The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe (2006)

‘What a fate! To be handed over to writers’ –
Edgar Degas on reading a biography of his friend Édouard Manet

Well, they’re not very private now – the ‘private lives of the Impressionists’, their friends, relatives, spouses and lovers, are nowadays the stuff of a multi-million dollar industry in books, biographies, catalogues and conferences.

Roe’s group biography of the Impressionists is an easy-going, highly enjoyable romp through the lives of the group of “artistic rebels who changed the face of western art” etc etc.

History Some of her historical background is a bit shaky (she says France beat Russia in 1854 whereas the Crimean War to which she’s presumably referring, ended only in 1856; she claims Napoleon Bonaparte ‘threw out the republicans and restored the empire’ in 1830, whereas Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821; it was his nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who restored the Empire, and not until 1852; she scoots through the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-71, strewing shaky generalisations along the way).

Gossip Disconcerting though these errors are, they needn’t worry us too much. The heart of the book is a really absorbing, gossipy account of how much in each others’ pockets Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and the rest lived and worked. The Salon system of the 1860s, the developing art market of the 1870s, the role of Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and buying up their works, the art schools they attended, the apartments they rented, their wives and children, the affairs and lovers – it’s all here in fascinating detail.

Roe gives a good account of the organisation and build-up to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. I had no idea that they set up a joint stock company, signed legally binding contracts, agreeing to share the profits and so on, naming themselves ‘the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc’. Thirty artists displayed 165 works at the photographer Nadar’s former studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines.

Roe gives an entertaining summary of the contemptuous reviews the show received, helping you to understand the objections of contemporaries who genuinely didn’t understand what these impudent daubers were trying to do. It was the scathing review by Louis Leroy in the satirical magazine Le Charivari that did the damage, and helped publicise the word and the idea that the group were ‘impressionists’ a term they themselves didn’t use in the early years.

Roe’s brisk journalistic approach to the scandal caused is, like the rest of the book, hugely enjoyable to read.

After retiring to lick their wounds, the group came back in March the next year (1875) with the idea of holding an auction at the Hôtel Drouot auction rooms, but this turned out even worse. Primed to ridicule, the crowd mostly jeered and catcalled as the paintings were displayed, some deliberately upside down. When the first of Berthe Morisot’s paintings was held up someone yelled out ‘Whore’, and Pissarro strode through the crowd and punched the man in the face. Worse was the ferocious review of the show written by the hottest art critic in town, the German Albert Wolff, an odd figure, with the habit of wearing a corset and make-up and mincing through Paris’s fashionable hotels. Roe quotes it at maginficently malicious length:

The impression the impressionists create is that of a cat walking across the keys of a piano, or a monkey with a box of paints. (Critic Albert Wolff, writing in Figaro, quoted page 141)

Artists and issues

Monet tried to kill himself by jumping in the Seine in 1868. This was a rare moment of weakness in a man who was the most successful of the Impressionists partly because he was the most determined and money-minded. That said I was genuinely shocked by the poverty Monet endured in the later 1870s, living in misery with his long-suffering wife Camille and a brood of demanding children, making repeated trips to Paris where nobody would buy his work and firing off hundreds of begging letters to friends, possible patrons or collectors. A big section late in the book is devoted to Monet’s extreme suffering which climaxed with the lingering illness and death of his poor wife, Camille (1879).

One of his most promising patrons was the millionaire department store magnate, Ernest Hoschedé, and a major strand in the book is how Hoschedé managed to fritter away the vast fortune he inherited, eventually going bankrupt and moving, along with his wife and children, into Monet’s troubled household in 1877. What a scene it must have made! And no one expected that, after Camille passed away, his wife, Alice Hoschedé, would fall in love with Monet, it taking all parties several years to realise what was happening, and causing Hoschedé much heartbreak when his wife finally chose to stay and live with Monet. Ernest died in 1891 whereupon Alice finally married Monet (in 1892).

Manet was a natural aristocrat, charming everyone who met him, happy to socialise and support the gang but reluctant to exhibit with them because he never gave up his ambition of Salon success and official recognition. Roe brings out his obsession with the tall, ravishing Berthe Morisot who he painted numerous times, despite the objections of his wife, Suzanne; and of Berthe’s willingness to be painted, sometimes in seductive poses, even after she was married to Manet’s brother, Eugène. Older than the others and although he never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, he was in an important sense, the central figure against which they all compared themselves with, who held together the complex and changing matrix of friendships, quarrels and debts. When he died after an agonising illness, in 1883, it signalled the beginning of the end of the group.

Berthe Morisot’s life is thoroughly covered, her relationships with her demanding mother and two happy sisters. In this account she is permanently depressed by her lack of success and failure to find a husband (until 1874).

Everyone suspected surly unsociable Paul Cézanne (he of the ‘blunt manner and old, blue, paint-smattered smock’, p.144) and most of the gang didn’t want to include him in the first show. He was a problematic figure (‘a thorn in their side’)- something which certainly comes over from the big exhibition of Cézanne Portraits which I’ve just visited.

Degas I was continually surprised all the way through at the energy and commitment of Degas, who made most of the exhibitions happen, even when he violently disagreed with some of his colleagues. And surprised to learn about his five-month-long trip to New Orleans in 1872, to visit wealthy members of the de Gas family who had emigrated and now ran very successful cotton and banking businesses. He was overwhelmed by the quality of the light, the brightness of all the colours, and especially the wonderful outlines and movements of the black people he saw.

Feminism In the light of reading Whitney Chadwick’s fiercely feminist book Women, Art and Society, I read Private Lives of the Impressionists alert to the exploitation of women a) in the paintings as passive subjects of the male gaze and b) as artists being repressed by men. In relation to a) it’s hard not to think that, although they were men very frequently painting women, it is not done with an exploitative eye: a lot of the women painted come over as strong and independent, and the Impressionist world, taken as a whole, is one of sensitive ‘feminine’ values, from Degas’ ballerinas to the working girls dancing in Renoir to Monet’s countless depictions of his female menageries in beautiful gardens. You only have to compare it with the sternly aristocratic or history or classical subjects of contemporary Salon art to see the huge difference.

Anyway, apart from a handful of nudes (mostly by Manet, a few by Renoir) the Impressionists aren’t really about naked people, male or female (all Degas’ women bathing and washing are really about composition, design and colour: there’s nothing remotely titillating about them). Roe spends a couple of pages detailing the series of portraits Manet did of Morisot, with whom he was obsessed, which show her as fully clothed, deploying an imperious gaze. She is nobody’s victim. (That said, these works tend to confirm my impression that Manet is quite a poor painter – of faces, anyway.)

Or:

In terms of the latter – their relationship with women artists – it’s a relief to read about Degas going out of his way to make sure Berthe Morisot, and later on Mary Cassatt, were included in the group shows, giving them the opportunity to hang their own works. Cassatt and Morisot played an important role in funding the later group exhibitions. In other words, the key Impressionists actively encouraged the women painters among them, and leaped to their defence when they were criticised in person or in print.

Bosoms In a strikingly unfeminist way, Roe shows a persistent interest in bare bosoms and uncovered female flesh. She is good at spotting the frissons of titillation in Belle Époque France, the way crowds flocked to the seaside not only to try the new-fangled idea of taking a dip in the sea, but in the hope of seeing the bare ankles and calves (!) of the brave women wearing the new-fangled bathing suits p.134). The boobs thing came to my attention on pages 142-3.

Marguerite [Charpentier] was young, accomplished and clever; wealthy and popular she was the envy of many. She was physically striking with dark, heavy looks and a buxom figure…. (p.142)

[The socialist politician] Gambetta [was] now the idol of Parisian society, for whom every lady in the place lowered her décolleté… (p.142)

[Renoir] enjoyed the Charpentiers’ fine apartments, with their lavish interiors, elaborate refreshments and luxuriously dressed women… (p.142)

The eighteen-year-old actress Jeanne Samaray… was a vivacious redhead,very actressy, with huge dark eyes, a small, retroussé nose, pale, luminous skin, a wide mouth and perfect pearly teeth. She wore tailored outfits that showed off her tiny waist and ample bust… (p.143)

This focus on boobs is pleasant enough to a heterosexual man but I’m not sure what the sisterhood would say.

Fashion and clothes But then the whole book is like this, chattily interested in clothes and hats and crinolines and bathing costumes and flashing eyes and exposed flesh, giving a good sense of the visual and social world the artists lived in, along with plenty of goss about who they fancied and why.

There’s lots of fascinating social history, the building of the new Paris designed around Baron Hausmann’s broad boulevards and imposing apartment blocks(which seemed to drag on for decades), the special atmosphere around Montmartre, still semi-rural and inhabited by poor workers whose dances and entertainments Renoir loved to paint, especially the young women workers or grisettes.

Poverty Throughout the text runs the persistent thread of the artists’ money troubles, troubles with their traditional parents, more money troubles, worries about professional success, and all the ways they tried to curry favour with the powers-that-were, repeated rejections by the Salon, ridicule from the critics. Probably the grimmest account of poverty is the long-running struggle of poor Monet (described above) although Pissarro’s woes are also chronicled, managing to father seven children on his miserably long-suffering wife, Julie Vellay, a vineyard grower’s daughter and his mother’s maid who he had married in 1871. We read her pitiful letters complaining about struggling to feed all the mouths on the next to nothing Pissarro provided with his pitifully low sales.

And Sisley (who we don’t hear so much about) was in a similar plight. (Sisley seems to be the great loser of the gang, dying in abject poverty in 1899, yet reading these last few books has made me come to appreciate his quiet persistence with the core Impressionist vision, especially his wonderful snowscapes – Snow Effect at Argenteuil, 1874.)

It really helped that they were a gang, supporting and encouraging each other when they were down. Cézanne in particular needed lots of bucking up and there’s a fascinating little section recounting the advice the older man, Pissarro, gave him about painting the forms he sees, and creating them through colour alone, rather than trying to draw a realistic document of the world (p.124).

There are quite a few places where Roe briefly but effectively details the discussions about painting technique which the gang swapped and developed, and gives quick thumbnail portraits of their differing styles and visions.

In relationship terms, Cézanne was another who bucked society’s supposedly strict bourgeois norms, when he took the artist’s model, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, as his mistress in 1869. Because Cézanne’s father was a very well-off banker, Cézanne felt obliged to conceal his relationship with Hortense from his parents, for nearly 15 years, even after she had borne his son, Paul. The book chronicles the many (often ludicrous) subterfuges Cézanne resorted to, the lies and deceptions which blighted all their lives, until he finally married her in 1886 although, by that stage, he (with characteristic blunt honesty) announced that he no longer had feelings for her, and they lived the remainder of their married lives apart.

Patrons and collectors It’s fascinating to read in detail about the lives and personalities, the backgrounds, marriages and fortunes of the earliest collectors. Some of them were very rich indeed, and ‘got’ the new vision the gang were trying to create, embody and promote. Central was the gallery owner, exhibition organiser, funder and patron Paul Durand-Ruel, important enough to have an entire National Gallery exhibition devoted to him a few years ago – Inventing Impressionism.

But there were also Georges Charpentier, whose wife Renoir painted, Victor Chocquet, who also commissioned portraits from Renoir, and the ill-fated Ernest Hoschedé, mentioned above. Cézanne’s friend, Père Tanguy, supplied paints and canvasses on credit, accepting paintings in return. It’s a surprise to learn that one of the most reliable providers of cash to the perpetually strapped Monet, Pissarro and Sisley was Gustave Caillebotte, himself a painter of admirably realistic works done with a distinctive narrow perspective, but who also had the money to make endless loans to his colleagues, and to fund and organise the exhibitions. At one stage he was paying Monet’s rent, paying for his selling trips up to Paris, subsidising Pissarro, and organising and funding the firth exhibition, alongside helping to set up the (short-lived) art magazine Le jour et la nuit.

Stories

So it’s a hugely enjoyable romp through the social history, the art history and the personal histories of these great painters, their families and patrons, studed with good anecdotes.

Renoir approved of Degas’ pastels of ballet dancers and himself loved going to the Paris Opera, but mainly to stare at the audience, drinking in all the human types and faces and clothes. He was extremely put out when the new fashion came in of dimming the houselights to force people to look at the stage (p.122).

When Wolff savaged the second Impressionist exhibition even more fiercely than the Hotel Drouot auction, he wrote some extra hard words about Morisot, with the result that her new husband, Eugène, challenged Wolff to a duel (p.155).

Or the time Manet came to visit Monet in the house he rented for several years in Argenteuil, set up his easel and painted the family at ease, Monet pottering round with a watering can while his wife, Camille, lay on the lawn.

During the afternoon Renoir turned up – having walked along the river from his family’s house at nearby Louveciennes – set up his easel, and began painting the same scene.

Manet leaned over to Monet. ‘Who’s your friend?’ he joked; ‘Tell him to give it up, he’s got no talent.’ (p.132)

Maps I particularly liked the map of the the territory just to the west of Paris where the River Seine performs some extreme loops along which lie the villages where they rented houses and painted their wives, each other, river life and boats and scenes. This book converted the names which crop up in the titles of so many paintings – Chatou, Bougival, Argenteuil, Louveciennes, Marly, Gennevilliers, Pointoise – into real locations, roads and houses and gardens and views, where Manet and Monet and Renoir and Sisley and Pissarro lived and worked. Finding them on the map whetted my appetite to go and visit them – except I imagine you wouldn’t be able to move for coachloads of tourists all having lunch at the Restaurant Renoir and staying the night at the Hotel Monet.

