Childhood: A Visual Story

“Children should be seen and not heard,” says a 15th-century English proverb. That is certainly the case in a series of paintings featured on Google Arts & Culture. The Galleria d’Arte Moderna, which displays the modern art collection of Milan, Italy, teamed up with Google to produce an online exhibition of artworks depicting children in the 19th and 20th century. Titled simply Childhood, the exhibition explores a range of artists and styles that have one thing in common: the presence of a child.

It is interesting to see the different approaches to depicting a child. Some artists focused on the innocence of children, whereas others produced a maternal scene, emphasising the importance of motherhood. Many of the artworks in the exhibition were commissioned by proud parents who wished to capture the purity of their child before they grew up; it is much easier for parents to do this today with the development of the digital camera. Other artworks, however, contain a message or tell a story in which the child plays a vital role.

Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child – Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

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Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child (Oil on Canvas), by Francesco Hayez (1858)

This portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini is an example of a painting requested by a parent. Her father, Count Alessandro Negroni Prati Morosini, commissioned the Italian painter Francesco Hayez to produce a series of portraits of his extended family, including one of his four-year-old daughter.

Rather than just painting the child, Hayez brought the plain background to life with a still-life of a magnificent display of colourful flowers. To connect the two genres of painting together, Antonietta was posed with a bouquet of the same flowers.

Usually, commissioned portraits were intended to express the wealth and status of the sitter. Costumes, hairstyles and facial expressions were carefully considered, as was likely done in this case with Antonietta’s dress. Unfortunately, the clothing was a little on the large side, causing the sleeves to slip down and expose much of her chest. Hayez could have used his skill and artistic license to change the position of the sleeves, however, he opted for a realistic likeness.

Photography had already been invented at the time of this portrait, although not widely used and only in black and white, and several were taken of Antonietta to limit the amount of time she had to pose. Once again, Hayez could have chosen the happiest or sweetest facial expression but opted for the most realistic instead. As a result, Antonietta looks slightly awkward and confused, as any 4-year-old would when forced to pose for a portrait.

The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1858-99)

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The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1889)

The Two Mothers by Giovanni Segantini explores the relationship between mother and child. The Italian Symbolist artist, whose mother died when he was seven after a long illness, painted this genre scene for the inaugural Milan Triennale in 1891. The child, who is only a baby, lies asleep on its mother’s lap. Sitting on a stool, the mother has also drifted to sleep, suggesting it took some time to settle the child.

As the title suggests, there are two mothers in the painting, the other being a cow who stands over her sleeping calf. Both woman and cow are symbols of motherhood. Segantini has not represented motherhood as a glamourous role, as some portrait artists might, but rather as a humble, selfless task. The humbleness is emphasised by the lowly barn, dimly lit by a lantern. It is likely the same place the calf was born, therefore, the scene also represents the beginnings of life.

Segantini’s biography claims his paintings represent his pantheistic view of life. He did not recognise God as an individual entity but rather recognised divinity within all natural things. “I’ve got God inside me. I don’t need to go to church.” Farms and barns were a common feature of the landscape in the Alps where Segantini lived, however, someone unfamiliar with the area may derive a different meaning from the painting. Although it was not intended to have religious connections, a Christian may recognise Christ’s humble beginnings in the artwork.

Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life – Giovanni Segantini

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Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life- Giovanni Segantini (1894)

Segantini was not a church-going man, which makes Christian Goddess a strange title for one of his paintings. This canvas, however, was a commission from the Italian banker Leopoldo Albini to be hung in his extravagant home. The figures are supposed to represent the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus sitting in a barren tree. Some have interpreted this as being symbolic of both Jesus’ birth and death, the branches representing the crown of thorns.

On the other hand, the branches may relate more to the mother than the child. The Virgin Mary has on occasion been nicknamed the “rose without thorns”, suggesting she has lived a sin-free life. The analogy developed from the idea that roses did not have thorns before the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Despite the painting’s depiction of the relationship between mother and child, the figures were actually modelled on the artist’s nanny, Baba, and Segantini’s son, Gottardo. With this in mind, Christian Goddess, sometimes known as the Angel of Life, demonstrates the maternal instincts of women towards babies and young children regardless of their relationship.

Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1852-1920)

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Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1893-94)

Gaetano Previati was an Italian symbolist and contemporary of Segantini who also painted a representation of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. Unlike Segantini, Previati painted many artworks on a religious theme, particularly involving Catholic ideals.

Madonna of the Lilies, which originally had the shorter title Madonna, shows Mary in a seated position with the baby on her lap. This religious iconography has been around since the 15th century, although the Virgin is usually shown seated on a throne. Whilst Previati was influenced by tradition, he used the Divisionist style inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. Divisionism involved separating colours into dots or dashes, although slightly subtler than Pointillism.

The title Madonna of the Lilies has been used by other artists working on a similar theme. Although Previati’s painting contains the theme of motherhood, it’s Catholic connection is a stronger subject. Just as a thornless rose is used to describe the Virgin’s sinless lifestyle, lilies represent chastity and purity.

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish (Ring a Ring o’ Roses) – Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907)

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish is a copy of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s original painting Idillio primaverile (Spring Idyll) that was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1903. It is not certain why Pellizza chose to make a copy, however, it was left incomplete at his death in 1907. It was eventually finished by Italian Impressionist Angelo Barabino (1883-1950).

It is thought Pellizza was inspired by The Dance of the Cupids by Italian Baroque artist Francesco Albani (1578-1660), which depicts several naked cherubs dancing around a tree. In contrast, Pellizza’s children are fully clothed and playing Ring a Ring o’ Roses in a field beyond a blossoming tree rather than around it. Pellizza also included a couple of children playing together in the foreground.

The setting is based on the commune Volpedo in the Piedmont region of Italy where Pellizza lived for his entire life – hence the new title of the painting. The original painting belonged to a series representing the theme of love. On its own, however, the painting is a metaphor for life. The trees are blossoming after the winter, demonstrating the cycle of the seasons. The children also represent new life; people grow old and die but new generations keep on coming.

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1843-89)

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1874)

As can be guessed by the title, this painting was a commission by Prince Paolo Petrovich Troubetzkoy (1866-1938), a Russian diplomat and sculptor who the playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) claimed was “the most astonishing sculptor of modern times.” The three boys, Pietro, Paolo, and Luigi, are shown with their dog in the family’s greenhouse at their villa on Lake Maggiore.

Despite being the portraits of children from a noble family, Daniele Ranzoni adopted an informal approach, which emphasised the children’s youth and energy. Ranzoni belonged to the Scapigliatura (Bohemian) movement and built up his paintings with splashes of colour, disregarding form and depth.

The painting was presented at the Brera exhibition in 1874 and is considered to be one of Ranzoni’s most successful works. Whether Troubetzkoy was pleased with this representation of his children is a different matter. The facial features are a blur, making the result a far cry from the realistic family portraits desired by the upper classes.

Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1871-1958)

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Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1912)

Giacomo Balla’s painting of his eldest daughter Luce running on a balcony can be interpreted as a unique depiction of childhood freedom. The Futuristic style, which borrows elements from Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Divisionism, Pointillism and Cubism, shows each movement Luce made as she ran from one side of the balcony to the other. The repetition of his daughter’s body also emphasises the speed in which she ran. This reflects what the Futurists believed, that everything is made up of dynamic forces and, therefore, everything is in constant motion.

The mosaic effect blurs the features of Luce’s face, making her the anonymous “Girl” running on a balcony. It was not Balla’s aim to capture his daughter or memory but rather study the movement of a child. The painting was also not intended to represent childhood, however, the artist’s meaning and the viewers’ interpretations can differ.

Some of the paintings included in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna’s Childhood exhibition have little or no explanation. This may be due to the artists being lesser-known or the true purpose of the paintings being lost. One example is Bambini e Fiori by Italian painter Armando Spadini (1883-1925). The title translates into English as “Children and Flowers”, which is an obvious description of the painting. An alternative title offers the names of the children as Anna and Lillo, however, nothing else is known of their identity.

Spadini was a Symbolist painter who moved to Rome from Florence in 1910 to focus on a career as a portrait and landscape artist. Despite being virtually unknown today, Spadini grew successful through his participation with annual exhibitions and, in 1924, had an entire room devoted to his work at the 14th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia.

The way Anna and Lillo are sat suggests they are posing for the painting, therefore, it could either have been a commission or a double portrait of Spadini’s own children. Rather than glamorising the children, Spadini captured the bored expression of the older child and the baby’s distraction with the flowers. Rather than create an unflattering image, it makes a sweet, contemplative picture of two siblings in a moment of quiet and demonstrates the love and tenderness of the older for the younger and the trust the baby has for its sister.

Plinio Nomellini (1866-1943), on the other hand, painted a spontaneous scene that captured the interaction between mother and child. Nomellini, whose work became increasingly Divisionist in style throughout his career, shows a child’s delight at reading, or at least looking at, a book. Rather than the mother reading to her child, the child is attempting it for itself. The mother, whose arm stretches towards the book, is eager to help the child with this latest development, demonstrating her love and care.

The identity of woman and child is unknown and the little information the internet has about Nomellini does not uncover any clues. Nomellini was born in Livorno but studied in Florence where he took part in several exhibitions. His later work got him in trouble with the law and he was arrested and accused of anarchism. Fortunately, he was acquitted and joined a group of Symbolist painters. He spent the latter years of his life between Florence and the Island of Elba. With no knowledge of his family, it is impossible to guess whether his painting is of his wife and child, friends or strangers.

Of course, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna is not the only art gallery with paintings of children. Londoners do not even have to leave the city to view an excellent example of a day in the life of a child. The Guild Hall Gallery, home to beautiful Victorian art, owns two paintings on the theme of childhood by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood co-founder, John Everett Millais (1829-96). Millais was very fond of children, particularly his daughter Effie who features in My First Sermon and My Second Sermon. The first was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863 and was warmly received by the Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley (1794-1868).

“Art has, and ever will have, a high and noble mission to fulfil…. we feel ourselves the better and the happier when our hearts are enlarged as we sympathise with the joys and the sorrows of our fellow-men, faithfully delineated on the canvas; when our spirits are touched by the playfulness, the innocence, the purity, and may I not add the piety of childhood.”
– Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury

My First Sermon was painted in a church at Kingston-on-Thames, which had high-backed pews. Effie is seated on one of the pews wearing a hat, muff, red stockings and a red cape, which adds a splash of colour to her dreary surroundings. Effie was born in 1858, which makes her five years old in this painting, yet she appears to be trying to pay attention to the sermon.

My Second Sermon, however, reveals the sermon may have gone over her head and she has fallen asleep. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, it would not have been surprising if the painting had not been received well by the Archbishop, however, Longely was just as enthusiastic. In a speech, the Archbishop referred to the painting, saying, “I see a little lady there, who, though all unconscious whom she has been addressing, and the homily she has been reading to us during the last three hours, has in truth, by the eloquence of her silent slumber, given us a warning of the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses. Sorry indeed should I be to disturb that sweet and peaceful slumber, but I beg that when she does awake she may be informed who they are who have pointed the moral of her story, have drawn the true inference from the change that has passed over her since she has heard her ‘first sermon’, and have resolved to profit by the lecture she has thus delivered to them.”

Other commentators at the Royal Academy exhibitions noted that Millais painted his daughter “con amore” (with tenderness), emphasising his love for her. The girl’s facial expression openly expresses the purity of her soul and the innocence associated with childhood.

Another artist noted for his paintings of children is Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), whose work was celebrated in an exhibition at the National Gallery last year (2019). Known as the “Master of Light”, Sorolla’s beach scenes are some of his best paintings and often featured children, whose movements Sorolla captured perfectly. He emphasised their carefree nature and unknowingly captured 19th-century Spanish beach culture, i.e. young boys wore nothing, whilst girls wore light cotton dresses.

Sorolla was a family man and adored his three children, María (1890-1956), Joaquín (1892-1948) and Elena (1895-1975). Although his artistic career was important to him, when Sorolla’s eldest daughter contracted tuberculosis, he put his profession to one side so that he could nurse her back to health.

The paintings by Millais and Sorolla demonstrate a paternal love for children, whereas, some of the artworks at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna illustrate maternal love. The love of a parent is an important factor in a child’s life, which some children sadly miss out on. Fortunately, the children in these 19th and early 20th century paintings had, or a least appeared to have had, a loving childhood during which they could maintain their innocence and enjoy a carefree life.

Of course, life is never as perfect as some of these paintings suggest and there will always be childish tantrums, pain and sadness. Yet, when looking back on life, it is these happier times we wish to remember. These artists have captured what many people associate with childhood and there is something more meaningful and personal seeing it in paint rather than the hundreds of photographs taken of children today.

To see more paintings from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Childhood exhibition, click here.

All images are in the public database.

Genre Master: The Sphinx of Delft

Genre paintings, also known as petit genre, depict scenes of everyday life. These artworks show ordinary people performing ordinary tasks. Unlike portraits, which were usually commissioned, and history paintings, which depicted well-known scenes, genre artists painted life as it truly was. This type of art gained popularity in the Low Countries, i.e. the Netherlands and Belgium, during the 17th and 18th century but many of the artists’ fame and reputations have dimmed over the years. That is, all except Johannes Vermeer, the man who gave us Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665).

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A Lady Writing (1665)

Admittedly, Vermeer did go off the radar for a hundred years or so but was rediscovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, more than 250 exhibitions about his paintings have taken place all over the world. It is estimated that one of his paintings, A Lady Writing (1659), has travelled a total of 250,000 kilometres. To put that in perspective, it is equivalent to travelling around the circumference of the earth five times or halfway to the moon. Today, Vermeer can be found in several galleries, including the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), Mauritshuis (The Hague), the Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh), the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Vienna), Gemäldegalerie (Berlin), the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Dresden), and The Frick Collection (New York City).

Relatively little was known about Vermeer’s personal life other than where he had lived, which earned him the nickname “The Sphinx of Delft” from French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger (1807-69). In more recent years, art historians have been able to piece together some semblance of a biography using documents in the city archives of Delft. Records reveal Johannes Vermeer, or Jan Vermeer van Delft, was born in October 1632 and baptised within the Reformed Church on All Hallow’s Eve.

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View of Delft (1660)

Vermeer’s father has been identified as Reijnier Janszoon (1591-1652) and was a middle-class silk worker. Vermeer’s mother was likely Digna Baltus (1594-1670), who Janszoon married in 1615. By 1620, the couple were living in Delft with their daughter Gertruy (1620-70). It is not known whether there were any other children within the 12 years between Gertruy and Johannes. By the time Johannes was born, Janszoon was an art dealer and proprietor of the inn The Flying Fox. Ten years later, Janszoon bought a larger Inn called Mechelen, from which he conducted his art sales. When he died in 1652, his son took over the family business.

It is unknown where and when Vermeer learnt to paint. Art critics have suggested several names of artists who may have trained the young painter but there is no written evidence. Another suggestion is he taught himself using the paintings his father sold, however, this is unlikely. If it were not for Vermeer’s baptismal records, it would seem as though he suddenly appeared, fully formed, in 1653 when he joined the Guild of Saint Luke and married his wife, Catharina Bolnes (1631-88).

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The Allegory of Faith (1670-72)

Catharina Bolnes was a Catholic and Vermeer likely had to convert from Protestantism before the wedding. Whilst there is no written record to prove this, a later painting suggests he had fully immersed himself in the religion. The Allegory of Faith, painted in the early 1670s, contains several examples of Catholic iconographies, such as a crucifix, crown of thorns, a chalice and a painting of Christ’s crucifixion.

At some point after marriage, Vermeer and his wife moved in with Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins (1593-1680), where he lived for the rest of his life. Catharina gave birth to 15 children, four of whom died before they could be baptised. Ten of the remaining children have been named Maertge, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, Beatrix, Johannes, Gertruyd, Franciscus, Catharina, and Ignatius in wills written by relatives, therefore, it can be assumed they survived infancy.

Life was hard in the Netherlands during the mid-17th century. Delft, in particular, suffered from an outbreak of bubonic plague, which coincided with the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), leading to an economic crisis. Evidence reveals Vermeer was unable to pay the usual admission fee for the Guild of Saint Luke but neither were several other artists. To add to the city’s hardship, half the city was destroyed in 1654 by the “Delft Thunderclap”, an explosion at a gunpowder store that killed 1200 people.

Vermeer may have been kept financially afloat by a patron, perhaps art collector Pieter van Ruijven (1624-74) who purchased twenty of his paintings. This money allowed Vermeer to remain a member of the Guild of Saint Luke. He was elected head of the guild in 1662 and reelected in 1670. From this honour, it can be ascertained that Vermeer was a respected artist amongst his peers and some art critics say his method of showing light in his paintings was an inspiration to other artists. Nevertheless, Vermeer was a slow painter, producing an average of three paintings a year.

Despite never earning much money, the 1660s were the highlight of Vermeer’s career. Unfortunately, life was about to get much harder. In 1672, King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France invaded the Dutch Republic, sparking the Franco-Dutch War. This worsened the economic conditions in Delft, especially as the Third Anglo-Dutch War was taking place at the same time. Theatres, shops and schools were closed in the ensuing panic, making it even harder for artists to earn money.

In 1674, Vermeer was enlisted as a member of the (voluntary) civic guard who was responsible for guarding the city against attack. As a result, his painting career suffered and Vermeer ended up borrowing money (1,000 guilders) from Jacob Romboutsz, a silk trader from Amsterdam. To do this, Vermeer had to use his mother-in-law’s house as a surety. Unfortunately, Vermeer was never able to pay back the loan. In December 1675, 43-year-old Vermeer fell ill and passed away. Despite having converted to Catholicism, he was buried in the Protestant Oude Kirk (Old Church) on 15th December.

…during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children having no means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead.
– Catharina Vermeer (Bolnes)

Vermeer left his family with severe debts and Catharina had to ask the High Court for help to raise her eleven living children. In Vermeer’s will, 19 paintings had been bequeathed to Catharina and her mother, which they sold out of desperation. Two of the paintings were purchased by the baker Hendrik van Buyten (1632-1701) for 617 guilders, which was the same amount of money Catharina owed him for bread. He struck a deal that if she could pay back the money, he would return the paintings.

Despite the sale of his paintings, Vermeer remained unknown outside of Delft. He had only ever left the city to visit Amsterdam, therefore, never had an opportunity to make artistic connections. Over time, many of his paintings were misattributed to other artists, which almost erased Vermeer from history.

Vermeer had been a relatively slow painter and only produced between 50 and 60 oil paintings. Only 36 of the paintings survive today and are comparatively small to the majority of paintings in galleries. The frame that holds Rembrandt’s Night Watch (3.6 x 4.4 metres) could contain nearly all Vermeer’s paintings grouped together. In fact, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam displays a few of Vermeer’s paintings in the vicinity of Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

It has been difficult for historians to make a chronological list all of Vermeer’s paintings because he only included his signature and date on three. These were The Procuress (1656), The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669). Vermeer has become known for his use of colours, particularly lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, both of which can be seen in The Procuress. His use of ultramarine is rather surprising given his low financial status. The colour was one of the most expensive to buy and was made by grinding the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli into a powder.

The Procuress, which now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, features four figures, one of whom is looking out of the canvas at the viewer. It is believed by many that this is a self-portrait of Vermeer. Rather than depicting himself as an artist, Vermeer portrayed himself as a musician. It has been suggested the procuress was modelled on his wife, which may explain why the painting once hung in Vermeer’s mother-in-law’s home. The same woman has been identified in four of Vermeer’s paintings, however, he had many models, painting a total of 42 women and 13 men throughout his career.

The Astronomer and The Geographer feature the same male model who has been identified as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), “the Father of Microbiology”. Science was a popular topic for painters during the Dutch Golden Age. People were beginning to learn about the world and universe they lived in, although religion was still of great importance, hence the painting of the Finding of Moses in the background of The Astronomer.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)

Of all Vermeer’s paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Meisje met de parel, 1665) is the most recognised. Now hanging in the Mauritshuis, the 44.5 cm × 39 cm canvas has had many names and only received its current title in the 20th century. More recently, however, the “pearl” earring has been contested by those who think it looks more like polished tin.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a “tronie”, which is Dutch slang for a painting of a head that is not meant to be a portrait. The unknown model, whose colouring suggests she is European, wears an oriental dress and turban. The story behind the painting, however, is unknown.

The painting’s fame is largely a result of Tracy Chevalier’s (b.1962) novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), which was adapted into a film starring Scarlett Johansson (b.1984) in the title role. Chevalier imagined the girl was a maid in the Vermeer household who had an eye for art. The author also expertly described the situation in Delft where people were suffering from an epidemic.

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The Milkmaid (1657-58)

Although Vermeer was growing in popularity before the publication of Chevalier’s book, the media attention increased his fame and drew attention to his other works, for instance, The Milkmaid (1657-58). Curators of the Rijksmuseum, where the painting is displayed, claim The Milkmaid is “unquestionably one of the museum’s finest attractions”.

Despite its title, the lady in the painting is a kitchen maid who is pouring milk into an earthenware bowl. She wears Vermeer’s favourite colours: lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, and goes about her work as though unaware she is being painted.

According to Walter Liedtke (1945-2015), a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this genre painting has a “Mona Lisa” effect. “There’s a bit of mystery about her for modern audiences. She is going about her daily task, faintly smiling. And our reaction is ‘What is she thinking?'” (Liedtke, 2009)

Whilst not as famous, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (1657-59) and Woman Reading a Letter (1663) evoke a similar reaction. What are they reading? Is it good or bad news? Who is it from? It is generally assumed the younger girl has received a letter from a lover, perhaps an illicit one. The open window may be symbolic of the girl’s desire to experience the world outside, away from the constraints of her family’s expectations.

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window was initially mistaken as a Rembrandt and it was not until 1880 that it was identified as a Vermeer. Recent x-rays of the painting reveal Vermeer had originally included an image of a putto – perhaps Cupid – which is another indication the girl’s letter is from a lover.

Woman Reading a Letter is very similar in composition, however, it is almost unique among Vermeer’s paintings of interiors. Unlike the others, there is no fragment of either corner, ceiling or floor. There are, however, other features common to Vermeer’s art: a table, a pearl necklace (on the table) and a wall hanging. The map is of Holland, which suggests the letter could be from her husband or a male relative who is either travelling or taking part in the various Dutch wars.

