Symbolism – Odilon Redon; Night and Day

French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916) wrote in his journal in 1903;  “I love nature in all her forms … the humble flower, tree, ground and rocks, up to the majestic peaks of mountains … I also shiver deeply at the mystery of solitude.”

A painter, lithographer, and etcher of considerable poetic sensitivity and imagination, his work developed along two divergent lines. Initially his (mostly monochrome) prints explored haunted, often macabre, themes of fantasy. However, in about 1890 he turned to painting vibrant dreamscapes in colour.

Redon’s interest was in the portrayal of imagination rather than visual perception, and like a number of Symbolists, he suffered from periodic depression. Redon’s work represented an exploration of his internal feelings and psyche. He himself wanted to “place the visible at the service of the invisible” so, although his work seems filled with strange beings and grotesque dichotomies, his aim was to pictorially represent the ghosts of his own mind.

Although a contemporary of the Impressionists, he felt that Impressionism lacked the ambiguity which he sought in his work – his artistic roots were more in Romanticism, and, like many others, he was also influenced by Puvis de Chavannes and Delacroix.

Odilon Redon spent much of his childhood at Peyrelebade (in Bordeaux) in France, which became a source of inspiration for his art. In 1863 he befriended artist Rodolphe Bresdin, who later taught him etching. Redon was so influenced by Bresdin that he didn’t use colour in his work for some time and instead worked in black and white. He stated, “black is the essential colour of all things,” and “colour is too capable of conveying emotion.”

After the 1870 Franco Prussian war, Redon settled in Paris where he learnt lithography from Henri Fantin-Latour  and discovered that the unique qualities of this technique enabled him to achieve infinite gradations of tone, fine-line drawing, and rich depictions of light and dark. He was profoundly concerned with the effects of light.

 

Redon drew on varied sources, from Francisco Goya, Edgar Allen Poe, and Shakespeare to Darwinian theory, for his mysterious, disturbing, and often melancholy Noirs lithography, etchings, and drawings. He produced nearly 200 prints, beginning in 1879 with the lithographs collectively titled The Dream. He completed another portfolio in 1882 which was  dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe. Rather than illustrating Poe, Redon’s lithographs are poems in visual terms, themselves evoking the poet’s world of private torment. There is also a link to Goya in Redon’s imagery of winged demons and menacing shapes, and one of his series was the Homage to Goya, 1885.

In 1884 Redon  took part in the Salon des Indépendants, of which he was one of the founders, and in the Salon of the XX in Brussels (in 1886, 1887 and 1890) and in the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886.

After 1890 he began working seriously in colour in both oils and pastels, demonstrating his strong sense of harmony – this changed the nature of his work from the macabre and sombre to the joyous and exquisite. He introduced sensitive floral studies, and faces that appear to be dreaming or lost in reverie, and developed a unique palette of powdery and brilliant hues.

He began to work on large surfaces in 1900-1901, completing around fifteen panels for the château of Baron Robert de Domecy. On that occasion, he wrote to his friend Albert Bonger “I am covering the walls of a dining room with flowers, flowers of dreams, fauna of the imagination; all in large panels, treated with a bit of everything, distemper, “aoline”, oil, even with pastel which is giving good results at the moment, a giant pastel.”

The library at Fontfroide would be Redon’s great decorative work, which he completed in 1911.

Odilon Redon, Night, Library of Fontfroide Abbey, 1910-12
Odilon Redon, Night, Library of Fontfroide Abbey, 1910-12
Odilon Redon, Day, Library of Fontfroide Abbey, 1910-12
Odilon Redon, Day, Library of Fontfroide Abbey, 1910-12

He also designed sets for Debussy’s Ballet, Afternoon of a Faun, which premiered in 1912.

Odilon Redon, design for Debussy's theatre set, 1912
Odilon Redon, design for Debussy’s theatre set, 1912

Redon’s evocative images attracted the praise of many Symbolist writers and admiration from painters as various as Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and Matisse. He was an important influence on a younger generation of artists such as the Nabis, a group of post-impressionist painters whose style incorporated decorative and symbolist elements.


My gallery, Kiama Art Gallery, has a selection of Heliogravures by Odilon Redon, which were produced in 1925, which you may enjoy.


This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.


If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.

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Jeanne Jacquemin – Symbolist artist and writer

jeanne-jacquemin-photoc-1893

Jeanne Jacquemin, c 1893

Jeanne Jacquemin (Marie-Jeanne Coffineau)  was born in Paris in 1863 to Marie Emélie Boyer and was adopted by Lord Juliette Boyer and Louise Coffineau in 1874. However, details of her upbringing are sketchy and conflicting, and it isn’t known what formal training she may have had in drawing, painting or print making.

