Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England in 1873, at the age of 20. He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo priasing numerous aspects of English life and London – and contains several rooms full of the English paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I looked at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered.

It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to paint a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison but in his own blocky style, to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job with the art dealing firm Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for the popular prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’.

VanGogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he included their names and his responses to their works, in his many letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not Van Gogh’s last painting! The painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. And so the aim of the display is to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

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The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham (1919)

The writer is more concerned to know than to judge. (Chapter 41)

After three volumes of short stories, I thought I’d try some of Maugham’s (shorter) novels.

This novel, very successful in its own day, is an account of a fictional English painter, ‘Charles Strickland’, who leaves his respectable job as a stockbroker and goes to seek his destiny as a painter first in Paris, then in the South Seas. It is loosely inspired by the career of French stockbroker-cum-artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). And it initially feels less appealing than the short stories because of the style.

Orotundity

In some of the short stories Maugham allows himself a page or so of meandering introduction, but generally he gets to the meat of the characters and their interaction quite quickly. In the novel, he has space for a much more leisurely approach and this results in a markedly more orotund and verbose style. He sounds pompous in a way he rarely does in the stories.

Here he is, early on, describing the impact of the war on the younger generation (bearing in mind that Maugham was 40 when the Great War broke out, 45 when this novel was published).

Now the war has come, bringing with it a new attitude. Youth has turned to gods we of an earlier day knew not, and it is possible to see already the direction in which those who come after us will move. The younger generation, conscious of strength and tumultuous, have done with knocking at the door; they have burst in and seated themselves in our seats. The air is noisy with their shouts. Of their elders some, by imitating the antics of youth, strive to persuade themselves that their day is not yet over; they shout with the lustiest, but the war cry sounds hollow in their mouth; they are like poor wantons attempting with pencil, paint and powder, with shrill gaiety, to recover the illusion of their spring. The wiser go their way with a decent grace. In their chastened smile is an indulgent mockery. They remember that they too trod down a sated generation, with just such clamor and with just such scorn, and they foresee that these brave torch-bearers will presently yield their place also. There is no last word. The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky. These gallant words which seem so novel to those that speak them were said in accents scarcely changed a hundred times before. The pendulum swings backwards and forwards. The circle is ever travelled anew.

Pompous, isn’t it? And waffle, empty of content. And sometimes incomprehensible. ‘The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky’ – there’s nothing that pointless in any of the short stories. Later on the narrator descants on the role of the conscience.

I take it that conscience is the guardian in the individual of the rules which the community has evolved for its own preservation. It is the policeman in all our hearts, set there to watch that we do not break its laws. It is the spy seated in the central stronghold of the ego. Man’s desire for the approval of his fellows is so strong, his dread of their censure so violent, that he himself has brought his enemy within his gates; and it keeps watch over him, vigilant always in the interests of its master to crush any half-formed desire to break away from the herd. It will force him to place the good of society before his own. It is the very strong link that attaches the individual to the whole. And man, subservient to interests he has persuaded himself are greater than his own, makes himself a slave to his taskmaster. He sits him in a seat of honour. At last, like a courtier fawning on the royal stick that is laid about his shoulders, he prides himself on the sensitiveness of his conscience. Then he has no words hard enough for the man who does not recognise its sway; for, a member of society now, he realises accurately enough that against him he is powerless. When I saw that Strickland was really indifferent to the blame his conduct must excite, I could only draw back in horror as from a monster of hardly human shape.

This may or may not be true or interesting, But it is certainly very wordy.

That said, this fairly short novel (217 pages in the Pan paperback edition) is divided into 58 chapters, giving an average of 3.75 pages per chapter. The point being that, although there are these occasional half page digressions, by and large the narrative moves on at quite a lick, moving from one scene to the next with a speed which makes it very readable.

1. The two narrators

The novel is told in the first person by a novelist. In the early scenes he is a young novelist who has just published his first book and is shy and nervous at the high-toned parties he finds himself being invited to. Presumably he’s in his early twenties. He spends five years in Paris, and then it’s fifteen years before he finds himself in Tahiti, so at least twenty years passes, which means he’s in his early or mid-forties.

Not unlike Maugham, who was born in 1874, published his first novel in 1897, aged 23, and made his first trip to the Pacific in 1916, aged 42.

The text itself is narrated by the older narrator which means that when he looks back on the early parts of the story, there’s quite a lot of commentary on the idealism of a young man, a beginner in ‘the world of letters’, on the social awkwardness of being a beginner in the art of letters, and so on – all set in stuffy upper-middle class Victorian society, all told with the urbane wisdom of age.

So there are a lot of sections starting with or including the thought – ‘When I look back I wonder at my young self, wonder that I didn’t realise, didn’t know, was too young to understand…’ and so on.

