This is just a short mini-blog to look at a twentieth century Impressionist from Iceland, Ásgrímur Jónsson
Ásgrímur Jónsson wasat the forefront of Icelandic art. He was a pioneer of Icelandic visual art and the first Icelander to become a professional painter. Ásgrímur was born on March 4th, 1876, in Suðurkot, a small town thirty kilometres south west of Reykjavik.
In 1897 he left home and went to Copenhagen. In 1900, aged twenty-four, he enrolled on a three-year art course at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Once qualified, he toured a number of European countries before settling back down in Iceland in 1910. On his journey home he visited Germany and the cities of Berlin and Weimar and it was during this period that he became influenced by the French Impressionists and the Post Impressionists, especially the landscape works of the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
Ásgrímur’s main painting genre was landscape art and especially that of his native Iceland and through his art many native artists would follow his lead. His depictions of nature were fashioned by the romance of the nineteenth century. He liked to focus his depictions on the changes of light and how it altered the view of the land. He alternated between watercolours and oils but is best known for the former medium.
He was a great believer in Naturalism in art – the broad movement in the nineteenth century which represented things closer to the way we see them. However later his works were characterised by colourful expressionism.
Ásgrímur also worked as a pioneer in the illustration of Icelandic legends and adventures. He pictorially depicted Icelandic Folk Legends delving into the world of elves and trolls who lived in the semi-darkness of the old turf farmhouse and who would kidnap humans. Tales of pastors haunting their wives-to-be, of witches flying to Satanic gatherings, of sheep-rustling and flying bulls. A land where humans live inside hills, where witches flying on jawbones instead of broomsticks, and tales which rarely have happy endings.
Ásgrímur’s works on folklore themes were well received. The art critics delighted in his depictions and that Iceland’s folktale heritage was being addressed, for the first time, by an Icelandic artist. Ásgrímur’s depictions of the appearance of elves and trolls also met with widespread approval from the public who believed he had succeeded in capturing the way that they imagined their folklore characters to be. For Ásgrímur Jónsson it was all about the viewer’s own imagination when they looked at these folklore works and it was a reminder of the beauty of their land when they looked at his landscape paintings. Today the folklore paintings form part of the unique cultural heritage conserved in the collections of the National Gallery of Iceland.
Ásgrímur Jónsson died on April 5th, 1958, aged 82. The Ásgrímur Jónsson’s collection, which is today a department within the National Gallery of Iceland, originated in 1960 when a small gallery was opened in Ásgrímur’s studio and home, which he bequeathed to the Icelandic nation along with all of his works in his own possession upon his death.
Maxfield Parrish referred to Daybreak as his Magnus Opus. It is a blend of the sentimentality of the works by the Pre-Raphaelites but also retains the Old Master technique of adhering to the rules of proportion. It is a gateway to an Arcadian fantasy where we are welcomed into a dazzling landscape bathed in dawn’s rising sun which is testament to Parrish’s ability to master light and colour.
Maxfield took a complex approach to how the composition should be worked out. He used photography, paper cut-outs of the figures that he planned to include in the painting, props and models constructed in his workshop so that he could decide on the ultimate layout. He would first complete the landscape and then use a stencil of the silhouette to impose the figure on top. Once the composition had been decided by doing it in this way, he was able to concentrate on what colours he would use. The beauty of this painting comes from Parrish’s painstaking and laborious process of painting with glazes, a process used by many of the Old Masters to achieve wonderful luminosity and strength of colour. Look at the penetrating blue of the sky which radiates out from behind the foliage. This cobalt blue became known as Parrish Blue. He often used clever methods of reproducing grand components in his studio, for mountainous landscapes such as the one in Daybreak he used broken quartz rocks placed on a mirror. He created the effect of natural light and shadows through artificial methods, shining lamps on models and props. The scenery for the painting bears a resemblance to a theatre set with its prescribed layout.
Lying on the floor in the left foreground is a young woman who was “part-modelled” by eighteen-year-old Kitty Owen Spence. Kitty came from a world of social privilege, wealth, and opportunity being the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan, a three-time US Presidential candidate. According to the provenance of the painting, Kitty Owen Spence was said to have actually owned the work from around the 1940’s until 1974. However, it turned out that William Jennings Bryan, her grandfather, had bought it for a fairly high amount, but because he had political ambitions and did not want it known that he had spent a large sum of money on a painting and this could be the reason that the provenance of the work was attributed to his granddaughter.
Maxfield Parrish’s daughter, Jean, who was eleven at the time, posed as the standing figure who is bent over the prone figure.
However, what is more intriguing is the figure that does not appear in the final work and this we know, if we look at his preliminary sketch of how he wanted the composition to be. Maxfield had initially intended to have a third figure seated near the base of the column in the right foreground. It is also believed that this figure was intended to be posed by Susan Lewin, Maxfield’s housekeeper, his favourite model and lover. Alma Gilbert, art dealer, curator, author, and broker specializing in Maxfield Parrish, speculates in her 2001 book Maxfield Parrish: The Masterworks that because his long-time model and probable mistress Susan Lewin posed for that third figure, Parrish’s daughter asked him to remove her. In the end, however, Parrish used Lewin’s body as the model for the reclining figure and gave it the face of Kitty Owen.
Just two other interesting things about the painting I must recount. As you know, I like a good story behind a painting and so did the House of Art who had commissioned the work. They asked Maxfield to write a paragraph to accompany the work, but he declined, stating:
“…Alas, you have asked the very one thing that is entirely beyond me, to write a little story of Daybreak, or, in fact, of any other picture. I could do almost anything in the world for you but that. I know full well that public want a story, always want to know more about a picture than the picture tells them but to my mind if a picture does not tell its own story, it’s better to have the story without the picture. I couldn’t tell a single thing about Daybreak because there isn’t a single thing to tell; the picture tells all there is, there is nothing more…”
And so, it is up to viewers of the painting to create their own personal meaning of Daybreak.
Much has been written about the painting and I have tried to condense the information I have gleaned from various books and websites but I decided not to attempt to explain the compositional rules followed by Maxfield Parrish when he planned the work. It has all to do with Jay Hambridge’s rules of dynamic symmetry and I will leave you great artists to read about that yourself. It is far too complex for me!
And finally, does the scene of the naked figure bending over the young woman who lies prone on the floor remind you of a similar, more recent scene ??? Caste your mind back to 1992 and the Michael Jackson music video for his song, You are not alone, in which he appears in an affectionate semi-nude scene lying on the ground with his then-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, bent over, looking down at him. The painting has surprisingly always been in private ownership. On May 25th, 2006, Daybreak was purchased by a private collector, Mel Gibson’s then-wife, Robyn, at auction at Christie’s for US $7.6 million. This set a record price for a Parrish painting. Five years later, on May 21st, 2010, it was sold again for US$5.2 million.
In September 1918 Maxfield Parrish left Philadelphia and moved to an apartment at 75 East 81st Street, New York where he would be close to his two older sons who were attending the Teacher’s College. Parrish asked Sue Lewin to accompany him and the two lived together there for almost a year. By now it must have been obvious to him that people and the media were becoming interested in his relationship with his wife Lydia and his model, Sue Lewin. Rumours were rife but Parrish would not comment on their enquiries about his relationship with Sue. Maxfield Parrish was aware how scandal could devastate his life and career as he had witnessed the furore first-hand when his mother had left his father to join a Californian commune. Sue was in full agreement with Maxfield about not commenting on their relationship and in a reply to a salacious question, she said:
“…I’ll have you know that Mr Parrish has never seen my bare knee…”
This denial could well be taken with a “pinch of salt” as she had posed nude for his illustrations for the Mazda Lamp calendar of 1921. After Parrish and Lewin had passed away, construction workers at the estate found a secret compartment where Parrish had hidden the nude photographs he had taken of Lewin.
By 1921, Parrish’s wife Lydia had had enough of the ménage à trois and confided with her friend and neighbour Mabel Churchill. Mabel and her husband spoke to Maxfield and told him that his marriage to Lydia would not survive whilst Sue was living with him in the studio. To help solve the problem Lydia went off to Europe with the Churchills and Sue moved from the studio at The Oaks and into Winston and Mabel Churchill’s vacated home. On October 26th, 1923, in a cruel twist of fate the Churchill’s home, Harlakenden, burned to the ground and Sue had to return to living in the studio of The Oaks. She would remain there for the next forty years! The villagers from the tiny farm town were scandalized by this living arrangement and even sent a delegation out to the estate to confront Parrish, but Parrish and Lewin both contended that their relationship was purely platonic.
Lydia Parrish returned from her European journey to find the living arrangements of Sue Lewin had not changed. She must have been both angry and sad but probably weighed up the pros and cons of divorcing her husband and reluctantly decided to remain living at The Oaks whilst Maxfield and Sue lived in the studio complex. Sue Lewin continued to model for Parrish and appeared in many of the children’s book illustrations. One such book was the Knave of Hearts written by Louise Saunders in which Sue posed for the characters of Lady Violetta, Ursula, and the Knave.
The last time Sue modelled for one of Parrish’s paintings was in 1934 when she was forty-five-years-old, although the final model was Kathleen Philbrick Read. It was entitled The Enchanted Prince and it depicts a beautiful young woman contemplating the frog which is perched in front of her. When Maxfield completed the work, he decided not to sell it and instead, gave it to Sue. In Alma Gilbert’s book, The Make-believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin, she wrote that this gift could be to let her know that she was the youthful maiden who had dissipated his loneliness and returned him to rule over some enchanted kingdom.
From around 1930 Parrish’s paintings were landscape works. One reason could have been that his favoured model Sue Lewin was now into her forties and could no longer pose as a lithe young female. In his 1928 painting, Dreaming, he completed for Reinthal Newman’s House of Art in 1928, we see a young girl sitting underneath a tree beside a lake in a tranquil autumn setting.
In his 1932 version of the work, entitled Dreaming/October, which was Maxfield’s last work he had created for General Electric Mazda company, he removed the figure and turned the work into a pure landscape painting.
Like all good novels, the reader cannot wait to read the last chapter to see what happens in the end. So, let me tell you how it all ended for the three main protagonists of these blogs, Maxfield, his wife Lydia and his favoured model, Sue Lewin. Maxfield Parrish continued with his close relationship with Sue despite being married to Lydia. His children had all married and moved away from the family home, The Oaks.
Lydia who had often spent an annual vacation on St. Simmons Island, the largest of the Golden Isles along south Georgia’s Atlantic coast, which she had first visited in 1912. She eventually bought herself a cottage and some land on the island and became interested in old plantation songs and eventually in 1942 had a book published, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. Lydia died alone of cancer on Saint Simmons Island on March 29th 1953, aged eighty-one. Lydia was buried on the island at the Oglethorpe Memorial Gardens. At the time of her death, she had been married to Maxfield for fifty-eight years.
