Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 1. Early life

Self Portrait by Christoffer Eckersberg (1811)
Self Portrait by Christoffer Eckersberg (1811)

Let me start this blog with a question.  When you look around a large art gallery how long do you stand before each painting?  Is it just a cursory glance or do you study the artistic technique of the artist and examine the brush strokes which many artists believe are like the painter’s fingerprints?   I suppose a lot depends on the size of the gallery with all the works on show at the major ones being impossible to see in one visit and of course one has to also take into account whether one is likely to return to the gallery on another occasion.  The reason for this question is that a fortnight ago we were in Hamburg, staying for three nights in a hotel opposite the Hamburger Kunsthalle which is said to be the largest art museum in Germany.  Such a large collection and such a limited time to feast our eyes on the many paintings so what was to be the strategy – rush and see as many as possible or be selective and miss out on many unknown painters?  Fortunately, I didn’t have to decide as when we arrived and looked out the hotel bedroom window there were many large signs unfurled telling people that the museum was still closed and would not open until May 1st after seventeen months of renovations!!!

Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition
Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition

However all was not lost as a small number of rooms had been opened for a visiting collection of the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and this turned out to be one of the best exhibitions I had ever seen.  The exhibition entitled Eckersberg – Fascination with Reality contained about 90 paintings and 40 drawings and prints from all the artist’s creative periods, and included all of the artist’s major works.  Because people may have been waiting for the official re-opening of the museum to visit the exhibition, there were no crowds and it allowed time to study each one of Eckersberg’s works without any “gallery rage” caused by hordes of people pushing to get better views.  In my next few blogs I will look at the life of Eckersberg and showcase some of his historical paintings, his portraits, seascapes and landscapes which made him one of Denmark’s greatest artists.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was born in 1783 in Blåkrog, a small Danish town in the parish of Varnæs in Southern Jutland.  Later the family moved a short distance to the town of Blans.  He lived with his mother, Ingeborg Nielsdatter and his father, Henrik Eckersberg, who was a carpenter and house painter.  Christoffer studied as a painter for three years from the age of fourteen under the guidance of Jes Jessen of Aabenraa, who was well known for his a floral paintings, portraiture and historical works.  When Eckersberg was seventeen, Christoffer became apprenticed to the Flensborg artist, John Jacob Jessen.  During these early years of training Christoffer had one goal in mind – to be accepted as a pupil at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen, which was inaugurated in 1754, and was the leading artistic establishment of Denmark.  During his early training he had put together a portfolio of his work and that along with some money given to him by local people of the village, he set off in 1803 for Copenhagen.  The entrants’ panel of the Academy were impressed by his portfolio of work, so much so that he was accepted into the Academy without having to pay a fee.

Whilst studying at the Academy Eckersberg was influenced by the works of the late portrait and landscape painter, Jens Juel, a court painter and professor at the Academy but who had died a year before Eckersberg’s arrival.  The other great influence was one of Eckersberg’s professors, Nickolai Abildgaard, a neo-classical and royal history painter.  The highlight of Eckersberg’s six year stay at the Academy came in his final year, 1809, when he was awarded the academy’s Gold Medal and with that came a stipend for travel to Rome which he received in 1812.  After completing his studies he concentrated on completing a number of historical, mythological and biblical paintings.

Loke and Sigyn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)
Loke and Sigyn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

One such work was entitled Loki and Sigyn who were husband and wife characters in Norse mythology.  Sigyn was a goddess and the wife of Loki and the tale is about her role in assisting Loki during his period of captivity. The mythology around this pair of characters is rather gruesome.  The story goes that when the gods captured Loki, they turned one of Loki’s sons, Vali into a wolf. The wolf then ripped apart Narfi, Loki and Sigyn’s son. The boy’s entrails hardened into an iron chain, and the gods used this grotesque fetter to bind Loki in a cave deep beneath the earth. The gods then placed a snake above Loki that would drip venom onto his head.  In order to save her husband from the dripping venom from the snake’s mouth, Sigyn sat by Loki’s side with a bowl to catch the drops of venom so that they wouldn’t touch her husband’s head. Every so often, however, she would have to leave the cave to pour out the bowl. In her absence, a few drops of poison would fall onto Loki’s forehead. This caused him to writhe in agony, which in turn caused earthquakes on the earth’s surface.

Farm in Spejlsby on Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)
Farm in Spejlsby on Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

Prior to his European travels Eckersberg completed a commission for Frantz Christopher von Bülow, Chief of the General Staff for King of Denmark, Frederick VI.  The commission was a set of twelve scenes of the island of Møn, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea.  One of these paintings was entitled Farm in Spejlsby on Møn, a depiction of a rainbow over the farmstead in a small village on the north of the island.  The farm has been hit by a rainstorm and yet the farm itself is bathed in sunlight.  Neither of the milkmaids in the foreground seems to be phased by the storm as they chat away, nor is the man with the basket who casually strolls along the path towards the farmhouse.  It is thought that Eckersberg completed the work in his Copenhagen studio from a sketch he made the previous year.

View of Møns Klint and Sommerspiret by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1809)Another landscape Eckersberg completed in 1809 featuring the island was entitled The Cliffs of the Island of Møn. View of the Summer Spire.  The chalk cliffs on the eastern coast of the island, known as Møns Klint, and the surrounding woodlands and pasture lands has attracted an estimated quarter of a million visitors every year and is the favourite location for artists as it was in the nineteenth century.  Christopher von Bülow had his Nordfeld estate near the cliffs so this was probably the reason for Eckersberg depiction.  It gave the artist the chance to depict the elements of nature which made the area so loved.  The high white limestone peak we see in the background is the Sommerspirit or Summer spire which rises to a height of 102 metres.  Unfortunately this natural wonder can no longer be seen as in January 1988 it crashed into the sea due to coastal erosion below its base.  Maybe there is a touch of humour in the painting as we Eckersberg depicting a petrified woman shrink back from the edge of the cliff in fear, despite the soothing overtones from her male companion.

View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg ( 1809)
View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg ( 1809)

Another of his paintings depicting a scene on the island of Møn was View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn. This is acknowledged as one of the most romantic and picturesque views of the gardens at Liselund Manor.  Liselund is a landscaped park, in which there are several exotic buildings and monuments. The park is situated close to Møns Klint on the northeast side of the island.  The park was created in the 1790s by French nobleman Antoine de Bosc de la Calmette for his wife Elisabeth, commonly known as Lisa, and Liselund, roughly translated, means Lise’s grove.  The park is considered to be one of the finest examples in Scandinavia of Romantic English gardening.  Before us we see the cleft with the small waterfall which is framed by luxuriant trees.  In the foreground we see three visitors to the park fascinated by what they see before them.  The format of this landscape painting is unusual with it being portrait format instead of the usual landscape format.

