As I discovered with Black Victorians, there turn out to be many more images than one imagines/knows of and certainly this elegant young Magus, who's carrying a jar of myrrh [and whom I'll call a Balthazar although there are disputes as to which King has which honorary name...] had previously escaped my knowledge.He's from a late 15th century altarpiece in the Lichtenthal convent in south-west Germany, up a tributary of the Rhine, the gift of the abbess Margarethe of Baden. Now he's in NYC, in the Met's famous medieval section, together with his elder companions bearing gold and frankincense.
Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Wednesday, 25 November 2020
The excellent new website Art and the Country House, edited by Martin Postle and published online by wonderful Paul Mellon Centre, aims to augment the Art Fund's presentation of paintings in public ownership in the UK with a selection from privately-owned collections. One of the latter is Mells Manor, Somerset, where the collection includes many works acquired by William Graham, the great Victorian collector of early Italian and Pre-Raphaelite art which were inherited by his Pre-Raphaelite-loving daughter, Frances Horner.
Among them is this little-known panel painting from the early 1400s depicting St George vanquishing the legendary dragon. The website's description by Paul Joannides
rehearses the evidence regarding possible artists, but factual information on provenance and other aspects is lacking and so despite its lively presentation and skilful rendering of armoured saint, rearing horse and writhing dragon in a constricted vertical space it is hard to guess if this was a free-standing panel or part of an ensemble.
Most striking to me is George' s dark complexion, on facial features that suggest African physiognomy. The most accessible medieval source for details of this Christian saint was Voragine's Golden Legend, which (when Englished by William Caxton in 1483 ) opens its hagiography thus:
S. George was a knight and born in Cappadocia. On a time he came in to the province of Libya, to a city which is said Silene. And by this city was a stagne or a pond like a sea, wherein was a dragon which envenomed all the country.
His deliverance of the king's daughter goes like this:
Thus as they spake together the dragon appeared and came running to them, and S. George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard. When she had done so the dragon followed her as it had been a meek beast and debonair. Then she led him into the city, and the people fled by mountains and valleys, and said: Alas! alas! we shall be all dead. Then S. George said to them: Ne doubt ye no thing, without more, believe ye in God, Jesu Christ, and do ye to be baptized and I shall slay the dragon. Then the king was baptized and all his people, and S. George slew the dragon and smote off his head, and commanded that he should be thrown in the fields, and they took four carts with oxen that drew him out of the city.
Both Cappodocia and Libya in the middle ages were Muslim locations, as was the legendary site of George's body in a chapel between Jaffa and Jerusalem. So it could have been thought that he himself was of 'Moorish' origin. But Western artists were not in the habit of literal historicism. Normally, St George was a pale-skinned European, clad in the knightly armour of the artist's time.
So can one account for a depiction of George as brown-skinned?
I wonder if in this instance there was some kind of confusion or crossover with St Maurice, whom legend describes as a knight of the Roman Empire who was also ruler of Thebes which fancifully was said to be located in 'the parts of the East beyond Arabia', to be 'full of riches and plenteous of fruits' with inhabitants 'of great bodies and noble in arms, strong in battle, subtle in engine and right abundant in wisdom.'
Maurice was martyred along with scores of others who rendered unto Caesar but declined to worship the Caesar's deities and were slain en masse. Iconologically, late medieval images of Maurice depict him as an armoured knight of African appearance, as in the extraordinary painting by Cranach, now in the Met, New York.
Both Maurice and George have such splendid hats.
Friday, 20 November 2020
I have posted a speculative paper on the connections between the artist Lisa Stillman and the fictional character Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, based on the Stephen family holidays at St Ives, where Lisa executed a [now untraced] portrait of Virginia's mother Julia.
The images show Lisa as a girl in Florence and a young woman in New York
The text is here:
Sunday, 8 November 2020
"You will be amused to hear that I have taken a little black (a Malay) into my service. He is a dear good boy." So wrote Alice, duchess of Hesse to her mother Queen Victoria in June 1863. "He has no religion, and can neither read nor write. I am going to have him taught and, later, christened. He is very intelligent, thirteen years old."
Sunday, 11 October 2020
Sunday, 27 September 2020
IT’s years since I published my biography of Christina Rossetti in which I speculated that her teenage ‘breakdown’ may have been linked to sexual trauma or abuse, and I have not kept up to date with much Rossetti scholarship, while nonetheless applauding the ongoing critical attention her verse now receives. But I ought to have been aware of the article by Simon Humphries in Notes & Queries, March 2017, where a summary account of Rossetti’s mental state by the physician who attended her in 1845 extends biographical understanding of these mid-teen years
Mackenzie Bell, Rossetti’s first biographer, consulted Dr Charles Hare around 1895-6. After some delay, Hare, whom obits described as a meticulous correspondent and explained he had sifted through over 8000 case notes to locate Rossetti’s, replied on 2 November 1896, when he was aged 78 (he died just two years later). As Humphries shows, meticulously, the diagnosis of a nervous breakdown caused by ‘religious mania’ was not made by Hare but by other commentators. But Hare did describe Rossetti when he was first consulted in November 1845 as ‘then 15’ (she was four or six weeks short of this birthday ) ‘and of a highly neurotic disposition and character.’ He was the fourth medic to be called, which must reflect the family’s acute anxiety.
