Category: Art et al

The Meeting on the Turret Stairs

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he power of painting shows that some art really does go to our core as human beings, as with one of my favorite paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs by Frederic William Burton (1864). The painting depicts the final meeting of the lovers Hellelil and Hildebrand and is inspired by a story of tragic love in a medieval Danish ballad. She was a Danish princess and he was one of her twelve bodyguards. As far as her dad was concerned he was unsuitable and her dad sent his seven sons to kill him. Hildebrand killed her father and six of his sons and at the very last minute Hellelil interceded to save her youngest brother and they both died, he died from his wounds and she died apparently from heartbreak.

Frederic William Burton, Irish, 1816-1900 Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs.

The first time I saw this painting I was with my girlfriend Jacinta or JC, we both stood hand in hand waiting for the painting to be unveiled. There were other couples around us and curious onlookers, all eager to see the painting. It’s kept in a special cabinet behind closed doors but that just adds to the paintings allure. Surrounded by stained glass windows by Harry Clarke, the light in the room is subdued because the painting is a watercolor and it could fade drastically with exposure to direct light. Once the doors of the cabinet were opened, I kissed my girlfriend softly on her lips, embraced her and told her that I love her. That’s a moment that I shall never forget. Both our heads touching like two Greek cats, that are happy to be in love. When you realize that love just like the painting is beautiful indeed. How great it is that a painting can enhance your love for someone. I was just happy that the very first time I got to see this painting was with Jacinta and how we were both touched by the painting. It’s definitely a painting that you feel something when you see it, and it’s important to be open and honest about art and how it makes you feel. As romantic paintings go, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs is worthy of acceptation. We both looked lovingly at the painting and I knew then why it was one of her favorite paintings. One of the reasons she loved the painting was because of Hellelil’s long red hair, that always reminded her of her daughter’s beautiful hair. The way she has her hair in the painting is like someone throwing their hair over their heads to dry in the sun.

What I get from the painting is that it’s showing the moment before the inevitable violence and the love and it’s almost like he’s taking a last final smell of her, perhaps to bring her earthly scent with him to the battle. The way both of their faces are in the painting, you can’t really see their expressions but from their body language, you can see how she has turned away from him, and how he is clutching her arm, you still get this huge depth of profound emotion but you can tell that they were destined for each other and accepted they will die of their love for each other. They are both bent left and right almost apart from each other both knowing that they will never be together again and this makes the painting certainly a very emotional piece. The depth of emotion depicted in the painting is serene, a quiet final moment between the two lovers and their love that is soon to pass by. The detail in the painting is beautiful, meticulous and stunning yet tenderhearted.

Frederic William Burton (1816 – 1900) was left-handed due to a childhood accident to his right arm, he painted only in watercolor and also had problems with his eyesight. The painting exemplifies Burton’s slow but meticulous style of work which drew on his background as a miniaturist, he painted the watercolor by building up layers in small, delicate brush-strokes, the faces modeled in subtle tones. Interestingly Gum Arabic was used to give substance to the hair. It was painted when Burton was at the peak of his career and demonstrates that he had excellent knowledge of the medieval world.

In 1864, Frederic William Burton sold the painting to an art dealer, Edward Fox White. However,  in the contract they both signed, Burton actually retained the copyright. The painting then changed hands a number of times over the next 30 years and then in 1898 it was bought by Miss Margaret Stokes. Apparently, her interest in Burton was more than just friendship according to letters to her family. Margaret Stokes was writing a biography of Frederic William Burton when she died in 1900, and in her will, she bequeathed the painting, along with a number of other works by Burton, to the National Gallery of Ireland.

The painting can be viewed in Room 20 at the National Gallery of Ireland at the following times:

Thursdays 5.30pm – 6.30pm

Sundays 2pm – 3pm

 

Love and Ambition of Maria Cosway

The unrequited love and ambition of
Maria Cosway

In 1781 on the 18 January, the son of a schoolmaster from Devon married the daughter of a successful Italian innkeeper from Livorno. He was twenty years her senior and known for his profligate lifestyle. A union with a modern twist! She, a beautiful, talented artist. He, a painter of miniatures, whose self-portrait, in profile, shows a foppishly dressed, rather effeminate man sporting a curled and powdered wig. But look at her “selfie” and note the difference! Maria Cosway, although dressed in the fashion of late eighteenth century, with a turban atop her powered curls, adopts an extreme and unusual pose for this time.

