The Thinking 


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Traveling Companions

September 5, 2012



Courtesy of the Birmingham Museum

IN 1862, the British painter Augustus Leopold Egg painted this wonderful and humorous picture of two girls in a train traveling through Europe, with the Italian coastline in the background. It’s called Travelling Companions.

In his book Victorian Painting, Christopher Wood wrote, “It is difficult for us now to appreciate how ugly the Victorians thought the dress of their own age; to our eyes it seems both elegant and picturesque.” I would think most of the Victorians liked the dress of their age or they wouldn’t have worn it, but Egg seems indeed to be making some fun of these parachute-like dresses, and he has a point.

Still they are beautiful, billowing constructions. There is a sense of blissful detachment, with one girl asleep and the other absorbed in a book, both with their hats perched on their laps, ready for the signal to resume the life of elegant tourists. But then that was the age when women were denied everything and did not have the opportunity to participate in slutwalks.

Read More »


The Skies and Fields of Constable

September 3, 2012


Chain Pier, Brighton; John Constable, 1827


Among the pleasures I experienced in reading the recent post “Gainsborough’s Children” and seeing the portraits was the quote from John Constable on Gainsborough’s works: “On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.” Although this moving comment was new to me, I could tell from what I had read in his letters, lectures, and documented conversations that it was just like Constable to speak this way, and I would like to share my thoughts that were prompted by his words.

Unlike Gainsborough, a painter of exquisitely delicate landscapes who made his mark as one of the great portraitists of his time, Constable was almost exclusively a landscape painter whose works leave a lasting impression of dramatically cloud-filled skies and the sheer substance of trees, water, fields, and hills. Read More »


More on Carl Larsson

August 3, 2012


Esbjorn Doing His Homework, Carl Larsson, 1912

MEREDITH writes:

It pained me to read that some of the Swedish painter Carl Larsson’s critics questioned the happiness of that family, and called him a hypocrite.  What rot!  And how wonderful that he had such a family and a haven to retreat to, as all men should.  It allowed him to go on, and continue to paint, and we all benefit from his work today. Read More »


The Home of Carl and Karin Larsson

August 2, 2012


THE SWEDISH PAINTER Carl Larsson created one of the Europe’s most beloved visions of domestic harmony. Dozens of Larsson’s watercolors and paintings featured his immediate surroundings: his wife, Karin; their children, their house and the countryside near Sundborn, the village where they lived in the late nineteenth century. A son confined to a chair in punishment, the children diving into the river, two daughters getting dressed with toys scattered on the floor, the family fishing for crayfish, Karin ironing  — these scenes were suffused with light, vibrant color and a deep appreciation for the enchantments of life with children. Larsson’s painting have enjoyed continuous popularity, but they have also at times been the victim of snobbery. This was to be expected. Domestic idealism is disdained in the modern world.


Nevertheless, Lilla Hyttnäs, the house in Sundborn, is one of Europe’s most popular artist’s houses and represents something of a revolution in interior decorating. While many nineteenth century interiors were somber and formal, the Larssons favored bright colors, handcrafts, and cheerful informality. Part of the Arts and Crafts Movement, they were a major inspiration for what we think of as Scandinavian design and even for the contemporary do-it-yourself movement. The house is not the kind of dwelling that would be conceived by a professional decorator. It has the organic quality that can only be the result of gradual evolution, rather than a preconceived scheme.

For those who enjoyed the discussions at this site on life in small houses, (see here, here, and here) the Larsson house, which can be viewed on the family website, may be of especial interest. The Larssons had a way of creating interesting and varied scenes in relatively small rooms. Read More »


Father and Daughter

June 26, 2012



INGRESas we have discussed before, was famous for his portraits, including official portraits of Napoleon and idealistic renderings of nineteenth-century European artistocrats. While living in Rome, he also executed many drawings of wealthy tourists, usually family portraits full of character and charm. Here is his drawing of Charles Hayard and his daughter, Marguerite, a work which captures the subtle tenderness between a father and his child. The girl depicted  is precocious, intelligent and clearly proud of her father. They seem utterly comfortable in each other’s arms. Ingres was fascinated with the clothing of the period and its interplay with personality. Here, the father’s stiff high collar and military cuffs  contrast with the slim, fragile child he clasps. The drawing examines the ever-powerful tension between masculine and feminine, both necessary and incomplete. Neither smiles here, at least not in the way we tend to think of smiles today; both are content.

Ingres is famous for saying, “Le dessin c’est la probité de l’art,” or “Drawing is the probity of Art,” so great was his conviction regarding the power of the simple outline. One of his inspirations was the British sculptor and illustrator John Flaxman, whose illustrations of Homer’s poems captured action and personality with simple outline and silhouette. How is it possible that lines on paper can bring so much to life?

Odysseus in the Underworld, John Flaxman, 1792

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Madame Reiset

June 15, 2012

WE DISCUSSED (here and here) one of the stunning female portraits of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres  — the portrait of the Comtesse D’Haussonville. Here is another captivating face, that of Madame Frederic Reiset. The oil painting was completed in 1846. Notice its conscious resemblance to the early form of photography, the daguerreotype, which would have been capturing attention then.

The art critic Kenneth Clark wrote that Madame Reiset was a friend of the painter’s and “one can feel it.” Clark wrote in his book The Romantic Rebellion:

Madame Reiset has recorded that when he was painting it she used to hear Monsieur Ingres groaning and sobbing in the next room, so painful to him was the attempt to combine truth and style.