I was very young when I wrote my first book. By a lucky chance it excited attention… (p.13)

When I reflect on all that happened later… (p.26)

I did not know then how great a part is played in women’s life by the opinion of others… (p.38)

Now that I look back I am more than ever impressed by Stroeve’s acuteness…

Looking back, I realise that what I have written about Charles Strickland must seem very unsatisfactory.

Maugham’s own tone and voice, his worldly wisdom, is much evident in most of the short stories too, but there he really is an old man of the world, a tone and presence which I find reassuring and charming. But for some reason, I found his harping on about the immaturity of his younger self in this novel a bit irritating. Maybe because his younger ignorant and naive self just isn’t interesting.

His depiction of high society literary suppers is alright, his portraits of Mrs Strickland and her thick army brother-in-law are fun – but the novel only really comes alight when the narrator visits Strickland in Paris and discovers him to be completely transformed into a monster of egotism and obsession. That’s when the story catches fire and becomes really compelling. Maugham writing about Maugham (about being a writer, especially a naive young writer) is dull; Maugham writing incisively and analytically about almost anyone else is riveting.

2. The plot

The first-person narrator (he’s never named; let’s call him N), as part of his social life, encounters first Strickland’s wife, then the man himself, more or less as random elements of the social whirl experienced by a bright young novelist in London. These early scenes establish the tone and mores of the period, the stuffy late-Victorian 1890s, establishing Strickland as a boring suburban stockbroker, happily married to a wife who dabbles in a small way with holding a salon, or dinner parties, for low-level artists and writers.

1. Establishing scenes in London

N is taken up by the upper-middle class ladies who like the presence of artists and writers (though generally ignoring their art or writing) – a satire on the art-loving haute bourgeoisie of the 1890s. He is regularly invited to parties by the lion-hunter Rose Waterford. She introduces him to Mrs Strickland, who also hosts parties for the literary-minded. He visits Mrs Strickland, is told about her two lovely children, meets her stiff, unimaginative brother-in-law, Colonel MacAndrew, and finally Mr Strickland himself, an ugly commonplace man with large features. All part of the thrilling new social life he is enjoying.

One day the narrator bumps into Miss Waterford in the street, who tells him with glee in her eyes, that Strickland has run away from his wife. N goes right round to find Mrs Strickland in floods of tears being comforted by the stiff-upper-lip colonel. Next day he goes round again and a more controlled Mrs Strickland tells him about the letter Strickland wrote her, saying he had left for Paris and was never coming back. She asks the narrator to go to Paris, find Strickland and beg him to return.

2. Quick trip to Paris

N travels to Paris and discovers Strickland, not wasting money in a luxury hotel with some scarlet woman, as his wife and brother-in-law suspected, but living in a shabby pension, with no woman in sight. He surprises N (and the reader, a bit) by his complete insouciance. His wife is upset? ‘Doesn’t care.’ What about his children? ‘They’ve been pampered enough; time they stood on their own two feet.’ Where’s the other woman? ‘There’s isn’t another woman, you blasted fool.’ So why on earth has he walked out on his wife? Because he wants to paint, always has, did it as a kid, had to stop to earn a crust, been doing it recently at night school; now’s the time, now or never, to make a break and fulfil his dream.

Back in London Mrs S and the Colonel at first refuse to believe it. After a few days Mrs S accepts is and becomes extremely bitter: to have left her for another woman was at least understandable, and she could have hoped to defeat a rival. But he left her for an idea. There is no hope and her anger becomes complete. After discussion with friends, Mrs Strickland she sets up as a freelance typist for she is clever and quick.

3. Living in Paris

It is five years later. Mrs Strickland has by now set up a successful agency for typists. The Narrator informs her that he is going to Paris to live for a while and might contact her husband, and she doesn’t object to the narrator passing on her news.

But her wishes turn out to be completely irrelevant to what follows. She and London are completely forgotten when N arrives in Paris and encounters Strickland. He is now a very poor, shabby figure, who’s grown an enormous red beard and become known as notoriously rude and reclusive.

We are introduced to Dirk Stroeve, an artist the narrator met in Rome, a jolly stumpy fat man with red cheeks and blue eyes, who paints lamentably obvious commercial paintings of doe-eyed Italian peasants, which he can easily sell and make a living. It is an oddity that, although he himself paints lamentably rubbish paintings, he has an unerring eye for class in other artists – and he considers Strickland a genuine genius. He is obsessed with Strickland and regularly sees him. The narrator sees them together and observes Strickland’s deliberately cruel, humiliating treatment of his fat fan.

We get to know this setting and these characters in great depth – then Strickland falls ill. Characteristically, he has told no one and the narrator and Stroeve only hear about it by accident. They immediately go round and find Strickland in bed with a high fever, no food and nobody looking after him. They get food, drink and a doctor who prescribes medicine.

