Discover Eva Gonzalès

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Making Modernism: Paula Modersohn-Becker

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

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

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

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…


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Champollion le Jeune

Until 19th February 2023, the British Museum is exploring Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in an exhibition supported by BP. Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt contains many examples of beautiful symbols that once represented a written and spoken language used in North East Africa. These symbols remained a mystery for thousands of years, although medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars deciphered a few of their meanings. In 1799, an artefact was found by chance, containing the key to unlocking the ancient language. With the help of the French philologist Jean-François Champollion, the world has a much better understanding of one of Earth’s oldest civilisations.

In 1799, French soldiers, preparing for battle with the Ottoman Empire, decided to rebuild an old fort in Rasheed, Egypt. In doing so, they found a broken stone in the rubble that contained carvings of three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphs and another form of Egyptian writing (demotic). Realising the stone’s importance, the soldiers rescued it from the rubble. At the time, the Europeans knew Rasheed as ‘Rosette’, meaning ‘little rose’, which is why the artefact is known as the Rosetta Stone today.

After French forces surrendered during the Battle of the Nile, the Capitulation of Alexandria treaty stated the French must give any Egyptian antiquities to Britain. As a result, the Rosetta Stone travelled to England, where it remains in the British Museum.

From the Greek, scholars translated the inscriptions on the stone. It contains a priestly decree from 27th March 196 BC, drawn up by a council of Egyptian priests in Memphis. The text praises the acts and honours of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, the king of Egypt from 204 BC until 180 BC.

Jean-François Champollion was born on 23rd December 1790 in Figeac, in Southwestern France. His father, Jacques Champollion, was an infamous drunk, and his mother, Jeanne-Françoise Gualieu, does not feature much in her son’s biography. Instead, Champollion grew up under the care of his older brother, Jacques-Joseph (1778-1867). At the time, his brother was an up-and-coming archaeologist, so Champollion was often called Champollion le Jeune (the young). Champollion eventually lost this nickname after surpassing his brother in fame.

In 1802, Champollion attended the school of the Abbé Dussert, where he discovered he had a natural talent for languages. During his two years at the school, Champollion started learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other Semitic languages, such as Arabic. He also developed a keen interest in Ancient Egypt, which his brother and Abbé Dussert encouraged.

Champollion’s aptitude for languages caught the attention of Joseph Fourier (1769-1830), a French mathematician who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) on his Egyptian expedition in 1798, during which the Rosetta Stone was discovered. Following the expedition, Napoleon entrusted Fourier with the Description de l’Égypte, which catalogued all the artefacts and hieroglyphs the French uncovered. Fourier invited 11-year-old Champollion to view the document and other Ancient Egyptian items. Champollion was instantly enthralled, especially after hearing that the hieroglyphs were unintelligible. From that moment on, Champollion determined to be the first person to decipher them.

In 1804, Champollion began attending a school in Grenoble, where he studied Coptic, a language similar to Egyptian. These studies proved useful during Champollion’s later attempts at translating the Rosetta Stone. From 1807 to 1809, Champollion attended a college in Paris, where he studied under Baron Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), the first Frenchman to attempt to translate the Rosetta Stone. Champollion also received tuition from the orientalist Louis-Mathieu Langlès (1763-1824) and former Coptic monk Raphaël de Monachis (1759-1831). Champollion divided his time between the Collège de France, the Special School of Oriental Languages, the National Library, where his brother worked, and the Commission of Egypt. So engrossed was he with his studies, that Champollion began dressing in Arab clothing and calling himself Champollion Al Seghir (the Arab translation of le jeune).

Champollion first began studying the Rosetta stone in 1808, when he was 17 years old. Around this time, he was starting to suffer from various health issues, including gout and tinnitus, most likely brought on by the unsanitary environments around Paris, yet his brother encouraged him to continue with his studies. To start with, Champollion relied on trial and error, changing his direction of research each time he hit a dead end. Like many other scholars, Champollion relied on other Egyptian artefacts, particularly papyrus, not realising there was more than one type of script. A cursive style known as Hieratic was the main script used in Egypt between the 3rd millennium BC and the first millennium BC. The Hieratic script could be read in any direction, depending on the circumstance. Conversely, the Rosetta Stone is written in Demotic script, which was only read from right to left.

Demotic script bridged the gap between Hieratic and Coptic, of which the latter came into use in the 3rd century AD. Another form of writing also developed between the two periods. Known as Sahidic or Thebaic, many early Coptic texts were written in this dialect, for example, copies of religious writings, such as the resurrection of Jesus. Champollion surmised that by studying Sahidic texts, such as the Askew Codex, containing translations of the Gnostic Pistis Sophia (teachings of the transfigured Jesus and his Disciples), he would notice similarities with the writing on the Rosetta Stone. He also looked for similar symbols, particular those representing place names.

Meanwhile, in England, Thomas Young (1773-1829), a 41-year-old Egyptologist, began working on the Rosetta Stone in 1814. Whilst Young and Champollion were rivals, Young’s efforts to decipher the text helped Champollion eventually crack the code.

Champollion and Young’s rivalry encouraged others to join the race to become the first person to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Egypt soon became a popular tourist destination, and many scholars and archaeologists visited the country to unearth more inscriptions to assist in the translation. These items, including drawings, proved useful to Champollion, particularly sketches of hieroglyphs by the copyist Frédéric Cailliaud (1787-1869).

Champollion agreed with Young’s theory that Demotic script consisted of words (or ideas) and phonetic signs. Earlier hieroglyphs may not have been read aloud, but the influence of the Greek language on the Egyptians encouraged them to include verbal language in their symbols. This observation proved to be the vital key to translating the Rosetta Stone. On 14th September 1822, Champollion excitedly exclaimed to his brother, “Je tiens l’affaire, vois!” (“Look, I’ve got it!”), and promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

Whilst Champollion had not translated the entire Rosetta Stone, he had identified and successfully deciphered several royal Egyptian names, such as “Ptolemy” and “Ramesses”. Testing this discovery on other symbols, Champollion found “Thutmose”, the name of a ruler often mentioned by classical rulers. He also found “King Taharqa”, who lived between 690 and 664 BC. Royal names were indicated by a particular symbol, and Champollion quickly discovered another sign to indicate common names.

Annoyed that Champollion was receiving all the credit, Young argued that Champollion relied on the work of other people to push him in the right direction. Young also claimed Champollion’s translations were inaccurate. For example, Champollion deciphered the names “Antiochus” and “Antigonus”, whereas the Greek text said “Antimachus” and “Antigenis”. Young thought this was proof that Champollion should not receive all the accolades but many scholars were happy to overlook Champollion’s errors. Despite Young’s protestations, Champollion continued to develop his ideas for the next five years before proclaiming on 1st January 1829 that he had nothing further to add. He had perfected his “alphabet” and could apply it successfully to all the monuments in Egypt. Unlike other scholars, Champollion grasped the structural logic of the language.

In 1828, Champollion finally had the chance to visit Egypt on an expedition with his friend and fellow Egyptologist, Ippolito Rosellini (1800-43). Champollion’s understanding of hieroglyphs made a fundamental difference, allowing far more insight than previous expeditions. A tomb discovered in 1817 was thought to belong to King Psamtek I, but with Champollion’s expertise, the name was correctly deciphered as “Sety”.

After a year, Champollion returned to France with at least 100 pieces for the Louvre Palace, now the Louvre museum. These objects left Egypt with the permission of the Ottoman authorities in Egypt, unlike the Rosetta Stone, which was taken from the French by the British. The true ownership of the Rosetta Stone remains a controversial issue.

Champollion did not limit himself to the translation of the Rosetta Stone. During his studies, he helped translate several monuments and inscriptions, including the fictional Teaching of King Amenemhat, which Champollion initially failed to realise was a work of fiction. Champollion was also the first modern scholar to identify King Ahmose as the founder of the 18th dynasty of Egypt (1550-1295 BC).

Champollion’s achievements not only deciphered a writing system but also uncovered one of the oldest written languages in human history. Aside from being able to translate hieroglyphs, scholars now understood how Egyptians measured time and years, commemorated ancestors, or in some cases, attempted to erase people from history. Whilst Champollion died young at 41, his legacy still lives on.

Champollion’s studies were all-consuming, but he also enjoyed life outside of work when he could. After two failed attempts at love, Champollion married Rosine Blanc (1794-1871), the daughter of a well-to-do family of Grenoblean glovemakers. At the time, Rosine’s father disapproved of the match but changed his tune after Champollion’s reputation grew. Champollion and Rosine had a daughter, Zoraïde, but Champollion’s work schedule prevented him from watching her grow up. Being away for weeks, months, or even years at a time put a strain on the marriage, yet they remained faithful to each other. Rosine and Zoraïde lived with Champollion’s brother, meaning Champollion did not need to worry about their well-being when he was away.

After returning from a second expedition in 1831, Champollion was appointed to the chair of Egyptian history and archaeology at the Collège de France by King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850). Unfortunately, Champollion only gave three lectures before illness forced him to give up the post. Exhausted by his labours during his scientific expedition to Egypt, on top of his chronic poor health, Champollion died after suffering a stroke on 4th March 1832 while in Paris. His burial took place in Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris, where his grave is marked with a tall obelisk.

A lot of Champollion’s work was published after his death. His brother edited portions of Champollion’s papers and published his almost-finished Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian in 1838. Controversy over Champollion’s decipherment claims continued for many years, but after Champollion’s work helped his student Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-84) successfully decipher the Decree of Canopus, dating from 243 BC, Champollion’s reputation as the true decipherer of the hieroglyphs was cemented.

In Figeac, Champollion’s birthplace, he is honoured with La place des Écritures, a giant reproduction of the Rosetta Stone by American artist Joseph Kosuth (born 1945). Yet, Champillion’s greatest legacy is the continuation of his work by contemporary Egyptologists. The British Museum has Champollion partly to thank for the amount of information they packed into the Hieroglyphs exhibition. Ancient artefacts can only tell scholars so much about the lives of the Ancient Egyptians, but being able to decipher hieroglyphs gives them access to thousands of years of information.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is not an exhibition about Jean-François Champollion, although he is mentioned a great deal. The British Museum comments on the information these hieroglyphs unlock, including poetry, international treaties, shopping lists, tax returns and many stories about ancient beliefs. Yet it is Champollion’s initial decipherment in 1822, exactly 200 years ago, that has inspired the exhibition, so he deserves as much attention as the objects on display.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is on view at the British Museum until 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £18 (or £20 at weekends) and must be purchased in advance. Members and under-16s can visit for free.


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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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Chopin: The Man Behind the Music

Frédéric Chopin is remembered as a composer and piano player whose “professional technique […] was without equal in his generation.” With over 230 compositions under his belt, Chopin became one of the world’s first celebrities in the music industry. Influenced by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin combined new and old techniques to develop new genres of music that made him a leading symbol of the Romantic era. Yet, Chopin died young at the age of 39, robbing the world of his talents. Nonetheless, he left behind a hole that musicians have since tried and failed to fill. How did someone so young achieve everlasting fame and admiration?

