Noël Coward’s Art and Style

A recent exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London has proved popular with old and new fans of the English playwright Noël Coward. Extended due to popular demand until 23rd December 2021, Noël Coward: Art and Style celebrates Coward’s life and works through a vibrant display of never-before-seen materials from the Coward Archive. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of Noël Coward’s West End debut as a 19-year-old playwright.

Noël Pierce Coward was born in Teddington, south-west London, on 16th December 1899 to Arthur Sabin Coward (1856-1937), a piano salesman, and Violet Agnes Coward (1863-1954). Coward received little formal education but started appearing in amateur plays from the age of seven. His mother encouraged his passion for the stage and sent him to a dance academy in London, despite low family funds. In 1911, Coward received his first professional acting role in The Goldfish by Lila Field (d.1954).

Over the following few years, Noël Coward starred in roles for children and teenagers in several plays, including Where the Rainbow Ends at the Garrick Theatre and A Little Fowl Play at the London Coliseum. He was also cast as Slightly, a Lost Boy in Peter Pan.

In 1914, the society painter Philip Streatfeild (1879-1915) took Coward under his wing and introduced him to high society friends. Sadly, Streatfeild passed away the following year from tuberculosis, but Coward’s new friends encouraged him to continue to perform. During the First World War, Coward starred in The Happy Family (1916) at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Charley’s Aunt (1916), and The Saving Grace (1917).

During the early war years, Coward also experimented with art. He filled many notebooks with ink and watercolour drawings, the majority featuring satirical caricatures and stage costumes. In hindsight, these drawings demonstrate the future dramatist’s understanding of the importance of clothing on the stage. Clothes can transform their wearers into particular characters and personas.

In 1918, Coward was conscripted into the Air Force but was discharged after nine months because he was deemed at risk of contracting tuberculosis. Coward immediately threw himself back into the world of theatre, collaborating on two plays with his friend Esmé Wynne: Ida Collaborates and Women and Whisky. He followed this with his first solo effort, The Rat Trap, which eventually premiered in 1926.

Coward’s first full-length play was I’ll Leave It to You, which opened in the West End in 1920. It received mixed reviews, and Coward returned to acting for a couple of years. His first real success as a playwright occurred in 1923 with The Young Idea, in which he also starred. Coward’s first financial success, on the other hand, was with The Vortex (1924), a play about a nymphomaniac socialite and her cocaine-addicted son. As well as writing the script, Coward acted the part of the son and raised the funds to produce the play.

The Vortex met with success in London and America, and Coward hired his first business manager, Jack Wilson (1899-1961). Rumours suggest Wilson and Coward became lovers, which is why Coward forgave Wilson when he later stole money. Wilson was the General Manager for the production of Coward’s 1930s comedy Private Lives and the producer of Tonight at 8.30 (1936), Set to Music (1939) and Blithe Spirit (1941).

By 1929, Coward was one of the world’s highest-earning playwrights, with an annual income of £50,000. This is the approximate equivalent of £3,000,000 today. Despite the Great Depression of the early 1930s, Coward thrived. Furniture and items from Coward’s house, which are now in the Coward Archive, demonstrate the extent of his wealth. One example is the Wings of Time, a tin sculpture Coward purchased in an auction at Herstmonceux Castle, Sussex, in 1929. Produced in the 17th century, the wings extend from an hourglass, which Coward saw as an allegory for the passing of time. He often spoke about the passing of time, and the wings soon became both a treasured possession and a personal signature. The wings usually hung above Coward’s fireplace, but today they are usually on display at the Noël Coward Theatre.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Coward took a break from the theatre to participate in official war work. He began by running the British propaganda office in Paris, after which he started working for British intelligence. His main task involved using his fame and popularity in America to persuade the USA to support Britain in the war. Although he could not reveal that he was working on behalf of the Secret Service, Coward’s name ended up in the Nazi’s Sonderfahndungsliste G.B.(“Special Search List Great Britain), more commonly known as the Black Book. It listed British residents the Nazi’s wished to arrest and/or kill when (if) they invaded Britain. Other people on the list included Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), Nancy Astor (1879-1964), Clement Attlee (1883-1967), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

After the Americans joined the war, Churchill instructed Coward to entertain the troops at home. For reasons unknown, Churchill disliked Coward and forbade King George VI (1895-1952) from awarding Coward a knighthood for his services with British Intelligence. Begrudgingly, Coward toured, acted and sang around the world, following British troops across all continents.

During the Blitz, Coward’s London house was destroyed, so he took up temporary residence at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand. While sitting in an air raid shelter, Coward and his fellow musicians partook in impromptu cabarets to distract their frightened companions. Coward also penned several war-themed songs, such as London Pride and Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans.

When not entertaining troops and civilians, Coward worked alongside the film-producer David Lean (1908-91) to direct In Which We Serve, a British patriotic war film. Coward was inspired by Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-79), who was in command of the destroyer HMS Kelly, which sank during the Battle of Crete (1941). The film proved popular, and Coward won an honorary certificate of merit at the 1943 Academy Awards ceremony.

Coward also wrote Blithe Spirit during the war years, which some critics say is his greatest work. The play was first seen in the West End in 1941 and was recently adapted into a film starring Dame Judi Dench (b.1934) as Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium and clairvoyant. The main character, novelist Charles Condomine, invites Madame Arcati to a séance in the hope it will provide material for his new book. Instead, the ghost of Condomine’s ex-wife appears during the session and endeavours to ruin his marriage to his second wife.

Although Coward continued to write plays after the war, they were not as successful as his pre-war work. He wrote on a mixture of themes, such as political comedy, romance, satire, and musicals. Unfortunately, the musicals Pacific 1860 (1946) and Ace of Clubs (1949) were financial failures.

During the Second World War, Coward met the photographer Cecil Beaton (1904-80), who had long envied Coward’s success as a playwright. Unable to write satisfactory plays, Beaton became a costume and set designer instead. Their wartime meeting eventually led to a collaboration on the production of Coward’s play Quadrille in 1952. Beaton revealed to Coward, “it has always been my ambition to do scenery and costumes for one of your plays,” and set to work designing appropriate Victorian sitting rooms.

Set in the mid-Victorian era, Quadrille is a romantic comedy about an English aristocrat and the wife of an American businessman. Whilst The Manchester Guardian critiqued the play as “affectionate and sincere as well as amusing and elegant”, The Daily Express deemed it “a waste of expensive talent”. Nonetheless, Beaton’s costume designs earned him his first Tony Award.

Despite his lack of success, Coward remained a high profile figure, continuing to perform in plays and cabaret acts. In 1955, Coward appeared in Las Vegas for the first time and released the album Noël Coward at Las Vegas. The album reached number 14 in the Billboard albums chart and features songs written or arranged by Coward. Notable songs include Mad Dogs and EnglishmenWorld Weary, and Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love by Cole Porter (1891-1964).

Coward’s most successful post-war musical was Sail Away (1961), set on a luxury cruise liner. He also directed a musical version of Blithe Spirit, called High Spirits (1964), and collaborated with Beaton on Look After Lulu! (1959). Coward also published his first novel, Pomp and Circumstance (1960), which received critical acclaim. Coward’s final stage success was Suite in Three Keys (1966), a trilogy set in a hotel penthouse suite.

Although no longer writing as prolifically, Coward continued to act, including in notable films, such as Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Our Man in Havana (1959), and The Italian Job (1969). Gradually, Coward drifted away from the stage and screen, turning down many prestigious roles. He declined the offer to play the king in the original stage production of The King and I and replied, “No, no, no, a thousand times, no,” when asked if he would like to play Dr. No in the 1962 film of the same name.

Today, it is accepted that Noël Coward was homosexual but due to the convention of his times, Coward never publicly admitted to the fact. Coward believed private business should not be discussed in public, so it is not easy to determine with whom he had a close relationship. Yet, many agree that Coward’s most important relationship was with the South African stage and film actor Graham Payn (1918-2005). The exhibition at the Guildhall goes as far as to say Payn was one of the greatest loves of Coward’s life.

When Coward wrote his plays, he often envisaged Payn as the leading man. He also composed songs to suit Payn’s voice. The two remained almost inseparable until Coward’s death, after which Payn organised the Coward Archive. It is thanks to Payn that many of Coward’s personal items remain in safekeeping today.

When reading diaries and letters, Coward’s generosity is evident. He not only cared for his friends but many disadvantaged people. From 1934 until 1956, Coward was the president of the Actors’ Orphanage, a home and school for many parent-less children. The Orphanage received support from the theatrical industry, hence its name. Coward expressed genuine concern for the children’s welfare and improved their living conditions during his term as president. Coward actively sought out patrons for the orphanage, often throwing garden parties where the public could rub shoulders with both actual and theatrical royalty. On these occasions, Coward sported a top hat and white gloves, which became one of his signature outfits.

When not dressed up for parties, Coward could often be found wearing a dressing gown with a cigarette in hand. He first wore a dressing gown onstage in The Vortex and reused the fashion in several other plays, including Private Lives and Present Laughter (1942). It soon became Coward’s signature look on stage, so he incorporated dressing gowns into his everyday life.

When not working, Coward retreated to his country house, Goldenhurst Farm, in Aldington, Kent. He purchased the property in 1926 and lived there until 1956. Post-war tax regimes increased the expense of running the large house, so Coward sold up and left the country. Today, the house is divided into two dwellings, one of which belongs to the British comedian Julian Clary (b. 1959).

Coward initially settled in Bermuda before buying a house in Jamaica. He lived near James Bond author Ian Fleming’s (1908-64) Jamaican residence, and the two became good friends. Fleming and Coward both found Jamaica a welcome retreat from the world of literature, and Coward used it as an opportunity to focus on his amateur hobby of painting.

From childhood, Coward loved to draw and paint. He often drew ideas for characters and costumes, but over time he left the theatrical subject behind, preferring to paint still-lifes and landscapes. Coward found the different lights and colours in tropical landscapes fascinating, particularly in Jamaica. Although he jokingly referred to his painting style as “touch and Gauguin,” Coward captured the endless vistas of sea and sky, the bright sunlight and the warmth of the people.

Although Coward welcomed the break away from the theatre, he did not stop writing altogether. Coward wrote some of his final plays in Jamaica, only returning to England to help direct and produce them. He also bought a house in Les Avants, Switzerland, where many celebrities sought solace. Coward’s neighbours included David Niven (1910-83), Richard Burton (1925-84), Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) and Julie Andrews (b. 1935).

In 1970, Coward finally received his knighthood. It has never been ascertained why Churchill denied him the badge after the Second World War, although some suggest Churchill may have objected to Coward’s sexual orientation. Sir Noël Coward graciously accepted the long awaited award and attended the ceremony at Buckingham Palace with two close friends, actor Joyce Carey (1898-1993) and designer Gladys Calthrop (1894-1980). Coward often referred to Carey, Calthrop and a couple of other friends as his “chosen family”.

