Friday, April 12, 2013

The White Slave, by Ernest Normand (1894)

So, we close our look at Orientalist painter Ernest Normand (1857 - 1923) with one of his most prurient pictures, The White Slave from 1894.

It is astonishing how many of Normand’s paintings concern slave girls, or brown and black men ogling white women.  Normand wore his cultural fears and prejudices on his sleeve, and they leaked into his work with a happy regularity.  These concerns were almost always couched in the tropes of history or Orientalist paintings, settings that would give free reign to his rather colorful imagination.  (He must have been a delight at dinner parties.)

Happily, there are some instructive things in this picture.  First off, the magnificent carved lion in the background was also in Bondage, his picture from three years earlier.  Also, notice the circular motif of the tiled floor – this was present also in Bondage and Esther Denouncing Haman.  Also briefly glimpsed in the hands of the seated slave is the dulcimer from Bondage.  Finally, see the ubiquitous palm tree in the background, which for Normand means all things foreign.

The story of the picture is clear enough.  A slave dealer brings his latest prize to an Eastern or North African potentate, who already has two slaves in attendance.  The poor woman (obviously a captive of some kind) disrobes, her gaze turned away in shame.

While making japes and wheezes about Normand’s taste (or lack of it), it’s too easy to overlook the man’s real skill at drawing and compositional sense.  First off, we see again Normand’s mastery of drapery as we look at the robe around her lower body and spread upon the floor.  Also impressive are the “Eastern” rugs and pillows beneath the king, along with the tiger rug (another holdover from Bondage). 

Also true is his command of anatomy.  Not only is the central woman beautifully rendered, but the other two female slaves are depicted with a sure hand.

The look of desire on the king’s face is quite telling, as is that of calculation on the slave trader.  Though not subtle, Normand once again channels his obsessions into a dramatic picture.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand (1888)

Here is another scene that looks for all the world like a widescreen 1950s Biblical epic, courtesy of artist Ernest Normand (1857 - 1923).  

Whatever Normand’s lapses of taste, his sense of the dramatic is undeniable.  Many of his pictures are staged as if they were elaborate tableaux constructed for the ornate theatrical experiences of the time.  (Stage production in the Victorian era was of an order so lavish as to put even the most contemporary Broadway extravaganza to shame.)

This dramatic scene illustrates a moment in the Old Testament.  Esther, wife of King Ahasuerus, King of Persia, is pointing accusingly at Haman, a treacherous friend of the King. King Ahasuerus is sitting in the shadows behind Esther.

Haman is the main antagonist in the Book of Esther, who, according to Old Testament tradition, was a 5th Century BC noble and vizier of the Persian Empire under King Ahasuerus.  In the story, Haman and his wife Zeresh instigate a plot to kill all of the Jews of ancient Persia by persuading Ahasuerus to provide an executive order to do so.  Included in the edict would be the killing of Mordecai and all the Jews of the lands he ruled. The plot was foiled by Queen Esther, the king's recent wife, who is herself a Jew. Haman would be hanged from the gallows that had originally been built to hang Mordechai.

The reason for all of this bloodshed was, as is often the case, wounded pride.  Mordecahi would not bow before Haman at a state function.  According to myth, Esther makes her case against Haman to King Ahasuerus personally.  The King asks Esther, "Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?" Esther replies, "The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman."

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, says, "A gallows 50 feet high stands by Haman's house. He had it made for Mordecai." And the king replies, "Hang him on it!"  The dead bodies of his ten sons Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai and Vaizatha (or Vajezatha), are also hanged there after they die in battle trying to kill the Jews.

As is often the case when researching religious myths, I’m delighted to be alive in the more secular 21st Century…

Normand showed this picture at the Royal Academy, London in 1888; and its intensity is marked.  Esther stands stage right, kneeling before her husband the king while her body twists to point an accusing finger a Haman.  Note the drapery of her robes as they fall upon the stairs, and the detailing of her sleeves as they droop about her arms. 