Having completed his paintings of the island of Møn, Eckersberg set off on his Grand Tour of Europe, the first stop of which was Paris.  What Eckersberg soon learnt was that the new contemporary French painting of the time was so radically different to that of his Danish role models, Juel and Abildgaard. French paintings had a greater clarity of colour, bright light and clear-cut contours.  One of the stars of French art at this time was Jacques-Louis David and Eckersberg, through his patron had not only arranged for him to meet the great Neoclassical-style painter but had also had arranged for Eckersberg to be tutored by him in his life classes where students were taught how best depict the human body and the resulting change in a manifest change to Eckersberg’s style of history painting.

Three Spartan Boys by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)
Three Spartan Boys by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

Eckersberg’s time spent in Jacques-Louis David’s life classes must have honed his skill for that type of art as in 1812 he produced Three Spartan Boys.  This was one of the first paintings in which he translated what he had learnt at those life classes of David.  A year after completion, the painting was exhibited in Copenhagen with the title, Three Spartan Youths Practicing Archery.  Etude from Nature.  The first part of the title ensures the painting is looked upon as a history painting but the second part of the title alludes to the fact that it is a modified and elaborated figure study.  See how the three youths strike different poses and we, as viewers, see them from different angles and thus admire the artist’s skill at his depiction of their bodies.  Note to the inclusion of a landscape background to this work.

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David
Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David

Such an inclusion could be the result of Eckersberg having studyed the works of Jacques-Louis David who would also add landscape backgrounds to his historical paintings, one example of which was his painting entitled Leonidas at Thermopylae which Eckersberg probably only saw an unfinished version as it was not completed until 1814.

Odysseus' Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, by Christoffer Eckersberg (ca. 1812)
Odysseus’ Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, by Christoffer Eckersberg (ca. 1812)

Another of Eckersberg’s historical paintings at this time was one entitled Odysseus’ Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, which he completed around 1812.  Book XIX of the Odyssey tells of the return of Odysseus, in disguise as a poor beggar to his home and to his erstwhile wife Penelope.  Odysseus continually refers to Penelope as the honourable wife of Lord Odysseus.   Odysseus has a bath and helped by his old nurse Eurykeia who recognizes a scar on Odysseus’ thigh and therefore knows the beggar is her lost master. Odysseus grabs her by the throat and tells her to keep what she saw from all others or else he will kill her.   In his painting, Eckersberg captures the moment when the old nurse is about to blurt out Odysseus’ name and so he covers her mouth with his hand as he looks over to Penelope to see if she has been alerted to the nurse’s discovery but she has her head in her hand still grieving for her lost husband.

Pont Royal seen from Quai Voltaire by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)
Pont Royal seen from Quai Voltaire by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

Whilst in Paris Eckersberg did complete a number of historical paintings but his love for landscape work was not forgotten and in November 1812 he produced a beautiful painting entitled Pont Royal seen from the Quai Voltaire from sketches he made that summer.  It is a view from the Left Bank of the Seine looking across the river towards the Louvre and the Tuilleries.  As a landscape it is a change of style for him. It is an early example of his use of linear perspective which allowed him to give a sense of depth to the depiction.  As an artist and recorder of a view, he has adopted a very soberly observed position.  The details in the work are given to us in far greater detail than his usual landscape style.  He portrays light shining in from the left casting numerous shadows and his depiction of the clouds bears witness to his careful inspection of nature.  The painting was exhibited at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen in 1814.

In my next blog I will follow Eckerberg’s journey to Rome and look at more of his works of art.

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Kristian Zahrtman and Leonora Christina

Kristian Zahrtmann
Kristian Zahrtmann

My blog today is a mixture of art and history. It is about a late nineteenth century Danish painter Kristian Zahrtmann and his fascination with Leonora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV of Denmark and Kirsten Munk. Zahrtmann was a painter, who produced landscapes, street scenes as well as many fine portraits but he was especially known for his history painting and especially paintings which featured legendary, and often tragic, females in Danish history.

Self portrait (1914)
Self portrait (1914)

Peder Henrik Kristian Zahrtmann was born in March 1843 in Rønne, a Baltic Sea town on the west coast of the Danish island of Bornholm. His mother was Laura Pouline Jesperson and his father, Carl Vilhelm Zahrtmann, was a doctor on the island. He was the eldest of nine children, having two sisters and six brothers. On completion of his normal schooling, at the age of seventeen, he left the Rønne Realskole and enrolled at the Sorø Academy on the Danish island of Zealand and it was here that he began to study painting under the tutorship of the Danish landscape painter and drawing master, Hans Hader. He graduated from the Academy in 1862 and a year later received his doctorate.

Following his graduation he went to live in Copenhagen and for the six months of the winter of 1863 he enrolled at the Technical Institute in Copenhagen where he studied drawing and design under the Danish artist, Christian Hetsch and architect Ferdinand Vilhelm Jensen. At the same time, he received private instruction from the genre painter Wenzel Ulrich. A year later he enrolled on a four-year course at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen. He graduated from the Academy in 1868 when he was twenty-five years of age and it was in this year that he first exhibited some of his first work at the Charlottenborg, the palace in which was situated the Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Jammers Minde The hand written autobiography of Leonora Christina
Jammers Minde
The hand written autobiography of Leonora Christina

It was around this time that Zahrtmann became great friends with aspiring Danish painters Otto Haslund and Pietro Krøhn with whom he shared a studio. It was this friendship that in some way was the starting point of this blog about Zahrtmann and the 17th century Danish princess Leonora Christina for it was they who gave Zahrtmann, for his birthday, a copy of Jammers Minde, which literally translated means A Memory of Lament. It was a posthumous autobiography written by Leonora during her twenty-two year solitary incarceration in the Blue Tower in Copenhagen Castle and which was not published until 170 years later, in 1869. So who was Leonora Christina and why was the daughter of the king imprisoned for over two decades of her life?

Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower by Kristian Zahrtmann
Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower by Kristian Zahrtmann

To find the answer to this we need to go back to King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway who succeeded his late father, Frederik II, at the age of eleven and ascended to the throne eight years later. He married his first wife Anne Catherine in 1597, when he was twenty years of age, and the couple went on to have seven children, four of whom died in infancy. Anne Catherine died in 1612 and three years later, in December 1615, Christian IV remarried. His second wife was Kirsten Munk, the daughter of a wealthy court official, who had been living with her family at the royal palace in Copenhagen . Although she was of the nobility, she held no title and so when she married the widowed king, Christian, it was a marriage between people of different social classes and the marriage was termed a morganatic marriage (similar to the present day marriage between Prince William and the “commoner” Kate Middleton). This difference in class between husband and wife could well have been the reason why the wedding ceremony was a private affair and not a full-scale church wedding. Kirsten Munk bore the king twelve children, ten of whom survived infancy, two sons and eight daughters. Leonora Christina was the couple’s fifth child, born in July 1621.