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was the second child born in Poland to Nicolas Chopin (1771-1844) and Justyna Krzyżanowska. There is some discrepancy about his date of birth, which is either 22nd February or 1st March 1810, although the latter is generally accepted today. His father, a Polonised Frenchman, received a teaching post at the Warsaw Lyceum in the same year of his son’s birth, prompting the family to move to the capital. Chopin and his sisters, Ludwika (1807-55), Izabela (1811-81) and Emilia (1812-27), grew up within the grounds of the school where their father taught the flute and violin, and their mother the piano.

Although his parents were musicians, Chopin’s father arranged for his children to have professional music tuition. At the age of six, Chopin started receiving piano lessons from Wojciech Żywny (1756-1842), a Polish teacher who instilled Chopin’s love of Mozart (1756-1791) and Bach (1685-1750). His elder sister Ludwika also received lessons, and they occasionally played duets, but of the pair, it became apparent Chopin was the child prodigy. Chopin gave his first public concert to the Polish aristocracy at seven years old and composed two polonaises, a style of Polish dance. Unfortunately, these manuscripts are missing, so Chopin’s earliest known work is a polonaise in A-flat major, which he wrote and dedicated to his piano teacher in 1821, aged 11.

Fryderyk Chopin at the piano – Eliza Radziwiłłówna

In 1823, Chopin began attending the Warsaw Lyceum as a pupil. As well as academic instruction, Chopin received organ lessons from Czech musician Wilhelm Würfel (1790-1832). In 1826, Chopin enrolled at the Warsaw Conservatory to take a three-year music course under the tuition of Józef Elsner (1769-1854). During this time, Chopin focused on composition work, which he performed at many recitals in the city. Chopin wrote mainly for the piano, but in 1825 he was invited to try out a unique instrument: the aeolomelodicon.

The aeolomelodicon is an obsolete keyed wind instrument consisting of a keyboard and pedal, which when depressed triggered a set of bellows to produce a soft, ethereal sound. The designer, Fidelis Brunner, based it on the earlier, unsuccessful instrument, the aeolodion. The older instrument used steel springs to produce the sound, but Brunner used brass tubes and reeds instead, which proved more powerful. In May 1825, Chopin performed one of his compositions on the aeolomelodicon, for which he received great praise.

The success of Chopin’s performance on the aeolomelodicon led to the invitation to play for Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) on another strange instrument: an aeolopantalon. Jozé Dlugosz of Warsaw, the inventor of the aeolopantalon, combined the earlier instruments with a piano, which played both in conjunction or separately from the bellows. Impressed with Chopin’s recital, the Tsar presented him with a diamond ring. Another concert was arranged at which Chopin performed his Rondo Op. 1., which subsequently became his first published work.

As a student, Chopin took the opportunity to visit other parts of Poland. He particularly enjoyed staying in the Polish village Szafarnia, where he discovered rural folk music. The atmosphere and traditions Chopin observed differed greatly to the city and made a significant impact on the young composer. Sadly, the death of Chopin’s youngest sister Emilia in 1827 put an end to these excursions, and he returned to his parents, who ran a boarding house for students of the Warsaw Lyceum.

Chopin plays for the Radziwiłłs, 1829 – Henryk Siemiradzki, 1887

In 1829, Chopin completed his education at the Conservatory. The same year, the governor of the Grand Duchy of Posen, Prince Antoni Radziwiłł (1775-1833), invited Chopin to Berlin. As visualised in a painting by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902), Chopin performed for the Radziwiłł family and guests. Chopin also composed a piano and cello piece called Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major for the prince, an aspiring cellist. Yet, when Chopin officially published the manuscript, he dedicated it to the Austrian cellist Joseph Merk (1795-1852), who Chopin claimed was the only violoncellist he respected.

Later that year, Chopin made his debut in Vienna, where he premiered his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”. These were variations of a song of the same name in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and received favourable reviews, although some commented that Chopin was “too delicate for those accustomed to the piano-bashing of local artists.” Yet, the performance drew attention to the young composer and he played at another concert before returning to Warsaw. When the up-and-coming German composer Robert Schumann (1810-56) heard Chopin play, he exclaimed, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.”

In 1830, Chopin set out “into the wide world, with no very clearly defined aim, forever.” (Zdzisław Jachimecki, 1937) Little did he know he would not see his home city again, which suffered damages during the November 1830 Uprising. Also known as the Polish-Russian War 1830-31, Polish rebels turned the capital into a military garrison, forcing the Warsaw Lyceum and Conservatory to close. Although Chopin expressed his nostalgia for his homeland, he did not return to the city to enlist in the army. Instead, he remained in Western Europe, performing in Vienna and Paris.

Chopin at 25 – Maria Wodzińska, 1835

Chopin arrived in Paris in 1831, inadvertently becoming one of the many expatriates of the Polish Great Emigration who fled from the uprising. To gain French citizenship, Chopin began using the French version of his name, Frédéric François Chopin, yet he always considered himself Polish at heart. While in Paris, Chopin became acquainted with many french composers and artists, including Hector Berlioz (1803-69), Franz Liszt (1811-86) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). He also remained in close contact with his Polish friends, especially Julian Fontana (1810-69), who boarded with Chopin during their years at the Warsaw Lyceum. Although Fontana wanted to establish himself in England, his lack of success prompted him to become Chopin’s “general factotum and copyist”.

Chopin’s debut concert in Paris took place on 25th February 1832 in the salons de MM Pleyel, a virtuoso pianist and piano maker. Critics exclaimed, “Here is a young man who … taking no model, has found, if not a complete renewal of piano music, … an abundance of original ideas of a kind to be found nowhere else …”. Chopin earned the patronage of the wealthy Jewish Rothschild family, and by the end of the year, had a steady income from the publications of his compositions. He no longer relied on public performances or money from his family for day-to-day living.

In 1835, Chopin visited his family in the Slavic city Carlsbad. As it turned out, this was the last time Chopin saw his parents. On his way back to Paris, Chopin stopped in Dresden, where he met the Wodziński family with whom he had made the acquaintance during his student years. While there, Chopin became enamoured with 16-year-old Maria Wodzińska (1819-96), who painted a portrait of Chopin, which is considered the best likeness of all images of the composer. The following year, Chopin returned to Dresden, where he proposed to Maria. From there, he travelled on to Leipzig, where he composed many pieces, which he compiled into an album for his fiancée. Unfortunately, the gift did not receive the reaction for which Chopin hoped, and the relationship came to an end.

While living in Paris, Chopin befriended Franz Liszt, whom he performed with on at least seven occasions. Chopin dedicated 12 Études Op.10 to Liszt, but some historians suggest their relationship was often strained. In a letter, Chopin revealed his jealousy of Liszt’s skill on the piano, saying, “I should like to rob him of the way he plays my studies.” Chopin also forced Liszt to apologise after embellishing one of his nocturnes during a public performance rather than playing the music as written. Yet, Chopin continued to refer to “my friend Liszt” in his letters to other friends and family members.

Another reason for Chopin and Liszt’s unsteady friendship may involve their relationship with women. Liszt felt concerned that his mistress, Marie d’Agoult (1805-76), who wrote romantic novels under her pen name, Daniel Stern, gave Chopin too much attention. His jealousy heightened after Chopin dedicated 12 Études Op. 25 to d’Agoult, especially as the reason for this was unclear. Nonetheless, Liszt and d’Agoult had a lengthy affair, resulting in three children: Blandine Rachel (1835-62), Francesca Gaetana Cosima (1837-1930) and Daniel (1839-59).

Chopin and Sand [detail] – Delacroix, 1838

In 1836, Chopin attended a party held by Marie d’Agoult where he met the author George Sand (born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, 1804-76). At the time, Chopin was still engaged to Maria Wodzińska and thought little of Sands, saying, “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” Sand, on the other hand, admitted to her friends her infatuation for the composer. After discovering Chopin and Maria were no longer an item, Sand let her feelings be known to Chopin. By 1838, Chopin and Sands were lovers.

Sand had a reputation for having many lovers and had married, although now separated from Casimir Dudevant (1795-1871), which resulted in two children: Maurice (1823-89) and Solange (1828-99). Chopin appeared unfazed by Sand’s past and agreed to spend the winter of 1838 in Majorca with Sand and her children. Before travelling, Chopin complained of feeling unwell but hoped the Mediterranean climate would revive him. Unfortunately, the couple struggled to find lodgings on the island because the Catholic population disapproved of their relationship. In the eyes of the church, Sand was still married. As a last resort, Chopin, Sand and the children moved into a former Carthusian monastery in the Majorcan village of Valldemossa.

Chopin – Gratia, 1838

Chopin’s health failed to improve, and the prognosis given by three doctors did not make him feel any better. “Three doctors have visited me … The first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die.” Despite feeling miserable, Chopin continued to compose music and completed several preludes, two polonaises, his Ballade No. 2, Op. 38, and worked on Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39. Chopin dedicated the ballade to Robert Schumann, who had recently dedicated a piano solo to Chopin.

The Mediterranean climate that Chopin hoped would cure him failed to materialise. Instead, poor weather ravaged the island, prompting the couple to move to Barcelona on the mainland, then to Marseilles in the south of France, where Chopin spent two months convalescing. Chopin’s health improved a little, and in the summer of 1839, he moved to Sand’s estate at Nohant in central France, much to Maurice’s disgust. The 16-year-old boy wished to establish himself as the man of the house and feared Chopin would take that role from him. Nonetheless, Chopin and Sand continued to spend their summers at Nohant until 1846.

During one of his stays at Nohant, Chopin composed Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53 (1842), which gained the nickname Polonaise héroïque (Heroic) during the Revolution of 1848. Many pianists find the piece physically demanding to play, although Chopin usually played it much more gently than most performers. When hearing the music played at the time of the Revolution, George Sand declared, “L’inspiration! La force! La vigueur! There is no doubt that such a spirit must be present in the French Revolution. From now on, this polonaise should be a symbol, a heroic symbol.”

Chopin’s health took a turn for the worse in 1842, the same year he composed the Héroïque. Although he gave solo recitals in Paris, he complained to a friend that “I have to lie in bed all day long, my mouth and tonsils are aching so much.” Soon, Chopin was declining more invitations than he was accepting, and on one occasion, he was discovered on the floor “hardly able to move, bent like a half-opened penknife and evidently in great pain.” The worse his health became, the less work Chopin could achieve. Usually, he wrote dozens of compositions each year, but in 1844, he only managed to complete Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor. Nonetheless, many consider this one of Chopin’s most technically challenging compositions.

