Thursday, November 20, 2014

Art Eyewitness Book Review: John Singer Sargent and His Muse, Picturing Love and Loss

John Singer Sargent and His Muse 

By Karen Corsano and Daniel Williman
Rowman & Littlefield/340 pages/$38

Reviewed by Ed Voves

A century ago, officers in the German army and navy regularly raised their glasses of brandy with the toast, "Der Tag."

 Der Tag: "The Day." The day that war would begin.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of "Der Tag," the outbreak of World War I. Several shelves of new books on the events of 1914-1918 have appeared recently, with more no doubt on the way. Of particular note is John Singer Sargent and His Muse by a husband-wife team of historians, Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano. This powerful book describes the tragic result of the rush to Armageddon in August 1914 in a way that is not easily forgotten.

The subtitle of this evocative book leaves no doubts about the human cost of the war: Picturing Love and Loss.

In the case of John Singer Sargent, the loss involved the death in 1918 of his beloved niece, Rose-Marie Michel, killed by a shell fired by long-range German cannons. 

John Singer Sargent, Rose-Marie Ormond, 1912

This beautiful, vivacious young woman had posed as Sargent's model in several of his greatest paintings, including The Black Brook. After Rose-Marie's crushed body was recovered from the rubble of a Paris church in March 1918, Sargent set to work on a painting that evoked the futile horrors of the Great War.

The authors relate this story of wartime sacrifice and artistic redemption in a carefully constructed, tension building manner. Set-piece chapters deal with the early life of Rose-Marie Michel and her experience of World War I. The surreal moment of horror when Rose-Marie was killed during the bombardment of Paris is described in an understated, almost clinical fashion. This sets the stage for the poignant account of the way that her family, including her French in-laws, grappled with overwhelming  loss. 

John Singer Sargent responded to the death of Rose-Marie Michel by painting the final masterpiece of his career. But the picture that emerged from this shattering incident was not a memorial painting of his niece. Instead, it was the vast, heart-searing Gassed, now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

Gassed, like the famous scene in the film Gone with the Wind which shows row upon row of wounded Confederate soldiers, depicts war solely in terms of suffering. There is not a hint of glory or world-changing consequence in this painting. There is only pain. And thanks to details of deadly irony so subtle that it is easy to miss them, there is yet more pain.

Gassed shows a casualty-clearing station where lines of British troops, blinded by an insidious form of poison gas, nicknamed "mustard" gas, are awaiting treatment. Sargent had witnessed such an appalling scene during a tour of the Western Front shortly after the death of his niece.

Some of the men with bandaged eyes regained their eye sight, or at least partial use of their eyes. But there are many forms of blindness and Sargent's Gassed addresses the most acute form of crippled vision - moral blindness.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, detail

If you look closely, off in the distant background of Sargent's painting, other soldiers are playing rugby football. They are "killing" time while awaiting their turn to be sent to the trenches. Sargent underscores the insanity of war by pointing to ways that people respond to and normalize it – reacting with complacency or helpless indifference, averting their gaze elsewhere or shutting their eyes altogether to the evil around them.

The result, magnified by tens of millions, is the death of innocent persons like Rose-Marie Michel.

Corsano and Williman wisely refrain from making cosmic interpretations of human conflict. Instead, they focus on the case history of a victim of war and the response of her bereaved family. In the tragedy of the one is the tragedy of the many.

Rose-Marie Michel (1893–1918) was the daughter of Sargent's sister, Frances Ormond. Sargent and his sisters - to whom he was deeply devoted - were born in Europe of American parents. Sargent spent his whole life traveling throughout Europe, with England as his base following the Madame X scandal of 1884. By the time Rose-Marie reached adolescence, Sargent was fed-up with painting the portraits of the "high and mighty." Portraiture was “a pimp’s profession” Sargent declared and he yearned to paint pictures of natural beauty.

Rose-Marie became Sargent's model and his muse. She posed for several achingly beautiful works such as Nonchaloir (Repose), now in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, Two Girls Fishing at the Cincinnati Art Museum and The Black Brook, one of the most celebrated paintings at the Tate Gallery in London not painted by J.M.W. Turner. 

