The Krohg Family – Part 1 – Christian Krohg. The early years and life at Skagen

Christian Krohg

The art of one of the painters I am looking at today was compartmentalised as being works of a Naturalism genre and also of a Realism genre. So what is Naturalism and how does it differ to Realism when appertaining to art?

The best way to describe Naturalism is to say that it is a type of art that pays attention to very accurate and precise details. It is painting which is true to what we see without any falsification or artistic interpretation.  That sounds like Realism !

Naturalism was an artistic movement, which came into being in the mid-nineteenth century and embodied things closer to the way we observed them. Prior to this, depictions of landscapes or human beings tended to be idealised or rendered according to precepts resulting from the traditions of classical art. Naturalism was a denouncement of the fantasy world of Romanticism, which had flourished from the late eighteenth century into the first half of the nineteenth century. Naturalism is also often associated with plein air painting.

But is this not the definition of Realism? The two are close but Realism, especially Social Realism, focuses more on social realities and concentrates on content rather than the methodology of the work. Realism tends to deliberate on who or what is being painted rather than how it was painted and realist depictions often muse over ordinary people, who are often struggling with life. Often Realism paintings have a moralistic story to tell and they then tend to be viewed as a commentary on the social and political life of the day. Naturalism tends to be more about how the work has been painted ensuring that it is true to life.

Self Portrait by Christian Krohg

Christian Krohg was born in Vestre Aker, a district of the city of Oslo on August 13th 1852, the son of the journalist and publisher, Georg Anton Krohg and Sophie Amalie Holst. His paternal grandfather, Christian Krohg was a lawyer, government minister, and had at various times served as Minister of the Interior and Minister of Finance.

Christian was the second-born of their children and had four sisters, Anna Helene Nicoline, born in June 1850, Stine Marie, born in December 1854, Nanna born in January 1859, and Sophie Amalie Holst born in April 1861. Christian’s mother died on April 28th 1861, seven days after having given birth to Sophie and maybe in memory of her mother she was also named Sophie Amalie Holst. In June 1868 more sadness was to befall Christian’s family when Christian’s younger sister, Nanna, contracted tuberculosis and died, aged nine.

Still life with a D.O.M. Bottle by Christian Krohg (1883)
The D.O.M. stands for Deo Optimo Maximo which means – To God most good, most great.

Following his normal schooling Christian went to the Royal Frederick University (now the University of Oslo) in 1869 to study law, the plan, probably fostered by his father, being that he would become a lawyer, like his grandfather.   However for Christian his main interest was art and maybe through an agreement with his father that if he studied for a law degree he would be allowed to also attend art classes at the local drawing schools. He attended both Johan Fredrik Eckersberg’s private art school from 1869 to 1870 and later the drawing class of Julius Middelthun, the Norwegian sculptor, at the Royal School of Art and Design of Christiana (Oslo).

Braiding her Hair by Christian Krohg (1888)

On April 13th 1873, during his university studies, Christian’s father Georg died, aged fifty-six. The following year, at the end of his five year law course, he attained a law degree but instead of practicing law he decided to travel to Germany with his friend and fellow artist, Eilif Peterssen and they both enrolled at the Baden School of Art in Karlsruhe, where two of his professors were Karl Gussow, the German Realist painter, and Hans Gude, the Norwegian Romanticist painter and one of Norway’s foremost landscape painters. Gude spent most of his adult life as a professor of art and was a leading figure in the advancement of Norwegian art. To young, aspiring Norwegian artists of the mid and late nineteenth century, Gude was a god and they would travel to Germany to enrol on courses taught by him at academies in Dusseldorf, Berlin and Karlsruhe.

Georg Brandes – sketch by P S Krøyer (1900)

Christian Krohg remained at the Baden School of Art in Karlsruhe for a year before moving on to the Berlin Academy in 1875, a move that had already been made by his former professor, Karl Gussow. Krohg remained in Berlin for three years. Whilst there he made friends with the German symbolist painter, Max Klinger and the Danish writer and philosopher, Georg Brandes.   Brandes writings were centered on the concept of realism and were diametrically opposed to the world of fantasy in literature. He was looked upon as the founder of the Cultural Radicalism movement. According to Aarhus Universitet’s Institut for Kultur og Samfund, Cultural Radicalism can be looked upon as:

“…Cultural radicalism must be understood from its cultural and philosophical origins in the modern breakthrough in the last half of the 19th century, as well as from the actual roots of rationalism of enlightenment. In Denmark, cultural radicalism has rooted in the bourgeois radicalism of the 1870s and in the intellectual environment around the brothers Georg and Edvard Brandes and Viggo Hørup. The bourgeois radical ideas constituted a cultural battle against the authority of the church and the state, and they concerned in particular the right to individual expression, freedom of opinion and tolerance, and criticism of what was considered to be a restricted, oppressive and colorless civil culture…”

Charles Lundh in Conversation with Christian Krohg by Christian Krohg (1883)
Charles Lundh, a Norwegian painter, lived together with Christian Krohg and the Swedish painters Johan Krouthén and Oscar Björck in a house in Skagen in 1883

Krohg was very attentive to the views of Brandes and became more aware of the social and political problems of the time. These views were enhanced by the poor quality of his living standards during his time in Berlin, which almost bordered on out and out poverty   More importantly for Krohg it was his friendship with Georg Brandes that led to him being introduced to Emile Zola, the great French writer, playwright and journalist.  Zola was interested in the world of art and as a journalist in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, he produced many newspaper articles defending the art of Cézanne, Manet, and the emerging Impressionists, such as Monet, Renoir and Degas, all of whom were being criticised by the artistic elite. It was also Zola who first coined the term Naturalism, defining it as a literary movement, which gave emphasis to observation and the methodology used in the fictional portrayal of reality.