Following his knighthood, Coward was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. In 1972, he gained an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Sussex. Unfortunately, Coward’s poor health limited his enjoyment of these achievements. Coward suffered from memory loss and arteriosclerosis, which contributed to his death from heart failure on 26th March 1973, at age 73.

Coward died at his home in Jamaica and was subsequently buried on the island. In London, a memorial service took place at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, where the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman (1906-84), John Gielgud (1904-2000), Laurence Olivier (1907-89) and Yehudi Menuhin (1916-99) all read or played music in his honour. A decade later, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) unveiled a memorial stone in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. When Graham Payn thanked her for coming, she replied, “I came because he was my friend.”

The accolades did not end there. In 2006, the recently closed Albery Theatre in St Martin’s Lane, London, reopened under the new name, The Noël Coward Theatre. Before then, the Queen Mother unveiled a statue of Coward in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1998. Statues of Coward are also displayed in New York, Jamaica, and Teddington, where he was born.

The exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery is just one of the many ways Coward has been honoured since his death almost 50 years ago. “Even the youngest of us will know, in fifty years’ time, exactly what we mean by ‘a very Noel Coward sort of person’,” said English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (1927-80) in 1964. Noël Coward: Art & Style proves Tynan right.

Booking is required to visit the Noël Coward: Art & Style exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London. Entry is free, but the gallery wishes to limit numbers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition is open every day until 23rd December 2021.


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Reuniting Rubens

For the first time in over 200 years, two landscape paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) have found themselves in the same room. Painted as a pair, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning parted ways in 1803, eventually ending up in the Wallace Collection and National Gallery, respectively. In partnership with VISITFLANDERS, the two paintings are temporarily on display at the Wallace Collection until 15th August 2021, after which they will separate once more. Attracting the likes of Jon Snow, who filmed his visit to the exhibition for Channel 4, the paintings have captured the attention of art lovers and tourists alike, providing what may be a once in a lifetime experience.

The name Rubens is usually associated with historical and mythological paintings, full of action and voluptuous women, rather than the idyllic landscapes shown at the Wallace Collection. Yet, landscape painting had intrigued Rubens since his youth and one of his first teachers specialised in the area. To succeed as an artist, Rubens needed to paint what his commissioners and buyers wanted. Landscape painting was not a respected theme where Rubens lived in Antwerp, so he focused on fleshy figures depicting historical moments in the typical Flemish Baroque tradition.

Towards the end of his career, Rubens moved away from the busy city lifestyle to devote himself to landscape painting. The majority of these Rubens produced as a hobby rather than for profit. Not many knew about the extent of his artistic talents until after he died in 1640.

In 1592, Rubens was serving as an emissary for the Spanish crown. At 53 years old and a widower, he longed to settle down in his homeland. Unlike many artists of his day, Rubens had a considerable amount of money, having worked for the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, Charles I of England, Philip IV of Spain and Queen Marie de Medici of France. After completing his negotiations in England on behalf of Spain, Rubens returned home to Antwerp, where he married 16-year-old Hélène Fourment (1614-73).

Following his marriage, Rubens contented himself by painting his young wife and growing family, whilst spending time in his large garden. Rubens enjoyed painting for pleasure, unrestrained by commissions and deadlines. Throughout his career, Rubens was restricted to the preferences of his patrons and buyers, but in his retirement he had the freedom to choose his subject matter. His love of landscapes resurfaced and he longed for the countryside, away from the pressures of commercial and city life.

In 1635, Rubens purchased an eight-acre country estate in Elewijt, Flemish Brabant. The house, known as the Castle of Het Steen, cost Rubins 93,000 florins and gave him the right to the title of Lord of Het Steen. A three-hour ride (half an hour by car) took Rubens from his home in Antwerp to his “manorial residence with a large stone house and other fine buildings in the form of a castle.” It also had a garden, an orchard, a lake and extensive grassland. The family used the estate as their summer home, returning to the city during the autumn.

Built in the typical Flemish style, the manor house had gabled roofs, red-bricked walls and a crenellated tower. The latter has since been demolished, and the house has also undergone remodelling and renovation over the past centuries. Rubens captured the building as it looked during his day in the paintings, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning. 

The extensive views around Het Steen provided Rubens with the perfect backdrop for many landscape paintings. Although he had produced many landscapes before moving to the estate, his nephew Philip admitted Rubens made the purchase intending to study and paint the landscape. Rubens kept most of these artworks, displaying them at Het Steen. As a result, not many knew of the extent of his oeuvre until after his death.

“Having bought the seignory of Steen, between Brussels and Malines in the year 1630 [sic] he took great pleasure living there in solitude, in order to paint vividly and au naturel the surrounding mountains, plains, valleys and meadows, at the rising and setting of the sun, up to the horizon.” – Philip Rubens

After producing many landscapes, which explored composition, figure and animal placement, light and darkness, and so forth, Rubens finally painted his two most famous landscapes. The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning represent Rubens zenith of his achievements in landscape painting, evidenced by their sheer size and panoramic content.

A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning

In A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, usually shortened to Het Steen, the house is set to the far left, making the extensive open plains the main focus of the painting. The colours suggest it is late summer or early autumn on a sunny morning, although puddles and clouds hint at a recent rainstorm. Whilst the house is a faithful representation, Rubens elevated the view of the land between the foreground and the horizon to produce a continuous panoramic sweep.

On the left, a man drives a cart away from the house, carrying a woman and a trussed calf. Closer to the building is a group of people, which many believe represent Rubens’ family. In the foreground, a hunter and his dog hide behind a large tree stump, keeping a steady gaze on a bevy of partridges. This activity, combined with the altocumulus clouds, gives away the time of day, as does the cart, which is presumably on its way to market. In the distance, maids milk the cows in the pastures.

The Rainbow Landscape

Het Steen sits in the far distance in The Rainbow Landscape, which provides a view of the estate from the other side of the fields. Once again, Rubens raised the level of the viewpoint to encompass the many topographical features. The scene in this painting takes place later in the day after farmhands have already had time to create two haystacks. Yet, the cart carrying more hay in the left-hand corner suggests their workday is far from over. Some art historians propose Rubens based the appearance of the cart driver on his likeness, although it is unlikely he ever contributed to the farm work.

The cart driver greets two milkmaids, one who is balancing a pitcher on her head. Their smiling faces suggest happy workers, which compliments the idyllic landscape. Meanwhile, a herdsman goes about his work, herding cows along a path beside the stream, contrasting with the lively ducks playing in the water. Both the ducks and cows are similar to those in other paintings by Rubens, suggesting he did not paint them from life but memory or imagination.

Whilst there is a lot of activity in the lower half of the painting, it is the sky that captures the viewer’s attention. Spanning the width of the landscape is a double-arced rainbow, which is an unusual feature in artworks from this era. Artists were discouraged from depicting rainbows because their fleeting appearances were difficult to portray accurately. Rubens attempt is impressive, yet it is not true to nature. He chose not to represent its full-colour spectrum, obscuring sections with clouds instead.

The rainbow hints at the recent storm, whose dark clouds are still visible in the distance. The phenomenon also had religious connotations, symbolising God’s divine blessing. In the Bible (Genesis 9:11-15), God made a covenant with his people, promising never to flood the world again. This promise followed the well-known story of Noah’s Ark.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. (Genesis 9:12-15, NIV)

Art historians believe Rubens produced Het Steen and The Rainbow Landscape to be displayed together because they are linked by their subject matter, scale, size and composition. The English landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837) agreed, saying some years after the two paintings were separated: “When pictures painted as companions are separated, the purchaser of one, without being aware of it, is sometimes buying only half a picture. Companion pictures should never be parted…”

Both paintings have similar motifs, such as milkmaids, wagons, cows and fowl. These, along with the inclusion of the manor house, albeit almost unnoticeable in The Rainbow Landscape, suggests the landscapes depicts the same area from different perspectives. Although the paintings represent different times of day, when hung together, they complete a cycle of a late summer’s day.

Another connection between the two paintings is the way Rubens constructed the landscapes. Using X-radiography and infra-red reflectography, the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection have discovered that Rubens produced the paintings in three stages. Rubens began both compositions on a medium-sized panel, upon which he depicted the middle ground leading to the horizon. Rubens then added or commissioned someone to add extensions to the bottom and sides of the panel. Upon these, he extended the landscapes, making them more panoramic. A final extension to the top, bottom and sides, gave the landscapes a dimension of 136 cm x 236 cm (54 in x 93 in).

Careful analysis of the two paintings has revealed images below the top layer of paint, which indicates Rubens developed the composition gradually. Unlike his commissioned work, Rubens did not need to rush and had no deadline. X-rays show Rubens included a seated milkmaid and herdsman on the original panel of The Rainbow Landscape but painted over them after extending the boards. A half-rainbow decorated the sky, which tells us Rubens always intended to include it in the landscape. After increasing the size of the work, Rubens repainted the trees and added the herdsmen and cattle by a river. The ducks, horses and wagon joined the scene after the final extension.

With more space above the horizon to play with, Rubens expanded the rainbow to sweep across the sky. Although it remained a double-arced rainbow, only a section of the second arc is visible in the top right-hand corner. Rubens added touches of blue, pink and yellow to the trees, river and ground to suggest a reflection of the rainbow, although, in reality, the rainbow would make no such impression.

The construction of A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning has similar paint handling and attention to detail as its companion. During the first stage of the painting, Rubens filled the space with open pastures interspersed with trees. As the boards grew, so did the landscape, incorporating a bridge, stream, tree trunk and hunter. Only in the final stage did Rubens paint the house and add the other figures and cart to the composition.

Unlike The Rainbow Landscape, which developed gradually with the expansion of the boards, the painting of Het Steen changed dramatically in the final stages. During the first two stages of the painting process, the composition was typical of Rubens’ landscapes, revealing idyllic farmland and a peaceful environment. When he began the painting, he had no intention of including his house, yet it became a key feature during the latter stages. This element, with the suggestion of the building in the background of The Rainbow Landscape, is what convinces many art historians that the paintings belong together.

Shortly after Rubens died in 1640, the two paintings appeared in a sales catalogue with 312 other works of art from his collection. A version of the catalogue translated for Charles I describes the landscapes as “A great landschap after the life, with little figures in’t uppon a board,” (Het Steen) and “A great landschap where it raines with little Cowes in it” (The Rainbow Landscape). Since they were listed one after the other suggests Rubens’ family intended them to stay together, which they did for many years.

In 1691, both paintings hung in the palace of Juan Gaspar Enríquez de Cabrera, the 10th Admiral of Castile (1625-91) in Madrid, after which they appeared in Genoa in the early 18th century. Records state they belonged to a Genoese banker to the Spanish Crown, Bartolomeo Saluzzo (1651-1705), who bequeathed his art collection to his sons. Constantino Balbi (1676-1741) purchased the landscapes in 1706 and hung them in the Palazzo Balbi. In 1802, art dealers William Buchanan (1777-1864) and Arthur Champernowne (1767-1819) purchased the paintings and brought them to London, where they were displayed at an Oxdenden Street gallery. They quickly became the talking point of the artistic circle in the capital.

