Paintings of 1919: Narrative

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), Tree of My Life (detail) (1919), oil on canvas, 213.4 x 193 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Towards the end of each year, I take a look at a selection of paintings which were completed a century ago. In this article, I start by showing some of the narrative paintings which were completed in 1919.

That year was something of a turning point in history. The Great War of 1914-18 had been followed by an influenza pandemic, the ‘Spanish Flu’, whose spread was accelerated by the movement of people in the aftermath of war. By 1919, the population had fallen by some 17.5 million due to the war, and another 50 million due to the pandemic. Large areas of the north of France and Belgium had been razed to the ground, and many communities there vanished and never recovered.

Art was as badly affected as anything else in life. Last year, I reported some of the painters who succumbed to the pandemic, in particular, including Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. The rise of modernism was eclipsing many long-popular artists, as movements like Cubism and Expressionism came, overwhelmed, and vanished as the next -ism arrived.

One genre which is still generally considered to have entered terminal decline in the late nineteenth century, but which continued into 1919, is narrative painting, including history, and some genre and religious works which referred to stories.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Abduction of Europa (1919), oil on canvas, 117.5 x 153 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. The Athenaeum.

Pierre Bonnard painted the classical myth of The Abduction of Europa in 1919. This is one of Bonnard’s rare mythological works, showing Europa being carried away to Cyprus by Jupiter, who has disguised himself as a white bull to entice her to get on his back. The story is drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and has been painted by almost every major figurative painter.

Bonnard’s bull is dipping his back as the naked Europa sits on him. In the far distance, coloured red in the setting sun, is the island of Cyprus, their next destination. Bonnard’s coast is very Mediterranean, with a deep blue sea and intense colours: a traditional story and composition, painted in very modern style.

Magdalen with Pearls in her Hair 1919 by Lovis Corinth 1858-1925
Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Magdalen with Pearls in her Hair (1919), oil on canvas, 71.5 × 47.6 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1991), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Lovis Corinth painted narrative works throughout his career, and his Magdalen with Pearls in her Hair from 1919 is one of his few works in the UK (in the Tate Gallery). This is one of several paintings that he made of Mary Magdalen, a popular subject for religious paintings. He follows the established tradition of showing Mary as something of a composite, based mainly on Mary of Magdala who was cleansed by Christ, witnessed the Crucifixion, and was the first to see him resurrected. Apocryphal traditions held that she was a reformed prostitute, and most depictions of Mary tread a fine line between the fleshly and the spiritual.

This is Corinth’s most intense and dramatic depiction of Mary, her age getting the better of her body, and her eyes puffy from weeping. She is shown with a skull to symbolise mortality, and with pearls in her hair to suggest the contradiction of her infamous past and as a halo for her later devotion to Christ.

John Riley Wilmer (1883-1941), Piccarda (1919), oil on canvas, 123 x 192 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

John Riley Wilmer’s Piccarda (1919) is more traditional in all respects, including his style. Its story is more of a puzzle, though: the only well-known character of that name is Piccarda Donati, the subject of Dante’s first encounter when he visits Paradise, in the poet’s Divine Comedy. That Piccarda was a devout nun, who was forcibly removed from her convent for an arranged marriage, and died soon after her wedding. I am at a loss to explain this painting in terms of that story, which may thus exemplify the pursuit of novel readings of traditional stories.

Bela Čikoš Sesija (1864-1931), Salome (1919), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Galerija likovnih umjetnosti, Osijek, Croatia. Wikimedia Commons.

More modern stories, such as that of Salome and the execution of John the Baptist, remained popular following their introduction in the late nineteenth century. More explicit images of this newly-invented femme fatale include Bela Čikoš Sesija’s Salome from 1919, who stands on tiptoe to peer at the saint’s severed head.

This period saw further advances in the role of women in society, with women at long last being given voting rights in Britain and Germany in 1918, Austria and the Netherlands in 1919, and the USA in 1920. In 1919, one of the last of those involved with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, compiled and illustrated the Golden Book of Famous Women, an anthology of writings about famous women by well-known authors. This starts with Helen of Troy and Cleopatra, and ends with fictional characters of Dickens and George Eliot. I have chosen three of her sixteen paintings as examples.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872-1945), St. Catherine of Siena (1919), illustration in “Golden Book of Famous Women”, p 239, further details not known.

St. Catherine of Siena (1919) shows the Dominican philosopher and theologian, who lived from 1347-1380, apparently debating with cardinals above the city of Rome.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872-1945), Joan of Arc Praying (1919), illustration in “Golden Book of Famous Women”, further details not known.

In Joan of Arc Praying (1919), Joan is shown as a poor peasant girl, praying among the sheep grazing in the countryside.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), Guinevere (1919), illustration in ‘Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale’s Golden Book of Famous Women, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The legendary Guinevere was also featured, although I suspect that her adulterous relationship with Lancelot wasn’t examined in much detail.

‘Problem pictures’, in which the viewer is given clues to an unresolved and previously unknown narrative, had become enormously popular with the public at the end of the nineteenth century, and in some parts of the west lasted well into the twentieth century.

John Collier (1850–1934), Sacred and Profane Love (1919), oil on canvas, 104 x 142 cm, Northampton Museum & Art Gallery, Northampton, England. The Athenaeum.

One of its greatest British exponents, John Collier, tried unsuccessfully to revive problem pictures after the war, with works such as Sacred and Profane Love (1919), which returned to the popular theme of women’s problems. On the left, sacred love is shown as a modestly if not dowdily dressed plain young woman, and on the right, profane love as a ‘flapper’ with bright, low-cut dress revealing her ankles, flourishing a feather in her left hand. The suitor is shown reflected in the mirror above, a smart young army officer.

There were also some paintings showing the future of narrative works, including Joseph Stella’s extraordinary Tree of My Life.

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), Tree of My Life (1919), oil on canvas, 213.4 x 193 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This large fantasy is almost Surrealist, although the term had only just been coined by Guillaume Apollinaire two years previously, and isn’t generally recognised until the 1920s. Stella here seems to have been influenced by the equally extraordinary paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. His canvas is filled with exotic plants and birds, with densely-patterned passages, as shown in the detail below. These are presumably autobiographical references, in a work which the artist described as the “tree of my hopes.” In 1919, there were a lot of hopes too.

This painting was sold at auction a year ago for nearly $6 million.

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), Tree of My Life (detail) (1919), oil on canvas, 213.4 x 193 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.