Thursday, December 25, 2008

Old English Christmas Carol

Merry Christmas to all! When I was a child this was probably my favourite Christmas Carol. Long before I saw my first Disney movie, I was fascinated by the idea of talking animals, so the idea that animals could speak on Christmas Eve was particularly attractive to me. I still remember it from a little cassette tape and book of Christmas Carols that I carried around with me for MONTHS leading up to Christmas. The tape was played so much that it always warbled during this song (and during my other favourites, the "Wassailing Song," "Good King Wenceslas" and "The Holy and the Ivy". I guess even then I had a thing for Old English Carols!

The Friendly Beasts
Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude;
And the friendly beasts around Him stood.
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

"I," said the Donkey, shaggy and brown,
"I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town."
"I," said the Donkey, shaggy and brown.

"I," said the Cow, all white and red,
"I gave Him my manger for His bed;
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head."
"I," said the Cow, all white and red.

"I," said the Sheep, with the curly horn,
"I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm;
He wore my coat on Christmas morn."
"I," said the Sheep, with the curly horn.

"I," said the Dove, from the rafters high,
"I cooed Him to sleep that He should not cry;
We cooed Him to sleep, my mate and I."
"I," said the Dove, from the rafters high.

Thus every beast by some glad spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,
The gift he gave Emmanuel.

Image courtesy of the Tate Gallery. It's "The Adoration" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and was painted between 1858 and 1864. I had actually never seen this painting before today! I just love the strong Medieval quality that it has. I'm so glad I found it!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Death, Taxes and Pre-Raphaelite Art

What do death and taxes have to do with Pre-Raphealite Art?

It seems that in today's tough economic times, Britain's millionaires are turning to their art collections when it comes time to pay the tax man. The U.K. Treasury recently accepted an art collection worth over £15 million ($22.4 million) as payment in lieu of inheritance tax. The collection of rare artworks includes paintings by J.M.W. Turner (including the watercolor Carisbrook Castle) as well as some fabulous works by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Among the more eccentric items in the collection is the embroidered undershirt owned by British naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson--now there's a conversation piece.

The good news is that at least a few of these objects will now be in the public domain. The Treasury has announced that several of the paintings will be returning to the five National Trust houses from which they originally come.

For more information: U.K. Receives £15M Collection in Lieu of Death Duties at
Image: JMW Turner, Carisbrook Castle, 1827(in Public domain)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Waltham Forest Council announces Plan to Restore Land Around the William Morris Gallery

The Waltham Forest Council has unveiled plans to help restore the land around the William Morris Gallery. The good news is that they will be working to restore historic planting areas around the gallery and working to repair the bridge from the historic gardens. The bad news is that it sounds like they will be turning the place into a bit of a concrete jungle (there are plans for massive additions to the parking area).

There will be a series of exhibitions at the William Morris Gallery on December 4, 2008 (that's tomorrow!) from 3:30-7:00 pm to discuss the proposal. Apparently that is the time to ask questions about their plans. On December 9, the exhibition will move to the Horizon Cafe in Aveling Park, Walthamstow, and it will be open until 31 May 2009. Council experts will be answering questions on Thursday 11 December and Thursday 18 December between 1pm-3.30pm, and further dates when officers will be in the cafe will be published late December.

I would be really interested to hear what some of my readers from the UK and that neighborhood think about the proposal. Please let me know if any of you attend! To see full details of the council's plans, check out their newsletter (in pdf).

You can also read more about it on the Waltham Forest website.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Priceless Pre-Raphaelite Painting Found in Dusty Attic

A woman in Somerset, England, recently discovered this rare portrait by John Everett Millais of his wife, Effie Millais, while she was in the process of cleaning her house.

How come stuff like this never happens to me?

Apparently, she had received the painting as a birthday gift when she was just nine years old (now that was one spoiled child!), and then forgot about it. The man who was evaluating the rest of her belongings, Duncan Chilcott, described his discovery:

"Up in the attic she wanted me to look at a table. On the other side of the room behind some old mattresses I saw the painting leaning against the wall," the Telegraph quoted him as saying.

"It was covered in thick dust and I was astonished when I blew it off and saw what was beneath."

"The lady selling it said it was purchased for her by her mother as a ninth birthday present."

Mr. Chilcott's wife later added that when the woman was informed of the painting's value, she was rather nonplussed:
"she wasn't leaping up and down but she was surprised by it. I guess it is cash in the attic for her."
Perhaps her mother would have been better off getting her a bicycle for her birthday and keeping the fine art for herself.

While the owner might not be excited about the paintings' discovery, the art world is quite excited. You will recall that Effie Millais was actually married to the art critic John Ruskin before she met Millais. Because Effie's hand is hidden in this portrait, there is some speculation that it has something to do with John and Effie's relationship (or, as the Daily Mail more provocatively stated it, the "scandal of a love triangle"). The painting will be auctioned on December 9.

Read the whole story at the Daily Mail

Thursday, November 20, 2008

La Vie en Rose: The Middle Ages through Rose-Coloured Glasses

Nostalgia always brings with it a certain amount of selective memory. We idealise the past because we remember the best and forget the rest. But is this really such a bad thing? The 19th century medieval popularised by William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites was based in the firm belief that the people of the Middle Ages had closer contact with organic elements and were thus more aware of their connection with nature and with each other. William Morris' novel News from Nowhere--(which I highly recommend, by the way)--presents a Utopian vision of the future that clearly is meant to be a recreation of an idealised medieval past.

The Nostalgic Middle Ages:

Of course, medieval revival is fairly easy to criticise from a historical viewpoint. Morris, like his Pre-Raphaelite friends, had a habit of focusing on the positive, and carefully avoiding things like war, feudalism, disease and famine that were such problems throughout the Middle Ages (plus, many of their notions of the Middle Ages were completely inaccurate).

Morris believed capitalism was to blame for modernity's rift with nature, and that our goods-focused society created artificial needs that enslaved mankind in an endless cycle of consumption and debt (no doubt today's current market crisis would have reinforced this belief!). And while the Middle Ages were not perfect, that doesn't mean that we can't embrace what they seem to have done right. Or, perhaps we might finally acknowledge the fact that our imagined concept of the Middle Ages is actually far superior to the way things actually were! I actually think fantasy makes a much better template for the future than any reality, past or present. This is probably because I'm a historian, so I know just how much of a failure most societies have been!

The real Middle Ages?

I'm curious to see whether the current economic upheaval will cause people to re-evaluate the Middle Ages and look to them for inspiration. I've noticed that some aspects of medieval culture, like the barter system, as the New York Times reports, are actually becoming much more widely adopted (it is expected that barter will account for $3 billion in trade in the US this year).

It will be interesting to see what develops!

Images courtesy Wikimedia. Top: Lamia (1905) by John William Waterhouse; Middle: A monk-cellarer tasting wine from a barrel whilst filling a jug. From Li Livres dou Santé by Aldobrandino of Siena - France, late 13th century.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The End of an Era--Spode Begins Overseas Production of Blue Italian, Then Goes Bankrupt

I've collected Spode Blue Italian since I was ten years old. I have some pretty interesting pieces in my collection, like the Cheese Wedge Dish that I begged for--and received from my dear mother--for high school graduation. People might have thought it was a little odd for a ten year old to begin collecting china, but that's just the way I was! From the time I was young I recognized the beauty of the products and I still remember reading about transfer ware in Victoria Magazine and being fascinated with the time consuming, labour of love involved in creating each piece of porcelain.

So, it seemed natural to use my wedding registry as an opportunity to complete my collection. I set up my registry at Caplan Duval, here in Canada. I ended up waiting over a year due to some mysterious "reorganization" at the Spode factory. Finally, 15 months later, my first shipment of china arrived.

I was completely crestfallen when I opened the box. I hardly recognized the china. It was an odd, almond colour, with an indistinct blue-ish pattern that seemed like a caricature of the original. Moreover, the plates in the 5 piece place setting did not even stack properly with my old set because they were sized incorrectly.