Despite attempts to sell the two landscapes as a pair, Buchanan and Champernowne were unsuccessful. Instead, they sold Het Steen to Lady Margaret Beaumont for £1500 in 1803. Little did they know the paintings would not appear in the same room again until 2020. Lady Margaret gave the artwork as a present to her husband Sir George, who pronounced it the “finest landscape I believe [Rubens] ever painted.” On his death in 1823, George Beaumont bequeathed Het Steen and other paintings in his collection to the National Gallery.

In 1815, Champernowne sold The Rainbow Landscape to art collector George Watson-Taylor (1771-1841), who, in turn, sold it to Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1783-1858) for 2,600 guineas. Walpole hung the painting in the Principle Dining Room at Wolterton Hall in Norfolk, where many people admired it. Allegedly, George IV (1762-1830) attempted to purchase the painting from Walpole shortly before his death in 1830. The landscape remained in Lord Orford’s possession until he decided to sell it in 1856.

Sir Charles Eastlake (1793-1865), the first Director of the National Gallery, attended Lord Orford’s sale intending to reunite Rubens’ landscapes. Unfortunately, one of the wealthiest collectors in Europe, Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-70), was also in attendance and outbid the director. Lord Hertford paid £4,550 for The Rainbow Landscape, which he hung in his London residence, Manchester House. After his death, his son Sir Richard Wallace (1818-90) inherited the house and its contents, thus becoming the new owner of the painting. Wallace extended the house to create a large gallery where he installed the landscape and other notable paintings. After his death, the collection was bequeathed to the nation. The house opened to the public as the Wallace Collection, and The Rainbow Landscape has hung here ever since.

Thanks to the collaboration between the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection, the public have once again been able to view both landscapes in the same room. Unfortunately, the exhibition is ending soon, and the paintings will separate once more. There is speculation that Rubens’ two great landscapes may be reunited permanently in the future. Hopefully, we will not need to wait 200 years to make this a reality.

It is a shame that the exhibition coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer people than expected have visited the Wallace Collection to see the two landscapes in situ. Yet, the display made the national news, proving that the story of two landscape paintings, reunited, at last, has touched the hearts of thousands of people.

Het Steen, now known as Elewijt Castle or Rubenskasteel, still stands. It was briefly used as a prison in 1792 before being abandoned. In 1955, the current owner restored the building, although the tower seen in Rubens’ painting was unsalvageable.

RUBENS: REUNITING THE GREAT LANDSCAPES is open until 15th August 2021 at the Wallace Collection, London. Tickets are free with a suggested donation of £5.


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Victor Hugo

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

Victor Hugo
Hugo by Étienne Carjat, 1876

When Victor Hugo sat down to write one of his novels, little did he know it would inspire the greatest musical of our time, Les Misérables. He did not intend his novel for the stage, but as the above quote suggests, Hugo understood the importance of music. During his literary career of over six decades, Hugo wrote lyrics, poems, satires, essays, speeches, funeral orations, letters, diaries, plays and novels. As well as Les Misérables, Hugo is famous for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which Walt Disney Pictures transformed into an animated musical in 1996. Through musical adaptations, millions of people know Victor Hugo’s work; it is time to learn about the author.

General Joseph-Leopold Hugo, father of Victor Hugo

Victor-Marie Hugo, born on 26th February 1802 in Besançon in Eastern France, spent his first year travelling from place to place due to his father’s career in the Napoleonic Army. Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1774-1828) enlisted in La Grande Armée at the age of 14 and had worked his way up the ranks to General by the birth of his youngest son.

Sophie Trébuchet (1772-1821), a French painter, gave birth to two sons before Victor: Abel Joseph (1798-1855) and Eugène (1800-1837). His father claimed Victor’s mother conceived him on a peak in the Vosges Mountains in Eastern France on 24th June 1801. Victor Hugo later used this date as the prisoner number of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables: “24601”. After Victor’s first birthday, Sophie grew tired of the frequent upheaval of army life and settled in Paris with her sons. While there, Sophie regularly met with her youngest son’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie (1766-1812), with whom she may have had an affair. She soon learnt her husband, now a Colonel, also had a secret liaison, although he returned to the family in 1807. 

Joseph Léopold spent less than a year with his sons before being called to Spain to fight in the Peninsular War. Sophie and her sons moved into an old convent at the edge of Paris. Victor’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie, lived in hiding in a chapel on the estate from the Revolutionary Army who wished him dead due to his political beliefs. Sophie, who secretly shared these ideas, allowed Fanneau de La Horie to mentor her sons until they moved to Spain in 1811. The Spanish king Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) had honoured her husband with the title Count Hugo de Cogolludo y Sigüenza.

Abel Joseph, Eugène and Victor were sent to the Real Colegio de San Antonio de Abad in Madrid for a proper education, but Sophie wished to return to France. Joseph Léopold overruled his wife’s wish to take the boys with her, so she returned to Paris alone, officially separated from her husband. Whether she returned to her lover, Fanneau de La Horie is uncertain, but records state the Revolutionary Army arrested and executed him in 1812. To prevent his sons returning to their mother after their schooling, he enrolled them at a private boarding school in Paris where they remained for three years.

Adèle Hugo as a young woman, by Louis Boulanger

During his time at the school in Paris, where he also attended lectures at Lycée Louis le Grand, Victor Hugo developed a passion for writing. In 1817, he received an honourable mention for a poem he had written, and many Academicians refused to believe he was only 15 years old. After leaving school, Hugo moved in with his mother and started attending law school. Going against his mother’s wishes, Hugo began dating his childhood friend, Adèle Foucher (1803-68). A year after his mother died in June 1821, Hugo and Adèle married.

Hugo started his writing career with his brothers who established the periodical Le Conservateur littéraire (“The Literary Curator”). The magazine allowed writers to express their royalist views but had little success in liberal France. In 1822, the year of his marriage, Hugo wrote a book of poems, which earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII (1755-1824), and the following year, he published his first novel, Han d’Islande.

Victor Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine on the day of her first communion.

Hugo and Adèle celebrated the arrival of their first child Léopold in 1823, but sadly he died before his first birthday. The following year on 28th August, they welcomed their second child Léopoldine (1824-43), followed by Charles (1826-71), François-Victor (1828-73) and Adèle (1830-1915). His children did not hinder Hugo’s career, and he published five volumes of poetry between 1829 and 1840. The year before his youngest daughter’s birth, Hugo wrote his first mature novel, Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (“The Last Day of a Condemned Man”). The story expressed Hugo’s negative feelings toward the death penalty in France. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81) praised the book as “absolutely the most real and truthful of everything that Hugo wrote.” The story also influenced British writers, such as Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

Victor Hugo in 1829, lithograph by Achille Devéria

By the late 1820s, Hugo had a reputation as the figurehead of the Romantic literary movement. Several plays boosted his popularity and, in 1831, he published the hugely successful Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”). Set in 1482 during the reign of Louis XI (1423-83), the story focuses on the deformed character Quasimodo, who rings the bells at the Catholic cathedral. The novel prompted the City of Paris to repair the neglected Cathedral of Notre-Dame and appreciate the other pre-Renaissance buildings in the city.

Whilst Hugo experienced success in his career, his family life suffered. Both he and his wife conducted affairs, although they continued to live with each other and never divorced. Between 1830 and 1837, Adèle had a rendezvous with Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), a French critic and friend of the Hugo family. Possibly in retaliation, Hugo began seeing the French actress Juliette Drouet (1806-83) in 1833. As well as his mistress, Drouet acted as Hugo’s secretary and travelling companion. It is evident from letters that Drouet devoted her life to Hugo, but he did not treat her with similar respect.

Hugo’s celebrity status earned him friendships in many circles, including amongst composers and musicians. Hector Berlioz (1803-69) and Franz Liszt (1811-86) were among his closest companions and the latter regularly played for Hugo in private concerts. Liszt also taught Hugo to play his favourite piece by Beethoven (1770-1827) on the piano, albeit with only one finger. Another musical friend, Louise Bertin (1805-77) based an opera on Hugo’s Notre-Dame de ParisLa Esmeralda premiered in 1836 but closed after its fifth performance. Despite the flop, Hugo’s various works have inspired thousands of musical compositions, including over 100 operas. Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Rigoletto, for example, is based on Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, and Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86) based La Gioconda on the historical work Angelo, Tyrant of Padua.

As well as writing for pleasure, Hugo used his skills to tackle political issues. He joined the Académie française in 1841, but briefly withdrew from the scene in 1843 following the death of his eldest daughter. At just 19 years old, Léopoldine drowned in the Seine after a boat overturned, leaving her father devastated. He did not learn of her death straight away because he was travelling in the South of France. The first he knew of the incident was in a newspaper that he read while sitting in a cafe. He expressed his grief through poetry and used his daughter as the subject of many of his future works.

Hugo returned to the political scene in 1845 when King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) nominated him for the Higher Chamber as a pair de France (Peerage of France). He took the opportunity to speak out against social injustices and the death penalty. His strong opinions were known across Europe, especially after joining the National Assembly in 1849. Around the same time, he began an affair with the author Léonie d’Aunet (1820-79), which lasted approximately seven years. Due to his peerage, Hugo avoided punishment for his adultery. Unfortunately, d’Aunet faced two months in prison and a further six in a convent. Hugo promised to support her financially for the rest of her life, but he continued to conduct affairs with other women. 

When Napoleon III (1808-73) seized power in 1851, Hugo openly called him a traitor for his anti-parliamentary ideas. As a result, Hugo gained many enemies, prompting him to flee to Belgium and then the Bailiwick of Jersey, the largest Channel Island. Hugo’s politics caused problems in Jersey, most notably his support for an anti-Queen Victoria newspaper. In 1855, Jersey expelled Hugo from the island, and Hugo spent the next 15 years in exile on the Bailiwick of Guernsey. His family joined him the following year at Hauteville House in Saint Peter Port.

Portrait of “Cosette” by Emile Bayard (1862)

While in exile, Hugo continued to attack Napoleon through political pamphlets, such as Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d’un crime. France banned these works, but many copies found their way into the country, smuggled in bales of hay and tins of sardines. Hugo also produced three poetry collections while on the island, but his most notable work from the period is his novel, Les Misérables. Although published in 1862, Hugo started planning the story as early as the 1830s.

“My conviction is that this book is going to be one of the peaks, if not the crowning point of my work.”

Victor Hugo, 23rd March 1862

The inspiration for the main character in Les Misérables came from an incident Hugo witnessed in 1829. Hugo saw a policeman arrest a man for stealing a loaf of bread. At the start of the story, the protagonist Jean Valjean is in prison for stealing bread. Hugo also took inspiration from the ex-convict Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1557) for Valjean’s character. Vidocq’s criminal actions had landed him in prison, but on his release, he changed his ways. Vidocq became the father of modern criminology and was also the world’s first private detective.

