Paintings of 1920: Narrative and figurative

Franz von Stuck (1863–1928), Sisyphus (1920), oil, 103 × 89 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Following my survey of portraits painted in 1920, this article gathers together some of the year’s best narrative and figurative paintings.

The Great War – that war to end all wars – had only ended two years earlier, and some of its greatest paintings, such as John Singer Sargent’s Gassed (1919) had not long been revealed to the public.

Norah Neilson-Gray (1882-1931), The Scottish Women’s Hospital : In The Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont. Dr. Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient (1920), oil, 114.3 x 138.7 cm, Imperial War Museums, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Norah Neilson-Gray, one of the ‘Glasgow Girls’, had volunteered to work as a nurse in France during the war. Her Scottish Women’s Hospital : In The Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont. Dr. Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient shows a scene in an ancient abbey just outside Paris, where the artist was caring for some of the many casualties of that war.

These vaulted cloisters are ancient but the dress – that of the young woman in the centre foreground in particular – contrastingly contemporary. On the left are patients in modern hospital beds, being cared for by professional clinical staff, including nurses and doctors. At the right is a small group of military personnel, a visual link to the the cause of the patients’ injuries, which underlines this recent phenomenon in hospitals, of treating injuries inflicted by people on their fellow humans.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Forerunner (1920), oil on canvas, 59.6 × 122 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s Forerunner shows Leonardo da Vinci trying to convice the Milanese court of his idea for flying machines. The notable figures included here are (from the left) Savonarola (taken from Fra Bartolomeo’s portrait), Beatrice d’Este (Duchess of Milan), Cecilia Gallerani, Elisabetta Gonzaga, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ludovico Sforza (Duke of Milan, and Leonardo’s patron).

She sold The Forerunner to Lord Leverhulme, and it’s now on view in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. In 1922 she was commissioned to paint a companion Botticelli’s Studio for Montague Rendell, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy later that year.

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), Salammbô (1920), oil on canvas, 116 x 88.5 cm, Musée des Ursulines, Mâcon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Gaston Bussière’s second painting of the largely fictional Carthaginean seductress Salammbô took her through a Salomean conversion. Standing naked and flirtatious beside an extraordinarily erect snake, she’s a pagan goddess of seduction in a temple. This painting is now in the Musée des Ursulines in Mâcon, France, which occupies the site of a former convent.

Franz von Stuck (1863–1928), Sisyphus (1920), oil, 103 × 89 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Like many great narrative painters of the end of the nineteenth century, Franz von Stuck faced an increasingly difficult task of attracting attention to his art. His painting of Sisyphus may have been an expression of his frustration, and perhaps resulting self-criticism. A simple, bold, and powerful image, it may have been inspired by Titian’s famous painting of this ancient Greek mythical king.

Sisyphus was the founder king of Ephyra, who was greedy, cheated, and violated his moral obligations to guests and travellers by killing them. As punishment for these crimes, he was condemned to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill, as shown here. This is the basis of the English phrase a Sisyphean task, which is endless and futile.

Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874–1939), Seated Nude (1920), oil on canvas, 100.3 x 132.4 cm, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederick Carl Frieseke had made his reputation with paintings of flickering nudes in dappled light. After the war, though, his style changed, as if that summer was finally over. This coincided with his move, with his wife and their young daughter, to a rural farmstead inland of Deauville in Normandy. In his Seated Nude, the light is more suffuse, and the chroma turned down.

George Bellows (1882–1925), Nude with Fan (1920), oil on canvas, 111.8 × 86.4 cm, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC. Wikimedia Commons.

This was the period in which the American George Bellows did more figurative and portrait painting, including this Nude with Fan. This wasn’t his first nude (which he painted in 1906, and has now become the second painting by Bellows in a British collection), but is remarkable for its richly-lit landscape vignette, a tradition going right back to the northern Renaissance.

John William Godward (1861–1922), A Souvenir (1920), oil on canvas, 89 × 120 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Much better-known for his nudes is the British painter John William Godward, who had been living in Italy. A Souvenir was one of the last works he painted there. It could perhaps have been a ‘problem painting’, encouraging the viewer to speculate on its underlying narrative. But Godward keeps it purely Aesthetic, in showing us the beads, presumably the souvenir of the title, and no other clues which could be used to read in any meaning – the goal of pure Aestheticism.

The following year, Godward returned to London and became increasingly distressed about the advent of modernism, and of Picasso in particular. He died a year later, a suspected suicide. He is reported to have written a suicide note, containing the fragment “the world is not big enough for myself and a Picasso”.

Next week I move out into the country, for Naturalist paintings of countryfolk and the first of a great many landscapes.