Notes on William Congreve

This short post consists of the interesting points from the introduction to the 1985 Penguin edition of Congreve’s plays, introduced and edited by Eric S. Rump. (I’m afraid I find it funny that a man who edited a book full of smutty jokes was called Rump.)

Congreve was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1670. His family moved to Ireland where he was educated at Kilkenny College – where he met fellow student Jonathan Swift, b.1667 – and at Trinity College in Dublin.

Aged 19, in 1689, Congreve left Ireland to travel to London and make his fortune as a wit. Aged 22 he published a novel titled Incognita: or, Love and Duty reconcil’d, whose title sounds like a play.

He befriended John Dryden, the leading literary figure of the age, who supported him through the rest of his career, writing rave reviews and introductions to his plays.

A year later his first comedy, The Old Bachelor, was performed. In all, Congreve write just four comedies, and in a relatively short career of seven years. They are:

  • The Old Bachelor (1693)
  • The Double Dealer (1693)
  • Love for Love (1695)
  • The Way of the World (1700)

And one tragedy:

  • The Mourning Bride (1697)

Congreve abandoned the stage for good in 1700, just as he turned 30.

A ‘good’ run for a play in those days was fourteen nights. Thus The Old Bachelor was a runaway success and played for… fourteen nights! A failure ran for three nights, the bare minimum required to cover its costs, a fact referred to in several of the plays themselves. William Wycherley’s second play, Love In A Wood, was not a success, ran for just 6 nights, and was never revived in his lifetime.

The Old Bachelor is, according to Rump, ‘a play in which a young, talented writer is content to re-explore the comic territory earlier mapped out by writers such as Etherege and Wycherley, but in doing so, is able to bring to the material’. It has freshness and distinctiveness.

It is also notable for the skill with which Congreve gives each character their own speech rhythms. Some critics claim you could be given any bit of dialogue from any of his four plays and be able to identify the character solely from their speech rhythms and idiolect. Rump thinks that’s pushing it a bit, but the fact people suggest this shows the care Congreve took to give each character their own distinctive speech patterns.

Congreve’s fourth and final play, the Way of The World, followed a gap of five years and was much-anticipated. It opened to great expectation and was presented by an all-star cast – but it was a relative failure. Why?

Well, it was by 1700 twelve years since the Glorious Revolution had swept away the Stuart kings and their world of carefree aristocratic hedonism. The new queen, Mary II, was more like Queen Victoria. She was not amused by the stage’s persistent attacks on marriage and conventional morality.

The times had changed. The overthrow of James II in 1688 represented not just a change in monarch but the triumph of the new mercantile class over the libertine aristocrats of Charles’s court.

Did Congreve intend to cease writing for the stage after The Way of the World bombed? He was certainly stung by the criticism of his plays included in the detailed critique of the stage written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), so much so that he wrote a long reply, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations.

But Collier was merely reflecting what many people felt by the late 1690s. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had been founded in 1692 and began to bring lawsuits against playwrights for outraging public morality. So did Congreve abandon the stage with an aristocratic flourish of disdain? No.

The record shows that Congreve continued his association with the stage after The Way. He shared with Vanbrugh the management of the new Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Semele, set first by Eccles and a lot later by Handel. He translated the works of Molière, and produced over the next ten years a trickle of poetry and translations of Latin classics for various collections – in other words he continued to be active in the theatre and in literature and letters. But he never again wrote a play.

In 1714, on the accession of the Whig Hanoverian King George, Congreve was given financial security with the award of a sinecure, Secretary to the island of Jamaica. He never married but had dalliances with several aristocratic ladies, most notably Henrietta Godolphin, second Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. They probably met some time before 1703 and the duchess subsequently had a daughter, Mary, who was believed to be his child. Upon his death, Congreve left his entire fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough.

William Congreve died in London in January 1729 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Reviews of William Congreve

Reviews of other Restoration comedies

Introduction to The Plays of William Wycherley by W.C. Ward (1893)

Old literary criticism is often valuable because it sees works of literature in the round, as a whole. Its judgements are often mature, made by people who have seen a lot of life and often had other full-time careers, as lawyers, politician and so on. So their opinions are aware of and take into account a range of audiences and their essays are written in a language designed to be accessible to all literate readers.

All this contrasts with the highly professionalised nature of contemporary literary criticism, generally written by people who have little or no experience of life beyond the academy; written in fierce competition with other academics and so often focusing on narrow and highly specific aspects of works or genres where the author desires to carve out a niche; and written in a jargon which has become steadily more arcane and removed from everyday English over the past forty years or so.

This kind of modern literary criticism is contained in expensive books destined to be bought only by university libraries, or in remote articles in any one of hundreds of subscription-only specialist journals. It is not, in other words, designed for the average reader. Nowadays, literary criticism is an elite discourse.

Older criticism can also be humane and funny, and can afford to be scathingly critical of its authors, in a way modern po-faced and ‘professional’ criticism often daren’t.

