An American Colourist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Whistler’s Woman in White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Genius of Hard Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Late Constable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Self-Portraits of Lucian Freud

For the first time, Lucian Freud’s self-portraits have been united for one extraordinary exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. With a career spanning almost 70 years, the exhibition explores Freud’s development as a painter from his earliest portrait of 1939, to his final one painted 64 years later. Displayed in chronological order, the self-portraits create a visual timeline of Freud’s appearance, providing the perfect opportunity for the Royal Academy to discover the man behind the canvas.

lucianfreud-shaving

Lucian Shaving – David Dawson 2006

Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on 8th December 1922. Initially, he grew up in Germany with his parents, Lucie and Ernst Freud (1892-1970) and his brothers Stephan and Clement. In 1933, the family fled to the United Kingdom to escape Nazi Germany and were later joined by Lucian’s famous paternal grandfather, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

The Freud family settled in St John’s Wood, London, however, the boys attended Dartington Hall School in Devon. Lucian later attended Bryanston School in Dorset, however, was expelled after a year due to disruptive behaviour. After this, Freud attended a few art colleges in London and was encouraged by his mother to display some of his artwork at an exhibition of children’s drawing at London’s Guggenheim Jeune Gallery in 1938.

From 1939 until 1942, Freud attended the Welsh painter Cedric Morris’ (1889-1982) East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Suffolk. Whilst there, Freud became determined to have a career as a painter and produced his first self-portrait. His art education was briefly disrupted when he was called up to serve as a merchant seaman in an Atlantic convoy, however, he was invalided out of service after a few months.

man-with-a-feather-1943

Man with a Feather, 1942

Freud destroyed many of his self-portraits but, fortunately, over 50 remain, including one of his early works Man with a Feather (1943). This was painted after finishing his art education, which concluded with a year at Goldsmith’s College in London. This painting was exhibited with a selection of Freud’s works at his first solo exhibition at Lefevre Gallery, London in 1944. The three-quarter length portrait shows Freud holding a white feather, which he had been given by his first serious girlfriend, Lorna Wishart (1911-2000). Incidentally, Freud went on to marry Lorna’s niece Kitty (d.2011), who was the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959).

Comparing the early self-portraits with his later works, Freud was initially influenced by German Expressionism and occasionally surrealism. After the war, Freud developed a precise linear style using muted colours and elongated brushstrokes. His drawings were sharp and graphic, produced by a variety of ink, crayon and pencil.

Man with a Thistle (Self-portrait) is an example of Freud’s linear style painting. This particular self-portrait was produced during a five-month stay on the Greek island of Paros. The vertical and horizontal lines are severe and dominate the painting, whilst the image of himself is relegated to the background.

During the 1940s, Freud tended to prefer drawing over painting, therefore, the majority of his early self-portraits were produced in pencil and pen. Startled Man, for example, was drawn with conté crayon and pencil. The outcome looks similar to the result of etching, and the facial expression is not too dissimilar to the series of experimental self-portrait etchings by the Dutch artist Rembrandt (1606-69).

Other examples of Freud’s drawings include Man at Night and Self-Portrait as Actaeon. Both of these outcomes must have taken an exceedingly long time since the drawing is made up of tiny markings. Freud used dots and dashes to produce the tones, shadows and outlines, leaving the lighter areas blank. This works particularly well in Man at Night, which reveals the artist lit up from one side by an artificial light source.

Self-Portrait as Actaeon was originally intended as an illustration for a book of Greek myths. Unfortunately, the book was rejected by the publisher, however, the illustrations were later published in a magazine. Possibly inspired by Titian’s (1488-1576) Diana and Actaeon, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London, Freud depicted himself as Actaeon, a famous Theban hero, who was turned into a stag after accidentally coming across the goddess Diana bathing.

“People thought and said and wrote that my paintings were linear and defined by drawing. I’ve never been that affected by writing, but I thought if that’s all true, I must stop.”

Around the mid-1950s, Freud transitioned from drawing to painting and began to approach his artwork differently. For years, Freud used small canvases that he could fit on his lap, however, he began to find this rather restrictive and decided to paint at an easel instead. Whilst he continued to produce the occasional small painting, Freud started working on a much larger scale.

Since his return from Greece, Freud had made London his permanent home and was later characterised as a figurative painter in the “School of London”. Amongst this group of artists were R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007), Frank Auerbach (b.1931) and Francis Bacon (1909-92), the latter being a great influence on Freud. Bacon tended to use hog’s hair brushes, which allowed him to handle a heavier load of paint than Freud’s sable-hair brushes. After swapping to hog’s hair brushes, Freud’s style became vastly different from his earlier work. Whilst the handling of the paint created more texture on the canvas, the portraits were closer to reality than his flat, graphic versions.

When the focus was purely on the body, Freud used his new style of painting. The thicker brushes and paint helped him to concentrate on the texture and colour of flesh. Unlike his graphic drawing style that he eventually stopped using, Freud retained this new style for the rest of his life, as can be seen when comparing his work from the 1950s with a self-portrait painted in 1978. Self-Portrait with a Black Eye was painted immediately after an argument with a taxi driver that evidently turned physical. Intrigued by the changes in colour and shape caused by the bruising and swelling, Freud was keen to capture it on canvas.

Although he continued to use hog’s hair brushes for the rest of his artistic career, it was not the only style of painting Freud developed. During the 1960s, Freud experimented with watercolours, which resulted in a flatter colour than the thick oil paint. By using this medium, Freud retained a little of his earlier linearity but the colour washes reduced the harshness of the lines. Freud replicated this style in oil paint, particularly when there was more to a painting than human flesh. An example of this is Hotel Bedroom, which combines his old style with a softer brushstroke.

Hotel Bedroom includes a self-portrait of Freud who is standing behind a bed in which his wife is lying. This is not a portrait of Kitty, who Freud divorced in 1952, but his second wife Lady Caroline Blackwood (1931-96) who he married in 1953. Unfortunately, their marriage only lasted four years and a sense of estrangement can already be felt in this artwork, which was painted in 1954. Freud did not marry again after his second divorce, however, it is rumoured that he fathered as many as 40 children, however, only 14 have been officially identified as his – two from his first marriage and 12 by various mistresses.

Throughout his career, Freud painted portraits of other people, including his children. The first time his children appeared in his work, however, was at the bottom of a self-portrait, Reflection with Two Children. Rose and Ali are positioned in front of a gigantic mirror, producing a slightly surreal effect, since they do not have any reflection. The painting was inspired by a picture Freud had seen in a book, however, it also tells us a little about Freud’s painting process.

When creating self-portraits, Freud preferred to paint his likeness from mirrors rather than photographs. He often left mirrors lying at various angles in his studio in the hopes that it would produce an interesting perspective. For Reflection with Two Children, Freud placed the mirror directly on the floor and painted himself peering into it from above. Unlike his previous self-portraits, Freud included the mirror’s frame in the painting.

Freud may have taken inspiration from past painters who included mirrors in their work, for example, Velázquez (1599-1660) and Van Eyck (d.1441). For a while, Freud continued to include mirrors in his work, for example, Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening in which he included a small self-portrait behind an enormous houseplant. Freud also used a range of different sized mirrors of which Interior with Hand Mirror (Self-portrait) is an appropriate example. Slightly different from his usual style of work, the tiny reflection resembles Freud’s usual method of depicting flesh, however, the rest of the painting feels washed-out and rushed.

two-irishmen-in-w11-1985

Two Irish Men in W11, 1984/5

“My work is purely autobiographical. It’s about myself and my surroundings … I work from the people that interest me and that I care about and think about in rooms that I live and know.”

By the mid-60s, Freud was focused on full-length portraits, which continued to show his ability to convey the luminous texture of the human flesh. Many of these portraits were of nudes, including paintings of his children, which unsettled many viewers. Rather than portraying men and women in the tradition of Renaissance artists, Freud was brutally honest, revealing all parts of the human anatomy.

Not all Freud’s full-length portraits involved nudity, for instance, Two Irish Men in W11 in which the men are fully clothed. The unnamed men were painted in one of Freud’s London studios. Throughout his career, Freud had studios in Paddington, Notting Hill and Holland Park, which were decked out with battered sofas, bare walls and wooden floors. Some critics claim these downtrodden environments added to the psychology of Freud’s work, evidencing the influence of his grandfather.

Although the main focus of the portraits was on the sitter, Freud often managed to subtly include himself in the painting. Sometimes a glimpse of his reflection can be seen in a mirror or, in the case of Two Irish Men in W11, unfinished self-portraits sit on the floor against the wall. Oftentimes these glimpses go unnoticed unless pointed out.

Freud painted portraits of his friends and fellow artists, including Auerbach and Bacon. Sometimes the sitter was clothed and other times naked, often sprawled across a bed or on the floor. He did not seek out attractive models for his nudes but painted people of all shapes and sizes, including the very large Sue Tilley (b. 1957), nicknamed Big Sue. Despite going against conventional beauty, the painting sold for $33.6 million in 2008. His most frequent sitter was his friend David Dawson, however, he also painted a few well-known names, such as Kate Moss (b.1974) and the Queen (b.1926), the latter obviously fully clothed.

Freud painted his first nude self-portrait at the age of 70, using thick layers of paint to draw attention to his ageing body. It took him several months to complete and Freud was never completely happy with the result. “I couldn’t scrap it,” he said, “because I would be doing away with myself.”

As well as the full length nude, Freud continued to produce self-portraits, for example, close-ups of his head and shoulders. Again, he applied thick paint to the canvas to reveal the lines on his ageing face as well as the shadows caused by the artificial lighting in his studio.

Towards the end of his career, Freud rekindled his passion for lines by producing etchings, which he had briefly experimented with during the 1940s. Freud approached his etchings in a similar manner to painting, propping the copper plate upright on his easel. Over weeks and months, he etched into the metal, working heavily on the backgrounds to make it darker than the subject of the etching. Freud only produced one etched self-portrait, which shows up all the wrinkles and imperfections of his 74-year-old face. Due to the overworking of the stylus on the metal plate, the final print is rather dark, almost as if the elderly man is fading into the background.