Back at his studio the narrator witnesses good-natured Stroeve asking his wife, Blanche, a placid, grey, unemotional woman who keeps his apartment in perfect order, if it’s alright if they move Strickland here, so as to look after him. The Narrator observes and describes all this with Maugham’s characteristic acuity. Stroeve’s wife fiercely resists, the excuse being how rude Strickland has always been to Stroeve, but the narrator thinks there’s something excessive about her protests.

Eventually she gives in and the narrator and Stroeve get Strickland into a cab and to Stroeve’s apartment. Here both he and his wife tend Strickland night and day. Slowly Strickland recovers. Slowly he gets up and walks around. Eventually he is up and painting again. The narrator meets Stroeve in a cafe and is surprised to see him unhappy. Strickland is painting – good – but refuses to have anyone round him: he has booted Stroeve out of his own studio!

Next thing he knows Stroeve comes knocking on the narrator’s door. Strickland has seduced and run off with his wife. So timid and concerned for everyone’s happiness, Stroeve is in tears but lets him. The narrator finds it very puzzling that the woman who fought so fiercely against Strickland going to stay with them, has now thrown in her lot with him.

There is much mulling over these events before the next decisive occurrence: Stroeve arrives on the narrator’s doorstep in floods of tears to announce that his wife has tried to kill herself. Strickland abandoned her and so she swallowed a load of oxalic acid. They go to the hospital but she refuses to see them, making Stroeve distraught. The attitude of the attending doctor and nurse, the hospital environment, are all described with a grim accuracy. On repeated visits Blanche refuses to see the narrator or anyone. Finally she dies of her injuries and the Narrator and Stroeve arrange the funeral together.

A week later Stroeve takes the narrator to dinner and tells him he’s going back to his native Holland. Over and again he wonders if he did right to ever leave. His father is a carpenter, son of carpenters. Maybe he’d have been happier if he’d followed his father’s trade and married the flaxen-haired girl next door.

Then Stroeve tells him about first the night he went back to the studio where Strickland and Blanche had been living, all in perfect order by the homely Blanche. And he had come across some of the paintings Strickland had made there. When he came across a stunning nude of Blanche he was seized with rage and went to destroy it, but couldn’t: as a keen appreciator of art he realised he was in the presence of the real thing. As he listens, the narrator describes the way:

I really felt something of the emotion that had caught him. I was strangely impressed. It was as though I were suddenly transported into a world in which the values were changed. I stood by, at a loss, like a stranger in a land where the reactions of man to familiar things are all different from those he has known. Stroeve tried to talk to me about the picture, but he was incoherent, and I had to guess at what he meant. Strickland had burst the bonds that hitherto had held him. He had found, not himself, as the phrase goes, but a new soul with unsuspected powers. It was not only the bold simplification of the drawing which showed so rich and so singular a personality; it was not only the painting, though the flesh was painted with a passionate sensuality which had in it something miraculous; it was not only the solidity, so that you felt extraordinarily the weight of the body; there was also a spirituality, troubling and new, which led the imagination along unsuspected ways, and suggested dim empty spaces, lit only by the eternal stars, where the soul, all naked, adventured fearful to the discovery of new mysteries. (Chapter 39)

Stroeve tells the Narrator he had gone to see Strickland and say goodbye. Amazingly, Stroeve asked Strickland if he wanted to come with him to Holland and live simply with his peasant mother and father. It was during this description of the simple homely life of his parents back in Holland that the reader feels the ghost of Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s ill-fated friend, hovering closest to the Stroeve character, despite Maugham’s attempts to distance his character from the legendary Dutch artist.

Then the narrator bumps into Strickland in the street. Characteristically, Strickland behaves like a monster, completely impervious to all the narrator’s conventional reproofs. So what if Blanche killed herself; it was her choice. So what if Stroeve’s world is in ruins. He chose her. And then Strickland tells us the story behind their marriage, namely that Blanche was a servant to a posh Italian family, the son of the family made her pregnant and they kicked her out on the street, where she tried to commit suicide. Stroeve found her, saved her, and married her.

This leads the narrator on to thoughts about the strangeness of people and the unknowability of human relationships. Specifically the way, for his part, Strickland loathes and hates sex as a distraction from his mission to pain, but when it comes, it seizes him like an animal.

I do not know what there was in the way he told me this that extraordinarily suggested the violence of his desire. It was disconcerting and rather horrible. His life was strangely divorced from material things, and it was as though his body at times wreaked a fearful revenge on his spirit. The satyr in him suddenly took possession, and he was powerless in the grip of an instinct which had all the strength of the primitive forces of nature. It was an obsession so complete that there was no room in his soul for prudence or gratitude.

