Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Tuesday 12th December: Virgin of the Angels

Well, look at us! We're halfway there already which means I should probably crack on and write my ghost story for Christmas Eve.  In the meantime, here's our next Mary...

 Virgin of the Angels (1881) William-Adolphe Bouguereau
I've gone all traditional today, with William-Adolphe Bouguereau (or 'William-Electric Boogaloo' as my brain insists on calling him) and his silky-smooth academic style.  He painted over 800 pictures you know.  Blimey. What I love about Bouguereau is that he was determined to be an artist and worked phenomenally hard to get there, which all paid off in the end.  For example, whilst studying art, he also attended human dissections, and studied archaeology and historical costume, all of which informed his art...

Equality Before Death (1848)

There's a man on a slab if ever I saw one, but look at that magnificently muscly angel.  It's incredible to think he was only 23 when he painted it, it's so accomplished and powerful.  You can see his time at the morgue paid off in every grim yet beautiful detail of the naked chap.  That angel has an impressive pair of wings...

The Virgin of the Angels (1900)
Leaving naked chaps for a moment, Bourguereau seemed to like painting the Virgin, as is right and proper for a good French Catholic.  Not only do we get a few blue-robed Marys holding her holy baby aloft while pretty primary school angels look on adoringly (no scratching, fidgeting or nose picking there), but also he branched out to other Mary scenes...

Virgin Mary of the Lilies (1899)
Here we have Mary, holding up happy little Jesus, this time with her obligatory lilies and a rather 1970s wallpaper behind.  I think that pattern was in my Grandma's back bedroom...

Madonna of the Roses (1903)
Don't fancy lilies?  We can get you a nice Madonna with roses instead.  I think I can see how he ended up producing over 800 paintings...

Song of the Angels (1881)
It's not fair of me to suggest that he just produced the same painting over and over with small changes as some of his Virgins are sublime in their beauty, such as the Song of the Angels which has the Holy Mother and Child being lulled to sleep by the soft playing of a heavenly trio.  As the mother of a child who did not sleep for the first nine months of her life, I now know where I went wrong.  I obviously needed the angels' help...

Virgin and the Child (1888)
I am always one to wonder if personal circumstances had anything to do with art, and with Bouguereau there are sad reasons to wonder if he had a special place in his heart for images of perfect babies.  He outlived four of his five children, most of whom died in childhood, along with his first wife, Nelly Monchablon, who was one of his early models.  Tuberculosis took his wife's life and possibly three of his children (if not four), and Nelly and their last child Maurice died within a couple of months of each other, the child barely a year old in 1877.  There is a peace in eternal portraits of a beautiful woman and healthy child protected by angels, forever enthroned, but even within the image above there is a hint of death in the outspread arms of the child.  Mary seems to stand for parents of lost children, the mother of a child taken too soon, which must have struck an all-too-common chord with his audience at the time.

I wish everyone a peaceful Christmas that will bring comfort to those who find themselves without a loved one this year.  The first Christmas is always the worst and my thoughts are with you.

See you tomorrow...

Monday, 11 December 2017

Monday 11th December: Virgin of the Lilies

Flipping heck it's cold here!  I know it's winter but it was about 10 degrees a day or two ago and now it's zero!  I am now constantly attached to a hot water bottle and it seems a perfect moment to bring you the following frosty painting...

Virgin of the Lilies (1899) Carlos Schwabe
The Virgin and child follow the parade of lilies in a snow-strewn landscape, their twin halos providing moonlight, further illuminating the glistening white snow.  The lilies seem to stand in for a choir of angels, singing their praises to the heavenly couple.  They also could be taken for a heavenly staircase, their stems looking like banisters.  In sharp contrast to all the white light, the sky and foreground is deep, dark blue, making the whole seem slightly sinister.

Detail of Death and the Gravedigger (1890s)
Not that Schwabe was averse to a bit of sinister-ness in the snow.  Possibly his most famous image is Death and the Gravedigger, with the angel of death (modelled for by Mrs Schwabe) striking down the elderly chap in the handily open grave.  Mrs Schwabe modelled for his angels and virgins and so was both the angel of death and probably the Virgin in the Lilies. Schwabe was a Symbolist and participated in the Salon de la Rose + Croix, six festivals of the arts, in 1890s Paris, and his works featured allegorical female figures, and visions of life and death.