Maria Cosway Self-Portrait
Maria Cosway Self-Portrait

She stares defiantly out of the picture, with her arms firmly crossed, letting the viewer know she is no ‘wilting violet.’ Was it a gesture of frustration? Did she feel she never fully achieved her potential? After all, there is little indication of her artistic career. No palette, no brushes, no easel. Yet, she had exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and her painting ‘The Hours’ was greatly admired. Apart from a promising career as ‘a portraitist and history painter,’ she was an outstanding musician, who in later years founded schools and did pioneering work in education for woman. An enviable CV, even by the standards of today! What was the cause of her resentment? It took the form of Richard Cosway, her husband, who jealous of her ability, prevented his wife from selling her paintings to achieve greater artistic recognition. Who instead, preferred her to play the role of ‘the Hostess with the Mostest’ at his fashionable, though it is also believed, immoral parties, frequented by the Prince of Wales. Who did not want to be embarrassed by an independent wife who earned her own money?

Richard Cosway Self-Portrait
Richard Cosway Self-Portrait (1770)

In the summer of 1786, she accompanied her husband to Paris where he was to work on a commission for the Duc d’Orléans. A fateful decision, as in this city she would meet the second man in her life, an American diplomat, one Thomas Jefferson. For him, it was love at first sight. For her, an initial impression of his importance and public persona. Today, it is not certain if their whirlwind relationship/affair extended beyond country walks and romantic letters.

In October, Maria returned to London with Richard, leaving Jefferson to nurse a broken heart! He would later immortalize their impossible love in a 4500-word letter – a Dialogue between the Head and the Heart. After Paris, they continued to exchange letters for the rest of their lives. She, in 1838, would end her days at the school she founded in Italy. He, at his home in America, Monticello. He is remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence. She, the talented daughter of an innkeeper who captured the heart of a future President. Would she perhaps, given her passion for art, have preferred the legacy of a great artist? We shall never know.

Still Life in Mobile Phones

The popularity of the “Selfie” a photograph that one takes of oneself, has become a social phenomenon and not just with the millennial generation. They have become our own personal form of self-expression, a visual capturing of our identity. Some of us even feel the urge to camouflage our faces with the help of Snapchat, Instagram or even Animoji characters. There are lots of other ways that we can dehumanize our features by using the latest smartphone technology and software. Our phones are a reflection of the human impulse to control and categorize ourselves, our emotions, that we can share with our friends and the world of social media. But when did it all begin?

Hippolyte Bayard invented the first photographic process and in 1840, he portrayed himself as a suicide victim in a photograph entitled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man. He is accredited as being the first photographer to take a self-portrait and the pioneer of that now obsessive self-dramatization art form referred to as conceptual photography – the art of creating photographs with the purpose of illustrating an idea, where the idea or concept, an abstract thought in the mind,  is the most important aspect of the work. Some conceptual photography is perhaps influenced or draws inspiration from Surrealist painters such as Salvador Dalí et al. Hippolyte Bayard, has more or less proved the point that the urge to turn the camera on ourselves, is as strong as it was in his day.

 

Hippolyte Bayard -Self Portrait as a Drowned Man on Pennzer
Hippolyte Bayard portrayed himself as a suicide victim in a photograph entitled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man.

You might think the “selfie” is a rather modern phenomenon. Not so. Robert Cornelius is considered to be the first photographer to have taken one all the way back in 1839. He did this by removing his lens cap and then running into a frame where he sat for a minute before covering up the lens again. Inscribed on the back of the image was “The first light picture ever taken. 1839.”

 

Robert Cornelius Self-Portrait
Robert Cornelius’ Self-Portrait: The First Ever “Selfie” (1839).

“Selfie” as an art form? Perhaps not an actual art form all by itself yet, but its a form a digital self-expression, an extension of the art of self-portraiture – but the “Selfie” may just end up pushing the artistic boundaries of this particular medium and what it is. Trying to decide what is or isn’t an art form these days, raises more questions than they answer. Maybe we should just refer to it as “Selfie-expression”? The desire to turn our phone cameras on ourselves, in an almost obsessive and narcissistic way, is just going to grow in popularity, as technology continues to dictate how we use our smartphones. Of course, there is no denying that smartphone technology has essentially caught up with the camera. But for now, Ladies and Gentlemen take “Selfies”.

