Léon Frédéric. Part 2. The Symbolist painter

Having looked at his Realism/Naturalism works in my previous blog, in this, the second of my blogs about the nineteenth century Belgian artist, Léon Frédéric, I want to concentrate on his work as a Symbolist painter.

Allegory of the Night by Léon Frédéric

Léon Frédéric has been designated as a Symbolist painter and yet when I look at all his work only some of it seems to fall into that category, whilst other of his paintings tended towards realism, but today it is all about his Symbolist art. I think probably the best way of starting the discussion is to specify what Symbolism means as far as art is concerned. Symbolism was a late nineteenth century anti-materialist and anti-rationalist movement. It was a type of art which rejected the authentic representation of the natural world, as seen in impressionism, realism, and naturalism, which was spurned in favour of imaginary dream worlds in which we may see strange figures from literature, the bible, and Greek mythology. It was art which focused upon the erotic and mystical with diverse subjects such as love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. It was the aim of Symbolist painters to give visual articulation to emotional happenings. Symbolism was an art in which there was an idea that another world lies beyond the world of appearances.

Jean Moréas by Antonio de La Gandara

The Greek-born poet, essayist and art critic, Jean Moréas published The Symbolist Manifesto in the French newspaper Le Figaro on September 18th 1886. It described a new literary movement, and it proclaimed the name of Symbolism as not just the fitting terminology for that movement, but one that echoed how imaginative minds manage the work. It was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites in England and Symbolist art became very popular throughout Europe. The leading protagonists in France were Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes and Odile Redon. In Germany it was the artwork of Franz Stuck and Max Klinger and in Austria at the forefront of Symbolist art was Gustav Klimt and Alfred Kubin and in Frédéric’s homeland Belgium, Fernand Khnopff, James Ensor were the leading exponents of Symbolism art.

Studio Interior by Léon Frédéric (1882)

Frédéric completed his extraordinary symbolist painting, Studio Interior in 1882,  which appears to be a fantasy self-portrait depicting the artist naked with a skeleton on his lap. The latter has been dressed up in undergarments with a long starry veil over them. His palette and brushes are at the lower right, and his clothes – including a top hat – are draped on chairs.

Ohara Museum of Art (Kurashiki, Japan)

Frédéric’s works from the early 1890’s concentrated almost exclusively on symbolist subjects. His artwork was lauded by his fellow Belgian artist, Fernand Khnopff in The Studio, the Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art magazine which was published in London. More of Frédéric’s work was talked about in many foreign journals such as the Austrian Ver Sacrum, the official magazine of the Vienna Secession and it was this wide coverage which brought Frédéric and his art to the fore and became internationally recognised. His work was exhibited in Paris, Venice and Munich. Léon Frédéric’s Symbolist artworks were both large and spectacular. One example of this is in the Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki, Japan.

All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love by Léon Frédéric

It is entitled All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love. It is a massive work of art measuring 161 x 1100cms (5ft 3 x 36 feet). It is a polyptych, a painting which is divided into sections, or panels or to be more precise, a heptaptych (or septych) one which is divided into seven panels. It is incredibly detailed and took Frédéric twenty-five years to complete having started it in 1893, it was not completed until 1918. It is a work of great beauty and its potency is overpowering. The multi-depiction is made up of Biblical tales and it reads from left to right.

The three panels on the left tell how God is angry with how he is unhappy at how mankind has been acting and he is sends down fire and brimstone to punish the people. The end result, as depicted, is that the people were burnt by the fires and crushed into rocks and all eventually die.

In the fourth (middle panel) there is a change of mood and we see a depiction of a white dove, which is a symbol of a messenger from God, arriving on the scene bearing good news, that God forgives and through his love,  humanity will be revived.

The three panels to the right depict the result of his forgiveness. Happy people congregate under a double rainbow. It is an amazing work with countless figures, each with their own expressions. It was obviously a time-consuming project and highlights the love Frédéric had for this work and his Christian beliefs. Take time to study each panel. Look at all the different expressions on the faces of the people. Look at the backgrounds of each panel. It is amazing what you discover.

One sad note with regards the painting is connected with the centre panel. During the time Frédéric was painting this work, World War I had begun in which he lost his daughter Gabrielle. In the foreground of the middle panel there are five young girls wearing floral garlands on their heads. It is believed that the girl in the centre of this group was a portrait of his daughter who died and to the bottom left of the panel (although illegible in this attached picture) Frédéric has written:

“…a nohe bien ainee fille Gabrielle (To my dear daughter, Gabrielle)…”

and he has added his own signature.

So, what does the painting symbolise? It is thought that Frédéric intention was to depict the foolishness of wars and the sorrow it brings, not just to the victims but their loved ones as seen in the left-hand panels. However, he wants there to be some good for those victims including his daughter to revive in the land of God in the right half of the painting.

Self Portrait by Torajiro Kojima

The painting was bought by Torajiro Kojima following his visit to Frédéric’s Studio in 1923. He had originally seen the work at an exhibition in Antwerp. Torajiro was a Japanese artist who followed the traditions of the Impressionists. He studied at the University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, and in 1908 went to Paris to continue his studies. In 1909 he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, where he trained in Luminism. From 1920 onwards, after a decade back in Japan, he travelled to Europe several times at the request of Magosaburo Ohara, his patron and a Japanese businessman and philanthropist who founded the Ōhara Art Museum with the intention of filling it with Western art by Emile Claus, Jean-Joseph Delvin, Monet, Matisse, Albert Marquet and sculptures by Rodin, and many others. The museum, which opened in 1929, was the first one in Japan to house a large collection of modern Western art.  The polyptych painting by Frédéric was Torajiro Kojima’s last purchase in Europe. It is believed that this seven-panel painting became a determining factor for the width of the Ohara Museum of Art during the time of the design phase.

