You are not alone

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought – and still does bring – much heartache and worry for a lot of people all around the world. It has changed the world as a whole and the private life of most, no matter where they are. The fallout will be ongoing, and some things, like travel, likely won’t ever be as they were before. Many countries and cities have been going into their second, third and fourth lock-down, which begins to severely wear down mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing as well as financial security.

Being stuck at home often means self-reflection and pondering about life choices and future endeavours. Being stuck at home also can mean anything from thorough cleaning sprees, renovations, binge-watching something, reading – and dinners together with lively conversations. We’ve had a fair few of the latter during our current lock-down. Governments have been toppled, history books rewritten, and Nobel prizes won; all at our dinner table.

One topic that had come up already last year inspired me to dig into my newly installed photo editing program: Affinity Photo. Yes, I am long done with Photoshop, and now a convert to AP and I am still asking myself why the heck it took me so long to make the switch. But I digress; the question that came up over dinner was: what would artists of old have made of isolation time during COVID-19?

Following the hashtags #youarenotalone #wewillembraceagain and #letsallbewell that have been going around on social media early on in the pandemic, spreading a message of encouragement and hope, I was especially moved by the many hearts and rainbows that were used to decorate windows, a visible sign for the outside world that someone inside that home was sharing into this very spirit.

While this wave has faded a bit by now due to the pandemic’s painful length, those decorated windows were what got me thinking: what if artists of old would have included decorated windows in their works?

This is what I came up with (and I have written a little blurb about each painting, in case some of you are interested in learning more about them):

Frau mit Kerzenleuchter (The Woman with the Candlestick) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840). Painted around 1825, this oil on canvas is a late work of Friedrich, the sixth of ten children. Losing his mother, two sisters and a brother at a young age shaped his upbringing and ultimately his adulthood, bringing with them a sense of loneliness which is noticeable in all his work.

Friedrich is generally considered the most important German Romantic landscape painter of his generation. Most of his works depict allegorical landscapes and there is typically an introspective figure silhouetted against night skies, morning mists, barren trees or Gothic ruins, providing scale and evoking a subjective, emotional response to the natural world.

While ‘Frau mit Kerzenleuchter’ is one of a minority of works that depict an indoor scene, the overall mood of Friedrich’s works is still very recognisable. Friedrich suffered several depressive episodes, the last one between 1824 and 1826, when the above work was likely painted.

After several strokes and other health issues his condition declined as rapidly as his reputation; both marked the last fifteen years of his life.

Romanticism came out of fashion and both the public and his arty peers generally perceived Friedrich as being out of touch with the times; his works were considered too original and too personal to be well understood.

It took until the early 1900s for his work to find renewed appreciation, with Surrealists and Existentialists drawing ideas from his works in the 1930s and early 1940s. Nazism saw another surge in popularity, followed by another sharp decline after WWII because of that same ‘nationalistic’ association. It has taken until the late 1970s for Friedrich’s name to gain reputation as an icon of the German Romantic movement once more and today he is generally viewed as a figure of great psychological complexity and a painter of international importance.

I like Friedrich’s work, his paintings give lead to personal interpretation, both emotionally and mystically, without being overwhelming. The sense of loneliness and melancholy in ‘Frau mit Kerzenleuchter’ is very appealing to me. It is a simple image, but allures to an untold story, to something more complex, and the light and shade are delightful. I can see the woman having had a long day with several children at home in isolation, home schooling and craft and worrying about sticking to a budget and rationing in her household. Now it’s evening, the kids are finally in bed, she’s tired and she’s about to go sit down and hopefully have herself a glass of wine.

Lezend meisje bij het venster (Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window) by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)

The painting was completed sometime around 1657 – 1659. About a hundred years later it was thought to be a Rembrandt, in 1826 it was falsely attributed to the artist Pieter the Hooch, and it took until 1860 to be recognized as a Vermeer.

During the bombing of Dresden in WWII it was rescued from destruction and stored in a tunnel, together with other works of art. The Red Army ‘rescued’ those art works from said tunnel and returned them to Germany in 1955 ‘for the purpose of strengthening and furthering the progress of friendship between the Soviet and German peoples.

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque Period painter and specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He is considered a master for his use of light in his work but was only a moderately successful painter during his lifetime, partly because he worked slowly and with great care, producing only few paintings and frequently using expensive pigments. Almost all his works seem to be set in two smaller rooms on the second floor of his house in Delft, using the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements. He painted mostly women, and seemingly often the same ones as well.