For her part, Blanche showed a complex combination of ‘female’ traits. Her degradation, her attempted suicide after being kicked out by the Italian family, were not healed by marriage to the kind, loving Stroeve, She needed to re-enact the humiliation and sexual abasement of the original trauma – in that way Strickland’s brutal sexual needs and Blanche’s wish to be humiliated met and matched – but at the same time she wanted to reclaim him, to own him. At least that’s how Strickland sees it:

‘When a woman loves you she’s not satisfied until she possesses your soul. Because she’s weak, she has a rage for domination, and nothing less will satisfy her. She has a small mind, and she resents the abstract which she is unable to grasp. She is occupied with material things, and she is jealous of the ideal. The soul of man wanders through the uttermost regions of the universe, and she seeks to imprison it in the circle of her account-book. Do you remember my wife? I saw Blanche little by little trying all her tricks. With infinite patience she prepared to snare me and bind me. She wanted to bring me down to her level; she cared nothing for me, she only wanted me to be hers. She was willing to do everything in the world for me except the one thing I wanted: to leave me alone.’

I fully understand that this is two men talking about the motivations of a woman who has not only killed herself but was never given any voice in the novel; and that the whole thing is the creation of a male mind (Maugham’s). But it is nonetheless a very powerful portrait of this particular woman and of this particular relationship which she got into with Strickland.

When Blanche found out that Strickland was completely unreformable or controllable, having burned her boats with Stroeve, she took the only way out. Stroeve would have willingly taken her back. But Blanche realised she didn’t want to go back to being placidly accepted by the kindly Dutchman.

When Blanche saw that, notwithstanding his moments of passion, Strickland remained aloof, she must have been filled with dismay, and even in those moments I surmise that she realised that to him she was not an individual, but an instrument of pleasure; he was a stranger still, and she tried to bind him to herself with pathetic arts. She strove to ensnare him with comfort and would not see that comfort meant nothing to him. She was at pains to get him the things to eat that he liked, and would not see that he was indifferent to food. She was afraid to leave him alone. She pursued him with attentions, and when his passion was dormant sought to excite it, for then at least she had the illusion of holding him. Perhaps she knew with her intelligence that the chains she forged only aroused his instinct of destruction, as the plate-glass window makes your fingers itch for half a brick; but her heart, incapable of reason, made her continue on a course she knew was fatal. She must have been very unhappy. But the blindness of love led her to believe what she wanted to be true, and her love was so great that it seemed impossible to her that it should not in return awake an equal love.

Having heard all this, the narrator tells Strickland to his face that he is a loathsome, hateful, sorry apology of a man. Strickland laughs as he always does, and points out that the narrator likes his company because it makes him feel so superior. Which is why, when Strickland for the first and only time, invites the narrator to come and see his paintings – he goes.

Here in Strickland’s studio he sees something he’d never seen before: the crudity of the design, the roughness of the brushstrokes, the garish colours – this sounds, up to a point, as if describing the paintings of the real Paul Gauguin. However actual description is skipped over quickly so that the narrator can get to the psychological impact of the works, always what interests him most.

When I imagined that on seeing his pictures I should get a clue to the understanding of his strange character I was mistaken. They merely increased the astonishment with which he filled me. I was more at sea than ever. The only thing that seemed clear to me—and perhaps even this was fanciful—was that he was passionately striving for liberation from some power that held him. But what the power was and what line the liberation would take remained obscure. Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.

The final impression I received was of a prodigious effort to express some state of the soul, and in this effort, I fancied, must be sought the explanation of what so utterly perplexed me. It was evident that colours and forms had a significance for Strickland that was peculiar to himself. He was under an intolerable necessity to convey something that he felt, and he created them with that intention alone. He did not hesitate to simplify or to distort if he could get nearer to that unknown thing he sought. Facts were nothing to him, for beneath the mass of irrelevant incidents he looked for something significant to himself. It was as though he had become aware of the soul of the universe and were compelled to express it.

So the narrator (and reader) is left puzzling at length over a man who behaved appallingly to all around him but was driven by a higher calling, by fanatical devotion to his art.

With Strickland the sexual appetite took a very small place. It was unimportant. It was irksome. His soul aimed elsewhither. He had violent passions, and on occasion desire seized his body so that he was driven to an orgy of lust, but he hated the instincts that robbed him of his self-possession. I think, even, he hated the inevitable partner in his debauchery. When he had regained command over himself, he shuddered at the sight of the woman he had enjoyed. His thoughts floated then serenely in the empyrean, and he felt towards her the horror that perhaps the painted butterfly, hovering about the flowers, feels to the filthy chrysalis from which it has triumphantly emerged. I suppose that art is a manifestation of the sexual instinct. It is the same emotion which is excited in the human heart by the sight of a lovely woman, the Bay of Naples under the yellow moon, and the Entombment of Titian. It is possible that Strickland hated the normal release of sex because it seemed to him brutal by comparison with the satisfaction of artistic creation. It seems strange even to myself, when I have described a man who was cruel, selfish, brutal and sensual, to say that he was a great idealist. The fact remains.

And then, after several chapters of thoughts and meditation on these striking events – ‘A week later I heard by chance that Strickland had gone to Marseilles. I never saw him again.’