In 1881 she married a naturalist illustrator (who was also an alcoholic), Edouard Jacquemin.  After they separated Jeanne lived with engraver Auguste-Marie Lauzet in Sévres on the outskirts of Paris, from about 1893. Through both Jacquemin and Lauzet she met a number of artists (including Puvis de Chavannes) and poets and developed an interest in Symbolism and the occult.

She first became known as a writer, when from June 1890 onwards she wrote commentaries on a number of writers and painters of the time for Art et Critique – she was particularly interested in Symbolist and Decadent literature. Many of the themes and images that she referenced in her writing appeared later in her own pastels.  (Approximately 40 of the works that she exhibited during her lifetime were pastels, and unfortunately few remain.)

Like many other Symbolists, Jacquemin saw a close correlation between literature, music and the visual arts. She responded to the poetic and mystic delights of the texts in her commentaries, saying that “her ear keeps the music of poems long after the reading“. She also wrote that “I see images [from the poems] mount before my eyes” and that she wanted to “try to fix some of her visions“.

From 1892,  with other Symbolists and Post Impressionists, she participated in a series of Peintres Impressionnistes et Symbolistes exhibitions, which were held between 1891 and 1897.

The catalogues of these exhibitions show that Jacquemin was both well represented and well received by some of the most significant critics of the time. Rémy de Gourmont from the Mercure de France wrote that her “overall effect produces something that is full of the new” with traces of “dreaminess” in blue-green luminosities” and impressions of “androgynous figures left to float like the unhealthy, yet adorable haze of desire around those heads so infinitely tired of living“.

Gourmet compares the dreaminess in her work to fellow Symbolists Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, and her work is similar in style to  Puvis de Chavannes. There is also an echo of Paul Gauguin in some of her works.

Most of her paintings can be easily identified by the sad figures – usually waif-like or gaunt women in anguished or dreamlike states – which appear to haunt her paintings. She mostly used subdued tones in her pastels which adds to their subtlety .

Daydream (or Reverie), above left,  appears to be typical of her work, with a solitary, somewhat melancholic or pensive, figure set in front of a landscape. Blues and purples feature in the background, as do the  strawberry blonde hair and blue-green eyes, which are thought to be similar to the artist’s own features. Does the use of the garland of flowers suggest a Christ like quality? It was not unusual for her male Symbolist counterparts to explore the theme of the self as Christ, and Jacquemin may have also chosen to do so. The second image above ( La Douloureuse et Glorieuse Couronne) is certainly suggestive of this motif, with the crown of thorns and eyes raised to the heavens.

 

One critic, writer and poet Jean Lorrain, was particularly taken by Jacquemin’s art, that he felt might be used to mirror his own interests, which also included the occult. As a result, they collaborated on a short story, Conte de Noel. Written by Lorrain and accompanied by five lithographs by Jacquemin, it was published in 1894. Lorrain’s support for her during the 1890s may assisted in her public recognition. For example, in 1893, she was invited to represent France in the tenth Les XX exhibition in Brussels, where she showed five works. Unfortunately, the close relationship between the two deteriorated and her reputation suffered as a result.

As well as her paintings, Jacquemin also produced a number of charcoal drawings and prints (lithographs) which were not as widely exhibited.

Jeanne Jacquemin, Saint Georges, 1898
Jeanne Jacquemin, Saint Georges, 1898

Perhaps the best known is a colour lithograph, Saint Georges, c 1898, which appeared in L’Estampe Modern that year. The description of print in the magazine read,

This print represents the young and valiant knight of Cappadocia, sweet as a virgin but strong as a lion, who is described in the Golden Legend as fighting and killing the dragon who was preparing to devour the daughter of the King of Libya. Thus, this heroic character inspired the traditions of many peoples, and since the time of the Crusades he has been known as the patron saint of the armies”.

 

It has been said that many of her works are self portraits, and there is certainly a similarity in the facial structure in a several of the paintings and prints shown on this page. Even the Saint Georges lithograph appears, if not female, at least androgynous.

Not a great deal is known about Jeanne Jacquemin or her work from the late 1890’s onwards. After nursing Lauzet until his death in 1898, she married Lucien Pautrier, and perhaps she chose to no longer exhibit, or it may have been the acrimony between herself and Lorrain (including a very public law suit) and the death of Lauzet which resulted in her being hospitalised for a short time that led to her being less interested in art. She divorced Pautrier in 1921, and married occultist Paul Sédir later in the same year, suggesting that she maintained her interest in the occult throughout her life time.

Jacquemin is thought to have died in 1938.

Primary Source: Jeanne Jacquemin: A French Symbolist, Leslie Stewart Curtis, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Autumn, 2000 – Winter, 2001), pp. 1+27-35

 This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.