Farewell by Christian Krohg

It was in the following year, 1876, that Krohg exhibited his painting entitled A Farewell. For the time he concentrated on his portraiture and two works of note was his 1876 portrait of Lucy Eyeberg and his depiction of his friend Georg Brandes which he completed in 1879

The year 1879 was of great importance to Christian Krohg as it was during that summer that he first went to Skagen, a Danish fishing community on the north coast of Jutland. Christian and his fellow Norwegian painter and former fellow student in Karlsruhe, Frits Thaulow, travelled to Skagen in Thaulow’s small sailboat and remained there through to the end of autumn. Skagen had become a summer meeting place for artists in the late 1870’s and remained such up until the end of the nineteenth century.

Dining room in Brøndums Hotel (ca. 1891) showing some of the group and the panel of their portraits

It was because of its favourable natural light that it was so popular with the plein-air artists from Scandinavia, such as husband and wife artists, Anna and Michael Ancher, Peder Severin Krøyer and his wife Marie, Karl Madsen and Viggo Johansen, as well as painters from northern Europe.  It was this fascination with the changing natural light that had also inspired the Impressionists. Many of the Skagen artists had spent time in Paris and they were influenced by the French Barbizon artists and the world of Realism. This style of painting was contrary to the inflexible conventions set out by academies such as The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, which believed students should adhere to painting in the favoured Academic styles of Historicism and Neoclassicism. Michael Ancher, Karl Madsen and Viggo Johansen had also studied at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen.

Ane Gaihede by Christian Krohg (1888)

The early members of the Skagen artistic community had been befriended by Brøndum family, who were the owners of a local shop/bar and soon it became the meeting place for the Skagen painters and their literary friends. Peder Severin Krøyer became very friendly with the Brøndum’s fifteen-year-old daughter Marie and six years later the pair were married.

Woman cutting bread by Christian Krohg (1879)

Christian Krogh became a regular summer visitor to Skagen during the mid and late 1880’s and it was during those times that he focused on one family, the Gaihede family, for the subject of many of his works. Husband and wife, Niels and Ana Gaihede, along with their son Rasmus and daughter-in-law, Tine and their two children Ane and Sofus. One such painting featured the matriarch of the family Ana Gaihede who modelled for Krohg’s 1879 painting Woman Cutting Bread. Sixty-six year old Ana is seen in three-quarter length profile against a blank background, save for three small pictures, which allows us to focus completely on the subject of the work. It is a fascinating depiction, which gives us an insight into the people and their culture of the time.

The Net Mender by Christian Krohg

In another of Krohg’s works featuring the Gaihede family, The Net Mender, we see both Ana and her husband Niels depicted. In this 1880 work Niels can be seen repairing his fishing net whilst Ana sits stony-faced in the background making balls of fibre, which will be used in the repairing of the net. The walls of their home are a dull grey and the only thing breaking up the monotony of the colour are a few magazine pictures of animals and boats which may have been for the benefit of Sofus their six-year-old grandson. Looking at the interior furnishings of the home and the dress of the two characters one can detect a frugal standard of living, maybe not poverty-stricken but one in which every krone counts.

Niels Gaihede by Christian Krohg (1888)

Christian Krohg won a state stipend in 1881 and travelled to Paris, where he taught at an art school for women. In those days most of the prestigious art establishments denied women access to art tuition and Krohg could see the error of this dictate and wanted to be supportive of the female cause. Maybe Krohg was sympathetic with regards the plight of women in general as it is known that at about this time he was also becoming more and more interested in painting pictures which highlighted people’s struggle with everyday life and especially the great effort women had to make just to survive.

The Sick Girl by Christian Krohg (1881)

In 1881 he completed a very poignant painting entitled The Sick Girl. It was the depiction of a girl who had been struck down by tuberculosis and was dying. Krohg would be painfully aware that this killer disease had also taken his youngest sister, Nanna, thirteen years earlier. It is a haunting depiction. The girl sits upright in a wooden chair with a cushioned back. A thick woollen blanket covers the lower part of her body. Look at the girl’s tight-lipped facial expression. It is a mixture of sadness and fear. Maybe she is aware that her life is ebbing away. Her hands are tightly clasped together, as if in prayer, as she clutches the stem of a pale pink rose, the leaves and petals of which are starting to fall to the ground. The rose like the girl is dying.  One cannot help but be moved by such a depiction.

Babord litt (Port side) by Christian Krohg (1879)

During his time in the French capital he became influenced by the works of Édouard Manet and his modern scenes, which were often controversial. Even now, Manet is looked upon as the father of modernism. During his stay in Paris Krohg had two of his works accepted for the 1882 Salon. One of which was entitled Port Side, which he had started whilst living in Berlin but did not complete until 1879 whilst living in Skagen. It is a depiction of great detail. Look how Krohg has portrayed the clothes worn by the seaman. They have been well worn and impregnated with oil and dirt. They are old and have had to be patched and these details, along with the backdrop of the rough seas, add to the atmospheric mood of the work and we can sense how the bow of the vessel is about to dive headlong into the unforgiving swell.