Vermeer took over his father’s art dealing business after his death, on top of running an Inn.

He was married twice, with a daughter from the first marriage and fifteen children from his second marriage, four of whom died as infants.

After several wars, the Netherlands was struck with a severe economic downturn in 1672, dubbed Year of Disaster. People were panicking, courts, theatres and schools closed, and public life largely came to a standstill.

It took five years before circumstances improved; Vermeer did not live to see it. He died in 1675 after a short illness. His widow blamed the stress of financial pressures for her husband’s death. The collapse of the art market damaged Vermeer’s business both as a painter and an art dealer. Because he had never travelled and had taken no students, his name was largely unknown outside Delft. The limited body of work can probably also be explained with Vermeer simply not having the time between running his art business, an Inn and raising 12 children.

While his name as an artist has fallen into obscurity after his death, Vermeer is today considered one of the greatest painters of what is considered the Dutch Golden Age.

If you want to bring symbolism in the mix of all these facts: one art historian has interpreted the open window as ‘the woman’s longing to extend her domestic sphere’ beyond the constraints of her home and society. He also indicates that the cut peach is a symbol of extramarital relations, declaring the letter a love letter, which he sees supported by the fact that x-rays of the canvas have shown that there originally was a Cupid in the upper right of the painting. At some point in time someone closed the curtain on said Cupid, something that is now being reversed by restorations.

There you go.

I do like symbolism, but only if it comes from the artist. Interpretations from third parties several centuries later make me cringe a bit. It may well be true, of course, but … I can just picture the young woman. Living in a small place, everyone knew her, and then that, she’d be like ‘Jeez, thanks Jan’. Anyway, I chose this painting because I am intrigued by the girl reading the letter. I want to know who the letter is from, has she written back, is she going to, did she have fun cutting out the hearts, does she really like peaches. She stands for all the young people who are affected by the pandemic. No parties, no sports, no socializing at school. Only time will tell how it will affect this generation in years to come.

La Chambre à Arles (Bedroom in Arles; Dutch: Slaapkamer te Arles) is the title given to three similar paintings by Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890).

Most people know about Van Gogh that he was a troubled soul, missing an ear and sunflowers and all. Art geeks know Van Gogh is the 19th-century Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. Vincent lived only to be 37 years of age and came late to art, but in just over a decade he created over 2000 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings. He did landscapes, still lives, portraits and self-portraits. All his works are bold in colour, and with dramatic, expressive brushwork that often seems impulsive.

Van Gogh came to Arles to recover when he was ill from drinking and smoker’s cough. He immediately was enchanted by the local countryside, and the light. He described it as a foreign country, the locals like ‘creatures from another world’. His captivation with the ‘exotic’ place was one of his most prolific time; he created 200 paintings in Arles and more than 100 drawings and watercolours, preferring yellow, ultramarine and mauve in his palette.

Van Gogh took up residency in the Yellow House, at 2, Place Lamartine. He himself prepared the bedroom that became the subject of above painting. The skewed shape of the room was not an artistic quirk but the actual floorplan: the room was trapezoid with an obtuse angle in the left-hand corner of the front wall and an acute angle at the right. The rules of perspective for the rest of the painting, however, were deliberately distorted by van Gogh, who chose to ‘flatten’ the interior and left out shadows so that the picture would resemble a Japanese print.

Van Gogh wrote to his younger brother Theo: “… colour must be abundant in this part, its simplification adding a rank of grandee to the style applied to the objects, getting to suggest a certain rest or dream … I have painted the walls pale violet. The ground with checked material. The wooden bed and the chairs, yellow like fresh butter; the sheet and the pillows, lemon light green. The bedspread, scarlet coloured. The window, green. The washbasin, orange; the tank, blue. The doors, lilac … The square pieces of furniture must express unswerving rest, also the portraits on the wall, the mirror, the bottle, and some costumes. The white colour has not been applied to the picture, so its frame will be white … I have depicted no type of shade or shadow …”

Thanks to this letter we know that the strongly contrasting colours we see in the work today are the result of discolouration. We also know that this work is the third version of the same painting: Van Gogh had painted the first version after he had been bedridden for days. He sent it to his brother Theo after it had been damaged by a flood of the river Rhone. Theo proposed to have it relined and sent back to him to copy it. Van Gogh made this second version in original scale and sent both versions back to Theo. A few months later he decided to redo some of what he considered his best compositions in smaller size for his mother and sister, resulting in version three of the Bedroom in Arles.

