Discover Eva Gonzalès

Until 15th January 2023, the National Gallery is devoting a small exhibition to the Portrait of Eva Gonzalès by Édouard Manet (1832-83). Unlike other works by Manet, this painting took a long time to complete and lacked his usual spontaneity. It took Manet 40 attempts to paint Gonzalès’ face, and x-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning reveals the artist reworked the background several times. Whilst the in-depth study of the painting has provided a detailed account of Manet’s process, the sitter is of equal interest. Eva Gonzalès was a French Impressionist painter who started receiving tuition from Manet in 1869 at the age of 20. Successful female painters were not abundant at the time, and there was the misconception that women could only paint things like flowers and lacked the ability to tackle more complicated subjects. Eva Gonzalès proved everyone wrong.

Gonzalès was born in Paris on 19th April 1849, where she grew up in sophisticated literary circles. Her father, Emmanuel Gonzalès (1815-87), served as the president of the Société des gens de lettres de France (Society of People of Letters of France), which many notable writers attended, such as Victor Hugo (1802-85), George Sand (1804-76) and Alexandre Dumas (1802-70). Exposed to new ideas about art and literature at a young age, Gonzalès desired to become an artist, so she started receiving lessons from Charles Chaplin (1825-91), a French landscape and portrait painter.

Most French art schools did not admit women until the end of the 19th century, so many studied at home or in private studios. In 1853, Chaplin opened a women-only studio; and in 1868, the Academie Julian opened its doors to both men and women. For the first time, women were allowed to study from the life model (i.e. nude), despite the opinion that it was inappropriate and morally damaging for ladies. Despite this, women could only exhibit paintings deemed “feminine” at public exhibitions. Nor could they attend discussions with fellow (male) artists to learn about modern art subjects without a chaperone, meaning access to some of the art world remained denied to women.

In 1869, Gonzalès met Manet, who was initially hesitant to discuss his work due to receiving poor reviews at exhibitions. Over time, Manet began to come out of his shell and took Gonzalès on as his only formal pupil. Manet started his portrait of Gonzalès in 1869, eventually finishing it for the Paris Salon in 1870. Unfortunately, it overshadowed all the paintings Gonzalès submitted that year. Instead, critics assumed Gonzalès was a young, decorative model rather than an artist. Manet positioned her at an easel, painting a still-life of flowers, befitting the ideals of a female artist. In reality, Gonzalès had never produced a still life at that time, preferring to paint portraits.

Eventually, the Salon began to take Gonzalès’ work seriously. Whilst Manet developed a brighter, more fluid painting style, Gonzalès stuck to neutral colours and attention to detail. Critics often referred to Gonzalès’ “feminine technique”, but this changed after producing Une loge aux Théâtre Italiens (1874), which they described as full of “masculine vigour”. Unfortunately, this led several people to assume Manet had produced the painting. 

Although Gonzalès is categorised as an Impressionist artist, she never exhibited her work at the Impressionist exhibitions. Whether this was a personal choice or the advice of her tutor, Manet, who did not exhibit with the Impressionist either, is uncertain. Rather than making visible brushstrokes and the focusing on the effects of light in her paintings, Gonzalès concentrated on exploring her identity and moving away from the woman Manet portrayed in Portrait of Eva Gonzalès.

In 1879, Gonzalès married Henri Guérard (1846-97), a French graphic artist who worked for Manet as an engraver. Gonzalès frequently used her husband as a model in her paintings, such as The Donkey Ride (1880), which also features Gonzalès’ sister, Jeanne. Whilst this painting is unfinished, it reveals Gonzalès’s technique of hatching in the landscape with long strokes in the style of many Impressionist artists. By contrast, Jeanne’s face and blue dress are smoothly painted and evenly worked, suggesting the outcome would have looked very different when completed.

Jeanne posed more frequently than Gonzalès’s other models. In 1872, Gonzalès produced her first major work, Indolence, featuring her younger sister looking out of an open window. The French novelist and critic Émile Zola (1840-1902) commented on the nostalgic mood, likening Jeanne to “a virgin fallen from a stained-glass window.” The painting style reflects Gonzalès’ first art teacher’s tuition, but elements of Impressionism are evident in the quick brushstrokes used to form the edges of the curtain and the small bunch of blue flowers on the window sill. The ambivalent expression on Jeanne’s face is also something Gonzalès picked up from Manet.

Gonzalès painted Jeanne almost every day in a variety of guises. Shortly after Gonzalès’ marriage, she dressed her sister in her wedding gown and produced a pastel drawing for the 1880 Salon. The dynamic hatching, likely influenced by Manet, was praised by critics despite the previous thinking that the medium was unsuitable for the “delicate touch” of female artists.

Entitled The Bride, the pastel drawing was strangely prophetic. At the end of April 1883, Gonzalès gave birth to a son, Jean Raimond. A day or so after the birth, Gonzalès learnt Manet had passed away on 30th April. On 6th May, Gonzalès followed suit, passing away due to childbirth complications. She was only 34 years old. The pastel drawing of The Bride was discovered amongst Gonzalès’ personal belongings after her death. Her husband kept the painting and later married Gonzalès sister, Jeanne.

Over time, the French government purchased Gonzalès’ paintings for public galleries, although some were sold to private collectors. During her short life, Gonzalès started making a name for herself across France, Belgium and England, where her paintings were featured in the newspaper L’Art. Unfortunately, as a woman, she received less attention than her male contemporaries and her work was gradually forgotten.

Due to the hindrance placed on female artists, Gonzalès’ most common themes were portraits and domestic scenes of women and children. Whilst she produced a few landscapes, she could not wander the streets like male Impressionists, seeking out locations to paint. Some of Gonzalès’ outdoor scenes were likely staged, such as Nanny and Child (1877-78), which she painted in Dieppe, a city on the coast of Normandy that she frequently visited. The nanny takes centre stage, blocking the only exit from the garden so the child cannot escape. The painting received mixed reviews, with some saying the image of the nanny was too flat, almost like a Japanese print. Others praised the artwork for the same reason, particularly Impressionists, who frequently imitated Japanese prints in their work.

Under Manet’s tuition, Gonzalès experimented with many Impressionist techniques as she gradually developed her own style. Awakening Woman depicts her sister, Jeanne, lying in bed in the soft light of the morning. The contours of the model’s nightgown and the bed sheets almost blend into one expanse of white. Gonzalès cropped the image to focus on the upper body of her sister rather than the entire room. Other Impressionists also used this “snapshot” technique to create a sense of capturing a brief moment of someone’s life, as a camera might do.

Gonzalès’ later works show she detached herself from the Realist style of Charles Chaplin. She also began to separate from Manet’s techniques, gradually absorbing the sketchy painting style of other Impressionist artists. Whilst Luncheon on the Grass (1882) remains unfinished, the manner of painting is very different from her unfinished The Donkey Ride from two years previously. Rather than hatching in the background, Gonzalès wielded her paintbrush more like a pastel crayon, filling in areas with blocks or scribbles of colour.

Similar to Awakening Woman, Gonzalès cropped the scene to focus on one attendee of the Luncheon on the Grass. As usual, the model is her sister Jeanne, who holds a red fan, suggesting it is a hot day. With her elbow resting on a wooden chair, it is unknown whether Jeanne is alone, deep in thought, or if others are out of shot. If the latter, the cropping of the picture makes Jeanne appear isolated, as though she feels out of place in the company of others.

Since her death, Gonzalès’ work has been featured at the Salons de La Vie Moderne (1885), the Salon d’Automne (1907), and several galleries in Paris. The Musée National des Beaux-Arts in Monte Carlo also held an exhibition in 1952. Since then, her paintings have been mostly forgotten until now. The National Gallery goes into great depth about Manet’s Portrait of Eva Gonzalès, going as far as to show x-ray images of the painting. Whilst it is the main feature of the exhibition, the portrait allows the gallery to explore some of the works of Eva Gonzalès, including Une loge aux Théâtre ItaliensThe Donkey RideIndolence and The Bride. The exhibition also features a handful of other female artists who proved women were not restricted to “feminine” themes. Artists include Ellen Sharples (1793-1838), Gwen John (1876-1939), Milly Childers (1866-1922) and Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807).

Discover Manet & Eva Gonzalès is open until 15th January 2023 at the National Gallery in London. Admission is free.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Advertisement

Fly In League With The Night

Cut short in 2020 due to lockdown, Tate Britain’s exhibition Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night has returned to the gallery for a final three months after touring internationally. Open to the public until 26th February 2023, the exhibition showcases Yiadom-Boakye‘s cryptic portraits of fictitious people with poetic titles, which leave the viewer desperately trying to understand her intentions. Without explanatory labels, visitors are invited to interpret the paintings in relation to themselves and their circumstances. Yiadom-Boakye is both an artist and a writer who writes “about the things I can’t paint and paint the things I can’t write about.” The exhibition is the first to celebrate Yiadom-Boakye’s work in depth, spanning from her graduation from the Royal Academy Schools in 2003 until her recent work of 2020.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born in 1977 in London to Ghanaian parents who moved to the UK to work for the NHS. She studied art at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design but disliked the teaching, so she transferred to Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall, where she graduated in 2000. Following this, she studied for a master’s degree at the Royal Academy Schools, which she achieved in 2003.

Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), a Nigerian art critic, gave Yiadom-Boakye her big break by exhibiting her work at Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. The museum is devoted to artists of African descent. In 2013, Yiadom-Boakye received a nomination for the Turner Prize, along with Laure Prouvost, who won; Tino Sehgal; and David Shrigley. Yiadom-Boakye received the nomination for her portrait paintings of imaginary subjects at her first solo exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, London.

In 2019, Yiadom-Boakye was featured on Powerlist’s top 100 influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in the United Kingdom. The following year, she reached number 9 on the list, below the likes of the grime artist Stormzy and Jacky Wright, the vice president of Microsoft US. Although she earned the accolade for her artwork, Yiadom-Boakye describes herself as a writer of short stories and poems, yet she continues to excel at painting. In 2018, she became the first woman of colour awarded the Carnegie Prize for art.

Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are predominantly figurative, featuring imaginary Black subjects in front of ambiguous backgrounds of monochromatic dark hues. She does not use models but often takes inspiration from scrapbooks and magazines or relies on her imagination. The figures tend to have contemplative facial expressions and relaxed postures, to which many viewers may relate. The more curious may wonder what the people are thinking, but no explanation is forthcoming.

In an interview, Yiadom-Boakye stated, “People ask me, ‘Who are they, where are they?’ What they should be asking is ‘what’ are they?” She deliberately makes her figures hard to place in time and location, giving them a sense of timelessness. The clothing rarely features anything cultural or time-specific, and Yiadom-Boakye prefers to paint her figures without shoes to avoid tying them to a particular era. By avoiding this, Yiadom-Boakye allows people to relate to the paintings regardless of their backgrounds.

Given Yiadom-Boakye’s Ghanaian ancestry, it is no surprise that she only paints Black figures. She had no ulterior motive for this, but when questioned, explained that she wants Black society to “exist unto itself” rather than in relation to White people and racial hardships. “I’ve never felt the need to explain its presence in the work any more than I’ve felt the need to explain my presence in the world.”

Rather than taking inspiration from other visual artists, Yiadom-Boakye turns to music and literature. Tate Britain includes several examples of literature and songs that have influenced Yiadom-Boakye, including Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome by Oscar Wilde. Her favourite music artists include Prince, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, James Brown and John Coltrane.

Listening to jazz music inspires Yiadom-Boakye to improvise, as many musicians do, but to also follow a plan. Rather than painstakingly agonising over elements of a painting that is not going right, Yiadom-Boakye changes track and creates something new. Using her imagination rather than drawing from life allows her to alter things during the painting process. An image of two figures may become one, and an outdoor setting may be moved inside.

Authors and literature do not necessarily inspire Yiadom-Boakye’s visual artwork but influence her choice of titles. During an interview with American curator Antwaun SargentYiadom-Boakye revealed, “There were certain references from literature that stuck with me, and made me think differently about language in relation to imagery. So the titles have never been descriptive; they’re never explanations of the paintings – they’re always another brush mark, a part of the painting, rather than a description of it.” While painting, a certain image, shade of colour, facial expression and so forth often triggers a remembered phrase or book title, which Yiadom-Boakye uses or adapts for the title.

The subtitle for the exhibition at Tate Britain also has no bearing on the artwork. Fly In League With The Night is a phrase from a poem by Yiadom-Boakye. It is quoted on the wall outside the entrance:
At Ease As The Day Breaks Beside Its Erasure 
And At Pains To Temper The Light 
At Liberty Like The Owl When The Need Comes Knocking 
To Fly In League With The Night 

Yiadom-Boakye prefers to focus on fictional people and settings because it gives her more control over the outcome. Art schools teach students to draw from life, but Yiadom-Boakye struggled to capture the essence of the models. Whilst paintings of her friends and family look accurate, they fail to reveal the individuals’ personalities. Using her imagination, Yiadom-Boakye is not under pressure to depict exact likenesses and personas. A relaxed figure may become pensive during the painting process, yet this does not ruin the portrait because there is no “right” way to portray imaginary people.