If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.

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James Ensor – Symbolist and Expressionist

James Ensor, Shells and Shellfish, 1889
James Ensor, Shells and Shellfish, 1889

James Ensor  recalled that his childhood was spent in “… the midst of gleaming, mother of pearl coloured shells, with dancing shimmering reflections and the bizarre skeletons of sea monsters and plants. The marvellous world full of colours, this super abundance of reflections and refractions made me into a painter who is in love with colour and delighted by the blinding glow of light“.

However, his interest in light did not mirror that of his Impressionist contemporaries, and Ensor’s artistic style can’t easily be categorised, although in the 19th Century his work was seen as both Symbolist and Expressionist.

As eccentric as he was unorthodox, Ensor worked largely in isolation from the main streams of art in that period.   His pictures were largely expressive, often satirical and could be both garish and aggressive.  He is possibly best known for his bizarre masks and masqueraders, however, during his lifetime he also created approximately 900 paintings, 4,000 drawings, and 133 etchings, on a broad range of subjects including portraits and landscapes.

James Ensor was born in 1860 in Ostend, Belgium, which was not only a royal seaside resort, but also a popular carnival town. He grew up in a country whose monarchy was just thirty years old, where the church was struggling for influence and rapid industrialisation  exacerbated tensions between the two main population groups. He would again and again refer to the political, socio-economic and ethnic divisions with Belgium in his art.

Except for a short time studying in Brussels at the at the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts from 1877 to 1880, he lived his whole life in Ostend. However, his time in Brussels was important to his career. Although he complained about  the dry conventional approach  and being “forced to paint from a colourless plaster cast a bust of Octavian, the grandest of all Caesars. This plaster got my goat“, and left the academy after only two years, he met fellow artists who would have a long term influence on him.

Through them he had the opportunity to mix with the progressive minds of Brussels, discussing and debating all manner of contemporary issues. He immersed himself in romantic literature and was particularly attracted to the work of Edgar Allen Poe. He made numerous copies of works by famous masters appearing in art journals – such as Rembrandt, Durer, Goya, Daumier, Rubens and Turner.

Hi earlier works were relatively conventional, with many interior scenes including  paintings of his family, and landscapes of views from his window.  

Gradually he turned away from a realistic, objective view of the world towards a realm of the imaginary and fantastic.  

His mother ran a shop packed full of novelties, sea shells, and carnival items including masks and costumes. Ensor lived above the shop and progressively used these props, along with old clothes, and improvised models from them. With reproductions of art he admired, and a human skull perched on his easel, the sources for his fantasy work were in place. The space was cramped and encouraged up-close, detailed work and led him to develop a method for making large-scale drawings from pasted-together sheets of paper.

 

In 1883, together with these fellow students Willy Finch and Fernand Khnopff and others he  formed an avant-garde group called “Les XX” or “Les Vingt” (The Twenty),  a circle of painters whose goal was to promote new artistic developments throughout Europe. The group, which also saw itself as a revolutionary anarchist artist’s collective,  organised a salon that drew contemporary artists from across Europe, including Monet and Seurat. The group disbanded after 10 years.  

Examples of work from this period include The Scandalized Masks, 1883  and  Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise, 1887.  

In 1888 Ensor completed his grandest epic, Christ’s Entry into Brussels.  In this painting his titular, ironic subject, the haloed figure of Christ at centre, who is both alone and engulfed by a mob, is virtually hidden from view. It is considered a self-portrait, and the painting’s prospective date,  suggests Ensor’s intent to cast himself as the true prophet of the art to come.

James Ensor, Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888
James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888

However,  Les Vingt repeatedly rejected his works and Ensor was acutely sensitive to what he saw as  this wholesale critical rejection of his art. He was described by many of his contemporaries as being irascible and aggressive. Nonetheless, he was recognised for his diversity of subject matter and great originality.  

After the turn of the century, Ensor finally won acclaim and respectability. He was knighted and given the title of Baron. The 1908 publication of a book about his life and works (Verhaeren, Emile; JAMES ENSOR) confirmed his standing and reputation at this time. In later years, he wrote music and designed sets for ballets. He continued to paint until his death at eighty-nine.

The information in this blog is largely sourced from Ulrike Becks-Malorny,  Ensor, Taschen, 2016 which I would highly recommend.

You might also enjoy reading my previous blog about Ensor:

James Ensor – Ensor with Flowered Hat


This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.


 

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Symbolism – Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

Edvard Munch is the painter of The Scream, which is one of the most recognisable works in the history of art.

Both a painter and printmaker, Munch grew up in a household periodically beset by life-threatening illnesses and the premature deaths of his mother and sister.

