Bible By Colour – Part One

Two years ago, the former minister of Gants Hill United Reformed Church asked me to write a series of articles about the importance of certain colours in the Christian Bible. How often are colours mentioned, and do they have a particular meaning in scripture? We know that a rainbow of colours was symbolic. In Genesis 9:13, a rainbow symbolised God’s promise that he would never flood the earth again. In Ezekiel 1:27, a rainbow represented the glory of God. Revelation 4:3 records John’s witness of the same rainbow as Ezekiel, but he also saw one above the head of a “mighty angel” who carried a book about the events to occur at the end of time.

The modern understanding of a rainbow was established by Isaac Newton (1643-1727), who divided up the visible wavelengths of light (colours) into seven groups. These are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Yet, there is a continuum of colours that fall between these categories.

Red

Red is one of the three primary colours (the others are yellow and blue) and appears on 75% of national flags. In contemporary times, red is associated with several things; for example, when seen on a traffic light or road sign, it means “stop”. Red is one of the colours used to describe fire, which can have both positive and negative connotations. Fire brings warmth and a means of cooking, but on the other hand, it can also signify danger.

In astronomy, Mars is known as the Red Planet, and on Jupiter, there is a Great Red Spot. There are stars known as red giants, red supergiants and red dwarfs. The sky occasionally turns red during sunset or sunrise. This has led to the saying, “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.” It was believed a red sky signified an approaching storm. The original phrase, however, comes from the Gospel of Matthew:

“He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” (Matthew 16:2-3, NIV)

Red is one of the autumnal colours that appear on leaves during the lead up to winter. This associates the colour with the end of life; however, it can also represent new life with its appearance in fruit, such as cranberries, apples, cherries and raspberries. Elsewhere in nature, the colour red appears on many woodland creatures, for example, red foxes, red squirrels, robins, grouse, redwings and red setters. 

Human blood is red, which symbolises both life (i.e. we need blood to live) and death (in terms of blood being spilt). Two per cent of the world’s population has naturally red hair. The term redhead, or redd hede as it was originally spelt, has been in use since around 1510.

In human and animal behaviour, red sometimes indicates dominance. Wearing red has been linked with success and enhanced performance, especially in sport. Although a more controlled test of this theory suggests this is not entirely true.

Other meanings that the colour red connotes are love (i.e. red roses on Valentine’s day), celebration and ceremony (red carpet), Christmas (Santa Claus), anger (“seeing red”), seduction (red lipstick) and sexuality (red-light district). 

In the New International Version of the Bible, the word “red” appears at least fifty times, although some translations use “red” more broadly. There is a wide spectrum of colours, and red is only one small section. Either side of red are similar colours, such as scarlet and crimson, which have separate mentions and meanings in the Bible – at least in the NIV.

On more than one occasion, the colour red is used symbolically to indicate sin or sinfulness. When Israel attacked the wicked Moabites, the “water looked red – like blood.” (2 Kings 3:22) When the city of Nineveh fell, Nahum tells us, “The shields of the soldiers are red.” (Nahum 2:3). 

The prophet Ezekiel wrote about a prostitute, a sinner who lusted after a group of men of whom a sketch was drawn on a wall in red. “But she carried her prostitution still further. She saw men portrayed on a wall, figures of Chaldeans portrayed in red.” (Ezekiel 23:14) An interesting thing to note here is the colour red was the first pigment to be used in art. In this instance, it may be a coincidence that the drawing was in the same colour as one representative of sin.

In Zechariah 1, the prophet heard the Lord was very angry with his ancestors. Later on that day, Zechariah had a vision: “During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.” (Zechariah 1:8) The prophet recorded another vision of red horses in Zechariah 6:2. 

Another red horse is mentioned in Revelation 6:4 as a sign of war, bloodshed and the end times: “Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.”

A red dragon is used as a similar symbol but also represents Satan’s power and determination to bring about destruction: “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.” (Revelation 12:13)

Other mentions of red in relation to the end times are:

  1. Revelation 6:12: I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red.
  2. Revelation 9:17: The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulphur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulphur.

Proverbs 23:31 says, “Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly!” This is a warning about the temptation of sin. It may look good but it will have its repercussions. In the book of Job, the colour red is a sign of sorrow, grief and distress. “My face is red with weeping, dark shadows ring my eyes.” (Job 16:16)

Red is also a symbol of death. The Red Sea, which lies between Africa and Asia on the edge of the Indian Ocean, has claimed many people’s lives. Today, the Red Sea is bordered by Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is approximately 1400 miles in length and about 220 miles wide.

The most famous Bible passage involving the Red Sea takes place in the book of Exodus. Moses rescued the Israelites from Egypt by parting the waters of the Red Sea. When Pharaoh and his army tried to cross, God caused the waters to return to normal, drowning the entire army.

  1. Exodus 13:18: So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.
  2. Exodus 15:4: Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea.

The Red Sea is also mentioned in the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 Kings, Nehemiah, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Acts and Hebrews. 

On a couple of occasions, Biblical characters are given names that mean “red”. “The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau.” (Genesis 25:25) “He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)” (Genesis 25:30)

At least three verses of the Bible mention items being dyed or decorated red. The significance of this, if there is one, is uncertain.

  1. Exodus 25:5: ram skins dyed red and another type of durable leather; acacia wood.
  2. Exodus 26:14: Make for the tent a covering of ram skins dyed red, and over that a covering of the other durable leather.
  3. Jeremiah 22:14: He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the colour red is associated with the fire of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. It has also been the colour worn by the Cardinals since 1295. In general, red is the colour of Christ’s blood and, therefore, a symbol of his crucifixion. At Christmas, red tape or ribbon is used during Christingle services to represent the blood. The flags of some historically Christian nations still bear a red cross. 

Crimson and Scarlet

The New International Version of the Bible frequently uses the words “crimson” and “scarlet” when other newer versions may use “red”. In the original Hebrew text, there were several other ways to describe a reddish hue. Three of these words are now translated as “crimson”. They are karmity, which means deep red; tola, the maggot from which the dye is derived; and shaniy. The term “scarlet” is a translation of the Greek word Kokkinos, which refers to the shape of the insect from which the dye is extracted.

Crimson is a strong red colour that slightly inclines towards purple on the colour wheel. The colour was originally produced using the dried bodies of the kermes insect found in Mediterranean countries.

In Polish, crimson or Karmazyn is another name for a nobleman. People of high nobility often wore crimson robes. Poland is also one of two countries that have the colour crimson on their national flags – the other country is Nepal. In Denmark, the Grand Hussar Regiment wears a crimson jacket as part of its ceremonial uniform. The King’s Royal Hussars in the British Army still wear crimson trousers, giving themselves the nickname “Cherrypickers”. Likewise, in the USA crimson is the colour of the Ordnance Corps.

The plant rhubarb is poetically referred to as “crimson stalks” for obvious reasons. The crimson sunbird is the national bird of Singapore. In Australia, there is a species of parrot known as the crimson rosella. Occasionally, in places such as Mexico and Florida, a crimson tide occurs when certain algae turn the water red.

In some religions, such as the Bahá’í Faith, crimson stands for tests and sacrifice. But where does it appear in the Bible?