“Although they are not real I think of them as people known to me. They are imbued with a power of their own; they have a resonance – something emphatic and other-worldly. I admire them for their strength, their moral fibre. If they are pathetic, they don’t survive; if I feel sorry for someone, I get rid of them. I don’t like to paint victims.”

Photographs and magazines often inspire Yiadom-Boakye’s work, but she never paints from only one image. By keeping a scrapbook, Yiadom-Boakye combines elements in her artwork, almost like a collage, to create imaginary scenes. Whilst her figures are recognisably human, she does not paint famous faces or give away a person’s station in life. She wants Black people to exist without labels and without being compared to White people. Racial relations of the past, particularly in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, imply “you’re a goddess or a slave”, whereas most people are neither.

The way the paintings hang at an exhibition is another important factor of Yiadom-Boakye’s work. She worked with Tate Britain to decide where and how to display each image. Yiadom-Boakye paints with the canvas at eye level, so it makes sense to hang them at the same height. In some instances, the figures look directly at the viewer. In others, they peer at the painting next to them or across the room. Although each painting is an individual work of art, placing them next to or in the same room as other examples alters people’s interpretations.

Many of Yiadom-Boakye’s earlier works feature her signature dark colour palette, which evokes a sense of stillness. The plain backgrounds draw attention to the ahistorical fictional characters, who often appear alone on the canvas. In more recent works, Yiadom-Boakye has introduced more than one character into her imaginary scenes and has started to experiment with colour.

Speaking to The Guardian, Yiadom-Boakye said, “In the last few years, I’ve become obsessed with colour, too. My pictures used to be very dark, but now I’m putting in vivid reds and greens.” Yiadom-Boakye stuck to dark colours for so long because she felt confident in her ability to use them in her paintings. Introducing colour was initially a step out of her comfort zone, but now it is something she embraces.

Yiadom-Boakye has not hung her paintings chronologically, so each room has a mix of old and new artworks. Rather than separating the dark from the colourful styles, she encourages them to speak to each other through careful placing in the gallery. Instead of learning about the artist, visitors attend the exhibition to appreciate the paintings and Yiadom-Boakye’s artistic skills.

Although Yiadom-Boakye is a relatively new artist, she has inspired some artistic circles. In 2020, the Yale Center for British Art celebrated Women’s History Month, which featured a portrait of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye by the American artist Kehinde Wiley. Originally painted in 2017, the gallery installed it in place of a Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Lord Pulteney (1729-1805), who made his fortune in the Caribbean using slave labour. Wiley’s painting depicts Yiadom-Boakye in the guise of a rich, landowning, eighteenth-century white man. The artist aimed to subvert the norms of Western portraiture by placing Black figures in historical spaces.

Wiley’s painting differs from the way Yiadom-Boakye depicts Black figures. Rather than producing ahistorical portraits, he has deliberately placed Yiadom-Boakye in a time and place where it would have been impossible for a Black person to be a rich landowner. Wiley is drawing attention to the inequalities of the past and making people aware that the people depicted by famous artists of the past achieved their status by means that would be unacceptable in the 21st century.

Yiadom-Boakye, on the other hand, does not paint to make people question the past or draw attention to inequalities. She does not want to focus on how Black people were deemed different from White people. Instead, Yiadom-Boakye moves the attention away from racism and paints how she sees Black people: ordinary individuals.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night is open until 26th February 2023 at Tate Britain. Tickets cost £16. Concessions are available.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Making Modernism: Paula Modersohn-Becker

Until 12th February 2023, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the work of seven female artists who achieved success between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. These women (Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter, Marianne Werefkin, Ottilie Reylaender, Erma Bossi and Jacoba van Heemskerck) worked during a time the role of women in society was under fierce public debate. Women’s suffrage movements were prevalent in many countries, but other communities, particularly in Germany, believed women should dedicate themselves to the three Ks: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church).

The exhibition, Making Modernism, reveals women were excluded from art colleges, resulting in the establishment of “Ladies’ Academies” by the Association of Women Artists. Rural artists’ colonies also supported female artists, introducing them to Post-Impressionism and Expressionism. The seven artists included in the RA’s exhibition never joined a particular art movement, allowing them the freedom to develop their own style and create or break the rules, which many of their male counterparts could not do without upsetting or causing a stir among critics. 

Set up by theme rather than artist, the exhibition explores the types of work the seven female artists produced: portraits, children, landscapes, still-life etc. Whilst this is useful in some respects, it is harder to appreciate each artist individually. So, this blog post is the first in a series that looks at each woman’s life and successes, giving them the full attention they deserve.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)

“The intensity with which a subject is grasped – still lives, portraits, or pictures from one’s imagination – is the beauty of art.”

Recognised as the first known female painter to paint nude self-portraits and the first woman to have a museum devoted exclusively to her art (the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum), Paula Modersohn-Becker was a German Expressionist painter. During her relatively short life, she produced 700 paintings and over 1000 drawings.

Born Minna Hermine Paula Becker on 8th February 1876 in Dresden-Friedrichstadt, Modersohn-Becker was the third child of the university professor Carl Woldemar Becker (1841–1901) and Mathilde (1852–1926) of the aristocratic von Bültzingslöwen family. Her parents raised Paula and her six siblings in a cultured and intellectual environment, evidently having high hopes for their future. Unfortunately, the children’s prospects were limited after their uncle, Oskar Becker (1839-68), shot King Wilhelm of Prussia in the neck in a failed assassination attempt in 1861.

In 1888, the Becker family moved to Bremen, where they interacted with local artistic circles. Encouraged by this, Modersohn-Becker started learning to draw, saying, “At first, I shall only be drawing, beginning with very simple arabesques and other designs. If I progress, then I shall make charcoal sketches after Greek plaster casts … If I advanced further, I shall begin drawing and painting from live models.” After attending private art lessons in Bremen, Modersohn-Becker’s parents sent her to relatives in England in 1892 to help her learn English. While there, Modersohn-Becker attended St John’s Wood Art School in London.

Returning to Bremen in 1893, Modersohn-Becker and two sisters attended a teacher’s seminary per their father’s wishes. During her spare time, Modersohn-Becker received painting lessons from Bernhard Wiegandt, a local artist, and set up an art studio at her parents’ house. Although Modersohn-Becker passed her teaching course, it was evident that she had no intention of continuing down that career path. Instead, she travelled to Berlin in 1896 to participate in a six-week art course run by the Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen.

After completing the art course, Modersohn-Becker chose to remain in Berlin, where she enrolled in the first-ever painting class held at the Women’s Academy. She eventually returned to Bremen in 1898 but convinced her parents to allow her to attend another art course, this time at the artists’ colony in Worpswede. The colony consisted of artists who rejected traditional styles of art taught at academies. Under Fritz Mackensen’s (1866-1953) tutelage, Modersohn-Becker produced landscapes, focusing on colours, tones and textures. Unfortunately, Modersohn-Becker often received criticism from her tutor, who complained she let herself “into the foreground too much” rather than copying directly from nature.

Modersohn-Becker exhibited two paintings with the Worpswede group in the Bremen Kunsthalle in 1899, but they were removed after the hysterical critic, Arthur Fitger, protested the inclusion of female artists. At the time, Modersohn-Becker believed Fitger hated her paintings, which did not completely conform with the colony’s romanticized traditions of landscape painting. After this incident, Modersohn-Becker chose to move to Paris, where attitudes towards art were less restricted than in Bremen.

Modersohn-Becker arrived in Paris in 1900 and began studying at the Académie Colarossi. She frequently visited museums, where she felt inspired by the colourful paintings of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and members of Les Nabis, such as Pierre Bonnard and Félix Vallotton, who bridged the gap between Impressionism and Modernism. She noted these artists used simplistic or symbolic forms rather than true-to-life figures and natural colours. “Strive for the greatest simplicity by means of the most intimate observation.”

During Modersohn-Becker’s first year in Paris, the 1900 Paris Exposition celebrated the achievements of the past century by exhibiting the achievements and cultures of fifty-six countries. People travelled far and wide to attend the world fair, including artists from the Worpswede group. Modersohn-Becker knew one man, Otto Modersohn (1865-1943), from his occasional visits to the colony. Although he was married, the pair became close friends and met in Paris. Unfortunately, Modersohn’s trip to the city was cut short after receiving news that his wife, Helene, had passed away.

Despite her parent’s opposition, Modersohn-Becker followed Modersohn back to Worpswede, where they married in May 1901 after a short courtship. Modersohn-Becker wished to continue working as an artist but had to combine this with her responsibilities as a wife and a stepmother to Modersohn’s young daughter, Elsbeth. During the first couple of years of marriage, Modersohn-Becker managed to set up a studio on a nearby farm, where she completed several paintings of children. Some of these artworks, such as Girl in the Garden Next to a Glass Sphere (1901-2), may be portraits of her stepdaughter.

In 1903, Modersohn-Becker and her husband visited Paris for a couple of months. Modersohn-Becker used this time to visit art galleries and other artists, such as Auguste Rodin, Bonnard and Vallotton, who were starting to embrace Japanese styles. Modersohn-Becker returned to Paris alone in 1905, acknowledging that her husband did not find modern art appealing. She began taking drawing lessons at the Julian Academy but soon realised her style clashed with what the school taught.

After returning to Worpswede, Modersohn-Becker began to focus on still life, producing almost 50 scenes in two years. Some of her earlier paintings in this genre differ from her usual style. It is as though she attempted to copy the methods taught at the schools in Paris. Modersohn-Becker quickly rejected the realistic appearance in preference of bold colours and simplistic shapes. She also continued to paint portraits in this manner.

For most of 1906, Modersohn-Becker and her husband lived apart. Modersohn-Becker rented a studio on Avenue du Maine, Paris, near her friend Clara Westhoff, who was married to the writer Rainer Maria Rilke. Modersohn-Becker and Westhoff met at the colony in Worpswede and remained close friends. Modersohn-Becker was also good friends with Rilke, often writing to him from Worpswede. In February 1906, she wrote to Rilke about the difficulties she faced as a married artist. “And now, I don’t even know how I should sign my name, I’m not Modersohn and I’m not Paula Becker anymore either.”

Letters from Modersohn-Becker to her husband suggested she considered ending their marriage, asking him to “try to get used to the possibility of the thought that our lives can go separate ways”. During her separation from her husband, Modersohn-Becker accomplished some of her most distinctive works, including nude self-portraits, which were an atypical and shocking theme for a female artist. Critics label Modersohn-Becker’s nudes as unconventional because they express ambivalence toward the subject.

While in France, Modersohn-Becker declared in a letter to her sister, “I am becoming somebody – I’m living the most intensively happy period of my life.” Yet, she chose to return to her husband despite her yearning for independence. Modersohn-Becker’s journals and correspondence reveal she never stopped loving Modersohn but feared settling down and becoming a mother. She wanted to have a successful career by the age of 30 before thinking about having children.

Modersohn-Becker returned to Worpswede at the beginning of 1907. Now age 30, she felt able to settle down and start a family. During her pregnancy, Modersohn-Becker painted another nude self-portrait, making her the first known woman to paint herself nude, the first woman to paint herself pregnant, and the first woman to paint herself nude and pregnant. As far as art historians know, Modersohn-Becker never exhibited these paintings during her lifetime, perhaps out of fear of causing a scandal.

On 2nd November 1907, Modersohn-Becker gave birth to a girl, Mathilde (Tillie). Although overjoyed with her daughter, Modersohn-Becker felt unwell after the delivery, complaining of pains in her legs. The doctor prescribed a period of bed rest, as was the norm at that time. The doctor returned on 20th November to suggest she try to rise from her bed. Modersohn-Becker only managed to take a few steps before sitting down due to excruciating pain in her legs. She died shortly after asking for her daughter.

Today, physicians suspect Modersohn-Becker suffered from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is common in women told to rest for a long time after giving birth. At the time, doctors did not understand the risk of blood clots due to long periods of inactivity. When Modersohn-Becker rose from her bed for the first time, she loosened a clot in her leg, which caused her death when it obstructed a vital organ.

After Modersohn-Becker’s funeral at the Worpswede Cemetery, Rilke wrote the poem Requiem for a Friend in her memory. “Oh you were far beyond all fame; were almost invisible; had withdrawn your beauty, softly, as one would lower a brightly coloured flag on the grey morning after a holiday. You had just one desire: a year’s long work — which was never finished; was somehow never finished.” Friends and artists held exhibitions of Modersohn-Becker’s work, which brought her the fame she never achieved while alive. Collectors started to buy her paintings, and ten years after her death held a large exhibition at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover and published a collection of her letters and journals.

In 1927, art patron Ludwig Roselius (1874-1943) opened the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, the first museum devoted to a female artist. It is situated in a purpose-built Brick Expressionist building, which became a listed building in 1973. The museum contains paintings from all periods of Modersohn-Becker’s life. In 1935, local Nazi members attacked some of the artwork and museum, and the following year, Adolf Hitler denounced Modersohn-Becker’s paintings as degenerate, stating they were “A revolting mixture of colours, of idiotic figures, of sick children, degenerates, the dregs of humanity.”