The historian Adam Zamoyski (b. 1949) observes, “[Chopin’s] powers of concentration were failing and his inspiration was beset by anguish, both emotional and intellectual.” As well as his health, Chopin had problems with his relationship with Sand, who accused him of being more supportive of her daughter Solange than herself. Nonetheless, Sand continued to care for Chopin, becoming more like a nurse than a lover to the “beloved little corpse”, as she nicknamed him. In 1847, Sand published a novel Lucrezia Floriani, which featured characters based on herself and Chopin – a story that Chopin allegedly admired. Yet, by the end of the year, their relationship ended with an exchange of angry letters.

On 16th February 1848, Chopin performed his Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 with the cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808-84), but felt too unwell to give any more performances. For a while, Chopin continued to take on pupils, but this soon became too difficult for him. To avoid the Revolution of 1848, Chopin visited England at the suggestion of his Scottish pupil Jane Stirling (1804-59), who arranged an introduction with Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert (1819-61). Chopin agreed to perform to the royals, much to the delight of the Prince, who eagerly watched Chopin’s fingers on the piano to observe his technique.

In August, Jane invited Chopin to stay with her family in Scotland, which sparked rumours about a romantic relationship. Whilst Jane desired to marry Chopin, he did not reciprocate her feelings. In letters to friends, he described Jane and her family as boring. Chopin also realised his health was deteriorating rapidly, writing, “They have married me to Miss Stirling; she might as well marry death.” Despite his illness, Jane took him to visit all of her relatives and arranged concerts in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester. At the latter, which he performed on 28th August, Chopin was so weak he needed someone to carry him off the stage.

Chopin on His Deathbed – Teofil Kwiatkowski, 1849

In the autumn, Chopin returned to London with Jane, who continued to support her piano tutor despite his rejection of her romantic advances. On 16th November 1848, Chopin gave his final public concert at London’s Guildhall, even though he was critically ill. Jane continued to look after him and helped Chopin travel to Paris, where he gave the occasional piano lesson. His sister Ludwika came to stay in the city at Chopin’s request, and many of his friends visited him at his bedside, often entertaining him by playing music.

Frédéric Chopin playing at Paris’s Hôtel Lambert – Kwiatkowski

Jane commissioned the Polish artist Teofil Kwiatkowski (1809-91) to produce an oil painting of Chopin on his “deathbed”. He sits in bed surrounded by five guests, including his sister and a pupil, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (1817-94). This was the artist’s second painting of Chopin, the first being a picture of him playing at a ball at Hôtel Lambert in Paris.

In the early hours of 17th October 1849, a visiting doctor enquired whether Chopin was suffering greatly. Chopin replied, “No longer,” and died shortly after, age 39. According to Chopin’s death certificate, he succumbed to tuberculosis, but more recently, other suggestions have cropped up. These include cystic fibrosis, cirrhosis and pericarditis. Due to Chopin’s popularity, his funeral was delayed until 30th October, and attendees needed to reserve tickets. Over 3,000 people were refused entry to the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, where the service was held, many of whom had travelled from other countries for the occasion. A choir sang Mozart’s Requiem and Chopin’s Preludes No. 4 in E minor and No. 6 in B minor were also played, followed by a rendition of the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 at his graveside.

Auguste Clésinger (1814-83), the husband of George Sand’s daughter Solange, sculpted Chopin’s tombstone, which sits in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. It features the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping over a broken lyre. Although Chopin’s body rests under the sculpture, his sister took his heart back to Poland as per her brother’s request, symbolising that he always considered himself Polish.

Chopin’s music is his long-lasting legacy. Preferring to play in salons rather than ballrooms, he adjusted well-established forms of music to suit the setting. His waltzes had faster tempos than those written for dancing, and he was the first composer to write ballades and scherzos as individual concert pieces. Whilst Chopin respected the style of Bach and Mozart, who he regarded as his greatest influences, Chopin also introduced Polish music. As one music historian puts it, “it was Chopin who put the mazurka on the European musical map.”

“Chopin’s unique position as a composer, despite the fact that virtually everything he wrote was for the piano, has rarely been questioned.” (J. Barrie Jones, 1998) Although Chopin’s work does not favour orchestras, his music remains popular and is regularly performed today. An International Chopin Piano Competition is held in Warsaw every five years by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, which is devoted to performances of his polonaises, mazurkas and piano concertos.

To commemorate Chopin’s 100th birthday, Wacław Szymanowski (1859-1930) designed a sculpture of the composer to stand in Warsaw’s Royal Baths Park. Unfortunately, an argument over the design and the outbreak of World War One delayed the erection of the monument, but it was finally put in place in 1926. Sadly, the statue was blown up during World War Two by the Germans. Allegedly, on the following morning, a handwritten sign was found in the rubble, which said, “I don’t know who destroyed me, but I know why: so that I won’t play the funeral march for your leader.” The statue was rebuilt after the war and placed on a plinth featuring the inscription: “The Statue of Fryderyk Chopin, destroyed and plundered by the Germans on 31 May 1940, rebuilt by the Nation. 17 October 1946”. Also etched into the monument is a line from a poem by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), which reads, “Flames will consume our painted history, sword-wielding thieves will plunder our treasures, the song will be saved…”

Although Chopin only lived for 39 years, his influence on the world through music is evident. Over 80 societies across the world dedicate themselves to the composer and musician, and more than 1500 videos of performances of Chopin’s works are on Youtube. You can listen to some of the music mentioned in this blog through the following links:
Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1
Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”, Op. 2
Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major, Op. 3
Revolutionary Etude No. 12, Op. 10
Etude No. 2 in F minor “The Bees”, Op.25
Prelude in E Minor No. 4, Op. 28
Prelude in B Minor No.6, Op. 28
Marche Funèbre (Funeral March), Sonata Op. 35
Ballade No.2 in F major, Op. 38
Scherzo No.3 In C Sharp Minor, Op. 39
Heroic Polonaise in A Flat Major, Op. 53
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Sonata for Cello & Piano in G minor, Op. 65


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Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

“Innovative, accessible, and psychologically acute,” is how the Poetry Foundation describes the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. Highly regarded in the 20th century, although less known today, Mansfield experimented with modernism and brought new genres to the short story format. Writing about relationships, sexuality, the middle class, war, and everyday life, Mansfield was welcomed by members of the Bloomsbury Group in London. Sadly, her untimely death at the age of 34 prevented Mansfield from rising to the celebrity ranks of her friends, such as D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941).

Born into a wealthy family on 14th October 1888, Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp (Katherine was a pseudonym) grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, with her four siblings: two older sisters and a younger sister and brother. Her father, Sir Harold Beauchamp (1858-1938), was a successful businessman and, later in life, the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand. Katherine’s grandfather, Arthur Beauchamp (1827-1910), briefly stood as a Member of Parliament, and her cousin, Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), became a well-known author and, briefly, conducted an affair with H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

Mansfield’s happy childhood memories made their way into several short stories, which she began writing in the late 1890s. Her first written works appeared in the magazine of Wellington Girls’ High School, which she attended until 13 years old. In 1900, Mansfield submitted a story to the children’s page of the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal, which they published the day before her 12th birthday. The tale, His Little Friend, described the relationship between a man and a young child he met on the road. The man, John, came from a wealthy background, whereas the little boy lived in poverty and had nothing to eat. John gave the child food from his garden, but it was not enough to save the boy from a fatal illness. The sad story revealed Mansfield’s awareness of her parent’s wealth and the poverty of the working-class members of society.

As a child and teenager, Mansfield kept a private journal, in which she jotted down personal experiences and story ideas. They reveal her infatuation with the son of her cello teacher, who did not reciprocate her attention. As she got older, she wrote about the mistreatment of the indigenous Māori people, who she believed were repressed by society. To counteract this, Mansfield portrayed the Māori in a positive light in her stories. On these occasions, she painted white people in a negative light.

Katherine and Ida

In 1903, Mansfield travelled to London with her sisters to attend Queen’s College, an independent school for girls aged 11 to 18. As well as academic studies, Mansfield focused on practising the cello, which she dreamed of playing professionally. Her aspirations soon changed after contributing to the college magazine, which she later edited. Many commented on Mansfield’s aptitude for writing, particularly her friend Ida Baker, who also loved to write.

After completing her schooling, Mansfield returned to New Zealand, where she concentrated on writing short stories. Many of these appeared in the Native Companion, for which she received payment, thus cementing her ambition to be a professional writer. She published these works under the name “K. Mansfield”, her first initial and middle name. 

Mansfield’s journals from 1906 to 1908 suggest she had many romantic relationships. Whilst the majority were male, Mansfield wrote about two women and her conflicting feelings towards them. Same-sex relationships were illegal, but Mansfield felt unable to repress her feelings. On one occasion, she wrote, “I want Maata—I want her as I have had her—terribly. This is unclean I know but true.” Maata Mahupuku (1890-1952) was a Māori woman who Mansfield knew from childhood. They became close after Mansfield’s return to New Zealand, but their relationship ended when Maata married in 1907. The other woman Mansfield wrote about was called Edith Kathleen Bendall, but there is very little information about her.

Growing wearing of life in New Zealand, Mansfield returned to London. Her father agreed to send her an annual allowance of £100, although she quickly took up a bohemian lifestyle. After moving from place to place, Mansfield decided to seek out the son of her cello teacher, Arnold Trowell. Just as before, Arnold did not return Mansfield’s advances, but his brother, Garnet, did. After a brief but passionate affair, Mansfield realised she was pregnant. Sadly, Garnet’s parents, who disapproved of the relationship, forced them to split up.

Not wishing to have a child out of wedlock, Mansfield hastily accepted a marriage proposal from George Bowden, a singing tutor. They married on 2nd March 1909, but regretting her decision, Mansfield fled shortly after the service. For a while, she found solace at the house of her friend Ida. When her mother, Annie Beauchamp, arrived in England after learning about the failed marriage, she blamed her daughter’s “lesbian relationship” with Ida. Angrily, Annie packed her pregnant daughter off to the spa town of Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria, Germany, and cut Mansfield from her will.

While in Bad Wörishofen, Mansfield suffered a miscarriage. After recuperating from the trauma, she returned to London in 1910. Mansfield’s experiences in Bavaria, which included learning of various European authors, prompted her to start writing again. Before her marriage to Bowden, Mansfield only published one poem and one story in London. Her new literary outlook resulted in a dozen short stories, which she submitted to The New Age, a socialist magazine owned by Alfred Richard Orage (1873-1934). Through Orage, Mansfield met the English writer Beatrice Hastings (1879-1943), with whom she developed a close, possibly romantic, relationship.

In 1911, Mansfield published a series of short stories about life in Germany under the title In A German Pension. Some of these tales reference her plight, but most satirically represent the habits of German people and the state of their unhealthy sewage system. On occasion, Mansfield mentioned the misrepresentation of women and how men exploit them.

Mansfield in 1912

For some time, Mansfield attempted to get her work published in the literary, arts, and critical review magazine Rhythm. The editor rejected her first attempt for being too “lightweight”, so she responded with a darker, Fauvist story titled The Woman at the Store. Set in the desolate New Zealand countryside, three friends stop to rest at a store owned by a mentally deranged woman. Whilst the woman attempts to woo the visitors, her neglected daughter reveals to them through her drawings that her mother killed her father.

