Frants Henningsen

Today I am looking at the life and works of the Danish painter and illustrator, Frants Peter Diderik Henningsen.  Henningsen was born in Copenhagen on June 26th 1850. He was the oldest of three children of Frants Christian Henningsen, a wholesaler and his wife Hilda Christine Charlotte Schou.  Frants had a younger sister Euphemia and a younger brother Erik. Henningsen attended the Borgerdyd School in the Christianshavn district of Copenhagen and after graduating from there he enrolled at the Christian Vilhelm Nielsen drawing school in preparation for admission to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture which he attended from October 1870 on a five-year course.  After completion of the Academy course, he, like many other aspiring painters, decided to further his art education in Paris.  In 1877 he enrolled at the atelier of Léon Bonnat, which was attended by other Danish students.

En rygvendt bondekone, der arbejder i solen
Farm woman working in the sun by Frants Henningsen

Frants Henningsen, although in France and in the midst of plein air painting and Impressionism, was more of an Academic painter who created his artwork in a studio.  He was very much influenced by the Realism genre of painting and the socially oriented naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage, Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton.  Henningsen’s paintings often added the human dimension to the depictions of deprivation, human suffering and poverty.

A Funeral by Frants Henningsen (1893)

One of his most famous painting is his 1893 work entitled A Funeral.  It is a poignant depiction of a funeral and one which Henningsen has cleverly manipulated to add to the sense of sadness.  The setting is the Assistens graveyard in the Nørrebro area of Copenhagen, which was originally a burial site for the poor and was laid out to relieve the crowded graveyards inside the walled city, but which at the start of the nineteenth century had become fashionable and many leading luminaries of the Danish Golden Age, such as Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, and Christen Købke were laid to rest here.   Henningsten, using dark tones, has depicted the setting as a very gloomy winter’s day.   The wall of the cemetery is grey and devoid of any colour.  There seems to be only a few people who will be taking part in the funeral service.  The main character is the widow, a pregnant woman who takes the arm of an elderly gentleman, whom we presume is her father.  She looks down as she is about to enter the cemetery.  Her face is drawn and she has a greyish-white facial complexion.  In front of her are her two children.  In the background we see two men, standing apart from the mourners, gazing at the family.  Like them, we are merely spectators witnessing the harrowing event.  Henningsen received a great deal of praise for the painting, which was immediately bought by the National Gallery of Denmark.

See the source image
En lille pige sælger violer (A little girl sells violets) by Frants Henningsen (1891)

In the Spring of 1878 Henningsen along with fellow Danish painters, Peder Severin Krøyer, Frans Schwartz and the German artist, Julius Lange travelled to Spain,where they studied the works of the great Spanish painters such as Velazquez and Francisco de Zurbarán.

Walking Trip, Jutland by Frants Henningsen (1877)

In November 1880, in Copenhagen, thirty-year-old Frants Henningsen married twenty-one-year-old, Thora Vermehren.  She was the daughter of Frederik Vermehren, the genre and portrait painter in the realist style. The couple went on to have five children, four sons and a daughter.

r/museum - Frants Henningsen - A Hero from 1864 (1901)
A Hero from 1864 by Frants Henningsen (1901)

The Second Schleswig War was the second military conflict of the nineteenth century over the Schleswig-Holstein Question . The war began on February 1st 1864, when Prussian and Austrian forces crossed the border into Schleswig. The army of Denmark fought the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire and Henningsen depicts a conflict between the two sides in his great 1901 work entitled A Hero from 1864.  The setting is a country road in Schleswig. In it we see a lone Danish Hussar facing a large group of the enemy invaders.  His heroics are captured in the painting but we know his fate is sealed.

En falden tysk husar
A Fallen German Hussar by Frants Henningsen (1901)

Another casualty of the war was depicted in Henningsen’s 1901 painting A Fallen German Hussar. Once again we see the result of battle.

Summer day on the beach at Hornbæk with children playing
Summer day on the beach at Hornbæk with children playing by Frants Henningsen

In the late 18th century, it was common practice for artists from Copenhagen to spend their summers in the countryside and seaside north of the city and a number of artists began lodging in Hornbæk, either in the local inns or privately. Hornbæk is a seaside resort town on the north coast of the Danish island of Sjælland, facing the Øresund which separates Denmark from Sweden.

From the beach at Hornbæk by Frants Henningsen (1883).