The three versions were brought together for the very first time in 2016, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Van Gogh was not commercially successful during his lifetime and committed suicide after years of mental illness, depression, and poverty. He may well have fallen into obscurity if not for the collection of letters between van Gogh and his younger brother Theo. Theo was not only a brother and close friend but also an art dealer, who provided his brother with financial and emotional support, as well as valuable connections. Thanks to their comprehensive corresponsive we know much of Vincent’s thoughts and theories of art.

Vincent was an eloquent letter writer, his style expressive and with a ‘diary-like intimacy’, often illustrated with sketches. Over 600 letters from Vincent to Theo are known, and around 40 from Theo to Vincent, as well as many to his sister Wil, and to fellow painters and critics. Theo’s widow published some of them in later years.

The connection between Vincent and Theo was so strong that Theo died not long after his older brother.

It is likely that Van Gogh suffered from an episodic condition with periods of normal functioning. There are plenty speculations of what exactly his diagnosis might have been, but it seems logic that it worsened substantially without medication as we know it today, and the malnutrition, overwork, insomnia and alcohol he subjected himself to during his lifetime.

While not a huge fan of van Gogh’s work personally – I find it quite too in-your-face and it makes me restless – there is no denying his influence on the world of art. His troubled character and the difficulties he had fitting himself into his world are more than current though, which is why I chose this painting for my series. Many people with similar medical backgrounds and a history of addiction will likely struggle greatly during COVID-19 isolation times. I want to shine light on their plight and send them a virtual hug.

Der Kaktusliebhaber (The Cactus Lover), by Karl Spitzweg (1808-1885)

Spitzweg was a German painter of late romanticism and Biedermeier. I’m quite familiar with his work, since he was born in my hometown, Munich, Germany.  

Born to the upper middle class thanks to his mother, the daughter of a rich fruit wholesaler, and his father, an educated businessman, Spitzweg’s upbringing was relatively sheltered. Sadly, he lost his mother when he was only eleven. His father remarried soon after and decided all his son’s professions: Simon, the oldest, was to take over the business, Karl was to become a pharmacist and Eduard a doctor.

Karl dutifully began his apprenticeship and moved to the city of Straubing to work at a pharmacy and spent a year primarily with theatre people and painters. That same year Karl’s eldest brother died as a merchant in Alexandria, Egypt.

Upon returning from Straubing, Karl studied pharmacy, botany and chemistry at Munich University, graduating with distinction. He then worked as an approved practical pharmacist until a spa stay after an illness, where he decided to paint full-time as he came into his inheritance

As a painter, Spitzweg was entirely self-taught and never attended any art classes, even though he became a member of the Munich Art Association in 1835. He already drew a lot during his youth, even while working in the pharmacy. He drew heads of people real and imagined, healthy and sick, young and old, as well as the narrow streets and delicate bay windows, turrets, fountains and stone figures of the picturesque town of Straubing. Those motives re-appear in his pictures over and over.

Throughout his life he travelled extensively – Dalmatia, Venice, Paris, London, Antwerp, Frankfurt am Main, Heidelberg. His journeys saw him produce a rich collection of sketches, which he utilized for his paintings once back at home.

He created over 1500 pictures and drawings, selling around 400 paintings during his lifetime, mostly to the middle class relishing a new buying power. Spitzweg loved colour and his training as pharmacist aided him with the chemical and technical experience to manufacture his paints. His bright blue is unique and cannot be found with any other painter.

While his work can be classified as late romanticism and was connected to the Biedermeier style in the early years, his paintings later loosed up closer to Impressionism.

The political climate at the time was tricky and freedom of expression risky. Censorship was strict and dictated the existence and content of newspapers and books. Many thought it advisable not to talk about politics, but despite that Spitzweg worked with Fliegende Blaetter, a critical weekly magazine, for which he provided humorous drawings which we would call satirical caricatures today.

Spitzweg manages to represent human weaknesses with wit and ingenuity in his work. His profound sense of humour is obvious. Spitzweg’s work show his great knowledge, and acceptance, of human nature, with all its weaknesses and flaws.

