Tag Archives: French Artists

Highlights of the National Gallery – Part One

It’s always immensely difficult to choose ‘favourite’ paintings (and one is often asked to do so when people discover you’re an art historian!), but it can’t be denied that there are some works that keep drawing you back.  One of my favourite galleries, not least because of the sheer variety of the collections, is the National Gallery, London.  So I’ve decided to do the unthinkable and attempt to select some of my ‘favourite’ works of art from its hallowed halls.  It can be quite overwhelming being faced by such a large and spectacular collection of art, so it’s sometimes nice to pick just one or two works, and devote your full attention to them.  In this spirit, read on for some of my personal recommendations for those most worthy of your attention.

Vincent van Gogh, Two Crabs, 1889

One of Van Goh’s most famous works, Sunflowers hangs in the National Gallery, but it also houses a number of less well-known, but nonetheless fascinating works by the Dutch artist.  Two Crabs one of these.  The work was painted shortly after van Gogh’s release from hospital in Arles, in January  1889.  It is probably one of the still lifes he told his brother Theo he was planning to paint to ‘get used to painting again’.  The thick brushwork creates a sense of realism we are perhaps unused to in his work, with carefully modelling really putting across the shape and texture of, for instance, the crab’s claws.  The use of tick, short brushstrokes on the legs again emphasises a sense of texture, and brings an almost animated feel to the image.  This is enhanced by the liveliness of the background, with the flatter, wider strokes lending turbulence, and recalling the rocky shallows of the crab’s marine home.  The current title is slightly confusing, as this is probably in fact a single crab, viewed from different angles.  Van Gogh keys into a long artistic tradition of artists practicing by drawing a single object from multiple viewpoints, to examine how surfaces and shapes respond to light, and how to represent this.  His choice of subject was likely inspired by a Hokusai woodcut, ‘Crabs’, which was reproduced in a magazine, ‘Le Japon Artistique’ which Theo had sent Van Gogh while he was in hospital.  It is quite a touching image in a way, as Van Gogh takes a traditionally quite clinical form and brings to it his usual sense of humanity and empathy, all in an attempt to reconnect with his own artistic skill and expression.

As this image is on loan to the National Gallery from a private collection, I have been unable to reproduce an image, but you can see one on the National Gallery’s website here.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23


Titian, active about 1506; died 1576 Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-3 Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 191 cm Bought, 1826 NG35 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG35

And now for something completely different…Titian brings an exuberance to this image of Greek mythology.  Ariadne, abandoned on an island by her ex-lover Theseus, is discovered by the god of wine, Bacchus, who immediately falls in love with her.  Bacchus has a somewhat jovial and jolly image in the pop-culture of the present day, but in Greek and Roman mythology he and his followers (the maenads and the satyrs) were associated with at times violent frenzies.  It is this aspect that Titian has chosen to emphasise, bringing a sense of drama to the image.  The followers are depicted as wild, with one holding a disembodied (and crucially un-butchered) calf’s leg, while the calf’s leg is dragged along at their feet.  It is thus understandable that Ariadne is turning tail to flee.  Theseus’ ship is visible on the horizon to her left, showing how hopeless her situation is.  Titian hides most of her fame from us, creating an image of a terrified young woman in fear for her life.  The painting really appeals to the senses, with the maenad’s clashing cymbals, and the stampede of frenzied figures, treading on the carefully realistic flowers.  This madness and business is contrasted compositionally with the stillness and grace of its opposing corner of the image, with its calm blue skies.  Bacchus acts as a link between these two elements, and the hyperactivity of his followers is juxtaposed by his single-minded gaze, which meets Ariadne’s.  His pose offers a dance-like retort to that of Ariadne, creating a harmonious visual link between them as he leaps energetically from his chariot.  Though it is hard to imagine quite what wind would result in the tight and intricate folds of his garments, it cannot be denied that they give an impression of the speed and suddenness of his movement.  The coy little satyr looks out at the viewer, pulling the calf’s head behind him on a rope, the flowers in his hair and his otherwise cherubic face perfectly putting across the intimidating unpredictability of a bacchant in full swing.  The snarling dog, looking up at him and backing away, perhaps reflects the viewer’s response to this unsettling display.  However, for all the darkness of his depiction, Titian gives us a hint at the story’s happy ending: Bacchus raised Ariadne to the heavens, making her into a constellation.  An alternative version (and perhaps one in which she gets a slightly better deal) is that on marrying her, Bacchus turns her wedding crown into the constellation.  The scale of the painting further emphasises the emotional weight of the image, and the viewer’s reaction to it.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnieres, 1884


Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 Bathers at Asnières 1884 Oil on canvas, 201 x 300 cm Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924 NG3908 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG3908

This painting was one of the first that I ‘officially’ studied, as part of my A-level in Art History, and it seems that I have been studying it ever since but I still find so much of interest in it, and can’t say I’ve ever got bored of it.  I intend to write a longer post about this, so watch this space, but I couldn’t not mention it as one of my favourite works in the National Gallery.  Begun before he has developed his famous Pointillist technique, it does represent his engagement with what he called ‘chromoluminarism’ (also called Divisionism), the use of contrasting colours in an attempt to create optical mixing, the mixing of colours in the eye.  He hoped to mimic Nature, and to bring a brightness and vivacity to his works.  Thought it is debatable how effective this is, and how much he truly engaged with scientific theory, it represents a radical move and a desire to improve upon the Impressionist’s depiction of light.  But the painting is not merely interesting on a technical level, it also gives us an insight into Seurat’s political, specifically Socialist, leanings.  Asnieres was an industrial district, and Seurat depicts the factories in the distance, and their workers in the foreground.  It was a time of labour reforms that enabled factory workers to have time to engage in leisure in a new way, and have a greater degree of freedom.  The boating, bathing, and relaxing that was once the preserve of the middle classes (and was still undertaken by them in more fashionable areas along the River Seine), but was now opening up to the Parisian majority.  While some met these changes with distrust, Seurat and his friends welcomed them, and saw it as an important step towards a more egalitarian future.  He celebrates this by raising the workers to a level, and a physical scale more commonly associated with the grand subjects of history paintings, the highest genre in the official scale endorsed by the academy.  He thus combines his scientific experimentation with his interest in the politics of his time, and presents his own political optimism and hopes for the future.

Also of interest in the National Gallery are the preparatory drawings he produced for the painting, hung alongside it, which give a real sense of how it developed, and how he experimented with both the composition, and how to represent the light in the scene.


Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 The Rainbow: Study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’ 1883 Oil on wood, 15.5 x 24.5 cm Presented by Heinz Berggruen, 1995 NG6555 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6555

Three is clearly far too few to choose from such an extensive collection, so this will be part one of a series.  I would be fascinated to hear if you have any favourites in the National Gallery (or anywhere else for that matter!) which you just can’t stop yourself from going back to.


Finding Your Way In: Tips for approaching an artwork you’ve never seen before

One of the things people assume about you when they learn that you’re an art historian (and one of the things that we jokingly say about ourselves!) is that we make brilliant dinner party conversation.  People will throw out their favourite artists (or simply the last one they heard of), and assume that we’re not only familiar with their entire output, but have an insightful and fully-formed opinion on them.  But one of the exciting things about art history, whether you choose to officially study it, or simply indulge a passion for it, is discovering new works of art, artists, and even entire movements you’ve never before encountered.  But this can be a slightly intimidating experience.  It can be difficult to figure your way into a work that feels unfamiliar.  There are however a few things that you can look out for to help you find your way into a new work of art which I’ll be exploring in this new series.  These suggestions are in no way proscriptive, it’s important that you embrace your own response to the work, but if you’re ever stuck when looking at a new work, these tips might be worth bearing in mind.


The artist’s choice of medium can make a huge difference to the overall effect of the artwork.  Often museum labels will help you with this, but it satisfying to be able to identify the materials yourself.  Some are really easy to identify, with oil or watercolours perhaps, but this can sometimes be difficult; often the material of sculpture can be hard to pinpoint.  But with a little practice you start to gain a familiarity with the materials, and build up a knowledge of what they look like and how they’re used.

