The last year in articles about artists and paintings has brought a varied assortment of art and background stories. In this and tomorrow’s sequel I look at some of those that I have enjoyed most, before we rush on to next year.
Although I had been aware of the importance of the cliffs at Étretat to Impressionism, it was only when I pieced together the work of several artists who had painted them well before Monet that I saw how they had been one of the cradles of Impressionism in France. Prior to 1850, only the occasional topographic illustrator had disturbed the peace in the tiny fishing village there.
Although fairly close to Le Havre, the first pre-Impressionist artist who appears to have painted Étretat wasn’t Eugène Boudin, but Johan Jongkind, who visited it in 1852. If I had to pick one of his paintings which most heralded Impressionism, it would be this marvellous view of Étretat Harbour, painted in the rich colours of sunset.
By a strange coincidence, the previous year Eugène Lepoittevin, who had fallen in love with the Normandy coast, had a chalet built for him in the village. The successful author Guy de Maupassant, then a young man, lived only a hundred meters away, and the two became friends. Lepoittevin also had a studio built by the sea, and started to paint the village, beaches, and the spectacular cliffs.
In commemorating the centenary of the death of another Eugène, this time Eugène Burnand (1850–1921), I came across an intriguing work of his.
Burnand’s magnificent painting of Bull in the Alps from 1884 is both impressive and fascinating for his use of optical effects and extreme aerial perspective. Not only are there marked contrasts between the foreground and background in terms of chroma, hue and lightness, but Burnand has used defocussing in a photographic manner. The crisp edges of the bull stand proud of the softer edges and forms in the mountains behind. His edge hierarchy is sharpest for the bull’s head, and softest in the most distant mountain. That’s not something that he’s likely to have learned from his teacher Gérôme.
At the start of the year, I was engaged in summarising one of the great works of English epic poetry, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, first parts of which were published in 1590. Although most of the visual art to accompany that was drawn from Walter Crane’s illustrations from the 1890s, it was also a popular theme for more formal paintings, including this by Samuel Palmer.
This shows Phaedria, a servant of Acrasia, taking the hero Sir Guyon across to an island, leaving his squire the Palmer (who had undertaken a pilgrimage to Jerusalem) behind.
One weekend, in conjunction with a series looking at the Renaissance, I posted a pair of articles showing a selection of paintings of the history and landscapes of the city of Florence. Among the views was a plein air oil sketch by the young Camille Corot, and a more formal view by the American landscape painter Thomas Cole.
Cole visited Italy during his Grand Tour of Europe in 1842, so I suspect that the claimed date of 1837 for his View of Florence may not be accurate. His vantage point appears to be in the Giardino Bardini, on the south bank, looking north over the Ponte Vecchio, Duomo and other major buildings in the central city on the opposite bank.
After Spenser’s Faerie Queene came one of the first modern novels in any European language, Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
It has been widely thought that the first ideas Cervantes had for this novel came to him when he was in prison. He certainly had ample opportunity: as well as being held in grim conditions by pirates in Algiers, he spent periods in Spanish prisons. In 1592 he was jailed briefly for alleged fraud, and in 1597-98 he was back in prison again for discrepancies in his tax accounts, which followed his appointment as a tax collector in 1594. It was perhaps during that last confinement that he started to write the first book. Mariano de la Roca y Delgado’s Miguel de Cervantes imagining El Quixote from 1858 expresses that visually.
José Moreno Carbonero’s Don Quixote and the Windmills from about 1900 shows the tragi-comic outcome to one of the most famous of Don Quixote’s misadventures, which has brought us the English phrase tilting at windmills.
Another series which turned up some fascinating art was Painting Within Tent, looking at depictions of expeditions around the world. Although the work of Eugène von Guérard in Australia didn’t form part of any expedition, his paintings gave many their first view of Australia and New Zealand.
By the late 1870s, von Guérard was increasingly being criticised for retaining the same style and fine detail in his landscapes. However, this view of Lake Wakatipu with Mount Earnslaw, Middle Island, New Zealand, painted in the studio between 1877-79, is a timeless masterpiece. This mountain, also known by its original name of Pikirakatahi, is 2,819 metres (9,000 feet) high, and wasn’t climbed until 1890.
On the other hand, Sydney Parkinson did visit New Zealand as an explorer-artist with Captain Cook’s expedition, in 1769.
Māori Man (1769) is described as showing “a Māori man, his hair in a tikitiki topknot with feathers and a bone comb, full facial moko, a greenstone earring, a tiki and a flax cloak”. A magnificent portrait, it shows one of the indigenous people who is believed to have visited HMS Endeavour when she was off Whareongaonga, Gisborne, New Zealand.
In June, HMS Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. After major repairs, it set sail for Cape York and the Torres Strait. The ship then turned for home, sailing via Indonesia and the Cape of Good Hope. Unfortunately, Parkinson contracted dysentery at the western end of Java, and died at sea on 26 January 1771, before they reached Cape Town. Cook and most of the rest of his crew reached England on 12 July 1771.
William Strang was a Scottish painter who died a century ago. Although almost forgotten now, a couple of his paintings stand out.
Strang’s Bank Holiday (1912) strikes a remarkable balance between realism and the painterly, and shows a thoroughly contemporary scene and ‘problem picture’.
A young and rather gauche couple are celebrating a public holiday with a meal in a restaurant. He’s not at ease: his brown bowler hat is still on his head as he looks incomprehensibly at the wine list wondering what to order. His bow-tie is slightly skewiff against his stiff collar, and the flowers he bought his date rest on the chair beside him. She looks more enthusiastic, almost yearningly, as she leans towards him, her long white gloves ruffled up her forearms. Beside her, on its own chair, a small black dog stares at her. The couple and their attending waiter appear caught in the stark light of a photographic flash.
My final painting for today is one of the most brilliant included in my series on the history of still life painting. It was painted by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818), who succeeded Chardin as the leading exponent of this genre.
After Chardin’s death in 1779, Vallayer-Coster reached her zenith, in brilliant displays such as A Still Life of Mackerel, Glassware, a Loaf of Bread and Lemons on a Table with a White Cloth from 1787.
Tomorrow I’ll look at the highlights of the second half of the year.