Balthasar Denner – Portrait artist committed to the truth.

When an artist paints a landscape, seascape or cityscape he has to decide whether what he produces is a topographically accurate depiction of what he is looking at or an idealized version. He may consider adding or removing something or placing some feature in a different place to enhance the finished product. He may decide that such action would create a more agreeable balance. He is the artist and it is his choice. The one caveat of course is that if it is a commissioned piece he may have to discuss what he proposes to change with the person who is paying for the painting.

Portraiture is defined as the art of representing the physical or psychological likeness of a real or imaginary individual. Portraiture is also subject to the vagaries of idealism and verism. Idealistic portraiture often comes in the form of the backdrop and the accessories which surround the sitter and which, in some way, enrich the status of the sitter. Expensive furnishings, expensive tableware, expensive and fashionable clothes and jewellery worn by the sitter gives the viewer the feeling that the subject is prosperous and wealthy. Globes and books on a table near to the sitter can give the impression that they are learned and well-travelled. The figure of the sitter can be adjusted to make them look younger, more handsome or more beautiful.

Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci by Botticelli (c.1476)

One of the most famous idealised portraits was Botticelli’s depiction of Simonetta Vespucci, nicknamed la bella Simonetta. She was an Italian noblewoman from Genoa, the wife of Marco Vespucci of Florence and the cousin-in-law of Amerigo Vespucci. She was famous as the greatest beauty of her age in Northern Italy, and the model for many paintings by Botticelli and other Florentine painters. Speculation has it that the portrait of Simonetta is actually just an idealized version which emerged as the perfect beauty through Botticelli’s mind eye. The Italian Master achieved the flawless complexion of Simonetta by using a special mixture, terre verte – a green, earthy tone – to under paint, and afterward layered the flesh- like tones over it to create diverse shades of pink, yellow, and orange. Botticelli made use of fine lines and shapes to unobtrusively build up contrasts and fashion the depth and texture of the portrait. Apart from Botticelli, she also served other painters as an inspiration. She died young and childless at twenty-three. She presumably did not appear in public quite this perfectly styled. Her coiffure with beads, ribbons, feathers and artificial hairpieces would have been too elaborate and high-flown even by Florentine standards. Her outfit is much more likely to have been a nymph costume in the antique or classical-mythological style. This portrait is looked upon as the ideal of contemporary female beauty. Look at the way the artist has depicted her eyelashes and how she turns her body slightly towards us. It is the perfection of idealised beauty

Portrait of an Old Woman by Balthasar Denner

The opposite to idealism is verism. Verism is a term which dates back to the Roman Empire and is from the Roman Latin word verus meaning true and from Italian term verismo, meaning realism in its sense of gritty subject matter. In modern times the Italian term verismo, gives the sense of stark uncompromising subject matter. In portraiture verism is a form of realism in which a veristic portrait depicts a sitter with warts, wrinkles and all instead of a highly idealised depiction of smooth flawless skin.  Veristic portraits do not attempt to idealize or beautify the subject; instead they represent all features of the individual, including wrinkles, imperfect proportions, balding, and blemishes of the skin

In this blog I am looking at the life of a great seventeenth century German portrait artist, who completed a number of veristic portraits. Today’s blog is all about Balthasar Denner, who will be remembered for his half-length and head-and-shoulders portraits of elderly men and women. Denner tended to focus attention on the face and if clothing was to be included in the depiction, he would leave that to other artists, including, in later years, his daughter, Catharina.

Three Children of Alderman Barthold Hinrich Brockes by Balthasar Denner

A good example of this collaboration can be seen in a painting he completed in 1724 entitled Three Children of Alderman Barthold Hinrich Brockes, on the back of which is an inscription stating that he painted the heads of the children, Jacob van Schuppen later in Vienna painted the bodies and costumes, and the background is from Franz de Paula Ferg. The flowers in the hands of the children were painted by Franz Werner Tamm.

Old Man with an Hourglass by Balthasar Denner

Balthasar Denner was born on November 15th 1685 in Altona, now a suburb of Hamburg but, at the time Altona was part of the Danish kingdom and second only to Copenhagen in size. He was one of eight children but was the only son. His mother was Catharina Wiebe. His father was Jacob Denner, a Mennonite minister who was involved with the business of dyeing cloth. At the age of eight Balthasar was involved in an accident which resulted in him walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Following the accident, he was laid up in bed for a long period and to the pass the time he began to draw and started to copy the works of the Dutch painters, Abraham Bloemaert and Nicolaes Berchem whose works were very popular at that time.

Denner received his first artistic training from Frans van Amama, a Dutch painter. In 1696, at the age of eleven, Balthasar and his family left Altona and went to live in Danzig, where his father worked for a while as a Mennonite pastor. When he was thirteen years old Balthazar took up oil painting. The family returned to Altona in 1701 and Balthasar was put to work as a clerk for his uncle who was a prosperous merchant. Denner remained in the Hamburg suburb until 1707 at which time, aged twenty-two, he went to live in Berlin and that year became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. This state arts academy was established in 1696 in Berlin by prince-elector Frederick III and was the third oldest art academy in Europe. At the start of his artistic career Denner concentrated on painting miniatures which became very sought-after items.

Balthasar Denner self-portrait (1719)

In 1709, Balthasar Denner obtained his first significant commission – to paint the portraits of Christian August, the uncle and guardian of Karl Friedrich, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf, and his sister Marie Elisabeth, the later Abbess of Quedlinburg. On completion of the portrait, Denner’s client was so captivated by the finished result that he invited him to Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig to paint other portraits, and in 1712 Denner completed a memorable group portrait which included twenty-one individuals from the Duke’s court. The group portrait is now housed in Schloss Rastede, near Oldenburg in Germany and it was this painting which greatly enhanced the reputation of Balthasar Denner as an exceptionally talented portrait painter.

Portrait of Frau Denner by Balthasar Denner

During his stay in Berlin, he would frequently return to his home town of Altona. In 1712, in Hamburg, he married Esther de Winter and the couple went on to have six children, five daughters and a son. After the destruction of Altona in 1713, burnt to the ground by Swedish troops, during the Great Nordic War which had begun in 1700 between the forces of Sweden and the might of Russia and its allies, Norway and Denmark, Balthasar moved from Altona to Hamburg.

Old Woman by Balthasar Denner

Denner travelled a great deal in the next ten years following up commissions from wealthy clients. In 1714 he made a trip to Amsterdam and later, in 1720 he visited the court in Wolfenbüttel and Hanover. Whilst in Hanover he became acquainted with many Englishmen who were living in the German city and it was through these friendships that he and his family were invited to come to London. His painting of an Old Woman circa 1720 received great acclaim. On his way to England he met the Dutch painter, Adriaen van der Werff, who the great art historian, Arnold Houbraken, considered was the greatest of the Dutch painters and such acclaim was the prevailing critical opinion throughout the 18th century. Van der Werff, on seeing Denner’s portrait, compared it to the Mona Lisa.