In 1996, 27 of Freud’s paintings and 13 etchings were displayed at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria. This was a particularly major exhibition for the artist and it was followed by an exhibition of his early works at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In 2002, Tate Britain held a large retrospective of Freud’s work, however, it has taken until 2019, eight years after Freud’s death, for the first exhibition of his self-portraits to be held.

Lucian Freud died on 20th July 2011 and was buried by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (b.1950), at Highgate Cemetry. Freud was an extremely private man, which is why the majority of his paintings are of friends and family. No doubt the number of self-portraits indicate Freud prefered his own company to others. His self-portraits reveal his change in artistic techniques but also provide an insight into his psyche. Never smiling, it is possible Freud did not like what he saw, suggesting he did not have the greatest relationship with himself. The fact he destroyed many of his self-portraits is also indicative of this.

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits does not contain any “wow-factor” paintings, however, it allows visitors to learn and understand the painter, who until now has just been a well-known name. Living in the shadow of his grandfather, Freud made a name for himself as a painter, shocking people with nudity and unpolished human flesh, and yet, we learn he was a private individual, vastly contrasting with the opinions of the public and critics.

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits is open at the Royal Academy of Arts until 26th January 2020. Tickets are £18 and it is advisable to book a timed entry in advance. Although under 16s can visit for free, some paintings are unsuitable for young visitors.


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

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

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters

Most people have heard of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young British artists active in the nineteenth century who aimed to return to the style of art produced in Italy before the High Renaissance – i.e. before Raphael (1483-1520). Their artworks are recognised by the use of bright colours and young women with long, (usually) red hair dressed in flowing garments. The question is, who were these women and how did they come to be models for the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers? What were they like in real life? How were they related to the painters? What were their lives like? This year, the National Portrait Gallery decided to find out, resulting in a major exhibition that looks at the lives of twelve women who fulfilled various roles including model, muse, studio manager, housekeeper, wife and even artist.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters examines the type of role the women depicted in paintings and how this compared to their status in real life. A Pre-Raphaelite wife tended to assist her husband in a variety of ways, both at home and in the studio. Some men looked for women elsewhere to inspire them, often resulting in romantic affairs. On the other hand, a few men became supporters of wives or sisters who worked as artists alongside the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The National Portrait Gallery looks at each of these women in turn, celebrating their importance.

Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, Wife, Manager

effie-gray-lady-millais

Effie Ruskin by Thomas Richmond

The first woman in the exhibition is Euphemia (Effie) Gray who was born in Perth, Scotland and was encouraged by her father to marry family friend John Ruskin in 1848. Unfortunately, the couple’s personalities clashed and Effie was often ignored by her husband who preferred to concentrate on his solitary studies. To relieve her boredom, Effie modelled for the artist John Everett Millais (1829-96) who used her for the Scottish woman securing the freedom of her wounded Jacobite husband in his painting The Order of Release 1746. She had previously modelled for the artist Thomas Richmond (1802-74) at the request of her father-in-law. As a result, Millais was invited to visit the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he and Effie became close friends.

After five years of marriage, Effie Ruskin was still a virgin, her husband having put off consummating the marriage to allow him to concentrate on his studies. Due to the lack of common ground, Effie decided to have their marriage annulled and eventually married Millais in 1855. She became Millais’ business partner, which involved sourcing clients, costumes, locations and keeping a record of payments. She also dabbled in watercolour painting.

Millais and Effie had a happy marriage, which resulted in eight children: Everett (1856), George (1857), Effie (1858) Mary (1860), Alice (1862) Geoffrey (1863), John (1865) and Sophie (1868). Their youngest son John went on to become a notable artist. Throughout the marriage, Effie also sat for many portraits.

Due to her annulment from Ruskin, Effie and Millais were barred from any event involving the presence of Queen Victoria. Being a rather socially active couple, they were disheartened by this, however, when Millais was dying, the Queen relented and awarded him a baronetcy, thus giving Effie the title Lady Millais.

Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet, Sister, Model

christina_rossetti_2

Christina Rossetti – Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti is a fairly well-known poet in her own right who was also connected to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London to the Italian poet Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), Christina was brought up in a creative atmosphere and her two older brothers went on to become founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her most famous brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) is known for the typical paintings associated with the Brotherhood. William Michael (1829-1919) Rossetti, on the other hand, was a writer and critic who ran the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ, in which Christina had several poems published. Christina’s older sister Maria Francesca (1827-76) was also a writer but became a nun in later life.

Christina sat for many of her brother’s artworks, including a quick sketch when she was sixteen and, most famously, as the Virgin Mary in Ecce Ancilla Domini! Dante also produced a cartoon based on one of his sister’s tantrums, which were quite frequent as a child.

In 1858, Christina began working at a home for girls who were considered to be sexually “at risk”. The experience inspired her famous poem and masterpiece Goblin Market, for which Dante provided a couple of illustrations. Christina also produced a handful of illustrations herself, designing some of the pages of poems and devotional writings she had written.

From her thirties onwards, Christina spent most of her time looking after family members whilst also suffering from a thyroid disorder. Dante needed a lot of attention, often suffering from mental ill-health. During his worst periods, focusing on drawing portraits of his mother and sister aided his recovery and return to the art world. Whilst Christina was a blessing to her family, her health began to deteriorate rapidly after a near-fatal heart attack in the early 1870s. In 1893, she developed breast cancer and, although the tumour was removed, she died the following year.

Elizabeth Siddal 1829-62 Model, Artist, Poet

download

Ophelia [detail] – John Everett Millais

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Eleanor Siddal is mostly recognised for her portrayal of Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ painting of the same name. She is also remembered as the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and for being an influential poet. After leaving school, Lizzie began working at a dressmakers and millinery shop in Cranbourne Alley, London and produced drawings and poems in her spare time. On one occasion whilst at work, Lizzie’s drawings were seen by a man who put her in touch with his son, Walter Deverell (1827-54). As a result of this meeting, Lizzie became a model for Deverell who introduced her to other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She became a model for a couple of other artists, including Millais, eventually becoming Rossetti’s model and muse.

As well as helping Rossetti with his paintings, Lizzie practised art alongside him, producing a handful of sketches, drawings and paintings. John Ruskin subsidised her art career by paying her £150 per year in exchange for all the work she produced. Her artwork was inspired by a variety of different poets, including Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

During this period, Lizzie also wrote many poems, often on the theme of heartbreak. For Lizzie, however, heartbreak was far from her mind when Rossetti, who particularly admired Lizzie’s verses, proposed and married her in 1860. Besotted with each other, the couple became rather anti-social, however, Lizzie’s health soon began to deteriorate. There are several suggestions for the cause of her frailness, such as tuberculosis, an intestinal disorder, anorexia or addiction. Another idea is the prolonged effects of pneumonia, which she contracted after posing for Millais in a bath of cold water for his painting Ophelia.

Whether as a result of her poor health, Lizzie gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1861, which led to severe post-partum depression. In February the next year after overdosing on laudanum, Lizzie passed away. Shortly after her death, Rossetti discovered several draft poems that may have been an indication of the state of her mental health leading up to her suspected suicide.

O Mother, open the window wide And let the daylight in;
The hills grow darker to my sight
And thoughts begin to swim.
And Mother dear, take my young son, Since I was born of thee
And care for all [its] little ways
And nurse it on your knee.
And Mother, wash my pale pale hands And then bind up my feet;
My body may no longer rest
Out of its winding sheet.
And Mother dear, take a sapling twig And green grass newly mown,
And lay it on my empty bed
That my sorrow be not known.- At Last, by Elizabeth Siddal

Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model, Muse

640px-dante_gabriel_rossetti_-_annie_miller

Annie Miller – Rossetti

Annie Miller was a popular model for the Pre-Raphaelites who first posed for William Holman Hunt at the age of 18 for his The Awakening Conscience. Before she began modelling, Annie was a barmaid and had a fairly lowly upbringing as the daughter of a wounded soldier and a cleaner. As well as providing Annie with a job as a model, Holman Hunt planned to marry her and arranged for her to be educated in literacy. During this time Holman Hunt needed to travel to Palestine and left Annie under the care of other artists, such as Millais, who she could sit for in his absence.

The Pre-Raphaelite artists loved using Annie as their model, however, Holman Hunt believed she had become frivolous and wilful, so broke off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Annie became engaged to Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Heron Jones, 7th Viscount Ranelagh (1812-1885) who she married in 1863. The couple had two children, Annie Helen and Thomas James, and moved to the south coast, thus ending her time as a model with the Pre-Raphaelites. She lived to the age of 90 and is a prime example of someone who had risen significantly on the social scale, beginning in poverty and ending in comfort.

Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model, Lover

rossetti-860x1024

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sarah Cox, who renamed herself Fanny after her sister who died in infancy, was the daughter of a blacksmith from Surrey. Whilst visiting the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London, Fanny met Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) who took a liking for her appearance. She became Rossetti’s model in 1856 and there are rumours she may also have been his mistress. Fanny married Timothy Hughes, a mechanic, in 1860 but the marriage did not last long. For reason’s unbeknownst to anyone, she adopted the surname of her ex-husband’s step-father, Cornforth.

When Rossetti’s wife died, Fanny moved in as his housekeeper and lover. For over a decade, she sat for Rossetti’s paintings, often posing as a fallen woman. Rossetti was also able to support Fanny financially during this period, however, after he became seriously ill, she was forced to move out by his family. Fortunately, Rossetti was well enough at the time to purchase a house for Fanny and gave her several of his paintings.

No longer Rossetti’s lover, Fanny married the publican John Schott who ran the Rose tavern in Jermyn Street, Westminster. After Rossetti’s death, she and her husband opened a gallery in his honour to sell some of the works he had given her. After John’s death in 1891, Fanny lived with her stepson until he died in 1898 when she moved to Sussex to stay with her in-laws. Unfortunately, Fanny was soon diagnosed with dementia and forced into a Workhouse in West Sussex against her will. Following this, she was admitted to the West Sussex County Lunatic Asylum where she remained for the rest of her life.

Joanna Boyce Wells (1840-61) Artist

boyce_elgiva_1855_0c_pc

Elgiva – Joanna Boyce Wells

As the name of the group suggests, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were predominantly male artists, however, there were a couple of female painters who were just as accomplished. Joanna Boyce Wells became a successful artist after her painting Elgiva, which was modelled by a family friend, was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1855.