The same goes for addresses in Paris. Roe religiously records the addresses of all the artists’ many apartments and studios, as well as the exhibition rooms, auction houses, and grand homes of their sponsors, locating them not only geographically, but giving evocative descriptions of their layout, size and atmosphere and their relationship with the ever-changing streetmap of Hausmann’s Paris. I dug out an old map of Paris and began recording all the locations with little green decals my daughter has, but the area around Montmartre quickly became so infested it was impossible to make out individual locations. Very handy if you ever wanted to go on a really thorough voyage of discovery of ‘the Paris of the Impressionists’.

Roe rounds off her account with the 1886 exhibition of Impressionists put on in New York by the ever-enterprising Durand-Ruel and his son, at which 300 or so paintings by almost the entire group (with the notable exception of Cézanne) drew a very different response from the jeers and catcalls of the Paris crowds and critics of 12 years earlier. They were greeted with respect and even excitement. American collectors began buying them up and the show marks the start of the increasing involvement of American money in funding and buying up European art which was to dominate the 20th century (and arguably continues to this day). Durand-Ruel sold $18,000 of pictures. In 1888 he set up a permanent gallery and salesroom in New York.

It marks the commercial success of the group but also the point where, with Manet dead and the eighth and final group exhibition held, the unity of the gang dissolved and the survivors began going their very different ways, Monet continuing to become a god among painters of light and colour, Renoir never recapturing the dappled happiness of the Montmartre years, Degas perfecting his technique of pastel drawing, Cézanne and Gauguin going on to develop entirely new, post-impressionistic styles.

Roe gives a thorough description of the New York exhibition, naming half a dozen paintings by each of the main painters, and looking them up, one by one, on Google images provides a really useful overview of the diversity, range and achievement of this astonishing group of artists. And includes one of my favourite Impressionist works, Pissarro’s early Hoar frost.

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Conclusion

In many ways, books are the best kind of tourism. This book is a great piece of travel writing, taking you not only to the streets and suburbs of 19th century Paris, but back in time to a simpler, far more relaxed and easy-going age, and surely that is the key to the Impressionists’ success. They thought of themselves – and many of their critics agreed – as painting the – often pretty rough and lowlife – reality of contemporary France.

But to everyone who came afterwards, their images – contrary to the sometimes harrowing personal circumstances they were created in – amount to a glorious evocation of a bright, light age of innocence.


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Women in the art world

I’ve recently read a number of feminist critiques of the art world accusing it of being an all-male patriarchy which women can’t enter, of having a glass ceiling which prevents women from reaching the top, and of systematically underplaying or denying the achievement of women artists.

While not really qualified to tackle all these issues in their entirety, the books did make me start paying attention to the gender of the artists featured in the London art exhibitions I go to, to the gender of the curators, and to the gender of the people running the main London art galleries which I frequent.

Recent art exhibitions and their curators

  1. Soutine – Barnaby Wright, Karen Serres ♀
  2. Cézanne Portraits – John Elderfield, Mary Morton, Xavier Rey
  3. Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites – Susan Foister, Alison Smith ♀
  4. Burrell Degas – Julien Domercq
  5. Lake Keitele: Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Anne Robbins ♀
  6. Monochrome – Lelia Packer, Jennifer Sliwka ♀
  7. Rachel Whiteread – Ann Gallagher, Linsey Young, Helen Delaney & Hattie Spires ♀
  8. Dali/Duchamp – Dawn Ades, William Jeffett, with Sarah Lea and Desiree de Chair ♀
  9. Jasper Johns – Roberta Bernstein & Edith Devaney ♀
  10. Impressionists in London – Caroline Corbeau-Parsons & Elizabeth Jacklin ♀
  11. Matisse in the studio – Ann Dumas & Ellen McBreen ♀
  12. Jean Arp – Frances Guy & Eric Robertson ♀
  13. Tracey Emin / Turner – Tracey Emin ♀
  14. Tove Jansson – Sointu Fritze ♀
  15. Basquiat – Dieter Buchhart & Eleanor Nairne ♀

Artists by gender and race

15 shows
12 about specific artists (i.e. not general themes)
15 named artists
3 women artists (20 %)
Blacks or Asians 1 (7%)

Curators by gender and race

15 shows
31 curators
24 women (77%)
7 men (23%)
Blacks or Asians 0 (0%)

Gallery bosses by gender

Army Museum Director – Janice Murray ♀
Barbican Director of Arts –  Louise Jeffreys ♀
British Museum – Hartwig Fischer
Courtauld Gallery Director – Deborah Swallow ♀
Dulwich Picture Gallery Sackler Director –  Jennifer Scott ♀
Guildhall Art Gallery & London’s Roman Amphitheatre – Sonia Solicari ♀
Hayward Gallery Chief curator – Stephanie Rosenthal ♀
Heath Robinson Museum Manager – Lucy Smith ♀
Imperial War Museum – Diane Lees ♀
National Gallery – Gabriele Finaldi
National Portrait Gallery –  Nicholas Cullinan
Royal Academy of Arts President – Christopher Le Brun
Saatchi Gallery – Rebecca Wilson ♀
Serpentine Gallery Directors – Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Yana Peel ♀
Tate Britain Director –  Alex Farquharson
Tate Modern Director – Frances Morris ♀
Victoria and Albert Museum Director –  Tristram Hunt
Whitechapel Gallery – Iwona Blazwick ♀

Sub-total
18 galleries/museums
19 Directors/curators
12 women (63%)
7 men (37%)
Blacks or Asians 0 (0%)

Bristol & Margate

Recently I was in Bristol and visited the main art gallery and the Royal West of England Academy:

Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery Director – Laura Pye ♀
Royal West of England Academy Director – Alison Bevan ♀

And popped down to Turner Contemporary in Margate:

Turner Contemporary, Margate Director – Victoria Pomery ♀

Grand total
21 galleries/museums
22 directors/curators
15 women (68% of 22)
7 men (32%)
Blacks or Asians 0 (0%)

Conclusions

I accept that the selection of exhibitions I happen to have gone to is subjective, although it does tend to reflect the major exhibitions at the major London galleries. The gender of curators similarly reflects the smallish sample, but it has in fact remained steady at around 80% women, even as I’ve doubled the number of exhibitions visited over the past month or so. And the genders of the heads of the main public galleries are facts.

Anyway, from all this very shaky data, I provisionally conclude that:

  1. Of exhibitions devoted to named artists (not about themes or groups) about four fifths are about male artists.
  2. About two-thirds of the London & Bristol art galleries I’ve visited are headed by women.
  3. Significantly more art exhibitions are curated by women than by men.
  4. It is common to hear talk about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ in the art world, but not a single major London gallery is run by someone of black or Asian ethnicity, and none of the major league art exhibitions I’ve visited were curated by blacks or Asians.

Also, hardly any visitors to exhibitions are black or Asian. At the Monochrome exhibition, there were no non-white visitors, but no fewer than five of the visitor assistants were black. There were no black or Asian people in the one-room Lake Keitele show. There were no black or Asian visitors at the Degas, though all the women serving in the shop were Asian. Of the 170 people I counted in the Cézanne exhibition, there was one black man, and two Chinese or Japanese.

From all of which I conclude that if there is an ‘absence’ or repression going on here, it is not – pace Whitney Chadwick and other feminist art critics – of women, who are in fact over-represented as heads of galleries and as exhibition curators: it is of people of colour, who are almost completely absent from this (admittedly very subjective) slice of the art world, whether as artists, administrators, curators or visitors.

Only the Basquiat show was about a black artist (and it attracted an unusually large number of black visitors) but even this was curated (astonishingly) by two white people.

All of which confirms my sense that art is a predominantly white bourgeois pastime.

And old. Every exhibition I go to is packed with grey-haired old ladies. It would be interesting to have some kind of objective figures for sex and age of gallery goers (I wonder if Tate, the National and so on publish annual visitor figures broken down into categories) but when I began to try and count this at the Cézanne show I very quickly gave up because it is, in practice, impossible to guess the age of every single person you look at, and the easiest visual clue – just counting grey-haired people – seemed ludicrous.

So I know that these stats are flawed in all kinds of ways but, on the other hand, some kind of attempt at establishing facts is better than none, better than relying on purely personal, subjective opinions.

Now I’ve started, I’ll update the figures with each new exhibition I visit. I might as well try to record it as accurately as I can and see what patterns or trends emerge…

Cézanne Portraits @ The National Portrait Gallery

Over a working life of some forty-five years, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) made almost 1,000 paintings, about 160 of which are portraits. This major international exhibition brings together over fifty of Cézanne’s portraits from collections across the world, including quite a few which have never been seen in the UK, allowing us to review the development of his style and technique through the prism of this one genre.

It proceeds in a straightforward chronological manner, starting with family members, especially the series of his Uncle Dominique, dating from the 1860s – some 26 self-portraits – a whole room devoted to portraits of his wife, Hortense – and ends with his portraits of working class men and women near his home in Aix-en-Provence, particularly portraits of his gardener, Vallier.

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early on we learn that Cézanne was schoolboy friends with Émile Zola who went on to become one of France’s most famous/important novelists. Zola pioneered a fictional approach he called ‘Naturalism’, according to which the work of art is a scientific experiment to investigate the impersonal forces, both genetic and social, which shape people’s lives, an attitude in which ‘the author maintains an impersonal tone and disinterested point of view’.

Throughout the exhibition the curators, as you’d expect, go to some lengths to explain who each sitter was, what their relationship to Cézanne was, with anecdotes about the number of sittings it took (115 sittings for the portrait of the art dealer Vollard), whether the sitter was happy etc, along with speculations about what the portrait tells us about Cézanne’s feelings for the sitter – respect, love and so on.

Quite quickly I began to think this was utterly the wrong approach. None of the sitters has any expression at all, certainly none of them are smiling or indicating any emotion. In fact most of the mature portraits almost deliberately reject emotional interpretation.

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

For me the exhibition was quite clearly the story of one man’s struggle with his art and technique. From these half dozen rooms and fifty or so portraits Cézanne comes across as a difficult, angry man, fighting with his medium, permanently dissatisfied, taking ridiculously long periods to struggle with works which he often abandoned and sometimes destroyed, like his portrait of Alfred Hauge, stitched back together and on display here.

He is off in his own world, day by day carrying on an endless battle to make the medium of oil painting fulfil his vision. Cézanne never painted portraits as commissions; he only painted who he wanted to. It struck me as being an immensely private world. If, from time to time, some of the works fit in with what the wider world thinks of as ‘beautiful’ or ‘artistic’ or ‘wonderful’, well, so be it; but he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care for traditional ideas of ‘beauty’ or ‘painting’, he doesn’t care what his family thinks or his wife thinks, he is off in his own world, following his own, often very difficult, path.

Self-Portrait by Paul Cézanne (1880-1) © The National Gallery, London

Self-Portrait (1880-1) by Paul Cézanne © The National Gallery, London

Take the 10 portraits of his wife, Hortense. If you like lots of biography to explain your art, then it’s interesting to learn that he’d had a relationship with her for 17 years before he finally married her; and that he only married her after another love affair he’d been having ended traumatically. So she does seem to have been a sort of second best.

None of that helps when you confront the actual paintings. In portrait after portrait she has the face of an emotionless mannekin and the body of a doll. In my opinion this isn’t a depiction of someone he either loves or doesn’t love, who is in either a good or a bad mood (the kind of psychological and emotional tripe the commentary speculates about). It is a purely technical challenge, a struggle with oil paint and technique.

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The exhibition’s curator, John Elderfield, says: ‘Many of his painted likenesses of friends and family members offer little information in the way of his sitters’ individual personas, stature, or psychology.’ Exactly. My friend was scandalised by the apparently ‘heartless’ way Cézanne painted his wife: where is the love and affection and respect and blah blah? To me, completely the wrong way of thinking about Cézanne’s work.

My notion of ‘the struggle’ also explains why he did so many series – 10 of Uncle Dominique, 17 of Hortense, 26 self-portraits, repeated portraits of his gardener, and so on. And also explains why he destroyed his own canvases in frustration. It was an unending struggle. It was war.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Cézanne’s technique

So what was his technique, what was the battle all about?

From the start he made no attempt to paint in the smooth aesthetic style of the French Academy and Salon, in a style which concealed brushstrokes in order to create a flat surface designed to give the illusion of life. The exact opposite. He and his pal Zola were going to remodel French culture, to force people to see the crude realities of life, Zola in blunt realistic sentences, Cézanne in harsh, unflattering brushstrokes. The first room shows young Cézanne in the 1860s sculpting oil onto canvas with his palette knife like a brickie lays on mortar. Thick, shaped roughly and confidently, in highly visible strokes half an inch wide.

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 - 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 – 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

He himself described this as his manière couillarde (where couilles means ‘testicles’) which could be translated as his ‘ballsy manner’.

He remains true to this founding approach all his life but develops and explores it. Through the 1870s two things happen: the paint gets a lot thinner, and he explores a technique of building up patches of the same colour using repeated one- or two-inch long strokes. These strokes come in parallel blocks or sets of strokes, running across face or background like patches of the palette, built up systematically.

It is the use of these blocks of strokes in the same colour which give all Cézanne’s work such a distinctive feel. Arguably the technique works best with landscapes, witness the scores of versions of Mont Sainte-Victoire which he did over decades. Here in the portraits this technique of diagonal strokes gives the works a sense of monumentality – the eerie feeling that something bigger and more important is being conveyed.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Another way of trying to define this visual effect is in terms of geometry – luckily Cézanne himself gives us a handy quote, when he wrote to Émile Bernhard giving advice about painting and included the phrase ‘Deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone’. The cyclinder, the sphere and the cone. Quite obviously, then, Cézanne was himself aware of the way his eye sought out the geometry buried in the flesh (or landscape or still life or whatever).