Hugo’s diaries record many scenes that he later wrote into Les Misérables, including the attempted arrest of a prostitute. Hugo stepped in to defend the girl and recorded his speech in his diary, which, in turn, made it into his novel. This scene inspired the character Fantine, whose only means of earning money to look after her daughter Cosette was prostitution. Many real-life figures Hugo met or observed appear in the story. Examples include a street urchin (Gavroche) and French republican students fighting during the 1848 Paris insurrection (Enjolras and Les Amis de l’ABC). 

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables as though he is narrating the story rather than a character. He includes factual information to make the story seem less fictional, often referring to recent events. At one point, he even addresses the reader: “The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself…” Hugo also hid personal information in the novel. Examples include, the date his parents conceived him for Jean Valjean’s prison number “24601” and the date of (spoiler alert) Marius and Cosette’s wedding night is 16th February 1833, the same day Hugo first met his mistress Juliette Drouet. 

Due to his popularity as a poet, many people had high expectations for Hugo’s forthcoming novel. Hugo forbade his publishers from summarising the story before its publication. Instead, he asked them to focus on his past successes as a means of publicity. For example “What Victor H. did for the Gothic world in Notre-Dame de Paris, he accomplishes for the modern world in Les Misérables.” Rather than printing the entire novel, the publishers released Les Misérables in five volumes, the first of which they released in Brussels on 30th March 1862. The second volume appeared the following day, but sales of the remaining volumes did not start until 15th May.

Compared to Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo’s new novel received a lot of criticism. Many found the subject matter immoral, artificial and disappointing. Some people expressed contempt about Hugo’s support of revolutionaries. On the other hand, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) praised Hugo for drawing attention to social problems of the time. Despite the initial criticisms, Les Misérables sold well and remains a popular book today. During the same year of its publication, copies appeared in other languages, including Italian, Greek and Portuguese. Before long, people all over the continent knew the story.

Les Mis Poster

Since its publication, Les Misérables has been adapted for eight films, a radio production, three television programmes and an anime series. Of course, the most famous adaptation is the 1980 musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg (b.1944) and Alain Boublil (b.1941). Although originally performed in French, Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in the West End, running continuously since October 1985.

After the publication of Les Misérables, Hugo turned his attention to other social matters, particularly slavery. Although he believed colonialism would help to civilise “barbaric” nations, he called for an end to the slave trade.

“Only one slave on Earth is enough to dishonour the freedom of all men. So the abolition of slavery is, at this hour, the supreme goal of the thinkers.”

Victor Hugo, 17th January 1862

As well as campaigning against slavery, Hugo called for the abolition of the death penalty. Before his exile, Hugo declared “You have overthrown the throne… Now overthrow the scaffold.” Whilst he successfully influenced Geneva, Portugal and Colombia, he had little impact on the French government. In 1859, Napoleon III granted amnesty to all political exiles, but Hugo refused to return to Paris until Napoleon fell from power in 1870.

Shortly after his return to the French capital, the Siege of Paris began. This resulted in the capture of the city by Prussian forces. During this time, Parisians, including Hugo, were reduced to “eating the unknown” meat supplied by the Paris Zoo. Following the siege, Hugo temporarily moved to Brussels where he observed the goings-on in Paris through newspapers. Between March and May 1871, radical socialists created a short-lived revolutionary government. Writing for the Belgian newspaper l’Indépendance, Hugo expressed his support for the rebels, which angered many people. That evening, a mob of sixty men attempted to break into Hugo’s home, shouting “Death to Victor Hugo! Hang him! Death to the scoundrel!”

In 1872, Hugo attempted to encourage Parisians to re-elect him to the National Assembly, stating in his diary, “Dictatorship is a crime. This is a crime I am going to commit.” Despite people hailing Hugo as a national hero, he lost his bid. Nonetheless, he continued to express his views, prophesying that by the 20th century there would be no more war, no death penalty and no hatred. He believed Europe should unite as the “United States of Europe” to make the continent a peaceful place.

Avenue Victor-Hugo in Paris

Victor Hugo’s health started to go downhill from the mid-1870s after he suffered a mini-stroke. By this time, his wife Adèle had died, and his sons passed away soon afterwards. His remaining daughter Adèle lived in an insane asylum, so it fell to Hugo’s mistress Juliette Drouet to care for him. In 1878, Hugo suffered another mild stroke, yet he continued to inspire the people of Paris. For his 80th birthday, the city presented him with a Sèvres vase, an item traditionally reserved for sovereigns. Following this honour, the longest parade in French history took place, lasting 6 hours. Hugo watched the paraders from his house on the Avenue d’Eylau, soon renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo.

In 1883, Juliette Drouet passed away. Although they lived as lovers since the death of Hugo’s wife, they never married. On 22nd May 1885, at the age of 83, Victor Hugo breathed his last after suffering from pneumonia. The whole of France mourned his death and, although he requested a paupers funeral, he received a state funeral attended by over two million people and his final written words, “To love is to act”, became immortalised. His body rests in the Panthéon along with the writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-70).

“I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be buried in their hearse. I refuse [funeral] orations from all Churches. I demand a prayer to all souls. I believe in God.”

The Will of Victor Hugo
Town with Tumbledown Bridge, Victor Hugo, 1847

After his death, it came to light that Hugo drew and painted as a hobby. He produced over 4000 drawings but never revealed them to the public for fear they would detract from his literary work. His family and close friends knew about his artistic skills and often received handmade cards from the author, particularly during his exile. A few painters of the time tried to encourage Hugo to seriously consider working as a professional artist, including Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who believed Hugo had the potential to outshine the artists of their century. Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) also admired Hugo’s work.

Marble bust of Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin

Hugo’s legacy lives on in many ways, not just through the award-winning musical Les Misérables. In Guernsey, Jean Boucher (1870-1939) erected a sculpture of the author to commemorate his stay on the island. Several shops and cafes in Paris honour Hugo’s name, as does the school Lycée Victor Hugo, founded in the town of his birth. Hugo’s fame also spread across to America where he is remembered by street names in Quebec and San Francisco, and a city in Kansas. In 1929, the Vietnamese religion of Cao Đài venerated Hugo as a saint. 

Who is Victor Hugo? Most people answer “the author of Les Misérables“, but his biography proves this is just one of his many achievements. Victor Hugo was a poet, novelist, dramatist, politician, peer of France, drawer and painter. He has hundreds of works to his name and, in France, he is remembered for his radical thinking and opinions. As the crowds at his funeral show, Victor Hugo had many fans and his greatest works will live on through modern adaptations forevermore.

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Looking Sharp

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany

In the National Gallery, is a painting called The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), a German neoclassical painter. Zoffany, who spent his early years in England under the patronage of George III (1738-1820) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), captured the Sharp Family making music aboard their pleasure boat, Apollo, with All Saints Church, Fulham in the background. The Sharp siblings regularly appeared on the River Thames with their instruments to entertain the public on the banks.

Produced between 1779-1781, Zoffany’s painting indicates the wealth of the family through the portrayal of the upper-class fashions of the 18th century. Their musical boating parties attracted many people, evidencing their popularity, particularly among local dignitaries and even royalty. Yet, the family came from a more humble background.

The siblings grew up in Durham with their parents, Thomas Sharp (1693–1759), Archdeacon of Northumberland, and Grace Higgons, the daughter of English clergyman and travel writer George Wheler (1651-1724). Although they had an honourable upbringing, they did not have the financial advantages of the upper classes. Through sheer determination, love of music and fondness for each other, the Sharps worked their way up the ranks, first giving recitals at one of the brother’s home, before performing fortnightly water-borne concerts on their large barge between 1775-1783.

Granville Sharp

Seated in the centre of the painting is the most well-known of the Sharp siblings. Granville Sharp, born in Durham in 1735, played a variety of instruments, including the clarinet, oboe, flageolet, kettle drums, harp and a double-flute. He also sang with an impressive bass voice, which George III described as “the best in Britain”. Respected for his musical skills, Granville often signed his name G#, but it was not only in music that he made his name.

At the time of Granville’s birth, he had eight older brothers, although only five survived infancy. Five sisters soon followed, bringing the total number of children to 14. Their parents put away money for the children’s education, but by the time Granville reached his teens, the money was exhausted. Although he began his schooling at the all-boys school in Durham, Granville and his siblings received most of their tuition at home.

At the age of 15, Granville travelled to London to work as an apprentice for a linen draper. He found the work tiresome and longed for opportunities to hold discussions, arguments and debates. To fuel his passion, Granville took an interest in his fellow apprentices, learning Greek in order to debate the orthodox Bible with a Socinian colleague (someone who believes in God and Christian ideals but not the divinity of Jesus). He also learnt Hebrew so as to have theological discussions with a Jewish friend.

Not all of the Sharp brothers entered apprenticeships. The eldest, John, followed his father’s footsteps and was ordained into the Church. Whilst their father had not found wealth in that position, John worked hard to establish a miniature welfare state in his home in Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland where he was the perpetual curate. During his career, John oversaw the establishment of a school, a library, a hospital, and the first lifeboat service.

William Sharp (1729-1810)

At the age of 14, William Sharp (1729-1810) moved to London to study surgery. His exceptional skill and demeanour attracted the patronage of George III, who hired William as his private surgeon. After attending to Princess Amelia (1783-1810), who was often in poor health, the king offered William a baronetcy, which he turned down. Although William was well-off, he never forgot his past and paid attention to the needs of the poor. He considered his high position in society to be a stroke of luck, so established a free surgery for those denied such good fortune.

Like Granville, his brother James came to London as an apprentice. After completing his apprenticeship in ironmongery, James rose through the ranks to become a pioneer of the industrial revolution. James enjoyed making music in his spare time, often meeting with Granville and William, as well as his sisters Elizabeth and Judith who had also moved to London. The siblings usually met at William’s house in Mincing Lane, where they also gave concerts. Unfortunately, James passed away before the family began performing on the Thames.

Granville’s apprenticeship came to an end in 1757, the same year both his parents passed away. He quickly secured himself the position of Clerk in the Ordnance Office at the Tower of London, a civil service position, that also provided enough free time to pursue his musical talents and intellectual hobbies. Being so close to his siblings, both familially and geographically, allowed his passion for music to flourish. He also discussed his work with his brothers, who informed him of the goings-on in their careers.

Granville Sharp the Abolitionist Rescuing a Slave from the Hands of His Master – James Hayllar

On a visit to William’s surgery in 1765, Granville met a young black slave with severe wounds to his head. The slave, Jonathan Strong, originally from Barbados, received the injuries from his master David Lisle, who bashed the young lad repeatedly over the head with a pistol. After almost blinding him, Lisle discarded Strong on the streets where he was discovered and taken to William’s free surgery. Granville assisted William to treat Strong, but his condition was so severe, they needed to transfer him to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Out of the kindness of their hearts, Granville and William paid for Strong’s four-month stay.

