A Dash of Art History

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As the Walker Art Gallery puts it, “the dark surroundings and empty bottle [in Margaret Bernardine Hall’s 1886 Fantine] hint at the dangers and troubles that await both mother and child in the future.”
As you may have guessed, the subject is Fantine and her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
I may not be a particular fan of either the book or the musical it spawned, but the resigned expression on Fantine’s face and the beautiful but not especially idealized composition—light streams in from behind, illuminating Fantine’s wispy hair, the tattered blankets covering Cosette, and the ragged edges of the wooden crib (raw wood showing through chips in the paint)—make this painting worthwhile nonetheless.

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As the Walker Art Gallery puts it, “the dark surroundings and empty bottle [in Margaret Bernardine Hall’s 1886 Fantine] hint at the dangers and troubles that await both mother and child in the future.”

As you may have guessed, the subject is Fantine and her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

I may not be a particular fan of either the book or the musical it spawned, but the resigned expression on Fantine’s face and the beautiful but not especially idealized composition—light streams in from behind, illuminating Fantine’s wispy hair, the tattered blankets covering Cosette, and the ragged edges of the wooden crib (raw wood showing through chips in the paint)—make this painting worthwhile nonetheless.

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One wouldn’t expect, looking at his 1919 painting Gassed, that John Singer Sargent could be described thus by the Art Institute of Chicago: “As one of the most sought-after and prolific portraitists of international high society, American expatriate John Singer Sargent painted the cosmopolitan world to which he belonged with elegance and a bravura touch.”

The dramatic composition and range of (highly expressive) emotion are very much his own, however.

In depicting the suffering victims of a World War I mustard gas attack, Sargent pulls no punches—the Imperial War Museum in London points out the “line of temporarily blinded soldiers in the background, one soldier leaning over vomiting onto the ground.”

Perhaps the most striking part of the painting isn’t the anguish. It’s the lack of anguish.

A number of the soldiers at the front of the composition lounge with an air more of boredom than despair, while in the distant background people play soccer in cheerful uniforms.

It’s that sense of normality—the complacency of the subjects—that makes the piece so incredibly gut-wrenching.

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James Tissot's London Visitors, 1874, depicts exactly what the title suggests.
The woman—who, the Toledo Museum of Art writes, “fixes the viewer with a chilly, blue-eyed gaze full of restlessness and impatience”—and her companion (presumably her husband) stand on the steps to the National Gallery of Art in London.
The Toledo Museum calls her “stylishly and meticulously dressed,” but in fact she’s a little overdressed, for sightseeing. The woman in the back is more appropriately attired, and has also chosen to engage a guide—a student of Christ’s Hospital (the distinctive blue and yellow Tudor uniform is still worn today)—while the couple in the front struggles with a guidebook.
Add to that the wife’s imperious pointing towards Trafalgar Square and the husband’s unfashionably unkempt beard, and the scene reads a little bit like a how-to (or rather, a how-not-to) guide on being a tourist in London.
Don’t:
Flip through guidebooks in plain view;
Peer suspiciously at the locals;
Wear evening clothes to a museum.
Do:
Wear a classy little grey jacket;
Ask questions of the schoolchildren.
Thanks, Tissot. I’ll keep that in mind.

Large (Wikimedia)

James Tissot's London Visitors, 1874, depicts exactly what the title suggests.

The woman—who, the Toledo Museum of Art writes, “fixes the viewer with a chilly, blue-eyed gaze full of restlessness and impatience”—and her companion (presumably her husband) stand on the steps to the National Gallery of Art in London.

The Toledo Museum calls her “stylishly and meticulously dressed,” but in fact she’s a little overdressed, for sightseeing. The woman in the back is more appropriately attired, and has also chosen to engage a guide—a student of Christ’s Hospital (the distinctive blue and yellow Tudor uniform is still worn today)—while the couple in the front struggles with a guidebook.

Add to that the wife’s imperious pointing towards Trafalgar Square and the husband’s unfashionably unkempt beard, and the scene reads a little bit like a how-to (or rather, a how-not-to) guide on being a tourist in London.

