It’s almost August, time for those of us in the northern hemisphere to abandon the sweltering cities and go to indulge in a bit dolce far niente where it’s more comfortable. While we’re doing that, let’s put aside all those busy paintings of active people. Our art needs to chill out too.
The Italian phrase dolce far niente means (literally) sweet doing nothing: it’s the very enjoyment of being idle, the indulgence of relaxation, blissful laziness. If ever there was a hallmark of a painting from the Aesthetic movement, surely it’s a canvas titled dolce far niente. This weekend, I look at paintings with that title, and a small selection of others that stand out for their blissful laziness.
Prior to 1800, there don’t appear to have been any significant (surviving) paintings with the title Dolce Far Niente, and relatively few other contenders.
The earliest surviving painting of this title appears to be the most unusual: it is by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, and dates from 1836. A group of four men, four women, and four children are shown in idle repose in a garden, with Mount Vesuvius in the distance. These are presumably rich Neapolitans, although one of the women has a baby feeding from her breast. One plays a small lute-like instrument, and fruit is piled in a large tambourine.
Long preceding the Aesthetic movement, this painting appears to meet several of its principles: it serves no other purpose than art, it has no narrative and is devoid of symbols, action, or activity, and alludes to other arts (music) and senses (several).
Another early and atypical painting is that by Frank Buchser in 1857, showing two young boys smoking and idling in the shade, presumably in some idyllic fantasy version of the southern USA. This lacks the allusions to other arts or senses.
Swiss-born, Buchser visited the USA and took photographs there in 1866, after the Civil War, but I wonder if this painting was made during an earlier visit, perhaps.
Much better-known is the first of the Pre-Raphaelite versions, William Holman Hunt’s, which he worked on between 1865-75; it may have been started as early as 1859, which would coincide with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s early Aesthetic works. This is the first to follow what became an established pattern: one beautiful woman in repose, looking idly into the distance.
The clothing and furnishings are elaborate and highly detailed. The reflection in the mirror above the woman’s head shows this to be a domestic scene, with another figure leaning over a large wooden bureau or a dressing-table, perhaps. The visibly affluent woman wears a wedding ring, and her fingers are interlocked, suggesting slight tension, as she leans her head to her left and looks beyond the picture-plane, her face emotionless.
In 1867, Puvis de Chavannes painted a pair of allegories, Peace (above), and War. Both are set in classical times in an idyllic landscape. Peace is a group dolce far niente which would later have passed for Aestheticism: men, women and children engaged in nothing more strenuous than milking a goat.
In 1872, three years before Holman Hunt finished retouching his painting, William Quiller-Orchardson completed his, incorporating in its printed screen a ‘modern’ flavour of Japonisme. His woman, dressed in sober black, reclines on a chaise longue, her open book and fan beside her as she stares idly out of an unseen window.
Shortly after, in 1877, Auguste Toulmouche painted his version, again one beautiful woman lost in languid thought. A book is open on her lap, but her attention has wondered, and she stares blankly towards the viewer.
John William Waterhouse painted two quite different works to which the title Dolce Far Niente is attached. This, also known as The White Feather Fan, painted in 1879, and sometimes erroneously attributed to Frederic, Lord Leighton (despite its obvious signature), is more classical in its setting, with an oil lamp hanging high on the right, the feather fan, and carpets rather than a couch.
The lone woman is plucking feathers from the fan and watching them rise through the air, as shown by the slightly ambiguous white patches. Her facial expression is not visible, making it impossible to read her emotion.
Waterhouse’s second painting from the following year (1880) is formally classical Roman, the fan now made from peacock feathers. Its lone woman reclines amid pigeons and picked flowers, on a crumpled sheet and a leopard skin.
Just a couple of years later (1882), Charles Edward Perugini was the first to pose two beautiful women in his depiction of the theme. Although they’re interacting little, in their idleness they are enticing a snail with a fragment of leaf. A trivial act, it starts raising questions of narrative or symbolism that steer its Aesthetic ideals into danger.
The same year, Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted his Female Figure Resting, also known as Dolce Far Niente. His lone woman looks strangely tired, and slightly more masculine that her predecessors. As ever, Alma-Tadema delivers a solid marble setting, and an interesting coastal landscape background.
In about 1885, Frederick Arthur Bridgman painted this more original interpretation, also known as Sweet Nothings. Its lone woman plays with her hair while she dozes in a hammock with her eyes half-closed, surrounded by flowers and leaves lit by the sunshine.
Val Prinsep’s lone woman has gone as far as falling asleep in her hammock, but still holds a Far Eastern parasol to invoke Japonisme. Below her, with her hat, is a book, and the scene is placed in a country garden in summer. This painting was also known as Sweet Repose.