Girl with a Rake by Jules Breton (1859)

During his stay in Paris Krohg had been very interested in the works of the leading French Social Realist painters of the time, Jules Breton, who was known for his depictions of peasant themes, Jules Bastien-Lepage, a painter noted for his sentimental naturalistic paintings of rural life and Léon Lhermitte, whose main theme for his paintings was also rural scenes depicting peasants at work.

Sovende mor med barn (Sleeping mother with child) by Christian Krohg (1883)

Krohg’s developing interest was the plight of women and their everyday trials and tribulations, which had to be overcome just to survive. Tiredness is one of the greatest afflictions that beset mothers with small children and Krohg’s 1883 painting Mother and Child highlights this perfectly. The work is housed in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

Trett (Tired) by Christian Krohg (1885)

Again exhaustion features in his 1885 work simply entitled, Tired, which shows a young woman who has fallen asleep during working on her sewing machine.

In the second part of the blog about Christian Krohg and his family I will be looking at his fascination with and his depiction of “fallen women” and how it got himself into trouble with the authorities.  I will also look at the life of his wife, Oda, and his unusual and sometimes turbulent marriage.


Daniel Ridgway Knight

Daniel Ridgway Knight (c.1908)

In my last blog I looked at the life and works of the Social Realist painter Walter Langley and his depictions of the hard life endured by the Cornish fishermen and their loved ones. Today I am looking at an American artist whose paintings could not be more different. Daniel Ridgway Knight chose to depict pretty young women enjoying life. The depiction of these ladies in beautiful countryside setting, lit up by dazzling sunlight  was, although very popular, so different to the work of artists of the Realism genre. So why would people want to buy paintings depicting scenes which in reality were just something we would like life to be? Maybe that is the answer to the question. Maybe whilst enduring real life with all its hardships we hanker after the perfect life even if it is just an imaginary idyll. If you had to choose a painting to hang on the wall of your lounge would it be one which depicts poverty or one which depicts sunny meadows awash with flowers and beautiful women?

The Well by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1880)

Daniel Ridgway Knight was born into a strict Quaker home, on March 15th, 1839, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a town thirteen miles north of Maryland and the Mason-Dixon line. He attended local schools and his family intended that he would either work in a local hardware store or in his uncle’s ship building company, but for Daniel his love of art was his overriding passion and in 1858, at the age of nineteen, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Fellow students at that time included Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, and William Sartain. Knight also became one of the earliest members of the Philadelphia Sketch Club which was founded by six students of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in November 1860 and is still in existence today.

Daniel Ridgway Knight

One of the PAFA students who became a friend of Daniel Knight was Lucien Grapon, a Frenchman, and he would often talk to Daniel about his homeland and how Daniel would love to live in France, with its great social life, fine ladies, and its even finer wines. Daniel must have been seduced by the thoughts of life in France as in 1861 he set sail for France, a journey many of his fellow PAFA students would later take. Cassatt and Eakins went to France in 1866.

Maria on the Terrace with a Bundle of Grass by Daniel Ridgway Knight

On arrival in Paris, Daniel Knight enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and attended classes run by Alexander Cabanel as well studying in the atelier run by the Swiss artist, Marc Gabriel Charles Gleyre. During his time in Paris Knight made a number of friends with fellow artists such as Renoir and Sisley. He also took trips to the artist colony at Barbizon where he was influenced by the works of the plein air painters. His stay in France lasted just two years but was curtailed when he received grave news from home about  the state of the American Civil War which had started the year he left for France.   Even more worrying for Knight was that by 1863 the war had spread north with the soldiers of the Confederate army, led by General Robert E Lee invading his home state of Pennsylvania. In a patriotic gesture, twenty-four-year-old Knight returned to Philadelphia and on August 17th, 1864, enlisted in the Union Army as a Private in Company K, 5th Cavalry Regiment Pennsylvania. When not engaged in battle Knight took the opportunity to make sketches of the battle scenes as well as portraits focusing on the facial expressions of his fellow soldiers. Knight later presented many of his sketches at meetings of the Philadelphia Sketch Club.

Harvest Scene by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1875)

At the end of the Civil War, Daniel was discharged from the Union army and he returned to Paris to complete his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. On completion, he went back home to Philadelphia and opened a workshop where he worked on his portrait commissions and also held classes for aspiring painters.

The Burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1867)

In 1867 Daniel Knight completed an historical painting, The Burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which depicted an infamous incident in the Civil War. On July 30, 1864, Brigadier General John McCausland and 2,800 Confederate cavalrymen entered Chambersburg and demanded $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks. The residents of Chambersburg failed to raise the ransom, and McCausland ordered his men to burn the town. Flames destroyed more than 500 structures leaving more than 2,000 homeless. Chambersburg was the only Northern town the Confederates destroyed. The attack inspired a national aid campaign and spurred the Union Army to a more aggressive approach that finally won the war.

Un Deuil (Bereavement) by Daniel Ridgway Knight,(1882)

It was at his Philadelphia studio that he first met Rebecca Morris Webster, the daughter of Colonel Thomas Webster Jnr, who was one of his students. On September 20th, 1871 the couple married in St Luke’s Church Philadelphia. For the next twelve months Daniel took on many portrait commissions and with the money he earned from them, he had enough for two boat tickets for himself and his wife and they returned to France where they would remain for the rest of their lives.

