Walter Sickert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Painting Demon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Raphael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Whistler’s Woman in White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Genius of Hard Work

I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.” J.M.W. Turner

Lending his name to the Turner Prize, held annually at Tate Britain, J.M.W Turner is one of the most notable artists in British history. Galleries across the UK and further afield display Turner’s paintings, and Tate Britain devotes their Clore Gallery to a permanent exhibition of Turner’s work. Since 2020, a self-portrait of Turner has decorated British £20 notes, with a backdrop of his painting, The Fighting Temeraire. So, what makes Turner one of Britain’s most loved artists?

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in April 1775 in Covent Garden, London. He preferred to go by his middle name, William, the same name as his father, who worked as a barber and wig maker. Turner’s mother, Mary, gave birth to his little sister in 1778, who passed away shortly before her fifth birthday. Mary suffered greatly from this loss and spent time in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics and Bethlem Hospital until she died in 1804.

Following his sister’s death, Turner went to live with his maternal uncle and namesake, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford. The earliest examples of Turner’s artwork were produced at this time, before being sent to Margate, Kent, in 1786. While in Margate, Turner painted scenes of the town, which his father displayed and sold in his shop for a few shillings each, boasting that his son “is going to be a painter”.

In 1789, Turner started studying with Thomas Malton (1748-1804), an English painter of topographical and architectural views. Malton specialised in views of London and taught Turner by getting him to copy examples of his work and prints of British castles and monasteries. In the same year, 14-year-old Turner entered the Royal Academy of Arts, earning a place as an academic probationer the following year when he submitted a watercolour to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

During his first few years at the Academy, Turner focused on watercolours. He travelled around Britain to produce sketches of architectural buildings, particularly those in Wales and Cambridge. In 1793, he painted a watercolour of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge. The painting reveals the spires of King’s College Chapel hidden behind the hall and the River Cam flowing in front. Instead of submitting this artwork to the Summer Exhibition, Turner sent in The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock Bristol, which is now lost. Yet, comments given at the time suggest older artists were impressed with Turner’s “mastery of effect”.

In 1796, Turner turned his hand to oil painting and exhibited Fishermen at Sea at the annual exhibition. The artwork depicts fishermen on a boat upon a rough sea off the coast of the Isle of Wight. On the left, the Needles, a row of jagged, chalk rocks look threatening in the gloom of the stormy sky. The cold light of the moon shines through a break in the clouds, which contrasts with the warm glow of the fishermen’s lamp. Critics commented on Turner’s ability to combine the fragility of human life with the power of nature. The painting helped establish Turner as both an oil painter and a painter of maritime scenes.

Turner gained one of his earliest patrons in 1797 at the age of 22. Walter Ramsden Fawkes (1769-1825), a politician, invited Turner to visit him at Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire. Fawkes allowed Turner to explore the grounds belonging to the Hall and commissioned a series of watercolours of the area. In one painting, Turner depicted Fawkes and his companions grouse shooting on Beamsley Beacon in the Yorkshire Dales.

Around 1802, Turner travelled to Europe, visiting several countries, including France, Switzerland and Italy. While in France, Turner studied at the Louvre in Paris but also spent some time on the coast, capturing the stormy sea on canvas. He particularly enjoyed trips to Venice, where he combined two of his favourite subjects, architecture and water.

Turner did not always paint the landscape as he saw it. Instead, he imagined scenarios, such as Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps during a snowstorm, which he painted in 1812. Turner took inspiration from several places, including the Alps in Europe and a storm he witnessed while staying at Farnley Hall with his patron. Combining these elements with his imagination, Turner depicted the Carthaginian general, Hannibal (247-182 BC), leading his troops across the Alps in 218 BC. Whilst the general is not visible, the tiny silhouette of an elephant in the background represents his presence. According to the history of the Second Punic War, Hannibal invaded Italy with North African war elephants.

The stormy painting of Hannibal crossing the Alps shared parallels with the ongoing Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. The conflicts began in 1803, shortly after Turner studied at the Louvre. Turner painted the scene three years before the end of the conflicts when the winning country remained uncertain. It is unusual for a British artist to depict their enemy as Hannibal, but Turner was referencing Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps in 1800. After already taking power in France, Napoleon was determined to seize parts of Italy.