Maxfield was now a widower and had the opportunity to move his close and intimate relationship with Sue Lewin to a marriage status but that did not happen. Whether Sue held out the hope that he would propose we cannot be sure but she stayed with him for a further seven years until in 1960 when she was 71 and Maxfield was 90, she left him and married Earl Colby who had been her childhood sweetheart and had once courted her whilst she lived and worked at The Oaks. The question of why Maxfield never proposed marriage to Sue is not known. Maybe he believed it was just too late in his life or maybe he remembered the problems with his marriage to Lydia and also the failed marriage of his father and of course he had always denied that he and Sue had had an intimate relationship. Shortly after Sue married Earl Colby, Maxfield Parrish made a new will which started by stating that firstly, all his debts were to be paid off and then secondly:
“…I give and bequeath to SUSAN LEWIN COLBY the sum of Three Thousand Dollars ($3000) and direct that any inheritance, estate, death, succession or other tax imposed by the Federal Government or any State Government on this bequest be paid out of my residuary estate…”
For a rich man, giving the sum of three thousand dollars to somebody he had known for fifty-five years may be looked upon as a trifling amount. Why was it such a small amount? Had an earlier will bequeathed her more? Was it an act of revenge for her marrying Colby? It was if the amount was a suitable sum for one of his servants which would, of course, substantiate his declaration that there had never been a close relationship between him and Sue. Or was the fact that Sue was mentioned in the will a declaration by Parrish and acknowledgement of his relationship with her. We will just never know. Earl Colby died in 1968. Colby had children from a previous marriage who inherited his house. Sue then moved into her Aunt’s home. Her aunt then left the dwelling to Sue in her will and this was where she lived for the rest of her life. Sue Lewin Colby passed away on January 27th 1978 and was interred that Spring alongside her late husband in the Plainfield cemetery.
Maxfield Parrish continued with his painting until 1961 when, he was ninety-one-years-old. His arthritis prevented him from painting any more. His last work was a small landscape painting entitled Getting Away From It All and can be viewed as Parrish’s ultimate expression of his love of nature. It is a beautiful depiction, showing one small, snow-covered cottage which appears dwarfed by the towering mountains surrounding it, yet the window of the home persistently glows with warmth from within. It is a more exceptional work in that Parrish chose to paint the subject solely for himself and remained with him, in his studio, for the remainder of his life and maybe the title of the painting recognises that, with this work complete, he was giving up his career as an artist.
Maxfield Parrish spent his last years in a wheelchair and was looked after in his house by a live-in nurse. On March 30th 1966, he died, aged 95. He was buried at Plainfield Cemetery, Sullivan County, New Hampshire. Three years later, his eldest son, John Dilwyn Parrish, who died on January 4th 1969, was buried besides him.
The year 1900 was a momentous one for Paris as it staged the Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Paris (World’s Fair) between April 15th and November 12th. The event was to be a grand celebration of the past century’s achievements and a look forward to the innovations of the new century. The planning had begun in 1892 and it had been fully budgeted by 1896. At this time Alphonse Mucha had already burst on to the Parisian art scene and in 1897 had held a highly successful one-man exhibition at the Galerie de la Bodinière followed by a major show at the Salon des Cent.
Everyone was excited by the forthcoming event and La Plume magazine, a French bi-monthly literary and artistic review, dedicated a special issue to the exhibition and Alphonse Mucha, whose illustration appeared on the cover of the January 1898 edition, and was a ‘hot’ topic within the city’s artistic circle.
Alphonse was inundated with commissions for projects appertaining to the World’s Fair from both local companies and the French government. Some were for posters advertising the event and also the installation of display stands and the design of exhibition halls, which provided him with an opportunity to work with a three-dimensional space.
Beside the peripheral commissions Mucha was tasked with painting the murals for the Pavilion of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was a region that had come under the control of Austria-Hungary in 1878 and was one of three pavilions exhibited by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For Alphonse Mucha, this was a highly prestigious commission. Mucha transformed the pavilion into a commemoration of the history and the cultural diversity of Bosnia and Herzegovina which pleased the Austro-Hungarian leaders but Mucha would rather have highlighted the Slavic struggle against that vast nation. He could well have thought about that as he planned the murals for the pavilion and maybe he promised himself that in the near future he would tell the real story of the persecution and suffering of the Slav nation and the Slav people. His grand plan would not start until 1911 and it would take him fifteen years to complete. It would be known as The Slav Epic
Georges Fouquet, a prominent Parisian jeweller and jewellery designer had worked together with Alphonse Mucha on a number of jewellery pieces for Fouquet’s stand at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. After the 1900 Paris Exposition, Georges Fouquet who was best known for his Art Nouveau creations opened a new jewellery store at 6 rue Royale in Paris which was right across the street from the famous restaurant, Maxim’s. He approached Mucha to design all aspects of his shop, both exterior and interior, as well as the contents including the furniture, light fittings and show cases.
The centrepiece of the design was two peacocks, which were the traditional symbol of opulence. They were made of bronze and wood with coloured glass decoration. To one side of them was a shell-shaped fountain, with three gargoyles spouting water into basins, surrounding the statue of a nude woman. The shop opened in 1901, but, sadly for Georges, it was at a time when tastes were beginning to change, and the yearning to have Art Nouveau pieces was superseded by people wanting jewellery with more naturalistic patterns. Mucha’s shop designs remained in place until 1923 when it was replaced with more up-to-date fittings.
Realising that Mucha’s designs for the shop’s interior were of importance in art history, most of the original decoration were preserved. In 1941 Fouquet gave each piece of Mucha’s revolutionary design to the Musée Carnavalet for safekeeping. In 1989 the Musée Carnavalet completed the painstaking job of reconstructing the boutique. It remains one of the most spectacular examples of Art Nouveau decorative design. It is still on display at the museum.
Alphonse Mucha’s reputation as an artist was now established and he became one of the most popular and successful of Parisian artists. He became inundated with commissions for theatre posters, advertising posters, decorative panels, magazine covers, menus, postcards, calendars. He even started to provide designs for jewellery, cutlery, tableware, fabrics etc which were in so much demand that he conceived the idea of creating a handbook for craftsmen, which would offer all the necessary patterns for creating an Art Nouveau lifestyle. His book, Documents Décoratifs, a style book published in Paris in 1902, was by the Librairie Central des Beaux-Arts, and is an encyclopaedia of his decorative work. The Documents Décoratifs is comprised of 72 exquisite plates of elaborate designs for brooches and other pieces, with swirling arabesques and vegetal forms, with incrustations of enamel and coloured stones. It epitomized everything the Art Deco movement is remembered for: decor, women, flowers, natural forms, structures, jewellery. Alphonse also spent an increasing amount of his time teaching, first at the Académie Colarossi and later, with Whistler, at the Académie Carmen.
In 1902, Alfonse Mucha accompanied his friend Auguste Rodin to Prague on the occasion of Rodin’s exhibition at Jan Kotera’s new Mánes Pavilion in Prague. A gala night was held at the National Theatre of Prague to welcome the renowned sculptor and it was here that Alphonse Mucha first met Marie Chytilová, an aspiring artist, who was studying at the School of Applied Arts in Prague and who admired the work of Mucha.
A year later whilst visiting Paris with her family, Marie solicited the help of her uncle, the eminent Czech art historian Dr. Karel Chytil, to arrange art classes with Mucha. Alphonse agreed and got Maria to also to take classes at the Académie Calarossi where he was teaching and they spent each of the remaining days of her month-long sojourn together. Love blossomed between the two despite an age difference of twenty-two years. However, despite the intense amour between Alphonse and Marie, he left her in Europe whilst he made his first trip to America thanks to letters of introduction, which he had received from Baroness Salomon de Rothschild. There must have been some great pull which made him abandon Marie and cross the Atlantic, and to find that reason we must go back to when he was painting his murals at the Paris World Fair for the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion and his promise to himself that he would one day complete a series of paintings which would illustrate the Slav fight for independence. He needed financial backing and where better to go to find funds – America.
Alphonse Mucha was by no means an unknown artist in America. In fact, he was a celebrity in the United States as his posters had been widely displayed during Sarah Bernhardt’s annual American tours since 1896. He stayed at a rented studio near Central Park and continued to paint as well as giving interviews and lectures. More importantly, he was able to contact Pan-Slavic organizations with regards to his money-raising idea to support his proposed Slavic Saga series of history paintings. At one of the Pan-Slavic banquets held in his honour he was introduced to Charles Richard Crane, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who was a passionate Slavophile. Crane was enthusiastic with Mucha’s vision for a series of monumental paintings depicting Slavic history, and he became Mucha’s most important patron.
Alphonse returned home to Paris in May 1904, to complete some commissions but in January 1905 he returned to America. During this visit he gives classes, known as the cours Mucha, at the New York School of Applied Design for Women, similar to those he held at Académie Colarossi. He was enjoying life in America and wrote to his folks back in Moravia:
“…You must have been very surprised by my decision to come to America, perhaps even amazed. But in fact, I had been preparing to come here for some time. It had become clear to me that that I would never have time to do the things I wanted to do if I did not get away from the treadmill of Paris, I would be constantly bound to publishers and their whims…in America, I don’t expect to find wealth, comfort, or fame for myself, only the opportunity to do some more useful work…”
On June 10th 1906, forty-five-year-old Alphonse Mucha, and twenty-three-year-old Marie Chytilová married shortly after his return to Prague from New York. Marie was everything Alphonse could have wanted. She was extremely attractive, she was well-educated and well-read, musical, a great lover of art, and from an old Czech family.
She was to become his muse and was incredibly supportive of his art. For their honeymoon, the couple travelled to the highlands of South Bohemia and stayed in the small village of Pec. Once the honeymoon was over the couple travelled to Chicago where Alphonse was given a post as teacher at the Art Institute
Alphonse painted a number of portraits of his wife. One such painting was entitled Portrait of Mucha’s wife, Maruška. Maruška is a diminutive of ‘Marie’.
In 1908 Alphonse also worked on a large decoration project, for the interior of the German Theatre of New York. He was commissioned to produce five large decorative panels, the stage curtain, and decorative elements for the foyer, the corridor, the staircase, and the auditorium. The three large allegorical murals would be depicted in the Art Nouveau style, and would represent Tragedy, Comedy and Truth. In his depiction, Tragedy, the female protagonist is modelled on the lead tragedienne of the Max Reinhardt Theatre, Miss Reichl.
In that same year, 1908, Charles Crane commissioned Mucha to make two separate portraits in a traditional Slavic style of his two daughters, Josephine, and Frances. The painting of Josephine, as the Slav goddess, Slavia, was to mark her marriage to Harold C. Bradley. The portrait was to be incorporated into the interior decoration of a new house that Crane was building for the newlyweds. It was looked upon by critics as his finest work in America.