In 1873, twenty-two-year-old  P.S. Krøyer, the celebrated Danish painter, arrived in Hornbæk along with three artist friends Frants Henningsen, Viggo Johansen and Kristian Zahrtmann. Later many other painters would follow in their footsteps.  The four young artists settled along the northern coastline of Zealand, fascinated by the sea, the broad beaches, and the blue hills of Kullen on the Swedish mainland on the horizon. 

Fisherman with Red Kerchief
Fisherman with Kercheif by Frants Henningsen (1880)

They were also fascinated by the weather-beaten faces of the local fishermen and listened intently to their tales of peril on the sea.  P.S. Krøyer, reported on his first time in Hornbæk with his friends:

“…I had a splendid summer this year – well, not as far as the weather was concerned, for it was stormy and restless – but rather because I was, for the first time ever, able to spend an entire summer in the countryside out in the open air, far removed from the troubles and drudgeries of the city, and with three other painters whom I count among my very best acquaintances; all this has been to me a tremendous pleasure. We enjoyed some lovely trips (being based in Hornbæk on the north coast of Zealand); we went on a sailing trip to Kullen, on excursions to Gurre, Nakkehoved, to Tisvilde on Midsummer Night and to various places besides. The way of life there was utterly attractive: to venture out into the fresh, clear water en compagnie in the mornings (I learnt to swim there); and the pleasant evenings spent either walking in the woods or the beaches or in conversation back home in our pleasant digs, speaking and smoking our pipes; a splendid, idyllic life…”

Forladt. Dog ej af venner i nøden
Abandoned by Frants Henningsen (1888)

One of my favourite paintings by Henningsen is his 1888 Realist work with the strange title, Forladt. Dog ej af venner i nøden, which translates to Abandoned. However, Not By Friends in Need.   Many of his paintings depict unfortunate occurrences in the lives of middle-class people living in Copenhagen during difficult times. In this work, it is all about the fate of the single mother. It is interesting to note that Frants Henningsen painted this picture in the same year as the law that allowed single mothers to receive money from absent fathers in the form of child support until the child reached the age of ten.  It was not until a law was passed on May 27th 1908, that child support was to be provided until the child reached the age of eighteen.  However, even around the turn of the nineteenth century, the single unmarried mother had very little chance of being able to keep her child with her and many of these children therefore went to orphanages.

Hos pantelåneren
Hos pantelåneren (At the Pawnbroker) by Frants Henningsen (1893)

One of his best loved genre pieces is his painting entitled Hos pantelåneren (At the Pawnbroker) in which he depicts a group of visitors to the emporium, both young and old, examining the goods on offer, all eager to find a bargain.

Industricafeen
A Café in Copenhagen by Frants Henningsen (1906)

It was not just the working classes that featured in Henningsen’s paintings. The upper class lifestyle was on view in his depiction of Copenhagen café life in his 1906 painting Industricafeen (A Café in Copenhagen).

Frants Henningsen died in Copenhagen on  March 20th 1908, aged 57.

The War Series by George Bellows

Massacre at Dinant by George Bellows (1918)
Massacre at Dinant by George Bellows (1918)

Another exhibition I recently attended whilst in London was one which showcased some of the works by the influential American realist painter, George Bellows.  To me, before I saw this collection of his work, the art of George Bellows was all about his wonderful boxing match scenes and the haunting look at the Pennsylvania Station excavation in New York so I was delightfully surprised by the amazing variety of his works, which were on view.  Today I want to look at a series of paintings and lithographs he completed in 1918, which highlighted German atrocities in the First World War.   Some of these works were on display at the Royal Academy exhibition.  The paintings, when they were first exhibited, shocked the people who saw them and the series caused some controversy, which I will talk about later.

The story behind his War Series paintings was of the German invasion of Belgium during the First World War and depicted some of the atrocities carried out by the invading German troops.  The Belgian town of Dinant, which lies on the Meuse River, was overrun by the German Third Army, led by Lieutenant General Baron Max Klemens von Hausen on August 23rd 1914.  Dinant fell to the German invaders but according to German reports some of the German soldiers, whilst repairing a bridge in the town, were fired upon by locals.  A swift and bloody retribution followed.  The German troops rounded up 612 local residents in the main town square.  This group consisted of men women and children.  In the double Pullitzer Prize Winner, Barbara Tuchman’s 1963 book The Guns of August, she wrote that among those executed that day was Felix Fivet, aged just three weeksold.  The town was then ransacked by the occupying army.