Not all of Turner’s European scenes contained storms and he showed an equal talent for depicting calm skies. In 1817, Turner visited Dordrecht in the Western Netherlands, where he made sketches of the harbour. The following year, Turner produced a painting based on these drawings, which he titled Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed. Known as The Dort for short, the painting depicted “a canal with numerous boats making thousands of beautiful shapes,” as John Constable (1776-1837) recalled in 1832. Constable also thought it was “the most complete work of a genius I ever saw.”

After displaying The Dort at the Royal Academy in 1818, where critics rated it “one of the most magnificent pictures ever exhibited,” Turner sold the painting to Walter Fawkes for 500 guineas. This is the equivalent of more than £40,000 today.

Around 1820, Turner returned to Farnley Hall, where under the guidance of Walter Fawkes, he produced illustrations for the five-volume Ornithological Collection. Fawkes was a keen natural historian and animal lover, allegedly purchasing a wild zebra to live on his land. Turner’s watercolours of birds and fishes prove his capability for producing detailed, delicate studies, not only expressive landscapes.

Art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) praised Turner’s natural history drawings, particularly “the grey down of the birds and the subdued iridescences of the fish”. Whilst Turner also painted animal studies later in his career, particularly of fish, this style of artwork is often left out of biographies and exhibitions about Turner. Yet, those who come across these animal pictures are struck by the differences between these paintings and Turner’s landscapes. French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), for instance, wrote enthusiastically to his son after seeing Turner’s watercolours of fish in the National Gallery.

Whilst Turner’s animal paintings are not amongst the artist’s well-known works, there is more information about them than his personal life. Turner had very few friends and spent the majority of time with his father, who worked as Turner’s studio assistant for 30 years. William Turner Senior’s death in 1829 greatly affected his son, who suffered bouts of depression. Much of Turner’s life is told through letters and accounts by other people, particularly artists at the Royal Academy, who either admired or despised him.

Turner allegedly had an affair with an older woman called Sarah Danby and fathered two daughters, Evelina and Georgiana. According to the 2014 biopic Mr. Turner, Turner refused to acknowledge and support the children. The film also revealed he spent 18 years living with the widow Sophia Caroline Booth. During this time, he went by the name “Mr Booth” to disguise his true identity.

Irrespective of his private life, Turner continued painting expressive landscapes, which became less detailed, focusing instead on colour and light. On the evening of 16th October 1834, a fire broke out at the Houses of Parliament, turning the sky dark with smoke. Thousands of people witnessed the blaze, including Turner, who felt inspired to capture the colours of the fire and sky on two canvases. Whilst the crowds stood on the other side of the River Thames, watching in horror as the fire spread rapidly throughout the building, Turner hired a boat to take him closer to the inferno, where he filled two sketchbooks with drawings from different vantage points. The watercolours on canvas are based on these sketches and were not painted en plein air.

By 1838, Turner’s reputation had spread to the continent, where King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850) of France presented him with a gold snuff-box. In the same year, Turner painted one of his most famous works, The Fighting Temeraire. The watercolour shows the HMS Temeraire, one of the last ships used in the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed up the Thames towards Rotherhithe. Some art historians believe Turner added symbolic meaning to the composition. The famous ship appears almost ghostly in comparison to the dark tugboat, potentially symbolising the ship’s fate. When the Temeraire reached its destination, it was broken up for scrap. The setting sun may also symbolise the end of the ship’s life.

Turner painted The Fighting Temeraire from sketches he made, which was Turner’s preferred approach. Turner’s Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, completed in 1839, is another example of this method. Turner visited Rome twice, yet spent twenty years painting views of the city. Modern Rome is the final artwork in the series, depicting a mix of Classical, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. In the foreground, Turner included an imagined group of goatherds and other modern workers, going about their work in a city rich in history.

Some of Turner’s landscapes involve events he did not witness, for example, Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, yet he usually combined elements from sketches made throughout his career to produce dramatic scenes. The Slave Ship, painted in 1840, is one such example. Originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on depicts a scene that only those on board the ship witnessed. In 1781, a slave ship owner ordered 132 sick and dying slaves to be thrown overboard so that he could claim insurance payments. The insurance policy did not cover slaves who died of natural causes onboard the ship.

The crew on the slave ship Zong kept quiet about the incident, but the British public soon learnt of the massacre after one of the surviving slaves, Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), confided in Granville Sharp (1735-1813), one of the first British campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade. Sharp argued with the slave-owner, accusing him of murder, but received the response, “the case was the same as if assets had been thrown overboard.” Whilst a judge ruled that the shipowner could not file for insurance due to lack of evidence, the man got away with slaughtering innocent lives. Nonetheless, the incident inspired abolitionist movements and turned many people against slavery, including Turner.