But even without knowledge of this quote it would be easy to see the way the technique of chunks or blocks of very visibly modelled colour can be seen as almost geometric shapes – to my eye they look like rectangular slabs, crafted and placed at angles to each other. It is a highly analytical way of seeing and painting, not at all concerned with sensuous surfaces as per the long tradition of Salon art. Its unfinishedness bespeaks its experimental nature.

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

From the 1870s onwards he uses much thinner applications of paint, allowing much more of the canvas to show through, all over, as the paint rasps and runs out, and the brushstroke doesn’t completely cover the space. This draws attention to the painting as a painting, as a construct of paint on a canvas, and away from a naturalistic depiction of ‘reality’.

In other pictures you can see something else quite radical going on, which is his subtle mixing up of perspective: a table or chair or arm or wall or other elements will be subtly at odds with the perspective of the central figure. It is another way of being more interested in the geometry than the strictly realistic appearance of the subject.

Director of the NPG, Nicholas Cullinan, talks about Cézanne’s mission to get at ‘the underlying structure of things by means of mass, line and shimmering colour’, which I think is correct, apart from the shimmering colour. Monet shimmers, I don’t think Cézanne shimmers.

Towards the art of the future

By now you can see how these are the elements which endeared Cézanne to the next generation of artists:

  • painting as painting rather than window on the world
  • deploying paint in blocks or cubes to build up a sense of space, to bring out the inner geometry of a figure
  • indifference as to whether the paint covers the canvas or not, in fact developing an aesthetic of leaving many bits of the canvas untouched
  • faces as a mask, like the blank masks of African art Picasso and Matisse were fascinated by, expressionless

And so you can see why both Picasso (b.1881) and Matisse (b.1869) are credited with the quote that Cézanne ‘was the father to us all’, paving the way for the completely new ways of seeing developed by the Cubists, the Fauvists and successive generations of avant-garde artists. Doesn’t this mask-like depiction of his son anticipate Picasso’s mask faces of a generation years later?

The Artist's Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l'Orangerie)/Franck Raux

The Artist’s Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Franck Raux

In 1895 Cézanne had a successful one-man show which finally gave him success and entry into artistic Paris. The exhibition shows some of the more formal portraits he attempted of Paris’s intellectual class, critics and writers set against thronged bookshelves. But he wasn’t happy and the preceding works in the show help you understand why: these were clever people who expected a measure of human character in their portraits, whereas Cézanne was much more at home with simple and above all psychologically blank subjects.

This – along with any lingering radical sentiment from the Zola years – goes to explain why he abandoned Paris altogether, retiring to his estate near his birthplace of Aix-en-Provence, and painting the unpretentious local workers, peasants, blokes in cafés smoking pipes or playing cards, old ladies. Here he was under no pressure to conform to artist as psychologist and instead could indulge his interest in form to the full.

With the paradoxical result that these images of relative strangers end up being somehow more successful, somehow more complete because he can relax into his technique, and so manage to convey more through their purely artistic coherence, than any of the portraits of his wife ever did.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Art in the flesh

This reproduction makes Man with a pipe look a lot more smooth and finished than it is in the flesh. The reason for going to art galleries rather than looking at paintings on a computer screen is to see up close the craft and artistry of the painter. In the flesh, the diagonal strokes of brown and grey (and green and white) which make up this painting are genuinely thrilling. But what you can’t see at all from the reproduction is the amazing way the wavy black line of the shirt is so confidently drawn, or the way the lighter brown patches around it are in fact the bare canvas untouched by paint, or the half-slapdash way he’s dabbed in the black of the buttons. It really is thrilling to see the confidence and exuberance with which it’s painted. I stood and stared at just this line for minutes, marvelling.

A lot of the portraits in this exhibition are plain ugly or plain bad, and the overall effect of the show is, I found, quite repelling. But in the handful or so of portraits which really come off, the combination of sombre subject and highly stylised brushwork, seen really close up and in the flesh, is electric.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Impressionists by Antonia Cunningham (2001)

This is a small (4½” x 6″) but dense (256 high-gloss pages), handily pocket-sized little overview of the Impressionist movement.

The ten-page introduction  by Karen Hurrell is marred by some spectacular errors. In the second paragraph she tells us that Paris was ‘in the throes of the belle epoque‘ when the 19-year-old Monet arrived in town in 1859 – whereas the Belle Époque period is generally dated 1871 to 1914. She tells us that Napoleon Bonaparte had commissioned the extensive redesign of the city – when she means Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the great man’s nephew and heir, more commonly known as Napoleon III, who reigned as Emperor of the French from 1852 to 1870.

Thus cautioned to take any other facts in the introduction or the picture captions with a touch of scepticism, nonetheless we learn some basic background facts about the Impressionists:

  • Monet was inspired by the French landscape painter Eugène Boudin (1824-98)
  • Success in the art world was defined as acceptance of your work into the biannual exhibition of the Paris Salon
  • Reputable artists were expected to train at the Académie des Beaux-Arts which was dominated by the classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), who insisted on training in draughtsmanship, copying the Old Masters, using a clear defined line.
  • Edgar Degas (1834-1917) enrolled in the Beaux-Arts as did Pissarro.
  • Monet attended the Académie Suisse where he met Pissarro, then entered the studio of Charles Gleyre: here he met Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Frédéric Bazille (1841-70).
  • Older than the others and really from a different generation was their inspiration, Édouard Manet (1832-83). He sought academic success in the traditional style, attaining Salon success in 1861.
  • In 1863 the Salon refused so many contemporary painters that Napoleon III was asked to create a separate show for them, the Salon des Refusés. Manet stole the show with his The lunch on the grass showing a naked woman in the company of two fully dressed contemporary men.
  • The 1865 Salon show included works by Degas, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Berthe Morisot (1841-95).
  • From 1866 Manet began to frequent the Café Guerbois, and was soon joined by Renoir, Sisley, Caillebotte and Monet, with Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Pissarro also dropping by, when in town. They became known as the Batignolles Group after the area of Paris the cafe was in.
  • Paris life of all kinds was disrupted by the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War and then the disastrous rising of communists during the Paris Commune, which was only put down by the official government with great bloodshed and destruction (July 1870-May 1871). All the artists who could afford to fled the city, many to England and London – an event which was the basis of the Tate Britain exhibition, Impressionists in London.
  • From April to May 1874 this group held an independent art exhibition in the gallery of the photographer Nadar. The critic Louis Leroy took exception to Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise (1872), satirising the group’s focus on capturing fleeting impressions of light instead of painting what was there, but the name was taken up by more sympathetic critics and soon became a catch-phrase the artists found themselves lumbered with.
  • It’s interesting to note that Degas was a driving force behind this and the subsequent Impressionist shows, single-handedly persuading artists to take part. He himself was not really an impressionist, much of his subject matter, for example, being indoors instead of painting out of doors, en plein air, as Impressionist doctrine demanded. Similarly, whereas the other experimented with creating form through colour i.e. using colour alone to suggest shape and form, Degas was to the end of his life a believer in extremely strong, clear, defining lines to create shape and form and texture.
  • In 1876 the group exhibited again, at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel. The role played by Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and financing the Impressionists was chronicled in the national Gallery exhibition, Inventing Impressionism.
  • There were eight Impressionist exhibitions in total: in 1874, 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882, 1886. The eight Impressionist exhibitions

From this point on we begin to follow the differing fortunes and styles of the group. Monet developed his mature style in the first half of the 1870s, letting go of any attempt to document reality, instead developing ‘a new vocabulary of painting’ in blobs and dashes of often unmixed primary colours in order to capture the essence of the scene. In 1880 Monet organised a solo show and submitted two works to the Salon. Degas called him a sell-out, but he was trying to distance himself from the group.

Renoir developed a unique style of portraying the gaiety of contemporary Parisian life in realistic depictions of people dancing and drinking at outdoor cafés, with broad smiles, the whole scene dappled with light. He was to become the most financially successful of the group and you can see why: his uplifting works are popular to this day. In the 1880s he took to nudes and portraits rather than landscapes. He was always interested in people.

Degas resisted being called an Impressionist – he painted mostly indoor scenes and never abandoned his hard outlines – but certainly was influenced by the Impressionist emphasis on the effect of light captured in loose brushstrokes. During the 1870s he began to produce the hundreds of oil paintings and pastels of ballet dancers which were to be a key subject.

The American artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) saw a Degas in a dealer’s window and realised these were her people. She lightened her palette, adopted the modern attitude towards light and exhibited at the successive Impressionist exhibitions.

Sisley became dependent on Durand-Ruel. When the latter fell on hard times, Sisley and his family led a tough, hard-up, peripatetic life. Arguably he is the only one who never developed but carried on working in the same, pure Impressionist way.

Pissarro and Cézanne became firm friends, painting the same scenes side by side.

Even at the time commentators could see the difference with Cézanne applying paint in broad, heavy brushstrokes, and becoming ever more interested, less by light than by the geometric forms buried in nature, increasingly seeing the world as made of blocks and chunks and rectangles and rhomboids of pure colour – paving the way for Cubism and much modern art. His style diverged from the group just as Impressionism was becoming more accepted, by critics and public. He resigned from the group in 1887.

Neo-impressionism is the name given to the post-impressionist work of Georges Seurat (1859-91), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and their followers who used contemporary optical theory to try to take Impressionism to the next level. Seurat developed a theory called Divisionism (which he called chromoluminarism) the notion of creating a painting not from fluid brush strokes but from thousands of individual dots of colour. Seurat used contemporary colour theory and detailed colour wheels to work out how to place dots of contrasting colour next to each other in order to create the maximum clarity and luminosity. The better-known technique of pointillism refers just to the use of dots to build up a picture, without the accompanying theory dictating how the dots should be of carefully contrasting colours.


There follow 120 very small, full colour reproductions of key paintings by the main members of the movement (and some more peripheral figures). Each picture is on the right hand page, with text about the title, date, painter and a one-page analysis on the page opposite. Supremely practical and useful to flick through. Here’s a list of the painters and the one or two most striking things I learned:

  • Eugène Boudin (1) The landscape painter Monet credited with inspiring him to paint landscapes.
  • Manet (15) I love Manet for his striking use of black, for his use of varying shades of white but he is not a totally convincing painter. His two or three masterpieces are exceptions. I struggle with the perspective or placing of figures in Dejeuner sur l’herbe, particularly the woman in the lake who seems bigger and closer than the figures in the foreground and is a giant compared to the rowing boat, and the way the lake water is tilting over to the left. He was awful at painting faces – Inside the cafe, Blonde woman with bare breasts. The body of the Olympia is sensational but her badly modelled head looks stuck on. In 1874 he began experimenting with the Impressionists’ technique i.e. lighter tones and out of doors, not that convincingly (The barge).
  • Frederic Bazille (2) studied with Monet, Renoir and Sisley but on this showing never quit a highly realistic style – Family reunion.
  • Monet (16) without a doubt the god of the movement and the core practitioner of Impressionism, produced hundreds of masterpieces while slowly fascinatingly changing and evolving his technique. The big surprise was an early work, Women in the garden (1867) which shows what a staggeringly good realistic artist he could have been: look at the detail on the dresses! Of all the impressionist works here I was most struck by the modest brilliance of the water and reflections in The bridge at Argenteuil (1874).
  • Alfred Sisley (6) was the English Impressionist. Always hard up, he persisted in the core Impressionist style. I was struck by Misty morning (1874) and Snow at Louveciennes (1878).
  • Camille Pissarro (14) Ten years older than Monet, he quickly took to the Impressionist style (an open-mindedness which led him, in the 1880s, to adopt Seurat’s new invention of pointillism). Pissarro is the only one of the group who exhibited at all 8 Impressionist exhibitions. I was bowled over by Hoar frost (1873). I too have walked muddy country lanes in winter where the ridges of churned up mud are coated with frost and the puddles are iced over, while a weak bright winter sun illuminates the landscape.
  • Renoir (15) Everyone knows the depictions of happy Parisians dancing at outdoor cafés under a dappled summer light. Set next to the landscapes of Monet, Sisley and Pissarro you can see straightaway that Renoir was fascinated by the human figure and was an enthusiastic portrayer of faces. I like Dance in the country (1883) for the extremely strong depiction of the man, an amazing depiction of all the shades of black to be found in a man’s black suit and shoes. I was startled to learn that, in the mid-1880s, dissatisfied with Impressionism, he took trips abroad and returned from Italy determined to paint in a more austere classical style. The plait (1884) anticipates 20th century neo-classicism, and is not at all what you associate with Renoir.
  • Armand Guillaumin (2) from a working class background, he met the others at art school, exhibited in the Salon des Refusés show, but never had a large output.
  • Edgar Degas (17) Having visited and revisited the Degas exhibition at the National Gallery, I am convinced Degas was a god of draughtsmanship. It’s interesting that he lobbied hard for the Impressionists and organised the critical first exhibition, but always denied he was one. Skipping over the obvious masterpieces I was struck by the faces, especially the far left face, of The orchestra at the opera (1868). It shows his characteristic bunching up of objects. And the quite fabulous Blue dancers (1897).
  • Gustave Caillebotte (3) a naval engineer turned artist. The only link with the Impressionist style I can make out is his frank depiction of contemporary life. But the dabs and rough brushwork, leaving blank canvas, obsession with sunlight and creating form out of colour alone – none of that seems on show here. Street in Paris in the rain (1877). Very striking and distinctive but I’m surprised to find him in the same pages as Sisley or Pissarro.
  • Berthe Morisot (6) on the evidence here, painted lots of women in quiet domestic poses. Young girl at the ball (1875)
  • Mary Cassatt (5) More scenes of quiet domestic life, some of which eerily prefigure the same kind of rather bland domestic style of the early 20th century. Young mother sewing (1900)
  • Paul Cézanne (16) Yesterday I visited the exhibition of Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, so those 50 or so portraits are ringing in my memory, along with knowledge of how he painted subjects in series, the style he developed of painting in kinds of blocks or slabs of colours, which bring out the geometric implications of his subjects, and his playing with perspective i.e. the three or four components of even a simple portrait will be depicted as if from different points of view, subtly upsetting the composition – The smoker (1890). Among the brown portraits and orangey still lifes, a dazzling riot of green stood out – Bridge over the pond (1896) though it, too, is made out of his characteristic blocks of (generally) diagonal brushstrokes, clustered into groups which suggest blocks or ‘chunks’, giving all his mature works that odd ‘monumental’ look, almost as if they’ve been sculpted out of colour more than painted smoothly.
  • Seurat (2) 19 years younger than Monet (born in 1859 to Monet’s 1840), Seurat was not an Impressionist, but exhibited with them in 1886. His highly intellectual theory of Divisionism divided the group, causing big arguments. Seurat produced some highly distinctive and classic images before dying tragically young, aged 31.