Equally impressive is the cowering figure of Haman.  He regards his accuser from beneath beetle brows, hands up as if warding off an attack.  I find the gold highlights of his robe particularly impressive, but they are nothing compared to the loving detail Normand puts into Haman’s chair.  Feathers in the onyx sphinx armrests reflect the light, and the matching golden paws that make the chair and table legs are inventive touches.

As befits a king, Ahasuerus sits above the fray in his robes of red and gold.  (In an appreciated and witty touch, Normand also depicts the king as statue to the right and left of the door.)  At the king’s feet is Harbona, watching Esther make her accusation.  You can almost see the wheels turning in the eunuch’s head; any moment now he will speak.

If a contemporary film adaptation of the story were to include the histrionics depicted here, it would be hooted off of the screen.  However, as a pictorial spectacle, Normand does manage to milk the drama to considerable effect.  Normand was, by no stretch of the imagination, a tasteful painter, but he did have dramatic flair.

More Normand tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bondage, by Ernest Normand (1890)

Though perhaps not the ideal picture to hang over your breakfast nook, I must confess that I have a sneaking admiration for the artist’s bravura sensuality and over-the-top sensibility.

Not much is known about artist Ernest Normand (1857 - 1923).   He was born in London, educated in Germany and returned to England in 1876.  Like many artists, he had some trouble finding his own way in the world – he started by working in his father’s office; but art was his true calling and Normand attended evening classes in art at St. Martin's and spent his spare time drawing antiques in the British Museum.

Normand entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1880 when he was 23, studying there for three years.  He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881, where he continued to exhibit till 1904.  In 1884 he married the painter Henrietta Rae (1859-1928).  Rae is perhaps better remembered now, largely a result of our consuming post-feminist search for significant women painters. 

Ernest and Henrietta traveled to Paris in 1890 to study at the Académie Julian with Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. The couple would later live in Holland Park, where they became something like the darlings of the older artistic community (Leighton and Millais, for example), who visited them frequently. 

Normand was clearly influenced by the Orientalism that swept the 19th Century – a focus on the remote and exotic fostered by adventurer-artists who traveled the world in search of the foreign, the picturesque and the beautiful.  Though not nearly as adventurous (or as tasteful) as other Orientalists, Normand does have a certain Cecil B. DeMille sensibility that is a great deal of fun.

Bondage, painted in 1890, is so wonderfully prurient that I find it irresistible.  An enthroned and rather bored looking potentate consults with one of his many slaves, as the slave trader literally unwraps his new sale item.  The undraped slave stands not only proud in her nudity, but brazen.  A seated slave with a dulcimer looks on, and, to the far left, other slaves and court lackeys gaze with approval or interest.  All of the slaves are of a darkish hue except for the two on the lower right-hand corner, which are the real focus of the picture.  The blonde female slave shares none of the new slave’s carnality, and strives to conceal and protect her body.  Her daughter is beside her, hiding in her mother’s back and hair.  Despair is written upon their faces, and their sense of peril is palpable.

Of course, Normand creates a storybook sense of the Orient.  Buildings reminiscent of the Ancient World are palely depicted in the background, as are exotic trees.  The scene-of-action is wonderfully ‘foreign,’ complete with fountain, tiger rug, carved thrones and elaborately draped Oriental clothes, all taking place under a golden canopy.  Most wonderful of all is the magnificent carved lion, something of a Normand signature piece which we will see in another picture.

The subtext here is not all the sub – in fact, the message is clear: various barbarians of the East are worst than decadent, and they want our women.

More Normand tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Encountering the Orient: Masterworks from the Dahesh Museum of Art

Jaffa, Recruiting of Turkish Soldiers in Palestine

It is not often that a show comes to New York that is thematically rich, expertly curated and deftly presented, but that is the case with Encountering the Orient: Masterworks from the Dahesh Museum of Art, presented at Christie’s at 20 Rockefeller Plaza, here in New York.  If you can only make one show this season, this should be it.