Leonora Christina i Fængselet (Leonora Christina in Prison) by Kristian Zahrtmann (1875)
Leonora Christina i Fængselet (Leonora Christina in Prison) by Kristian Zahrtmann (1875)

Leonora Christina, like four of her sisters, did not marry princes from one of the many European monarchies but instead her father allowed them to marry powerful and wealthy Danish noblemen in an attempt to assure their allegiance to the monarchy. Leonora’s husband, whom she married in 1636 when she was just fifteen years old, was the thirty-eight year old Corfitz Ulfeldt, the son of the Danish chancellor. They had actually been engaged since she was nine years old! Corfitz Ulfeldt held great powers at the royal court but became more and more ambitious and grasping and it was these traits along with some bad political decisions which had him and the king fall out. Christian IV died in February 1648 and it was two months before the king’s second son, Leonora’s half brother, Frederick, from his first marriage, was elected the new King of Denmark and Norway. He became King Frederick III. During that two month transition period Corfitz Ulfeldt, as Steward of the Realm, the country’s de-facto prime minister, virtually ruled Denmark.

Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerard van Honthorst (1647)
Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerard van Honthorst (1647)

Corfitz Ulfeldt’s avarice and naked ambition during his rise to power irritated the new king and a perceived plot against the new monarch by Ulfeldt caused the latter, out of fear for his life, to flee the country with his wife Leonora and their family. Ulfeldt then forged a close alliance with Charles X of Sweden, Denmark’s old enemy, and offered his financial support with money which was thought to have been embezzled from the Danish state. This money was to help Charles facilitate the war against Denmark which began in July 1657. At the end of the conflict in 1658, Sweden had won its most celebrated victory, and for the vanquished, Denmark/Norway, they had suffered a humiliating and costly defeats of all time, having to cede territory to Sweden under the Treaty of Brömseboro. Ulfeldt even took part in these treaty negotiations, during which he took great pleasure in denigrating his former homeland. This, however, was to be his ultimate undoing. Ulfeldt, now feted by the Swedish monarch, once again became too ambitious and fell out with Charles X, who ordered his arrest and was condemned to death. In 1660, Ulfeldt decided that the lesser of two evils was to escape from Sweden with his wife Leonora Christina and return to his homeland, Denmark, and try and make his peace with Frederick III. Frederick was not amused and had the couple imprisoned for a year. Their release came after Ulfeldt paid a hefty fine which saw him and his wife almost reduced to a poverty-stricken existence. Their imprisonment had been both degrading and cruel and once released Ulfeldt plotted his revenge on Frederick. His act of treason against the Danish monarch was discovered and he was condemned to death in absentia. He escaped the jaws of death but died in a Rhine boating accident during one of his flights from impending arrest.

Leonora Christina in the Garden of the Frederisborg Palace by Kristian Zahrtmann (1887)
Leonora Christina in the Garden of the Frederisborg Palace by Kristian Zahrtmann (1887)

So what happened to Leonora Christina? After her and her husband’s release from prison Ulfeldt persuaded Leonora to go to England, seek an audience with Charles II and see if she could recover money he had lent the English monarch. Charles was unwilling to help and had Leonora arrested at Dover on her way back to the Continent. She was eventually hand over to Frederick and the Danish state, which as they still could not find Ulfeldt, instead decided to punish his wife and had her locked away in solitary confinement in the infamous Blue Tower at Copenhagen’s Castle. The conditions in the prison were both degrading and vile. So why was she so severely punished for the wrongdoings of her husband? Throughout her incarceration she blamed her downfall and her imprisonment, not on her half brother, the monarch Frederik, but on his wife Sophie-Amalie and the queen’s desire for revenge. Why this animosity between Leonora and Sophie-Amelie?

Sophie Amalie von Braunschweig-Lüneburg  with a slave by Abraham Wuchters (c.1670)
Sophie Amalie von Braunschweig-Lüneburg with a slave by Abraham Wuchters (c.1670)

Leonora had been her father’s favourite daughter and when her mother, Kirsten Munk, was banished from Copenhagen by her husband for infidelity, Leonora took on the role and power as the First Lady of Denmark. When her father died and Frederick came to the throne things changed. When you are at the pinnacle there is only one direction one can go – down! Frederick married Sophie-Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who became Queen of Denmark and Norway. She and Leonora, who had seen her power usurped by another woman, became bitter enemies and she probably played a leading part in having Leonore incarcerated.

Leonora Christina paa Maribo Kloster (Leonora Christina at Maribo Cloister)  by Kristian Zahrtmann (1883)
Leonora Christina paa Maribo Kloster (Leonora Christina at Maribo Cloister)
by Kristian Zahrtmann (1883)

Leonora Christina’s sworn enemy, Sophie-Amalie died in February 1685 and one of Leonora’s daughters went to the king, Christian V, the son of the late Frederick III and Sophie-Amalie, and begged for the release of her mother. The king agreed and in May 1685 and she went to live at a monastery run by the nuns of the St. Birgitte-order. It was here that Leonora completed her autobiography, Jammers Minde, which she had started to write during her long imprisonment. Leonora Christina died in March 1698 and was buried in the crypt of the monastery which is now the church at Maribo on the Danish island of Lolland. It is believed that some time later her sons had her body removed from the church and laid to rest in a secret location where her husband had been interred. Leonora’s last years in imprisonment improved due to the attitude of the new king Christian V and his wife, the queen-consort, Charlotte-Amelie despite his mother, Sophie-Amelie’s everlasting vindictive nature. In her autobiography Leonora wrote about her indebtedness to the king and queen improved situation:

“…My most gracious hereditary King was gracious enough several times in former years to intercede for me with his royal mother, through the high ministers of the State. Her answer at that time was very hard; she would entitle them “traitors”’ and, “as good as I was, and would point them to the door. All the favours which the King s majesty showed me — the outer apartment, the large window, the money to dispose of for annoyed the Queen Dowager extremely; and she made the Kings majesty feel her displeasure in the most painful manner…”.

Dronning Sophie Amalies død, (The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie)  by Kristian Zahrtmann (1882)
Dronning Sophie Amalies død, (The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie)
by Kristian Zahrtmann (1882)

Zahrtman was fascinated by the book and completed a number of paintings of the way he envisaged Leonora during her captivity and like Leonora, Zahrtmann blamed Sophie-Amalie for Leonora’s downfall and the artist depicted the deathbed scene of Leonora’s nemesis. The state of the dying queen mother and the pain-wracked expression on her face presumably comforted Zahrtmann !

For anybody who would like to read the translation of Leonora’s autobiography I believe there is a Guttenburg e-book available:

 http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/38128?msg=welcome_stranger

Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. Part 2 – Pedro Américo

In my last blog I talked about my visit to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro and featured one of the great Brazilian artists, Victor Meirelles.  Some would have us believe that he was the greatest Brazilian artist of all times, whilst others would put forward the name of Pedro Américo for that honour.  A number of Américo’s works were on show at the museum so in this blog I want to look at his life and feature some of his paintings I saw as well as look at others, which are on show in other Brazilian cities.

Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello
Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello

Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello was born in April 1843 in the municipality of Areia in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Paraíba.  As far as the art world was concerned he was simply known as Pedro Américo.  He was one of six children of Daniel Edward Figueiredo, a merchant and Feliciana Cime.  He was brought up in an artistic household with his father a keen violinist, who taught him music and drawing and through art books got him interested in the paintings and lives of the Old Masters.  Américo’s biographers all agree that he was an avid learner and soon developed a precocious talent for drawing. As far as drawing was concerned he was a gifted child and some believed he was a child prodigy.  His amazing artistic ability soon became common knowledge in Rio and when, in 1852, a scientific expedition to the north east of Brazi, led by the French naturalist, Louis Jacques Brunet,  arrived in Rio the leader visited Pedro’s home to see his work.  He also tested his draughtsmanship by getting the young boy to copy a few objects.  Brunet was so impressed with the results that he signed him up as an auxiliary draughtsman on his scientific expedition  during which time he would pictorially document the flora, fauna and landscape encountered on the journey.  Pedro Américo had yet to celebrate his tenth birthday but with his father’s blessing, he set off on the twenty-month expedition.

The artistic work he produced was so good that he was awarded a place at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes, but being too young his placement was postponed for a year and as a stop-gap, he attended the Colégio Pedro II in Rio de Janeiro, where he studied Latin, French, Portuguese, arithmetic, drawing and music.  In 1856 he took up his place on a three-year course of Industrial Design at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.  At the academy he honed his skill as a draughtsman and painter and his progress was rapid.  He was an outstanding student and won many medals for his work.

The court of the Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II came to hear about Pedro Américo’s artistic talent and the emperor, who was a great art lover and patron of the arts, was amazed by his artistic skill and before Pedro had completed his studies the Emperor had arranged to finance a European scholarship for him. Pedro accepted the travel scholarship, the terms of which were, in return for a three-year funding, he would attend the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts, conform to the rigid disciplines of the Academy and regularly send back works he had completed, such as life studies and copies of the paintings of the Old Masters, so that it could be verified that he had been hard working and that he was progressing with his art.  Going to Europe and attending the Académie was the greatest gift an artist could receive.

Pedro Américo arrived in Paris in May 1859 and aged just sixteen enrolled at the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  It was at this prestigious school of art that he was taught by the great French painters of the time, such as the neo-classical historical painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hippolyte Flandrin and the battle painter Horace Vernet.  Not satisfied with just improving his art he also wanted to expand his knowledge with regards other subjects.  He availed himself of the opportunity to study physics at the Paris Institute of Physics and he also attended the University of the Sorbonne.  Here he studied architecture, theology, literature and philosophy, with tutors in these fields such as the French philosopher, Victor Cousin and the French physiologist, Claude Bernard. Pedro Américo took advantage of the opportunity of attending lectures on physics by Michael Faraday and on archaeology by Charles Ernest Beule.  Besides his artistic talent, one must never overlook Pedro Américo’s all-round intelligence.   His essay Refutation of the Life of Jesus by Renan won him the decoration of the papal order of the Holy Sepulchre.   He gained a bachelor’s degree in natural science from the Sorbonne, with his thesis Considerações Filosóficas sobre as Belas Artes entre os Antigos (Philosophical Considerations on the Fine Arts among the Ancients).

A Carioca by Pedro Américo (1882)
A Carioca by Pedro Américo (1882)

During his time at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, he won a number of prizes for his works of art.  One of the paintings Pedro Américo completed, around 1863, whilst studying at the Académie and which he sent back home for inclusion in the seventeenth General Exhibition, held at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio, was entitled A Carioca.   Carioca is a Brazilian word that is used to refer to the native inhabitants of the city of Rio de Janeiro.  It was a painting of a nude woman who was to symbolize the Brazilian indigenous population.  It was painted in a classical style, and could well have been influenced by Turkish Bath, a painting which his former tutor, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, which he had completed a year earlier.  With this work Pedro had probably aimed to turn the classical theme of a nymph from Greek mythology into a Brazilian theme.  The work received a Gold medal and Pedro decided that he would give the painting to the Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who had agreed to fund his training in Europe.  His gift however was not well received by the court officials who were shocked by the full frontal nudity and they considered the painting to be shockingly immoral and not fit for the walls of the palace.   The painting was returned to Pedro Américo, who had by then moved to  Florence.  The painting was eventually sold to Emperor Wilhelm of Prussia.   In 1882, almost twenty years later, Pedro Américo painted another version of the work, which he completed in 1882, and which is shown above.  This work is housed at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio.

Moses and Jochebed by Pedro Américo (1884)
Moses and Jochebed by Pedro Américo (1884)

Another of his paintings in a classical style was one he completed in 1884, which is entitled Moisés e Jocabed (Moses and Jochebed).   The painting is based on the Old Testament story of Jochebed, who was the mother of Moses and her dilemma regarding the news that the Egyptian Pharaoh, being afraid that the Jews in his country would one day join a foreign army and rise up against the Egyptians, ordered all male Hebrew babies to be killed.  Jochebed had just given birth to a son, Moses, whom she believed was going to be murdered, and so took a basket and coated the bottom with tar, to make it waterproof. Then she put the baby in it and set it among the reeds on the bank of the River Nile.  The story goes on to tell that at that same time, the Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing in the river and one of her maidservants saw the basket and brought it to her.  In the painting we see mother standing by the river with her baby, agonizing over decision.

After time spent in Italy, Pedro Américo returned to Rio in 1864 and took up the post as the Chair of Drawing at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.   However the following year he had once again left Brazil and was to be found in Europe.  This time he had set up home in Brussels and attended the University where he gained a Doctorate of Science in 1868.

The Emperor's speech (Pedro II of Brazil in the oppening of the General Assembly) by Pedro Américo (1872)
The Emperor’s speech (Pedro II of Brazil in the oppening of the General Assembly) by Pedro Américo (1872)

The following year Pedro Américo set off to return to Brazil but made a stop-over in Lisbon where he stayed at the home of one of his former tutors, Manuel de Araujo Porto Alegre.  A year on, Pedro was still in Lisbon and was now married to his host’s daughter, Carlota.  The couple went on to have two children, a daughter Carlota and a son, Eduardo.  The couple returned to Rio in 1870, where he once again gave lectures at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.  The subject of his lectures included aesthetics, archaeology and the history of art.  As another way of earning money he also provided caricatures for the satirical magazine, A Comédia Social (The Social Comedy).  He  completed a number of portraiture commissions including one of Emperor Dom Pedro II completed in 1872, entitled, Speech from the Throne.

Batalha de Campo Grande by Pedro Américo (1871)
Batalha de Campo Grande by Pedro Américo (1871)

He continued to paint historical works including the large painting (332cms x 550cms) Batalha de Campo Grande in 1871 which is housed in the Imperial Museum at Petrópolis, a city, north west of Rio.    The Emperor and his government were so pleased with the finished work that they made Pedro Américo Pintor Histórico da Real Câmara (Historical Painter of the Royal Chamber) and this led to him being commissioned to paint a historical work depicting a battle scene.  The battle scene he chose to depict was one which took place close to the River Avai and was a battle between the Triple Alliance forces (Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina) and those of Paraguay.  His fellow artist Victor Meirelles had been commissioned, at the same time, to paint another scene from this six-year long war (Battle of Guararapes) – see my previous blog.