Once you have an idea of what the material is, it’s worth thinking about the qualities and constraints of that material.  The development of oil painting allowed artists in the Northern Renaissance to create amazingly realistic images, using are fully layered pigments and glazes to bring a vitality to their works unmatched by the frescoes of their Southern cousins.  It is thought that these new paints were created in part in response to the damp climate of the North, which made the plaster-based techniques of Italian artists implausible. Centuries later, the vivid colours of the Impressionists were made possible by the development of new, chemical pigments. The bright yellows and blues seen in so many of their works was made possible by these new pigments.  Their en plain air techniques were also made possible by the invention of tubes of paint, making the materials far more portable.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pont Neuf, 1872

Sculpture is perhaps even more dependent on its materials.  The physical qualities are of key importance, having a fundamental effect on what one would be able to sculpt.  The poor tensile strength of marble is the reason why so many sculptures are supported by ugly props, with bars of the material holding up their arms or legs.  This is why so many Greek gods are leaning against a conveniently positioned tree trunk.  The opposite quality enables the fantastical creations of the sixteenth century, such as Giambologna’s Mercury ( which positively flaunts the tensile strength of bronze with its outstretched limbs.

Giambologna Mercury

Giambologna, Mercury, 1580

The sculpture’s material isn’t just of interest form the point of view of its physical qualities.  Many materials also take on a symbolic quality, or accrue connotations that can impact on the meaning of the finished work.  In his seminal work The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, Michael Baxandall explored the way in which cultural associations about limewood came to be attached to the sculptures that were carved from it.  The special, pseudo-magical qualities that folklore attached to the tree itself impacted on how the sculptures were understood by contemporary viewers.  This book also contains Baxandall’s examination of the different woods on a cellular level, and the implications of this for the forms it was sculpted into.  Far later, modern sculptors such as Henry Moore would lead the ‘truth to materials’ movement, which sought to exploit the inherent qualities of the material to create sculpted forms that somehow reflected the nature of the material itself.

Henry Moore REcumbent Figure.jpg

Henry Moore, Recumbent Figure, 1938, image credit

In painting too, materials could gain their own symbolic meanings.  The most famous example of this is the use of lapis lazuli in depictions of the Virgin Mary.  The high cost of the pigment, due to it being imported all the way from Afghanistan, where it still only occurred in relatively small quantities, meant that it came to be seen as appropriate for depicting this holy figure.

The Virgin and Child

Massacio, The Virgin and Child, 1426

The price of the material is thus also worth considering.  While it is obviously often the case that materials are chosen for their expense, they can also be deliberately inexpensive.  For instance, Russian Constructivist artists such as Alexander Rodchenko chose cheap, readily available materials such as plywood, in a deliberate attempt to make their art more accessible, and to strip it of the bourgeois connotations of more conventional materials.  In other cases, the material may be chosen specifically for such connotations.  Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, created for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, made use of Carrara marble (Michelangelo’s David was able made from Carrara marble), placing it in a tradition of nude sculptures dating back through the Renaissance to Roman art, which in turn imitated Greek art. By using this material Quinn makes a bold and positive claim for the beauty and importance of his subject, and forces his viewers to reconsider the negative effects of the bland uniformity of sculpture in the Classical tradition.  Quinn himself commented on his choice of material, ‘Marble is the material used to commemorate heroes, and these people seem to me to be a new kind of hero – people who instead of conquering the outside world have conquered their own inner world and gone on to live fulfilled lives. To me, they celebrate the diversity of humanity. Most monuments are commemorating past events; because Alison is pregnant it’s a sculpture about the future possibilities of humanity’.

Alison Lapper Pregnant

Mark Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005, image credit

So there are lots of aspects to the choice of material in artworks.  These certainly shouldn’t be treated as a tick-list of things to go through, but thinking about material in this way can offer a new perspective on a work of art, and can be an interesting approach to take when you find yourself in front of a brand new (to you, or the world) work of art.



Mark Quin quote excerpted from: http://marcquinn.com/artworks/alison-lapper.

Images unless otherwise stated are sourced from wikicommons.

A Feminist Re-Interpretation of Renoir’s ‘La Loge’

Renoir La Loge

I have recently begun tutoring a student in A-level art history, which has had the happy side-effect of bringing me back in touch with many paintings I have not examined for a long time.  The syllabus is almost identical to that which I studied all those years ago, and it has been fun to look back at some of them.  (Perhaps the subject of a later post on the subject of the formation and reformation of canons!)  Renoir’s La Loge is one such painting that has been brought back into my life. Part of the collection of the Courtauld Gallery, the painting was the subject of a blog post I wrote five years ago, before I had even begun my undergraduate degree (find it here).  I am surprised to say that I still largely agree with what I wrote about it.  I still feel this is a painting all about the interplay of gazes, about looking and being looked at.  However, there is one aspect of the painting that is largely missing from my discussion: the female gaze.  I am not alone in this, much writing on the painting focuses exclusively on the male gaze, on the role of the man in the painting, and the male viewer.  While it is undoubtedly important to consider the role of gender in the creation and appreciation of this work, throughout much art historical analysis (not just that of this painting), this has led to a sort of game of ‘spot the male gaze’.  While the historical and continued oppression of women has overwhelmingly led to the prioritising of the male gaze in the creation of artworks, and the effects of this in the work’s interpretation, it is important that we do not erase instances of the appeal to the female gaze where they do occur.