The Second Book of Chronicles, chapter two, tells us about King Solomon’s plans to build a temple in Jerusalem. He requested the help of King Hiram of Tyre, with whom he wished to continue the friendly relationship King David had established. The people of Tyre were known for their dyeing industry, particularly for using crimson and purple dyes. Solomon requested Hiram to send him a man who could assist with the decoration of the temple.

  1. 2 Chronicles 2:7: Send me, therefore, a man skilled to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, and in purple, crimson and blue yarn, and experienced in the art of engraving, to work in Judah and Jerusalem with my skilled workers, whom my father David provided.
  2. 2 Chronicles 2:14: whose mother was from Dan and whose father was from Tyre. He is trained to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood, and with purple and blue and crimson yarn and fine linen. He is experienced in all kinds of engraving and can execute any design given to him. He will work with your skilled workers and with those of my lord, David your father.
  3. 2 Chronicles 3:14: He made the curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarn and fine linen, with cherubim worked into it.

Thus, the colour crimson is associated with the Temple and praising God.

There are only two other mentions of the word “crimson” in the NIV Bible, and they are both found in the book of Isaiah. In chapter 63, Isaiah writes about God’s day of vengeance and redemption. The first verse says: “Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendour, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? ‘It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.’” In this verse, crimson is a sign of splendour and victory, but in an earlier chapter, crimson means something entirely different. It is also an example that distinguishes crimson and scarlet as two separate colours:

Isaiah 1:18 (NIV): “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

In this example, both crimson and scarlet represent sin. It may not be the colours themselves that denote sin but rather the fact they have obscured the purity of the original whiteness of the snow and wool. 

Scarlet lies somewhere between red and orange on the colour wheel, making it weaker than crimson. Nonetheless, the same insects originally produced the scarlet dye. Synthetic scarlet is often called cadmium red and was the standard red of many artists during the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 20th century, scarlet became associated with revolution. It appeared on revolutionary emblems as a symbol of the blood of martyrs in the French Revolution. It also became the colour of communism, used on the Soviet Union’s flag and is still used on the Chinese flag. In China, red is also a symbol of happiness.

Scarlet is the colour of the traditional academic dress of doctorate students in the United Kingdom. The Foot Guards and Life Guards also wear scarlet for ceremonial purposes. Army regiments across the world use the colour scarlet on their uniforms too. The countries that do this include Australia, Jamaica, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, Kenya, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Brazil and the USA. 

In the Roman Catholic Church, scarlet symbolises the blood of Christ and Christian martyrs. In Lutheran tradition, scarlet decorations are displayed from Palm Sunday until Maundy Thursday. Other Christians often associate scarlet with prostitution. This is partly due to the description of an adulterous woman in the Book of Revelations, sometimes referred to as the Great Scarlet Whore.

Revelation 17:3-4: Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.

As a result, cities in which prostitutes work are named “red-light districts”, and sex worker organisations have titles such as the Scarlet Alliance. The scandalous novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) uses the colour to denote adultery. 

Other negative connotations of scarlet in the book of Revelation include:

  1. Revelation 18:12: cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble.
  2. Revelation 18:16: and cry out: “Woe! Woe to you, great city, dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!”

The first time the word “scarlet” is used in the NIV is in Genesis 38 when Tamar gave birth to twins. A scarlet thread was tied around the wrist of the eldest so that they could differentiate between the two.

  1. Genesis 38:28 (NIV): As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.”
  2. Genesis 38:30 (NIV): Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.

The colour is most frequently used in the book of Exodus concerning the construction of the Tabernacle. This connects scarlet with God, giving it an entirely different meaning in comparison to the final book of the New Testament. Between Exodus 25 and Exodus 39, the colour scarlet is mentioned over 25 times. Examples include:

  1. Exodus 26:1: Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim woven into them by a skilled worker.
  2. Exodus 26:31: Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim woven into it by a skilled worker.
  3. Exodus 28:15: Fashion a breastpiece for making decisions—the work of skilled hands. Make it like the ephod: of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen.
  4. Exodus 35:25: Every skilled woman spun with her hands and brought what she had spun—blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen.

Leviticus 14 mentions scarlet yarn at least five times in the instructions for the cleansing of defiling skin diseases:

  1. Leviticus 14:4: the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed.
  2. Leviticus 14:6: He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water.
  3. Leviticus 14:49: To purify the house he is to take two birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop.
  4. Leviticus 14:51: Then he is to take the cedar wood, the hyssop, the scarlet yarn and the live bird, dip them into the blood of the dead bird and the fresh water, and sprinkle the house seven times.
  5. Leviticus 14:52: He shall purify the house with the bird’s blood, the fresh water, the live bird, the cedar wood, the hyssop and the scarlet yarn.

Twice, scarlet is mentioned in the book of Numbers:

  1. Numbers 4:8: They are to spread a scarlet cloth over them, cover that with the durable leather and put the poles in place.
  2. Numbers 19:6: The priest is to take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer.

The second of these is also referenced in Hebrews 9:19. “When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people.”

Potentially the most famous mention of scarlet in the Bible occurs during the story of Rahab and the Spies. This is found in the second chapter of the book of Joshua. Rahab was a prostitute but in this story, the colour scarlet is not a reflection of her occupation. Rahab helped Joshua’s spies escape, and in return, they told her to tie a scarlet cord in her window so that when Joshua’s soldiers attack the city, she would be spared.

  1. Joshua 2:18: unless, when we enter the land, you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought your father and mother, your brothers and all your family into your house.
  2. Joshua 2:2: “Agreed,” she replied. “Let it be as you say.” So she sent them away, and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.

Other mentions of the colour scarlet in the Bible are:

  1. 2 Samuel 1:24: “Daughters of Israel,weep for Saul,who clothed you in scarlet and finery,who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.”
  2. Proverbs 31:21: When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
  3. Song of Songs 4:3: Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; our mouth is lovely. Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate.
  4. Jeremiah 4:30: What are you doing, you devastated one? Why dress yourself in scarlet and put on jewels of gold? Why highlight your eyes with makeup? You adorn yourself in vain. Your lovers despise you; they want to kill you.
  5. Nahum 2:3: The shields of the soldiers are red; the warriors are clad in scarlet. The metal on the chariots flashes on the day they are made ready; the spears of juniper are brandished.

Generally, scarlet is a colour associated with wealth and opulence. This meaning is supported with the only mention of the colour in the Gospels. “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him.”(Matthew 27:28) The “him” in this verse is Jesus, and the soldiers in the Praetorium are mocking him. They dressed him in a scarlet robe to make him look like a king. As we all know, the soldiers then crowned him with a crown of thorns and put a staff in his right hand whilst jeering, “Hail, king of the Jews!”

Despite the unfortunate connection to prostitution, both crimson and scarlet represent wealth and power, both politically and religiously. Even the verses in Revelation refer to this. By the end times, people were worshipping their wealth and power rather than God.

According to surveys across Europe and the UK, scarlet is also associated with courage, force, passion and joy. Combining this with Biblical meaning, it is ascertained that scarlet is a powerful and positive colour – crimson, too.

