A Dash of Art History

Large (Wikimedia)

Henriette Browne (actually Sophie de Saux) painted A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch in 1870.

The Victoria and Albert Museum writes that “[t]his painting is a fine example of [Browne’s] art as it combines a portrait of a young girl and a genre scene, the young girl being distracted by a goldfinch while doing her homework…The bird’s cage can be construed as a metaphor for the imposed homework while the fact that it is opened alludes to the possibility of escaping such task by distraction.”

The other goldfinch, however, is content for the moment to stay in its cage.

(After all, there’s food.)

Large (Wikimedia)

As the Tate writes, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s 1864 painting “The Wine Press may be understood as an example of Biblical typology, a form of symbolism, revived in the nineteenth century, in which divinely intended prefigurements of Christ’s passion and Crucifixion were identifiable in the events of the Old Testament.”

The wine press (mentioned in the Isaiah 63:3) makes for a rich comparison between Old Testament and New. Wine is, of course, a traditional symbol for the blood of Christ. The Isaiah verses also describe a redemptive destruction—but a wrathful trampling of man by God. The asymmetry of the parallel in some ways heightens it: the Tate quotes George Landow as writing that “Christ, who is both victim and conqueror, treads the winepress and is crushed by it.”

The more literal wine press in the painting also holds interest, though. A large lever press—perhaps based on a design described by Pliny the Elder in the first century—the vertical screw ought to bring the lever down on the grapes.

However, it doesn’t look like the lever could ever reach the grapes—and if it could, it’s probably not big enough to do any good.

In fact, the only purpose it looks like it’s up to is the one it currently serves: framing Stanhope’s composition.

Large (Wikimedia)

Martinus Rørbye’s View from the Artist’s Window, circa 1825, might initially look like a pretty—but narrativeless—painting of exactly what the title describes.

However, The Statens Museum for Kunst describes a number of the symbolic aspects of View from the Artist’s Window, including this one: “The familiar closeness of the drawing room is contrasted with the sailing ships in the harbour, bound for faraway destinations.” (Rørbye, as the Museum adds, was soon to leave his childhood home.)

Large (Wikimedia)

Edward Moran’s ethereally beautiful The Valley in the Sea, which he painted in 1862, is (as the title suggests) a landscape of a very unusual sort.

Full of beautiful little details, The Valley in the Sea depicts the floor of the ocean in eerie jewel tones reminiscent of nothing so much as Max Ernst’s Napoleon in the Wilderness.

While it isn’t surprising that—what with the 19th-century taste for dramatic landscapes in exotic locales—someone hit on the idea of depicting the ocean floor, the Indianapolis Museum of Art makes the intriguing suggestion that “Moran may have been inspired by underwater exploration related to the laying of the first successful telegraph cable in 1858.”

Large (Wikimedia)

As the Walters Art Museum writes, “[t]he tulip, originally imported from Turkey in the 16th century, became an increasingly valuable commodity [in the Netherlands]. By 1636/7, tulipomania peaked, and, when the market crashed, speculators were left with as little as 5 percent of their original investments.”

That wouldn’t necessarily sound like fodder for an engaging painting—but with The Tulip Folly, in 1882, Jean-León Gérôme may have pulled it off.

It’s kind of hysterical, at first: soldiers stomping (some gleefully, some lumberingly) through a field of tulips while a nobleman defends a tiny potted plant with his sword.

But considering that the effort was meant to bring the price of tulips down—and, with any luck, to salvage as much as possible of the countrywide investments—the image takes on a sort of futile tragedy, as well.

(It is worth noting, though, that some economists do contest the severity of the economic impact.)

Large (Wikimedia)

The Tate writes that Sir Hubert von “Herkomer painted a number of pictures that revealed his sympathy for the poor and disadvantaged, a characteristic fostered in part by his own humble origins.”

That is, I think, a misleading (if absolutely correct) appraisal, however.

Often, when an artist is described as having “sympathy for the poor and disadvantaged,” it means he or she paints scenes of pretty but tattered flower-sellers (or orphans) looking mournfully out at the viewer.

Herkomer, however, portrays the women in his 1878 painting Eventide: A Scene at the Westminster Union with incredible dignity and subtle personality.

Certainly he conveys the difficulties of their conditions: one bespectacled woman near the front bends closely over her work, and I can only imagine handling thread with the arthritis-thickened joints of a few of the others.

But each of them also conveys a clear sense of self, and—as they hunch together over their work—a clear sense of companionship.

(It’s also worth mentioning, though unrelated, that Herkomer was closely involved with the early development of British film.)

Large (Wikimedia)

Robert Walker Macbeth painted Our First Tiff in 1878.

He certainly bares comparing to William Quiller Orchardson, another Scottish painter of around the same time, especially in this work: a domestic scene rather like, for example, Orchardson’s 1887 painting The First Cloud.

William Quiller Orchardson's "The First Cloud"

However, Macbeth’s is a much more personal composition than any of Orchardson’s; the figures take up most of the scene, and (interestingly) the title is in the first person plural.

But perhaps more importantly, it is a more hopeful composition than Orchardson’s.

Though the husband gruffly buries himself in the newspaper—turned slightly away from viewer, dog, and wife alike—the wife seems bent on mending the rift. And even the title implies the transience of the dispute: “first tiff” carries none of the portentousness of “first cloud.”

(A cloud, after all, is often enough followed by a storm.)

Large (Wikimedia)

I was somewhat reassured to discover that I wasn’t going crazy when I thought this John Henry Dearle tapestry from 1894 (called Angeli Ministrantes) looked like an Edward Burne-Jones painting.

"The figures for this tapestry," the Victoria and Albert Museum tells us, “were originally drawn in 1877–1878 by Edward Burne-Jones for stained-glass lancet windows in the south choir of Salisbury Cathedral, which were made in the Morris & Co. workshops.”

Dearle filled in the background with medieval-inspired flowering plants, with a pomegranate-filled border to match.

Large (Wikimedia)

It’s not often that a painting has as its clear protagonist someone who is not present.

However, as the Statens Museum for Kunst writes, Queen “Sophie Amalie [the woman pictured] was behind Leonora Christine’s arrest and 22 years of imprisonment in Blåtårn. Zahrtmann [the artist] hated her for that, and his sentiments are apparent with exceptional honesty in this depiction of her death throes.”

Indeed, in his 1882 The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie, Kristian Zahrtmann portrays his subject as a fairly ugly old woman dying somewhat absurdly surrounded by her riches: she had been using the elegant box filled with gold as a footstool before it toppled, taking her elegantly ruffled slippers with it.

Large (Wikimedia)

Frants Henningsen’s 1883 painting A Funeral has a fairly transparent—if tragic—narrative.

A woman (probably pregnant, judging by her shawl) walks on the arm of her father at the end of a funeral procession. Her children walk before her. Her husband is borne along at the front.

It is not insignificant that the pose of the children mirrors the pose of their mother and grandfather: it implies the maturity they will have to quickly assume in order to endure the hardships ahead of them.

Back to top

No, seriously.

Give me ideas. There's way too much art in this world, and I'm never sure what to write about. It might as well be something you're curious about, dear reader. Or tell me I'm wrong, or ask me questions, or tell me things.

Whatever you'd like.