He liked to characterize people with their hobbies or occupations. As he did in Der Kaktusliebhaber. An older man with a bald head and a red nose is looking at a cactus. We don’t know whether the man is a writer or an official of sorts, however, we can assume the latter, since in his own handwritten record of sales, Spitzweg made the note ‘sage: Staatshämorrhoidarius’. This refers to a title of a satirical picture story by one Franz von Pocci, who lived in Munich at the same time. Pocci’s story caricatures a civil servant who suffers from ‘pains below’ because of his sedentary occupation. The man’s body language conveys his affection and happiness about the big red flower of the cactus. The cactus seems to return that affection, since it is not growing towards the light, but towards the man. The large Biedermeier clock could hint at the passing of time, apt for the older man as well as for the cactus. Spitzweg somehow produced a little bubble for an old man and a cactus. It’s calm and cute, it’s heart-warming and peaceful, it’s easily understandable.

Karl died in 1885, shortly after his younger brother Eduard, at the age of 77.

In the late 1930s art forgers were jailed for up to ten years for altering 54 paintings which had been passed off as Spitzweg originals. They had been painted by a known copyist who signed the works with his own name and ‘after Spitzweg’, but the fraudsters removed his name and artificially aged the paintings.

I picked this painting because it’s a piece of home. It also represents all the elderly who are stuck at home during the pandemic, depriving them of going out to socialize, isolating them when they may not have the luxury or skill of the ever-connecting internet.

Dans la salle à manger (In the Dining Room), 1886, by Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)

Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot was a painter and a member of a circle of painters in Paris who are today known as Impressionists.

Berthe was born in Bourges, France, into an affluent bourgeois family, her father a government official. Like most daughters of bourgeois families, she and her two sisters received an art education in strictly private lessons. While initially they wanted to learn only enough so they could make a drawing for their father on his birthday, their lessons soon lead to the introduction to the Louvre, where they learned to copy paintings.

Berthe began formally studying art in 1857, and met artists such as Monet and Édouard Manet while working as a copyist at the Louvre, the latter becoming a long-time friend and colleague.

Like all Impressionists’ works, Berthe’s paintings were initially criticized for their sketchy, loose brush strokes, calling their works overwhelming, unfinished and even frightening. Today we identify artworks of the Impressionist movement as not being overly concerned with details, but with expressing ideas through the implementation of the work.

Paris in the Nineteenth Century was a time of transformation and change. While men artists began to venture into streets, cafes, gardens and brothels to explore the transition from medieval to modernity and the vibes of industrialization and urbanization, female artists were largely contained inside, in domestic spaces. As such Berthe utilized scenes available to her, using models and settings she had easy access to.

Above painting shows a traditional, domestic scene in such a setting. A woman features as the central figure, wearing an apron, her hands occupied with something we cannot quite distinguish, possibly she’s holding a cup or a bowl, as indicated by the open china cabinet doors. The woman does not appear to be posed, but relaxed, her face is bright and her expression welcoming. The dog at her feet further emphasizing the domesticity of the setting; this is someone’s home, and the viewer feels welcomed like a guest entering the space. Brushstrokes are loose and foggy, making the scene appear hazy, giving it a sense of momentary and fleetingness. It’s a snapshot in time, a private moment, and yet one that likely happened the day before and again the day after.

Male critics of her time often labelled Berthe’s paintings as being ‘full of feminine charm’, because of their elegance and lightness, using the verb ‘effleurer’ (to touch lightly, brush against) to describe the technique of her brushstrokes. A few years before her death Berthe wrote in a notebook about her lifelong struggles to be taken seriously as an artist. “I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal and, that’s all I would have asked for, for I know I’m worth as much as they.”

Berthe often posed for her friend Édouard Manet, resulting in several portrait paintings. They seem to have had a warm, affectionate friendship. Édouard introduced Berthe to his brother Eugène Manet in 1868, whom she married in 1874. They had one child together, Julie, who frequently was used as a model by her mother and other impressionist artists, including Renoir and her uncle Édouard.

In 1864 Berthe’s work was first shown in the Paris Salon, and she exhibited throughout her life, selling comparatively well. In 2013 she became the highest priced female artist, when her work After Lunch sold for $10.9 million at a Christie’s auction, achieving roughly three times its upper estimate.

Berthe died in Paris of pneumonia, contracted while caring for her daughter’s similar illness.  