Don’t:

  • Flip through guidebooks in plain view;
  • Peer suspiciously at the locals;
  • Wear evening clothes to a museum.

Do:

  • Wear a classy little grey jacket;
  • Ask questions of the schoolchildren.

Thanks, Tissot. I’ll keep that in mind.

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The High Museum of Art Atlanta rather exuberantly asserts of this, Francis Davis Millet’s The Expansionist (The Traveled Man), “Exceptionally rich in meaning and historical significance, this painting exemplifies the qualities for which Millet was revered in his lifetime, particularly his ability to poetically depict the curiosity and amusements of life.”
That may well be an overstatement, but certainly The Expansionist depicts a friendly chaos of collected objects—statuettes from China, Turkish slippers, and so on—that speak to its subject’s worldliness.
Although it is ostensibly a history painting, that worldliness is primarily a Victorian value.
But then, it is from 1899—so that oughtn’t to be too surprising.

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The High Museum of Art Atlanta rather exuberantly asserts of this, Francis Davis Millet’s The Expansionist (The Traveled Man), “Exceptionally rich in meaning and historical significance, this painting exemplifies the qualities for which Millet was revered in his lifetime, particularly his ability to poetically depict the curiosity and amusements of life.”

That may well be an overstatement, but certainly The Expansionist depicts a friendly chaos of collected objects—statuettes from China, Turkish slippers, and so on—that speak to its subject’s worldliness.

Although it is ostensibly a history painting, that worldliness is primarily a Victorian value.

But then, it is from 1899—so that oughtn’t to be too surprising.

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According to Sotheby’s, Edmund “Blair Leighton’s paintings regularly celebrate chivalric imagery and there are few things more emblematic of the theme than a rousing jousting match.”
How very Victorian, though, to show, as the title of this 1884 painting implies, the Vanquished—not the victorious—party.
And how very Leighton, as well: as Christie’s puts it, “Blair Leighton had established himself as an artist whose work bridged the commercial and critical divide. He tended to choose sentimental and anecdotal subjects in which his audience could see a reflection of their own everyday hopes, fears, woes and aspirations.”

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According to Sotheby’s, Edmund “Blair Leighton’s paintings regularly celebrate chivalric imagery and there are few things more emblematic of the theme than a rousing jousting match.”

How very Victorian, though, to show, as the title of this 1884 painting implies, the Vanquished—not the victorious—party.

And how very Leighton, as well: as Christie’s puts it, “Blair Leighton had established himself as an artist whose work bridged the commercial and critical divide. He tended to choose sentimental and anecdotal subjects in which his audience could see a reflection of their own everyday hopes, fears, woes and aspirations.”

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Because one can never see too many paintings of banisters, here’s another picture with stairs: Eastman Johnson’s 1873 painting Not at Home.
I’m reminded of that frequent telephone gag: “‘Excuse me, is Mrs. Smythe there?’ ‘Just a moment please.’ ‘Very well.’ ‘…My apologies—she says she isn’t at home.’”
Of course, then as now the polite way of turning away an unwanted visitor was often to feign absence.
In an age of household servants and card receivers in the front hall, however, in order to pretend to be out one had better retreat to the private spaces of the house; it would be perfectly standard for the visitor to be permitted in (or at least, to have the door opened to them) so they could leave their calling card in an elaborate dish or stand left out for that purpose.
In this case, according to the Brooklyn Museum, “it is [Johnson’s] wife, Elizabeth, whom we see climbing the stairs leading to more private areas of their residence on Manhattan’s West Fifty-fifth Street.”
She leans forward and lifts her elegantly tiered skirts in her hurry to vacate the public portions of the house.
Visible through the open portière is an elegant little drawing room, with paintings, a statuette, and a crowded sideboard. 
Even this part of the house is not without its homey touches, however—just beside the door sits a tiny stroller, a charming contrast to the massive grandfather clock next to it.

Large (Wikimedia)

Because one can never see too many paintings of banisters, here’s another picture with stairs: Eastman Johnson’s 1873 painting Not at Home.