Unlike how it is nowadays, there were no television crews following the battle to send back live feeds of the war with all its brutality.  There were no newspaper pictures of the massacre of Dinant, so how did Bellows and the world hear about this horrific event?  A month after the atrocities in Dinant, the Belgian Government put out three reports on German war crimes committed during the invasion of their country.   The contents of these reports shocked all those who read them and in Britain both Parliament and the newspapers clamoured for an independent British commission to be set up to investigate the atrocities.  The British Prime Minister at the time, Herbert Asquith, bowed to public opinion and set up an inquiry.  In December 1914, James Bryce was asked to chair what was termed, the “German Outrages Inquiry Committee”, which would look into all material and take witness statements appertaining to the massacre of Belgium citizens and to the complicity of the German officers into the behaviour of their troops during the summary executions of civilians.  James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce, was a British academic, historian and Liberal politician and had been, from 1907 to 1913, the British Ambassador to the United States of America and was on friendly terms with the then Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

The report of the Committee was published on May 12th 1915 and the conclusion was that atrocities had been committed by the German army in order to strike terror into the civil population which would, in turn, dishearten the Belgian troops.  The Germans believed that it would quash resistance and extinguish the very spirit of self-defence. The Commission also stated that the German report of the townsfolk firing on German troops was simply used to justify the murder of large numbers of innocent civilians.   However, there was one problem with the compiling of the Commission’s report and this was the documenting of the 1200 eye witness accounts which had been correlated by a team of English lawyers.  A large number of these were excluded as the committee were mindful that their findings had to be reliable, credible and truthful.   For that to happen, the Committee stated that many of the depositions collected had to be omitted, although they were probably true, as they believed that it was much safer not to place reliance on them.   The committee ended their report by concluding:

“…Our function is ended when we have stated what the evidence establishes, but we may be permitted to express our belief that these disclosures will not have been made in vain if they touch and rouse the conscience of mankind, and we venture to hope that as soon as the present war is over, the nations of the world in council will consider what means can be provided and sanctions devised to prevent the recurrence of such horrors as our generation is now witnessing…”

The report was translated into many languages and circulated throughout the world.   Some later historians believed that the Bryce Commission report was a piece of propaganda and that the lurid accounts of German atrocities were designed to bolster the resolve of those already fighting in the war and to encourage those countries, including the powerful USA, to end their neutrality.

America had declared its neutrality in 1914 with Woodrow Wilson making his speech to the nation on August 18th 1914.  In the speech he said:

“…I venture therefore my fellow countrymen to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides.   The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls.  We must be impartial in thought as well as action, must put a curb on our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another…”

The United States of America finally gave up its stance of neutrality in April 1917.

So what has this report to do with the George Bellow paintings?  The answer is that Bellows based the depictions in his paintings on the Bryce Commission report.   In 1918 Bellows created a series of works, known as his War Series, depicting German war atrocities in order to stir outrage and embolden America in World War I.   The set consisted of five large paintings, which were his largest works ever completed.   Besides these oil paintings he also completed 20 lithographs and 42 drawings about the Great War.   At the time war paintings tended to focus on the heroic victors and glory in battles won and so Bellow’s War Series was a complete turnaround and many found them offensive.

Another artist, Francisco de Goya, a century earlier, had produced works highlighting the brutality of war.  In all he completed eighty-two etchings between 1810 and 1820 but,for political reasons, they were never exhibited until 1863, some thirty-five years after Goya’s death.  They depicted not only the atrocities of the French army which had invaded Spain but the inhuman treatment men inflicted on their fellow men.  Prints of these works by Goya would have been on display at galleries in New York and it is very likely that George Bellows would have seen them.

One Can't Look by Francisco de Goya (1863)
One Can’t Look by Francisco de Goya (1863)

In Bellow’s work, Massacre at Dinant, we see the foreground is littered with the dead bodies of women and children.  In the background we see the skies darken at the moment of death.  In the centre of the painting we see the clergy with their arms stretched aloft beseeching an end to the killings.  Their pleas fall on deaf ears and they are powerless to prevent the massacre.  It is a brutal depiction and horrifies all who stand before it. Although Bellows has not depicted any German soldiers in the painting, if one looks to the far left of the work one can see their bloody bayonets and rifles appearing on the scene.   This depiction of the “approaching” rifles could be taken directly from one of Goya’s lithographs entitled One Can’t Look (No se puede mirar), in which we see the bayoneted rifles just coming into the right hand side of the etching.

The Barricade by George Bellows (1918)
The Barricade by George Bellows (1918)

Another painting from his War Series was entitled The Barricade, in which we see a line of naked human beings, arms held aloft, acting as human shields for the uniformed German soldiers, with their guns raised, who stand and crouch behind them.   As a propaganda piece it worked well evoking both pity and rage in the mind of the viewer.  The message to the American public was clear – can we stand by and let this kind of thing happen or should we join the battle and end such atrocities.