Though most New Yorkers know Christie’s primarily as an auction house, this venerable institution is not just for New York’s financial elite.  Great works of art are to be seen by the public, whether they are on the auction block or museum walls.  Christie’s is very welcoming to aesthetes of all stripes, and anyone who loves art should become familiar with their galleries.  For Christie’s to host the Dahesh show is an indication of their commitment to the greater artistic community, and is to be appreciated by all.  Diana Bramham, Assistant Vice President, Specialist 19th Century European Art Old Master & 19th Century Art at Christie’s, worked closely with the Dahesh to make this splendid show a reality.

Encountering the Orient remains on view until April 15, 2013.  The show celebrates the 19th Century rediscovery of the East by Western artists, and offers a fresh approach to Orientalism as a complex, highly contextual, cross-cultural encounter.

Curated by Alia Nour, Associate Curator of the Dahesh, Encountering the Orient is a compact, stunning tour de force for the perpetually travelling museum.  Encountering the Orient touches upon many fascinating themes to be found in 19th Century Orientalism, including the hold Egypt (and perceptions of Egypt) have over the Western mind, the role of women in North Africa and the Middle East, and the tradition of swashbuckling artists who ventured into then-exotic places with little more than paint and palette.

Readers of the Jade Sphinx will appreciate that there is something profoundly moving in standing before a great work of art and just … gazing.  I was deeply touched by many of the works, all of which were colored with a deep strain of romance.  It is a show I intend to see more than once.

Though filled with fine works, perhaps the centerpiece is Jaffa, Recruiting of Turkish Soldiers in Palestine, painted in 1888 by Gustav Bauernfeind (1848 - 1904).  Bauernfeind was a German painter who studied architecture at the Polytechnic Institute in Stuttgart and later worked in the architectural firm of Professor Wilhelm Bäumer.  He journeyed to the Levant from 1880 to 1882, and he became increasingly interested in the Orient and returned again and again. In 1896 he moved with his wife and son to Palestine and subsequently settled in Jerusalem in 1898. He also lived and worked in Lebanon and Syria, and is considered to be one of the most notable Orientalist painters from Germany.

On April 7, the Dahesh hosted a lecture on this stunning work by Dr. Roger Diederen, Director of the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich.  Dr. Diederen detailed how Bauernfeind was enamored of Jaffa, and in an 1885 letter to his sister he described several aspects included in this painting: . . . what I saw here during the departure of the military conscripts, with the women chasing after them in dinghies far out into the sea, and holding up their infants so that they often could be rescued only at extreme peril; or the scene in the streets where aged fathers wanted to embrace their sons for the last time, and were beaten off with cudgels by the rough soldiery—would also furnish material for some interesting pictures.

This enormous picture fully dominated a whole wall of the exhibit, but it is not the only thing to see.  Also on hand are masterworks by Rudolf Ernst, Ludwig Deutsch and Frederick Arthur Bridgman.

Kudos to the Dahesh and Christie’s for putting together such a dynamic show, and for hosting comments from Dr. Diederen.  Both institutions are working to keep our artistic heritage intact, and are in the forefront of the revival of 19th Century Art. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Fortune Teller by Jean Georges Vibert

Gad, I love this picture.

We continue our weeklong look at Jean George Vibert (1840-1902) with one of his finest pictures, The Fortune Teller.

Vibert served in the war of 1870-71 as a sharpshooter, and was wounded at the battle of  Malmaison in October of 1870.  He was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and became a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his efforts. 

While recovering from his war wounds, Vibert started writing plays, staging many productions and sometimes serving as actor in his own works.  Not surprisingly, his plays mocked the establishment and contemporary mores.  He also wrote an operetta, Chanteuse par Amours, performed at the Variétés in 1877.  It was at this time that he also starting writing short stories Century Magazine in the US, finding a free public relations bonanza in writing stories based on his pictures.   