This is a very handy survey, a useful overview of 120 works which remind the reader a) how varied the Impressionists were b) who were the core flag-wavers (Monet, Sisley, Pissarro) c) who were the outriders (Manet, Degas) and above all, d) what scores and scores of wonderful, enduring masterpieces they created.


Related links

A Closer Look: Colour by David Bomford and Ashok Roy (2009)

This is another superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book in The National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

A Closer Look: Colour explores how painters apply colour, describes different types of pigments, and outlines optical theories and artists’ treatises. The authors explain the effect on colour of the artist’s chosen medium, such as oil, water or egg tempera, and the dramatic impact of new pigments.’

It ranges far and wide across the National Gallery’s vast collection of 2,300 art works, selecting 80 paintings which illustrate key aspects of colour, medium and design. The quality of the colour reproductions is really stunning – it’s worth having the book almost for these alone and for the brief but penetrating insights into a colour-related aspect of each one.

They include works by Seurat, Holbein the Younger, Corot, Duccio, David, Chardin, Ghirlandaio, Monet and Van Dyck in the first ten pages alone!

Aspects of colour

Colour quite obviously has been used by painters to depict the coloured world we see around us. But it has other functions, too. Maybe the two most obvious but easily overlooked are: to represent depth and create the optical illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface; and to reinforce this by indicating sources of light.

Depth A common indication of depth is recreating the common observation that objects at a distance fade into a blue-ish haze. This is often seen in Renaissance paintings depicting increasingly hazy backdrops behind the various virgins and main figures. This is known as aerial perspective.

Light Sources of light need to be carefully calculated in a realistic painting. The book shows how the effect of light sources is achieved by showing glimmers of white paint on metallic objects or even on duller surfaces like wood. There is a particularly wondrous example in Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her Sister by Anthony Van Dyck. The authors give a close-up to show how the colour of the yellow dress worn by the main subject is reflected on the bare skin of of the little angel, and even in the catchlight in his right eye, an indication of the depth of thought which goes into his compositions.

Shadows turn out to be an entire subject in themselves. For centuries painters improved their depiction of shadows, at first using grey colours for the shadows of buildings, but quickly realising that the most shadowed things around us are fabrics. Dresses, cloaks all the paraphernalia of costume from the Middle Ages to the turn of the 20th century, involved reams of material which folded in infinite ways, all of them a challenge to the painters’ skill. At the very least, painting a fabric requires not one but three colours: the core colour of the fabric itself, the fabric in shadow, the fabric in highlight, reflecting the light source.

The human eye is not a mechanical reproducer of the world around us. It has physiological quirks and limitations. The book evidences the way that, dazzled by orange sunsets, the human eye might well see evening shadows as violet. Quirks and oddities like this were known to various painters of the past but it was the Impressionists who, as a group, set out to try and capture not what the rational mind knew to be the colour, but the colours as actually perceived by the imperfect eye and misleadable mind.

Emotion In the later 19th century artists across Europe made the discovery that intensity of colour can be used to reflect intensity of emotion. Probably the most popular painter to do this was van Gogh whose intense colours were intended to convey his own personal anguish. This approach went on to become the central technique of the German Expressionist painters (although they aren’t represented in the book, along with all 20th century art, because the National Gallery’s cut-off point is 1900).

Symbolism In earlier centuries, more than its realistic function, colour had an important role in a painting’s symbolism i.e. certain colours are understood to have certain meanings or to be associated with certain people or qualities. The most obvious period is the Renaissance, when the Virgin Mary’s cloak was blue, Mary Magdalene’s cloak was red, St Peter’s cloak was yellow and blue, and so on. From early on this allowed or encouraged Renaissance painters to create compositions designed not only to show a (religious) subject, but to create harmonious visual ‘rhythms’ and ‘assonances’ based on these traditionally understood colour associations.

Pigments and Media

This is dealt with quite thoroughly in another book in the series, Techniques of Painting. There we learn that paint has two components, the binding medium and the pigment. Over the centuries different pigments have been used, mixed into different binding mediums, including egg, egg yolks, oil, painting directly into wet plaster (fresco) and so on.

Painting is done onto supports – onto walls, plaster, or onto boards, metal, canvas or other fabrics. All of these need preparing by stretching (canvas) or smoothing (wood), then applying a ground – or background layer of paint – to soak into the support. Painters of the 14th and 15th centuries used a white ground. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, artists experimented with varying the tone of the ground, which significantly alters the colour of the works painted onto them.

Hardening Binding mediums dry out in two ways: watercolours and synthetic resin paints by simple evaporation. Drying oils such as linseed, walnut or poppy oil harden by chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air. Egg tempera, used extensively in the 14th and 15th century, dries by a combination of both.

This may sound fairly academic but it profoundly affects the whole style and look of a painting. Because tempera dries so quickly (especially in hot, dry Italy) shapes and textures are best built up by short hatched strokes.

This is a detail from the Wilton Diptych (1397) where you can see the way the skin of the Virgin and child and angels has been created by multiple short paint strokes of egg tempera.

Whereas, because oils are slow drying, they allow the artist to merge them into smooth, flowing, continuous transitions of colour. Oil paints = more flowing.

In this detail from Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, you can see how the gold chain has been rendered with a really thick layer of gold paint. Laying on very thick layers of oil paint is called impasto.

In general, oil paint looks darker and richer than paint made using water-based media such as egg tempera, glue or fresco, which appear lighter and brighter.

Age and decay Painting was, then, a highly technical undertaking, requiring the painter to have an excellent knowledge of a wide range of materials and chemical substances. Different media dry and set in different ways. Different pigments hold their colour – or fade – over time. And this fading can reveal the ground painted underneath.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the specific examples it gives of how some pigments have faded or disappeared – sometimes quite drastically – in Old Master paintings.

In Duccio’s The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea, the face and hands of the figures show clearly how the lighter pigments painted in tempera have faded or flaked off allowing the green underpaint to come through. The Virgin was not meant to look green!

Bladders to tubes Pigments had to be ground by hand and mixed in with binders in studios for the medieval and Renaissance period. There are numerous prints showing a Renaissance artist’s studio for what it was, the small-scale manufactory of a craftsman employing a number of assistants and making money by taking on a number of students.

In the 18th century ready-mixed pigments could be transported inside pigs’ bladders. The early 19th century developed the use of glass or metal syringes. But it was in 1841 that an American, John Rand, developed the collapsible metal tube. This marked a breakthrough in the portability of oil paints, allowing artists to paint out of doors for the first time. A generation later a new school arose – the Impressionists – who did just this. Jean Renoir quotes his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste, as saying:

Without paints in tubes there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionism.

Biographies of colours

Primo Levi wrote a classic collection of short stories based on The Periodic Table of chemical elements. It crossed my mind, reading this book, that something similar could be attempted with the numerous pigments which artists have used down the ages.

This book gives a potted history of the half a dozen key colours. It explains how they were originally produced, how different sources became available over the centuries, and how the 19th century saw an explosion in the chemical industry which led to the development of modern, industrially-manufactured colours.

Blue

  • Prime source of blue was the ultramarine colour extracted from the mineral lapis lazuli, which was mined in one location in Afghanistan and traded to the Mediterranean.
  • A cheaper alternative was azurite, which was mined in Europe but had to be ground coarsely to keep its colour, and is also prone to fade into green, e.g. the sky in Christ taking Leave of his Mother by Albrecht Altdorfer (1520). Many artists painted a basic wash of azurite and then used the much more expensive ultramarine to create more intense highlights.
  • Indigo is a dye extracted from plants. At high intensity it is an inky black-blue, but at a lesser intensity also risks fading.
  • A cheaper alternative was smalt, manufactured by adding cobalt oxide to molten glass, cooling and grinding it to powder. It holds its colour badly and fades to grey.
  • In the early 1700s German manufacturers stumbled across the intense synthetic pigment which became known as Prussian blue (the book gives examples by Gainsborough and Canaletto).
  • Around 1803 cobalt blue was invented.
  • In 1828 an artificial version of ultramarine was created in France

Thus the painters of the 19th century had a much wider range of ‘blues’ to choose from than all their predecessors.

The book does the same for the other major colours, naming and explaining the origin of their main types or sources:

Green

  • Terre verte was used as an underpaint for flesh tones in early Italian paintings
  • malachite
  • verdigris, a copper-based pigment was prone to fade to brown and explains why so many Italian landscapes have the same orangey-brown appearance
  • emerald green (a pigment developed in the 19th century containing copper and arsenic)
  • viridian (a chromium oxide)

Red

  • Vermilion, obtained by pulverising cinnabar, liable to fade to brown as has happened with the coat of Gainsborough’s Dr Ralph Schomberg (1770), which should be bright red.

Yellow

  • Lead-tin yellow in the Renaissance
  • from the 17th century lead-based yellow containing antimony known as Naples yellow
  • from the 1820s new tints of yellow became available based on compounds of chromium of which chrome yellow is the most famous
  • cadmium yellow

White

  • Lead white was used from the earliest times. It forms as a crust on metallic lead exposed to acetic acid from sour wine – highly poisonous
  • only in the twentieth century was it replaced by non-toxic whites based on zinc and later, titanium. Unlike all the pigments named so far, lead white keeps its colour extremely well, hence the bright white ruffs and dresses in paintings even when a lot of the brighter colour has gone.

Black 

  • A large range of black pigments was always available, most based on carbon as found in charcoal, soot and so on. Carbon is very stable and so blacks have tended to remain black.

Summary of colours

  1. Over the past 500 years there has been a large amount of evolution and change in the source of the pigments artists use.
  2. Colour in art is a surprisingly technical subject, which quite quickly requires a serious knowledge of inorganic chemistry and, from the 19th century, is linked to the development of industrial processes.
  3. Sic transit gloria mundi or, more precisely, Sic transit gloria artis. The net effect of seeing so many beautiful paintings in which the original colour has faded – sometimes completely – can’t help but make you sad. We live among the wrecks or decay of thousands of once-gloriously coloured artworks. Given the super-duper state of digital technology I wonder if anywhere there exists a project to restore all these faded glories to how they should look!

Disegno versus colore

Vasari, author of The Lives of the Great Artists (155) posed the question, ‘Which was more important, design or colour?’ As a devotee of Michelangelo, the godfather of design, he was on the side of disegno and relates a conversation with Michelangelo about some paintings by Titian (1488-1576) they had seen where Michelangelo praises Titian’s use of colour but laments his poor composition.

The art history stereotype has it that Renaissance Florence was the home of design, while Venice (where Titian lived and worked) put the emphasis on gorgeous colours. This was because Venice was a European centre for the production of dyes and pigments for a wide range of manufacturing purposes, not least glass and textiles.

In late-17th-century France the argument was fought out in the French Academy between Rubénistes (for colour) and Poussinistes (for drawing). Personally, I am more moved by drawing than colour, and a little more so after reading this book and realising just how catastrophically colour can fade and disappear – but, still, there’s no reason not to love both.

Optical theories

Isaac Newton published his Optics in 1704, announcing the discovery that when white light is projected through a prism it breaks down into primary colours, which can then be turned back into white light. Among its far-ranging investigations, the book contained the first schematic arrangement of colours and their ‘opposites’. It wasn’t until well into the 19th century, however, that colour charts began to proliferate (partly because they were required by expanding industrial manufacture, and the evermore competitive design and coloration of products).

And these colour charts bore out Newton’s insight that complementary colours – colours opposite each other on the circle – accentuate and bring each other out.

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour circles like this systematised knowledge which had been scattered among various artists and critics over the ages. It can be shown that Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) made systematic use of contrast effects, pairing colour opposites like orange-blue, red-green or yellow-violet, to create stronger visual effects.

On a simplistic level it was the availability of a) new, intense colours, in portable tin tubes, along with b) exciting new theories of colour, which explains the Impressionist movement.

The Impressionists were most interested in trying to capture the changing quality of light, but the corollary of this was a fascination with shadow. Apparently, impressionist painters so regularly (and controversially) paired bright yellow sunlight with the peculiar tinge of violet which is opposite it on the colour charts, that they were accused by contemporary critics of violettomani.

Some examples

The book lists the pigments used to create Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. The intense blue sky is made from ultramarine lapis lazuli, as is Ariadne’s drapery and the flowers at the lower right. The blue-green sea is painted with the cheaper azurite. Vermilion gives Ariadne’s sash its red colour. The Bacchante’s orange drapery was painted with a rare arsenic-containing mineral known as realgar.

Titian was aware of the power of colour contrasts long before the 19th century colour wheels, something he demonstrates by placing Ariadne’s red and blue drapery above the primrose yellow cloth by the knocked-over urn at her feet (painted using lead-tin yellow). The green of the tree leaves and the grassy background are created from malachite over-painted with green resinous glazes. An intense red ‘lake’ is used to give Bacchus’s red cloak its depth.