In fact, ten years later, when Mucha was asked to design the Czechoslovak 100-koruna banknote he once again used her portrait as a model for Slavia.
On March 15th 1909, in New York, Alphonse and Marie hade their first child, a daughter, Jaroslava
That same year (1909) Alphonse was commissioned to design a poster depicting the highly paid prominent American actress, Maude Adams, in her role as Joan of Arc in a translation of Friedrich Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans). The play was staged on June 22nd for a crowd of around two thousand spectators in a one-night gala performance at Harvard University Stadium. The portrait served as a poster for the event and Alphonse was also responsible for designing the costumes and sets. The painting depicts the medieval heroine, Joan of Arc, gesturing in amazement at the apparition behind her, which was inspiring her to lead French troops into battle. The stylized floral patterns, swirling hair and garments, and flat, graphic quality of the composition was typical of Mucha’s work and he also designed the complementary frame.
In 1909 Alphonse Mucha leaves America satisfied that he had Charles Crane’s financial backing for his grand plan to paint a series of works outlining the Slav struggles. Alphonse rented a studio and apartment in Zbiroh Castle, a 12th century château in West Bohemia. He began by visiting the places he intended to depict in the cycle such as Russia, Poland, and the Balkans, including visits to the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos. He now spent all his free time studying all the books he could find with regards the history of the Slavs and also contacted specialists in the field, such as Ernest Denis who Alfonse meets in Paris in 1911. Ernest Denis was considered to be one of the most highly regarded 20th-century historians of the Slav world in France and who played a major role in the establishment of the Czechoslovak state in 1918. Alphonse’s dream of the Slav Saga series of paintings had now started. For anybody who might look upon Alphonse Mucha as an illustrator and a poster designer, the next three blogs will change that opinion…………………
Another of Hedley’s paintings projecting school life was his 1883 work, In School. The boy in the painting was John Irwin, the younger brother of Tom Irwin, who worked at Ralph Hedley’s woodcarving shop.
Hedley used Irwin in a number of his painting. one of which was his 1884 work known as The Ballad Seller. The setting is the Black Gate in Newcastle with Castle Garth in the background. The red roofs of Castle Garth can be seen behind the Black Gate in Ralph Hedley’s depiction. The Black Gate formed the entrance to the street, which had been built inside the castle walls. There was only a short stretch of street left standing by the time Hedley painted this picture. It has now all been demolished, though the outline of the street can still be seen. It is thought that Hedley made many plein air sketches for the background. In the painting we can see the rough wooden fence that had been put up around the Black Gate in 1883 by the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries during the renovation work. Hedley’s painting depicts broken and missing stones as well as damaged window glass. The Black Gate of the Norman castle, which was completed at the end of the thirteenth century, had become run down. However, the painting is all about the trade of selling ballads. Ballad sellers were looked upon in the eighteenth century as impoverished, uneducated, and morally-lacking people who were allegedly conspiring with pickpockets. It was suspected that whilst plying their trade, they hoped to distract their audience with their songs while the pickpockets went to work. Later, they would share their ill-gotten gains. Ralph Hedley would have witnessed poor women street sellers having to take their children with them, like the baby in the ballad-seller’s arms in this picture. John Irwin was once again used as a model for one of the boys.
Older brother Tom Irwin was himself the model for one of the men in Hedley’s 1885 painting Shoeing a refractory horse in the stocks – Shoeing the bay mare. He was the man standing on the right wearing the brown cap, velvet jacket and velvet trousers. He was seventeen years of age when he modelled for the work. Tom Irwin, who worked at Ralph Hedley’s woodcarving workshop, and his family arrived in Newcastle around 1880. He remembered the first meeting with Hedley and how the artist had admired their clothes:
“… When we came from the country where we had been farming, we brought several quaint articles of clothing, caps, clogs, baskets etc, which proved invaluable to your father’ work, and… which we know were much appreciated by him… “
Ralph Hedley believed that art should be a pictorial record of the working lives of local people, and his paintings were particularly valuable for the record they provide of everyday life on Tyneside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His 1888 painting, Going Home, is a depiction of two coal miners returning home from working at the pit at Blaydon, near Gateshead. The younger of the two men wears a cap to protect his head from the low beams, and he wears a pair of shorts because of the heat in the mine. In his hand is a safety lamp and a sack to kneel on. This was an extremely popular painting and a print of it was made the following year which proved extremely popular with the public.
One of Ralph Hedley’s 1891 paintings, Go, and God’s Will be Done, fascinates me as there is a story behind the depiction. At first glance there is obviously something dramatic happening in this painting, but what is it all about? On the floor in the left foreground a cat sleeps peacefully before the fire, unaware of the chaotic happenings going on in the room. This is the home of a lifeboatman and in the bed is his wife who is very ill. The husband, in his shirt sleeves, leans over to talk to her. Next to him stands a lifeboatman who has come to take him away to their lifeboat. The door of his cottage is held open by his daughter and we can see that outside there is a gale force wind blowing over rough seas, in which is a boat in trouble. The call has gone out for all the local lifeboatmen to rush to launch the lifeboat and the wife’s husband is torn between his duty to his sick wife and his duty to the lifeboat rescue. The painting is based on the English poet and journalist, George Roberts Simms poem, The Lifeboat. The words of the poem which Hedley has illustrated so beautifully are:
“…I didn’t move, but pointed to the white face on the bed-
“I can’t go, mate,” I murmured; “in an hour she may be dead,
I cannot go and leave her to die in the night alone.”
As I spoke Ben raised the lantern, and the light on my wife was thrown;
And I saw her eyes fix strangely with a pleading look on me,
While a tremblin’ finger pointed through the door to the ragin’ sea,
Then she beckoned me near and whispered “Go, and God’s will be done!
For every lad on that ship, John, is some poor mother‘s son…”.
So how did the story end? It had a happy conclusion. The husband went with the lifeboat and helped to save the crew of the sinking ship. One of them was his long-lost son, and when he took him home, his mother was overjoyed and recovered from her illness. The poem was quoted in the exhibition catalogues when the work was exhibited in 1891 and 1892, in Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, and South Shields, and in the Royal Academy. The painting is now in the collection at Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.
Hedley completed an interesting work in 1900 entitled Ars Longa, Vita Brevis which was exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy Exhibition. It would almost be classed as a Vanitas painting focusing on the unstoppable transience of life but it does not have the usual Vanitas symbols such as burnt out candles and skulls. And yet the title of the painting, Ars longa, Vita Brevis meaning Art is long, life is short is the perfect title for a Vanitas work. The painting is one that elicits our sympathy for the aging artist we see before us. Look how the depiction evokes this feeling. The setting is a small drably-coloured attic space in which we see the artist sitting on his bed in front of an easel. He loosely holds his palette and brushes and yet he has to rest them on his knees. He has nodded off to sleep in the middle of his work. Is it that he is tired or is it a sign that he has almost given up on life? What are his circumstances and what are his thoughts? Is he lonely and without friends? Does he mull over his past life and consider past decisions that he has made and which have brought him to this point in his life? I will leave you to decide.
In the foreground of his 1886 painting, Duty Paid, we see a man has come to an office on the quayside to collect a parcel brought in by the ship. He puts his money on the table which is due in Custom’s Duty and one of the Customs officers meticulously fills in details of the payment in a ledger. On the other side of the table, another official seals the parcel with red wax, evidencing that duty has been paid. This is a typical Ralph Hedley depiction of local people and local scenes. His oeuvre provided us with an important record of life in the region in that period between the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
One of the strangest paintings by Ralph Hedley depicted John Graham Lough an English sculptor who was recognised for his funerary monuments and a variety of portrait sculpture. He also produced ideal classical male and female figures. Lough had come to London in 1824 to study the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. He was living and had his studio on the first floor of a house in his Burleigh Street lodgings, above a greengrocer’s shop, and it was there that he embarked on a mould for his massive statue of Milo of Croton based on his studies of the Elgin Marbles and the work of Michelangelo. According to Joshua Lax’s 1884 book, Historical and Descriptive Poems, this was the sculptor’s big chance at being a successful sculptor. The biggest problem Lough faced was that his studio was too small and the ceiling height was too low for him to complete the statue. Joshua Lax explains:
“…With the recklessness of a bold genius reduced to desperation, he actually broke through the ceiling of the room above him and made for himself sufficient space to work at his statue. The owner began to take steps for instituting legal proceedings, and even consulted Mr. Brougham (afterwards Lord Brougham) for this purpose. Brougham went to look at the Milo, and see for himself what Lough had done… The news of the strange affair soon spread, and, before long, the whole street where Lough’s room was situated was lined with the carriages of ladies and gentlemen, who had come to view the place, and to see Milo…”
In the painting we see the unhappy landlord and his lawyer, Henry Brougham at the base of the sculpture whilst the sculptor is at work on the upper part of the work, unrepentant with his destruction of the ceiling in his lodgings.
In 1898 Hedley completed a painting which was to realise the highest price for one of his paintings at auction, (£43,020 at Bonhams in 2004). It was entitled The Tournament. Hedley was influenced stylistically by the Newlyn school and other social realist painters. He also focused on life in his much-loved Newcastle and the surrounding Tyneside area for his subject matter. The scope of his depictions was enormous. It ranged from the uncompromising realism of workers on the dockside and miners to the delightful naivety of children at play, as we see depicted in The Tournament.
Ralph Hedley’s involvement with the Bewick club, as successful exhibitor, committee member and eventually as president, guaranteed him a number of wealthy patrons for both his wood carvings and his paintings. However, his work was also loved by the working class, the subject of many of his works, and they gained access to his work through the many reproductions of his most well-known works could be found in local papers, tea promotions and adverts for cigarettes. He became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and exhibited a number of paintings at the Royal Academy.
Ralph Hedley died on June 11th 1913 aged 64 at his terraced home in 19 Belle Grove Terrace, Newcastle-on-Tyne. There is a blue plaque commemorating Ralph Hedley who lived in the house from 1888 to his death in 1913.
If you went into a room, on the walls of which were a large number of paintings by the great artists of the past but without identifying labels, how many do you think you would recognise? If there were three painting in the room done by each artist, although not grouped together, how many would you be able connect to each artist. For the art history aficionados, maybe the brushstrokes would act like fingerprints. Maybe the colours used by the individual artists would lead you to solve the quest. If they are figurative paintings maybe an artist has his/her own way of depicting them. The reason for those questions is that my artist today has such recognisable paintings that I am sure after reading this blog and looking at his paintings you will be able to identify his work when you see it. Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Swiss painter Ernest Biéler. He was a multi-talented artist, draughtsman, and printmaker. He worked in oil, tempera, watercolour, gouache, ink, charcoal, pastels, acrylic and pencil. He also created mosaics and stained-glass windows.