Joanna was the sister of the watercolour painter George Boyce (1826-97) and the wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Tamworth Wells (1828-1903). Despite these connections to the art world, Joanna worked hard to become an artist in her own right, studying at Francis Cary’s (1808-80) art academy at the age of 18 before studying at the atelier of Thomas Couture (1815-79) in Paris.

Although Joanna and her husband created an artistic partnership in Britain, many considered Joanna to be the head of the firm. She painted emotional scenes, such as a mother bidding farewell to her young sons as they leave on a crusade to Jerusalem, and exquisite, imaginative portraits, such as a child depicted as an angel.

Joanna gave birth to three children, the first Sidney (1859-69) whose portrait she painted during his first year. Sidney did not live past the age of ten, however, Joanna never got the chance to see any of her children grow up, having succumbed to obstetric fever after the birth of her third child, Joanna Margaret.

Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

simeon-solomon-portrait-of-mrs-fanny-eaton-1859

Portrait of Mrs Fanny Eaton – Simeon Solomon

Considering the period the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was active, it is unsurprising that there was a lack of black women in their paintings. Fanny Matilda Eaton née Entwistle is the only black woman featured in the exhibition. Originally born in Jamaica, Fanny came to England with her mother during the 1840s where they found work as domestic servants. At some point, Fanny met the London horse-cab driver James Eaton who she married in 1857. They had a long and happy marriage, resulting in ten children.

The Eaton family were not well off, which led Fanny to seek modelling work to take on alongside her job as a charwoman. Her distinctive features and ethnicity were sought after by artists wanting to depict female characters from the Bible or Egyptian, Indian and other “exotic” scenes. Her children often featured in paintings alongside Fanny, for example, as baby Moses in The Mother of Moses by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905).

In her later years, Fanny worked as a seamstress and a domestic cook until around 1911 when she settled in Hammersmith with her daughter Julia and her family. She eventually passed away in 1924 at the age of 89 from dementia and syncope.

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Model, Artist, Wife

900_portrait20of20georgiana20burne-jones20with20philip20and20margaret201883

Georgiana Burne-Jones with Philip and Margaret – Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones née Macdonald became engaged to Edward Burne-Jones at the tender age of fifteen. As well as being a model for her husband, Georgiana became an artist, studying briefly at the Government School of Design in South Kensington before having lessons from Ford Madox Brown. Her artwork mainly consisted of small illustrations and woodcuts and she was never as successful as her husband.

Georgiana put her art to one side after the birth of her son Philip in 1861. Her daughter Margaret was born in 1866, which coincided with her husband’s affair with one of his models. Nonetheless, Georgiana focused on being a good mother and continued to help run the home and studio until her husband repented and returned to her.

As well as being focused on her home life, Georgiana assisted the local community by supporting the South London Art Gallery, voicing her opposition of the Boer war and working as a parish councillor in Sussex. She also made major contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, writing a biography of her husband and helping her son-in-law put together the Life of William Morris.

Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, Muse, Sculptor

burne-jones-edward-cassandra-c1866-70-drawing-victoria-2526-albert-museum

Study for Head of Cassandra – Burne-Jones

Maria Zambaco, born Marie Terpsithea Cassavetti, was the model with whom Edward Burne-Jones conducted an affair. Maria had been born into a wealthy Anglo-Hellenic family and was the niece of the Greek Consul patron of art Alexander Constantine Ionides (1810-90). In 1861, Maria married Paris-based physician Demetrius Zambaco and moved to France, however, the marriage had broken down by 1866 despite having two children. On her return to London, her mother arranged for her to pose for Burne-Jones, which sparked a three-year affair.

Despite her pleas, Burne-Jones refused to leave his wife and their affair ended. Following this, Maria threw herself into her artwork, studying at the Slade School under the French painter Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) and the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Some of her most successful works include portrait medallions, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.

Although she was working as an artist and no longer in a relationship with Burne-Jones, Maria still modelled for some of his paintings. Some of Burne-Jones’ biggest and well-known paintings feature images of Maria, for example, The Beguiling of Merlin and The Tree of Forgiveness.

Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, Muse, Craftsperson

painting1

Study for ‘The Hour Glass’ – Evelyn De Morgan

Jane Burden is best known for being the wife, model and muse of the British painter and craftsman William Morris (1834-96). Born into poverty in Oxford, Jane did not have much of a future ahead of her until she met the Pre-Raphaelite painters who were decorating a chamber at Oxford University. She quickly became the prized model of many painters and was considered the embodiment of beauty.

Jane and Morris married in 1859 and she became a partner in the decorative arts firm known as Morris & Co. She undertook a few embroidery commissions for the company and experimented with calligraphy and bookbinding.

After the birth of her daughters Jenny and May, Jane began modelling again, particularly for Rossetti, with whom she embarked on an affair until his mental breakdown in 1876.

Since she was one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters’ favourite models, Jane appears in many artworks and has posed as a whole range of literary and mythical characters including Iseult, Queen Guinevere, Pandora, Beatrice and Proserpine.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model, Artist

de0f25eca0a54a3d619e74f2f47596f9

Marie Spartali – Madox Brown

Marie Euphrosyne Spartali is another female painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. She was born to a wealthy Greek family in London and was introduced to the art world by the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) who wished to take her photograph. Marie then set her sights on painting and became the student of Ford Madox Brown in 1864. By 1867, her artworks were already being exhibited and she began to pursue painting as a professional career.

Against her parents’ wishes, Marie married the American journalist William J. Stillman (1828-1901) who worked for The Times. His career meant the couple needed to travel regularly to Greece and Italy whilst also bringing up their three children and the three from Stillman’s previous marriage.

Despite the unsettled lifestyle, Marie was able to keep in contact with her Pre-Raphaelite friends and developed a distinctive style of painting. Her artwork featured mainly female figures from the writing of Shakespeare, Petrarch and Dante as well as Italian landscapes. She took part in several exhibitions and also sent some of her work to the USA.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

d276-portrait-of-jenny-morris

Jenny Morris – Evelyn De Morgan

As the granddaughter of the Earl of Leicester, Evelyn Pickering did not need to worry about earning a living, however, she was determined to become a professional painter. Following in the footsteps of her uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite painter J.R. Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), Evelyn became a prize-winning art student and exhibited works alongside Marie Spartali.

In 1887, Evelyn married ceramicist William De Morgan (1839-1917) and used her earnings to support her husband’s pottery business.

Evelyn’s works were typically figural and brightly coloured, often resembling Baroque-style art. She focused on a range of subjects, including medieval and classical legends, allegories and the afterlife. Her passions and experiences were often reflected in her artwork, for example, her support of the suffrage movement and life during the First World War.

Arguably, Evelyn De Morgan is one of the best Pre-Raphaelite painters, although she is constantly overlooked on account of her gender. Particularly impressive paintings include Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund, which is based on a medieval legend about Henry II and his lover, and the allegorical piece Night & Sleep.

“YET if you should forget me … do not grieve …
Better by far you should forget and smile,
Than that you should remember and be sad”‘Remember’ by Christina Rossetti

The National Portrait Gallery successfully provides an alternative insight into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In recent years, the PRB has come back in favour and their paintings have proved to be popular at other exhibitions in which they have featured. Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, however, reveals there is far more involved with the artwork than meets the eye. The female artists have every right to be remembered and respected as their male counterparts. The other women in the exhibition deserve to be commended for tirelessly standing by the artists whilst they drew, painted and attempted to establish themselves.

With many famous paintings on display, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is a fantastic exhibition for art lovers, particular fans of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Alongside the well-known works are the lesser-known paintings by women and visitors are almost certain to leave with a new favourite painting in mind. Coinciding with the recent centenary of woman’s suffrage, this exhibition is the perfect way to celebrate the women who did not receive the acknowledgement they deserved during their lifetime.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is on display until 26th January and tickets are priced between £17 and £20. For more information, visit the National Portrait Gallery website.

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

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

Blake: Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary

NPG 212; William Blake by Thomas Phillips

William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)

For years, Tate Britain has had a small room dedicated to the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827). Now until 2nd February 2020, Tate Britain is offering visitors the opportunity to experience Blake’s visionary art in his largest show in a generation. Detailing his life chronologically, 300 original works illustrate Blake’s talents, personal struggles, innovation and vision.

Blake’s art and poetry continue to influence and inspire many people regardless of profession, religion and nationality. Although produced during a period of unrest involving war, the British Empire and industrialisation, Blake’s work resonates with the present world and the struggles people face today.

blake-portrait-of-william-blake-1802.-collection-robert-n.-essick_5

Portrait of William Blake, 1802

William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in Soho, London, the third of seven children to James and Catherine (née Wright). His father, a hosier, and mother thoroughly encouraged Blake’s aspiration to become an artist. Although he attended school long enough to learn to read and write, he was educated from home by his mother after the age of ten. The Bible was an important aspect of his studies, which remained a source of inspiration for the rest of his life.

Blake was encouraged to practise his drawing ability by producing engravings of well-known artworks for his father. Alongside this, he attended classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand and explored the art of poetry, reading works by Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Edmund Spencer (1552-99) as well as the Book of Psalms. In August 1772, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire (1730-1802), a significant British engraver, for seven years. By the age of 21, Blake was working as a professional.

In 1779, Blake enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts, which at the time was situated in Old Somerset House. He may have attended with one of his brothers, Robert, whose illustrations are briefly featured in the exhibition. The Royal Academy taught its students to draw by studying and copying classical sculptures, prints, live models and paintings, such as those by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Blake, on the other hand, rejected these teachings, preferring to use artworks by classical artists, such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520).

Despite rebelling against the traditional teaching methods, Blake participated in six exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Unfortunately, since he did not conform to the typical oil paint-format the Academy expected, Blake’s watercolours were often consigned to a smaller room.

Students were encouraged to paint serious subject matters, often resulting in portraits and landscapes. Blake, on the other hand, chose to focus on Biblical stories, for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Written in the Book of Genesis, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The series of events that follow result in Joseph having significant authority in the land of Egypt and, during a famine, his brothers end up begging him for help.

