In the first of these two articles looking at the reading of fountains in paintings, I showed examples from around 550 CE to the middle of the nineteenth century. This article concludes with later examples, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when fountains remained a popular component in many paintings.
Perhaps living up to his name, John William Waterhouse painted Undine in 1872, arising from a fountain, and very modestly dressed. Undines or Ondines are elemental beings associated with water, invented by the alchemist Paracelsus. He claimed that, as they aren’t human, they lack a soul, and the only way they can acquire one is to marry a human. However, the penalty to a man for being unfaithful to an Ondine bride is death, by Ondine’s curse.
In about 1873, Pierre Coomans made ingenious use of a fountain in The Farewell. This shows a wife waving to her husband as he departs by sea from her and their child, in their classical Roman setting. Floating on the water of their fountain at the bottom right is a child’s model of the ship in which father/husband has gone to sea. Behind the woman are the fibrecraft activities with which she will now occupy her time, perhaps drawing parallels with Penelope during the absence of Odysseus.
Léon Bonnat’s Roman Girl at a Fountain from 1875 adopts a much lighter theme of a girl drinking from one of the hundreds of small roadside fountains in Rome.
With their usual association of the water of life, slaking thirst, and hot conditions, fountains are seldom painted when they’re frozen in the winter.
One notable exception is Luc-Olivier Merson’s superb narrative painting of The Wolf of Agubbio from 1877. It tells one of the legends from the Fioretti or Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, in which the future saint tamed a wolf in winter. At the right the town’s fountain is frozen solid, its icicles adding to the overall impression of coldness.
At the other extreme, Martín Rico’s A Spanish Garden, completed before 1881, shows a young child playing in the pond surrounding a small fountain in the warm summer sunshine.
Although not as famous for its fountains, the gardens of Paris contain quite a few too. Gaston de La Touche’s undated painting of A Water Fountain in the Tuileries could pass for an unusual Impressionist view of a fountain in these gardens, with the Louvre Palace behind. La Touche appears to have painted many fountains, and this may have been intended as one of a series of such views.
Edward Poynter’s painting of A Visit to Aesculapius from 1880 is sadly now darkened and hard to read, but below is a lithograph version which shows its details more clearly.
A few years ago, an earlier watercolour version of this painting, signed and dated to 1875, was sold by auction at Christie’s. On its backboard was a label bearing a slightly altered quotation from the Elizabethan author Thomas Watson:
In time long past, when in Diana’s chase
A bramble bush prick’d Venus in the foot,
Old Æsculapius help’d her heavy case
Before the hurt had taken any root:
Wherehence although his beard were crisping hard
She yielded him a kiss for his reward.
(from Hekatompathia number 20, 1582.)
The watercolour also had the suggested title of Venus Aesculapius, although the oil painting has always been known as A Visit to Aesculapius.
Set in his sacred grove, Poynter shows Asclepius sitting at the left, contemplating the left foot of Aphrodite, who is supported by the three Graces, acting as her handmaidens. The rightmost Grace, who conforms to classical style by turning her back to the viewer, reaches to a young woman, who is drawing water from the fountain at the right. She is most probably Hygieia, daughter of Asclepius, although another figure stands to the left of Asclepius. This fountain may thus be read as providing healing water, an association also seen in fountains in spa towns.
With the growth of Symbolism towards the end of the nineteenth century, fountains became imbued with even deeper meaning. In Emilie Mediz-Pelikan’s undated Wisteria, Fountain and Poplar Trees a ghostly purple wisteria bush, fountain and clump of poplar trunks must have some deeper significance.
Of the many fountains in Central Park, New York, Bethesda Fountain is perhaps the best known. George Bellows painted it in 1905 when he was still a student in the city. This shows, in rather sombre earth colours, this central feature of Bethesda Terrace in the park. This bronze statue was designed by Emma Stebbins, and in those days was still relatively new, having been unveiled in 1873. Its proper name is “The Angel of the Waters Fountain”, with the reference being made not to Bethesda, Maryland, but to the biblical location.
The American artists Jane de Glehn and her husband Wilfrid were long-standing friends of John Singer Sargent. Sargent first met Wilfrid around 1895 when he was working on murals in the Boston Public Library, and Wilfrid married Jane Emmet (1873-1961, sister of Lydia Field Emmet) in 1904. The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907) shows Jane working at a lightweight wooden easel in the grounds of this villa, with its gushing fountain behind them.
Edmond Aman-Jean’s Portrait of Mademoiselle V. G. from 1907, shows a Mademoiselle wanting to become a Madame, judging by the red roses behind her. The background is a park with a statuary fountain in the middle of a lake, depicted far more sketchily than VG’s alabaster flesh.
Théo van Rysselberghe had visited Spain several times before he retired to the Côte d’Azur in 1911, but didn’t visit the Alhambra in Granada until 1913, when he painted this high-chroma view of Fountain at the Generalife in Granada.
My last painting shows another of the eternal fountains of Rome, this time painted by the Danish artist Hans Andersen Brendekilde late in his career.
A Fountain in Rome from 1922 is an accomplished plein air oil sketch of one of the many tucked away in some gardens.