Painting the Intangible: The non-visual cast as a figure

In the previous article, I looked at examples of allegory in paintings which have been used to express non-visual concepts in visual terms. Because these were usually both elaborate and dependent on the viewer understanding their symbolic language, they can all too readily become unreadable, and just look bizarre.

They fell out of favour – with a few exceptions – by the end of the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth century were replaced by paintings which were simpler in concept and composition, and relied on the personification of a non-visual concept. The artist normally used a single figure rather than a whole group, which enabled more direct and obvious symbolism, and ultimately led to symbolist style.

This first seemed to manifest itself in the rising tide of nationalism which took place across Europe early in the nineteenth century.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Greece in the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826), oil on canvas, 208 × 147 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Known better for his personification of France (below), Eugène Delacroix painted the personification of Greece in 1826, in his Greece in the Ruins of Missolonghi (above), where she walks on the rubble remaining from the third siege of Missolonghi from 1825-6. This was a desperate attempt by the Greeks to withstand the attacks of the Ottomans. After a year of siege, the Greeks had little option but to try to release their women and children from the city, leaving the men to defend the empty city to the last. Only a thousand made it to safety, the remainder being slaughtered or sold into slavery.

However, the appalling butchery practised by the Turkish forces, who displayed three thousand severed heads on the city walls, brought widespread support for the Greek cause. Britain, France, and Russia intervened, and the Greeks eventually regained their independence. Delacroix’s painting played a significant role in that cause.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Liberty Leading the People (1830), oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Liberty Leading the People (1830), oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few years later, Delacroix painted Marianne, as the personification of the French nation, as the liberty achieved by the July Revolution of 1830, in his famous Liberty Leading the People (1830).

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Allegory of the November Uprising (Polonia, 1831) (1831), watercolor and gouache on paper, 49.6 × 39 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Nationalist personifications became steadily more elaborate. Ary Scheffer referred to his as an Allegory of the November Uprising (Polonia, 1831). Polonia, the personification of the Polish nation, is being brutally trampled on in the suppression which followed that uprising. The Russians suppressed that rebellion, integrated Poland into the Empire, and even closed the university in Warsaw.

William Dyce (1806–1864), Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea (1847), fresco, 350 x 510 cm, Osborne House, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In his 1847 fresco for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s luxurious holiday palace of Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, William Dyce went far beyond mere personification in the form of Britannia. Neptune stands astride his three white seahorses, holding their reins in his right hand, and passing his crown with the left. The crown is just about to be transferred by Mercury (with wings on his cap) to the gold-covered figure of Britannia, who holds a ceremonial silver trident in her right hand.

Neptune is supported by his entourage in the sea, including the statutory brace of nudes and conch-blowers. At the right, Britannia’s entourage is more serious in intent, and includes the lion of England, and figures representing industry, trade, and navigation.

Personification, rather than full-blown allegory, became popular with those painters associated with the later phases of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. These often involved romantically morbid intangibles, such as sleep and death.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Sleep and His Half Brother Death (1874), oil on canvas, 69.9 × 90.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John William Waterhouse’s first successful painting, shown at the Royal Academy in 1874, was Sleep and His Half Brother Death. This shows the Greek personification of sleep, Hypnos, and Thanatos, the personification of death. Although a painting with a mythical theme, it appears to have been influenced by the Aesthetic Movement, which was becoming popular with the decline of Pre-Raphaelite principles.

Hope 1886 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904
George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) and assistants, Hope (1886), oil on canvas, 142.2 x 111.8 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by George Frederic Watts 1897), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

George Frederic Watts was at the other end of his career when, in 1886 and with the aid of assistants, he painted Hope. One of a series intended for a grand ‘House of Life’, Watts broke with tradition and shows this personification blind, her ear bent to listen intently to the one remaining string of a lyre. She sits on the globe, one tiny star twinkling faintly above, her efforts seemingly in vain, but always in hope.

Popular subjects for personification were day and night, because of their strongly visual associations. My first pair of examples were painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo.

Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), Dagr (1874), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Arbo’s Dagr (1874) shows the Norse deity of the day (as opposed to night), the son of the god Dellingr, and the rider of the bright-maned horse Skinfaxi. Together they bring day and its light to mankind, much in the way that Apollo’s sun chariot crossed the sky for the Mediterranean civilisations, only here it is a burning brand which makes the light.

Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), Nótt riding Hrímfaxi (1887), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Nótt riding Hrímfaxi (1887) shows the dark side, the night. Nótt is given as the daughter of Nörvi, whose third marriage was to Dellingr, their son being Dagr.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind (1896), oil on canvas, 91 x 72 cm, Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu, Moulins, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Truth was featured in some of the great allegories, but in the late nineteenth century rose to fame in her own right. Jean-Léon Gérôme painted a series of works showing her, first as a nude at the bottom of a well, either lying on the ground, or standing with a mirror in her hand. The version which has survived is probably his last, a painting which was so dear to Gérôme that he kept it close by in his studio up to the moment of his death.

Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind (1896) is based on a quotation from Democritus, “Of a truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well” (or, more literally, ‘in an abyss’), but knowing that reference is of little help in understanding these paintings.

Gérôme had given one of the earlier paintings the title of Mendacibus et histrionibus occisa in puteo jacet alma Veritas, which translates as ‘The nurturer Truth lies in a well, having been killed by liars and actors’. In this last version, she has climbed out of the well, and instead of bearing her customary mirror, she brandishes a whip with which to scourge us.

It is often suggested that this series of works relate to the Dreyfus affair in France, but as they predate Zola’s famous article J’accuse! of 1898, that is unlikely. I agree with more recent proposals that this Truth is the culmination of his themes of what is seen, visual revelation, and truth, particularly to nature. It is, perhaps, his last word on Impressionism, and his final defence of his life-long painting style.

Gérôme used the same allusion in his preface to Émile Bayard’s posthumous collection of collotype plates of photographs of nudes, Le Nu esthétique. L’Homme, la Femme, L’Enfant. Album de documents artistiques inédits d’après Nature, which was published in 1902:
Photography is an art. It forces artists to discard their old routine and forget their old formulas. It has opened our eyes and forced us to see that which previously we have not seen; a great and inexpressible service for Art. It is thanks to photography that Truth has finally come out of her well. She will never go back.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Thanatos (1898-9), oil on canvas, 45 × 57.5 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacek Malczewski was adept at personification, particularly when it came to painting death. In Thanatos (1898-9), above, the Greek word and personification for death, he has revised Greek myth completely from its traditional male guise, casting the figure of death as a young woman, still bearing her symbolic scythe, but allied here with Eros. Naked under her scant scarlet robes, she sizes up an old man who is cowering at his window.

Then in Death (1902), below, her skin assumes the ghastly green of the putrefying corpse, as she closes the eyelids of the artist himself, adding the element of self-portraiture.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Death (1902), oil on canvas, 98 × 75 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

My last two examples of personification are among its most intense and extensive, in two substantial watercolours by Edward Robert Hughes.

Edward Robert Hughes (1851–1914), Wings of the Morning (1905), watercolour with gum arabic heightened with touches of bodycolour and gold, on paper, 69.9 × 104.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Wings of the Morning (1905) is his personification of the dawn. Its winged nude woman is bringing the early day, with coloured doves receding into what Hughes termed “a mass of cirrus clouds”, rose-tinted by the dawn light. These dispel the bats and owl of darkness below her.

Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914), Night with her Train of Stars (1912), watercolour, bodycolour and gold medium, 76.2 x 127 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Although not a pendant to Wings of the Morning, and painted seven years later, Night with her Train of Stars (1912) shows its complementary scene, the arrival of night. Portrayed as another winged woman, this time she wears a blue gown and swaddles an infant, her right index finger at her lips as if to bring the silence of the night. Her blue clothing, crown, and infant are likely to be an allusion to the Virgin Mary.

In her tow is a train of putti-like winged infants, the nearest clutching at her gown. Stars twinkle between them, and there are poppy flowers (classically hypnotic), blackbirds, and other dark birds in flight.

And then there is Symbolism – perhaps another time.