These tragic events left a lifelong impression on the artist, and contributed to his eventual preoccupation with themes of anxiety, emotional suffering, and human vulnerability. (They were all explained by Munch’s father, a Christian fundamentalist, as acts of divine punishment.)

Much of his work depicts life and death scenes, love and terror, and the feeling of loneliness. He intended that these often open-ended themes would function as symbols of universal significance.

His painting style included the use of contrasting lines, blocks of darker intense colour, sombre tones, exaggerated form and semi-abstraction, which all contributed to create an air of mystery.

In 1879, Munch began attending a technical college to study engineering, but left only a year, and in 1881 he enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design.  Here he studied the old masters, attended courses in the painting of nudes, and was instructed for a time by Norway’s leading artist, Christian Krohg.

His early works were influenced by French inspired Realism.

 

He began a series of new paintings in the mid 1880s which departed from this earlier style. One of these was The Sick Child, which he would finish in 1886.  The Sick Child depicted his feelings about the death of his sister nearly nine years earlier. Munch revisited this subject many times until 1925. (His brother, Andreas, also died young in 1895.)

From 1889 (the year his father died) to 1892, Munch lived mainly in France, funded by State scholarships, and embarked on the most productive as well as the most troubled period of his artistic life. While studying in Paris and in Nice in the south of France, he was influenced by the Impressionists’ fascination with light and by the growing Symbolist movement which inspired his symbolic use of colour and simplification of form. He saw the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh, whose Starry Night he paid tribute to in his own painting of the same name thirty years later.

These works had a liberating effect on Munch. “The camera cannot compete with a brush and canvas,” he wrote, “as long as it can’t be used in heaven and hell“.

Munch’s experimentation with different media and techniques was driven by his expressive needs and he explored the different effects he could achieve by reinterpreting the same theme in a different medium. As a printmaker Munch made drypoints, etchings and lithographs in the traditional manner. However, he developed his own unique technique for colour woodcuts.

Despite suffering from mental illness, Munch was spectacularly prolific, creating an astonishing 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings and 15,391 prints, as well as woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, lithographic stones, woodcut blocks, copperplates and photographs. (source: http://www.finearts360.com)

 

It was during the last decade of the 19th Century that he undertook a series of paintings he called the Frieze of Life, encompassing 22 works for a 1902 Berlin exhibition. With paintings bearing such titles as Despair (1892),  Melancholy (c.1892– 93),  Anxiety  (1894),  Jealousy  (1894–95) and The Scream  (also known as The Cry)  Munch’s mental state was fully exposed. His style varied greatly in these paintings, depending on which emotion had taken hold of him at the time.

 

The exhibition was highly successful and Munch became more widely known within the art world. Subsequently, he found brief happiness in a life otherwise coloured by excessive drinking, family misfortune and mental distress. From about 1892 to 1908 Munch spent most of his time between Paris and Berlin.

During a stay in Paris he met a number of Symbolist poets,  which resulted in him designing the sets of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre  (at the same time that his Frieze of Life was being exhibited at the de l’Art Nouveau). In 1906 he designed the sets for another of Ibsen’s productions, Ghosts.

In 1903-4 he exhibited in Paris where it is likely that he saw early Fauvist painting and may have found inspiration in them. When the Fauves held their own exhibit in 1906, Munch was invited and displayed his works with theirs.

As the 1900s began, his drinking spun out of control. In 1908, hearing voices and suffering from paralysis on one side, he collapsed and finally checked himself into a private sanatorium, where he drank less and improved his mental health.

In the spring of 1909 Munch moved to a country house in Ekely (near Oslo), Norway, where he lived in isolation and began painting landscapes. Munch painted right up to his death, often depicting his deteriorating condition and various physical maladies in his work.

Munch’s work, which showed so much raw emotion, greatly influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century.


This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.


 

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Symbolism – Gustave Moreau

 

Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864
Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864

Gustave Moreau is recognised as a founder of the Symbolist movement in France, although his paintings in this style began being exhibited some 15 years before the movement is considered to have commenced. His favourite subjects were ancient civilisations and mythological themes which he portrayed in densely worked, encrusted canvasses.

He was chiefly influenced by Romantic painters Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Chasseriau and their use of exotic romanticism, dramatic lighting and bright colours. After Chasseriau’s untimely death at the age of 37, Moreau undertook a two year study trip to Italy from 1857, where he studied Renaissance masters and became convinced of the spiritual value of art. His travel through the towns and cities of Italy also exposed him to the influence of Byzantine enamels, early mosaics, and Persian and Indian miniatures, all of which played a significant role in the evolution of his individual style and in the jewel-like effect of his technique, noted Bennett Schiff in the Smithsonian in August 1999.