Blake produced three watercolours that express the latter part of the story of Joseph. In the first, the brothers, unaware who Joseph is, bow down before him, pleading for help to survive the famine. The second, Joseph Ordering Simeon to be bound, shows one of Joseph’s older brothers willingly being arrested for a crime he did not commit to spare the life of another brother. Noting that the attitudes of his brothers have changed since they sold him into slavery, Joseph reveals his true identity and welcomes his brothers with open arms, as shown in Blake’s third painting.

Similar to his Joseph paintings, Blake’s early work typically involved sweeping lines of ink or watercolour, revealing dainty characters full of grand gestures. These tended to have a strong visual impact, evoking emotion and communicating a message or story. Subjects were often drawn from Bible passages, although not necessary the well-known ones, and other literature, such as Shakespeare. As time went on, however, Blake’s works became more obscure and harder to decipher.

Shortly after Blake’s time at the Royal Academy, he met Catherine Boucher (1762-1831), the daughter of a market gardener in Battersea on the south side of the River Thames. At the time, Blake was suffering from a rejection of a previous attempt at love and Catherine proved to be a good ear to listen to his tales of heartbreak. This led to the pair falling in love and marrying on 18th August 1782 in St Mary’s Church in southwest London. The couple had a long, invaluable marriage with Catherine helping her husband to print some of his later works and Blake teaching his wife to read and write.

As well as illustrating existing stories, Blake began to write and illustrate his own, for example, the epic poem Tiriel, although this was never published. Blake borrowed ideas from Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and Gaelic stories to pen the narrative of an aged king, Tiriel, who had been exiled from his land. In the past, Tiriel enslaved one of his brothers and cursed his children and now seeks solace from his misrule and arrogance. Frail and blind, Tiriel tries and fails to make amends for what he has done, thus receiving his comeuppance for his acts of tyranny.

The illustrations Blake produced to accompany the poem Tiriel were engravings rather than paintings. Having trained as an engraver before joining the Royal Academy, Blake found this technique a preferable way of earning an income. Engravings involved copying or drawing an image with fine cuts onto a metal plate, which could then be inked, printed and reproduced several times. This was a technique Blake used for many commissions, such as those delivered to the print shop he temporarily opened with his friend James Parker in 1784. He also worked for a range of London publishers, including the radical Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), who published works by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) amongst other feminists and religious dissenters.

Etching and engraving were time-consuming and limited, which Blake found frustrating. In 1788, Blake developed what he termed “relief etching”, which allowed him to print in colour and combine text and images. Over time, Blake printed numerous books in this manner, many of which he had written himself and continue to be some of his most famous work. This style of engraving combined “both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was also a cheap and efficient method of printing, although the stories and poetry the illustrations accompanied often baffled Blake’s readers and supporters.

From 1790 to 1800, Blake and Catherine lived in North Lambeth, less than twenty minutes from his childhood home. Although the property has been demolished, a nearby tunnel of Waterloo Station is decorated with a series of 70 mosaics resembling illustrations from Blake’s illuminated books. These books reflect Blake’s thoughts during a turbulent time in Britain. Both French and American revolutions occurred during Blake’s lifetime, leading him to become vocal about freedom and liberty, and argue against slavery and the empire.

Despite his strong views, Blake was rather cryptic in how he portrayed his thoughts in his poetry and illustrations. Had his views been expressed more clearly, Blake would have been at risk of arrest, however, his symbolism was too obscure to attract the attention of the authorities.

Tate Britain displays a range of examples from Blake’s radical illuminated books including Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which condemns forced marriage and defends the rights of women. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell expressed Blake’s revolutionary beliefs using biblical prophecy as a basis. Rather than Hell being a place of punishment, Blake depicts it as a place of chaos and irrationality.

Blake also created his own mythology, for instance, The Book of Urizen, from which his recognisable illustration The Ancient of Days comes. Urizen, depicted as a bearded old man, is the personification of reason and law. Considering himself to be god-like and holy, Urizen traps people in webs of law and conventional society. He is often shown with some form of architectural tool, such as a compass, with which he creates his universe. Urizen’s only opposition is Los, who can be likened to a fallen angel, representing imagination. Blake’s myth is almost a reversal of Christian beliefs, with Urizen serving as a Satanic force.

blake_the_little_girl_lost

Little Girl Lost – Songs of Innocence and Experience

Amongst all the books represented in the exhibition is one of his most well-known works Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the famous poem The Tyger. “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night…” Published in 1794, the book of poems is a combination of Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1793). Although the illustrations are suggestive of children’s books and the poems deal with themes of childhood, they also tackle morality, suffering and injustice, which are topics usually deemed unsuitable for that demographic.

Although Songs of Innocence and Experience is famous today, Blake only sold about 30 copies during his lifetime. For income, he relied heavily upon commissions and patronage, including fellow artists. John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor and draughtsman Blake met at the Royal Academy. Flaxman supported Blake’s publication of Poetical Sketches in 1783 and his wife, Ann, commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for the poems of Thomas Gray (1716-71).

A civil servant, Thomas Butts was one of Blake’s biggest patrons, purchasing over 200 different works. Many of these were watercolours on biblical themes. Whilst typical scenes involving Jesus, the crucifixion and well-known Old and New Testament characters were popular, Butts was also interested in Blake’s more imaginative works, representing the prophecies of Ezekiel or the Book of Revelation.

The Reverend Joseph Thomas (1765-1811) of Epsom, Surrey was another keen purchaser of Blake’s biblical work. He was also interested in the works of Shakespeare and John Milton and commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for various plays and poems. For Milton’s hymn On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Thomas paid Blake two pounds for each drawing – a total of six – which was more than Butts paid for individual watercolours.

Thomas Butts also purchased a series of large coloured prints that Blake produced by experimenting with monotype. This involved using thick, tacky ink on the metal etching plates, which was then transferred onto paper by applying pressure. Once printed, Blake added watercolour and ink washes to finish the illustration. This gave the prints the initial appearance of a painting, however, many elements are impossible to achieve by hand.

The twelve large prints included in the exhibition relate to a range of themes. As usual, Blake depicted biblical scenes, for example, the madness of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, whose humiliating suffering was predicted in the Book of Daniel. Blake produced an illustration of God judging Adam, whereas most artists focus on Eve’s sin. Other biblical images include Lamech and his Two Wives and Noami Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab.

Amongst the prints is a portrayal of the famous English mathematician and scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727), albeit a rather young and muscular one. Unlike the older figure most people imagine when thinking of Newton, Blake drew Newton as a Michelangelo-esque character crouched naked on a rock. The figure’s attention is fully focused on a piece of parchment at his feet on which he draws a diagram with a compass.

Blake chose to illustrate Newton as a reproach rather than praise. The artist was critical of Newton’s scientific approach, which followed precise rules rather than taking in the bigger picture. The figure’s focus on the compass represent’s Newton’s methods, which makes him oblivious to the beauty in the colour of the rocks on which he is sitting.

In 1800, Blake and his wife moved to a cottage in Felpham, (West) Sussex, where he illustrated works for the poet William Hayley (1745-1820) until 1804. Hayley is best known for his biography of his friend William Cowper (1731-1800) whose work was among the poems Hayley wished Blake to illustrate. Mostly, however, Hayley expected Blake to produce miniature portraits, which was something Blake was not keen on due to the lack of inventiveness.

Hayley had recently established a new library in The Turret, his house in Felpham, and commissioned Blake to produce long canvases to decorate the room. Each canvas represented a famous poet, including William Cowper. In the centre, Blake reproduced a likeness of the poets based on existing portraits and engravings and used the remains of the canvas to be more creative. Other poets included William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), Dante Alighieri (1265- 1321) and Edmund Spenser (1552-99).

As time went on, Blake began to resent Hayley, who he believed did not appreciate art. Fortunately, Hayley was still on Blake’s side and able to bail him out when he was arrested following a physical altercation with a soldier. After his acquittal, Blake returned to London.

In 1806, Blake began planning pictures for Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) The Canterbury Tales. This is a collection of 24 short stories written by the “father of English literature”. Mostly written in verse like Blake’s own work, the tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket (1119-70). Blake envisioned a frieze-like composition, which he completed in 1808 and published as an etching in 1810.

Unfortunately, Blake could not enjoy his work on The Canterbury Tales because he felt he was competing against two friends who were also producing work for the same book. He felt betrayed by these friends, believing that their work would overshadow his artistic vision. He claimed his so-called friends were more interested in making money than producing great art.

Around the same time, Blake was working on illustrations for the 1808 edition of Robert Blair’s (1699-1746) poem The Grave. The commission came from the newly established publisher Robert Cromek (1770-1812), and not wanting to let Cromek’s new career flounder, Blake took the project very seriously.

Blake was attracted to the poem’s themes of death and the afterlife, which were often topics of his own writings. He quickly produced twenty drawings for Cromek, which the publisher began to promote widely in public places, touring London, Birmingham and Manchester. Whilst this gave Blake the attention he deserved, he felt betrayed when Cromek employed someone else to print the illustrations.

The disappointments and supposed betrayals of the early 1800s led Blake to break contact with some of his friends and set up an independent exhibition in 1809. Using the upper rooms of his childhood home, now belonging to his brother James who used the lower rooms for his hosiery shop, Blake displayed several of his paintings, which were accompanied by a Descriptive Catalogue. It was a rather strange location for an exhibition – rather modest in comparison to Blake’s gigantic ambitions – and only a handful of visitors attended. In the only public review written about the exhibition, Blake was branded “an unfortunate lunatic”.

Tate Britain excels itself by recreating one of the rooms in the Blake family home, complete with fake flooring, ceiling, windows and walls, upon which a handful of paintings are hung. Many of Blake’s original paintings have been damaged over time, losing their colour and becoming dark and difficult to decipher. Every 20 minutes, two of the paintings are illuminated to appear as they would have done in 1809 and a disembodied voice reads out Blake’s words from the Descriptive Catalogue.

“The two Pictures of Nelson and Pitt are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age.”

Blake’s solo exhibition took place during a period of war and upheaval. Although his paintings appear to be disconnected from politics, featuring allegorical and spiritual elements, they are full of hidden meaning. Two paintings are based on national figures who had both led Britain in the war against France. These figures, the late Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806) and naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), are shown alongside biblical monsters, bringing chaos and destruction to the world. Blake likens these heroes to mythological and biblical characters, for instance, Hercules and cherubim. Although the paintings are representing destruction, Blake is hinting at the potential new freedoms and spiritual rebirth that could follow.

