Category

19th century

Artists and Candle Hats

This school year I’ve been volunteering at my child’s elementary school, making videos for the Meet the Masters curriculum and helping out with art projects in a few classrooms. So far we have done the Van Gogh unit as a school, and I’ve also created some videos for the Hokusai project coming up in January. It’s been fun to do, although I have been finding some errors and misleading information in both the Van Gogh and Hokusai units. Someone needs to hire an art historian to fact-check the Meet the Masters curriculum!

The Van Gogh unit inaccurately states that Van Gogh wore a hat with candles, in order to paint at night. This is a myth that dates back to 1922, when it first appeared in by a book by the art critic Gustave Coquiot. In fact, Van Gogh actually explained in one letter that he completed a painting at night by using a gas lamp.

However, I know of one 19th-century artist who did paint at night with candles in a hat: Francisco Goya. The candle holders in the hat can even be seen in this image (and perhaps even better in this cleaned detail image of the painting):

Francisco Goya, "Self-Portrait in the Workshop," 1790-95. Oil on canvas, 42 x 28 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid. Image via Web Gallery of Art

Francisco Goya, “Self-Portrait in the Workshop,” 1790-95. Oil on canvas, 42 x 28 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid. Image via Web Gallery of Art

Goya’s son, as well as his biographer Laurent Matheron both explain that Goya would use this hat. Goya’s son Javier wrote, “He painted only in one session, sometimes of ten hours, but never in the late afternoon. The last touches for the better effect of a picture he gave at night, by artificial light.”Matheron also commented on this practice in 1858: ‘He was so jealous of the effect that – like our Girodet who painted at night, his head crowned with candles – he gave the last touches to his canvases by candlelight.”2

Goya’s candle hat has inspired contemporary artist Von Sumner, as well as this poem “Candle Hat” by Billy Collins, which is inspired by the self-portrait by Goya shown above:

In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrant looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
“Come in, ” he would say, “I was just painting myself,”
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

I keep thinking of this glowing hat at this time of year, due to Santa Lucia traditions that lead up to Christmastime and the long nights that we are experiencing. We all need more light right now! Do you know of any other artists who painted with anything like a candle hat?

1 Javier Goya wrote, “Los últimos toques para el mejor efecto de un cuadro los daba de noche, con luz artificial,” (see Pedro Beroqui, “Una biografia de Goya escrita por su hijo,” Achivo Español de Arte III (1927), p. 100).

2 Laurent Matheron wrote, ‘”tait tellement jaloux de l’effet, que, – semblable a’ notre Girodet, qui, la nuit, peignait la tête couronnée de chandelles, – il donnait au flambeau les dernières touches à ses toil.” Quoted by Enriqueta Harris, “Goya in Madrid” in The Burlington Magazine 125, no. 965 (August 1983): 512.

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William Morris and Children’s Classics

Yesterday I finished listening to an audiobook of The  Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I have loved that story since I was a girl and it was fun for me to revisit the book. While I was looking up some favorite quotes from the text, I came across a Puffin classic collector’s series which incorporates William Morris designs into the covers of the books. All of the covers are designed by Liz Catchpole, who collaborated with the V&A Museum in order to choose Morris designs from the museum’s collection. This is the cover for  The Secret Garden in the series:

Cover of "The Secret Garden," by Frances Hodges Burnett, illustrated by Liz Catchpole

Cover of “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illustrated by Liz Catchpole

The William Morris design chosen for this cover is “Flower Garden” from 1879, which is a very appropriate title for a book about a garden! However, it should be noted the flowers in the Morris design differ from the ones mentioned in the book. The Secret Garden book mentions lots of flowers, including snowdrops, roses, daffydowndillys (daffodills), crocuses, irises, delphiniums, primroses, poppies, and cherry blossoms. By contrast, the “Flower Garden” design includes stylized flowers that look like snakeshead (fritillary) and borage. There doesn’t appear to be any ivy, so the quote on the back of the book cover about the “swinging curtain of ivy” is less relevant to the Morrisian design.

William Morris, "Flower Garden," 1879. Furnishing fabric of Jacquard-woven silk and wool, made at Queen Square Workshop and at Merton Abbey Workshop, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Used with permission.

William Morris, “Flower Garden,” 1879. Furnishing fabric of Jacquard-woven silk and wool, made at Queen Square Workshop and at Merton Abbey Workshop, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Used with permission.

