This article concludes my look back at some of my favourite paintings featured in articles published here over the last year.
Having worked through Goethe’s powerful play Faust, I moved on to the enormously influential and popular Divine Comedy by Dante, which extended over much of the middle and later months of 2019.
One of the most famous and wondrously imaginative of the illustrations painted by William Blake for an uncompleted edition of Dante’s work shows The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (above), which he completed in about 1824, and had already been etched when the artist died. This shows one of Dante’s best-known and probably largely original stories, of the adulterous couple of Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo, her husband’s brother, who were both murdered when caught in bed together by Francesca’s husband.
Below is a slightly later rendition in oils by the great narrative artist Ary Scheffer (1795–1858).
Most weekends, I take a relatively limited theme and look at a selection of paintings within that. Back in May, my weekend theme was the balcony, which has featured in some particularly interesting works, including this superb canvas by Richard Bergh (1858–1919).
Bergh’s Nordic Summer’s Evening (1899-1900) features two distinguished models, Prince Eugen, Duke of Närke, and the singer Karin Pyk, who were both close friends of the artist. It turns out to have been a wonderful composite: the pillars shown were borrowed from the floor below, where they supported this balcony, and Pyk was actually painted when she was in Assisi in Italy. Its figures look not at one another, but their gazes cross paths as they stare at the still parkland beyond, lit by the low sun.
Occasionally, I have looked at the making of great paintings, which includes everything from the materials and techniques used, through to the development of the composition. This series has included several of my favourite paintings, of which I show here just two.
The Wilton Diptych was a luxury object intended from the outset for the personal devotions of a monarch, or someone of close rank and stature. Its interior shows on the left, King Richard II (its most probable owner) kneeling as he is presented by the three saints, Saint John the Baptist (carrying the Lamb of God), Saint Edward the Confessor (holding the ring he gave to Saint John the Evangelist), and Saint Edmund (holding an arrow from his martyrdom). On the right is the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child with a throng of eleven angels, one of whom bears the standard of the Cross of Saint John. It was most probably painted in northern France in about 1395-99 by an unknown artist, who used egg tempera and gilding with consummate skill.
Vincent van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889) was painted when he was in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole mental asylum at Saint-Rémy near Arles. He could see through a window a view of wheatfields and dark Provençal cypress trees, with the Alpilles Mountains in the distance. During a period of intense creativity in June and July of 1889, he first drew parts of this view, then turned those drawings into paintings.
This, his first oil sketch, was finished by early July, when he wrote to his brother Theo, “I have a canvas of cypresses with some ears of wheat, some poppies, a blue sky like a piece of Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticelli’s, and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too.”
Last summer, I looked at what is now an almost unknown phenomenon in art, the problem picture. Enormously popular around the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the reading of these works was hotly debated in newspapers. Their greatest exponent was John Collier (1850–1934).
At first, The Sentence of Death (1908) disappointed the critics, but it quickly became very popular. A young middle-aged, and presumably family, man stares blankly at the viewer, having just been told by his doctor – visual clues given include a brass microscope and sphygmomanometer – that he is dying. The doctor appears disengaged, and is reading from a book, looking only generally in the direction of his doomed patient.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of great advances in medicine, but the big killers in Europe and North America like tuberculosis remained common and barely affected by improvements in surgery and hospitals. In some ways, this painting may at the time have seemed quite everyday, but Collier’s genius was in confronting the viewer with the reality.
Not only did this problem picture tackle the great Victorian obsession with death and mortality, but it did so with an adult male patient, assumed by society to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ and not to be emotional. This led to speculation as to the expected male response to such news, and questions as to what condition might be bringing about his death. There was even public debate about interpretations of the doctor-patient relationship.
For me, this is the pinnacle of Collier’s achievement, a painting which should challenge every generation of viewers, whose unresolved narrative is one of the eternal stories of our species.
During the autumn, I turned more to Impressionist painting, first comparing the art and careers of its two greatest landscape painters, Alfred Sisley (1839–1899) and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903).
Rest along the Stream, Edge of the Wood (1878) must be one of Sisley’s finest paintings, and one of the great landscapes of the century. It features multiple stands of trees, each of a different species, and each depicted with remarkable skill. The lines of its trees, stream, and the gash of sky all lead the eye to the distant bridge, and the figure of a woman, her back against the foot of one of the birches in the foreground.
Pissarro took to painting series late in his career, but these weren’t rural. Because of chronic problems with his eyes, he mainly painted from behind windows, in cities like Rouen, and most of all Paris. Boulevard Montmartre, Spring Morning (1897) is composed primarily of buildings and streets, a plethora of figures, and countless carriages to move those people around – the ingredients for so many of his late paintings.
The major Impressionist anniversary of 2019 was the centenary of the death of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919). Rather than give an account of his better-known figurative art, I preferred to look more at his landscapes.
During the late 1870s, Renoir moved on from his earlier pure Impressionist style, to which Sisley was to remain wedded for the rest of his career. Renoir’s In the Woods from about 1880 is one of the most radical landscapes prior to Neo-Impressionism, which it closely resembles. Here all is light and colour, and form has dissolved into a myriad of small touches of paint.
Later, Renoir set up the family home in the small town of Essoyes, where his wife’s family lived. Essoyes Landscape, Early Morning from 1901 gives a good idea of the rural tranquillity of this small town. Renoir’s trees now have canopies with a soft and sublime quality, as if melting away into the air around them.
Having grokked the Nabis, my next challenge is to improve my knowledge and understanding of Symbolism, which is proving both more difficult and even more enjoyable. Its problems begin at arriving at any workable definition of what Symbolism is, so I have decided to look at a wide range of painters who are often considered to be Symbolists. This in turn has brought some rich rewards.
Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899) was trapped as a stateless person in the European Alps, between Italy and Switzerland, where he painted some extraordinary views. This is the centre panel of a triptych, this showing Nature (1898-99). The sun has just set behind the distant peaks, as a farmer and his wife take their livestock back to the barn for the night. The woman draws a young calf along, its mother following. The low horizon follows the Golden Ratio, and emphasises light as the primordial force in nature.
Eugène Jansson (1862–1915) lived in Stockholm, Sweden, and specialised in painting views of the city in low light. One of his finest nocturnes is this seemingly infinite view from his studio on Mariaberget over Riddarfjärden, Stockholm, painted in 1898. As the last (or first) light of the day fades to pale red above the horizon, the waterfront of the old city is lit in white. In the foreground, the gaslights of the quay below form into small whirlpools of light.
Finally, towards the end of last year, I started giving an account of another major Italian epic poem, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Today it’s almost forgotten outside Italy, but in its day has provided the stories for a great many paintings. Unless you know the underlying narrative – and Orlando is complex and richly threaded – those paintings are almost unreadable. This series not only celebrates many glorious paintings by artists including Rubens and Delacroix, but hopefully helps you to read and understand them.
I look forward to researching, writing and publishing more articles for you in the New Year.