Head of an Old Man by Balthasar Denner

The work also caused great excitement in London and it was sent to Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor. Denner received 5875 guilders and in 1725 and was commissioned to paint an old man as a pendant piece for the same amount of money. Denner stayed in the English capital for seven years but eventually returned to Hamburg complaining that he could no longer endure the smog which beset London

Old Woman with fur by Balthasar Denner

In 1729 he was invited to visit the court in Blankenburg am Harz en Dresden and later travelled to Berlin. The wealthy and the European nobility all wanted to be painted by him and have their portrait hanging in their stately homes. Around 1740 he painted ten copies of the twelve-year-old Peter III (Russia) which were sent to all the European courts and one was sent to the court of Petersburg. In 1742 he the court of St Petersburg offered Denner a position as court painter with an immense salary but he declined the offer
In 1743 he painted Adolf Frederick, King of Sweden. Two years later, around 1745 he returned with his family to lived in his birthplace, Altona and it was here that three of his children died. It was a time of great sadness, and such was his grief that Denner, for a whole year, would never put brush to canvas.

Selfportrait by Balthasar Denner

Balthasar Denner died on April 14th 1749 aged 63, in Rostock. At the time of his death there were forty-six unfinished paintings in his Altona studio. Klara Garas the Hungarian art historian, and one-time Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest described Denner’s portraiture:

“… ‘Denner’s genre figures and character heads depicting wrinkled old women and men were particularly popular and were admired for their detailed execution and meticulous accuracy. They ensured the artist international success and attracted especially high fees: Emperor Charles VI of Austria is believed to have sent 600 ducats from Vienna in payment for a typical head of a woman, an extraordinary sum at that time…”

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Axel Waldemar Gallén (Akseli Gallén-Kallela). Part 1 – the early days.

My blog today is a veritable “potpourri”. It is a blend of history and geography all carefully mixed with the usual large serving of art history. It is a tale of a lake and forest, a country’s change of sovereignty and an artist who lived through those times but fell in love with his habitat. Today’s blog is all about the Finnish painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela, but this was not the name he was born with and this change is down to the changing history of his birth nation, Finland.

Axel Waldemar Gallén, aged 19 (1884)

If we look upon the history of Finland as a book, we should consider it as having three chapters. The first chapter would cover the period when what is now known as Finland was under the control of Sweden. This area was sandwiched between Sweden to the west and the Novgorod Republic to the east. However, as it is still the case in present times, ownership of land and “coveting thy neighbour’s goods” causes everlasting problems and Novgorod went to war with Sweden no fewer than 26 times over the land borders and the issue was not finally settled until August 12, 1323, when Sweden and Novgorod signed the Treaty of Nöteborg, which legalised their border for the first time. The Treaty allocated just the eastern part of Finland, such as Karelia, to Novgorod, whilst the western and southern parts of Finland were given to Sweden. As a consequence of this Swedish control in the west, the Swedish legal and social systems took root in Finland. During the Swedish period, Finland was merely a group of provinces and not a national entity and it was governed from Stockholm, which was the capital of the Finnish provinces at that time.

Gaining control of land is one thing, keeping the land is another. The great powerhouse of Sweden began to wane in the early 1700’s and Russia, which had absorbed Novgorod in the seventeenth century, began to look covetously at its western neighbour. When Sweden lost its position as a great power in the early 18th century, Russian pressure on Finland increased, and finally Russia conquered Finland in the 1808–1809 war with Sweden and the second chapter of Finnish history began.

After conquered by the Russian armies of Tsar Alexander I, Russia took control of Finland in 1809 and the country became an autonomous Grand Duchy, the head of state being the Grand Duke, the Russian Emperor, whose representative in Finland was the Governor General.

The third and final chapter in the history of Finland came in 1917 following the Russian Revolution when Finland declared itself independent. The following year the country was in tumult, divided by civil war brought on by an attempted coup by left-wing parties. An attempt was made to turn the country into a kingdom but this also failed. The Civil War finally ended in May 1918 when the government defeated the rebels and Finland became a republic in the summer of 1919.

So why the history lesson? Mainly for two reasons. My featured artist today lived between 1865 and 1931 and witnessed the changes in the history of his birthplace and was also part of the process of Finnicization, the changing of one’s personal names from other languages, in his case Swedish into Finnish in 1907. During the era of National Romanticism in Finland, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many people, especially Fennomans, who were supporters of a nationalist political movement in 19th-century Finland that wanted to raise Finnish to the national language of the country, finnicized their previously Swedish family names.

Drypoint Self-portrait, (1897)

Today’s featured artist was born Axel Waldemar Gallén. His father was Peter Wilhelm Gallén who came from the small town of Lemu close to the city of Turku and whose family owned a farm named Kallela. Peter Gallén left the family home and went to study for a public service career, and in 1840 he succeeded his brother as police chief of Tyrvää. In 1841, when he was twenty-four-years-old, Peter married his elder brother’s adopted daughter Sofia Antoinette and put money into the Vanni estate which Sophie had inherited. The couple went on to have five children. In 1855 Sophie died and three years later, in 1858, Peter married for the second time.

Axel Gallén.s birth home in Pori.

His second wife was Mathilda Wahlroos, the daughter of a Pori sea captain and in 1862 Peter Gallén became one of the cashiers at the Pori office of the Bank of Finland. Peter and his second wife, Mathilda, had seven children in all, which made Peter a father of twelve, the third of these children born to Peter and Mathilda on April 26th, 1865 was Axel Waldemar Gallén.

Jaatsi, the childhood home.

In 1867 Peter Gallén left his job at the bank in Pori and returned to the Tyrvää region with his large family, including Axel, who was then two years old, and bought Jaatsi Farm, and on the land, he built himself a spacious residence. It was a rural environment and for the children it was a case of living and playing amongst unspoiled nature. Once settled in, Peter became a lawyer in a private practice in Tyrvää.

School photo of the Gallén brothers Axel, Uno and Walter in 1876.

Axel had developed a love of art during his early days and his mother, Mathilda Gallén, who was a keen amateur painter, wanted her son to have an artistic career but her husband vehemently disagreed and was adamant that this was not a suitable career path for his son and so, in 1876, when Axel was eleven years old, he, along with two of his brothers Uno and Walter, was sent away to Helsinki to attend the Swedish-language grammar school. He was very disinterested in what he was being taught as all he could think about was art and all he had to console himself was to  attend the evening course at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society from 1878 to 1881 and later the Central School for Applied Arts in 1880 and 1881. Axel’s father Peter died in 1879 and Axel’s life and future took another route – a route he had always wanted to travel along – a route towards the world of art, so when his grammar school education ended in 1881 he enrolled as a day student at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society. In 1883 he transferred to the model class, where his teacher was the Finnish landscape and portrait painter, Fredrik Ahlstedt.