Les âges de l’ouvrier [The Ages of the Worker] by Léon Frédéric

The Musée d’Orsay has, within its collection, a triptych by Lé Frédéric entitled Les âges de l’ouvrier [The Ages of the Worker], which he completed around 1897. It is a painting packed with crowds of people, all of whom are displaying a multitude of dramatic, yet meaningful gestures.

Left-hand panel

The left-hand panel depicts the men engaged in heavy labour. The white-haired man with the white apron is almost kneeling on the floor. Is he collecting rubble as behind him stands a young boy with a wicker basket on his back, possibly waiting to haul away the stones? Look at the men in the background helping each other to carry the large baulks of timber. Does this not remind you of a crucifixion scene with the erection of the crosses in a religious painting?  Is this symbolic of man’s struggle?

Right-hand panel

The right-hand panel in contrast is populated by the women who are nursing their babies. They look very concerned and seem not to be happy with their lot in life. Again, thinking of religious connotations does this depiction remind you of religious depictions of the Virgin and Child ?

Centre panel

In between these two panels is the centre panel which is all about childhood and youth. In the front there is a group of boys playing cards while we observe a parade of youngsters coming out of school or young men leaving their workshops or worksites. Some of the young girls are carrying food whilst others are eating theirs. Look closely at the centre background of this centre panel and you will catch a glimpse of a funeral procession moving away and it is a reminder of the inevitability of death. The movement of the cortege is away from us which is in direct contrast to all the workers and school children that move towards the viewer.

Aurora by Léon Frédéric

Another of Léon Frédéric’s famed Symbolism paintings is entitled Aurora often referred to as ‘L’Aube arrachant les Ténèbres (Dawn tearing away the Darkness) which he completed in the early 1890’s. It is a painting, part Symbolism and part Neo-Classicism. Aurora is the Greek goddess of dawn and she was the sister of the sun-god Helios. Her normal depiction features her scattering flowers from her four-horse chariot but in this depiction by Frédéric we see her almost naked, her body partly covered with a wind-blown diaphanous black veil which covers half her face. She is surrounded by a series of moons, suns and an aureole of stars. We see her materialising from banks of clouds and sunbeams, she stands before us, separating the morning from the night. She is the true goddess of dawn. Frédéric has heightened the atmosphere of his depiction by using lighter, silvery-blue colours to paint a cosmic, supernatural motif. There is no doubt the depiction is both mesmerising and challenging.

Le Ruisseau (The Torrent) by Léon Frédéric

Around the same time that Frédéric completed Aurora he also finished what many consider to be his greatest Symbolist work, the giant triptych entitled Le Ruisseau (The Stream), which he dedicated to Beethoven. It was a controversial painting full of naked children and swans. Observers of the work were either impressed or upset by what they saw. Although painted in a photorealist style the meaning of the work was incomprehensible.

Centre panel (detail) of Le ruisseau (The torrent) by Léon Frédéric

Of all Léon Frédéric’s paintings my favourite is his 1882 triptych entitled The Holy Trinity. The frames of the three paintings are not joined together but the three are looked upon as companion pieces. As I said in the previous blog, in around 1882. Frédéric went to live in the small southern Belgium village of Nafraiture, which was close to the French border and over the next forty years he was to visit the village on numerous occasions and paint portraits of the inhabitants as well as landscapes of the outlying areas.

Holy Trinity Triptych by Léon Frédéric (1882)

Frédéric gave his Holy Family triptych, which he completed in 1882, to the village. One would have thought that the inhabitants of the village would be delighted to have his three paintings displayed in the charming little village church but that was not the case. The paintings were placed out of sight in the church rectory. The reason for the parishoners’ reluctance to openly exhibit the works of art was that the faces depicted in the paintings were that of some of the local people, who were less than pleased with their depictions. However Cardinal Mercier, an admirer of the works of Frédéric, had them removed from the rectory and placed on the interior walls of the church itself. They are now the centrepieces of the church of Nafraiture and are a testament to the artist Léon Frédéric’s love for the village.

The left-hand panel of The Holy Trinity triptych – God the Father

The painting on the left of the trio depicts the omnipotence of God the Father.

The centre panel of the Holy Trinity – Jesus Christ, God the Son

The painting which is positioned in the middle of the triptych is a depiction of God the Son, Jesus Christ. His face is depicted on a white shroud held aloft by two angel-like figures as they walk through a field of flowers. In the background we can see a field being ploughed and to the right we see a procession of people walking along a path, following the angels. Look at the bottom foreground on the right and you will see a pair of snakes

Close-up of Christ’s face

The depiction of Jesus Christ’s face is an amazing work of art which has been brought back to life after seven moths of restoration. It is a face covered in blood from the crown of thorns. The blood runs down the white cloth below the face. The forehead of Christ is wrinkled with pain and his eyes have taken on a blank look due to his intense suffering. It is such a heart-rending depiction.

The Holy Spirit

The final painting which is usually positioned on the right of the trio depicts the Holy Spirit.

In September 2017 the three works were taken down from the walls of the church so that they could be restored. The restoration took seven months to complete. It was a difficult job with the frames having been attacked by vermin and had to be repaired and the canvases re-stretched.