Ridgway Knight painting in front of the front facade of his house in Poissy, [1883]

Daniel and Rebecca first went to live in Saint Germain Des Prés, on Paris’ Left Bank and then later in 1872, they settled in Poissy, where Walter had bought a vast 17th century house. The property had belonged before him to the Arbien-Caulaincourt family. The house, which until the early 1920’s, was located at what is now, 24 avenue Meissonier and was sometimes referred to as the Abbey Castle.

Daniel Ridgway Knight in his studio (c.1889).

To ensure that he was able to capture the true colours of the daylight which may have been lost in studio painting he built a glass-enclosed studio, separate from the house, so he could paint comfortably “indoors” while still capturing the true colours fully in its natural surroundings. This would allow him to position his models there notwithstanding the weather conditions outside even during the coldest winter’s day, and still make the best use of the natural light. Such protection from inclement weather in a controlled environment made for a perfect studio. His models would be dressed in peasant costumes and sometimes he would actually use local girls to sit for him.

The Poissy enclosure of the abbey, years 1870-1880. From left to right, Meissonier’s house, Ridgway Knight’s house (center) and Notre-Dame collegiate church.
Photo Agnès Guignard

The French Classicist painter, Ernest Meissonier, had occupied the neighbouring property since 1846 and it still exists. Meissonier completed most of his paintings in his studio there as well as conducting art classes for his students. In the photograph above, dated around 1880, we see three buildings. On the left is Meissonier’s house, Daniel Ridgway Knight’s house can be seen in the centre and to the right is the Notre-Dame collegiate church, which was once the l’abbaye aux dames.  It was a truly magnificent building which Knight spent years and much money on restoring and refurbishing it.

Article from The Decorator and Furnisher March 1886

The interior of his house was commented on, and a sketch made of the elaborate main staircase in the March 1886 edition of the New York published magazine The Decorator and Furnisher:

“… In our illustration will be seen a rough sketch of a fine old staircase in the house of the excellent painter Mr. Daniel Ridgway Knight, of Philadelphia, Mr. Knight has settled at Poissy (Seine-et- Oise), near his master Meissonier. His house is a part of the old Abbey of Poissy, a splendid dwelling, with lofty rooms, which Mr. Knight has filled with choice furniture and objects of art. The staircase, broad enough for four people to walk up it abreast, has an elegant wrought-iron balustrade, and Mr. Knight has completed the decoration with a fine old German wrought-iron lantern, the potence of which is peculiarly graceful and delicate in design. The walls of the staircase and entrance-hall are hung with red cloth, over which several fine pieces of tapestry are stretched, with, on the landings, a profusion of flowers and plants. -In the sketch the balustrade and the lamp alone appear; the accessories are barely indicated…”

The Knight family on the steps of their house in Poissy, [1883].

His neighbour was the painter Ernest Meissonier who had bought his large mansion which was sometimes known as the Grande Maison. The Grande Maison included two large studios, the atelier d’hiver, or winter workshop, situated on the top floor of the house, and at ground level, a glass-roofed annexe, the atelier d’été or summer workshop. Meissonier, not only became a good friend of Daniel Ridgway Knight but acted as his artistic mentor. Daniel Knight and his wife Rebecca went on to have three children, all boys. Louis Aston Knight was born in August 1873. His godfather and godmother were the son-in-law and daughter-in-law of Meissonier, Gustave Méquillet and Jeanne Gros. Louis became a very talented and successful landscape painter.  Charly Meissonier Knight, was Rebecca and Daniel’s second child, born in 1877, and Meissonier himself was his godfather.  He later became a well-known architect and made a speciality of restoration of houses in Paris and country chateaux. The youngest child, Raymond Knight, was born in 1878 but died at the age of thirty-six in 1914.

The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet (1857)

By 1874, Knight had to decide what he wanted to paint. In the early days he was happy with his historical paintings and on his return to Philadelphia after the Civil War he had made money with his portrait commissions but now he wanted to do something altogether different. That year he again visited Barbizon and saw the works of Jean-Francois Millet with his depiction of French peasantry and he believed he should follow this theme for his paintings. The one thing he didn’t like about Millet’s depictions was that Millet’s works were of the Realism genre and the artist had focused on the hardships suffered by the peasants.

The Reapers by Jules Breton (c.1860)

Knight decided that his depictions of the peasantry would focus on the joys of the countryside and the happiness of the peasants whether they were at work or enjoying their leisure time. He was influenced by the works of the French artist, Jules Breton and, although he too is classed as a Realist painter, his depictions, which are also heavily influenced by the French countryside and the peasants working the land, are, in the main, a celebration of the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence, as can be seen in the painting above, The Reapers which he completed around 1860.

Les Laveuses by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1875)

Meissonier was a great believer in Knight’s talent as an artist and one day set him a challenge to produce a large painting from a sketch he had made. The result was Les Laveuses (Washerwomen) which resulted in Knight’s first big success at the Salon in 1875.

Hailing the Ferry by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1888)

In 1888 Daniel Ridgway Knight painted several large paintings for major exhibitions, and Hailing the Ferry, was regarded as one of his masterpieces. When it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1888, it was awarded the third-class gold medal. He was also awarded a Gold Medal at the Munich Exhibition that same year for this work. It can now be seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The depiction is of two peasant girls calling for the ferryman on the other side of the river. The beauty of this work is how Knight captured all the elements of the subdued light and colour, together with the way he added the finely detailed figures which highlighted his constant focus on detail.