In the next room, a projection shows close up details of these two paintings. He had once dreamt that they would be executed on a large scale and displayed on public walls. After the failure of his solo exhibition, Blake knew this dream would never come to fruition and became increasingly withdrawn and bitter. Tate Britain tries to do Blake’s aspirations justice by showing the paintings at such a large scale.

Having withdrawn from society for a few years, Blake returned with a burst of creativity for the final decade of his life. In 1818, he met the artist John Linnell who provided him with moral and material support. During this time, Blake produced relief-etchings for new and old books for a variety of purchasers, including engravings for the Book of Job.

Throughout his life, Blake reportedly had visions of spirits with whom he conversed. Encouraged by a friend, Blake began to draw these spirits for a series he titled “Visionary Heads”. Over six years, Blake drew more than a hundred of these vision, often attending séance-like sessions to study the details of these characters. Whilst, on the one hand, some people believed in Blake’s visions, others debated whether they were real or a sign of mental ill-health.

One of Blake’s most bizarre characters was The Ghost of a Flea. Depicted as a muscular, nude figure – part-man, part-vampire, part-reptile – the Flea is using its tongue to drink out of a bowl of blood. In its left hand is a thorn and acorn, which are typical icons of fairies and similar mythical characters. Whether or not Blake saw this figure, his painting magnified a flea, which is usually associated with uncleanliness, into a monstrous, bloodthirsty creature.

As well as his personal monsters, Blake was commissioned by Linnell to illustrate the creatures in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The poem, which describes a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, leant itself to Blake’s typical style of illustration and preference of theme. Blake used dark, menacing colours to illustrate the depths of Hell, contrasting it with the luminous shades of Paradise.

Although he intended to illustrate the poem in its entirety, Blake passed away before he could finish. Another unfinished work was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, which was a popular religious text during Blake’s lifetime. Again, it suited Blake’s style, dealing with the realms of dreams, destruction, sins and heaven.

Before Blake’s death in 1827, he managed to complete and illustrate one final epic poem, which is probably his best-known work today. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is the longest of Blake’s prophetic books and tells the story of the fall of Albion – Blake’s personification of Britain and the western world. The narrative, however, can be confusing and does not have a linear plot.

Jerusalem is not to be confused with the famous hymn of the same name with music written by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), which was used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1917. Although Blake wrote the words of this hymn, it comes from the preface of his epic poem Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

Blake’s magnum opus, on the other hand, is a 4500 lined poem that his first biographer called “a chaos of words, names and images.” Albion (England) has been infected by “soul disease” and her “mountains run with blood” as a result of the Napoleonic wars. Religion is being used to exploit the lower classes and those in charge of the country are full of greed. If Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem once more, then all humanity will survive and be bound together in love.

Jerusalem, like some of Blake’s previous works, summed up his philosophical thoughts, particularly concerning the Age of Enlightenment, which dominated Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment focuses on ideals of rationalism and empiricism (the theory that knowledge comes from experience), which went against Blake’s beliefs that imagination was the most important human element. Previous paintings showed that Blake was opposed to the Newtonian view of the universe and unimpressed by the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and other members of the Royal Academy who looked at art with a “vegetative eye”. Jerusalem was Blake’s final attempt at expressing his strong views.

“I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”
– Excerpt from Jerusalem

703782

William Blake Wearing a Hat – John Linnell

Blake spent his final years living with his wife at Fountain Court off the Strand, near to where the Savoy Hotel is situated today. It is reported that on 12th August 1827 Blake was working on his Dante series when he stopped, turned to his wife and insisted he drew her portrait. Afterwards, he sang hymns and recited verses of poetry until 6 pm when, after promising Catherine he would always be with her, he died. Five days later, on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Catherine buried her husband in Bunhill Fields, the same burial ground as his parents.

Catherine continued to sell Blake’s work until her death in October 1831 when an acquaintance took up the job. Although only a mere handful of his works sold during his lifetime, William Blake became posthumously famous and in 1949, the Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour. He is also recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and, in 1957, a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey for both him and his wife.

William Blake is the type of figure whose name is recognised worldwide and yet very few know much about him. His name is associated with various titles of books and poems but knowledge of his private life is less common. Tate Britain rectifies this by providing a chronological timeline of Blake’s life alongside his works. We learn who he was, how he lived, how he thought and what he believed. Although many will disagree with his philosophies and controversial ideas, Blake is an interesting character who is worth knowing about.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain is open until 2nd February 2020. Prices are £18 for adults, £17 for concessions and £5 for 12-18 years olds. Whilst under 12s may visit for free when accompanied by an adult, some of Blake’s work is unsuitable for younger children.


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

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

Antony Gormley

JS71404207

Entering the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is almost like walking onto a construction site. Full of dense, hard-edged steel slabs, visitors navigate around building-like constructions to get to the next room. Overwhelmed by the stark, geometric shapes, it is easy to miss the human forms that the sculptures are representing. Open until 3rd December 2019, the human body plays a large role in Gormley’s latest exhibition in ways you would least expect.

Unlike most solo exhibitions, there is no history of Gormley’s life or 45-year career. There is no explanation about his style of work or artistic movement. Instead, the only story in the exhibition is the one visitors bring with them. With many interactive exhibits, Gormley’s aim is for everyone to come away with unique, individual experiences. He invites people to slow down, become more aware of their bodies and rethink their understanding of the connection between body and mind.

Sir Antony Mark David Gormley was born on 30th August 1950, the youngest of seven children to a German mother and Irish father. Growing up in the suburbs of London, Gormley attended the Benedictine boarding school Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire before enrolling at Trinity College, Cambridge to study archaeology, anthropology and the history of art. Despite being brought up in a Roman Catholic family, Gormley travelled to India and Sri Lanka to learn more about Buddhism. On return from his time abroad, he began attending Saint Martin’s School of Art and Goldsmiths in London, finally completing a postgraduate course in sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art.

iron-baby

Iron Baby 1999

Whilst at the Slade, Gormley met his future assistant and, as of 1980, wife, Vicken Parsons (b.1957). The couple have since been blessed with two sons and a daughter, the latter was the inspiration for the first sculpture in the exhibition. Situated on the floor of the courtyard where anyone could trip over it is a small iron cast of a newborn baby. Cast from Gormely’s 6-week old daughter, the life-size baby is made from the same material as the core of planet Earth. Gormley aims to make visitors aware of our “precarious position in relation to our planetary future.” The curled up body of the baby represents a need for shelter, comfort and peace.

Antony Gormley’s career began with a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981. The majority of his sculptures were based on the human body, often cast from his physique. In 2006, with the help of 350 Chinese villagers, Gormley submitted an installation of 180,000 small clay figures to the 2006 Sydney Biennale and in 2007, 31 life-size casts of his body were installed on top of public buildings along the South Bank of the River Thames.

yb83qb3cije9za50dq0z

Slabworks series, 2019

Gormley began making cubist sculptures in 2012, similar to the Slabworks installed in the first room of the exhibition. Despite being made of geometric shapes, each sculpture is positioned in the vague shapes of human bodies, whether standing, sitting, curled up or lying down. Those visitors who are unaware of the significance of the shapes could be forgiven for mistaking them to be the layout of cityscapes, ourselves being giants navigating our way around them, careful not to cause any disruption or damage.

Gormley won the Turner Prize in 1994 for Field for the British Isles, which consisted of 35,000 miniature figures, which is in keeping with his fascination of the human body. Of course, Gormley is most famous for his Angel of the North, one of the UK’s most famous public art sculptures located in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. Constructed from steel, the angel is 20 metres (66 feet) tall with large geometric wings spanning 54 metres (177 feet).

Not all of Gormley’s work involves representations of the human body. The second room of the exhibition explores some of his earlier works produced in the 1970s and early 80s. During this time, Gormley experimented with different materials and everyday items, for example, an apple. His installation One Apple bisects the room with a row of 53 lead cases of increasing size. The cases record the growth of an apple from the first fallen petal to the ripening of the fruit. Originally constructed during the Cold War, Gormley used lead to encase the individual pieces for two reasons; one, it was an easy, malleable material to work with and, two, it is a material that can insulate against radiation. Gormley’s reason for wrapping objects in protective material is to make people think about how they wrap and protect their own bodies.

fvytvyhpjydhqmjxeccn

Mother’s Pride V

Gormley’s most unconventional choice of material is arguably the bread he used to construct Mother’s Pride in 1982. Reconstructed for the fifth time for this exhibition, the shape of a curled-up body has been cut out of a hundred or so wax-covered slices of bread. The edges of the figure are jagged, suggesting the artist has eaten the bread to achieve the result. By consuming food, we keep our body alive. In this instance, the foetal position of the figure could suggest a baby in a mother’s womb; therefore, the mother is eating to keep both herself and the child within alive and well.

Overhead, a highly tensioned steel bar zips across the room and into another where it meets a second bar going in a different direction. A third bar travels from the ceiling to the floor, completing an abstract notion of the x, y and z-axes on a graph. Gormley’s aim to heighten our awareness of our position in space and time. Wherever we go, our location can be pinpointed using the horizontal and vertical lines on a graph to plot the coordinates.

tlkb0aysauwyqcamwvxp

Clearing VII, 2019.

Visitors become part of the exhibition on entering the third room. Full from ceiling to floor and wall to wall with a continuous eight-kilometre coil of aluminium wire, visitors must navigate their way through to reach the next room. The curls of wire feel like a three-dimensional representation of a child’s energetic scribble. As a sculpture, Clearing VII has no boundaries, the walls of the room are the only parameters; had the room been bigger or smaller, the result would have a completely different look.

By entering the bundle of wire, visitors become part of the installation as they physically negotiate their way through. Bending under, side-stepping and climbing over low sections, a path is eventually navigated through to the room on the opposite side. If the wires are likened to confusion, the journey through them represents the way we solve the problem. The tighter the coils, the harder the problem.