In hindsight, Turner’s late landscapes bordered on Impressionism, an art movement that did not appear until the 1860s. Yet, Turner is never described as an impressionist, and his style drew mixed reactions from his contemporaries. When commenting on Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), one critic likened it to “soapsuds and whitewash”, greatly offending the artist. John Ruskin, on the other hand, wrote that the painting was “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas.”

To some viewers, Snow Storm is a smear of dark, grey colours, and to others, it depicts a paddle steamer caught in a snow storm. Rather than using watercolour, Turner painted with oils but tried to replicate the same style. Instead of blending colours, Turner built the scene in layers, giving the picture texture. The monochromatic colours emphasise the darkness caused by the storm, but the steamboat is almost lost amid the swirling greys.

Whilst Turner always had a distinctive style, the looser, darker, indistinct paintings of his mature period coincided with the death of painter and clergyman Edward Thomas Daniell (1804-42). Despite the age difference, Daniell and Turner became close friends after the death of Turner’s father. Acquaintances suggest that Daniell provided Turner with the spiritual comfort needed to “ease the fears of a naturally reflective man approaching old age.”

Throughout his life, Turner always refused to let anyone paint his portrait. Before Daniell embarked on a voyage to the Middle East, he persuaded Turner to sit for John Linnell (1792-1882). Turner reluctantly agreed but only stayed long enough for Linnell to observe him during a dinner party. Linnell produced the portrait from memory.

Daniell set off to tour the Middle East in 1840, aiming to capture the foreign landscapes in watercolour. During the return trip in 1842, Daniell fell ill with malaria and passed away at the age of 38. Distraught at the news, Turner declared he would never form such a friendship again.

Turner’s paintings from the 1840s may represent his grief, but they also capture the changes in Britain. Turner lived during the height of the Industrial Revolution, which saw a rise in factories, machines and electricity. In 1844, he painted Rain, Steam and Speed, which depicts an oncoming steam train in the countryside during a summer rainstorm. In 1838, the Great Western Railway, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), ran its first trains. Turner captured the train travelling over Maidenhead Railway Bridge, also designed by Brunel.

Although the railway and steam train are the main focus of Rain, Steam and Speed, the hazy atmosphere almost obscures them from view. Art historians often comment that Turner was ahead of his time and among the very few painters who considered industrial advancement an appropriate subject of art. The blurred elements of the painting suggest the train is travelling at speed. It also symbolises that modern technology is advancing forwards at a rapid pace. At almost seventy years of age, Turner had seen more changes in Britain than any of his predecessors.

Not all of Turner’s later works were dark and stormy. Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845), for instance, shows an early morning view of Norham Castle from across the River Tweed. Turner visited the Northumbrian castle in 1797, where he produced a highly detailed watercolour painting. His later version of Nordham Castle is based on the original but much less refined with vague outlines of the scenery. The castle appears to be shrouded in mist, which the sunlight is fighting to shine through.

On 19th December 1851, Turner passed away from cholera while staying with Sophia Caroline Booth at her house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Royal Academician Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) took charge of Turner’s funeral arrangements after writing to friends and family “I must inform you, we have lost him.” Turner is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral near Sir Joshua Reynolds, who played a large part in establishing Turner as an artist.

Turner bequeathed his finished paintings to the British nation, leaving instructions for a special gallery to house them. After 22 years of debating the location of the gallery, the British Parliament allowed Turner’s paintings to be distributed and lent to museums and galleries, thus going against Turner’s wishes. Fortunately, the art collector Henry Vaughan (1809-99) purchased over one hundred of Turner’s watercolours, which he bequeathed to British galleries instructing they should be “exhibited to the public all at one time, free of charge”.

In 1910, a large number of Turner’s paintings arrived at the Duveen Turner Wing at the National Gallery of British Art, now called Tate Britain. In 1987, the gallery constructed a new wing, known as the Clore Gallery, specifically for their collection of Turner’s work. The gallery was met with approval from The Turner Society, established in 1975, who declared that Turner’s will had finally been carried out.

The prestigious Turner Prize, established in 1984 in the artist’s honour, annually awards one controversial British artist £25,000. Whilst many critics debate whether some of the entries count as art, the artists are encouraged to change the course of art history and step away from traditional methods. Turner’s work may appear traditional today, but at the time, many found his style controversial and modern.