The Boy’s Workhouse, Helsinki by Albert Edelfelt, (1885)

In 1883 and in 1884 Axel was taught art by Albert Edelfelt, one of the first Finnish artists to attain international recognition and was one of the founders of the Realist art movement in Finland.

Repairing the Fishing Net by Adolf von Becker

Axel Gallén also spent time studying at the private academy run by the Finnish genre painter and art professor Adolf von Becker from 1882 to 1884 and did drawings at the University’s dissecting room.

Boy with a Crow by Axel Gallén
(1884)

Adolf von Becker was his most dependable teacher in the area of French realism, and he greatly influenced Axel when it came to demonstrate the technique of plein air painting. One such work is Axel’s Boy with a Crow. Axel completed the painting and people were astounded by the finished work. What amazed people was that his depiction was so like many of the works by the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage and yet Axel had never been to France and seen the work of this great painter.

Pas Mèche (Nothing Doing) by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1882)

It is believed that Axel had learnt about the work of Bastien-Lepage through Albert Edelfelt who had lived in Paris and had been won over by the outdoor realism paintings of Lepage. The peasant boy depicted in the painting, Boy with a Crow, was known to Axel and he talked about the staging of the depiction, saying that the secret of his success with the painting was persuading the boy to believe that he could tame the crow by sprinkling salt on its tail feathers!

A photograph of Axel Gallén and other art students in Académie Julian in the 1880s

Probably persuaded by Edelfelt, Axel Waldemar Gallén, moved to Paris in the Autumn of 1884 and went to study at Académie Julian and the Atelier Cormon run by the French painter, Fernand Cormon. Axel studied at these establishments for the next five years. Equally as important to the artistic training he received at the Academy was the people he met. He recorded in his journal the bohemian lives of his artist and writer friends, such as the Swedish playwright and novelist, August Strindberg. He also spent time visiting art exhibitions, such as the Spring 1885 Jules Bastien-Lepage Memorial Exhibition when more than two hundred of the French painter’s pictures were exhibited at the École des Beaux-Arts, a year after the great man’s death.

The Old Woman and the Cat by Axel Gallén (1885)

Axel Gallén returned home in 1885. This was the year he painted his well-known work Akka ja kissa (‘Old Woman and Cat’) at the town of Salo. The elderly woman depicted in the painting was a local peasant who lived with her sheep. The initial painting just depicted the woman and the cat and the background was added once Axel returned to his studio in Tyrvää. The painting was a classic example of naturalism or rural naturalism which follows the concept that truth was more valuable than beauty and once again we can see the influence of Bastien-Lepage in this work. The painting was exhibited at the Finnish Art Society in the autumn of 1886 but opinions on the merit of the work were divided. The conservatives believed the painting to be ugly and the depiction of the woman, repulsive, whilst the liberals acclaimed the work for its realistic qualities.

Portrait of Herman Frithiof Antell, by Axel Gallen (1885)

Axel returned to Paris in late 1865 thanks to financial help from his mother and a government grant. Whilst in the French capital he completed a portrait of Herman Frithiof Antell, a licentiate of medicine and one of the most generous benefactors in Finnish cultural history.

Démasquée by Axel Gallén (1888)

So pleased was Antell with the portrait that two years later he commissioned Axel Gallén to paint a nude, which is now known as Démasquée (Uncovered). This is one of just a handful of nude paintings completed by Gallén. It was done by him in his Paris studio and it is the epitome of realism. The naked woman, almost certainly a French model, is seen seated on a colourful cover made up in the typical Finnish ryijy weave. This is not a depiction of a well-endowed beauty. This is a true depiction of an ordinary woman who seems very relaxed and happy to be sitting naked in front of the artist. Another aspect of realism is the fact that Axel depicted pubic hair in his portrayal of the woman which was unusual in European art.

Evening Landscape from Korpilahti by Axel Gallén

Once again Alex returned to Finland in the summer of 1886 and this time settled down in the sparsely populated area around the small town of Korpilahti which lies in Central Finland. It is a beautiful area with over two hundred lakes as well as awe-inspiring mountains. It was during his stay here that Axel carried on with his rural realism depictions.

The Ekola Croft in Evening Sunlight by Axel Gallén (1889)

In the winter of 1886 Axel moved from Korpilahti to the Central Finnish town of Keuruu and stayed at Ekola Croft which appears in a number of his paintings such as The Ekola Croft in Evening Sunlight which he completed in 1889. The croft was on the shore of the large Keurusselkä lake and must have been an idyllic location.

The First Lesson (also known as Ensi opetus) by Alex Gallén (c.1887)

Another painting he completed around this time was one entitled The First Lesson (also known as Ensi opetus). The setting is the interior of a log cabin and it depicts a father teaching his young daughter.

In the next part of my blog looking at the life and artwork of Axel Gallén (Akseli Gallén-Kallela) I will be delving into his later life, his marriage and his fascination with the Kalevala, the 19th-century work of epic poetry created and compiled by Elias Lonnrot.


besides Wilipedia, much of the information about the artist was gleaned from a number of websites, including:

Ateneum Art Museum:  https://ateneum.fi/nayttelyarkisto/akseli-gallen-kallela-150-years/?lang=en

Kallela Museum:  http://www.gallen-kallela.fi/en/akseli-gallen-kallela-and-tarvaspaa/akseli-gallen-kallelas-lifespan-and-timeline/

National Biography of Finland:  https://kansallisbiografia.fi/english/person/3194

 

 

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.

Federico Zandomeneghi – the Italian Impressionist

Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)
Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)

When I was in Germany, just before Christmas, I bought myself a desk calendar which gave you a new painting every day.  I was fascinated by today’s picture of a young girl reading entitled Lesendes Mädchen (Girl Reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi.  I had never heard of the artist and thought it would be interesting to look at his life and his some of his beautiful works of art. He would become known for his many pastel portraits of ladies and children.

Federico Zandomeneghi
Federico Zandomeneghi

Federico Zandomeneghi was born in Venice in June 1841. He came from a family line of sculptors.  Pietro, his father, was a neoclassical sculptor as was his grandfather Luigi but unlike his father and grandfather Federico, and much to their annoyance, he favoured painting to sculpture.  In 1856, at the age of fifteen, he enrolled on a painting course at the Academia di Belle Arti in Venice and then later studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, where he studied under the neoclassical-style painter Giralamo Michelangelo Grigoletti and Pompeo Marino Molmenti.  Venice was under Austrian rule when Napoleon was defeated in 1814 and it became part of the Austrian held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.   Venice was firmly under the control of Austria and as such the Venetian citizens were conscripted into the army.  To escape conscription, Federico fled his city in 1859 and went to Pavia, where he enrolled at the university.  In 1860, when he was nineteen years of age, he joined the military forces of Guiseppe Garibaldi as one of the volunteers in The Expedition of the Thousand, part of the Risorgimento, the push for Italian unification.  As a Venetian this was looked upon as a kind of treachery. His flight from Venice in 162 to Florence to avoid conscription resulted him being charged, in absentia, with desertion.

Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,
Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,

As a young aspiring artist Federico wanted to mix with other artists in the Tuscan city and by doing so assimilate their views of art.  One of the favoured meeting places for the artists was the Caffè Michelangelo .  It was here that the Macchiaioli met.  The Macchiaioli, which literally means patch-  or spot-makers, was a  group of rebellious Italian artists based in Tuscany during the second half of the 19th century and was formed more than ten years before the French Impressionists came onto the scene.  They rebelled against academic artistic training and many art historians believe they brought about a breath of fresh air into Italian painting.  They ignored the type of painting which was popular at the time such as Neoclassicism and Romanticism.  They were looked upon as the founders of modern Italian painting.  The Macchiaioli believed that areas of light and shadow, or macchie were the most important parts of a painting and when Italian artists spoke of macchia they were talking about the sparkling quality of a drawing or painting.

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)
The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Zandomeneghi is now housed at the Pinaconteca Brera in Milan.  It is a fine example of verismo the nineteenth century Italian painting style and was a style frequently used by the Macchiaioli.  It is a style of painting we would term as realism.  It features a group of poor people, men, women and children sitting on the steps of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven), one the oldest basilicas in Rome.   

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There was a strong connection with French art as many of the Macchiaioli were influenced by the French artists such as Courbet and Corot who belonged to the Barbizon School as well as other nineteenth century plein air painters whose works the Macchiaioli artists were able to see when they visited the French capital.  En plein air painting was at that time a ground breaking method of painting but its proponents believed that it allowed for a new vibrancy and naturalness in the reproduction of light which would have been lost if the painting had been carried out in a studio.   Some of the members of the Macchiaioli, like Federico, had fought alongside Garibaldi in his effort to attain Italian unification.  Many of the works of the Macchiaioli featured grand battles scenes of the Risorgimento as well as landscapes and genre paintings featuring both the bourgeoisie and peasants.

Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)
Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)

Another painting completed by Zandomeneghi whilst he was living in Florence is one of my favourites.  It is entitled Palazzo Pretorio and was completed in 1865.  It can now be found in the Museo d’Arte Moderna, Ca’ Pesaro, Venice.   The work of art was exhibited that year in the rooms of the Società Veneta Promotrice (Venetian Promoter of Fine Arts) which was based in Palazzo Mocenigo at San Benedetto.   The depiction of light and shade we see in the painting was strongly influenced by the Macchiaioli artists of Florence.

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Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)
Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)

Whilst in Florence and through his association with the Macchiaioli artists, Federico Zandomeneghi met the Italian art critic Diego Martelli.  Martelli was a great supporter of the painters of the Macchiaioli and would often invite them up to his large Tuscan estate in Castiglioncello which was an ideal setting for their en plein air painting sessions.  Martelli wrote fervently about realism in art and favoured the works of Gustave Courbet as well as the plein air artists of the Barbizon School.    He made a number of trips to Paris and its thought that he persuaded Zandomeneghi to leave Florence and go to live in the French capital.  Through their correspondence Zandomeneghi introduced Martelli to the works of the Impressionists so much so that it is said that Martelli was one of the first and leading supporters of Impressionism in Italy.

Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)
Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)

Like Zandomeneghi, Martelli became good friends with Degas who painted his portrait in 1879.  The Degas portrait is unusual in as much as the sitter is viewed from above which is somewhat unflattering as it accentuates the corpulence of Martelli.  We see Martelli sitting unsteadily on a small stool.  To his left is a table, scattered on which are numerous objects belonging to the sitter.  The addition of these items was a trademark of Degas’ portraits as he felt it told viewers more about the subject of the portrait.  The painting is now housed in the Scottish National Gallery.

The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)
The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)

In 1874, Federico, now thirty-three years of age, moved to the art capital of Europe, Paris, and little did he know then, he would never return to his Italian homeland.  On his arrival in Paris, as was the case when he arrived in Florence, he wanted to immerse himself into the life of an artist and mix with the artists of Montmartre.   To be an artist in the French capital at this time was a chance to witness the birth of what would later be termed by the art critic, Louis Leroy, as Impressionism.

Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle
Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle

The year 1874 was the year of the Impressionist’s first annual exhibition in Paris.  Federico would often frequent the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle.  It was here that he first met and befriended Edgar Degas, who was seven years his senior.    It is said that we are often drawn to people who have the same characteristics and the same looks upon life and as such Degas and Federico Zandomeneghi were well matched.  Both were recalcitrant and often boorish and this similarity of behaviour ensured they would remain life-long friends!  Although great friends with Degas, Federico was more influenced by the works of Renoir and Mary Cassatt and the way they portrayed women in their art work.  This was to lead to many of his works featuring females going about with their daily chores or being immersed in reading.  Zandomeneghi liked to portray through his artwork, and like that of the Impressionists, the elegant high society of the French capital but his paintings were not imitations of the Impressionists’ works.  He had his own inimitable style.

Place d'Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)
Place d’Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)

The Impressionists had by 1879 held three annual exhibitions and Degas persuaded Federico to exhibit some of his work at the fourth annual exhibition at the Avenue de l’Opéra, during the months of April and May in 1879.  Besides Federico there were three other “first appearances” exhibiting at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, the husband and wife Impressionists Félix and Marie Braquemond  and Paul Gaugin.  Federico went on to exhibit at the fifth (1880), sixth (1881) and the eighth and final exhibition in 1886.  To sell one’s work one has to have a good dealer and through the good auspices of his Impressionist friends Federico was taken on by the gallery owner and art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel who acted as his sole agent.   It was this Parisian art dealer who changed the fortunes of Federico when he exhibited the Italian artist’s work in America.   In the 1890’s, having had to supplement his income from the sale of his paintings by providing illustrations for Paris fashion magazine, once his work was seen in America he was inundated with commissions.  It was around this time that Federico changed the medium in which he worked, now favouring in pastels.

Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)
Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)

Zandomeneghi will always be remembered for his female portraiture.  He seemed to concentrate his depictions of women who were mothers going about their everyday life.  He often liked to show in his paintings the ease in which women interacted with each other.  There was a warmth about his pictorial depiction of females and this may be because of the way he was influenced by the works of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.  Enrico Piceni,  the Italian writer and art critic who wrote a biography about Zandomeneghi and who, in 1984, wrote a book entitled Three Italian friends of the impressionists : Boldini, De Nittis, Zandomeneghi, wrote of Zandomeneghi’s work:

“…Zandomeneghi knows how to differentiate himself from his closest colleagues, Degas and Renoir, by surpassing the glossy and even fierce chronicle style of the first thanks to adding a warm and affectionate emotional involvement in the subject, and by transferring the deification of the ideal woman typical of the second in a more bourgeois reality interwoven with truth but able to transform a simple story in a tremor of poetry…”

A good example of the way Zandomeneghi depicted a close relationship between two women is in his 1895 work entitled Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation).  Before us, we see two women locked in conversation.  There is a gentleness about the scene.  There is no wild animation.  We feel drawn into the scene as a friend who is being admitted into their private world.  Both women are wearing light fashionable wide-sleeved shirts which were all the fashion in the 1890’s.    This painting highlights the beautiful technique Federico was to often use.  There is a lightness of touch and the artist demonstrates an amazing insight in the way he portrays the mood of the sitters.  The two women in the painting are totally absorbed in their conversation.  Their hands touch. They only have eyes for each other in this intimate and yet non-sexual depiction.   The art critic and writer Francesca Dini in her 1989 book,   Zandomeneghi, la vita e le opera, wrote of this work:

“…Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation), is among the most famous works produced by the Venetian painter at the beginning of his relationship with Durand-Ruel. The brilliance and chromatic refinement of the composition are emphasized by the balance of the scene and the richness of the materials chosen for the dresses of two young women, who are wearing light shirts with wide sleeves ‘double sboffo’, very fashionable in the last decade of the century. The provenance of the painting is notable as it belonged, among others, to the greatest admirers and collectors of paintings by the artist…”

Federico Zandomeneghi died in Paris on the last day of 1917, aged seventy-six.  It was not until 1914, three years before his death, that he was given his first one-man show which was at the Venice Biennale of that year in his native country.

There were so many paintings by Zandometeghi I could have showcased but I have just chosen some of my favourites but I hope you will search out more of his works.

Vasily Perov. Part 2 – portraiture and humour

Self-Portrait (1851)
Self-Portrait (1851)

In my last blog I looked at Perov’s early life and his artwork which is often categorised as critical realism because of the way his paintings  focused on the peasants and how they had been let down by the Church, its clergy and the State.  For one of these works he was awarded the Gold Medal by the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts and also a scholarship for him to travel to Europe and study European art.  He went to Paris where he spent a considerable amount of time but once again his art focused on poverty, this time, poverty in France.  Perov was now moving away from his anti-clerical depictions, and his barbed narrative works which poured scorn on the Church.  He now wanted to concentrate on the poor themselves and left the observer to decide on the reason for the poverty.

Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)
Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)

One of his most famous paintings, which he completed whilst in France, was one entitled Savoyard which he finished in 1863.  In Perov’s painting we see a young boy sat slumped on some stone steps.  The absence of any movement allows us to focus on the child without any distractions.  The child is asleep.  His feet stick out in front of him and this allows us to see the tattered hems of his trousers and because of the way is feet rest on the pavement we are given a view of the soles of his shoes, which are holed.  The painting itself is made up of dark sombre tones of smoky blue, green and grey.

Street Beggar by Gavarni
Street Beggar by Gavarni

It is thought that Perov’s painting was influenced by the work of Paul Gavarni, a French engraver, who had his illustrations published in a collection of London sketches, featuring life in London at the time.  The sketches and accompanying illustrations were first published as a magazine series in 1848 and later they were collected in one volume, edited by essayist and journalist Albert Smith, which was first published in Paris, in 1862, a year before Perov’s arrival in the French capital.  It was entitled Londres et les Anglais.  One of the sketches was the Street Beggar and its thought that Perov had this in mind when he worked on the Savoyard.

Perov’s arrival in Paris in 1863 coincided with a great upheaval in French art.  The Hanging jury at that year’s Salon had been ruthless in their choice of paintings which could be admitted.  Those which were cast aside were ones deemed to have not been of the quality or type they wanted.  That year, the jury had been more ruthless than they had been in the past, rejecting two-thirds of paintings.  This resulted in vociferous protests from the artists who had had their works rejected.  It was so bad that Napoleon III stepped into the argument and placated the disgruntled artists by offering them a separate exhibition for their rejected works.  It became known as the Salon de Refusés (Exhibition of rejects) and that year this exhibition exhibited works by Pissarro, Fantin-Latour, Cezanne and included Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Whistler’s Symphony in White,no. 1. 

The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant's House by Vasily Perov (1866)
The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House by Vasily Perov (1866)

Perov returned home early from his European tour in 1865 and in 1866 produced a wonderful painting entitled The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House.  This was a move away from his focus on poverty and more to do with the fate of women.  In the painting we see a governess standing before the master of the house, a merchant who is to be her new employer.  This painting depicts the awkward encounter between the governess, who has probably graduated from a school for governesses, where they are taught to act like nobility, and the merchant who has no noble blood and is the face of the nouveau riche.   She presents herself well. She clutches a letter of introduction in her hands. She oozes an air of timidity and subservience, which is a trait that would be required if she was to become a member of the household.  However her demure stance with head bent down is befitting that of a lady.  She stands before, not only the master of the house, a bloated man, but behind him stands his family.  The children of the family are to be her pupils and by the looks of them she was going to be in for a difficult time.  The master of the house and his three children are dressed elegantly and the furnishings we see are fine and elegant and are part of merchant’s plan that they be elevated in status from mere merchants to something approaching nobility. Perov has changed the subject of his biting satire from the clergy of the Church to the oppressive merchant classes and the poor treatment they bestow on their employees.

Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)
Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)

The painting was purchased by thirty-four year old Pavel Tretyakov, a Russian businessman, patron of art, avid art collector, and philanthropist who gave his name to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.   This work along with his Troika painting earned Perov the title of Academician.

Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)
Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)

In the late 1860’s Perov began to concentrate on portraiture, initially of peasants and the title Wanderer was given to three of his works which featured peasants, all different and yet all emotive in their own way, one of which is shown above.  As Perov travelled around he came across a variety of fascinating characters and he was able present them on canvas and highlight their individualism and their way of life.

Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)
Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)

In the early 1870’s Perov’s portraiture focused on cultural greats of Russia but it is interesting to note in these next two paintings they were totally devoid of any background accoutrements which would have added a sense of vanity in the sitter.  In 1872 he completed the Portrait of Dostoyevsky, a the Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher. It was Dostoyevsky’s literary works which influenced Perov in the way they explored human psychology in the troubled political, social, and spiritual atmosphere in Russia during the 19th-century.

Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)
Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)

And in 1871 he finished his Portrait of Alexander Ostrovsky, a Russian playwright who was generally thought to have been the greatest writer of the Russian realistic period, which existed against the background social and political problems.  It started in the 1840’s under the rule of Nicholas I and lasted through to the end of the nineteenth century.   The painting is now housed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)
Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)

In all his genre works he always managed to tug at your heart strings with his moving depictions.  Another of his heart-rending scenes was completed in 1874 and was entitled Old Parents Visiting the Grave of their Son.  It is said that nobody should suffer the agony of burying their children and in this work we feel the loss of the mother and father as they stand, heads bowed, at the side of the son’s grave.  This painting, like many of his other works, are to be found at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Having received his academician’s degree in 1867, Perov went on in 1871 to gain the position of professor at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.   It was through Perov’s teaching at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture that he managed to influence and nurture the young aspiring artists in his charge.  Many of the great Russian artists had been taught by him or were influenced by his style of painting

Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)
Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)

As always I have the dilemma of which paintings to show you and which ones to leave out.  I just hope the blog will get you to search the internet for more of his works.   My final offering is one that features Perov’s sense of humour.  It is in complete contrast to his works which looked at poverty and the impoverished existence of the peasant classes.   It is a painting entitled Amateur which he completed in 1862.  It is both humorous and fascinating.   Before us we see a man slouched in a chair, chewing on the end of his maulstick, eyes narrowed as he looks at his work.  His wife stands beside him holding a baby.  She too is closely examining the canvas.    From the way the man is dressed along with the background details of the room we gather that this is an upper-middle class couple.  Another give away to the man’s social status is the way Perov has depicted him.  Well dressed, highly polished shoes and overweight.  Perov’s depiction of this man is similar to the master of the household, the merchant, whom he depicted in The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House- overweight, through all the food he had been able to buy and eat, whereas in most cases Perov portrayed the poor peasants as thin undernourished people.

Vasily Grigorevich Perov died of tuberculosis  in Kuzminki Village which is now part of Moscow and was laid to rest at Donskoe Cemetery.  He was fifty-eight years old.

Vasily Perov, Part 1 – the critical realist

Portrait of Vasily Perov by Igor Kramskov (1881)
Portrait of Vasily Perov by Igor Kramskov (1881)

For my blog today, I am returning to Russia and featuring one of its greatest nineteenth century artists, Vasily Grigoryevich Perov.  He is known as one of the great critical realism artists of his time.

Perov was born in 1834 in the town of Tobolisk, a Siberian town, which lies east of the Urals.  Perov was the illegitimate child of Baron G K Kridiner, the provincial prosecutor for the region of Arzamas.  Perov, who was born prior to his mother and father’s marriage, was given the surname of his godfather, Vasilyev and yet, Perov himself disliked the name and had it changed to Perov, which was his nickname as a child as he was an excellent hand writer and a talented calligrapher.  Pero in Russian means pen.

Sermon in a Village by Vasily Perov (1861)
Sermon in a Village by Vasily Perov (1861)

In 1846, Vasily Perov received his first painting lessons, at the age of twelve, at the Alexander Stupin Art School in Arzamas. Stupin was a painter of the classicism genre, whose school was the first of its type in provincial Russia.  From there, in 1851, Perov moved to Moscow and entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which was one of the largest educational institutions in Russia.  It was here that he studied under Sergey Zaryanko, a Russian painter of Belarusian birth.   Whilst at the academy, he won a number of awards for his work from the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts and his major award was when he won the Grand Gold medal for his diploma work in 1861.  The work was a set of preliminary sketches and the finished painting, Sermon in a Village.  He was also awarded a scholarship to travel abroad to enhance his knowledge of European art.

The Sermon in a Village is not simply a depiction of the congregation listening to a sermon.  In the centre foreground we see a nobleman asleep, head slumped forward on his chest.  He has no interest in the sermon.  He is just present to be seen.  Sitting next to him is his dutiful wife, prayer book in hand,  who plays coy as an admirer standing behind her flirts with her.  Look at the woman who stands behind the sleeping nobeleman.  She pulls her veil away from her ear and leans forward to try and hear the sermon.  Next to her one of the nobleman’s footmen tries to prevent her getting to close to his master. Earlier paintings depicting Russian clergy depicted them with veneration and the utmost respect so this mocking depiction of the church clergy by a young up and coming artist was frowned upon by the Establishment but it was accepted as an exhibit and won the artist, Perov, a European trip.

The Village Religious Procession at Easter by Vasily Perov (1861)
The Village Religious Procession at Easter by Vasily Perov (1861)

The preliminary sketches and painting, which won him the Gold Medal, were not his initial submission.  His original submissions were preliminary sketches for another of his works, The Village Religious Procession at Easter.  However the Academy rejected these because of their overt criticism of the Church and the clergy.  One needs to understand that Perov wanted to not only highlight the plight of the poor and the deprived, he wanted to condemn the role of the Church and its leaders who led a comfortable life and, in his mind, offered little comfort to the poor.  Despite the St Petersburg Academy’s rejection of his preliminary sketches for the The Village Religious Procession at Easter, he completed the work in 1861.

This oil on canvas work was his way of recording his belief that the clergy had forgotten their duty to parishioners.  It was blatantly an anti-clerical depiction.  The setting is a dull landscape.  The discordant movement of the participants in the procession together with the gloomy sunset accentuates the unattractiveness of the whole scene.  Before us, we see a drunken mix of clergy and their congregation embarking on a parade of icons through the village. Some of the people in the parade are carrying icons and gonfalons (a type of heraldic flag or banner, often pointed, swallow-tailed, or with several streamers, and suspended from a crossbar).  In the foreground of the painting, the peasants stagger past us towards a precipice with half-closed eyes.  It is as if they are all blind. We can make out a woman with an icon that has lost its face. A little further on, we observe the figure of a poor man carrying an icon upside down, albeit, we can still make out the “all-seeing” eye on the gonfalon and maybe Perov left it in to remind people that nobody can escape the Supreme Judgment.  The leader of this group is a drunken priest who we can see on the right, standing on the steps of the wooden building, hanging onto the upright structure to stop him falling.  We can also see, despite the desperate efforts of one of his helpers, that he has stepped on and crushed the Easter egg.  He has abandoned his “flock”.

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)
Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)

The painting was exhibited at the Society for the Encouragement of Artists in St Petersburg but the curators were told to remove it on grounds that it was an “immoral” work, which criticised the Church and its clergy.  Even the press were banned from reproducing it in their newspapers; such was the power of the Church at the time.  Twenty years later Ilya Repin completed his famous work, Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk (See My Daily Art Display Aug 29th 2011), which again compared the lot of the downtrodden peasant class and the wealth of the clergy.

In 1862, Perov chose to go to France and also visited some German cities.  He returned home in 1864, even though his scholarship would have funded a longer stay in Europe.  Maybe he missed his homeland.

Perov lived through the 1860’s in Russia and was well aware of the social problems in his beloved country and he began to highlight the plight of the poor and downtrodden as well as contrast that to the wealth of the Russian church and its hierarchy.  Perov’s paintings carried strong social implication and thus his realistic depictions became an important landmark in the history of Russian painting.

Marriage à la Mode by William Hogarth (c.1743)
Marriage à la Mode by William Hogarth (c.1743)

Perov, at this time, had become influenced by the work of Pavel Fedotov,  who is now looked upon as the founder of critical realism in Russian art.  Perov was also aware of the genre scenes by the Old Dutch masters, often depicting poverty.  Another painter who influenced him was the English painter William Hogarth, the eighteenth century pictorial satirist and social critic whose work ranged from realistic portraiture to what is referred to as Sequential Art, which uses images arranged in sequence for graphic storytelling or to communicate information, a kind of narrative art. One example of this is Hogarth’s almost comic strip series which questioned the morals of the privileged (see – Marriage a la Mode – My Daily Art Display May 4th – 9th 2011).