In 1912, Mansfield joined Rhythm as an associate editor. She developed a close relationship with the main editor, John Middleton Murry (1889-1957), and they had an on and off affair, which inspired the characters Gudrun and Gerald in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love

Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

Rhythm magazine folded in 1913 after the publisher Charles Granville absconded, leaving them with many debts. Around this time, Mansfield experienced bouts of ill health. A friend persuaded Mansfield and Murry to rent a cottage in Cholesbury, Buckinghamshire, where Mansfield could recuperate. When her symptoms did not alleviate, they moved to Paris, hoping a change of setting would boost Mansfield’s health or at least inspire her to write again. Mansfield succeeded in writing a short story titled Something Childish But Very Natural, but it was not published until after her death.

In 1914, Mansfield and Murry briefly split up when Murry returned to London to declare bankruptcy. Remaining in France, Mansfield conducted an affair with the French author Francis Carco (1886-1958), which she narrated in her short story, An Indiscreet Journey. The tale describes the journey of an English woman on her way to meet her lover on the front line during the First World War, and the people she met along the way. 

Mansfield and Murry reunited in 1915, but Mansfield’s outlook on life changed after receiving the news of the death of her younger brother Leslie. While serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Ypres Salient, Belgium, Leslie suffered fatal wounds during a grenade training exercise. His death made Mansfield nostalgic about her childhood in New Zealand, which she reflected in her writing.

Katherine Mansfield

In 1917, Mansfield and Murry split once again. Mansfield purchased an apartment where she lived for a time with her friend Ida, who she referred to as “my wife”. Although no longer together, Murry visited Mansfield regularly and eventually won back her heart. During this time, Mansfield wrote prolifically, often on themes of marriage or lost love, and published many stories in The New Age Magazine.

Later that year, Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard (1880-1969) approached Mansfield to ask for a story. They needed writers for their new publishing company, Hogarth Press, and Mansfield happily presented them with her work in progress, Prelude. Woolf encouraged her to finish the story, which Mansfield based on her childhood, particularly the family’s move to Karori, a country suburb of Wellington, in 1893. Eventually published by Hogarth Press in 1918, Prelude encompasses themes of feminism, isolation, freedom, servility and familial relationships.

Katherine Mansfield Portrait

In December 1917, Mansfield received a diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis. For the rest of the winter and following spring, she stayed with the American artist Anne Estelle Rice (1877-1959) in Looe, Cornwall, hoping the sea air would aid recovery. While there, Rice painted Mansfield’s portrait, which the author requested in vivid red. The painting now lives in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, New Zealand.

Mansfield’s health continued to worsen, but she refused to enter a sanitorium. Instead, she moved to Bandol in southeastern France, where she resided in a quiet hotel. Whilst feeling isolated and depressed, Mansfield focused on her writing, producing short stories, such as Je ne parle pas français and Bliss. The latter became the title story of her collection Bliss and Other Stories, published in 1920.

In March 1919, Mansfield suffered a lung haemorrhage, which prompted Murry to urge her to marry him. As soon as her divorce papers came through from Bowden, the couple married in April in London. Murry’s financial situation had much improved, and he worked as the editor for the literary magazine The Athenaeum. Mansfield contributed over 100 book reviews to the magazine, and many well-known authors submitted short stories and poems, including T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), and Virginia Woolf. 

Mansfield travelled to San Remo, Italy, with Ida to avoid the harsh English winters. Murry joined them for Christmas but returned to London soon after. It became normal for Mansfield and Murry to live apart, which Mansfield used as the basis of her story The Man Without a Temperament. Swapping tuberculosis for heart disease, Mansfield wrote about a man who is scorned for leaving his poorly wife behind while he goes for a walk. 

In May 1921, Mansfield and Ida visited the Swiss bacteriologist Henri Spahlinge in Switzerland in search of tuberculosis treatment. In June, Murry joined her, and they rented a chalet in the canton of Valais. While undergoing treatment, Mansfield wrote rapidly, fearing she had little time left. The majority of her short stories from this period were published in The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. This publication received mixed reviews from critics. Some argued it left them cold, and others claimed it to be a selection of her best works.

One story, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, is regarded as Mansfield’s finest work. It concerns the lives of two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, who are trying to come to terms with the death of their father. Mansfield emphasised that middle-class women brought up in old-fashioned ways do not know how to fend for themselves. Their father always made decisions about their lives, and without him, the sisters are lost. Readers have interpreted the story differently. For some, this is the sisters’ chance to live their life as they wish; for others, the sisters face perpetual misery, unable to live without their father. Although she did not make it clear in her writing, Mansfield favoured the latter outcome, saying to a friend: “All was meant, of course, to lead up to that last paragraph, when my two flowerless ones turned with that timid gesture, to the sun. ‘Perhaps now’. And after that, it seemed to me, they died as truly as Father was dead.”

In early 1922, Mansfield gave up on tuberculosis treatment in Switzerland and searched for alternative methods. A form of x-ray treatment in Paris caused her painful side effects and failed to improve her condition. Mansfield and Murray briefly returned to Switzerland, where Mansfield finished her final short story, The Canary. After this, they visited London before moving permanently to Fontainebleau in France. Here, Mansfield lived as a guest at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man under the care of Olgivanna Lazovitch Hinzenburg (1898-1985), the future wife of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

Katherine Mansfield’s Tombstone at Cimetiere d’Avon in Avon France

On 9th January 1923, after running up a flight of stairs, Katherine Mansfield suffered a fatal pulmonary haemorrhage. Her husband failed to pay for her funeral expenses, so she was buried in a pauper’s grave until he rectified the situation. After this, Mansfield was interred at Cimetiere d’Avon, Avon, near Fontainebleau.

Many of Mansfield’s stories remained unpublished at the time of her death. Gradually, Murry compiled them into volumes and printed them as The Dove’s Nest in 1923 and Something Childish in 1924. He also published a collection of her poems (The AloeNovels and Novelists), letters and journals.

Despite spending half her life in Europe, Mansfield is most known in her home country. About ten schools in New Zealand have a school house named in her honour. Her birthplace is preserved as the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden, which is open to the public. There is also an award called the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, which allows a writer from New Zealand to work in one of Mansfield’s former homes in France.

In the 1970s, the BBC serialised Katherine Mansfield’s life in a miniseries called A Picture of Katherine Mansfield, starring Vanessa Redgrave (b.1937). Apart from this, little is done to keep the memory of Katherine Mansfield alive in Britain. For such a prolific writer, she remains unknown to many. If Mansfield had lived longer than 34 years, she would easily have exceeded the number of works by some of today’s most loved writers. 


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Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

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Mata Hari the Dancing Spy

How many people in history have become famous for their deaths? Countless. Death has the power to shock the world, whether it be natural, murder, heroic or mysterious. Death also has the power to erase life, and not just physically. The world’s morbid curiosity can become so focused on the end of a life that it forgets everything that came before. A recent article in BBC History magazine (June 2020) that discusses the disappearance of the American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897- unknown) in 1937 urges readers to “pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.” The same could be said about a multitude of historical celebrities, for example, the exotic dancer Mata Hari.

Often cropping up in online quizzes is the question, “What was the nationality of the exotic dancer Mata Hari who was executed for being a German spy during WWI?” The answer, as many quiz players will know, is Dutch. How many of the same quiz players can provide more details about the dancer other than she was Dutch and she was executed for being a spy? Has her life been reduced to these few details?

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Mata Hari, 1905

Born on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest child and only daughter of Adam Zelle (1840-1910) and Antje van der Meulen (1842-91). Both her parents were Dutch, which proves false the rumours that Mata Hari was of Javanese ancestry. Her father, a hat shop owner, led a fairly affluent life, earning money through successful oil industry investments. As a result, Margaretha received an exclusive education until the age of 13.

Unfortunately, this lavish lifestyle was not to last; her father went bankrupt in 1889, which led to her parents’ divorce. Margaretha’s mother died suddenly in 1891 and her father remarried two years later to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (1844 – 1913), after which the family completely fell apart. Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, a city southwest of Leeuwarden, and when she was old enough, began to study to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden. The headmaster of the school, who was presumably somewhat older than Margaretha, began to openly flirt with her. When her godfather found out, he instantly removed her from the institution. It is unknown whether Margaretha had reciprocated the headmaster’s advances, however, she no longer wished to live with her godfather and fled to The Hague where her uncle resided.

mata-hari-9402348-1-rawYet, Margaretha did not stop running. At 18 years old, Margaretha answered an advert in a newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain who was seeking a wife. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1856-1928) was a descendant of Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye. His father, John, was also a captain and his mother, Dina Louise, was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas, therefore, he was of high social standing and financially secure.

Margaretha sent a photograph of herself, emphasising her raven black hair and olive skin, to MacLeod who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch Empire had colonised the area in 1800 and MacLeod was the captain of one branch of the Dutch army stationed there.

On 11th July 1895, Margaretha and MacLeod were married and, two years later, settled in the city of Malang on the east side of the island of Java with their newborn son, Norman-John (1897-99). The following year, their daughter Louise Jeanne (1898-1919) was born. Margaretha’s dreams of a happy marriage, however, were shattered when she learnt about her husband’s philandering ways.  It was socially acceptable for Europeans to keep a concubine in the Dutch East Indies at that time, which MacLeod did, as well as visit prostitutes.

Captain Rudolf MacLeod was an alcoholic and prone to violence when drunk. He beat Margaretha for attracting other officers with her beauty; he beat and blamed Margaretha when he did not receive a promotion; he beat her for any petty reason he could find. To escape the abuse, Margaretha temporarily moved in with another Dutch officer where she began to study Indonesian traditions and embrace the local culture.

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Legong dance – Freeind Santosa

What interested Margaretha the most was Indonesian dance, which reflected the diversity of their culture. Indonesia can be split into three eras: Prehistoric, Hindu/Buddhist, and Islam; all of which can be observed in folk dances and court dances. Tribal dances from the Prehistoric Era gradually combined with influences from nearby countries, such as India, China and the Middle East. Later, European culture was thrown into the mix.

Margaretha joined a local dance company where she adopted an artistic name: Mata Hari. As she explained in letters home to her Dutch family, Mata Hari was the Malay word for “sun” (literally “eye of the day”). Here she would have learnt many different dances. The population of Indonesia was made up of different ethnicities, each of whom had their own dances. There is an estimated total of 3000 dances that have their origins in Indonesia.

Mata Hari was only able to escape her husband for a few months when she was persuaded to return. The beatings resumed but Margaretha was able to find moments of solace in her studies of the local culture and dance. Sadly, tragedy was soon to befall the MacLeod family. In 1899, the children fell violently ill from which Norman-John never survived. Many believe this was due to complications with the treatment of syphilis, which the children had contracted from their father. Others claim the children were poisoned by a servant or enemy of MacLeod. Whatever the cause, Norman-John was dead.