The 1893 edition of The Plays of William Wycherley which Project Gutenberg chose for their online library includes an introduction to Wycherley’s plays by the edition’s editor, W.C. Ward, followed by an extended biographical essay by Thomas Babington Macauley which dates from even earlier, from the 1850s.

(If this appears very old fashioned a) it is, and b) several of the Wikipedia articles about Wycherley appear to be cut and pastes of the relevant articles from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Introduction by WC Ward

Comedies of Manners Ward describes the Restoration comedies as Comedies of Manners, contrasting them with Shakespeare’s plays which he calls Comedies of Life.

Aristocratic audiences Restoration comedies only illustrate one aspect of life, and that the most superficial – the courtly badinage of aristocrats having affairs. They were initially designed for a tiny, upper-class clientele, and kept that sense of targeting a select audience which ‘gets’ its attitude and in-jokes.

Displays of wit The plays were designed to display Wit and Ingenuity – all other human activities, all other human emotions and psychology, are simply omitted in pursuit of these goals. Their dialogue is not intended to reveal the characters’ psychology or development. It exists solely to display the author’s Wit and to further the ‘Plot’, which also exists solely to demonstrate the author’s ingenuity.

Robot characters The characters are not people, they are ‘simulacra… puppet semblances of humanity’. They only copy human behaviour insofar as is required to further the clockwork plots.

This narrow mechanical aspect of the characterisation is, in Ward’s view, paradoxically a redeeming factor when we come to consider the plays’ indecency and immorality.

Licentiousness always superficial The very fact that the characters are barely human, are really flashy automata, means that their licentiousness and cynicism has no real depth. It doesn’t affect us in the way the same speeches put into the mouths of real characters would affect us, because we know they are the baseless vapourings of toys.

Designed to amuse Ward also defends the plays against the frequent charge of licentiousness by pointing out that they are designed solely to amuse and make us laugh – they don’t even have the deeper ambition of Ben Jonson’s comedies, ‘to laugh us out of vice’.

Antidote to lust And, Ward says, the kind of superficial laughter they prompt on every page is in fact an antidote to lustful thoughts. The plays do not inflame the audience with genuinely licentious and immoral thoughts because the characters are so one-dimensional and the plots are so extravagantly ludicrous that real sexual thoughts never enter our heads.

Virtue triumphs Other critics charge that Restoration comedies only being Virtue on stage to be mocked and ridiculed, which is a bad thing. Ward admits that most of the characters lose no opportunity to mock honesty, hard work, sobriety, the law, business, chasteness and loyalty and fidelity and love. All true. But at the same time, love does eventually triumph (after a superficial fashion) the qualities of loyalty and virtue do, in the end, triumph.

Women of virtue And each play contains at least one female character, and sometimes a man, who is significantly less cynical than the other characters and becomes almost a defender of virtue. For example, Alithea in The Country Wife and Fidelia in The Plain Dealer are unironic emblems of Goodness and Virtue – and they and their values do, eventually, win the day.

Marriage mocked Other critics lament the way the sanctity of Marriage is routinely mocked, at length, continuously, throughout all the plays. Ward puts the defence that when you look closely, the specific examples of marriage being mocked are the marriages of ludicrous characters such as Pinchwife or Vernish. (This defence, in my opinion, is nowhere near adequate; all the characters mock marriage as a school for adulterers and cuckolds far more powerfully and continuously than Ward acknowledges.)

Wycherley’s poetry Ward goes on from Wycherley’s plays to discuss Wycherley’s poetry, which was published in two volumes late in his life and about which he is entertainingly rude. The poems are, in Ward’s opinion (and everyone else’s – he quotes Wycherley’s contemporaries) utterly worthless, beneath criticism. ‘Wycherley had no spark of poetry in his whole composition’.

It’s good to have this confirmed, as I thought the short poems which appear scattered through Wycherley’s plays were utterly lifeless.

Wycherley’s character As to his character:

It is not to be doubted that Wycherley participated in the fashionable follies and vices of the age in which he lived. His early intrigue with the Duchess of Cleveland was notorious.

The success of his plays drew him into aristocratic court circles which really did value the behaviour he describes.

Alexander Pope Late in life, Wycherley became a kind of mentor to the very young Alexander Pope, when the later was only 16 or 17 years old, and their correspondence, and also memoirs written about the great John Dryden, show that Wycherley was loved as a good friend by many of his contemporaries.

Essay by Thomas Babington Macauley

According to Joseph E. Riehl’s book about Charles Lamb and his critics, Macauley wrote his criticism of the Restoration dramatists at least in part as an attack or counter to Charles Lamb’s strong defence of them. Macauley argued that Restoration comedy is degrading to human relationships, and that it promoted ‘evil, perverted or shameful conduct’. I sympathise.