All this being said, though, I still love the use of the Morris design for this book cover. I think that having the “Flower Garden” pattern used as part of Mary’s dress is clever in two ways: 1) it complements how this design by Morris was used to make 19th-century textiles at Merton Abbey and 2) the thriving foliage foreshadows the positive growth and internal change that Mary Lennox experiences as she lives as Misselthwaite and cares for the Secret Garden.

The V&A Store explains on their website how each of the books in the collector series are held within the National Library. These are the other books in the series, along with the Morris designs chosen:

  • The Wind in the Willows  cover is Morris’s “Willow Bough” design (1887). I think this choice is so appropriate, especially because the leaves overlap and curl as if they are being moved by the wind.
  • The Anne of Green Gables cover is Morris’s “Bird” design (1878). This design reminds me a little of a quote that Anne says while she travels with Matthew to Green Gables from the train station: “If you were out in a great big woods with other trees all around you and little mosses and June bells growing over your roots and a brook not far away and birds singing in you branches, you could grow, couldn’t you?”1
  • The Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  cover is appropriately decorated with Morris’s “Brother Rabbit” design (1880-1881) to reference the White Rabbit.
  • The Little Women cover is Morris’s “Larkspur” design (1875). I don’t see a clear connection between the design and Jo on the cover. But larkspur is mentioned in the book at the beginning of Chapter 10, in a description of the different flowers that the four sisters grow in their respective quarters of the garden plot.
  • The Peter Pan cover is Morris’s “Marigold” design (1875). I don’t see a direct connection to the book, although the dense foliage could perhaps evoke the forest of Neverland.
  • The Jungle Book cover is the “Indian” design (produced 1868-70) used by Morris & Co. The V&A website explains that this design was not made by Morris, but was copied from an 18th-century wallpaper or may have been designed by architect George Gilbert Scott, whose company Watts & Co. produced some wallpapers. I can see why this cover was chosen, as the dense and spiky plants evoke a sense of a warm climate and jungle.
  • The Treasure Island cover design is “Strawberry Thief” (1883). While the birds in the design only loosely relate to the parrot on Long John’s Silver’s shoulder, I think that the theme of thievery can serve as a loosely appropriate parallel between the design and the pirate rogues in the book.

And in case you are curious, the William Morris designs are only on the covers of the books, and not part of any illustration within the texts themselves. (One reviewer has wondered if it would be possible for Liz Catchpole could illustrate the pictures within the text too.) I know Liz Catchpole has done a few other designs for books that include William Morris patterns, including The Twelve Days of Christmas, William Morris ABC and William Morris 123. If you know of other children’s books which incorporate William Morris designs, please share!

1 L. M. Montgomery, Anne  of Green Gables, first published 1908. Quote is from Chapter 2 and found online here.

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“The Arnolfini Portrait” and “La Belle Iseult”

Over the weekend, I listened to author and curator Suzanne Fagence Cooper present a Zoom lecture titled “At Home with Jane and William Morris,” drawing information from a book scheduled to come out next year. I was especially interested in the passing comment that Cooper made about William Morris’s painting La Belle Iseult (1858, shown below). This is the only completed oil painting by William Morris that exists; today his work in the arts is more closely associated with designs of tapestries and wallpaper prints. However, early in his career (when he fell under the beguiling spell of Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Morris tried his hand at painting. The model for this painting is Jane Burden, who would marry William Morris the following year in 1859.

William Morris, "La Belle Iseult," 1858.  Photo © Tate. Available through Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

William Morris, “La Belle Iseult,” 1858. Oil paint on canvas, 71.8 x 50.2 cm. Photo © Tate. Available through Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Suzanne Fagence Cooper mentioned how this painting is has some similarities with Jan Van Eyck’s painting The Arnolfini Portrait (1432), with the positioning of Iseult’s body matching the turned pose and voluminous drapery folds of the Arnolfini wife, in addition to the inclusion of oranges on the right side. In comparing the two paintings side by side, the folded up bed curtains on the right side also have similarity in composition. Both paintings also include carpets, dogs, mirrors, and slippers.