Battle of Avaí by Pedro Américo (1877)
Battle of Avaí by Pedro Américo (1877)

Pedro Américo accepted the commission but decided that he needed time away from his homeland in order to concentrate on the commission.  He and his wife left Brazil and travelled to Florence.  The Italian government provided him with a studio in a room at the Convent of the Santissima Annunziata, and it was here he remained for three years whilst he concentrated on the monumental historical work.  Pedro Américo completed the war scene which was entitled Battle of Avai in 1877 and it was exhibited in the Italian city in the presence of the Brazilian emperor, Pedro II.  The painting was then shipped to Rio de Janeiro where it was exhibited at the Exposicao Geral de Belas Artes the annual exhibition of the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes.   The exhibited work met with mixed reviews.  Most loved it and were in awe of its size but there were a few detractors who accused Pedro Américo of plagiarism as they believed the work was too similar to a battle scene depiction entitled Battle of Montebelo.  Notwithstanding the adverse comments, Pedro Américo’s battle scene is an amazing work of art.  This monumental painting measures 600cms x 1100cms (almost 20ft high and 36ft wide).  It is a monster of a painting, full of detail and one’s eyes dart from place to place on the canvas to try and take in all the details.

The two war paintings on display at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.
The two war paintings on display at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.

Standing in the long room at the museum one can see the two monumental paintings depicting battles during the Paraguayan War by Victor Meirelles and Pedro Américo almost side by side.  It is an amazing spectacle.

David and Abishag by Pedro Américo (1879)
David and Abishag by Pedro Américo (1879)

In 1879 Pedro Américo completed another painting based on an Old Testament story.  It was about the elderly King David.  In the book of 1 Kings verse 1-4,  it is written:

“…When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his attendants said to him, “Let us look for a young virgin to serve the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.”

Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful young woman and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The woman was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no sexual relations with her…”

In November 1889, Dom Pedro II’s reign came to an end with a military coup.  The Empire was dead and from the ashes of the Empire rose the Republic of Brazil.  It was a time of reform.  It was a time when those who had been close to the Emperor were ostracised as a  consequences of such an association.  Like my previous featured artist, Victor Meirelles, who like Pedro Américo had been a favourite of the Emperor and closely associated with the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, he was dismissed from his post.  Later however Pedro was elected a member of parliament for Paraíba but due to the onset of ill health rarely attended meetings. For health reasons he left Rio in 1894 and returned to Florence where he lived out his days and as well as painting found time to write two novels.  He died in October 1905 aged 62.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Part 2 – The painter of Religious Scenes and his painting The Flagellation of Christ

Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)
Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)

My blog today looks at another of Bouguereau’s great history paintings.  This is one of his religious works and has all the ferocity of his painting Dante and Virgil, which I featured in my last blog.  Whether you are a lover of religious historic paintings or not, I defy you to be unmoved by the beauty of this work.  Bouguereau was a devout catholic and looked upon his religious paintings as a form of his worship of both God and mankind.  Bouguereau’s religious belief can be plainly seen in his religious works.  The painting I am featuring today is entitled The Flagellation of Christ, which he completed in 1880. Before I discuss the painting let me tell you a little about his life.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau was born in the French Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle in November 1825.  His father was Theodore Bouguereau, a seller of wine and olive oil.  His father struggled to make much money from his business and because of the financial hardship and family tensions William was sent to live with his uncle Eugène Bouguereau, who was curate in the town of Montagne, some twenty kilometres from Bordeaux.   This enforced move to his uncles was to prove highly fortuitous for the young boy as it was his uncle who introduced him to the world of Roman and Greek mythology and had him read the stories from the Old and New Testaments.  At the age of thirteen, William’s uncle arranged for him to attend the high school at Pons where he attended his first drawing classes under the guidance of Louis Sage, a young classical painter who had once studied under Ingres.   He remained at the school for three years.  In 1841, he eventually moved to Bordeaux where his father had set up his business and once again William was with his family.  William joined in his father’s business but at the same time, in 1842, he was allowed to enrol on a two-year part-time course at the city’s École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture.  Here he studied under  Jean-Paul Alaux, the French landscape painter and lithographer.  He could not attend full-time because of his promise to help his father during the day, and so, he only attended art classes in the early morning and in the late evening.  Despite being a part-time student he excelled in what he did and in 1844 he won first prize for the best History painting with his depiction of Saint Roch.     Following this award William Bouguerau realised that his future was indelibly tied to art.  To earn some money for himself he designed lithographic labels for jars of jams and other preserves.

Bouguereau realised that to progress with his art he needed to be in Paris which was, at that time, considered the capital of the art world.   However to live in the French capital required money, a commodity he lacked.  His father’s business was not successful enough for him to give his son the money but fortunately for William, his uncle Eugène, the curate, once again proved to be his salvation.  He arranged for William to paint portraits of his parishioners for a fixed fee and after months of portraiture he had amassed nine hundred francs.  A similar sum was given to him by his aunt and he was all set to head to Paris.

The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)
The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)

In my third and final blog about Bouguereau I will finish his life story but for today I want to focus on another of his great History paintings, his religious work entitled The Flagellation of Christ.   He exhibited this work at the 1880 Paris Salon.  It is a monumental work measuring 390 x 210 cms (almost 13ft high and 7ft wide).  One can easily imagine how it stood out from all the other works on show at the exhibition. This is acknowledged as being one of Bouguereau’s greatest religious works.  In this painting, Bouguereau has depicted Christ, tied to a column.  Christ’s body hangs down almost lifelessly with his feet dragging on the ground.  His head droops backwards.  His eyes are blank and unfocused. He is utterly powerless.  He can do little to stop the ferocious onslaught.  Unlike Bouguereau’s painting Dante and Virgil which I featured in the last blog, he has made no attempt to exaggerate the musculature in his portrayal of Christ’s body.  The body of Christ is that of a normal human being.  It is just like ours and in doing this Bouguereau has allowed us more easily to empathise with Christ’s suffering and pain.

A look of concern
A look of concern

We see Christ’s tormentors, two men, who stand on either side of him, arms raised in mid swing with their knotted rope whips airborne.  In the right foreground we see a third man kneeling.  He is in the process of tying up birch branches which will be used later to flagellate their prisoner.  Look at his facial expression.  It is one of concern.  It appears that maybe he is not convinced that what he sees before him is justified.  It is if he is beginning to question his part in the flogging.    In the background an inquisitive crowd gather to witness the flogging.  This is not a leering and jeering crowd we have seen in many of the crowd scenes in Northern Renaissance works.  This group of people cannot be likened to the snarling mob we have seen in earlier Passion of Christ depictions.

A child looks on
A child looks on

An old man in the crowd, maybe the father, lifts a baby aloft for him or her to get a better view.  There is little sign of compassion on the faces of the crowd.  Maybe they have accepted the charges that have been laid against Christ and feel that he needed to be punished.  However there is one exception.