Yellow

There is no mention of the word orange in the Bible. The closest the Bible comes to mentioning the colour in the NIV is Revelation 21:20, which states: “the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.” According to the AUV Bible (An Understandable Bible), [sard]onyx is “an orange-coloured stone similar to chalcedony”. 

Yellow is the second of the primary colours. It is the colour of canaries, daffodils, lemons, egg yolks, buttercups and bananas. There are yellowtail fish, yellow-fever mosquitos, yellowjackets (wasps), yellow birches and yellow poplars.

The history of the colour yellow is rather intriguing. In Ancient Egypt, yellow was associated with gold, thus considered eternal and indestructible. The skin of gods was believed to be yellow, so the Egyptians used the colour yellow extensively in their tomb paintings. The ancient Romans followed suit, using yellow to represent gold and skin tone.

Yellow Star Badge

The meaning of yellow in artwork changed sometime in the centuries following the crucifixion of Jesus. In paintings of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Iscariot often wears yellow, thus the colour has become associated with betrayal, envy, jealousy and greed. From this, the tradition of depicting Jews or other non-Christians in yellow began. Whilst this practice fell out of use, it was briefly reinstated during the 20th-century when Jews living in German-occupied countries were required to wear a yellow badge featuring the Star of David.

In China, the colour yellow represents happiness and wisdom. The first Chinese emperor was known as the Yellow Emperor, and all subsequent emperors were considered a child of heaven. Only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow and, instead of a red carpet, distinguished guests were honoured with a yellow carpet.

In politics, yellow represents liberalism. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, and SNP all use yellow in their campaign materials. In the US, the Libertarian Party is recognised by the colour yellow. In Chinese history, a Daoist sect was known as the Yellow Turbans; they staged a rebellion against the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD).

Yellow has been and continues to be used to represent optimism and pleasure. It is a colour that attracts attention. Yellow is the most visible colour from a distance, and many countries have used the colour on their emergency vehicles. The RAF rescue helicopter is yellow, as are the vehicles used by the Royal Danish Air Force. The colour is frequently used as a warning; for instance, yellow (amber) traffic lights mean slow down, and a yellow card in football is a caution but not expulsion.

The colour yellow is prevalent on national flags across the world. The flags of three of the five most populous countries feature yellow: China, India and Brazil. Other countries include Germany, Bhutan, Ukraine, Belgium, Lithuania, Spain, Colombia, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mozambique, Romania, Sweden, the Vatican, the Philippines, Chad and the European Union.

Buddhist and Hindu monks usually wear yellow or saffron robes. The Hindu divinity Krishna was often portrayed in yellow, as is Lord Ganesha. In Islam, yellow is a symbol of wisdom. In the various religions of the islands of Polynesia, yellow is a sacred colour associated with the food of the gods.

In Christianity, yellow is both positive and negative. The latter relates to Judas Iscariot and the former concerns wealth and gold. Similarly, there are both negative and positive connotations of the colour yellow in the Bible. Yellow is used to describe two things; one is gold or something valuable, the other is leprosy.

In Leviticus 13, God gave Moses and Aaron regulations about diagnosing skin diseases, i.e. leprosy. This was the job of the priest, in this case, Aaron, who had to examine all suspected cases of the disease and determine whether the sufferers were unclean.

  1. Leviticus 13:30: the priest is to examine the sore, and if it appears to be more than skin deep and the hair in it is yellow and thin, the priest shall pronounce them unclean; it is a defiling skin disease on the head or chin.
  2. Leviticus 13:32: On the seventh day the priest is to examine the sore, and if it has not spread and there is no yellow hair in it and it does not appear to be more than skin deep.
  3. Leviticus 13:36: the priest is to examine them, and if he finds that the sore has spread in the skin, he does not need to look for yellow hair; they are unclean.

For examples of yellow representing gold or valuable objects, you have to compare the NIV with other versions of the Bible. Take Psalm 68:13, for instance. the NIV says: “Even while you sleep among the sheep pens, the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold.” The King James Version, on the other hand, says: “Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold.”

Often, the word yellow is not cited. Instead, yellow objects or items are named. Frankincense is an off-yellow colour and is mentioned approximately 25 times in the Bible. In Matthew 2:11, one of the gifts Jesus received from the magi was Frankincense.

Many precious jewels are referenced throughout scripture. Chrysolite, a yellow gemstone, is mentioned ten times. In Revelation, chapter 21 tells us about the New Jerusalem. The city’s walls are made of jasper and the city itself from pure gold. There are to be twelve foundations, each one a different gemstone. It is here that chrysolite gets mentioned for the tenth and final time. “The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.” (Revelation 21:19-20, NIV)

The book of Revelation also contains one mention (in the NIV) of the word yellow. This occurs in chapter nine, in which John writes about the riders of the apocalypse. Verse seventeen describes the breastplates of the riders, which were “fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulphur”.

Sulphur is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, although without the colour yellow attached. As well as Revelation, the yellow chemical element appears in the books of Job, Isaiah and Luke. In each of these cases, sulphur is an indication of destruction, thus giving the colour yellow another negative connotation.

Yellow is a difficult colour to attach meaning to due to its connection with both positive and negative things. In terms of emotion, yellow is generally considered a happy, optimistic colour. Chris Martin, the lead singer from the band Coldplay, said the band wrote the song “Yellow” to reflect “the mood of the band. Brightness and hope and devotion.”  

“Look at the stars/Look how they shine for you/And everything you do/Yeah they were all yellow.”

Green

Combining all versions of the Bible, there are almost ninety mentions of the colour green, but only half of them appear in the NIV. The translator of the NIV decided that the word “pasture” was as good as “green field”, and it was not necessary to write “green trees” when “trees” would suffice.

The colour green is between yellow and blue on the visible spectrum. It is a secondary colour produced by mixing two primary colours – blue and yellow. The word “green” comes from the old English word grene, which has the same root as the words “grass” and “grow”. The majority of green we see in the world comes from nature, such as grass, trees, vegetation and so forth. 

Green is common in plants because they contain a chemical called chlorophyll, which gives them this colour. Many fish, birds and reptiles are also green and use the chlorophyll green of their surrounding environment as a means of camouflage. Green creatures include frogs, parrots, snakes and the green huntsman spider.

In Ancient Egypt, green was associated with regeneration and rebirth, but it was rarely used in their artworks. The Romans, on the other hand, connected the colour green with Venus, the goddess of gardens, vegetables and vineyards, amongst other things. As a result, green, earthy pigments featured in their artworks. By the second century AD, the Romans had at least ten different words for varieties of greens.

Van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, colour determined people’s rank and profession. Red was reserved for nobility and browns for peasants. Green was used for merchants, bankers, gentry and their family. For this reason, Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa wears green in her famous portrait, as does the woman in the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441).

Green is used as a symbol for a variety of things. In terms of traffic and safety, green grants permission and announces that it is safe to proceed. In most countries, the colour is also associated with nature, health, life, springtime, freshness and hope. Due to this, it has been adopted by organisations, such as Greenpeace and the Green Party. Bins specifically for garden waste are green, and areas in cities designated as a garden or park are referred to as green areas.