Seventy of Modersohn-Becker’s paintings were removed from museums and/or destroyed by the Nazi party. Fortunately, Modersohn-Becker was a prolific artist, so only a 10th of her artwork disappeared during this period. At least 50 paintings belonged to her daughter, Mathilde Modersohn, who donated them to the Paula Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung (Paula Modersohn-Becker Foundation), founded in 1978.

In 2007, Modersohn-Becker’s parent’s house in Bremen opened as a private museum and art gallery. The project, run by Heinz and Betty Thies, began in 2003 when they purchased and restored the run-down house. The museum opened in time to honour the 100th anniversary of Modersohn-Becker’s death.

Visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition may not have heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker, but she has inspired several artists and is remembered in her home country. One biographer suggests Modersohn-Becker’s artwork inspired a couple of paintings by Pablo Picasso. Whether or not this is true, she certainly held enough influence to become one of the women on the Deutsche Bundespost‘s series of Women in German History postage stamps. Her life is also immortalised in the 2016 German bio-pic film, Paula, and fictionalised in Sue Hubbard’s 2012 novel, Girl in White.

Francesca Wade, writing for the Royal Academy magazine, describes Modersohn-Becker as “harnessing her emotional turmoil to create forceful self-portraits and a series of remarkable paintings of women – pregnant, breastfeeding, ageing.” Nowadays, having seen the likes of Lucian Freud and Paula Rego, Modersohn-Becker’s paintings are not as shocking as they were at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, the uniqueness of Modersohn-Becker’s work gets lost in a sea of Modern, Post-Modern and contemporary art, but in her lifetime, she was something new and daring. Modersohn-Becker paved the way for female artists to paint what and how they liked, whether naked self-portraits, pregnancy, breastfeeding women, landscapes or portraits. Regardless of personal aesthetic preferences, Paula Modersohn-Becker is an artist that needs to be included in galleries and exhibitions because she is a turning point in the history of art in a misogynistic world.

Paula Modersohn-Becker is one of seven artists featured in Making Modenism at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The exhibition is open until 12th February 2023 and tickets cost up to £19. Concessions are available, including free entry for Friends of the RA.

To be continued…


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Winslow Homer

For the first time, the National Gallery in London displays a selection of works by American artist Winslow Homer. Known in the United States for his depiction of leading issues of the 19th century, such as the Civil War and racism, Homer remained popular in America for many years after his death. Although he briefly stayed in England, Homer did not attain the same popularity in the United Kingdom. The exhibition, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, provides the opportunity for people to discover the paintings that Americans have loved for over a century.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 24th February 1836, Winslow Homer grew up in a middle-class family consisting of two parents and two brothers. His father, Charles Savage Homer, was a businessman, constantly seeking out “get-rich-quick” schemes that never came to fruition. Charles eventually left his family to seek his nonexistent fortune in Europe. Homer’s mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, taught her son to paint with watercolour and encouraged his interest in art. Despite his father’s selfish money-making endeavours, Charles found an apprenticeship for his son with the lithographer J. H. Bufford, who introduced Homer to the world of engraving and illustration.

Homer found work with Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular middle-class magazines in New York City. Whilst Homer turned down a permanent position on the magazine’s staff, he worked as a freelancer from his studio in Boston, producing drawings to illustrate articles on various subjects. Homer also attended classes at the National Academy of Design in New York to expand his artistic horizons. By the time the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Homer was an established illustrator and an up-and-coming oil and watercolour painter.

The Civil War became the focus of most American magazines, so Harper’s Weekly sent Homer to the Union Army Front in Virginia to draw illustrations. The artists covering the war were the 19th-century equivalent of sending photographers and news reporters. The work was dangerous and exhausting for Homer, but he produced some of the most powerful images of the Civil War. Several of these he reproduced as oil paintings, such as Sharpshooter (1863), which depicts a Union rifleman sitting in a tree, aiming at an unseen target in the distance. Homer said the scene was as close to murder as anything he had ever seen, and he frequently questioned the morals and human stakes of the war.

Homer believed the most powerful images derived from focusing on specific details. He said, “When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway.” Homer did not draw what he wanted people to see but instead painted what he could see, whether boredom and hunger or terror and violence. Although he did not physically fight during the Civil War, Homer likely suffered emotionally and psychologically after witnessing the horrors of battle. When he returned home, his mother noted he had changed so much that not even his best friends recognised him.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the country entered a period of reconstruction. With the abolishment of slavery, African Americans became free citizens and received, to some extent, the same civil rights as their former masters. Homer spent some time in the southern states, where slavery was once prevalent, and soon realised that the Civil War had not solved America’s problems. He noted that reconstruction was not working and began depicting post-war African American life in his paintings.

In A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876), Homer demonstrated the new social relationships between former slave and mistress. The African American women in the painting were once the property of the stern white woman, but now they are her employees. Rather than working for nothing, they are paid for their work, which means they must pay for their board and lodgings. Former slaves received very little money for their work, which meant they remained in slave-like conditions because they could not afford to move away.

The silent, sad girls in The Cotton Pickers (1876) are no longer slaves, but their workload has not changed. They picked cotton before the war and are still picking cotton afterwards. Whilst Homer’s beautiful depiction of the cotton fields makes the painting pleasant to look at, it is full of deeper meaning. Homer never explained his artwork, but the lack of joy on the figures’ faces suggests their lives have not changed since the abolition of slavery. Former slaves still lived in a deeply racist world where the rise of white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan, found alternative ways of policing African Americans. Shortly after the completion of this painting, Jim Crow laws were implemented, which enforced racial segregation in society.

In 1881, Homer moved to England for a couple of years. Initially, he travelled to London, but after a week, he moved to Cullercoats, a fishing village in what was once Northumberland (now Tyne and Wear). Homer became a part of the Cullercoats Artist Colony, who frequently painted the “Cullercoats Fish Lasses” going about their work. These women, some as young as 14, worked in all weathers, cleaning fish and mending nets. Many of these workers carried their babies and children on their backs while they worked despite the bracing strong and bitter winds. When they were not working, the women frequently stood at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their husbands, fathers and brothers.

During the 19th century, the life of a fisherman was dangerous. There was no guarantee that the men would return safely to shore. Drownings and shipwrecks were a daily occurrence, and Homer spent much of his time in Cullercoats recording and observing the perils at sea.

During Homer’s time in Cullercoats, a large ship called the Iron Crown foundered at the mouth of the River Tyne on 20th October 1881. The villagers raised the alarm and everyone, including Homer, rushed to the shore to begin rescue operations. While the more skilled men sailed out in lifeboats, Homer documented the event on paper with quick sketches, which he later developed into dramatic oil paintings.

Homer returned to the United States in 1882 and began demonstrating his skills in watercolours as well as oils. After spending a few months in New York, Homer settled in Prouts Neck, Maine, a small coastal town that reminded him of Cullercoats. Whilst the elemental, austere location gave Homer lots of inspiration for his paintings, he began to travel south during the winter because the warmer climate was better for his health. He visited places such as Florida, the Bahamas, Barbados and Bermuda and observed the various ways of life. Many of these works featured bright colours, reflecting the sundrenched scenes and different cultures.

Although Homer produced more watercolour paintings in his later years, he continued to work in oils for larger, dramatic scenes. His trips to Florida and the Caribbean involved crossing the Gulf Stream, a warm, swift current in the Atlantic Ocean. He chose to paint an imagined scene depicting a lone black sailor in a state of peril. Before producing The Gulf Stream (1899), Homer created several watercolours representing the different parts of the sailor’s journey. For his oil painting, Homer chose to surround the boat with sharks while the sailor lies defeated on the deck with only several stalks of sugar cane to sustain him.

Many people have tried to interpret what Homer was trying to say in his painting of The Gulf Stream. Although people frequently asked Homer to elaborate, he always refused. Some suggest the sugar cane is an allegory for the fate of African Americans because it was once a predominant product of enslaved labour in the Americas and West Indies. Others are more concerned about the man’s fate, noting both the presence of the frenzy of sharks in the foreground and the silhouette of a ship in the background. Contemporary critics comment on its relevance to today’s society, particularly in relation to migrants crossing the Mediterranean and the migration of Cubans to America, many of whom lost their lives in the attempt.

By the end of Homer’s life, he was one of the most famous living American artists, but he did not reach financial stability until 1900 at the age of 64. The money he received from museums for his paintings was relatively good, and his father’s death two years before meant Homer no longer needed to pay for his father’s care.

For the final decade of his life, Homer continued producing watercolours and oils, but he turned his attention to nature, from which no hidden messages can be subtracted. Homer once told an art student, “Leave rocks for your old age – they’re easy.” Following his own advice, Homer focused on rocks upon the shore, rarely including signs of human life.

Homer’s final oil painting, Driftwood (1909), included a lone figure in the bottom right corner, once again prompting people to question the meaning of his work. The rest of the painting is similar to Homer’s other scenes from this era, which focus on the violent sea crashing over rocks. The man is attempting to move a large piece of driftwood, a task that seems futile as the crashing waves approach. Some have interpreted the figure as Homer facing his impending death. Whether or not Homer knew he was dying, he passed away the following year at the age of 74.

Most artists experience a decline in popularity after their death, but Homer has remained popular in the United States. Homer never taught in schools, but many students chose to study his work, both before and after his death. Homer did not offer much advice about painting techniques but encouraged artists to “Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.”

Homer continued to inspire and influence Americans throughout the 20th century. In 1962, the US Post Office honoured Homer with a commemorative stamp. The image showed a copy of the painting Breezing Up, which Homer painted between 1873 and 1876. It depicts a relatively calmer sea than in his later works. In 2010, the Post Office produced another stamp featuring another of Homer’s paintings. It was printed as part of a series of “American Treasures”.

Newspapers during the 1890s called Homer “Yankee Robinson Crusoe, cloistered on his art island” and “a hermit with a brush”. Homer never married and spent most of his time alone. In 1909, he declined an invitation to spend Thanksgiving with his brother because he preferred to stay home and paint. Due to his reclusive nature, very little is known about Homer as a person. The subject matters of his paintings suggest he liked nature and the outdoors, particularly by the sea. Earlier works indicated which side he supported during the Civil War and how he felt about the treatment of African Americans, but none of these interpretations are fully reliable. Despite Homer’s prolific output and popularity, the man remains a mystery.

Unlike artists of the Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age and other European eras, Homer’s popularity did not spread outside of his home country. Other Americans, such as Andy Warhol, became known for their controversial topics and styles, while Homer’s powerful paintings were overlooked. The National Gallery, with support from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is finally introducing the UK to this phenomenal artist. With 50 paintings on display, Winslow Homer becomes the next artist in the gallery’s attempt to introduce major American artists to a European audience. Previous artists in the programme have included Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.

Winslow Homer: Force of Nature is open until 8th January 2023. The standard admission price is £12, although some concessions are available. Tickets must be booked in advance.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

An American Colourist

Until 16th October 2022, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the works of Milton Avery, one of North America’s greatest 20th-century colourists. Milton Avery: American Colourist is the first ever exhibition of Avery’s artwork on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Falling between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, Avery’s work is full of carefully balanced colour, which became more harmonious and simplified as his career progressed.

Milton Clark Avery was born on 27th March 1885 in Altmar, New York to Esther March (d. 1926) and Russell Avery (d. 1905). His father was a tanner, and the family moved around a bit until they settled near Hartford, Connecticut. Avery attended school until age 16, after which he started working at the Hartford Machine and Screw Company. Four years later, Avery enrolled in an evening class at the Connecticut League of Art Students to learn “commercial lettering”. He hoped this would improve his job prospects, but part way into the course, he transferred to drawing classes and dedicated the rest of his life to art.

Avery’s early works, dating between 1910 and 1918, reveal the influence of American Impressionist painters, who produced impasto paintings of landscapes. Gradually, Avery began using thinner paint, making his paintings flatter and less natural. He also started using arbitrary colours, often creating a distorted reality. As he moved away from Impressionism, Avery stopped painting from life, preferring to make quick sketches on-site and return to his studio to recreate them in oil paint.

From 1920, Avery started spending his summers in the art colony of Gloucester in Massachusetts. Despite his aspirations to be an artist, Avery took on other jobs, such as construction work, to pay for his tuition. Avery could finally focus on his painting after meeting the illustrator Sally Michel (1902-2003) at the art colony in 1924. Two years later, Avery and Sally married and moved to a studio complex in New York. While Sally worked as an illustrator for the New York Times, Avery devoted himself to painting and studying the arts.

During the late 1920s, Avery began exhibiting his work, starting with the 11th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1927. After attending several shows, the Philips Memorial Gallery purchased Winter Riders, the first of his paintings bought by a museum. The art style shows Avery was beginning to move away from Impressionism, although he still used some techniques, such as layering thick paint to create a sense of texture.

Avery and Sally continued to spend their summers in Gloucester until the birth of their daughter March in 1932. During the summer months, Avery sketched and painted beach scenes, but around the time of his daughter’s birth, he began experimenting with cityscapes too. At this stage of his career, Avery’s paintings still contained a lot of energy, such as Chariot Race (1933). The carnival scene is a stark contrast to Avery’s other landscapes, which have the typical layout of a foreground, middle ground, background and horizon.