This concludes the lion’s share of the story. You feel that the love triangle between Strickland, Stroeve and Blanche was the dramatic core of the novel. It certainly leaves you shaken like one of  his best short stories, shaken and meditating on the behaviour and psychology of all three characters. And because they are three such strongly drawn characters the narrator’s post mortem on them and the events is interesting (unlike his thoughts on his own younger self, as mentioned earlier).

4. Marseilles

15 years later the narrator arrives in Tahiti on research for a book he’s writing. There is vivid description of the island, the air and the people. He meets one Captain Nichols who knew Strickland during the period when the latter arrived in Marseilles from Paris. Nichols is a dodgy character and he gives a lurid account of befriending Strickland on the streets of Marseilles and then their adventures cadging jobs, begging, living in flop houses. it’s quite a detailed account of the different establishments in Marseilles which give beggars, food, soup and lodging, which reminded me of the journalistic detail of George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London. Eventually, they get on the wrong side of a tough mulatto named Tough Bill. Strickland lays him out in a bar room brawl, but they hear the gang master has vowed to kill him, so Strickland wangles a job on the first ship out of Marseilles, which happens to be heading for the Pacific.

The chapters describing all this are interesting in themselves, but also because Maugham paints an amusing portrait of Nichols himself as a henpecked wastrel, at the beck and call of his starched thin-lipped wife. And in a throwaway last sentence, remarks that the whole sequence of events may be no more than a fantasy, given that Nichols is a famous liar and fantasist.

5. Tahiti

In Tahiti the narrator meets various characters who provide glimpses and views of Strickland in his final years there, including the Jewish trader Cohen, the obese hotel owner Tiaré Johnson who arranged for Strickland to marry a fifteen-year-old local girl, Captain Brunot (who tells the narrator his own story about buying and settling a small offshore atoll), and Doctor Coutras, fat and good natured, who diagnoses Strickland with the leprosy which eventually kills the painter.

Several years pass, and Coutras tells the story of his final visit to Strickland’s remote hut, to find his wife, Ata, weeping, and Strickland’s dead body on the mat. He had been blind for the final year of his life.

And inside the hut he discovers that Strickland had painted all the walls with his final masterpiece, a panorama of Tahitian landscape and life, done in terrible demonic colours, with a voodoo power and compulsion. After the doctor leaves, Ata burns it to the ground as per the painter’s final wishes.

The narrator is shaken by Coutras’s account and thinks, hopes that Strickland finally reached the perfection he was striving for, but was bloody minded to the end, burning it down indifferent whether the world ever knew of it.

6. Back in England

Eventually the narrator leaves Tahiti, after a stifling embrace and many presents from vast Tiaré Johnson, arriving back in conventional London. Out of courtesy he contacts Mrs Strickland and pays a visit to pass on what he’s discovered. He discovers her now to be a prim and proper sixty-year-old, living in some comfort, the proud mother of two sterling children, a parson in the Army and the wife of a major in the Guards. And it is the final irony in the book that he discovers she is now playing the part of ‘the wife of a genius’. For the narrator’s visit coincides with that of a Mr. Van Busche Taylor, the noted American art critic. Strickland is now a modern classic. His paintings are bought and sold for small fortunes. Many monographs have been written about him. And his wife is cultivating the image of the soulful survivor of his great genius.

The final punch of the book is in the complete transformation of Strickland’s inhuman, despicably selfish, art-haunted behaviour into polite drawing room conversation. He has been assimilated, incorporated, into the narrative of Great Art and Inspired Geniuses.

It is the genuine success of the novel that it has shown us that Strickland’s personality and driven quest was something completely different, other, strange, repellent and compelling than this. The book ends on this travesty and on the prescient insight that modern art will be bought up, tidied up and neutered by America, country of Puritan morality and narrow judgmental critics, right up to the present day when Gauguin’s art is routinely vilified and attacked for its racism, sexism, colonialism, objectification of women, exploitation of under-age girls, male gaze and general wickedness.

How Maugham would have laughed at the smug judgmentalism of modern politically correct American art critics.

The narrator

By this stage it should be obvious that he is a very fallible narrator. At numerous points he says he has had to piece together accounts of events which he didn’t witness. Even events which he personally witnessed leave him puzzled and confused and he spend entire chapters trying to figure out the real motivation and psychological prompting of the main characters. Other sequences, like the scenes set in Marseilles, might be complete fiction made up by a fantasist.

The narrator’s perfect understanding of his own fallibility and partiality inform the reader that Maugham was aware of all the developments of his time which focused on the problematics of the narrator, from Henry James and Joseph Conrad onwards.

I am in the position of a biologist who from a single bone must reconstruct not only the appearance of an extinct animal, but its habits.

By the end of the book you have read quite a few passages, not only about art and love and sex, about character and England and France and the South Seas – but about the difficulty of ever telling a coherent believable story. In its quiet understated way this is as much a meditation on the problematics of fiction as many a more showy Modernist work.