On his return to Moscow he became one of the founder members of a group, known as the Peredvizhniki, often referred to as The Wanderers or The Itinerants.  This group of artists were influenced by the liberal ideas of the philosopher and critic, Nikolay Chernyshevsky and the philosopher, Vissarion Belinski.  They established the first Free Society of Artists in Russia. In a way it was a group, which felt it their duty to portray, through their art, the necessity of denouncing the social order in Tsarist Russia.  Other great Russian artists which were part of this group and have featured in My Daily Art Display were, Ilya Repin, Alexei Savrasov, Isaac Levitan and the landscape painter, Ivan Shishkin.  This group of young artists, who in protest at Academic restrictions formed themselves into a co-operative.  Perov’s influence on the art of the time, developing realism in art during the last five decades of the nineteenth century, cannot be underestimated.

The Drowned Woman by Vasily Perov (1867)
The Drowned Woman by Vasily Perov (1867)

The height of Perov’s success as a realist and genre painter came around the latter part of the 1860’s.  In 1867 Perov produced the highly emotive work entitled The Drowned Woman.    In Perov’s painting we see a policeman, who has just dragged the body from the river.  He is sitting, smoking his pipe, and looking down on the dead woman.  The artist wants us, like the policeman, to think what might have been the circumstances of the young woman’s death.  Had life been just too hard to bear?   The casualness of the policeman’s demeanour gives us the idea that the dragging of a lifeless body from the river was a common occurrence.  It should be remembered that what we see in Perov’s depictions of social inequality was mirrored in the literature of the time by the likes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose writing explored human psychology at a time of the difficult political and social mood of 19th-century Russia.

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)
Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)

The subject of this work by Perov harks back to a work by the English realist painter, George Frederic Watts, and his 1855 work Found Drowned, a portrayal of a fallen woman, who drowned and whose body was discovered on the shores of the Thames.  (See My Daily Art Display July 4th 2011).

The Last Journey by Vasily Perov (1865)
The Last Journey by Vasily Perov (1865)

In 1865 Perov produced another heart wrenching oil on canvas work entitled The Last Journey, which can now be seen in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  It is a depiction of both sorrow and condemnation.  There is an overwhelming sense of bereavement as we see a horse-drawn sleigh driven by an old woman.  We just see the back of her, hunched over, driving the horse.  She is taking the wooden coffin, which contains her recently deceased husband and breadwinner, to his final resting place.  Also on the sleigh are two children who, like the woman, face an uncertain future.  Their pet dog follows on.  The painting is gloomy matching the atmosphere of the story behind the depiction. Dark clouds are seen above the funeral cortege.  It is thought that Perov got the idea for this painting when he read the book, The Red Nose Frost, published in 1863 by Nikolai Nekrasov.  It is in two parts, the first part tells about a funeral of a young peasant and in the second part of the widow fight for survival in the forest. Nekrasov was a Russian poet, writer, critic and publisher.  His intensely empathetic poems about peasant life made him the hero of the freethinking and revolutionary circles of Russian intelligentsia.

Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)
Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)

I am completing this first part of my blog about Vasily Perov by featuring one of his greatest and certainly his largest genre painting (123 x 168 cms).  It has the simple title, Troika, which is the Russian word for “group of three”, and was completed in 1866 and now resides in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  It is a pictorial social commentary, which in this case, focuses on child labour.  We see children pulling a sled piled high with heavy barrels.  They face us.  Look at the way Perov has depicted their faces.  There is of course a child-like quality about them but one cannot fail to notice the pain and suffering their task is causing.  The air of gloom is added to by Perov’s background – The backdrop, the gloomy walls of the monastery create a mood of hopeless melancholy.  The children are being used and humiliated by this onerous task.

In my next blog I will showcase more of Perov’s paintings and look at the final years of his life.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington

In my next two blogs I am going to look at the lives and works of two English painters, the father, Thomas Benjamin Kennington and his son, Eric.   Today I am going to concentrate and examine some of the works of the father and tomorrow, switch to look at the art of his son.

The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Kennington (1891)
The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Kennington (1891)

Often when we watch a tear-jerker type film or read a heartbreaking fictional novel, we tend to be critical of the sugary-sweet, heart-tugging subject.  My featured artist today produced many paintings which, although of the realism genre, also wanted us to be emotionally moved by what we saw before us.  His paintings were often studies of the problems which beset the poor in Victorian England.  Today let me introduce you to the Victorian social realism painter and master of portraiture, Thomas Benjamin Kennington.

Kennington was born in the Lincolnshire fishing port of Grimsby in April 1856.  As a young man he studied painting at the Liverpool School of Art, where he won a gold medal, and the Royal College of Art in London.  He also went to Paris where he enrolled at the Académie Julian and studied under William-Adolphe Bougereau and Tony Robert-Fleury.  Thomas Kennington lived at a time when there were a large number of families living on the “bread line”; a term used denoting the poorest condition in which it is acceptable to live, with some even dying of starvation on the city streets.  The population of Great Britain increased three-fold during the nineteenth century due to many factors, such as an influx of people from Ireland who were escaping the potato famine, life expectancy had increased and infant mortality had decreased.  Jobs were hard to find in the countryside so folks had flocked to the urbanized areas seeking work.  With such a pool of workers, owners and businessmen could pay low wages, often so low that workers could not afford to feed or house their families.  In the middle of the nineteenth century it was estimated that there were more than thirty thousand homeless children living on the streets of London.  However, many of the well-off folk were less than sympathetic with regards their plight and believed that any money given to the poor was simply squandered on drink and gambling and did not, in any way, solve the underlying social problems at all.

Homeless by Thomas Kennington (1890)
Homeless by Thomas Kennington (1890)

Thomas Kennington was a social activist who was disturbed by the poverty he saw around him and decided that, through his art, he would highlight the plight of the poor. The first painting I am showcasing is entitled Homeless which he completed in 1890, whilst living in London.   In 1892 it was sent to Melbourne for the large Anglo-German exhibition which was held in Melbourne’s exhibition centre and the painting is now housed in the Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia.

The setting for the work is unknown but presumed to be London.   In the background, partly hidden by the smog, we see a gas works and a tall chimney belching out smoke.  This is a scene of urban pollution; a gloomy streetscape.  In the foreground we see a woman dressed in widow’s garb supporting a young boy’s body, partly lifting him up from the wet pavement.   The young lad’s face is white and his head has lolled to the side.  He looks to be in a bad way, possibly close to death.  His eyes vacantly stare out but he seems unaware of his surroundings.  The artist has further depicted the depressing state of affairs by limiting the depiction of nature to a lifeless-looking tree at the right of the painting.  It is leaf-less with one of its lower branches broken off and the whole of it is encased in the concrete pavings which will inhibit its growth.