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait, 1432. Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm. Photo © Tate. Available through Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait, 1432. Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm. Photo © Tate. Available through Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

The Arnolfini Portrait was purchased by the National Gallery (London) in 1842The influence of the Arnolfini Portrait on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (and William Morris, but extension) was highlighted in a 2018 exhibition Reflections : Van Eyck & the Pre-Raphaelites.   In fact, La Belle Iseult was included as part of the show and was promoted online an attraction.

I haven’t been able to find a photograph of this painting that includes an image of the original frame by Morris, but this article mentions that the phrase “As I can” is included, as a nod to the phrase that Van Eyck would use in when signing many of his paintings. (If anyone has or knows where there is a photograph of this frame online, please share!) It seems to me that La Belle Iseult also includes a humble acknowledgement of William Morris’s shortcomings as a painter, not only in contrast to his peers Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (as others have noted), but specifically Jan Van Eyck: the back of the painting includes the inscription “I cannot paint you; but I love you.” It seems to me that this inscription also is intended to complement and echo the “as I can” sentiment on phrase on the frame.

While William Morris may have sensed his limitations as a figural painter, Suzanne Fagence Cooper pointed out how La Belle Iseult indicates Morris’s strengths in pattern design. The carpets, tapestry, drapery pattern all are meticulously painted and are the greatest strengths of this painting. In fact, I think that these patterns are part of the greatest tribute to Jan Van Eyck, since he paid attention to minute details and was very interested in reproducing the likeness of fabrics and textures.

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Guest Post: “Some Notes on Parrot Symbolism in Poetry and Religious Art”

Editor’s Note: Nicholas Bielby contacted me after coming across  my post “Parrots in Art.” Below is his essay on parrots in poetry and religious art, which adds new ideas to consider in tandem with  the things that I have written previously. Enjoy! -M

“Some Notes on Parrot Symbolism in Poetry and Religious Art”

Nicholas Bielby

Detail of some of the parrots at in the chancel at the Studley Royal chapel of St. Mary, 1871-78. Image is a detail of a Creative Commons Image via Wikipedia

Detail of some of the carved parrots, nestled in the gold foliage, from the chancel at the Studley Royal chapel of St. Mary, 1871-78. Image is a detail of a Creative Commons Image via Wikipedia

When I took a guided tour of William Burges’s gothic revival church in the grounds of Studley Royal, I was struck by the way the chancel was decorated with highly coloured relief carvings of parrots. I asked the guide, David Thornton, about their significance and he did not know. But we decided to explore the matter further and keep in touch. What follows is the result of our joint explorations.

Macrobius records that, after the battle of Actium, where Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, a parrot greeted the victor, “Ave Caesar” – “Hail, Caesar!” Ever since the first parrot was brought back from India by Alexander the Great, parrots were thought to be miraculous because they spoke with a human voice. And what they generally said was “Ave”, the Latin greeting. Because of their miraculous ability to talk, gorgeous plumage and rarity, parrots were highly valued and used as gifts between kings and emperors. The parrot’s greeting to Octavian, later Augustus Caesar, was subsequently, in the Christian era, taken to be a pre-figuring of the angelic greeting, “Ave Maria.” The parrot was thus associated with the Virgin Mary.

It is not clear whether this association is the only route by which the parrot came to symbolise the Virgin Mary. But Boehrer, in his book “Parrot Culture,” (2004), cites a Middle English Dictionary as defining “papejai” as (i) a parrot and (ii) a lady, the Virgin Mary. He suggests that the rarity, value and decorative qualities of the parrot help make it represent ladies generally: “and the Virgin, most precious and delicate lady of all, stands in for all the others.”

Perhaps the most explicit evidence comes from the poet John Lydgate (C15th) in his Balade in Commendation of Our Lady, where he hails the Virgin Mary as a “popynjay plumed in clennesse.” The term “popynjay” (popinjay) comes from the Old French “papingay” meaning parrot, which itself derives from Arabic. Of course, in English from Shakespeare’s time at least the term “popinjay” is used to describe someone foppishly over-dressed and vain. But clearly, for Lydgate, the connotations of rarity and high value are what he has in mind. The term “clennesse” refers to moral and sexual purity. And the term ‘popinjay’ is the term for parrots in traditional heraldry. They would not be used on coats of arms to denote foppish vanity! They had, partly from the Middle East, connotations of wisdom and courage, and possibly more religious connotations.