In 2005, the BBC conducted a poll to discover Britain’s greatest painting. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire won first place, followed by John Constable’s The Hay Wain. The Bank of England selected the same painting for the background of the first £20 British banknote printed on polymer, which came into circulation on 20th February 2020. The note also features Turner’s self-portrait from 1799.

Whilst Tate Britain boasts the largest collection of Turner’s work, his paintings and drawings belong to galleries throughout the world. In London, the British Museum holds several watercolours, and the National Gallery displays Rain, Steam, and Speed and The Fighting Temeraire amongst others.


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Hals of Haarlem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Late Constable

Until 13th February 2022, The Royal Academy of Arts is looking back at the work of one of their graduates, John Constable. Rather than look at all of his paintings, the Academy has chosen examples from the final twelve years of Constable’s life, illustrating his more radical and expressive side. Between 1825 and his death, Constable experimented with plein air painting, dramatic weather phenomena, enthusiastic brush strokes, and the possibilities of printmaking. Despite his connection with the Academy, the RA has never staged a major retrospective of Constable’s work until now.

John Constable was born at East Bergholt House in Suffolk on 11th June 1776 to Golding (1739-1816) and Ann (Watts) Constable (1748-1815). His older brother was intellectually disabled, so Constable’s parents expected John to work in the family corn business. Instead, Constable’s younger brother Abram took over the running of the mills, allowing Constable to wander the Suffolk and Essex countryside making amateur sketches. Constable later said the scenes “made me a painter, and I am grateful.”

After persuading his father to let him pursue a career as an artist, Constable entered the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer in 1799. After a year of studying the Old Masters and attending drawing classes, Constable officially became a Student at the Schools. After graduating, he turned down the position of drawing master at Sandhurst because he wanted to focus on producing art rather than teaching. Instead, Constable concentrated on his first submission to the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition of 1802 (now known as the Summer Exhibition).

In 1816, Constable married Maria Bicknell (1788-1828) at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Maria’s father, a solicitor to King George IV (1762-1830) and the Admiralty expressed his concern that Constable had no money to his name. Yet, before the marriage went ahead, both of Constable’s parents died, leaving him one-fifth of the family business.

Maria’s poor health was a persistent worry for Constable, but he continued with his painting and participated annually in the Royal Academy’s exhibitions. In 1819, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and exhibited his first “six-footer”. The term refers to six monumental landscapes depicting the River Stour, each painted on a six-foot canvas. Fellow painter Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859) predicted the first of the six, The White Horse, would be “on many accounts the most important picture Constable ever painted.”

Every year, people admired, talked about, and eventually purchased one of the “six-footers”, including The Hay Wain (1821), which now resides at the National Gallery and remains one of Constable’s most famous paintings. The success continued until 1826 when Constable exhibited his final “six-footer”, The Leaping Horse. It was the only artwork in the series that failed to sell during Constable’s lifetime. 

The RA displayed The Leaping Horse next to a full-size sketch that Constable made in situ. Several small drawings also show the artist’s experimentation with elements of the landscape. In the sketch, a small tree stands in front of the horse and rider, but in the final painting, the tree is at the rear. The horse, which leaps over one of the barriers erected along the river path, was walking in Constable’s preparatory work. There is a visible mark where Constable removed one of the trees in the background. He did this after failing to sell the painting at the 1825 Annual Exhibition.

After failing to sell The Leaping Horse, Constable directed his attention away from the River Stour towards lanes, dells and panoramic vistas. Whilst no longer painting canals, Constable did not avoid water scenes. This is evident in his 1826 Annual Exhibition piece, The Cornfield. Constable preferred the name The Drinking Boy to describe this painting, which shows a young shepherd boy quenching his thirst in a pool of water. The boy’s dog waits patiently for his master while the sheep carry on up the path.

The lane depicted in The Cornfield is Fen Lane, which leads from Constable’s childhood home in East Bergholt towards Dedham in Essex. Constable frequently ran along the pathway on his way to and from school, passing through cornfields along the way. Constable grew up surrounded by similar scenes, which explains his preference for these idyllic landscapes and picturesque views.