After settling in New York with his wife and daughter, Avery became part of the artistic community in the city. He joined the Valentine Gallery and held his first solo exhibition in 1935. The attention he received from this and other small exhibitions helped widen his friendship circle, which included the artists Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74). The Averys hosted many friends and acquaintances at their apartment, where they discussed art and read poetry.

Rothko and Gottlieb visited Avery daily, paying great interest in Avery’s work. Known for his prolificness, Avery often completed a painting every day, which inspired his fellow artists. Despite his popularity, Avery did not talk much during gatherings, preferring to sit, listen and sketch the surroundings. Many of the objects he drew ended up in future paintings, as did portraits of the people in the room.

Avery’s early portraits, such as March in Babushka (1940), which depicts his daughter wearing a headscarf, became less detailed than his earlier landscapes. Despite winning a prize for portraiture in 1919, Avery did not produce many portraits in his early years. After the birth of his daughter, he moved away from landscape to focus on portraits of people within cityscapes. This change also signalled a new approach to colour and form, which he simplified and stripped of any layers or sentiment. Yet, in 1947, Avery held his first retrospective exhibition titled My Daughter March, which emphasised his love for his family.

During the 1940s, Avery stopped creating formal portraits but continued to include human figures in his work. Most of these figures lost any distinguishing features, such as the faceless girl in Seated Girl With Dog (1944), whose face is split between light and shadow with two contrasting colours. Avery no longer used the colours of nature, instead experimenting with various hues and tones. By thinning the paint, Avery covered large areas of the canvas with a single colour, focusing on the shape rather than perspective. He used the tone of colour to determine the atmosphere of the scene rather than rely on intricate details.

Avery’s change of style in the 1940s established him as one of America’s leading colourists. In hindsight, he greatly influenced the next generation of artists, who moved on to Abstract Expressionism and other forms of modern art. Avery revealed the possibilities of colour, particularly non-associative or unnatural tones, in scenes of everyday life.

Toward the end of the 1940s, Avery’s health began deteriorating, and doctors advised him to slow down and stay home. Avery did not follow medical advice and suffered a major heart attack in January 1949. After a six-week hospital stay and months of recuperating at home, Avery returned to the art scene with an exhibition at the newly founded Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York.

In 1952, Avery took his first and only trip to Europe with his family. They visited France and the United Kingdom, documenting his journey through sketches. Many of these drawings made their way into his paintings, such as Excursion on the Thames (1953). Avery sat on the steps of the Tate Gallery (Britain) to make the preliminary drawings for this painting. When speaking about his visit, Avery said, “I was visiting the Tate museum and got tired and went outside for a few minutes and saw this excursion boat and made this small sketch, and when I got back to New York City I painted a big canvas from it.”

With March now a young woman, Avery and his wife felt able to accept invitations to undertake summer residences, such as at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1957, Avery spent the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he began creating large-scale paintings. The larger the canvas, the less detail Avery included. Instead, he focused on bold colours to draw people’s attention to the artwork. Yet, Avery still depicted some form of scene rather than a random pattern.

During the winter of 1959, Avery and Sally travelled to Key West, Florida, where the warmer climate was better for Avery’s health. During their stay, Avery completed several simplified beach scenes, such as Boathouse by the Sea (1959). Using only four colours, orange, blue, yellow and black, Avery created a sense of depth and perspective, although some people may need to know the title before the scene becomes clear. The large black portion of the painting represents the roof of the boathouse, presumably viewed from above by the artist. The yellow and blue represent the sea, and the orange is the sky. Either Avery intended to depict the sunset, or he used orange to contrast with the colour of the water.

Other seaside scenes feature less conventional colours, such as the pinks in Sails in Sunset Sea (1960). This painting differs from other works because Avery has included squiggly lines to represent the waves or ripples on the water’s surface. The choice of colour may not be as random as it first appears. Capturing only the two sailing boats rather than a larger scene, Avery has focused on the colours of the setting sun on the water. Whilst it may not be one of his better works, Avery’s thought process is still visible.

Avery suffered a second heart attack in 1960 and spent the following year recovering in New York. Most likely against doctors’ orders, he continued to produce paintings. In 1963, Avery was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Members are nominated and elected by peers, making it a great honour to be accepted into the Academy.

On 5th March 1964, Avery, now critically unwell, completed his final painting, Hills and Sunset Sky. The following day, Avery went into intensive care at Montefiore Hospital in New York. He remained there for the rest of the year, eventually passing away on 3rd January 1965 at the age of 75. He was buried in the Artist’s cemetery in Woodstock, New York, and his wife donated all his personal papers to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

“He was, without question, our greatest colourist. … Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect.” So said the art critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) in his 1981 book about Avery. Several artists thought of Avery as an American Matisse due to his colourful compositions, which echoed the works of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Critics initially disliked Avery’s work, claiming it was too abstract, yet when Abstract Expressionism became popular, they said his work was too representational. Due to these opinions, Avery does not belong to a particular art category. Instead, he bridges the gap between two art movements, Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.

Avery was not a rule follower, which allowed him to experiment with his art rather than conform to the accepted standards of the early 20th century. Visitors to the Milton Avery: American Colourist will see the progression of Avery’s work from Impressionism to something not quite Abstract Expressionism. Some will prefer his early paintings and not understand why he altered his style, but others will appreciate his use of colour and his ability to express himself in new ways that inspired a new generation of artists.

Milton Avery: American Colourist is open at the Royal Academy until 16th October 2022. Standard tickets cost £15, although concessions are available. To guarantee entry, booking is recommended.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Walter Sickert

Until 18th September 2022, Tate Britain is exhibiting the works of Walter Sickert, one of Britain’s most influential artists of the 20th century. Taught by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and influenced by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Sickert became a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism. As painting techniques developed in Britain, so did Sickert’s artwork, and he was not afraid to depict the lives of ordinary people and places rather than the idealised scenes of yesteryear.

Walter Richard Sickert was born on 31st May 1860 in Munich, Germany, although neither of his parents were German. His father, Oswald Sickert (1828-85), was a Danish painter of landscapes and genre scenes who travelled to Munich for his studies. Sickert’s mother, Eleanor Louisa Henry, was the daughter of the English astronomer Richard Sheepshanks (1794-1855). Following the German annexation of Schleswig-Holstein when Sickert was eight years old, the family moved to London and obtained British nationality.

Sickert initially attended University College School, an independent school in Hampstead established by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), but transferred to King’s College School in Wimbledon at the age of 11. Despite his father’s artistic influence, Sickert initially pursued a career in acting and joined Sir Henry Irving’s (1838-1905) company. After taking on minor roles in a few productions, Sickert switched to studying art.

After a short attendance at the Slade School of Art in 1882, Sickert left to become a pupil and assistant of James Whistler. Many of Sickert’s early works were influenced by Whistler, particularly the art of painting alla prima (literally “at first attempt“), which meant layering wet paint upon wet paint rather than waiting for individual layers to dry. The technique allowed Sickert to paint from nature and capture images quickly.

Sickert’s painting technique changed after he travelled to France in 1883 and became the mentee of Edgar Degas, who encouraged him to plan his paintings with preliminary drawings. Sickert began using a grid system and leaving layers to dry between coats.

Under Degas’ guidance, Sickert’s paid attention to individual components of a painting, resulting in precise details rather than the blurred outlines of his earlier work. Sickert preferred sombre colours, although Degas tried to persuade him to introduce brighter tones. Sickert’s previous training focused on Impressionism, a style often painted en plein air, but Degas persuaded Sickert to work with drawings and memory in a studio to focus more on the artwork’s details. Sickert took this advice on board, and many of his future works were created in a studio, sometimes using photographs as a reference.

In 1888, Sickert joined the New English Art Club (NEAC), an alternative organisation to the Royal Academy, influenced primarily by French artists. Founded in 1885, the NEAC held annual exhibitions at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. Whilst the Royal Academy preferred traditional painting methods, the NEAC embraced Impressionism and other figurative styles. Ironically, the NEAC continues to exhibit similar artworks at the Mall Galleries, whereas the RA has embraced abstract and conceptual art. Some of the artists belonging to the NEAC included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856-1916), William Orpen (1878-1931), and Neville Bulwer-Lytton (1879-1951).

Inspired by his previous career ambitions, Sickert’s first major works after joining the NEAC focused on the stage, including theatres, music halls, café concerts and the advent of cinema. One example, which Tate Britain used for the exhibition’s promotional material, is Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall (1888-9). Sickert frequently depicted the Old Bedford on Camden High Street in his paintings. In this scene, Sickert captured Hetherington singing The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, a music hall song written in 1885 by George Ware (1829-95).

Sickert also painted other examples of entertainment, including the circus. The Trapeze (1920) depicts an acrobat from the Cirque Rancy preparing to start her performance. Established by Théodore Rancy (1818-92) in the 19th century, the Cirque Rancy was a group of travelling circus acts across France. Still existing today is the Cirque Jules-Verne of Amiens, established in 1889 under the presidency of French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905). Sickert probably experienced the delights of the circus while living in Dieppe.

Other examples of entertainment in Sickert’s artwork include British Pierrots at Brighton, providing tourists with wartime relief, and orchestras performing from the pits of theatres. In the early 20th century, some music halls became early forms of cinemas, such as Middlesex Music Hall on Drury Lane, London. Using projectors and large white sheets or screens, the Old Mogul, as the hall was nicknamed, occasionally played films during their evening schedule. Sickert’s painting Gallery of the Old Mogul (1906) depicts men clambering to see the screen from the gallery. Only a tiny portion of the film is visible in the painting, but art historians believe it was one of the first Westerns ever shown. It could potentially be The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is generally considered the first of the genre.

During the 1880s, Sickert spent a lot of time in the French commune Dieppe on the coast of the English Channel. It is suspected that Sickert kept a mistress in Dieppe and potentially an illegitimate son. Artists at the time were known for having numerous mistresses, but Sickert also had three wives. He married his first wife, Ellen Cobden, in 1885 but divorced her after four years. He married his second wife, Christine Angus, in 1911 and remained with her until she died in 1920. In 1926, Sickert married the artist Thérèse Lessore (1884-1945), with whom he was still married at his death in 1942.

While in Dieppe in the 1880s, Sickert produced landscapes of the streets and buildings, including the church of St Jacques. Inspired by Claude Monet, Sickert painted the same scenes at different times of the day, exploring the effects of daylight on the architecture. In 1902, the owner of L’Hôtel de la Plage commissioned a series of paintings, which included a scene depicting bathers on the nearby beach. For reasons unknown, Bathers, Dieppe was never installed at the hotel. Instead, Sickert exhibited it at the Salon des Indépendants in 1903.

Between 1894 and 1904, Sickert visited Venice several times. During these trips, he focused on painting the city’s topography. He was particularly fascinated with St Mark’s Basilica, which like the church in Dieppe, he painted several times. Due to inclement weather during his last trip, Sickert began painting indoor scenes featuring groups of people. He continued exploring this theme on his return to Britain, using friends, professional models and possibly prostitutes to create tableaux from which to paint.

In the early 20th century, Sickert started painting nudes. Rather than depicting the idealised female body, he painted working-class women in dimly-lit rooms with crumpled bed sheets. Instead of glamorising nudity, Sickert’s artwork suggested poverty. When he first exhibited these paintings in Paris in 1905, they were well-received, but at the British exhibition in 1911, critics objected to the subject matter.

In 1907, Sickert became fascinated with the Camden Town Murder Case. In September of that year, the part-time prostitute Emily Dimmock was murdered in her bed by a client or lover. After having sex, the man slit Dimmock’s throat while she slept. Her body was discovered by her partner and the murder quickly became a press sensation. Causing controversy, Sickert renamed four of his previous nude paintings The Camden Town Murder. Each artwork featured a naked woman and a fully-clothed man, and although there were no signs of violence, the new titles gave the scenes a new interpretation. One painting shows a woman asleep on a bed while a man bows his head in thought. Originally called What Shall We Do for the Rent, the audience perceives the man as worried about money troubles; yet under the title The Camden Town Murder, the man may be psychologically preparing himself for the horrible act.

Shortly before the First World War, Sickert founded the Camden Town Group of British painters, named after the area of London he resided in at the time. Members met regularly at Sickert’s studio and mostly consisted of Post-Impressionist artists, including Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914), and Ethel Sands (1873-1962). The artists were influenced by the work of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who worked in heavy impasto. Sickert’s paintings of nudes are evidence of this style of art.

From 1908 to 1912 and 1915 to 1918, Sickert taught at the Westminster School of Art. The school was originally based in the Deans Yard, but by the time Sickert joined the staff, it had merged with Angela Burdett-Coutts‘s (1814-1906) Westminster Technical Institute in Vincent Square. Between Sickert’s two spells at the school, he established the Rowlandson House in London and another in Manchester. Unfortunately, they closed due to the outbreak of the First World War.