The ‘female gaze’ is often taken to be a simple inversion of the male gaze, thus a painting appealing to it might involve the objectification of male figures.  The heteronormativity of such ideas aside, it is also important to recognize other, perhaps more subtle ways that an artist might engage with the idea of the female gaze (whether they would have used that terminology or not).  So we come back to La Loge itself.  The male figure’s roving gaze is often noted – pointing straight up, and, judging by the curve of the box itself, back into the theatre – he is clearly not watching the stage.  The opera glasses he holds become symbolic of his supposed appetite for women, passing an admiring gaze over the female members of the audience.  This is sometimes interpreted as a snub to the woman in the painting: not satisfied by her, he literally looks elsewhere.  Interpretation of the woman often focuses on her meek interaction with or submissive acceptance of this cultural phenomenon.  She is described as ‘meek’, or ‘passive’.  Alternatively she might, according to another brand of misogyny, be accused of ‘asking for it’, or looking for male attention: she leans forward, looking up towards us, also not engaging with the opera itself, a flower placed in her bodice drawing the eye.  She happily submits to the inquisitive male gaze, it might be said, and, by association, that of the viewer.

However, there is one component of the painting that suggest that something more is going on in the painting.  She too holds opera glasses.  While these were of course a necessity amongst the fashionable elite, and she holds a smaller, more decorative pair than her male companion, in the context of the painting, the opera glass seems to have taken on a greater meaning than its mere practical function.  Highlighted in bright gold colours, her glasses suggest a more active engagement in the interplay of gazes that the painting depicts.  It is not only the male audience members who make visual enquiries across the room, the women too look for pleasure through viewing.  Women too might be in possession of a scopophilic gaze.  Renoir’s audience would predominantly have been male, and it is understandable that the painting has been interpreted both as a critique of the bourgeois male’s entitled attitude towards women, and as Renoir’s own possible participation in such attitudes.  However let us not forget that women too visited exhibitions, including the First Impressionist Exhibition, where this painting was exhibited in 1874.  Even if most of the critics were men, women did still see, appreciate, and engage with art (which seems a rather obvious thing to say).  In the period when characters such as Nana were being written by Zola, and Madeleine Forestier by Guy de Maupassant, it seems not unlikely that creators in the visual arts might also have wanted to represent a broadening range of female characterisations, and the wider possibilities that were opening up to women brave enough to pursue them in the face of a society ever-ready to shun.  Nana and Madeleine Forestier are both women who embrace their own sexual appetites and desires, and even the respectable Forestier is at ease with her appreciation of male beauty.  Renoir’s woman, scanning the crowd, might be a similar character.  Thus it seems quite plausible that this woman is not passively objectified, but actively engages in an exchange of gazes, thinking of her own pleasures and desires, not simply submitting to those of her viewers.

It would be just as bad however to assume that this painting is just about men and women.  The aforementioned heteronormativity of such an assumption is obvious, but this painting could as much be about female friendship, or kinship.  The gaze could be one of recognition, of one woman acknowledging another.  The women who visited the exhibition would likely have been familiar with the world depicted, and have experienced something similar themselves.  Past me only managed to acknowledge that the female interaction with this painting might be with a sense of jealously, an ‘eyeing up’ of potential competition (a notion I’m glad to say I can now see far beyond, and acknowledge the inherent misogyny of such an assumption), but I think this painting may as much be one of friendship, or at least acknowledgement of shared experience.  To the Parisian woman, this may have acted as an image of herself, and her friends.

There is so much more to this painting than men’s sexual interest in women, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to look back at it, with fresh eyes, greater experience, and a fuller sense of its representation of human experience.