When Constable’s wife started displaying symptoms of tuberculosis, he purchased lodgings in Brighton where he thought the sea air would help Maria’s condition. The family spent their summers in Brighton between 1824 and 1828, during which time Constable frequently studied and painted the sand, sea and sky. One painting from this period, Chain Pier, Brighton, was exhibited at the 1827 Annual Exhibition.

Erected in 1823, the Royal Suspension Chain Pier was the first major pier in Brighton. It was designed by Captain Samuel Brown of Netherbyres (1776-1852), intending to start boat trips to Dieppe in France. It is fortunate that Constable and other artists captured the pier on canvas because a storm demolished it in 1896.

When not in Brighton, the Constable family lived in Hampstead, London, from where Constable frequently returned to familiar places of his childhood. One such place was Dedham Vale, which Constable painted for the 1828 Annual Exhibition. Constable depicted the view from Gun Hill in Suffolk, which reveals Dedham church in the far distance. Many believe Constable based Dedham Vale on a painting by Claude Lorrain (1600-82) called Hagar and the Angel. The art collector George Beaumont showed Constable the painting before he joined the Royal Academy Schools. Since Beaumont (1753-1827) died a year before Constable painted Dedham Vale, its similarities to Lorrain’s work suggests it is a tribute to the late collector.

The success of Dedham Vale earned Constable the position of a full Royal Academician in 1829, something for which he had yearned for a decade. Unfortunately, Maria passed away in 1828 and did not get to see her husband achieve his goal. Greatly affected by her death, Constable chose to wear black for the rest of his life. In a letter to his brother, he wrote, “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me.” As well as continuing with his artwork, Constable needed to care and provide for his seven children: John Charles, Maria Louisa, Charles Golding, Isabel, Emma, Alfred, and Lionel.

The turmoil and distress of Constable’s mind following his wife’s death are evident in his paintings from this period. For the 1829 Annual Exhibition, Constable painted Hadleigh Castle, a ruined fortification in Essex, overlooking the Thames Estuary. He first visited the castle in 1814, where he produced several sketches. From these drawings, he produced a six-foot oil painting of the castle, with stormy clouds in the background. Constable often studied and painted clouds in the early years of his marriage, but they were usually white and fluffy. The clouds in Hadleigh Castle are dark and foreboding, suggesting life without Maria was dark and gloomy.

Constable often referred back to his old sketches when preparing large paintings for the Annual Exhibitions. In 1817, Constable witnessed the opening of Waterloo Bridge in London, commemorating the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Over the following years, Constable produced many drawings and oil sketches of the bridge and the festivities on opening day.

For the 1832 Annual Exhibition, Constable produced a large oil painting showing the Prince Regent (George IV) boarding the Royal barge at Whitehall stairs, with Waterloo Bridge in the background. As a royalist, Constable wanted to capture the event and the Royal family’s involvement for posterity. In the sky, grey clouds form, either indicating the weather on the day of the event or reflecting Constable’s mental state following the death of his wife.

Many of Constable’s paintings contain bold touches of red to highlight figures or lead the viewer’s eye to the main focus of the artwork. It is unlikely that everyone Constable depicted in his landscapes wore red, but it helped bring the picture to life. When displaying paintings for the Annual Exhibition, some artists added final touches to their canvases. On the wall next to The Opening of Waterloo Bridge hung J.M.W Turner’s (1775-1851) seascape Helvoetsluys. When Turner noticed the red highlights in Constable’s painting, he added a blob of red paint in the centre of his work to draw everyone’s attention away from the neighbouring artwork.

During the early 1830s, Constable began teaching life drawing at the Royal Academy Schools. He also started experimenting with other media, such as watercolour and printmaking. Whilst the majority of Constable’s submissions to the Annual Exhibitions were oil paintings, he occasionally submitted watercolours. Constable discovered printmaking, particularly mezzotints, a powerful way of expressing light and shade. Using his wife’s inheritance money, Constable collaborated with David Lucas, a British mezzotinter, to create 40 prints of his landscapes. Trial and error meant several versions of each design were printed before settling on the final 40 to publish in a folio. Unfortunately, the project was not a financial success, and Constable never saw the money he spent again.

In 1834, illness prevented Constable from working on an oil painting for the Annual Exhibition, so the only piece he submitted was a watercolour called Old Sarum. The scene is based on Constable’s sketches of Old Sarum, a ruined and deserted site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury in Wiltshire. The old settlement is visible on a mound in the distance while grey clouds billow overhead. Constable added a strip of paper on the righthand side to include the hint of a rainbow. Old Sarum is one of the 40 landscapes Constable used in his English Landscape series of mezzotints.