In China, green is associated with the east, sunrise, life and growth. In Thailand, they connect the colour with something a little more obscure: a child born on a Wednesday. Many places relate green with youth; for instance, an inexperienced person may be called “green”. Underripe fruit is usually green.

Surveys undertaken around the world reveal that people mostly think of calmness, nature and freshness when confronted with the word green. Other suggestions are less positive, for example, jealousy and envy. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the first to use the term “green-eyed monster” in his play, Othello, about jealousy. 

Other phrases that include the word green are:

  • Having a green thumb – being good at gardening
  • Greenhorn – an inexperienced person
  • Greenroom – a room in a theatre where actors can rest when not on stage. This term originated from the colour of this room at the Theatre Royal in London.
  • Green around the gills – someone who is looking a little ill
  • Going green – a company or person who is participating in activities to preserve the environment, i.e. recycling

The colour green has a few significances in religion. According to Islamic tradition, the robes and banner of Muhammad were green. Al-Khidr, who supposedly met and travelled with Moses, was known as “The Green One”.

In Christianity, clergy may wear green during “ordinary time”, i.e. a Sunday that does not fall within a particular holiday or festival season. In Eastern Catholic Churches, green is usually the colour of Pentecost. Many associate green with Christmas, for instance, Christmas trees and holly leaves. Interestingly, in Scotland and Ireland, green is used to represent Catholics. This is how Catholics are symbolised on the Irish flag, with orange representing Protestants.

In the Bible, there does not appear to be any particular meaning connected to the use of the word “green”. It is mostly used to describe the colour of grass, trees or plants.

  1. Genesis 1:30: “And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
  2. Genesis 9:3: Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
  3. Psalm 23:2: He makes me lie down in green pastures,he leads me beside quiet waters
  4. Psalm 105:35: they ate up every green thing in their land, ate up the produce of their soil.
  5. Joel 2:22: Do not be afraid, you wild animals, for the pastures in the wilderness are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.
  6. Mark 6:39: Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.

The greenness of nature is a positive thing, but many verses in the Bible talk about the lack of green. Exodus 10:15 talks about the result of the plague of locusts sent by God to the land of Egypt: “They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt.”

In Job 39:8, God speaks to Job about the animals he created. God tells him he gave the donkey the salt flats as its natural habit where “It ranges the hills for its pasture and searches for any green thing.” Isaiah 15 records a prophecy against Moab. As a punishment, the land will be ruined, destroyed overnight. Verse 6 states, “The waters of Nimrim are dried up and the grass is withered; the vegetation is gone and nothing green is left.”

God reminds Ezekiel of His powers in Ezekiel 17:24: “All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.” Later, in chapter 20, God speaks via Ezekiel, revealing a prophecy against the South. Verse 47 says, “Say to the southern forest: Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it.”

Of course, the best place to find verses about destruction is in the book of Revelation. In the NIV, the word green only appears once in the book. It concerns the end of the world, thus a distinct lack of green. Revelation 8:7: “The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.”

In the Gospel of Luke, there is one example of a positive connotation of the colour green, yet used in a negative context. This occurs shortly before the crucifixion of Jesus when he tells the “Daughters of Jerusalem” not to weep for him but their children, predicting devastating times in the future. He ends this short speech with the line: “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31) The green tree in this riddle refers to Jesus himself, the Son of God, the one who came to Earth to save. If people are doing wicked things while he is alive, what will they do once he is dead?

Green plants are often used as an analogy in the Bible. Most commonly, it describes people or entire societies. In some instances, the metaphor talks about people flourishing or bouncing back after a disaster. On the other hand, some refer to the destruction of communities as a punishment for their sins.

  1. 2 Kings 19:26: Their people, drained of power, are dismayed and put to shame. They are like plants in the field, like tender green shoots, like grass sprouting on the roof, scorched before it grows up.
  2. Psalm 92:14: They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green
  3. Proverbs 11:28: Those who trust in their riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.
  4. Isaiah 37:27: Their people, drained of power, are dismayed and put to shame. They are like plants in the field, like tender green shoots, like grass sprouting on the roof, scorchedbefore it grows up.
  5. Jeremiah 17:8: They will be like a tree planted by the waterthat sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.
  6. Psalm 37:2: for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
  7. Psalm 58:9: Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.

There are, of course, many more instances of the colour green in other versions of the Bible, but they tend to refer to plants, grass or fields rather than anything of significance.

To be continued …


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Gauguin Portraits

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Self Portrait, 1885

This winter (2019) in an exhibition sponsored by Credit Suisse, the National Gallery is providing visitors with the opportunity to view the portraits of Paul Gauguin. Never exhibited together before, the portraits illustrate the artist’s life from his early years in France to his last in French Polynesia. Fifty paintings have been sourced from collections all over the world that demonstrate Gauguin’s experimental use of colour and Synthetist style that, whilst unappreciated during his lifetime, have made him an important figure in art history.

The exhibition begins with a selection of Gauguin’s self-portraits. Described as self-obsessed, Gauguin painted himself many times throughout his career, believing that the world could only be understood from his point of view. He thought art could only exist in relation to memory, dreams, heritage and emotions, therefore, many of his paintings reflect the way he saw the world.

Often, Gauguin used himself as a model for paintings that were not necessarily intended to be self-portraits. By adopting other personas, Gauguin placed himself in histories and mythologies, showing the world how he interpreted the stories.

On more than one occasion, Gauguin painted himself as Christ. He is not the only artist to have done this; Dürer (1471-1528), for instance, had used himself as a model for Christ centuries before. Gauguin’s features are highly recognisable in his paintings of Christ and his facial expressions demonstrate Christ’s anguish and distress. He found a parallel between himself and Christ, feeling that he too was misunderstood.

In Christ in the Garden of Olives, the red-haired Gauguin depicts himself as Christ on the eve of his betrayal. When he painted this, Gauguin was struggling to sell his work and felt isolated and persecuted by the art world. By using himself as the model for this Biblical event, Gauguin communicated his own sense of suffering.

There is less emotion in Self Portrait (Near Golgotha), which was painted in front of Gauguin’s impression of the hill on which Christ was crucified. To the left of Christ – or Gauguin – is the head of a Polynesian idol. To understand this reference, the viewer needs to know a little about Gauguin’s life, particularly his later years.

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Paul Gauguin, 1981

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on 7th June 1848 to Clovis Gauguin and Aline Chazal. Both parents were rather radical; his father was a journalist and his mother was the daughter of the political and feminist activist, Flora Tristan (1803-44).

Gauguin’s mother was of Spanish-Peruvian descent and the family decided to move to Peru in 1849 shortly after the Revolution in France. Clovis hoped the move would help his journalistic career, however, he died of a heart attack en route. Aline arrived in Peru a widow with 18-month-old Paul and his 212 year-old sister, Marie. They were welcomed by Aline’s great-uncle whose son-in-law was soon to become the president of Peru. Due to the prestige of his mother’s family, Gauguin grew up attended by nursemaids and servants.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s family fell from political power during Peruvian civil conflicts in 1854 and returned to France. Gauguin and his sister were left in the care of his paternal grandfather in Orléans while his mother worked as a dressmaker in Paris. Despite this unconventional life, Gauguin received a prestigious Catholic education at Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, a boarding school in the north of France. This was followed by a couple of years at the Loriol Institute, a naval school preparatory in Paris, and a final year at the Lycée Jeanne D’Arc in Orléans.