Having traversed the wire-filled room, the next sculpture is a bit of an anticlimax. Subject II is a single life-size body constructed from tightly packed steel bars. With its head bent, contemplating the ground on which it stands, the sculpture is studied from all sides as people make their way around it. Due to the varying horizontal and verticle segments, the sculpture appears to change its appearance when looked at from different positions. Then it is back through the eight-kilometres of wire to reach the next room of the exhibition.

As well as completed sculptures, the exhibition features four decades worth of Gormley’s preliminary work. Hundreds of sketchbooks fill display cases revealing the thought processes and drawings Gormley made before sourcing materials and making his ideas reality. Several of the sculptures on display can be recognised in the sketchbooks as well as other works, such as Angel of the North.

Rather than detailed sketches, Gormley prefers to make rough scribbles. It is more important for him to get his thoughts down on paper than it is to produce accurate representations. Except for this exhibition, Gormley’s sketchbooks are for his eyes only; the presentation of the drawings are irrelevant.

The drawings show the progression of Gormley’s thoughts and the realisation of the outcome. The more developed sketches contain notes of materials and sizes that will be used to construct the sculptures. Not all of Gormley’s final pieces are constructed solely by himself, for instance, his Turner Prize-winning Field for the British Isles, for which he enlisted the help of 60 Mexican brickmakers.

Matrix III is an example of a sculpture that needed input from assistants. The “perpetual maze” consists of 21 intersecting cages suspended from the ceiling. Each cage is roughly the size of an average European bedroom, however, it is impossible to work out where each cage begins and ends.

“I’m trying to activate the space itself in such a way that the viewer’s body becomes activated.”
– Antony Gormley

Once again, the sculpture relies on the viewer’s curiosity and personal interpretation. By walking around it, or even under it, the perspective of the interlocking mesh changes. Gormley’s idea was to visually show the effect an increasing population is having on architecture. With high-rise buildings and blocks of flats being built left, right and centre, we as a society are beginning to live on top of each other. Gormley is asking, “what does that mean for our collective identity?”

The six-tonnes of standard steel mesh is usually used to reinforce concrete walls and lift shafts. As Gormley says, “This rebar is the inner skeleton of the environment we live in.” By only using the densely latticed steel, Gormley has stripped a growing city to its bare bones.

fgkzkobvdnwhj3hlt188

Lost Horizon I, 2008

The eeriest installation is hands-down Lost Horizon I. Gormley began to work with cast iron, which was suitable for works situated outside. Lost Horizon I consists of dozens of iron casts of the artist’s body. Covering himself in plaster, Gormley spent hours staying still to produce six different moulds. The iron versions have been placed around the room, climbing the walls and standing on the ceiling.

Entering the room, visitors are instantly met by an imposing naked iron man. With slightly rusted appearances, the others come into view as the crowds make their way through the installation. Some people may be familiar with Gormley’s iron men since these are not the first he has produced. Many life-size figures have been placed in deserts, fields, cities and beaches around the world. One, for example, stands in the sea in Margate, Kent, which gradually becomes hidden as the tide comes in.

tezsbm9p2emrmyqubdu1

Cave, 2019

The largest exhibit in terms of architectural scale is titled Cave. This is another interactive sculpture, which involves visitors making a choice: enter a constricted passageway or navigate around the outside. Those who brave entering the “cave” have to stoop to walk through a pitch-black corridor from one side of the sculpture to the middle and eventually through to the other side.

Gormley is attempting to recreate the darkness we experience when we close our eyes. We become fully aware of our bodies and the walls around us, however, we need to rely on our imagination and intuition to determine where we are in the room. Gormley likens this to cosmic space: we are bounded by our bodies on Earth yet, although we cannot go there, we can imagine the endlessness of space.

Those who opt to walk around the outside of the cave, navigate around rectangular and cuboid chunks of steel, intersected at chaotic angles. What they may not realise, however, is that if viewed from above, the shapes are arranged to look like a human form curled up on its side. In the next room, small sculptures of precariously stacked pieces of clay are laid out to produce a similar shape. In Gormley’s sketchbooks, visitors can see the thought process that went into making these sculptures.

71466126_10217330197438372_2578204511998836736_n

The final room of the exhibition can only be viewed from the doorway. Titled Host, the entire room is flooded with seawater on a bed of clay. Gormley calls this an “invasion of the inside by the outside,” resulting in something beautiful, yet destructive. Unlike the rest of the exhibition, which involves structure and man-made materials, Host only uses organic elements. The walls of the gallery are the only thing giving the “sculpture” any shape.

This exhibit changes throughout the day as the natural light darkens towards the evening. The water level may recede as the months go on, gradually being absorbed into the clay. The smell of the seawater and the stark contrast of the nineteenth-century gallery also play a role in the way visitors react to the exhibit.

Is Host a work of art or is it a form of destruction? What will the state of the room be like when the exhibition closes in December? Will the floor and walls be damaged – one assumes there must be some form of protection in place. Is the water representing a flood, the destruction of the world; or is it the total opposite, a creation of some sort? There is no explanation, only the interpretation of each individual peering through the door.

It is interesting to see the different reactions of people passing by the entrance to the room. Some take a glance and move on, whereas others stop and stare for a little while. It is impossible to determine what they are thinking but many are no doubt captivated by the reflection of the wooden door in the water. It is not a reflection you often get to see in seawater.

Host marks the end of the Antony Gormley exhibition and people are thrust out into the gift shop with thoughts ranging from “wow” to “what on earth was that about?” Having been a Royal Academician since 2003 and an OBE since 2014, Gormley had hundreds of works to choose between to display in the exhibition and, presumably, these are some of his best or at least most thought-provoking.

It is impossible to sum up the Antony Gormley exhibition. You do not come away having learnt something, you still know next to nothing about the artist. Has Gormley achieved what he set out to do; have we been inspired to self-reflect and challenge the status quo?

“Art becomes this proposition that invites you to rethink what the world is, and your position in it. In the end, the raw material of this exhibition is the psyche, the bodies, the people who come and indeed the feeling that they make together. That is not something that can be moulded or carved or cast, and that’s what makes the whole thing worth doing, because I want to move people. Can we care? Can we look at things anew?”
– Antony Gormley

The Antony Gormley exhibition is open until 3rd December 2019. Tickets are priced between £18 and £22. Please note that some exhibits are not suitable for people sensitive to enclosed spaces or those with mobility problems.


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

The Face of a Stranger

220px-schjerfbeck

Last exhibited in London almost 130 years ago, the Royal Academy of Arts have reintroduced Helene Schjerfbeck to UK audiences. Virtually a stranger in Britain, Schjerfbeck is a Finnish national icon known for her abstract self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes. The exhibition, due to end next week (27th October 2019), highlights the evolution of Schjerfbeck’s art, demonstrating her fascination with superficial appearance and what lies beneath.

Helena Sofia Schjerfbeck was born in Helsinki on 10th July 1862, the third child of office manager Svante Schjerfbeck and Olga Johanna (née Printz). At the time, Finland was an autonomous Grand-Duchy within the Russian Empire and the Schjerfbeck children were brought up speaking Swedish. By the end of her life, Helene Schjerfbeck could speak Swedish, French, English and German but not, ironically, Finnish.

When Schjerfbeck was four years old, she broke her hip after falling down some stairs. As a result, she would always walk with a limp and was unable to attend school. To cheer her up, her father gave his daughter drawing materials to keep her occupied during hours of immobility. Little did anyone know that this act would have such an impact on her destiny.

By the age of 11, Schjerfbeck was producing remarkable drawings for someone so young. After the drawings had been shown to the Finnish genre painter Adolf von Becker (1831-1901), Schjerfbeck was enrolled as the youngest ever member of the Finnish Art Society in Helsinki. Becker, who was a tutor at the school, paid for her tuition.

helena_westermarck_by_schjerfbeck

Portrait of Helena Westermarck, 1884

The school taught its students to draw by copying other artworks and sketching sculptures or, occasionally, life models. Copying famous artists was something that would play a huge role in Schjerfbeck’s future. During her four years of study, Schjerfbeck won many awards and began to spell her name as Helene to distinguish herself from her newfound friend and future artist and writer, Helena Westermarck (1857-1938). The selection of Schjerfbeck’s early work at the exhibition includes a portrait of Helena.

Sadly, Schjerfbeck’s father died after a bout of tuberculosis in 1876 and never saw his daughter graduate from the Finnish Art Society, which she achieved the following year. Had Becker not been paying for Schjerbeck’s education, the working-class family would not have been able to afford the fees. Schjerfbeck’s mother began taking in boarders to get by.

After graduation, Schjerfbeck began studying at Westermarck, von Becker’s private academy in Helsinki. Again, her tuition was paid for, allowing her to study for two years under von Becker’s guidance. During this time she learnt how to work with oils and paint from memory. She continued to win many prizes and had some of her work displayed in the Finnish Art Society’s annual exhibition in 1880.

Schjerfbeck continued winning prizes after graduating, including a prize awarded by the Senate of Finland for her painting Wounded Soldier in the Snow. With the prize money, she was able to travel abroad to continue her studies. Along with Helena Westermarck, Schjerfbeck moved to Paris to study at Mme Trélat de Vigny’s studio. The following year, they both enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, where they studied for a short time before returning to Finland.

In 1883, the Imperial Senate presented Schjerfbeck with a scholarship that allowed her to return to the French capital and exhibit at the Salon for the first time. She also spent time in the emerging artist’s colony Pont-Aven in Brittany. Whilst there, Schjerfbeck developed a new, expressive style that can be seen in her painting Clothes Drying and The Door. The latter is a small, modest painting showing light spilling from under a closed door. Produced while sitting in Tremalo Chapel, Pont-Aven, Schjerfbeck ignored the altars and sculptures that attracted other artists in favour of the unassuming door. The only evidence that she is in a church is the stone archway to the right of the door.
Allegedly, Schjerfbeck became engaged whilst in either Brittany or Paris, however, her unknown fiancé wrote to her breaking off the engagement. All correspondence between the pair was destroyed by her friends and Schjerfbeck returned to Finland in 1884.

Schjerfbeck did not remain home long before she was awarded another grant from the Finnish Art Society. In 1887, she returned to Paris but spent the summer in St Ives, Cornwall at the invitation of her friend Marianne Preindlesberger (1885-1927), who she had befriended during her studies. The summer soon became autumn, winter and then spring before Schjerfbeck returned to Paris. In 1889, she repeated the trip once more.