Today, people think the woman is pregnant due to the shape of her figure, however, it was very rare for a pregnant woman to be depicted in art. Some suggest the loose clothing, which was popular in the Netherlands at the time, makes the woman appear larger than she really is.

The Wine Glass (1660) is considered to be one of Vermeer’s first mature works. The brushwork is much smoother and the colours brighter. These qualities are obvious when comparing the painting to an earlier work set in the same room, The Girl with the Wine Glass (1659-60).

Since genre paintings depict scenes of everyday life, it is not always possible to decipher exactly what is going on. In The Wine Glass, the woman is finishing a glass of wine while a man waits to refill her glass. There is no way of knowing the relationship between the two figures but many assume some form of courtship is being played out. The man almost seems impatient for the woman to finish her drink so that he can pour more, suggesting he is trying to make her drunk.

There are many similarities between The Wine Glass and The Girl with the Wine Glass, most notably the colours of the dresses. The woman and the girl wear a similar style of dress and are both holding wine glasses. The girl, however, looks out of the painting as though aware of the artist’s presence. The floor, walls and window reveal the scenes were painted in the same room, however, there are small differences, such as the position of the table and the picture on the wall.

The Girl with the Wine Glass is just as hard to decipher as The Wine Glass. One of the men, who are similarly dressed, looks interested in the girl, suggesting there is a courtship or illicit romance between them. The other man, however, looks bored in comparison, which begs the question of his identity and purpose in the scene. Without Vermeer around to reveal what is going on, it is up to the viewer to use their imagination.

Many of Vermeer’s paintings only contain one figure, however, when there is more than one person, they are always interacting. Officer and a Girl Laughing (1657) show a couple conversing at a table. The girl, possibly modelled by Vermeer’s wife, is holding a glass of white wine, which was an expensive drink at the time. If the officer has a drink, it is hidden by his body, which has its back to the viewer.

The officer, a military man, is wearing a red coat and expensive hat, suggesting both power and passion. Many have interpreted the painting as an innocent courtship between two respectable people, however, others have read ulterior motives in the girl’s smile. Once again, it is impossible to understand the true nature of the painting.

To paint the room, Vermeer used a camera obscura, as he did in the majority of his work. The camera obscura, whose technology inspired the photographic camera, was a drawing device that became popular in the mid-16th century. The device consisted of a box with a small hole in one side through which light could travel. Inside the box, the light would transfer an upside-down version of the outside scene onto a surface. If the surface was a mirror, the image would then be reflected onto another surface, such as an artist’s canvas, this time the right way up. This technology was based upon the human eye: pupil, lens and retina. Vermeer used the reflected image to trace a geometrically correct perspective.

The camera obscura may not have been needed for Mistress and Maid (1667), which shows the interaction of the titular roles. Although the direction of light suggests the mistress is sat in front of a window, the painting is too dark to see any physical features of the room. The scene depicts two classes of Dutch society: the mistress, who is brightly lit and dressed in yellow, and the maid, whose brown dress blends into the dark background. The mistress’s wealth is emphasised by her fur-lined clothing, silk table cloth and a pearl earring.

Despite their difference in class, the two women are both interested in a letter the mistress has received. It has been assumed the message is a love letter and the maid is advising her mistress on the appropriate response. Although she would have been considered no more than household staff, the maid may have known many of her mistresses secrets and was thus treated as a trusted confidant.

Vermeer would have made good use of the camera obscura in The Music Lesson (1662-65) and The Art of Painting (1666-68), which shows two different artistic professions. The former, also known as A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, shows a young girl receiving a music lesson by a male tutor. The tutor, whose mouth is parted, is either singing along to the music or giving instruction to his pupil.

Vermeer’s geometric perspective aided by the camera obscura emphasises the depth and height of the room. Part of the room is obscured by a rug-covered table upon which a familiar jug sits. Vermeer often reused props in his paintings. Although the floor pattern is different, the room has a similar appearance to the setting of The Art of Painting.

The Art of Painting is the second largest of all Vermeer’s works and is the one that most closely resembles a scene in his own life. In fact, many assume the artist figure is a self-portrait, albeit from the back, and the girl, one of his daughters. This, of course, cannot be proven.

Thoré-Bürger, who gave Vermeer the “Sphinx of Delft” nickname, regarded The Art of Painting as the artist’s most interesting painting. Also known as The Allegory of Painting, art critics believe there to be far more to it than a typical genre painting. The model is presumed to represent Clio, the Greek Muse of History. She wears a laurel leaf and holds a trumpet and a book, which matches the description of Clio in the book Iconologia (1593) by Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa (1560-1622).

There is thought to be political symbols hidden within The Art of Painting, such as a double-headed eagle within the design of the chandelier, which was the symbol of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, the former ruler of the Low Countries. The map on the wall also refers to earlier political divisions.

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Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655)

Vermeer’s largest painting, which is housed in the Scottish National Gallery, is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655). Religion was not a common theme in Vermeer’s work, however, he did occasionally incorporate religious icons into his work, for instance in The Allegory of Faith. This large painting, however, fully embraces Christianity and depicts a scene from the Bible.

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” (Luke 10:38-39, NIV)

Although Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is a religious painting, it does not leave the concept of genre painting far behind. Despite the halo and choice of clothing, the three characters could be anyone going about their daily life. The man (Jesus) is talking while one woman (Mary) listens. The other woman (Martha) is making preparations for a meal.

Given the size of the painting, it is likely it was a commission, which may explain Vermeer’s deviation from his usual style. On the other hand, when Vermeer first appeared on the artist scene, his paintings were larger and, on two other occasions, featured mythical scenes.

Diana and her Companions (1653-56) is believed by some to be Vermeer’s earliest known painting, although others think it was painted after Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. The painting shows the Roman goddess Diana having her feet washed by her attendants. Critics have commented on the serious mood of the scene and the contemporary style of clothing, which is unusual for a mythological painting.

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Saint Praxedis by Felice Ficherelli

Saint Praxedis (1655) is similar in style to Diana and her Companions, however, it is obviously a copy of a painting by Felice Ficherelli (1605-60). Saint Praxedis or Práxedes was a second-century Christian saint, about which very little is known. It is possible Vermeer came across this painting on the walls of his father’s inn and copied it for practice. He did, however, change a few details, such as the colour of the saint’s dress and added a crucifix in her hand.

With this copy of a painting in mind, Diana and her Companions may have also been inspired by an existing artwork. If this is the case, the style of clothing is likely Vermeer’s addition.

It is a shame so little is known about Vermeer’s life and that he never experienced the fame his paintings have earned. He had no apprentices, therefore his style of painting died with him. We are lucky that many of his paintings have been discovered, especially as some were signed by other artists to try and sell them for more money. Today, Vermeer’s paintings are some of the most popular attractions in art galleries and there are several online exhibitions about his works. The Sphinx of Delft is definitely the most loved, if not the greatest genre master the world has seen.

Online Exhibitions about Vermeer:
12 Things You Didn’t know about Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, Life and Work
Rediscovering Vermeer
Basics of Technical Research
The Painting’s Journey to its Present Appearance
Vermeer’s Contemporaries in Delft
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

All images used are in the Public Domain.

A History of Handwriting

Have you ever looked at a piece of writing and instantly known it was written several decades or even centuries ago? What gives it away? The condition of the paper or parchment is a good indication; if it is stained, torn and fragile, it is unlikely to have been written yesterday. The use of language also hints at its time frame, however, so does the style of handwriting. Compare your handwriting with those in handwritten books in the British Library, British Museum or collections such as the one at the Derbyshire Record Office. Why do we no longer write like our ancestors 800 years ago? What changes occurred to result in the simplified letters of today? Handwriting, as you will discover, has a surprisingly interesting history.

The history of writing dates back further than the invention of paper and pen, however, the history of handwriting in the ways that we are familiar today, date back to around 1100 – at least in Britain. During this early Medieval period, which lasted until approximately 1485, there were very few people who could read and write. Only those with important jobs or children from rich families were taught to read but mostly, the “profession” of writing was left to the specially trained scribes.

Naturally, not many examples of writing exist from the Medieval period of Britain due to damage and loss, however, the samples that have survived tend to be legal documents, such as deeds of ownership. These were written in Latin as most deeds were before 1752. Unlike today where all important documents are signed and dated to avoid legal complications, these documents rarely mentioned the date and historians have only roughly worked out when they were written by the style of handwriting. There were, of course, handwriting styles that were preferred for other languages, for instance, Gothic, Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic. These languages, however, were used in local areas, whereas, Latin could be understood by people in several countries.

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Carolingian minuscule alphabet

This Medieval style of handwriting has been named Carolingian minuscule or Caroline minuscule and was developed in c.780 AD by Alcuin of York (735-804), a Benedictine Monk of Corbie Abbey, France. Alcuin had been invited to France by Charlemagne (748-814), who had founded the Carolingian Empire, hence the name of the script.

Alcuin of York and his fellow monks were responsible for writing and copying religious documents, which they did in Carolingian minuscule. Soon, the style of handwriting was being used throughout the Holy Roman Empire for both Christian and Pagan texts. The Vulgate, a 4th century Latin translation of the Bible originally written by Jerome of Stridon (347-420; Saint Jerome) was copied in Carolingian minuscule to make it legible to literate classes across Europe.

Carolingian minuscule was a rounded, uniform style of writing based on the Latin alphabet, which has many similarities to the modern alphabet. It was easy to distinguish between upper and lowercase letters and there were clear spaces between each word. Whilst most of the letters are recognisable today, there were no tittles (dots) above the letters and j, however, other markings occasionally appeared above certain letters. Whereas in contemporary modern languages these markings would change the pronunciation of the letter, Carolingian scribes used marks to shorten a word. The first word in the deed of grant of the land of Greasby is Ric with a line above the c. This indicates the word has been shortened and should be read as Ricardos, the Latin form of Richard. The deed had been written on behalf of Richard de Rollos (1061-1130), who was giving the land of Greasby on the Wirral to the abbey of St Werburgh in Chester.

As time went on, gradual changes occurred to Carolingian minuscule, making the handwriting more decorative. These changes can be seen when comparing deeds written around 1100 with King John’s (1166-1216) royal charter to the Abbot and monks of Saint Werburgh, Chester, in 1215. Written in Latin and dated 11th January in the 16th year of the reign of King John, the same year the Magna Carta was signed, the royal charter granted the abbey the right of ‘infangthief’, which allowed them to arrest and try thieves caught within the land they leased from the King – all land in those days belonged to the reigning monarch. The charter states this grant was in exchange for the salvation of the souls of the King and of his ancestors.

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The medial ‘s’ in Old Roman cursive

The hand that penned the royal charter added flourishes to certain letters, which emphasises their difference from contemporary alphabets. The letter s, for instance, is known as an archaic “long s” and went on to inspire the Eszett (ß) in the German alphabet. The long s, in turn, had derived from the medial s in Old Roman Cursive.

When written as it was in the royal charter, the s could be mistaken for an l to the modern reader. Some scribes added a “nub”, which made it look like a lower-case f. Usually, if a word contained both an s and an f, the writer would refrain from adding the nub to save confusion, for example, ſatisfaction (satisfaction).

The long s began to decline in use during the 19th century, however, before then, several rules had been made about its usage. If the came at the end of the word, the writer was to use a round s. If the word contained a double s, the long s could replace one or both of the letters, unless it was at the end of the word, for instance, ſinfulneſs (sinfulness) and poſſeſs (possess).

In some words, the long s stuck out like a sore thumb, however, other letters, such as b, h, l and d, had long ascenders too. The descenders, on the other hand, such as p, y and g, were short. Drawing attention away from the tall characters were decorative capital letters, such as the elaborate H in the royal charter. These nuances gradually disappeared as people began to write faster. The fancy letters were reserved for important, official documents.

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Quitclaim from Alice le Waleys to Isabel de Cressy of land in Buxton © Derbyshire County Council 2020

During the 1200s, a new type of handwriting script emerged that was unique to England. Now known as Anglicana, the script has been referred to as charter hand, court hand, and cursiva antiquior over the years due to its use in the production of legal documents. Anglicana was written with a thick-nibbed pen and was much quicker to handwrite than Carolingian minuscule, thus allowing scribes to take on and complete more work. This also meant books could be produced more quickly and sold at cheaper prices than those written in a more laborious script.

Screenshot 2020-06-29 at 15.44.27The ascenders of certain letters were much shorter in the Anglicana script, often being bifurcated (divided) with a curl on either side. Evidence of this can be seen in the quitclaim from Alice le Waleys to Isabel de Cressy, which legally transferred land and property in Buxton, Derbyshire from one woman to the other. These ligatures also leant themselves to joining together two or more letters, which helped the scribe write faster, not needing to remove their pen from the page.

By the mid-1400s, the need for a scribe was reducing as more people were learning to read and write. Up until then, the majority of written texts had been in Latin, for which Carolingian minuscule and Anglicana had been purposely invented. As time went on, however, educated people began to write in English, a language which neither handwriting suited, therefore, a new style was needed. By the beginning of the 16th century, a form of handwriting called Secretary hand had been developed specifically for writing English, Welsh, Gaelic and German.

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How to hold a pen, from a Sixteenth-Century handwriting manual – John de Beauchesne

Secretary hand was so-called because the majority of the people who wrote it were indeed secretaries or scriveners. John de Beauchesne (c.1538-1620), a Parisian scribe and teacher of penmanship who moved to England in 1565, wrote a book about the new style of handwriting with the rather lengthy title A booke containing divers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, Chancelry and court hands. Also the true and just proportion of the Capitall Romae set forth by John de Beav Chesne P[arisien] and M[aster] John Baildon. Imprinted at London by Thomas Vautrovillier dwelling in the blacke frieres. The book explained everything from how to write each letter to how to hold a quill pen.

As time went on, this form of handwriting became less precise, making some pieces of writing difficult to read. Scribes of the Medieval period were carefully trained to write neatly and accurately. If they were unable to do this, they found themselves unemployed. By teaching the masses to read and write, penmanship became less focused on style; being able to write was considered more important than presentation.

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Detail from a list of Jewels given to Arbella Stuart (1608) © Derbyshire County Council 2020

A list of jewels given to Arbella Stuart (1575-1615) by Lord William Cavendish (1552-1626) is an example of the messier form of secretary hand. Blotted with spilt ink, the list records the “Pearle rings and other things” received by Arbella on “this xxiij daye of february in the fift[h] yeare of the raigne of our Soveraigne Lord King James 1607”. This date, however, is incorrect from a contemporary perspective because, until 1752, 25th March was considered to be the first day of the year. Had the year begun on 1st January, the date would have been 23rd February 1608.

Despite being written in English, albeit with old-fashioned spellings, the script is difficult to decipher. The letter e, for instance, often lacked a full loop, making it look like the letter c. To add to the confusion, the letter often resembled an x, making the world “pearle” appear to be written “pcaxle”.

Arbella Stuart was the grand-daughter of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury (c.1527-1608), more commonly known as Bess of Hardwick, who had died ten days previous to the penning of the list of jewels. Bess was the mother of William Cavendish, who was created Baron Cavendish of Hardwick due to his connections to his niece Arbella. Lady Arbella was one of the contenders for the throne after Elizabeth I (1553-1603) but lost out to her cousin James VI of Scotland (1566-1625). As part of the royal family of Scotland, Arbella was expected to marry someone of James VI’s choosing – Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox (1574-1624) – however, Arbella married her cousin William Seymour (1588-1660) in secret at Greenwich Palace in 1610. Subsequently, Arbella was considered a traitor and was imprisoned in the Tower of London where she died in 1615.

Secretary hand was not the only handwriting style in fashion during the Tudor and Stuart reigns in Britain. By the early 17th century, Martin Billingsley (1591-1622), an English writing-master and handwriting adviser, had identified six common handwriting styles in his book The Pen’s Excellency (1618). These were the Secretary (“the usuall hand of England”); the Bastard Secretary; the Roman; the Italian; the Court; and the Chancery. As early as the time of Henry VII (1457-1509), many writers had begun to use a cursive Italian style, from which the digital italic typefaces have developed. This style was often taught to ladies since they were not expected to write official or important documents, which required secretary hand.

For a while, the Italian style of handwriting was used to emphasise certain words within a document written in secretary hand. Playwrights, for instance, wrote character names and stage direction in an Italian script, and the dialogue in secretary hand. Eventually, secretary hand was phased out and our handwriting today stems from the Italian style.

John de Beauchesne, in his book A booke containing divers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, Chancelry and court hands… demonstrated the Italian hand. At the time it was written, secretary hand was the preferred style and it took another century before the Italian style became the dominant style.

Derbyshire poet Leonard Wheatcroft (1627-1707) was one of the first writers to fully adopt an Italian style of handwriting. Rather than conforming to the style as drawn out by Beauchesne, Wheatcroft used a mix of styles to form a unique italic handwriting. Born in Ashover, Derbyshire, Wheatcroft was also the village tailor and, later in life, parish clerk and school teacher. Although his poems and autobiography were not published until the 20th century, he was well known as an author and many may have been influenced by his handwriting.

A notebook found in Derbyshire dating to the early 18th century demonstrated the transition from secretary hand to a “Round Hand” based on the principles of Italian handwriting. It is not certain whether the notebook was written by one person, who decided to change their handwriting style, or by two different hands. Nonetheless, the Round Hand is far easier to read with carefully shaped letters that provided the basis for modern handwriting.

By the 1800s, nearly everyone was writing in a style inspired by the Italian hand. Paper was becoming more affordable, as was postage, resulting in an increase of letter writing. The act of writing was no longer an ability reserved for the talented minority, therefore, less attention was paid to the neatness of the handwriting. People began to write faster, resulting in a forward slope that made a mockery of the original “italic” style. To fit more on a page, letter shapes became small and less distinct, making them difficult to decipher.

Clara Palmer-Morewood’s recipe for Bakewell Pudding is an example of this rapid, slanted script. Written in 1837, this barely decipherable recipe disproves the legend surrounding the Bakewell Pudding, which was named after Derbyshire market town of Bakewell. The legend claimed that a maid working in the local White Horse inn during the 1860s made a mistake when making a jam tart. With no time to start the tart from scratch, the pudding was served to the guests who declared it a triumph. Not only has this legend been disproved by Palmer-Morewood’s handwritten recipe, but The White Horse was also demolished in 1803.

Illegible handwriting, such as Clara Palmer-Morewood’s, was unsuitable for professional purposes. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, clerks were required to have excellent handwriting and were responsible for writing up ledgers, wage books and minutes. This was particularly important in factories where everything and everyone needed to be accounted for; an error or messy handwriting could cause many problems.

Lumford Mill in Bakewell, Derbyshire, employed a clerk to document the wages of the employees. The cotton spinning mill was owned by Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-92) who invented the “water frame” in 1769. This was a water-powered spinning frame that helped to speed up the process of manufacturing cotton. Lumford Mill was one of several owned by Arkwright in partnership with Samuel Need of Nottingham (1718-81) and Jedediah Strutt of Derby (1726-97). The wages book is dated 1786 and records in neat columns the types of workers and their pay. From this book, we learn of “Youlgreave pickers”, who picked cotton in the nearby village of Youlgreave, and that the factory operated 24 hours a day.

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A sample of a copper plate engraving – George Bickham (1741)

The form of Round Hand used for business and professional purposes became known as Copperplate Script, which is also a style of calligraphic handwriting. Unlike Carolingian minuscule in the 10th century, there was no specific way of writing each letter since each individual’s handwriting would be slightly different. The name of the script refers to the fine nibbed pens used in the 19th century, which resulted in a similar style to engravings or copybooks created using Intaglio printmaking. In this printing method, a thin stylus known as a burin cuts the design into a metal plate.

At school, children often used copy books printed in this manner from which to practice Copperplate writing. The example above shows the handwriting practice of Mary Elizabeth Goodall when she was at Cubley National School in Derbyshire. Each page contained an example of a business receipt, which the students attempted to copy in the same style underneath.

The journey from secretary hand to Copperplate shows how handwriting developed when writing in English. Documents in Latin, however, were still being produced and there were some notable changes in the style of writing. Carolingian minuscule had led to the development of Anglicana, but the process did not stop there. On the continent, a specific style was used for business transactions in the 13th century, which eventually made its way to England after 1350. Known as Chancery hand due to its use in the royal Chancery at Westminster, all legal documents, patents and Acts of Parliament were written in Chancery hand until 1836.

Several examples of Chancery hand have been preserved in documents dating to the years after the English Civil War, such as the Pardon of Sir John Gell written on the authority of Charles II (1630-85). Sir John Gell (1539-1671) of Hopton Hall in Derbyshire supported Parliament during the war and subsequently became the Governor of Derby in 1643. After his appointment, however, he became disillusioned by Parliament and stepped down from his position in 1646. In 1650, Gell was imprisoned in the Tower of London for not revealing a Royalist plot to the authorities but was pardoned three years later. When Charles II came to the throne, he also pardoned Gell, which was recorded by an unknown scribe in Chancery hand.

Earlier examples of Chancery hand exist, such as the charter for the Queen Elizabeth School in Ashburn. Written in Latin, the charter was adorned with painted figures and motifs including a crown, Tudor Rose, a lion and a dragon. The painting in the top left-hand corner of Queen Elizabeth I is believed to have been produced by the English limner Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) who worked for the Queen and her successor James I.

This charter, which resulted in the founding of a Free Grammar School, was written with distinctively round letters in a broad nibbed pen. Ascenders, such as on the letters h, d and b are finished off with curls and loops, yet the script remains neat and even. Unfortunately, this evenness can make Chancery hand difficult to read, particularly with the letters m, n, u and i, which all have short vertical strokes. With characters written close to each other, words such as nominanimus become almost impossible to decipher at first glance.

Handwritten documents were often written several times before the final copy was produced. This allowed for any amendments and the correction of errors. The process of writing the final legal document onto official parchment was known as engrossing. Thus, the handwriting style became known as Engrossing hand. Whilst it was extremely similar to Chancery hand, the word spacing made it more legible and was also suitable for writing in English. Engrossing hand was commonly used throughout the 1800s once the legal language switched from Latin to English.