Spot the knockoff:

Businesses seem to apply a "one size fits all" solution to economic challenges. Outsourcing is viewed as the universal cookie-cutter response to poor sales. In their letter to my mom, the people at Spode suggested that outsourcing was their only option. For legal reasons, I cannot quote their letter on The Earthly Paradise, but their overall argument was that customers would prefer to purchase Spode products at a lower price, than spend more for Spode that had been made in England.

The next day, we discovered that Royal Worcester, the maker of Spode, was bankrupt. I wonder why!

Outsourcing is a difficult concept for me. I would personally much rather spend twice as much for a quality product made by artisans than a cheap knockoff produced by workers in a foreign factory being paid pennies an hour. I firmly believe that unhappy workers cannot create beautiful work. It doubtless comes from reading too much William Morris, but I firmly beleive in artisan work, and I don't care whether it's profitable or not! Morris and Company was always a profitable business, in that it did not lose money. But it also did not make the kind of obscene profits that most business today seem to believe they require in order to compete in the global marketplace.

I continue to hope that whichever corporation purchases Royal Worcester has better businesses ideas, but I'm not holding my breath. It seems that the world's former luxury goods producers have completely lost sight of what made their products worth having in the first place.

You can read more about Spode/Royal Worcester's financial difficulties in the Tri-City Herald.

Server Problems

My apologies to anyone who has been having difficulties accessing my blog over the past few days. The server has been having issues, and I'm not quite sure what's wrong with it. I may be changing companies very soon if things don't improve quickly!

Thank you for your patience, and if you ever have a hard time getting The Earthly Paradise's home page to work, please try back later, and know that we aren't going anywhere any time soon!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Edmonton Opera's Production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman

Flying Dutchman
Last week the Edmonton Opera's season began with an ambitious production of Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from our small opera company, but I was impressed! Overall I think it was a great success, although there were some inevitable hiccups.

First of all, the music was gorgeous: my husband and I were both captivated from the moment the orchestra started playing. Once the the curtain went up, many of the cast members had a difficult time being heard above the orchestra, which I suppose is an occupational hazard of performing Wagner. Thankfully, the Dutchman (Jason Howard)and Senta(Susan Marie Pierson)had voices that were capable of standing up to the music. I personally felt that Senta stole the show. From the moment she began singing(Act 2), she really demonstrated what a more powerful voice could do with the music. The chorus numbers were another highlight, as the larger number of voices meant that the singers weren't going to be drowned out by the music.

The Flying Dutchman tells the story of a sea Captain who is condemned to wander the seas for all eternity. Once every seven years he is permitted to leave the ship in order to search for a woman who can be faithful to him until death. If he accomplishes this task, he will be freed from the curse. Unfortunately, although he has been trying for hundreds of years to find such a woman, all of them have proved unfaithful (quite a sad commentary on womankind!).

One thing that constantly impresses me about the Edmonton Opera is the great set designs that they consistently manage to pull off. This time they staged the entire production in a Shaker-style meeting hall on stilts that appeared to be tilted dramatically. I kept wondering how the cast members managed to maneuver around the stage without falling down! It really was quite extraordinary.

Ultimately, I was very happy to see an opera like this being staged in Edmonton. Doing Wagner is always difficult, but I think it was definitely worth it. Hopefully we'll get the chance to see more Wagner in Edmonton!

"The Flying Dutchman" by Albert Pinkham Ryder courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Albrecht Durer Exhibit at the Edmonton Art Gallery

Last Thursday evening my husband and I headed to the Edmonton Art Gallery to take in the last of the Albrecht Durer exhibition. I'd been meaning to go for ages, but I'd never had the time.

This was my first visit to the Art Gallery of Alberta. I have to say I was rather disappointed. The exhibit itself was rather nice--the gallery had a large selection of Durer's prints, with some fairly good notes on the exhibition. But the overall atmosphere of the museum was lacking. Perhaps this was because the AGA is undergoing renovations, and the museum is currently being held in another location (the old Hudson's Bay Building in Downtown Edmonton).

The other thing that took me by surprise was the Museum's stand on photography. While taking a picture of one of the prints with my cellphone, I was informed by one of the museum's overzealous staff members that photography was not permitted in the museum. I had not seen the sign at the museum's entrance that said we couldn't take pictures, so I innocently reassured the fellow that there was no flash. It didn't matter, he informed me, visitors could not take photographs due to copyright reasons.

Now, being a blogger, I am fairly up to date on copyright issues. There cannot be any copyright on Durer's work--it's been nearly 500 years since his death! Nevertheless, one could hold copyright on Images of Durer's work, so the museum is apparently trying to ensure that they have the only images of the work and that public will have to pay for copies of their images--which is just silly, given the fact that there are numerous copies of Durer's work in the public domain (such as the one included in this post).

I honestly have never been to a museum that did not allow non-flash photography, so I was a little taken aback. Nearly every museum in Europe allows photography, so long as there is no flash used (which makes sense, right? Museums are supposed to protect art, not keep it from the public). I do realise that keeping the public from taking flash photography can be rather challenging. I have seen priceless works of art at the Louvre being snapped with full flash, and it always makes me cringe (especially since there are signs EVERYWHERE telling people not to take flash photos). As a result, I can understand why some museums might be tempted not to permit photography at all. Nevertheless, I believe it's important to allow photography. It's important that museums be exciting, open places--The AGA is more like a tomb where art goes to die.

But back to the art. The prints were spectacular. Both of us were amazed at the depth of Durer's prints, given the fact that he was born just twenty years after the advent of the printing press! Javier's favourite was Melencolia, simply because it had so much symbolism to dissect! It was fascinating.

I have a question for you all! One aspect of Melencolia wasn't explained in the gallery's exhibition notes. That was the grid in the upper right hand corner of the painting. It reminds me a little of Sudoku. The numbers all add up to 34 in every direction, but that's all I know! If anyone knows what it is, I would love to hear from you!

(image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Pirates of Penzance

There is no better satire of Victorian life than the musicals of Gilbert and Sullivan. And while I enjoy all of Gilbert and Sullivan's musicals, I definitely have a soft spot for Pirates of Penzance.

I never get tired of watching the 1983 film adaptation of Pirates of Penzance, starring Kevin Kline. It tells the story of Frederick, an upstanding young man who happens to have spent his youth among pirates. On his 21st birthday, he announces that he is going to leave piracy behind and devote himself (albeit regrettably) to the "extermination" of his former friends. Once he falls in love with a girl, whose father is a Major General. Everything seems to be going well for Frederick until his former pirates friends show up and hilarity ensues.

In the end, the girls' father, General Stanley, proves himself a "model of a modern Major General" by accepting the pirates, who, after all, "with all their faults" still "love their Queen." It turns out that what they really crave is to settle down for a life of "unbounded domesticity." Of course, it doesn't hurt things when it turns out the pirates are actually peers of the realm. Being a rather dotty, social climbing member of the nouveau riche, the General immeadiately instructs the pirates to: "resume your ranks and legislative duties, and take my daughters, all of whom are beauties!"

There is no question that Kevin Kline steals the scene as the Pirate King. His sense of humor and ability is reminiscent of his peerless work in A Fish Called Wanda. His on-stage athletics are pretty impressive as well!

My sister and I watched this film more times than I could possibly count--50 at least. One of our favourite activities was attempting to sing "I am the very model of a modern Major General." Not an easy feat! The following scene includes both "Modern Major General" and the General's little song about being an orphan--which of course instantly melts the pirates' hearts (being orphans themselves, and good Englishmen at heart, they are doubtless well-schooled in the works of Dickens. It would be unthinkable to rob an orphan of his only company).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Pre Raphaelites and Their World

I've really been missing the University library lately. I need to get an alumni membership, but I'm afraid I haven't gotten around to that yet. But as you can see from the picture above, I am starting my own collection of Pre-Raphaelite materials!