In the 22-page essay on the Gutenberg website, Macauley describes Wycherley’s life and character in some detail, with comments on the plays. Key points are:

Early life Wycherley was born in 1640. Young Wycherley was sent to France as a teenager, where he converted to Catholicism. After the Restoration of 1660, he went to Oxford, left without a degree, studied law at the Inns of Court just long enough to be able to make comic butts of lawyers and their hangers-on, as in The Plain Dealer.

Religious conversion Shrewdly, Wycherley converted back from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Macauley has a droll sense of humour and a nice turn of phrase:

The somewhat equivocal glory of turning, for a short time, a good-for-nothing Papist into a very good-for-nothing Protestant is ascribed to Bishop Barlow.

The Restoration court He gives a vivid sense of the promiscuity of Charles’s court:

The Duchess of Cleveland cast her eyes upon [Wycherley] and was pleased with his appearance. This abandoned woman, not content with her complaisant husband and her royal keeper, lavished her fondness on a crowd of paramours of all ranks, from dukes to rope-dancers.

The Dutch Wars He comments scornfully on the Dutch Wars:

The second Dutch war, the most disgraceful war in the whole history of England, was now raging. It was not in that age considered as by any means necessary that a naval officer should receive a professional education. Young men of rank, who were hardly able to keep their feet in a breeze, served on board the King’s ships, sometimes with commissions and sometimes as volunteers.

The Royal Navy There’s debate about whether Wycherley – like many other completely unqualified ‘gentleman’ – volunteered for the navy, but it would be nice to think so and that it gave verisimilitude to his depiction of Captain Manly and the sailors in The Plain Dealer.

The Country Wife he describes as:

one of the most profligate and heartless of human compositions… the elaborate production of a mind, not indeed rich, original or imaginative, but ingenious, observant, quick to seize hints, and patient of the toil of polishing.

Marriage and prison Wycherley was such a royal favourite that Charles appointed him tutor to his illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. However, Wycherley ruined his reputation with the king and swiftly lost the post of tutor by unwisely marrying the Countess of Drogheda, ‘a gay young widow’ in 1679. She was jealous and kept a close eye on him till she died young in 1685. He hoped he would leave her a fortune, but she left him a long and ruinous legal case. Possibly as a result of this, Wycherley was thrown into the Fleet prison where he languished for seven long years. The story goes that the newly crowned King James II (ascended the throne 1685) happened to see a performance of The Plain Dealer, asked about the author, was shocked to discover he was in gaol, paid his debts and settled an annuity on him.

Released, he was nonetheless impoverished, unable to sustain his old lifestyle, and unable to write another play. In 1704, after 27 years of silence, a volume of poetry appeared – ‘a bulky volume of obscene doggerel’.

Alexander Pope It was in the same year he formed the friendship with the young sickly hunchback Alexander Pope, who he mentored, took about town, and who in turn offered to rewrite and ‘improve’ the older man’s verse. Quite quickly Pope realised how dire Wycherley’s poetry was and that nothing could save it. Quite a few of their letters survive which shed light on both men.

Literary reputation Rests entirely on his last two plays, The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer. His characters are often little more than mouthpieces for the contrived wit of the time.

It was alleged he was a slow and painstaking author, but Pope claims he wrote The Plain Dealer in three weeks! Having just read both his hit plays, I am inclined to believe the slow and painstaking version. They both feel slow and laboured.

In truth, his mind, unless we are greatly mistaken, was naturally a very meagre soil, and was forced only by great labour and outlay to bear fruit which, after all, was not of the highest flavour.

Widow Blackacre Macauley is correct to say:

The widow Blackacre [is] beyond comparison Wycherley’s best comic character

In full flood she struck me as being almost a female Falstaff. But these few words of praise don’t stop Macauley taking every opportunity to damn Wycherley:

The only thing original about Wycherley, the only thing which he could furnish from his own mind in inexhaustible abundance, was profligacy.

Degrading French originals By which he means his low, mean, degraded subject matter. Macauley accuses him of taking the fine and graceful character of Agnes in the French play L’Ecole des Femmes and turning her into the degraded imbecile Mrs Pinchwife in The Country Wife.

Wycherley’s indecency is protected against the critics as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe, because it is too filthy to handle and too noisome even to approach.

Similarly, Macauley accuses him of taking the light and chaste character of Viola in Twelfth Night and turning her into the much narrower and lewder Fidelia, an attempt at loyalty and fidelity who in fact acts as a pimp for her master; and of taking the misanthropic but essentially noble character Alceste in Moliere’s Le Misanthrope and turning him into the much cruder and more vengeful Manly.

So depraved was his moral taste, that, while he firmly believed that he was producing a picture of virtue too exalted for the commerce of this world, he was really delineating the greatest rascal that is to be found even in his own writings.

Wow. Not the kind of unashamed contempt a modern literary critic would allow themselves. These two pretty old essays bring Wycherely’s life and times and character and works to life far more vividly than anything else I’ve read about him. And hence the value of older literary criticism. It tends to paint a fuller picture of the man, the times and the works. And not be afraid to give pungent judgements.


Related links

Reviews of Wycherley’s plays

Other Restoration comedies

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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