On finishing school, Gauguin enlisted as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine and later served in the French Navy for two years. Unbeknownst to him, his mother died on 7th July 1867 whilst he was at sea and he did not learn of the death until his sister found him in India. Although he had enjoyed sailing around the world, Gauguin returned to Paris where family friend Gustave Arosa acted as his legal guardian.

With Arosa’s help, Gauguin got a job as a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse when he was twenty-three years old. Over the next decade, Gauguin became a successful businessman earning 30,000 francs a year. During this time, he met a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850–1920) who he married in 1873. Around the same time, he began painting in his free time and became friends with the French-Danish painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) who encouraged Gauguin’s love of art.

Pissarro introduced Gauguin to other artists, including Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922). He was encouraged to take part in three Impressionist exhibitions, however, the reviews he received were rather dismissive in comparison to the highly regarded opinions today.

Gauguin and Mette had five children: Émile (1874–1955); Aline (1877–97); Clovis (1879–1900); Jean René (1881–1961); and Paul Rollon (1883–1961), who were frequent subjects of Gauguin’s paintings. Initially, the Gauguin family were fairly well off, however, in 1882 the Paris stock market crashed causing Gauguin’s earnings to diminish almost entirely. As a result, he decided to become a full-time painter.

The family moved to Rouen on the River Seine where they could live more cheaply. Gauguin hoped he would be able to earn a living from his paintings, however, the venture proved unsuccessful. As he was unable to provide for them, Mette and the children moved to Copenhagen, presumably to stay with her family. Gauguin and his art collection joined them in 1884, however, the Danish city proved to be as equally difficult to establish himself as an artist. He was soon urged to return to Paris along with his six-year-old son Clovis.

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Still Life with Profile of Laval, 1886

Gauguin found it hard to get back into the Parisian art world and was virtually living in poverty. He took on menial jobs to earn a bit of money but it was not enough to live on and his son Clovis fell ill. This prompted Gauguin’s sister to pay for Clovis to attend boarding school.

Without Clovis to look after, Gauguin was able to focus on his art. Although he did not produce many paintings during this time, he tried to sell artworks he had produced in Rouen and Copenhagen. He exhibited in the final Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, which had a similar outcome to the previous three, however, he did sell one painting to the French painter Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914).

Attracted by the affordable living conditions, Gauguin spent the summer of 1886 in the artist’s colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. Many art students visited the area, including Charles Laval (1861-94) who became an admirer and follower of Gauguin. In a still-life resembling the work of Cézanne, Gauguin included a side profile of Laval at the edge of the picture looking at the fruit displayed on the table.

The following year, Laval accompanied Gaugain to Panama and Martinique in the Caribbean. Despite suffering from dysentery and marsh fever, he produced a dozen paintings. On his return to France, these were displayed in a gallery where they were admired by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and the art dealer Theo van Gogh (1857-91). Theo purchased three of Gauguin’s paintings for 900 francs and arranged for them to be hung in his art gallery.

Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh became close friends and in 1888 Gauguin was invited to spend nine weeks at his Yellow House in Arles. They spent the time painting together, often producing the same scenes. On more than one occasion, they set their easels up side by side to paint portraits, for example, Augustine Roulin (1851-1930), the postman’s wife. Whilst Van Gogh rapidly completely his painting with large brushstrokes, Gauguin took his time using washes of flat, bold colours that almost resemble Japanese woodblock prints. Another portrait they both produced was of Marie Ginous (1848-1911), the owner of the Café de la Gare near Van Gogh’s home. Once again, Van Gogh immediately attacked his canvas with paint, whereas, Gauguin spent at least an hour making a detailed charcoal sketch before moving on to paint.

Whilst in Arles, Gauguin experimented with Van Gogh’s technique of completing a painting in one sitting. This was very different from his usual approach, which involved working over many sessions, however, the result is a pleasing, more energetic, freer portrait. The rapid brushstrokes of Old Man with a Stick emphasise the roughened skin of the sitter, particularly his red-raw hands from years of manual work.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s close relationship with Van Gogh was not to last. The Dutch painter’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating and Gauguin decided he ought to leave. Distraught, Van Gogh, who worship Gauguin, confronted him with a razor blade, however, Gauguin still left and never saw Van Gogh again. Reportedly, later that evening, Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a woman in a brothel saying, “keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me.”

Through Van Gogh’s brother Theo, Gauguin met the Dutch artist Meijer de Haan (1852-95). Together, Gauguin and De Haan visited Brittany where Gauguin produced many portraits of the artist. The National Gallery displays a couple of drawings Gauguin produced, presumably studies for larger paintings, and a wooden carving.

As well as painting, Gauguin produced sculptures from a variety of materials. In this instance, Gauguin produced a wooden sculpture of De Haan in the style of the religious sculptures they saw in Brittany. Originally decorated with brightly painted ambiguous symbols, De Haan’s face rises out of a block of oak wood. On his head is a winged creature that some believe to be a rooster, which would be a play on the English translation of De Haan’s name.

In 1891, Gauguin saw his family for the last time in Copenhagen. Gauguin and Mette’s marriage had fallen apart when he chose painting over his family and the rift was irreparable. His wife asked him to leave and Gauguin decided to leave European civilisation altogether.

After a successful auction of his paintings, Gauguin used the money to pay for his voyage to the Pacific island of Tahiti where he hoped to find a culture unspoilt by the West. He was fed up with the “artificial and conventional” European culture, however, when he reached Tahiti he was dismayed to discover that the island had been taken over by missionaries and French colonialists. He settled in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, but was upset at the lack of the primitive idyll he had visualised.

Missionaries distrusted the traditional Tahitian way of life and forced the women to wear modest clothing based on the styles worn in Europe. Outraged by this, Gauguin soon moved to Papeari in the south of the Island where he hoped to discover a more authentic lifestyle. Examples of the clothing the Tahitian women were forced to wear can be seen in many of Gauguin’s paintings produced on the Island. In Melancholic, a young Tahitian woman wears a bright pink missionary dress, however, her melancholic demeanour implies she is less than happy about the gradual disappearance of her culture in the wake of colonial contact.

While in Papeari, Gauguin was involved in many sexual relations with young Tahitian girls. He supposedly married two of them, although the term “marry” is rather loose, after all, he still had a European wife. His first Tahitian “wife” Tehamana (1878-1918) was only 13 or 14 years old when they met and, although it was customary for women to marry young, Gauguin may have exploited his privilege as a Westerner to claim her.
Tehamana features in many of Gauguin’s portraits, for example, Woman with a Mango, which was later purchased by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) in 1895. In the majority of these paintings, Tehamana is an anonymous model, however, on one occasion, Gauguin names her in the title. The Ancestors of Tehamana shows Tehamana in a typical missionary dress, however, she is surrounded by spiritual references from her past, or at least Gauguin’s interpretation of traditional Tahitian beliefs. Symbols include glyphs similar to those found on ancient tablets, a female figure and spirits of the dead.