The other day my husband and I took a stroll near our home in Edmonton to enjoy the last of the lovely fall weather. He spied this beautiful book in a shop near Whyte Avenue and made me get it! We had been scouring the used book stores near our house for books on the Pre-Raphaelites. Generally I don't see much of anything, but this book was quite a find.

The Pre-Raphaelites and Their World is William Michael Rossetti's reminiscences about his brother and the rest of the members of the Pre-Raphaelites. For those of you who are familiar with William Holman Hunt's more gossipy version of the PRB's history, William Rossetti's account is something of an adjustment. His book is far less sensational, but as a historian, I think it's a great deal more reliable! Although William acknowledges that he cannot recall minute details about conversations that had taken 50 years before (unlike Holman Hunt, who transcribed full conversations), Rossetti fills the book with fabulous anecdotes that reveal a different, more thoughtful side of the Brotherhood. I would hugely recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the Pre-Raphaelites.

Of course, one of the main things that stood out to me immediately about this book was its beauty. It's a 1995 Folio edition of William Michael Rossetti's writing, and the whole volume is filled with lovely photographs (most by Margaret Cameron) and Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It's a truly lovely book and it's so nice to see a relatively new book that has been so beautifully made (it even came with a lovely little case to keep it looking pretty!). I don't think it's original owner had ever even opened it--I was really lucky!

So far, my favourite aspect of the book is William Michael Rossetti's recollection of his childhood. The Rossetti household must have been such an exciting place to grow up. No wonder that Christina and Dante Gabriel were such prolific writers and artists! Their home was really the ultimate in terms of a nurturing environment (and as I mentioned in an earlier post, this was really true of Millais' home as well). How lucky the Rossetti children were! They had the chance to actually converse with all of their father's artistic and literary friends from the time they were small children. I love William's story about four year old Dante Gabriel terrifying the milkman, who "saw a baby making a picture." Perhaps he was as much a prodigy as Millais, though it's hard to know.

Although this book doesn't offer theories about the Janey-Topsy-Rossetti love triangle, I appreciate its more subdued approach. There are so many books that dwell on the scandals of the Pre-Raphaelites that it is refreshing to be reminded of the exciting ideas, talents and aspirations that this group of people had.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

4th Art History Carnival

Welcome to the October 1, 2008 edition of art history carnival.

art history

Jason presents 1599: Beatrice Cenci and her family, for parricide posted at Executed Today, saying, "The reciprocal social construction between a family tragedy, a Romantic legend, and a (misattributed) painting."

Stephen's blog, A World Away, examines illustrated books. I really enjoyed a recent post he did on Lynd Ward's 1929 Graphic Novel, God's Man. I really enjoyed looking at the illustrations. They're quite striking and very reminiscent of the advertising art from the period.
Photobucket Lynd Ward

As you may or may not have noticed, my new job is certainly keeping me on my toes! I've been neglecting my little blogging paradise quite badly (for those of you who've asked, I've been working as a Legal Assistant--an interesting job, but a very fast-paced one). Nevertheless, while I've been neglecting my own blog, there have been lots of others who've been much more faithful than I! One of these is Sheramy, from Van Gogh's Chair. Sheramy, who is a Van Gogh scholar (I guess that doesn't exactly come as a surprise, now does it? She did a much better job of naming her blog than I did! Keywords, keywords), has been busy blogging away over the last few weeks. I particularly enjoyed her recent post on Van Gogh's "Other" Starry Night, "The Starry Night Over the Rhone."
Van Gogh Starry Night Isn't it lovely?

Bob Aho created a lovely post that examines the Cathedral of Modena posted at Passing Gaz, it's a great article filled with photographs of the Cathedral and its fascinating relief sculptures. A must see/read!

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of
art history carnival
using our carnival submission form.
Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

First of all, I've been a little neglectful of this blog over the last week! I just started a new job and I've been quite busy. I have a hard time writing when I don't have the time to be inspired, but I suppose that's something I'll just have to work on!

Speaking of "uninspired," I must confess that this William Holman Hunt's "The Awakening Conscience" is probably my least favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting. By far. I've always found it incredibly ugly, since the first time I saw it. That being said, I must confess that it's a very visually arresting work.

The technicolor color scheme is jarring to the senses, like many of Hunt's pieces. The subject itself seems rather tawdry, even today! I also can't help but think that the image of the fallen woman seems hoplessly Victorian. Apparently, the work was inspired by a "fallen woman" that Hunt had attempted to guide toward the straight and narrow (unsuccessfully).

While doing a little reading about the painting in Tim Barringer's The Pre-Raphaelites, I came across a copy of the song that is on the young woman's piano. You can see the title, "Oft in the Stilly Night" on the music. I thought the words were rather interesting, and seem to add an extra element to the painting that made me appreciate it a little bit more.

Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood's years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm'd and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber's chain hath bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

Do any of you like this painting? I'd be really interested to hear what others have to say about it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Original Members of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood

Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice Holman Hunt Pre Raphaelite
Last week I wrote a post about the Pre-Raphaelite that led to some questions about the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I thought today I would write a little bit about the founding members of the PRB, and the major players among them.

Although there were seven original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the founding members of the Brotherhood were really Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. These three have had the most lasting influence from among the original seven, and there work is the best known. After the idea for the PRB had been developed by Rossetti, Hunt and Millais, Rossetti invited his brother William, a clerk at the Inland Revenue Office, into the group as well. Interestingly, at the time the the Brotherhood was founded, William was neither a painter nor a serious writer. Nevertheless, he was the founding member's brother, and I suppose you can't blame Rossetti for wanting to include his family members!(Christina Rossetti was also an important part of the group, though she was excluded from the Brotherhood by reason of her sex).

Thomas Woolner, the fifth member of the PRB, was a sculptor who was introduced to the Brotherhood by D.G. Rossetti. In his biography of Rossetti, Evelyn Waugh is anxious to point out that Thomas Woolner married a Waugh (Alice Waugh). So too, did William Holman Hunt--twice. He first married Fanny Waugh, and when she died in childbirth, he married her sister, Edith. This was illegal in Britain at the time and he had to travel abroad in order to marry her!(Waugh, 35). No wonder Waugh was so interested in the Pre-Raphaelites!

James Collinson, a convert to Roman Catholicism had torrid on again/off-again relationships with both Christina Rossetti and the Catholic Church--both of which often seemed to hold far more interest to him than his painting--was the next to join. Frederick George Stephens was the seventh and final member of the original group. Stephens was a student of William Holman Hunt and his membership in the Brotherhood may have been due as much to Rossetti's superstition (a desire for a perfect seven-member group) as to any supposed artistic contribution from Stephens.

Source consulted: Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti, His Life and Works. London: The Folcraft Press, 1969.

Image: William Holman Hunt, Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rossetti as Collector

Long before the advent of Antiques Roadshow, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a fanatic for anything antique, and together with a small group of friends, he pursued his hobby. Rossetti's collection of fine china "was one of the first of its kind in England."

It was Rossetti's utmost delight to drive round in a cab, loading it with china and brass and carved oak picked out from the litter of second-hand furniture shops and pawnbrokers (Waugh, 118).

I guess Saturday afternoon antiquing is nothing new! What I found especially amusing though is that Rossetti loved to get together
When one of this elect little circle had made a particular "find," invitations were sent out and a dinner-party would be given. Then the new pot would be uncovered and its owner would be triumphant until the next discovery (Waugh 119).

It was at one of these little get togethers that Rossetti managed to humiliate himself in a most amusing way. I really enjoyed this story because most of the time, the amusing anecdotes are about William Morris, who was the butt of a great many jokes. Nevertheless, on this occasion it was Rossetti who managed to embarrass himself.

Rossetti's infamous agent, Charles Augustus Howell, was a bit of a Victorian celebrity. Today he is probably most famous for ordering that Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddal, be exhumed so that Rossetti's poetry could be recovered. But in his own time, Howell was at the centre of numerous scandals, the most infamous of which was his collaboration in Felice Orsini's plot to assassinate Napoleon III. In addition to these adventurous exploits, Howell was also a voracious collector of blue china.