Ernest Biéler was born on July 31st, 1863, in Rolle in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is located on the north-western shore of Lake Geneva between Nyon and Lausanne. His father, Samuel Biéler, was a veterinarian and his mother Natalie de Butzow, of Finnish-Polish descent, was a teacher of music and art. Ernest’s maternal grandfather was in the diplomatic corps, and was a one-time Finnish ambassador to Switzerland until his sudden death, which brought difficult financial times to the family.
Samuel Biéer and his wife Nathalie had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. With finances tight, Ernest’s father moved his family to Lausanne, where he had been offered a well-paid post as a lecturer in zoology at the University of Lausanne. Although little is known with regards Ernest Biéler’s early childhood, it is understood that in 1880, aged seventeen he graduated from the College of Art in Lausanne and then, went to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian.
Often in our lives we do something that unbeknown to us at the time will affects our future plans. For twenty-one-year-old Ernest Biéler the time was the summer of 1884 during a walking holiday in the high peaks of the Vallais region, in the southwest of Switzerland. To its south lies Italy and the Aosta Valley and Piedmont and to the southwest France the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes of France. During his hike, Ernest visited the remote mountain village of Savièse.
From there, the beautiful landscapes stretched in all directions, and the people that inhabited the village seemed to almost have circumvented civilization. The village, its people and the spectacular landscape had a great effect on Biéler and would feature in many of his works. This village was to become a great part of his life and through his depictions of the village and the people it would cement his place in the art world which was what he had always strived for.
Biéler was fascinated by the Savièse folk and their traditions. Add to this the ideal outdoor conditions with the brilliant light, which was ideal for plein air painting He went back to the Savièse in the autumn of 1886 and completed numerous sketches that he would use later for one of his masterpieces. He organised for the following summer to have a large stretcher delivered to his Paris studio for him to complete his ambitious work. Biéler completed the painting in his Parisian studio using his preliminary sketches. The finished work entitled Devant l’église de Saint-Germain à Savièse (Outside the Church of Saint-Germain in Savièse) was extremely large, measuring 204 x 302cms. The setting for this work was not one particular church in a particular village but rather a commonplace church with its mighty stone pier and its arched doorway. Before us we see a large group of women gathered together in the warm sunlight. They are all turned out in their dark blue Sunday dresses and are following the mass from the outside. Some are diligently studying their prayer books whilst others have been designated as child minders. By its composition and handling, the work was bound to arouse the interest of avant-garde circles: the figures are made monumental by the close framing. Look at the way Biéler has referenced the effect of the intense sunlight. The way the folds of the clothes reflects this penetrating light. The effect of the light can be seen in the way the artist has added the bluish shadows, applied in broad brushstrokes, to the walls. We can see in this work how Biéler was influenced by the French Impressionists. The painting was seen by a counsellor of state from Vaud, Eugène Ruffy, who bought it for the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne. The one stipulation of the sale was that Biéler was allowed to keep the painting for a while so that he could present it at the Salon of 1887 in Paris.
Many painters in the late nineteenth century clung to the beauty of rural life and religious ceremonies in a way of counteracting the swiftly changing world due to industrialisation which witnessed rural people leaving their communities to search for their dreams in the towns and cities. Biéler and many artists such as Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet depicting such ceremonies and village communities was a way of remembering the peaceful times in rural communities.
In 1892, Biéler was struggling financially and had to sell his property to pay off the many debts he had accumulated. He left Paris and settled in Geneva and was fortunate enough to receive a commission to paint the ceiling in the new concert hall, the Victoria Hall. The building came about thanks to the Consul of England, Daniel Fitzgerald Packenham Barton, who was based in Geneva and had two great passions, navigation, and music, and being one of the extremely rich could satisfy both of them. He arranged that the Geneva architect John Camoletti built the Hall, and he dedicated it to his sovereign Queen Victoria. In 1894, the building was completed. The theme of Biéler’s ceiling paintings was Harmonia, queen of Thebes, the mythical figure of harmony.
On September 16th 1984, the concert hall was engulfed in flames that partly destroyed the interior décor. That night the interior of the Hall was devastated and the world-famous organ simply melted and collapsed. It was soon decided to restore the interior of the hall as far as possible in the original style, which was flamboyant and heavily decorated. The City having decided to restore the building, also decided that the ceiling décor which had been painted by Ernest Biéler had to be replaced by a contemporary work by Dominique Appia.
One original ceiling image which caused a controversy at the time was Biéler’s painting, Naked, ringing the bell. However, the commission was hailed a success and Biéler’s reputation grew, bringing financial rewards.
In 1896, Biéler rented a house for a workshop in Savièse, and immersed himself in village life but he had to return to Paris so as to carry on with his studies at the Académie Julian. Along with fellow artists, such as Édouard Eugène Francis Vallet, Raphaël Ritz, and others, Biéler founded the Ecole of Savièse. This name became synonymous with his unique style of work, in which we see an extraordinary level of detail, that became extremely popular with the public. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Ernest Beeler began building a large house of his own in Savièse with his own workshop and various auxiliary facilities. In 1900, aged 37, he exhibited two works that earned him a silver medal in the Paris Salon and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour.
Around 1906, Biéler became undecided about his painting style. Should he abandon his realistic painting style in favour of modernism, which rejected history and conservative values such as realistic depiction of subjects and which adopted a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. When asked whether he was a realist or an idealist, he simply replied:
“…An artist can strive for both. One does not exclude the other. The national feeling has nothing to do with art…”
In 1909, at the age of 46, Ernest Biéler married a Parisian divorcee, Michelle Laronde, who already had a young son and was an art tutor. They decided to live in Paris rather than the village of Savièse. The reason, as he wrote to a friend, was because his new wife was “too urban to live in Savièse.” In fact she did not want to have anything to do with Switzerland which caused a problem for Biéler, as his main source of income was from Switzerland, where he was still receiving numerous commissions, and for that reason he had to stay for long periods in Switzerland without his new wife.
The second decade of the twentieth century proved to be a problematical and difficult period for Biéler. In 1911 his father died. Seven years later his mother died and during that intervening period war raged in Europe. In 1916, Biéler reluctantly decided to leave his wife and the French capital and move to Vevey, a Swiss town, close to Lake Geneva and about thirty miles north-west of his beloved Savièse. In 1917 he buys a house in Montellier-sur-Rivaz. Now living apart from his wife, there followed the inevitable divorce in 1921.
During this decade, it was not just these personal problems of death and divorce that he had to deal with, he also had an artistic setback. He had been working for four years on his exceptionally large (146.3 x 376.4 cms) painting, L’Eau mysterieuse (Mysterious Waters). Although it was acclaimed when it was shown in Paris in 1912 and subsequently bought by the Gottfried Keller Foundation, after it was exhibited in Switzerland, it failed to persuade him to remain in the French capital. Biéler had meant the work to be an art nouveau manifesto with the aim to establish in Paris the importance of this graphic style and of the seldom-used medium of egg tempera. The work is painted on sheets of paper mounted on canvas and set within a large wooden frame which had been fashioned to Biéler’s instructions. Its long, narrow format recalls the works seen on cassoni, or marriage chests which are a rich and showy Italian type of chest. These long and narrow paintings had been revived by the English Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. The smooth-flowing depiction is of thirteen princesses fanning out in the foreground which is offset by a number of the trees in the background. The basin into which the women stare, occupies nearly half of the painting. The setting is autumn with fallen leaves on the ground and the surface of the pond. The women are kneeling, gazing into the pond, fascinated by their own reflections and worry at what they see – their unstoppable ageing. However, this depiction is all about Ovid’s myth of Narcissus, enchantment and the feminisation of heroes which was popular at we entered the twentieth century.
In 1917 Ernest set up shop in a vast studio in Montellier near Rivaz and there he began producing the great decorative works that will ensure him lasting fame. He created stained-glass windows for churches (Saint Francis, Lausanne; Saint Martin, Vevey; Saint Germain, Savièse), mounted-canvas ceilings (Victoria Hall, Geneva; Theatre of Bern) and frescoes (Jenisch Museum, Vevey; the main hall of the Greater Council, Sion).
From 1923, Beeler spent the last 25 years of his life in Savièse. In 1928, when he was sixty-five years of age, he married for the second time. His second wife was Madeleine de Kerenville, who was 20 years his junior.
Ernest Biéler died in Lausanne on June 25th, 1948 and is buried in St. Martin’s Cemetery in Vevey.
Many of Hilda’s works were sold and the success of the exhibition led to many of her Australian works of art touring London and British regional art galleries. The most prestigious of these being at the Royal Academy in London and at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers,
A solo exhibition of her work was on view in December 1924 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, and one of the works on display was His Land, which was described as having “the rare quality of conveying the spirit of life in the Commonwealth. Back in Australia, the December 5th 1925 edition of the Newcastle Morning Herald printed an article about the painting and the exhibition:
AUSTRALIAN WOMAN ARTIST.
Something of the beauty and grandeur of life in Australia is to be found in the art exhibition opened at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton-place, by the Australian High Commissioner. The artist. Mrs.Hilda RIx Nicholas, is an Australian and her works possess the rare quality of conveying, the spirit of life in the Commonwealth as well as portraying) that life pictorially. “His Land.” The most important work of the exhibition. might almost be termed great. It is a perfect example of the difficult art oil figure and’ landscape combination. In the foreground ‘is a young settler on horseback; contemplating a vast sunlit valley, which stretches away to the distant Blue Mountains. A. J. Munnings himself could not have painted horse and rider better. The trees, fields, and mountains are brightly coloured, and the whole picture. seems.to convey, the sunny heat-laden atmosphere of Australia.
It was not just in English galleries that her work was exhibited, for in Paris, she appeared at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Spring exhibition in Paris, in which she had eight works, a very large number for a single artist. The Société not only hung many of her paintings and drawings, she was elected an Associate to the organisation in that year.
One of her most famous paintings was completed in 1925 whilst she was living in Paris. It was entitled Les fleurs dédaignées (The scorned flowers). It was a monumental painting, the largest of all her works, measuring 193.0 x 128.5 cm (76 x 51 inches). Rix Nicholas concentrated on details of costume and decoration. The ornate eighteenth-century-style floral dress we see on the model was created by the artist specifically for the painting. The female stands indoors before an early twentieth-century pastiche of a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry, which was once owned by the artist. So, what is going on in the depiction we see before us? Look at the female. Her pale skin appears smooth and without blemish, almost like a porcelain doll. Her head looks so small in relation to her voluminous dress. The model for this work was a Parisian professional model and a prostitute, apparently with a reputation for being moody and cantankerous and this comes across as we study her face. She stands upright in a dignified but arrogant manner. She pouts. What is she thinking? Look at her facial expression, is it an expression of contempt or maybe sullenness? On the floor at her feet, we can see a bouquet of flowers which she has discarded and which are mirrored in the pattern of her dress. What was the artist’s reason for that? Are they from her lover who she has now rejected? Look at her gaze. Who is she looking at out the corner of her eyes? So many unanswered questions. Many art historians have had their say but few agree and so it is up to you to come up with answers!