Following the death of his second wife, Sickert spent some time in Dieppe, concentrating once again on buildings and groups of people, particularly in cafes. After returning to England, Sickert became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1924 and married Thérèse Lessore in 1926. Shortly after his marriage, Sickert became unwell, potentially suffering a minor stroke. The illness marked a change in Sickert’s artwork, and he also decided to go by his middle name Richard rather than Walter.

Sickert stopped drawing from life and began painting photographs taken by his wife or those found in newspapers, such as King Edward VIII (1894-1972) arriving at a church service in 1936. Most cameras only captured images in black and white, so the colours in Sickert’s paintings are based on memory or imagination. He used the tonal contrasts in the photograph to determine colour hues and shadow.

Although Sickert only worked from photographs, he continued to receive commissions, such as from Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and his wife Clementine (1885-1977). Sickert met Clementine in Dieppe when she was only 14, where she was struck by Sickert’s handsomeness. Before she could act on her attraction to Sickert, Clementine’s family returned to England, but she remained in touch with Sickert and his family. After introducing Churchill to Sickert, Clementine’s husband commissioned an informal portrait and asked Sickert for advice about painting.

Sickert’s passion for the theatre never left him. Using photographs from newspaper reviews or promotional materials, Sickert painted several actors and scenes from shows. In 1932, Sickert depicted the British actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891-1992) as Isabella of France in the play Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). Sickert included the photograph’s caption La Louvre, meaning “the she-wolf”, which describes the fierce character of King Edward II’s wife.

Other theatre scenes Sickert painted included Edith Evans (1888-1976) as Katherine and Leslie Banks (1890-1952) as Petruchio in William Shakespeare‘s (1564-1616) The Taming of the Shrew. The play opened in London in 1937 at the New Theatre, which is now called the Noël Coward Theatre. Sickert based his painting on a press photograph. He also painted stills from films, such as High Steppers, based on the story of the Tiller Girls dance troupe.

In 1932, Sickert painted Miss Earhart’s Arrival, which shows Amelia Earhart arriving during a thunderstorm near London after flying solo across the Atlantic. Earhart completed her challenge when she landed in Northern Ireland in May 1932, but only a couple of people witnessed it. Sickert’s painting of the press photograph shows crowds of people welcoming the American woman to England the following day. Sickert cropped the image to focus on the people and weather rather than the plane in the background.

During the final decade of Sickert’s life, he relied heavily on assistants, particularly his wife, to help complete his paintings. These paintings included portraits of close friends, such as Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964) and the novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941). Sickert also painted landscapes of Bath, where he and his wife moved at the end of the 1930s. On 22nd January 1942, Sickert passed away at the age of 81 and was buried at the Church of St Nicholas in Bathampton.

Sickert’s art style changed throughout his career. Firstly, he imitated Whistler and Degas before adopting an impasto technique. His final works were smoother but still fell under the Post-Impressionism umbrella. Several people criticised Sickert for using photographs and suggested it showed his decline as an artist. In hindsight, these were some of Sickert’s most forward-looking paintings, which went on to inspire many artists and the Pop Art movement.

Due to Sickert’s fascination with the Camden Town Murder, some people have speculated his connection to Jack the Ripper, who murdered at least five women in London in 1888. Despite evidence suggesting Sickert was in France at the time, several authors named Sickert as a potential culprit. Although Sickert was not in the country, he did find the murders intriguing and painted Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom in 1905. Sickert based the painting on a room he lodged in after the landlady told him her suspicions of a man that stayed there a few years earlier.

In 2002, crime writer Patricia Cornwell (b.1956) adamantly claimed Sickert was Jack the Ripper in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. Years earlier, Stephen Knight (1951-85) suggested Sickert was an accomplice in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), although his sources of research were later discovered to be a hoax. All the information collected by Knight and Cornwell has since been scrutinised, and the consensus is any claim that Sickert was Jack the Ripper is fantasy.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is the first major retrospective of Sickert at Tate Britain in over 60 years. It explores Sickert’s approach to art and his changing styles and subject matter. Although it features The Camden Town Murders series, Tate does not allude to the rumours about Jack the Ripper. The exhibition is a celebration of Sickert’s work and the impact he had on future artists. It also honours the 80th anniversary of the artist’s death.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is open until 18th September 2022. Tickets cost £18 and must be purchased in advance.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

The Painting Demon

Kawanabe Kyōsai may not be as famous as other Japanese artists, but the Royal Academy claims he was one of the most exciting painters from Japan in the 19th century. From 19th March until 19th June 2022, the RA exhibited a large number of Kyōsai’s works belonging to the London-based art collector Israel Goldman (b.1958). Goldman has amassed an impressive collection of over 1,000 pieces of art by Kyōsai, including prints, paintings and sketches, which reveal Kyōsai’s witty imagination and exceptional skill.

Kyōsai was born in Koga in 1831 during the Edo Period. As a child, he studied with the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), who specialised in woodblock printing. Later, he studied at the Kanō school of art, where he gained the nickname “The Painting Demon”. Rather than sticking to the traditional ukiyo-e art, Kyōsai broke away after the Meiji Restoration in 1867 to focus on political caricature, for which he was arrested on three occasions.

Kyōsai demonstrated a lighter, more fluid style of art than most of his contemporary Japanese artists. The traditional painting techniques were reserved for serious subjects, such as literature and religion, whereas Kyōsai’s skill with the paintbrush was more suited to comic pictures. Kyōsai often incorporated serious themes into his work, such as politics, but always managed to introduce humour into the scene. He also adopted Western techniques, including perspective and shading.

In 1881, Kyōsai became famous in Japan after winning a prize for his painting Winter Crow on a Withered Branch at the Domestic Industrial Exposition. Three years later, another painting, Crows on a Withered Branch, won him more prizes. From then on, crows symbolised success for Kyōsai and frequently appeared in his artwork.

A collector purchased Crows on a Withered Branch for 100 yen. To put this into perspective, this was enough money to buy 400 bottles of saké, an alcoholic beverage made of fermented rice. Several of Kyōsai’s crow paintings were sent to Europe, leading to commissions from people all over the world. His crows quickly took on new meaning and symbolised Kyōsai flying across the planet and spreading his reputation.

Ever since his first sketch as a child, Kyōsai’s favourite animal to paint was a frog. The creatures had plenty of comic potential, which Kyōsai used to produce satirical pictures of society. He used frogs to represent the lives of ordinary people, whether they be street performers, postal workers or children. Frog School, painted in the early 1870s, depicts frog students interacting with a frog teacher, who points at a lotus-leaf wallchart. Around the time Kyōsai produced this artwork, a national education system was established in Japan, resulting in the opening of the first public elementary school in 1872.

Kyōsai’s work documented the changes occurring in Japan during the 1860s and 70s. Political turmoil and economic instability led to the collapse of the shogunate and the rise of the Meiji government. Kyōsai depicted the events in his artwork as frog battles, monsters and semi-human characters called tengu. Under the new government, 260 years of isolation ended with the introduction of Western culture into Japan. Kyōsai’s excitement about the new era, which included modern technologies such as trains and the telegraph, is evident in his artwork.

The Meiji government introduced a policy of hiring European and American teachers and specialists to work in the new schools in Japan. Josiah Conder (1852-1920), a British architect, travelled to Japan to become a professor of architecture for the Imperial College of Engineering. Known today as the “father of Japanese modern architecture”, Conder taught many young architects and built several notable buildings, including the Rokumeikan (Banqueting House) and the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo.

Conder met Kyōsai in 1881 when he was accepted as Kyōsai’s pupil. Kyōsai gave him the name Conder Kyōei (ei meaning Britain) and taught him the art of Japanese painting. Whilst he did not excel at painting, Conder remained Kyōsai’s friend and patron. Kyōsai’s initial fame in Europe is largely thanks to Conder sending examples of art home to Britain.

An example of the Western influence on Kyōsai’s work is evident in Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top-Hat with Dancing Monster (1878). Western costumes were becoming all the rage in Japan, and Kyōsai wanted to emphasise that no matter how much people changed their appearance, they remained the same underneath. The skeleton in the painting wears a top hat and black jacket and plays the guitar, which was a relatively new instrument in Japan. Not only does the artwork poke fun at the people adopting the fads and fashions, but it also emphasises that the way people dress does not affect the transience of life. The samurai sword sticking out from behind the skeleton shows that it is impossible to completely escape native cultures.

With Western culture came Western religion, particularly Christianity. Kyōsai painted a picture called Five Holy Men to illustrate the influence the new religions had on traditional Japanese beliefs. Kyōsai included a verse written by the Confucian scholar Tachibana Kirō from the point of view of a Japanese deity, which reads: “While I protect myself, Christ seizes the moment to dance, Shakyamuni and Laozi tune in, and Confucius beats the drum in attack. The world is one great theatre.” At the time of painting, Confucianism was being challenged by modern thinking, and Buddhism was struggling to stop so-called Christian men from exploiting their country.

Despite the influx from the west, Kyōsai continued to satirise the traditions and government in Japan. During the summer, processions of decorated floats filled the city of Edo (now Tokyo). Kyōsai represented this in Cats Pulling a Catfish Float, in which the catfish with its moustache represented the government officials. The cats symbolised geishas and courtesans, who used stringed instruments made from catskin.

Kyōsai’s satirical paintings frequently got him into trouble with the government, as he recorded in his four-volume semi-autobiography Kyōsai gadan (Kyōsai’s Account of Painting). Transcribed by Uryū Masayasu and illustrated by Kyōsai, the book features an account of Kyōsai’s arrest in 1870 after being accused of painting insulting images of high-ranking people. The incident occurred at a shogakai, a commercially organised calligraphy and painting party. 

Shogakai attendees paid a fee to enter the party, after which they could ask any artist to produce work for them at no extra charge. At the gatherings, painters often worked with a calligrapher, who would inscribe a poem on the edge of the artwork. The parties usually involved a lot of alcohol, which in Kyōsai’s case, made him playful and more likely to produce insulting images of the commissioners. When writing about the shogakai, Joseph Conder noted, “Under the influence of Bacchus some of his (Kyōsai) strangest fancies, freshest conceptions and boldest touches were inspired.”

Between 1876 and 1878, Kyōsai collaborated with 54 artists to produce a painting of a shogakai. Kyōsai painted all the figures but left blank scroll papers for other artists to fill in with their artwork or calligraphy. Collaboration was an important component of Japanese art, particularly between teachers and pupils, yet until the 19th century, this was usually a private affair. During Kyōsai’s lifetime, the creative process became public, almost like a performance. Kyōsai became known for his speedy, skilful performances, which became more dramatic the more he drank.

Several of Kyōsai’s satirical artworks contained what is classed as “toilet humour” today. Fart Battle (1881) depicts men passing wind at each other and blowing people and objects away. Whilst Kyōsai painted scenes of this nature because they amused him, the tradition dates back much further. Dating back as far as the 12th century, art historians suspect these “fart battles” illustrated Japan’s xenophobia. For centuries, Japan remained isolated from the world and did not welcome foreigners. Artists satirised the government’s wish to oust Western cultures from the country through the strength of their resources, or in this instance, their bodies.

Kyōsai also included stories in his artwork. Some depicted real events, such as wars, although fought by frogs instead of humans. Others satirised scandals, often painting the government in a negative light. A handful of Kyōsai’s artworks illustrate stories and parables, for instance the ancient Indian story about three blind men describing an elephant. Having never come across an elephant before, the men attempt to describe it by feeling a different part of the animal’s body. Each man only touches one section, such as the side or the tusk, and attempts to describe the elephant’s physical appearance. Kyōsai likened this tale to a group of Blind Connoisseurs commenting on a painting. This theme also mocks critics and judges at official art competitions and exhibitions, whose comments suggest they did not pay much attention to the art they were judging.

Kyōsai also likened art critics and judges to tengu, semi-human supernatural beings with long noses. According to Japanese folklore, tengu were the reincarnated spirits of arrogant people. They had long noses that stuck up in the air. The expression “being a tengu” is the equivalent of being conceited or “sticking your nose up in the air”. Some interpret Kyōsai’s painting Tengu Viewing Art as critics at art competitions looking disdainfully down at the paintings they are supposed to be judging. An alternative interpretation is the tengu are connoisseurs who are proud of their art collection and believe they are more culturally sophisticated than others.

After looking at Kyōsai’s work, it is evident that the majority of his paintings had more than one meaning. Ink Battle, for instance, references a traditional New Year’s party given by the Sōma samurai clan during the Meiji period. Hosts applied ink to the faces of their guests to wish them a happy and healthy year. Rather than depicting the event as a joyous occasion, Kyōsai painted two groups dressed as medieval courtiers and warriors fighting with giant paint brushes and ink. This may allude to the battles between the supporters of the Edo empire and the Meiji government during the 1860s.

Despite satirising the Western world in some of his artworks, Kyōsai embraced European cultures and had many foreign friends. As well as Conder, Kyōsai taught the Anglo-Irish journalist, Francis Brinkley (1841-1912), who wrote several books about Japan, including an English-Japanese Dictionary. Kyōsai also befriended Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938), an Australian-born British painter, who enjoyed watching Kyōsai paint. Speaking of his time in Japan, Menpes recalled, “I never saw such facility in my life … in about seven minutes he had completed a picture, superbly drawn and full of character.”