One day, Howell invited Rossetti and some friends over to see a spectacular piece of Nankin blue china that he'd picked up at a London shop. Rossetti was green with envy, and decided to have his revenge on Howell by stealing the plate and cleverly replacing it with an old piece of delft blue that was the same size and shape.

Rossetti held a dinner party of his own the next day. He brought out a box containing his prize and peeled away the layers of carefully wrapped paper to reveal...

A chipped delft blue plate.

Apparently, Howell had been aware of Rossetti's plot the entire time, and had switched his own plate for the broken delft. I don't think Rossetti was used to being on the losing end of a practical joke!

In addition to his penchant for china, Rossetti collected oak furniture and musical instruments “solely for their design and as properties for his pictures; he never showed any interest in music.” Rossetti also had a passion for all things Japanese, and really led the way for the oriental craze of the later 19th century.

Source consulted: Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti and his Circle. London: The Folcroft Press, 1969

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What Makes a Pre-Raphaelite?

rose John William Waterhouse
The term Pre-Raphaelite is thrown around pretty loosely on this website. I liberally refer to Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse as Pre-Raphaelite artists, although I know perfectly well that they were not "officially" members of the brotherhood. For example, while many (including myself) would recognize Edward Burne Jones as a Pre-Raphaelite, his only connection to the movement was through Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and he was never a member of the original Brotherhood (neither, of course, was William Morris)(Barringer, 14).

This got me to thinking. What makes art Pre-Raphaelite? Why do I tend to associate some artists with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and not others? In my own mind, Pre-Raphaelite art is closely connected to its 19th century British context, and so I tend to look for those qualities in any bit of fashion or art that I label "Pre-Raphaelite." I also think a certain dedication to accurate representation of life (realism) is another important defining characteristic of Pre-Raphalitism, though close examination of the art of the original Pre-Raphaelites' reveals that they wasn't always as keen on portraying "reality" as they were in finding beauty (this is particularly true of Rossetti, of course).

Pre-Raphaelites also had a very particular idea of beauty and nature that I think is common to most of the works I would consider "Pre-Raphaelite." I suppose most people would call this romanticism. The Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic values nature (or rather, an idealised form of nature), and generally opposes industrialisation and modernisation as encroachment onto nature's turf. This is particularly evident in William Morris' work and writing, but it can also be found in Rossetti's idealisation of untamed feminine beauty and Ruskin's fondness for the unspoilt landscapes of England and Scotland.

Finally, I would have to say historicism is probably the defining characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite art, and it connects closely to all the other attributes I've mentioned. It was certainly important to the original PRB--they even went so far as to name their movement "Pre-Raphaelite" in honour of a supposedly superior distant artistic past! And while it may seem quaint to modern viewers to see the obviously anachronistic characters that fill Pre-Raphaelite art, the Pre-Raphaelites felt that they were celebrating a mythical, mystical golden age.

What is Pre-Raphaelitism to you? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Source consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Everyman Art Library, 1998.
Image: "The Soul of the Rose" John William Waterhouse, 1908. "And the soul of the rose went into my blood"(from Tennyson's 'Maud').

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Millais' Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru

"Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru" is another of Millais' early masterpieces. He was just 16 when it was completed! The painting features Atahualpa, the last sovereign leader of the Inca empire, being seized by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro. It's the only painting by Millais that I know of that is set in Latin America. Unlike his self portrait, it shows more of the fine detail that would become a hallmark of his later work.

The exhibition catalogue at the Tate arguest notes that pyramidal organization of the figures, baroque lighting and "groups of huddled women and children derive from religious pictures of the Renaissance and later neoclassical and Romantic history paintings"(Tate). I like the inclusion of the pineapple and plantain in the foreground of the painting--I wonder if Millais had ever tasted them, or if his mother had just found a picture of them in the British Museum?

One of the things that struck me most about this painting was the large role that Millais' family played in helping him prepare for it. His mother, Mrs. Millais spent hours in the British Museum Reading-Room researching the historical details for the picture (the textiles are actually fairly accurate, which surprised me). She also handmade all of the clothing for the models! Mrs. Millais would also entertain her son by reading to him while he painted, and her husband offered his assistance by posing in a variety of wigs for his son's paintings.

The Millais family loved helping their young son John with his paintings, although their constant involvement got on Millais' nerves at times. It bothered him that they called him "Johnny" when he was older, and they had a bad habit of using his studio as a living room. Waugh tells a great story in his biography of Rossetti about Millais' struggle for independence:

Rebellion was in the air in 1848, and one afternoon in early spring Mrs. Millais found the studio door locked against her. Inside, Holman-Hunt was lecturing Millais on the decadence of English painting.
Later in the evening the family became reconciled. Hunt and Millais went into the parlour to visit "the old people." Mrs. Millais sat crocheting in the armchair. Her needle clicked intently and the boys' entrance was allowed to pass unnoticed. Millais advanced into the room, swaggering ever so little; Hunt hung back rather ill at ease.
"Now, we've come to have a nice time with you, mama and papa," he said jauntily.
His mother hardly looked up from her work.
"We do not wish to tax your precious time. We have our own occupations to divert us and engage our attention!"
But Millais was not easily snubbed, as many people learned later.
"Hoity-toity, what's all this?" he cried affectionately, pressing a guitar into his father's hand. "Put down your worsted, amam, I'm going to play back-gammon with you directly."(Waugh, 31-32)

All was forgiven after the game of back-gammon, but it seems that Millais' parents tried to give their young son a little more artistic space afterwards. Millais' studio was left in peace, though his parents were still actively involved in helping him with his work.

Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti: His Life and Works. London: The Folcroft Press, 1969.
Image courtesy Tate Gallery

Monday, September 15, 2008

Millais Self-Portrait

John Everett Millais painted this self-portrait when he was just 18 years old. He had already been a member of the Royal Academy of Art Schools for 7 years, having been admitted at the age of 11 (he remains the youngest person ever admitted to the Schools).

Millais' self-portrait was painted just two years before he helped found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but the style of the painting seems light years away from the fine detail evident in Lorenzo and Isabella. I have to admit that if I didn't know who had painted this portrait, I would have had a hard time guessing who it was! Perhaps Millais was experimenting with new techniques when he created this portrait, because the brushwork seems much for "sloshy" than in his later work--or even than in his earlier work.

Tomorrow: a story from Millais' youth, and a closer look at one of his earliest masterpieces, Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru.

image courtesy of Tate Gallery

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tennyson and the Allure of the Medieval

Lord Alfred Tennyson composed some of the most famous lines in English poetry. Although he succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate, his work has never gained the respect lavished on his predecessor, but his lonstanding popularity is unquestionable. I remember professors in University laughed at the idea of studying Tennyson. He was viewed as something of a literary joke, akin to Thomas Kinkade in the art world.

Tennyson's poetry had the ability of giving life to old narratives, particularly when it came to Arthurian literature. The Pre Raphaelites, who were drawn to this subject matter, often relied more heavily on Tennyson's interpretation of Medieval texts than they did on the original source material. This is particularly evident in "Mariana," "The Lady of Shallot," "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere" and "Morte D'Arthur"--all of which were painted by Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Since I didn't post a copy of Tennyson's lovely poem, Mariana, the other day, I thought this would be an appropriate time to do so!


WITH blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look'd sad and strange: 5
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said; 10
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven, 15
Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats. 20
She only said, 'The night is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

Upon the middle of the night, 25
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen's low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem'd to walk forlorn, 30
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, 'The day is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary, 35
I would that I were dead!'

About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blacken'd waters slept,
And o'er it many, round and small,
The cluster'd marish-mosses crept. 40
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarlèd bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, 'My life is dreary, 45
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

And ever when the moon was low,
And the shrill winds were up and away, 50
In the white curtain, to and fro,
She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low,
And wild winds bound within their cell,
The shadow of the poplar fell 55
Upon her bed, across her brow.
She only said, 'The night is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!' 60

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak'd;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd,
Or from the crevice peer'd about. 65
Old faces glimmer'd thro' the doors,
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices call'd her from without.
She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said; 70
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,'
I would that I were dead!'

