Etretat on the Normandy coast features in my Painting of the Month for July. Monet painted this cliff eighteen times on various visits to the seaside resort. This one, the closest, was either painted in an illusionistic way or he braved a very rough sea in a dinghy to get this close.
Monet shows us his free long brushstrokes and dazzling understanding of light. You can almost feel the evening warmth in the sunlight under the arch.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is where you will need to go to view this Japanese inspired painting close up. On of the important influences on the impressionists were the arrival of Japanese woodcuts into Europe following the opening up to the west of that country. In this scene the dynamic embracing power of the waves, inspired by Japanese artists gives Monet his theme, possibly from Hiroshige’s The entrance to the cave at Enoshima Island in Sagami Province.
If you wish to see this iconic cliff arch then Etretat is worth the visit. The Parisians turned the little seaside town into a resort with the arrival of the railways in the nineteenth century. Your best route is Ferry to Dieppe and a short drive along the coast. Worth it for the views, the Normandy food and an area steeped in impressionist art.
Renoir’s Umbrellas seems wholly appropriate as My Painting of the Month for this very wet June. I have always loved this painting in the National Gallery but never quite sure why. It seems such an unusual scene. I think it is the engaging looks Renoir seems to conjure up. Is it the ‘Girl with the Basket’ who enchants us or the young girl engaging directly with the viewer? And who has the man with the hat on the left an eye for. We are left to wander.
Umbrellas is interesting in that it was painted two halves. The right hand side, painted in 1881 has that free impressionist style and the gaiety of that time. By the time Renoir returned to the painting in 1886 he had suffered a crisis in his work and had returned to studying much earlier works in the Louvre, such as prints by Ingres. The brushwork of the girl is much more deliberate and classical, but the face is typical Renoir.
The painting is also an exercise in using black in the palette. I tried copying this many years ago, and must say failed miserably. The simplicity of Renoir’s faces is also their complexity.
Do go to see this enchanting painting in the National Gallery, and consider walking around London on a wet June day with so many umbrellas around – and mobile phones. Complete chaos I would imagine.
Joan Miro is the twentieth century Spanish surrealist who features in my Painting of the Month.
May 1968 was an idea he painted between 1968 and 1975, late is in his life. It is a challenging view but is there to remind us of the revolutionary fervour that overtook Europe in 1968; this month 51 years ago. The current lack of faith in the political system seems to echo the challenge to the establishment of the sixties.
The strong colours that were with Miro all his life are here, but the black he normally uses for outline has been added to. In this painting there is an overlying image, almost thrown at the canvas and allowed to run. The hand prints, I Am Here, echo the primitive cave images found throughout the world but especially in Spain and France.
If Postmodernism has its birth in the views of the French Philosophers and the Student Riots of 1968 then this painting reminds of this transition.
The Garden (1925) shows Miro earlier expressing the more upbeat optimism of surrealism.
Barbara Hepworth, as my followers will by now know, is one of my favourite modern artists. I find her sculpture full of power and emotion and I also enjoyed researching the Hepworth Wakefield, David Chipperfield’s award winning gallery. While Hepwort’s sculpture is ubiquitous her paintings are much harder to find as they appear from quite short periods of her life. My painting of the Month is Trio (Surgeons and Theatre Sister) or The Conclusion which waspainted in 1948 as part of her Hospital Drawing series.
The Hospital Drawings, eighty of them, were all completed between 1947 and 1950, mainly in operating theatres in Exeter and London. The project started as her daughter, Sarah, was being treated for the bone disease, osteomyelitis, which involved being in plaster from head to foot. She befriended the surgeon, Norman Capener, an amateur painter, who gave her access to draw in the theatres.
Her method of etching lines and washing in pastel oil shades echo the starched uniforms of the surgeons and the their staff. She even used a razor blade to score lines in the boards to evoke the work of the scalpel. Many of these drawings and my choice in particular concentrate on the hands. The success of the operation lies with these hands and the tension is inescapable. Look also at the intensity of purpose in the protagonists eyes directing the action, yet at the same time there is a tenderness and delicacy in the artwork.
St Albans Art Gallery was the location where I most recently saw this painting, which will be the subject of another post, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy this delicate and unusual representation from Barbara Hepworth’s work.
Genre paintings are not normally selected as my Painting of the Month but I was reminded the other day of this glorious scene from the 1880s. Watercolour is also not to be found in my selections normally so this is a ‘double first’.
In a Cornish Fishing Village – Departure of the Fleet for the North, is quite a title for this, full of emotion, watercolour of 1886, to be found in the Penlee House Gallery in Penzance. But it is in his complex titles that Langley emphasised the hardships and poverty of the lives of the people of Newlyn. The panoramic scene shows the departing fishing fleet on the horizon as a backscene to the intricately set group on the quayside. Those left behind. Does the central figure with the glass viewing the fleet feel he is in the wrong place? The groups of women feature strongly in Langley’s works; often older sages with young fanciful girls.
The Newlyn colony of artists sprung up around the Cornish fishing village in the late nineteenth century. Most were incomers but they had studied and in many cases lived in Europe. Walter Langley from Birmingham and, the Irishman, Stanhope Forbes, were perhaps the two most accomplished Newlyners but the whole colony created a special British Art with a European flavour. Unlike the abstract emphasis of the St Ives School of the twentieth century the modernism created by the Newlyn group was of social comment through figurative and genre works.
This painting was awarded a gold medal in Chicago and saw Langley as an exponent in portraying the struggle for existence, while also seeing the social impact. Every time I see Langleys paintings I feel like a voyeur to some event I know very little about but at the same time feel drawn into the scene.