After Strong left hospital, the Sharp brothers continued to look after him. When he was strong enough, they found him employment with a Quaker apothecary, where he worked for a year and a half before being discovered by his previous master. David Lisle, a lawyer, believed he still owned Strong, despite discarding him in the street two years previously. Lisle wished to sell Strong to his friend James Kerr of Harley Street for £30. Kerr owned a plantation in Jamaica and wanted to ship Strong to the Caribbean to work there. Lisle and Kerr employed two men to kidnap Strong but did not anticipate the slave’s new contacts.

Following his capture, Strong managed to get word to Granville, who immediately went to the Lord Mayor of London to plead his case. The Lord Mayor, possibly Sir Thomas Davies, in turn, spoke to Lisle and Kerr about their claim on the slave. Kerr produced the bill of sale to prove he had purchased Strong from Lisle, but without more evidence, the Lord Mayor ordered Strong’s release from his imprisonment. The case, however, was far from over.

Almost immediately after his release, a second kidnap attempt took place, this time by West India Captain David Laird, who threatened to take Strong straight to James Kerr. Fortunately, Granville witnessed the attack and claimed he would charge Laird with assault if he did not let the young man go. Meanwhile, Lisle tried to sue Granville £200 for taking his property. When Granville approached his lawyers on the subject, they told him Lisle had every right to claim Strong as his possession. Unable to “believe the law of England was really so injurious to natural rights,” Granville spent the following two years studying English laws.

Lisle soon gave up the fight, but Kerr remained determined to win his case. After two years of persisting, the court dismissed the case and fined Kerr for time-wasting. For the first time in his life, twenty-year-old Jonathan Strong was a free man. Sadly, his freedom did not last long, and he passed away five years later.

Granville Sharp

Granville’s association with Jonathan Strong earned him the moniker “protector of the Negro”. A couple of slaves approached Granville for support, hoping for similar results, but the courts were reluctant to be involved in human possession disputes. At this time, British organisations were the largest slave traders in the world. Slave labour was vital for the British economy, therefore, owners were reluctant to free their slaves.

Determined to put an end to slavery, Granville published A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery: Or Admitting the Least Claim of Private Property in the Persons of Men in England in 1769. He expressed the view that “the laws of nature” make everyone equal and it is only laws imposed by society that state otherwise. He demonstrated that slavery was illegal because the freedom of a man was priceless. Granville received support from James Oglethorpe (1696-1785) of Cranham Hall, the founder of the American state of Georgia. Together, they unsuccessfully attempted to convince British leadership to give slaves the same rights as Englishmen. 

Slavery had never been authorised by law in England and Wales. Granville used this to his advantage when learning of the plight of another black slave in 1772. James Somerset, an enslaved African, travelled to England with his American owner Charles Stewart in 1769 but managed to escape a couple of years later. Unfortunately, slave hunters found Somerset and locked him in a ship bound for Jamaica. Before Somerset attempted to flee, Charles Stewart had him baptised as a Christian. On learning of his capture, three of Somerset’s Godparents complained to the courts. When Granville heard of the case, he supplied the lawyers supporting Somerset with his formidable knowledge of English laws.

Granville proved that slavery was illegal under English law, so Somerset became a free man the moment he stepped on English soil. Although the court case lasted five months, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, William Murray, Lord Mansfield (1705-93), announced James Somerset’s freedom and ended the proceedings. Somerset and his supporters celebrated the result, but this was not the end of slavery. Whilst it was illegal to own a slave in England, the law condoned using slaves in overseas territories.

The Slave Ship – J. M. W. Turner

Plantation owners in the Americas continued to exploit slaves, abducting them from their homes in Africa and forcing them to work in harsh conditions in a foreign land. In 1781, 60 slaves died from neglect and over-crowding aboard the British slave ship Zong, causing the crew to take drastic action, massacring over 130 slaves by throwing them overboard. To add to the morally corrupt event, the shipowner tried to claim compensation for the loss of his property at sea. 

Granville learnt of the massacre in 1783 from Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), a freed slave from the Kingdom of Benin. Horrified by the events aboard the Zong, Granville immediately involved himself with the court case against the Liverpool merchant claiming insurance. The merchant’s lawyer John Lee (1733-93) claimed: “the case was the same as if assets had been thrown overboard.” Granville argued that jettisoning slaves was murder and should be punished accordingly. Unfortunately, the judge dismissed Granville’s accusation but ruled the slave owner could not file for insurance due to lack of evidence. 

Medallion, 1787

The more Granville learnt about the lives of slaves, the greater his wish to abolish slavery entirely. He was not alone with this wish, but the largest groups of anti-slavery protesters were Quakers, a domination forbidden from participating in Parliament. In 1787, nine Quakers and three Anglicans established the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but to make an impact, they needed someone with parliamentary connections. A vote unanimously elected Granville, one of the Anglican founders of the society, to present their petitions.

Due to modesty, Granville refused to chair the meetings for the society but regularly attended for the following twenty years. Parliament rejected many of their petitions, but they continued to work tirelessly nonetheless. The society received support from other anti-slavery campaigners, including the founder of the Wedgwood company Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), who arranged the production of anti-slavery medallions, and the politician William Wilberforce (1759-1883), who presented the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, albeit unsuccessful. Through Granville’s connections, the society also received support from abolitionists in America.

Granville made attempts to return freed-slaves in Britain to their native countries. Many worried they would return to slavery, so Granville drew up plans for a new Christian society called “The Province of Freedom”. The first attempt struggled from the start, with fires on ships and many Africans returning home before the plans were fully operational. The first settlement, named Granville Town, lasted a few months before local tribes burnt it down. A second attempt to create “The Province of Freedom” proved more successful. With the help of a former American slave, Thomas Peters (1738-92) and British brothers, Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) and John Clarkson (1764-1828), Granville helped to found the port city Freetown in Sierra Leone.

In 1807, the society’s hard work paid off when the Houses of Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act/Act of Abolition. When Granville, now 71 years old, heard the news, he fell to his knees in prayer. Many of the original abolitionists did not live to see the result and Granville received the affectionate accolade of the “grand old man of the abolition struggle”.

A white glass medallion of Granville Sharp by Catherine Andras 1809

As well as anti-slavery campaigns, Granville supported American colonists, which meant resigning from his job due to its support for the British forces fighting in America. Away from politics, Granville enjoyed his music but also established the British and Foreign Bible Society (now known as the Bible Society) with Wilberforce and Methodist preacher Thomas Charles (1755-1814) to spread the use of the scriptures throughout the world. Initially, the society focused on printing bibles in Welsh but soon produced bibles in Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic. They sent Gospels abroad in the languages of the Iroquois and Romani people in Canada and America to make the Bible accessible for more people. By 1824, the British and Foreign Bible Society had “distributed 1,723,251 Bibles, and 2,529,114 Testaments—making a total of 4,252,365.” Today the society is global with 150 Bible Societies around the world.

Granville Sharp passed away on 6th July 1813 before he had the chance to see the full effects of the Slave Trade Act. His tomb lies beside the graves of his siblings William and Elizabeth in All Saints Church, Fulham, which is visible in the background of the painting of the Sharp family.

“Here by the Remains of the Brother and Sister whom he tenderly loved lie those of GRANVILLE SHARP Esqr. at the age of 79 this venerable Philanthropist terminated his Career of almost unparalleled activity and usefulness July 6th 1813 Leaving behind him a name That will be Cherished with Affection and Gratitude as long as any homage shall be paid to those principles of JUSTICE HUMANITY and RELIGION which for nearly half a Century He promoted by his Exertions and adorned by his Example

Inscription on Granville Sharp’s tomb

A memorial in Westminster Abbey remembers the life of Granville Sharp and, in 2007, he featured on the 50p Royal Mail stamp issued to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom. His is also memorialised in Granville Town in Sierra Leone and Granville in Jamaica, both named in his honour.

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany intrigues viewers, who wonder about the identity of the musical family and the reason behind their public concerts. At a glance, it is impossible to tell that one family member made such an impact in the 18th century, helping to bring about changes that continue to shape our societies today.

Granville’s legacy suggests that not everyone has forgotten him, but the majority of people have not heard his name. It goes to show how quickly good deeds of others are overshadowed by new events, which in turn get buried beneath the ever-growing pile of history. In an attempt to discover the Sharp Family in Zoffany’s painting, a lesser-known period of Georgian Britain has emerged. Next time you view a portrait of someone you have not heard of, “google” them. You may be surprised by what you learn.


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Pop Art Superstar

Andy Warhol is a name that is synonymous with Pop Art, a visual art movement that flourished in the 1960s. Hundreds of exhibitions of Warhol’s works have taken place all over the world; this year it was Tate Modern’s turn to display his paintings. To make their exhibition different from others, Tate Modern has focused on Andy Warhol’s life as much as his work, exploring who he was as a person, not just an artist. Due to popular demand (and Covid-19 restrictions), Tate has extended the Andy Warhol exhibition to 15th November 2020.

Andrew Warhola was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 6th August 1928 to Ondrej (1889-1942) and Julia (1892-1972). His parents were emigrants from Mikó, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia) and his father worked as a coal miner. Ondrej and Julia’s eldest son died before they moved to America, where they had three more children: Pavol (Paul), Ján (John, 1925-2010) and Andrew.

Warhol did not have the easiest of childhoods. At eight years old, Warhol suffered from Sydenham’s chorea and spent a great deal of time in bed drawing. When Warhol was 13, Ondrej Warhola passed away in an accident and left all his savings to his youngest son, and assigned his older sons the responsibility to ensure Andy attended college. True to their word, Warhol attended the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, graduating in 1949 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in pictorial design.

At the age of 21, Warhol moved to New York, permanently removing the “a” from the end of his surname. His mother joined him a couple of years later, remaining with him for the rest of her life. As a commercial artist, Warhol worked for magazines, such as Glamour, where he became known for his simple line drawings. 

People commented on Warhol’s ability to convey emotion in his line drawings, but Warhol was keen to develop his techniques further. He developed a “blotting” technique, which involved applying ink to paper and blotting the ink while still wet. Blotting was a rudimentary process of the silkscreen printmaking method for which he is most known.

Warhol wanted to be famous and taken seriously as an artist, but working for magazines was not going to help him achieve his goal. During the 1950s, he exhibited some of his artworks in exhibitions taking inspiration from new forms of art by other artists, for example, Jasper Johns (b.1930) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) who used a combination of paint and recognisable objects in their works.

Using stencils to aid his accuracy, Warhol started including well-known brands in his paintings, most notably Campbell’s soup. Warhol exhibited his Campbell’s Soup Can for the first time in 1962. He produced many versions of the can, including a canvas featuring 100 identical cans of beef noodle soup. Although painted by hand, Warhol used stencils to speed up the process and help him maintain accuracy. Whilst the painting may seem random in the 21st century, Warhol was trying to express a message about the importance of art and consumerism in the post-war era. It was also a reference to his childhood when a can of Campbell’s Soup was something precious. Warhol and his brothers grew up eating watered-down ketchup with salt for soup.