The MacLeod’s returned to the Netherlands in 1902 where they officially separated, although their divorce did not become official until 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Louise Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to provide financial support – which he did not. After one of Louise Jeanne’s visits with her father, MacLeod refused to return her to Margaretha. Although Margaretha had every right to take her ex-husband to court, she did not have the resources. Despite MacLeod’s abusive nature, he had never hurt his daughter, so Margaretha conceded defeat. It is unlikely mother and daughter saw each other again. Not much is known about Louise Jeanne’s life other than she passed away aged 21 from complications due to syphilis.

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Performing in 1905

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris in search of work. Some say she posed as a model for an artist, but this claim is uncertain. She did, however, find work in a circus as a horse rider and performed under the name of Lady MacLeod. This, naturally, met with disapproval with her ex-husband’s family.

Orientalism” was all the rage in Paris at the turn of the century, which Margaretha was able to use to her advantage. Modern dancers were incorporating Asian and Egyptian cultures into their costumes and dance moves and Margaretha, who had learnt to dance in the Dutch East Indies, fitted right in. Using her Malay name, Mata Hari billed herself as a Hindu artist and choreographed “Temple Dances” using her knowledge of Indonesian culture, religion and symbolism. The dances often involved the removal of clothing, although she self-consciously kept her breasts covered with bead-covered brassieres.

Mata Hari was the contemporary of several established modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Duncan’s technique incorporated ballet with Ancient Greece. Although her movements were as fluid as a ballerina, her costumed were based on Ancient Greek art. Rather than leotards or corsets, Duncan preferred tunics and performed most of her dances barefoot.

When Mata Hari first learnt of her, Duncan was on her European tour. Popular for her distinctive style, many artists were inspired by Duncan and wished to create works based on her. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was one of many who were intrigued by the movements of Duncan’s body.

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Gabriel Astruc

On the other hand, French journalist and theatre manager, Gabriel Astruc (1864-1938), did not think much of Isadora’s Duncan’s dancing, believing it to be too subtle to attract an audience. He was, however, attracted to Mata Hari’s Oriental-inspired style and became her booking agent in 1904. Around the same time, Astruc was also working with musicians and singers, such as Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).

Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on 13th March 1905 where she became an overnight sensation. The Parisian museum is famous for being one of the largest collections of Asian art and owns several items from Indonesia, which complimented Mata Hari’s style of dance. Her audience was captivated by her body and flirtatious nature.

In her dance, Mata Hari posed as a Hindu Javanese princess, which led many people to believe she was of Asian ancestry. She let them believe she had grown up learning the art of sacred Indian dance when, in fact, it had only been a matter of years. As she danced, she progressively removed her clothing until she was left in nothing but a breastplate and jewels.

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Émile Guimet in his Museum, by Ferdinand Jean Luigini, 1898

It was not only the audience at the Musée Guimet who were captivated by Mata Hari’s performance; she had also caught the eye of millionaire and founder of the museum, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918). Guimet had originally set up the museum in Lyon but transferred its contents to its current location in Paris in 1885. Soon after meeting Mata Hari, she became his mistress.

In August 1905, Gabriel Astruc booked Mata Hari into the Paris Olympia where she made many appearances over the following decade. Thousands flocked to see her shows and many photographs were taken, including some during her semi-naked acts. Unfortunately, some of these photos reached the MacLeod family who used them to strengthen their custody claim over Louise Jeanne.

Nonetheless, Mata Hari continued to have a successful career in Paris. Her type of act made her a popular woman amongst male spectators but also brought exotic dance to a more respectable status and greatly appealed to “oriental” obsessed Parisians. Mata Hari herself was thought of as exotic and many believed the stories about her origins to be genuine. Very little was known in Europe about the Dutch East Indies, so any form of art from that area garnered a lot of attention from intrigued Europeans.

A French journalist described Mata Hari as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” News of her success in Paris saloons spread to other cities and countries, who wished to book Mata Hari for their halls and exhibition spaces. Her dance act travelled as far as Vienna, where a journalist commented on her body, “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” He claimed that even her face made “a strange foreign impression.”

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In 1910 wearing a bejewelled head-dress

The popularity of Mata Hari’s dance style inspired other dancers to appropriate traditional Asian movements. By 1910, Mata Hari was competing for bookings with younger women. Critics, who were in favour of these new dancers, spread the opinion that Mata Hari’s success was down to her revealing clothes and exhibitionism rather than her dancing ability. In fact, some critics claimed she did not know how to dance at all.

Having begun her dance career relatively late in life, Mata Hari was hindered by the signs of ageing. Although she was not yet 40, Mata Hari had begun to put on weight, which made her body less appealing than the younger dancers. On 13th March 1915, she performed her last show as an exotic dancer, however, her fame, sensuality and eroticism led her to become a successful courtesan. She had relationships and liaisons with high ranking military officers and politicians, both in France and across country borders. Some of these men were German officers, which in hindsight was a foolish move.

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Amsterdam, 1915

Despite the growing tensions in Europe and the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari continued to work as a courtesan, travelling from one country to another to avoid the fighting. Her constant movements came to the attention of British and French intelligence who put her under surveillance as she moved about between France, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, which allowed Mata Hari to travel unquestioned despite the surveillance.

At the beginning of 1916, Mata Hari began a very intense relationship with a Russian pilot who was serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov, who was in his early 20s, met Mata Hari at the Grand Hotel where he was staying for a short break after being granted military merit. Within a few short weeks, Mata Hari was deeply involved with Maslov, who she called the love of her life.

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Mata Hari and Vadim Maslov

When Maslov returned to work, he joined the 50,000 men in the Russian Expeditionary Force who were sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916. During a dogfight with the Germans, Maslov’s plane was shot down. Although he survived, he was badly wounded and had lost the sight in both eyes. Naturally, Mata Hari wished to visit her wounded lover, however, as a citizen of a neutral country, she was not allowed near the front.

Mata Hari kicked up a fuss, which resulted in a meeting with agents from the Deuxième Bureau. The Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général (“Second Bureau of the General Staff”) was France’s external military intelligence agency concerned with enemy troops. They proposed that Mata Hari could see Maslov if she agreed to spy for France. One of the agents, Major Georges Ladoux (1875-1933), believed her courtesan contacts would be able to provide useful information.

Ladoux also believed Mata Hari would be able to worm her way into Crown Prince Wilhelm’s (1882-1951) presence. The prince was the eldest son of the last German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and served as a general at the western front. Before the war, Mata Hari had performed for Prince Wilhelm, therefore, she would be a familiar face and, hopefully, appear trustworthy.

The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata Hari one million francs if she could seduce and obtain information about German war plans from the prince. Unbeknownst to the French organisation, the prince had very little to do with the military. German propaganda had painted the prince as a great warrior and leader of the Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group Crown Prince). In reality, the prince had never commanded an army and was far more interested in partying and drinking.

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Painting of Mata Hari by Isaac Israëls, 1916

Mata Hari began her spy career by liaising with the contacts she had amassed during her work as a concubine and dancer. This took her to Spain from where she was returning by steamer ship in November 1916 when she was arrested by the British. The ship had called in at Falmouth, Cornwall, where she was detained and brought to London.

Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939), the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War, interrogated Mata Hari at length. She was held at Cannon Street police station but was released when she eventually admitted she was working for the Deuxième Bureau. After a brief stay at the Savoy Hotel, Mata Hari returned to Spain.

In Madrid, Mata Hari met the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle (1873-1952), with whom she began an affair. She asked Kalle if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince but he appeared to be reluctant to do so. Mata Hari offered to share French secrets with Kalle in exchange for money, which she hoped would reward her with some German information in return. Indeed, Kalle did share some information, however, only things the French would already have known, for example, German submarines were refuelled in Spanish ports and German agents were being smuggled into Monaco.

Referring to Mata Hari as Agent H-21, Kalle transmitted telegrams to Berlin about the information she had revealed. Although it was written in code, Kalle had used encryption that had already been cracked by the French. The telegrams were intercepted by the British and French who easily identified Agent H-21 as Mata Hari. As a result, they began to suspect she was a double agent.

As it transpired, the information Mata Hari revealed to Kalle was mostly insignificant gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, rather than useful information. German intelligence officer General Walter Nicolai (1873-1947), however, was annoyed that Kalle had paid for useless information and began to expose her as a German spy to the French.

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On the day of her arrest

Meanwhile, Mata Hari managed to obtain the names of six Belgian officers, five of whom were suspected of working for the Germans and one who believed to be a double agent. The latter was executed but the others evaded arrest and continued their work. The Deuxième Bureau believed Mata Hari had also given the names to the Germans who subsequently protected the five spies.

On 13th February 1917, while staying at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris, she was arrested by the French and placed in a rat-infested cell at Prison Saint-Lazare. At her trial, which took place on 24th July, Mata Hari was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the deaths of 500,000 soldiers. Captain Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau was one of her principal accusers, as was Sir Basil Thomson who had interrogated her in Britain. Both were convinced she had been a double agent, however, neither could produce substantial evidence. The most incriminating thing they could find was a bottle of invisible ink in her hotel room.

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Margaretha Zelle mugshot

Captain Pierre Bouchardon (1870-1950), nicknamed The Grand Inquisitor, was the prosecutor at Mata Hari’s trial and built his case around her invented persona. He drew attention to the story she had weaved about being a Javanese princess and revealed her real name as Margaretha Zelle.

During the trial, Margaretha admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat she had met in the Netherlands to spy on France. She insisted, however, that the only information she revealed was trivial as her loyalties remained with France.

A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!

— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.

 

Margaretha pleaded with the Dutch Embassy in Paris for help. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else… Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Sadly, assistance was not forthcoming. Not even her wounded lover would come to her aid. When Maslov was asked to testify for her, he declined, claiming he did not care if she was convicted or not. Margaretha reportedly fainted at the news.

Researchers who have looked into Margaretha’s trial, such as British historian Julie Wheelwright, have concluded, “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” Despite this, Bouchardon continued to build his case by emphasising her past career. Bouchardon argued she was “accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Today, many believe Margaretha was used as a scapegoat for France. In 1917, the French were struggling to survive the war. The new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), was determined to turn things around and having a German spy to blame for the recent failings of the French army would help to boost morale. Mata Hari was “… an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.” (Wheelwright, 2014) 

Under interrogation, Margaretha had admitted to taking money to work for Germany, however, there was no evidence that she carried out any spy duties. Despite this, her defence lawyer, Édouard Clunet (1845-1922), faced an impossible battle; it was the French government versus one man. Unsurprisingly, Clunet lost the case and Margaretha was convicted.

Just before dawn on 15th October 1917, 41-year-old Margaretha Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to eye-witness reports, she was not bound and had refused to be blindfolded. One man claimed she blew a kiss at the squad just before they fired. British reporter Henry Wales wrote, “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second, it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.” To make sure she was dead, an officer then shot her in the head at close range.