Look closely at the far left of the background.  We see a young boy in a long green tunic who has turned away in horror of what is happening and has burrowed his head in the clothing of the woman who has wrapped her arm around him in a comforting gesture.  Maybe it is his mother.  Maybe she is horrified by what her young son has witnessed and is trying belatedly to protect him.  In the mid-background, there is a man wearing a white vest and grey headband.  He grips a sheath of birch branches and is readying himself to take part in the flogging.  There are a number of examples where the artist has decided to insert his own image into a work and Bouguereau has done the same in this painting.

The artist looks on
The artist looks on

Look at the face in the background to the right of the man wearing the white top and head band.  There, gazing between the spectators is a man with red hair and a red beard.  His brow is furrowed signifying his unease of what he sees before him.  This is believed to be the face of the artist himself.  He, like us, looks on at the terrible scene.

The size of the work almost certainly precluded the sale of it to a private individual and in 1881 Bouguereau gave it to the Society of Friends of the Arts in his home town of La Rochelle.  This majestic work can now be found at the Baptistery of La Rochelle Cathedral, France. 

Bouguereau never lost his love of Greek and Roman mythology which he had been brought up on from early age by his uncle Eugène.   As I said earlier, Bouguereau was a very religious man and religious imagery was a persistent theme in his paintings.   Often his religious works focused on sad and moving events and it is believed they mirrored the anguish and suffering he endured with the loss of loved ones in his own life, which I will talk about  next time.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Part 1 – The History Painter and his painting, Dante and Virgil

Self Portrait by William Bouguereau (1879)
Self Portrait by William Bouguereau (1879)

In my next three blogs I want to look at the life and some of the works of one of the greatest and most prolific nineteenth century French painters, Adolphe-William Bouguereau.   At a time when many of his contemporaries were railing against academic art, Bouguereau was a staunch supporter of it.  He was a pure traditionalist.  So why did he support the establishment’s stance on art and the establishment’s method of training aspiring artists when many of his contemporaries were vociferous in their condemnation of all that the art establishment stood for?  To answer that question, one must look at the way art was taught in France or more precisely in the case of Bouguereau,  how it was taught in Paris which was then considered the art capital of the world.  Artistic training in that city was centred on the government-sponsored art school, the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, which was founded in the mid seventeenth century as the Académie des Beaux-Arts and once it had become independent from the government in 1863 changed its name to L’École des Beaux-Arts.

Viila Medici, the French Academy in Rome
Viila Medici, the French Academy in Rome

It was here that young men (women were not admitted until 1898) were taught how to draw.   The actual teaching of putting paint on canvas was carried out in private studios which were often run by the professors of the school.   Artistic training was thorough and aspiring artists had to reach high standards before they were allowed to proceed with the course.  They would also have to enter work into a number of in-house competitions.  The most prestigious award being the Prix de Rome, which was given to the artist who submitted the best History painting.  Bouguereau won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1850, with his painting  Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes. His reward was the chance to attend the Villa Medici, which was the French Academy in Rome, and remain there for four years.  During that time the student would have the opportunity to study the classical art of the Italian Renaissance masters.  The reason why the French art establishment believed that this was so important was their belief that no artist had ever achieved the level of excellence attained by the likes of Raphael, Titian or Michelangelo.  In their opinion, every aspiring artist was duty bound to emulate this type of art.

The Parisian art establishment which oversaw the running of L’École des Beaux-Arts issued artists with an official list detailing which genre of paintings they considered more important than others.  This hierarchy of genres was headed by History painting and the reason for that was that it somehow represented all the artistic skills the young artists had been taught during their passage through the Academy system. History paintings were generally very large works, and thus were nearly always destined to be hung in public places such as in churches, or the spacious rooms of government buildings or on gallery walls. History paintings delved into the world of classical, mythological, literary and religious events which had taken place in bygone days. Within this top-placed genre there was the allegorical works which, through their depiction, carried symbolic messages about good and evil. It was in these works that the depiction of nude figures, were considered acceptable and it was from years of studying the human figure in life drawing classes at the Academy that the aspiring artists were able to skilfully show off what they had been taught.

Once an artist had trained at the academy, he and later she, had to face up to the fact that to survive they had to sell their work.  In the past the government, the church and the wealthy aristocracy were the buyers of art works but it soon became obvious that their commissioning power was becoming limited and the new buyers of art were the Parisian people of middle and upper-class standing who had the money and wanted to fill their grand houses with fine art.  So where could these new buyers get their hands on fine works of art?  Parisian art dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Adolphe Goupil did not become buyers and sellers of art until the mid nineteenth century.  Before then the most prestigious way of selling your paintings was to get them accepted at the Paris Salon’s annual exhibition.  Simply referred to as the Salon, it began in 1725 as the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. These were massive exhibitions in which artist’s works, once they had passed the scrutiny of the Salon jurists, were exhibited floor-to-ceiling and on every available inch of wall space.   Potential buyers were then able to see, in one space, the art work that was on offer.  One can therefore realise that for a work to sell, not only had it to be pleasing on the eye of a potential buyer but it had to have been hung in a prominent position at the Salon exhibition.  The advantage the History painters had over others was the monumental size of their works which often dwarfed their “competition” and therefore were always placed in a prominent position.  

Dante And Virgil by William Bouguereau (1850)
Dante And Virgil by William Bouguereau (1850)

In my next two blogs I want to look at two monumental history painting completed by Bouguereau, one secular, the other religious, but both follow the artistic traditions laid down by the Academy.   Today I am featuring the secular work, entitled Dante and Virgil in Hell, which is housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  This is a truly breathtaking work and is a prime example of classic art with so much attention paid to the musculature of the human body.  The first thing that strikes one about this painting is its unfettered ferocity, which has the effect of either you wanting to turn away from it in shock or you stare at it in a mesmeric state.

The setting for the work comes from Dante Alghieri’s 14th century epic poem, The Divine Comedy, which recounts the journey made by Dante through Hell along with his guide the ancient Roman poet, Virgil.  The poem tells us that Hell is made up of nine concentric circles within the bowels of Earth.  Each of the circles houses people who have committed certain types of sin.  Bouguereau’s painting depicts the two travellers arriving at the Eighth Circle of Hell.  This is the Circle which houses the deceased falsifiers.   This Circle, nicknamed Malebolge (evil pouches) is unlike the other Circles for it is surrounded by a wall of dull iron-coloured stone, and the valley itself is divided into ten secondary circles or pouches.  The setting for Bouguereau’s work is the tenth pouch of the eighth Circle of hell. We see Dante and Virgil watching a fight between two damned souls. 