Coffee in the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1924)

Daniel Knight’s genre scenes were very popular with buyers on both sides of the Atlantic and they enhanced his reputation as a great painter. One of his popular works was entitled Coffee in the Garden. The setting is the outside of a rural house/café. The pink and grey colour of the rough plaster of the building contrasts with the various colourful flowers in the window boxes and plant pots which brighten the building’s façade. In the background our gaze is carried along the River Seine.  We can see the calm waters of the river meandering quietly on its journey along the wide valley towards the sea. In this work we see a group of three women sitting around a wooden table on cane-bottom chairs and a wooden stool. A young boy approaches them carrying a large pot of coffee. The ladies await patiently holding their empty porcelain cups in readiness. To the left we see a carved wooden table bearing a tureen of soup, a ladle, and a pile of empty shallow bowls. Next to the tureen are two empty bottles and a broken loaf.

Portrait de femme (Mme Knight ) by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1892)

In the mid-1890’s, Daniel Ridgway Knight signed a contract with the well-known and much respected art dealers, Knoedler, who had many galleries in New York and Paris. The company would act as sole agents to sell all his paintings. This was an added boost to his income stream and shortly after the contracts were signed Knight decide to buy another large house.

Julia in the Corner of the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight

It was around 1896 that Daniel Knight and his family left their home in Poissy to live in their new home at Rolleboise, some forty kilometres down river from Poissy. The Knight family’s new residence had breathtaking views of the River Seine as it was positioned atop an elevated headland overlooking the river. His home had a beautiful garden and terrace that overlooked the Seine and it was that view that often appeared in his painting. It was a stunning vista which overlooked the cascading rooftops below, and, all the way along the River Seine which flowed between miles and miles of fields, meadows, and lines of trees. Besides carrying on with his own paintings, Knight held classes at his house for aspiring artists and this led to the foundation of the Rolleboise School.

The Sheperdess of Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1896)

One of his first paintings after he moved to his new home was his 1896 work, The Shepherdess of Rolleboise. In the painting, which combined a grey and silver palette, we see a French shepherdess. Her youth and loveliness are seen against a pastoral background on the bank of the River Seine. As she gazes out at the water her charges feed themselves on the grassy bank. The work was exhibited at the 1896 Salon and was well received. It was Knight’s take on peasant life that appealed to the many American buyers who would rather witness the beauty and romanticism of peasant life rather than the harsher realities of their lives depicted by the Realism painters of the time. Knight’s work was closer to the Naturalism genre which was practiced by the great French painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage.

A Garden above the Seine, Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight

In 1889 Knight was awarded a Silver Medal at the Paris Exposition and was knighted in the Legion of Honour, and later in 1914, becoming an officer. In 1896 he received the Grand Medal of Honour at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Daniel Ridgway Knight died in Paris on March 9th, 1924, a week before his eighty-fifth birthday. Ridgway Knight’s paintings continued to be popular in the twentieth century, particularly in America and still, even now, realise high prices at auction.

Theodore Robinson. Part 2 – Naturalism, Realism and Giverny

Theodore Robinson

……………………Theodore Robinson returned with some of his fellow students to the Fontainebleu Forest in the summer of 1878 to carry on with their en plein air painting but probably the highlight for Robinson that September was his trip to Italy with his fellow École des Beaux-Arts student Kenyon Cox.  They visited Turin, Milan, Verona and Bologna on their way to Venice.  In his 1986 book, An American Art Student in Paris, The Letters of Kenyon Cox 1877-1882, H.Wayne Morgan quotes from a letter Cox sent to his family after he had returned to France on December 15th 1878 and from it we have an insight into the physical health of his erstwhile fellow traveller, Robinson.  Cox wrote:

“…Robinson has come back from Venice very much used up.  He caught some sort of fever there and was sick for some days in a little German hotel, waiting for money to leave with, confined to his bed, unable to eat anything…….and almost afraid he should get out alive.   He is very thin and feeble, but I hope if he takes care of himself and lives better he will come around…”

Suzette (Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Robinson left Europe and returned to New York in late 1879 and rented a studio on Broadway hoping to establish himself as a professional artist but his financial situation became dire and he had to close his studio and return to his family in Evansville where he would paint local scenes but also dabbled with illustrative work.  One such illustration, Suzette, appeared in the August 31st 1880 issue of the Harper’s Young People magazine  in conjunction with a children’s story Viola’s Sketch.   The original black chalk drawing with white heightening, on grayish blue paper, mounted on board can be found at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.   It depicts an outdoor scene with a young girl, turned to the right, in a humble frock intent on sewing.  Her hair is styled in a long braid and she stands in wooden shoes, looking downward wistfully at her work.  The simple depiction of this guileless peasant girl probably harks back at Robinson’s academic training in Paris and the rustic genre imagery we have seen in the works of Jean-François Millet

However, Robinson’s life was at a low point, both physically and mentally as indicated in letters he sent to his friends.  One such friend was Will Low a fellow student at Carolus-Duran’s atelier in Paris.  In his 1908 book, A Chronicle of Friendship, Low wrote that on hearing of his friend’s predicament he had to:

“…extricate Robinson from the surroundings where….he was fast relapsing into a vegetable state…”

And so, Low arranged for Robinson to take a teaching position in New York at Mrs Sylvanus Reed’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies, a latter day finishing school for young women.  In May 1881 Robinson was elected to the Society of American Artists and following the short spell of teaching he began to work for the muralist and stained-glass window maker John La Farge.  He and his friend Will Lowe worked on a La Farge commission from Cornelius Vanderbilt to decorate his New York 5th Avenue home and following this they worked on Vanderbilt’s Tarrytown residence on the Hudson River.  Robinson then went on to work for the decorative painting company run by Prentice Treadwell and he works on architectural decorations in Boston, Albany and on decorations for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York as well as commissions for the well-heeled nouveau-riche industrialists.