This painting immediately spoke to me: it’s light and airy, and the scene is familiar and domestic, even though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s going on once you focus on shapes and details, typical Impressionist style. I also like that it has been done by a woman artist, who struggled against male dominance all her life, and yet still was successful. You go, girl! A lot of people would have experienced a kind of domestic life they never had before. Working from home, not allowed to venture out other than brief walks. Domesticity is not everyone’s cup of tea, and a forced domesticity even less so. This painting is for all those who struggle with it.

American Gothic, 1930, by Grant DeVolson Wood (1971-1942)

Grant created art in a large number of media, including lithography, ink, charcoal, ceramics, metal, wood and found objects, but is best known for his paintings depicting the rural American Midwest.

Grant was born in rural Iowa and moved to Cedar Falls after his father’s death, at the age of ten. He took on an apprenticeship at a local metal shop, taking up art after graduating from High School, and later teaching it. He had painted from a young age but hired his many other considerable talents out throughout his life for a steady source of income; he painted advertisements, designed promotional flyers and the dining room interior of a hotel. Grant served in the army as a camouflage painter and travelled to Munich, Germany, in 1928, to oversee the making of the stained-glass windows he designed for a Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Grant lived with his mother in the loft of a carriage house in Cedar Rapids, which he turned into his personal studio. He travelled to Europe four times between 1922 and 1928, studying many styles of painting, influenced greatly by 15th century Flemish artist Jan van Eyck.   

In 1932, he helped found the Stone City Art Colony to help artists get through the Great Depression. He became a great advocate of Regionalism, which was primarily situated in the Midwest, lecturing on the topic throughout the country and helped to push the idea of painting rural American themes in a figurative way, while aggressively rejecting European abstraction.  

Grant was married to Sara Sherman Maxon from 1935-39. Friends considered the marriage a mistake, knowing him to be homosexual and ‘a bit facetious in his masquerade as an overall-clad farm boy’. Grant was teaching painting at the University of Iowa’s School of Art from 1934 and had become a key part of the University’s cultural community. His popularity helped the university administration to dismiss allegations of a senior colleague to get Grant fired both on moral grounds and for his advocacy on Regionalism. He would have returned as professor if not for his growing health problems.

He died of pancreatic cancer a day before his 51st birthday.

American Gothic is not only one of the most famous paintings in American art but also one of the iconic paintings of the 20th century, its status of popularity often compared to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It was first exhibited in 1930 at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it still is today. It received a $300 prize and made the news, bringing Grant immediate recognition.

Art critics have read into the painting a meaning of satire, showcasing the repression and narrow-mindedness of rural small-town life, as well as an ambiguous fusion of reverence and parody. Grant rejected these interpretations. He claimed to have been inspired by a gothic-revival designed cottage in Eldon, southern Iowa, painting the house with the kind of people he thought would live in that sort of house: a farmer and his spinster daughter. The woman is dressed in a dark print apron characteristic of 19th America with a cameo brooch. The man’s pitchfork symbolizes the hard labour associated with life in the Midwest of that time. The composition is severe, and the technique detailed, the name American Gothic referring to the house’s style and setting.

Grant used his sister Nan and his dentist as models for the portraits. Nan inherited her brother’s estate, which became the property of Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, after her death in 1990.

A little trivia: The World War II Liberty Ship SS Grant Wood was named in his honour.

I included this painting because it freaks me out. It may well be iconic, and that is the sole reason I have included in in this series, but I don’t like it at all, in fact I think it must be some kind of joke, like someone is jumping up any second and yelling ‘surprise’ or the two sour looking people suddenly burst into laughter about some prank at my expense.

A Hopeless Dawn, 1888, by Frank Bramley (1857-1915)

Born in Sibsey, near Boston, in Lincolnshire, Frank Bramley was an English painter belonging to Post-Impressionism.

Bramley studied at the Lincoln School of Art and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He lived in Venice for several years and then moved to Cornwall, where he established himself as one of the leading figures of what is today known as the Newlyn School.

Unlike other members, Bramley specialized in interiors and worked on combining natural and artificial light in his paintings, as can be seen in A Hopeless Dawn.