If you also sense this look out other Walter Langley works such as Breadwinners, 1896, or the tragic, Among the Missing, Scene in a Cornish Fishing Village, 1884, also to be found in the Penlee Hoùse Gallery.
Sandro Botticelli was at one stage one of the most sought after and accomplished artists of the Florentine Renaissance. Then, after centuries of almost total obscurity his stock rose again in the mid nineteenth century to reach the fame his works enjoy today. Whereas his early public works were the numerous Madonnas and Virgins his modern popularity comes from the poetic, so called mythological works of which Primavera or Allegory of Spring, hung in the Uffizi Gallery, is one of the most well known. I have chosen this as my Painting of the Month and the theme of Poetry and Art.
Primavera is a wonderfully executed painting with eight main characters in a scene containing some five hundred different plants, including almost two hundred flowers. The exact interpretation of the scene has been lost in time, if it was ever completely clear, so is now open to many interpretations. The main description has Venus, Goddess of love, centre stage in an orange grove, with her blindfolded son Amor firing his arrows. In front of Venus a story unfolds traditionally read from right to left. Zephyrus, the gentle wind, is in fact invading the garden pursuing the nymph, Chlorus, who is transforming into Flora, the Goddess of Spring. Further on we see Venus’s companions, The Three Graces, dancing for her. But look at the central one, who is the target for Amor’s arrow of love, and notice her eyes are fixed on Mercury to the left. And what is Mercury doing in the scene, looking out the picture frame completely?
According to Barbara Deimling in her 2014 work, Sandro Botticelli, we have to know more about the patronage to understand Mercury’s role. The painting was commissioned by the Medici’s for Lorenzo di Francesco and hung in his bed chamber. The answer to the Mercury question may lie in the painting that hung to the left, Pallas and the Centaur. Pallas Athene, Goddess of Wisdom, dressed in Medici adorned garments is seen in the act of arresting the centaur in an enclosed space, that he has invaded, just in the act of firing his arrow (itself an allegorical action). Mercury, The winged messenger maybe carrying a message from Venus to Athene.
Zephyrus and The centaur are both in the act of hunting innocent nymphs so reading both paintings together the viewer maybe witnessing the victory of chastity over lust, or good over evil. Indeed the victory has been orchestrated by the Medici family as signified by Athene’s dress symbols. These scenes do not appear in any single text together but it is believed that Botticelli’s ideas originate in De Reum Natura, by the Italian poet Lucretius. But wait…just when you thought you understand it Botticelli launches another surprise. Is he attributing the victory to the Medici’s or covertly to Christian belief? Look for an array of Christian symbols in the straight erect trees above the Graces, the random bending trees framing Zephyrus. Do these echo the tradional order and chaos of the last judgement. Probably the most striking symbol is the halo above the Venus – is she really the Virgin Mary. The interchangeability of The Venus and Mary was a common idea in medieval thinking.
Primavera could keep you busy for years understanding the plot, testing the theories, dismissing ideas, but really the painting can be simply enjoyed for its imagery and beauty. No wonder it is such a huge draw in The Uffizi. Enjoy.
To accompany my Painting of the Month (Turner – Rain, Steam, Speed, 1844) I have a new header series of paintings by Claude Monet from the third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. They represent views of St Lazare Railway Station in Paris and were the most talked about at the exhibition. The view on the middle right is La Gare St-Lazare, 1877, which is in the National Gallery in London.
The Great Western Railway in the 1840s must have been both exciting and a subject of huge trepidation. Steam power had been established for some years by the time Turner painted this view in 1844, which is my ‘Painting of the Month’ for January. The public railway was quite new though, especially in southern England, maybe 10-15 years at most. What people must have thought of the prospect of thundering down from London to Bath at 40 miles per hour who knows. Nearly two hundred years on the railway is so much part of our life and landscape it becomes headline news when fares go up.
Maybe the acceptance of the early railways has similarities with the internet. The technology is well established and understood but the power and consequences of the internet fill traditionalists with fear and trepidation while the forward looking acknowledge the opportunities and benefits to be realised.
What did the great English painter, Turner make of it? He certainly anticipated the Impressionists in finding comfort in painting scenes of modernity and nothing represented the modern better than the railway. Turner’s image is universally recognised as Maidenhead railway bridge with the old “Bath Road” stone bridge on the left. The view is towards Taplow and London but it is difficult to see quite where Turner’s perspective was looking down on the train.
The train will be hauled by one of the early steam engines to appear on the railways coughing out fire, steam and smoke and of course noise. The bridge, completed in 1839, is one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpieces, still the largest brick arch in the world. The centres of the arches are so wide that the brickwork is virtually horizontal making it such a fantastic feat of architecture / engineering.
Turners painting style is instantly recognisable in the painting and picking up detail is difficult but look out for the hare running alongside the train. What is the hare telling us. Is it simply running away from the noise? Is it Turner telling us how fast the train is travelling? To reach the speed of a racing hare in 1844 was indeed quite an achievement. Is it more subtle – maybe the traditionalists saying modernity is all very well but nature still produces faster transport. Maybe a short sited view, to be proved untrue only a few years later, akin to not appreciating the power of digital technology.
I never fail to be inspired by Turner’s atmospheric paintings and seeing this great representation of burgeoning modernity in the National Gallery is always a treat. Do see the original and not the numerous copies in station waiting rooms the length and breadth of the West Country.
Rain, Steam, Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, William Mallord William Turner, The National Gallery, London.