The first American Symbolist painter Elihu Vedder 2

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Pleiades (1885), oil on canvas, 61.3 × 95.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article of this series, I looked at the early years of the art and career of Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), during which he painted landscapes in Europe and figurative works which became increasingly Symbolist. These culminated in his remarkable work Memory in 1870.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Cumean Sibyl (1876), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 149.9 cm, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Detroit, MI. The Athenaeum.

In 1876, Vedder painted this portrait of The Cumean Sibyl, the prophetess who played a major role in the foundation and success of Rome and its empire. The first key role that she had was of selling the Sibylline books to the last king of Rome, and the second was in prophesying to Aeneas (hero of Virgil’s Aeneid) about his future in Italy, which drove him to travel there.

Vedder here focusses on the first role, in that he shows the sibyl striding out, clutching several scrolls under her right arm, presumably the Sibylline books which were to guide the future of Rome.

In Greek mythology, Marsyas was a satyr (top half human, bottom half goat) who one day found a double-piped reed instrument known as a double flute (although it is not a flute) or aulos. This had been tossed aside by Athena, who had invented it, when the other gods made fun of the way that she puffed her cheeks out when playing it. Marsyas became an expert aulos player. Unfortunately, he later lost a musical contest with Apollo, as judged by the Muses, and was flayed alive – a grisly scene which was once quite a popular subject for paintings.

Late in 1877, Carrie Vedder, the artist’s wife, recorded in a letter that her husband had been thinking about Marsyas, and considered that, before the contest with Apollo, Marsyas must have proved his skill with the aulos. He therefore came up with the idea that this must have at least been charming hares with the instrument.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), Young Marsyas (Marsyas Enchanting the Hares) (1878), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

He started this painting of Young Marsyas or Marsyas Enchanting the Hares early in 1878, setting it in the New England winter. This and The Cumean Sibyl were shipped to Paris for show at the Exposition Universelle later that year, but Vedder was disappointed that they did not do well there.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Sphinx of the Seashore (1879), oil on canvas, 40.6 x 71.1 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young, San Francisco, CA. The Athenaeum.

The sphinx was a mythical creature with the head of a human, the haunches of a lion, and sometimes a bird’s wings. Two varieties are described in the classical literature: the Greek sphinx, based on a woman and typically shown with human breasts, and the Egyptian, based on a man’s upper body. The only example of the Greek sphinx guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes, whose deadly riddle was solved by Oedipus.

In The Sphinx of the Seashore (1879), Vedder shows a distinctly Greek sphinx in a coastal desert which could readily be close to the city of Thebes, in the rich red light of sunset. Around the sphinx are the skulls and other remains of those who did not solve its riddle correctly, but there’s no sign of Oedipus.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), Japanese Still Life (1879), oil on canvas, 54.5 x 88.4 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Like other artists of the day, Vedder developed a fascination for objets d’art from the Far East, which he assembled in this Japanese Still Life in 1879. The painted screen and fabric are fairly conventional, but the large seashell is more unusual, and was later revisited by Odilon Redon. This may have been assisted by the fact that his brother was a US Navy doctor who was stationed in Japan as it was being re-opened to the West.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), Cypress and Poppies (c 1880-90), oil on canvas, 24.8 x 50.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Cypress and Poppies from some time in the 1880s is apparently a plein air oil sketch, probably painted when he was living in Italy.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Cup of Love (c 1884), oil on panel, 25.4 x 30.5 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1884, a deluxe edition of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was published containing fifty-five of Vedder’s illustrations. The Cup of Love from about the same year is based on one of those. The sarcophagus is here buried in the past, as a young woman brings a cup of love to the swarthy man sitting on it. At the right is Cupid, giving his blessing to the relationship. This is a very European treatment for such a Persian work of literature.

In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were originally the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. When Atlas was made to carry the heavens on his shoulders, Orion started to pursue the Pleiades, so Zeus transformed them first into doves, then into stars. Their name is given to a star cluster, which appears to be chased across the night sky by the constellation of Orion.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Pleiades (1885), oil on canvas, 61.3 × 95.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Vedder’s painting is another made in association with his illustrations for the Rubaiyat, and represents Khayyam’s horoscope. Interestingly it shows each connected with their corresponding star by a thread, here perhaps representing the process by which they were turned into stars, or catasterism.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Etruscan Sorceress (1886), oil on canvas, 34 x 17.1 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Although Vedder identified this woman as The Etruscan Sorceress (1886), from a civilisation which preceded Rome in central and northern Italy, this painting has all the symbolic associations of Medea, from the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece. She is holding a vial which Jason used to capture the fleece, and at her feet is an open fire which is associated with preparation of the potion for the vial.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Fates Gathering in the Stars (1887), oil on canvas, 113 cm x 82.6 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

The last of Vedder’s paintings for today is his only known depiction of the Fates, although in an atypical setting. Derived from another of the illustrations which he made for the Rubaiyat, it shows the three Fates bringing in the fabric of the heavens, which holds the stars. To enable them to do this work, they have placed the tools of their trade – distaff, spindle, and shears – in the fabric of the foreground. This is also one of very few paintings of the Fates in which they are not handling the thread of fate.