Characters

Maugham is so good at thumbnail sketches of characters, before going on to penetrate deeper into their psychology. Here’s Mrs Strickland’s older sister.

Mrs. Strickland’s sister was older than she, not unlike her, but more faded; and she had the efficient air, as though she carried the British Empire in her pocket, which the wives of senior officers acquire from the consciousness of belonging to a superior caste. Her manner was brisk, and her good-breeding scarcely concealed her conviction that if you were not a soldier you might as well be a counter-jumper. She hated the Guards, whom she thought conceited, and she could not trust herself to speak of their ladies, who were so remiss in calling. Her gown was dowdy and expensive.

And the lengthy portrait of the obese Tahitian in the final chapters is not only wonderfully done in itself, but an indication of how far the narrator has come, in geography, in experience and in human sympathy, from the dowdy drawing rooms of Victorian England.

Tiaré Johnson was the daughter of a native and an English sea-captain settled in Tahiti. When I knew her she was a woman of fifty, who looked older, and of enormous proportions. Tall and extremely stout, she would have been of imposing presence if the great good-nature of her face had not made it impossible for her to express anything but kindliness. Her arms were like legs of mutton, her breasts like giant cabbages; her face, broad and fleshy, gave you an impression of almost indecent nakedness, and vast chin succeeded to vast chin. I do not know how many of them there were. They fell away voluminously into the capaciousness of her bosom. She was dressed usually in a pink Mother Hubbard, and she wore all day long a large straw hat. But when she let down her hair, which she did now and then, for she was vain of it, you saw that it was long and dark and curly; and her eyes had remained young and vivacious. Her laughter was the most catching I ever heard; it would begin, a low peal in her throat, and would grow louder and louder till her whole vast body shook. She loved three things – a joke, a glass of wine, and a handsome man. To have known her is a privilege. (p.177)

By the time we get to Tahiti we feel the narrator’s understanding and compassion for all types of humanity has broadened and deepened out of all recognition from its tyro beginnings.

Maugham’s philosophy

In numerous short stories and here, embedded throughout the narrative, are various expressions of Maugham’s philosophy of life, namely people are more complex than they seem; alongside charming and polite qualities can go malice, hate and envy. Thus the thrust of The Traitor in the Ashenden stories is that Caypor is a mild-mannered jovial chap who loves his dog, is a keen botanist, is in love with his wife and courteous to all around him. Shame he also spies for the Germans and so has to be handed over to the authorities to be executed for treason.

For his part, the mature Maugham depicts himself as observing and recording – detached, calm and unruffled – the absurd and unexpected behaviour of all sorts of people. Here there are early, rather clunky formulations of this indulgent, non-judgmental approach:

I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, nor how much goodness in the reprobate.

Or again:

I expected then people to be more of a piece than I do now, and I was distressed to find so much vindictiveness in so charming a creature. I did not realise how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being. Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find place side by side in the same human heart.

It’s not rocket science, is it? But then a writer’s philosophy doesn’t need to be. James Joyce’s ‘philosophy’ never seemed to me to amount to much, but that’s irrelevant beside his achievement, the awesomeness of his stories and novels. Same here. Saying that people are a funny old mix of good and bad is desperately banal; but showing it in stories of tremendous psychological penetration and plausibility, is a great achievement.

Who can fathom the subtleties of the human heart? Certainly not those who expect from it only decorous sentiments and normal emotions.

Style

In my reviews of the first three volumes of short stories I’ve said enough about the odd unEnglish nature of many of Maugham’s sentences and its probable origin in a) hangovers from the peculiar manneredness of Victorian phraseology which lingered on like fossils embedded in his more modern prose, b) the fact that he was brought up speaking French and English was in many ways his second language. Still, some particularly odd sentences deserve highlighting.

The nurse was pitiful to his distress… (Ch 36)

He had even a black border to his handkerchief. (Ch 38)

Best of all:

I do not suppose he had ever noticed how dingy was the paper on the wall of the room in which on my first visit I found him. (p.76)

Dr. Coutras had delivered sentence of death on many men, and he could never overcome the horror with which it filled him. He felt always the furious hatred that must seize a man condemned when he compared himself with the doctor, sane and healthy, who had the inestimable privilege of life. (p.201)

Not English, is it? It’s Maughamese.