These coloured ‘lakes’ were an important element in Renaissance painting but I had to supplement the book’s information with other sources.

From this I take it that ‘lakes’ were translucent i.e. you could see the colour beneath, and so were used as glazes, meaning you would lay down a wash of one colour and then paint over potentially numerous ‘lakes’ to add highlights, depths or whatever. This build-up of ‘lake’ glazes allowed the layering of multiple variations of colour and so the intensely sensual depiction of the folds on fabrics, the light and shade of curtains and clothes which is so characteristic of Old Master painting.

The book then applies this detailed analysis of colour pigments to a sequence of other Old Masterpieces by Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Tiepollo, Canaletto, Monet and Seurat.

Conclusion

A Closer Look: Colour makes you appreciate the immense amount of knowledge, science, craft and technique which went into painting each and every one of the National Gallery’s 2,300 artworks (and the depth of scholarship which modern art historians require to analyse and unravel the technical background to each and every painting).

It’s a revelation to read, but also pure joy to be prompted to look, and look again, in closer and closer detail, at so many wonderful paintings.


Related links

Reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

A Closer Look: Techniques of Painting by Jo Kirby (2011)

This is a superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book. It’s one of a series of slender volumes (this one is 93 pages long) in the National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

Techniques of Painting aims to help readers develop a painterly eye by learning to recognize different materials and methods of application and to appreciate how these features contribute to how a painting looks.’

It ranges far and wide to find examples from the National Gallery’s vast collection of over 2,300 paintings. Almost all the 94 illustrations are in good quality colour, with well-chosen close-ups from works both familiar and strange to illustrate precise aspects of the craft of painting. Although there are examples from the gods of later centuries – van Dyck, Rubens, Gainsborough, Lawrence, van Gogh and Monet – the book tends to focus interest on, and encourage a better understanding of, earlier painters, especially of the early Italian Renaissance.

Thus the book’s detailed explanation makes you appreciate the extraordinary skill and craft which went into creating, for example, both the floor carpet and the individual halos – made from gilt which is then elaborately stippled and decorated – in Nardo Di Cione’s Three Saints (1365).

Nardo Di Cione's Three Saints (1365)

Three Saints (1365) by Nardo Di Cione

I learned that:

  • Paint is made of two ingredients, the pigment which gives colour and the binding medium which allows it to be applied with brushes (of various size, shape and density). These latter include egg tempera, oil, flue and gum.
  • Egg tempera was a medium made from eggs or just egg yolk, mixed with pigment. It dries rapidly. It tends to be applied in fine parallel strokes. Most Renaissance painters up till about 1480 used egg tempera.
  • The use of oil as a binding medium was pioneered by painters in northern Europe. It is more versatile. Oil can be built up by repeated layers, creating areas of solid thickly applied colour, or thinned to create sketchy dry strokes.
  • The thing a painting is painted onto is called the support. Until the early sixteenth century, most paintings were painted onto wood panels. For larger panels, multiple planks of wood would be battened together. Canvas began to be used in north Italy, around Venice and Verona, in the early 1500s, and only slowly spread to north Europe. The most popular wood in Italy was poplar, in northern Europe it was oak.
  • Supports are primed for painting. Wood supports were sanded smooth. Sometimes fine canvas or parchment was glued onto it. Then a ‘ground’ for painting was created. A layer of white calcium sulphate, known as gypsum, mixed with animal glue was applied, dried and sanded flat. The Italian for gypsum is ‘gesso’ and this became the generic name for all white grounds. For expensive paintings a coarse gesso was applied and dried before a much finer one, gesso sottile, was applied. A handbook of the time recommends no fewer than eight coats be applied. Part of the reason for this care was that, when gold leaf was applied to earlier Renaissance paintings, any flaw in the surface immediately showed up – hence the need for absolute flatness. As the use of gilt declined, gessos became less perfect. In northern Europe natural chalk was used, in glue solution. On top of the ground a priming layer was applied, to prevent the oil pigment from being absorbed. It was generally oil mixed with light pigments.
  • Canvas, no matter how tightly stretched, is a more coarse surface than prepared board, and also it is springy. These factors encourage a looser handling of the paint. Linen, hemp, silk and wool cloth were all used as supports, as well as canvas. Cotton became available in the nineteenth century. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted a series onto part of a roll of jute cloth which Gauguin bought. To be usable canvas had to be stretched onto a wooden framework called a strainer. Canvas on its own would absorb some of the binding medium, giving the painting a more matt appearance than painting on a wood support. To prevent, this canvas also was primed or prepared, a process called sizing.
  • For both canvas and wood panels, the primer or ground could be any colour – over time, between the Renaissance and the 18th century, the general tendency was for darker grounds to be used. The pre-Raphaelites returned to using bright white grounds and this is one factor in the astonishingly brilliant colouring of their paintings.
  • Copper plate was a fairly popular support for paintings in the 17th century.
  • Paper has always been used for pencil and pen sketches; in the 19th century it became used as the support for watercolours.
  • Fresco is the Italian word for ‘fresh’ and also the name for the technique whereby pigments are mixed with water and applied to lime plaster which has been freshly laid over walls or ceilings. As the plaster dries the pigment binds into it. Some colours reacted badly with lime, namely the blue pigment azurite, which explains why frescos are generally light and creamy in colour. These alkali-resistant pigments could be applied later, after the original fresco work had dried, mixed with egg, in a process called a secco. But they were less bound into the actual plaster and so have tended to flake off and disappear over the centuries. Fresco was popular in hot, dry Italy and not very popular in the damp north of Europe.
The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

Taking the painting above as an example, the book shows a close-up of the hem of the Virgin’s cloak to show the extraordinary care and subtlety with which the realistic patchiness of the sheen on the gold lining was achieved, and then highlights the detail of each individual pearl, complete with its own spot of light and shadow cast on the cloth. The closer you look, the more you marvel at the time, patience and skill involved.

Other terms

  • Maestà (Italian for ‘majesty’) – a type of religious subject for a painting, namely a representation of the Madonna and Child in which the Madonna is enthroned in majesty as Queen of Heaven, surrounded by a court of saints and angels. An example is the Maestà painted by Duccio in the cathedral at Siena (1308-1311).
  • Predella – a separate frame of smaller paintings running along the bottom of an altarpiece. In medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, where the main panel consisted of a scene with large static figures, the predella along the bottom usually contains a set of small-scale narrative paintings depicting events from the life of the dedicatee, whether the Life of Christ, the Life of the Virgin or a saint. Typically, three to five small scenes, in a horizontal format. An example is this Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli. The predella is the name given to the row of four scenes along the bottom, showing episodes from the Passion of Christ.

Related links

Reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

Travelling Light by Tove Jansson (1987)

Solitary people interest me. There are so many ways of being solitary. (The Garden of Eden)

This is a selection of 12 short stories by Tove Jansson. She was 73 when the book was published. It was only when starting the fifth story that I realised they all had the theme of a journey in common.

In An Eightieth Birthday the daughter of a redoubtable 80-year-old bohemian artist takes along her new man, Johnny, to the birthday party. In part one they mingle, embarassedly among the guests, getting stuck with a bunch of critics discussing ‘perception’.

In part two they leave the party with a group of three older men, obviously once known artists themselves, now alcoholics and a bit hard-up, on nodding terms with the derelicts in a big church square in Helsinki. They wander across the city towards May and Jonny’s flat, where the three old artists carry on discussing how important it is to have a ‘passion’, how older artists had to try and copy the new fashionable styles of the 1960s, how her grandmother kept her integrity and carried on painting Finnish trees, about lots of things. They admire the scale model Jonny has built of a boat. They discuss the way sometimes just admiring beautiful things like a tree in blossom is every bit as important as trying to paint or recreate it. And then they leave.

There’s a plot of sorts, a narrative: bohemian party, wander across Helsinki, drinks at Jonny’s flat – but the poetry  is in the calm acceptance – of her grandmother, of her husband, of Helsinki, of tiresome critics and drunken artists – of life and art and words.

A Summer Child is quite a brutal story about a middle-class couple (Hannah and Axel) with three kids (Tom, Oswald and Mia) who decide to take in an inner-city child for the summer which they always spend among the islands in the Gulf of Finland. Now, if they took an inner-city boy from round where I live in South London they would be in for quite a culture shock, but this inner-city boy – Elis – to their slight dismay, turns out to come from quite a well-off family and drives the others nuts because of his unrelenting social conscience.

He nags the family about throwing food away, reminding them that people round the world are starving; for throwing away landfill, reminding them that the seas are filling up with plastic (this was forty years ago; none of this is new); using an outboard motor when the air is full of pollution – and so endlessly on. The father decides to take the kids on a boat trip to drop supplies to a number of lighthouses, drops the city boy and his oldest son on an uninhabited island planning to be back in an hour, but his fuel line ruptures and he ends up being away for a day and a night, with the result that the story turns into a Finish version of Lord of the Flies.

In A Foreign City the elderly male narrator is invited to go and stay with his godson and wife, but is in a fluster from the word go, forgetting his hat on the flight, getting into a muddle at Customs, then at the Lost Property office where, after much confusion, he ends up accepting a hat belonging to someone completely different. By the time he emerges to the airport taxi rank all the other passengers have gone. Then he realises he has completely forgotten the address of the hotel the relatives had booked for him. But he has an inspiration – to ask the taxi driver to take him to the address on the owner’s label inside the wrong hat he was given at the airport. With odd results…

In The Woman who Borrowed Memories, after fifteen years Stella goes back to the old apartment she lived in with her lover, where they had wild bohemian parties and a passionate love affair. But now she discovers it is lived in by a woman, Wanda, who she and her lover thought of as a waif and stray tagging on to their wild artistic circle. They let her stay with them for a while, before Wanda went off to London to study art, sending letters asking her lover to follow.

Now, to her dismay, Wanda treats Stella as the interloper. She claims it was always her flat, that it was she who hosted the famous parties and had all the bohemian friends, who made the bookshelf by hand, who took all the photos on the walls. Stella thinks it must be some kind of joke then realises – with some horror – that Wanda genuinely believes all this. She has effectively taken over Stella’s life and memories.

Stella becomes disorientated and tired, asking to rest on the sofa. Wanda makes her comfortable, tucks her up in a blanket and then, rather as if in a horror story, moves from words of comfort to repeating the words which she obviously used to Stella’s boyfriend when she (Wanda) seduced him: softly saying that Stella is no good for him, Stella is holding her back… and she says all this she slowly moves the blanket up over Stella’s ace as if… she is going to asphyxiate her!

Terrified, Stella leaps to her feet, makes Wanda open the door and stumbles down the stairs. This is tantamount to a horror story.

The title story – Travelling Light – is also very odd. The plot itself is a first-person narrative about a middle-aged man who ups and leaves his apartment and old life with no real explanation and sets off on a luxury cruise. He is hoping to get away from them, from humans, from all the beastly people who keep pestering him with their endless tedious problems. Except that, rather inevitably, on the cruise he meets nothing but the same: first of all the apparently rambunctious man who is sharing his cabin, who soon drinks too much and gets maudlin about his wife and children; then, when the narrator runs away and tries to wrap himself in a blanket on a deckchair on the passenger deck, he finds himself getting involved with an irritable middle-aged woman whose deckchair he’s dossing down in (the deckchairs are numbered and allocated by ticket). After some bad-tempered exchanges, she buys them both drinks, they settle into an uneasy truce and — this wretched woman starts telling the narrator about her family, ‘here would you like to see some photos?’ Precisely everything he spends his life trying to avoid – other people, entanglements.

The real message of this story, though, isn’t in the plot, it’s in the extraordinarily uptight tone of the narrator. He could almost be a Beckett character, describing the endless anxiety and unease other people cause him, and the lengths he will go to to find a place of isolation, aloneness, peace and bloody quiet.

Perhaps you have some idea of the depth of my fatigue, of my exhaustion and nausea in the face of this constant need to feel sorry for people? (p.91)

In The Garden of Eden Professor Viktoria Johansson arrives at a little hilltop village west of Alicante to visit her god-daughter only to discover the latter has had to rush off to see her ill mother. She’s left the keys, basic instructions etc. So Viktoria makes herself at home, tests her Spanish on the local shop-keepers, but then is visited/welcomed to the ex-pat community, by a brusque hysterical woman with four neurotic little dogs who is convinced her next door neighbour is trying to kill her.

Now Viktoria likes a good murder mystery and, being a professor, is systematic, so she opens a notebook and decides to ‘investigate’ the case, starting by paying a visit to the woman she labels X. X turns out to have lived in the village longer than all the other ex-pats and she despises them – their wealth, their lazing around sunbathing, their insistence on gutting the traditional houses and filling them with all the latest mods cons. Yuk!

Around this rather slow, ironic ‘investigation’ Jansson depicts the moods and thoughts of an ageing spinster, Viktoria, as she reminisces about other foreign trips, about old friends who she should get in touch with. There’s a ‘plot’ in the present, but it’s also a pretext for the portrait of a woman’s mind.

She attends the local town’s colourful fiesta where everyone dresses up in ornate and convincing costumes, and there sees the two women dancing with knives in their hands in a way which looks genuinely threatening until Miss X darts forward and in two swift movements, chops off Josephine’s red plaits.

Viktoria organises an unconventional grand meal (choosing the successive dishes solely on the basis of their sound, with no knowledge what they actually are, from the local restaurateur) and invites Josephine and Miss X. She tries to get them to make up, fails, goes and hides in the ladies loo (several times she reminisces about girl arguments at school, and the whole story is intertwined with memories of falling out with a friend when they went travelling when they were 19; it all has a slightly Fifth Formers of St Clare’s kind of feel – ‘Viktoria had a sudden impulse to scold them. Girls, girls! she wanted to say, but she held her tongue.’ p.131).