Daisy Field, Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

In May 1881 Robinson’s mother died and he returned briefly to Evansville to be with his family but returned to New York that August.   During these periods of employment Robinson still carried on with his own paintings and spent time in the summer travelling around New York State, Vermont and made painting trips to Nantucket with fellow artists in the summer of 1882 painting local island life.

Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

Theodore Robinson spent the summer of 1882 on Nantucket Island and produced several paintings based on local scenes, including the one above.  The depiction of the rider and his mount at rest under the tree is a depiction of tranquillity and serenity.  In the distance, on the horizon, we can just make out the sea which lends itself to the belief that the setting was somewhere on the New England coast, probably Nantucket Island.  The painting can now be found at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

Flower of Memory by Theodore Robinson (1881)

He completed a beautiful work in 1881 entitled Flower of Memory which is a romantic (if somewhat schmaltzy) depiction of a young lady in an Empire dress, standing alone in a garden.  This sort of depiction was very popular with folk in America at this time and could well have epitomised the figures he was painting as a decorative artist for the La Farge and Treadwell commissions.

A Poacher by Theodore Robinson (1884)

However, Robinson’s art was not dominated by cloying sentimentality in his depictions as he was very much a believer in the realism portrayed in works such as those by Winslow Homer on of his favourite painters.  This is borne out when we look at his 1984 work, The Poacher.

French Impressionism had permeated towards America and Impressionist paintings had started to become sought-after items.  The influential Parisian art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel had organised a large exhibition of works of Manet, Monet, Pissaro  and Renoir in Boston in September 1883.  So just as Impressionism was arriving on the American shores in the Spring of 1884, Theodore Robinson, who had saved enough money to buy himself a sea passage, left the country to return to France where he would remain for the next eight years with just the occasional visits back to New York.  During his stay in France he would also make trips Belgium and Holland where he would take in the Flemish and Dutch art scene.

By the end of the 1870’s the leading exponent of the style of art known as Naturalism, which is the depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting, was Jules Bastien-Lepage.  When Robinson arrived in France in 1884 the popularity and standing of Lepage was escalating, and his works of art were in great demand, a fact that Robinson must have been well aware of and there is no doubt that Lepage’s works influenced Robinson.   Lepage’s popularity and the sale of his artwork increased even more in December 1884 when he tragically died of stomach cancer at the young age of forty-four and this adulation culminated in 1885 with a retrospective of his paintings at the Hotel de Chimay in Paris which proved to be a runaway success.

Le petit Colporteur endormi (The little sleeping pedlar) by Bastien-LePage

Often Lepage’s works depicted rural peasants and urban labourers  and these detailed portrayals lacked sentimentality and yet brought home to the observer an honest if somewhat blunt snapshot of the life of the less well-off. Such was their popularity they appeared regularly at the Salon  exhibitions.

In 1886 Robinson’s good friend Will Low along with his wife arrived in Paris and Robinson was there to greet them as they alighted from the train at Gare St. Lazaire.  Such was his friendship with Low that for the next twelve months he lived with them at their rented accommodation on Rue Vernier in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.   Robinson’s work during his time in France was diverse.  There was the sentimentality of works like Flower of Memory which as I said earlier probably originated from his time of painting mural decorations for La Farge and Treadwell.  There was his landscape work which derived from his en plein air painting at the Fontainebleau Forest during his summer breaks from the Paris Academy and finally there was his interest in genre painting and the depiction of peasants and urban dwellers at work or at home which he became interested in during his trips to Flanders and the Netherlands.

A Cobbler of Old Paris by Theodore Robinson (1885)

His 1885 painting A Cobbler in Old Paris is a prime example of Robinson’s look at urban life.  The focal point for the work is the woman who leans in through the open window to talk to the cobbler.  One should almost look at this work as a part still life painting with the cobblers workbench littered with still life objects, the tools of his trade, as is the wall in the background filled with the racks of shoes.  This type of scene of tranquil everyday life was popular in Victorian times and Robinson completed many similar works.

Young Girl with Dog by Theodore Robinson (1886)

In his 1886 painting, Young Girl with Dog, Robinson has preserved Bastien-Lepage’s method of honestly and frankly portraying an un-idealized figure seen in a landscape.   There is also an American source of inspiration that would have been well-known to Robinson. This small vertical format containing the standing figure illuminated under a dappled light is evocative of a series of watercolours produced by Winslow Homer in the summer of 1878 when he was invited to stay at Houghton Farm in upstate New York, the home of his patron Lawson Valentine.