When the work was displayed in Sydney in 1927, the art correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald of June 27th wrote:
“…For combination of grace, dramatic strength, and clearness in technique this picture would be difficult to surpass. There is nothing finicky about it; it tells its story with vivid directness. As a background to the figure Mrs. Rix Nicholas has set a piece of antique tapestry, so that the trees on either side lean in arch-wise over the head, the face and shoulders stand out clearly against an expanse of sky, and behind the body and limbs extends a countryside full of towers and rivers and trees. The quaint conventionality of this background accords exactly with the late eighteenth-century costume, all sprigged with roses and heliotrope; and the whole mass of detail harmonies [sic] perfectly with the type of the model’s face. It is a cold, selfish face. The artist has brought out with revealing strokes an expression of vindictive malice which is for the moment resting there; and the hands, the fingers of one grasped tightly by the other, give a clear indication of nervous tension within. The treatment of flesh tones and the general arrangement [sic], drawing attention gently but not too obtrusively to the columbines scattered on the polished floor—those are excellent…”
The painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 from the artist’s son, Rix Wright.
During her period in France Hilda put together a number of new paintings including portraits of traditional life and costume, whilst she spent her summers in Brittany. Before she left Europe, she had Le Bigouden, a painting she completed in 1925, hung at the Royal Academy’s 1926 Summer Exhibition. Le Bigouden and La Bigoudène were the names given to men and women who inhabited the Pont-l’Abbé region of Brittany
At the end of 1926, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Dorothy Richmond returned together to Australia. They decided to continue with their painting adventures and bought a car, modified it to hold all their painting paraphernalia and set off to roam New South Wales and Queensland and paint the Australian landscape from Canberra and the Monaro plains to the south, up into central Queensland . Hilda returned to Delegate where she had spent time before setting sail to Europe. Once again, she met up with farmers, Neil, and Edgar Wright. For Hilda it was a welcome return to the man she loved and On June 2nd 1928 she and Edgar Wright married in Melbourne. In 1930, Hilda and her husband had their only child, a son, whom they named Rix. Hilda stopped painting during their son’s infancy but once he became a young boy, she resumed with her art. Coincidentally, her friend and travel companion, Dorothy Richmond, married Edgar Wright’s cousin, Walter, and settled in the same region.
Hilda and Edgar Wright went to live in a property called Knockalong in the Tombong valley which was situated close to Delegate. It was a large and successful pastoral station, run by Edgar and his station hands and he is represented as the Shepherd of Knockalong in Hilda’s 1933 painting. The painting, which is one of the first works that Hilda Rix Nicholas produced, following her return to painting in 1934, after the birth of her only child, was one of many which depicted the life on the land in the Monaro of New South Wales, which is one of the centres of Australia’s rich and productive farmland.
Their son, Rix attended boarding school at Tudor House and then at Geelong Grammar. It was whilst attending the grammar school that he fell in love with sculpting. in fact, he created the two gateway sculptures that still adorn the entrance today. There was a differing of opinion between mother and father as to what their son’s future path should be. His father wanted him to take over the Merino stud and his mother wanted him to pursue an art career. In the end, to keep both happy, he combined his love for the southern Monaro landscape and his sculpting He managed the property and when he had free time, he created his sculpted works of art.
Rix created The Shearer when he was just 19 years old. Cast in bronze, The Shearer bends at the hip over a held sheep, its fleece almost entirely removed and laying at its feet.
Hilda carried on producing works of art for the next twenty-five years and had them shown at numerous exhibitions but by the time of her last exhibition, her love of painting was diminishing and the thoughts of what she had achieved and what was her future began to depress her. In a letter to her son she talked of that depression, writing:
“…Not doing anything creative is nearly killing me. The trouble is that there is no one near me who cares whether I ever do any more work or not … I feel the artist in me is dying and the dying is an agony … only one’s self knows the craving and the best part in one is aching unsatisfied…”
At this juncture in her life, with her health deteriorating, and her fervour for art fading, she did exhibit for the final time in 1954 in Sydney. It was a group exhibition with two of her oil paintings shown alongside her son’s sculpture The Shearer also on display.
Hilda Rix Nicholas Wright died in Delegate on 3 August 1961, a month before her seventy-seventh birthday.
It would have been almost impossible to actually paint plein air in oils in the chaotic marketplaces, so Hilda resorted to completing many outdoor pencil and crayon sketches and then later fashioned a completed work when she returned to her hotel. Her painting style had changed and was now more in line with the Post Impressionists. An example of this is her work entitled MoroccoMarketplace with the Pile of Oranges. It is a good example of the changes that her style underwent in Morocco. Now she is painting with flowing brush strokes in thick slabs of impasto, a technique used in painting, where paint is laid on an area of the surface in very thick layers, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. The scene is framed by buildings in the background and strewn across the foreground we see a large pile of oranges. The mountain women are wearing red striped skirts and bright haiks, the large pieces of cotton, silk, or wool cloth worn as an outer garment by some Moroccan women.
In 1914 she completed her painting entitled Men in the Market Place, Tangier. It is set during the late afternoon once all the shops had closed and in front of us are a group of men deep in conversation. She has cleverly used a much-reduced palette of pale blues, creams, browns, and yellows. We do not see the facial feature of the men as they are bathed in a dark grey shadow whilst the buildings behind them are bathed in late afternoon light. Hilda wrote a letter home describing how she had to endure the strong sunlight coming from the low sun. She wrote:
“…’The sun has sunken down in a daffodil bed – feeling he has well earned his rest. (But I have a bone to pick with him – he burnt my arms while sketching till they positively hurt – next time I’ll fool him & put gloves over them). The Moors have turned around from their haggling & marketing, gossiping & dreaming & murmuring to face the setting sun, their lips moving in prayer, their eyes beautiful to look upon – The pale yellow light giving a weird pallidness to the sheet of faces …”
Hilda completed a pastel drawing, Grand Marche, Tangier, which she later copied in oils. When it was exhibited in her show at Paris’ Galerie J. Chaine and Simonson in 1912 it was much admired and was bought by the French government for the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg. Centre stage in the depiction we see two women wearing red-and-white-striped cotton dresses or skirts, covered by white robes. Their legs are bare and they wear red shoes and socks. One of them pulls her white robe tighter across her upper body. The other, who has her back turned to the viewer, is carrying something on her back, which could be her young child. The art critics for the French edition of the New York Herald was impressed by Hilda Rix’s realist art, stating that in his opinion the figures in her compositions must surely have been sketched and later added to the finished work. He further commented:
“…’This artist has the ability to make lifelike images in remarkable compositions bringing outstanding realism and accurate impressions that capture the ‘types’ to be found among the Moroccan people…”
Not everybody loved the painting as the art critic of The Sydney Morning Herald commented that:
“…the drawing and colour are eccentric, after the post-impressionist manner” and described the central figure as “grotesque in its want of finish…”
The paintings which she did during her periods in North Africa led art historians to compartmentalise her as an Orientalist, a term which referred to the depiction of people or places in present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa or the Middle East, by painters from the West. In addition to displaying the results of her trip at the Salon, she also had her Tangier works exhibited in 1913 and 1914 at the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, an art society which staged not only Orientalist paintings, but also encouraged the travel of French artists in the Far East. Her work was illustrated in the Notre Gazette, reflecting her emerging status as an important artist, and there were many column inches in the French about her exhibitions.
Her colourful paintings featuring life in Morocco highlighted the powerful North African light and concentrated on the people and their colourful clothing and sometimes the local architecture. It could be levied against her that many of her depictions were idealised versions of life in Morocco and steered clear of the more squalid aspects of the poverty that pervades the area and yet in Jeanette Hoorn’s 2012 biography, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elsie Rix’s Moroccan Idyll : Art and Orientalism, she takes the opposite view, writing:
“…She did not seek out or embellish her pictures with the “orientalist” stereotypes that she had learned while growing up in Melbourne…In her writing and painting, she actively campaigned against what she saw as the fakery of “orientalism”. Her pastel drawings and oils strive to present an accurate account of the dress, manners and appearance of her subjects…”
Hoorn believed that Rix and her sister were, to a significant extent, counter-orientalist as they endeavoured to portray everyday life in Tangier as they found it, rather than presenting generalised views of the orient. Rix adopted a counter-orientalist position in lectures and articles upon her return to Australia. There were some that viewed her North African depictions as being somewhat abstract and flat and that could well be due to the influence Matisse had on her.
Matisse returned to Morocco in October of that year while it was two years later that Rix returned to North Africa, this time accompanied by her sister, who also sketched and wrote but whose main function was to be company for her sister and provide assistance and protection from enquiring bystanders while Hilda painted. Hilda was surrounded by spectators as she sketched and painted and her audience would, on occasions, halt the flow of the traffic
Another of her works from her second trip to Morocco was her 1914 painting entitled The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier. The searing North African sunlight illuminates the whitewashed buildings and the textured garments worn by the shepherds. Hilda Rix has used a striking palette of pinks, purples and oranges which is an acknowledgement of the Fauvism style of painting. Sadly, a house fire claimed many works from her African series of paintings.
Hilda and Elise returned to France in 1914. Around this time, whilst she was in her studio at Étaples, she completed a work entitled Grandmère. It is a plein air work which shows an elderly peasant woman in a beautiful garden setting affording the work a luminously colourful background. Many of Hilda’s paintings were bought by the French government, exhibited in the Salon and the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, and she was elected an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Hilda still had studios in Paris and one for the summer months spent in Étaples. The summer of 1914 she was at Étaples but the outbreak of World War I on July 28th 1914 resulted in Hilda, along with her sister Eliseand her mother evacuating to London. If that upheaval was not enough, Hilda had to endure a number of family tragedies. Her mother had been taken unwell during the Channel crossing and was admitted to hospital on arrival in England. Although Hilda’s mother was not fully recovered, she left hospital and went to recuperate at a nursing home. At the same time as the mother was extremely ill, Hilda’s sister Elise contracted typhoid and died on September 2nd 1914, aged 37. Hilda kept the death of her sister a secret from her mother who she believed was too ill to receive such sad news. Her mother slowly recovered and was later told of the death of her daughter. For the next eighteen months Hilda Rix painted few paintings presumably because she spent all her time looking after her mother and was too tired to concentrate on her paintings. She remembered the time saying:
“… I could scarcely put one foot in front of the other and walked like an old thing…”
Finally, in March 1916 Hilda’s mother, Elizabeth died.