Jean-Francois Millet – The Gleaners, 1857

Jean Francois Millet The Gleaners 1857

In quite typical subject matter for Millet, this painting depicts one of the hardships of the impoverished which has, thankfully (although ones fears it has simply been replaced) disappeared from modern life.  Gleaning is the act of scouring the field for stalks of crop missed in the first harvesting.  One needed a licence to be allowed to do this, and only the poorest, most desperate would undertake to obtain one.  Thus the three main figures in the painting are immediately identifiable as of very low social status.  It is the idea of their place in society, or lack thereof, which Millet seems to be occupied with in this piece.  The piece was created while Millet was in Barbizon, and one of the leaders of the Barbizon School, which sought a return to Nature in art.  For most members of the group this meant landscape painting, but Millet focused on figures within landscapes, almost as if portraying what had become Nature, as humans had tilled the earth for thousands of years.  A champion of the rural working class in his paintings (he was not an overtly political figure in actions), he often depicts people working in the fields, such as in The Sower (1850) or The Angelus (1857-59), but these are usually people who have found a place in society, they are part of the workforce.  The Gleaners however depicts women who have no place, or have through poverty lost their place, in society.

As we look into the painting, we are presented with a visualisation of the rural social hierarchy.  The further back we recede into the picture depth, the higher the rank of the people depicted.  At first we see the gleaners themselves, then behind them is the communal workforce, cutting and reaping the harvest.  Further back still they are overseen by a figure on horseback, with the large domestic buildings highlighting the figure.  This was a time when owning a horse was still a major indicator of wealth: Benz did not create his automobile until the 1880s, and the gap between rich and poor had not reached a point at which it was viable for the majority of people to own horses.  The low skyline of the piece, little more than half way up the canvas, emphasises this sense of recession, and of the distance between the gleaners and the rest of the community, a distance symbolic as well as physical.  Millets demonstrates to use how these people’s poverty has lead them to being marginalised by society, and shut out from the support of the community.

Millet shows this through symbolic contrasts and parallels.  The small sheaves that the women have gathered are contrasted diagonally with the huge stacks that the group have gathered.  Nature’s bounty as visualised by the stacks, with more further in the background, and more sheaves waiting to be piled, is pitifully contrasted with the small number of sheaves gathered by the gleaners, and the stalks in their hands.  The women’s clothes are homespun, heavy materials, the stiffness of the red cloth tied with a piece of rope around the woman’s arm portrays a feeling of discomfort.  The unity of the group, working together, all bending and lifting as one, is again contrasted with the three women, one of whom is almost standing straight, creating a sense of disunity, jarring against the shared pose of the other two women.  The standing woman’s pose is almost torturous; she seems to have taken a pause, connoting the aching back brought on by this repetitive physical labour, but we do not see her at the point of relief, but as she returns to her work, recommencing the arduous, virtually thankless task.  In the sky above, a flock of birds passes over, with stragglers falling behind, mimicking the figures down below.  Thus Millet fills the painting with pathos, and as viewers it is hard not to empathise with the plight of these women.  Even Millet’s use of light suggests the women’s struggle, as the sun shines down on the house and the group, whilst they are nearly in shadow, on the edge of darkness.

The Gleaner’s was fist unveiled at the Salon of 1857.  While the painting may seem fairly innocuous to modern viewers, its focus on the lives of peasants and the working classes was seen as politically threatening by the middle and upper class audience who saw it at the Salon.  The latest of France’s revolutions was only in 1848, when in February the Orlean monarchy was overthrown only to be replaced by an increasingly conservative government in the Republic, which lead to a bloody revolt in June 1848, and the eventual election of Louis Napoleon as President (who would become Napoleon III, leader of the Second French Empire).  After this turbulent recent history one can understand a certain sensitivity amongst parts of society to subjects which seemed to glorify the peasant classes.  However Millet’s interests were not explicitly political, he was a religious man who looked to the working classes as examples of the continuation of Old Testament piety and spirituality, rather than as the future leaders of France.  His audience had more cause to be worried by Courbet’s works, which were heavily influenced by Millet, and more overtly political.  The Stonebreakers, of 1850, for example, actively confronts the viewer, with the cruel reality of abject poverty, with similar themes and motifs to The Gleaners, but carrying them to more upsetting extremes.  By comparison Millet’s pieces seem fairly tame.