No one came forward to claim Margaretha’s body, therefore, her body was donated to medical science. Records from 1918 show the Museum of Anatomy in Paris received her body and embalmed her head, however, when the museum’s collection was catalogued in 2000, Margaretha’s head and body were missing. They remain unaccounted for.

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Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Mata Hari’s life has inspired many films including a Hollywood production starring Greta Garbo (1905-90). Her life has been a source of entertainment for many for over a century. In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the character Mata Bond was said to be the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. In 1992, Carrie Fisher (1956-1016) of Star Wars fame wrote an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indiana Jones had an affair with Mata Hari and became involved with her spy career. At least five musicals have been based around her life and, in 2016, the Dutch National Ballet presented a ballet called Mata Hari.

Despite her life becoming appropriated for entertainment purposes, some people wish to see Mata Hari vindicated of her supposed crimes. In 2001, MI5 released documents concerning Margaretha’s interrogation, which the Mata Hari Foundation used to form their plea to the French government to exonerate her. The spokesman for the foundation stated, “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.” The foundation argued the documents were proof that Margaretha was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted.

Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a Mata Hari remains a criminal in the eyes of the law. In 2017, exactly 100 years after her execution, the French Army made the 1275 pages of Mata Hari’ trial and other documents public; it is only a matter of time before the foundation comes forward again to campaign for her pardon.

It is difficult to say how innocent or guilty Margaretha Zelle really was and it will be challenging to prove now that a century has passed. Whilst her execution remains the most notable event of her life, we must not forget the 41 years that led up to that fateful day. Margaretha’s world was turned upside-down at a young age following her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s death. She took her future into her own hands, marrying to escape her past, only to find herself in an abusive relationship; she lost her son and was estranged from her daughter. Remarkably, this did not break her. She found solace in dance, became Mata Hari and launched her own career – albeit one that many may frown upon. For love, she agreed to spy for a country that was not even her own. The final years of her life were fraught with danger and yet she persevered, showing remarkable strength and bravery.

Whether or not Mata Hari was innocent, she deserves to be remembered for her life rather than her death.


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Meet Vincent Van Gogh

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After captivating audiences in Beijing, Barcelona and Seoul, the official Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience has arrived in London. When Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, not only did he leave behind a great number of paintings and drawings, his voice was captured in hundreds of letters to his brother and other friends and acquaintances. Using the wealth of information in these correspondences, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has designed an exhibition through which the artist speaks directly to the visitor. An audio guide tells Van Gogh’s story, reading directly from many of his letters in order to teach visitors everything they need to know about one of the most celebrated artists in the world.

Please do touch! Nothing is off-limits in this experience, there are no ropes separating visitors from exhibits. Large recreations and 3D prints of Van Gogh’s works allow people to see and feel the texture of the paint. Reproductions of tools and materials help to demonstrate the artist’s method and technique, and interactive stations throughout the experience encourage visitors to create their own art, using the words of Van Gogh as their guide.

Unlike art galleries where everything is neatly hung on walls, the Van Gogh Experience uses digital projections, props, and videos to make it feel as though one is walking directly into a Van Gogh painting. The breaking down of traditional boundaries lets visitors pull up a chair at the Potato Eater’s table, sit on a haystack, stand beside the Yellow House and enter Van Gogh’s recognisable bedroom.

As you progress through the exhibition, the scenes change, revealing key turning points in Vincent’s life. With his disembodied voice in their ears, visitors accompany the artist from Nuenen in the Netherlands to Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Engaging with the sets provides the opportunity to feel as though you are seeing the world and his paintings through Van Gogh’s eyes.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30th March 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands. He was the first surviving child of the Dutch Reformed Church minister Theodorus van Gogh (1822-85) and Anna Cornelia van Gogh-Carbentus (1819-1907), born exactly a year after a still-born brother. Vincent had many siblings: Anna (1855-1930), Theo (1857-91), Lies (1859-1936), Willemien (1862-1941) and Cor (1867-1900); however, it was with Theo that Vincent had the strongest relationship.

At least 902 letters of Van Gogh still exist, 819 of which he sent and 83 he received. Vincent burnt the majority of correspondence he received since it was impossible to keep them all; Theo, on the other hand, did not like to throw things away and managed to save 658 letters from his brother. Twenty-one letters to his sister Wil (Willemien) also exist, however, there appear to be none addressed to his other siblings.

Vincent was initially taught at home by his mother and a governess before joining the village school in 1860. In 1864, however, he was sent away to boarding school where he felt abandoned and deeply unhappy. Eventually, he returned home and his uncle obtained him a position at the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After completing his training in 1873, Vincent was sent to Goupil’s London branch where he began earning more money than his father. In retrospect, it is believed this was the best year of Van Gogh’s life.

The earliest dated letter from Vincent to Theo was sent in September 1872 in which he begins to confide in his brother, telling him about the things he has seen or read. “You must write to me in particular about what kind of paintings you see and what you find beautiful.” (January 1873) The letters continued during Vincent’s time in London where he regularly visited museums. “English art didn’t appeal to me much at first, one has to get used to it.” (January 1874)

Theo began working with Goupil & Cie three years after his brother, which made their relationship even stronger. Vincent’s letters, however, had become rather gloomy, often writing about a “quiet melancholy”. This may have been triggered by the rejection of Eugénie Loyer who he had confessed his love to whilst living in London. Vincent began to isolate himself and became religiously fervent, adopting the words “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) as his motto.

Van Gogh’s father and uncle arranged for him to be transferred to Goupil’s Paris branch, however, due to Vincent’s poor attitude, he was dismissed in 1876. Over the next few years, Vincent explored a variety of career possibilities, including returning to England to work as an unpaid supply teacher in Ramsgate. This proved unsuccessful, so he returned home where he worked at a bookshop in Dordrecht. This also proved futile and Vincent spent hours doodling or reading the Bible.

Even though Van Gogh’s father was a minister, he thought his son’s religious passion was excessive. Nonetheless, to support Vincent’s new-found desire to become a pastor, his father sent him to live with his uncle and theologian Johannes Stricker (1816-86). Unfortunately, Vincent failed the entrance exam for the University of Amsterdam, nor did he pass the three-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Laken, Belgium.

Undeterred, in 1879 Vincent took up a missionary post in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. Up until this point, his letters to Theo had contained passages or references to the Bible, however, his experience of the squalid living conditions made him turn his back on religion. Feeling that he had no career prospects and nowhere to go, Vincent returned home.

After a few months living with his parents and a brief spell in a lunatic asylum – presumably for depression, Vincent returned to Borinage where he temporarily lodged with a miner. A letter written to Theo at the time suggests Vincent had stopped writing to him during his difficult period. “My dear Theo, It’s with some reluctance that I write to you, not having done so for so long … Up to a certain point you’ve become a stranger to me, and I too am one to you, perhaps more than you think…” (August 1880)

Whilst living in Borinage, Van Gogh became interested in the people and scenes around him, producing quick sketches, which he sent to Theo. His letters became both a means of communicating and a way of documenting his ideas. Encouraged by his brother’s new way of expressing himself, Theo encouraged Vincent to take up art in earnest. Van Gogh followed Theo’s recommendation, eventually registering at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Vincent’s early sketches in Borinage proved to be more than a desire to draw but also the inspiration for Van Gogh’s first major work, The Potato Eaters.

By the end of 1883, loneliness or, perhaps, poverty had driven Van Gogh to move in with his parents, who were then living in the Dutch town of Nuenen. During his two year stay, Vincent completed many drawings, watercolours and oil paintings of the local weavers and cottages. Unlike the vivid colours of his later work, Vincent worked in sombre earth tones to capture the true nature of the scenes.

The colours inadvertently reflect the events in Van Gogh’s life during the period he stayed with his parents. In August 1884, the neighbour’s daughter Margot Begemann fell in love with Vincent and he, reluctantly at first, developed a strong relationship with her. They both wished to marry but their families were strongly against the proposal. Upset, Margot swallowed rat poison and was rushed to hospital where she was lucky to survive. Unfortunately, Vincent received another blow not long after this incident on 26th March 1885 when his father died.

Nonetheless, Van Gogh continued with his drawings and paintings then, the same year, Theo wrote to him asking if any of his paintings were ready to exhibit. Vincent replied that he had been working on a “series of peasant studies” and submitted his first major work, The Potato Eaters. This was a culmination of several years work, taking inspiration from the people in Nuenen, who often sat for him, as well as his experience in Borinage.

“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and—that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours—civilized people.”
– Vincent to Theo (30th April 1885)

Two years later, Van Gogh considered The Potato Eaters to be “the best thing I did”, which he confessed in a letter to his sister Wil. Critics, on the other hand, were less inclined to agree, including Vincent’s friend and fellow artist Anthon van Rappard (1858-92). Initially, Vincent was angry with Rappard’s criticism and told him that he “had no right to condemn my work in the way you did” (July 1885). A month later, with his confidence in tatters, Vincent tried to defend his efforts, writing “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.”

In November 1885, Van Gogh spent a brief time living in a room above a paint dealer’s shop in Antwerp. Although Theo supported him financially, Vincent chose to spend the money on painting materials rather than food. He also bought Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, which he studied and copied, incorporating some elements into his paintings. He also broadened his palette, beginning to paint in reds, blues and greens.

“My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.”
– Vincent to Theo (28th November 1885)

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Portrait of Vincent van Gogh – Toulouse-Lautrec

Due to living in poverty and eating poorly, Van Gogh was hospitalised between February and March 1886, after which he moved to Paris where he lived with Theo. Since they were living together, there was no point in writing to each other, therefore, not a lot is known about Vincent’s time in Paris.

Other sources of information reveal Vincent spent time in the Louvre, examining paintings, colour schemes and artists’ techniques. Through Theo, he met up-and-coming artists, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

Theo found living with Vincent almost unbearable and, although they remained firm friends and brothers, Vincent moved in 1887 to Asnières in the northwest of Paris. Here, Vincent met Paul Signac (1863-1935), a neo-impressionist painter who helped develope the Pointillist style. Inspired by Signac, Vincent began to include aspects of pointillism in his paintings.

Van Gogh’s artistic breakthrough occurred after he had moved to Arles in the south of France in an attempt to recuperate from his smoking problem and smoker’s cough. It is believed he had the intention of founding an art colony, however, this never came to fruition. Nonetheless, existing letters reveal Vincent was in contact with several artists at the time, including Bernard, Charles Laval (1862-94) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

During his year in Arles, Van Gogh produced over 200 paintings and 100 drawings, the majority of which were intended for the decoration of the Yellow House – a personal gallery of his work. When Vincent first arrived in Arles, he signed a lease for the eastern wing of the Yellow House at 2 Place Lamartine, however, it was not yet fully furnished so he was only able to use it as a studio. Meanwhile, he resided at the Hôtel Carrel and the Café de la Gare.