Up until the early 1900s, parents often created marriage settlements for their children and proposed spouses to detail how the assets owned by the bride and groom would be used after the marriage. Documents such as these were written in Engrossing hand, which by the 19th century combined elements of Chancery hand and secretary hand. The round, evenly spaced letters resembled the former, however, some of the letters had a more modern appearance. Like secretary hand, the letter c often looked like an r and an e lost its loop, so it resembled a c.

An example of Engrossing hand discovered by the Derbyshire Record Office is the marriage settlement between the explorer, John Franklin (1786-1847) and Eleanor Anne Porden (1795-1825). Eleanor was John’s first wife, who died not long after giving birth to their daughter, therefore it should not have been too difficult to establish a dowry. Unfortunately, both of Eleanor’s parents had died as had John’s father. As a result, the settlement was signed by Francis Bedford, an executor of Eleanor’s father’s will, and Henry Sellwood (1782-1867), John’s brother-in-law, who incidentally became the father-in-law of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92).

By the 1900s, the concept of writing in a particular style was gradually disappearing from education and business. New technologies were being invented to make writing quicker and cheaper, therefore, people no longer felt the need to painstakingly copy Engrossing hand or Copperplate script. Before the 1800s, people had to make their own quill pens from feathers, usually goose, from which they fashioned a nib with a sharp knife. The quill was then dipped into ink and applied to paper. Metal nibs became popular from the mid-1800s, which were longer-lasting, therefore cheaper, than their predecessors.

Before the 19th century, paper was handmade and expensive. People were conscious about wasting paper and went to great efforts to make sure their writing was perfect. From around 1830, paper was being produced by machines, making it more abundant and affordable. Paper was no longer a precious commodity and there was less need to always write in a perfect hand.

Machine-made paper had a different texture to handmade paper, which meant, along with the new metal nibbed pens, the writing process was a lot smoother. As a result, handwriting became broader and less angular, however, this did not always mean it was easier to read. Look at the handwritten note from a governess to her employer from 1896; the writing is barely legible.

Messy handwriting was not an employable trait, however, the invention of the typewriter put an end to this problem. Businesses who had employed clerks for their neat handwriting were now employing secretaries for their typing skills. Handwriting was still considered important and today primary schools continue to have writing lessons. Legal practices and businesses, on the other hand, adopted the typewriter for speed, neatness and cost. Since the invention of the modern computer, there has been no need to use particular handwriting styles. All official documents are typed and it is not often we receive a handwritten letter.

The art of handwriting, for the styles before the 1800s should definitely class as an art, has become a thing of the past. Calligraphy, brush lettering, and the art of typography should not be confused with handwriting because they have their own origins – which would take three articles to explain. We do not get much opportunity to study the handwriting of our ancestors, so next time you come across an old letter or a handwritten book, take time to look at the style of handwriting. Notice the shape of the letters, the ascenders, the thickness of the ink, the uniformity of the words and appreciate this forgotten art.

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An Indefatigable Author: or An Idea in the Night George Moutard Woodward © Derbyshire County Council 2020

This blog was based on an online exhibition by the Derbyshire Record Office.
Image sources: Google Arts and Culture, Derbyshire Record Office, and Wikipedia 

 

Pastel Style

Pastel – an art medium in the form of a stick consisting of powdered pigment and a binding agent. This was the primary medium for many artists during the 18th century, although it had been used since the Renaissance era. Yet, if it was so popular, why are paintings from that era in art galleries primarily oil paintings? The answer: pastel paintings do not age well, therefore, they are very fragile.

Unlike oil paints, which take a considerably long time to dry, pastels were a quick way of “drawing” a painting, which appealed to both portrait artists and their sitters. Pastels are also much more portable than oil paints and take little time to set up. They do not necessarily need water and can be applied to dry paper, although some artists prefer to wet the pastels into a paste and apply them to the surface with a paintbrush.

Today, crayon-like oil pastels are sold commercially, however, in the 18th century, they were made without oil and had a higher ratio of pigment to binder. Whilst this meant it was easier to blend the colours, the powdery pigments did not adhere as firmly. As a result, the colours often faded over time when exposed to light, hence why they are less likely to be hung in a public gallery.

Special, low-lit exhibitions of pastel drawings and paintings occasionally take place, such as Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell held at the National Gallery in 2017-18. Not only did Edgar Degas‘ (1834-1917) pastel paintings need to be hung in a darkened room to protect them from light damage, the curators had to be painstakingly gentle when hanging the pieces since the paper Degas had used was extremely thin and prone to tearing. As time goes on, these works will become even more fragile.

We are fortunate to live in the internet age, which during the current pandemic has been vital for many companies and organisations, including art galleries. Online and virtual exhibitions have allowed people to view and galleries to exhibit artworks that would not normally be seen. The John Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for instance, has provided an exhibition of Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portraits, which was briefly shown in the gallery in 2018. Pastels were once the go-to choice for European portrait artists and it is due to extreme care and handling that the following exist today.

Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752)

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Self-Portrait – Charles-Antoine Coypel (1733)

Charles-Antoine Coypel was a Parisian artist and playwright who became premier peintre du roi (First Painter to the King) in 1722. As well as producing paintings for the Palais de Versaille for Louis XV (1710-74), Coypel received several commissions from the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour (1721-64).

As a teenager, Coypel had been admitted to the Académie Royale, of which he later became the director in 1747. At the academy, Coypel became an expert with oils and pastels, the latter which he preferred to use for portraits. His self-portrait from 1733, is an example of his talents with pastels.

In this self-portrait, Coypel, who was 40 years old, is wearing the traditional academy uniform, which includes a velvet waistcoat and powdered wig. He is gracefully turned towards the viewer and invites them with his open-hand gesture to take a look at his latest work-in-progress. On the easel sits a preparatory drawing for a ceiling design, which will eventually be completed in oils, thus demonstrating that Coypel is competent in more than one medium.

In his other hand, Coypel holds a portfolio of paper upon which is written in French, “Charles Coypel has painted himself for Philippe Coypel, his brother and his best friend, 1734.” Philippe was a valet de chambre to the king, therefore, it is likely Coypel’s portrait would have been hung where it could be viewed by notable Frenchmen. This self-portrait was not just a present but a means of self-promotion. From this single image the viewer learns Coypel is a member of the Académie Royale and can paint with both oils and pastels. Although the self-portrait was produced with pastels, Coypel emphasised his use of the medium by including a silver holder containing pieces of chalk pastel on the table by his side.

Careful examination of Coypel’s pastel drawings reveals he began by producing a faint underdrawing, which he then built up gradually. He used a sharp piece of chalk pastel to produce crisp outlines then switched to soft colours for the remainder of the portrait. His careful application of the colours emphasises the different textures, for instance, the velvet of his waistcoat and the lace edges of his shirt.

Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1704-88)

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Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux – Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1739-41)

Maurice-Quentin de La Tour was a French Roccoco portrait artist who also had connections with Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. Unlike Coypel who switched between mediums, La Tour worked primarily in pastels and was one of the most sought-after portraitists of his day.

One of La Tour’s patrons was Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (1687-1745), a French baron and magistrate known as the president of Rieux. After being made president of the Chamber of Accounts, de Rieux commissioned La Tour to produce his portrait. Considered to be La Tour’s masterpiece, this 2 by 1.5-metre pastel portrait shows de Rieux in his study dressed in President’s costume.

The objects in the room reveal more about de Rieux than his costume. The study is furnished with several expensive objects, including an ornamental screen, a globe and a Turkish carpet. The velvet-covered table holds books, an inkstand and quill, suggesting de Rieux is a man of intelligence, whilst the other ornaments suggest he is a connoisseur of ornate items. The painting was produced the same year that de Rieux inherited a considerable amount of money from his father, therefore, this portrait was probably a way of demonstrating his wealth.

This pastel painting has survived because it has remained in its gilt frame since it was completed. La Tour used several sheets of paper, which were pieced together and placed over a canvas. Only using pastels, La Tour produced a likeness that rivals oil paintings. Even today, critics are still amazed at the detail and perfection of La Tour’s use of pastel – he even included the wig powder that had dusted de Rieux’s shoulders.

Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715-83)

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Théophile van Robais – Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1770)

The French painter Jean-Baptiste Perronneau rivalled La Tour’s skill but was very much in the other artist’s shadow for most of his career. Perronneau started out as an engraver and only began producing portraits in oils and pastels in 1740, by which time La Tour was already an established artist.

Perronneau attempted to show off his skill by submitting a portrait of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour to the Salon of 1750. Rather maliciously, La Tour decided to submit a self-portrait to make Perronneau’s painting appear inferior. Despite Perronneau’s attempts, he died virtually unknown.

Unlike La Tour, Perronneau did not have royal connections and spent his career travelling around France looking for clients. Abraham and Théophile van Robais were two of Perronneau’s more prestigious clients. Abraham (1698-1779), whose portrait belongs to the Musée du Louvre in Paris, was a textile manufacturer; Théophile was likely his son.

The Van Robais family, of Flemish origin, was known for their weaving talents and were encouraged by Louis XIV (1638-1715) to set up the Manufacture des Rames in Abbeville, north France. As a result, the Van Robais family became very wealthy and were able to purchase Château de Bagatelle, which is where they were living when Perronneau painted Abraham and Théophile’s portraits.

This portrait of Théophile van Robais is evidence of the fragility of pastel paintings. Before it was acquired by the John Paul Getty Museum, the portrait had been exposed to light, which had caused irreparable damage. Théophile’s jacket would have either been bright blue, purple or green but has now faded to grey.

John Russell (1745-1806)

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Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory – John Russell (1793)

John Russell, an Englishman, was renowned for his oil and pastel paintings, earning him the position as Crayon (pastel) Painter to King George III (1738-1820), Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), the Prince of Wales (1762-1830) and Prince Frederick, the Duke of York (1763-1827). Russell showed a talent for art at a young age but initially attempted to have a career as a Methodist preacher. As a result, Russell became acquainted with the leaders of the Methodist movement, John (1703-91) and Charles Wesley (1707-88), both of whom he painted. He also painted the Methodist minister George Whitefield (1714-70) and future abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) who was only eleven at the time.

Although Russell took any opportunity to preach, he could not be persuaded to attend the Methodist ministers’ training college. Instead, he enrolled at the Royal Academy school of art in 1770, although was not elected a royal academician until 1788. Between joining the academy and his death, Russell exhibited at least 330 of his works, many of them portraits.

One of Russell’s portraits was of George de Ligne Gregory (1740-1822) who had just been appointed High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. He sat for Russell in a brown wool coat and white cravat with a black hat resting in his hand – typical clothing of a nobleman in the 1790s. The hat and the colour of the coat’s collar allowed Russell to use lampblack, a dark pigment made from soot, which he recommended to artists in his book Elements of Painting with Crayons (1772). He was also in favour of white pastels, which he used for the satin lining of the hat, the cravat and Gregory’s wig. Russell also included the white powder from the wig that had coated the rim of the hat and the coat collar. Rather than making Gregory appear untidy, this emphasised his noble status since wig powder was rather expensive.

Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79)

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Portrait of William Burton Conyngham – Anton Raphael Mengs (1754-55)

Anton Raphael Mengs was a German Roccoco painter who was taught to paint by his father Ismael in Dresden. In 1749, Mengs became the first painter to the elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus (1695-1763) who later became King Augustus III of Poland. Mengs also accepted two invitations from Charles III of Spain (1716-88) to work on various projects. Mostly, however, Mengs liked to spend time working in Rome, where he converted to Catholicism.

Whilst in Rome, he met the young Irish aristocrat William Burton Conyngham (1733-96) who was on his Grand Tour of continental Europe. Conyngham, who later became an Irish politician, asked Mengs to paint his portrait as a souvenir of his trip. Although Mengs was primarily a history painter, he was also known for his pastel portraits and readily accepted the commission.

Mengs was skilled at achieving rich tones with pastels, which were usually characteristic of oil paintings. He showed off this talent with the luxurious red of the velvet cloak contrasted with the blue of the shirt. Unfortunately, light damage has caused the colours to fade making the cloak seem to be covered in grey soot or dirt.

Conyngham’s choice of attire was to make him appear to be a distinguished gentleman. Mengs, however, accurately depicted his face, emphasising his youth and eagerness. Mengs expertly captured the glint in Conyngham’s eyes and the light reflecting on his nose and lips, which was usually difficult to capture with pastels.

William and Mary Hoare

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Henry Hoare, “The Magnificent”, of Stourhead – William Hoare (1750-60)

William Hoare (1707-92) was the leading portraitist in Bath, Somerset – at least until the arrival of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) – and was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy. His daughter Mary (1753-1820) followed in his footsteps, becoming a painter in her own right. Whilst many of Mary’s paintings were of scenes from Shakespeare, her father produced several paintings of social leaders and politicians, such as Prime Ministers Robert Walpole (1676-1745) and William Pitt the Elder (1708-78), and the composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).

In 1765, Mary married Henry Hoare, who coincidentally had the same name as her father’s friend Henry Hoare (1705-85); the surname seems to be coincidental. The latter, also known as Henry the Magnificent, was a banker and garden designer who laid the gardens at Stourhead, his estate in Wiltshire – now partly owned by the National Trust. The gardens were admired by many and Hoare was good friends with the renowned landscape gardener Capability Brown (1716-83). Most of Hoare’s wealth came from Hoare’s Bank (now C. Hoare & Co) of which he was a partner for nearly 60 years.

William Hoare was a personal friend of Henry Hoare and painted him in profile, like the Emperors on ancient Roman coins. The richness of the blue jacket emphasises Henry’s wealth and the white wig his importance in society.

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Susannah Hoare, Viscountess Dungarvan, later Countess of Ailesbury (1759-60)

A portrait was also produced of Henry Hoare’s daughter Susannah (1732-1783), although there is some discrepancy over the artist. Officially, it is considered to be the work of William Hoare, however, some critics suggest it was produced by Mary during her training as a pastellist. Reason for this is the stiff doll-like face, which was more likely to be the result of a naive teenager’s hand than an established painter like William.

Despite the face, Susannah’s clothing has been expertly drawn, as have her hands, suggesting Mary may have had help from her father. Susanna wears a widow’s cap as she was still in mourning after the death of her first husband, Charles Boyle, Viscount Dungarvan in 1759. Rumours claimed this marriage had been an unhappy one, resulting in only one child. Her second marriage to Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury (1729-1814) was much more fruitful, resulting in five children, four of which reached adulthood.

Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-89)

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Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone -Jean-Étienne Liotard (1755-56)

The final artist in the Getty’s online Pastel Portrait exhibition is Jean-Étienne Liotard, a Swiss painter who worked in Geneva, where he was born and died, Rome, Istanbul, Paris, Vienna and London. On his travels, Liotard had the opportunity to produce several pastel portraits of notable figures, including Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg (1719-72), Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-51) and Marie Antoinette (1755-93) before her marriage to Louis XVI (1754-93).

Despite going on to paint such famous people, Liotard’s most notable pastel portrait is of seven-year-old Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone (1748-1807), the daughter of an aristocratic Dutch family. Liotard captured her youthful complexion and beauty but also made her appear wiser beyond her years. This is in part due to her thoughtful expression and the quality of the bright-blue velvet and ermine cape. Her peaceful gaze contrasts with the alert, bright-eyed lapdog under her arm.

This portrait has been carefully preserved, allowing us to see the subtle gradations of colour that Liotard used to depict texture, light and shadow.  Liotard was a skilled oil painter but preferred using pastels for portraits, particularly of children, because they could be produced with greater speed, meaning the sitter did not need to stay still for too long. Nonetheless, the quality Liotard achieved with pastels equalled that of an oil painting.

It is a great shame these works of art cannot be seen in galleries more often due to their fragility. Looking at them online is one solution, however, we lose the texture of the painting and the graininess of the chalky pigment. Although gallery curators dedicate their time to opening exhibitions of pastel work, it is impossible to do this without at least a tiny bit of damage. As time goes on, the fragility of these artworks will increase, meaning they will be displayed less and less until the risk of damage is too high, after which they will never be seen again.

Next time an art gallery puts on an exhibition of pastel works, make the effort to visit. It could be the last opportunity to see some of the works before they are retired to a dark cupboard, never again to be seen in public.

Source of some info and images: Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portraits,” published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

 

The Tale of Beatrix Potter

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Self-portrait with Beatrix at Lingholm, Keswick, Rupert Potter with a decorative mount by Beatrix Potter, 1898

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London boasts the world’s largest collection of drawings, manuscripts, correspondence and photographs belonging to the highly successful children’s author Beatrix Potter. Best known for her creation of the much loved Peter Rabbit, Potter was also a natural scientist and conservationist and is credited with preserving much of the land that is now part of the Lake District National Park.

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28th July 1866 in Kensington, London. Her father, Rupert William Potter (1832-1914) was a barrister and her mother, Helen Leech (1839-1932) was the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant and shipbuilder. Her cousins on her mother’s side are reportedly related to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Beatrix and her brother Walter Bertram, who was born in 1872, spent much of their time playing in the countryside – Kensington was a semi-rural area at the time – and had many pets, including rabbits, mice, a hedgehog and some bats. Both of their parents were artistic and enjoyed exploring nature, particularly their father who was a keen photographer. Rupert Potter had been elected to the Photographic Society of London in 1869. Beatrix was one of her father’s favourite subjects to photograph and he also taught her how to use his heavy camera.

The Potter family became rather prosperous after inheriting money from the cotton trade. Rupert also invested in the stock market and was particularly wealthy by the 1890s. The family were able to afford governesses for their daughter that, whilst provided her with a good education, meant Beatrix was often kept away from her parents. Being educated at home also meant she did not have much social interaction with children her own age. As a result, she had a rather lonely childhood.

Beatrix relished the hours she spent with her brother in the countryside. The family annually visited Dalguise, a settlement in Perthshire, Scotland, which allowed the children the opportunity to roam freely. It was here that they acquired many of their pets, often secretly in paper bags until their schoolroom was full of a menagerie of animals.

Like their mother, who was a watercolourist, Beatrix and Bertram were interested in art as well as animals, often painting and drawing the animals they had smuggled into the house. When Bertram left for boarding school, Beatrix spent lonely days studying the paintings of John Constable (1776-1837), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) at the Royal Academy of Arts and drawing the exhibits at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).

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Still life drawing, 1879

Since she was eight, Beatrix had been filling sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants. Noting her love of drawing, her parents enrolled her at the National Art Training School in 1878, which she attended until 1883, where she learnt about still life and perspective. Despite the training, Beatrix preferred to draw the plants and specimens that she had developed a preference for as a child. Insects were of particular interest to Beatrix and she taught herself to be an amateur entomologist. Using her brother’s microscope, she studied various creatures in detail and learnt how to prepare slides of the specimens she collected.

Beatrix had an eye for detail and was determined to be able to draw living creatures as accurately as possible. Scientific accuracy was key to her style of drawing, which she produced with a fine, dry brush. Her many hours studying insects under the microscope are evident in some of her famous illustrated storybooks.

Flowers were a typical subject for girls to study, therefore, it is no surprise that many of Beatrix’s sketchbooks contain drawings of plants and flowers. Her grandmother gave her a copy of John E. Sowerby’s British Wild Flowers, and she spent hours carefully copying the illustrations. She painstakingly tried to accurately depict flowers so that they could easily be identified from her drawings. The “careful botanical studies of my youth” helped Beatrix create realistic fantasy worlds for anthropomorphic characters in later life. Geraniums are abundant in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other stories feature carnations, fuchsia, foxgloves, waterlilies, pansies, roses and snapdragons.

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Examples of fungi – Yellow Grisette (Amanita Crocea) and Scarlet Fly Cap (Amanita Muscaria, 1897

During her 20s, Beatrix also became interested in fungi, which she collected and drew as she did with insects and flowers. Her fascination, however, stretched further than making detailed drawings and led her to write a paper called On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae. Unfortunately, as a woman, Beatrix was unable to present the paper to official bodies and was rebuffed by William Turner Thuselton-Dyer (1843-1928), the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on account of her gender and amateur status. Fortunately, her uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833-1915), as vice-chancellor of the University of London was able to present Beatrix’s paper to the Linnean Society in 1897 on her behalf. The Linnean Society of London was dedicated to the study of natural history and evolution, and, in 1997, issued a posthumous apology to Beatrix for the sexism she experienced in attempting to submit her research.

As a way to earn money in the 1890s, Beatrix used her drawing talents to produce Christmas and greeting cards. Many of these designs involved mice and rabbits, which attracted the attention of the greetings card company, Hildesheimer and Faulkner, who commissioned several drawings from her to illustrate verses by the author and lyricist Frederic Weatherly (1848-1929). Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96), a friend of her father, also made observations about Beatrix’s artistic talents.

Whenever Beatrix holidayed in Scotland, she drew cards or illustrated letters to send to her friends. She had remained in contact with one of her former governesses, Annie Carter Moore, and often sent drawings and cards to her children, particularly Noel who was often unwell. Since she wrote to Noel regularly, she ran out of things to tell him and began writing stories instead, for instance, a tale about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter”.

In 1900, Beatrix revised her story of the four rabbits and sent it to several publishing houses. Unfortunately, it was rejected but her friend Hardwicke Rawnsley (1815-1920), an Anglican priest in Westmorland, had great faith in her work and resubmitted it to the publishers. Frederick Warne & Co, who had previously dismissed Beatrix’s work, agreed to publish the “bunny book”, as it was then known. Originally, Beatrix’s illustrations were black and white but the company persuaded her to add colour. Thus, on 2nd October 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, marking the beginning of a long relationship between Beatrix and the publishers.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by Beatrix’s pet rabbit Peter Piper, who she made up stories about to entertain the poorly Noel Moore. As time went on, she introduced other characters to the stories and her former governess proposed the suggestion that they would make great book characters. After revising the tale several times, the final story followed the mischievous Peter who sneaked into the garden of Mr McGregor to steal some of the gardener’s lettuces. Whilst Peter was snacking, Mr McGregor spotted him, so the young rabbit ran away but soon discovered he was hopelessly lost. Eventually, Peter found his way out of the garden and home to his mother, having learnt a valuable lesson.