Enter onto the scene, Major George Matson Nicholas, a soldier from Melbourne. George, usually referred to as Matson, was the eldest of six brothers. Before he enlisted in the Australian army in April 1915, he had been a schoolteacher. He fought at the Battle of Gallipoli and was wounded. Once recovered he was sent to France where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order at Pozieres, single-handedly capturing an enemy machine gun post. His regiment was based in Étaples, and according to Hilda’s stories, he found her paintings which she had left behind when she had had to quickly abandon her Étaples studios. Then, during his leave he travelled to London in pursuit of Hilda. They met in September 1916, love blossomed between the two, and on October 7th 1916 they married in St Saviour’s, Warwick Avenue in London.
Two days after the wedding Hilda completed a sketch of her husband. Three days after the wedding Major George Matson Nicholas returned to the front and assumed command of the 24th Battalion, He was shot and killed in action at the Normandy town of Flers on the Western Front on November 14th, aged 39.
Hilda was devastated and in a diary entry she wrote that she had lost the will to live. In her grief Hilda Rix Nicholas painted morbid images, symbolic of death and sacrifice in war which contrast markedly with the light and life of her French and Moroccan works. One such work was entitled These gave the world away which she completed in 1917.
Another of her war paintings was Pro Humanitate, the central panel of a triptych. It clearly depicts the futility of war and more personally for Hilda, the tragedy of her short marriage to Nicholas. The work comprised of three panels. The left-hand panel depicted an outdoor scene with a happy couple standing on top of a hill contemplating their future together; the central panel depicts a soldier husband giving his life for the cause of humanity. Hilda Rix has depicted the soldier at the moment of his death with arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose. The right-hand panel of the triptych portrays the heartbroken wife grieving and is watched over by the shadowy figure of her lost hero. Rix Nicholas offered her triptych Pro Humanitate, which depicted Australian soldiers, to the Australian War Memorial, which was building a collection of art commemorating the war, but it was rejected; the acquisitions committee described it as “of too intimate a character for inclusion in a public collection.
She painted a strange and moving painting around 1917 entitled Desolation. This work depicts an emaciated woman crying. She is shrouded in a black cloak and is squatted down staring at us. The setting is a battle-scarred landscape which lacks any vegetation. The National Gallery of Australia holds a charcoal drawing made as a study for the work. In a review, the Arts correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:
“…Desolation is almost gruesome in the grim delineation of the figure typifying all the widowed world in one lone woman. There she sits, lost in an awful reverie, over the stricken battlefield. The work is an epitome of wasteful ruin …”
Sadly, both Desolation and Pro Humanitate were destroyed in a fire.
The other day, I was looking through a list of famous nineteenth and twentieth Australian artists. The compiler of the list believed that the greatestAustralian painters were Sidney Nolan, Peter Booth, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Tom Roberts, Russel Drysdale, Frederick McCubbin, and John Olsen. I had heard of a number of these but what surprised me about the list was that it contained no female artists and so I decided to focus this blog on one such painter.
Emily Hilda Rix Nicholas was born on September 1st 1884, in the Australian city of Ballarat, some twenty-five miles north west of Melbourne. Her father, Henry Finch Rix was born in Woolwich, Kent on January 12th 1848, and her mother, Elizabeth Sutton, was born in Manchester, England in 1853. They had both emigrated as children with their families in the middle of the nineteenth century and the pair met and married in 1876. The couple had their first child, Elsie Bertha in 1877 and Hilda was born seven years later. Henry Rix was a mathematics teacher, an amateur poet and talented sportsman. He was a teacher at Bendigo, Ballarat and at Carlton. After a brief stint teaching in Ballarat, he was a mathematics master at Wesley College Melbourne for ten years between 1874 and 1884. He played for Carlton’s Australian Rules team and later became Inspector of Schools. In the book, A History of State Education in Victoria, Henry Rix was described as:
“…Of the men who have labored and passed away since 1900, Mr. H. F. Rix deserves to be especially remembered. Working under the result system, he foresaw the new day and strove to make it possible. His enthusiasm, his industry, his initiative, his research, and his sympathy made him a great inspector and a leader in educational reforms…”
Henry’s wife, Elizabeth, as well as being an accomplished singer, helped run a successful music business in Ballarat. She played an active part in the Austral Salon, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of women journalists in Melbourne in 1890 as a club for women writers. It then developed into a club whose aim was to introduce aspiring young musicians to an interested audience. She was also a talented amateur painter and had her own studio in Melbourne’s Flinders Street. Hilda and her sister Elsie being brought up in a musical household both learnt musical instruments and would perform at local shows. Elsie, like her mother, had a beautiful voice and performed at the Austral Salon. Hilda, as a small child, developed a love of drawing and painting and she and her sister would often design advertising posters for events at the Austral Salon.
Hilda attended Merton Hall High School, now Melbourne Girls Grammar School and although she was not an exceptional student she did excel in art under the tutelage of a Mr Mather. On leaving Merton Hall in 1902, eighteen-year-old Hilda enrolled on a three-year course at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School where one of her teachers was the foremost Australian Impressionist, Frederick McCubbin. Notwithstanding his standing in the art world, Hilda was critical of McCubban’s teaching style which she referred to as being “vague persuasions”. However her biographer John Pigot, in his 2000 book, Hilda Rix Nicholas: Her Life and Art, writes that the creativity of individuals rather than imitating the style of any one school of painting; he (McCubban) modelled the importance of nationalistic ideas and subjects that would become so prominent in her later painting and McCubban’s work emphasised the painting’s subject over technical considerations.
Hilda Rix’s work was so good that, although still a student, she had some of her drawings shown at annual exhibitions at the Victorian Artists’ Society and the Austral Salon. To earn herself some money she worked as a professional illustrator submitting her work for inclusion in textbooks and periodicals. Hilda was always with pencil and sketch pad and in her early days would persuade extended family members to sit for her whilst she sketched their portraits. Studies in two sketchbooks from her early years in Melbourne are now held at the National Library of Australia and in 2012 one of Rix’s early sketchbooks survives and pages from it were reproduced in Karen Johnson’s book, In Search of Beauty: Hilda Rix Nicholas’ Sketchbook Art
For most would-be artists who lived away from Europe such as Americans and Australians the Holy Grail was to visit and study art in Paris and London. Hilda’s father Henry decided to offer her a chance to sample the European art world and, in 1906, planned a family trip to England which, being as he was an educator, would also afford him the opportunity to study British education reforms. All his plans came to nought as Henry died that year, on February 27th aged just fifty-eight. His death at such a relatively young age precluded his widow from receiving a pension. After many discussions the family managed to cobble together money from an inheritance, money earnt from their rental income from their home, and finally money Hilda and her mother raised by selling off their many works of art and they were able to set sail for England early in 1907.
For Hilda, going to Europe to study art was only part of the solution to her improving her artistic skills, she needed to find a good teacher who was willing to tutor her. Before she left Australia, she spoke to Arthur Streeton, the Australian landscape painter who was the leading member of the Heidelberg School, which was also referred to as Australian Impressionism. He suggested that on arrival in London she contacted John Hassall, an English illustrator, who, in 1901, had opened his own New Art School and School of Poster Design in Kensington. When Hassall looked at Hilda’s work he was impressed by its quality and agreed to mentor her. She remained with him until the end of 1907 at which time, she, her mother and sister left England and travelled to Paris and rented an apartment in Montparnasse
In Paris Hilda made many friends who were involved in the art world, such as fellow Australian, Emanuel Phillips Fox. Fox had arrived in Paris in 1896 and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he gained first prize in his year for design. The following year he trained at the École des Beaux-Arts where two of his tutors were William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme, who were considered the greatest artists of their time. He returned to Australia in 1890 but returned to London after receiving a commission to paint a scene of the landing of Captain Cook in Australia, which had the strange caveat that he must paint the work abroad.
The 1902 painting, The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, depicts a wholly European perspective on the inauguration of relations between the British visitors and the local Aboriginal men of Botany Bay. In a post-Federation display of nationalistic projection, it shows Captain Cook stepping onto Australian land as part of a shore party, heroically interceding between the threatening local men who brandish spears and his own marines who aim to shoot them.
Hilda Rix also met Fox’s wife, Ethel, an English-born Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter.
In Paris Hilda enrolled at the Académie Delécluse, operated by academic painter Auguste Joseph Delécluse. It was an atelier-style art school which was very supportive of women artists, and, in fact, it allotted more space to women students than to men. Men and women were trained separately, and it had two studios for women and only one for men. It was an extremely popular place to learn, especially among English and American women artists. At the height of its popularity, it was one of the four best-known ateliers in Paris. From this artistic establishment, Hilda moved to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where one of teachers was the Swiss-born illustrator Théophile Steinlen. She also studied at Académie Colarossi. It was around this time that Henri Matisse had a studio in the French capital and, as was the case with other professional artists, he also sometimes attended Colarossi’s to gain access to their models which he could use, free of charge, for his work. Matisse would also open the door of his studio to aspiring artists whom he would offer tuition and have them experiment with the techniques of Post Impressionism. It could well be that this is where Hilda first met Matisse.
Whilst living in Paris, the family would travel to Italy and other parts of France including Étaples, the fishing port in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France which was so popular with artists. In 1909 Hilda Rix met and became very friendly with a Dutch architecture student Wim Brat. Their initial love ended when Hilda realised how her fiancé was a “mother’s boy” and was completely dominated by her, a woman who strongly disapproved of Hilda. Inevitably, Hilda broke off the engagement. Notwithstanding this personal setback, Hilda continued with her painting and exhibited her work at the 1911 Paris Salon. The painting, Return of the Hunt, was completed by Hilda in 1911 and depicts a woman on horseback in chocolate brown leather gloves with a large hare slung over her back.
Hilda Rix, accompanied by her sister and mother, took up residence in the rural art colony of Étaples the summer of 1910. Here she met Henry Ossawa Tanner, a well-established American artist in France, who was viewed as one of the leaders of the Étaples artists’ colony and a member of the art organization, the Société Artistique de Picardie. It was not just France and Italy which seduced artists, many started to cross the Mediterranean to paint and sketch in North Africa. Hilda Rix made two painting trips to the African continent. The first was in January 1912 when she travelled with a group of artists, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, and his wife, who were visiting Morocco via Madrid, Cordoba, and finally Algeciras, they had hoped to take a boat to Tangiers but the weather was too bad, which forced the travellers to Gibraltar for what proved a rough crossing to the Moroccan port.