John Singer Sargent  Nonchaloir (Repose), 1911

This fairy tale story reached a particularly happy conclusion when Rose-Marie Ormond married a brilliant French scholar, Robert Michel. He was the son of France's leading cultural critic, who had defended Sargent's art when others in the French art establishment had ridiculed him.  

The "stars" seemed to be wholly in favor of Rose-Marie and Robert Michel. Theirs was a love match and a marriage of equals, with each totally devoted to the other.

Tragically, the champagne salutations to the bride and groom in 1913 came at a time when the "Der Tag" toasts of the German officer corps were building in fervor. "Der Tag" came in August 1914 and in October Robert Michel was killed in action, making him one of the first of Europe's "Lost Generation" that was to include Franz Marc and Wilfred Owen.

The widowed Rose-Marie Michel  chose to remain with her French in-laws and served throughout the war in a hospital in Paris, caring for blinded soldiers.

In late March 1918, the Germans prepared Operation Michael to breakthrough Allied lines and seize Paris. Having helped Vladimir Lenin travel from Switzerland to foment revolution in Russia, the Germans were able to bring vast numbers of troops from the Eastern Front to attack France. In a crude rehearsal for the Blitzkrieg of World War II, the Germans also unveiled a terror weapon aimed at civilians: the Paris Gun.

These cannons were fitted with long barrels enabling the shells they fired to reach the thin air of the stratosphere.  The German guns began to bombard Paris at the extraordinary range of seventy miles. The same, though much more sophisticated, ballistics formula was incorporated in the design of the V2 rockets launched against London in 1944-45.

As the authors relate, on March 29, 1918, Rose-Marie Michel took some time from her nursing duties to attend a performance of classical music at the church of St. Gervais. It was Good Friday.

Shortly before the recital began, a shell fired by one of the Paris Guns hit the roof of St. Gervais. Huge blocks of shattered masonry crushed the congregation gathered below, including Rose-Marie Michel. 

St. Gervais Church, after the German bombardment, March 29th, 1918

In losing her life, Rose-Marie Michel helped her uncle find - or at least rediscover - himself as an artist. After the United States joined the Allied war-effort in 1917, Sargent became a war artist. But John Singer Sargent, urbane man of the world, was not psychologically prepared.    

 Alvin Langdon Coburn  John Singer Sargent, 1907

The death of his beloved Rose-Marie changed that. Sargent found his subject. The lines of blinded soldiers in Gassed are an indirect tribute to the brave young woman who, having lost her husband, devoted herself to nursing other soldiers, robbed of their sight by the war.

I saw Sargent's Gassed in 1999 at an exhibit of Sargent's work at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. I must admit that I was not overly impressed with this painting, because I thought that actual photos from World War I were more authentic and therefore more hard-hitting.

British 55th Division gas casualties, 10 April 1918

I no longer feel that way, thanks in large measure to Corsano and Williman's splendid book. In many ways, Sargent's Gassed is the last great narrative painting of the nineteenth century, though completed in 1919. For all that, Gassed is an essential work in the canon of Western art.

Reading John Singer Sargent and his Muse and writing about it have posed a real challenge to me. Thinking about the circumstances of Rose-Marie Michel's death caused me to confront an unpleasant fact. The moral blindness that blights our contemporary world is a living legacy of the War to End All Wars.  