Like many other artists in Paris at the time, Moreau was also influenced by Asian art. In 1869, he attended the  Palais de l’Industrie which was the largest and most extensive exhibition of Asian art held in Europe. It consisted of over 1,000 objects from China, Japan, India and Persia. Moreau sketched many of the works which were exhibited and incorporated the style of drawing into many of his works.

At the Paris Salon of 1864 Moreau exhibited his first major work,  Oedipus and the Sphinx, which launched him into prominence. It established his lasting preoccupations with the opposition between good and evil, male and female and physicality and spirituality. To Moreau, the work represented humankind facing the eternal mystery of life with moral strength and self-confidence.

Schiff wrote that “Outstanding examples of psychological and physical detachment can be seen in one after another of Moreau’s paintings… In Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), for instance, the winged creature – half nude female, half lion, an incubus clawed into Oedipus’ breast – does not seem to inflict pain at all. Instead, the grotesque creature and its placid victim appear to be dreamily engrossed in each other, although Oedipus is soon to answer the Sphinx’s riddle and she, or it, is to fall dead to the ground, finally, having already shredded any number of hapless voyagers unable to answer the riddle. Their bits and pieces are, in Moreau’s superbly rendered canvas, strewn about the foreground.”

In 1876 Moreau exhibited three of his most famous paintings in the Salon: Hercules and the Lernaean  Hydra, Salome Dancing Before Herod, and The Apparition.

 

The Apparition portrays Salome who, according to the Gospels, bewitched the ruler Herod Antipas, the husband of her mother Herodiad, with her dancing. As a reward she was given the head of John the Baptist.

Several influences can be seen in this composition, including his copies of  Japanese prints from the Palais de l’Industrie.

There is also a reference to head of Medusa, brandished by Perseus, in Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze in Florence (Loggia dei Lanzi). The decoration of Herod’s palace is directly inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. Through these various elements, Moreau recreates a magnificent, idealised Orient, using complex technical means such as highlighting,  grattage* and incisions.

After the death of a close female friend in 1890 Moreau’s style altered. “His brushwork became looser and more expressive; his pigment grew thicker, more impastoed; and his forms became increasingly abstract,” Schiff wrote. “The overriding effect of these later paintings was to evoke an emotional response through the use of color, line and form. Some even view his later nonfigurative works as heralds of Abstract Expressionism. Certainly his art inspired a generation of Symbolist painters, poets and writers and had a marked impact on other artists.” 

In 1888, Moreau was elected to the Academie des Beaux-Arts and at the age 65 he became a professor. He was considered by many as the last great teacher there. His influence on younger painters such as Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet and Georges Rouault extended to many art movements (Symbolism, Abstract Expressionism and Fauvism for example).

He didn’t set his pupils on the right road,” Matisse said. “He took them off it. He made them uneasy…. He didn’t show us how to paint; he roused our imagination.” quoted Hilary Spurling in The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908.
*Grattage is a technique in which (usually wet) paint is scraped off the canvas.


This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.


 

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Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – Symbolism and Hope

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Peace, 1861
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Peace, 1861

Recognised as a leading Symbolist artist Pierre – Cécile Puvis de Chevannes’ interpretation of Classicism gave his murals and large grand paintings a modern, abstract look which not only appealed to other symbolist  artists and writers of the time, but also led to him being acknowledged as an avant-garde artist from the mid to late 1800s.

He was keenly interested in supporting a younger generation of artists, and although his work is not so well know today, Puvis de Chavannes was a key influence on many artists including Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse.

He was also a leading member and one time President of the  Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, which  aimed to create a Salon that was more selective, prestigious and noticeably more modern than  the Paris Salon.

His painting Hope, from 1872, was his response to the Franco-Prussian war – and the style and theme of this painting can be seen in the work of a number of later painters.

Purvis De Chavannes, Hope, 1872
Purvis De Chavannes, Hope, 1872

 

Pierre – Cécile Puvis (1824- 1898) was born at Lyon in France.  He later  added  ‘de Chevannes’  to his surname, which originated from his  aristocrat forebears in Burgundy. Independently wealthy, he was able to pursue art without relying on patronage^.

Whilst his contemporaries were Édouard Manet and realist Gustave Courbet, Puvis was more interested in Classicism,  in keeping with academic traditions of the Paris Salon. His subject matter was imbued with religious themes, allegories, mythologies and historical events.

Puvis’ formal training during the late 1840s was limited to study trips to Italy and shortlived work in the studios of  Henry Scheffer, Delacroix and Couture.  He also found inspiration in Romantic artist Théodore Chassériau. Preferring to work alone,  he acquired a large studio near the Gare de Lyon and attended anatomy classes at the Académie des Beaux Arts.