In 1888, the Japanese art critic Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) and American art historian Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) asked Kyōsai to consider teaching at the Tokyo School of Arts. This prestigious offer indicated the school acknowledged Kyōsai as a legitimate successor of the Kanō tradition. Unfortunately, Kyōsai developed stomach cancer the same year and was unable to take up the offer.

Despite treatment from the German physician Erwin Bälz (1849-1913), Kyōsai passed away on 24th April 1889 at the age of 59. He died at home with Josiah Conder holding his hand. Little is known about his private life, but it is believed he was also surrounded by family and friends. Eighty-eight years after his death, Kyōsai’s granddaughter, Dr Kawanabe Kusumi, opened the Kawanabe Kyōsai Memorial Museum in Saitama, Tokyo, in 1977.

Kyōsai’s reputation quickly dwindled following his death. His artwork did not conform to traditional Japanese standards, nor was it westernised enough to appeal to art collectors in Europe and America. Kyōsai’s drinking habits and prison sentences also diminished his status now that he was no longer around to defend himself. Thanks to Israel Goldman, Kyōsai’s work is gaining recognition and popularity. Contemporary generations look at the paintings from a new perspective and appear amused rather than shocked at their satirical nature. Kyōsai’s style of art also appeals to manga and tattoo artists, who incorporate Japanese and Asian aspects into their designs.

Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection takes place in The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts until 19th June 2022. Tickets are £15 but concessions are available.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Raphael

After delaying its opening due to Covid-19, the National Gallery in London finally opened its doors to The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael on 9th April 2022. Originally intended to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 2020, the exhibition is the first outside of Italy to encompass the entire length of Raphael’s artistic career. Whilst Raphael’s life was short, he was a prolific painter, producing as much work as other painters who lived twice as long. Working across a wide range of media, Raphael produced oil and fresco paintings and designed prints, tapestries, mosaics and sculptures. The extensive exhibition, with loans from the Louvre, Uffizi and Vatican, proves that whilst Raphael passed away at the age of 37, his legacy is immortal.

Although known mononymously as Raphael, the artist’s birth name was Raffaello Santi or Sanzio. He was born in 1483 to Giovanni Santi (1440-94), the court painter of the Duke of Urbino, and Màgia di Battista Ciarla. Unfortunately, Raphael’s mother died when he was only eight years old, and his father followed three years later. For the remainder of Raphael’s childhood, his paternal uncle, a priest called Bartolomeo, served as his formal guardian.

Raphael showed a talent for drawing at a young age and continued his father’s workshop following his death in 1494. Some sources claim Raphael received training from Pietro Perugino (1446-1523), but others maintain Raphael only worked as Perugino’s assistant, from whom he picked up similar artistic traits.

Raphael had a talent for seamlessly combining observation and imagination, which attracted several religious establishments in the Umbrian cities of Città di Castello and Perugia. His first documented commission was for the church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in 1500, after which Raphael worked in numerous churches. In 1503, he painted the Mond Crucifixion, an altarpiece for the church of San Domenico. The main panel depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus against a luminous Umbrian sky. Two angels hover in the sky, collecting Christ’s blood in chalices, while on the ground kneel Mary Magdalene and Saint Jerome. The church had a chapel dedicated to the saint, which is likely why he was included in this composition. Also depicted in the painting are John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who stand slightly behind the kneelers.

From 1504 to 1508, Raphael spent a lot of time in Florence. A letter from the mother of the Duke of Urbino, for whom Raphael’s father once worked, suggests he travelled to the city in search of patrons and customers. The letter reads, “The bearer of this will be found to be Raphael, painter of Urbino, who, being greatly gifted in his profession has determined to spend some time in Florence to study. And because his father was most worthy and I was very attached to him, and the son is a sensible and well-mannered young man, on both accounts, I bear him great love…”

On arrival in Florence, Raphael’s style of art was very much like Perugino’s, but he soon started adopting the manners of other artists, including Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Donatello (1386-1466). (Incidentally, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello are the names of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) One of Raphael’s drawings, potentially a study for a painting that is either lost or never produced, looks remarkably similar to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Raphael’s painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria also bears similarities to Da Vinci’s work.

With her arm resting on the wheel upon which she was tortured, Saint Catherine’s slightly corkscrewed body is an echo of Da Vinci’s lost painting Leda and the Swan. Unlike Leda, Catherine is fully clothed and looks up to the sky in ecstasy. The religious nature of the scene is still reminiscent of Perugino’s work, but the inclusion of other influences shows Raphael was experimenting and developing as an artist.

Raphael’s painting of The Madonna of the Pinks also pays homage to Da Vinci. With similarities to the Benois Madonna, a youthful Virgin Mary sits playing with the Christ child, handing him carnations (pinks). Carnations belong to the dianthus genus, Greek for “flower of God”. In art, these flowers are symbolic of Christ’s Passion, from His entry into Jerusalem to His death and resurrection. Due to the similarities with other artists, scholars only officially identified The Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael in 1991.

During his years in Florence until his first year in Rome in 1508, Raphael painted many Madonnas (depictions of the Virgin and Child). Several were commissioned as large-scale altarpieces for churches, although some were designed for private prayer and devotion. As well as showing great attention to detail, Raphael filled his religious paintings with symbolism and dynamism, which emphasised the importance of the characters.

The Tempi Madonna, so named because Raphael painted it for the Tempi family, depicts Mary’s maternal love for her child. Unlike other Madonnas, which usually hint at Christ’s future through his dramatic poses and behaviour, this painting is more natural. Raphael reveals the emotion, tenderness and absorption of a mother, who holds her son close with her cheek pressed against his. Yet, the baby, Christ, stares into the distance as though contemplating his destiny. Raphael may have taken inspiration for the emotionally charged scene from sculptural reliefs made by Donatello.

A more typical pose of the Christ child is the scene in Raphael’s Alba Madonna, which belonged to the Dukes of Alba in Spain until 1836. As well as Jesus and Mary, the infant John the Baptist joins the scene, holding purple anemones, symbolising Christ’s fate. Other flowers in the painting hold significant meaning, including cyclamen for love and sorrow, and violets for humility. Some scholars surmise the tondo-style artwork was inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

In 1508, Raphael moved to Rome, where he immediately gained two new patrons, Pope Julius II (1443-1513) and the Pope’s principal financial backer, Agostino Chigi (1466-1520). The Sienese banker was allegedly the richest man in Italy and required Raphael to produce frescoes for his villa in the Via della Lungara, now a museum called Villa Farnesina. Chigi also commissioned Raphael to design chapels in two churches, Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo.

While working for Chigi, Raphael also completed many works for Julius II, starting with a fresco in the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace. The Stanza della segnatura (Room of the Signatura), or Stanze for short, and other rooms in the palace are frequently referred to as the “Raphael Rooms” because of the numerous paintings that adorn the walls and ceilings. The majority of the paintings depict religious scenes, such as Cardinal and Theological Virtues, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Deliverance of Saint Peter and The Vision of the Cross. Other scenes captured legendary events, including The Coronation of Charlemagne and The Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

One of the most famous of Raphael’s paintings for the Stanze is The School of Athens, painted between 1509 and 1511. The masterpiece reflects the growing interest in Ancient Greek Philosophy in Rome at the time. Several of the figures in the scene have been identified by art historians, including a self-portrait of Raphael posing as Apelles of Kos, a 4th century BC painter.

In the centre of The School of Athens, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato are seen in conversation. Plato points his hand towards the sky, signalling his idealism and abstract thinking, while Aristotle gestures at the ground, referencing his study of the natural world and human behaviour. In his other hand, Plato holds a copy of Timaeus, a dialogue that responds to the opinions of other scholars. Similarly, Aristotle holds a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics, which had a profound influence on Europeans during the Middle Ages. Around Plato and Aristotle, other philosophers are engaged in debates about their ideas and theories.

In the centre foreground of The School of Athens sits a man resting his head upon his hand while writing on a sheet of paper. This is possibly a representation of the philosopher Heraclitus, who lived around 500 BC. Some believe Raphael modelled the figure on Michaelangelo, who was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the time. Similarly, Plato may be modelled on Da Vinci. Heraclitus, nicknamed “the weeping philosopher”, was prone to depression, which explains his physical demeanour and isolation from the other figures in the painting. Heraclitus believed the world was made of fire and stressed the importance of the unity of opposites and harmony.

Other philosophers Raphael included in his painting are Pythagoras and his pupil Anaximander sitting with Archimedes, who holds a diagram of his method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape. Averroes, an Islamic scholar, peers over Pythagoras’ shoulder while Socrates is seen conversing with the Attic orator Aeschines. Names suggested for some of the remaining philosophers include Diogenes, Zeno of Citium, Parmenides, Carneades, Epicurus, Xenophon, and Alexander the Great.

Although much of Raphael’s time was spent working on the frescos in the Vatican Palace, he still found time to complete other paintings, such as a portrait of the elderly Julius II. Seated in a chair rather than on a papal throne, the Pope looks frail and humble; a stark contrast to his powerful and influential position. Julius was responsible for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica and the establishment of the Swiss Guards. When Julius died in 1513, less than two years after the completion of the portrait, he was replaced by Leon X (1475-1521), who continued to oversee Raphael’s progress in the Stanze and Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.

As Raphael grew in popularity, he started training other artists and employed them as assistants in his workshop. One of his assistants was Giulio Romano (1492-1546), a young artist from Rome who helped Raphael complete the paintings in the Stanze. By teaching his students to replicate his style, Raphael doled out sections of artworks to his assistants to complete, thus saving time and energy.

In some cases, Raphael only provided the drawing, for which his students provided the paint. One example is The Vision of Ezekiel (1516-17), which while designed by Raphael, was executed by Romano. The painting depicts a scene in the Old Testament involving the prophet Ezekiel, who rarely appeared in Italian Renaissance art. In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet described an encounter with God and four living creatures. According to the Christian priest Jerome (347–420), the creatures symbolised the authors of the New Testament gospels. Matthew is the man or angel because his book begins with the genealogy of Jesus, whilst Luke is the Ox because his book starts with temple sacrifice. Mark is represented by the lion, “roaring in the desert with prophetic power”, and John is the eagle, “flying heavenwards like the divine Word”. Alternative interpretations of this tetramorph (a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements) include Babylonian symbols of the zodiac: Taurus (ox), Leo (lion), Scorpio (eagle), and Aquarius (man); and the four elements of Western astrology: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.

With his assistants working on paintings, Raphael was able to prove his versatility with other mediums. Inspired by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Raphael designed prints, which were subsequently engraved by the printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi (c.1480-c.1534). An example of Raphael’s print compositions is The Massacre of the Innocents (c.1510), which not only shows Raphael’s mastery of the classical male nude but also reveals his talent for depicting movement and violent action. The scene comes from the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18), in which King Herod learns of Jesus’ birth and orders the execution of all children under the age of two. Etching allows the artist to include expressive lines and shading, which often gets lost in coloured paintings. Every detail of the violent soldiers’ actions is carefully recorded, as is the despair and horror on the faces of the mothers.

Alongside prints, Raphael designed mosaics, sculptures, metalwork and decorative art, such as vases. Several drawings and plans for these objects still exist, as do many letters and notes proving that Raphael also had an interest in archaeology. Raphael wrote to Pope Leo X, begging him to prevent the destruction of archaeological interests, such as Roman ruins. He provided the Pope with a survey of all the buildings in Rome that he believed should be preserved for the future, along with detailed drawings. Plans to tear down ancient structures, presumably to build new houses, horrified Raphael and many of his contemporaries. It is thanks to them the world is still in possession of many historically important places.

Some historical buildings appear in Raphael’s work, as do reimagined structures from Classical Greece, such as in the tapestry Saint Paul Preaching at Athens. Between 1514 and 1515, Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a series of tapestries to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Each design depicted a scene from the Acts of the Apostles, which included the life of the first pope, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul. Saint Paul Preaching at Athens reimagines the biblical city and the Areopagus, upon which Paul preached to the judicial council of Athens about God and Jesus. Standing behind Paul in a red cap is a depiction of Leo X.

With so many commissions, Raphael rarely had time to produce portraits, which may be why he included his patrons and himself in some of his large scenes. Towards the end of his short career, while his assistants completed other work, Raphael found a moment to paint a handful of portraits, including a self-portrait with Giulio Romano. Sometimes known as Self-Portrait with a Friend or Raphael and His Fencing Master due to the presence of a sword hilt, the identity of the younger man remained unknown for many years. Today, most art historians agree that it is probably Romano. The hierarchical design of the double portrait, in which Raphael stands behind Romano with his hand on his shoulder, suggests Raphael is the teacher, whilst Romano, who looks over his shoulder for reassurance, is the student. The way Raphael painted the clothing of both himself and Romano makes it look as though the right arm belongs to both of them, hinting that as the master, Raphael aids or manipulates his student.