The sparrow's chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof 75
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower. 80
Then, said she, 'I am very dreary,
He will not come,' she said;
She wept, 'I am aweary, aweary,
O God, that I were dead!'

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Call for Your Input

Now, for some bloggy housekeeping.

You might have noticed that I changed my blog's template! I felt like the left side of my blog was beginning to look a bit cluttered, so I moved the content to the left hand side and made the margins a bit narrower so that the text was easier to read. What do you think? Is the blog easier to read now? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Mariana, by Valentine Cameron Prinsep

Mariana Valentine Cameron Prinsep Pictures, Images and Photos
Valentine Cameron Prinsep's 1888 painting of Mariana borrows much from Millais' version. Both paintings feature Mariana gazing out the window of her "moated grange." Prinseps' version is decidedly cheerier, and unlike Millais' autumnal painting featuring a backdrop of dying leaves, Prinseps' is set in spring, with tulips in abundance. The painting was originally exhibited in 1888 as part of a collection of twenty-one paintings entitled "Shakespeare's Heroines."

Valentine Cameron Prinsep is a lesser-known painter of the Pre-Raphaelite school, but his connections are fairly impressive! He was born in Calcutta, India in 1838, into a rather well-known family. His aunt was the pre-eminent photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, grandmother of Virginia Woolf (do you ever get the feeling that every person you read about is somehow related?). Valentine was good friends with Millais, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones, and his artwork definitely shows his friends' influence. During his life he wrote several books and plays, but he is best remembered for his artwork.

Source consulted: Shakespeare Online (The English Department at Emory University is responsible for this great resource--I highly recommend it!).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

John Everett Millais' Mariana

Millais Pictures, Images and Photos
For myself, one of the most enduring appeals of Pre-Raphaelite art is its strong relationship to romantic literature. Millais' 1851 work, Mariana, is a great example of this. The painting is based on a poem of the same title by Tennyson that in turn was inspired by Shakespeare's play, Measure for Measure. In Measure for Measure, the character Mariana is abandoned by her fiance, Angelo, when her dowry is lost in a shipwreck.

Millais' illustration of Mariana at the window reminds me of other stories, such as that of Penelope. Like Penelope, Mariana is engaged in needlework. Autumn leaves have blown in through the window and are scattered about the room--on the floor as well as on her needlework project, which the gallery description at the Tate suggests represents "the burden of her yearning as time passes." She is staring at a stained-glass image of the annunciation, which according to Tim Barringer was seen "as a quasi-sexual event" for both Millais and Rossetti in their paintings (42-43). There definitely is an undercurrent of frustration and longing in the painting.

Millais originally exhibited the painting along with several lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, Mariana:

She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

Tomorrow: another Pre-Raphaelite vision of Mariana.

image courtesy Tate Gallery
Source consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Everyman Art Library, 1998

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rossetti's Venus Verticordia

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti Pictures, Images and Photos
Dante Gabriel Rossetti composed his Venus Verticordia between 1863 and 1868. At least four versions of the painting exist, done in various mediums (oil, watercolour, etc.), but this 82 x 69 cm oil on canvas is the most famous.

In his biography of Rossetti, Evelyn Waugh writes that the girl who modeled for the painting was "a young cook whom Rossetti picked up in the streets"(136). This is sort of true, but Rossetti used one of his favourite models, Alexa Wilding, for the final edition of the painting that you see here, having decided that the cook was a little too rough around the edges for this particular painting.

Most of Rossetti's friends disliked Venus Verticordia, and his patrons refused to buy it because Venus was partially nude. According to Waugh's biography, Mr. Valpy, one of Rossetti's buyers, had previously refused to buy a painting of a figure in a sleeveless gown, so you can imagine how they reacted to the bare-breasted Venus.

In his biography of the artist, Waugh complains that Rossetti was bad at painting nudes and that Venus' hair looks like an "ill fitting and inexpensive wig." Well, Waugh WOULD say that, but I like this painting anyway. It's true that Venus is not particularly lifelike, but the painting is still an arresting image that fits very well with the pagan/Christian syncretism that pervades Rossetti's work. This femme fatale clearly has her roots in both the pagan and Christian traditions. You will notice that the "Venus" in this painting evokes the biblical Eve. For example, it's hard to mistake that she's holding an apple, something he draws particular attention to in the first line of the poem he wrote for the painting--"She hath the apple in her hand for thee." It's also fairly obvious that Rossetti's Venus is toying with the viewer's vision through her rather suggestive grasp on the arrow--a pagan symbol of seduction (think Cupid).

What I love most about this painting is the flowers. They are gorgeous and very life-like. Waugh writes that Rossetti "spent enormous sums of money" on honeysuckles and roses. Eventually "he was obliged to institute a rigid curtailment of his household expenses to pay his florists' bills"(Waugh, 136). I think it was money well-spent. The honeysuckles are particularly life-like, don't you think? I also love the butterflies (or are they cabbage moths? I'm not completely sure) surrounding Venus' head. What an interesting touch.

As had become his custom, Rossetti composed a sonnet in iambic penatmeter to accompany the painting, which he had inscribed on the frame:

She hath the apple in her hand for thee,
Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;
She muses, with her eyes upon the track
Of that which in thy spirit they can see.
Haply, 'Behold, he is at peace,' saith she;
'Alas! the apple for his lips, - the dart
That follows its brief sweetness to his heart, -
The wandering of his feet perpetually.'

A little space her glance is still and coy;
But if she gets the fruit that works her spell,
Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy.
Then shall her bird's strained throat woe foretell,
And as far seas moan as a single shell,
And her grove glow with love-lit fires of Troy.

The BBC has an excellent interactive feature for exploring this painting on their website. Check it out!
Source consulted: Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti: His Life and Works. London: The Folcraft Press, 1969.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Astarte Syriaca

Rossetti Astarte Syriaca Pictures, Images and Photos
Painted between 1875 and 1877, Astarte Syriaca was originally entitled "Venus Astarte," in honour of the Syrian Love Goddess. Rossetti composed the painting on an immense six-foot (1.83 m) canvas, so that it was long enough for a full-length portrait. This is probably the most "revealing" portrait of Jane Morris, and its composition was partially based on Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

The painting drew criticism when it was displayed, due to its erotic content. Victorian audiences were shocked by its overt sensuality. Venus' hands are positioned to draw attention to her fertility (use your imagination!), and are identical to the hand position of Botticelli's Venus. Furthermore, as Rossetti's poem (below) indicates, her girdle also highlights her voluptuousness("her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune"). The girdle also functions in much the same way as the hair of Venus in Botticelli's version, but is a bit more subtle.

If you compare the way Jane looks in Rossetti's portrait (strong and sensual) to a photograph taken of her during roughly the same period, you can easily see that Rossetti has chosen to alter her appearance significantly. In fact, in a letter written a few years after Astarte Syriaca was finished, Jane complained to Rossetti that he probably didn't want to see her because she'd "grown too thin." Even at the time this painting was composed, you can see that she was hardly the robust figure that Rossetti painted. Nevertheless, isn't that what artistic license is for?

Rossetti wrote the following sonnet to accompany the painting:

Mystery, lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck's inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the sphere's dominant tune.

Torch-bearing, her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty's face to be:
That face, of Love's all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle,-
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery.

Source Consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: The Everyman Art Library, 1998.

Monday, September 8, 2008

An award!

I received this beautiful award from two blogs at the same time! I extend my heartfelt appreciation and thanks to Melanie, at Jelly Bean Angel and to Willow, of Life at Willow Manor! I encourage everyone to visit their beautiful blogs!

I'm terribly bad with awards--I appreciate them, but it is always challenging to come up with blogs to pass them on to (I love all of your blogs!), plus I hate burdening people with passing the award on, etc. Anyway, since I've been bad about this lately, I thought I'd participate this time! I will be following Willow's example, rather than Melanie's, since 7 blogs just seems like too many at the moment!