Initially Puvis was most interested in painting grand, public paintings which be began exhibiting at the Paris Salon from 1859 onwards. (After achieving public recognition,  he served on Salon juries.)

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Between Art and Nature, ca. 1890–95
Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Between Art and Nature, ca. 1890–95

He was particularly interested in Commissions from the French government and is now mostly remembered for the huge canvases and murals he painted for the walls of city halls and other public buildings in Paris such as the Panthéon, the Sorbonne, and the Hôtel de Ville, as well as buildings in other parts of France and in the USA.

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, murals in Boston Public Library
Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, murals in Boston Public Library

 

His style developed from painting these large works, and he is known for simplified forms, flatness of the picture surface, rhythmic line, and the use of non-naturalistic and muted colours to evoke mood.

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Death and the Maidens, 1872 (sketch)
Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Death and the Maidens, 1872 (sketch)

As a result, the figures in his paintings seem to be wrapped in an aura of  mystery, as though they belong in a private world of dreams or visions – which is why they are considered to be part of the symbolist style, although Puvis didn’t identify himself as with Symbolist painter. Noneless, he was considered by a younger generation of artists, such as Gauguin, as a leader of the Symbolist movement.

His style can be seen not only in works by Gauguin, but also in Picasso’s paintings from his Pink and Blue period, works by Matisse such as The Joy of Life, 1906, and many other artists who followed.

Hope, 1872

Puvis de Chavannes was deeply affected by the Franco-Prussian war and Paris Commune (1870-71)  and he produced several artworks related to the conflict and deprivation brought about as a result of the war.

Throughout his career, he  had frequently aimed to adapt allegory in modern society to his art, as means to express concepts and  abstract principles in a human form, particularly  in his  mural commissions, and he did this again in his paintings in response to the conflict. 

In particular, in 1872 he exhibited Hope at the Salon (now in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore). The Musée d’Orsay has a smaller version, also painted between 1871 and 1872. In the larger painting, Puvis portrays Hope as a naked girl sitting on a burial mound covered with white drapery. Behind her, a desolate landscape with the ruins of a building and the makeshift crosses of improvised cemeteries evoke the recent war. Dark clouds can be seen in the distance, but are breaking up into a softer hue. Other elements in the painting point to a new era, full of promise. The olive branch in the young woman’s hand symbolises the nation’s recovery from war as does the new growth of flowers from the rocky outcrops, while the white in the dress/drapery suggest the return of lightness.

 

However, the lack of any historical detail gives the painting a universal sense of symbolism, so that it could apply to Hope in a variety of contexts. The simplified composition of the work, the use of matte colours and the sense of rhythm are very characteristic of his style.

Paul Gauguin had a reproduction of this painting in Tahiti and it figures in his Still Life with Hope, painted in 1901. As well the subject in his painting Te Aa No Areois from 1892 is seated in a similar fashion to the model in Hope.

Puvis de Chavannes’s Hope was also the inspiration for two later works, painted after the first World War.

In 1923, Pablo Picasso painted Woman in White.  In this painting, his 20th century post-war allegory of hope is less obvious than in the painting by Puvis de Chavannes, as he omits the laurel branch and crosses, and the figure is in a more relaxed pose.

Pablo Picasso, Woman in White, 1923
Pablo Picasso, Woman in White, 1923

It’s been suggested by Kenneth Silver^^ that Picasso presents his figure of hope as a general symbol of cultural endurance and women’s fertility (with maternité  (motherhood) themes being popular with avante-garde painters at the time).

Romaine Brooks, Self Portrait, 1923
Romaine Brooks, Self Portrait, 1923

Romain Brooks’s Self Portrait, painted in the same year as Picasso’s Woman in White, also appears to be a more modern take on Hope, with the foreground placement of a silhouetted woman towering over a distant landscape, the distinctive horizontals in the painting, the general atmospheric effects and the shape and placement of the large ruined building on the right. Brooks, however, most likely had a different theme in mind than either Puvis or Picasso. It is more likely that she was representing hope a new set of post – war possibilities for women, beyond maternité.

Natalie Barney^^^ commented that that Brooks was seeking to explore a range of modern types of women, including a new post-war single woman who rejected motherhood for masculine attire and her own career – a highly controversial theme for the time.

^ Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010

^ ^Kenneth Silver, Esprit de Corps, The Art of the Parisian Avante-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1924, 1989

^^ ^Bridget Elliott, Deconsecrating Modernism: Allegories of Regeneration in Brooks and Picasso, in The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars, 2003 


This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.