Ole blue eyes

Its trivial but I can’t help noticing how many of Maugham’s characters have blue eyes:

[Charles Strickland] was a man of forty, not good-looking, and yet not ugly, for his features were rather good; but they were all a little larger than life-size, and the effect was ungainly. He was clean shaven, and his large face looked uncomfortably naked. His hair was reddish, cut very short, and his eyes were small, blue or grey. (Chapter 6)

The Colonel gulped down his whisky. He was a tall, lean man of fifty, with a drooping moustache and grey hair. He had pale blue eyes and a weak mouth. (Chapter 8)

[Dirk Stroeve] was a fat little man, with short legs, young still—he could not have been more than thirty—but prematurely bald. His face was perfectly round, and he had a very high colour, a white skin, red cheeks, and red lips. His eyes were blue and round too, he wore large gold-rimmed spectacles, and his eyebrows were so fair that you could not see them. He reminded you of those jolly, fat merchants that Rubens painted. (Chapter 19)

‘When I was a little boy I said I would marry the daughter of the harness-maker who lived next door. She was a little girl with blue eyes and a flaxen pigtail.’ (Chapter 38)

Captain Nichols… was a very lean man, of no more than average height, with grey hair cut short and a stubbly grey moustache. He had not shaved for a couple of days. His face was deeply lined, burned brown by long exposure to the sun, and he had a pair of small blue eyes which were astonishingly shifty. They moved quickly, following my smallest gesture, and they gave him the look of a very thorough rogue. (Chapter 46)

Mr. Coutras was an old Frenchman of great stature and exceeding bulk. His body was shaped like a huge duck’s egg; and his eyes, sharp, blue, and good-natured, rested now and then with self-satisfaction on his enormous paunch. (Chapter 55)

Why always blue, I idly wonder. Was it simply that Maugham liked blue eyes?


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Making Colour @ The National Gallery

This is one of the most purely didactic exhibitions I’ve been to. Usually, the curators tell you lots about the movement or biography of whoever’s featured, but you are essentially left to decide whether you enjoy the art by yourself.

Making Colour is more like a lecture, or a short degree course, compressed into half a dozen rooms. It is a fascinating, thorough and rather exhausting explanation of how coloured oil paints were and are made, where the raw ingredients came from in medieval and renaissance Europe, and then how discoveries by chemists throughout the 19th century introduced new shades and tones to the artist’s palette which are still in use today.

There are several strands or themes:

The growth in scientific understanding of how the human eye sees colour, how it is detected by the cones and rods in our retinas – there is a short film about perception in a cinema to one side of the gallery, which goes into colour blindness and the dramatic difference the ambient light we see a painting in has on our perception of it: thought-provoking as, for most of their history most of these paintings will have been seen either by partial daylight or candlelight – certainly not by the flat fluorescent light of modern galleries.

Theories of colour ie how colours complement each other. It was only in the late 1600s that Isaac Newton broke white light up into the spectrum, and placed the study of light and colours on a scientific basis. Various art theorists produced lists or descriptions of spectrums, often arranged into colour wheels.

Illustration from 'The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Primitives, Red, Blue and Yellow, The manner in which each colour is formed, and its Composition by Moses Harris (1769 2nd edition 1776)

Illustration from ‘The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Primitives, Red, Blue and Yellow, The manner in which each colour is formed, and its Composition by Moses Harris (1769 2nd edition 1776)

Complementary colours Apparently, the most influential work on colour was published by the dyer Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1839, not only containing colour wheels but systematically showing how colours opposite each other on the wheel complement or enhance each other. These ideas had a big impact on the Impressionists and post-Impressionists and the show demonstrates how with two very different paintings embodying the theory.

Renoir’s The Skiff (1875) deliberately contrasts blues of sky and river, with the vibrant orange of the boat. You can see from the colour wheel above that these colours are directly opposite each other, and this helps understand why the colours of both seem so bright and vibrant. (The other example is Van Gogh’s Crabs, see below.)

The Skiff by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875) © The National Gallery, London

The Skiff by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875) © The National Gallery, London

Chemistry Turns out to have played a vital role: during the 19th century industrial chemists in particular were researching ways of generating effective dyes etc for industrial purposes and these discoveries – often complete accidents – were quickly translated into new shades available as paints. Thus Renoir is using two new paints, cobalt blue and chrome orange, which were invented in the 19th century.

Paint availability Until the mid-1700s painters had to mix powdered pigments with either oil or egg themselves, to create the paint they were going to use. This was a fiddly business and not suited to doing outdoors where paint often dried too quickly and so almost all painting was done inside, in studios or churches etc. In the mid-1700s there was a breakthrough of sorts when ready-mixed paints became available in pig’s bladders, allowing greater outdoor painting. But it was not till the mid-1800s that ready-mixed paints became available in tin tubes which were light and easy to transport anywhere.

This technical breakthrough in paint’s portability and convenience contributed to the movement in France to paint out of doors, the movement which came to be known as Impressionism.

A room per colour

How to tackle such a massive subject? Well, the National Gallery has given a room to each of the major colours and in that room explains the history of how those colours were made, from earliest times. And each of these colour rooms has a selection from the full breadth of the National Gallery’s collection, illustrating the different shades of blue, red, green etc as actually applied by the world’s greatest painters in a wide selection of paintings from the 1400s to around 1900.

A personal selection

Rather than rewrite the entire exhibition catalogue, I’ve made a personal selection of favourite paintings, with what they tell us about the sources and uses of colours in their time.