The title comes from a passage by John Ruskin. John Ruskin (son of a Scots wine merchant who made a fortune in the sherry trade after moving to London and a piously Protestant mother) was an English critic of art, architecture, and society. He was controversial, to say the least. Frequently self-contradictory, overly moralistic, and often insufficiently informed, Ruskin is today gradually being rediscovered as a thinker and conservationist. He also was a gifted painter, a distinctive prose stylist and a man who advocated widespread art education as well as cultural and social change. The passage quoted for above painting reads “Human effort and sorrow going on perpetually from age to age; waves rolling for ever and winds moaning … and still, at the helm of every lonely boat, through starless night and hopeless dawn, His hand, who … gave unto the fisher’s hand the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

We can interpret that Christ is seen to be at the helm of every boat. The kneeling young woman grieves the loss of her husband at sea and is being comforted by her mother-in-law, but the open Bible, the altar-like table and the print on the wall (Raphael’s ‘Christ giving the Keys to St Peter) hint at that she’ll also find consolations in religion.

Fittingly, this artwork was chosen as the cover of a book written over a century and a half earlier by one William Bridge, a Puritan preacher. It is titled ‘A Lifting Up for The Downcast’ and in it, Bridge thoughtfully presents a compelling case that if someone has received Jesus in their heart through faith that they, as a born-again Christian, do not have a just true Scripture reason to be discouraged when times get rough.

Bramley liked applying the ‘square brush technique’, using the flat of a square brush to lay the paint on the canvas in a jigsaw pattern of brush strokes. From 1890, his palette became brighter and his handling of the paint looser and more impasto, while he focused on portraits and rural genre paintings.  

A Hopeless Dawn is one of Bramley’s most favoured works. It is praised for its ‘strong emotional and narrative content’ and its ‘aesthetic appeal and tonal harmony’ and today is owned by the Tate Gallery, London.

Bramley married fellow artist Katherine Graham. He died in Gloucestershire in August 1915.

Not being a religious person, this painting still resonates with me. I understand and can easily see that being devout to a faith can bring a person comfort in trying times. The painting is no doubt emotional; it also tells a story: set in a humble, small place, with few comforts, I still get a sense of love. The candle in the window particularly speaks to me, as it is steeped in tradition: Candlemas Day (February 2nd) was an important day throughout the Christian world, where the annual supply of candles was blessed at the local church. Each family would light their own candle to take home a bit of that blessed light. Fishing boats also had a blessed candle, which would be taken out and lit during a gale or storm. A candle in the window was a common tradition prior to electric light: it signified good news or that a member of the family was away, like beacon so they could find their way home. This candle is snuffed out. Says it all.

Loss affects us all, one way or another, and each has to find their way of dealing with it. I chose this painting to remind of all those that have suffered a loss because the pandemic.

Girl with Peaches, by Valentin Alexandrovich Serov (1865-1911)

Serov was born in Saint Petersburg, as the son of composers and music critics. Raised in a highly artistic milieu he was encouraged to pursue his talents. He studied art extensively, in Russia and abroad, and is today known as one of the premier portrait artists of his era..

In Girl with Peaches, Serov wanted to capture freshness, ‘that special freshness that you can always feel in real life and don’t see in paintings.’ It took him over a month, by his own account torturing the ‘poor child to death’, because he ‘wanted to preserve the freshness in the finished painting’. That poor child was 11-year old Vera Mamontova, the daughter of a Russian entrepreneur and patron of the arts; Serov knew her since she was a baby. The work was painted in Abramtsevo, an estate not far from Moscow, which was considered a center of Russian culture. It was a comfortable place for artists not only to gather and discuss important topics, but also to live and create, all under the patronage of the young model’s father.

Girl with Peaches won first prize at the Exhibition of the Moscow Society of Lovers of Art in 1887.

Serov’s friend and biographer, Russian art historian Igor Grabar, considered it the ‘masterpiece of Russian painting’.

From the early 1890’s, Serov abstained from his previous polychromatic, brightly coloured painting style. He then preferred a dominant scale of black-grey and brown tones. Despite the colour change, he preferred to produce intimate, heartfelt, chamber portraits, mainly women and children, with the latter aspiring to capture ‘pose and gesture’, to reveal and emphasize ‘the spontaneity, sincere cleanliness and clearness of attitude’. Using various graphic techniques: watercolours, pastels and lithographs, Serov’s portraits became more and more graphically refined and economical.

From 1900, Serov was a member of The World of Art, an influential Russian Art Association and magazine. It was also a stylish turning point: impressionistic features disappeared from his work, and it became more modernistic. Serov focused on creating heroic portrait images, using a dramatic depiction of famous creative artists, writers, actors and musicians of his time.

Serov resigned as a full member of the St Petersburg Academy of arts in 1905, as a protest against the expression of striking workers and their families, making his democratic beliefs clear.