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Arii matamoe (The Royal End), 1892

In an attempt to console himself from his disappointment at the lack of authentic culture, Gauguin often added fictional elements to his paintings. Gauguin wanted to paint local customs but found they were remarkably similar to those back home. After witnessing the funeral of Pōmare V (1839-91), a Tahitian king, Gauguin painted an imagined version of events, which included the disembodied head of the deceased being displayed and mourned over.

Gauguin sent many of his Tahitian paintings to France where his patron, George-Daniel de Monfreid (1856-1929) arranged for them to be displayed in a couple of exhibitions. Unfortunately, not many sold and Gauguin was getting dangerously low on funds. He was also suffering from a suspected heart problem, which in hindsight may have been early signs of cardiovascular syphilis, so Gauguin decided to return to France, leaving his “wife” and newborn child behind.

Gauguin arrived in Marseille on 30th August 1893. Although he was back in France, his work was still focused on Tahitian life. He began writing an account of his time on the island in a book called Noa Noa, however, critics claim it to be highly fictionalised and, on occasion, plagiarised.

Tahiti’s influence can be seen in Gauguin’s self-portrait from 1893. Although he wears typical Breton clothing, a sculpture of a Polynesian goddess can be seen in the background. Interestingly, Gauguin did not produce any pictures of himself while in Tahiti, yet immediately returned to the topic on his return to France.

After a moderately successful exhibition in November 1894, he moved to 6 rue Vercingétorix in the Montparnasse district of Paris where he hosted regular gatherings with artists, musicians and writers. He was known for his exotic dress sense which exuded the atmosphere of the South Seas. Unfortunately, sales of his paintings were either slow or non-existent, so he decided to try his luck in Brittany.

While in Brittany, Gauguin demonstrated the typical scenes he saw in colonised Tahiti. Armed with a bright yellow missionary dress he had brought with him, Gauguin commissioned a young Breton woman to pose as a model. Standing on the wayside praying, Gauguin’s representation of the woman combines traditional Breton lifestyle with missionary characteristics.

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Still Life with Apples, a Pear, and a Ceramic Portrait Jug, 1889

In 1895, after raising a tiny amount of money, Gauguin returned to Tahiti. For a time, he achieved a steady stream of sales and lived a comfortable life with other artists near Papeete. He took on another “wife” called Pau’ura, however, their daughter passed away shortly after birth. By this time he was also suffering from ill health and spent a short time in hospital during the summer of 1896.

The following year, Gauguin was able to send some of his artwork to France where they were exhibited in Paris as well as Brussels in Belgium. During this time, his book Noa Noa was being published in instalments. Yet, this brief period of positivity was not to last. In April 1897, Gauguin received the terrible news that his daughter Aline had died from pneumonia at the age of nineteen. Devastated, the news led him to attempt suicide.

Once again suffering financially, Gauguin was compelled to take a desk job at the Office of Public Works in Papeete. Meanwhile, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1886-1939) attempted to sell Gauguin’s paintings in France.

Gauguin began to play a role in Tahitian politics and contributed to the colonial government journal Les Guêpes (The Wasps). This encouraged him to establish his own monthly satirical journal Le Sourire: Journal sérieux (The Smile: A Serious Newspaper), later retitled Journal méchant (A Wicked Newspaper). In 1900, he also became the editor of Les Guêpes from which he received a salary.

Life on Tahiti was becoming increasingly westernised and Gauguin was frequently in hospital. Regardless of his health, Gauguin was determined to find somewhere more “authentic” and in September 1901 moved to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in Polynesia. There was no doctor on the island and Gauguin had to rely on the Protestant pastor Paul Vernier, who had a little medical training.

Gauguin and Vernier became friends, however, many of the missionaries on the island were not impressed with his studio called the “House of Pleasure” in which he conducted relationships with local women as well as painting. Gauguin was particularly averse to the bishop Monseigneur Joseph Martin whose likeness he carved from miro wood. Titled Père Paillard (Father Lecher), Gauguin included devil horns to show how he really felt about the bishop.

When he was well enough, Gauguin painted portraits of the locals in their native costume or lack of, such as in Barbarian Tales. Another caricature of the bishop can be seen behind the two semi-naked ladies in the foreground.

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Self Portrait, 1903

By 1903, Gauguin’s health was rapidly deteriorating. He painted his final self-portrait, which was much simpler and less exotic than his usual style, and gave it as a gift to the Vietnamese exile Nguyen Van Cam (Ky Dong) who, along with Vernier, helped to look after him in his ill-health.

On 8th May 1903, Gauguin was weak and in great pain. He sent for Pastor Vernier, complaining that he kept experiencing fainting fits. Vernier ensured he was stable, however, later that day he was found dead by a neighbour. An empty bottle of laudanum on the bedside suggested he may have been the victim of an overdose, however, the general consensus is that he had suffered a heart attack.

Like his old friend Van Gogh, Gauguin did not receive any accolades until after his death. Today, people flock to exhibitions to see his work and his paintings belong to collections all over the world. Whilst the National Gallery’s exhibition only focuses on portraits, it manages to tell the story of Gauguin’s life from birth through to his final days. A 15-minute video provides specific details and an analysis of his work.

Paul Gauguin would be amazed to see the number of people purchasing tickets to see his work. He would never have thought that his work would sell for $210 million, as one piece did in 2014. He was also the inspiration for W. Somerset Maugham’s (1875-1965) novel The Moon and Sixpence.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition Gauguin Portraits can be seen at the National Gallery in London until 26th January 2020. Tickets are priced at £22-24, although various concessions apply.

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Monet’s Architectural Visions

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The Water-Lily Pond

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is perhaps best known for his en plein air paintings of gardens and countryside, particularly, for example, The Water-Lily Pond (1899). Whilst it is true that Monet produced many paintings of nature, for the majority of his artistic career, Monet concentrated on landscapes and cityscapes, focusing on the man-made buildings rather than the natural environment.

In a recent exhibition at the National Gallery, sponsored by the Credit Suisse, Monet & Architecture explored the overlooked aspects of Monet’s works with over 75 paintings spanning from the early 1860s until 1912. Split into three themes, the gallery focused on The Village and the Picturesque, which included paintings of cottages by rocky paths or sea fronts; The City and the Modern, featuring a mix of new and old buildings; and, finally, The Monument and the Mysterious, with examples of Monet’s experiments with atmosphere and light.

Born in Paris and brought up in Normandy, Monet had access to an area of France steeped in medieval history and buildings. With these scenes at his mercy, he produced many picturesque landscapes, not too dissimilar in style to his nature-based paintings.

As Monet’s reputation as a painter increased, he began visiting other areas of France and travelling to various countries on the continent. As a result, his broad collection of artwork almost reads like a photo album, documenting the places he lived or holidayed.

 

Many of Monet’s landscapes involve a body of water, be it sea, river or pond. Despite his Impressionist style – a name coined in 1874 to describe the works of the Sociéte anonyme des artistes peintres, of which he was a founding member – Monet was exceptionally good at portraying the movement of the water, both stormy and calm, and expertly reveals the reflection of the sky and buildings amongst the waves and ripples.