When publication began in October 1902, 8,000 copies of the book were produced, however, by November, a further 12,000 were printed followed by another 8,200 in December. Beatrix Potter was astonished at the popularity of her story. “The public must be fond of rabbits!” It is now considered one of the most popular children’s stories of all time, having sold over 40 million copies worldwide.

The following year, Frederick Warne & Co published two more of Beatrix’s stories based on characters she had invented for Noel and his siblings. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, published in August 1903, tells the story of a naughty squirrel and his family who travelled to Owl Island to collect some nuts. Squirrel Nutkin taunted the resident Old Brown Owl with silly songs and riddles, however, Old Brown ignored him. Eventually, Old Brown was so fed up with the silly squirrel that he pounced upon Squirrel Nutkin who was lucky to survive, albeit with a little of his tail missing.

The Tailor of Gloucester, published in October 1903, involved a nasty cat called Simpkin who was sent out by the tailor to buy food and fabric. While the cat was away, the tailor discovered a family of mice that had been trapped under some teacups by Simkin. The tailor released them, much to the disgust of Simpkin on his return. Unfortunately, the tailor then fell ill and was unable to finish his work. Grateful for saving their lives, the mice returned during the night and finished the tailor’s work while he recovered in bed.

Beatrix Potter continued to publish two or three books a year up until the First World War. Although they were written less frequently, she continued to write after the war, amassing a total of 23 by 1930.

The year 1904 saw the publication of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and The Tale of Two Bad Mice. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny is a sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit in which Peter returns to Mr McGregor’s garden with his cousin Benjamin to retrieve the clothes he left there when he made his hasty exit. The Tale of Two Bad Mice was inspired by the two mice Beatrix rescued from her cousin’s trap, who she named Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca. In the story, these naughty mice wrecked the interior of a little girl’s dollhouse. Feeling sorry for what they had done, Hunca Munca vowed to sweep the floor of the dollhouse every morning, whilst Tom Thumb put a sixpence in the doll’s stocking on Christmas Eve.

The much-loved Mrs Tiggy-Winkle appeared in 1905, as did The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. The Tail of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was slightly different from Beatrix Potter’s previous books in that the main character was a human. Lucie, a young girl staying in the countryside, happened across a hedgehog dressed up as a washerwoman. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle did not speak but her eyes went “twinkle, twinkle” whilst she went about her housework. At the end of the story, some people think Lucie fell asleep and dreamt the whole thing, however, the narrator knows better. The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Panon the other hand, involves two anthropomorphic characters: a cat called Ribby and a dog called Duchess.

Jeremy Fisher is another well-known character, who appeared in 1906 along with Miss Moppet and a fierce bad rabbit. The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher is about a frog who lived in a “slippy-sloppy” house at the edge of a pond. Jeremy vowed that if he caught five minnows in the pond he would invite his friends for tea, however, fishing with a rod was much harder than he expected and he went home empty-handed. Nonetheless, he still invited his friends for tea: Sir Isaac Newton the newt and Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise.

The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit was written at the request of the publishers who wanted a truly bad rabbit, not like Peter who seemed too good despite his adventures. The unnamed bad rabbit attacked a good rabbit eating a carrot but was spotted by a hunter who mistook him for a bird. As a result, the fierce bad rabbit was shot at, causing him to lose his tail and whiskers. The Story of Miss Moppet is about another naughty character, a cat, who decided to tease a mouse, “which is not at all nice of Miss Moppet.” She tied the mouse in a handkerchief and threw it around, not realising that it had a hole through which the mouse could escape.

Miss Moppet may have been the sister of Tom Kitten and Mittens who appear in The Tale of Tom KittenTheir mother, Tabitha Twitchit, invited her friends to tea and instructed her children to make themselves presentable. Tom, however, had other ideas and proceeded to make mayhem. Tom Kitten was the only book published in 1907, however, two followed the next year.

the_tale_of_jemima_puddle-duck_coverThe Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck features two of Beatrix Potter’s well-known characters: Jemima, a domestic Aylesbury duck and Mr Tod, a fox. Jemima wanted somewhere safe to lay her eggs where the farmer’s wife would not take them and Mr Tod, dressed as a charming gentleman, suggested she use his shed. Of course, Mr Tod had an alternative motive and began to prepare a feast in which Jemima would be the main dish. Fortunately, other animals on the farm found out Mr Tod’s plans and rescued Jemima.

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding is a story that involves several characters. Tom Kitten was still up to his old tricks, pestering his mother Tabitha Twitchit and her Cousin Ribby. Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria, two rats that lived under the floorboards, decided to teach the kitten a lesson. After catching the young Tom, the rats attempted to bake Tom in a pudding. Fortunately, he was found before he could be eaten.

In 1909, Beatrix revisited her first story about Peter Rabbit and its sequel featuring Benjamin Bunny. Using elements from the original plot, Beatrix published The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, who were the children of Benjamin Bunny and his cousin Flopsy. The young bunnies, six in total, fell asleep while raiding a sack of vegetables and were captured by Mr McGregor. Fortunately, Thomasina Tittlemouse, a woodmouse, was able to free the bunnies before they could come to any harm.

Peter Rabbit and other popular characters also appear in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, a story about a village shop. Ginger, a yellow tomcat, and Pickles, a terrier, were kind animals who let their customers purchase goods on unlimited credit, however, they soon found themselves penniless as a result. Forced to close the shop, it took a kind-hearted villager, Sally Henny-penny, to help them reopen and convince the customers to pay with real money.

Thomasina Tittlemouse, who was the heroine of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, received a story of her own in 1910. The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse is a story about housekeeping, which reflects Beatrix Potter’s own sense of tidiness and hatred of insect infestations. Mrs Tittlemouse’s friends and the occasional arachnid were forever messing up her home but she was always determined to make it neat and tidy again.

In 1911, Beatrix Potter attempted to please her American fans by writing The Tale of Timmy Tiptoewhich featured a squirrel called Timmy and a chipmunk called Chippy Hackee. Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen chipmunks, which are indigenous to North America, except for in books, therefore, her illustrations received a lot of criticism. Fortunately, she was able to redeem herself the following year with a story about a previous character, The Tale of Mr Tod

The Tale of Pigling Bland was the last book published before the outbreak of the First World War. Aunt Pettitoes, an old sow, was fed up with her eight troublemaking children and decided to make them leave home. Pigling Bland and his brother Alexander decided to try their luck in the market but, due to Alexander’s bad behaviour, they found themselves in a lot of trouble.

After a break of four years, Beatrix Potter was back on the publishing scene with Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes, which opened with a rhyme about a mouse named Appley Dapply. “Appley Dapply has little sharp eyes, And Appley Dapply is so fond of pies!” The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse followed in 1918, which was loosely based on Aesop’s fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Beatrix Potter disappeared from the publishing scene for a few more years, reappearing in 1922 with another book of rhymes. Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes began with a rhyme about the titular rabbit but also included popular songs, such as Three Blind Mice.

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The Owl and the Pussy Cat

In 1930, Frederick Warne & Co published Beatrix’s final tale, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. Despite it being her last story, it was one of the first Beatrix had written, having begun it in 1883. It was intended as a prequel to Edward Lear’s (1812-88) poem The Owl and the Pussycat, for which she later produced illustrations in 1897.

Beatrix was inspired by the “Piggy-wig” who lived in “the land where the Bong-Tree grows.” He had a “ring at the end of his nose”, which the Owl and the Pussycat used as their wedding ring. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson explained how, in Beatrix Potter’s imagination, the Piggy-wig came to be there. Little Pig Robinson was sent to the market by his aunts Miss Porcas and Miss Dorcas but was kidnapped by a sailor who planned to cook and feed the poor pig to his men. With the help of the ship’s cat, Little Pig Robinson managed to escape on a rowing boat and made his way to “the land where the Bong-Tree grows”, where he later met the Owl and the Pussycat.

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Hill Top Farm

Despite producing so many books, Beatrix Potter’s life was much more than writing and illustrating. In 1905, the son of the publishing company founder, Norman Dalziel Warne (1868-1905) proposed marriage, which she readily accepted despite the protestations of her family. Unfortunately, Norman passed away a month later from pernicious anaemia, leaving Beatrix devastated. To distract herself from grief, Beatrix focused on renovating Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey near Windermere, which she had bought with her income. Due to her duties in London – both to her parents and the publishing company – Beatrix could not live there permanently, so employed a tenant farmer, John Cannon.

During her visits to Hill Top Farm, Beatrix taught herself the techniques of fell farming and raising livestock, such as pigs, cows, chickens and sheep. Needing to protect the boundaries of her farm, Beatrix sought advice from the solicitors W.H. Heelis & Son, who advised her to purchase Castle Farm, a pasture adjacent to Hill Top Farm, which would provide her with a further 20 acres of land. By 1909, the purchase had been made and Beatrix had grown close to William Heelis, who later proposed marriage in 1912. Despite her family disapproving of the match because he was “only a country solicitor”, they married on 15th October 1913 in Kensington and moved into the newly renovated Castle Cottage on Castle Farm.

After marriage, Beatrix felt she could finally settle down and began to focus more on sheep farming than writing. In 1923, she purchased Troutbeck Park where she became an expert Herdwick sheep breeder. During this time, however, her eyesight began to deteriorate, which meant any stories she wrote had to be pieced together through illustrations she had done in the past. Beatrix and William remained childless throughout their thirty-year marriage but had many nieces who enjoyed her stories.

As well as farming, Beatrix Potter was a keen conservationist, inspired by her old friend Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley who had co-founded the National Trust (for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty). Beatrix made it her ambition to preserve the Lake District’s unique landscape, of which a quarter is now owned by the National Trust. She used her income to purchase and save properties and preserve farmland. Beatrix served as the de facto estate manager for the Trust for seven years until they could afford to purchase the land from her.

When Beatrix Potter passed away from complications due to pneumonia and heart disease on 22nd December 1943, she left nearly all her property to the National Trust. This included over 4000 acres of land, sixteen farms, many cottages and herds of cows and sheep. This has been, to date, the largest gift to the National Trust and enabled the Lake District to be preserved.

Beatrix also left many of her original illustrations and books to the National Trust, which are on display at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria – the same building that used to house her husband’s law office. The largest public collection of her drawings and letters, however, can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Beatrix Potter’s books are instantly recognised by her distinctive illustrations, however, she never thought of herself as much of an artist. “I can’t invent: I only copy.” Many of the scenes in her tales were based on places she had visited, such as South Devon, which featured in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. She conceived the storyline while staying in Devon with her family in 1883. The tale takes place in a “pretty little town of Stymouth”, which Beatrix invented by mixing together scenes from the South Devon towns of Sidmouth and Teignmouth and Lyme Regis in Dorset.

Mr McGregor’s garden in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny was inspired by Fawe Park on the edge of Lake Derwentwater where the Potter’s stayed in 1903. Beatrix spent the holiday drawing the kitchen garden, greenhouse and potting shed, which she imagined a rabbit (or a certain Bunny) would find appealing.

After the sudden death of her fiance in 1905, Beatrix briefly found solace in Gwaynynog, Wales, with her two pet rabbits: Josey and Mopsie. Here she spent time relaxing and drawing in the “prettiest kind of garden, where bright old fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes”, which became the setting for The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.

The 17th-century farmhouse at Hill Top became the setting of The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan and The Tale of Tom Kitten. The kitchen, which contained old fashioned chairs and an oak dresser, provided the backdrop for scenes in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.

Beatrix Potter’s tales and characters live on through reprints and branded merchandise. New generations have been introduced to characters, such as Peter Rabbit, through animated films, the latest released in 2018. When she died, Beatrix had some unfinished stories, which have now been published. The Sly Old Cat was written in 1906 but not published until 1971. Two years later, the unfinished Tale of Tuppeny was completed with illustrations by Marie Angel. Finally, Beatrix’s The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, whose publication was disrupted due to the outbreak of World War One, was published in 2016 with illustrations by Sir Quentin Blake (b.1932).

2016JG9836_jpg_dsBeatrix Potter never thought she would become famous. She was surprised with the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and thought it was only popular because people liked rabbits and not because she was a talented illustrator and storyteller. Whilst Beatrix Potter is a worldwide name due to her many books, her involvement with the National Trust and the preservation of the Lake District is not as widely known. At the time of her death, women had only recently been given the right to vote and it would be some time before women were credited with their important achievements. As a result, Beatrix’s generous donation to the National Trust was only known in small circles until more recently.

Next time you see the naughty Peter Rabbit, take a moment to not only appreciate the illustration but to remember the woman who gave him life.

Spot the Cat

When the world closed down around them, museums began to embrace technology, producing virtual exhibitions that people could visit from the comfort of their homes. Teaming up with museums all over the world is UMA – Universal Museum of Art, an online platform that uses virtual reality to show exhibitions made by specialists at different establishments. In collaboration with RMN-Grand Palais, UMA has designed an exhibition in a virtual eighteenth-century mansion about one of the internet’s favourite subjects: cats.

Cats in Art History combines 75 works of art to demonstrate the appearance of cats from antiquity to our times. There are cats hidden in all of the paintings, whether they are big, small, cuddly, playful, tigers or kittens. They appear in all sorts of scenes, often where they are least expected. Cats have often been associated with extraordinary power, for example, fictional wicked witches usually have a cat. In Ancient Egypt, felines were worshipped as a god, however, in other religions, a cat may be likened to the devil. Cats in religious art usually hold significant meaning, for example, treason or bad luck. Since they are independent creatures, some cultures have deemed them untrustworthy.

Of course, not every painting containing a cat has an obscure or negative meaning. Cats were companions of many artists who isolated themselves in their studios. Cats were and still are cuddly companions of both children and adults. Whatever the artists’ intentions, cats can add a bit of fun to art, particularly when they are not spotted straight away.

Here are a few examples of the paintings in the UMA exhibition. Look out for the cats.

Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading (c.1520)

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Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading

This is a tapestry from a series called La Vie Seigneuriale (The Nobleman’s way of life) that was woven in France during the early 16th century. The figures, who are dressed in Italian fashions that had become popular in France, are thought to be a Lord and Lady going about their daily activities. The Lady’s activity appears to be spinning wool.

The tapestry’s background, a typical design from the 15th and 16th century, is known as the millefleurs (Thousand Flowers) style. It features a pattern of flowers and leaves with the occasional bird. This may have been inspired by an old tradition of scattering cut flowers on the ground on special occasions. This style was later adopted by William Morris (1834-96) and is still used by Morris & Co. today.

lw1290_the_lecture_6Spot the Cat: The tiny cat almost goes unnoticed between the plants in the background of the medieval-style tapestry. He is playing with a thread from the Lady’s spindle, which hangs by her feet. During the Middle Ages, cats were a symbol of femininity, which may be one reason for its inclusion in the tapestry. Its behaviour, however, suggests an alternative meaning of slyness and cunning. This was a trait assigned to cats in many medieval bestiaries.

The cat is not the only animal in the tapestry. On the Lady’s lap is a tiny dog, which peers down to see what the cat is doing. Despite its small stature, it is as though the dog is guarding his mistress and keeping an eye on anything that could cause her harm. The actions of both cat and dog, however, go unnoticed by the couple in the tapestry. It is almost as though they have been frozen in time in a static tapestry, whereas the cat and dog look as though they could move at any moment, thus adding a little humour and cheerfulness to the scene.

The Wedding Feast at Cana – Paolo Veronese (1528-88)

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The Wedding Feast at Cana – Veronese

Paolo Caliari, also known as Paolo Veronese, was an Italian Renaissance painter based in Venice. He is remembered for his large history paintings of mythological and religious stories, of which The Wedding Feast at Cana is one. Painted in the Mannerist style, the artwork was commissioned by the Black Monks of the Order of Saint Benedict in 1562 for their new refectory. Veronese was instructed to paint “the history of the banquet of Christ’s miracle at Cana, in Galilee, creating the number of [human] figures that can be fully accommodated”.

The Wedding Feast at Cana depicts the New Testament story of the wedding Jesus, his mother and his disciples attended in the Gospel of John 2:1-11. It is also the scene of Jesus’ first miracle. At the wedding party, the host ran out of wine to serve the guests but Jesus told him to fill the containers with water. Miraculously, the water became wine.

Veronese positioned Jesus at the centre of one of the tables, looking out of the painting at the viewer. Either side of him is his mother and disciples, seated in a similar way to paintings of the Last Supper. Yet, Jesus’ party is relatively small in comparison to the number of people at the wedding feast – 123 people in total. Whilst Jesus is, arguably, the most important figure in the painting, Veronese included several famous faces amongst the guests. These include Eleanor of Austria (1498-1558), Francis I of France (1494-1547), Mary I of England (1516-58), Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58).

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå Gallerix.ruSpot the Cat: The cat is in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting where it is caught mid-movement, sharpening its claws on a silver amphora. The cat is indifferent to the party and is more concerned with its own comfort. It is not, however, the only animal in the painting. Dotted around the scene are dogs of various sizes and breeds. Only one dog looks in the direction of the cat, but he may be too engrossed in the servant pouring wine into the amphora rather than the cat nearby. One tiny dog can be seen walking on one of the tables.

In religious paintings, cats are usually a reference to the devil or sin. Whilst Satan does not play a part in this story, the amphora the cat is playing with is decorated with an image of a Satyr, a symbol of drunkenness and infidelity. Yet, when cats and dogs both feature in a religious painting, there is often an alternative meaning. Dogs are sometimes used to represent Jesus’ disciples, and that is likely the case in The Wedding Feast at Cana. The cat, however, represents one particular disciple, Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus. Dogs are seen as loyal, friendly creatures, hence the connection to the eleven disciples. In this instance, the cat represents treason and disloyalty.

Historical Hanging of Scipio: the Tessin Battle – Giulio Romano (1492-1546)

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Historical Hanging of Scipio: the Tessin Battle – Giulio Romano

Giulio Pippi, better known as Giulio Romano, was a painter, architect and decorator of the Mannerist style. Born in Rome, hence his name, Romano was a student of Raphael (1483-1520) and was the only Renaissance artist to get a mention in a Shakespearean play. “That rare Italian master, Julio Romano.” (The Winter’s Tale, Act V, Scene II)

The tapestry is based on a cartoon produced by Romano for a set of twenty-two panels depicting the heroic deeds and triumph of Scipio Africanus (236-183 BC). “Scipio the Great”, as he is sometimes known, was the son of the leader of the Romans in the Second Punic War, also known as the War Against Hannibal. This particular scene, which is based on Livy’s (64 BC-AD 12) account in his book History of Rome, took place at Tessin or Ticinus on the bank of the River Ticino in northern Italy. Although the Roman’s eventually beat the Carthaginian Army, led by Hannibal (247-183 BC), this battle scene shows the Romans on the losing side. The Carthaginian’s attacked on horseback, giving the Romans neither time nor space to throw their javelins. If 18-year-old Scipio Africanus had not been on the field to rescue him, his father would not have survived the battle.

04-22_12-533602Spot the Cat: The cat does not appear in the scene of the battle but rather on the edge of the frieze. The frame is decorated with flowers, fruit, birds, dancing children and a single cat. All these images are a complete contrast to the bloody battle. They represent what the men will receive at the end of the war: peace. The images are also symbols of hope, courage and freedom, thus the cat is supporting the Roman warriors. Unfortunately, the cat is looking away from the scene, perhaps indicating the Romans’ defeat, and has its eyes on something it finds far more interesting: a small rodent.

Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables – Frans Snyders (1579-1657)

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Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables – Frans Snyders

Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables is typical of the paintings by Frans Snyders or Snijders, who was one of the leading artists in Antwerp at the turn on the 17th century, alongside Rubens (1577-1640) and Van Dyck (1599-1641). Snyders initially devoted himself to painting flowers, fruit and still life but later began to focus on animals, making him one of the earliest animaliers. Arguably, his earliest works feature animals since his market scenes often included dead animals in the stages before they were prepared as food. Snyders also included a few live animals as a contrast between animate and inanimate objects.

Some art critics have interpreted Snyder’s paintings as a propagandistic message in favour of the Spanish who ruled over Flanders at the time. Antwerp was a wealthy area full of luxuries that were supposedly supplied by the Spanish, therefore, suggesting they were superior to the Protestant Flemish government. On the other hand, apart from being one of the Antwerpen artists who assisted Rubens in a large commission for decorations for the hunting pavilion Torre de la Parada of Philip IV of Spain (1605-65), Snyders appeared not to have any other dealings with Spain.

04-10_95-014361Spot the Cat: There is more than one cat in this painting: one adult and three kittens. Standing on its back paws, the adult cat has decided to help herself to the peacock on the left side of the paintings. Whilst she drags the bird off the table by its neck, her kittens wait by a basket for their meal. One of the kittens is attempting to follow in his mother’s footsteps, pouncing on a small bird that has fallen onto the floor.

The actions of the cat in this painting could be interpreted as a mother looking after her young, however, the inclusion of a small dog asleep on the right side of the painting suggests otherwise. Some infer the dog belongs to the owner of the market stall and has been instructed not to touch the game while his master is away. Being obedient, the dog curled up into a ball and fell asleep, thus not giving in to temptation. The cat, on the other hand, has been tantalised by the peacocks, pheasants, swans and quails. She is either unaware that touching the game is forbidden, or she does not care.

The Painter’s Studio – Gustave Courbet (1819-77)

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The Painter’s Studio – Gustave Courbet

Subtitled A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, this painting is a visual summary of French painter Gustave Courbet’s career as a Realist painter. Courbet and his associates rejected the Romanticism style of the previous century, which was still taught in art schools, and only painted what they could see. Courbet challenged convention by painting unidealised scenes on a scale that was traditionally reserved for religious or historical subjects. His themes included peasants, landscapes, hunting scenes and nudes.

Courbet depicted himself painting a landscape in the centre of The Painter’s Studio, which is being admired by a young boy. The landscape painting is of the Loue River Valley where Courbet grew up. Directly behind him, as though trying to get his attention, is a barely concealed nude woman. She represents Academic art, which Courbet pointedly ignores.

