Category

19th century

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!

— 0 Comments

Queen Victoria’s Taste in Art

Frans Xaver Winterhalter, "Queen Victoria and Her Cousin, the Duchess of Nemours" (1852). Oil on canvas, 26.2" x 20", Royal Collection.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, “Queen Victoria and Victoire, the Duchess of Nemours” (1852). Oil on canvas, 26.2″ x 20″, Royal Collection.

These past few months I have been delving into the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris, largely due to the Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement  traveling exhibition that is in Seattle. I recently was asked what Queen Victoria, a supporter of the arts and an artist herself, would have thought of the Pre-Raphaelites. She definitely had an awareness of the movement (which I will discuss later), but her aesthetic preference seemed to veer more toward a more academic style, not only for public commissions but even private ones. Here are some of the contemporary painters whom she commissioned for portraits or purchased art from:

  • Sir George Hayter was appointed principal painter to Queen Victoria and also drawing teacher for the princesses. Hayter painted Victoria in a portrait that was made between c. 1838-1840. He was knighted in 1842, and he also didn’t receive any royal commissions after this year as Victoria turned her interest to Winterhalter and Landseer’s paintings.
  • Franz Xaver Winterhalter was one of Queen Victoria’s favorite painters. He made several official portraits for Queen Victoria, but he also made a private portrait (described as Albert’s favorite painting of his wife), and other portraits that included family members like her cousin, such as Queen Victoria and Victoire,  the Duchess of Nemours (1852, shown above)
  • Edwin Landseer also was commissioned to paint pictures of Victoria, her family members, and also her family pets. One such painting, Queen Victoria at Osborne, was commissioned to express and display her grief after Albert’s death. Landseer was so favored by Victoria that she even gave him a knighthood in 1850.
  • Alfred Edward Chalon was commissioned to make a portrait of Queen Victoria, and she appointed him to be a watercolorist for the royal house. One of his images became used for stamps of the queen.
  • Charles Robert Leslie painted an image of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes, and the queen said that she “like[d] the painting so much” that she bought it.

If you look at these art by these painters, particularly Winterhalter and Landseer (who both painted often for Victoria), it’s clear that she favored a traditional style of painting that included smoother brushstrokes and the color palette of the Academy (often, but not always, primary colors, which appropriately also fit with the red and blue colors of the Union Jack flag) .

John Everett Millais, "Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop)," 1849-50. Oil on Canvas, approx. 2.8' x 4.5'. Tate Museum

John Everett Millais, “Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop),” 1849-50. Oil on Canvas, approx. 2.8′ x 4.5′. Tate Museum

She was aware of the artistic scene in England outside of her own royal artists, though, including news about the Pre-Raphaelites. When John Everett Millais’ painting “Christ in the House of His Parents” was exhibited in the Royal Academy show of 1850 and viciously attacked in the press, the Queen was so curious that she asked to have the painting brought from Trafalgar Square to the palace so she could see it herself.1 The news of the queen’s request was conveyed to Millais, and he in turn wrote to his friend William Holman Hunt, in perhaps a mix of both jest and sincerity, “I hope it will not have any bad effects on her mind.” I have read one account that the Queen applauded Millais for his efforts with this painting, but I haven’t found it substantiated by a primary source (does anyone know of one?).

William Morris, VRI Wallpaper, 1887. Balmoral Castle

William Morris, VRI Wallpaper, 1887. Balmoral Castle

It is certain, however, that Queen Victoria did like the work of William Morris. In 1880, Morris created lavishly complex wallpaper for the Grand Staircase at Saint James’ Palace. Then in 1887, he was commissioned to create a unique wallpaper for Balmoral Castle which contained the cipher “VRI” (see example above). These projects helped to secure William Morris’ reputation and career.

Does anyone know of other instances in which Queen Victoria saw or commented on works of art by the Pre-Raphaelites (or William Morris, for that matter)? I know that the Queen prohibited Millais’ wife Effie from coming to court, due to her previous divorce from John Ruskin. Even when Millais received a baronetcy, Effie was banned from court. She was only received at an official function when Millais requested as much from the queen while on his deathbed.2 Interestingly, at some point her photograph also entered the Royal Collection, so now she keeps a continual presence with the royal family.

1 Charles Dickens was one of the critics who was appalled by this painting and its “loathsome minuteness” of style. He described the Christ child as ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown’ and said that his mother Mary looked “so hideous in her ugliness that … she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England” (Household Words, 15 June 1850).

2 The anecdote of Millais deathbed request (“Yes, let her receive my wife”) is recorded by Suzanne Fagence Cooper in “Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin, and John Everett Millais,” p. 235-236. Found online here: https://books.google.com/books?id=vhlkCf-pbREC&lpg=PA236&ots=9deNRxw92x&dq=%22yes%20let%20her%20receive%20my%20wife%22&pg=PA235#v=onepage&q&f=false

— 2 Comments

Fragonard and Morisot?