Critics praised Kennington’s painting when it was first exhibited.  The art critic of the Melbourne Argus described the work:

“…full of pathos … both a poem and a sermon…”

while another Melbourne newspaper, The Age, told its readers to study the face of the child and described the work as:

“…a chef d’œuvre of artistic power and human sympathy … a face … that expresses all the patient suffering of a whole class, amongst whom the inheritance of sorrow and privation is patiently accepted and endured…”

Widowed and Fatherless by Thomas Kennington (1888)
Widowed and Fatherless by Thomas Kennington (1888)

Another work of art which focused on how poverty can affect families was summed up in Kennington’s work entitled Widowed and Fatherless, 1888.  In this depiction we have a mother whose husband has died and she is left with the monumental task of rearing her children.  One child is lying on the bed.  Maybe she is asleep or maybe she is very ill. Her sister kneels at the bedside praying, maybe praying that her sister will recover from her illness.  The mother sits in a chair stitching clothes but she cannot take her eyes off her sick daughter.

Orphans by Thomas Kennington (1885)
Orphans by Thomas Kennington (1885)

A very moving painting depicting the plight of the poor is one Kennington completed in 1885 entitled Orphans.  There is a similarity in this depiction of poverty with the 1650 work by the great Spanish painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in his work The Beggar Boy. (See My Daily Art Display January 25th 2011).  Before us we see two young boys.  They could be brothers.  Their clothes are no more than rags.  The older boy’s head is slumped to the side due to his tiredness.  He can hardly keep his eyes open but they stare down at the head of the younger boy who through circumstances beyond his control, is whom he has to look after.  The younger boy, with his rosy red cheeks, sits on the floor and leans against the older boy for comfort, his head and arm rest on the older boy’s thigh.  He stares out at us in a beseeching way.  What is he asking us?  Is it merely sustenance or does he want our love and our protection from the deprivation he is forced to suffer.  On the floor before the two boys is a plate with a piece of dried bread highlighting their plight. This is a prime example of Kennington’s depictions of the urban poor.  The painting was purchased by Henry Tate, the sugar merchant and philanthropist, who established the Tate Gallery in London.

Daily Bread by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1883)
Daily Bread by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1883)

A crust of bread appears in another painting by Kennington, entitled Daily Bread which he completed in 1883.  The title probably derives from the words of the Lord’s Prayer, give us our daily bread.   This is a very emotional depiction of poverty and it was hoped that by depicting such dprivation things would change.  Alas, it was not to happen for many years and even now child poverty and child beggars exist in Great Britain.

In contrast to the abandoned children we saw depicted in the previous paintings, the next painting, simply entitled The Mother, was Kennington’s idea of what family life should be about and how children should be brought up in a safe and loving environment.  This large work (115 x 168cms), which was completed in 1895, depicts a moment in family life when a mother says goodnight to her children.

The Mother by Thomas Kennington
The Mother by Thomas Kennington

This is a form of narrative painting as from about the seventeenth century, genre painting showed scenes and narratives of everyday life. Later, during the Victorian age, narrative painting of everyday life subjects became very popular and such art was often considered as a category in itself termed Victorian Narrative painting.   This theme of what family life should be about was a recurrent theme in Victorian art.  Domesticity was the order of the day focusing on how children and adults should behave within a family environment.  It was hoped that families could learn by what they saw through the medium of visual art.    This huge painting of The Mother by Kennington depicts her as the foundation stone of the family, the person who underpins the family group. The painting also alludes to another idea regarding Victorian family group.   If you look carefully at the dead centre of the work you will see the wedding ring on the mother’s finger and this could be the way in which the artist want to share his belief that marriage was also very important part of the family structure and family values.

In this painting we see the mother tending two of her young children.  Although the mother is the focal point of the painting she is depicted with her back to us.  We do not see her face clearly.  She is being helped by an older daughter, who is learning about the role of motherhood. The lighting of the painting is interesting.  The darker silhouette of the mother is in contrast with the brighter area around the two sleeping children, which is lit up by the light emanating from the lamp held by the mother and which is hidden from our view.   Of course this view of the family is a romanticised view of life in Victorian days and maybe it was more to do with what Kennington believed family life should be rather than the actuality.  This painting belongs to the Aigantighe’s Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania

Thomas Kennington exhibited his works in the Royal Academy of Arts every year from  1880 until his death in 1916.  His paintings were also regularly on show at the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) and the popular Grosvenor gallery in London.   Kennington was a founding member and became the first secretary of the New English Art Club which was founded in 1885 and was one of the founders of the Imperial League of Art in 1909.  This society was set up to protect and promote the interests of Artists and to inform, advise and assist Artists, who have enrolled as members, in matters of business connected with the practice of the Arts  Its role was to aid the artists and the protection of their interests.  Kennington exhibited internationally in Paris and Rome and so good was his work that he was chosen to exhibit at the Universal Expositions held in Paris in 1889, where he was awarded a bronze medal.

Portrait of Elise Kennington née Stevani
Portrait of Elise Kennington née Stevani

Besides his genre pieces which highlighted Victorian poverty, Kennington was an accomplished portraitist.  Many of his portraits featured family members.  In 1883, aged twenty-seven, Thomas Benjamin Kennington married twenty-two year old Swedish beauty, Elise Stevani, who was born in Lund a town in Southern Sweden 1881.

Anne as Alice in Wonderland by Thomas Benjamin Kennington
Anne as Alice in Wonderland by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

His daughter Ann also featured in a couple of his works.  One was with her as Alice in Wonderland.

Portrait of the Artist's Daughter Anne in Russian Costume Holding a Balilaika by Thomas Kennington
Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter Anne in Russian Costume Holding a Balilaika by Thomas Kennington

The other, when she was older, was of her, dressed as a Russian lady holding a balalaika.

My last offering is another interesting work by Kennington which he completed in 1882 and entitled The Ace of Hearts.  There is an element of trickery about this depiction.  We see the lady seated before us staring directly at us  But are we who she is looking at?   Look carefully at the mirror on the wall, above and behind her.

The Ace of Hearts by Thomas Kennington
The Ace of Hearts by Thomas Kennington

The image in the mirror indicated that the lady is looking straight through us, and focusing upon a man who can be seen scratching his neck.  He seems perplexed by what the woman is doing with the cards.  Look at the expression on the lady’s face.  It is one of satisfied triumph as she points to the ace of hearts and we can thus deduce that she was performing a card trick for the gentleman.  He is amazed and she is exultant with her trickery.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington died in London in December 1916 aged 60.  His wife Elise died at the young age of 34 in 1895.  Their son Eric was to go on to be a famous artist and in my next blog I will look at some of his work.