For previous Christmases, I have shown collections of nativity scenes. This year, following on from the theme of a Dickensian Christmas, my selection shows Christmas festivities during the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most are rather different from what we will be doing today.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted a couple of works on and about Christmas, of which A Christmas Carol from 1867 is probably the more interesting. His model is Ellen Smith, described as a ‘laundry girl’, who is dressed in items from the artist’s collection. There are several allusions to Christmas, particularly the Virgin and Child just above the model’s face.
But what most interests me in this painting is the musical instrument. It appears to have two strings, and was probably plucked rather than bowed. In the several descriptions of this painting that I have read, no one has identified it. Maybe you can? It is present, of course, in an Aesthetic role, alluding to the sense of hearing and the art of music.
John Everett Millais’ view of Christmas Eve from 1887 seems a particularly bleak one. Bare trees, barren snow with just tracks, and a few crows foraging. The lights may be lit in the house behind those trees, but out here it feels pretty grim.
LA Ring’s painting of the View From the Window in Café Osborne up to Frederiksberg Allé on 23 December 1889 is a complete contrast. Loose and sketchy, there are adults and children on its pavement, and more of a festive air. The artist even wished its recipient a happy Christmas at the lower left.
Traditionally, Christmas has always been a time to think of those less fortunate than ourselves, which is exactly what Jacek Malczewski does in his Christmas Eve in Siberia from 1892. The men here are Polish, deported from their native country and imprisoned in the extreme cold and remoteness of Siberia. Although there’s a steaming samovar at the end of the table, they have only had soup and a wedge of bread for their seasonal feast.
Following the Polish Uprising of 1863, at least 18,000 were ‘exiled’ to Siberia, many of whom never returned.
Those Polish men – and women – could only have dreamed of the unwilling subject of Sophie Gengembre Anderson’s undated Christmas Time – Here’s The Gobbler!
One of my favourite paintings of Christmas is this delightful little undated oil sketch by Joseph Clark, of Christmas Morning.
The natural smiles of those two girls eating and pulling crackers in bed is clearly not for adults in Denmark. Michael Peter Ancher’s family portrait on Christmas Day 1900, which he completed in 1902, looks funereal. A family bible is open on the table as they gaze grimly away from the magnificent triptych of waves behind them. I believe that the woman at the far right is Anna Ancher, the artist’s wife, then aged 40; she wears a distinctive necklace with an anchor, the Danish for which is anker.
Albin Egger-Lienz’s Christmas Eve from 1903 appears to be a re-interpretation of the traditional adoration of the shepherds, apparently set in a Tyrolean cowshed, with skilful use of light. I suspect that the title has been mistranslated, and should instead refer to Christmas night instead.
For many, it is the night before Christmas Day which is the high point of feasting and celebration. Carl Larsson’s Christmas Eve from 1904 shows his large extended family gathering in grand style, with a huge turkey, a roaring fire, and a cat under the table, trying to get into the party.
On Christmas Eve at the end of 1913, Lovis Corinth painted this delightful scene of their two young children enjoying their Christmas Decorations. Charlotte, the artist’s wife, is seen at the left edge, disguised as Father Christmas. Their son Thomas stands with his back to the viewer in front of a nativity scene close to his mother. Daughter Wilhelmine is at the right edge, inspecting one of the presents.
In Nikolai Astrup’s woodcut print of his family’s Christmas Eve at Sandalstrand from 1918, his wife and young son have fallen asleep exhausted, amidst traditional decorations.
Alphonse Mucha’s Christmas in America from 1919 is another painting with a complex story behind it. That year, Mucha had realised his great ambition, to exhibit his series of twenty paintings depicting the history of the Slav peoples, his Slavic Epic, in Prague, which had only the previous year become the capital of newly-independent Czechoslovakia.
Mucha’s decade of work on this series had been supported by the American Charles Crane, celebrated by this painting. Tragically, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Mucha was badly persecuted, and died on 14 July 1939 in Prague, just before the start of the Second World War.
My last painting by the Norwegian Naturalist Christian Krohg tells its own story, the Seamstress’s Christmas Eve (1921). A young woman is in her garret bed-sit, where she has been toiling long hours at her sewing machine. An affluent couple – a relative or employer perhaps – has just arrived to give the young woman a Christmas tree, a large wicker basket of presents, and more. Maybe that young woman can still be saved from the fate brought on by the sewing machine, and her inevitable decline towards prostitution.
I wish you a very merry Christmas.