I will be passing on this charming award to:
Sheramy, of Van Gogh's Chair
Grace, at The Beautiful Necessity
Skye, from The Princess Portal--a lovely blog for girls that I might be writing if I'd started blogging about ten years ago!
Finally, I'd also like to recognize a new blogging friend, Stephen, author of A World Away--a blog that takes a closer look at illustrated books and the stories behind them.

Thanks again, and I hope everyone has a great week!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Celebrated Chinese Dancer, Liu Yan, Paralysed in Rehearsals for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games

Like many of you, I was completely blown away by the beauty of the opening ceremonies of the U.S. Olympics. Even though I'd had deep reservations about the Olympics being held in China, I backpedaled when it came to actually boycotting the games, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them.

Sadly, there have been a number of sad stories to come out of the games, and this one, about Liu Yan--one of China's leading classical dancers who was paralysed during rehearsals for the opening ceremony--really got to me. Liu Yan, a graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy and winner of the Lotus Cup, was seriously injured after falling from a faulty platform during rehearsals. She was rushed to hospital, where she underwent a series of emergeny operations, but when she woke up, she had no feeling from the waist down.

Zhang Yimou, the artistic director of the ceremonies, expressed sorrow about her injuries:

“I feel sorry for Liu Yan, my heart is full of regrets,” he said in an interview. “I’m deeply sorry. Liu Yan is a heroine. She sacrificed a lot for the Olympics, for me, for the opening ceremony.”
“I regret many things, many details of this performance, many things I could have done better,” he said. “For example, there are performers who were injured. I blame myself for that. It might well have been avoided if I had given more detailed instructions.”

The Beijing Olympics committe initially tried to keep Liu Yan's injury a secret, but news broke about her accident and they agreed to hold a news conference on the subject.

Liu Yan's Doctors believe she will never walk again. Performing in the Olympics was a dream for this girl, and now she simply hopes she'll be able to stand once again her own two feet.

Here's a video of her dancing before the accident:

What a tragic loss for Chinese dance.

Friday, September 5, 2008

New York Times Article on Degas' Ballet Students

The Arts section of the New York Times is always a great read. A few days ago they had an article entitled "Degas' Ballet Students Teach the Lesson of Their Art", that takes a closer look at the actual ballet technique of the students in Degas' paintings. At the Met, Degas' work takes fills up two rooms (one room of paintings, one of sculpture) and his work is found in four additional rooms as well. Five of the six rooms include works developed around the theme of ballet.

Showing the world of ballet with new kinds of truthfulness, they helped to make his fame during his lifetime. They have never lost their renown, and some grow only more complex with analysis. The relatively simple statuettes, about which Degas liked to speak as if they were not serious, repay multiple viewings. He shows ballet as a world of both idealism and facts. "

"it remains astonishing how few of his dancers are actually dancing. The rest are stretching, adjusting ribbons and costumes, waiting in the wings, resting, gossiping or watching what performing there is."

And when the dancers are actually engaged in ballet, they often exhibit questionable technique. Or, perhaps, technique that was acceptable in Degas' day, but is frowned upon in modern times.

I love the way the author closes the article. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead reference won me over--I just love that movie:

"In these paintings Degas takes a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” view of ballet, seeing it askew, from a distance, at an angle from which it was never intended to be viewed. He probably changed the specifics of any ballet room he visited to fit his idea. The result, paradoxically, is that he gives us a vision we believe wholeheartedly, a truth in which he addresses many layers of being."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ruskin and Sandro Botticelli

John Ruskin was actually one of the first people associated with the Pre-Raphaelites to have rediscovered Botticelli, but the reason it isn't written about much is that Ruskin's initial reaction to Botticelli was tepid at best. After hearing about Botticelli from some friends in the aesthetic movement, Ruskin had his assistant Fairfax Murray purchase Botticelli's Virgin and Child for a mere 300 pounds in 1877 (can you even imagine having an original Botticelli for a mere 600 dollars? Even in 1870s dollars, that was a tremendous bargain), but when the painting arrived, Ruskin wrote Murray that the Bottecelli was "so ugly that I've dared not show it to a human soul. Your buying such an ugly thing has shaken my very trust in you"(145).

Ruskin was so disgusted with Murray's purchase that he left the painting out of his writings entirely. Nevertheless, Ruskin renewed his interested in Botticelli later in life, when his friend Edward Burne-Jones became a fan. In 1872 Ruskin travelled to Rome to examine Bottecelli's frescoes at the Sistine Chapel up close, and returned two years later to study them again. As time went by, he slowly began to see Botticelli as an important figure representing the continuity between the Greek and Christian traditions. I wonder if he ever warmed up to the Bottecelli he had in his own private collection? (The painting is now held by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

Robert Hewison. Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 2000.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Botticelli and the Pre-Raphaelites

Unlike his contemporary, Raphael, who was known for his more accurate way of painting the human body, Botticelli's work takes considerable artistic license. If you look closely, you'll immediately notice that the length of the Venus' neck has been dramatically exaggerated. Moreover, her left arm (your right) looks like it's practically falling off! This is perhaps one of the major reasons that Botticelli's work was nearly forgotten after his death.

It's hard to imagine that there was ever a time when this painting was practically unknown. But it was nearly forgotten in the wake of Botticelli's death and Raphael's popularity (along with Leonardo and Michelangelo). As time went on, art critics ignored Botticelli's work, which was regarded as inferior and unrealistic. He was "rediscovered" in the 19th century by--surprise, surprise--the Pre-Raphaelites.

Botticelli's anatomically imaginative work made him the enemy of the art establishment, who thought he was merely careless. But these same perceived shortcomings endeared Botticelli to the Pre-Raphaelites in general, and Sir Edward Coley Burne Jones in particular (Levey, 299), who was impressed by the way Botticelli masterfully blended the pagan and Christian traditions within his artwork. Burne-Jones spoke often about his love for Botticelli, and his enthusiasm seems to have been contagious. William Michael Rossetti purchased one of Botticelli's drawings in 1867 (which later turned out to be a fake, but, oh well. At least he had been turned on to the artist). By the beginning of the 20th century, Botticelli's popularity had risen to such meteoric levels that "between 1900 and 1920, more books were published on Botticelli were printed than any other great painter"(291). This was due in a large part due to the enthusiasm of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Tomorrow: Ruskin and Botticelli

Source Consulted: Michael Levey. "Botticelli and Nineteenth-Century England." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 23, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Dec., 1960), pp. 291-306.

(This is a GREAT article that I recommend to anyone who can get their hands on it! It's available through JSTOR, for those of you who have subscriptions).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus

Botticelli's Birth of Venus
First of all, I would like to thank Stephen, from A World Away, for suggesting that I do a post or two on Botticelli! Sandro Botticelli's paintings are some of the most iconic and evocative works in Western art, and I'm actually quite surprised that this is the first time I've written about them! For the next few days, I will be focusing on the work of Botticelli and its relationship to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. I'll begin today by examining Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. It's one of those images that is so much a part of the Western psyche that it now truly deserves to be considered iconic, although this was not always the case, as we shall see.

There are actually a number of myths that explain Venus' origin, but Botticelli chose one of the earliest (and also the most violent and bloody) as the inspiration for his painting. According to Greek mythology, after Uranus was castrated by his son, Cronus, his severed genitals fell into the water and somehow fertilized it. Venus/Aphrodite later emerges from the water, having been conceived via the ocean's fertile waves. This rather far-flung story inspired Botticelli to create his most famous work, The Birth of Venus.

The painting itself was composed around 1482 for a member of the Medici family--Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici--and was hung at Lorenzo's Villa di Castello. Interestingly, the painting was done in tempera on canvas, rather than wood (at the time Botticelli painted the Venus, it was common for artists to compose important works on wood, as it was considered more durable). Part of the reason that the painting might have been done on canvas was that it featured a decidedly pagan theme.

