Gustave Caillebotte, Nasturtiums, 1892
A slightly delayed exhibition review, but better late than never, as they say! So a couple of weeks ago, I took a break from dissertations to visit the Royal Academy’s latest show in their Sackler Wing. American realist George Bellows has been a favourite of mine for quite a while now. However, I was really only familiar with his boxing scenes (see Stag at Sharkey’s, Dempsey and Firpo etc.) and his paintings of city life (such as Cliff Dwellers and Forty-two Kids).
‘Modern American Life’ leaves no stone unturned when it comes to addressing themes in Bellows’s work; river views, snowscapes, war scenes, leisure studies and depictions of Pennsylvania Railroad are all present, as well as illustration work and lithographs. A painting you certainly should not skip over, despite its simplicity, is An Island in the Sea. Viewed from the side, the piece is not particularly spectacular at all. But standing directly in front of the painting allows for the paint’s glossy finish - a typical property of Bellows’s work - to flourish under the painting’s allocated spotlight, creating the illusion of glittering sunlight across the island’s surrounding waters. It was so beautiful that at one point, I found myself swaying on the spot to compare the two different visions (luckily, nobody saw me …)
The final room is a bit of a heartbreaker, as it looks at Bellow’s later works, including portraiture, before his life was cut short by peritonitis at the age of just 42. Whimsical, surreal paintings such as The White Horse and The Picnic give a significant contrast to the realism apparent in earlier pieces in the exhibition. The following quote from American writer Sherwood Anderson is used at the very end of the show, and addresses these later works that …
keep telling you things. They are telling you that Mr George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it.
There is still a few more weeks left to see the show (it finishes on 9th June). It wasn’t particularly busy either, meaning you can really take your time and examine each and every stunning, lustrous piece. Even if you are totally unfamiliar with the work of Bellows, go along. At the end of your visit, you might just have found yourself a new favourite artist.
Paul Cézanne, Woman with a Coffee Pot, c.1895
Gustave Courbet, The Woman in the Waves, 1868
Edgar Degas, The Ballet Scene, c.1876
Edouard Manet, The Garden of Pere Lathuille, 1879
Jules Breton, The Song of the Lark, 1884
Jean-Francois Millet, Churning Butter, n.d.
Winslow Homer, Rowing Home, 1890
NUDE OF THE WEEK: Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
Hooray, it’s everyone’s favourite prostitute! And for anyone who hasn’t come across this painting before and thinks I’m being a bit harsh with assuming our Olympia is a lady of the night, as they say, the painting is full of symbols representing the trade, such as the black cat at the foot of the bed. The ribbon tied into a bow around the girl’s neck and the exotic fabrics and jewellery adorning her figure also identify her as a courtesan (the name Olympia was also commonly associated with prostitution in Paris during the time). Olympia was understandably considered to be a highly controversial piece when exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon, with the girl’s unashamed gaze aimed directly at the viewer - likely to be a customer! - being specifically noted as an element of scandal. The model for Olympia, Victoria Meurent, was used frequently as an artist’s model by Manet, and also posed for his famous piece Le dejeuner sur i’herbe.
Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Walt Whitman, 1887
Francisco Goya, The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May 1808, both 1814
The Second of May, 1808 is a depiction of the Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid, when the Spanish rebelled against Napoleon’s occupation of the city. Goya chose to paint a scene of brutal street fighting, which was followed up by a separate depiction of the mass executions that took place in the aftermath of the uprising, The Third of May 1808. Here, the French soldiers are shown aiming their rifles at the group of Madrid inhabitants who have been sentenced to death. Goya uses an artificial spotlight to illuminate the Spanish men and elevate them to a heroic status.
Gustave Courbet, The Artist’s Studio, 1855
From the Musee d’Orsay:
The enormous Studio is without doubt Courbet’s most mysterious composition. However, he provides several clues to its interpretation: “It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted”, he declared, “on the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death”.
In the first group, those on the right, we can recognise the bearded profile of the art collector Alfred Bruyas, and behind him, facing us, the philosopher Proudhon. The critic Champfleury is seated on a stool, while Baudelaire is absorbed in a book. The couple in the foreground personify art lovers, and near the window, two lovers represent free love.
On the side of “everyday life”, we find a priest, a merchant, a hunter who somewhat resembles Napoleon III, and even an unemployed worker and a beggar girl symbolising poverty. We can also see the guitar, the dagger and the hat, which, together with the male model, condemn traditional academic art.
In this vast allegory, truly a manifesto painting, each figure has a different meaning. And in the middle of all this stands Courbet himself, flanked by benevolent figures: a female muse, naked like the Truth, a child and a cat. In the centre, the painter presents himself as a mediator. Courbet thus affirms the artist’s role in society in an enormous scene on the scale of a history painting. When faced with the rejection of his painting, intended for the 1855 Universal Exhibition, Courbet built a “Pavilion of Realism” at his own expense. Here, outside the official event, he organised his own exhibition, which also included A Burial at Ornans, so that his work could be available to the whole of society.
ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Gustave Caillebotte, 1848-1894
I’ve always thought that French painter Gustave Caillebotte is hugely underrated, and gets constantly eclipsed by his contemporaries Renoir and Monet. Perhaps it has something to do with the way his work seems to straddle the line between Impressionism and Realism (this stylistic battle can be seen when comparing the brushstrokes in his self portrait with the painting technique used in Paris Street, Rainy Day.) His earlier works often show a compositional likeness to early photography.
Caillebotte was also an avid collector of art, and owned many paintings by his fellow French Impressionists. In his will, he donated a large selection of the works he amassed over the years to the French Government, including pieces by Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Cezanne and Manet.
Edouard Manet, 1881, The Milliner