The restorer and the church curator explains what else had to be achieved:

“…We started with a clean-up, and we realized at that point the condition of the varnish, which is not homogeneous. The details and the touch of the artist were no longer so noticeable, because of the yellowing. It was due to the restoration varnish laid about fifty years ago, not to the painting. There were no chemicals used during our restoration…”

The tears

The clarity of the newly restored paintings is quite amazing. Look at the face of the Holy Spirit. Look at the astounding way the artist has depicted the tears. After the restoration, you can see much better the tears that flow from the eyes. The colours are lighter, brighter.

The village church of Nafraiture

The triptych of the Holy Trinity has been exhibited all over the world, but it has always returned home to the village church at Nafraiture.

Léon Frédéric died in the Belgian town of Schaarbeek on January 27th 1940 aged 83.

Léon Frédéric. Part 1. The Naturalist painter

Self Portrait by Léon Frédéric

My chosen subject today is the life and works of a nineteenth century Belgian artist. He has been designated as a Symbolist painter and yet when I look at his work only some of it seems to fall into that category. Other of his paintings tend towards realism.  So, in this first of two blogs about the artist, I am going to concentrate on his woks of Realism.

The Three Sisters by Léon Frédéric

The artist I am looking at today is Léon-Henri-Marie Frédéric. He was one of the most prominent representatives of the Belgian symbolist school. He was born in the Brussels’ municipality of Uccle, on August 26th, 1856. His parents were Eugène Frédéric, a wealthy jeweller, and Felicie Dufour. Léon was brought up in a crowded Roman Catholic household and at the age of seven, his parents sent him to the Institute of Joséphites in Melle, a Jesuit boarding school. In 1871, at the age of fifteen, he began working as an apprentice to the painter, decorator Charles Albert, and at the same time, attended the evening classes of the Brussels Academy of Art, where he became a pupil of Jules Vankeirsblick and Ernest Slingeneyer. He also worked in the studio of Jean Portaels, the Neo-Classicist painter who at the start of 1878 became the director of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles. In 1875, Léon joined other young painters and they rented a studio and set up a collective, pooling their money so as to employ living models.

The Funeral Meal by Léon Frédéric (1886)

One of the greatest of prizes on offer to young aspiring artists was to win the Prix de Rome. The original Prix de Rome was a scholarship for arts students and was created in 1663 in France under the reign of Louis XIV. The prize, organised by Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, was open to their students. The award winner would win a stay at the Palazzo Mancini in Rome at the expense of the King of France. The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp followed suit in 1832 and organised the the Belgian Prix de Rome with a similar prize being given to the winner. Léon entered the competition on three occasions but without any success. He was devastated, so much so, that his father financed a two year-long study trip for his son in 1876. Léon travelled to Italy in the company of Juliaan Dillens, who had won the Prix de Rome for sculpture the previous year. Léon travelled extensively through Italy visiting Naples, Rome, Florence and Venice. He visited museums and observed the work of the great Italian Masters. His favourite artists were said to have been Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio. He was also influenced by the Italian primitives and that of the English Pre-Raphaelites, and Burne-Jones in particular. As a painter, Léon said pain ting gave him an understanding of the overpowering beauty and harmony of nature with mankind. This sense of accord was balanced by his own artistic vision which expressed a truthfulness to nature.

Old Woman Servant by Léon Frédéric

On his return to Belgium in 1878, Léon joins the Brussels-based artist group known as L’Essor. The group was created in 1876, and was formed by a group of art students who had once studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, although in 1879 this artists group severed all links it had with the Academy. The motto of the group was “a unique art, one life“, and concentrated on the relationship which they believed should unite the Art to Life. The founders of the group wanted their art to be a pictorial condemnation of the bourgeois and conservative Literary and Artistic Circles of Brussels.

In this first blog about Frédéric I am going to concentrate on his artwork which is looked upon as Naturalism and Realism.  In the early days, Léon Frédéric mainly painted realistic scenes of the lives of the less well-off people such as labourers, the homeless and farm workers. He empathised with their grief and depravation but at the same time he was also very inspired by their never-ending and fervent religious beliefs of the old people who lived in these countryside areas. 

Les garçons (The little boys) by Léon Frédéric

He completed a set of five group portraits entitled Les Âges du paysan (The Age of the Peasant) which depict the five different stages in the life of  rural peasants.  Besides the aging process very little changes with their poor attire and their seemingly acceptance of what life has offered them.

Les fillettes (the young girls) by Léon Frédéric
Les promis (The betrothed) by Léon Frédéric
Les époux (The married couples) by Léon Frédéric
Les vieillards (The elderly) by Léon Frédéric

Around this time Léon was inspired by the art of the French Naturalism painter Jules Bastien Lepage and Léon’s 1882 triptych painting Les marchands de craie (The Chalk Merchants) was inspired by the French painter.

Chalk Sellers by Léon Frédéric (Morning, Noon and Evening) (1882-83),

The three paintings incorporate three distinct times in the day of a family of workers. The triptych was hailed as a veritable masterpiece of Realism / Naturalism and, like some of Bastien-Lepage’s work, is particularly sensitive to the plight of the poor. It was exhibited to great acclaim at the Brussels’s Salon in 1882.

Morning by Léon Frédéric

The left-hand panel depicts a poor family of chalk sellers setting out for work. In the background is their small village. It is a harrowing depiction. The mother is wrapped up against the cold and yet her reddened hands are bare. Her face is half hidden by her headscarf but we still meet her penetrating stare, an almost accusing glower. On her back is a heavy basket of chalk which they hope to sell. Behind her is her husband. He has a red beard and wears a wide-brimmed, floppy hat. His eyes look tired and unable to focus. His mouth is partly open as if he is struggling to breathe. He is struggling with life both physically and mentally. He looks resigned to his fate. He carries a basket on his back which contains a very young blonde-haired child. In one hand he holds a wicker basket containing their food. His other hand clasps the hand of his dark-eyed, rosy-cheeked son, a bare-footed child, whose small dirty hand grasps a piece of bread which he is eating.  They all look tired and yet the day’s work has yet to begin.