The work features a stylised, distinctively European Venus emerging from the water on a seashell (shells themselves were an erotic symbol for the Romans, probably because shellfish had long been viewed as aphrodisiacs. Casanova, another famous Italian, reportedly used to eat 50 of them every morning for breakfast). The shell is being blown towards the shore by the Zephyrs (a zephyr is a gentle wind, associated with spring). In the right foreground is the goddess Horae, the goddess of the seasons, who is preparing to cover Venus in a flowered cape. In this painting, Botticelli presents an image of Venus that is at once the embodiment of femininity and sensuality, who affects modesty at the same time. This paradox was what would later fascinate the Pre-Raphaelites, who were interested in creating a synthesis between the pagan and christian traditions.

Thursday I will be looking at the surprising connections between Botticelli and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Image courtesy wikimedia.
Source Consulted: Michael Levey. "Botticelli and Nineteenth-Century England." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 23, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Dec., 1960), pp. 291-306.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Our First Year

Today is our first anniversary. What a wonderful year it's been! I'm looking forward to many more!

3rd Art History Carnival

Welcome to the September 1, 2008 edition of art history carnival.

art history

Van Gogh's Chair is one of those blogs I simply love to read, because I always learn something there! The blog's author, Sheramy is an art historian who specializes in Van Gogh. This week she wrote a great post on one of Van Gogh's most famous paintings, The Sunflower.

Art Blog by Blog is another of my favourite sites. In one of his latest posts, Unfinished Business, Bob examines the art of Jacques Louis David, who is probably best known for his 1793 painting The Death of Marat. In the painting, "David elevates the objectionable Marat to the status of sainthood, generating the necessary propagandistic energy to fuel calls for revenge against the group with which Corday sympathized." Be sure to stop by Bob's blog, to read more!

I believe anyone who owns a truly beautiful book would not hesitate to categorize books as fine art. And if you aren't convinced, I would suggest a visit to Stephen's blog, A World Away: The Illustrated Book. Stephen has written an informative post on the history of small printing presses that is sure to win you over to the joys of beautifull books!.

Unfortunately, not all those who dream of creating beautiful work are able to see their dreams come to life. Sam Pospil examines the significance of frustrated artistic ambition in "Hitler Fails Art Exam".

Here's a post that's a little on the wild side. Tattoostosee, a website devoted to tatoos, has written an interesting article on the art history of tatoos. Tatoos are not my thing, but I learned quite a bit from reading about it!

We've received another interesting submission from Admirable India showcasing some of India's historic architecture. This time, it's a post about a watch tower that was built between 1520and 1569 and was supposed to illustrate the anticipated limits of the city of Bangalore. Apparently, due to the material the tower was constructed from, it's now attracting geogrphers as well as historians!


The Stickley Museum is currently featuring an online exhibit of some of its beautiful handcrafted furniture. Visit The Collection: The Living Room to see full tour!

Sarah reports that Jim Henson's work is currently on display at the Smithsonian. This would be an excellent exhibit to take the kids to!

That concludes this edition. Please submit your blog article to the next edition of
the art history carnival
using our
carnival submission form
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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Debate Rages Over Possible Leonardo

More details are beginning to emerge in the controversy over what is now suspected to be a newly discovered work by Leonardo da Vinci. Initially, the name of the Manhattan art dealer who first sold the work was kept out of the news, but she has now come forward, and remains completely unconvinced that Leonardo had anything to do with the painting.

Kate Ganz purchased the painting at auction at Christie's for $21,850 and sold it to Downey Holdings--a company with an address somewhere in the British Isle of Jersey-- in January 2007 for the same price, less a dealer's discount. Peter Silverman, a Canadian art collector who advises Downey Holdings, told them the work was reminiscent of a Leonardo. Silverman never mentioned Ganz' name in his account, which he said was a measure to protect her anonymity (since it could be kind of embarrassing as an art dealer to make such a big mistake).

Ganz has now come forward as the original purchaser of the painting. She has also confessed to the New York Times that she remains unconvinced about the painting's authorship: “At the end of the day, when you talk about connoisseurship, it comes down to whether something is beautiful enough to be a Leonardo, whether it resonates with all of the qualities that define his handwriting — sublime modeling, exquisite delicacy, an unparalleled understanding of anatomy — and to me this drawing has none of those things.” Said Ganz. She went on to say that “Even though I honestly do not know what this drawing is, I still believe that it is not a Leonardo.”

The evidence in favour of the painting being by Leonardo still seems rather flimsy, which is why it's important that art critics agree on the authenticity of the painting. Thanks to carbon-14 dating, we now know that the painting was done sometime between 1450 and 1650. There is also substantial evidence that the artist was left-handed. The strongest evidence so far remains Lumiere Technologies digitization of the painting, which is supposed to reveal a number of similarities between Leonardo's style and this work.

Situations like this always make me wonder: 1. How often authentic works are passed over, and 2. How often fakes are agreed on by art critics to be the real thing. I'm sure both situations occur fairly often. After all, critics are embarrassed that they didn't recognize the age of the painting, so many seem eager now to conclude that it's the real deal. I'm really curious to see what the final verdict will be.

I still think that if I were the Swiss Collector, I'd insure my painting for an obscene amount of money, and then have it disappear mysteriously, a la "How to Steal a Million!"

Friday, August 29, 2008

200th Blog Post

It sort of sneaked up on me, but today marks my 200th post on this blog! Working on The Earthly Paradise has been such a wonderful experience. I've especially enjoyed working on the blog since graduating from my MA programme this summer. I think being able to write every day has definitely helped ease me into "the real world." I don't think I could ever bear to quit University cold turkey! Doing research for my blog helps me to feel like I'm still in school (which, for me, is a good thing).

Thank-you so much to all of you who stop by here to read my blog. And thank-you for your amazing comments! I enjoy reading so many of your blogs--each of them have introduced me to a new aspect of the world. I look forward to doing this for a long time!

This picture was taken this spring while I was in beautiful France with my mom. The lovely village of Dinan is in the background (thanks, mom, for reminding me where the picture was taken!).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tasha Tudor

Gillian's blog, Reflections in the Afternoon, reminded me a few days ago that Tasha Tudor's birthday was today! There has been a concerted online effort to pay special tribute to Tasha's birthday this year, which seems to have been led by the delightful Story Book Woods .

Tasha Tudor is one of my favourite illustrators of all time, and I was saddened when I heard back in June that she'd passed away. She was an incredibly prolific artist, with a body of work covering more than half a century. Tudor received her first Caldecott Honor for Mother Goose in 1945, and her last book, Corgiville Christmas, was published in 2003.

Tudor was born in 1915, but the era she aspired to was one even earlier--the 1820s. I think it would be inappropriate to say that she was nostalgic for an earlier era. Webster defines nostalgia as "wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition." But Tasha Tudor did not just yearn for the past, she painstakenly recreated a world that reflected the best of the time period she loved so much. She reminded readers about the beautiful customs of the past and helped keep them alive through classics like A Time to Keep, which celebrated family holiday traditions. I think many of my family's most treasured holiday "traditions" were borrowed from this fabulous book.

For more information on Tasha Tudor, or to purchase her lovely books, I recommend a visit to Tasha Tudor and Family. The site, which is run by Tasha's family, is a treasure trove of her lovely work. You can even by some of her original sketches and paintings here! Alas, I'm usually reduced to window shopping, but it's a fabulous, regularly updated site with information on upcoming events in the New England area.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Review: How to Steal a Million

After reading a great post on Art Blog by Bob about famous forger, Han van Meegeren, I was reminded of the 1966 William Wyler film How to Steal a Million, starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. It's an art-heist romantic comedy featuring some great performances.

Audrey Hepburn stars as Nicole Bonnet--a hard-working, earnest young woman who whose father, Charles Bonnet (a delightful Hugh Griffith) just happens to be a brilliant art forger who's made a fortune passing his work off as originals by old masters. One night while her father is out for the evening, Nicole discovers a rather well-mannered burglar (Peter O'Toole) who appears to be stealing one of her father's paintings. After accidentally shooting him, she drives him home so that the police won't be called (the paint is still drying on the canvas of the fake Van Gogh that O'Toole appeared to be stealing).