Warhol was pleased with the effectiveness of using stencils but wanted to speed up the process even more. He started to adopt the technique of screenprinting, which allowed him to reproduce an image onto a canvas multiple times. He discovered he could also print pre-existing photographs from magazines and newspapers in a similar way, playing around with the colours and amount of ink to create different effects.

Green Coca-Cola Bottles is an example of Warhol’s use of screenprinting. He also used acrylic paint and graphite to add some details by hand. Coca-Cola did not have the same connotations as Campbell’s Soup did to his childhood, but Warhol was trying to convey a message:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Andy Warhol, The philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and back again (1975)

Using well-known images and icons helped Andy Warhol stand out and attract attention. When Marilyn Monroe (1926-62) passed away from a drug overdose, Warhol produced his Marilyn Diptych. On one canvas, Warhol printed several coloured prints of a publicity photo for Monroe’s 1953 film Niagara, and on the opposite canvas, did the same in black and white. Critics have added meaning to this artwork, suggesting it is a contrast between Monroe’s public and private life, or life and death.

Throughout history, artists have employed others to do some of the work for them; Andy Warhol was no different. Warhol sent his chosen images to a professional silk screen maker with instructions on size to produce the stencils for his work. These stencils printed the image, usually in black and white, onto a canvas pre-painted by Warhol. As time went on, he began to experiment with prints in a range of colours.

White Brillo Boxes is an example of Warhol’s coloured prints. Rather than canvas, Warhol used plywood boxes made by a cabinet maker, onto which he printed the logo and packaging details of the original boxes of Brillo scouring packs. This process turned the commercial design by James Harvey (1929–65) into an artform.

Warhol believed the purpose of art was for entertainment, and he aimed to paint to please people. Unfortunately, he also upset several people with his subject matter. Occasionally, Warhol used photographs from news reports detailing suicide, violence and car crashes, resulting in a mix of reactions. Using other people’s images also got Warhol in trouble. For his Flower series, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus flowers from a 1964 copy of Modern Photography magazine and was subsequently sued by Patricia Caulfield, the photographer, for copyright infringement.

Warhol believed creating pop art was “being like a machine” because the process was mechanical and removed the artist’s personal touch from the outcome. He claimed “I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody,” meaning treat everyone equally. Warhol’s personal life, on the other hand, was far from machine-like.

Throughout his life, Warhol was uncomfortable with his physical appearance and had plastic surgery on his nose in 1957. Unhappy with the result, he experimented with fashion to transform his appearance. Self-conscious of his receding hairline, Warhol wore blond toupees, which he replaced with silver and grey ones as he got older.

During the 1950s, Warhol came out to the LGBTQ+ communities in New York, revealing his homosexuality. It was a difficult time for gay men because same-sex relationships were illegal in America. Nevertheless, Warhol got together with the poet John Giorno (1936-2019), who he met at an exhibition in 1962. Giorno became a prominent subject for Warhol’s work, particularly in his experimental film Sleep, a five-hour recording of Giorno sleeping. Not many people appreciated the film, but it was not the outcome of the project but the process that mattered most to Warhol, revealing his tender feelings towards his lover.

Warhol continued to make films with his associates until 1972. During this time, they produced over 500 unscripted films, ignoring all traditional methods of film-making. In 1963, Warhol set up an experimental studio called The Factory, which his lover at the time, Billy Name (1940-2016), decorated in silver paint and foil. Over the next few years, Warhol recorded the people who visited his studio, which he turned into a film called Screen Tests.

The people who visited The Factory, “superstars” as Warhol called them, were instructed to be themselves for the duration of the reel as though they did not know there was a camera. Although some of the “superstars” were already well-known, the film aimed to encapsulate Warhol’s maxim that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”

Edie Sedgwick (1943-71) was the most prominent actress in Warhol’s film, gaining success for her unique style and personality. She went on to star in more films by Warhol and other producers until her death from an accidental overdose at the age of 28. Other “superstars” included Susan Sontag (1933-2004), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Bob Dylan (b.1944) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-97).

Warhol’s first commercial success in the film industry was The Chelsea Girls, released in 1966. Directed by Warhol and Paul Morrissey (b.1938), the film follows the lives of several young women who live at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Many of the actresses were Warhol’s “superstars” from the Screen Tests.

Warhol announced his retirement from painting in favour of film making with a farewell show in 1965. Nonetheless, he continued to produce printed matter, such as magazines, posters and books, as promotional materials. He also designed record covers for bands, such as The Velvet Underground and Nico. Christa Päffgen (1938-88), known by the stage name Nico, took inspiration from Warhol’s film The Chelsea Girls, using the title for her debut album.

In 1967, Warhol was approached by an aspiring film writer Valerie Solanas (1936-88) who asked him to read through her script. He promised he would and did, but found it so disturbing that he pretended to have lost it when she contacted him later. Convinced Warhol had stolen her work, Solonas, later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, turned up at The Factory on 3rd June 1968 and shot him three times at close range. Warhol was rushed to hospital and declared clinically dead.

Miraculously, the doctors managed to revive Warhol, but he suffered severe damage to his lungs, spleen, stomach, liver, and oesophagus. Although they operated on him, the surgeons did not expect Warhol to live. Andy Warhol surprised them all by opening his eyes and starting the long road to recovery. One of the doctors remarked, “This man made his mind up he was going to live.”

Due to the severity of Solanas’ mental health, the judge only sentenced her to three years in prison. On her release, she stalked Warhol until caught and institutionalised. Warhol lived in fear that Solanas would attack him again and closed The Factory. He decided to pass most of his film directing to Morrissey and return to his “old art”. For a while, Warhol was a shell of his former self, or a “Cardboard Andy” as Billy Name dubbed him. Yet, when interviewed, Warhol was able to inject humour into his situation, comparing the stitches on his chest to a Yves Saint Laurent dress.

Compared to the 1960s, the 70s were a quiet decade for Warhol. He focused on several commissions for well-off patrons, including the Shah of Iran, Mick Jagger (b.1943), Liza Minnelli (b.1946), John Lennon (1940-80) and Diana Ross (b.1944). He also published a book,  The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, in which he expressed the idea “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Still suffering from the attempt on his life, Warhol received another blow when his mother passed away in 1972. Being a private, reticent man, Warhol did not tell anyone about her death, not even his long-term partner Jed Johnson (1948-96) who found out years later from one of Warhol’s brothers.

When not working on commissions, Warhol often asked other people for painting ideas. His art dealer suggested he paint a portrait of the most important person of the 20th century, Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Warhol liked the suggestion but insisted the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was the most important man. At the time, Mao had just received a visit from President Richard Nixon (1913-94) and sold, or forced people to buy, over a million copies of his Little Red Book

“Everybody’s asking me if I’m a Communist because I’ve done Mao. So now I’m doing hammers and sickles for communism, and skulls for fascism.” Naturally, people wondered if Warhol was a Communist but, in reality, he took inspiration from communist graffiti on walls in Italy, for example, the hammer and sickle symbols of the Soviet Union. To prove he did not affiliate with the party, Warhol painted images of skulls to represent fascism, a form of far-right dictatorial power at the opposite side of the political spectrum.

In 1975, the Italian art dealer Luciano Anselmino commissioned Warhol to paint a series featuring portraits of Black and Latin American drag queens and trans women. Rarely seen in fine art and not a community Warhol identified with, some people questioned the ethicality of the project. Nonetheless, Warhol took on the commission, hiring 14 models. Anselmino wanted Warhol to depict the dramatisation of gender, suggesting drag queens with 5 o’clock shadow, but Warhol deviated from the proposal to explore the glamour and personality of the models.

Most of Warhol’s models remain anonymous, but some have been named, such as American activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945-92). Born Malcolm Michaels Jr, Johnson self-identified as a drag queen and became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and was popular with New York’s gay and art scene. Daily attacks of racism and homophobia caused Johnson’s mental health to suffer and, after a pride parade in 1992, the police found Johnson’s body floating in the River Hudson. Initially ruled as suicide, a head wound suggested murder.

Andy Warhol’s artwork and near brush with death made him an international celebrity. During the 1970s, he spent most evenings socialising with other well-known people, which he jokingly called his “social disease”. In 1986, Warhol hosted a chat show called Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, which played on his celebrity status and network. Many of the guests were up and coming musicians, such as Debbie Harry (b.1945) and Grace Jones (b.1948), and the English actor (Sir) Ian McKellen (b.1939).

Debbie Harry and Grace Jones both became subjects for Warhol’s paintings in the 1980s. Now known as the lead singer of Blondie, Harry used to daydream Marilyn Monroe was her mother and was “stunned” and “humbled” when Warhol painted her portrait in the style of the one he produced of her idol. As well as Harry and Jones, Warhol painted many celebrities, including Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton (b.1946) and Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). The latter was for a German gallery and reflected the concerns of the Cold War developing between the USA and USSR.

One of Warhol’s favourite “celebrities” to paint was the Statue of Liberty. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the statue arriving in New York as a gift from France, Warhol produced a close-up portrait of the statue’s face. Rather than using a photograph of the statue, Warhol used an image of a centenary biscuit tin and included the logo “Fabis” in the painting. In the background, Warhol covered the canvas with a military camouflage print to suggest that, although the statue represents freedom, wars still waged in the world.

The Statue of Liberty had a deeper meaning for Warhol. When his parents emigrated to the United States, they landed at Ellis Island, near the location of the statue. His parents’ names are listed on the “Wall of Honour” in the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Other people on the wall include Irving Berlin (1888-1989), Bob Hope (1903-2003) and Cary Grant (1904-86).

In the 1980s, Warhol experimented with his hairstyle – or wig style – creating what he called his “fright wig”. In self-portraits and photographs, the wig stands out, taking on the status of art in itself. His appearance was an icon and his hair as recognisable as his work, but his close friends knew this was only a facade for the public. In reality, Warhol was in severe pain and lived as an introverted individual. His self-portrait of 1986 reveals his gaunt face and poor health.

One of Warhol’s final works was Sixty Last Suppers (1986), which was part of a series commissioned by collector and gallerist Alexander Iolas (1907-87). Based on Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) The Last Supper, Warhol exceeded expectations by producing over 100 variations on the theme, making it the most extensive series of religious-themed works by an American artist.

Speaking about the work, Warhol stated, “It’s a good picture… It’s something you see all the time. You don’t think about it.” Yet, it may have held more meaning for Warhol than he let on. The image depicts a group of men, something Warhol had never painted before. Although it is a Biblical scene, Warhol produced his versions at a time when the private lives of gay men were under scrutiny. Not long before working on the Last Supper series, Warhol’s previous partner Jon Gould passed away from an AIDS-related illness; the fact that, in this scene, Jesus was only hours from his crucifixion, may not have been lost on Warhol. With rapidly declining health, Warhol knew that he too was not long for the world.