On promotional material for the Raphael exhibition, the National Gallery used Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti (1491-1557), a banker and friend of Raphael. The painting echoes Leonardo da Vinci’s Venetian style of posing the sitter as if interrupted by the viewer, at whom he turns to gaze. Altoviti’s father was the papal Master of the Mint, and his mother was the niece of Pope Innocent VIII (1432-92), which made Altoviti a man of wealth and influence. He was also known for his good looks. Altoviti was in charge of collecting taxes to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. He also liaised with the likes of Emperor Charles V (1500-58) and the Medici family.

The final painting in the exhibition was a portrait of a woman known as La fornarina or The Baker’s Daughter. The suggestive semi-nude portrait has led many to believe she was Raphael’s lover. Traditionally, the sitter is identified as Margherita Luti, who refused to marry Raphael despite his obvious devotion. Art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) claimed Luti was Raphael’s muse and model. He also wrote that Raphael was a “very amorous man and affectionate towards the ladies”.

There are numerous interpretations of La fornarina, with some claiming she represents idealistic beauty and others claiming she was a malevolent goddess. On the one hand, many believe Luti was Raphael’s lover, but another theory is she was a sex worker. An in-depth analysis of the portrait has led some art historians to diagnose Luti with breast cancer. The right breast appears fully formed and proportional, but the left upon which her hand rests is large and deformed. Her left arm also seems swollen, suggesting an enlarged lymph node in her armpit. Since Margarita Luti’s dates of birth and death are unknown, it is impossible to tell whether she died from breast cancer.

On Good Friday, 6th April 1520, Raphael passed away after developing a sudden fever. Vasari poetically recorded that his death was the result of an overindulgence in “amorous pleasures” with Luti, but other sources claim Raphael was engaged to Maria, the daughter of his patron Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi (1470-1520). Raphael’s illness lasted approximately 15 days, during which time he realised he would die and received last rites, confessed his sins and put his affairs in order. As per his request, Raphael was buried in the Pantheon in Rome, where his fiancée was also buried some years later.

Due to his fame and importance in the art world, Raphael received a grand funeral, attended by large crowds. Four cardinals carried Raphael’s body, and the pope kissed his hand before they lowered him into a marble sarcophagus inscribed with a quote from the poet Pietro Bembo (1470-1547): “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

Following his death, Raphael became the prototype for high art across Europe. Due to his versatility, Raphael influenced many areas of art and remains one of the greatest artists to have ever lived. Raphael produced as much work in his 37 years of life as those who lived twice his age. He was a prodigy of the likes that has not been seen since. Today, artists have barely established themselves by the age of 37, let alone produced even half the number of paintings. The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael demonstrates Raphael’s importance in the art world and proves that his work will last for time immemorial.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael is open until 31st July 2022. Tickets cost between £24 and £26 and must be purchased in advance. Concessions are available.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Whistler’s Woman in White

From February to May 2022, the Royal Academy of Arts explored the work of James McNeill Whistler, particularly those featuring a certain red-haired woman. Whistler’s paintings of Joanna Hiffernan helped him forge his reputation as one of the best-known names of the late 19th-century Aesthetic Movement. Rather than solely focusing on the artist, the RA uncovered the role Hiffernan played in Whistler’s life and her influence on future artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites.

Hiffernan’s reputation as the “Woman in White” developed after posing for Whistler’s painting The White Girl (1861-63), later renamed Symphony in White, No 1. Two more Symphonies in White followed, which inspired other artists to paint similar scenes. Although Hiffernan posed for Whistler on several occasions, her name remained synonymous with the figure in a white cambric dress.

Joanna Hiffernan was born in Limerick, Ireland, in 1843, but moved with her family to London at the age of two to avoid the Irish Potato Famine. Her father, Patrick Hiffernan, taught penmanship but had a reputation for being a stereotypical Irish drunkard. Hiffernan received a modest education, evidenced by her letters full of spelling errors.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was born in Massachusetts, USA, to Anna McNeill (1804-81) and George Washington Whistler (1800-49). His mother is the subject of one of Whistler’s most famous paintings, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, more commonly known as Whistler’s Mother (1871). His father worked as a railroad engineer and is credited with introducing the steam whistle to American trains. In 1843, Whistler moved to St Petersburg, Russia, where his father was hired by Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855) to build the Saint Petersburg-Moscow Railway.

In Russia, Whistler attended the Imperial Academy of Arts, and when he was not studying, he spent time visiting family in London. Two years before the completion of the Saint Petersburg-Moscow Railway, Whistler’s father contracted cholera and passed away. At 15 years old, Whistler only had vague notions about becoming an artist, so he returned to America with his mother, who sent him to Christ Church Hall School, hoping he would become a minister.

Spending more time with his sketchbook than studying, Whistler decided a career in religion was not for him, so he enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. This proved fruitless, and Whistler’s inability to take orders from authority resulted in his dismissal. For a while, Whistler worked as a draftsman, mapping the US coast for military purposes. Whilst this work was tedious, Whistler learned the technique of etching, which proved beneficial in his future career as an artist.

In 1855, Whistler left America and settled in Paris, where he adopted the lifestyle of a bohemian artist. He briefly studied at the Ecole Impériale and received tuition from the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre (1806-74), who taught Whistler the importance of line and tonal harmony. Whistler became friends with the French painter Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), who introduced him to the circle of Gustave Courbet (1819-77). As the leader of the Realism movement, Courbet influenced Whistler and encouraged him to start painting professionally.

In 1858, Whistler visited his half-sister Deborah Haden in London, where he eventually took up accommodation in Rotherhithe, near the River Thames. In 1860, he met Joanna Hiffernan for the first time and fell in love with her copper coloured hair. Whistler started including Hiffernan in his paintings, and she eventually became his lover.

Whistler’s iconic Symphonies in White marked a turning point in his career and introduced Hiffernan to the world. Whistler began the first of the three paintings in Paris in 1861 and submitted it to the Royal Academy in May 1862 under the title The White Girl. Much to Whistler’s disappointment, the Academy rejected the painting and sent it to Berners Street Gallery, where it was displayed with the title The Woman in White. Unfortunately, the painting became associated with Wilkie Collins’ (1824-89) novel of the same name, which was not Whistler’s intention. “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain.”

In 1863, Whistler sent The White Girl to the Paris Salon, who also rejected it. Many paintings at the time contained a narrative, whereas Whistler’s did not. Later that year, the painting hung in the Salon des Refusés, where one critic wrote it was a picture of a “charming phantom”.

Whistler produced his second portrait of Hiffernan in white in 1864, which he titled The Little White Girl. Dressed in a white muslin dress, Hiffernan posed in front of a fireplace and mirror at Whistler’s new house in Chelsea, London. In her right hand, she held a fan made by the Japanese artist Hiroshige (1797-1858). Japonisme, meaning artworks from Japan and other East Asian countries, was popular amongst European artists in the 19th century. Whistler owned a vast collection of Asian art, including prints, fans and ceramics. The blue and white vase on the mantlepiece is one example of the items he collected.

As part of her outfit for The Little White Girl, Hiffernan wore a wedding ring on her left hand. The reason for this is uncertain because Hiffernan never married. One theory involved Whistler’s family, who considered models to be little better than prostitutes. Hiffernan only posed for Whistler and a few friends, but this did not stop Whistler’s mother from objecting to their relationship. Some believe the comments about models and prostitutes covered up Whistler’s mother’s opinion about people of lower social classes.

Whistler’s third painting in the series featured Hiffernan in the same dress as the first painting, reclining on a white sofa. Unlike the previous artworks, this one included a second figure in a pale yellow silk dress. The other woman was the professional model Emelie “Milly” Eyre Jones (1850-1920), who posed for several artists, including Albert Moore (1860-1933) and Frederick Sandys (1829-1904). After hearing that Milly was posing for Whistler, Sandys announced he wished to paint Hiffernan, but Whistler refused to “lend” her. Instead, Sandys painted Milly in a white dress for Gentle Spring (1865).

Before settling on the final composition, Whistler tried out various poses for his models. Some of these sketches still exist, including one Whistler sent to the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). When Whistler eventually completed the painting, he declared the figure of Hiffernan “is the purest I have ever done.” Several artists admired the artwork, including Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who made sketches of it.

In 1867, the third painting earned a place at the Royal Academy under the title Symphony in White. Focusing on the colours rather than the subject, one critic called it “an exquisite chromatic study,” and several people compared it with the previous two portraits of Hiffernan in white. As a result, the two earlier paintings gained the names Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl and Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl. The focus on colour and harmony rather than a narrative inspired the Aesthetic Movement, which influenced future generations of artists who began producing “art for art’s sake”.

Whilst the Symphonies in White are Whistler’s most famous depictions of Hiffernan, he used her as a model for many other works, including etchings. During his career, Whistler produced over 490 etchings and drypoints, making him one of the major figures in printmaking of the 19th century. Most of his prints were based on the people and places around him, particularly his models.

Some of Whistler’s finest portraits of Hiffernan were drypoints rather than paintings. Drypoints involved etching into a copper plate, allowing the artist to emphasise shapes and tones through a series of lines and cross-hatching. After rubbing ink into the etched lines, paper is laid on the plate and pulled through a printing press. Often, the plate went through the press several times, producing prints of varying darkness as the ink began to run out. Whistler printed over forty impressions of his etching Weary (1863) before settling on one to hang at the Royal Academy.

Whistler’s paintings and etchings are considered two separate forms of art, yet prints he collected by Hiroshige and other Asian artists, frequently appeared in his artwork. Whistler owned an impressive collection of Asian art, including fans, china and rugs, which also feature in his work, for instance, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks (1864). For this painting, Hiffernan posed as an Asian woman painting a pot. Surrounded by examples of Whistler’s porcelain collection, Hiffernan appears to sign her most recent creation with a thin paintbrush.

The title of the painting, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, references many aspects of the scene. Hiffernan wears a purple and white kimono decorated with pink roses, hence the first half of the title. Lange Leizen is a Dutch phrase meaning “long lines”, which many English-speaking people misinterpreted as “long Elizas”. Some patterns on Chinese porcelain featured tall women, which is what led to the confusion. The Six Marks referenced the signature and date written by the potter on each of their creations.

In 1865, Whistler and Hiffernan spent time in Trouville on the Normandy coast of France, where they joined the artist Gustave Courbet (1819-77) at the Hôtel du Bras d’Or. Courbet encouraged Whistler to experiment with seascapes, using his skills with colour and tones to capture the subtle shifts of light in the sea and sky. Meanwhile, Courbet insisted on painting Hiffernan, which on this occasion, Whistler allowed.

Courbet’s painting of Portrait of Jo, also known as La belle Irlandaise (The Beautiful Irish), captures Hiffernan’s copper-gold hair, contrasting it with her pale skin and eyes, which peer into a handheld mirror. Enamoured with the result, Courbet refused to sell the original but made three copies, each containing minor differences and details. Letters written from Courbet to Whistler ten years later indicate he was still infatuated with Hiffernan. “Do you remember Trouville and Jo who played the clown to amuse us? In the evening she sang Irish songs so well because she had the spirit and distinction of art… I still have the portrait of Jo which I will never sell everyone admires it.” Today, art historians argue about which copy is the original.

In 1866, Whistler travelled to Valparaiso in Chile, leaving Hiffernan in London. During his seven-month absence, Whistler gave Hiffernan power of attorney over his affairs, including selling his artwork, which she did under the pseudonym, Mrs Abbot. During this time, Hiffernan may have travelled to France to pose for Courbet’s painting Le Sommeil (The Sleepers), which depicts two naked women asleep in bed. Rumours suggest Hiffernan and Courbet conducted an affair, and Whistler and Hiffernan’s relationship came to an abrupt end.

Very little is documented about Hiffernan’s life after her split from Whistler. For some time, she looked after Whistler’s son, Charles James Whistler Hanson (1870–1935), the result of an affair with a parlour maid. Whistler was often away, but he produced a drypoint sketch of his son during the late 1870s and an etching of Hiffernan’s sister, Bridget Agnes Hiffernan (1845-1921). The 1881 census records Hiffernan and Charles living with Bridget at 2 Thistle Grove in London.

The Royal Academy records Hiffernan’s death in 1886 and suggests her sister cared for her during a short illness. Other sources claim Hiffernan died in 1903 after attending Whistler’s funeral. The art collector Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) wrote, “As she raised her veil and I saw … the thick wavy hair, although it was streaked with grey, I knew at once it was Johanna, the Johanna of Etretat, ‘la belle Irlandaise’ that Courbet had painted with her wonderful hair and a mirror in her hand…. She stood for a long time beside the coffin—nearly an hour I should think…. I could not help being touched by the feeling she showed toward her old friend.” The Royal Academy believes this was Hiffernan’s sister, who people mistook for Joanna Hiffernan.

Following Whistler’s split from Hiffernan, he began using Maud Franklin (1857-1939) as his muse and mistress. Records suggest he did not treat her well, later marrying the artist Beatrice Godwin (1857-1896) in secret to avoid a furious Maud Franklin interrupting the marriage ceremony. Sadly, Beatrice passed away from cancer only six years into their marriage. Whistler never overcame the death and spent the majority of his remaining years painting minimalist seascapes.