Berthe Morisot, "Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873. Oil on fabric, 18 1/8 × 28 1/4 in. (46 × 71.8 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art

Berthe Morisot, “Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873. Oil on fabric, 18 1/8 × 28 1/4 in. (46 × 71.8 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art

The post that you are reading is a very different one than the first one that I originally wrote this evening. I recently read in The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint that Berthe Morisot was the descendant of the painter Jean-Honore Fragonard, and I hoped to write a post that explored that relationship between the two. However, as I researched, I found conflicting information about how Morisot was either the granddaughter of Fragonard, the great-niece of Fragonard, or the great-great-niece of Fragonard. So I began to comb through the genealogical timelines of the Morisot family and realized that I couldn’t find a clear ancestral connection between the artists at all. Dozens of sources claim that this connection comes through the family of Berthe’s mother, who was named Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas, although as of yet I can’t find the origin of this claim in writing. I can assert though, that Morisot is not the granddaughter of Fragonard: her paternal grandparents were Tiburce Pierre Morisot and Claude Elisabeth Morisot; her maternal grandparents were Jean Simon Joseph Thomas and Caroline Françoise Marie Mayniel.

Chronologically, it seems to be that Fragonard lived four generations before Morisot. Her only two great-grandparents that I know of (her grandmother’s parents, whose names were Jean Henri Mayniel and Josephine Anne Victoire de Ménard) were both born in 1760. That doesn’t go back far enough to meet up with Fragonard, who was born in 1732. Other branches of Berthe Morisot’s family line don’t seem to go back far enough, at least through online genealogical records. I finally found an archived excerpt of  Anne Higgonet’s 1995 book Berthe Morisot, which explains that “family tradition claims indirect descent from the painter Fragonard.” Is this actually just a “family tradition” then, but an unsubstantiated one? If that’s the case, we need to stop repeating it in scholarship or take Higgonet’s approach to explain the relationship has just been merely “claimed” or rumored through family tradition.

I can see how it is appealing to connect these two artists together. Fragonard painted many outdoor scenes that depicted aristocrats engaged in romantic or pleasurable pursuits. Likewise, Morisot painted plein air and often depicted members of the bourgeoisie. I also like thinking about how they both were drawn to the subject matter of a woman reading: Fragonard’s Woman Reading (c. 1776, shown below) was made almost exactly one hundred years before Morisot’s Reading (The Green Umbrella) from 1873 (shown above). It is also clear to see how Fragonard’s lively brushwork (especially seen in the fabric of the painting) helps to open the door for the loose, painterly strokes of the Impressionists like Morisot.

Fragonard, "A Young Girl Reading," c. 1776. Oil on canvas. National gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Fragonard, “A Young Girl Reading,” c. 1776. Oil on canvas. National gallery of Art, Washington, DC

One thing is certain: if Morisot was a descendant of Fragonard, she never met the artist. Fragonard died in 1806 and Morisot was born in 1841. The one thing that makes the ancestral connection believable in some regard is that Fragonard’s reputation and career fell into a decline during the end of his lifetime due to the upheaval of the French Revolution.1 He even remained relatively unknown for the first half of the 19th century and was even omitted from scholarship.2 So he would have seemed like an odd choice to claim kinship in the 19th century, unless the kinship either was actual or derived from family lore that began in the 18th century!

If you can fill in the genealogical record or add to the connection (or lack thereof) between Fragonard and Morisot, please share! I’m also curious to learn how this “family tradition” has been upheld in scholarship – who was the first to pen down this connection? Was it Berthe Morisot herself or it is in an Impressionist review? So far the earliest mention I have found is from 1904.

Regardless of the ancestral connection, I am particularly struck at how often this connection has been repeated in scholarship and publications. On one hand, it is a neat connection if it is true, simply to show how art was a familial pursuit. But I also wonder if this connection to Fragonard was also used to legitimize the contributions of a female artist in the male-dominated world of art.

1 Melissa Percival, Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure: Painting the Imagination  (Routledge, 2017), p. 19. Found online here: https://books.google.com/books?id=lCgxDwAAQBAJ&lpg=PP19&ots=Ao2piIFUCW&dq=fragonard%20posthumous%20reputation&pg=PP19#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Ibid.

— 2 Comments

Wiley and Morris at the St Louis Art Museum

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 11.28.59 AM

The radio silence on my blog has been deafening for me, but luckily I’ve been able to do some writing over the past few months. The William Morris Society in the United States contacted me a few months ago, after reading my 2016 post on Kehinde Wiley and William Morris. I expanded this initial post into a new one for their “News from Anywhere” webpage with updated information about a current Kehinde Wiley show at the Saint Louis Art Museum. And check out the gorgeous catalog cover for the exhibition!