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The Night Café, 1888

“I want to do figures, figures and figures … Meanwhile, I mostly do other things.” Van Gogh desired to paint portraits and, whilst he painted a few, he mostly produced landscapes. Inspired by the local harvests, wheatfields and landmarks, Vincent painted Arles in yellow, ultramarine and mauve. The wheat fields were a common feature in his landscapes, however, Vincent also painted his house, sunflowers, fishing boats and the Café de la Gare. Writing about one of his paintings of the latter entitled The Night Café, Van Gogh revealed he was trying to “to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime”.

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Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Once the Yellow House was suitable to live in, Van Gogh began displaying some of his paintings on the walls as can be seen in his depiction of his bedroom: Bedroom in Arles. When planning this painting, Vincent wrote to his brother that “colour must be abundant in this part, its simplification adding a rank of grandee to the style applied to the objects, getting to suggest a certain rest or dream.” The walls are a pale violet and the wooden furniture is “yellow like fresh butter”. On the bed, a scarlet bedspread lies on top of a “lemon light green” sheet and pillows. The windows are shuttered and the blue doors closed, one which led to a staircase and the other a guest bedroom.

The guest room was used by Paul Gauguin when he agreed to visit Van Gogh in Arles. While waiting for him to arrive, Vincent frantically worked on paintings to decorate the house, including more sunflowers, a painting of his chair and a painting of the chair he had purchased in anticipation of Gauguin’s visit.

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin eventually arrived on 23rd October and the artists settled into a routine of sleeping and painting in the Yellow House. Noticing that Van Gogh always used visual references, Gauguin encouraged Vincent to paint from memory. They also went on outdoor ventures to paint en plein air, however, the only painting Gauguin completed in Van Gogh’s studio was The Painter of Sunflowers, a portrait of Van Gogh.

Van Gogh had hoped for friendship with Gauguin, however, after two months the relationship began to deteriorate. Vincent admired Gauguin and wished to be treated as his equal, however, Gauguin was rather arrogant and full of criticism, which was frustrating for Vincent and led to many quarrels. Every day, Vincent feared Gauguin would leave him, describing the situation as one of “excessive tension”. Eventually, Vincent’s fear became a reality.

It is difficult to determine exactly what happened next because Van Gogh had no recollection of the events. Gauguin claimed they had been cooped up in the house due to several days of heavy rain, which led to much bickering culminating in a huge argument. To cool off, Gauguin left the house to go for a walk, however, Vincent, presumably mistaking this action for abandonment, “rushed towards me, an open razor in his hand”. That night, Gauguin stayed in a hotel rather than returning to the Yellow House.

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Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Alone in the house, Van Gogh was plagued by “voices” and cut off his left ear with the razor. Whether this was wholly or partially is now unknown since there are discrepancies between the sources from the time of the incident. Van Gogh bandaged his heavily bleeding wound, wrapped the ear in paper and delivered it to a woman at a brothel he and Gauguin frequented. Vincent was discovered unconscious by a policeman the following morning, who took him to the local hospital.

Van Gogh was diagnosed with “acute mania with generalised delirium” and remained in the hospital for some time. Although Gauguin had returned to Paris, the artists put the event to one side and continued to correspond through letters. They proposed to form a studio in Antwerp when Van Gogh was well but they never had the chance.

On 7th January 1889, Van Gogh returned to the Yellow House, however, he was still suffering from hallucinations. Some sources claim Vincent tried to poison himself, whereas others say this was one of his delusions; nonetheless, concerned for his welfare, inhabitants of Arles demanded that he was forcibly removed from the house. Vincent found himself back in the hospital, eventually agreeing to voluntarily admit himself to the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Van Gogh stayed in the asylum for about a year, during which time he was allowed to paint. The clinic and its gardens were Vincent’s primary sources of inspiration as were patients and doctors. The Starry Night, one of Van Gogh’s most famous works, was painted in the hospital grounds.

Letters continued to be sent back and forth between Theo and Vincent as well as a few friends. Since there was a limited amount of artistic inspiration in the hospital, Theo sent his brother prints of famous artworks from which to copy. Some of Vincent’s favourite artists to study included Jean-François Millet (1814-75), Jules Breton (1827-1906), Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and Gustave Doré (1832-83).

Van Gogh’s letters to his brother became increasingly sombre and he suffered a relapse between February and April 1890. During this time, he felt unable to write, however, there are a few small paintings dated around this time. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset was one of these, based on an artwork by Millet.

Meanwhile, Van Gogh’s paintings were beginning to attract attention and he was invited to submit some of his paintings to an avant-garde exhibition in Paris. Whilst some people were critical of his work, others defended Van Gogh’s style and he was soon invited to participate in an exhibition with the Artistes Indépendants in Paris. Claude Monet (1840-1926) declared Van Gogh’s work was the best in the show.

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Almond blossom, 1890

It was not the success of the exhibition that buoyed Van Gogh’s motivation to write and paint again but rather the news from Theo that his wife Jo (1862-1925) had born a son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. “How glad I was when the news came… I should have greatly preferred him to call the boy after Father, of whom I have been thinking so much these days, instead of after me; but seeing it has now been done, I started right away to make a picture for him, to hang in their bedroom, big branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.”

Almond Blossom is unlike any of Van Gogh’s previous paintings. The blue sky is more realistic than the swirly backgrounds of his recent works. The branches of the tree are outlined in black, which was a feature Van Gogh admired in Japanese paintings.

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Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

By May 1890, Van Gogh was deemed well enough to be discharged from Saint-Rémy, however, he had no home to which to return. Instead, he moved to the Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise to be closer to both Theo and his doctor, Dr Paul Gachet (1828-1909). Van Gogh continued painting, absorbed by “the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow” and “vast fields of wheat under turbulent skies”. When writing to Theo about one of his final oil paintings, Van Gogh said that they represented “sadness and extreme loneliness” and “tell you what I cannot say in words”.

On 27th July 1890, Van Gogh failed to return to his lodgings for his evening meal. His arrival later in the night revealed the reason for the delay; Vincent had shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. Although there was no damage to any vital organs, there was no surgeon in the area to remove the bullet. Two local doctors did the best they could and left him at home where he was joined by Theo. Vincent was in good spirits but soon began to suffer from an infection. Not long after his final words, “The sadness will last forever”, Vincent van Gogh passed away in the early hours of 29th July.

“… and then it was done. I miss him so; everything seems to remind me of him.”
– Theo to his wife Jo, 1st August 1890

Van Gogh was buried the next day in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise and was joined by Theo the following year. Theo had been ill and worsened after the death of his brother. Initially, Theo was buried in Utrecht, however, his wife had his body exhumed and reburied beside his beloved brother. Jo knew how much Vincent meant to Theo and it is thanks to her that Vincent’s letters have been preserved and made public. Although other family members were unhappy about this, without the letters Vincent may never have been as celebrated as he is today.

Van Gogh’s story does not end with his death but continues through the lives of millions of people around the world for whom he is still a source of inspiration. Well-known artists have been influenced by Van Gogh, including Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon.

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Contemporary artists are also fans of Van Gogh and attempt to recreate his style, for example, a Van Gogh-esque painting of Donald Duck that appeared on a Walt Disney magazine in 2015.

The Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience proves how much Vincent van Gogh is loved and appreciated. His life was full of mental anguish and unhappiness, which ended prematurely before he had the chance to witness his success. His tragic story is part of the draw to the artist, however, Van Gogh’s highly recognisable works are appreciated all over the world for their uniqueness.

With a museum named after him, Van Gogh has excelled beyond his expectations and it is a shame that he will never know. The Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience allows people to learn more about the artist, to discover his story, and to appreciate his work with a greater understanding.

Tickets for the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience vary between £16.50 and £18.50 for adults, and £12.50 and £14.50 for children. Time slots and tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster in advance. The experience will be open every day until Thursday 21st May 2020.

Ever yours,
Vincent

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Dora Maar

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The Weeping Woman – Picasso

Dora Maar, also known as Picasso’s “Weeping Woman”, is mostly remembered for being the surrealist artist’s muse and lover. This year, Tate Modern has put together the most comprehensive retrospective of Dora Maar ever held, allowing her to be seen as a photographer and artist in her own right. The exhibition explores the breadth of Maar’s career, encompassing commercial photography, documentary projects and painting.

Dora Maar was born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in Paris on 22nd November 1907, although she was mostly known as Dora. Her father Joseph Markovitch (1874–1969) was an architect from Croatia but settled in Paris with his French wife Louise-Julie Voisin (1877–1942) in 1896. From 1910, Maar’s early life was mostly spent in Buenos Aires, Argentina where her father had obtained a commission from the Austria-Hungary Embassy. Although his work did not make him particularly wealthy, his achievements were recognised by Emperor Francis Joseph I (1830-1916).

The Markovitch family returned to Paris in 1926 where Dora enrolled at the Central Union of Decorative Arts. She also attended the newly opened l’Ecole Nationale de la Cinématographie et la Photographie (School of Photography). Following this, she enrolled at the École des Beaux-Artes and the Académie Julian. Whilst she trained in both fine art and photography, she decided photography was the way forward because it provided greater stability than painting in the commercial world.

In 1930, Dora met the Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï (1899-1984) with whom she began sharing a darkroom. Gyula Halász, who went by the pseudonym Brassaï, was an internationally known photographer between the two world wars who also worked as a sculptor, medalist, writer and filmmaker. He photographed many of his friends, who included the artists Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti.

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Untitled (Fashion Photograph, Evening Gown by Jacques Heim for Madame Jacques Heim)

Dora also worked with Harry Osip Meerson (1911-91), a Polish-born French fashion photographer and, during 1930, she set up a photography studio with Pierre Kéfer on the Rue Campagne-Première on the outskirts of Paris. Kéfer had been a decorator and set designer for Jean Epstein’s (1897-1953) film The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), however, the studio mainly focused on photography for advertisements and fashion magazines. Dora called working with Kéfer her “worldly period” because it introduced her to many glamorous clientele.

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Mont Saint Michel, Cloister, Southern Gallery

Dora’s first significant commission was for Germain Bazin (1901-90), an art historian, who wanted photographs to illustrate his manuscript about a monastery on Mont Saint Michel island in Normandy. Seventy-two photos were needed in total, of which Dora supplied thirty-seven. Unfortunately, she was only credited for six.

It was around this time that Dora decided to officially change her public name, declaring in a 1932 bulletin that Henriette Markovitch, “artist-painter”, had transformed into Dora Maar, photographer. Many of the studio’s photographs were signed “Kéfer-Dora-Maar”, however, Dora was usually the sole author.

Kéfer-Dora-Maar’s first fashion photography commission was for Jacques Heim (1899-1967) who ran a maison de couture. Maar’s job was to photograph Heim’s latest clothing designs for the fashion house’s magazine. This was Maar’s first taste of haute couture, which led to commissions from other fashion designers, such as Coco Chanel (1883-1971), Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) and Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973). Maar continued to work with Heim during the 1950s, producing textile designs and logos rather than photographs.