The left side of the painting represents “the other world of trivial life, the people, misery, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, the people who live off death”, i.e. the people of everyday life in France. People depicted include a Jewish man and Irishwoman who Coubert met on a trip to London in 1848, a priest, a gravedigger, a merchant and other people of similar professions. Interestingly, the man with the two hunting dogs is not a person living in poverty but rather an allegory for French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-73), who Courbet detested, depicting him as a criminal for, as Courbet believed, illegally owning France. Needless to say, Courbet’s political views often got him in trouble.

Also on the left is a mannequin that has been contorted to resemble the crucified Christ. Religious scenes were a topic belonging to the Academic art styles that Coubert rejected. Art critics have interpreted the figure not only as death but the death of the Royal Academy of Art in France.

The right side of the painting depicts Parisian elites and friends of the artist. Most of the people either inspired Courbet or played a part in the development of his career. Figures include the art critics Champfleury (1821-89) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), and Courbet’s patron Alfred Bruyas (1821-77).

bigSpot the Cat: A white angora cat is at the foot of the artist in the centre of the painting where it is playing with a small insect. Being in the centre, it is neither associated with the figures on the left nor the right. Instead, it represents individuality. The cat is one of the few living entities in the painting that is not observing the artist at his work. The carelessness of the cat’s play suggests it does what it wants and does not conform to rules, just like Courbet painted what he wanted and did not restrict himself to the constraints of Academic art. The cat represents neither good nor evil but rather the taste of freedom.

Peasant Family in an Interior – Louis Le Nain (1603-48)

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Peasant Family in an Interior – Louis Le Nain

The Le Nain brothers, Antoine (1600-48), Louis and Mathieu (1607-77) were genre painters and portraitists active in 17th century France. The eldest was a member of the Paris painters’ guild and allowed his siblings to train under him for free. This painting, Peasant Family in an Interior, was produced by the middle brother Louis and is the largest of the three brothers’ “peasant” paintings.

Seated around a table close to the fire are eight members of a peasant family. Half of them look out of the painting as though interrupted by the presence of the viewer; four of the children, however, are engrossed in their activities. In the centre, one boy is playing a tune on a pipe, whilst two children are warming themselves by the fire. One girl stands behind her mother’s chair, and the fifth child, whose attention is on the viewer, is sitting barefoot on the floor.

Louis Le Nain’s main intention was to offer a glimpse into the reality of the life of a peasant family. His ability to handle light in a painting emphasises the dullness of the interior, lit only by the fire and window, which lies somewhere to the right of the painting. The family wear clothes stained with dirt and the children have no shoes, indicating their poor financial situation. Nonetheless, Le Nain is not mocking the family for their way of life, nor is he trying to shock the people of Paris with his portrayal of the lower class. Instead, the family appear content with what they have, which would resonate with the pious and moral teachings of the Catholic church at the time. The size of the canvas, which was usually reserved for religious paintings, makes the family appear important, almost as though the artist is suggesting their way of life is something to which one should aspire.

louvre-famille-paysans-dans-interieurSpot the Cat: The cat lies behind a pot on the floor in the centre of the paintings. Cats were important to peasant and farming families because they were good at catching mice and other vermin. A cat, however, cannot be trained like the dog who sits on the right side of the painting, and will only work when it feels like it, usually putting its own interests first. In this instance, the cat has decided it would much rather keep warm by the pot, which was likely filled with some sort of soup or broth. The cat also keeps a wary gaze on the dog who does not quite seem to fit in with the family, suggesting he may be a new addition to the household.

The Fruit and Vegetable Seller – Louise Moïllon (1609-96)

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The Fruit and Vegetable Seller – Louise Moïllon

Louise Moïllon was a French Baroque painter who, despite being a woman, became one of the best still-life painters of her time. Many of her paintings were purchased by French royalty as well as Charles I of England (1600-49). Known for her use of Trompe l’oeil, Moïllon’s paintings are recognised by the texture of fruit on a dark background, as is the case with The Fruit and Vegetable Seller.

In this painting, a wealthy-looking woman is purchasing fruit from a tired-looking woman, struggling under the weight of a basket of peaches. Moïllon was one of the first artists to combine figures and still-life in one painting and it is interesting to observe how she distinguished between two classes of people. The richer woman is identified by her curled hairstyle and the lace on her dress. The working-class woman’s clothing is less elaborate and her head is covered by a scarf.

ob_ff6121_03-013376Spot the Cat: The cat is resting on the table on the right-hand side of the painting. Initially, the cat does not appear to have a significant meaning, however, some critics believe Moïllon added it as a comical feature. The cat’s facial expression suggests he is unenthusiastic about his surroundings. Unlike the cat in Frans Snyder’s Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables who is helping himself to a bird, this cat is not interested in the fruit and vegetables. Whether intentional or not, the cat appears to be glancing rather sourly towards the viewer or the painter, as though asking why she could not paint something better and more suitable for a self-respecting cat.

The Painter’s Studio – David Ryckaert III (1612-61)

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The Painter’s Studio – David Ryckaert III

David Ryckaert III was a Flemish artist who contributed to genre painting, usually with scenes of peasants or workers, although he later painted aristocratic people and scenes of Hell. It is not certain whether The Painter’s Studio was staged or if the scene was based on Ryckaert’s studio, however, it provides an accurate portrayal of a 17th-century workshop. The artist is seated in the centre, making it clear he is the most important person in the painting – it is his studio. Posing for him is a male model whose likeness can also be seen on the artist’s canvas. Genre artists did not need to set up a tableau from which to paint but built the scene up in stages.

In the background is another painter working on a canvas. Since his features are blurred and his clothing less interesting than the other artist, it is assumed he was an assistant or pupil of the studio. On the right is another assistant who is preparing the pigments for the artist. Unlike today where paints come in tubes, artists had to make their own paints or hire someone to do it for them.

8cc74697d7f6a97972e0235f0b2a37bbSpot the Cat: Behind the artist’s stool, the cat is curled up in a ball, fast asleep. The colours of its fur reflect the hues of the artist’s clothing and painting, subliminally suggesting it belongs to the artist. Whilst the rest of the painting is busy, full of activity and movement, the cat is absorbed in its own world, indifferent to the hustle and bustle around him, thus asserting his independence.

The Reading – Jean-Baptiste Hilaire (1753-1828)

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The Reading – Jean-Baptiste Hilaire

Jean-Baptiste Hilaire was a French artist and student at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. Very little is known about him, however, his work is regularly likened to Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who worked a century before Hilaire. Watteau had revived an interest in colour and invented the genre Fête Galante, which often combined women in ball gowns with park and outdoors settings. When Watteau applied to the Royal Academy, his paintings did not fit into any of the traditional categories, which would usually mean rejection. The staff at the Academy, however, liked Watteau’s work so much, they created this genre so that he could join the school. Thus, when Hilaire joined the Royal Academy, this category was there ready and waiting.

The Reading combines a rural setting with the upper-class. The expensive material of the two women’s clothes suggests they are of gentle-birth, as does the water feature in the background of what may be part of their, or at least their father’s, estate. The ladies are also educated since they can read their lengthy correspondence, some of which lies on the ground. There is no indication as to who the letter is from, however, since they have gone into the garden away from prying eyes and ears to read, it could be from a close friend, betrothed or lover.

2013-01-23_09-13-46Spot the Cat: The cat is almost unnoticeable at first, posing like a statue on a pedestal as though it belongs there in the garden. With its face turned towards the viewer, the cat appears to be indifferent to or even bored with the girls and their gossip. Standing so still and motionless, the cat also seems detached from the world, once again suggesting cats are independent creatures with only concerns for themselves.

 

The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins (1849-1910)

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The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins

Louis Welden Hawkins was a Symbolist artist originally from Stuttgart, Germany, who took on French nationality later in life. Hawkins studied at the Académie Julian in Paris where he chose the path of Symbolism, which was a reaction against Impressionism. Hawkins was also influenced by the British Pre-Raphaelites, who he came across either in his studies or through his British father.

Symbolist painters often emphasised fantasy elements in their artwork, using metaphors and symbols to suggest mystical themes and hidden meanings. Hawkins is mostly remembered for his painting of dreamy female portraits, which are a stark contrast to his painting The Orphans. This sad painting contains two children embracing in front of their parent’s graves, which are slightly hidden by the overgrown grass. The sky is dismal and grey, reflecting the children’s emotions.

Screenshot 2020-06-03 at 14.18.34Spot the Cat: For a Symbolist painting, The Orphans seems rather devoid of symbols except for the silhouette of a ginger cat on the wall at the back of the graveyard. Unlike previous examples where the cat has symbolised evil, indifference or self-absorption, this cat is a sign of the orphans’ fate, left to wander alone without their parents. Where will the children sleep? How will they fend for themselves without a roof over their head or food in their stomachs? Whilst the cat is not necessarily a negative creature, its presence symbolises loneliness, adding to the mournful feel of the painting.

Portrait of Madame M. – Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)

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Portrait of Madame M. – Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was a self-taught painter nicknamed Le Douanier (the customs officer) in reference to his job as a toll and tax collector, from which he retired aged 49 to concentrate on his art full-time. Rousseau claimed he had “no teacher other than nature”, which is why his paintings are described as Naive or Primitive art. Yet, to look at Rousseau’s work, it is hard to fathom what part of nature had inspired him since his figurative style is unrealistic, childish and does not respect the codes of colour and perspective.

Rousseau rarely painted full-length portraits but Portrait of Madame M. is an exception. Here, all traditional principles of perspective are thrown out of the window with Madame M. towering over everything. The trees are too small and the flowers to tall in comparison with each other and the giantess. Rousseau claimed to have invented the new genre of portrait landscapes, composed of a specific view with a figure of a person in the foreground.

It is not certain who Madame M. was, however, the Medici sleeves, bracelets, parasol and scarf suggest she was a wealthy middle-class woman. The painting may have been a commission to rival the traditional society portraits but whether the model was flattered by the dissymmetry of her arms, legs and head remains a mystery.

436px-Henri_Rousseau,_known_as_le_Douanier_-_Portrait_of_Madame_M;_-_Google_Art_ProjectSpot the Cat: Dwarfed by its imposing mistress, the tiny cat is playing with a ball of wool on the edge of the path. Unlike Madame M., the cat is more at home in the natural setting. It also helps to offset the rigidity of the portrait and contrasts with the colour of the woman’s clothing and stormy sky. The cat’s presence adds a sense of playfulness to the painting, without which would make the scene too serious.

Nebamun fowling in the marshes

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Nebamun fowling in the marshes

Nebamun fowling in the marshes is a fragment of a painted bird hunting scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, an official scribe and grain accountant from Ancient Egypt (c.1350 BC). In this scene, Nebamun is shown hunting on the River Nile with his wife Hatshepsut and their young daughter. Nebamun dominates the scene with his huge size, expressing his importance. Fertile marshes were considered symbols of rebirth and the hunted animals a sign of triumph over nature.

The hieroglyphs in the image translate as “enjoying himself and seeing beauty,” which paired with the youthful depiction of Nebamun, hints at what the painters thought or hoped was in store in the afterlife: eternal youth and happiness.

1a64d496c116c8d33d37ce50817735fa9a0a742cSpot the Cat: Appreciated for their talents of catching mice and scaring birds away, cats were prized pets for the Egyptians. This cat, a true hunter, perches on a papyrus reed with a bird caught by the tail feathers in its mouth and two more under each paw.

The cat may have belonged to Nebamun and his family, however, in Ancient Egypt cats were celebrated as gods. In this instance, the cat may represent the Sun-God or the ancient deity Amun who fused with the Sun-God Ra to become Amun-Ra. Nebamun’s name translates as “My Lord is Amun”, which adds considerable weight to this theory.

Jupiter as a Satyr with Antiope and her Twins – Vincent Sellaer (1490-1564)

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Jupiter as a Satyr with Antiope and her Twins – Vincent Sellaer

Vincent Sellaer was a Flemish Renaissance artist known for his mythological and religious subjects. In this painting, he depicts the nymph Antiope of Thebes with her twin sons Amphion and Zethus. Jupiter, the king of the gods, was attracted to Antiope’s beauty and took the form of a satyr to take her by force. Pregnant and worried about the reaction of her father, Antiope ran away to Sicyon where she married King Epopeus. Antiope gave birth to twins, but only one was the son of Zeus; the other was the son of Epopeus. Amphion and Zethus went on to become the founders of Thebes.

Sellaer painted the semi-nude Antiope with her two sons who both have similar hair and complexions. Hugging Antiope from behind are two putti – chubby male children – who were often used in paintings to represent desire and passion. They were also associated with the god of erotic love, Cupid. In the background is a frightening satyr who is really Jupiter in disguise. The putti express the god’s desire for Antiope, the same desire that resulted in the birth of Amphion.

jupiter_satyr_antiope_twins_a_hiSpot the Cat: One of the twins rests his arm on an oversized cat in the bottom left-hand corner of the paintings. Unlike the lustful putti and satyr, the cat’s purpose is to highlight Antiope’s beauty. In Ancient Greece, cats were both good and bad depending on the circumstances. On the one hand, they were considered evil and were associated with Hecate, the goddess of death, darkness and witches. On the other hand, cats were considered symbolic of feminine beauty and love. As in most civilisations, cats were useful creatures who could control vermin, thus protecting the household from plague and disease. After Christianity arrived in Greece, a legend was born that a cat was responsible for protecting the baby Jesus from rodents and snakes.

Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee – Philippe de Champaigne (1602-94)

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Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee – Philippe de Champaigne

Philippe de Champaigne was a French Baroque painter who founded the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which later became the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Initially inspired by Rubens, De Champaigne’s style became less decorative after working with Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) who favoured clarity, order and line over colour. Many of De Champaigne’s artworks were based on religious scenes, such as Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee.

Simon the Pharisee is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 7:36-50 where he invited Jesus for a meal but fails to show his guest the usual marks of hospitality, for example, washing his feet. During the meal, a sinful woman, sometimes identified as Mary Magdalene, entered the house and anointed Jesus’ feet with a jar of perfume. Outraged at the actions of the woman, Simon protested that the woman was a sinner and unworthy of touching Jesus, however, Jesus contrasted her faith with Simon’s lack of common decency. “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

christ-in-the-house-of-simon-the-pharisee-philippe-de-champaigneSpot the Cat: The cat goes almost unnoticed under the table near Simon’s feet. Sitting there unmoved by the scene around him, it seems at first that the cat is insignificant, however, knowing that cats often represent evil in religious paintings, its presence is symbolic. Having opposed Jesus’ forgiveness of the sinful woman, the cat’s appearance at Simon’s feet may indicate he is on the path to evil. The cat is not the only animal in the scene. A dog, which usually represents the disciples, paws at Simon’s robes as though pleading with him to listen to Jesus’ teachings.

Supper at Emmaus – Titian (1488-1576)

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Supper at Emmaus – Titian

Tiziano Vecelli, or Titian as he is better known, is one of the most celebrated painters of the Renaissance. His work has inspired many painters and the way he portrayed religious scenes became the principal method for artists for over a century. At the end of the 16th century, Biblical feasts were a key theme for painters and Supper at Emmaus was a close second to The Last Supper in popularity. In the lead up to this meal, Jesus joined two men, possibly disciples Luke and Cleopas, on the road to Emmaus but they did not recognise him. It was only when Jesus “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30) that they realised who he was, at which point Jesus vanished.

Titian’s painting reflects the famous layout in Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) The Last Supper with Jesus at the centre of a horizontal table with a view of a landscape behind him. Some critics liken the posture of one of the men to Judas, suggesting he was shocked about Jesus’ return.

Screenshot 2020-06-04 at 15.59.56Spot the Cat: The activity under the table also suggests there is a link between one of the men and Judas. Behind one of the table legs is a cat that is backing away from a dog that is bearing its teeth menacingly, as though trying to scare the cat away from Jesus. The cat’s snake-like tail is another indication of its evil intentions. Many people do not notice the cat at first because it is hidden in the shadows – shadows which almost look like demon wings.

Cats in Art History reveals how cats have been stigmatised for their independence, causing them to become symbols of evil, treason and selfishness. Yet, the exhibition reveals that this is not always the case. Cats can represent positive attributes and many cat-lovers may argue that they can be affectionate creatures. It is interesting how many artists have used cats as subliminal messages, many of which probably go unnoticed today. Thanks to the Universal Museum of Art, a cat’s presence in a painting will be appreciated more by many art viewers. Next time you see a feline in a painting ask yourself, what does it represent? Is it evil? Is it good? Or, does the artist just really like cats?

Beside the Sea

In recent years, scientific studies have proven the human brain is hardwired to react positively to water. Being near the sea, for example, has helped many people feel calmer, happier and healthier. Since ancient times, humans have associated water with healing. In Roman times, public baths were an important part of the culture. In India and China, water properties were vital for medicine and in many cultures and religions rivers have been assigned sacred properties.

Today, many of us are drawn to the sea or lakes, particularly for holidays. Some people benefit from water sports and others from a long shower or bath. Swimming is an activity that both relaxes the brain and exercises the body.

The colour blue, which is usually associated with water, has been listed as the favourite colour of the majority of the world’s population. Blue is also associated with calmness, openness and wisdom. Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols writes, “We have a ‘blue mind’ — and it’s perfectly tailored to make us happy in all sorts of ways that go way beyond relaxing in the surf, listening to the murmur of a stream, or floating quietly in a pool.” He claims being around water relaxes the mind, inducing a mildly meditative state. Water helps us become more aware of the life around us, helping us connect with other people’s emotions. Spending time near water can also help the brain to become more creative. Many great ideas, for instance, have been formed in the shower. The brain switches into a more restful state, allowing thoughts to flow freely.

In the past couple of weeks, Britain has experienced the draw of the sea with hundreds flocking to beaches to make the most of the heatwave and the lessening of lockdown restrictions. Unfortunately, most people have been forced to cancel their holidays due to COVID-19, meaning many will miss out on the opportunity to relax and unwind by the sea, ocean or lake.

Although it is by no means the same, Google Arts & Culture have compiled a dozen artworks of calming seascapes that can be viewed online. The sea has been a popular subject for artists, no doubt for the above reasons, but also because it allows artists to experiment with technique and colour. Seascapes are also nice to look at, and therefore more likely to sell.

La maison du pêcheur, Varengeville – Claude Monet (1840-1926)

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La maison du pêcheur, Varengeville – Monet

Many of Claude Monet’s paintings involve a body of water, be it sea, river or pond. Several of his seascapes are of the Normandy coastline, where he took solace after the death of his first wife Camille (1847-79).

La maison du pêcheur, Varengeville was one of several paintings produced by Monet at the end of the 1880s. Situated on the coast of the English Channel, Varengeville-sur-Mer is a commune in Normandy known for its huge chalk cliffs and pebble beach. It was from the tops of these cliffs that Monet sat to paint the stunning views across an expanse of blue-green sea. This particular painting includes a fisherman’s hut (maison du pêcheur), which hints at the type of manual lifestyle of the local people. The hut may also have been used as a customs officer’s house, from which he could keep an eye out for smugglers.

Varengeville-sur-Mer, situated five miles west of Dieppe, was once a favourite hunting place of King Francis I of France (1494-1547). Visitors today can still see his hunting lodge as well as two chateaus. From the same century is the Manoir d’Ango, a manor house built between 1530 and 1545 by Jean Ango (1480-1551). Ango was a Norman ship owner who provided ships for Francis I. A cemetery by the sea also dates to the 16th century.

At the turn of the 20th century, Guillaume Mallet became the owner of one of the large valleys overlooking the sea: Bois des Moutiers. Within the 30-acres of land, he commissioned the British architect Edward Lutyens (1869-1944) to renovate the manor house. Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) was asked to design the garden, which is known for its rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias. The interior of the house was furnished by Morris & Co, including a tapestry of The Adoration of the Magi, designed by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98).

Monet is not the only artist associated with Varengeville-sur-Mer. Buried in the cemetery is Georges Braque (1883-1963), a Cubist artist who designed the stained glass window for the local church. The window depicts a Jesse Tree, which is a representation of the genealogy of Jesus. The church, St. Valery, which dates from the 13th century, sits on the top of the cliffs and is at risk of falling into the sea.

Fishing on Haengho Lake – Jeong Seon (1676-1759)

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Fishing on Haengho Lake – Jeong Seon

Jeong Seon, also known by the pseudonym Kyomjae (“humble study”) was a landscape painter who focused on the geographical features of Korea. Jeong was born into a poor yangban family – civil servants and military officers – in the Jongo District of Hanyang (Seoul). He decided to become a landscape painter at a young age and began working at the Bureau of Painting. At the age of 41, Jeong moved to the Office for Observance of Natural Phenomena but an aristocratic neighbour spotted his talent and introduced him to the court where he gained an official position.

As one of the most famous Korean painters, Jeong had a significant impact on the Korean art of the Joseon era (1700-1850). Using inks and oriental water on either paper or silk, Jeong was the first painter of true-view Korean landscapes, particularly focusing on the capital city of Hanyang (Seoul), the Han River, the Sea of Japan and the Kumgang Mountains (Diamond Mountain).

Fishing on Haengho Lake is a typical example of Jeong’s style of work. He attempted to paint the world as he saw it, using bold strokes for mountains and streams. The background is created from layers of ink wash upon which the features are drawn with a thick brush. Vegetation is depicted as a series of dots, which was inspired by Chinese art from the 11th century.

Unfortunately, it is not certain where Haengho Lake is today since many places have been renamed. One possibility is the Han River, which flows through the capital city, or Seokchon Lake, which was originally part of the river. Seokchon Lake was formed when an island in the Han River was artificially “reclaimed” by the mainland in the 1970s. Initially, the lake suffered from water pollution due to the construction work, however, after careful maintenance, the water has remained clear since 2011.

The landscape has altered significantly since Jeong painted the area. Whereas Jeong had a clear view of the mountains, today they are obscured by tall buildings, such as the Lotte World Tower, which reaches a height of 1,823 ft, making it the fifth-highest building in the world. Nonetheless, areas such as Seokchon lake provide visitors with a taste of Korean life. In the spring, the Seokchon Lake Cherry Blossom Festival is held to celebrate the beautiful landscape. In the Autumn, the Seokchon Lake Deciduous Street Festival begins, celebrating the natural flora of South Korea. Participants fill the lake with thousands of deciduous leaves from native trees, such as maple and ginkgo.