— 0 Comments

Observing Flowers: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Jan Van Eyck, "Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on panel, 2′ 8″ x 2′ 0″. National Gallery of Art (London)

Jan Van Eyck, “Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on panel, 2′ 8″ x 2′ 0″. National Gallery of Art (London)

I am really sad that I am unable to see the exhibition Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites that is going on at the National Gallery in London right now (until April 2, 2018). This show has some of my favorite artists and works of art, including Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, which is one of the first works of art that I came to love as a teenage student. I also love thematic exhibitions that link works of art by their content (such as symbols and subject matter): this exhibition revolves around the inclusion of the convex mirror in both Van Eyck’s and the Pre-Raphalites’ art. What a fun and novel idea for a show! Even though I can’t travel to England for this exhibition, I look forward to reading the catalog.

The basic premise of the show explores how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was inspired by the art of Jan Van Eyck. The Arnolfini Portrait was acquired by the National Gallery in 1842. Just six years later, in 1848, the Pre-Raphalite Brotherhood formed. Despite their name and connection to an Italian artist (Raphael), this group of artists were not very familiar with Italian art. Instead, they looked to early artistic examples that were available to them, such as medieval art or the including the newly-acquired painting by Van Eyck. As an Early Northern Renaissance painter, Van Eyck embodied art that was anti-classical or un-classical, which is what the Brotherhood strove to depict in their art. Furthermore, the Pre-Raphaelites were inspired by the rich colors and extreme detail for which Van Eyck was famous, even during his own lifetime. I love this video that the National Gallery created to promote the exhibition:

I think this connection to Van Eyck is a really great way for students to understand how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood style is unique and different from the other art produced in Britain in the 19th century, not only in terms of subject matter but also style. Van Eyck’s art is highly detailed and has very bright, saturated colors; such features are also a hallmark of Pre-Raphaelite art. As a Northern artist, Van Eyck was influenced by the Aristotelian mindset that places value on finding knowledge through empirical observation. This parallels with how the Pre-Raphaelites, as influenced by the art critic John Ruskin, sought to depict truth and find a moral, virtuous foundation by studying nature. All of these artists were compelled to look closely at the world around them.

As a gardener, I especially like to think about how Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites are similar in how they studied the natural world through plants and flowers. One of my favorite Pre-Raphaelite paintings is Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52), and a Smarthistory video includes amusing anecdotes about the practical frustrations that Millais experienced by going into nature to paint this scene.

John Everett Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 76 x 112. Tate

John Everett Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 76 x 112. Tate

This painting has a lot of very specific flowers included therein, which are part of the Shakespearean story of Ophelia from the play “Hamlet.” Millais took special pains to make sure that all of the plants were identifiable, especially since they each held symbolic value. Millais even furthered the floral motif by depicting his model in an embroidered floral dress which he bought specifically for inclusion in the painting.

Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52 (details of violets, forget-me-nots, daisies, and wild roses)

Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52 (details of violets, forget-me-nots, daisies, and wild roses)

The Rag Rose blogger, a fabric florist named Ruth, has identified the different plants and flowers found in this painting. One of my favorite flowers in the painting is the poppy (a symbol of sleep and therefore death), placed in the water near Ophelia’s hand. I also like the small pansy laying on her dress, since Ophelia says in the play that pansies represent thoughts:

Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52, detail of red poppy

Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52, detail of red poppy

Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52. Detail of pansy

Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52. Detail of pansy

Like Millais, Van Eyck also paid strict attention to detail when he painted his flowers, which emphasizes that he keenly looked toward nature when painting. Although flowers aren’t depicted in the Arnolfini Portrait, there are other identifiable flowers included in another famous work of art by Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert Van Eyck: the Ghent Altarpiece. In fact, Van Eycks’ attention to botanical detail is so striking that a few years ago an exhibition was dedicated to the plants shown in the Ghent Altarpiece. Here are two details of some of my favorite flowers in this painting, including lilies, irises, roses and columbine:

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, Ghent altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), 1432. Oil on wood panels

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, Ghent altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), 1432. Oil on wood panels.

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, the Ghent altarpiece ("Adoration of the Mystic Lamb"), detail of the Virgin's crown

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, the Ghent altarpiece (“Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”), 1432. Detail of the Virgin’s crown

As with Millais, Van Eyck included flowers for symbolic purposes, and many of them relate to the Virgin. For example, white lilies are associated with the Virgin because they are a symbol of purity. Roses are associated with the Virgin: her virginity was compared to an enclosed garden and she was known as by titles such as the Mystical Rose.

Although these artists were separated by about 400 years, there are some definite similarities in their art. Millais and Van Eyck had a love for depicting fine details, a similar interest in using symbols to depict literary or biblical themes, and a devotion to accurately depicting nature. If anything, I think that Millais had an easier time depicting nature than Van Eyck, since the recent invention of oil paint in tubes enabled Millais to go outdoors to paint. As I myself sit indoors and impatiently wait for spring to begin, I especially love these vibrant, detailed paintings because they help keep flowers alive for me all year long.

— 5 Comments

Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Name
Email *

Archives

About

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.