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Symbolism – A short introduction

James Ensor, The Frightful Musicans, 1891
James Ensor, The Frightful Musicans, 1891

Symbolism was both an literary and artistic movement prominent in the last two decades of the 19th Century, when symbols were used to express the imagination of both poets and artists – with ‘dreaming’ being the essence of their creativity. Musicians were also experimenting with innovative forms, emphasising subtlety, mood and imagination.

Symbolist origins in art can be traced back to the paintings of Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes were producing in the 1860s and 70s. Both artists were drawn to Romantic subjects and concepts that focused on emotion and allusion, and subjectivity over objectivity.  While Moreau created theatrical compositions with richly decorative surfaces and great detail, Purvis de Chavannes produced monumental forms with muted colours in order to express abstract ideas. His style led to a preference for broad strokes of unmodulated colour and flat, often abstract forms by future Symbolist painters.

Moreau later said that he did not believe in what he could touch or in what he could see; the only things that he believed in were the things he could not see. *

Symbolist writers such as Gustave Kahn and Jean Moréas,  and poets Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarme, had a significant influence on the development of the art style. At the age of 22 Mallarmé spoke of a new use of language which would “paint not the thing itself but the effect that it produces“.  He considered that straight description had no place in art and  “to name an object“, he wrote in 1891, “is to deprive the public of three quarters of its pleasure…. Guesswork should enter into it. To suggest – that should be the poet’s dream. In suggesting, he makes the best possible use of that mysterious thing, the symbol”. ** 

Paul Gauguin, Day of the Gods, 1893
Paul Gauguin, Day of the Gods, 1893

 

Paul Gauguin also played an important role in the  development of Symbolism. By 1885 both his writing and his painting were reflecting Symbolist interests. He believed that the emotional response to nature was more important than the intellectual; that lines, colours and even numbers communicated meaning; intuition was crucial to artistic creation, and that artists should communicate ideas and feelings derived from nature by means of the simplest forms, after dreaming in front of the subject.

In 1891, in an article about Gauguin, Albert Aurier described Symbolism as the subjective vision of an artist expressed through a simplified and non-naturalistic style. ***

Symbolist artists painted in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, using subtle symbols which emphasised the meaning behind the forms, lines, shapes, and colours of their subject matter.

Many symbolists believed that art should reveal absolute truths and that these truths could only be found in either a spiritual or mystical realm, or as a result of personal experience, rather than an purely objective view of the material world.  They emphasised  depicting emotions which were difficult to visualise.

Rather than sharing a single artistic style, they believed that there should be more to art than was encompassed by everyday visual experience.

In 1889 Edvard Munch defined what he saw as the limitations of Impressionism, “I’ve had enough of ‘interiors’ and ‘people reading’, and ‘women knitting’, I want to paint real live people who breathe, feel, suffer and live. People who see these pictures will understand that these are sacred matters, and they will take off their hats, as if they were in church“. ****

The key themes in Symbolist art were love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire, with women often being the main symbol for expressing these themes, typically either as the virgin or femme fatale.

Inspiration often came from folk tales, biblical stories, Greek mythology, imaginary dream worlds and hallucinatory revelations (as the result of drug use).

Odilon Redon, another early Symbolist, worked almost exclusively in black and white until in his 50s, creating numerous subjects influenced by the writer Edgar Allan Poe. Later works were beautifully coloured.

It is no co-incidence that psychiatry and psychoanalysis were developing at exactly the same time – Sigmund Fraud’s probing into the unconscious and the meaning of dreams resonated with the Symbolists. There was also a general reawakening of interest in spirituality, in both the conventional church and unconventional esoteric cults. It was also a time when interest was developing in vegetarianism, mediation and naturism. *****

Other artists associated with Symbolism are James Ensor, Henri Rousseau, Gustav Klimt and Jeanne Jacquemin.

Of all the major movements of the second half of the 19th Century, Symbolism was the most pervasively European and least focused on France – it had followers in Britain, Belgium, Austria and Scandinavia.


* ** **** John Russell, The Meanings of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, 1981, pp 72 – 74.

*** Herchel B Chip (ed), Theories of Modern Art, A Sourcebook for Artists and Critics, p89.

***** Symbolism, in The Illustrated Story of Art, Doring Kingersley, London, 2013, pp 298 – 307.

 


This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.


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Post Impressionism – Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Women on the Beach, 1891
Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Women on the Beach, 1891

Post Impressionist Paul Gauguin is highly recognised for his focus on colour, two dimensional forms, and the symbolic meaning of his art.

Primarily known for his paintings, he was also a printmaker and creator of ceramic sculptures and woodcarvings.

He was a financially successful stockbroker and self-taught amateur artist,  influenced by the avant-garde  art of the 19th Century through his legal guardian’s collection of works by Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Eugene Delacroix, Honore Daumier, Theodore Rousseau and early works by Camille Pissarro, amongst many others.