Return of the Useless by George Bellows (1918)
Return of the Useless by George Bellows (1918)

In his painting Return of the Useless, Bellows depicted Germans soldiers unloading sick and disabled labour-camp prisoners from a rust-red boxcar.   These were Belgian citizens who were being returned home as they were no longer physically fit to work for the Germans.   Box-cars were familiar sights on the American railroads but this work depicted the box-car as a transport system for German prisoners.    Look how Bellows has cleverly used the same colour, red, for the rusty box-car as he used for the flushed face of the German soldier who is venting his anger on the fallen and cowering man and the bloodied skin of some of the prisoners.  Cast your eyes towards the interior of the box car.  Here we see an elderly man supporting a young female who is on the point of collapse.  Another woman sits on the floor her arms wrapped around a child.  A young woman is stepping out of the boxcar and her arms are raised in horror as she watches the German guard bring down the butt of his rifle on to the fallen man, who pathetically looks up and begs for mercy.

The Germans Arrive by George Bellows (1918)
The Germans Arrive by George Bellows (1918)

The Germans Arrive, another painting in the series, was based on an actual account from the Bryce Commission and gruesomely illustrated  a German soldier restraining a young Belgian teenager whose hands had just been severed.   This and the other paintings in the series suffered much criticism accusing Bellows of taking liberties when capturing on canvas, the horrific scenes of war. One notable detractor was the American artist and author,  Joseph Pennell, who argued that because Bellows had never been at the battlefront and therefore had not witnessed at first hand the events he painted, he forfeited the right to paint them. Bellows responded sarcastically that he had not been aware that the great Leonardo da Vinci “had a ticket of admission to the Last Supper”.

The final painting in his War Series is entitled Murder of Edith Cavell.   Edith Cavell was head of the Training School for Nurses in occupied Brussels.

Murder of Edith Cavell by George Bellows (1918)
Murder of Edith Cavell by George Bellows (1918)

On August 5th 1915, she was arrested for assisting Belgian, British, and French soldiers to escape from the country. Two months later, she was shot by the German authorities. News of her execution spread round the world, and in October of that year, The New York Times published 41 stories and her case became a cause célèbre.   George Bellows included this incident in a series of 12 lithographs and one full scale painting for his War Series.    In 1959 the Princeton University Art Museum found and acquired Bellow’s finished, full-size drawing (53.5 x 68.5 cm.) for this print. It is interesting to note that Bellows did not complete the oil painting of the scene until after he had finished the full scale drawing and lithograph print.  The painting now belongs to the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The work depicts a dark and somewhat chaotic prison cell with its grates and bars covering the windows and door.   We see on the flight of stairs leading down to the room the angelic figure of Cavell, dressed in white with her hand to her breast, enacting the classic gesture of humility.  Behind her and to the left, on a landing, we can see some soldiers and a priest clutching his bible. At the foot of the stairs there are more soldiers, one of whom holds a sword.   On the floor in the foreground we see some wounded prisoners lying on the floor guarded by soldiers in the left foreground.

George Bellow’s War Series paintings and lithographs, which he completed in the summer of 1918 whilst he was residing at his home in Middletown, Rhode Island, were ambitious in nature in the beloved tradition of grand manner history works.  His intention was to stir up both the public’s outrage and sympathy.  However the credibility of the images depicted in these paintings went hand in hand with the credibility of the Bryce Commission Report and that was to be called into question after the war had ended.  Many of the reports of German atrocities were then looked upon as merely Allied propaganda, simply designed to bolster the resolve of those Allied nations which were participating in the war and to encourage those nations to commit to the war effort , which up until then, had preferred to remain neutral,   Later, many Americans believed that their country had been tricked and manipulated into joining the conflict and unfortunately for George Bellows he and his War Series were regarded as part of this deception.  In 1925, the American art critic and historian, Virgil Barker commented on the series saying:

“…[they were] ill-judged in their appeal to the passion of hatred as anything produced in America’s most hysterical war years…”

However I will close with a more favourable comment on the War Series.  The art critic G.D.Cotton saw the initial exhibition and wrote about the works in the American Art News in September 1918.  He commented:

“…[the works] are brutal, full of horror, but reeking with truth, which adds to their poignancy.   After one has recovered from the shock of the subject themselves one sees that the pictures are full of strange beauty, conceived in bigness of vision that is rare and inspiring.  The whole exhibition is one to stiffen the spines of the enlisted men who are here and make them realize what they face ‘Over There’…

I can sincerely recommend you go and see the George Bellows exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London which runs until June 9th 2013.  See what you make of these War Series paintings and lithographs and at the same time, take in many of Bellow’s other beautiful works.