But when she returns to the dining room at the village cafe the girls have, in fact, sort of made up and they all go out onto the terrace to admire the spectacular view over the hills at sunset.

Shopping is an astonishingly bleak little vignette about two people who have survived a surprise nuclear war and are living in the ruins of a city. Kristian went outside just as the bombs exploded (‘typical male pride’) and half the building fell on him, so he’s laid up on a mattress in the kitchen, the only room which survived. Emily goes scavenging for tinned food in the ruined city. Occasionally she spots ‘others’ but hides or runs away. Finally, Kristian cracks up after spending so long in a darkened room and smashes open the barricade Emily had built over the one window. Daylight reveals their squalid useless shelter. They go out into the light. And the ‘others’ are there, and they start walking towards each other.

In four pages the shortest story – The Jungle – describes how two small boys, in a holiday home looked after by a maid, paid for by their mother in the city, spend the summer pretending to be Tarzan (and his son), until they become genuinely afraid of the jungle creatures roaming outside their (quiet peaceful Finnish holiday) cottage.

The death of the PE Teacher He hangs himself, much to the school’s shock. But the story is about a bourgeois couple (Henri and Flo) who go to dinner at the very swanky house of his business associate who is, in fact, working late at some kind of conference. Flo makes an ass of herself, causing several scenes as she gets drunker. She is obsessed by the suicide and the way the teacher talked, just before his death, the petition he was trying to get signed to prevent the demolition of some woods to make way for modern dwellings (of the kind her husband and business associate build).

The Gulls A schoolteacher, Arne, has had a sort of nervous breakdown. The children have driven him mad and he’s resigned. But the school appreciate his condition and promise to keep the post open while his wife, Else, takes him out to the remote island in the Gulf of Finland where she used to holiday with her parents. Predictably, he gets on the wrong side of the gulls which are nesting and hatching their chicks. Going out one sunny day he blunders into an intensive nestery and is dive-bombed by screaming gulls, runs back to the house face streaming with blood, shaking, and won’t go out of the cottage for three days. This story of high anxiety on a remote island builds up to a typically hard, unsentimental climax.

The Hothouse is the most loveable, charming story in the set. Old Uncle goes to the Botanical Gardens, specifically the hothouse, to sit on a bench in silent contemplation of the lily pond. One day there is an interloper, another man sitting in his spot. A battle of nerves commences. But eventually they break their silence, speak to each other and discover they share a mutual wish to get away from people and sit in silence. So they meet every day, on the same bench, nod, don’t speak and open their books, reading in companionable silence.

But this preamble is just the frame, so to speak, for the telling of two other events. One day the other man (Vesterberg) doesn’t show up. Uncle and the sympathetic caretaker of the hothouse look up the address of the old people’s home where Vesterberg has mentioned he lives, and Uncle goes to visit him. That’s a chastening experience, described rather harrowingly.

But the core of the story is the second event: Uncle’s memory of being taken by his family to a remote island where the family stayed one summer in a cabin. There was a rough bridge over a ravine which led out to a flower meadow. Uncle fell in love with the meadow. The family decide to build a ‘tent sauna’ on the island and want to erect it on the meadow but Uncle insists otherwise. So, reluctantly, they build the sauna in the ravine, beneath the supports of the bridge. To his surprise, when Uncle goes to check it out, he discovers the tent door opens onto a splendid view of the meadow – and decides he wants to sleep there from now on.

One night a big storm blows up and floods the ravine, flooding his tent and mattress, floating belongings away, but also floating his beloved flower meadow. Uncle wades out across the storm-tossed, seawater-flooded flowers and feels their… their essence, their experience. the storm wrecks the bridge and carries its fragments off as driftwood. Later Uncle finds some of it and sets about making a perfect model of the bridge.

This memory burns in Uncle’s mind and he wants to share it with Vesterberg but, of course, both men have sworn to silence. After months, they are sitting in the hothouse when there is a sudden storm. The sky goes black, rain lashes on the glass, the doors blow open in a gust and Uncle, elated, breaks all the rules and steps into the big lily-pond walking through the warm water feeling the big strong plants and their roots brushing against his trousered legs.

Vesterberg eggs him on, two old men behaving badly. And when he finally calms down, Uncle climbs out and at last shows Vesterberg his model of the bridge. This leads to a little argument about whether the model has any purpose or ‘meaning’ or just ‘is’ a thing in itself. They agree to differ, bow to each other as they walk through the shattered greenhouse doors and happily make their ways to their separate homes.

Tiredness and rest

As pointed out in all my previous reviews of Jansson, her fiction oscillates – operates – along a spectrum between tiredness/anxiety and safety/sleep.

  • I tried to shake off my fatigue. When I get tired, everything slips away from me… I was dreadfully tired (A Foreign City)
  • ‘Are you maybe a little tired?’ said Wanda… ‘I’m tired. You talk too much.’… Stella felt a great urge to sleep; the room disappeared… (The Woman who Borrowed Memories)
  • The caretaker’s wife will look after my houseplants; those tired living things – which never look well no matter how much trouble one takes over them – have made me feel very uneasy… Sleeping on my own has become very important to me… One’s opportunities for feeling ill at ease in life are countless… When eventually I stopped, utterly exhausted, I was almost alone… Wonderful! To be able to sleep and sink into silence, oblivious of everything… (Travelling Light)
  • It had been a long tiring journey… That night Viktoria lulled herself to sleep by imagining she was an independent Spanish cat… (The Garden of Eden)
  • Big beautiful Nicole wished passionately that the world of calm and charm she’d created might be left in peace, that her life might as far as possible be left undisturbed by all the ugliness and chaos that crowded the world outside… The phone rang. Henri waited: he was very tired… ‘Let her sleep’… In the car Flo fell asleep…  (The PE Teacher’s Death)
  • She took his hand in hers and fell asleep again at once. The birds went on screeching. He tried to ignore it, but he could feel his old fear creeping closer, his horror of noise, of anything out of control… ‘You’re sitting in the bow and you’ve never been in the islands before. With every new skerry you think we’re there, but no, we’re going all the way out, right out to an island that’s hardly a shadow on the horizon. And when we land, it won’t be Papa’s island any more, it’ll be ours, for weeks and weeks, and the city and everyone in it will fade away, till in the end they won’t even exist or have any hold on us at all. Just pure peace and quiet. And now in the spring the days and nights can be windless, soundless, somehow transparent… (The Gulls)
  • Uncle liked to rest his legs and lose himself in a kind of contemplation and reflection that gradually freed him from all the concerns of the world outside. (The Hothouse)

Lyricism

Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Lyrical descriptions.

Up in the spring sky the dome of the cathedral rested like a white dream over the empty square. Helsinki was indescribably beautiful, I’d never realised before how beautiful it was. (p.29)

Out of doors all was completely at peace. It was a time of light breezes and soft summer rain; down in the meadow the apple trees were in bloom, and all of nature was at its loveliest. (p.43)

At that exact moment the setting sun broke through a gap in the mountain chain and the twilit landscape was instantly transformed and revealed; the trees and the grazing sheep enveloped in a crimson haze, a sudden, beautiful vision of biblical mystery and power. (p.117)


Credit

Resa med lätt bagage by Tove Jansson was published in 1987. It was translated as Travelling Light by Silvester Mazzarella and first published by Sort of Books in 2010.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (1982)

People sensed that Katri Kling did not trust or care about anyone except herself and the brother she had raised and protected since he was six years old. (p.26)

Generations of English-speaking children were brought up on Jansson’s illustrated Moomin books which are immensely charming to look at and, in their narratives, full of consolations and comforts (generally tea and sandwiches provided by the ever-reliable Moominmamma).

Only in the noughties did Jannson’s ten books for adults start to be published into English and to reveal a completely different aspect of Jansson’s character, an unnerving, adult quality.

Some of Jansson’s short stories were still about children’s lives seen from a child’s perspective (The Summer BookThe Sculptor’s Daughter) but even these combine sweet childish perceptions with other, more disturbing, adult themes, with a dis-enchanted view of the difficulty of human relations, even between people who ‘love’ one another. The characters are quite harsh with each other and on themselves.

The True Deceiver

The True Deceiver is her second real novel (The Summer Book really being a collection of themed stories).

We are in the Finnish fishing port of Västerby. It is the coldest winter anyone can remember, with an immense snowfall blanketing everything in white. Katri Kling is 25. She is the unpopular older sister of Mats, 15, who she has looked after since he was a child. Their father left. Then their mother died. She is Mats’s sole carer. She had a job in the village store until she quit abruptly a few months earlier. It is strongly hinted that the shop keeper tried it on with her and she ridiculed him. He was livid. Life became unbearable. She quit. Since Mats and Katri live in the one-room apartment above this same shop, it is a ticklish situation.

Katri walks their dog, which they have given no name, through the village, and the adults mutter about her and the children shout abuse. She needs to do something for her and Mats’s future.

Up on the hill, in the grand house, lives old Anna Aemelin. Long ago her parents died and left her the big house with the thick pine woods behind it, which – with its two chimneys for ears, two bow windows for eyes, and vertical frames of the central doorway – locals have nicknamed the ‘rabbit house’.

A name which is also relevant because of Anna Aemelin’s profession – she draws cartoon rabbits. Miss Anna is a very successful and world-famous cartoonist and book illustrator (as, of course, was Jansson, and several other characters in her short stories). Miss Anna has the success of monomania, she is extraordinarily brilliant at depicting the traditional Finnish forest floor in immense and scintillating detail, at conveying its ‘deep-forest mystique’ (p.33).

But from an artistic point of view she spoils the effect by then drawing on top a family of bunny rabbits which – for some reason – have flowers growing out of their fur. Every year a new bunny rabbit story comes out (her publishers supply the actual text, Anna does the illustrations) and sells around the world to excited small children, who then write her countless letters wanting to come and visit, to meet the flowery rabbits, to live with her etc.

The novel describes how the extremely blunt and practical Katri inveigles her way into the household of Miss Aemelin. It’s actually pretty simple, this isn’t a hi-tech espionage thriller. Katri offers to deliver groceries up to the old house. Then the post. Then begins to sort out her fridge, throws away the food she doesn’t like, order food which Miss Anna actually likes… and so on.

Slowly she makes herself invaluable. But again, it isn’t a psycho chiller where the protagonist has wicked plans. She just wants a safe place to live and a future for her and her simple-minded brother. The central ‘event’ which tends to get picked up in the blurb and in reviews is that the villagers hear of a burglary in the next village and Katri has the idea to ‘stage’ a burglary at the rabbit house. This consists of her going up one night in a snowstorm, opening the kitchen door (which isn’t locked; none of the doors are locked), walking around in her snowy shoes on the rug, emptying the silver tea service into a sack and walking out again. Out in the woods she throws the sack away, then goes home. The snow covers her tracks.

Next morning Katri arrives to find a dozy policeman at the house and Miss Anna’s friends gossip that she shouldn’t be alone up in the big house etc. With hardly any nudging she wonders whether Katri and her brother would like to move in. And so they do.

The real heart of the story is the emotional or psychological impact the three characters have on each other once they start living together. Katri, in her harsh, tactless, unrestrained way, had almost immediately started telling Miss Anna that the local shopkeepers were swindling her, just a little, but slowly and routinely. Miss Anna is shocked. Once she’s moved in, Katri takes over all aspects of Miss Anna’s household, tidying from top to bottom. She discovers a vast trove of correspondence with publishers, merchandisers and hundreds of children, which Miss Anna has been too timid or too intimidated to answer.

Katri, in her brisk no-nonsense way, goes through these with a fine tooth comb and discovers that Miss Anna has been ripped off by her publishers and anyone else she’s done business with for decades. Katri forces Miss Anna to face facts and make much tougher deals with all her business partners, which leads to a noticeable chilling of tone in the new letters from them. Without any prompting from Katri, Miss Anna decides that Katri ought to share some of the new, improved profits from her writings. Katri very coldly calculates how much she will acquire and how soon. At night she dreams of money.

By the same token she tells Miss Anna she has to be more blunt and honest with the children some of whom, it turns out, she’s been making all sorts of reckless promises, for example that they can come and live in bunny rabbit country with her. No they can’t. Katri suggests sending them all the identical photostated letter, the only unique bit being Miss Anna’s signature. They bicker about this. Miss Anna slowly comes to distrust absolutely everyone, all the tradesmen in the village, everyone who writes her letters.

Meanwhile there is an important relationship between Miss Anna and Mats. Mats is simple. He is allowed to help out at the boat-builders yard belonging to the four Liljeberg brothers. (God, it is all so Scandinavian – everything feels so folkish and elemental and pure.) In fact, Mats is obsessed with boats, and has been making beautiful sketches of the boats the brothers build, in his own time.

When she sees how much money she is going to make from Miss Anna’s new deals, Katri conceives a grand plan: she will commission a boat for Mats, the boat he’s been dreaming of. It will be the focus of all her effort, it will justify a lot of what she is perfectly well aware could be seen as inveigling her way into an old lady’s confidences and money: the purity of her motives will be seen by everyone once it is known that she did it all for her brother.

Meanwhile, Mats forms a typically Janssonesque relationship with Miss Anna. She is (in case it hasn’t come over already) quite a simple soul, brought up in a protected and sheltered environment by well-off parents, and she transmits a lot of that innocence in her wonderful children’s illustrations. So early on we discover that she loves reading children’s adventure stories and – do does Mats! Thus Katri will be slaving away in the kitchen or come back from a snowy shopping trip and find Miss Anna and Mats sitting in complete silence in the drawing room, both utterly absorbed by some teen adventure book. Miss Anna shows Mats round her vast library of children’s books and then she starts ordering new ones, and every time the same pattern: Mats reads them, Miss Anna reads them, they intently discuss the plots and characters. Otherwise they hardly talk at all.