The atmosphere and quality of light in St Ives inspired many artworks. She rented a tower and attended art classes led by Preindlesberger’s husband Aidan Scott Stokes (1854-1935). Her paintings took on a plein-air style, which was well received and included landscapes and portraits, such as, View of St Ives and Woman with a Child. She also paid a small fee to set up her easel in a local bakery, where she painted the stone kitchen, capturing the warmth of the room and bread.

Between 1887 and 1890, Schjerfbeck exhibited several times in London at the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in Picadilly. During this time, she painted The Convalescent, which won the bronze medal at the 1889 Paris World Fair. The painting was later purchased by the Finnish Art Society.

Schjerfbeck’s grant ran out at the end of the decade and she returned to Finland in 1890. Again, she did not remain in Finland for long before being commissioned by the Finnish Art Society to travel to St Petersburg to make copies of paintings in the Hermitage Museum. These included works by Frans Hals (1582-1666) and Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). After this, she travelled to Vienna to make more copies of paintings in the Kunsthistorische Museum, followed by Florence to do the same in the Uffizi Gallery.

When in Finland, Schjerfbeck worked as a drawing teacher at the Finnish Art Society. Whilst she was an excellent instructor, she felt it hindered her artistic flow. She felt cut off from fellow Finnish artists who were embracing new techniques and styles. She also found the demands of teaching physically taxing and fell ill in 1895.

Schjerfbeck recovered her health at a Norwegian sanatorium and quickly returned to work. Unfortunately, she had to take another year off in 1900 when she fell ill again. As a result, she decided to resign from her position at the Finnish Art Society and move in with her mother in the town of Hyvinkää.

Whilst taking care of her mother, Schjerfbeck continued to paint and exhibit her work. She used her mother as well as local women and children as her models then sent final pieces to be shown at the Turku Art Society, an association for professional visual artists. Many of her works during this period were influenced by artists she had seen on her travels. As well as masters from the past, she was also inspired by artists of her era, for instance, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

During her visit to Vienna, Schjerfbeck encountered artworks by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), whose influence can be seen in her painting, Maria. Her choice of colour recalls the blue-green backgrounds of Holbein’s portraits of royalty. She also included the word “Maria” in a gold serif typeface, which again is similar to Holbein and his contemporaries.

Inspiration was also taken from the early Renaissance frescoes Schjerfbeck had seen in Italy. She produced her painting Fragment imagining it to be a section of a much larger scene. Using several layers of oil paint, Schjerfbeck scraped sections of the top layer to reveal the colours hidden beneath. In doing this, she produced what looked like a fragment of a deteriorating Renaissance fresco.

Caring for her mother meant Schjerfbeck did not get many opportunites to leave the town of Hyvinkää. Her growing fame, however, did not prevent her from receiving a number of visitors. In 1913, a young art dealer Gösta Stenman (1888-1947) met with her in person to purchase several of her paintings. He also encouraged her to exhibit more widely and eventually became her principal dealer.

Another visitor was the artist and writer Einar Reuter (1881-1968). Although much younger than her, Schjerfbeck hoped a romantic relationship could be sparked between the two, however, it was not to be. Nonetheless, Reuter became a good friend and featured in a handful of her paintings. In 1919, Reuter sat for his portrait, however, the year before, he had sat for her in the guise of a sailor. This is a demonstration of Schjerfbeck’s fascination with superficial and true appearances.

Despite being thirty miles north of Helsinki, the Finnish Art Society commissioned Schjerfbeck to paint a self-portrait. In 1914, no other female artist had been invited to do the same and she felt vindicated by this commission, having been estranged from the society for so long. She submitted the result, Self-Portrait, Black Background, in September 1915.

Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits are evidence of her changing style and technique. She produced her first self-portrait at the age of 22, which demonstrated the methods she had been taught whilst leaning slightly towards impressionism. By 1915, however, her style had completely altered. No longer did she delicately paint her facial features, preferring to use flat shapes and colour instead. Her face has barely any sense of depth and her body is angular and flat.

Towards the end of her life, Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits became gradually more abstract, less human, and more alien or death-like. Her mother had died in 1923 and her health was deteriorating rapidly twenty years later. The Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, sparking the Winter War and the fighting impacted heavily on her life. Evacuated several times to various sanatoriums, eventually ending up in Sweden, Schjerfbeck was anxious, lonely and unwell. With old age and her impending death on her mind, her self-portraits expressed her fears and depression rather than her true likeness.

Fortunately, life during the 1910s was generally good for Schjerfbeck. In 1917, she organised her first solo exhibition in Helsinki, bringing together 159 paintings. From this success, her first biography was published by Reuter under the alias H. Ahtela. Unfortuntely, it was only published in Finnish, therefore Schjerfbeck could not read it.

Whilst Schjerfbeck was celebrating her success, the Russian Revolution was in progress, which allowed Finland to declare independence. In order to establish a cultural identity, the new sovereign began to promote Finnish artists. In 1920, the state awarded Schjerfbeck the Order of the White Rose of Finland and a state pension. This marked her as one of the country’s best artists.

Shortly after her mother’s death, Schjerfbeck was taken seriously ill, moved to the town of Tammisaari and hired home help. Despite her health, she enjoyed living in the town, continuing to paint local women and children. She also painted relatives who came to visit, for instance, her nephew Måns Schjerfbeck (1897-1973). Once again, Schjerfbeck explored the fine line between superficial and real, painting a portrait of Måns in an imaginary role of The Driver. She also based paintings on her favourite works, such as El Greco’s (1541-1614) profile of the Madonna.

There was no chance of Schjerfbeck being lonely in Tammisaari; she was so famous that on her 70th birthday she had to hide to avoid all the well-wishers. None of this prevented her artistic success and she continued to receive an annual salary from her principal dealer Stenman. Her fame was also spreading on the continent with solo exhibitions in Sweden, Germany and France. The Royal Swedish Academy of Fine arts invited her to enrol as a foreign member in 1942, along with Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

As well as portraits, Schjerfbeck produced many still-life paintings, taking inspiration from Cézanne. Many of these are abstract and focus intently on the relationship between space, tone and colour. Whilst she had produced still-lifes in the past, they became a predominant feature of her final years. Sent from place to place to avoid the war, Schjerfbeck painted the things around her, particularly fruit. Her final painting was Three Pears on a Plate, which is full of the sense of death and decay, similar to her self-portraits.

On 23rd January 1946, while staying at the Grand Hotel Saltsjöbaden in Sweden, Helene Schjerfbeck passed away at the age of 83, her easel by her bedside. Her ashes were buried alongside those of her parents in Helsinki and, later in the year, an exhibition toured Sweden and Finland in her memory. Ten years later, Schjerfbeck was posthumously selected to represent Finland at the 1956 Venice Biennale. To date, she remains Finland’s best known and most admired artist.

“Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.”
– Helene Schjerfbeck

If Helene Schjerfbeck is Finland’s greatest artist, why is she not better known in the UK? Unlike on the continent, Schjerfbeck did not exhibit in the UK as often and, being a woman, tended to be overlooked. A planned exhibition in the USA was prevented by the war, diminishing her chances of becoming well-known on another continent.

Another reason for her lack of popularity is her work is not easy to categorise. Whilst her earlier work falls into the impressionist bracket, her mature work is a blend of cubism, post-impressionism and abstract expressionism. As a result, she gets omitted from exhibitions about individual art movements.

With the assistance of the Royal Academy, Helene Schjerfbeck has returned to the UK where a new generation has learnt her name and admired her work. Seventy-three years after her death, Schjerfbeck finally gets the chance to earn fame in other countries. But how long will it be before the whole world recognises her face?

The Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition can be viewed at the Royal Academy of Arts until 27th October 2019. Tickets are £14 and concessions are available. Under 16s are free when accompanied by a fee-paying adult.


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

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

Painter of Disquiet

Getting off to a positive start with a realistic painting of a polished coffee server, the Royal Academy of Arts introduces the “very singular Vallotton” in the first major UK exhibition of the Swiss painter Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). Barely heard of on this side of the English Channel, Vallotton’s artwork can be compared to the likes of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), however, he is also known for his satirical woodcuts.

Félix Edouard Vallotton was born into a Swiss-Protestant family in Lausanne. His father was a pharmacist who later purchased a chocolate factory and his mother was the daughter of a furniture craftsman. As always, his parents had ambitions for Félix and his three siblings and he attended university, leaving in 1882 with a degree in classical studies. Whilst studying, he also attended drawing classes lead by the artist Jean-Samson Guignard and, due to his success on the course, his parents granted him permission to go to Paris to study art seriously.

At sixteen years old, Vallotton enrolled at the private art school Académie Julian where he studied under Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911) and Gustave Boulanger (1824-88). Lefebvre believed Vallotton had the potential to earn a living as a painter and in 1883 Vallotton won a place at the most influential art school in France, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, although he turned the offer down and remained at Académie Julian for another year.

The exhibition begins with a few examples of Vallotton’s earliest works. These reveal his talent as a realist painter and the influence of artists he studied at college, for example, Leonardo da Vinci(1452-1519), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828). It is also interesting to note that despite the prevailing Impressionist movement in Paris at the time, Vallotton never engaged with the style.

In fact, in 1892, Vallotton became a member of the semi-covert group The Nabis, which took its name from the Hebrew word for prophet, thus referring to themselves as the “prophets of modern art”. Since he was not a French native, Vallotton was often called “The Foreign Nabi” by his peers who included, Bonnard, Vuillard, Charles Cottet (1863–1925) and Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944) as seen in Vallotton’s painting The Five Painters (1902-3).

Despite short-lived, The Nabis wanted to transform the foundation of art. They believed that art was not a true depiction of nature but a combination of symbols and metaphors. The French painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943) wrote the group’s manifesto The Definition of Neo-traditionalism in which he stated “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order… The profoundness of our emotions comes from the sufficiency of these lines and these colours to explain themselves…everything is contained in the beauty of the work.” The group, however, disbanded in the early 1900s.