Noon, lunchtime by Léon Frédéric

The middle panel depicts the family having a modest noontime meal as they sit in some barren fields with a small town in the background. The family from the previous picture have been joined by a woman nursing her baby and her child sitting besides her. Before them is a pot of boiled potatoes which they are eating with their bread. The two women and the children are all bare-footed. The man has taken off his hat and we see he is bald. The women in the centre once again fixes us with a questioning glower, almost as if she is demanding to know why we should be looking at them

Evening by Léon Frédéric

In the right hand panel we see the family returning home after a day’s work. They all have their back to us. Their village is on the left and way in the background a city looms. The wooden basket and the wicker one they carry have been lightened of food and chalk but still it is a wearying trek back to their village. The man staggers with the weight of the young sleeping child he cradles in his arms. The mother looks down at her other child, who walks besides her, hand in hand, to see if he is alright.  This was just one of Frédéric’s paintings which shows that he was aware of social inequality in Belgian society.

Two Walloon Farm Children by Léon Frédéric (1888),

Another of Frédéric’s Naturalist paintings which was influenced by Bastien-Lepage was his beautiful 1888 portrayal of two children, entitled Two Walloon Farm Children. Bastien-Lepage, who was renowned in France as the leader of the evolving Naturalist school, had died after a long illness in 1884, aged just 36 and Frédéric took over the Naturalist mantle. The painting is both exquisite and yet troubling. It is a portrait of child poverty. The two sit on chairs, finger tips touching, wearing white-collared grey smocks. The plain clothes seem clean and but for their dull simplicity, do not insinuate poverty. Their hands and fingernails are dirty suggesting a peasant life which is further alluded to by their rosy cheeks brought about by their outdoor life. The two girls who look out at us seem to be displeased with our attention to their life. It is one of the most moving images of the deprivation which went hand in hand with rural life. Frédéric’s naturalist style of painting brings with it a vision of a harsh, grim lifestyle with all the hardships that poverty brings to the table. It was not the fault of the people but the unstoppable march of industrial modernity. If one look at all his paintings featuring the harsh life suffered by the peasants one does not detect or sense rebellion, just a sense of dejection and resignation and that life for them would carry on through their faith in God.

The Legend of Saint Francis by Léon Frédéric (1882)

During Frédéric’s travels around Italy in 1878 it is thought that he may have visited the Umbrian town of Assisi and seen Giotto’s famed cycle of twenty-eight frescoes on the lower part of the walls of the nave and entrance in the town’s upper church of St. Francis at Assisi. In 1882 Frédéric painted a triptych depicting St. Francis, simply entitled The Legend of Saint Francis. In the left-hand panel we see the saint walking down a country path and the centre panel depicts him feeding the hens. The right-hand panel is more interesting as it recounts the tale of the St Anthony as written in the 14th century book, Fioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of St. Francis) a fifty-three chapter book on the life of the Saint, one of which talks about the Wolf of Gubbio, which according to the book terrorized the Umbrian city of Gubbio until it was tamed by St. Francis of Assisi acting on behalf of God.

Burial of a Farmer by Léon Frédéric

In 1883, Léon Frédéric left Brussles and went to live in Nafraiture, a small rural village in the Ardennes region of southern Belgium, close to the French border, where he lived for several years. Many of Frédéric’s works after his re-location depict poor people and peasants and the artist’s work focused on the harsh reality of peasant life. One of his paintings, thought to have been completed around 1886, focuses on grief and hardship and were thought to have been completed during his time at Nafraiture. The painting was entitled Burial of a Farmer. Sad burial scenes of country folk were popular ever since Courbet’s 1850 large-scale masterpiece, Burial at Ornans, which had gained Courbet great success at the 1850 Salon. Frédéric’s painting differs in that it depicts a procession of mourners at a village funeral in harsh wintry conditions somewhere in the Ardennes. At the head of the procession is the clergyman with the bible tightly grasped in his hand. Next to him are the close family mourners – the wife, rubbing tears from her eyes, her young son almost hidden behind the black clothes of his grandmother. Behind them are other family members, friends, and a smattering of local people. The black clothes of the mourners against the snow almost makes this a monochromatic depiction but there are just the odd splashes of colour, albeit muted, in the clothes of the three children at the right of the painting. Without doubt it is a very moving scene.

In my next blog about Léon Frédéric I will look at his work which compartmentalises him as a Symbolist painter.

Elisabeth Chaplin

Elisabeth Chaplin

The artist I am looking at today is the French-born painter, Elisabeth Chaplin. She was born in Fontainebleau, France on October 17th 1890. Her father was William Chaplin and her mother was the eminent sculptor and poet, Marguerite Bavier-Chaufour.

A Song Silenced by Charles Joshua Chaplin
A Song Silenced by Charles Joshua Chaplin

A further artistic connection was that of her uncle, Charles Joshua Chaplin, a French artist and printmaker who was known for his landscapes and portraiture. He worked in many mediums such as watercolours, pastels and oils and was probably best known for his portraits of beautiful young women. He became famous in the Paris of Napoleon III and was admired by  Empress Eugenie for the delicate tones of his paintings. He became a member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, and exhibited his paintings at the Salon de Paris.