They rarely talked to each other. They owned a silence together that was peaceful and straightforward. (p.45)

Very Janssonesque.

Oh and there’s the dog, the nameless dog. And the dog becomes a symbol of what goes wrong in all these relationships. Because things don’t turn out as any of them intend.

Miss Anna can’t deny that Katri has been scrupulously honest and has gotten her vastly improved deals with publishers and merchandisers and organised things so that she is replying to children’s letters on time and appropriately. But she is also getting harder, more suspicious. Living in close proximity to Katri’s unsentimental harshness brutalises her.

After one particularly bitter row she takes it out on the dumb dog (a German shepherd). She pushes it out of the house into the snow and chucks a stick, shouting at it to fetch. The dog’s never done this before and it takes quite a few sticks, on that occasion and on others, to make it fetch and carry. Slowly, it becomes more like a traditional dog. The eerie complicity that all the villagers noted between tall gaunt Katri and her nameless dog, begins to disintegrate. The dog leaves the house and roams the woods. They – and the villagers – hear it howling at night. It captures rabbits from the postman’s chicken run. It goes wild. In a strange moment it reappears one day, trailing Katri as she walks out to the (locked) lighthouse on the point and, suddenly, savagely, attacks her, before running off.

It is a symbol of how Katri has upset old relationships. For now, as the spring arrives, Miss Anna discovers a disaster – to her horror, when she goes out to look for the first signs of forest floor appearing through the melting winter snow – she no longer feels any magic; the thrill in her soul and the special spectral way she saw all the luminous details of the pine and moss woodland floor has… gone. She is neutered. Katri has made her practical and hard-headed and… it has destroyed her one great talent.

Something a bit more convoluted happens with Mats. Katri has sworn the boat-builders to secrecy about the new boat they’re making being for Mats, although he obviously notices, in fact watches intently, as it takes shape at the boatyard. But Miss Anna, overhearing the builders talking about it, announces to Mats that she has commissioned it as a present for him. He is confused, but Katri is distraught. The one thing justifying all her behaviour was the thought that she would spring this great surprise on him. Later on she does tell Mats the boat is from him, and Miss Anna realises her mistake and backs down. But poor old Mats (and the reader) are left pretty confused.

At a ceremony at the boat-builders all three are present when the brothers reveal the final finished boat and Mats, called on to name it, christens it Katri. It’s certainly the right decision but it’s been a tortuous route getting here. Katri tries to apologise to Miss Anna, telling her it was all lies, everything she said about the shopkeepers diddling her and the publishers giving her bad deals and so on. Miss Anna listens patiently but knows that, now, Katri is lying to try and fix everything. Mats gives Katri an exquisite model of the boat of his dreams which he has been working on all of this time. Miss Anna takes a newly dominant, commanding tone, and tells Katri to be quiet and go and lie down for a rest.

And then, on the final page, Miss Anna goes out to the forest, now clear of snow, elaborately sets up her drawing equipment, and begins one of her inspired and luminous portrayals of the forest undergrowth.

Anna sat and waited for the morning mist to draw off through the woods. The silence she needed was complete. And when every bothersome element had departed, the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow. Cluttering the ground with flowery rabbits would have been unthinkable. (p.201)

So I think what happens, is that Miss Anna has been through a kind of growing experience. At first she was shocked by Katri’s revelation of the brutality and two-facedness of the world around her – the cheating shop-keepers, the gossiping the villagers, the upsetting burglary – into artistic impotence. She had become hard like Katri, too hard to still be open and receptive to the childish vision which allowed her to paint.

But now, here at the very end of the story, after watching Katri abase herself in apology, after watching Mats get his dream boat come true, now… now her gift has returned – but in adult form. I think it means she can draw the forest floor as before, but this time untainted by silly commercial cartoons.

So I think this part, at least, of the novel has turned out to be about artistic growth and rebirth. It’s a happy ending. Sort of…

Simplicity

Paragraph after paragraph opens with clear, simple declarative sentences, building up a sense of tremendous clarity and simplicity.

  • It had been snowing along the coast for a month.
  • The boat builders in Västerby were proud men.
  • Mats came home from the boatyard as dusk came on.
  • A white wrought-ironflower table ran beneath the window in Anna’s bedroom.
  • Katri walked out towards the point.
  • Anna always thought of herself as a painter of the ground.
  • They had come home.

Credit is due to the translator Thomas Teal, since it is his words that we are actually reading. It would be fascinating to get his opinion: did he find Jansson easy or hard to translate. I bet he’d say her vocabulary in the original Swedish is simple, but full of nuances and delicacy which is hard to translate – but that’s a guess.

Jansson’s Nordic appeal

1. Foreign books escape the clutches of the British, or specifically, English class system. English books sooner or later have to categorise, slot, define and contain their characters by their class and location – Northerners are rough, southerners are public school toffs, yummy mummies, London chavs and so, tediously, on.

Foreign books know nothing of all this and so often appear more primal and basic, treating people as people. It has to be pointed out to us that someone is a peasant or poor; the characters come without the infestation of social signifiers we are used to in our own language.

2. Also, Jansson’s books deliberately ignore the modern world. There are hardly any machines, no planes or cars, coaches, buses, noise, air or light pollution in them. The village postman skis into the nearby town to collect the mail and groceries. Instead, her characters live on remote islands close to nature. It’s a shock when they even use the telephone.

3. These qualities of being outside the English class system and the complete absence of 20th century technology, combine with Jansson’s carefully simple style to give her stories the tremendous force of folk or fairy tales. On page two Katri’s father goes off north to buy a load of timber and never comes back. That doesn’t happen in English fiction. That happens in Viking sagas or fantasy fiction.

4. And there’s the snow, the white primal backdrop to all the events in this novel, snow in depth and abundance and permanence unknown to an English audience.

Thus all the characters and situations have this simple, white, primary quality. In the Moomin books she draws cute forest animals onto this backdrop. In the stories about children (The Summer Book) the children’s nightmares, obsessions, fears and safe spaces are all the more vivid for standing out against the (deceptively simple) natural backdrops.

In this book for the first time we encounter a number of adults, each with that terrible adult habit of having their own lives, characters, motivations and feelings. And the primitiveness of their motivations and responses are as starkly drawn as in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman film.

Instability of narrator and time

Several of the short stories in Art in Nature switched narrator in mid-story, or cut between a third-person narrator and the first-person point of view of the main character (The LocomotiveA Sense of Time).

The same happens here (though more in the first half, when we are watching Katri hatch her plan to be taken into Miss Anna’s household). The conventional third person narration will suddenly jump, in the next paragraph, to Katri sharing her thoughts and plans with us. The tense changes too, the third person being in the past tense, the first person in the fraught present tense.

It’s enjoyable. It makes the text modern and dynamic. But it’s also natural. It doesn’t feel forced or show-offy. One moment we’re watching the villagers or Miss Anna from outside, next we’re in Katri’s head, reading her thoughts. Fair enough.

But at my back I always here…

Since noticing it in the final Moomin book, Moominvalley in November, I now see everywhere in Jansson’s fiction the same cluster or ideas and words, namely tiredness and the wish for rest & sleep. The characters are always tired:

  • Somehow the sister was always around, and her brother was behind her. It was unendurable, and it made Edvard Liljeberg very tired. (p.54)
  • ‘You look tired, Lijeberg said, ‘You shouldn’t take life so seriously,’ (p.176)

They long for somewhere calm and peaceful, away from people, away from bother and vexation, somewhere ordered and tranquil: both Miss Anna’s often empty house and the boatyard after work are examples of this divine tranquility.

The wind was making a racket against the metal roof but, but the vast [boatshed] seemed hugely calm and peaceful. The hull of a boat under construction was visible in the half-light, its giant ribcage in silhouette against the far wall of the windows. Broad boards that would soon be planking hung in bundles from the ceiling, and there was a smell of shavings and tar and turpentine. Katri understood why her brother always wanted to come back here to this protected world where everything was correct and clean. (p.145)

The best rest, though, the most perfect peace, is found in sleep, to which the characters resort with great frequency. They are always sleeping or waking. After this or that excitement, the natural reaction is to take a nap, go to bed, curl up in a snug bed and drift off.

Down on the road, Katri tossed the potato sack into a snowdrift and went home. For the first time in ages, she slept in a cradle of gentle dreams free of desolation and anxiety. (p.81)

When Anna lived alone, she had not noticed how often she let the daylight hours vanish in sleep. Letting sleep come closer, soft as mist, as snow; reading the same sentence again and again until it disappeared in the mist and no longer had any meaning… (p.99)

This cluster of ideas – ‘tiredness-sleep’ – is at one end of the spectrum, so to speak, the polar opposite of the other main cluster of ideas circling round states of psychological unease, disquiet and anxiety. Katri is anxious about money and Mats and the future and the narrative can be read as recording the way she infects Miss Anna with her anxieties. But many of the minor characters – the shopkeeper, the postman, the boatbuilder – at various points are described as anxious.

So, stepping back, it’s possible to see that although the individual narratives and the numerous characters in Tove Jansson’s adult stories may come and go – this polarity between anxiety and rest underlies nearly all the texts.

Of course, most readers and critics react to the characters, the plot and the settings, which are varied, clever and acutely described.

But I think the enduring sense readers of Tove Jansson have of her books’ calm beauty is due to the way, at a subconscious level, each text repeats this transition, moving the reader from scenes of anxiety to repeated and wonderfully evocative scenes of complete rest, calm and comfort. And it is these wonderfully reassuring spaces which are the abiding emotional memory left by her stories.

I wish the whole village could be covered and erased and finally clean… Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where the dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases into twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual. (p.28)

They went into the parlour. The same soft lighting, the same sense of emptiness and changelessness and dreamlike, compulsory slow motion. (p.58)

Jansson’s recurrent images of a wonderfully safe space have a kind of cleansing effect on the imagination. I’m tempted to say that they have a similarly cleansing, purifying effect as a Finnish sauna.


Credit

Den ärliga bedragaren by Tove Jansson was published in 1982. It was translated as The True Deceiver by Thomas Teal and first published by Sort of Books in 2009.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland @ The National Gallery

In 1999 the National Gallery bought a painting of Lake Keitele by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. To their surprise the painting has gone on to become one of the most popular in the Gallery’s immense collection of European art. In fact, this is the only painting by Gallen-Kallela in a British public collection.

Now, to celebrate the centenary of Finland’s independence as a nation (Finland’s Independence Day is December 6, today!), the National Gallery has created a one-room exhibition devoted to Lake Keitele and a dozen or so other works by one of Finland’s iconic artists, and it is FREE.

Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © The National Gallery, London

Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © The National Gallery, London

All the other works in the room are from abroad, from Finland or Sweden, several from private collections, so this is a very rare, probably unique opportunity to see most of these paintings. And indeed this is the first exhibition in the UK ever devoted to Gallen-Kallela.

Lake Keitele

Gallen-Kallela was obsessed with this view and painted it at least four times. All four variations are here, hanging next to each other, allowing a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast them and to see how his vision evolved.

It’s odd the way that, if you stand close up, the grey bars across the lake look utterly abstract, as if part of some modernist painting. But the further back you step, the more it looks like the effect you sometimes really see on water, of great stretches which for some reason (zephyrs of wind? air pressure?) lie completely flat and calm, thus having a different tint from the choppy wavy stretches around them.

Seeing all four in a row also draws attention to the frames of the four versions: they are strikingly different and it’s instructive to realise how much of a difference the frames make to how you perceive the paintings. Version one has a jet black frame and feels austere and cold; whereas the final version is surrounded by a lush and embellished gilt frame, which makes it seem much more open, expansive and sweepingly panoramic.

Landscapes and illustrations

Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) appears to have been mostly a painter of rural scenes in a semi-realistic style. Other paintings in the room have titles like ‘Boats on the shore’, ‘Lake view’, ‘Clouds’, ‘Clouds above a lake’, ‘Lakeside landscape’.

So: he conceived of the Finnish landscape as an expression of Finnish nationalism.

There are three exceptions to this general rule, two of them depictions of women on a lake.

I liked the scene depicted below, it’s from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. The old man on the left is a seer or prophet, being rowed by naked maidens. (Nice work if you can get it.) I like it because

a) it’s a bit more complex than just clouds over a lake, however well done
b) I really like the shape of the young woman foreground centre which, on reflection, is because of the clarity of her outline, done in a strong black which itself sets off the immensely skilful deployment of a whole range of skin tones to give light and presence to her torso
c) I have a taste for sketchy unfinished work (cf Degas) and so am also drawn to the way the boat and the women at bottom right are left unfinished.

The whole thing may have been a preparatory sketch but that makes it all the more powerful, for me.

Väinämöinen with Maidens (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Photo courtesy of the owner

Väinämöinen with Maidens (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Photo courtesy of the owner

Modern art

Gallen-Kallela travelled widely and was well aware of contemporary movements in north European art. He was, according to a wall label, briefly a member of the German Expressionist movement, Die Brücke. This flavour in his work, heading towards a really garish expressionism, is epitomised by Oceanides, the human figures deliberately stylised and ungainly and with a purely decorative colour scheme. Isn’t the idea of vertical orange and brown stripes to describe sea water wonderfully bonkers / visionary / beautiful?

Oceanides (1909) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland © Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Mäkinen

Oceanides (1909) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland © Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Mäkinen

A range of styles

Most of the other works in the room are much more realistic than these two. In fact a glance at the works on Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Wikipedia page show that the mostly landscape images here are only one strand among quite a number of different styles or ‘voices’ which he was equally competent in.

Some of these look like excellent late-Victorian book illustrations (Kullervo cursing), reminding us this is the era of Arthur Rackham in England, and the golden age of fairy tale / nationalist folk collections, all across Europe. The commentary at the exhibition describes this kind of style as ‘vigorous and archaic’ which strikes me as conveying the way this strand in his work seems ultra-modern and yet ancient, at the same time.