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin

Religious Processionin in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)

Ilya Efimovich Repin was born in 1844 in the town of Chuhuiv, now part of eastern Ukraine.  His parents were a family of military settlers.  Military Settlements in thise days were places which allowed the combination of military service and agricultural employment.   At the age of twelve, his art training took the form of an apprenticeship with the local icon painter, Ivan Bunakov and throughout his life religious representations remained of great importance to him.   When he was 19 he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and studied portraiture.  It was whilst at that artistic establishment that the Rebellion of the Fourteen took place in September 1863  The rebellion consisted of fourteen young artists who left the Academy in protest against its rigid neoclassical dicta and who refused to use mythological subjects for their diploma works.. The rebel artists insisted that art should be close to real life and they formed the Society of the Peredvizhniki to promote their own aesthetic ideals.  In order to reach the widest audience possible, the society organized regular travelling exhibitions throughout the Russian Empire. Later, Repin would be become a close friend and associate with some of them and fifteen years on after returning from Europe he would join the group.  But for the time Repin remained at the Academy and in 1871 won the prestigious Major Gold Medal award and received a scholarship to study abroad.

Repin went abroad in 1873 travelling around Italy before settling in Paris.  It was whilst he was in Paris that he came in contact with the Impressionists and their works which had a lasting effect upon his use of light and colour and he witnessed their first exhibition in 1874.  Although he never joined the group and was often critical of their style, which he considered too distant from reality, he was greatly influenced by some of the artists’ en plein air style of painting.  In 1876 he left Paris and returned home to Russia, settling down in Moscow.  During his period in Moscow he visited the country estate of Abramtsevo belonging to Savva Mamontov a wealthy Russina patron of the arts (See Valentin Serov – My Daily Art Display Feb 24th).    Following the Bolshevik Revolution Repin went to Kuokkola, Finland to live in the estate he had built and which he called Penates.  Repin produced his greatest works during the latter two decades of the nineteenth century although he continued painting well into the twentieth century.  Repin died in 1930 in Kuokkla, at the age of 86.   After the Winter War between Russia and Finland and the Continuation War between the two countries between 1939 and 1944, Kuokkala became Russian. In 1948, it was renamed Repino in honor of today’s artist Ilya Repin

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Religious Procession in Kursk Province and was completed by Repin in 1883.  This massive oil on canvas painting measures 175 x 280cms.   The setting for the painting is a time of drought and we see a large group of people crossing the parched earth.   The leaders of the procession carry aloft a miracle-working icon to a church which lies nearby.  What is interesting about the procession is that there is a great mix of people of various social standing in the community.   Scan the painting, look at the various characters Repkin has depicted.  He, by his portrayal of how the people are dressed, stresses the difference in their social status and highlights life’s inequalities.  Some are in rags whilst others are bedecked in rich caftans.  We focus our eyes on the young hunchback as he struggles along with his makeshift crutch totally focused on the icon, which is being held on the shoulders of the monks.  To him, it may mean salvation.  To him, life cannot get any worse and for him this procession will lead him to a better existence.  Compare that with the posture of the cavalry officer atop of his horse who oozes a kind of sanctimonious piety,  his attitude appears to be of one who only half believes in the power of the icon and who probably, unlike the hunchback, needs little that the icon can possibly offer anyway.  This is a “them and us” scene, a “have and have not” scenario, which Repin liked to depict in his realist paintings.  This was part of a slow build up to the revolution which would take another twenty years to arrive with its 1905 initial uprisings leading eventually to the ultimate revolution in 1917 which finally destroyed the Tsarist rule and the inequalities of life.  For Repkin this procession we see before us in this painting maybe an allegory for the slow but unyielding forward advance of the working classes towards social change.

Repin was a Realist painter and focused much of his work on the social dilemmas of his country.  He was aware of the inequalities of the Tsarist system and although that same system treated him well, he was aware that for a vast majority of his people, life was unfair.  Ivan Kramskoi, the Russian artist and critic and leading light of the Society of the Peredvizhniki of which Repin was a member, said of his Repkin’s perception of life’s inequalities:

“…Repkin has a gift for showing the peasant as he is.  I know many painters who show the moujik [Russian peasants], and they do it well but none can do so with as much talent as Repin…”

The painting hangs in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and I would so like to stand in front of the painting and absorb the atmosphere that Repkin has conjured up in this magnificent work.