Warhol’s Last Supper paintings were exhibited in Milan after which he reluctantly returned to New York for a gallbladder operation. Although a routine surgery, Warhol’s previous gunshot wound and declining health made the operation riskier – a factor that surgeons did not take into account at the time. Doctors fully expected Warhol to survive the surgery, but on 22nd February 1987 at the age of 58, Warhol passed away in his sleep from a sudden post-operative irregular heartbeat.

Andy Warhol was a leading figure in the pop art movement, but whilst this is an umbrella term for his work, it is not easy to categorise individual pieces. As one journalist for The Economist put it, Warhol is the “bellwether of the art market”. By focusing on his life as much as his work, Tate helped visitors to the gallery begin to understand the thought processes behind Warhol’s paintings and how he developed such a unique style. Andy Warhol’s work may not be to everybody’s taste, but he was certainly an intriguing individual. 

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Pastel Style

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

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

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

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

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

Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752)

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Self-Portrait – Charles-Antoine Coypel (1733)

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1704-88)

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

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

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

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

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

Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715-83)

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Théophile van Robais – Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1770)

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

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

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

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

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

John Russell (1745-1806)

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

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

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

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

Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79)

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

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

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

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

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

William and Mary Hoare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-89)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Spot the Cat

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

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

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

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

Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading (c.1520)

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Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wedding Feast at Cana – Veronese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Historical Hanging of Scipio: the Tessin Battle – Giulio Romano

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

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

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

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

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Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables – Frans Snyders

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

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

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

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

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

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The Painter’s Studio – Gustave Courbet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peasant Family in an Interior – Louis Le Nain

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fruit and Vegetable Seller – Louise Moïllon

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

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

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

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

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The Painter’s Studio – David Ryckaert III

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

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

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

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

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The Reading – Jean-Baptiste Hilaire

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

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

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

 

The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins (1849-1910)

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The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins

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

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

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

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

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Portrait of Madame M. – Henri Rousseau

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

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

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

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

Nebamun fowling in the marshes

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Nebamun fowling in the marshes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supper at Emmaus – Titian (1488-1576)

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Supper at Emmaus – Titian

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

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

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

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


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The Finest of the Fine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was followed by Jesus appearing to Mary.

The Nativity – Jacques Stella (1596-1657)

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The Nativity – Jacques Stella

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

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

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

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

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

The Crucifixion – Master of the Virgo inter Virgines

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

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

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

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The Triumph of Judith – Luca Giordano

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

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

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

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

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

An Allegory of Innocence and Guile – Maerten van Heemskerck

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

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

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

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

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A Miracle of the Eucharist – Sassetta

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

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

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

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

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Reading lesson in a convent – François Marius Granet

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

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

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

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – Francesco Trevisani (1656-1764)

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Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – Francesco Trevisani.

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

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

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

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Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter – Anthony van Dyck

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

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

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

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

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Self Portrait – Francois-Saint Bonvin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gibside from the North – Turner (1775-1851)

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Gibside from the North – Turner

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

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

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

Barnard Castle – Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)

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Barnard Castle – Thomas Girtin

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

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

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

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

Dutch Men of War at Anchor -Simon de Vlieger

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

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

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

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Beach Scene at Low Tide – Eugène Boudin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mowers – Charles-Émile Jacque (1813-94)

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Mowers, Charles-Emile Jacque

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

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

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

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After the Thunderstorm – Achille-Etna Michallon

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

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

Prison Interior – Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

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

Prison Interior – Goya

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

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

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

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The Rape of Helen – Francesco Primaticcio

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

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

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

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

Mercury and Argus – Pierre Henri de Valenciennes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fruit and Flowers – Henri Fantin-Latour

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

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

Breakfast piece – Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582-1647)

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Breakfast piece – Jacob van Hulsdonck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Developing Selfies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rembrandt (1606-69)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frida Kahlo (1907-54)

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

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

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

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

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

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41)

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

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

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

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Village Scene, 1938

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

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

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998)

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Self-Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victor Brecheret (1894-1955)

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Self-Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amalia Ulman (b.1989)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Inspired by Flowers

Whilst the world was put in lockdown, the sun began to shine in England, lifting people’s spirits with signs of spring. Although people were told to stay at home, the warm weather could be enjoyed from back gardens, patios, and balconies. Unfortunately, not everyone had access to personal outside spaces, so Google Arts & Culture put together an online exhibition of artworks full of the blooming blossoms and flowers of spring.

Spring Has Sprung explored twelve different artists, some well known and others less so, who had been inspired by flowers. Some artists were drawn to flowers because of their beauty and colours, whereas, others were inspired by the symbolism and meanings portrayed by the plants.

Flowers are usually used to symbolise spring, however, certain folk cultures and traditions assign different meanings to specific plants. In the United Kingdom, for example, the red poppy is a symbol of remembrance of those fallen in war. Red roses traditionally represent love, however, be careful when purchasing other colours. Yellow roses can either mean friendship or jealousy and white, innocence and purity. White and red together symbolise unity, and red and yellow mean joy and happiness. Black, of course, represents death and pink is for grace and gratitude. A thornless rose is said to symbolise love at first sight.

Other flower symbolism includes:

  • Amaryllis – pride
  • Cypress – death, mourning or despair
  • Daffodil – uncertainty and new beginnings
  • Daisy – innocence
  • Gladiolus – strength of character
  • Heather – protection (white), solitude (purple)
  • Iris – good news
  • Lavender – devotion
  • Marigold – pain and grief
  • Orchid – refined beauty
  • Pansy – thoughtfulness
  • Primrose – eternal love
  • Rosemary – remembrance
  • Tulip – undying love (red), forgiveness (white), strength (black), hope (yellow)
  • Violet – faithfulness

Of course, not everyone believes in these meanings and artists do not always think of such things when painting, however, for some people, these symbols may add meaning to a particular artwork.

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Throughout his career, French Impressionist Claude Monet produced approximately 250 oil paintings of water lilies, or nymphéas as they are known in French. The majority of these paintings were produced in Monet’s flower garden at his home in Giverny. Although he had travelled around France and London, his final thirty years were restricted due to suffering from cataracts. As a result, Monet worked mostly from home and the water lilies became his primary focus.

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Monet, right, in his garden at Giverny, 1922

Monet purchased his water meadow garden in 1893 and began a vast landscaping project. Several ponds were dug and filled with local white water lilies as well as blue, yellow and pink varieties from South America and Egypt. Across one pond, Monet erected a Japanese bridge, which became a central feature in later paintings. From 1899 onwards, Monet’s artwork focused almost exclusively on his garden, experimenting with the way sunlight and moonlight produced mirror-like reflections on the water. Gary Tinterow, the author of Modern Europe (1987) commented that Monet had developed “a completely new, fluid, and somewhat audacious style of painting in which the water-lily pond became the point of departure for an almost abstract art.”

Monet’s Water Lilies differed from his previous works, which mostly consisted of landscapes. Whereas landscapes depict a whole vista, Monet was focusing on smaller sections of his garden, allowing the lilies to take centre stage.

Due to suffering from cataracts, Monet saw the world through a reddish tone, which is evident in some of his water lily paintings. Later in life, Monet had surgery, which may have removed some of the lens that prevents the eye from seeing ultraviolet wavelengths of light. As a result, this may have affected the range of colours he perceived, which would explain the bluer water lilies in later paintings. Monet may have even repainted some of the artworks he had produced before his operation.

After World War One, Monet also painted a series of weeping willow trees in tribute to the fallen French soldiers. Monet’s younger son Michel was a soldier during the war and it was Michel who inherited Monet’s estate after his death from lung cancer in 1926. Forty years later, Michel bequeathed the gardens to the French Academy of Fine Arts and they are now open to the public.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

When it comes to flowers, Van Gogh is most famous for his Sunflowers. Also known as Tournesols, this is the name of two series of paintings by the Dutch artist, the first made in Paris in 1887 and the second the following year in Arles. The first series depicts sunflowers lying on the ground, however, the second shows a bouquet in a vase.

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The sunflowers painted in Paris are less known, although it is possible to recognise Van Gogh’s distinctive style. During this time, Van Gogh was living with his brother Theo, which is one of the reasons why this series is less known than the second. Most of Van Gogh’s life has been pieced together from letters he wrote to his brother. The years 1886-88 are mostly missing from his biography since he did not need to write to Theo whilst they were living together.

The Arles Sunflowers are far more recognisable and can be found in collections all over the world. Van Gogh initially produced four paintings of sunflower bouquets, the first which is currently in a private collection and the second which was destroyed during the Second World War. The third version hangs in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and the fourth in the National Gallery, London. In 1889, Van Gogh produced three repetitions of the third and fourth versions, which can be found in Philadelphia, Amsterdam and Tokyo.

Whilst living in Arles, Van Gogh invited his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) to stay. In preparation for the visit, Van Gogh decided to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom with his sunflower paintings. “It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that — … that’s… the flower’.” (Vincent to Theo, 1889)

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin painted Van Gogh at work on one of the sunflower paintings. Despite recognising himself, Van Gogh disliked the painting, claiming Gauguin had portrayed him as a madman.

The yellow quality of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was the result of the introduction of new pigments. These allowed Van Gogh to portray the flowers in vivid detail. Unfortunately, Van Gogh could only afford the cheaper paints and the paintings are gradually losing their bright colour.

Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)

Georgia O’Keefe was an American painter known for her paintings of enlarged flowers. She also produced landscapes of New York and New Mexico and is known as the “Mother of American modernism”. As well as being an artist, O’Keefe was a keen gardener and liked to make several paintings of specific flowers she came across. She was particularly drawn to the colours and petals of the canna lilies she found in New York.

From 1915 to 1927, O’Keefe produced nine paintings that are collectively known as the Red Canna series. Although she began by painting a bouquet of the flowers, her artwork progressed to almost abstract close-up images. O’Keefe tried to reflect the way she saw flowers, first at a distance, then in close quarters.

“Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”
– Georgia O’Keefe

Unfortunately, art critics, mostly male, have misinterpreted O’Keefe’s work as references of a sexual nature. The close-up depictions of flower petals and the insides of the canna lilies have been compared to female genitalia. This was not O’Keefe’s intention.

O’Keefe was fascinated by colour, particularly the varying shades of red, yellow and orange that magnified the texture of the canna lily. An article written by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts states, “In these extreme close-ups she established a new kind of modern still life with no references to atmospheric effects or realistic details, reflecting her statement, ‘I paint because color is significant.'” Unfortunately, O’Keefe’s works are still misconstrued as female sexuality today.

Andy Warhol (1928-87)

As a leader of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol was best known for his screen prints of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Gold Marilyn Monroe. Lesser known is his 1964 series Flowers which featured in that year’s June edition of Modern Photography magazine. They were later exhibited in the Leo Castello gallery in New York.