Weary by Winslow Homer (1878)

One such work by Homer was entitled Weary.  Robinson was not only an early admirer of Homer’s watercolours, but it is rumoured that he purchased one of the watercolours in 1894.  Robinson first visited Giverny, a small Norman village, which was situated on the banks of the River Seine halfway between Paris and Rouen in 1885 when he and a friend of Claude Monet, Monsieur De Conchy visited the French painter. Claude Monet had moved there in 1883 with his two young sons Jean and Michel.   Pierre Toulgouat who was a descendent of Monet, wrote of the time in his 1948 book, Skylights in Normandy:

“…in 1885, his [Monet’s] friend, De Conchy came to visit him, accompanied by the young American painter, Theodore Robinson – and Robinson, particularly, was to remain a faithful Givernois, until his death, painting there when he could and writing longingly of it when he had to be away…”

In June of 1886 Robinson was in Paris and managed to visit Monet’s work at the Fifth International Exhibition of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit and came away captivated by Monet’s works especially their colour and luminosity

Portrait of Madame Baudy by Theodore Robinson (1888)

In June 1887 Robinson moved out of Paris and went to live in Giverny. He moved into rooms at the newly-opened Hotel Baudy, which lay in the centre of the village and was run by Angélina Baudy.  Giverny and the surrounding area, for Theodore Robinson, was all about the simplicity of the landscape, the colours and the light and he would love to go off and explore and paint.  He loved everything about the area.  He loved the hills and fields, the old buildings, the people and the animals and would immerse himself in the area painting as much as he could in the ever changing conditions of light and weather.

Valley of the Seine, Giverny by Theodore Robinson (1887)

A fine example of this is his 1887 painting Valley of the Seine in which we see a minute figure in white which somehow secures a pattern of one horizontal and several diagonals that contain and depict several hillside swaths of yellow and grey, and a triangle of blue sky. For his portrayal of the countryside Robinson has used muted earthen colours, ones that he would use in many of his later paintings.

La Vachère (The Cowherd) by Theodore Robinson (1888)

During his stay around the Giverny area Robinson depicted many of the residents of the area.  Most of his paintings featured women at work, sometimes seen gathering wood and fruit sometimes tending the farm animals or doing the laundry.  An example of this is his large 1888 painting entitled La Vachère (The Cowherd) 219 x 152cms (86 x 60 ins) which is housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Before us we see a young woman and a cow both surrounded by foliage that glistens in the reflected light.  Look how Robinson has cleverly left an opening between the trees in way of the girl’s head.  It enhances the young woman’s profile and frames her face as well as adding depth to the depiction.  The addition of the cow into the depiction is almost as if the animal is vying for supremacy in the painting but it is completely ignored by the girl.

In The Grove by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

One strange thing about this painting is that shortly after he completed the work Robinson painted the same woman in the same setting but without the cow!  Maybe he thought the animal detracted from the beauty of the female. The picture, which is much smaller, is entitled In the Grove and is also part of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s collection.

In my final look at Theodore Robinson’s life in the next blog, I will look closer at his relationship with Claude Monet and showcase more of his later works.

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885)

In past blogs I have featured Dutch and Flemish paintings depicting jolly peasants as they happily amuse themselves at work or at play.  I can think of many paintings by the likes of the Bruegels, Jan Steen and Adriaen van Ostade which gave us the rosy cheeks of the well-fed peasants and maybe we were lulled into the thought that a peasant’s life wasn’t too bad and maybe one which may have suited us.  Today I am going to feature a painting which looks at the reality of peasant life.  It is a fine example of naturalism in art, which was a type of art that depicts realistic objects and people in their natural settings.  In most cases, naturalism depicts characters in situations over which they have little or no control and where they appear to be at the mercy of powers outside themselves.  Artists who practiced naturalism in their art wanted to ensure that their depictions of life were done with absolute honesty.  Their artwork was to have almost photographic accuracy rather than simply an artist’s interpretation of what was before them.  Naturalist painters often concentrated on the life of the lower working classes and in many works of art we see that the people portrayed have little or no control of their destiny.

My painting today is not from an artist who is famous for his depiction of peasant life, nor is it an artist who is renowned for his somber-coloured works which categorises today’s featured work.  In fact, quite the contrary, today’s artist is known for his bright yellows and blues and the magical swirls of his brush-strokes, none of which can be seen in today’s painting.   Today’s artist is Vincent van Gogh and My Daily Art Display featured work today is entitled The Potato Eaters which he completed in 1885.  This painting by Van Gogh is now looked upon as his first masterpiece and it was his hope that it would establish his status as an artist.

One should remember that as far as art was concerned van Gogh was a late starter.  When he was young, like most children, he would enjoy drawing but he never seriously considered taking up painting as a career.  However, through some of his uncles who were art dealers, Vincent became immersed in the world of art.  However it was not until 1879, when he was almost twenty-seven years old, and living in the village of Cuesmes, in the coal mining district of the Borinage that he became progressively more interested in the people and scenes around him and began to create a pictorial record of his time there and it was around this time that his brother Theo’s encouraged him to take up art in earnest.

A peasant woman by van Gogh

Five years on, at the age of thirty-two, he painted today’s featured picture and this was at a time when he had only just mastered the art of painting.   It makes it all the more amazing that he would take on such a large project so early on in his artistic career.   Just remember what he had to achieve.  He had to paint five figures and make each one look natural and because he had decided the light source was to be central he had the difficult task of achieving the effect such light would have on the room and the figures.

Preliminary sketch for The Potato Eaters

As a prelude to this painting he made many studies of each of the peasants, some in charcoal, and others in oil.