Vibert continued to submit work to the Salon until 1899 with L’Aigle et le Renard (The Eagle and the Fox).  No slouch at self-promotion (or self-congratulation), Vibert wrote of himself in the third person: …being an excellent cook, you have invented and prepared sauces that make your compatriots lick their fingers; that, using your pen as well as your brush, you have written songs and plays that have been applauded in the minor theaters of Paris; that, following the example of Molière, and having, like him, an extraordinary talent as an actor, you have played your own productions at the club and in artistic salons; then, having a passion for building, and trying your hand at all the trades, you are not only your own architect, but do not disdain occasionally to work in iron, like Louis XVI., or in wood, like the good St. Joseph; and finally that, in decorating your house, you have distinguished yourself as an upholsterer. In the last particular, you may even say that you surpass Molière, or he, although the son of an upholsterer, was not himself one.

So, it is no surprise that a man with such a dramatic turn of mind would paint a picture as boldly dramatic as The Fortune Teller.

As with other pictures we have seen, Vibert strives to render the clergy (particularly cardinals) as both human and ridiculous.  Certainly good churchmen should have no traffic with such superstition as fortune tellers or tricksters.  However, both cardinals (one amused, the other thoughtful) look on, an enormous Gutenberg bible on the bookstand beside them.

As usual with Vibert’s clergy, the cardinals are in a room of considerable splendor.  The gilt table, divan with canopy, Oriental carpet and magnificent fireplace, though, all become a mere backdrop to the drama of the fortune teller. 

The Fortune Teller herself stands as if in a spotlight.  Her confederates (other gypsies, perhaps?), stand ready upstage left.  Her raiment is as colorful and dramatic as that of the cardinals, and the train of her dress follows the flowing line of the train of one of the cardinal’s robes.  Indeed, the Fortune Teller’s cards and box of magic are proudly displayed, much like the on-display bible of the cardinals.

What is perhaps most significant here – and why I think this is one of Vibert’s finest works – is how the artist uses light.  While the Fortune Teller is in the ‘spotlight,’ so are the robes of the two cardinals, linking the figures together.  More telling is the light from the stained glass windows near the other gypsies – light comes from behind them, illuminating the figures modeled in glass.  But, aren’t the figures from early Christian mythology more reminiscent of the costumes of the performing gypsies than that of the cardinals?  While Vibert is drawing a parallel between the dawn of Christianity and the simple superstitions of the gypsies, he is also commenting on the smug condescension of the church.  Notice the supercilious smile of one of the cardinals.  “Superstitious peasants,” the look says.  “We know so much better.”  However, Vibert points out the amusing truth that there is little that separates the two.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Eureka by Jean Georges Vibert

We continue our weeklong look at master artist Jean Georges Vibert (1840-1902), who painted many satirical pictures of the church and its clergy.

We mentioned earlier that in the 1860s, Vibert traveled to Spain with his friend Eduardo Zamacois, a young Spanish artist.  Vibert collected Spanish clothing and objects, which were later used to create scenery for many of his ecclesiastical paintings.  But while Spain influenced many of Vibert’s paintings, his travel to the East also affected his style of painting. Vibert’s sense of fine detail was a quality that he shared with the Orientalists.

Always versatile, Vibert also became an advocate of watercolors, formalizing the Societe des Aquarellistes Francais, and becoming its president, in 1878. He was also an author and actor, writing plays and sometimes appearing in them.  (Vibert also had an active association with stage and theatrical productions in Paris.)  He also used his scientific abilities to prepare his own colors after studying the chemistry of colors, and wrote a book of the science of painting in 1891, La Science de la Peinture.