Reflecting on the tragedy of Rose-Marie Michel and John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, I am reminded of the wise words of Oscar Wilde:

There is the same world for all of us, and good and evil, sin and innocence, go through it hand in hand. To shut one’s eyes to half of life that one may live securely is as though one blinded oneself that one might walk with more safety in a land of pit and precipice.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., the Imperial War Museum, London, and Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Introductory image: John Singer Sargent and His Muse 2014 (cover) Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Rose-Marie Ormond, 1912 Oil on canvas 80 cm (31.5 in.)x 54.5 cm (22.99 in.) Private Collection, Public Domain photo from

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Gassed, 1919 Oil on canvas  231 x 611.1 cm (91 x 240 1/2 in.)Imperial War Museum, London  Art.IWM ART 1460

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Nonchaloir (Repose), 1911 Oil on canvas 63.8 x 76.2 cm (25 1/8 x 30 in.) Gift of Curt H. Reisinger 1948.16.1 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Agence Rol. St. Gervais church, Paris, after the German Paris Gun bombing, March 29th, 1918  (1918) Bibliothèque Nationale de France
                                                                                                                                      Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966)  John Singer Sargent, 1907  Photogravure
20.1cm x 15.6cm (7 15/16" x 6 1/8") National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution 1987-10 NPG.87.288.L

Thomas Keith Aitken, British 55th Division gas casualties, 10 April 1918              photograph Q 11586 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-22) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 7, 2014

Art Eyewitness Essay: Turner, Constable and a Sojourn in Brontë Country

Turner, Constable & a Sojourn in Bronte Country

By Ed Voves   
In 1810, J.M.W. Turner observed a thunderstorm rolling over the hills of Yorkshire. He quickly began to jot-down notes about the cloud masses, lightning flashes and sky tones of the storm.  When he had finished, Turner remarked to a companion, Hawkesworth Fawkes, about his observations.

"There," Turner said, "Hawkey, in two years you will see this again, and call it Hannibal crossing the Alps.”

Two years later, Turner did indeed exhibit a monumental painting based on his notes, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. The timing of the exhibition coincided with the first reports of the winter blizzard that had engulfed Napoleon's army retreating from Moscow in 1812, just as the storm strikes Hannibal's troops in Turner's painting. 

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps is actually a very English painting. In fact, it is a very Yorkshire painting, as my wife and I discovered recently. This, in turn, is deeply significant for understanding the role of British artists like Turner and John Constable, in the rise of landscape painting during the nineteenth century.  

In October 2014, my wife, Anne, and I spent five days in Haworth, Yorkshire. This remarkable village is the site of the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the moor country which figures so prominently in the novels of three literary sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.  

Thanks to the location of our B&B, we were able to look directly from our room onto St Michael's Church, were Rev. Patrick Brontë, father of the Brontë sisters, was the Church of England minister from 1820 to 1861. 

From our window, too, we had a front-row seat of the amazing skyscape over the West Riding countryside of Yorkshire, leading to Penistone Hill and Top Withins. This, of course, is Brontë country, par excellence, but the spectacle of nature that we observed applies equally to the visionary art of Turner and Constable, Romantic-era contemporaries of the Brontës.

Anne Lloyd, Sunset over Haworth, Yorkshire

Over the course of our visit, Anne, who is a gifted photographer, documented the ever-changing sky above Haworth. Sunsets, misty mornings, rainbows, passing rain squalls, a full moon - it was truly amazing to witness the variability of nature. We even managed to dodge heavy rain showers which took place at night.

Our extraordinary weather "karma" recalled a famous remark by Turner around the time that he painted Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps: 

In our variable climate where the seasons are recognizable in one day ... where nature seems to sport in all her dignity and dispensing incidents for the artist's study ... how happily is the landscape painter situated, how roused by every change of nature in every moment, that allows no langour even in her effects which she places before him...

Anne and Turner were in agreement. Recording the changes in English weather permits no "langour." The restless, threatening skies that Anne photographed from the narrow path to Oxenhope, often used by Charlotte Brontë, brightened a few moments later with almost summer-like sunshine.

When we wistfully concluded our stay in Haworth, we journeyed to London for a few days of museum visits. There we saw the Late Turner – Painting Set Free exhibition, which appears at the Tate Britain Museum, September 10, 2014 – January 25, 2015, and Constable: The Making of a Master, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, September 20, 2014 to January 11, 2015.