The east side of the river is named café street due to the number of food establishments. There is at least one café every 100-metres, which provide many varieties of food and drink as well as a view over the lake.

Sea and Sky – Rafael Martínez Padilla (1878-1958)

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Sea and Sky – Rafael Martínez Padilla

Very little is known about Rafael Padilla other than he lived in Barcelona and was a friend of Picasso (1881-1973). His paintings were exhibited in Barcelona and Paris, where he lived for some time after 1937.

Padilla produced a range of portraits, still-life and landscapes including Sea and Sky, which shows a solitary sea view with a broad horizon and dramatic sky. It is most likely a view from El Port de la Selva on the Costa Brava, which Padilla returned to many times in his paintings.

El Port de la Selva is a traditional fishing village and harbour situated 20 kilometres away from the French border. Today, it is a seaside resort sheltered by mountains with a natural bay that is popular with windsurfers. The relatively small town dates back to the 17th century and still contains some of the cobbled streets and original houses.

Whereas it was once a peaceful village, El Port de la Selva attracts the more adventurous tourists who wish to partake in sailing, kayaking, diving, water skiing and so on. There are more peaceful pastimes, such as fishing, the opportunity to relax on a clean beach, and the chance to taste the local cuisine.

The area enjoys hot summers and mild winters, making it a place that can be visited throughout the year. There are stunning views from the mountains and hills across a turquoise sea, as seen in Padilla’s painting.

Not far from the town is the Sant Pere de Rodes, a former Benedictine monastery, which was founded in the 10th century. Allegedly monks travelled to the area by sea with the remains of Saint Peter and other saints to save the relics from the Barbarians that were invading the Roman Empire.

The Sea from Capri – William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900)

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The Sea from Capri – William Stanley Haseltine

William Stanley Haseltine was an American painter and draughtsman from Philadelphia who, after graduating from Harvard University in 1854, travelled around Europe with a colony of American painters. Initially, they studied in Düsseldorf, then travelled up the Rhine to places in Switzerland and Italy. Eventually, they settled in Rome where they spent the year painting landscapes around the city and on the island of Capri before returning home in 1858.

Whilst in Italy, Haseltine stayed in the Certosa of San Giacomo (Carthusian Monastery of St. John), which sits atop a limestone cliff overlooking the town of Capri. It is from there that he produced the oil painting The Sea from Capri, which shows the ruins of the Villa Jovis, erected by Emperor Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37) in the 1st century, in the foreground.

Capri is located in the Tyrrhenian Sea on the south side of the Gulf of Naples. Its name traces back to the Ancient Greeks and means either “wild boar” or “goat island”, which suggests the island was once inhabited by animals. Before the First World War, the island was popular with wealthy gay men, for example, the poet Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) who shared a villa with the pianist John Ellingham Brooks (1863-1929). Since then, it has been a popular place for celebrities to own villas including, Soviet author Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), Queen Victoria of Sweden (1862-1930), Dame Gracie Fields (1898-1979) and Mariah Carey (b.1969).

During the late 19th century, Capri was a popular destination for artists, such as Haseltine and his friends. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is among the prominent artists who stayed on the island, and French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was inspired by the hills and refers to a town on the island in one of his piano composition: Les collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri).

Capri, which is twinned with Crosby in Merseyside, is believed to be the spot where Odysseus heard the Siren’s song on his epic journey home from the battle of Troy. It was the home of Emperor Tiberius, hence the villa in Haseltine’s painting, which can be visited by tourists today. Described as a dream honeymoon destination, it is very popular with holidaymakers during the summer months. Some choose to stay on the island, however, as it is not ideal for beaches, many holiday on the mainland and take a day trip to Capri.

Haseltine was attracted to the island’s scenic charm, as are the majority of visitors today. Coastlines can be admired from tall cliffs, which contain several hidden grottos and there are plenty of walking opportunities. Haseltine’s painting was likely produced at sunset, demonstrating the way the light plays on the expanse of turquoise sea, which contrasts with the glowing colours of the sky.

Seascape. View of the Bay of Palma de Mallorca – Antonio Muñoz Degrainca (1840-1924)

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Seascape. View of the Bay of Palma de Mallorca – Antonio Muñoz Degrainca

Antonio Muñoz Degrain, born in Valencia in 1840, was an eclectic Impressionist artist who is best known for his landscapes and scenes inspired by works of literature. He lived a rather Bohemian lifestyle, although was later commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Teatro Cervantes in Málaga and was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Charles III for his historical painting of Queen Isabella I of Castille (1451-1504), the mother of Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536).

Seascape. View of the Bay of Palma de Mallorca is Muñoz Degrain’s only painting of Mallorca, which may have been produced on a “working cruise” on the Mediterranean, which inspired many of his artworks. In 1922, Muñoz Degrain was considered for the position of chair at the Palma de Mallorca Academy but lost out to someone else.

This painting is made up of the colours purple, orange, yellow and blue, which were typical of his later works. His brushstrokes are broad and uneven, which accentuates the visual qualities of sky, sea and land. The rocks, seen at a distance, appear to be lit up by a low lying sun, although the colours are not quite realistic. On the other hand, the ripples of waves on the sea are convincing, as are the sparkles of light caused by the setting sun.

Since all the vessels on the sea are fairly modern, it is likely Muñoz Degrain painted the scene as he saw it from a boat. In other landscape paintings, he often added fanciful elements, suggesting an earlier period, for example, an ancient Phoenician boat. In this painting, a steamer is heading towards the island and pleasure yachts are sailing along the coast. A small rowing boat, the nearest vessel to the artist, is being controlled by an elegantly dressed woman, while her companion lies slumped over the stern, potentially seasick.

Palma de Mallorca is the capital of Mallorca and the largest city in the Balearic Islands. Today it is a popular tourist destination with over 29 million people using Palma Airport each year. Originally a Roman camp, the city and island have passed through many hands, eventually settling as a territorial division of Spain in 1833. It was not until 1950 that the island was suitable for holidaymakers, however, since the turn of the 21st century, more than half of the population works in tourism.

La Seu, or the Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma, is one of the popular attractions of the city. It was built on top of a previous mosque, which was, in turn, built upon the original church. Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) was invited to restore the building in 1901, which adds to its public appeal. Mallorca has experienced a mix of religions over the centuries. Although it was originally a Christian area, it was taken over by Muslims in 902 AD. James I of Aragon reconquered the land for Christianity in 1229 but, soon after, many Jews made their way to the island. As a result, there is a mix of architecture in the city; the maze of streets indicate an Arab history, however, the architecture has been likened to Italian cities, such as Florence.

Another highlight of Palma de Mallorca is the beaches and marinas. Tourists can relax on Palma City Beach and enjoy a panoramic view of the ocean. Yachts frequently set sail from the beaches, as can be seen in Muñoz Degrain’s painting. Looking back at the island, sailors have a good view of the Serra de Tramuntana mountains and a line of palm trees that lead to the next beach.

Marine – Osvaldo Licini (1894-1958)

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Marine – Osvaldo Licini

Osvaldo Licini’s Marine (or Marina) may seem an odd choice for Google Arts & Culture’s list of calming seascapes, however, it demonstrates an alternative way of depicting the sea. Licini was an Italian abstract painter from the Marche region of Italy. Very little is known about him, however, his paintings have been topics of discussion for many art critics.

One critic stated Licini achieved the “metaphysical depiction of silence” in his seascapes. He wanted to show that geometric shapes can demonstrate feelings, “strength, will and ideas; colours convey magic.” Another critic, Flaminio Gualdoni, the author of several art books, describes Marine as “full and vibrant, composed of temperatures, and of sonorous and ambiguous tones, both tense and dense, and capable of vibrating even when the layer is full and uniform.”

Marine, painted around 1957 and, therefore, one of Licini’s final paintings, is divided into blocks of bright, intense colours. The blue represents the sea and the yellow the sky, possibly at sunset. Triangular shapes suggest landforms, however, one diagonal line rising from the land vanishes into the sky. One interpretation is of a mountain whose peak fades into a hazy sky.

1024px-monte_conero_visto_dalla_spiaggia_urbaniIt is not certain where Licini painted Marine or whether it was an imaginary seascape. He was born in Ascoli Piceno, which is not on the seafront and died in Monte Vidon Corrado, which is also inland. Both these towns, however, are in the Marche region, which is bordered on the east by the Adriatic Sea. Monte Conero, situated on the sea near the port of Ancona, is a contender for the land seen in Licini’s painting. Ancona is a city worth visiting for history lovers as well as beach lovers. The city was originally founded by the Greeks but was later taken by the Romans. It then became a Byzantine city followed by a Maritime republic and a Papal State. As a result, there are sights from all periods: the Arch of Trajan, an 11th-century cathedral and an Episcopal Palace to name a few.

Approach to Venice – J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851)

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Approach to Venice – J. M. W. Turner

“The moon is up, and yet it is not night / The sun as yet disputes the day with her.” – Lord Byron

This painting by Turner shows a view of Venice at sunset. The yellow clouds evidence the direction of the setting sun, however, on the left, the glowing moon can already be seen. A flotilla of barges and gondolas are making their way back to shore at the end of a long day on the water. Approach to Venice is one of several oil paintings Turner produced in Venice in which he explored the effect of light on the cities waterways.

Turner made his first journey abroad in 1802, however, did not visit Venice until 1820, although, he returned two or three times before his death in 1851. He was attracted by the Venetian Lagoon, which lies between the mouths of the Po and the Piave rivers. Known as “La Dominante”, “La Serenissima”, “Queen of the Adriatic”, “City of Water”, “City of Masks”, “City of Bridges”, “The Floating City”, and “City of Canals”, Venice is made up of 118 small islands that are linked together by over 400 bridges. It has been ranked many times as the world’s most beautiful city and cultural centre.

For those wishing to spend time on the water, then Venice is the place to be. Unfortunately, its popularity as a tourist destination has caused the city some problems, namely pollution and flooding. The latter is a constant threat, particularly in the autumn and spring when the tide is typically higher. Despite being a car-free city, the lagoons and canals are often polluted by the motorised water buses and cruise ships, which bring over 1.5 million people to the city per year. The ships are also another cause of flooding.

Nonetheless, Venice has been an inspiration for many people, including Turner. Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) The Merchant of Venice and Othello were set in the city and Venice also features prominently in books by Henry James (1843-1916), Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) and Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Many artists have been drawn to the city, the most famous being Canaletto (1697-1768) who is largely remembered for his landscapes of Venice. Other artists include Monet, Titian (1488-1576) and Tintoretto (1518-94).

Sea in the Morning – Kei Murayama

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Sea in the morning – Kei Murayama

Kei Murayama is a contemporary Japanese artist who has painted several seascapes and landscapes that demonstrate the magnificent natural scenery in Japan. Painted in ink and watercolour, the artist captures the colours of the sunrise, both in the sky and on the water, and expertly portrays the gentle waves produced on a calm day.

Japan is not usually thought of as a beach destination since most people imagine the bustling city of Tokyo, however, being a long, thin country surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Japan and the East China Sea, there are plenty of beaches to visit. Okinawa Prefecture, consisting of a dozen small islands, is famous for its white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. Not far from Tokyo are several beaches from which the cities skyscrapers can be seen as well as a great view of Mount Fiji. For swimming and snorkelling, the best beaches are in the south, however, there are plenty of places to relax all around the country

On Lake Attersee – Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

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On Lake Attersee – Gustav Klimt

Austrian artist Gustav Klimt was a symbolist painter and member of the Vienna Secession movement, which was closely related to Art Nouveau. He had a particularly distinct style, which, for those who know his painting of The Kiss, is instantly recognisable. Klimt’s landscape paintings, however, were produced in a different style with colours not too dissimilar from paintings by Monet. The turquoise water in On Lake Attersee also reflects the colours of his favourite lake on a summer morning.

Attersee is the largest lake in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, east of the city of Salzburg. With a length of 12 miles and a width of 2.5 miles, the clean quality of the water attracts many sailors and swimmers. The water, however, is often cold but it rarely freezes. Settlements around the lake rely on tourism, which is at its peak in the summer months.

In the top righthand corner of Klimt’s painting is a small island called Litzlberg. The name derives from Lützelburg, which means “small castle”. This is in reference to a monastery, which was also used as a place of refuge. Since it was only accessible by water, it was impossible to sneak up on, making it a safe place for those in danger to stay. Today, it is a private island and joined to the island by a bridge that was built in 1917, seventeen years after Klimt painted the lake. The rest of the lake and surrounding areas are open to the public and offer a range of activities including diving, water sports, cycling, swimming and hiking.

Slumbering Sea, Mentone – Tom Roberts (1856-1931)

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Slumbering sea, Mentone – Tom Roberts

Although born in Dorset, England, Thomas William Roberts was a key member of the Heidelberg School art movement, better known as Australian Impressionism. His family emigrated to Australia when he was 13 years old, although returned briefly to the UK to study at the Royal Academy Schools.

Mentone, a suburb in Melbourne, is associated with the Heidelberg School of Australian artists and is the location of Roberts’ painting Slumbering Sea. Painted en plein air, Roberts shows a woman, boy and dog meeting a boat as it sails onto Mentone Beach from Beaumaris Bay. Roberts was a renowned colourist and used rich earthy colours for the sand and chalky whites for the cliffs in the distance. These are offset by the gentle blues of the sea and sky and the vivid whites of the boat and clothing. The way Roberts painted the figures suggests he had developed his technique by studying Old Masters.

The resort town was named after the formerly-Italian French town Menton, which is why many of the streets also have Italian names. The beach is the town’s biggest attraction, however, the area is generally residential rather than tourist-focused.

View of Shima Slope – Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)

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View of Shima Slope – Utagawa Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige was the last great master of ukiyo-e, a style of Japanese art that produced woodblock prints and paintings. He is best known for his many landscape series, including One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which went on to inspire many artists including Vincent van Gogh (1853-90).

View of Shima Slope is a colour woodblock print that shows a view of Tokyo Bay from Shima Slope, also known as Shiomizaka. Today, this view has disappeared due to the growing city, however, it was very popular with ukiyo-e artists during Hiroshige’s lifetime. Shiomizaka has two meanings, the most common of which is “watch the tide”. The other is “see death”.

Tokyo Bay, which Hiroshige knew as Edo Bay, is connected to the Pacific Ocean and is the most populous and largest industrialized area in Japan. Within the bay is an artificial island called Odaiba, which can be reached by crossing Rainbow Bridge from central Tokyo. Initially, it was built for defensive purposes but today it is a major commercial, residential and leisure area. The island was due to be one of the venues for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, which has now been postponed.

There are many attractions on Odaiba including an artificial beach, Venice-themed shopping centre, 377ft Ferris wheel (Daikanransha), Sea Forest Waterway, museums, swimming pools and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The island is essentially an entertainment district, therefore, Tokyo Bay is no longer the calming seascape depicted by Hiroshige.

Port of Saint-Cast – Paul Signac (1863-1935)

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Port of Saint-Cast – Paul Signac

Paul Signac was a Neo-Impressionist painter who developed the Pointillist style with Georges Seurat (1859-91). Signac had originally been influenced by Monet, however, with Seurat, he abandoned the free brushwork of the Impressionist style for a systematic application of tiny dots of colour, as seen in Port of Saint-Cast. This painting is one of four Signac produced along the coast of Brittany on the English Channel. Despite the vibrant colours, the painting is rather sparse, suggesting it was a clear, still day with nothing significant happening on the water.

Saint-Cast-le-Guildo, known as Saint-Cast for short, used to be a fishing community but now boasts of splendid beaches to attract tourists. The commune was named after a Welsh monk and is a favourite spot for gathering seashells on the many sandy beaches. Since the mid-19th century, Saint-Cast has been a chic resort with many posh villas. The area is popular with walkers and cyclists.

These twelve paintings are only a small sample of seascapes but they go to show that artists from all periods and painting styles have been drawn to the water. Their views of seas, oceans and lakes not only demonstrate the beauty of water but also preserve the shorelines that have now changed beyond recognition.

When these artists painted these seascapes, it is doubtful they imagined people in quarantine looking at them wistfully from their computer screens, and yet, here we are. There are plenty more paintings to look at on the internet and, whilst virtual tours, photographs and videos can show you these destinations in the 21st century, it is nice to imagine yourself in the quieter settings of these paintings.

To see the paintings in more detail, visit 12 Calming Seascapes on Google Arts & Culture.

The Finest of the Fine

Although closed due to the coronavirus, The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham has uploaded many images of their artworks online for people to browse online. Known as the North’s Museum of Art, Fashion and Design, the museum is a hidden treasure in the market town of Barnard Castle in the heart of Teesdale. It was established by John (1811-85) and Joséphine Bowes (née Coffin-Chevallier, 1825-74) who wanted to create a world-class museum in order to introduce art to the local people of Teesdale. Unfortunately, both John and Joséphine died before the museum’s completion, however, the Trustee’s continued their dream and The Bowes Museum was opened on 10th June 1892.

Today, the museum contains a vast collection of important and precious works from across Europe. Teaming up with Google Arts and Culture, The Bowes Museum has put together several online collections, including their top twenty-five fine art paintings in the museum. Fine art is a type of art that has been produced primarily for aesthetics or beauty. It is not produced for a purpose, like decorative art, graphic art, pottery and so forth, but rather allows the artist the full expression of their imagination.

The Tears of St Peter – El Greco (1541–1614)

El Greco, 1541-1614; The Tears of St Peter

The Tears of St Peter – El Greco (1541–1614)

The first painting on The Bowes Museum’s list is The Tears of St Peter by the Greek artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos, most widely known as El Greco. His nickname, El Greco, which means “The Greek”, was given to him while working in Toledo, Spain between 1577 and his death in 1614.

El Greco had many patrons in Toledo, many of whom were Catholics, therefore, religious subjects were popular amongst his commissions. The Catholic Church was associated with making confessions of sin, which is why El Greco produced several paintings under the title The Tears of St Peter.

The version of the painting at The Bowes Museum was El Greco’s first painting on the subject, which John Bowes purchased in 1869 for 200 francs (£8). It shows Saint Paul raising his tear-filled eyes to Heaven, praying for forgiveness. Those familiar with the Gospel of Luke will know that before Jesus’ arrest, he said to Peter, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” (Luke 22:61). Peter was adamant that he would never deny Jesus, however, within a few hours he had denied knowing Jesus three times. “So Peter went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)

El Greco’s painting appears to be set after Jesus’ death and resurrection rather than the moment Saint Peter realised he had denied his Lord. In the background are an empty tomb and two figures representing Mary and an angel. This alludes to a passage in the Gospel of John, which says:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” – John 20:11-13

This was followed by Jesus appearing to Mary.

The Nativity – Jacques Stella (1596-1657)

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The Nativity – Jacques Stella

There are several religious paintings at The Bowes Museum, including a painting of the Nativity by French artist Jacques Stella. Although born in France, Stella spent eighteen years in Italy where he became a close friend of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) who taught Stella a lot about classicism.

Stella’s religious work, including The Nativity, were mostly produced after he had returned to France in 1634. He became the official painter of Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), although later moved into the Louvre when King Louis XIII (1601-43) made him peintre du roi. From then on, Stella produced several paintings on the theme of the childhood of Christ.

In Stella’s The Nativity, Mary and Joseph are alone with the baby Jesus, enjoying a moment of delight at the birth of Christ. The parents will not be alone for long because, in the background, an angel is announcing the birth to the shepherds. In the foreground, pieces of broken masonry represent the end of pagan religion.

The Crucifixion – Master of the Virgo inter Virgines (active 1483-90)

Master of the Virgo inter Virgines, active c.1480-1500; Crucifixion

The Crucifixion – Master of the Virgo inter Virgines

Paintings of the Nativity have always been popular, as have paintings of the crucifixion. This version of the crucifixion was painted by a nameless man who is referred to as Master of the Virgo inter Virgines in reference to an altarpiece he produced for a convent in Konigsveld, Bavaria.

In this image, Christ is shown nailed to the cross in between the two thieves. The crowds below tell the different aspects of the story. A soldier is holding up a sponge soaked with vinegar whilst the Virgin Mary weeps in the corner, surrounded by St. John and five women. In the background is Judas, who has hanged himself in remorse for his betrayal of Jesus and, on the right, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wait with other men to take Christ’s body from the cross for burial.

The Triumph of Judith – Luca Giordano (1634-1705)

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The Triumph of Judith – Luca Giordano

The Triumph of Judith is just one of many studies Italian artist Luca Giordano produced in preparation for his final decorative masterpiece of the same name on the ceiling of the Treasure Chapel of the Carthusian S Martino in Naples. Known as Luca fa presto (Luca paints quickly) he completed numerous religious paintings in his lifetime.

This particular painting depicts the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who had been dispatched by Nebuchadnezzar to take vengeance on the cities that refused to assist his empire. As a result, Holofernes planned to destroy the city of Bethulia, the home of Judith, a Jewish widow. Judith tricked her way into Holofernes camp, promising him information about the Israelites, however, when Holofernes was lying in his tent one night in a drunken stupor, Judith seized her chance and decapitated him. Without their leader, the Assyrian army dispersed and the city of Bethulia was saved.

Artists have depicted Judith’s triumph in many different ways. In some, she appears innocent and secretive and in others, a temptress and schemer. Giordano, on the other hand, painted Judith holding Holofernes’ head aloft like a warrior, whilst the Assyrian men flee in fright.

An Allegory of Innocence and Guile – Maerten van Heemskerck (1498–1574)

van Heemskerck, Maerten, 1498-1574; An Allegory of Innocence and Guile

An Allegory of Innocence and Guile – Maerten van Heemskerck

Maerten van Heemskerck was a Dutch painter who specialised in portraits and religious scenes. Occasionally, the two genres overlapped, as can be seen in An Allegory of Innocence and Guile. It is uncertain who the woman is but the meaning of the painting is taken from a verse in the Bible.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16

It is not certain when the painting was produced but it is likely to have been after Heemskerck had set off for his Grand Tour of Italy in 1532. Inspired by the Italian style of art, this painting depicts a pale, richly dressed woman holding a snake with a dove flying above her right hand. Since the painting is a personification of the biblical verse, she is nameless. This type of subject was often commissioned for public buildings to remind people of the high standards expected of the people who worked there: wealthy and pious.

