists who paint in so many different genres. However, for me, the painter who symbolises America is Georgia O’Keefe and in my next blogs I will look at her life and feature some of her best-loved paintings.

The O'Keefe farmhouse. outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin
The O’Keefe farmhouse.
outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, the second of seven children. She was the eldest of five girls and had a younger and elder brother. Her father, who was of Irish descent, was Francis Calyxtus O’Keefe, who ran a successful farmstead on the outskirts of the village of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, along with his wife Ida Ten O’Keefe (née Totto), whose maternal grandfather was a Hungarian count. The farm was spread over 1700 acres of land on which they raised cattle, horses and grew crops. When Georgia was five years of age she attended the small one-roomed South Prairie Town Hall school. She progressed well and she and her siblings were constantly being pushed to learn by their mother, who would read stories to her children and play the piano for them. In fact Georgia went on to play both piano and violin.

At the age of eleven Georgia developed an interest in drawing and painting and so her mother arranged private art tuition for her and two of her sisters, Ida and Anita. Georgia revelled in what she learnt, She then attended the Sacred Heart Academy in nearby Madison as a boarder and in a conversation with a friend and fellow 8th grade pupil she talked about her future dreams:

“…I am going to be an artist!…..I don’t really know where I got my artist idea…I only know that by that time it was definitely settled in my mind…”

The O'Keefe's house in Williamsburg
The O’Keefe’s house in Williamsburg

In 1902 her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia but Georgia, who was fifteen years old, stayed behind for a short time with her aunt. Soon after she re-joined her parents in Peacock Hill, a suburb of Williamsburg and enrolled as a boarder at the private Chatham Episcopal Institute for Girls. She continued to love art and her artistic talent was recognised by all and her fellow students elected her art editor of the school yearbook. In her yearbook was written the telling verse:

“…O is for O’Keefe.

an artist divine.

Her paintings

are perfect and

drawings are fine…”

In 1905, Georgia, now seventeen years of age, graduated from high school and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here that she honed her skills as an artist and studied composition, anatomy and life drawing. Her anatomical drawing class tutor was John Vanderpoel, the Dutch-American artist and teacher, who was best known as an instructor of figure drawing and whose 1907 book, The Human Figure, became a standard art school resource. Georgia O’Keefe excelled at the Academy and all was going well until the summer of the following year when she went home and contracted typhoid and was so ill that she was unable to rejoin the Academy. She had to remain at home to recuperate for more than twelve months.

Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O'Keefe (1908)
Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O’Keefe (1908)

When she finally got her health back in 1907, she decided to resume her art career but instead of returning to Chicago she enrolled at the Arts Student League of New York which was one of the top art colleges of the time. One of her tutors was William Merritt Chase, who was one of the foremost art teachers of his generation. At this institution aspiring young artists were trained in the European tradition, namely, learning to paint portraits and still-lifes. Once again her artistic talent shone through and the following year she won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). Her prize was a scholarship to attend the League’s outdoor summer school at Lake George, in upstate New York, east of the Adirondack Mountains.

In 1908 things changed for Georgia. The Arts Student League of New York wanted to keep to the European tradition of art tuition, copying in the style of the Old Masters. It was a conservative formula and one will never know whether it was this rigid mimetic way of teaching art that disillusioned Georgia, but at the end of her year’s tuition in the autumn of 1908, she decided that she no longer wanted to become a professional artist. Another reason for giving up on her art studies was that her father’s business had collapsed and the family was in need of an extra income and so Georgia gave up her studies and embarked on a career as a commercial artist in Chicago where she spent her time designing adverts and company logos. She did not paint another picture for four years.