While the scenes Millet depicts in The Gleaners have long since vanished from France, the ideas he presented are as eternal as he makes their actions seem.  The marginalisation of the poverty stricken is an issue which remains relevant, although we can only hope that the modern middle and upper classes would react to a modern Millet in a slightly more positive way than to see it as a call to revolution.

Self Portraits: Exploring artist’s use of the Self-Portrait

The self-portrait has an enduring appeal for giving us an insight into how the artist perceives him or herself, or how he wishes to be perceived by viewers.  Here I will consider a number of (largely modern) self-portraits, in a bid to explore the possible uses and aims of the form.  Those included are by no means comprehensive, with some notable absences (I don’t mention a single van Gogh), but have been chosen as I feel they can be interestingly linked, and provide an insight into the varying and developing role of the self-portrait painting.

Rembrandt: Self Portrait with Two Circles, 1665-69

How an artist depicts himself relates closely to the common perception of what an artist is, and what constitutes a great artist.  Older portraits, pre-19th century, tend to focus on the artist as a craftsman, and his technical skill.  For instance, Rembrandt’s self-portrait famously depict him in front of the perfect circle, the ultimate expression of an artist’s skill.  Later artists depicts themselves out of the studio setting, as the definition of ‘great artist’ came to be understood as one with a unique view and understanding of the world around him.  So these later portraits often have blank, non-specific backgrounds, and focus on the artist’s expression, not on pointing out his skill.

This general move away from depicting oneself in the studio setting can be traced alongside the desire by some artists to picture themselves as a continuation of the great tradition of painting, maintaining high standards rather than pursuing any new styles.  Ingres, an artist consumed by the desire to relate himself back to the great classical tradition, depicts himself in the typical setting, draped with a sort of cloak, stood before the easel.

Ingres: Self-Portrait at age 24, 1804

The German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner first depicts himself in the studio, with brush and model, a typical subject.  He is depicting himself as a master of his craft, his authority over the viewer expressed through his wild, staring eyes, and his dominance over the picture space.  But here he seems to use this traditional setting to emphasise the radical differences in his style.  He uses this touch of the familiar to shock the viewer, it is a provocative piece.  But we maintain the emphasis on him as a painter, there is little sense of introversion, we are not being presented with an insight into his mind, rather a manifesto of his movement.  This piece is particularly interesting when compared to his later self-portrait ‘Self-portrait of the Artist as a Soldier’, painted after he was invalided out of the First World War.  Now we see all the introversion, his loss of confidence in himself and his artistic vision.  His hand was not really blown off, but it is the hand which would have held his brush, expressing his loss of artistic voice (although we see that his style is little changed, and no less technically skilled).  This is almost painting as therapy; through it Kirchner is able to express his inner turmoil and trauma.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self Portrait with a Model, 1910

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self Portrait as a Soldier, 1915

This second self-portrait is more typical of the 20th and 21st century approach, when the artist’s world view has become at least as important as his technical skill, and the self-portrait becomes a means of self-exploration.  Munch followed his usual unsettling lines of thought in his self-portrait, his head white, floating in the blackness above the skeletal arm and hand.  We cannot help by search for meaning within the man himself.  He was a deeply troubled man, terrified of feminine control, his family mostly killed by TB, one of his two remaining sisters resident in an asylum.  This is not hard to guess from the portrait, but it remains mysterious and enigmatic, it’s meaning unspecified.  This sense of mystery is often apparent in modern portraits, which sometimes act almost to imbue the artist with a sense of gravitas and mystery, rather than simply being used as a display of wealth and skill as they had been previously.

Munch: Self Portait with a Skeleton Arm, 1895

Exploration of identity is another common theme in modern self-portraits.  Picasso’s self-portrait with ovoid eyes strengthens his Spanish identity at a time when he was one of only a few Spaniards in Paris (particularly among the art scene).  Frida Kahlo has perhaps explored this use of the self-portrait more than any other artist.  The vast majority of her painting are self-portraits, in which she explores her identity as a woman, threatened by her inability to bear children, as an artist, and as an individual.  Although not technically a member of the Surrealist movement (in the European or American form), her work is often called Surrealist due to her exploration of dreams and dreamlike scenarios.

Frida Kahlo: The Two Fridas, 1939

‘The Two Fridas’ explicitly explores her feelings regarding her Mexican identity, after the split between her and her husband Diego Rivera.  The daughter of a Mexican mother and a European father, the piece expresses her feelings of being torn between the two cultural identities.  ‘My Nurse and I’ of 1937, also explores her relationship with her mother, and her Mexican roots, the nurse’s face substituted for a proto-American mask, suggesting the way in which cultural heritage is passed down through the generations, and the strength that it has given her.