A Miracle of the Eucharist – Sassetta (1392-1450)

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A Miracle of the Eucharist – Sassetta

Italian painter Sassetta, also known as Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, was a deeply pious man, therefore, the majority, if not all, of his works depicted religious scenes. A Miracle of the Eucharist is not based on a biblical passage but is meant to tell a story about a young Carmelite monk.

This painting was one of a sequence of paintings that followed the life of the unfortunate young monk. In this scene, set in the interior of a 15th-century church, the monk has been struck dead at the altar whilst the other monks and congregation look on in horror. At that time, the church taught that only true believers could accept the communion bread and wine; evidently, the monk was not a true believer.

Not only has the monk died, but his white cloak has turned black and a small, winged version of the devil is snatching the monk’s soul from his mouth. The plate held by the officiating priest is full of blood, which is a reference to the Miracle of Bolsena where a communion bread allegedly began to bleed onto a corporal. The painting, and the others in the series, were intended as a teaching tool to warn the congregation of the “consequences of sinfulness, the perils of feigning faith and the power of God.” (Andrew Graham-Dixon, 1997)

Reading Lesson in a Convent – François Marius Granet (1775-1849)

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Reading lesson in a convent – François Marius Granet

French artist, François Marius Granet, spent the years 1802-1819 in Rome where he studied at the French Academy in the Villa Medici. Granet and his fellow students were provided with a studio in the convent of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti church next-door to the academy. It is here that Reading Lesson in a Convent is set.

The painting shows a young girl reading to an elderly nun while a younger nun, possibly the girl’s tutor, sits beside them. Granet, who was known for the atmospherical portrayal of light, uses the light from the window to create an ethereal effect, drawing attention to the girl, nuns and the crucifix on the wall behind them. In contrast, the rest of the convent appears to be in darkness.

Santissima Trinità dei Monti had a predominantly French congregation, hence its connection with the French Academy. French soldiers had been stationed in the convent since Rome surrendered to the French revolutionary army in 1798. Unfortunately, the troops, followed by the arrival of artists, caused parts of the convent to be neglected and in need of repair. After Napoleon’s (1769-1821) fall from power in 1815, the new king, Louis XVIII (1755-24) restored the church and convent and named Granet Chevalier de l’Ordre St Michel and Conservateur des tableaux de Versailles.

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – Francesco Trevisani (1656-1764)

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Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – Francesco Trevisani.

Amongst the portraits at The Bowes Museum is Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni by the Italian painter Francesco Trevisani. Ottoboni, who was the grand-nephew of Pope Alexander VIII (1610-91), became a cardinal in 1689. He was also one of the most important patrons of the arts in Rome at the beginning of the 18th century. Amongst the painters the cardinal supported was Trevisani, who painted the flattering portrait of Ottoboni dressed in richly coloured cardinal robes.

Others Ottoboni supported included the violinist Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), who he introduced to George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), the violinist and composer, was also a favourite, as was the Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). Ottoboni regularly wrote librettos for oratorios, such as Scarlatti’s La Giuditta, and the paper the cardinal holds in his portrait may be a reference to this.

Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter – Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

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Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter – Anthony van Dyck

This portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter (d.1633) was once mistaken as a representation of Queen Henrietta (1606-69), the wife of Charles I (1600-49). As it turned out, it is a portrait of Henrietta’s lady in waiting and niece of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628).

Anthony van Dyck was commissioned to paint this portrait by Olivia’s husband, Endymion Porter (1587-1649), who was the artist’s patron and close friend. Porter commissioned several portraits from Van Dyck, who was living in England at the time. It is estimated that Van Dyck also produced around forty portraits of the king during this time.

Olivia Boteler Porter wears a white satin dress with long puffed sleeves, which was considered a timeless garment during the early 17th century. The red carnation in her hair may have been added to the painting as a heraldic motif since the flower also appears in portraits of other female members of the Villiers family. Olivia’s mother was the half-sister of the Duke of Buckingham. Her father, Sir John Boteler (1566-1637), was an English politician and member of the House of Commons.

Self-Portrait – François-Saint Bonvin (1817-87)

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Self Portrait – Francois-Saint Bonvin

François-Saint Bonvin was a realist painter born in the poor region of Paris to a seamstress and a policeman. His mother died when he was young and his father married again. Bonvin’s step-mother, however, abused and starved him. To keep out of her way, Bonvin began to draw, finally escaping the abuse when a family friend paid for him to receive drawing instruction at a Parisian school.

Bonvin met François Marius Granet, who painted Reading Lesson in a Convent (see above), in 1847, around the same time he painted his self-portrait. The brushwork and dramatic light are similar to Gustave Courbet (1819-77), another artist and friend of Bonvin. Courbet had already painted a portrait of Bonvin and Bonvin was likely trying to replicate the same technique.

In 1850, Bonvin won recognition as a leading realist artist at the Paris Salon, which encouraged him to give up his day job as a policeman to pursue a career in art. Unfortunately, an illness he had contracted in the police force troubled him for the rest of his life. In 1881, he underwent an operation in an attempt to alleviate some of his problems, however, it did not work and he became blind.

The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic – Canaletto (1697-1768)

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The Bucintoro returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic – Canaletto

The Bowes Museum owns plenty of landscapes, most notably The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic by Giovanni Antonio Canal, also known as Canaletto. This is one of Canaletto’s largest works, which shows the Doge’s state vessel, the Bucintoro, returning to Venice after the festivities on Ascension Day.

Each year on the Festa della Sensa (Ascension Day) the Doge set out on his barge to the Adriatic Sea to perform the “Marriage of the Sea”. This involved tossing a wedding ring into the sea followed by the words “Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii.” (“We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination”). This ceremony symbolised the maritime dominion of Venice, which lasted from around 1000 AD to 1798 when Napoleon conquered Venice.

Canaletto captured the festivities of the day with dozens of boats on the water, market stalls on the Piazzetta, and hundreds of people celebrating on land and water. The Bucintoro, which has just reached the quayside, was built in 1724 but was later destroyed by the French.

Gibside from the North – Turner (1775-1851)

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Gibside from the North – Turner

Artists from the continent may dominate the list of top fine-art paintings, however, there are a couple of British artists in The Bowes Museum, including Joseph Mallord William Turner. The museum owns four watercolours by Turner, including two that depict the Gibside Estate.

Gibside in the Derwent Valley, now owned by the National Trust, was once the home of Scottish nobleman John Bowes, 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne (1769-1820), an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926). John Bowes commissioned Turner to produce paintings of the estate from different compass points. Gibside from the North puts Gibside House in the centre and, in the distance, the Column to Liberty can be seen upon a hill.

The Column to Liberty was commissioned by George Bowes (1701-60) who inherited the estate in 1721. His instruction to a local architect was to erect a 141 ft column that could be seen for miles. Bowes wanted people to know he was a very important man as both a coal baron and a Whig politician. On top of the column stands a Statue of Liberty holding the Staff of Maintenance and Cap of Liberty.

Barnard Castle – Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)

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Barnard Castle – Thomas Girtin

Friend and adversary of Turner, Thomas Girtin was regarded as one of the best British landscape artists of the period. Before his marriage to Mary Ann Borrett in 1800, Girtin went on several sketching tours of north England, including the historic market town Barnard Castle where The Bowes Museum was later founded.

Situated on the River Tees is the remains of a castle from which the town gets its name. Named after its 12th-century founder, Barnard de Balliol (d.1154), the castle was developed by Richard III (1452-85) whose boar emblem can still be seen above one of the windows. By the time Girtin painted the castle, it was in ruins. In the foreground, Girtin has included a man fishing. Turner also painted scenes of Barnard Castle and it is said Charles Dickens (1821-70) visited the area in 1838 to research his novel Nicholas Nickleby.

Dutch men-of-war at anchor – Simon de Vlieger (1601–53)

de Vlieger, Simon, 1601-1653; Dutch Men of War at Anchor

Dutch Men of War at Anchor -Simon de Vlieger

Maritime landscapes were once popular and were one of the main outcomes of Dutch painter Simon de Vlieger. Considered to be one of the best-known Dutch maritime painters, de Vlieger painted ships in harbours and at sea as well as storms and the resulting shipwrecks.

The ship in Dutch Men of War at Anchor has been identified as Admiral Maarten Tromp’s (1598-1653) flagship Amelia. Tromp originally served with the Dutch Navy but later moved to the Royal Danish Navy as admiral. De Vlieger regularly painted Amelia, even after she ceased to exist, so it is uncertain if this painting was produced from life or memory. It is likely to have been painted towards the end of De Vlieger’s career, having moved away from the monotonal paintings that were popular at the time to a more realistic use of colour.

Beach Scene at low tide – Eugène Louis Boudin (1824-98)

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Beach Scene at Low Tide – Eugène Boudin

Bodies of water have fascinated artists for centuries, particularly the play of light on the reflective surface and movement of ripples and tides. They are also a great location for observing human activities, such as in Eugène Boudin’s Beach Scene at Low Tide.

Boudin is considered to be one of the forerunners of Impressionism and Claude Monet (1840-1926) looked up to him as his first master. Nicknamed “King of the skies”, Boudin was, by trade, a marine painter, painting everything from ships on the sea to life on the beaches. It is not certain where Beach Scene at Low Tide was painted, however, it is likely to be one of Boudin’s favourite resorts in either Trouville, Deauville or Normandy. As well as the French coastline, Boudin details the clothing of the urban tourists. The style of dress suggests they are members of the aristocracy and the rapid brushstrokes hints at a windy day.

Landscape with figures and goat – Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas Monticelli (1824-86)

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Landscape with figures and goats, Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas Monticelli

Adolphe Monticelli, like Boudin, was a French painter who preceded the Impressionists. Originally trained to work in a neoclassical style in Marseille, he adopted a new style when he moved to Paris in 1846. He began to work with bold colours and thickly applied paint, which inspired the young Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who he met in the 1860s. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) was also an admirer of his work.

Landscape with figures and goat is painted from an upward perspective to convey the steepness of the hill upon which four goats are grazing. Three figures in the background, one female and two male, are likely to be goat herders from the style of their clothing. The thickly applied paint creates a sense of movement and the brightness of the colours suggests it was a hot, sunny day.

Mowers – Charles-Émile Jacque (1813-94)

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Mowers, Charles-Emile Jacque

Charles Jacque was primarily a painter of animals and member of the Barbizon School, who were part of a movement towards Realism in art. Barbizon was a commune in North France surrounded by rustic and pastoral landscapes, which were the inspiration for many of Jacque’s paintings.

Mowers, which is considerably brighter than the majority of Jacque’s work, is a small painting of peasants at work in the field. Apart from a couple of birds in the sky, there are none of Jacque’s characteristic animals. The brightness of the green grass and blue sky create a pleasant atmosphere, however, the peasant’s laborious tasks do not go unnoticed. Each figure is wearing a hat to protect them from the sun, suggesting it is hot and tiring working in the heat of the day.

After the Thunderstorm – Achille Etna Michallon (1796-1822)

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After the Thunderstorm – Achille-Etna Michallon

Achille Etna Michallon was a French landscape painter with a difference. Inspired by works in Italy, Michallon did not have time to fully form his style since he died at the age of 25 from pneumonia, however, he did have an interesting choice of subject matter: trees that had been struck by lightning.

After the Thunderstorm depicts a wooded landscape, lit by the sun that shines through the abating storm clouds. On the left stands a tree that was struck by lightning during the recent storm. Yet, Michallon did not leave the image there; he included three male peasants discovering the body of a woman who, like the tree, had also been struck by lightning. There is no indication of who the unfortunate woman was or whether the scene was based on imagination, a story, or something the artist had once witnessed.

Prison Interior – Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Prison Interior – Goya

When John and Joséphine Bowes were sourcing artworks for their museum, they made several purchases from the collection of the deceased politician Conde de Quinto (d.1860). One of these purchases was Francisco Goya’s Prison Interior, which has become one of the museum’s best-known pieces. The Spanish artist painted this not long before he became the leading painter of his age.

Having experienced the Peninsular War fought by Spain and Portugal, Goya’s paintings tended to be macabre and morbid. Often Goya was attempting to make a political point, in this case, the ill-treatment of men in prison. Prison Interior does not depict a prison as they are known today but rather a lunatic asylum. At the time, there were no psychiatric hospitals, instead, there were “small dumps into which the psychotic could be thrown without the smallest attempt to discover, classify, or treat the nature of their illness.” Goya often worried about his mental health, which may be why he was passionate about changing the way patients were treated.

The Rape of Helen – Francesco Primaticcio (1504-70)

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The Rape of Helen – Francesco Primaticcio

During the Mannerist and Renaissance eras, mythological subjects were popular amongst art collectors. Francesco Primaticcio was an Italian Mannerist who worked at the French Court of Fontainebleau for King Francois I (1494-1547).

A famous story, which Primatticcio depicted in The Rape of Helen, was the abduction of Helen of Sparta and the subsequent war, as recorded in Homer’s Iliad and other ancient literature. Paris, a Trojan prince, was promised Helen as a bribe by the goddess Aphrodite. Helen, however, was already married to King Menelaus of Sparta. Many sources claim Helen went with Paris on her own accord, however, as Primatticcio depicts, others suggest she was abducted by force and subsequently raped.

Mercury and Argus – Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819)

de Valenciennes, Pierre Henri, 1750-1819; Mercury and Argus

Mercury and Argus – Pierre Henri de Valenciennes

Another popular mythological story amongst artists, particularly landscape painters, was the myth of Mercury and Argus. Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, who was an influential open-air painter, chose this story for its setting in the sacred grove of Mycenae.

The king of the gods, Jupiter, had a habit of lusting over women despite being married. His jealous wife, Juno, often intervened, causing terrible things to happen to the women. In this story, she turned the beautiful girl Io into a cow and instructed Argus to guard it. Argus was traditionally a beast covered with hundreds of eyes, however, De Valenciennes depicted him as a shepherd. Zeus sent the god Mercury to steal the cow, which involved lulling Argus to sleep with pipe music. In another version of the story, Mercury kills Argus. Juno, upset at the loss of her servant, took the eyes of Argus and put them on the tail of a peacock so that he would be remembered forever.

The Harnessing of the Horses of the Sun – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)

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The Harnessing of the Horses of the Sun – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was an Italian Rococo painter who was commissioned by Carlo Archinto (1669-1732) to paint the ceiling of his palace in Milan. The Bowes Museum owns an oil sketch of a section of the ceiling, which shows part of the story of Phaethon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Phaethon was the son of Helios whose job it was to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky every day. Phaethon begged his father to let him have a go at riding the chariot, however, he lost control and flew too near to the ground, scorching forests, creating deserts and turning men black. Zeus eventually put an end to the disaster by throwing his thunderbolt at Phaethon, killing him instantly.

This painting by Tiepolo shows the moment Phaethon has decided to drive the chariot, whilst his father tries to dissuade him. In the background are the marble columns of a palace belonging to Apollo, the Olympian god of the sun.

Fruit and Flowers – Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904)

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Fruit and Flowers – Henri Fantin-Latour

Amongst The Bowes Museum’s top twenty-five paintings are three still-life scenes, including Fruit and Flowers by Henri Fantin-Latour. This is a fresh-looking image with bright flowers and ripe fruit. It is meant to appear casual, as though the basket has just been tipped over, however, it was probably carefully arranged by the artist.

Born Ignace Henri Jean Théodore Fantin-Latour in Grenoble, he initially learnt to draw from his father who was also an artist. Despite having friends who would go on to be associated with Impressionism, such as Whistler (1843-1903) and Manet (1832-83), Fantin-Latour preferred a more conservative style. Fantin-Latour’s paintings were practically unknown in France during his lifetime because the majority of them were taken to England by Whistler to be sold.

Breakfast piece – Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582-1647)

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Breakfast piece – Jacob van Hulsdonck

Jacob van Hulsdonck, an artist from Antwerp, played a role in the development of still lifes of fruit, banquets and flowers. There are roughly 100 paintings attributed to him in which he captures the colour and texture of his subjects.

Breakfast Piece depicts a partially eaten breakfast of bread, meat, fish and cherries. Van Hulsdonck expertly portrays the folds in the table cloth, the patterns on the china and even crumbs on the edge of some plates. This painting is worthy of note because it is the earliest painting that shows Chinese porcelain being used in a meal. It had only just been imported by the Dutch East India Company at the time the painting was produced.

Still life with Asparagus, Artichokes, Lemons and Cherries – Blas de Ledesma (1556-98)

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Still life with Asparagus, Artichokes, Lemons and Cherries – Blas de Ledesma

Blas de Ledesma is a fairly unknown artist. He is thought to have worked in Granada and designed a fresco for the Alhambra. More than one still-life has been identified as his, suggesting Ledesma prefered this genre of painting.

The title, Still life with Asparagus, Artichokes, Lemons and Cherries, sums up what can be seen in the painting. The woven basket in the centre was a common feature in the still-lifes attributed to Ledesma. The fruit and vegetables are arranged almost symmetrically, with geometric precision, which makes the basket appear to be floating slightly above the table. Nonetheless, all the objects are realistically detailed, particularly the lemons, which, at a glance, appear photographic.

These twenty-five paintings are not only the best in The Bowes Museum but they also demonstrate the wide scope that the term “fine art” covers. As a result, it is difficult to give a precise definition of the term. It encompasses religious paintings, mythological scenes, portraits, landscapes and still life. There is no particular style; realism, renaissance, mannerism, impressionism, rococo and so forth all fall under the fine art umbrella.

There are so many examples of fine art in existence that it is impossible to list the best. The Bowes Museum have only looked at the paintings in their collection and the results of the top twenty-five are a matter of personal opinion. The museum has also listed their top ceramics, furniture, silver, fashion and textiles, and archaeology.

The Bowes Museum is usually open from 10 am to 5 pm every day. An adult ticket at £14 provides unlimited access for a year.

Developing Selfies

Since 2013, the word “selfie” has been included in dictionaries as an official word. Statistics claim 93 million selfies are taken every day, usually on smartphones, and uploaded on social media. Access to smartphones with front-facing cameras has allowed everyone to participate in this “selfie culture”, and the ability to filter or edit the photographs has encouraged people to express a different version of themselves.

Some may say selfies are a part of a self-obsessed culture, however, the concept dates back centuries, particularly in the form of self-expression. Google Arts & Culture have produced an online exhibition to explore How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie. There is evidence of “selfies” throughout all times and cultures, which has helped us learn about how people once looked, or at least how they perceived themselves, what they wore, how they lived and so forth.

It was not until the mid-15th century, the Early Renaissance, that self-portraits became a trend. Portraits were common, however, artists mostly painted other people, usually on commission. The increase in self-portraits coincided with the availability of mirrors. Once expensive, mirrors were becoming cheaper and easier to get hold of, allowing even the poorest of painters to study their appearance.

The Early Renaissance also saw a change in painting technique. Before then, most paintings were done on walls and ceilings of buildings, but in the 15th century, the technique of panel painting began. Artists could now complete the artwork in their studio on wooden boards, which would later be positioned on the client’s walls. This also meant artists had access to surfaces on which they could experiment and produce work that they could later sell without a particular client in mind.

Artists were now freer to produce paintings for themselves as well as for their clients. With mirrors by their easels, many took the opportunity to depict themselves as the main subject. For some, this was a means of practising facial expressions, painting techniques and so forth, whereas, for others, it was a chance to express their personality, reveal who they were inside and demonstrate what they thought of their physical appearance.

Google Arts & Culture searched through several museums and galleries to find the best examples of self-portraits or “selfies” that also pinpoint the changes in style and the development of technology over time.

Rembrandt (1606-69)

When looking at the history of self-portraits, there is no better place to start than with Rembrandt, who produced nearly 100 self-portraits. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch painter whose works depict a wide range of subject matter, such as landscapes, allegorical scenes, historical scenes, biblical and mythological themes, portraits and, of course, self-portraits. The latter are amongst his greatest triumphs and form a visual biography of his life, which was marked by youthful success and later financial hardship.

Of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, at least 40 are paintings and the rest etchings or drawings. These made up around 10% of Rembrandt’s artwork and were produced over forty years. As a result, Rembrandt documented his ageing process and he encouraged his students to make copies of the paintings to practice drawing people of different ages.

Rembrandt’s etchings and drawings are usually more playful than his paintings and were probably not intended for public consumption. These sketches often depict the artist pulling a silly face, as though he was practising drawing different facial expressions. Rembrandt also drew himself in fancy dress, often in clothes from previous centuries.

The oil paintings are more formal than Rembrandt’s drawings, although there is one of Rembrandt laughing, which dates to around 1628 when Rembrandt was in his early twenties. Rembrandt’s style of painting remains consistent from the beginning of his career, when he was an ambitious young man, to the rugged face of his final years. Rembrandt’s final self-portraits usually included his signature velvet beret.

At the height of his career, Rembrandt’s self-portraits depicted him as a fashionable man, often wearing a hat. Similar to his etchings and drawings, Rembrandt occasionally painted himself in fancy dress, however, the quality of the oil painting suggests they were serious pieces of work and not experiments for fun. Several times, Rembrandt painted himself as a character from the Bible, for instance, the Apostle Paul and the Prodigal Son. He also depicted himself as Zeuxis, a Greek painter from the 5th century BC who supposedly died from laughter.

Rembrandt sat in front of a mirror when painting his self-portraits, therefore, the paintings are a reverse of his actual features. As a result, his etchings, which print a mirror image of the original sketch, reveal him in the correct orientation. Rembrandt did not usually include his hands in his paintings, for he realised they would be on the “wrong” side, for instance, his paintbrush would appear to be in his less dominant hand.

Frida Kahlo (1907-54)

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for her bold coloured self-portraits. Similar to Rembrandt, they document her life, however, her style is very different, often crossing the border into surrealism. Kahlo’s life experiences were the inspiration for the majority of her paintings, 55 of which were self-portraits. Kahlo was keen to depict her indigenous Mexican culture in her paintings but, most importantly, she wanted to demonstrate her physical and mental pain.