For this body of work, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus blossom taken by Patricia Caulfield, something for which she later took him to court. Using the photograph as a template, Warhol used a silkscreen process to build up the layers, each one being a different, vibrant colour. The template could be used multiple times, allowing Warhol to produce a total of ten screenprints. He experimented with contrasting colours and occasionally added in extra elements, for example, shadows.

The final outcomes are far removed from the original photograph. Warhol flattened and cropped the flowers, removing any distinguishing features and textures. The simplified flowers no longer appear natural and they are difficult to identify. Various critics mistook them for anemones, nasturtium and pansies.

Flowers was a departure from the norm for Warhol, who usually focused on mass culture and brands. Flowers have been included in art for centuries, making them iconic, timeless and unaffiliated with a particular art movement. The flowers also feel impersonal and, despite being based on a photograph, unnatural. The silkscreen process was originally intended for commercial use, as a method of mass production, however, Warhol adopted it as his signature style.

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Twenty years after completing Flowers, Warhol returned to the subject with his Daisy series. It is not certain whether these prints were based upon a photograph but the single flower is easier to identify. Rather than using a single block colour for the daisy, Warhol created a sense of texture and tone, printing delicate shapes and a detailed outline. Whilst the print is still simple and bold, it is much more delicate than his previous series.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621)

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder was a painter from the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) who specialised in painting still-lifes of flowers. During his career, he became the dean of the Guild of Saint Luke (the guild of painters), which helped to establish him as a leading figure in the fashionable floral painting genre. All three of Bosschaert’s sons, Ambrosius II, Johannes and Abraham, became flower painters.

Bosschaert was one of the first artists to focus on flower bouquets, typically of tulips and roses. The majority of his paintings were symmetrical and painted with scientific accuracy. This suggests he painstakingly set up the bouquets and may have studied books about flowers to ensure he got all the minute details correct.

At the time, the Netherlands was a highly religious country and it is said Bosschaert hid symbolic and religious meanings in his paintings. These hidden meanings are not so obvious today, however, the inclusion of butterflies and dragonflies are a reminder of the brevity of life. The short-lived flowers, such as carnations, tulips, violets, roses and hyacinths, symbolise the transience of beauty.

Due to the prosperous 17th-century Dutch market, Bosschaert became highly successful and coincided with the national obsession with exotic flowers, also known as Tulip Mania. Despite being popular, the number of paintings by Bosschaert is relatively low. This was partly because he worked as an art dealer but also because his paintings, full of painstaking detail, took a long time to complete.

Jeff Koons (b.1955)

Jeff Koons is an American artist known for his sculptures depicting everyday objects and animals. His work usually tests the boundaries between popular and elite culture, merging modern techniques with references to older cultures. Usually of a significant scale, Koons’ artwork has received mixed reviews, some saying they are of major art-historical importance, and others dismissing them as a waste of space.

An example of Koons’ work sits on the terrace outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain. Puppy is a 43 ft tall topiary sculpture of a West Highland Terrier built from stainless steel and covered with a carpet of flowers. The various coloured flowers include marigolds, begonias, petunias and lobelias.

A similar style sculpture is Split-Rocker, which Koons designed in 2000. The design is composed of two halves each resembling a toy belonging to Koons’ son. When the halves are placed together, they form the head of a giant child’s rocker. Like Puppy, the 37 ft sculpture is covered with 27,000 live flowers of various genus and colour.

In the art world, Koons’ work is labelled as Neo-Pop or Post-Pop. He claims there is no hidden meaning in his work but his choice of subject matter has occasionally caused controversy. Like Andy Warhol, Koons has been sued several times for copyright infringement for basing his ideas on pre-existing images. Nonetheless, Koons has received enough praise and support to encourage him to keep designing his impressive sculptures. “From the beginning of his controversial career, Koons overturned the traditional notion of art inside and out. Focusing on banal objects as models, he questioned standards of normative values in art, and, instead, embraced the vulnerabilities of aesthetic hierarchies and taste systems.” (Samito Jalbuena, 2014)

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)

Rachel Ruysch, like Bosschaert, was a Dutch still-life painter during the Dutch Golden Age. She also specialised in flowers and was the most successful female painter at the time with over six decades worth of work. Ruysch’s father was a professor of anatomy and botany who inspired his daughter to learn to depict nature with great accuracy.

Although Ruysch’s work looks similar to Bosschaert, she is more playful with her compositions and choice of colour. More often than not, Ruysch’s bouquets are asymmetrical and wild with drooping flowers. Nonetheless, her paintings were never rushed; she paid attention to all the details and every petal was painstakingly painted. She even included hints of pollen at the centre of the flowers.

It was during the Dutch Golden Age that people began to associate flowers with specific meanings, therefore, there may have been some thought into Ruysch’s choice of flowers. Typically, Ruysch painted peonies, roses, foxgloves, poppies, nasturtium and bindweed.

Despite being a woman, some art critics claim she was the best still-life artist during her lifetime. By her death, she had produced more than 250 paintings, each selling between 750 and 1200 guilders. To put this into perspective, the famous Rembrandt (1606-69) rarely received more than 500 guilders for a painting.

Clementine Hunter (1886-1988)

Clementine Hunter was a self-taught black artist from Louisiana, USA. She spent most of her life as a farm labourer and never learnt to read or write, however, at the age of 50 she picked up a paintbrush and began to paint. Initially, Hunter depicted plantation life in her artworks and sold them for as little as 25 cents. Fortunately, she gained the support of the locals who helped to supply her with paints so that she could produce more artwork, which eventually received wider attention.

Although she was mostly known for her depiction of plantation life, such as cotton picking and washing clothes, she eventually moved on to painting flowers, particularly zinnias. Zinnias were abundant in the South and her paintings usually capture a freshly cut bunch placed in a pot. Hunter’s style is flat and lacks perspective, however, the vibrancy of the paint has made them attractive to many.

By the end of her life, Hunter’s paintings were being exhibited in galleries and she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986. In 2013, Robert Wilson (b.1941), an American playwright, produced an opera about Clementine Hunter entitled Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter. According to the Museum of American Folk Art, Hunter is “the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters.”

William Morris (1834-96)

William Morris was talented in a multitude of occupations, including artist, designer, writer, poet and socialist. He is largely remembered for his textile designs and contribution to the British Arts and Crafts Movement. His textile designs, which extended to tapestries, fabrics, furniture, wallpaper and stained glass windows, were often floral. Only a few do not feature flowers, leaves, trees or plants.

Morris observed the natural world as inspiration for his designs. Rather than producing a single image as a painter might, Morris turned his flowers into repetitive patterns that could be repeated without interruption. He also only included one or two types of flower in his designs so that people could easily purchase fabrics and so forth to complement their tastes.

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Strawberry Thief

The first flower Morris used in his textile designs was jasmine, which was followed by tulips. Occasionally, Morris included other elements in the pattern, such as the birds in the Strawberry Thief design.

By experimenting with different dyes and techniques, Morris was able to accurately represent flowers upon striking backgrounds – often indigo. His initial designs were rather bland in comparison to the later ones. With nearly 600 designs, Morris produced patterns containing all the popular flowers in Britain at the time. These include roses, hyacinths, tulips, marigolds, honeysuckle, anemone, acanthus and willow branches.

Édouard Manet (1832-83)

Édouard Manet is not usually an artist associated with flowers, however, throughout his career, he produced twenty floral still lifes. The majority of these were produced during the last year of his life. Manet is mostly remembered as a French modernist painter who transitioned from Realism to Impressionism. The majority of Manet’s paintings feature people, usually in social situations, so it is not surprising that his flower paintings have gone unnoticed.

Manet was only forty when his health began to deteriorate. He developed partial paralysis and severe pain in his legs, which was eventually diagnosed as locomotor ataxia, a side effect of syphilis. In his final month, Manet’s left foot was amputated because of gangrene and he passed away eleven days later.

Due to his health problems, Manet spent a lot of time in bed where he was visited by his closest friends. As per tradition, his friends brought fresh flowers when visiting the sick man. Placing these at his bedside, Manet passed the days producing small paintings of the bouquets.

The majority of Manet’s flower paintings consist of a glass vase on a marble top table. The flowers, predominantly lilacs and roses, are made up of thick paint and swift brushstrokes, as was usual of the Impressionist style.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871)

Anna Atkins née Children was an English botanist and photographer who was the first to publish a book illustrated with photographs. Some claim she was also the first woman to take a photograph. Born in Tunbridge, Kent (the so-called “Garden of England”) Atkins grew up helping her father, John George Children (1777-1852), a mineralogist and zoologist, produce detailed engravings of shells. As she got older, her interests turned to botany and she began collecting and preserving dried plants. By 1839, Atkins had been elected a member of the London Botanical Society.

Both Atkins’ father and husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friends with Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), an inventor and pioneer of photography. Through this connection, Atkins learnt about “photogenic drawing”, a technique that involved placing an object on light-sensitized paper, which is exposed to the sun to produce an image.

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Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Another friend of Atkins’ father and husband was Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), the son of the man who discovered the planet Uranus. He introduced Atkins to cyanotype, a photographic printing process similar to Talbot’s invention but produced a blue-tinted print. Atkins began by producing prints of algae and seaweed, which she published in her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

In the 1850s, Atkins began to produce photographic prints of flowers. Published in Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), the prints capture a translucent silhouette of the flowers, which appear a greenish-white on top of a blue background. Since photography, as we know it today, had not yet been invented, these were the most scientifically correct artworks of the 19th century.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Hokusai is one of the best known Japanese artists and printmakers of the Edo Period, famous for his internationally iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai’s most praised work is his woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, however, he also produced several bird and flower prints (kachō-ga).

At the age of 18, Hokusai was apprenticed to Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93), who introduced him to ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art produced through woodblock printing. This technique involved engraving an image onto a wooden block, only chiselling away the sections the artist wished to remain white or empty. These were then inked and placed on top of paper or fabric and put through a woodcut press. More than one woodblock could be used to produce several colours in the same image.

Hokusai began producing detailed images of flowers and birds before his famous Great Wave, which was printed in the 1830s. The flowers are species that can typically be found in Japan, including peonies and poppies. By the age of 73, Hokusai said, “I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants.” He believed that each year of his life was an opportunity to develop and perfect his art and that by the age of 110 he would be a real painter. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 88.

Flowers have meant something different to each of the above artists and the same paintings will have unique meanings for anyone who looks at them. For some, painting flowers was a way of life, a way of earning money. For others, flowers were something in which they were personally interested. Whilst flowers and plants can be used symbolically, this is not always the artist’s intention, however, personal interpretation can add new meanings to the work.

Regardless of when they were painted or which medium was used, paintings of flowers are timeless. Nature has found its way into all art movements, therefore, whatever your preference of style, you will find a piece of art to brighten up your day.


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