So who are the two main characters depicted fighting in the painting and why are they condemned to stay in this Circle of Hell, which is the home of alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and imposters?  Dante Alghieri would have known about the two men.  One is Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist from Sienna who was put to death by public burning at the stake in August 1293.  The other is Gianni Schicchi who is condemned to Hell for impersonating Buoso Donati and making his will highly favourable to himself.  The story goes that after the wealthy Florentine, Buoso Donati, died in 1299; his relatives conducted a frenetic search for his will.  The will was eventually found but to the relatives’ horror Donati had left most of his money and possessions to the local monks. The relatives then turn to the scheming but ingenious Gianni Schicchi, who has the gift of mimicry, to help them find a solution and save their inheritance.   Schicchi has no love for the money-grabbing relatives but however agrees to impersonate Buoso Donati, as nobody, other than the relatives, knows of his death.  Schicchi successfully passes himself off as the deceased Donati and changes the will.  The irony is that Schicchi, in changing the will, ends up giving himself most of the possessions belonging to the dead man.  The relatives were powerless to do anything as they were involved in the deception!   This usurping the identity of a Donati in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance has condemned him to the Eighth Circle of Hell.

The bite to the throat
The bite to the throat

The foreground of the painting is well lit and like the powerful light almost acts as a spotlight which has picked out the two fighting adversaries, Schicchi and Capocchio, in the foreground,.  Capocchio, the heretic and alchemist is attacked and bitten on the throat by Gianni Schicchi, the usurper.  He acts like a vampire.  In the background shadows we see Dante and Virgil standing together.  Virgil is dressed in a red cloak and hat and Dante is dressed in grey.  Virgil looks down at the fighters but Dante has covered his mouth in horror at what he sees before him.  However Dante’s eyes are not fixed on the fighting but at something to the right, out of picture.  So what is he looking at?   Maybe it is more naked writhing bodies similar to those which we see below the winged demon.  

Dante and Virgil the onlookers
Dante and Virgil the onlookers

Virgil has taken hold of Dante and wants him to move on away from this horrific scene.  Hovering above them is a flying demon which we see depicted against the fiery red background of Hell. 

The smiling flying demon
The smiling flying demon

The demon has a wide smile as he sees the men below tearing each other apart.  On the floor by the fighting couple we see a man wracked in pain, the punishment for his past sins. 

Nails dig into flesh and draw blood
Nails dig into flesh and draw blood

Look carefully how Bouguereau has embellished the muscle structure of the two men.  Look how the distortion of the bodies in their over-elaborate poses has added an animal-like ferocity to the painting.  I particularly like the way Bouguereau has exaggerated the depiction of Schicchi’s violent stretching of Capocchio’s skin, his finger nails starting to draw blood whilst his knee, which has slammed into Capocchio’s back, bends his victim’s spine.

The 19th century French art critic and poet Théophile Gautier was very complimentary about Bouguereau’s painting, saying:

“…Gianni Schicchi throws himself at Capocchio, his rival, with a strange fury, and Monsieur Bouguereau depicts magnificently through muscles, nerves, tendons and teeth, the struggle between the two combatants. There is bitterness and strength in this canvas – strength, a rare quality!..” 

It is a magnificent work of art albeit a very disturbing one.   In my next blog I will feature another of Bouguereau’s history paintings, a religious one, which like today’s work has an undeniable feel of savagery, which makes the viewer nervously unsettled by what they see before them.

Jean-Marc Nattier

Jean-Marc Nattier by Louis Tocqué (c.1742) Toqué was taught by Nattier in the 1720's and married Nattier's daughter Marie in 1747.
Jean-Marc Nattier by Louis Tocqué (c.1742)Toqué was taught by Nattier in the 1720’s and married Nattier’s daughter Marie in 1747. 

The career you decide on as a teenager is often a logical follow-on from what one or both your parents did or what they were interested in.  There are cases when parents are disappointed that their children don’t follow their career footsteps, no matter how much they try to cajole them.  Musicians beget musicians, lawyers, beget lawyers and of course artists beget artists.   The father, mother and godfather of the painter featured in my blog today were all artists and so one should not be surprised to find that their sons became interested in all things artistic.  Of course to be interested in art and be good at art are two completely different things but my featured painter today was one of France’s most talented 18th century historical painter and portraitist.  He was Jean-Marc Nattier. 

Nattier was born in Paris in March 1685.  He was the second son of Marc Nattier a portrait painter and Marie Nattier (née Courtois) who was a miniaturist.  His father and his godfather were his first art tutors.  His godfather was Jean Jouvenet, a history painter, who specialised in religious scenes.  When he was fifteen years of age his father arranged for him to enrol in the drawing classes at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture of Paris and soon the establishment recognised the artistic talent of  Jean-Marc for in 1700 he was awarded the Premier Prix de Dessin.

The Wedding by Proxy of Marie de' Medici to King Henry IV by Rubens (1622-1625) Part of the Marie de' Medici cycle
The Wedding by Proxy of Marie de’ Medici to King Henry IV by Rubens (1622-1625)
Part of the Marie de’ Medici cycle

Nattier’s father had a royal licence to reproduce Rubens’s famous cycle of paintings known as the History of Marie de’ Medici, which was, at that time, housed in the Le Galerie du Palais du Luxembourg, Paris.  It is now housed in the Louvre.   Before he died, he arranged for the licence to be taken over by Jean-Marc and his brother, another artist,  Jean-Baptiste Nattier.  Nattier and his brother spent much time making drawings of this cycle of paintings.  The cycle consisted of twenty four monumental allegorical paintings of the French dowager Queen by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens who began painting them in 1622 and which took him two years to complete.  It was a set of narrative paintings, commissioned by Maria de’ Medici, the widow of Henry IV of France, who, on her husband’s death, took control of the country until their thirteen year old son Louis XIII reached the age of thirteen.   Twenty-one of these works tell the story of her life, her struggles and triumphs as a widow, mother and ruler.  The other three paintings were portraits of her and her parents, Francesco I de’ Medici the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Joanna, Archduchess of Austria.  It was presumably in her mind that such a set of paintings about her would immortalize her in French history. Jean-MarcNattier, over time, made a series of drawings of this cycle of paintings which were turned into engravings by the leading engravers of the time.  The drawings appeared in 1710 under the title La Galerie du Palais du Luxembourg and  proved extremely popular.  Jean-Marc Nattier’s artistic ability was now recognised. 

Portrait of Tsar Peter by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)
Portrait of Tsar Peter by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)

Through the good auspices of his uncle, Jean Jouvenet, Jean-Marc Nattier was offered the chance to visit Rome and study at the prestigious Académie de France à Rome.  Unlike his elder brother, John-Baptiste, however, he declined the offer and instead of heading to Italy, remained in Paris to further his career.  

Catherine I of Russia by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)
Catherine I of Russia by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)

In 1717, Nattier, at the age of thirty-two, travelled to Amsterdam where he was commissioned to paint portraits of the visiting Russian Tsar, Peter the Great and his second wife, the Tsarina, Catherine. Both portraits are housed at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Battle of Poltava by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)
Battle of Poltava by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)

The Tsar, obviously pleased with the portraits then commissioned Nattier to produce two historical paintings depicting the 1709 Battle of Poltava and the 1708 Battle of Lesnaya, two of the major conflicts between Russia and Sweden in the Great Northern War which he completed in 1717. 