Around 1400, the term “papiayes” is used in Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight in the heraldic description of the cloak that the ladies of the court embroider for Gawain when setting out on his quest. It is significant that Gawain should be afforded the protection of the Virgin Mary, as symbolised by the parrots, since one of the major challenges for Gawain on his quest is to retain his sexual purity while still maintaining his reputation for courtesy.

It is worth noting that Boeher mentions two medieval church vestments embroidered with popinjays – we may presume with religious, Marian significance. After all, since the medieval mind found symbols and correspondences in everything, the use of parrots was certainly not merely for decorative effect but for spiritual meaning!

The parrot often appears alongside the Virgin Mary in art. Richard Verdi’s “The Parrot in Art” traces the parrot from Dürer to the modern day, but there are even earlier instances. Clearly, not all these parrots symbolise the Virgin, but Crivelli (c1481), Dürer, Baldung, Mantegna, Schongauer, Van Eyck and the Ms painting by the Egerton Master all feature a parrot with the Virgin.

Parrot from Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium” by Fransiscus de Retz

Parrot from Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium inviolatae virginatatis beatae mariae” by Franciscus de Retz (1343-1427)

In an image from the Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium” by Franciscus de Retz (1343-1427), a ferocious-looking parrot has a scroll issuing from its beak saying, “Ave.” It immediately follows an image of the Annunciation. The text beneath the parrot illustration seems to refer to a medieval folk-belief mentioned in the “Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art,” (2004), that conception takes place through the ear. And here it would seem to link with the parrot’s miraculous ability to speak. I have tried to transliterate the text correctly but the use of medieval Spanish diacritical marks and abbreviations have made this difficult. For example, I think it reasonable to expand ‘vgo pura’ to ‘virgo pura.’ I feel fairly confident about transcribing this much of the text:

“Ptisacus [presumably ‘psitacus’] a natura. si ave dicere valet. quare virgo pura. per ave non generaret…”

The apparent full stops would appear to indicate line divisions into something like goliardic rhymed verse, thus,

Psitacus a natura
Si Ave dicere valet
Quare virgo pura
Per ave generaret

This can be understood in the light of the folk-belief mentioned above that impregnation can take place through the ear – and consequently as a result of being greeted. It may mean something like, “If a parrot, by nature, has the power to speak a greeting, why should not, through a greeting, a pure virgin become pregnant?” What this demonstrates is not so much that the parrot symbolises the Virgin Mary but it does show her close association with the parrot in the medieval mind.

Later on, parrots feature in religious paintings, even if not immediately associated with the Virgin. Rubens includes a parrot in a painting of the Holy Family. Both Dürer and Rubens include a parrot in pictures of Adam and Eve at the Fall, when eating the apple. Here, I think, the symbolism is different. Skelton (early C16th) refers to the parrot, in Speke, Parrot, as “a byrde of Paradyse”. Maybe Dürer’s parrot, totally unaware of what is going on, simply signifies paradise, unaware of the danger it is in. In Rubens’ picture, the parrot is looking anxiously towards the serpent, aware of the danger. It would be far-fetched to see these parrots as long-term symbols of hope, the promise of the New Adam coming through Mary.

In general, by the time we get to the C16th and C17th, “popinjay” has come only to have its current derogatory meaning. It religious connotations seem to have been lost. For Dutch artists, parrots simply represent affluence, conspicuous consumption and trade connections with exotic places; and as time goes on, sometimes as symbols of vanity. Perhaps the Reformation, prevalent in the Low Countries, caused the Marian symbolism to be lost.

In the C19th, William Burges, follower of Pugin, was a great medievalist and collector of Dürer. Significantly, his church at Studley Royal, decorated in the chancel with a frieze of brightly coloured parrots, is dedicated to the Virgin. It is a fair guess that he had rediscovered the medieval Marian symbolism of the parrot. The same symbolic use of parrots can be found elsewhere in his work, for example in the chapel at Mount Stuart on Bute and in Cardiff Castle.

Nicholas Bielby is a retired faculty member of the School of Education at Leeds University. He is a poet and editor of  www.graftpoetry.co.uk

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Frederick Sandys’ Plants in “Medea”

These past few months I have been busy researching and writing, in order to present a paper at MLA this past January. I had many ideas that I wasn’t able to explore in my presentation due to time constraints, so I thought I’d share some some of those here.