As a child, Kahlo had suffered from polio, which she fought to overcome so that she could earn a place at medical school. Unfortunately, at 18 years old, Kahlo was involved in a bus accident that, whilst she was lucky to survive, left her with medical problems that would cause her pain for the rest of her life. Whilst lying in bed for three months after the accident, Kahlo occupied herself by painting. She had no formal art training but her early paintings suggest she drew inspiration from European Renaissance painters before developing her recognisable style.

Kahlo’s surreal self-portrait The Broken Column, reveals the devastation to her body caused by the crash. Kahlo painted herself semi-nude with a large crack from chin to hips through which can be seen her crumbling spine. The bus crash had left Kahlo with several spinal fractures, a broken collarbone and ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a shattered pelvis and a broken foot. Although this painting was produced almost two decades after the accident, Kahlo was still feeling the effects and had a total of 30 operations in her lifetime.

The Broken Column shows Kahlo’s body held together by a corset, which was something she needed to wear for most of her life to protect her damaged spine. Her skin is pierced by dozens of nails, indicating her constant pain. Although her facial expression is devoid of emotion, there are tears on her cheeks to indicate the pain and frustration she felt inside, and yet she stares resolutely ahead, having accepted her situation and determined not to let it stop her from living.

For Kahlo, self-portraits were a method of self-expression, initially helping her deal with the aftermath of the bus crash and later her unhappy marriage to Diego Rivera (1886-1957). They were also a way to connect with her Mexican heritage, which was gradually disappearing as Central America became more westernised. Kahlo usually portrayed herself in traditional Mexican clothing, often with Pre-Columbian ornaments in the background. She also included her pet monkey in a few self-portraits. Monkeys are a symbol of lust in Mexican mythology, and Kahlo and her husband had several affairs during their marriage. Although Kahlo did own a monkey, its appearance in her paintings may have been an allusion to her turbulent relationship with Rivera. Alternatively, the monkey, usually shown with an arm or tail around Kahlo’s shoulders, may represent the monkey’s desire to protect its owner.

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41)

Amrita Sher-Gil, like Kahlo, explored her heritage in her artwork. Born in Hungary, Sher-Gil was the daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and a Persian Sikh aristocrat. As a child, Sher-Gil liked to paint the servants in her household but did not receive any formal training until the age of eight, by which time the family had moved to India.

At the age of 16, Sher-Gil returned to Europe to train as a painter in Paris. Her early works reveal she was significantly influenced by Western art, particularly Impressionism. She drew inspiration from European artists, such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), especially the latter’s depiction of non-western women.

During her time in Paris, Sher-Gil produced several self-portraits, which were later described by the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi as the artist’s way of capturing “her many moods – sombre, pensive, and joyous – while revealing a narcissistic streak in her personality.” Yet, whilst these paintings reflected Western art, her professors remarked that the richness of colours she used was more fitting with the atmosphere in the east. Despite being half-Hungarian, Sher-Gil found herself longing to return to her Indian roots.

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Village Scene, 1938

In 1936, Sher-Gil returned to India where she made a conscious effort to adopt the style of classical Indian art. Her subject matter reflected the traditional colourful clothing and the rhythms of rural life. She also depicted some of the poverty and despair she witnessed, which was a stark contrast to life in Europe. Her painting style became flatter and smoother the further away she went from Western art.

There are very few self-portraits in Sher-Gil’s later style as she prefered to paint the poor, deprived people of India. Unfortunately, her artistic career was cut short at the age of 28 when she fell ill, eventually slipping into a coma. She passed away on 5th December 1941, possibly from peritonitis, just days away from her first major solo show.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

“Rembrandt is with the possible exception of Van Gogh, the only artist who has made the self-portrait a major means of artistic self-expression, and he is absolutely the one who has turned self-portraiture into an autobiography.”
– Kenneth Clark, An Introduction to Rembrandt

Like Sher-Gil, Vincent Van Gogh died before he had the opportunity to earn significant recognition in the art world. Amongst his 2,100 artworks, 860 of which were oil paintings, Van Gogh created more than 43 self-portraits. Struggling financially for most of his life, Van Gogh could not afford to hire models, therefore, with the help of a mirror, he painted himself.

“If I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.” Suffering from depression for most of his life, Van Gogh had a very low opinion of himself and this quote from a letter written by the artist suggests he practised his technique by creating self-portraits until he felt he was good enough to paint other people.

Whilst living in Paris in 1887, Van Gogh became aware of impressionist artists, for instance, Claude Monet (1840-1926), and their method of applying dabs of paint to the canvas. It was around this time that Van Gogh began using rhythmic brushstrokes, introducing different pigments to highlight the contours of his facial features.

Unintentionally, Van Gogh’s self-portraits provide an autobiography of his mental and physical condition. In earlier paintings, Van Gogh had a fuller face but, as he approached the end of his life, his face became more skeletal with sunken eyes and cheeks, the latter indicating he may have lost some teeth. His brief “good” periods are determined by his choice of clothing and the neatness of his beard and hair. During his “bad” periods, Van Gogh tended to neglect his appearance.

Self-portraits in which Van Gogh’s head is bandaged were produced soon after he had mutilated his ear in 1888. Those painted after this event show Van Gogh from the right, hiding his damaged left ear from view.

Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998)

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Self-Portrait

After looking at Van Gogh, the Google Arts and Culture exhibition returns to the 20th century, during which Kahlo and Sher-Gil were both working. Although she only produced one notable self-portrait, Loïs Mailou Jones has been included because she too explored her heritage in her artwork. Unlike Kahlo and Sher-Gil, Jones did not experience her true ancestry until much later in life, yet this did not stop her looking towards Africa and the Caribbean for inspiration.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1905, Jones was the daughter of the first African-American to earn a law degree. Her mother, a cosmetologist, encouraged Jones to draw and paint during her childhood, which led to a lengthy education at a series of art schools. In 1945, Jones eventually received a BA in art education from Howard University, a historically black university, although she had previously earnt a degree in design.

Jones began teaching art before she had completed her degree but this did not prevent her from producing many artworks. Paintings titled Negro Youth and Ascent of Ethiopia contain African design elements, such as those found on African masks. Her work gradually became associated with the Harlem Renaissance, which was known as the New Negro Movement at the time.

In 1940, after spending some time in Paris during which she continued to represent African life in her art, Jones produced her self-portrait. Whilst she wears typical western clothing, the figures in the background are associated with African ceremonies. Although the French were appreciative of her paintings, Jones was not accepted in national galleries and competitions in America on account of her skin colour.

Jones married a Haitian artist in 1953 and began to spend her time between America, Haiti and France. Elements of Haitian culture crept into her artwork and her paintings became more abstract. Finally, in between 1968 and 1970, Jones was able to visit Africa where she interviewed contemporary African artists in Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Zaire, Nigeria, Dahomey, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leona, and Senegal.

It is partially Jones’ determination to portray her African heritage in her art that she has paintings in museums all over America. Rather than be deterred by racism, Jones fought to prove that black artists had talent and deserved to be known as American painters with no other labels attached. By her death in 1998, Jones had earned six honorary doctorates, won at least 13 awards and been honoured by President Jimmy Carter (b.1924) at the White House. In 1984, 29th July was declared Loïs Jones Day.

Victor Brecheret (1894-1955)

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Self-Portrait

A self-portrait does not need to be a painting or drawing, as evidenced by the Italian-Brazilian sculptor Victor Brecheret. Like Jones, Brecheret made only one known self-portrait but was keen to reference his native country.

Originally born in Italy, Brecheret spent most of his life in São Paulo, except for a brief period studying in Paris. His European modernist education is evident in his work but his human characteristics and forms were inspired by Brazilian folk art.

Many of Brecheret’s sculptures are of biblical or mythological characters, which appear similar to European sculptures until the face is studied more closely. The nose and eyebrows, as can be seen in his self-portrait, are sharp and precise with clean lines, unlike the soft features of classical sculptures. The nose, in particular, appears flat on top, although remains proportionally correct.

Albert Tucker (1914-99), Cindy Sherman (b.1954), Sarah Lucas (b.1962)

It was during the 20th century that having your portrait done changed meaning from painting to photography. Australian artist Albert Tucker, whilst better known for his paintings, demonstrates an early “selfie” taken in a mirror. Although it captures two people, only Tucker appears to be posing for the camera. The woman in the photograph was his first wife Joy Hester (1920-60) who was also an artist.

Whether Tucker’s photograph was spontaneous or staged is uncertain, however, one woman who goes to great lengths to stage her self-portraits is Cindy Sherman, an artist from New Jersey, America. Sherman’s work is exclusively photographic self-portraits, although you would not always know that it was her in the picture. Exploring the idea of identity, Sherman dresses up as characters from film, magazines, television and art history. Quite often she challenges stereotypes, particularly concerning women, and brings into question how much a self-portrait can be trusted.

Sarah Lucas, who is also concerned about the casual misogyny of everyday life, is more down to earth with her photography. Between 1990 and 1998, Lucas produced 12 photographic self-portraits that challenged the stereotypical representation of gender and sexuality. Perceiving her appearance as more masculine than feminine, Lucas dressed in “manly” clothing whilst staring directly at the camera, and thus the viewer, as though challenging them to question her appearance. She often used food to symbolise sexual body parts, such as fried eggs for breasts in Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, which draws attention to her gender.

Amalia Ulman (b.1989)

Whilst the “camera never lies” the subjects, filters and editing do. To emphasise this, Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman came up with an idea for a photography project called Excellence and Perfections, which she posted on a fake Instagram account. Ulman initially posed as an aspiring actress, which attracted a lot of attention, causing her follower account to soar. Many people posted messages of encouragement but soon became concerned when the photographs took a drastic turn.

Ulman made people believe she had flown to LA to pursue her dreams, she photographed herself in trendy clothing, taking pole-dancing classes, relaxing in posh hotels and eating expensive meals. Her appearance began to change; she dyed her hair, looked increasingly tired, and to top it off, pretended to have breast augmentation surgery.

When Ulman revealed the Instagram account was a hoax, her followers reacted in two different ways. Many were relieved that Ulman had not drastically changed her appearance and ruined her life, whereas others were so hooked on the story they wanted to continue to believe it was real.

Excellence and Perfections drew attention to how desperate people were to believe their first impressions. Media in the 21st century is inundated with edited images that trick people into believing what they are seeing. Photographs in newspapers are often taken from angles that tell a different story from the truth and other photographs are posed by heavily made-up models and celebrities. The same goes for selfies; how many people use photo filters, wear make-up or pose a certain way to conform to society’s beauty standards?

This brings into question the authenticity of painted portraits. Did Rembrandt really look the way he did in his self-portraits? We know he painted himself as biblical characters, which in some ways is similar to Ulman posing as an aspiring actress. Photographs of Frida Kahlo reveal she looked similar to her self-portraits but her art style, particularly her surrealist paintings, are not realistic. The same can be said for Van Gogh, Loïs Mailou Jones and Amrita Sher-Gil.

Sherman, Lucas and Ulman demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate your appearance in a photograph or selfie and, in this day and age, people can easily edit other people’s photographs. Yet, just because people are more likely to believe a photograph, does not mean people cannot embrace “selfies” as an art medium.

How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie provides a brief timeline of the selfie, revealing that artists have altered their appearances or included symbols and hidden meanings in their self-portraits for centuries. Is there much difference between Ulman pretending to be an actress and Rembrandt pretending to be the Apostle Paul? To argue against that is to bring into question what is art. But that is a discussion for another time…

Following the Stars

Stars, very large balls of bright glowing light that appear tiny when viewed from earth, have fascinated humans for millenniums. An online exhibition provided by the National Gallery takes a look at the ways stars are portrayed in art. Star Trail traces the stars from one painting to another in the National Gallery Collection, pointing out the stars illuminating the night sky but also revealing them in less obvious places.

As well as being natural phenomena, stars hold meanings for different cultures, religions, mythologies and individuals. For some, a star is a sign from God, for example, the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to the baby Jesus. In Judaism, the six-pointed Star of David is an important symbol and a similar star is found in Hinduism.

A star’s meaning can alter depending on whether it is static or moving. Shooting stars are often symbolic, the most common being the opportunity to make a wish. Once again, different cultures have various ways of interpreting these so-called miracles (meteors to the scientifically minded). For some, a shooting star is a sign that you are close to your destiny but in Asia, they are considered a bad omen. For the Greeks, these stars symbolise the raising or lowering of human spirits, whereas, in some branches of Christianity and Judaism, they are believed to be falling angels.

Typically, stars carry positive meanings. They often represent hope, faith and new beginnings and artists throughout time have depicted them as objects of wonder. Just as there are hundreds of meanings, there are several ways of drawing and painting stars to signify their importance.

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The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea – Duccio

Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319), the Tuscan painter, chose to use real gold to represent stars and heaven in the altarpiece The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea. This portable altarpiece may have been commissioned by Cardinal Niccolò da Prato (d.1321), who was both a Dominican Friar and the Cardinal of Ostia. This would explain the saints on the wings of the triptych: Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea of Ostia.

In the tympanum above the central panel are seven figures who have been identified as Old Testament prophets: Daniel, Moses, Isaiah, David, Abraham, Jacob and Jeremiah. They stand above a portrait of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, which is where Duccio has placed two stars; one on Mary’s shoulder and the other on the hood of her shawl. Duccio mixed gold leaf into his paint to draw these stars on top of the rich, blue egg tempera. The background of the entire wooden altarpiece was also painted in gold to represent the importance of heaven.

The famous English Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) took a completely different approach to depict stars. The evening star is barely visible in Turner’s painting of the same name. It is the merest speck of yellow paint towards the top of the canvas. If it were not for the reflection of the star’s light in the sea, the star would go unnoticed.

The evening star is an incorrect term because, whilst it may take on the appearance of a star, it is actually sunlight reflecting off another planet, usually Venus, although Mercury, Mars and Jupiter can also cause this phenomenon. Turner was particularly interested in transitional moments such as the evening and morning star, which are the same “star” but appear at different times depending on Earth’s proximity to the sun.

The Evening Star was painted at dusk rather than night because, once the moon had risen, the star would no longer be the brightest thing in the sky. As can be inferred from Turner’s painting, the star is barely discernible in the early evening, therefore, it would be almost impossible to see in the competing glow of the moon.

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The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger

Studying the night sky, or stargazing has been a popular pastime for centuries. Long before humans understood what they were seeing, astronomers, astrologers and scientists were producing maps of the night sky, pinpointing the individual stars they spotted, first with the naked eye and later with a telescope. It was through these studies that the Earth was eventually proved to be round rather than flat plus not the centre of the universe as previously thought.

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As well as maps, astronomers produced globes showing the stars that could be seen from Earth at different times of the day. One of these celestial globes can be seen in Hans Holbein the Younger‘s (1497-1543) painting The Ambassadors. Similar to Duccio’s painting, the stars appear to be painted in gold paint, making them stand out from the blue background of the globe.

The painting, produced during the same year that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was born is a double portrait of two men. The identity of the men has been under debate for centuries but the most accepted identification of the man on the left is Jean de Dinteville (1504-55), a French diplomat. He may also be the person who commissioned the painting, particularly as he appears to be the grander of the two men. De Dinteville’s motto was Memento mori, meaning “Remember thou shalt die,” and there are several references to death in the painting. One is the anomorphistic skull at the bottom of the painting, which must be viewed from the side to be seen properly. Another is the crucifix in the upper left-hand corner.

The man on the right is believed to be Georges de Selve (1508-41). He would have been 25 when he sat for the painting and had just been appointed Bishop of Lavau in France. This explains his clergyman vestments and the other religious symbols in the painting, including the crucifix and Lutheran hymnal.

There is no written evidence that De Dinteville and De Selve were interested in the stars, however, the objects in the painting suggest they were involved with science. As well as a celestial globe there is a terrestrial globe, a sundial, a shepherd’s dial, a quadrant for measuring angles, and a medieval astronomical instrument known as a torquetum. It is possible De Dinteville and De Selve, or their associates, were among some of the earliest people to discover scientific truths about the universe.

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Bacchus and Ariadne – Titian

Before humans understood the science behind the stars, they often featured in myths and legends. In Greek and Roman mythology, constellations were often linked to particular gods or goddesses, as were the planets.

The constellation Corona Borealis features in the top left-hand corner of an oil painting by Titian (1488-1576). Bacchus and Ariadne was produced for Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara (1476-1534) and is considered to be one of Titian’s greatest works.

Ariadne was a Cretan princess who had been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by her lover Theseus. The Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek) discovered Ariadne on the island whilst leading a procession of partygoers in a chariot drawn by two cheetahs. In the painting, Bacchus is either in mid-leap from the chariot to save Ariadne, or Bacchus has just thrown Ariadne’s crown into the sky where it transforms into the Corona Borealis, also known as the Northern Crown.

There is more than one story that explains the Northern Crown constellation. The first, which is presumably being shown in Titian’s painting, is that Bacchus throws the crown into the sky. The other, claims Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne and promised her the whole sky. He then raised her into the heavens where she became the constellation.

The Corona Borealis is one of many constellations that can be found in mythology. Others include Andromeda, Aquarius, Cassiopeia, Orion and Pegasus.

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The Origin of the Milky Way – Tintoretto

As well as the individual stars and constellations, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had a story to explain the existence of the Milky Way.

The story, which is shown in The Origin of the Milky Way by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94), involves Jupiter’s desire for his son Hercules to be immortalised. Hercules was the son of Alcmene, a mortal, therefore he could never be fully immortal unless he had been nursed by a goddess. Jupiter’s wife Juno refused to nurse a child that was not hers, especially the son of her unfaithful husband, however, whilst she was asleep, Jupiter held Hercules up to Juno’s breast so that he could drink her milk. At that moment, Juno awoke and milk spurted upwards into the sky, forming the Milky Way. The milk droplets that fell to earth became white lilies.

Instead of depicting milk, Tintoretto represented the beginnings of the Milky Way with ten shooting stars. The original painting also showed lilies forming on the ground, however, about a third of the canvas was cut off at the beginning of the 18th century.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Gossaert

Of all the different genres of paintings, the one where you are guaranteed to find stars or at least a star are scenes of the Nativity. According to the Gospel of Matthew, wise men or magi followed a star from the East, which led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem. Paintings of this nature are often called The Adoration of the Kings or The Adoration of the Magi.

Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was one of many artists to depict this biblical scene. Mary, dressed in blue, sits with the Christ-child in the ruins of a building, receiving a gift from one of the “kings”. The Bible never mentioned the visitors were kings and nor did they have names. Art historians, however, have given this figure the traditional name Caspar. Melchior stands to the right of Caspar and Balthazar to the left. Alongside the “kings” are several exotically dressed attendants and more can be seen approaching in the distance.

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Floating above the scene are angels and right at the top, slightly dwarfed by everything else in the painting, is the Star of Bethlehem. The entire composition was painted on oak panels that when pieced together measured 177.2 cm (69.8 in) by 161.8 cm (63.7 in), and the star does not take up much space at all. Nonetheless, when studied closely, Gossaert’s precise brushstrokes and painstaking detail emphasise the importance of this star. Most likely painted in lead-tin-yellow, the star lights up the sky around it, appearing to push the surrounding clouds away so that it can shine over the Christ-child.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Carlo Dolci

The star is much more prominent in the Baroque painter, Carlo Dolci’s (1616-86) version of the subject. This highly finished picture contains fewer people than Gossaert included, keeping the focus on the three “kings” in opulent robes as they kneel before Mary and the Christ-child. Although their gifts look important and expensive, they are executed in paint, whereas the haloes over Mary and Joseph and the light surrounding Jesus’ head was painted in gold.

Although the figures and their robes were painted in rich colours, the Star of Bethlehem outshines them all. The star’s light bursts forth from the clouds above, making it the brightest part of the painting. When looking at the composition as a whole, the eye is constantly drawn upwards to the star, which some see as a symbol of God looking down on his precious son.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Filippino Lippi

In contrast to the previous two paintings, Filippino Lippi’s (1457-1504) version contains a less obvious star, fading in the light of the daytime sky. Probably due to the star mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel, artists tended to portray the visit of the magi at night rather than during the day.

Another difference between Lippi’s version and the traditional version is the landscape. The Holy Family sit in the ruins of a building in a rocky landscape. They have very little shelter and there appear to be no other establishments nearby. As well as the “kings” and their retinue, there are several saints hidden in the background. These have been identified as Mary Magdalene, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome and Augustine. There is also a representation of the Archangel Raphael and Tobias.

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The way Lippi chose to portray the star is very different from the previous two examples. To begin with, it appears much lower in the sky, floating above the Holy Family. Rather than a solid or compact star, it resembles a firework. Lines of golden light appear to be shooting in all directions, some landing within touching distance of the figures below. Yet, this slightly faded star does not make it seem less important than other versions. The explosion of light beams emphasises God’s magnificent power that, although it is not easy to see in the daylight, is always there.

Lippi’s painting was the last to feature in the National Gallery’s Star Trail. The handful of paintings they looked at revealed that stars have been important in science, mythology and religion. Of course, there are so many more examples of stars in the National Gallery and other locations. Each artwork demonstrates one method of representing stars. Some artists opt for a five-pointed star, whereas others choose a greater number. Alternatively, a star can be represented by a ball of light or the smallest of dots, as Turner chose.

Vincent van Gogh‘s (1853-90) Starry Night and Starry Night over the Rhône are perfect examples of alternative ways to paint stars. As an impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s stars are less precise with no clear outlines. They are made from swirls or dabs of yellow paint and yet, everyone knows they are stars.

The National Gallery’s online exhibition Star Trail provides a new and interesting way of looking at art. Sometimes a painting has so much going on that it is impossible to appreciate every detail. Also, when walking around a crowded gallery, it is not always possible to pay the artworks the attention they deserve. Looking for stars, or any other object, helps people to understand the artwork and the artist. By first studying how the star is depicted, it is then possible to step back and admire how it interacts with the rest of the scene.

Challenge: next time you visit a gallery, look out for stars in paintings. Until then, enjoy looking at them online.