Purple This medieval painting is used to demonstrate a few aspects of colour. 1. It was part of an altar piece on public display in a church, therefore the brightness of the colours helps bring out the clarity of the composition, making the image easier to read (almost like a cartoon). 2. The image uses purple, usually associated with royalty, for the executioner’s dress. At this early period purple was made by mixing ultramarine with red ‘lakes’ and white.

The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?) about 1409 by Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina © The National Gallery, London

The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?) about 1409 by Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina © The National Gallery, London

Blue This is a stunning use of the main source of blue in the early Modern period, ultramarine. As the name indicates this was sourced from lapis lazuli rock mined in what is now Afghanistan and brought to Europe along trade routes. By the time it reached Europe this material was more expensive than gold, and is therefore an indication of the wealth of the sponsor of the painting. Its value led to its association with the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven.

But these raw pigments could only be converted into paint by mixing with a medium of which there were two common ones:

  • mixing pigment with egg creates tempera which gives a flat matt affect
  • mixing pigment with oil produces varieties of glaze

The stunning blue of this painting is testament to Sassoferrato’s mastery of the techniques of mixing as much as to his eye and ability at composition.

History of blue Early painters who couldn’t afford ultramarine used Azurite, cheaper but with a greenish hue, or smalt, a blue glass pigment, more affordable but unstable. In the early 18th century Prussian blue was discovered and could be manufactured in bulk, but ultramarine remained the gold standard of blues. In the early 1800s a method was developed for creating a synthetic cobalt blue, and then an artificial version of ultramarine was developed: French ultramarine is still used to this day.

The Virgin in Prayer (1640-50) by Sassoferrato © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin in Prayer (1640-50) by Sassoferrato © The National Gallery, London

Yellow Yellow was sourced either from earth ochres or or from compounds of lead tin and antimony. In this Gainsborough from 1756 the dress of the painter’s daughter on the right is done with a shade called Naples yellow, mixed with lead white to create the lighter areas. The panel tells us Gainsborough mixed it well and it has lasted, but Naples yellow contained impurities that, over time, can turn orange or even pink.

The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly (about 1756) by Thomas Gainsborough © The National Gallery, London

The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly (about 1756) by Thomas Gainsborough © The National Gallery, London

The show includes the paintbox of JMW Turner, found in his studio after his death in 1851. It is a fascinating insight into the actual practical tools of the painter’s trade, showing the pigment bottles and the oils he used to mix them with. Incredible to believe Turner created his marvellous, transcendent works with such a small range of pigments available to him.

Paintobx belonging to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) © Tate, London

Paintobx belonging to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) © Tate, London

Green Green was sourced from verdigris, a kind of clay, or from green earth, a tarnishing of copper. It is fascinating to learn that Renaissance painters often used green earth in  particular as the underlay for skin, but the whites and pinks painted on top sometimes fade to reveal the underlay and this is why the faces of many renaissance paintings have a greenish tinge. Later artists were able to take advantage of the inventions of emerald green and viridian.

This stunning painting by Van Gogh of two crabs is used to show a) the vibrant greens and ready-made oil paints available to a late Victorian artist and b) the artist’s application of colour theory. As well as the depiction of its subject, it is a study in complementary colours, for the vivid greens of the background lie opposite the reddy oranges on the colour wheel.

It is striking to see how the same colour theory has been applied with radically different results by Renoir (1875) and van Gogh (1889). Figurative though the image is, it’s clear that for van Gogh experimenting with colour has become the prime focus. He is quoted as saying, ‘a painter had better start from the colours on his palette rather than the colours of Nature’, and that sounds.

Two Crabs (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Private Collection

Two Crabs (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Private Collection

Right at the end of the 19th century Dégas was experimenting with colour as this fantasia in red demonstrates. It uses bright red vermilion for the dress and curtain, along with red lead and orange-red, with Venetian reds for the background and the brusher’s blouse made from red ‘lakes’ mixed with white.

The painting can be analysed in terms of colour theory, in terms of the way the actual available paints have been mixed by the artist. Also biographically, as towards the end of his life Dégas was losing  his sight before going completely blind, and the intensity of the reds is possible over-compensation for his failing sight. And psychologically, for the contrast between the theoretically relaxing atmosphere of a woman having her hair combed, contrasting with the emotional impact the image actually makes on the spectator, of the scene being somehow intense and highly charged.

Combing the Hair (1896) by Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas © The National Gallery, London

Combing the Hair (1896) by Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas © The National Gallery, London

Conclusion

Most people, me included, stroll round a gallery or exhibition deciding whether I like something on the basis of its subject matter, or on its immediate visual impact, its form and design.

The take-home message from this thorough and fascinating exhibition is that there is a huge extra dimension to art appreciation, a whole realm of appreciation based on a real understanding of the physical components of a painting; of the actual paints, the colours and pigments – and the theory of colours – which were available to the artist, which makes the attempt to understand their achievements a lot more complicated and demanding.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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