Through his association with The Nabis, Vallotton discovered the art of woodcut printmaking. He began making woodcuts in 1891 and was particularly inspired by Japanese artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), who were also an influence on many European artists at the time. The artworks are characterised by simple forms, flattened perspectives and decorative aesthetic.

Two of Vallotton’s paintings based on this Japanese style were exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. In The Waltz (1893), two-dimensional characters skate over the glittering ice in the arms of their partners. Displayed next to this, both at the Salon des Indépendants and the Royal Academy exhibition was Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-3). This was a more ambitious piece of work and is a complete contrast to Vallotton’s realist manner.

Vallotton combined inspiration from Japanese “ukiyo-e” prints with the themes of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Unfortunately, critics were unable to recognise this parody. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), on the other hand, was one of the few who appreciated the painting but worried that the police would take it down due to the negative reaction from the public.

Vallotton also began producing black and white prints based on the style of the Japanese artists he admired. Rather than using woodblocks, however, he opted for a technique called zincography, which requires a zinc plate coated in acid. The result is much more controlled than those produced with wooden blocks and the line work can be much more expressive.

One of Vallotton’s first series of wood prints (zinc prints) is called Paris Intense, which features unusual scenes of Paris life. Vallotton was anti-bourgeois, as many artists were at the time, and focused on people from all walks of life in his prints. In this particular series, he combined caricatures of Parisians from upper, middle and lower classes all experiencing the same event. For example, in a print titled L’Averse (The Shower), smartly dressed men and women fight with their black umbrellas whilst others are pulled along in horse-drawn carriages. A maid wearing a white apron can be seen running in the background with nothing to shelter her from the rain.

Vallotton’s prints found themselves published in the literary and artistic magazine La Revue Blanche, established by the Natason brothers: Alexandre, Alfred and Thadée. Vallotton’s portrait of the latter can be seen in the exhibition. He also painted one of the editors, Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). This portrait resembles the work of The Nabis with an unrealistic approach to painting likenesses.

La Revue Blanche published works by many intellectuals, including Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Erik Satie (1866-1925), and Vallotton was the chief illustrator. Vallotton proved to be a gifted graphic artist and numerous prints were featured in the magazine.

One of Vallotton’s greatest woodcut series to feature in La Revue Blanche was called Intimacies (1897-8), which features ten fly-on-the-wall scenes that satirise the sexual desires of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Married couples are seen arguing whilst in another frame an adulterous couple mockingly toast an absent spouse. Others are more ambiguous and could represent either married couples or those in an illicit relationship.

felix_vallotton_interior_with_couple_and_screen_28intimacy29

Five O’Clock, 1898

Vallotton used a few of these prints as bases for paintings. Take, for example, Five O’Clock (Cinq Heures, 1898), which was also the title of one of the prints in the Intimacies series. Replacing black and white with colour, Vallotton produced a distemper version of the scene in which a man and a woman embrace in a red armchair. The title is a phrase that was used ironically in France by businessmen who would leave work at that hour to visit their mistresses before returning home to their wives.

Other print series include Musical Instruments (1896-7), in which Vallotton created portraits of particular musicians, some of which have been identified and others who have not. The darkness of the rooms depicted adds an element of mystery to their identities. The use of black in these prints is strong, using white for only a few line details that frame the musician and instruments, which include a cello, violin, flute, piano, guitar and cornet.

The World’s Fair (1900), was the last series Vallotton created before he stopped working for La Revue Blanche. The World’s Fair was held in Paris during the first year of the 20th century. Vallotton’s prints record scenes of construction, fireworks, picnics and people shopping.

By the end of the 19th century, Vallotton decided to move away from print work, believing painting to be his vocation. This was partly due to his marriage to the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915), the owner of a gallery and one of the most successful art dealers on the continent. Previously, Vallotton had been living in the Latin Quarter of Paris with his mistress Hélène Châtenay, however, he left her in 1899 to marry Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, whose financial stability allowed Vallotton to concentrate on his paintings, which is generally a low paying, unstable career.

Gabrielle appears frequently in her husband’s paintings and often sat for portraits. Most of the time, however, she is captured in the middle of domestic tasks around the house. Vallotton was also the step-father of three children, who occasionally became the subjects of his paintings. One scene around a dining table reflects one of the children’s negative attitude to the new adult in their life.

Capturing Gabrielle at work around the house was more difficult than painting someone sitting still. As a result, Vallotton began using a Kodak camera to catch the scenes he wished to paint. In his studio, he would either recreate the photograph with paint or remove and add elements to the scene to create the image in his mind’s eye.

Vallotton’s paintings of Gabrielle moving around the house are usually full of clashing colours and patterns, which may or may not have been present in the real family home. When painting from a photograph, the image was black and white, therefore, colours could be left to the artist’s imagination. Vallotton also crowded the rooms with rugs, ornaments, furniture, curtains and patterned wallpaper.

These domestic scenes are not the typical images one might expect and are rather ambiguous in nature. In Interior with Woman in Red (1903), Vallotton shows several rooms of the house through a continuous row of opened doors. Gabrielle stands in the middle with her back to the viewer, clearly heading for the bedroom in the far room. Wearing her dressing gown, it is easy to assume she is going to get dressed; the sunlight from the hidden windows is suggesting it is morning. Other than this, little else can be ascertained from the painting. It is as though it has captured a stolen glimpse of a household that tells you almost nothing about its inhabitants.

Woman Searching Through a Cupboard (1901) is another of Vallotton’s domestic scenes. It is probably a painting of Gabrielle but the subject matter is an obscure choice for an artist. The figure is apparently unaware of the artist’s presence while she searches through the carefully folded linen. The only light source is a lamp, placed on the floor where the figure crouches down to look at something on the bottom shelf. Whatever this is has been hidden from view, leaving the purpose of the search a mystery to everyone. Presumably, Vallotton painted this from a photograph he took as he wandered through the house, therefore, there may not have been much thought about how the painting would be interpreted.

From 1904, Vallotton’s principal subject of painting became the female nude. He had worked a little on this theme before his marriage but had not focused seriously on the theme. Unlike other artists who painted from life, Vallotton produced a quick sketch of his models then completed the painting alone in his studio. This may account for the feeling of detachment these paintings evoke with very little or even no sexual emotion.

Some of the models are partially clothed, for instance, the woman in Nude Seen From Behind in an Interior (1902), whereas others are fully naked. One of Vallotton’s nude paintings is almost a response to Édouard Manet’s (1832-83) Olympia (1863), which depicts a white female lying on a bed being attended by a black maid. In Vallotton’s version La Blanche et la Noire (1913), the white woman lying on the bed is naked and the black woman is elegantly dressed and smokes a cigarette while she observes her dozing companion. It is not clear whether these two women are mistress and servant, friends, or even lovers.

Vallotton believed one of his greatest works to be Models Resting (1905), which he submitted to the Salon d’Automne. Vallotton is believed to have wept in front of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) Turkish Bath (1862), which was the inspiration for this particular painting. Within the painting, he included two older works in the background: a portrait of his parents and a landscape, thus showing his development over the years.

Alongside his portraits of nudes, the exhibition showed examples of later works that focused on social scenes. Again, he attacked the bourgeoisie with imagery that suggested immoral behaviour, such as secret liaisons in theatre boxes. He also turned to New Testament stories, such as the story of Susanna who is the victim of lecherous old men. In Vallotton’s version titled Chaste Suzanne (1922), Susanna or Suzanne appears to be in control or even a seductress, dressed in a sequined hat and tempting a couple of balding men.

“War! The word is magnificent … The day I saw it appearing in big letters on the walls, I honestly believe I felt the strongest emotion of my life.”
– Vallotton

In 1916, Vallotton briefly returned to printmaking as a response to the First World War. Although he had become a French citizen in 1900 after marrying Gabrielle, he was too old at almost 50 to enlist to fight. Nonetheless, he got to experience some of the action on a government-commissioned tour of the trenches in the Champagne region. This became the inspiration for his final venture in printmaking.

C’est la Guerre (This is War) was a portfolio of six prints showing the brutality of war. Similar to his earlier work, Vallotton included people of all social standings in these illustrations. Horrific scenes of barbed wire strewn with corpses, barricades and explosions lead to scenes of civilians, cowering in fear in their homes.

In the final decade of his career, Vallotton turned to landscape painting and gradually returned to realism. He called his approach to landscapes “paysage composé”, which means “composed landscape”.

“I dream of painting free from any literal respect for nature … I would like to be able to re-create landscapes with only the help of the emotion they have provoked in me …”
– Vallotton

Instead of producing life-like landscapes, Vallotton simplified the compositions into shapes and colours, reminiscent of the flat Japanese-inspired paintings of his earlier years. The result is an almost abstract version of nature.

On the other hand, Vallotton’s still-lifes are extremely realistic. It is almost as though one could reach in and pick up one of the red peppers sitting on a white marble table. Their shiny skins and accurate shadows make them appear tangible. Similarly, his basket of apples is also life-like, although perhaps not as real as the peppers.

Unfortunately, Vallotton’s health deteriorated during his fifties. Due to his persistent health problems, Vallotton and Gabrielle spent each winter in the warmer climates of Cagnes-sur-Mer in Provence, and their summers in Honfleur, Normandy where he produced many of his landscapes. Despite persisting in his painting, Vallotton passed away on the day after his 60th birthday following cancer surgery.

Throughout his life, Vallotton produced over 1700 works of art. A year after his death, a retrospective exhibition was held at Salon des Indépendants and some of his paintings were also displayed at the Grand Palais along with the works of well-known artists, including Van Gogh, Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Vallotton’s brother Paul was an art dealer and established the Galerie Paul Vallotton in Lausanne where he displayed a number of Félix’s paintings. Félix Vallotton was not the only artist in the family, his niece Annie Vallotton (1915-2013) went on to produce illustrations for the Good News Bible, thus becoming the best selling artist of all time when over 225 million copies were sold.

The Royal Academy of Arts has done an excellent job at introducing Félix Vallotton to a new audience and generation. Whilst none of the pieces are particularly famous, they are worthy of the attention this exhibition is affording them. Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet is open until 29th September 2019 and costs £16 for an adult ticket. Children can visit for free with a fee-paying adult. As always, Friends of the RA are entitled unlimited free entry.


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

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