The painting is naturalistic.  It depicts a truthful representation of the peasants and where they live.  It is both realistic and naturalistic.  The peasants are as they are.  This painting highlights the sad reality of a peasant existence.  There has been no exaggeration by the artist in the way he has painted them in order to gain certain effects although it is said that he carefully chose the people to model for his painting so as to illustrate them at their purest and most primitive, as representing the ancient, traditional values of rural life.  Of his choice of models, he wrote to his brother Theo:

“..I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned…”

The painting before us depicts a dark room which is only illuminated by the oil lamp which is hanging from the beams of the ceiling.   It is a very dark painting which has been achieved by the artist’s use of murky colours.   The ceiling is low and one imagines that it allows little headroom for the peasants.  It is a tiny space and van Gogh’s use of colour has highlighted its shabbiness.  The murkiness allows us to understand the oppressive nature of their life.     It is not hard to imagine the sort of life the peasants lead in these damp and clammy squalid surroundings.

The whole of the painting is monochromatic, in other words van Gogh has just used shades of a limited number of colours.  The colours he has used are mainly dark and dull such as black and brown and this adds to the morose and moody feel to the painting.   In contrast to the dark room the faces of the peasants sitting around the table are illuminated by the oil lamp and shine out brightly enabling us to explore their emotions.  There is symmetry about the way van Gogh has arranged the people around the table.  A man and a woman sit on either side of the table framing another man and woman who are seated behind the table

The faces of the peasants are sunburnt from the hours they have worked in the fields under the unforgiving sun during the summer months.  Five people sit around a square table eating potatoes; three are men, two are women.      We look at them eating baked potatoes from a potato tray as the woman on the far right of the painting is pouring a black liquid, maybe coffee, from a teapot into the cups on the table.   They are clothed in thick garments to keep the cold out, once the sun has gone down and the wind scurries across the low-lying fields.  Their heads are all covered with either caps or kerchiefs.

Look at the way van Gogh has depicted their facial features.  They have thick lips, protruding cheekbones and low, flat foreheads. Their mouths and cheekbones look almost larger than life.   The male and the female on the left of the painting have bulging eyes and this gives them a look of people lacking intelligence.  Their eyes, in some way, are blank and unseeing and it is difficult to imagine what is going on in their minds.  Look at their faces.  How would you describe their expressions?  To me they are solemn expressions.  The people do not exude an air of happiness or contentment.  Their facial expressions look almost as if they are very wary of each other.  There does not seem to be a close and loving connection between those who are sharing a meal.  There is no sense of communication between the diners.  They are wide-eyed and their thoughts seem to be in a place far from the dingy room.

When we look at this painting we are not seeing the fat ruddy faced peasants of the Bruegels.  These are not the jolly peasants we are used to seeing in paintings such as The Peasant Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (My Daily Art Display, March 27th 2011).  Look carefully at the physical characteristics of the people we see before us.  They have protruding features.  Observe the way Van Gogh has clearly depicted their hands and fingers.  They are gnarled and wizened.  These are coarse working hands and these very fingers will have scratched and dug at the soil to free-up the potatoes they now hold and eat.  This is naturalism at its best.  In this painting, Van Gogh has cleverly and effectively portrayed the poor and harsh lives the peasants had to endure.  Van Gogh defended the way in which he depicted the peasants saying:

“…..if people prefer to see them with a sugar coating, let them. I personally believe that it is better in the long run to paint them vulgar as they are than to give them a conventional charm…”

The artist again defended his depiction of the people in the painting saying that it was a “real peasant painting” and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:

“…I wanted to convey the idea that the people eating potatoes by the light of an oil lamp used the same hands with which they take food from the plate to work the land that they have toiled with their hands – that they have earned their food by honest means. One sees a kind of wild animal, male and female, all over the countryside, black, drab and scorched by the sun, bound to the soil which they dig and work with obstinate resolve; they speak with a single voice, and when they rise to their feet they reveal human faces, and they are indeed human. At night they retreat into caves where they live on black bread, water and roots; they spare others the effort of sowing, tilling and harvesting in order to live, and should therefore not want of the bread they have sown…”

To my mind although this may not be considered as a loving portrayal of peasants, it is probably a true one.  Gone are the smiling ruddy faced people one saw in many of the 16th and 17th century Dutch genre scenes.  There is nothing in this painting to suggest there is much fun in the life of these peasant workers.  A contemporary of van Gogh was the French painter Jean-François Millet, who was one of the founders of the Barbizon School in rural France and he was noted for his scenes of peasant farmers and was part of the naturalism and realism movements in France.  Millet had studied the peasant classes and would often depict them as coarse-looking, uncultivated people who led a feral existence.

Van Gogh defended his portrayal of the peasants insisting that he had never intended to malign them. As far as he was concerned he was simply painting them as typical of country people but maybe this notion should be questioned as a friend of van Gogh asserted that when the artist came to choose his models, he made a point of selecting ‘the ugliest of them’.

Vincent sent the painting to his brother to be exhibited at the Salon but Theo never did put it forward to the Salon juries, nor did he show it to the very influential art dealer of the time, Paul Durand-Rule, as Vincent had hoped.  Later Vincent sent a lithographic version of the painting to his good and close friend, the aristocratic artist, Anthon van Rappard.    Vincent was horrified and angered when he received a letter back from van Rappard, in which he declared the painting “a violence to nature”.  Those harsh words were to end their five year friendship and van Gogh and van Rappard never spoke to each other again.

The Potato Eaters now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.