In the first article of these two, I tried to lighten up a little with a selection of paintings made up to around 1882 which show figures laughing. This article follows through into the twentieth century, by which time mirth becomes much more common. Maybe it’s just as well, given all the suffering the peoples of the world went through in the Great War and ensuing influenza pandemic.
What surprises me most is not the quantity of fine paintings over this period depicting laughter, but the few artists who painted them. May they also dispel a common (and quite unjustified) national stereotype: most of these artists are German. While the British and French were still painting stern and severe faces, it seems the Germans were having a really good laugh on occasion. Let’s follow their lead now.
The German master Lovis Corinth was particularly fond of the work of Frans Hals, who may have inspired his early portrait of Laughing Girl (1883), a painting which follows on from Hals’ marvellous portraits of laughing boys.
Gaetano Chierici has been almost entirely forgotten, but seems to have painted several humorous scenes drawn from childhood. In his undated The Mask Prank, a young boy is still laughing as his mother scolds him for surprising and upsetting his younger sister, who is now crying at her mother’s skirts. As in Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, the young girl has dropped her spoon, and mother may have dropped and broken something too.
To return to the paintings of Lovis Corinth, his Bacchanale (1896) is the first of a series of paintings that he made of the wild and licentious antics of worshippers of Bacchus. These provided the opportunity for him to compose some of his many studies of nudes into grander paintings, although this one is non-narrative.
Another German master, and contemporary of Corinth, Franz von Stuck wasn’t afraid to put laughter on the face of his figures. Teasing (1889) is a wonderfully loose and Post-Impressionist view in the dappled light of a wood. His new twist on the lovers’ game of hide and seek around the massive trunk of an ancient tree casts at least one of them as a faun; he leaves us guessing whether the laughing face behind that trunk is that of a nymph, or a female faun, perhaps.
Lovis Corinth’s second and more finished version of Salome from 1900 uses laughter in a more subtle way, as part of an elaborate narrative.
Salome is staring intently at the lower abdomen of the executioner. Her right hand is stretching open the left eye of the severed head of John the Baptist, which appears to be staring up at her. The executioner and the young woman at the top right are laughing at one another, but a third woman beside her has a serious, almost sad expression, as she stands holding a very large peacock fan.
The chain of gaze here is central to the painting’s narrative: John’s eye stares at Salome, who stares at the executioner’s crotch, who laughs at the young woman at the top right, who laughs back at him. Watching sombre and detached from behind is the figure of death.
Laughing Child (1907) is one of several portraits which Robert Henri painted of the children he met in cities and among the poorer classes wherever he went. This was one of his paintings which were exhibited at the show 8 American Painters, organised by Henri as a response to his problems with jurors at the National Academy of Design. It was attended by over seven thousand visitors, and more than $4,000 worth of art was sold, this being bought by Mrs Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
The zenith of Lovis Corinth’s painted mirth is his Homeric Laughter from 1909, one of his most complex, even abstruse, paintings of classical myth. He offers a clue to its reading in the long inscription (originally in German translation):
unquenchable laughter arose among the blessed gods as they saw the craft of wise Hephaestus
together with the reference to Homer’s Odyssey book 8 line 326.
This refers to a section in which Odysseus is being entertained by King Alcinous, after meeting Nausicaä on the island of the Phaeacians. To cheer Odysseus up, the bard Demodocus tells a tale of the illicit love affair between Ares/Mars (god of war) and Aphrodite/Venus (goddess of love), which has featured extensively in art. One day Hephaistos/Vulcan catches the couple making love in his marriage bed, and throws a very fine but unbreakable net over them. Hephaistos summons the other gods, who come and roar with laughter at the ensnared couple.
The Laughing Boy (Jopie van Slouten) (1910) is another of Robert Henri’s works which must have been inspired by Hals.
Lovis Corinth painted this Bacchante in 1913 using tempera rather than oils, although this was only two years after his near-fatal stroke. Sadly, by the end of the Great War Corinth’s ebullient humour was crushed by the war’s horrors, and never recovered.
Franz von Stuck seems to have been less affected, and quickly returned to his favourite faun motif, in A Faun and a Mermaid. This has survived in two very similar versions, the other of which is now in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. His mermaid is a maritime equivalent of a faun, with separate scaly legs rather than the more conventional single fishtail. She grasps the faun’s horns and laughs with joy as the faun gives her a piggy-back out of the sea.