The Portrait of Two Ladies

My previous post was about my trip to London last week. I didn’t want to cram the piece with too many space-greedy photos, so omitted the ones of pictures I liked in the National Gallery. Several of you were kind enough to suggest you’d like to see them, so having got ahead of myself preparing Tennyson for next week’s classes (and C. Rossetti, looking further ahead), here they are. Just two of them.

First is this one; it seemed easiest to just post the caption on the wall of the gallery for information about it:

Morisot, Girl on a Divan

Berthe Morisot, Girl on a Divan

 

 

Morisot, Girl on a Divan caption

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morisot first exhibited at the Salon at the age of 23 in 1864, and continued to do so most years for the next six, after which her work was included in the ‘rejected’ alternative salon of Impressionists – among all the now household names. She was married to Manet’s brother. I think her famous painting The Cradle (1872) was the one that first brought her to my attention many years ago; it’s a tender image of (presumably) a mother beside her baby’s ornate crib. There’s a striking portrait of her by Manet, done the same year, dramatically dressed in black (she was in mourning for her father), gazing out at the viewer with large, challenging, slightly amused eyes, yet they seem more guarded than those of the girl in the divan. That’s what interests me about her: she was denied access to the seamier parts of urban/social life beloved of the male impressionists – the brothels, low dives and clubs, and so on; but she could gain access to and gain the trust of the women who wouldn’t necessarily have interested her fellow (male) artists, or posed in the same way.

It seems that she influenced Manet considerably, encouraging him, for example, to taking up painting in the open air, not just in the studio. According to Wikipedia, where you can see the paintings I’ve mentioned, and several more, she was described by some art critics as being the best of the group.

Like most women artists (most women?) she found it hard to be taken seriously in her world. So here she is.

Next:

Ingres Mme Moitessier

This is by the Neo-Classical artist, Ingres (1856), a portrait of Mme Moitessier. She was the wife of a wealthy banker, shown here wearing a costly and fashionable Lyon silk gown. It was the detail and colour of this that has always drawn my eye – this little image can’t do it justice.

Ingres apparently laboured over the work for 12 years, constantly striving to perfect that colour and detail. It’s quite stunningly beautiful. It may be my imagination but the sitter’s facial expression seems far less comfortable under the artist’s male gaze than the girl in the divan above – though her body language seems quite relaxed. But it has more in common with a fashion plate than an intimate portrait, it seems to me. She and her husband no doubt wanted the artist to show off their prosperity.

Hope you didn’t mind this little detour away from my more usual literary territory. Apologies to any art specialists for any solecisms in my Google-derived information in this post. Obviously these are just snaps from my phone; I’d recommend taking a look online at the professionally photographed images of these artists’ work.

London times

I’ve been visiting friends in west London for a long weekend, hence these scenes of a fast-flowing river as we walked on the South Bank first to Tower Bridge, then back to the Tate Modern.

Tower of London

Traitor’s Gate at the Tower

After a weekend of high winds and driving rain (and a visit to the Blake in Sussex exhibition at Petworth House) the sun finally shone. Next day I returned and indulged in a dérive, walking from Westminster tube station to Trafalgar Square – hence the obligatory picture of the lion guarding Nelson’s column.

 

 

 

LionTower Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the National Gallery I limited myself to just a couple of rooms: Impressionists mainly. The nice guard said it was ok to take non-flash pictures, and patiently assured an anxious Italian visitor that yes, the paintings were all originals.

Then north to Soho Square, with a helpful plaque showing a plan of its earlier layout, and a brief history: it was from the late 17th century a fashionable location, with various aristocratic residents and a notorious brothel. William Beckford, author of Vathek,  was born there, and the naturalist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage to Australasia, was a resident; his house became a sort of salon for scientists. There’s a Catholic church on one side, which was built to cater for the local Irish and Italian communities, and a French Protestant church on the north side, originally serving the Huguenot exiles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soho SquareSoho Square

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to St James’s Park tube station and the ride back to Chiswick, but en route I saw the colourful displays in Chinatown to celebrate the New Year.

Chinatown

 

 

 

 

Then a book haul at Turnham Green Oxfam shop, which has an extensive Classics section. This will be my first Schulz; Edith Wharton I’ve posted about a few times:The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and The Children

Book haul Feb 18

 

 

 

 

Crows, maggots and oysters: Dickens, Bleak House

I’ve been teaching Dickens this term. I don’t find much to say about Hard Times, with its skewering of Utilitarian selfishness and ‘fact’ displacing ‘fancy’. These strong points are weakened for me by the unpleasant hatchet job on trade unionism. Dickens rightly fulminates against the oppression of the ‘Hands’ by their greedy, bullying, heartless ‘masters’, and the injustices in the social system of the time (it was finished in 1854). His depiction of a union organiser as a windbag rabble-rouser, on the other hand, leads to the distressing conclusion that the workers will be ok provided they have imaginative outlets: principally circuses.

There’s too much sentimentality, too, a trait Dickens found hard to tone down.

Bleak House is another matter. Here we find much more nuanced social criticism, and the huge canvas and cast of characters is deployed with panache. Let me close this short post with a fairly random quotation that illustrates what he’s capable of when he resists the temptation to sentimentalise. This is from Book 1, ch. 10: ‘The Law Writer’, which introduces yet another apparently minor character and his circle, but a person who, like all the other secondary figures, plays an important part in the plotting and thematic coherence of the novel:

The day is closing in and the gas is lighted, but is not yet fully effective, for it is not quite dark. Mr. Snagsby standing at his shop-door looking up at the clouds sees a crow who is out late skim westward over the slice of sky belonging to Cook’s Court. The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden into Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

 

Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now, and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache–as would seem to be Allegory’s object always, more or less. Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn, when not speechlessly at home in country-houses where the great ones of the earth are bored to death. Here he is to-day, quiet at his table. An oyster of the old school whom nobody can open.

That motif of the crow recurs throughout the narrative, serving as a device to connect the contrasting locations, from the lowly law stationer in his shady, dank court, to the grand ‘house of state’ of the pompous, corrupt lawyer Tulkinghorn. In Bleak House Dickens brilliantly links the high and the low (even street crossing sweeper Jo, effectively a beggar, who ‘knows nothink’, plays a key role in the puzzle. Everyone knows something, but what they don’t know is usually more important. There are secrets everywhere. Even the painted Allegory on the ceiling signifies more than its surface reveals.

That simile of the lawyers lying ‘like maggots in nuts’ is crude but it works. To move on to ‘an oyster of the old school’ mixes the image improbably, but Dickens is in such fine form here he gets away with it: Tulkinghorn, like Allegory, can be two things simultaneously – maggoty in his insidious law-scheming, and oystery in his clammed-up secret-guarding.

This is a far stronger, richer novel than Hard Times: the moral outrage isn’t negated by dodgy political prejudices and myopia.

He’s still not very convincing in his women characters, though.

Bleak House title page

Title page of the first edition (1853) illustrated by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) via Wikimedia Commons, public domain