Despite the initial rejection of Whistler’s The White Girl by the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon, the three Symphonies in White inspired many artists during and following Whistler’s lifetime. Hiffernan recorded that John Everett Millais (1892-86) particular liked the paintings and used them as inspiration for The Somnambulist (1871). Using a model with a remarkable resemblance to Hiffernan, Millais painted a woman in white, sleepwalking along the edge of a cliff. Whilst the figure is an obvious link to Whistler’s portrait in technique and composition, the painting contains a dramatic narrative, possibly inspired by Vincenzo Bellini’s (1801-35) romantic opera La sonnambula (1827).

Focusing on Hiffernan more than Whistler, the exhibition at the Royal Academy makes visitors examine the artworks differently. Rather than judging the artist on his quality of painting, the exhibition’s narrative explores the lives of both Whistler and his model. Instead of looking at The White Girl as an anonymous woman, the Academy gives her a name, a life and a purpose. Whilst it may not have been the curator’s intention, Whistler’s Woman in White compliments recent exhibitions, television programmes and books that aim to draw attention to women of the past, whose importance has been hidden for so long.

Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan is open until 22nd May 2022. Tickets cost £15 for adults, except for Friends of RA, who may visit for free.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Hals of Haarlem

Amongst the many paintings at the Wallace Collection in London hangs a portrait titled The Laughing Cavalier. Whilst the man is unnamed, an inscription in the corner reads “aetatis suae 26, anno 1624,” which reveals the sitter was 26 at the time of painting in the year 1624. Despite its title, the sitter probably had no connection with the militia but was instead a wealthy civilian. He is also not laughing, but smiling. Some art historians suggest the sitter is the Dutch cloth merchant Tieleman Roosterman (1598-1673), who the artist painted in 1634 at the age of 36. Yet, who is the artist? It is, to quote the Wallace Collection, the “highly gifted portraitist, Frans Hals.”

Frans Hals the Elder was a 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painter known for his many portraits. Born in 1582 or 1583 in Antwerp, the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium), Hals was the son of a cloth merchant who fled to Haarlem in the new Dutch Republic (the Netherlands) during the Fall of Antwerp between 1584 and 1585. While growing up in Haarlem, Hals received Mannerist artistic instruction under the Flemish émigré, Karel van Mander (1548-1606).

Few records about Hals exist until 1610 when he joined the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke. The guild was formed in 1590 by professional painters, many of whom had fled from Antwerp, as a means of protecting the art market. In the year Hals joined, he had started working as an art restorer for the town council. When the Protestant Dutch Republic was formed in 1588, the Haarlem council confiscated all the Catholic artwork. They later decided some of the paintings were suitable for display in the town hall but many needed restoration.

Also, in 1610, Hals married a Catholic woman called Anneke Harmensdochter (1590-1615). Catholics could not marry in churches in the Dutch Republic, so the wedding took place in the city hall. Sadly, Anneke passed away following the death of their third child in 1615. Of the three, only Harmen (1611-1669) reached adulthood and followed his father’s footsteps to become a painter.

In 1611, Hals produced a portrait of the Catholic pastor Jacobus Zaffius (1534-1618). This is Hals’ earliest known portrait, but his breakthrough into the art world occurred the year after his wife’s death when he painted The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616. Hals served with the St George Militia between 1612 and 1615, so knew some of the men in the group portrait. Civilians were only allowed to serve for three years, which is why Hals was no longer serving at the time of painting. Due to the importance of the officers, the names of all the men are on record today. Holding the flag in the background is Jacob Cornelisz Schout (1600-27). Whilst little is known about Schout, only unmarried men could carry the flag, indicating he was a bachelor in 1616. Seated in the centre is Nicolaes Woutersz van der Meer (1575-1666), the future mayor of Haarlem, whose wife Hals painted in 1631.

In 1617, Hals married Lysbeth Reyniers in the small village of Spaarndam. They could not marry in Haarlem because Lysbeth was already eight months pregnant. A month after the wedding, they welcomed the first of their eight children. As well as his son Harmen from his first marriage, four of these children became painters: Frans Hals the Younger (1618-69), Jan Hals (1620-54), Reynier Hals (1627-72) and Nicolaes Hals (1628-86).

Following Hals success with The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616, he received several commissions for portraits, for example, Willem van Heythuyzen (c1590-1650), a cloth merchant and almshouse owner. Hals painted Heythuyzen at least twice, once in 1625 and again in 1634. The earlier of the two features the merchant leaning on a sword and wearing the typical rich clothing and broad-brimmed hat of the day. The painting inspired several artists, including Judith Leyster (1609-60), who copied the pose for her Standing Cavalier (1630). In 1897, the British politician Edgar Vincent, 1st Viscount D’Abernon (1857-1941), dressed up as Heythuyzen for a costume ball.

Another portrait commission came from Pieter van den Broecke (1585-1640) of the Dutch East India Company. Similar to Hals, Broecke was born in Antwerp but fled to the Dutch Republic after the Fall of Antwerp to the Spanish. During his career, Broecke visited Yemen, where he became one of the first Dutchmen to drink “something hot and black, a coffee.” When he retired, Broecke received a gold chain, which he wears in the portrait by Hals painted in 1633. Broecke spent his remaining years in the Indonesian Banda Islands, where his descendants live today.

Some of the portraits Hals produced were marriage pendants. Man and wife were painted on separate canvases that usually hung side-by-side in the family home. Traditionally, men stood angled towards their left whilst women turned towards their right.

Hals painted marriage pendants of Catharina Both van der Eem and her husband, Paulus van Beresteyn (1582-1666), in 1620. Beresteyn was a twice-widowed lawyer in Haarlem who married his third wife in 1619. Beresteyn and Catharina had six children, including Emerantia and Claes (1627-84), who appeared in paintings by Pieter Soutman (1593-1657) during the 1630s.

The portrait of Catharina is angled three-quarters to the left (her right), which gave the impression she turned towards her husband on the adjacent canvas. Catharina wears a wedding ring on her right forefinger, a lace ruff and wrist collars with gold bracelets. The fashion was typical of the 16th and 17th centuries, although the style of dress originated in Spain. The portrait of her husband featured similar lace material and black clothing.

Unconventionally, Hals broke away from marriage pendants to include both husband and wife on the same canvas. The Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (1622) depicts the happy couple relaxing in a garden, which also went against the conventional style of 17th-century Dutch portraits. The clothing does not differ from the fashion of the day and the couple look over dressed in the setting to the contemporary eye.

Isaac Abrahamszoon Massa (1586-1643) sat for Hals several times for portraits, but only once with his wife, who he married in 1622. Massa was a Dutch grain trader, traveller and envoy to Russia who created some of the earliest maps of Eastern Europe and Siberia. The Isaac Massa Foundation established in his honour continues to stimulate scientific and cultural contacts between the Russian Federation and the Netherlands.

As well as commissioned portraits, Hals experimented with character portraits that captured expressions of merriment. The Lute Player (1623), for example, depicts a smiling jester playing the lute. He is smiling naturally and looking up to his right as though engaging with another musician or singer out of view.

Portraits of lute players was a new theme at the time, introduced to the Dutch Republic by Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624) in 1622. As well as the first Dutch artist to paint musicians, Baburen also painted card players, thus inspiring painters to move away from generic portraits and genre themes. As well as The Lute Player, Hals produced The Gypsy Girl (1628) and The Laughing Fisherboy (1628), both depicting relaxed, smiling individuals. Some art historians list the Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen amongst Hals more expressive artworks, although the latter was likely staged.

In 1627 , Hals was invited back to produce another banquet portrait of the St George Militia Company. Since civilian officers only served for three years, those featuring in The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1627 did not appear in the earlier painting of 1611. The men in this version are celebrating the end of their tenure.

The man in the centre of the banquet portrait is Captain Michiel de Wael (1596-1659), who Hals painted separately in 1625. As well as his career with the St George Militia Company, Wael was a brewer and the grandson of one of the first Calvinists in Haarlem. Seated at the head of the table is Colonel Aart Jansz Druyvesteyn (1577-1627), a promising landscape painter and future mayor of Haarlem. One of the flag bearers, Boudewijn van Offenberg (1590-1633), had just resigned so that he could marry Beatrix de Laignier. As mentioned earlier, only bachelors could serve as flag bearers. On the far right is another flag bearer, Jacob Cornelisz Schout, who did appear in Hals previous painting from 1611. Unlike the officers, flag bearers and men of significant rank could serve for more than three years.

As well as the St George Militia, Hals painted The Officers of the St Adrian Militia Company in 1633. He first painted the company in 1627, seated around a table in a hall, but his second painting shows the men outside in the courtyard. The officers wear similar clothing to the St George Militia, with colours that resemble the oranje-blanje-bleu flag of the Dutch Revolution.

Whilst all the men in the portrait are named, only a couple earned enough fame to warrant a Wikipedia entry in the 21st century. Andries van Hoorn (1600-60), who stands on the right with the bow of the orange sash protruding from his back, later became the Mayor of Haarlem. He was captain at the time of painting but gained the rank of colonel before his time with the St Adrian Militia was up. Sitting with a book behind Van Hoorn is Hendrik Gerritsz Pot (1580-1657), a Dutch painter who received tuition from the same tutor as Hals. Pot painted a banquet portrait of the St Adrian Militia in 1633 before becoming an officer. Before then, Pot spent some time in London, where King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria commissioned him to paint their portraits in 1632.

In 1639, Hals returned to the St George Militia to paint another portrait of the officers. Rather than depicting them at a banquet, the men are standing in a line across the 4 meters wide canvas. Ensign Dirck Dicx carries the blue flag on the right, and Captain Michiel de Wael stands out by wearing a different colour coat to the other officers. Hals went one step further to make this painting different from the others by including past Militia officers in the background, including himself and Hendrik Gerritsz Pot. Whilst Hals served with the Militia, he never earned a rank, yet the company admired him as an important local artist.

In 1644, Hals became chairman of the Guild of St Luke, a privileged position that signified Hals’ reputation amongst other artists. Unfortunately, his prestige did not make him immune to money troubles. Unlike other painters, Hals did not adapt his technique to suit the fashions and preferences in the Dutch Republic. Instead, his artwork became less lively, focusing more on the stature and dignity of the people portrayed. As time went on, Hals work became darker until he was almost only using monochrome shades. Some art historians suggest this was because coloured paint was expensive, and Hals lost customers to more modern artists. Several times, Hals’ creditors took him to court. In 1652, he was forced to sell his belongings to settle a debt with a baker, leaving him destitute. Fortunately, the government started paying him an annuity of 200 florins in 1664.

Despite his money issues, Hals continued to paint, including a portrait of the board of trustees at the Oude Mannenhuis in Haarlem in 1664. In the same year, Hals painted The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse. The Old Men’s Almshouse, or Oude Mannenhuis, was a home for poor men over the age of sixty. It is likened to an early example of retirement home, providing the men with regular meals and somewhere clean and safe to sleep. The painting is an example of Hals’ later dark, loose style. Although fashions had changed by the 1660s, Hals painted the women in typical clothing from the 1640s.

Frans Hals passed away in Haarlem on 26th August 1666. He was buried in the Grote Kerk, a Reformed Protestant church. Despite his pension and the high esteem in which the city held him, his widow was forced to apply for financial aid and was admitted to the local almshouse. When Hals died, four of his sons were still alive and working as artists, although none of them achieved the status of their father.

Throughout his career, Hals inspired many Dutch artists and took on several students. Rather than teach his pupils how to paint like him, Hals let them develop their own styles and techniques. Today, historians are uncertain how many students Hals had because they cannot use the paintings as a way of identifying Hals as the teacher because the styles are so dissimilar.

Hals’ reputation waned after his death, but he reemerged in the 19th century when impressionist and realist painters studied his technique. Claude Monet (1840-1926), Édouard Manet (1832-83), Gustave Courbet (1819-77), James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) all list Hals as one of their greatest influences. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh wrote, “What a joy it is to see a Frans Hals, how different it is from the paintings – so many of them – where everything is carefully smoothed out in the same manner.”

In the 21st century, Hals’ paintings are found in cities all over the world, including Antwerp, London, Toronto and New York. Several works belong to Haarlem town council and hang in the Frans Hals Museum, established in 1862. The museum is located on the site of the Oude Mannenhuis, where Hals painted The Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse in 1664, which hangs in the museum. As well as paintings by Hals, the museum displays artwork by other Dutch artists, including Judith Leyster, Karel van Mander, Hals’ brother Dirck Hals (1591-1656), and Jan Steen (1625-79).

In 1968, the Nederlandsche Bank issued a tien gulden (ten guilders) banknote featuring a portrait of Frans Hals. He remained on the note until 1997 when the bank commissioned new designs. After the Millennium, guilders were replaced by euros. Hals was also honoured by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), who named a 93-kilometre crater on Mercury ‘Hals’.

Until January 2022, the Wallace Collection is hosting the exhibition Frans Hals: The Male Portrait. Whilst it reveals little about the artist, the portraits perfectly demonstrate the subtle changes in Hals’ technique throughout his career. Tickets are available from the Wallace Collection website.


My blogs are available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!