Autoritratto contro la finestra di San Domenico by Elisabeth Chaplin (1910)

The family, due to her father’s occupation, moved from France in 1900 and relocated to the Piemonte region of north-western Italy, a region which borders France. A few years later the family was on the move again. This time they went to live in Lagueglia, a coastal town on the Italian Riviera and it was around this time that Elisabeth, now a teenager, began to take an interest in painting and set about teaching herself to paint.

Self portrait in Pink by Elisabeth Chaplin (1921)

The family was soon on the move again and in 1905 finally went to live at Villa Rossi which was in the hills of Fiesole overlooking the Tuscan city of Florence. Living so close to Florence and being interested in painting Elisabeth would spend hours at the Uffizi Gallery copying the paintings of the Grand Masters. Elisabeth received no official training and maintained that the Grand Masters were her tutors and she, their pupil.

Ritratto di Famiglia (Family portrait) by Elisabeth Chaplin (1906)

One of the first paintings she completed was a family portrait in 1906 entitled Ritratto di famiglia in esterno, (Outdoor Family Portrait). She was just sixteen years old and the painting earned her the gold medal from the Florentine Society of Fine Arts. Whilst in Florence, Elisabeth visited the studio of Francesco Giolio’s and met the painter Giovanni Fattori, who was a member of the Macchiaioli, a group of Italian artists who were active in Tuscany in the second half of the nineteenth century. They shied away from the antiquated conventions which were being taught by the Italian art academies. They were lovers of plein air painting so that they were able to capture natural light, shade, and colour. The Macchiaioli are often compared to the French Impressionists, but unlike their French contemporaries they didn’t complete their entire paintings en plein air, but instead would take back to their studios the sketches they had done outdoors and worked them up into a full painting. Elisabeth would have learnt a lot about art from Fattori.

The Garden of Villa Il de Trepiede by Elisabeth Chaplin

In her early twenties, Elisabeth exhibited her work in all the major Italian exhibitions between 1910 and 1914. Her work was shown at the Società delle Belle Arti in 1910, and the Internazionale di Valle Giulia in Rome in 1911. In 1912 her work could be seen at the Promotrice Fiorentina, the Secessione Romana in 1913 and the Venice Biennale in 1914.

Three Sisters by Elisabeth Chaplin (1912)

In 1916 she and her family moved to Rome, and it was here that she was able to immerse herself into the vibrant, international cultural climate and through her artwork was able to build on her reputation as an international painter. It was in the Italian capital that she met Paul-Albert Besnard, a French painter and printmaker who became one of her mentors. After a two year stay in Rome Elisabeth returned to her beloved Villa Il Treppiede.

Two Nudes or Double Self-portrait by Elisabeth Chaplin (1918)

It was around 1918 that Elisabeth Chaplin created what is now looked upon as one of her masterpieces. The painting was entitled Two Nudes or Double Self-portrait, and is one of few works which was not bought by the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti a few years before she died. Elisabeth depicts herself in a dual position, front and back, as she holds onto a red sheet that is tantalisingly falling off her naked body. It is a Symbolist-style work and any likeness to her disappears, giving way to Symbolist features that go beyond a solely naturalistic portrayal. It is a beautiful example of chiaroscuro with the light striking the figure from below. The colour palette she uses is vivid with reds and blues meeting and conflicting. There is a whiff of exoticism about her long, black hair and about the red sheet that looks like a Tahitian wraparound skirt, so much so that the Italian art critic and author of the 1994 book: Elisabeth Chaplin, Giuliano Serafini, stated that it was “an unwitting tribute to Gauguin, which remains one of her most fascinating and emblematic pictures, is the nude conveyed with such fullness of style and truth.” .

Fanciulle in Giallo (Young girls in yellow) by Elisabeth Chaplin (1921)

I think my favourite Elisabeth Chaplin work is one she painted in 1921 when she was living in Paris. Its title is Les Jeunes filles en jaune (Young girls in yellow). The painting depicts them dressed in yellow-coloured clothes and this derives from the many self-portraits Elisabeth did during her childhood.  The two young girls are totally different.  The redheaded girl on the left is seated. Her hair is unfettered. She stares out at us with such intensity. Cradled in her arms is a black cat, a creature that is often looked upon as being enigmatic and yet sometimes malign. The cat is a sacred icon that infuses mystery and thus this young girl represents disorder and turmoil. The other girl with her distant blue eyes is so different. There is an air of calm and graceful tranquillity about her. Her hair is neatly coiffed and she is seen touching a bunch of anemones, the embodiment of innocence. This duality is a connotation of Symbolism and we again see the duality with the reflection of the girl’s hand and the vase on the dark brown table.

Self-portrait with a Green Umbrella by Elisabeth Chaplin (1903)

In 1946, the Uffizi Gallery bought three of her paintings and asked to be given an early self-portrait by her. She agreed and donated her 1903 work entitled Self-portrait with a Green Umbrella and it now hangs in the Vasari Corridor.  The most famous and the most respected collection of self-portraits in the world are to be found in the very long Vasari Corridor of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  (It has been closed for major renovations). The corridor is a long, raised passageway that connects Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria to Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river Arno. The passageway was designed and built in 1564 by Giorgio Vasari and its function was to allow Cosimo de’ Medici and other Florentine elite to walk safely through the city, from the seat of power in Palazzo Vecchio to their private residence, Palazzo Pitti. It is a veritable tribute to art but more especially to those who have created it. Along the walls there are great self-portraits by the Masters, such as Rembrandt, Velazquez, Delacroix and Chagal. The first paintings were bought by the Medici family, and after the collection started, the family began to receive the paintings as donations from the painters themselves. However, what is noticeable about the collection is the small number of self-portraits by female artists. There are some such as Marietta Robusti, the talented daughter of Tintoretto, who died prematurely, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, who immortalized for posterity the image of Maria Antonietta and today’s artist whom I am writing about, Elisabeth Chaplin. One of her very first paintings.