Whilst staying at Zaandam in the Netherlands, Monet had plenty of opportunities to combine water and architecture by studying the many commercial waterways, particularly those he saw during a trip to Amsterdam.

Often, Monet repainted scenes several times over a long period. He was always interested in the ways different lights and weather (effets) affected the landscapes he painted. An early example of this method of working took place on the coast of Normandy during 1882. Here, Monet became fascinated with a little cottage hidden between the jutting rocks of the cliffs.

 

The National Gallery displayed three paintings containing the hidden cottage, which was purportedly used during Napoleon’s reign as a customs office to keep a lookout for smugglers. The first painting, The Customs Officer’s Cottage, Varengeville, was most likely produced at the end of the winter months. The sea is choppy and the sky fairly dark, possibly a sign of an approaching storm. Monet stood behind and to the left of the building but near enough that the cottage became the main focus on the canvas.

The Cliff at Varengeville, on the other hand, was painted further away from the cliff edge. At first glance, it is easy to miss the roof of the cottage hidden by the uneven clifftop. This painting was produced during the summer months; the sky is clear and the sea much calmer. Although it is not shown in the landscape, the sun is bright, its rays lighting up the vegetation and reflecting off the surface of the water.

The final painting of the customs office was produced below rather than atop the cliff. The Path Through the Cliff at Varengeville is set in one of the ravines leading down to the sea. The cottage can be seen in the top left-hand corner, however, the eye is instinctively drawn to the v-shaped view of the sea in the distance. The blue water contrasts with the autumnal colours of the growth along the cliffs and the darkening sky, suggesting that this was one of the final paintings Monet produced before he left Varengeville in early October.

During the 1860s and 70s, Monet developed an interest of painting in cities, studying the more modern buildings that had begun to crop up – a contrast to the stone cottages as seen in the villages. The Exposition Universelle of 1867, the second world’s fair to be held in Paris, drew Monet to the capital. Here he sat on a balcony overlooking the Seine, painting the buildings on the opposite bank as well as portraying the crowds on the street below him. Including members of the public was an unusual feature for Monet, who prefered to concentrate on the scenery rather than the day-to-day goings on in the surroundings. This could be due to the manner of en plein air painting, in which most of the work is completed in situ; it is far easier to paint the stationary buildings than the moving bodies, carriages and animals.

Whilst in Paris, Monet painted a combination of old and new buildings, revealing the diverse styles of architecture. In The Quai du Louvre (1867), Monet contrasted the medieval clock tower of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont with the 18th-century Panthéon. Within the same landscape is the Pont Neuf, which was completed in yet another century, 1606 to be precise.

Three years later, Monet married Camille Doncieux (1847-79), who had already born him one son, Jean, in August 1867. The couple would later have another son, Michel, in 1878, a year before Camille sadly succumbed to pelvic cancer. For their honeymoon, M. and Mme Monet travelled to Trouville, a commune on the coast in the Calvados department in Normandy. Although this was not a city, it was a fashionable place for tourists with picturesque buildings. On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870), Monet provides a glimpse of the holiday resort from his position near the edge of the beach, looking over at the tall seaside buildings.

The following year, 1871, Monet and his family fled to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War. It was whilst he was here that he met artists, such as Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), with whom he developed the Sociéte anonyme des artistes peintres or Impressionism movement. During this time, Monet took pleasure in painting the recently built Houses of Parliament whilst also experimenting with different effets. After it was safe to return to Paris, Monet continued to paint important buildings, including the Pont Neuf and those along the Boulevard des Capucines.

At the end of 1871, the Monets moved to Argenteuil, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, approximately 15 kilometres from the city centre. This was useful for Monet who was often exhibiting with the Impressionists and needed to be within reach of the capital. Argenteuil was continuously being repaired and updated after the damage caused by the Franco-Prussian War, and its population was rapidly increasing. As a result, Monet was able to record the developments as they occurred, painting the modern houses, bridges and factories.

Of course, Monet also continued with his more natural landscapes, as seen in The Ball-shaped Tree, Argenteuil (1876), which was lent to the National Gallery from a private collection specifically for the Monet & Architecture exhibition. This tidily balanced composition was actually one of Monet’s final artworks in Argenteuil before the family relocated to the village of Vétheuil. It reveals two large houses in the distance set within walled gardens. The main feature of the painting, however, as the title suggests, is the ball-shaped tree that stands in front of them and is carefully reflected in Monet’s signature water aspect.

Travelling to and from the city, Monet was a frequent passenger at the Gare St-Lazare which was fairly modern, having only been built in 1837, although it was enlarged and extended at the end of the 1860s. Monet was given special permission to paint the station, which he did several times, exhibiting at least seven canvases in the third Impressionist exhibition. The Gare St-Lazare (1877) is unlike anything Monet had chosen to focus on before. Instead of a broad landscape or a picturesque location, the painting reveal a dirty, smoke-filled modern construction. The steam trains are also an unusual subject for the artist.

Another painting that went against convention, was Monet’s The Rue Montorgueil, Paris (1878), which was produced on a portrait canvas. The French government had declared 30th June 1878 a national holiday and the streets of Paris were full of people taking advantage of the day to hold drunken celebrations. From a balcony, Monet painted the long street overflowing with excited crowds, the buildings covered with bright tricolour flags. The blue, white and red dominate the composition, making it appear busy and untidy.  Yet, when viewed from a distance, the outlines lose their blurriness, resulting in a fascinatingly elaborate composition.

During the final three decades of Monet’s career, he visited and painted in three particular cities. After the untimely death of his wife Camille, Monet and his sons moved to a large house in Giverny, a village in Normandy, with another woman, Alice Hoschedé (1844-1911) and her six children in 1883. It was here that Monet’s famous water lily paintings were made. Almost a decade later, Alice and Monet married shortly after returning from the city of Rouen on the River Seine.

Whilst in Rouen, Monet was enamoured with its 12th-century gothic cathedral of which he produced at least thirty paintings. Rather than present landscapes as he had done in other cities and villages, Monet chose to concentrate on the cathedral facade, working on different effets caused by the position of the sun during different points of the day. One canvas, although brighter in colour, was probably produced mid-morning rather than when the sun was at its peak on account of the shadows, which bring out the features of the architecture.

In contrast, the painting of Rouen Cathedral at sunset appears to be a blurry copy of the previous painting. Seen from a distance, the muted colours have an impressive effect, however, up close, the painting feels incomplete and rushed. Nonetheless, Monet was not attempting to produce a precise study of the cathedral, he was examining the play of fading light upon the building.

In 1899, Monet took the opportunity to return to London, a city he had enjoyed so much on his last visit. On this occasion, Monet travelled alone, staying on the sixth floor of the Savoy Hotel, which at this point was fitted with balconies, providing the perfect position for Monet to paint the iconic buildings he could see from his suite. Depending on which way he positioned his chair, Monet had an excellent view of Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

Again, Monet’s focus was on effets rather than the buildings in question, painting in different lights at different hours. At the time, the many London factories often caused the city to be shrouded in smoke and fog, which along with the sun, created a hazy atmosphere. The vast changes in the British climate can be seen by comparing a painting of Waterloo Bridge on a clear day with one produced on a foggy day, the orange sun struggling to pierce through the smog.