Some are rural scenes in the style of George Clausen (Boy and Crow; Old woman with a cat). Others have brutally clear, hard black outlines almost of stained glass (Lemminkäinen’s Mother). Some are Nordic kitsch (Shepherd Boy from Paanajärvi). Only a few convey any sense of being in urban settings in the 20th century (Symposium, Démasquée).

Anyway, back in room 1 at the National Gallery, the overall sense of this small selection is of acutely perceived nature paintings teetering on the edge of abstraction, the silver bars across the lake in the central work, and the clouds in many others ceasing to be cloud-shaped and turning into zoomorphic forms. Evidence that right across Europe, from Italy to the Arctic Circle, artists were feeling a modernist impulse to progress beyond realism into new realms of abstract shapes and vibrant, non-naturalistic colour.

With all this in mind, if you look closely, you can read this movement – the gradual shift from a directly observed, naturalistic landscape to a more stylised and abstracted image – in the four versions of Lake Keitale hanging here side by side.

Finlandia

Since everyone else will be doing it, I might as well join in by including the most famous piece of music by Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, Finlandia, written during the heyday of Gallen-Kallela’s career (1899). This YouTube version features some awesome footage of Finland’s landscape and wildlife.

Gallen-Kallela’s own fiercely patriotic intent is exemplified by a stained glass window on display here, with the stirring title, Rouse Thyself Finland! It’s a decorative schema of Rackhamesque fir trees flanking a classic view of a tree-lined lake which also features a great bar of reflected light across it – presumably to echo the theme of the show, and to demonstrate use of the ‘bar of light’ motif in a different medium.

Rouse Thyself Finland! ( 1896) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Gallen-Kallela Museum / photo Hannu Aaltonen

Rouse Thyself Finland! ( 1896) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Gallen-Kallela Museum / photo Hannu Aaltonen

Somewhere like the Dulwich Picture Gallery should organise an entire exhibition about Gallen-Kallela. I’d go just to see more of the fabulous book illustrations.

YouTube gallery

On YouTube there’s a gallery of 207 works by Gallen-Kallela accompanied by a relaxing soundtrack. This montage gives a sense of his rather unnervingly wide range of styles.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell @ The National Gallery

A loan from the Burrell Collection

The Burrell Collection Glasgow is currently closed for a major refurbishment until 2020. Among other things it houses a spectacular collection of works by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas who, as it happens, passed away a hundred years ago this September (1834–1917). So what better way to celebrate this centenary – and display works which would otherwise be gathering dust in a warehouse somewhere – than by loaning this priceless collection to the National Gallery in London, where it nicely complements the National Gallery’s own collection of Degas pastels?

Thus, in the Ground Floor galleries (conveniently close to the café and restaurant) you can visit this fabulous FREE exhibition of 13 pastels, three drawings, and four oil paintings by Degas, the first time that most of them have been seen outside Glasgow since they were acquired in the early 1900s.

At the Jewellers(1887) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

At the Jewellers (1887) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The show is downstairs in the fairly newish exhibition space of the Annenberg Wing. The light is deliberately dimmed to preserve works which, we are told, have already faded significantly in their 130 years of existence. It’s like entering a cathedral and oh, what entrancing, ravishing objects are here to worship!

There are some oil paintings, a few rough sketches and one statue – but this show is mostly about Degas’s supernatural gift with pastels – and what a gift it was!

The wall panels (and the book in the shop outside) liberally describe Degas as the most gifted draughtsman of the 19th century and his skill at creating outlines and shapes is breath-taking. Look at the horse on the far right of Jockeys in the rain. The closer you look the more perfect it becomes.

Jockeys in the Rain (1883-6) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Jockeys in the Rain (1883-6) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

His early training was academic, trained to draw in studios with a spell in Rome to sketch and draw from classical masters. But he wasn’t satisfied and embarked on a lifelong course of technical experimentation with materials, and particularly with the supremely flexible medium of pastel that he came to prefer over painting in oil.

Degas had a deep interest in Japanese prints and helped bring them to public attention in 1870s Paris. He used photographs as models for his subjects. And he studied classical friezes for their posing of the human subject and of horses.

Pastel became increasingly important to Degas in his later years at a time when, coincidentally, brilliant colour began to play an essential role in the contemporary art he admired, and his own eyesight started to fail. The tactile immediacy and luminous colours of pastel, as well as its ephemeral and fragile quality, allowed him to create astonishingly bold and dynamic works of art, distinct from those of his fellow Impressionists.

Degas and pastels

  1. Smooth In his early works (1870s) Degas uses pastels ‘unfixed’ by oil or fixative; they are flat, and highly smudged and blended in order to create an oil painting effect.
  2. Rough and lined As he became more proficient (1880s) Degas came to use a ‘fixative’ between successive layers of pastel to build up layers, to create what experts call a ‘crust’. In tandem he dropped the technique of blurring and adopted strong, visible, directional strokes, strikingly virile lines which seem gouged across the paper as you look closely. The harshness of this cross-hatching is evident in the two works above which are to a large extent made up out of lines.
  3. Colour As the 19th century progressed industrial scientists developed new ranges of vivid and vibrant colours. These became available as readymade oil paints in tubes – which greatly helped the Impressionists aim of painting out of doors, far from the studio. But they also became available as pastel sticks, sticks made from chalk, binding agents and dyes.
  4. Water Degas developed a technique of dipping the tips of the pastel sticks into water in order to dab thick and bright highlights on top of finished works, for example the decorative highlights on the dresses of the Three dancers

Innovations

Degas was one of the greatest artistic innovators of his age.

1. Subject matter

He turned from the traditional subjects and technical conventions of his training to find new ways to depict modern, urban life. In Degas’s work, both the highs and lows of Parisian life are depicted: from scenes of elegant spectators and jockeys at the racecourse, to tired young women ironing in subterranean workshops.

His most famous subjects were ballet dancers, generally caught in informal, behind-the-scenes moments; and women at their toilette, bathing or combing their hair. If we didn’t know it before, we learn that Degas lived close to the Paris Opera where ballet was performed and gained regular entrance to the rehearsal studios, and even to the wings of the theatre itself.

2. Private moments

With his intimate depictions of women bathing or combing their hair Degas knew he was subverting artistic tradition. Until his time women had mostly been posed in a way that presupposed an audience (for example, the great odalisques of Ingres). Degas’ women aren’t posing for anyone.

Woman in a Tub (1896-1901) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Woman in a Tub (1896-1901) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The apparent crudity and the unashamed frankness of these works shocked and repelled contemporary audiences. Obviously we in 2017 have seen and read everything, nothing shocks us. But these works momentarily begged the question: are they more ‘natural’ than the Ingres/Salon tradition of perfectly portrayed naked women? Or are they more creepily ‘voyeuristic’? Is there something suspect about viewing naked women at such vulnerable and exposed moments?

The wall labels raise this question without resolving it: I think the answer is that the subject matter is mostly eclipsed by the technique. Sure, they’re scantily clad women; but quite obviously there is nothing salacious or pornographic about them – there are hardly any bare boobs whereas there are lots of backs bent or stretching. The real interest of the pictures is in their unusual composition, and especially in their vibrant use of colour.

3. Unconscious movements

Having studied the human figure as it is carefully posed in art school, in statues and in all previous art, Degas was restless to capture fleeting movements and impressions of modern life. His private women, the famous ballet dancers, and the jockeys, are all caught in off-guard poses.

You never (so far as I know) see the horses racing. You see them jostling nervously before, or calming down exhaustedly after, the race.

Similarly, the hundreds of sketches, pastels, oils and sculptures he made of ballet dancers are very rarely of performances – overwhelmingly, they’re of ballerinas backstage, or from the wings, in rehearsal, resting, stretching. The show includes an example of a ballerina adjusting a shoulder strap. Moments like that. Or these three ballerinas. What are they doing? Where are they? In a rehearsal studio? In the wings during a performance?

Unofficial locations, off-guard moments, unconscious gestures. (Look at the hand of the ballerina on the right. The other two ballerinas pressing against the wall or theatre ‘flat’.)

The Red Ballet Skirts (1900) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The Red Ballet Skirts (1900) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

And yet these fleeting moments are given an extraordinary permanence. The stunning contrast between vibrant orange of the tutus and the lurid green of the flat create an incredibly visual dynamic. But is is the very strong outlines  in black (look at the confidence of the black strokes over the tutus to indicate folds of fabric) and the fact that the figures are lit from above, which combine to give the image a monumental, sculpted feel.

4. Composition

Several points about the compositions:

Ungainly He is interested in the ungainly in human posture. In no way is the woman bending over in her bathtub gracious. In fact, the more you look at her the more her posture begins to dissolve into a purely formal arrangement of colours. (Degas was affected by the later, semi-abstract work of Gauguin.) What do his two most famous subjects, ballerinas and horse, have in in common? They are both in constant motion, an endless supply of odd, awkward, spontaneous, fleeting poses.

Cropped Degas had the habit of cropping images in mid-person or subject. Many of the horse pictures crop horses half way through. None of the examples I’ve included really show this brutal cropping, but some in the exhibition do. It’s related, in some of them, to the way he often began a composition on one sheet, and then added other sheets around it, as the composition grew. Sounds odd, but you can see the joins in several of these works (which you are allowed to view from gloriously close-up, really feeling every stroke of the pastel stick).

Cramped Degas’ routine cropping of subjects is accompanied by his often experimental construction of pictorial space. The people depicted are frequently cramped right into the frame of the picture. Take the vertiginous perspective of the two women crammed together in the work at the top of this post, At the Jewellers or the way the two women in a theatre box are cropped at the edges to make us feel as if we’re thrust right into the scene in the final picture below, Women in a Theatre Box.

Empty Conversely, there can be oddly empty space, as in Woman in a Tub. Come to think of it, where is this tubbing taking place? Where are the details of the room which would give it perspective and context, window, door, carpet, mirror, cupboards? Is the white patch on the left a rug? You realise the tub and woman are floating in an abstract orange space.

A little more intelligible, more readable, is the great gap on the left of Jockeys in the Rain. Combined with the unusually realistic depiction of the horizon, very high in the picture, the composition creates a great sense of space, itself indicating… what? The restlessness of horses, and riders, jostling and shuffling, ready for the race to begin? And why on earth is it in the rain? The scattered blue slashes of pastel from top right are also on a (mild) diagonal and, once you notice them, add to the sense of unease and restlessness.

Empty or cramped or oddly cropped, Degas is always experimenting with compositional space.

Unfinished Degas had a lifelong habit of leaving works unfinished, whether it’s because he was a perfectionist, or restless to move on, or on aesthetic principles, is difficult to gauge. Different models and colleagues have left different accounts of his feverish impatience.

Look at At the jewellers (above). Not only are the two ‘finished’ figures awkward and cramped but (and I have to admit I didn’t notice this at first, maybe because I was standing too close to it) but there’s an entire third figure on the right, barely sketched in and left completely abandoned. Why? Lots of the ballet dancer works reveal big patches of unprepared canvas left exposed.

You can see how this could be part of the aesthetic of catching life on the fly, on the move, the brief unconscious gestures of his subjects, patting their hair or adjusting a strap – just those quick fleeting glimpses of entirely modern life which – as Degas knew from his impeccably classical training – nobody in the history of art had tried to capture before.

So maybe their incompleteness is part of the fleetingness.

5. Colour

Some of the sketches are more or less monochrome and the oil paintings are fairly conventional in colouring – but the pastel works – wow! They are an explosion of the most vivid reds and greens and blues, mauves and oranges.

Three Dancers (1900-5) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Three Dancers (1900-5) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

It’s striking to see green used so routinely to convey flesh colour (see the haunch of the woman in the tub) but in fact this technique goes back to the Renaissance.

But the real shock is the red and oranges. The background to the woman in a tub or the women in a box and the ballerinas’ dresses. Wow. It is a shocking and intense colour which dominates the exhibition rooms and has, appropriately enough, been chosen as the exhibition poster. Incredibly, conservationists have shown that the colours were all originally much more intense but that exposure to light has faded them. Dayglo Degas!

In these works you can really see why he came to love pastel: not only were a) new industrially-developed and astonishingly vivid colours available, but b) you can build up a real depth of colour by repeated hatching and ‘fixing’ and colouring again but c) but without having to paint right up to the lines, as you’re obliged to in oil, able to leave large amounts of the surface rough and patchy – the hatching style gives you visual permission to do this – and so d) fulfilling the contemporary, fleeting, impressionist aesthetic.

The commentary uses words like iridescent, fluorescent, vibrant, but words can’t really do justice to quite how astonishingly, violently loud these colours are. They leap off the surface. And yet this vibrancy is always mediated, compromised, somehow made all-the-more dynamic, by the very obvious hatching, the rough bare lines of blue or orange or black which create a tremendous sense of dynamism and excitement.

It’s small, it’s free, but this is one of the most visually exciting exhibitions I’ve been to in ages.

Women in a Theatre Box (1885-90) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Women in a Theatre Box (1885-90) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

P.S.

Nowhere in the exhibition information did it mention that the National Gallery does have other Degas works on display, upstairs in room 42. Worth walking up a flight of stairs and through a few rooms to make your Degas experience complete!

Video

Most galleries nowadays produce short highlights videos to promote their exhibitions. But the National Gallery is now making available recordings of the fifty-minute-long lectures or introductions to their main exhibitions, given by the exhibition curators.

This is an excellent idea, as it helps you get a real sense of what the curators are trying to do, of the practical problems of arranging exhibitions by theme or chronology or medium and so on, plus snippets and insights not available at the show itself.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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