Self-portrait with her mother by Elisabeth Chaplin (1938)

Buoyed by the success of her work, in 1920 she had her paintings exhibited for the first time at that year’s Paris Salon. During the 1920s, she exhibited with Cezanne, Matisse, and Van Gogh and had her work was exhibited twice at Venice Biennale, in 1924 and 1926. Her work received great acclaim at the Salon, so much so that in 1922 she moved to Paris and remained in the French capital until the end of World War II. During her extended stay in Paris she spent time going to the Panthéon and the Hotel de Ville to study the work of the Symbolist painters, such as Puvis de Chavannes. Her acclaimed work brought her many commissions including producing large murals for the churches of Notre-Dame du Salut and Saint Esprit. In 1937 she was awarded the gold medal at the Exposition Internationale and a year later was given the Légion d’Honneur.

Mendiante avec enfant – Misère (Begging with child – Misery) by Elisabeth Chaplin

Elisabeth Chaplin died in Florence in 1982, aged 91. Most of her work including her family portraits, plus some plaster figures created by her poet and sculptor mother, Marguerite de Bavier-Chaffour, were donated to the Pitti Palace and have been on display there since 1974 in a room devoted entirely to her work.  More than six hundred other works are in storage at the Palace.

Arnold Böcklin. Part 3 – The latter years. Portraiture and Symbolism

Photo of Arnold Böcklin (1900) aged 73
Photo of Arnold Böcklin (1900) aged 73

In my final part of the Arnold Böcklin story I want to look at his portraiture and some of his more evocative Symbolist works.  He completed many self portraits, two of which I have shown you at the start of the last couple of blogs.  His portraits also included ones of his second wife, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci and their daughter Clara.

Portrait of Angela Böcklin as muse by Arnold Böcklin (1863)
Portrait of Angela Böcklin as muse by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

In the first blog about Arnold Böcklin I mentioned his two wives.  He married Louise Schmidt in 1850 but she died a year later and then in June 1853, Böcklin married his second wife, a seventeen year old Italian girl, the daughter of a papal guard, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci and she featured in a number of his works of art.  One such portrait was entitled Portrait of Angela Böcklin as a Muse which he completed in 1863.

Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil by Arnold Böcklin (1863)
Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

Böcklin completed another portrait of his wife that year entitled Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil.  This was a more sombre depiction of his wife.  It was painted when she was twenty-seven years of age.  It is only a small oil on canvas work within the stretcher frame just measuring 19 x 14 cms.  This was a painting he completed for himself.  There is a certain intimacy about the work.  The artists depicts his wife with a black veil on her head and this veil serves the purpose of being a frame for his wife’s face, the colour of which is in contrast to the simple olive green background.  Angela Böcklin seems to be very thoughtful, even slightly sad.  Maybe she is in mourning for we know she and Arnold had fourteen children but only eight of them survived him.   We take it for granted that we will die before our children but in the nineteenth century that was not always the case, in fact the opposite was often true, and although it was a common occurrence for children to die young we should never underestimate its tragic consequences.

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1872)
Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

In 1872 he completed one of a number of portraits of his daughter Clara.

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1876)
Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1876)

In 1876, when she was twenty-one years of age, Böcklin painted another portrait of her.   It was also in this year that Clara married the sculptor, Peter Bruckmann.

Böcklin became somewhat fixated by death and this is borne out with his evocative painting Die Toteninsel, which I talked about in the previous blog.  This preoccupation, which could have been because of the loss of his children, was clearly seen in yet another of his self portraits, which he completed in 1872, shortly after the death of his young daughter, and was entitled Self Portrait with Death as a Fiddler.  It was completed whilst Böcklin was in Munich having just travelled back from Italy. It was in Italy that Böcklin began to add symbols into his paintings in order to suggest ideas.  The interesting thing about Symbolism in art is that we can each come to our own conclusions about what we see in a painting and unless the artist has spoken about the painting then we have as much right to postulate about an artist’s reasoning behind their work as the next person.  So having looked at the work, what do you make of it?  Let me make a few suggestions about what I think may have been in Böcklin’s mind when he put brush to canvas.

Self portrait with Death as the Fiddler by Arnold Böcklin (1872)
Self portrait with Death as the Fiddler by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

We can see that Arnold has portrayed himself with painting brush in one hand whilst the thumb of his other hand is hooked through the hole in the palette securing a piece of cloth.  However what is more interesting is the inclusion of the skeleton playing the fiddle in the background.   The question I pose is – what was Böcklin thinking about when he decided to include the skeleton?    We know that most paintings, which include a skull or skeleton, are Vanitas paintings.  A vanitas painting contains an object or a collection of objects which symbolise the inevitability of death and the transience of life.  Such paintings urge the viewer to consider mortality and to repent !  So, Böcklin’s inclusion of a skeleton is a reminder to him that he cannot take life for granted and that there is a very fine line between life and death.