Georgia O'Keeffe, aged 30
Georgia O’Keeffe, aged 30

This artistic drought ended in 1912 when she attended a summer course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville where one of the classes was run by Alon Bement of the Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. It was Bement who introduced O’Keefe to the radical thinking of his colleague, Arthur Wesley Dow, the head of the Faculty of Fine Arts at New York’s Columbia University Teachers College. Dow believed in the Modernist approach to art and postulated that rather than just copying nature, art should be created by the various elements of composition such as line, mass and colour. He put his thoughts into words in his 1899 book entitled Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. He summed his thoughts up in the introduction to the second edition of the work which came out in 1912. He wrote:

“…Composition … expresses the idea upon which the method here presented is founded – the “putting together” of lines, masses and colors to make a harmony. … Composition, building up of harmony, is the fundamental process in all the fine arts. … A natural method is of exercises in progressive order, first building up very simple harmonies … Such a method of study includes all kinds of drawing, design and painting. It offers a means of training for the creative artist, the teacher or one who studies art for the sake of culture…”

Georgia O’Keefe who had tired of the mimetic teachings of the academy was enthralled by Dow’s ideas and her love for art was rekindled. In 1912, she moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she had accepted a position as supervisor of art in the city’s public schools. She took up a post in the August of 1912 as an art teacher at City Public School of Amarillo but she returned to the University of Virginia’s to attend the summer course the following year; this time as an assistant to Bement and in the autumn of 1914 she went back to New York and enrolled for two semesters at Columbia University Teachers’ College where she studied under Dow himself. It was around this time that she discovered the work of Arthur Garfield Dove. Dove, an American modernist painter, who has often been labelled as the first American abstract artist. He placed great emphasis on the artist’s subjective experience of his surroundings and on the intrinsic emotional power of colour and line rather than just copying from nature. To Georgia this was not just a revelation but it was the kind of art, which she believed in and it was to influence her art for the rest of her life. For her, it was inspirational, and she happily set off on a new artistic journey. She was excited at the new ideas which flooded her brain and described how she felt:

“…I said to myself ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me – so natural to my way of thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew – to strip away what I had been taught – to accept as true my own thinking……. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown – no one to satisfy but myself…”

You can sense her joy. You can sense her feeling of casting off the shackles of rigid academic teaching. You can sense the elation in the way she saw her future.

Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915
Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915

In September 1915, she accepted a teaching post at Columbia College, South Carolina and it is around this time she begins to experiment with her art, producing a series of amazing cutting-edge charcoal abstract drawings. One such drawing was entitled Drawing XIII which was completed in 1915. In this work we see that the image is sub-divided into three parallel sections. The left hand section has wavy vertical lines which reminds one of a meandering river although some say it is more like a vertical flickering flame reaching upwards. The central part of the work consists of four rounded bulbs which if we continue with our thoughts of nature could then be construed as round top hills. An alternative to this premise is that they are four densely foliated trees. The right hand section comprises of a series of jagged lines which could be a representation of mountains and so in a way this drawing may be a bird’s eye view of a range of mountains and a flowing river with trees separating the two.

Early No. 2 by Georgia O'Keefe (1915)
Early No. 2 by Georgia O’Keefe (1915)

Another of her charcoal works was entitled Early No. 2 which she also completed in 1915. O’Keefe has followed the advice of Arthur Dow and focused on the lines, shapes and tonal values which she, like Dow, believed were the fundamentals of the picture. Her reasoning behind these early drawings being in black and white and devoid of colour was her belief that colour would distract viewers from what she had hoped to create. It was all about curves and geometrical shapes and the clever balance between areas of the work which were light and shaded.

No. 12 Special by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
No. 12 Special by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Georgia O’Keefe was proud of her first foray into this new world of art and she would often refer to these early drawings as “Specials” indicating how much they meant to her. She mailed some of these drawings to her friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had been a Columbia classmate of hers. Pollitzer, who was now a photographer in May 1916, took them to show the internationally reknowned photographer and art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz, who had his gallery, 291, at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York. Stieglitz was impressed with what he saw and described them as:

“…the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered ‘291’ in a long while…”

Special No. 15 by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
Special No. 15 by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Unbeknown to O’Keefe, Stieglitz exhibited her drawings at his gallery alongside works by other artists. When O’Keefe found out about this, she was not best pleased but later forgave him. This initial collaboration between artist and gallery owner was to be a turning point in Georgia O’Keefe’s artistic life.

…………….to be continued.