Likewise, Monet’s paintings of the Houses of Parliament varied enormously due to the fog, sunrises and sunsets. In some versions, the neo-Gothic architecture is shown as a pronounced silhouette, whereas, in the foggier version, the tower blends into the clouded background.

The final city Monet visited was Venice in 1908, where he stayed for two months with his wife Alice. Whilst Alice wished to go out and enjoy the magical city, Monet wanted to paint the important buildings and their reflections in the water of the canals. Just like the Rouen and London pictures, Monet disregarded the numerous tourists, painting only the architecture and water, his focus, as always, on the intensity of effet. These paintings, as well as those from the previous cities, have an other-worldly quality due to the unique use of light.

Two buildings Monet was particularly interested in were the 17th-century church Santa Maria Della Salute, which he could see from the opposite side of the Grand Canal, and the Venetian Gothic Doge’s Palace. Both these buildings are instantly recognisable from their unique structure, however, once again, Monet was not interested in this. The various lights altered the sharpness of the buildings depicted; some appear blurred, whereas, others are much clearer.

The unfortunate thing about all of these paintings today is they are rarely shown together, as Monet intended. One gallery may own a version that was painted on a clear, sunny day, whereas, another may only have access to a foggy scene, thus not showing Monet’s skills as a painter of buildings. In order to appreciate the paintings fully, they need to be displayed together so that the different effets can be compared and contrasted. Luckily, the National Gallery was able to provide a couple of different copies of each building for the Monet & Architecture exhibition.

Venice was the last city Monet painted; his eyesight was deteriorating and he was reluctant to undergo a cataract operation. As a result, he was often unable to work. After Alice died in 1911, Monet tended to stay at home, painting in his garden. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, Monet remained in safety at Giverny, painting large canvases of Nymphéas (waterlilies). He continued as best as he could, wearing corrective glasses to aid his vision, until his death in December 1926 at the age of 86.

The National Gallery’s Monet & Architecture provided a new way of looking at Monet’s work. Instead of perceiving him as an en plein air French Impressionist with a penchant for waterlilies and poppies, the Gallery provided a different insight, introducing the non-artistic to the term effets and the result of focusing on atmosphere instead intricate details. This was the first exhibition of its kind and the National Gallery did an excellent job.

Monet & Architecture closed on 29th July 2018, however, there are many exciting exhibitions to look forward to in the near future. Visit the National Gallery’s website for details. 

Michelangelo and Sebastiano

A couple of weeks ago, thanks to a very good friend, I was lucky enough to attend the Member’s Preview Day of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition: The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano. Rather than merely displaying examples of each artists’ masterpieces, the gallery has focused on and emphasised the friendship and collaboration between the two Italians. With in-depth information accompanying each work of art, an extraordinary story is told.

It goes without saying that Michelangelo is the more famous of the two – his name is well known regardless of whether people are able to bring his paintings or sculptures to mind. Sebastiano, on the other hand, is probably only heard of by those in the know – the artistically educated.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a man of many talents and highly influential to the Renaissance era. Living primarily in Florence, he was respected for his sculpting, painting, architecture, draughtsmanship and poems, although is mostly remembered for the former two. Due to his exceptionally long life, Michelangelo’s career spanned more than 70 years, and as a result, was the leading figure in Italian art.

Art historians are exceptionally lucky, particularly regarding the lack of preservation methods of the time, that so much is known about Michelangelo. Not only have innumerable artworks survived, a multitude of written correspondence is also still in existence, providing a great insight into his career and personal attributes.

Michelangelo’s first major piece of work is arguably David (1501-4, Accademia, Florence) – a larger than life statue sculpted from marble and erected outside the Palazzo Vecchio. This statue has since become a symbol of Florence and Florentine art. Michelangelo could have had many other equally significant works during his time in Florence, however a great number of his commissions remain unfinished, largely in part to summons to Rome from Pope Julius II – something that occurred with later Popes, too.

It was Pope Julius II who commissioned one of Michelangelo’s most significant achievements: the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). It can be surmised from letters and so forth, that Michelangelo was rather reluctant to take on this project, since he viewed himself primarily a sculptor. The finished painting shows representations of biblical characters, particularly those found in the book of Genesis, as well as the most important figure, Jesus Christ.

This brief account of Michelangelo’s life is typical of art books and encyclopaedias, but fails to mention the significance of his unaccounted for friend.

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) was a Venetian painter, although worked predominately in Rome, where he incidentally met Michelangelo and formed a strong friendship and professional relationship. It was through this connection that Sebastiano became known, developed his painting style, and picked up commissions as a result.

Although Sebastiano owes Michelangelo for a large part of his success, his early works prove that he already had an exceptional gift. His impressive painterly skills can be observed in Judith (or Salome?) (1510, National Gallery, London) in which he expressively demonstrates the character’s beauty.

Sebastiano may have been overshadowed by the great Michelangelo, however he was recognised for his portrait artistry, a skill that supposedly had no rival. Sebastiano painted portraits of a number of significant figures, including Pope Clement VII.

Initially, Michelangelo sought out Sebastiano with the intention of making his rival, Raphael, jealous. By providing Sebastiano with drawings and designs to use as starting points, Sebastiano was constrained to Michelangelo’s particular style and method.

As you walk around the exhibition, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two painters. Sebastiano perfectly replicates Michelangelo’s distinctive approach to painting, causing him to rise in popularity and receive just as many commissions as his more experienced contemporary.

Michelangelo and Sebastiano became favoured artists of many noteworthy individuals, including various popes. As a consequence, other up and coming artists began to mimic the method, resulting in Michelangelo’s original approach being adopted as the new Roman style of painting – something that continued long after their deaths.

Wandering the gallery rooms of the exhibition, it is highly noticeable that the two painters were very keen on religious scenes, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus. This will come as no surprise to historians due to the fact the Catholic Church dominated over most of Western Europe during the 1500s. Also, the demand for paintings would have come from those who could afford them – for example, the Pope – and the majority of commissions were requested to decorate churches and chapels.

As the pair’s careers progressed, they were often separated. Michelangelo was called to Florence whilst Sebastiano remained in Rome, however they did not let this hinder their partnership. As evidenced within the exhibition, Michelangelo and Sebastiano kept in touch through letters. These reveal the intricacies of both their friendship and professional relationship, often updating one another on the progress of their current commissions.

Unfortunately, Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s relationship was not to remain amicable for the entirety of their lives. Michelangelo continued painting until his death, whereas Sebastiano began to wind down in his old age – something that Michelangelo deemed as laziness. After Sebastiano’s death, his so-called friend made malicious comments about him, thus suggesting their friendship may not have been quite as it appeared.

The National Gallery have done a fantastic job at curating their latest exhibition. Although the most famous artworks could not be displayed (David and Sistine Chapel, for instance), the paintings, drawings and sculptures on display exude a phenomenal sense of awe and intrigue. The scale of some of the paintings are quite remarkable, and go to show the talent both Michelangelo and Sebastiano had.

The exhibition continues until 25th June 2017, so there is plenty of time for Londoners to visit these unforgettable artworks, and, as a bonus, learn about the artists themselves.