One painting that I’ve been thinking about a lot is Frederick Sandy’s Medea ( 1868, shown below). I became very familiar with this work of art last summer, as it was one of the highlights of the Victorian Radicals exhibition that came to the Seattle Art Museum. It really is such a nice painting! There are a lot of fascinating details in this painting (including the copulating toads in the foreground – eek!), but lately I’ve been drawn to the background of the right hand side, as well as the balustrade-like railing behind Medea.

Frederick Sandys, Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, “Medea,” 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, detail of Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, detail of Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Behind Medea is a depiction of the Golden Fleece. This is the sacred fleece that inspires the Greek hero Jason to embark on a quest, since he is told that he can reclaim his right to a throne if he obtains the fleece. Medea is the daughter of King Aietes, the owner of the fleece, and she uses her magic to help Jason complete his tasks and get the fleece in his possession. Later, Jason spurns Medea for another woman named Glauce. In this painting by Frederick Sandys, Medea is depicted as a dangerous femme fatale, as she is in the process of concocting a poisonous garment that will consume her rival Glauce by fire.

As is typical in Frederick Sandys’ work, this painting includes several plants that are depicted with botanical precision. This imagery has heretofore escaped notice, but I think that that specific plants were used in order to references several literary sources. For example, Sandys clearly intended the Golden Fleece hang from an oak tree, and a few acorns are nestled among the oak leaves to emphasize this point.I think the oak tree might give evidence that Sandys was inspired by a specific version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the Orphic Argonautica from the 4th century CE. This version explains that the Golden Fleece was hung on an oak tree in the grove of Ares.

The Orphic Argonautica continues and describes many “noxious plants” that appear in the garden, surrounding the Golden Fleece. A long list of plants are named, including aconite (also known as aconitum, “wolf’s bane” or “monkshood”) and belladonna. These are two plants that Medea was said to have used to create poison, and Sandys paints them with detail so that they can be recognized. In fact, the foreground of the painting also includes belladonna leaves and berries, so there is a clear connection between this plant and the poisonous concoction Medea is creating.

Belladonna from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Belladonna from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

Monk's Hood from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Aconite (“Monk’s Hood”) from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

A British audience may have connected the inclusion of wolf’s bane (shown above) to a John Keats poem Ode on Melancholy (1819), mentions wolf’s bane as being a “poisonous wine.” This mention in the poem might be a possible reference to Medea. I’m also struck by how owls and beetles appear in Sandys’ railing and the first stanza of Keats’s poem, which may further solidify that Sandys was looking to this poem for inspiration.

I have had some difficulty identifying the plant farthest on the left (shown below), but I have two ideas. I think it looks like some kind of thistle. The Orphic Argonautica discusses how, in order to open the wall of the sacred grove, Medea helped to place magical herbs as part of a sacrifice laid on “black thorns.” Sandys might have used the thorny thistle as a way to reference these black thorns in the story.

Thistle? from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Artichoke thistle? from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

My other idea is that the plant might be a cardoon (artichoke thistle). This isn’t a common plant to associate with Medea, and it doesn’t appear in the Orphic Argonautica. However, a publication of the Horticultural Society in London in 1827 discusses how Medea must have created a concoction to restore youth and vitality with a cardoon, and I wonder if Sandys was familiar with this publication. In this mythological story, Jason is celebrating his return with the Golden Fleece, but notices that his aged father Aeson has become infirm and cannot celebrate. Medea withdrew blood from the veins of Aeson, inflused the blood with certain herbs (possibly a cardoon, according to these Victorian horiculturalists), and then returned the infused blood back into Aeson’s body, which revitalized and reinvigorated him.

Detail of plants and railing in Sandys' "Medea"

Detail of plants and railing in Sandys’ “Medea”

Each of these plants is aligned with writhing cobras that appear as a repeating decoration of the railing behind Medea. It almost is as if the cobras serve as exposed roots for the plants! In this context, the writhing cobras – depicted in the style of the Egyptian uraeus – seem to serve as symbols of exotic and mystical witchcraft. The specific alignment of the repeating cobras just underneath the stalks of the plants creates a visual effect that suggest that these mystical and powerful plants are rooted in Medea’s withcraft.

Any other ideas what this plant on the left might be, if it isn’t a thistle? I haven’t found too much discussion of this specific painting from 19th-century sources, but if anyone knows of some, please share!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.