Easter Art

Easter is the season of eggs and bunnies and Easter Art. The art of Easter is a time of the crucifixion, suffering, death, and resurrection. Many artists have been inspired and produced some of their greatest works in depicting the story of Christ’s passion. Whether you choose to believe in the resurrection or not, easter is perhaps far more personal than that of Christmas. Certainly, portrayals of the resurrection can be just as unsettling as those of the Crucifixion. There are some great examples of this including Matthias Grunewald’s – Second State of the Isenheim Altarpiece, somewhat unsettling, but still a great depiction.

 

Matthias Grunewald's - Second State of the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Matthias Grunewald’s The Crucifixion

It’s great works by artists such as Grunewald that you can get a sense of the inner meaning of Easter, even if their works are somewhat harrowing and visceral. If only it was more about art and less about Easter Eggs and Easter Bunnies. Still, I will be enjoying my Easter Egg tomorrow, and enjoy yours too.

A Head for Art

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elf-portraits include some of the greatest works of all time. As a genre, self-portraits have so much to say. With some self-portraits, the artists look as if they were painting themselves into the haven of artistic greatness. Others appear to show self-mockery and modesty. They have a story to tell for those that can see it, that can portray all sorts of messages. Self-portraiture is also about the time and skill that the artists bestowed on their own representations. Whatever your views on this old artistic genre, they were that days answer to the newfangled selfies of today, a paintbrush or pencil in hand, instead of a front-facing camera or selfie-stick.

 

William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist

Some might say that William Dobson is the ‘Forgotten Man’ of British Art. The court ‘painter on hand’ to Charles I in the 1640s following the death of Anthony van Dyck, is the genius English painter that should never be allowed to be forgotten. William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist is one of the best self-portraits created in British art. Dobson’s youthful features are a mop of curly black hair down to his shoulders, dark eyes, skin punctuated by rigid eyebrows, a prominent mustache, and a minimalist goatee. You can’t really tell if he’s happy or sad – but Dobson must have been happy about his face and there is nothing wrong with that. His facial expressions appearing to shift from wariness to a glare of satisfaction. Dobson painted forceful images of himself and his second wife Judith in Portrait Of The Artist’s Wife (c. 1630-40), as companion works. The paintings were finally and rightly reunited after 30 years apart and are currently on display at the Tate. William Dobson was certainly a true genius of self-portraiture. Not to be referred to as Doby.

William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist
William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist painted in about 1637.

Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas

This ensemble portrait by Velázquez is a stunning as it is frustrating and mysterious. Not only does Velázquez paint himself into this portrait, like Alfred Hitchcock making a cameo appearance in one of his own films, there are some other interesting subjects there too. Thankfully some of the subjects in the painting are identifiable but there are some hidden clues put there like a ‘Spot the Ball Competition’, just waiting for you to find them. In the center of the painting, there is Infanta Margarita Teresa, who reigned from 1666 to 1673. She was to be Velázquez’s subject in many of his portraits. Then there are the Maids of Honor, who are surrounded by the princess, and some servants. The patining itself is a day-in-the-life perspective of a Spanish Court. Above the princess’s head, you can spot a dark wooden frame with two figures within it. They are King Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria – her mother and father. Drawing your eyes to the left of the picture is Velázquez himself – an emerging photobomb, standing there with brush in hand, not a selfie-stick or front-facing camera in sight.

 

Diego Velzquezs Las Meninas
Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas.

Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait

It was not until after his death, that Vincent van Gogh was appreciated. Only having sold one painting during his lifetime, it’s his paintings of sunflowers, textured landscapes, and his portraits and self-portraits that are now widely recognized throughout the world. This self-portrait is emotive in color, yielding energetic brushwork, and was painted by him shortly after suffering a breakdown in Saint Remy. Van Gogh painted no less than 36 self-portraits during his lifetime of 37 years. This three-quarter length pose captures his true character, with a serious expression, art props in hand, that those other great painters used in their own self-portraits. It shows Vincent van Gogh both as a self-conscious, thinking individual, perhaps conveying a wish to be taken seriously as an artist. It’s anyone’s guess as to what he is trying to say to the viewer in this self-portrait. Perhaps he just wished to see and be seen.

 

Vincent van Goghs Self-Portrait on Pennzer
Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait 1889.