Although then denying that he was disclosing the ‘medical memoranda’ or patient records which would ‘under no circumstances whatever’ be made public, Hare continued to quote his case notes as ‘matters of observation open to anyone at the time or mentioned in ordinary conversation’. They actually read like a record of what his patient told him.
‘Has been out of health for several months & a marked change has taken place in her manner & in her way of speaking. When walking out would suddenly leave her mother & turn back home, or run forward without any cause & when asked why, said she did not know. Has said very odd things—has also spoken of suicide; her spirits have been low & she does no drawing or work of any kind.
‘She tells me that she feels low & heavy & has a pain & heat almost constantly over a small spot at the top (vertex) of the head; this part is hot to the hand applied.—Is aware that she does not always express herself correctly but she cannot help it; she does it from impulse.
‘She is usually very unwilling to go out for a walk—feels too listless to do so: she does not like the effort necessary to prepare for a walk though when out she does not object to the walking. She tells me that she has a very strong impulse to burn her fingers as by putting them on the hot bars of the fireplace: she knows that she will have pain to suffer in consequence and she ‘does not like that better than anyone else’; but yet she cannot help burning her fingers; she has done so 3 or 4 times the same morning.’
This reads as a vivid description of behaviour in extreme psychic distress.
Hare continued to attend Rossetti on a regular basis for the next five years (he recorded over 100 notes) and observe some improvement in her condition. However. In 1849 he was again summoned, when she was ‘very weak’ and ‘confined to the sofa’, with pains and ‘confusion in the head’.
‘I found that the headache had become more frontal: her dreams were usually ‘frightful’ ones, & she had besides, ‘frequently the sensation of vertigo or rather the sensation of things around her—furniture, the walls, the floor—moving; the walls appear to be falling gradually forward & the floor to have an undulating motion, & she sees creeping things on the floor around her: mind sometimes wanders, she says very odd things & is rather contrariant’ [sic]’
These alarming symptoms diminished ‘in a couple of months’, although the pain in her head persisted. On 9 June she composed the poem, ‘Looking Forward’, writing out a copy for Hare ‘in her own neat handwriting’, whose title one could interpret as evidence that she had resumed writing – although the content remained suicidal:
Sleep, let me sleep, for I am sick of care;
Sleep, let me sleep, for my pain wearies me…
Sweet thought that I may yet live and grow green,
That leaves may yet spring from the withered root,
And buds and flowers and berries half unseen;
Then if you haply muse upon the past,
Say this: Poor child, she hath her wish at last;
Barren through life, but in death bearing fruit.
All these symptoms, but most especially the impulse to touch fire-hot bars, which allies with the ‘cutting’ incident recalled by her brother when she scored her arm with sharp scissors, surely record the kind of self-harm often associated with severe teenage anguish - now termed an ‘acute mental health crisis’ rather than a nervous breakdown. The migraine-like headaches, nightmares and hallucinations suggest a recurrence four years after the original attack.
Of course I don’t know what caused or precipitated Rossetti’s crisis in 1845 or its return in 1849. Those with professional knowledge of teenage mental health whom I consulted in my turn spoke of self-harm, dissociation and suicidal impulses being recognised traumatic symptoms of sexual abuse, which in the context of Rossetti’s otherwise warmly affectionate family life seemed a plausible suggestion. And I wish I had known of Hare’s notes when I was researching her life.
Tuesday, 22 September 2020
Marie Spartali Stillman’s painting Hera, which although not ‘lost’ has remained fairly unknown, features in the forthcoming exhibition Artful Stories, curated by Nancy Carlisle and Peter Trippi for the Eustis Estate museum in Milton, Boston. It depicts Hera/Juno, the patronal goddess of marriage and fertility, carrying a pomegranate and a peacock feather, in the standard half-length format that MSS adapted from renaissance and pre-Raphaelite examples for vaguely allegorical figures.
Probably painted in Rome, Hera is likely to have been a gift to Richard and Edith Norton, who were living in Italy. Richard was the son of Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton, whom MSS knew through her husband, W.J. Stillman and British friends like Janey Morris. It is signed with MSS’s familiar monogram, and an indecipherable date that could be 1895 or 1905. The composition and especially horizon are very similar to other works by MSS, notably The Rose in Armida’s Garden (1894)
Some months ago, I was sent a jpeg of the 'new' Hera/Juno, which is that at the top of this post. One can see the rather nasty crack running through the support just left of the face. Happily, the Eustis exhibition has cleaned, conserved and mended the tear, so the painting looks very much better - as here below.