Look at the juxtaposition of the artist and the skeleton.   Look how the skeleton appears to be whispering something in Böcklin’s ear and the artist in the painting turns his head slightly and leans back to listen.   He is staring out of the painting, but not at us.  He is staring out but his full attention is on what the skeleton is saying.   Maybe the skeleton is telling the artist something about his future?  Look also at the fiddle that the skeleton is playing.  It has only one string left.  Why paint the fiddle with just one string?   Is this something to do with the length of time Böcklin has on this earth?  Is it that at birth the violin had all four strings but, as time progressed, string after string broke and so, at the time of death, there are no strings?

The painting can now be seen at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Naiads at Play by Arnold Böcklin (c.1862)
Naiads at Play by Arnold Böcklin (c.1862)

Other subjects that appeared in Böcklin’s paintings during his last period of creativity were the Naiads and Nereids or sea and water nymphs often referred to as female spirits of sea waters.  The next painting I am showcasing is entitled Naiads at Play which Böcklin completed around 1862 and now hangs in the Kunstmuseum Basel.  Böcklin’s biographer, Henri Mendelssohn described the painting, writing:

“…It fairly bubbles over with fun and merriment.  The scene represents a rock in the ocean, over which the waves dash in foam, tossing white spray high into the air.  Clinging fast to the wet rock face are the gleaming forms of naiads, their tails shining like jewels in the seething waters, as the waves dash, one on top of another, so do the creatures of the sea chase each other in their frolic, darting here and diving there, and tumbling heels over head from the rock into the ocean beneath, whose roar almost drowns their shrill laughter.  All is life and movement.  The sputtering triton and the luckless baby, holding in his convulsive clasp the prize he has captured, a little fish, rank among the inimitable creations of Böcklin’s art…”

Marie Joseph Robert Anatole, Comte de Montesquiou-Fézensac, a French Symbolist poet and art collector of the time, described Böcklin’s work, writing:

“…”This is the most astonishing of all Böcklin’s representations of the sea. The water gleams with hues as violent as those reflected by the Faraglioni, the red rocks which, seen from Capri, mirror their purple shadows in the blue waves. One of the naiads, with her back turned to us, seems to set the water on fire with the brilliancy of her orange-coloured hair, while all the naiads’ tails, wet and glistening, glow with the gorgeous hues of butterflies’ wings or the petals of brilliant flowers…”

Looking at the work one can understand the comments.  It is as if you were there, feeling the energy and almost feeling the spray on your face.  From this mythical subject, Böcklin has almost turned it into reality, such was his skill.

Plague by Arnold Böcklin (1898)
Plague by Arnold Böcklin (1898)

Another painting by the Swiss symbolist Böcklin which illustrates his fascination with nightmares, the plague and death was one he completed in 1898 entitled Plague.  It is a tempera on wood painting, which is now hanging in the Kunstmuseum Basel.   In the painting the setting is the street of a medieval town and we see the grim-faced Death, scythe in hand, riding a winged creature, which spews out miasma.  The colours Böcklin used in this painting are black and dull browns for the clothes of many of the inhabitants who desperately throw themselves out of the path of Death and shades of pale green which is often associated with death and putrefaction.  The one detail which is devoid of drab colours is that of the clothes worn by the woman in the foreground who lies across the body of the woman who has suffered at the hands of Death.  Her gold-embroidered red cloak signifies that she comes from a wealthy household and the painting reinforces the fact that Death takes both rich and poor.  The plague had ravished Europe throughout the 14th to 17th centuries.  It knew no boundaries of class or wealth.

Ruggiero and Angelica by Arnold Böcklin (c.1874)
Ruggiero and Angelica by Arnold Böcklin (c.1874)

Around 1874 Böcklin completed a painting entitled Roger and Angelica.  It can now be seen in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The scene, Roger rescuing of Angelica, is based on the 1532 epic romantic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludivico Ariosto, which is all about the conflict between the Christians and the Saracens.  The painting depicts the main character, Ruggerio (Roger), a Saracen warrior, coming to the rescue of Angelica, the daughter of a king of Cathay.  She is chained to a rock on the shoreline and is about to be killed by the sea monster, the giant turquoise orc, which has wrapped itself around the helpless Angelica.  In the background we see Roger arriving astride his horse.  The battle with the orc is ended when Roger dazzles the sea monster with his shield allowing him the chance to place a magic ring on the finger of Angelica which protects her whilst he undoes the bonds which were tying her to the tree.

Grave of Arnold BöcklinArnold Böcklin moved around Europe, living in Munich, Florence and the small Swiss town of Hottingen which was close to Zurich but from 1892 onwards he settled down near Florence in the town of  San Domenico.  To mark his seventieth birthday a retrospective of his work was held in Basel, Berlin and Hamburg.  Böcklin died of tuberculosis, aged 73, in Fiesole, a small town northeast of Florence, in January 1902 and is buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in southern Florence.

In my next blog I will be looking at the work of an artist who was known as the king of the cats as many of his paintings had an obligatory cat in the depiction.  However he was probably more remembered by his erotic paintings which featured pre pubescent girls in all manner of provocative poses.  In this day and age many of his works would struggle to be exhibited because of the age of his models.

Hope by George Frederic Watts

Hope by George Frederic Watts (1886)

George Frederic Watts was a Victorian painter and sculptor who was closely associated in his later years with the Symbolism Movement.  Symbolism came about in the 1880’s but by the end of the century it had almost died away having been overshadowed by the birth and rise of Modernism.  The Symbolist movement was a reaction against the literal representation of objects and subjects, where instead there was an attempt to create more suggestive, metaphorical and evocative works.  Symbolic artists based their ideas on literature, where poets such as Baudelaire believed that ideas and emotions could be portrayed through sound and rhythm and not just through the meaning of words. Symbolist painter styles varied greatly but common themes included the mystical and the visionary. Symbolists also explored themes of death, debauchery, perversion and eroticism. Symbolism moved away from the naturalism of the impressionists and demonstrated a preference for emotions over intellect.