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The Years Lie in Wait for You

Kéfer-Dora-Maar dissolved in 1935 and Maar established her own studio in central Paris where she took on independent commissions. It was around this time that her style of work also began to change, becoming more experimental, for instance, using scissors and glue to turn her photographs into collages. Maar also produced photomontages, which involved sandwiching two negatives together and printing them as one image. An example of this is The Years Lie in Wait for You, published in 1935 as an advertisement for an anti-ageing cream. The image is made up of a photograph of a spider’s web and a close-up of Maar’s friend Nusch Éluard (1906-45). Eluard, who was born Maria Benz, was a stage performer who regularly modelled for surrealist artists.

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Assia

Another model both Maar and other artists used was Assia Granatouroff (1911-82). Born in Ukraine, Granatouroff moved to France at a young age and trained to be a textile designer. In her early twenties, she decided to become a film actress but needed money to pay for acting classes. By modelling, often for nudes, Granatouroff managed to scrape together the necessary funds. Maar’s photographs of Grantouroff experimented with lighting and angles and re-imagined the classical depiction of the nude. Many of the photographs were circulated in art publications and erotic magazines.

Maar did not spend all her time working in a studio. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 in the United States, Europe was subjected to the worst economic depression of modern times. Maar and her peers wished to document the devastating effects of the crisis throughout Europe and, without being commissioned, she travelled to the Costa Brava in Catalonia, followed by Barcelona.

Maar explored the city, documenting both the landscape and the people she saw. None of her photographs were staged, instead, they were captured quickly on her Rolleiflex camera. This camera was portable and could be held at waist height, allowing the photographer to take rapid, spur-of-the-moment photographs.

In Barcelona, Maar saw a mix of scenes that revealed some of the worst-off areas. Photographs include a beggar woman, a blind street pedlar and a group of blind musicians, all of whom were trying to earn money in order to survive. On the other hand, Maar captured shots of children playing and someone doing a handstand on the beach, which suggests that not everything was doom and gloom.

Back in Paris, Maar continued to document the effects of the economic depression, particularly in the area known as “La Zone”. In 1844, a 3-4 kilometre strip of land in the 13th arrondissement of Paris was transformed into a military defence zone. By the 1930s, it was no longer needed and poor communities began to move into the disused buildings. Eventually, around 40,000 people were living there, although they were forcibly moved before the beginning of the Second World War.

Maar captured the life in “La Zone”, showing dilapidated buildings, working men and women, and children. These photographs contrasted with others she took in the city, which revealed well-dressed people going about their everyday lives.

In February 1934, Maar visited London where she documented various locations in the City of London and the East End. The photographs were included in an exhibition at Galeries Van den Berghe in Paris under the name of Kéfer-Dora-Maar, however, Maar was the sole photographer.

The photographs taken in London continued to reveal the state of lives during the economic depression. War veterans begging on the street, Lottery Ticket dealers and ragpickers were competing for customers to earn a wage. A man with a placard stating, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2) suggests that some people believed the social and economic situation in Europe was God-driven.

To try to assist traders who had fallen on hard times, “Coster Kings and Queens” were elected to collect money on the streets. This evolved into the tradition of Pearly Kings and Queens, which continues today. Maar photographed one Pearly King collecting money for Empire Air Day, an annual air show held at Royal Air Force stations across Britain. “The idea of Empire Air Day is that the public should be enabled to see the Royal Air Force at its everyday work.” (Anthony Muirhead MP) Maar’s photograph shows the Pearly King dressed in imitation 20th-century high society fashion, decorated with pearly beads.

Affected by what she had seen in Barcelona, London and Paris, Maar signed her name on the Appel à la lutte (Call to the Struggle) manifesto by the surrealist poet André Breton (1896-1966) and screenwriter Louis Chavance (1907-79). The manifesto had been written as a response to political riots by the extreme far-right and, at the time, Maar considered herself to be on the far-left. Maar was also inspired to join Breton’s anti-fascist movement Contre-Attaque, which he led with the philosopher Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Alongside this, she attended and documented the rehearsals and performances of the leftist theatre troupe Groupe Octobre.

By associating herself with the political side of surrealism, Maar began to adopt the movement in her photography. The Surrealist Movement, which was predominantly led by Breton and Paul Éluard aimed to transform the art world, refusing to conform to constrictions put in place by modern society. Surrealism embraced the power of the unconscious mind, creating impossible, dreamlike imagery that were far from reality.

At first, it was not certain how photography could benefit the Surrealist Movement, therefore, Maar continued to photograph scenes around the city. Her way of thinking, however, had been changed and she began to seek out the stranger areas of historic cities. Whilst in London, Maar photographed a man looking inside a pavement inspection door, which was not a usual sight to see. She also came across a wire sculpture of a kangaroo on the pavement.

During this period, Maar became more experimental with the way she took photographs. Her documentary photography produced quick snapshots of city life, however, by focusing on dramatic angles and cropping the image, Maar was able to construct a more disorienting perspective. Gradually, Maar’s photographs leant more and more towards surrealism.

Alongside Man Ray (1890-1976), Raoul Ubac (1910-85) and Hans Bellmer (1902-75), Maar became one of the few photographers to be included in surrealist exhibitions. She continued to photograph objects from interesting angles, which distorted their appearance. This method resulted in Portrait of Ubu, which was named after Alfred Jarry’s (1873-1907) absurdist play Ubu Roi (King Ubu, 1895). The subject matter has yet to be identified, although the most popular suggestion is an armadillo foetus. Talking about the photo in 1994, Maar said, “It’s a real animal, but I don’t want to say which one, because it would strip it of its mystery.”

To add to the surrealist effects of her photography, Maar returned to the method of photomontage, cutting and pasting together two or more photographs to make a new image. Maar took elements from her own photographs and those of other photographers, as well as images from 20th-century publications. Rather than leaving the result in a collage format, Maar photographed the cutouts to create a seamless image. Hand-shell, for example, was produced by combining a couple of photographs to make it appear as though a hand was protruding from a shell.

Dora Maar reached the height of her career in the winter of 1935-6 when she met Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Picasso, on the other hand, was at the worst time of his life, having not produced any artwork for several months. Their first meeting took place on the set of Jean Renoir’s film The Crime of Monsieur Lange where Maar was taking promotional photographs. On this occasion, Maar and Picasso may not have spoken, however, they were formally introduced a few days later by their mutual friend Paul Éluard.

Between 1936 and 1938, Maar and Picasso spent the summers in the South of France with various friends, where Maar took photographs of Picasso on the beach. Back in Paris, Maar invited Picasso to her studio to photograph his portrait and, in return, allowed him to paint her, which he did many times throughout their decade long relationship.

Picasso encouraged Maar to paint alongside her photography career. Adopting his style, Maar produced a portrait of Picasso, displacing the facial features and adding elements of cubism. Viewers could be forgiven for mistaking many of Maar’s works as Picasso’s since she often replicated his methods.

The Conversation, painted in 1937, addresses Maar’s feelings about Picasso’s ongoing relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-77) with whom he had a daughter Maya. Despite openly being a couple with Maar, Picasso refused to break off his relationship with Walter and made them both fight for his love. It is also known that Picasso physically abused Maar and used her as a living depiction of pain and suffering in his portraits.

In 1937, Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Initially, he spent a few months half-heartedly painting in his studio, however, after the bombing of Guernica on 26th April, he was inspired to make the violence and chaos of that event of the Spanish Civil War the subject of the painting.

From 11th May to 4th June, Maar documented Picasso’ progress through photographs as he tackled the large canvas in his studio. The photographs were commissioned by the art journal Cahiers d’art who wanted to “preserve the metamorphosis of a picture”. It has been suggested Maar’s presence in the studio may have influenced the artwork. Picasso included the silhouette of an electric light, which historians have speculated was inspired by the light Maar used to illuminate the canvas for her photographs.

In an interview recorded in 1990, Maar revealed that she had helped paint small parts of Guernica so that there would be significant progress in her next photograph. She also revealed one of the female figures in the composition was intended to be her.

Not long after Guernica was completed, Picasso painted Maar as the Weeping Woman. He produced over thirty studies of Maar in this guise but Maar believed it was never intended to be a portrait. It was her belief that it was another of Picasso’s metaphors for the suffering during the Spanish War.

In 1942, Maar bought a new studio in Paris where she focused on painting rather than photography. Picasso continued to encourage her to paint in the cubist style, which is evident in some of her still life paintings. Some of her still lifes were exhibited at Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris in 1944. As their relationship began to break down, however, Maar’s artwork began to take a new direction. Inspired by the river Seine, which was a stone’s throw from her home, she began to focus on landscapes.

Life during the early 1940s was not kind to Maar. Firstly, she was subjected to an abusive relationship, which coincided with her father returning to Argentina. After Maar left Picasso, she had to face the sudden deaths of her mother and close friend, Nusch Éluard. It is no wonder she spent some time in Saint Mandé, a psychiatric hospital, presumably being treated for depression. Fortunately, she was able to recover and focus on her painting, including a self-portrait that she gave to Doctor Baron, a specialist in neuro-ophthalmology.

“These landscapes, the result of [Maar’s] recent change of style, are marked by a sensitive and very individual talent … vastness, loneliness and, above all, their sense of place.”
– John Russell, The Times

Maar’s change in artistic style was noticed by art critics at the London Leicester Galleries in 1958. Whilst they are landscapes made up of washes of paint, critics remarked on the sense of isolation and overwhelming vastness, which indicated Maar’s feelings of loneliness and unhappiness after the loss of her lover, her parents and her friends.

Nonetheless, Maar was able to work through her negative feelings and continued producing art. During the latter 1940s, Maar spent half her time in Paris and the other half in Ménerbes in the south of France. She developed a friendship with the French poet André du Bouchet (1924-2001) who offered her the opportunity to collaborate on some work. In 1956, Maar supplied a set of engravings for his anthology Mountain Soil, which involved developing a new technique and art style.

dillon-doramaar-untitled

At heart, Maar was always a photographer, however, she lost interest in documenting the outside world. She no longer found exploring the city streets interesting and preferred to stay within the shadows of her darkroom. By the 1980s, Maar was virtually cameraless, having discovered the excitement of producing photograms. This involved laying household objects onto photo-sensitive paper, which when exposed to the light, left the covered sections white. Where the light directly hit the paper, it darkened.

Dora Maar continued working until her death on 16th July 1997 at the age of 89. She spent her final years living in an apartment in Rue de Savoie in Paris. Maar was never famous for her paintings during her lifetime and it has only been since her death that they have been studied in more detail. Whilst she is known better as a photographer, she is still predominantly regarded as the mistress of Picasso. Their relationship only lasted a decade but it has overshadowed her entire career. Hopefully, exhibitions such as this one at Tate Modern will allow her to be appreciated as an artist.

Dora Maar is on display at Tate Modern until 15th March 2020. Tickets cost £13 for adults and £5 for teens. Under 12s may visit for free, although some exhibits contain nudity.


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