His earliest recorded major painting to survive is Working the Land, painted in 1873. The brilliant blue of its sky and the brightness and of the greens and yellows in the field were reminiscent of landscapes of the four seasons that Pissarro had recently completed.

Camille Pissarro, The Four Seasons, Spring, 1872
Camille Pissarro, The Four Seasons, Spring, 1872
Paul Gauguin, Working the Land, 1873
Paul Gauguin, Working the Land, 1873

It is probable that his intimate knowledge of Pissarro’s landscapes was a key factor in his interest in the Impressionists, and the 1870s he began collecting their artworks, and then adopting some of their techniques (under Pissarro’s tutelage). He was also influenced by Paul Cezanne’s parallel, constructive brushstrokes.

Paul Gauguin, Banks of the Oise, 1881
Paul Gauguin, Banks of the Oise, 1881

 

Paul Gaugin, Still Life with Fruit Plate, 1880
Paul Gaugin, Still Life with Fruit Plate, 1880

Encouraged by both Pissarro and Edgar Degas, Gauguin contributed to five of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1880 – 1882. He also contributed to the debates and discussions that took place between the artists gathering in Montmartre, questioning  the nature and role of art in modern society.

In 1882, after a stock market crash and recession left him unemployed and financially ruined, Gauguin abandoned the business world to pursue life as a full-time artist.

When working in Brittany and Martinique, the year after the final Impressionist exhibition,  he began the artistic transformation to Post Impressionism with which we are more familiar today, and the creator of “primitive” and exotic images overlayed with symbolic meaning.

In 1886, he  first visited  Pont-Aven in Brittany, a rugged land of fervently religious people. Gauguin had received a seminary education in his youth and his religious beliefs never deserted him  – although he increasingly questioned the strictures of the traditional Catholic church. In Pont-Aven he hoped to tap into the expressive potential he believed he would find in a more rural, even “primitive” culture.

Over the next several years he often travelled between Paris and Brittany, and also spent time in Panama and Martinique.

In 1888, he worked with Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, Paul Sérusier and others in Pont-Aven,  developing new theories of painting. They adopted a style of painting known as Synthetism.  Synthetism referred to the synthesis of simplified forms and colour schemes with the main idea or feeling of the subject, in order to produce a bolder artistic statement. Essentially the Pont-Aven artists reduced three-dimensional figures and shapes to flatter two dimensional forms with heavy dark outlines (also known as Cloisonnism).

For Gauguin, painting also had a symbolic focus, with a brighter palette designed to express human emotion. The new style was, in part, inspired by Gothic art (particularly stained-glass and enamel work) and Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints (Japonisme), which were in vogue amongst many artists of the Pont-Aven school. A key painting from this period was Vision After the Sermon which became an important Symbolist  work statement.

Gauguin  also worked  alongside Vincent van Gogh (whom he probably met in Paris during the previous year)  in Arles in the south of France in the summer of 1888, at the time that van Gogh was attempting to set up an artists’ colony.

Both artists continued to experiment with compositional techniques derived from Japanese art,  as well as the symbolic ‘language’  of colour, seeking to emphasise subjective feelings and ideas over naturalistic representation. However,  Gauguin and van Gogh argued badly (it was at this time that Van Gogh reportedly cut off part of his left ear) and Gauguin returned to Paris.

In 1891 he moved to Tahiti, where he expected to find an unspoiled culture which was exotic and sensual. Instead, he was confronted with a world already transformed by western missionaries and colonial rule.  He had to  re-imagine or ‘ invent’  the world he sought, not only in paintings but with woodcarvings, graphics, and written works which generally present an image of an intoxicating earthly paradise where the painter lived as a native among the natives.

However, he also struggled with ways to express the questions of life and death, knowledge and evil that preoccupied him, and he interwove the images and mythology of island life with those of the west and other cultures.

He painted such works as Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going To? in 1898. This work was an enormous contemplation of life and death told through a series of figures, beginning with a baby and ending with an old woman, and is surrounded by a dreamlike, poetic aura.

Paul Gaugin, Where do we come from, Who are we, Where are we going, 1897
Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from, Who are we, Where are we going, 1897

After a trip to France from 1893 to 1895, Gauguin returned to the South Seas. However, by this time he was suffering  from illness and depression. In 1901 he moved to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, still searching for a lost paradise. “I think the savage element there, together with complete solitude, will revive the fire of my enthusiasm before I die, give new life to my imagination and bring my talents to a fitting conclusion.” He died there in 1903.


In this blog I have focused on Gauguin’s artistic achievements, but commentaries on his personal life are not so complimentary. A key question you may wish to consider is whether your knowledge of an artist’s personal life influences how you feel about their art.


This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.


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