Tanner being an African American and Rix being a female made them unconventional and exceptional travel and work companions on this journey. They stayed in Tangier and the northern port town of Tétouan. Matisse and Hilda Rix stayed in the Grand Hôtel Villa de France for most of February and March. They both painted views from the windows of their rooms at the hotel. Both of them worked on portraits and would use the same models and utilised an unused room in the hotel which the owner allocated to them. The room became a temporary studio space.
An example of the similar portraiture was Hilda’s painting, Hamido Sleeps and Matisse’s work, Moroccan Amido. In both cases the young model was a stable-hand at their Tangiers hotel.
In Matisse’s painting the young man stands easily and naturally, his slim long-legged form is emphasised by the narrow canvas format the artist has used. In the painting, Matisse captures the dark skin, the bright white shirt, the pure colours of the waistcoat and short trousers.
Hilda loved Tangier and spent hours sketching and painting in the open-air markets. She wrote home about how she loved Tangier and its market, writing:
“…Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me completely – have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh how I do love it all! … Oh the sun is shining I must out to work…”
Hilda Rix was fascinated by the buying and selling in the marketplace as well as the multitude of colours of the clothes worn by the people. In a letter home, dated February 12th 1912, she wrote:
“…”See how most of them are covering their faces – They have mostly cream draperies & perhaps orange waistcoats and little tight mauve green trousers – (tight at ankle) – Some may be wonderfully dressed under[neath]…”.
In a postcard she sent home a week later she wrote:
“…’Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me absolutely – Have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh I do love it all! …”
Of the 850+ blogs I have done in the last ten years, I think only three have been about living artists. Maybe I was concerned that they would be upset with what I had written or maybe they would be unhappy if I had been inaccurate, although I try to get facts from various sources to avoid errors. My featured artist today is a person who commented how he liked one of my blogs and when I looked at his blog/website and some of his artwork I decided that he would make for an ideal subject. I wrote to him and he was happy for me to do a small bio on his life and art, so let me introduce you to John Pototschnik, pronounced Poe-toe-sh-nic. John is a Signature member of the Oil Painters of America and a Master Signature Emeritus member of the Outdoor Painters Society. He is recognized in “Who’s Who in American Art” and “Who’s Who in the Southwest.” In addition, his work has appeared in multiple artist magazines and books. He’s also the author of a best-selling book: Limited Palette Unlimited Color published by Streamline Publishing.
John was born in England, in the Cornish coastal town of St. Ives, on November 14th 1945. His father was Ernest Felix Pototschnik, a native of Kansas whilst his mother, Patricia Mary Pototschnik (née Symons) was born in Trewartha, Lelant in Cornwall. She was Ernest’s second wife. Ernest’s first wife died during the birth of their son Ernest Francis. John’s father was a member of the US Army which was stationed in England during the Second World War and he met Patricia when he attended a local dance. John’s mother once told him that she remembered that first meeting saying she was especially attracted to Ernest because of his short stature, the way he carried himself, and the American uniform. The couple soon fell in love and were married in St Ives on February 12th 1945. John was their eldest child and he has a sister, Patsy Ann.
Around 1946 Ernest Pototschnik was discharged from the army, and returned to America where he purchased a home in Wichita, Kansas, prior to his wife and John travelling across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary some months later to join him. The family relocated to Wichita, Kansas and remained there for the next twenty-two years. John attended the Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Wichita and then enrolled at the city’s Chaplain Kapaun Memorial High School. At school John enjoyed draughtsmanship and biology. He liked to sketch especially aircraft and racing cars. As a youth, his parents were comfortable with him going off on his own, exploring the neighbourhood. He even went door-to-door selling his mother’s cookies or collecting money for his paper route. John also often spent time with his father on hunting trips. He believes this freedom to roam was how he built up his love of small American towns.
After graduating from High School in 1963, he went to the Pittsburg State Teacher’s College in Pittsburg, Kansas for one year. During his early life at home there had been no exposure to art and the possibility of becoming an artist was never in consideration. However, it was during the time at the College that John had the first thoughts about art being a definite possibility in his future. He remembered purchasing the Famous Artist School correspondence course but admitted that he never completed it. He explained that there was just no time for this extra-curricular study as life was filled with college work, athletics, and an after-school job. He said that he had little time for anything else.
In June 1964, John enrolled at Wichita State University and embarked on a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a major in Advertising Design. During his university days he worked for a number of graphic design and illustration companies. One of the companies was Oblinger-Smith Planning Consultants where he worked as a graphic designer and, it was here, that through a work colleague he met Marcia who in October 1971 became Mrs Marcia Pototschnik. His love of airplanes also had him sign up for the USAF College Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). Upon graduation from college, I was guaranteed an Air Force commission and on leaving university in June 1968, John spent the next four years working for the United States Air Force stationed at El Segundo, California where he worked as an Internal/Public Information Officer working in community relations and edited the base newspaper.
Following completion of his time in the military in June 1972, he moved to Dallas and set about establishing a freelance illustration career although he proudly states he had his first paying job when he was ten years old, mowing lawns in the summer, raking leaves in the autumn and shovelling snow in the winter and at fifteen earned money as a part-time dish-washer at a local department store and during his first year of college days he was a consummate hamburger-flipper! For the next ten years of his life he worked as an illustrator for all the major advertising agencies and design studios. Of this decade as an illustrator he said he enjoyed the time:
“…I very much enjoyed working as a freelance illustrator. There was a great variety of work and its associated challenges. Being able to meet those challenges and satisfy a client was very rewarding. I also liked seeing my work in print. It also afforded me the opportunity to work in a number of media: pencil, pen/ink, watercolour, and acrylic. It also trained me to work under pressure and to meet tight deadlines…”
But all good things had to come to an end and for John the graphic design jobs were very time consuming and he said that his life revolved around long working hours and frequent bouts of little sleep. This lifestyle of constant pressure and ever-demanding deadlines could not go on forever and so in 1982 John made the decision to leave the world of illustration and graphic design and turn his mind to the world of Fine Arts.
However, it was not just himself he had to consider as now he had a wife and two sons, Jonathan in 1975 and two years later a second son, Andrew. But what did his wife think of his decision to quit his lucrative graphic designer career. John comments:
“…Marcia has always been supportive of my art career regardless of the direction I decided to take it. She is a woman of common sense and has never been materialistic, in that she needed things to make her happy. She loved being a mother and homemaker…”
One can see how the decision to enter the world of Fine Artist was a financial gamble and he spoke about the decision:
“…Many well-known illustrators were leaving the field and moving into the fine arts in the 1970’s. It was something I had always wanted to do but was told from the very beginning, “You’ll never make a living as a fine artist”. So, I chose to work in the commercial art side of the business. Seeing other illustrators make the leap encouraged me to do the same…”
The switch to Fine Arts from being an illustrator and graphic designer was a massive change in John’s life and he was aware of the perils of this transition, saying:
“…Change is always a gamble. Fortunately, I was pretty naïve concerning what it would take to succeed, and to the realities of the fine art business. I thought the transition would be smooth and easy. I would just start painting different subjects, charge the same prices I was getting as an illustrator, and begin calling myself a fine artist. The only part of that that worked out was that I was painting different subjects. Galleries recognized my work as being illustrative, and nothing sold at my illustration prices. Fortunately, the transition was eased somewhat by a friend who suggested I paint a series of paintings showing that the oil industry and wildlife could co-exist in the same area. If I did the paintings, he agreed to help me find six corporate sponsors that would purchase the paintings and their accompanying prints. That project worked well as it gave me time to begin working in oil, painting en plein air, developing my work, and funding my first year in the fine arts. Actually, there was not much thought given to financial success. I just figured one way or another this would work. However, it did take seven years to return to the level of income I was making as an illustrator…”
So how did the change of artistic direction go for John? He recalled those early day struggles:
“…Yes, there was a definite struggle. I did not realize it when I set my mind on becoming a fine artist, but fine art was beginning all over again. It is not a continuation of an illustration career; it’s starting a new career. I grew the career by doing lots of small paintings (5”x7” – 8” x 10”). These sold at very reasonable prices. I sold a lot of them, which helped grow a collector base. Then I began writing a monthly newsletter in order to stay in contact with the collectors. Determining the price structure for my paintings is interesting in itself: As stated earlier, I began using illustration prices for the paintings…nothing sold. I then cut the prices in half…nothing sold. I cut the prices in half again…I then began selling just about everything. That’s why those early paintings were so reasonable…”
John has painted in many mediums but his favourite is oils as it dries much slower than acrylic and thus affords him the chance to manipulate and correct his work until it is just right. He also is pleased by the way oils has substance and retains brushstrokes. When I asked John about his depictions being predominantly rural, he commented:
“…Much of what I paint are deeply felt impressions formed during my childhood. I grew up in the 1950s. It was a totally different time. I grew up in small neighbourhoods, small houses, small towns, near the country. My parents and grandparents had flourishing vegetable gardens. My mom made homemade cookies which I sold door to door. I had newspaper routes in which I delivered morning and evening newspapers door to door. I was free to ride my bicycle all around town and visit my friends. All these things, and much more, are in my work…”
His finished works are often the result of plein air painting which he enjoys but he says that about 99% of the plein air work is just for learning how to get a good handle on understanding nature. Some of those studies are used as a starting point for larger studio works. Less frequently, they are completed compositions unless they are for an art show or plein air competition, then, I will do larger completed works on location.
In so many of the artists I have looked at over the years many depict realist situations, such as the poverty of the peasants and the back-breaking labour they had to endure and so I asked John why he has not also painted those often harrowing depictions. He replied:
“…. I’ve never experienced personally the realities and hardships of actual farm life. I’ve been around farms, mainly as a child, so to this day have a more romanticized view. As an adult, I’m not unaware of the reality. I just choose to depict something that is somewhere between Realism and Idealism…”
He is also aware of the taste of the buying public. Do they want paintings depicting hard-hitting realism on the walls of their house or would they rather have idealised rural beauty adorning their lounges and dining rooms? John believes the latter is the case and the sale of his works of art bears out that assumption.