The Tsar was delighted with the history paintings and invited him to come to Russia and work at the Russian court but the Frenchman declined the offer and returned to the French capital.  Nattier remained in Paris for the rest of his life . 

Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa by Jean-Marc Nattier (1718)
Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa by Jean-Marc Nattier (1718)

Nattier’s work between 1715 and 1720 focused on historical paintings such as his Great Northern War paintings (above) and he was received into the Académie Royale as a history painter on the strength of these works and in particular one he completed in 1718 entitled Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa.   The painting is based on Book V of Ovid’s Metamorphoses,  which tells the tale of  Andromeda, who was betrothed to her uncle, Phineas, until Perseus rescued her from the sea monster, Cetus,  and in return for saving her life she agreed to marry him instead.    At their wedding celebrations Phineas and his followers burst in and attacked Perseus and the wedding guests.  Andromeda came to his aid but he was heavily outnumbered.  Perseus then unveils his ultimate weapon, the severed head of the gorgon, Medusa, that petrifies all those who look at it.  Perseus thus transforms all his attackers into statues and utters the words to Phineas:

“…You shall not suffer by the sword.  Rather I will cause you to be an enduring monument through the ages and you will always be seen in my father-in-laws palace, so that my wife may find solace in the statue of her intended…”  

Phineas tried to avert his eyes but it was too late.  His neck hardened, the tears on his cheek were turned to stone and he was turned into marble.  In Nattier’s painting we see the intruders on the left already turned to stone whilst those in the right foreground try to avert their eyes from the Medusa’s severed head which is being held aloft by Perseus.  Throughout the painting we see the bright flashes of highly polished armour.  There are also the gleaming  silver salvers and decorative pitchers which lie on the floor in the foreground that were being used for the wedding feast.  These random reflections catch our eye and have our gaze dart around the painting.  This attention-dispersing effect is known as the papillotage

Nattier’s was forced to move from historical paintings to the more lucrative genre of portraiture around 1720 when he, and numerous French citizens, lost most of their money they had invested in the government’s Mississippi Company, set up by Louis XIV’s financial adviser, the Scotsman, John Law.  The collapse of the company became known as the Mississippi Bubble.  Nattier was in a state of financial ruin and urgently needed to recoup his lost money and the most lucrative art genre was portraiture, although this form of art came low down in the academic hierarchy of genres.   Artists of the time who made money from their portraiture were frowned upon by the art establishment who considered that the portraitists had lost all artistic credibility.  Nattier was loathed to give up on his favoured genre of history painting, which he knew the art academies of 17th century Europe considered the highest intellectual achievement for an artist.   He was extremely unhappy that he was about to sell his soul for the financial gain of portraiture but “needs must”.   However to retain some artistic credibility he decided that his portraiture would revive the genre of allegorical portraiture and by depicting his sitters as characters from Greek and Roman mythology, history or biblical tales then he was not completely abandoning history painting.  Initially his portraiture clientele came from the Parisian bourgeoise but later in the 1730’s he began to work on portraits of the ladies of the Royal court and in the 1740’s he was commissioned to paint portraits of the Royal family of Louis XV.  

Henriette of France as Flora by Jean-Marc Nattier (1742)
Henriette of France as Flora by Jean-Marc Nattier (1742)

Females liked this type of portraiture as artists could then depict them in roles outside their normally constrained and often boring professions, and elevate their status to that of Goddesses.  Nattier realised that with a little help from props and artificial settings the finished painting moved a tad closer to the much vaunted and more credible history painting genre.  His finished works pleased the female courtiers as besides elevating them to the status of Goddesses he would cleverly beautify his sitters without losing their true likeness.  Examples of this allegorical portraiture can be seen in his 1742 painting entitled Henriette of France as Flora.  The painting had been commissioned by Henriette’s mother, Maria Leczinska, the wife of Louis XV.  Nattier had transposed the princess into the mythological figure of the Roman goddess of flowers and the season of spring, Flora. 

Marie Adelaide of France by Jean-Marc Nattier (1745)
Marie Adelaide of France by Jean-Marc Nattier (1745)

Three years later in 1745 he completed another allegorical portrait for Maria Leczinska.  This time it was a portrait of another of her daughters, Marie Adelaide, which was entitled Marie Adelaide of France as Diana.  Diana was the Roman goddess of hunting and in the painting we see Marie Adelaide sitting on the ground, one hand wrapped around her bow whilst the other hand withdraws an arrow from its quiver.  Both the paintings of Louis XV’s daughters can now be seen at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Portrait of Queen Marie Leszczyńska by Jean-Marc Nattier (1748)
Portrait of Queen Marie Leszczyńska by Jean-Marc Nattier (1748)

In 1748 Nattier received a commission to paint Louis XV’s wife, Maria Leszczynska, who was the daughter of the former King of Poland.  Louis and Maria’s marriage was an arranged one and fifteen year old Louis and twenty-one year old Maria met for the first time on the eve of their wedding.   It started off as a very happy marriage and the couple went on to have ten children.   There were complications with the birth of the last child, Princess Louise, in 1737 and from that time on the couples sex life was at an end and they slept in separate rooms.   It was around this juncture in their married life that Louis  began to have a series of love affairs including his famous one with Madame de Pompadour.   The portrait by Nattier of the Queen was a change of portraiture style.  This was not the usual allegorical portrait that he had been carrying out over the last twenty years, but a simple depiction of a forty-five year old married woman.  Marie had asked that she be depicted in habit de ville (day dress).   She wanted simplicity and that is exactly what Nattier gave her.  We see her seated with her left hand on top of an open bible which makes us aware of her strong religious beliefs.  She looks relaxed and at ease with herself.  She was a homely-type of person and Nattier has depicted her just so.  There is a natural quality about this work which must have pleased the queen.

Jean-Marc Nattier had married Marie-Madeleine de la Roche in 1724 and the couple went on to have four children, one of whom, Marie, married Louis Tocqué in 1747.  Tocqué who was only ten years younger than his father-in-law and had at one time been a student of his and they were colleagues at the Académie Royale.  Louis Tocqué and Jean-Marc Nattier were two of the most celebrated portraitists of the 18th century.

Self-Portrait with his Family, by Jean-Marc Nattier
Self-Portrait with his Family, by Jean-Marc Nattier

Nattier completed a family portrait of himself, his wife and their four children which depicts them well dressed and quite affluent looking.  The painting would have been from the 1730’s when Nattier had started to recover from his financial losses a decade before.  

Jean-Marc Nattier’s health deteriorated in 1762 and he was forced to stop painting.   The popularity of his work had started to wane in the last decade of his life and he died a poor man.  

Jean-Marc Nattier  died in Paris in November 1766, aged 81.

Elderly Nude in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny

Mariano Fortuny
Mariano Fortuny

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

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

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

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

Battle of Teutan by Mariano Fortuny
Battle of Teutan by Mariano Fortuny

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

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

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

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

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

Elderly Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny (1871)
Elderly Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny (1871)

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