The Annunciation (no date)
Schwabe's Virgin of the Lilies above is in contrast to his rather more traditional Annunciation.  Other than the weirdly purple shrubbery, the glowing angel-cloud that has appeared to a jolly looking Mary is rather sweet looking and not at all creepy.  It's another painting where Mary seems to be a flower in the garden, a lavender lily in the mauve garden.

Virgin of the Lilies (1912)
He was obviously partial to a tall lily, was Mr Schwabe, especially when it came to the Virgin Mary.  There is a sense that Mary has become a woman spontaneously from one of those tall stems, like a reverse of the myth where the gods turn a woman into a plant, a sunflower or a laurel.  Here we have a pure white lily made flesh, the only thing pure enough to give birth to the magical baby who will save us all.  Schwabe envisioned her in a landscape of night, a dense mauve garden and a sprawling landscape of fresh green fields, with the host of lily-angels flanking her.  For the Symbolist artist, Mary and Jesus exist as part of a garden, among and almost imprisoned by a forest of lilies, their purity keeping them apart from the world.  Schwabe sees his Virgin as resplendent but distant from us.  She might have our saviour in her arms but she has to get past the lilies first...

See you tomorrow...

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Sunday 10th December: Mother and Child

We have made it to double figures! It is bucketing down with rain at the moment and I'm just bracing myself to venturing out in to the post office to get rid of all cards and parcels, then me and Lily are off to an open farm because we know how to have a good time.  However before all that merriment, here is today's picture...

Mother and Child (Madonna and Child) (1860) Richard Dadd
Well, that's not creep at all.  I knew we could rely on Richard Dadd to give us an unexpected Madonna and Child and he has come through with this contemporary mother and her spin-headed baby.  Her straw bonnet enhances the halo of light around her golden curls and her dress is Virgin Mary blue.  The ribbons, roses and the baby's stockings bring in the hints of red, reference the blood and trials to come.  What really gets me is the massive white cloak she is wearing.  It's like an enormous shroud.  Is it meant to be the dress and wings of an angel?  It really is huge, making it almost look like some invisible person is hugging her from behind.  The tassels look like gold dripping from the cloak, like little golden lights hovering in front of her.

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke (1855-64)
Now, we all know Richard Dadd (1817-1886).  He's the chap who went to the Middle East and came back and killed his father who he believed was the devil.  He then spent the rest of his life in either Bedlam (St Bethlehem's Hospital) or the newly-built Broadmoor.  The majority of his art that we know is from his incarceration, and all of it is tinged with an otherness. 

Richard Dadd, painting Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854-8)
Dadd's mother died when he was just seven years old and you wonder if he had an idealized view of her.  Not only that but his father remarried quite quickly after the death of his first wife and had two more children with wife number 2, who also died a few years later, leaving Richard Dadd bereft of two mothers before he was barely a teenager.

Crazy Jane (1885)
So what to make of Dadd's Madonna and child?  The mother seems a monumental figure, literally glowing with goodness, more than capable of holding the tiny child.  For heaven sake, the sun is coming out of the top of her hat, you can't get much more holy than that.  Just one question, what on earth is that on the wall behind them?

See you tomorrow...

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Saturday 9th December: The Annunciation

Tomorrow we will have made it into double figures and so I will try and make this the last annunciation because we have rather a lot more of the Virgin Mary to get through in the next 15 days, but nevertheless we have to have this picture because it is rather gorgeous...

The Annunciation (1857-8) Arthur Hughes
Who doesn't love a bit of Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)?  Sure, he has some ropey days but when he is 'on fleek' (as I believe the young people used to say) his work is sublime and often quite purple-y.  So here we have Mary, cowering by a pillar while a golden, glowing angel bestows the ace news whilst hovering in a flowerbed.  Again, we have a bit of wardrobe synergy going on, with both figures sharing a palette of blues and purples but then this is a Hughes painting and so I begin to suspect he bought a job lot of those colours, what with the regularity they appear in his works.  In her hand the Virgin carries wool, from all that spinning and weaving we now know she does.