Between 1833 and 1836, Constable delivered a series of lectures about the history of landscape painting. He wished to raise the status of landscapes, which were once considered superior to other art forms but no longer popular. Throughout his career, Constable painted scenes that interested him rather than what other artists and buyers preferred. Whilst this hindered his attempts to become a Royal Academician for many years, it has earned Constable recognition for revolutionising the genre of landscape painting. Since many of his paintings depict the area he lived and grew up in, Suffolk is now known as “Constable Country”.

For the 1835 Annual Exhibition, Constable briefly returned to his earlier style of painting. The Valley Farm, also known as Willy Lott’s House after the landowner, depicts a scene on the River Stour, not far from Constable’s childhood home. It is based on two of his previous paintings of the area, The Ferry (1814) and Willy Lot’s House from the Stour (1816-18). Constable reworked the landscape to make it more expressive than earlier versions and modified the house so that it appeared grander. Whilst Constable felt pleased with the result, critics disapproved of the artist’s adjustments and accused Constable of ruining the natural landscape. Nonetheless, Constable had a buyer before the opening of the Exhibition. The self-made businessman Robert Vernon (1774-1849) paid Constable £300, the largest sum Constable had received for a painting.

Despite returning to some of his earlier themes, Constable continued experimenting with watercolour, as seen in his painting of Stonehenge. The painting, which featured in the Royal Academy’s final Annual Exhibition at New Somerset House in 1836, combined a dramatic sky with a well-known British landmark. Since painting Hadleigh Castle and Old Sarum, Constable’s fascination with ruins grew. These decaying man-made structures succumbing to the elemental power of nature, metaphorically express Constable’s emotions following his wife’s deaths along with two close friends, Archdeacon John Fisher (1788-1832) and John Dunthorne (1798-1832).

Alongside Stonehenge, Constable displayed Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Due to poor health, this was the only oil painting Constable completed for the exhibition. It depicts the memorial to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), the first President of the Royal Academy, that Sir George Beaumont built in the grounds of his home at Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire. Beaumont planned to erect several monuments to friends and people he admired but died before the project could get underway. In some ways, Constable’s painting is also in memory of Beaumont, who helped him become a professional artist.

Constable visited Coleorton in 1823, where he made pencil drawings of the monument. He only started working on the oil painting ten years later and just finished it in time for the 1836 Annual Exhibition. As well as the cenotaph, Constable included two busts in tribute to the Old Masters, Michelangelo and Raphael. In one of his last lectures, Constable praised Raphael’s artwork. He also called the Royal Academy the “cradle of British art” and received cheers from attending students.

In the early hours of 1st April 1837, Constable died from heart failure at the age of 60. He was buried beside his wife in the family tomb in the graveyard of St John-at-Hampstead Church. His children inherited all their father’s remaining sketches and unsold paintings, which they kept for the rest of their lives. The only artwork they relinquished was Arundel Mill and Castle, which Constable was working on at the time of his death. He had intended to submit it to the Royal Academy’s first Annual Exhibition in Trafalgar Square. Since it looked almost finished, Arundel Mill and Castle was displayed as Constable intended.

In 1888, Constable’s last surviving child, Isabel (1823-1888), gave the remains of her fathers work (95 oil paintings, 297 drawings and watercolours and three sketchbooks) to the South Kensington Museum (V&A). Since then, the artworks have been sold and distributed between several art galleries. The Late Constable exhibition marks the first time the Royal Academy has staged a major retrospective of Constable’s work, bringing together twelve years worth of paintings, drawings and prints. Not only does the exhibition demonstrate Constable’s artistic abilities, but it also reveals how grief and emotions play a part in creative output. Whilst the death of Constable’s wife was tragic, it changed the way Constable tackled his paintings, allowing his audience to see a more versatile side of the artist.

Constable painted the scenes he wanted to paint. The landscapes held meaning for Constable, and he did not concern himself with attempting to please the audience by conforming to modern tastes. Late Constable tells a story about an artist struggling with grief whilst striving to achieve the same accolades as his peers. The Royal Academy is finally giving Constable the recognition he deserved during his career through this retrospective exhibition.

Late Constable is open until 13th February 2022 in the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries at Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy of Arts. Tickets cost £19, but Friends of the RA may visit for free. All visitors must book tickets in advance.


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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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