His last years were marked by works on themes from classical mythology.

Serov married Olga Trubnikova in 1889. His wife and children were the subject of many of his works. He died in Moscow in 1911, from stenocardia, an acute form of angina, ending in heart failure due to severe complications.

During a 2016 exhibition of Serov’s work at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, crowd queued for long hours in freezing temperatures. When Russian President Vladimir Putin came to visit, the crowd swelled to such an extent that one of the museum’s doors was broken down. The exhibition and the gallery’s opening hours were extended, and a field canteen was set up to supply the people waiting in line with buckwheat porridge and hot tea.

I wanted a painting with a child for this series, and also one from an artist from yet another part of the world. Not an easy search, but this one was the one I chose. And peaches, again. Yeah. Anyway, the girl represents all the kids stuck at home during the pandemic, driving their parents mad while trying to keep them occupied. With arts and crafts, mostly, I hope, and not with tv and tic toc.

Lady in a Garden by Moonlight, 1882, by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)

Grimshaw was an English Victorian-era artist who became best known for his moonlit urban landscapes.  

Grimshaw was born in Leeds in a back-to-back tenement. At twenty he married his cousin Frances Hubbart, with whom he had a number of children, of which several also became painters. Four years later he left his job as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway to become a full-time painter, to the dismay and bitter opposition of his parents.

In his first exhibition one year later, he mainly showed still-lifes of birds, fruit and blossom. Grimshaw moved his family several times, and after the death of three of his children at his Leeds home he rented a 17th century mansion in Scarborough, made possible by his successes as painter. He called the mansion Castle by the Sea, perched on a cliff top as it was, with magnificent views of both the north and south bays. The move to the coast inspired much of Grimshaw’s most attractive work.

He experimented with a looser technique, focusing on classical and historical subjects. But the real breakthrough was the night-time scenes he is usually associated with today. In the mid-1870s he took a second house in Scarborough, creating many seascapes at night.

Being interested in photography, Grimshaw is known for having used a camera obscura to project outlines on to canvas, enabling him to repeat compositions several times. He also painted over photographs and mixed sand and other ingredients with his paints to get the effects he wanted.

Being self-taught, Grimshaw was on the one hand criticised that his works could hardly be accepted as paintings as they showed no brushmark. On the other hand, his mastery of lightning and technique could not be overlooked.

Indeed, Grimshaw’s landscapes depict colour and lighting accurately, with vivid detail and realism. He captured both the appearance and the mood of a scene perfectly, and his night scenes in particular were sharply focused and appear almost photographic.

He painted mostly for private art patrons and exhibited only 6 works between 1974 and 1886. Around 1880 he suffered some unknown financial crisis and returned to Leeds, boosting his output to around fifty paintings a year. Elements of social realism crept into his paintings around that time, night being a good time to record less respectable forms of life, especially in street and dockside scenes. The towns and docks he painted most frequently were Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds, Scarborough, Whitby and London.

He perfectly recorded urban scenes under twilight or yellow streetlighting and dampened gas-lit streets and misty waterfronts, depicting late Victorian industrial England with great poetry.

Lady in a Garden by Moonlight shows a large house, illuminated by a full moon. The eerie glow shines over a bare garden as a lone woman stands looking at the house. The scene is somewhat haunting, lonely, and evokes a feeling of longing.

It’s a shame Grimshaw’s work is not nearly as widely appreciated today as it should be. I don’t know any other painter who can paint fog and mist in such a way that I can almost taste the damp air and I can totally see the appeal.

But it makes sense that he is not widely known, since no journals or letters were left behind by Grimshaw. Most of his paintings are in private collections and not accessible to the public. His reputation and all that we know of him today is based on his paintings alone.

As innovative and resourceful as Grimshaw had shown himself throughout his life it is difficult to guess what he might have tried next, had he not died of tuberculosis at the age of 57.

There was a revival of interest in his work in the second half of the 20th century, and the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate and the Guildhall Art Gallery in London ran an exhibition in 2011.

I thought this work particularly fitting for these pandemic times, where so many families and loved ones were unable to see each other in person, sometimes for very long periods of time. That feeling of loneliness and longing, unfortunately, would be familiar to many.

One Comment

  1. Garrulous Gwendoline

    I enjoyed this post immensely, taking it in small bites, one artist at a time. You have opened my eyes to many in the artworld, and I love the way you have intertwined the subjects with what is happening in today’s world.

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