Later, Nicole's father Charles receives a visit from a museum that wants to borrow the family's "Cellini Venus"--the sculpture that forms the foundation of the Bonnet family's reputation as great art collectors. Charles signs a form insuring the sculpture for 1 million dollars, only to discover that in doing so he's effectively consented to have the sculpture tested to insure its authenticity. After confessing to his daughter that the sculpture is a fake, sculpted by her grandfather, with her grandmother posing--"before she started having those enormous lunches!"--Griffith's character panics, fearing the sculpture will be exposed as a fake and destroy his reputation.

Nicole reassures her father that she has an idea: she'll enlist the help of the burglar she's met (Peter O'Toole) in order to steal the sculpture back from the museum, before they can finalise the tests. What follows is a humorous caper film, filled with great views of Paris (the old Hotel Ritz, in particular). Hepburn also sports a memorable, elegant Givenchy wardrobe. The film is great, light-hearted fare. Eli Wallach puts in a particularly memorable performance as a crazed art collector who will do anything to get his hands on "the Venus."

The following scene takes place at Nicole Bonnet's mansion, after O'Toole's character has broken in to test one of her father's paintings.

Image courtesy

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rossetti: His Life and Works by Evelyn Waugh

It seems like whenever I begin to imagine that I have unique, individual, interests and tastes, I am at once brought crashingly down to earth with the discovery that my likes and dislikes are downright predictable. It's like those lists on "other readers also bought:", where I'm always irked that I actually AM interested in the books they recommend. But however much I'd love to be one of those independent thinkers with wildly unpredictable tastes, it seems the more wildly different my tastes seem to be, the more they are somehow interconnected.

Take, for example, my interest in Evelyn Waugh. I've loved his witty novels for some time, but I only recently discovered that he had a passionate interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. I really was sort of surprised. I would have thought the Pre-Raphaelites far too modern for Waugh, but it seems I was mistaken. In fact, Waugh's first book was actually a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, entitled Rossetti: His Life and Works.

The book has all the wit of Waugh's novels and is a delightfully gossip-filled take on Rossetti's life. Through numerous anecdotes, Waugh paints a portrait of Rossetti as an extremely talented, self-absorbed individual with a great appreciation for beauty, but an even greater capacity for self-pity. I found one aspect of Rossetti's story particularly telling: all of the writing about Rossetti make it clear that he was an animal lover who amassed great collection of exotic pets. What I did NOT know previously was that most of the creatures Rossetti kept in his menagerie perished almost as soon as they were brought home.

It does not appear that Rossetti lavished any personal affection upon his various pets, except perhaps upon the first of the wombats; he met their frequent deaths and disappearances with fortitude; some indeed died or disappeared almost the moment they were acquired...(Waugh, 117-118).

True to Waugh's usual form, the female characters in Rossetti's life get little attention compared to the males that populate his story. Nevertheless, I got the distinct impression that part of the reason they get such short shrift in Rossetti's biography is that they were genuinely not all that important in his life--more ornamental and muse-like than anything else. In fact, it seems that most of Rossetti's lovers were not treated much better than his pet wombats. Lizzie Siddal fared particularly badly, having been discovered by Rossetti when she was young and beautiful, only ot be gradually neglected over time.

Of course, despite neglecting Lizzie during her lifetime, Rossetti was inconsolable after Siddal's death from consumption. During a fit of remorse, be famously interred his poetry with her in her coffin, only to have her dug up again so that he could rescue his writings when his grief had run its course and he had bills to pay.

Never one to miss a chance to judge historical actors, Waugh concludes his little book with a chapter entitled "What is Wrong with Rossetti?" In which he decides that Rossetti's "problem" was his incurable romanticism.

In Rossetti's own day, no doubt, not a little of the adulation he aroused came from this romance of decay--a sort of spiritual coprophily characteristic of the age. Even now we are inclined to think of him with melancholy tolerance and to say, "If he had not been improvident and lethargic, how great an artist he might have been," as we say of the war poets, "If they had not been killed..." But it seems to me that there we have the root cause of Rossetti's failure. It is not so much that as a man he was a bad man--mere lawless wickedness has frequently been a concomitant of the highest genius--but there was fatally lacking in him that essential rectitude that underlies the serenity of all really great art. The sort of unhappiness that beset him was not the sort of unhappiness that does beset a great artist; all his brooding about magic and suicide are symptomatic not so much of genius as of mediocrity. There is a spiritual inadequacy, a sense of ill-organisation about all that he did.

But if he were merely a psychopathic case and nothing more, there would be no problem and no need for a book about him. The problem is that here and there in his life he seems, without ever feeling it, to have transcended this inadequacy in a fashion that admits no glib explanation. Just as the broken arch at Glastonbury Abbey is, in its ruin, so much more moving that it can ever have been when it stood whole and part of a great building, so Rossetti's art, at fitful moments, flames into the exquisite beauty of Beata Beatrix. It is the sort of problem that modern aesthetics does not seem capable of coping with. It has been the object of this book to state, though, alas! not to solve, this problem. (Waugh, 226-227)

I really enjoyed this book, which is hardly surprising, since I'm a fan of both Waugh and the Pre-Raphaelites. But I think almost anyone with an interest in Rossetti would really enjoy reading all of the letters and anecdotes that Waugh gathered together. And, while my review focuses on the more depressing aspects of Rossetti's life, there were many bright points worth mentioning as well. I'll have to mention those another day!

Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti: His Life and Works. London: The Folcraft Press, 1969.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1849

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was just twenty years old when his painting Girlhood of Mary Virgin was first exhibited on March 24, 1849. It was the first work to include the initials "P.R.B.", clearly visible in the lower left-hand corner of the canvas (click here to see a larger version of this painting at the Art Renewal Center).

I find it very interesting to see how much Rossetti's style changed throughout his life. This painting clearlly ties in with medieval and early rennaisance art, though the near photographic precision of the painting is quite modern (for more on the Pre-Raphaelite's combination of medieval style with modern techniques, see Barringer, 8-11). Devices like the haloes above Mary and her parents, Joachim and Anna (with the Latin form of their names inscribed on the inside--Rossetti writes "S.Maria" on Mary's halo) would have seemed instantly strange and archaic to Victorian viewers, who were not used to seeing paintings so steeped in symbolism.

Rossetti composed the following poem to accompany the painting. It was included in the exhibition catalogue. Notice how Rossetti has used his writing to help explain the symbolism in the painting to his viewers:

This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect,
God's Virgin. Gone is a great while, and she
Dwelt young in Nazareth of Galilee.
Unto God's will she brought devout respect,
Profound simplicity of intellect,
And supreme patience. From her mother's knee
Faithful and hopeful; wise in charity;
Strong in grave peace; in pity circumspect.

So held she through her girlhood; as it were
An angel-watered lily, that near God
Grows and is quiet. Till, one dawn at home,
She woke in her white bed, and had no fear
At all, -- yet wept till sunshine, and felt awed;
Because the fulness of the time was come.

These are the symbols. On that cloth of red
I' the centre is the Tripoint: perfect each,
Except the centre of its points,to teach
That Christ is not yet born. The books -- whose head
Is golden Charity, as Paul hath said --
Those virtues are wherein the soul is rich;
Therefore on them the lily standeth, which
Is innocence, being interpreted.

The seven-thorn'd brier and palm seven-leaved
Are here great sorrow and her great reward
Until the end be full, the Holy One
Abides without. She soon shall have achieved
Her perfect purity: yea, God the Lord
Shall soon vouchsafe His Son to be her Son.

-- D. G. Rossetti

I love the way Rossetti constructed his little puzzle for the viewer to decipher through a combination of image and text. Lines like "[u]ntil the end be full, the Holy One Abides without"--referring to the dove, which symbolises the Holy Spirit--provide clues for viewers that might not immeadiately pick up on all the symbolism.

Source consulted: Tim Barringer, The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Everyman Library, 1998.