In the 1880s, the American artist Elihu Vedder (1836–1923) had concentrated largely on paintings showing unusual interpretations of classical myths.
During the late 1880s, he returned to a setting more reminiscent of his earlier landmark Symbolist painting of Memory from 1870, with this study for Soul in Bondage (1886/1896). Its waves are more regimented, and its night sky lighted by an unseen moon. Its winged woman sits with her eyes closed, at the edge of the waves, tied up with strips of cloth to a globe. To the left a dark sea turtle makes its way over one of the small waves.
Vedder painted a revised and finished version of Soul in Bondage in 1891-92, in which his original motif has been transformed into a startling scene dominated by swirling curves of fabric and cloud. The globe has gone, and the figure holds a small snake, a reference to Original Sin and the Fall of Man, and a white butterfly, a symbol of fortune. Gone are the waves too, replaced by a rocky equivalent.
In the Roman religion, Fortuna (Greek equivalent Tyche) was the goddess of fortune and luck, both good and bad. More usually depicted as being veiled and/or blind, to indicate the chance involved, she was the embodiment of capriciousness. In this updated portrait of the goddess, Vedder shows her as a carefree, happy-go-lucky woman, with the wings of a dragonfly (or possibly mayfly), sat next to a sack of gold coins.
Vedder’s most prominent and enduring achievements, though, are the large murals and mosaics in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, which he completed in 1896-97.
In Peace and Prosperity (1896), in the Lobby to the Main Reading Room, Vedder’s symbolic figure rests her hands on laurel wreaths, indicating victory. At the left, a youth is painting decorations onto urns, and behind him is a lyre. On the right, another youth is planting a tree for the future, with a billhook and spade.
Another mural in the Lobby to the Main Reading Room, Corrupt Legislation (1896) is a more elaborate composition which looks at the consequences of poor government. The central figure is more floozy than goddess, holding a set of scales in her left hand. At the right of the painting, and on that left hand, is a lawyer, with an open book labelled The Law. At his feet, banknotes fall out of an urn, there are small sacks of grain, and a small portable ‘safe’.
At the left, pleading with the central figure, is a young girl holding an empty distaff and bobbin for spinning. Behind her are shards from a broken pot, and a broken-down wall.
Vedder also made a beautiful mosaic which is in the central arched panel leading to the Visitor’s Gallery of the Library of Congress: Minerva of Peace (1897).
Minerva, derived from an Etruscan goddess, was the Roman goddess of wisdom, the guardian of civilisation, and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. Shown here as the Minerva of peace, Vedder stressed that this was attained by warfare, and shows a miniature statue of Nike, the Greek winged goddess of victory, known to the Romans as Victoria. Nike holds the palm frond of peace, and the laurel of victory.
Minerva’s helmet and shield rest on the ground, but she remains ever-vigilant in holding a spear in her right hand. Her left hand holds a scroll, which she gazes at, listing the fields of learning, from Agriculture to Zoology and Finance. These show Minerva’s association with wisdom and knowledge. To the left of Minerva’s right knee is an owl, symbolising wisdom.
The inscription below, Nil invita Minerva, quae monumentum aere perennius exegit, means Not unwilling, Minerva raises a monument more lasting than bronze, and is quoted from Horace’s Ars Poetica.
Roman guardian deities were particularly complex, with minor household gods referred to as Lares, often associated with the Penates, and the more substantive two-faced god Janus. Vedder’s painting of The Keeper of the Threshold from 1897-98 seems to refer most to the Lares, with its references to the threshold of a building and sacred flames. This is set in a design resembling a mandala, itself in a decorated tondo.
Vedder first painted this companion to his Cup of Love (c 1884) in 1885, but reworked it extensively in 1911. It shows an angel holding a cup to the face of a young woman who is swooning, and being supported by the angel. The light is eerie, with half the moon visible through a break in the cloud. It might possibly be a representation of the common subject of early death, using a more subtle approach than the usual Angel of Death or Grim Reaper.
This delightfully loose and painterly oil sketch was probably associated with a poem which he quoted in his autobiography, titled The Advent of Man. That described how the elements delighted in man until his destructive nature was manifest. Here man is shown in almost embryonic form, cradled in the arms of the figure on the right. He doesn’t appear to have worked this up into a more finished painting, but it’s particularly poignant given the outbreak of the First World War in the following year.
Elihu Vedder had moved to live in Italy permanently in 1906, and died in Rome in 1923, at the age of 86. I fear that by then his pioneering Symbolist paintings had long been forgotten.