Both exhibits are magnificent, with many of the greatest paintings of the two artists on display. The exhibition at the V&A presents works by artists who influenced Constable's development like Peter Paul Rubens. Also on view are Constable’s most famous work, The Hay Wain (1824), and the full-scale preparatory painting that some art scholars now regard as a superior work of art to the finished version.

John Constable The Hay Wain

It is fitting, in an ironical way, that the Turner and Constable exhibits should appear at the same time. It takes years to organize and mount art exhibitions. The timing of the two shows was probably - in the first stages of planning, at least - coincidental. 

Yet here they are again, Turner and Constable, teamed together as they appear in most introductory surveys of art history. Turner and Constable. Turner and Constable. You would think that the two painters functioned as a unit like Monet and Renoir, painting together at La Grenouillère - or like Gilbert and George.

The reality was very different. Turner never met a landscape painter who was anything but a rival. In 1832, at the Royal Academy exhibition, he retouched a quiet Dutch-style seascape of his, Helvoetsluys, with a red buoy to steal some of the thunder from one of Constable's "six-footers, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, hanging next to it in the gallery.
Constable noticed the effect immediately, commenting ruefully about Turner, "He has been here and has fired a gun."

Constable was not merely a competitor to Turner, however. Constable was also the protégé of Sir George Beaumont, co-founder of the National Gallery in London and a resolute foe of Turner. Beaumont maintained that Turner treated oil painting as an extension of water colors. Totally misunderstanding Turner’s brilliant grasp of light, Beaumont disparaged Turner’s art as the work of an "Old man," who "no longer saw or felt colour properly..."

Turner, who regarded himself as “the great lion of the day,” responded to Beaumont’s remarks with paintings ever more daring, ever more radiating light.

One could go on comparing and contrasting these two British painters, but there is one unifying theme to their respective careers: the centrality of observing the natural world. This was true of Turner and Constable throughout their lives, as the two exhibitions make clear. But I think that the experiences of "early" Turner and "early" Constable, as they developed their art in their English homeland, need to be appreciated.

That would appear to go against the claims that the decisive moment in Turner's career came at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, when he and other British artists could travel to the continent of Europe. The "light of Italy" flooded onto Turner's canvases and his painting, tinged with hues of yellow, amber and gold, changed forever.

Turner's sojourns in Italy certainly had a major impact on his color palate.  Late Turner at Tate Britain presents two companion paintings, exhibited in 1839, that clearly manifest "the light of Italy." 

J. M.W. Turner Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus 

J. M.W. Turner Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino 

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus and Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino are displayed side-by-side in the Tate exhibit, providing insight into Turner's view of history and color theory. These were among the paintings which the cartoonist for the Almanack of the Month (June 1846) likely had in mind when he lampooned Turner confronting a canvas with a large mop for a paintbrush and a bucket of yellow paint.

Was this late-career change in color preference also reflected in the greatest of Turner's final paintings, Rain, Steam and Speed? This iconic work, painted in tones of burnished gold, ochre and misty gray, was the type of painting that Turner’s critics regarded as evidence that he had contracted “yellow fever.”

J. M.W. Turner  Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway

If so, Turner contracted the “disease” in England. An early work,  the hard-hitting Frosty Morning (1813) showing starving farm families, was painted with a gold and brown color scheme that had nothing to do with the “light of Italy.”

Ed Voves, Haworth Moor from Penistone Hill, Yorkshire

I saw the same colors while gazing at Haworth Moor from Penistone Hill – albeit in much more congenial circumstances than the hungry farm folk encountered in 1813. Frosty Morning was painted from a scene that Turner had witnessed in Yorkshire and when Claude Monet saw the painting decades later, he declared that Turner had painted it with “wide-open eyes.”

Constable painted with “wide-open eyes” too, but he focused his vision on the green fields of his boyhood home, the Stour River Valley in the county of Suffolk. Constable, unlike Turner, never traveled to the continent of Europe, even when The Hay Wain won a gold medal at the 1824 Paris Salon. 

Constable was far from being a timid, unadventurous soul. He showed how artists can create universes of their own devising. These realms might be small in geographical scale, perhaps reduced to a single tree. But they could be limitless in an emotional, psychological sense. It was an artistic revolution as profound in its way as Turner's explorations of light.