April Love (1855-6)
Seems in Hughes' art, you can't move for a woman in both an emotional crisis and a purple frock.  Maybe one is emblematic of the other?  Talking of emblems, Hughes included a bit of flower language into his annunciation with not only the obligatory lilies, but also a sneaky pot of irises, hinting at warning and danger.  The Victorians would have been completely au fait with reading extra layers of meaning in pictures via the foliage, for example the ivy in April Love symbolising longevity and clinging on, and the scattered petals as a broken love affair.

The Nativity (1857-8)
Hughes bookended the Virgin's story from annunciation to nativity, but although his annunciation is quite traditional, his nativity is striking, crammed into a small intimate space.  The feathers of the angels (purple, naturally) fan out in the straw and a kneeling Mary swaddles a tiny Son of God.  The paintings both have gothic-arch frames, echoing church architecture, but The Nativity makes it seem like you are looking into a cramped room rather than looking out into a garden.  The difference in Mary between the two paintings is marked - in the beginning she is hesitant, shy and unsure, but by the end she is posed and accepting, just getting on with the job.  I find it slightly odd how massive she is in comparison to Jesus, who you'd think would be the star of the show (no pun intended) but by having companion pieces, Mary is the narrative, her journey is the point and the focus.  She moves from the shadows of the first picture to the centre of the second and there is no-one else (human-wise) in either, just Mary and the heavenly creatures, one of whom she entrusts to hold the baby while she swaddles.  It makes a change to see Mary as the focus but after all she did do all the work.  

See you tomorrow.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Friday 8th December: The Annunciation (I know, again)

We're not through being annunciated it seems, so here we are again, but this one is a bit different...

The Annunciation (1877) Simeon Solomon
This time it's a close up view of Gabriel and Mary, with an obligatory lily.  It's a rather traditional piece from an artist of the Jewish faith, better known for his gender-fluid images of love  but there is something interestingly interchangeable in the figures of the girl and the angel.  Both glow, Mary's hair scarf matches the angel's robe and their background is featureless and dark.  The day seems to be dawning in the distance, much like the beginning of the Christian faith, the New Testament for a new day.

The Moon and Sleep (1897)
I found it interesting that both of these pictures (and more) were from Solomon's later phase, after his arrests and alcoholism.  Although their treatment is heavier, his style is unmistakable.  The close focus shows the interplay between people in intimacy, the relationship between human and divine, of influencer and influenced.

Night Looking Upon Sleep, Her Beloved Child (1895)
I wonder if there is more to Solomon's images of couples, one holding power over the other.  It would be tempting to read personal detail into the images - Solomon could be seen as being helpless to resist his destiny, a man (like Mary) who had no choice about what life he led.  Maybe he even though God had something to do with it (which would be okay in his sexuality but less so with the alcoholism).  Also, when Solomon was arrested for homosexual acts he was with another person, and the transaction between them changed the course of his life.  In the paintings, the couples are close and one of them looks upon the other with care.  The other blindly accepts. What will happen will happen.
Simeon Solomon, young

Simeon Solomon, old

It's an interesting choice for an artist who painted scenes of Jewish life and scripture, but his annunciation fits in with his paintings in such a natural way.  It's hard to see who he identifies with the most, the bestower or the bestowed, but there is a wonderful synergy between the figures. It's hard to feel sorry for Solomon, although what happened to him (and so many others) was disgustingly unjust, he took it on his own terms and even as an old wreck he has dignity.  Sometimes you just have to go with what you are given.

See you tomorrow.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Thursday 7th December: Ecce Ancilla Domini!

Blimey, I am exhausted but then I have just a mammoth food and present shop and walked the dog and so I am having a well-earned sit down with a Tunnocks teacake and today's image...