I asked him which of the great artists of the past he admired most. He was most definite with his reply:
“…My favourite expressions of art are found in the Barbizon and Naturalism schools. Breton and Millet are certainly two of my favourites, but there are many more from that era, painting in that genre. There are so many artist’s works, past and present that I greatly admire, so I will say that the 1800s is my absolute favourite period in art history…”
He said he loved the works of Camille Corot, Charles-Francois Daubigny, Jean-Francois Millet. In their paintings he saw a great sensitivity to people and nature. They have the ability to express all nature’s subtleties in such a unified, calming, peaceful way which he found very appealing. Only what is necessary is stated, nothing is overworked. He also liked the Naturalism of the art of Stanhope Forbes, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Leon Lhermitte, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Charles Sprague Pearce, Frank Bramley, Jules-Alexis Muenier, George Clausen, Gari Melchers, and Jules Breton. He liked how the Naturalists works are highly refined, almost photographic. Subjects are of common folks in everyday situations, people of the land, usually depicted in rural settings. I find all this extremely appealing, especially the high degree of finish. Finally, he said that he loved the work of the Russian Itinerants, such as Arkhipov, Kramskov, Levitan, Perov, Repin, Svetoslavsky and how their paintings are gritty, earthy, bold, and emotionally powerful. He summed it up by saying:
“…The common thread running through all the work I most love is a sense of the real. Subjects are of common folk doing common tasks. They are not idealized. Small towns, cottages, rural landscapes, and people going about their daily lives in that environment predominate. All of the above artists speak of the reality and truth of everyday life, there is no pretentiousness. I feel each artist has approached their work and subject with humility and is therefore able to capture the soul and spirit of the subject with great sensitivity…”
I finally asked John on his views for Fine Art in the future and the up and coming aspiring artists. How will the future compare with the past? He replied:
“…I’m not sure what the future holds for the fine art of painting. There will always be a place for beautiful things, things that elevate, but whether individual hand-crafted paintings will have as much value and importance to future generations as they have had in the past, I don’t know.
Lack of art education, shortened attention span, ever expanding technology, increased desire for the latest and greatest thing…and a new generation that has had little exposure to fine art… could greatly affect how fine art is valued in the future.
That being said, among serious art students, there seems to be a real move toward realism, and even classicism. Non-objective art among many is seen as empty and devoid of substance. They want more. Ateliers, teaching solid drawing and painting principles, have sprung up around the world. The Art Renewal Center is a strong influence in promoting a return to representational art. Also, the current plein air movement in the United States has encouraged a huge number of amateur artists to pick up their brushes and go outdoors. The negative side of the plein air movement is that people seem to think if a work is done in plein air, it must be good. What I see is a lot of poorly executed, poorly composed, and poorly drawn works. When these works are promoted in magazines and social media, one is led to believe the work is good and that anyone can be an artist. Doing something quickly is better than doing something thoughtfully and carefully seems to be the driving force.
Painting workshops are very helpful in providing for an artist’s livelihood. Unfortunately, many that are teaching should not be teaching because their work is of poor quality. Also, not every good artist is a good teacher. I recommend choosing one’s instructor carefully.
Finally, I disagree with students taking one workshop after another, jumping from one instructor to the next. Over and over again, I see this happening but see no improvement in the students work. It seems it’s more about saying I studied with so-and-so, than actually seriously applying what is taught…”
John has received many awards for his art and in 2018 the Art Renewal Center, the largest online association with 50,000 of the greatest works in history, recognized him as a Living Master (ARCLM). The requirements for Living Master status are extensive with the main caveat being, “The artist has dedicated themselves to becoming a realist artist with the wish to express our shared humanity through the visual arts.”
To find out more about John Pototschnik have a look at his website:
One of Fern Coppedge’s later paintings, The Coal Barge, which she completed around 1940, featured the Delaware Canal. The sixty-mile canal and the coal barges, which ploughed their way down its length, were an important means of transporting anthracite coal from north-eastern Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. This barge trade lasted a hundred years and started in 1932 and in its heyday, over three thousand mule drawn boats travelled up and down this waterway carrying more than one million tons of coal every year. This mode of transport became obsolete with the transporting of coal by rail. This depiction of the canal and towpaths was a favourite depiction of many artists at the time. There was a connection between Fern and the mules, which were used to tow the barges, as her studio was in a barn which once housed the working animals.
In 1933 Fern completed a painting entitled Evening Local, New Hope which originally had the title, Five O’clock Train, which pictorially presents historical documentation of the schoolhouses which were in the New Hope-Solebury School District. The painting depicts New Hope Elementary School which can be seen on the hill off West Mechanic Street in New Hope. The building is no longer a school but is now the home of the New Hope Jewish congregation Kehilat NaHanar known locally as the “Little Shul by the River.”
Coppedge divided her time between her Boxwood home in Lumberville, her studio in the coastal town of Gloucester where she often spent summers, and a studio in Philadelphia which she used during exhibitions. In 1916 Fern spoke about her plein air painting at the Massachusetts fishing town of Cape Ann, Gloucester, and how she had many ardent onlookers. She wrote:
“…In the waters shown in my paintings, there were a number of lobster traps. The fishermen were so much interested in the development of the picture of this familiar scene that in order to have an excuse to see it they would bring me a freshly boiled lobster, and the old sea captains would entertain me with thrilling stories of stormy nights spent in their little fishing schooners on the Newfoundland Banks and the Georges…”
In 1922 Fern was accepted into the all-women art society known as the Philadelphia Ten and exhibited regularly with them through to 1935. They were an exclusive and progressive group of female artists and sculptors who ignored society rules of the time by working and exhibiting together.
Coppedge once talked about her favoured methodology of painting and how she favoured working plein air to capture the essence of nature, notwithstanding inclement weather conditions:
“…I may erase most of my sketch, but after I have it the way I want it in charcoal, then I work over the entire canvas with a large brush. I use thin paint in trying to get the right value. I test different spots to see whether the scene should be painted rich or pale. Then I proceed with the actual painting using paint right from the tube. I hold the brush at arm’s length and paint from the spine. That gives relaxation…”
Pennsylvania Impressionism was an American Impressionist movement of the first half of the 20th century that was centred in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, particularly the town of New Hope. The movement is sometimes referred to as the “New Hope School” or the “Pennsylvania School” of landscape painting. Fern Coppedge was the only female member of The New Hope School. She was part of that art movement and devoted numerous pictures to her Bucks County environment especially her winter scenes and she would suffer for her art with her plein air painting in the sub-zero conditions. She was fascinated with the beauty of the snow. There is no doubt that the extreme cold winters challenged her devotion to plein air painting. She tried to get round this and carry on painting as long as she could by removing the back seat of her car to paint from an enclosed warm area. In cold windy conditions she would often tie her canvases to trees to fight off the wind and would wear her unfashionable but fit-for-purpose bearskin coat. It was said by a local art critic for The New Hope magazine in November 1933:
“…We remember seeing Mrs. Coppedge trudging through the deep snow wrapped in a bearskin coat, her sketching materials slung over her shoulder, her blue eyes sparkling with the joy of life…”.
There was a difference between her paintings and the other New Hope Impressionists. Unlike other New Hope Impressionists, Fern Coppedge looked at the landscape scenes she was to paint with different eyes than them. Of course, the first thing she acknowledged was what the eyes saw or the true photographic image. However, she would also want an input from her imagination and how the scene felt like to her, and it was this power of imagination that led her to paint scenes with colours and tones which did not exist in reality.
An example of her differing style can be seen if you compare her depiction of Carversville with the depiction of the same place by her fellow New Hope School artist, Edward Redfield.
Often her scenes would not be topographically correct. Again, it was down to her power of imagination which countered reality and the finished result was an idealised version of the scene which was all about pleasing the artist. In her mind, the depiction was a battle between what was actually there in front of her against what she imagined should be there. Instead of depicting building using true brown and grey colours, Fern preferred to use pink and turquoise to, as if by magic, brighten facades. A travesty of art ? Maybe we should think of how nowadays we adjust photographs, using photo editing packages, to achieve, not a true result, but a result we find more pleasing ! The fact her paintings sold so well is testament that the buying public had no problem with her idealisation or colour shifts.
Fern joined “The Philadelphia Ten” in 1922 and exhibited regularly with them for the next thirteen through 1935. The Philadelphia Ten, which was founded in 1917, was both a unique and forward-thinking group of women artists and sculptors who ignored the rules of society and the art world by working and exhibiting together for almost thirty years. Their work was varied and included both urban and rural landscapes, portraiture, still life, and a variety of representational and myth-inspired sculpture. The group of local female artists started with eleven founding members, who were all alumnae of either the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (known today as Moore College of Art and Design), but over the years the membership rose to thirty artists, twenty three who were painters and seven who were sculptors.
In the summer of 1925, Coppedge travelled to Italy and immersed herself in painting local scenes. She stayed in the city of Florence, which was a base for her travels around Tuscany, ever recording pictorially the beauty of the Tuscan landscape. It is thought that during her time in Tuscany Fern was inspired to change her painting style. She began to simplify the natural elements she saw before her, often flattening them and she also became much more audacious when it came to her colour choices. One of my favourite works from this period is Coppedge’s painting entitled The Golden Arno. She had sketched views of the great Italian river as it passed through Tuscany and the painting was completed back in her home studio. Coppedge talked about this painting and how it came about:
“…From my hotel, overlooking the Arno in Florence—looking from the balcony window—I saw the Arno River flowing gently like molten gold. It was late afternoon, and lazy Italian boatmen floated past in the dark, sturdy barges, wending their way down the river. Along the opposite bank were charming old stucco houses in colours of pale and rusty yellow, rose, pink, and old red. Tiled roofs, arched doorways and deeply recessed windows, balconies, towers and turrets against the background of cypress trees—all mirrored in the waters of the Arno. Church towers and ancient castle walls patterned against the hills inspired me and thrilled me with an irresistible desire to put on canvas my impressions…”
In 1926, the painting of the Arno was included in an exhibition of The Philadelphia Ten. It received great praise from both viewers and art critics. The painting was later exhibited in exhibitions in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and it is now regarded as one of her best works. It was also reproduced on the cover of The Literary Digest in March of 1930. The painting was acquired by her local high school, mostly likely after the school opened in 1931. Around 1934, Fern stopped exhibiting with The Philadelphia Ten and instead focused on exhibiting at her studio,
During her artistic career she received several awards including the Shillard Medal in Philadelphia, a Gold Medal from the Exposition of Women’s Achievements, another Gold Medal from the Plastics Club of Philadelphia, and the Kansas City H.O. Dean Prize for Landscape.
Coppedge died at her New Hope home on April 21st, 1951 at the age of 67. Her husband, Robert W. Coppedge, died in New Hope, Pennsylvania in 1948. The Coppedges, who were married in 1904, remained husband and wife for 44 years. Fern Coppedge was one of America’s most prolific painters, having completed over five thousand works during her lifetime. I will leave the last word on Fern Coppedge and her paintings to Arthur Edward Bye, an American landscape architect born in the Netherlands who grew up in Pennsylvania who said:
“…Man and his activities seem pleasantly remote but not absent in her landscapes. She fills them with houses and churches, lanes, bridges, and canals. They have therefore, that suggestion of human life, coloured with brightness, exuberant, which best answers the needs of most of us…”
Most of the information for this blog came from the website Pennsylvania through the eyes of Fern I Coppedge.