John Constable Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree  

“But I should paint my own places best," Constable affirmed, "painting is but another word for feeling.”

One of the most productive of Constable's "own places" was Hampstead Heath, where he relocated his family in 1819 in a brave, doomed effort to preserve the life of his beloved wife, Maria. She was stricken with tuberculosis as Emily and Anne Brontë were to be in the 1840's. 

While at Hampstead, Constable did  "a good deal of skying," painting the ever-changing skies above the Heath. Constable's cloud studies, generally oil sketches on paper, painted directly from nature, are among his greatest works, valued by some scholars today even more than his grand "six-footers."

John Constable Study of Cirrus Clouds 

Turner painted in the open air too, using his facility with water colors to make rapid color sketches the way other artists might use a pencil.  But Turner and Constable, despite later claims were  not "Impressionists," as neither painted full-scale finished works out-of-doors. Nor were they seeking to make factual recordings of nature or daily life, merely for the sake of doing so.

Turner and Constable both observed and studied nature in close detail but - like true Romantics - sought to make a moral statement by their work, a gesture or "feeling" through the medium of painting. 

During our visit to Haworth, Anne and I gained an appreciation for the kind of world in which the people of the Regency and early Victorian eras lived. Viewing the ever-changing skies above the Brontë Parsonage and wandering through the densely packed graveyard of St. Michaels Church  was both an inspiring and a sobering experience. Over 40,000 people were buried in that cemetery over the course of the 1800's, victims of cholera, typhus, tuberculosis and other Industrial Age killer diseases. Death was the constant companion of life. 

Anne Lloyd,  Graveyard of St. Michaels Church, Haworth, Yorkshire 

Constable, who was haunted by the death of his wife in 1828, dressed in mourning for the rest of his life. Yet the creative impulse that impelled him to become one of Britain's greatest artists, also enabled Constable to find solace and inspiration in the beauty of nature. 

In 1836, a year before he died, Constable wrote that man's "nature is congenial with the elements of the planet itself, and he cannot but sympathize with its features, its various aspects and its phenomena in all situations. We are no doubt placed in a paradise here if we choose to make it such …"

The Romantic era, the age of Turner, Constable and the Brontës, had precious little romance to it. But the eyes and minds of these remarkable individuals were able to look beyond the filth and death around them, to see or at least to hope for a better, more beautiful world.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and Tate Britain, London.
Introductory image:     
                                                                                                                                        Anne Lloyd,  Afternoon Sky over Haworth, Yorkshire digital photograph, 2014

Anne Lloyd,  Sunset over Haworth, Yorkshire digital photograph, 2014

John Constable (1776-1837) The Hay Wain 1821  Oil on canvas 130.2 x 185.4 cm  The National Gallery, London Presented by Henry Vaughan, 1886  NG1207  © The National Gallery, London

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851)  Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus 1839 Oil on canvas   91 x 121.8 cm  Tate Britain, London  Turner Bequest, 1856   N0052

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851)  Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino 1839 Oil on canvas   36 1/8 x 48 1/4 in.  J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles    2011.6

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851)  Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway  1844 Oil on canvas   91 x 121.8 cm  Turner Bequest, 1856  NG538 © The National Gallery, London

Ed Voves, Haworth Moor from Penistone Hill, Yorkshire  digital photograph, 2014

John Constable (1776-1837)  Study of the trunk of an elm tree  about 1821     Oil on canvas  30.6 x 24.8 cm   The  Victoria and Albert Museum, London Given by Isabel Constable  Museum number: 786-1888                                                                                                                                                                                                  
John Constable (1776-1837) Study of Cirrus Clouds ca. 1822 Oil on paper, 11.4 x 17.8 cm The  Victoria and Albert Museum, London Given by Isabel Constable  Museum number: 784-1888

Anne Lloyd,  Graveyard of St. Michaels Church, Haworth, Yorkshire digital photograph, 2014