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849-50) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I do love a title with an exclamation mark in it - makes the whole business so much more dramatic.  I should have gone with that for my books.  Actually, from now on I shall be Kirsty Stonell Walker!  I like to sound like I startle people.  Anyway, cracking on with today's annunciation, we have Rossetti's classic, one I've featured here many a time and I'm sure is well known to you.  Mary (in the shape of a ginger Christina Rossetti) is cowering on her little bed while a fiery-footed angel does some of that womb-pointing which is wholly unnecessary and a tad personal.  Behind her is a drape of blue, referencing how Mary was the only figure in religious art that was important enough to splash out on lapis for.  In the foreground are even more lilies, this time tumbling through a startlingly red background, no doubt hinting at the passion to come.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9) 
Of course, that wasn't the first time (or indeed the last) that Rossetti depicted the Virgin Mary.  It could be seen as a sequel to The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and indeed it is the same red embroidery she is working on, whilst being bothered by the angel who just won't leave the plant alone. It's enough to put you off your stitching. I can't imagine it is the same angel who turns up in her room later.  Exactly how long did it take her to stitch that?

The Annunciation (1850s)
Not content with a purely indoor annunciation, Rossetti also did an alfresco version with the angel appearing in the shrubbery when you least expect it.  Also, he popped a dove in for good measure because unlike a few other annunciation, it's not a good one without a dove.  I wonder if there is any connection to why he called Elizabeth Siddal his 'dove'? It can't be denied that even before he met her, he was changing his sister to look like her and the Mary in the later watercolour is bound to be her.  Did he see Elizabeth as a holy figure?  Was that half the problem?  It is very tempting to read into relationships what is displayed on the canvas, but then he might have called her 'dove' because it rhymes with 'love' and that makes it easier to impress her with poems...

Study for 'Ecce Ancilla Domini!' (c.1849)
I like Rossetti's annunciation because perversely it doesn't look nice.  Mary looks small and cornered and the angel (modelled for by William Michael Rossetti) looks very manly and big.  It's a small breathless little room, not the great outdoors, and she is a skinny little girl with an angel gesturing at her lady parts. It's a strikingly honest interpretation of the text, and one that bears comparison with Millais' Isabella and the brother's foot pointing violently at his sister.  The angel doesn't look violent, just matter of fact.  Oddly, that is the one thing the whole situation isn't.  It's meant to be magical, extraordinary, there are many ways the image could be dressed up to hide the bare fact of the matter.  Rossetti doesn't do that.  He just puts a little girl in a white room with nowhere to run from her destiny.  Best of luck to her.

See you lovely chaps tomorrow...

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Wednesday 6th December: The Virgin at the Loom

I thought I'd give you a bit of a break from all the annunciating (completely a word) and bring you this rather smashing lady and her frankly massive loom...

The Virgin at the Loom (1895) William Henry Margetson
It's a piece of few colours and yet the impact of the lavender and the fiery red is amazing. The image of the Virgin at the Loom is not a particularly common one, certainly not as common as the surprising angel or the donkey, but apparently from the eighth century it became part of the Virgin's story to show her weaving or spinning, using the thread of life, which is probably even nicer than alpaca.  She can be seen embroidering, spinning or weaving, practicing proper lady handicrafts but with a celestial edge.

When Adam Delved and Eve Span (1892) William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones
 The only other Biblical spinning that I could remember bothering the Victorians was the interpretation of John Ball's text by William Morris as a Garden of Eden Socialist utopia where we all do our bit and are equal and semi-dressed, or something.  I'm learning to spin next year but I intend to remain dressed while doing it.  I don't think the Weald and Downland Museum appreciate you handling their spinning wheels with your bosoms out.

The Siren (1896)
William Henry Margetson (1861-1940) specialised in beautiful women, artistically speaking.  His many paintings featured art nouveau beauties with flowing locks, draping themselves in gorgeous fabrics.  He liked the play of colours between skin, hair and background, with ivory skinned maidens and chestnut hair against blue seas and pale walls.  He also did a famous portrait of Alfred Lord Tennyson who looks slightly incongruous among the bevy of beauty, but there you go.  When you look at Margetson's images on a page they look like a classy pin-up calendar and then there is Tennyson.  You can't help but think 'Blimey, look at the beard on Miss November...'

On that note, I'll see you tomorrow...