George Frederic Watts was born on February 23rd 1817 in Marylebone, London and his Christian names were those of the great musician George Frederic Handel who was born on that date some 132 years earlier.  His mother and father struggled financially and this was not helped by the poor health of his mother who was to die when George was very young.   His father was a piano maker and took it upon himself to educate his son at home.  Much emphasis was placed on a conservative Christian upbringing and a love for classical literature.  Unfortunately, as is so often the case, his father’s compelling desire to force his Christian views on his son, eventually made George turn completely away from organised religions.

At the age of ten, George had some informal tuition from William Behnes, a local sculptor where he practiced drawing from the sculptures.  This training proved a godsend as by the age of sixteen he was able to support himself from the sale of his portraits.  In 1835, aged eighteen years of age, George Watts enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools.  Although Watts never enjoyed his time at the establishment and would often fail to attend he did exhibit some of his works at the 1837 Royal Academy Exhibition.  It was whilst studying art that he met and became great friends with Alexander Constantine Ionides, an art patron and collector.  Ionides commissioned many paintings from Watts and became one of his earliest patrons.

By 1840 Watts had moved away from portraiture and concentrated on historical paintings.  In 1843, he entered the first competition to design murals for the new Houses of Parliament.  Entries were to be of a narrative genre which endorsed patriotism and thus would be appropriate to the new legislative building.   His entry, Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome, gained him first prize in the competition and the prize money helped fund his artistic study trip to Italy where he remained for four years.  During his stay in Italy he learnt the secrets of fresco painting and completed many large scale paintings depicting scenes from Romantic literature.  However, he never gave up on his other artistic loves, portraiture and landscape painting.

Watts returned to London in 1847 and once again entered the Houses of Parliament competition.  This was the fourth one organised by the monarch and the government.  Watts won the competition with his entry Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Encounter the Danes at Sea.   Watts suffered from bouts of depression and he expressed his personal struggle with the illness in a series of four paintings which evoked a social realism theme.  One of these works entitled Found Drowned was my featured painting in My Daily Art Display of July 4th 2011.  In 1851 he went to live with his friend Henry Thoby Prinsep and his wife Sara at Little Holland House.  He lived with them for the next twenty-four years and it undoubtedly provided Watts with a secure environment for him to work and relax and provide a safe haven away from the rigours of the real world.  Little Holland House was a favourite meeting place of the young Pre-Raphaelite artists and literary people like Tennyson and it gave Watts then ideal opportunity to paint portraits of the aspiring literary and artistic luminaries of the day.

In 1878 Watts took part in the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris and submitted nine paintings and one sculpture.  He became an instantaneous celebrity on the European art scene.  During the 1880’s,  he produced many symbolic paintings which displayed close links to the work of his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the other Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones.

In 1886 at the age of 69 Watts re-married, to Mary Fraser-Tytler, a Scottish designer and potter who was some thirty three years his junior.   In 1891 he bought a house in Compton, near Guilford, in Surrey and in 1904 had a gallery built nearby which became known as the Watts Gallery and which was dedicated to his work.  The Watts Gallery is still a very popular venue for art lovers. George Frederic Watts died that year aged 87, shortly after the gallery opening.

Hope is looked upon as certainly the most influential, and outstanding if not most unusual of all George Frederic Watts’ paintings. This portrayal of the poignant musician has struck a chord with audiences and critics ever since it was first displayed at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886.  In 1887 at the Royal Jubilee exhibition held in Manchester the painting took pride of place in the middle of an entire wall dedicated to Watts’ work.  Numerous reproductions were made of this painting and many who saw it were deeply affected by what they saw and Watts received many letters from people who were greatly moved by the emotional impact it had on them. In the painting Watts has personified Hope as a young woman seated on a globe, hunched over, appearing to be almost asleep.  She wears a blindfold which symbolises her blindness and to the mental state she embodies. What was it about this work that such an effect on people?  It has to be Watts’ portrayal of this hunched, isolated, blindfolded and barefoot woman who appears to be on the edge of despair.  So why the title Hope?   Maybe in this case it is not hope meaning one’s optimistic thoughts but more of a feeling of almost despair; a hoping against hope.   As we take in the picture of the girl bent over listening to the music from her lyre we wonder why Watts has chosen the title.  The bluish grey background induces a melancholy mood. One critic commented that the painting did not evoke a feeling of hope and should have been entitled Despair.  Maybe that was the reason that in another version of his painting he has added a single star to the background to symbolise hope.  The girl, Hope, bends her ear to catch the music from the last remaining string of her almost shattered lyre. It is the faintest of hope as symbolised in her musical instrument which now with just one string left for her to make music and once that has broken, all hope of her producing a musical sound has disappeared.

Did the painting appeal to those who had almost lost hope themselves and in some way empathised with the vulnerability of the woman in the painting?  Watts had always sought, through his paintings, to communicate his message to as many people as possible. Some would criticise this aspect as being somewhat patronizing but Watts was a great master of narrative paintings and this was probably the reason why his conventional patriotic works he put forward for the Houses of Parliament were so successful.  Watts was surprised by the critical acclaim and popularity of his painting and attempted to follow up his success with Hope with two other works entitled, Faith and Charity, the other two “theological virtues” but they neither received the critical acclaim that his Hope painting achieved nor were they as popular with the public.

This version of the painting can be found in the Tate Gallery, London.