Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Friday, 9 August 2019

Elizabeth Siddal's mysterious drawing

Elizabeth Siddal, Wightwick Manor National Trust
This very small watercolour depicting two figures in dense woodland is now known as The Haunted Wood,  which is a fair description of the scene in which a blue-gowned female leans away from a taller, more indeterminate shadowy one with hands upraised, as if saying 'Here I am', or even 'Boo!'

Reconstructing Elizabeth Siddal's oeuvre has its tricky elements, despite Gabriel Rossetti's careful assembly and reproduction of all, or many, of her drawings and sketches into albums, two of which were preserved in the Fitzwilliam and Ashmolean Museums.  He also assembled as many of her watercolour works as he could, famously hanging them in his Cheyne Walk house.

The watercolours were not photographed, owing to the poor results from the monochrome prints then available from photographs.   The Haunted Wood is one such.   It was given to Wightwick Manor in 2001 by William Rossetti's great grand-daughter, so has a firm line of provenance,  which assumes William inherited it from Gabriel in 1882.

There's no reason to doubt this - and yet it might just link to another piece of information regarding Siddal's works.  The 1892  posthumous sale of works owned by Liverpool shipowner Frederick Leyland  includes four [lots 21-24] attributed to 'Mrs Rossetti'.  

They include two that can be identified with known pieces:  a Lady Clare pen & ink and a Virgin & Child.  And two that are less certain.  One was called 'Figures in a landscape', which  might be identified with the [equally mysterious] couple seated by a field gate serenaded by Oriental musicians.  

The other was entitled 'Annunciation',  which does not immediately accord with any extant composition, even though the subject is among the commonest images in the whole of Western art.
Is it possible that the Haunted Wood in fact depicts an unusual rendering of the Annunciation?  With the blue-clad Virgin startled by the unexpected appearance amid trees of the archangel, hands raised in a 'behold' gesture?

If this were so, the inference would be that William Rossetti bought it from or after the Leyland sale, but did not agree with the ascribed title, so no Annunciation subsequently featured among the list of Siddal's works.   Certainly, other Annunciations place the episode indoors, so this would be exceptional.

But not unique.  Following his well-known Ecce Ancilla of 1850, showing the Virgin on her bed,  Gabriel Rossetti broke with pictorial convention in 1855, creating a sunlit al fresco scene of Mary paddling in a stream (or washing clothes, though any garment is exiguous) while the Angel hovers between sapling trees, arms outstretched.   This was originally owned by George Boyce. 
D G Rossetti, Annunciation 1855-8, PC
This provides a precedent for Siddal's woodland scene - or maybe her conception prompted his, which offered a possibly more plausible reason for Mary being outdoors; there could be no biblical justification for her to be wandering in a forest.  But Siddal's imagination was always stronger than her scholarship.

A few years later, Gabriel reprised the subject with  the Virgin now seated reading in a garden, as the Archangel leans over a rose-trellis to make his prophetic announcement.
D G Rossetti, Annunciation, c,1861, Fitzwilliam Museum
In the context of these works, i think Siddal's mysterious image may  well be intended for the same subject.


Monday, 1 July 2019

PR SIsters at National Portrait Gallery

Scheduled for  October, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters opens a new window on the subject, looking at the actual women within and behind the art.  Those ‘stunners’ who inspired and modelled for the painted saints, heroines and courtesans.   Those women who painted alongside the more famous men.  Those who as wives and partners, studio assistants and household managers, participated invisibly in the making of Pre-Raphaelite art.

How did these women relate to the images?   What did they really look like? How did they become involved?  How did they fare?  What happened to them in later life?  The exhibition invites you to ponder, explore  and assess the creative contribution made by a dozen individuals in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, during the half-century to 1900.  It presents a wealth of art works, from the iconic to the unknown,  depicting women cast in dramatic roles and in portraits.   It reveals their own artistic ambitions and glimpses of their private lives.

In 1848, the year of European revolutions, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood [PRB] was launched by a group of young artists with the aim of challenging the tired conventions of the day through the rediscovery of  clarity, sincerity and moral feeling.  Over the years it evolved as an aesthetic endeavour, invoking imagined idealities inspired by legendary themes.

The fact that one can here write ‘young artists’ on the understanding that all were male is symptomatic both of the time and of virtually all art criticism.  In fact, women were also inspired by the aims of the PRB  - ‘a set of crazy poetical young men’, according to one young woman, who ‘are full of true feeling in spite of their craziness’ – and in response dreamt of creating  an ‘art sisterhood’ for mutual support.   This did not happen, but the sense of shared values created a circle linked by friendship and aspiration that extended to the next generation.  

One of the models featured is Fanny Cornforth aka Sarah Cox, Sarah Hughes and Sarah Schott,  about whom Kirsty Walker has written so sympathetically.  While other artists cast other models in the emerging Venetian style of mid-period Pre-Raphaelitism, Fanny can be credited with inaugurating the Rossettian version with Bocca Baciata, then with inspiring a whole sequence of courtesan images including the Blue Bower [top]. 

 Less familiar is the original [or at least an early] version of Lady Lilith, for some reason later reproduced as a colour lithograph, well after the large oil with Lilith's altered features had reached collector Samuel Bancroft in Delaware.

Advance booking for tickets to Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is now  available

Le Modele Noir

The great exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay is not only about artists’ models of African ancestry, but a whole bunch of other individuals including political figures like  Toussaint L’Ouverture,   writer Alexandre Dumas,  actor Jeanne Duval, comic  Chocolat, dancer  Josephine Baker and surrealist Ady Fidelin.  The central focus however is on the French Caribbean woman who posed for the attendant in Manet’s so-celebrated Olympia, presenting an admirer’s bouquet to the naked courtesan.  And who has now been identified – although only by first name, alas, thanks to a note by Manet ‘Laure / 11 rue de Vintimille’.

In the exhibition too is a fine array of bronze busts by Charles Cordier, conceived as anthropological/ethnic examples but before casting modelled in clay from actual women and men in Paris.  As ever, it’s the critical mass of images rather than the single examples that enables the exhibition to present a mixed rather than monochrome picture of nineteenth century French society – albeit chiefly, it appears, resident in the northern areas of Paris around the places de Clichy and Pigalle, or employed as nannies for well-to-do families in more fashionable quartiers    

There is a fine selection of images of the acrobat known as Miss LaLa - real name Olga Albertina Brown - and her performance troupe:

The exhibition title The Black Model from Gericault to Matisse indicates the chronological sweep from 1800 to 1950,  but in fact the exhibits continue beyond this, featuring several recent responses to Olympia that reverse the white and black figures, such as Larry Rivers’ mixed media ‘I like Olympia in Black Face 1970, complete with white and black cats  :

Plus  Aime Mpane’s tile work Olympia II 2013 which visually imprisons the pair as if behind a grille and places a large skull within the flower bouquet.    Seen alongside Gauguin’s 1891 copy,  these iterations underline the continuing impact of the original.   One would like to see similar works by contemporary female artists of African heritage.

Many more images in the substantial catalogue published by Flammarion, which also includes a list of 38 dark-skinned male and female models registered with the Ecole des Beauz-Arts and other ateliers, 1901-1933  with names, addresses and brief descriptions (negre / noir / type abyssin / mulatresse / belle gorge etc)

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Call for Papers

The University of York is organising a conference in December to extend the scope of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition at the NPG. 

The CfP  is  attached here.