I’m reminded of that frequent telephone gag: “‘Excuse me, is Mrs. Smythe there?’ ‘Just a moment please.’ ‘Very well.’ ‘…My apologies—she says she isn’t at home.’”

Of course, then as now the polite way of turning away an unwanted visitor was often to feign absence.

In an age of household servants and card receivers in the front hall, however, in order to pretend to be out one had better retreat to the private spaces of the house; it would be perfectly standard for the visitor to be permitted in (or at least, to have the door opened to them) so they could leave their calling card in an elaborate dish or stand left out for that purpose.

In this case, according to the Brooklyn Museum, “it is [Johnson’s] wife, Elizabeth, whom we see climbing the stairs leading to more private areas of their residence on Manhattan’s West Fifty-fifth Street.”

She leans forward and lifts her elegantly tiered skirts in her hurry to vacate the public portions of the house.

Visible through the open portière is an elegant little drawing room, with paintings, a statuette, and a crowded sideboard.

Even this part of the house is not without its homey touches, however—just beside the door sits a tiny stroller, a charming contrast to the massive grandfather clock next to it.

Large (Wikimedia)
Helen Allingham’s The Staircase, Whittington Court, Gloucestershire is probably not, as I’ve seen it labeled, simply a watercolor.
Watercolor, a highly translucent medium, cannot be made lighter by adding paint; highlights must be “reserved,” either with a wax resist or simply by avoiding the area.
Here, though, the woman’s dress appears to be painted in white over the shadowed wall, using the beige as the shadow of the fabric. The wood is more ambiguous, but does appear to have its highlights painted in.
Thus I suspect she also used gouache, which is basically just watercolor with something mixed in (often chalk) to make it opaque.
In any case, the fond little confrontation between a cat and her human would delight in any medium.

Large (Wikimedia)

Helen Allingham’s The Staircase, Whittington Court, Gloucestershire is probably not, as I’ve seen it labeled, simply a watercolor.

Watercolor, a highly translucent medium, cannot be made lighter by adding paint; highlights must be “reserved,” either with a wax resist or simply by avoiding the area.

Here, though, the woman’s dress appears to be painted in white over the shadowed wall, using the beige as the shadow of the fabric. The wood is more ambiguous, but does appear to have its highlights painted in.

Thus I suspect she also used gouache, which is basically just watercolor with something mixed in (often chalk) to make it opaque.

In any case, the fond little confrontation between a cat and her human would delight in any medium.

Large (Wikimedia)
There are some holidays one doesn’t expect to be able to find celebrated in paintings.
Until recently, Palm Sunday was one of those holidays for me.
Then I ran into Alfred Stevens’ Palm Sunday, from 1862.
Technically speaking, it appears that this young woman has opted for boxwood—rather more accessible in Europe than palm—but, as the Walters Art Museums writes, she nonetheless tucks the sprig of it “behind the frame of her mother’s portrait hanging on the bedroom wall. Another bough, lying on her cloak, is intended for the adjacent miniature, presumably a portrait of her father.”
There is something wonderful about the quiet memorial of it, about the care with which she slips the branch behind the wooden frame.

Large (Wikimedia)

There are some holidays one doesn’t expect to be able to find celebrated in paintings.

Until recently, Palm Sunday was one of those holidays for me.

Then I ran into Alfred Stevens’ Palm Sunday, from 1862.

Technically speaking, it appears that this young woman has opted for boxwood—rather more accessible in Europe than palm—but, as the Walters Art Museums writes, she nonetheless tucks the sprig of it “behind the frame of her mother’s portrait hanging on the bedroom wall. Another bough, lying on her cloak, is intended for the adjacent miniature, presumably a portrait of her father.”

There is something wonderful about the quiet memorial of it, about the care with which she slips the branch behind the wooden frame.

…And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming!

Once more unto the blogging breach, dear friends, once more!

Apologies, Dear Reader—Until Next Week

I’m afraid I’ve made the very poor tactical decision to present at a conference, a workshop, and a symposium in three consecutive weeks—during the busiest part of my academic semester.

I’m now at the halfway mark, and also ill.

For the moment, though, something has to give—so, dear reader, until next week!