Ingres had a way of harmonizing the sumptuous clothing of the era with personality. The delicate lace collar here complements the melting quality of Madame Reiset’s face and turns a somewhat austere gown into a thing of great beauty. As for the dramatic ringlets, they are the perfect enclosure — like an ornate wrought iron fence around a garden — for the deep pools of Madame Reiset’s eyes.

Everything about Madame Reiset as conveyed in this portrait is a standing rebuke to modern feminism. To a feminist, her passivity, her elegance, her delicacy  — all are signs of her victimization.

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The Woman at the Museum

June 15, 2012


SIGRID writes:

I am a regular but silent reader. Your passing reference to the cult of ugliness struck a chord today. As it happened, I read the post just after returning from a docent-led tour at the Corcoran Gallery. The docent was an delightful older woman (probably well into her 70s) who skillfully mixed “textbook” art history with her own personal take on the pieces. Read More »


The War on Women

June 14, 2012



The Straw Manikin, Francisco de Goya (1792)



Whistler’s Unfortunate Mother

May 13, 2012



AS YOU take stock this Mother’s Day, be glad you were not Whistler’s mother. This famous painting of Anna McNeill Whistler by her brilliant son, James, came to symbolize motherhood in the early twentieth century, especially when the U.S. Post Office placed it on a stamp in 1934. But, really, would you want to be remembered by your son this way?

That the painting was seen as a paean to motherhood is perplexing. Though it is interesting and beautiful as a composition and an exploration of color and space, showing the artist’s preoccupation with Oriental art and its emotional detachment, the person portrayed is imprisoned. She is austere to the point of joylessness. While there is a lovely fragility to her face, she stares into emptiness, fixated on something unsettling. One sees obsession and steely determination. Good heavens, what was she like when you were a baby?!

For Whistler the painter, the point was to portray his mother as an interesting object. Subject matter was secondary to form. The painting was thus titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, a shockingly abstract title at the time it was exhibited by the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1872. The subtitle, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, was appended, supposedly to ease concerns that it was callous to view one’s mother as part of a still life.

Whistler wrote: “To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?” [emphasis added] He didn’t paint it to stand for motherhood or even his own mother. He wanted to show that even a mother was a thing.

He eventually pawned it.


The Red Book

August 1, 2011


Miss Auras, The Red Book; Sire John Lavery (1890)

Miss Auras, The Red Book; John Lavery (1890)


Book and Bow

August 1, 2011



Reading a Book, James Jacques Tissot, 1872

VICTORIAN artists painted an extraordinary number of portraits of women reading books.  Despite what feminists say, women were frequently seen in the act of contemplation in the nineteenth century. And painters found it inspiring. They saw something important in the act of feminine contemplation, as if it nourished them.

Virginia Woolf claimed intelligent women would never be anything short of suicidal unless they were just like men and spent years in academic institutions toiling away as specialists, their minds pointed toward goals like trans-Atlantic freighters. Still, women actually did find meat for their thoughts on their own, outside universities and the theaters of intellectual achievement. They were not deprived of reading material. What is a university but a bunch of books?

Woolf resented the fact that the attention of women is relatively unmoored and more adapted to interruption. She was angry women were not reading in institutions. Read More »


The House of Commons, 1924

July 30, 2011



THIS painting by the Irish-born artist John Lavery is a study for his work “The House of Commons – Ramsay McDonald Addressing the House” of 1924. (Thank you to the website, Victorian/Edwardian Paintings.) Leaving aside its historical meaning, I find it interesting as a painting of politicans, a subject matter rarely chosen by twentieth century artists. Although it is only a study and not the finished painting, this faceless sea of sobriety is moving and evocative. Read More »


Compulsory Education

March 4, 2011


BRITON RIVIÉRE painted this scene, Compulsory Education, in 1887. Here is an interesting description of the painter’s portraits of animals from the website, Victorian/Edwardian Painting.  Phillip Brown writes:

Regarded as the most able successor to the great painter of animals Sir Edwin Landseer, Briton Riviére’s art was highly popular in the later nineteenth century when he exhibited sensitive portrayals of animals and human figures in which the beasts emphasise the portrayals of human emotion. Perhaps his most famous work is Prisoners also known as Fidelity of 1869 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) in which a young poacher and his dog await trial in a bare prison cell. The sympathy of the faithful dog for his master caught the imagination of the Victorian public and it was a similar appeal to that of Landseer’s Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (Victoria and Albert Museum). Riviére’s biographer Walter Armstrong has described the artist’s ability to depict emotion in the expressions of his animals without overly anthropomorphising them; ‘Speaking of him broadly as an artist, Riviére’s strong points are his sympathy with animals, his pleasant sense of colour, his directness of conception, and his fine vein of poetry.”

The most successful of Riviére’s compositions are those in which a solitary human figure is shown with a dog.


A Shepherd Resting

February 22, 2011



A Shepherd Resting in a Wooded Landscape, Sidney Richard Percy 1870

SEE more Victorian and Edwardian British paintings here.


Mass Media and the Eucharist

January 26, 2011



HERE is a brilliant essay by the Catholic artist Daniel Mitsui on mass media and Catholic liturgy. He writes:

I have heard many times the claim that the Catholic Church should have great success in her New Evangelization, because Catholicism is a visual religion and contemporary society is also visual. But to call Catholicism a visual religion is a meager assertion; it is no more visual than any of a thousand kinds of paganism. It would be more accurate simply to say that human beings are visual animals. The visuality of Catholicism is only remarkable because the religion’s most obvious alternatives in the West are rather inhuman. Read More »

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