Frida Kahlo: My Nurse and I, 1937

Kahlo’s frequent self-portraits highlight another more pragmatic side which has made them popular with artists throughout history: they are cheap.  The model is free, and available whenever the artists wishes.  Kahlo began painting whilst bed-bound, recovering from the bus accident which nearly killed her and robbed her of her ability to mother children.  She was thus the obvious subject for her works.  Taking a short aside further into history, this ready availability seems to have made self-portraits popular amongst female artists.  Largely un-professional, women artists were often constrained by social requirements.  There could be no question of impropriety if the woman were not aiming to paint for material gain, and even better, did not hire models, of either gender.  For instance, Sofonisba Anguissola, active in the 16th and early 17thcenturies,

Sofonisba Anguissola: Self Portrait, 1554

was highly acclaimed during her time, but stuck to portraits, with self-portraits, and portraits of family and close friends making up the majority of her output.  From an aristocratic background, painting such close associates could not raise any suspicions, and she was in fact encouraged by her family to pursue her enthusiasm, albeit at an almost amateur scale.  She did however go on to paint portraits of the Spanish court, including Phillip II and his family.  Modern female artists have not been so restricted, but still return to the self-portrait.  Tracy Emin’s 1998 ‘My Bed’ reads as an auto-biographical piece; a portrait of herself and her feelings seen through the objects with which she surrounded herself.

Tracy Emin: My Bed, 1998

So we see that the self-portrait form is continuing to develop, even to include the abstract forms and installation art of the modern world.  I have considered only a few ideas, any comments or thoughts would be greatly appreciated, it is an area which really fascinates me, and I think will continue to fascinate audiences due to the insight it gives us into the mind and feelings of the artist depicted.

Gustave Caillebotte: ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’, 1877

Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877

Perhaps one of the most recognisable paintings of 19th century France, Gustave Caillebote’s ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’ is an intriguing view of a less optimistic side of Paris often expressed in the paintings of the Impressionists.  It does not take long to realise that Caillebotte’s work is not typical of the overall Impressionist style.  The looseness of brushwork is replaced with smaller, more delicate work that seems to have more in common with Seurat’s Neo-Impressionism, and the emphasis on the speed and energy of the city is in turn substituted for an almost unsettling stillness.  This word, ‘unsettling’ is appropriate to the piece:  Caillebotte expresses the increasing social unease caused by the fast ‘Haussmannisation’ of Paris, which took place over his lifetime, and which resulted in a sense of social isolation and class divide.

Caillebotte was independently wealthy – he did not rely on painting for his income.  He played an important part in the Impressionist movement, partly because he was able to buy the works of his friends, particularly Monet and Renoir, thus sustaining them at times when they were financially unstable.  Although his style seems so different to these painters, he does in fact abide by many of the common characteristics of the Impressionist painters.  His interest in the representation and nature of light can be seen most clearly in the shadows, and the stones of the street itself.  Shadows are not black, as the Impressionists felt this created a dullness and flatness of space.  The stones are made up of several different colours, which unify to create the grey we see, again with the aim of representing the scene as it would have been seen by an observer, an attempt to gain greater realism.  It is oft forgotten that the Impressionist movement was strictly a move towards greater realism, as painters tried to paint what they saw, rather than simple what was there.  Caillebotte’s use of colour is also typical, he makes heavy use of different shades of yellow and blue.  This was common among the Impressionists as it was in this period that chemical pigments were being produced, with bright blues and yellows proving particularly effective (and far cheaper than their organic equivalents).  Alongside this was the development of lead tubes and lighter, more portable easels, all of which enabled the ‘en plein air’ technique for which the Impressionists became so famous (although, on a side note, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, over 20 years earlier, had done much of their work outdoors, and even earlier Constable had become famous for his six-foot sketch canvases, which he completed in the open air, and then worked up in his studio).  But it is in the tone of the painting that we see Caillebotte most clearly as an Impressionist.

‘Haussmannisation’ was the remodelling of Paris undertaken by the so-called Baron Haussmann (he was not a real Baron, simple named himself as one), under the leadership of Napoleon III.  It aimed to clear the city, modernise it, making it’s spaces more useful for the increased use of carriages, and for the capitalism which was beginning to develop, with the rise of large department stores and ready-made clothing (evoked brilliantly in Emile Zola’s ‘The Ladies’ Delight).  From a more pragmatic point of view, the new cities wide boulevards were also intended to prevent further revolution: the streets of the medieval city were narrow, and easily blockaded, whereas the very wide new streets would require far greater resources, organisation, and man-power to block, whilst also allowing easier movement of government troops.  So Haussmannisation rid the city of the cramped medieval houses which inhabit the pages of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ and transforming it to the city of open boulevards and tall houses we see today.  This design created a new lightness in the city, which can be seen particularly Renoir’s cityscapes (Renoir was a Parisian, and thus perhaps most aware of the stark changes).  But it also lead to a new social segregation, as the working classes moved out into the growing suburbs, while the new bourgeoisies lived in the city houses, with only their servants.  Previously houses would have been split between families of different status and wealth, with poorer families often inhabiting the garret or basements of houses owned by wealthier citizens.  Altogether these factors, although creating the iconic city we know and love today, had almost strong social effects at the time, resulting in a new sense of isolation.  The city was bigger, the people emotionally further apart, and the mood captured by many of the Impressionists particularly – Monet’s ‘Plum Brandy’, Degas’ ‘L’Absinthe’ – is the loneliness of the crowd.  It is this which Caillebotte taps into in ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’.

Throughout the composition Caillebotte has arranged elements in order to emphasise social unease.  The area depicted is an intersection near the Gare St Lazare, in a wealthy district near Caillebotte’s own home.  Contrary to the depiction, it is not a particularly large space.  Caillebotte has exaggerated its size almost as a metaphor for the increasing social and emotional distance between the people.  This helps to strengthen the idea in the viewer’s mind that it is the new city which has created this effect.  This is also suggested by the scaffolding at the end of the street, which leads into the depth of the painting.  The scaffolding suggests that the city is continuing to change, and implies that these problems will not easily go away.  It is also important to bear in mind when viewing this painting that any awkwardness we feel would have been far worse for its original audience.  It was exhibited in the Third Impressionist Exhibition (which Caillebotte made a large contribution to the funding of), and the people attending would have been people living in Paris, who had witnessed these conditions all around them.  Having it spelt out so clearly must have made them somewhat self-conscious, particularly as they were largely the bourgeois middle classes.  The eye-lines of the figures do not meet, even the couple look away from each other: there is no sense of human connection.  Each of the figures seems lost, or trapped, in their own world.  Caillebotte seems to have captured a particular moment of impending social embarrassment:  as they walk along the pavement, the figures are oblivious to one another, but they are about to be brought sharply back to awareness, as if they proceed, their umbrellas will surely clash.  There is thus a sense of urgency and mild horror as we realise what is about to happen, where having captured the moment before allows the viewer all the quick thoughts and embarrassed realisation that precludes these minor, but off-putting events.  The painting as a whole is also imbued with a sense of awkwardness by Caillebotte’s positioning of perspective.  He shows his awareness of tradition through his deliberate breaking of the Golden Section.  This is achieved by placing the lamp-post directly in the centre of the painting.  This splits the painting evenly, leaving the viewer with an uncertainty as to how to view it, rather than the easy path through the paintings provided by the thirds of the Golden Section.  Awareness of Renaissance tradition is seen also in the way he models objects with light.  We can see some similarities, through this and the stillness of his figures, between Caillebotte and Piero della Francesca.  This can be seen particularly through comparison of the modelling of Caillebotte’s umbrella, and the octagonal fountainheads of the Ideal City, by the school of Piero della Francesca.

Now hung in the Art Institute of Chicago (Impressionist works proved highly popular with American patrons, within the lifetime of the artists), it is thus easy to see why ‘Paris Street; rainy Day’ has been called one of the most effective paintings of the modern urban landscape of 19th century Paris.  Caillebotte has used all his delicacy and subtly, combined with the social elegance of one accustomed to really seeing, and taking real thought for the people around him, to create a stunning depiction of human non-interaction, and which brilliantly captures the mood of its time.  It’s popularity is ensured by the fact that it is hard not to like some aspect, and though its message may be uncomfortable, it is one that has perhaps become even more relevant in the centuries since it was painted.