Vibert wrote stories for The Century Magazine, sometimes based on scenes from his paintings, finding it a convenient way to advertise his works in America. In 1878, Jean placed six watercolors and seven oil paintings on exhibition in the Exposition Universelle, and was awarded a third-class medal.

Like many artists, Vibert compared his works to fatherhood – he loves all of his ‘children,’ though he wasn’t always completely satisfied with them. If I were he, I would have a particular fondness for today’s picture, Eureka.

Once again, Vibert places his cardinal in a setting of enviable luxury.  The secretary desk at which he sits was, I’m sure, a valuable antique when Vibert painted the picture let alone today.  The green felt of the writing blotter is clear, as are the beautifully rendered books at eye level.  The secretary comes complete with a pillow for the prelate’s sensitive feet, and sports two-toned wood.  (Your correspondent has a particular liking for this picture because a small, black onyx Sphinx is clearly visible on the cardinal’s desk opposite the inkwell.)

There is an elaborately carved vase of flowers overhead, and floridly-painted walls surround door and mantle trim.  The beautifully depicted parquet floor is immaculate, as the cardinal’s robes and golden tassel rest upon it without danger of soiling. 

The drapery of the cardinal’s robes is, as per usual with Vibert, painted with a sure hand; indeed, he fully understands both the beauty, the extravagance, and the absurdity of the clerical costume.  I particularly like how much attention he lavishes on the priestly red shoes – particularly the buckles.  (Remember the luminescent pumps worn by the Preening Peacock seen earlier...)
“Eureka,” of course, is an exclamation of discovery or “I have found it!”  One would expect such an epiphany form a cardinal to be spiritual in nature, but such simplicities should never be expected from Vibert.  In fact, it’s quite clear from the cardinal’s face that he has crystalized some perfidy … either a sneaky way around a problem, or, perhaps, a manner of creating a new problem.  This is not the smiling to the self over a job well done, but a dirty deal just devised, or an argument or position that cannot be countered.  The expression is more Bernie Madoff than Vicar of Christ, and, as such, indicative of Vibert’s subversive humor.

More Vibert tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Canon’s Dinner by Jean Georges Vibert

We return today to master artist Jean Georges Vibert (1840-1902), who created a series of paintings illustrating the hypocrisy and greed of the church.  Vibert specialized in genre scenes that underscored human weakness within the clergy – and while these views were often acidic, they were seldom vitriolic.  These pictures became extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but he won special acclaim in the (then) free-thinking United States.  He was actively collected by both the Astor and Vanderbilt families and today’s picture, The Canon’s Dinner (1875), was sold at auction as recently as November by Sotherby’s.  Obviously Vibert continues to speak to us today.

As Vibert wrote about himself …you can’t deny that the priests who began my education recognized in me elocutionary talents, because they planned to make a preacher of me. Yes; I advise you to speak of the priests! You have profited handsomely by their teachings!  They, at any rate, cannot be ignorant of your lively satire; you have made them feel the point of it enough.  Haven’t you always said that a painter should paint only what he sees?  It is not my fault if I have seen them at such close quarters.

By any critical yardstick, this is a remarkable picture.  Vibert tells the story through meticulous detail mixed with his signature snarky wit.  First off, the canon in the picture is a corpulent man, obviously well-used to his comforts.  Notice how his slippered feet are spread apart, resting on the rail of his table.  His ruddy face is lined but incandescent at the prospect of is good meal.  His plate is not only filled with lobster, but also on the table are two bottles of wine.  The tableware is silver and opulent – this is no simple meal.

Next to the canon is a tray resting on an elaborate table complete with what looks like duck, greens, gravy and perhaps a tureen of soup.  The couch upon which he sits is beautifully upholstered, complete with an ornate overhang.

The room is appointed in luxurious detail.  Note the tapestries that line the wall (delicately rendered by Vibert), along with the frescoes surrounding the door and the lush, Oriental carpet beneath his feet.

Vibert, of course, makes the joke complete with the canon’s companion.  That worthy is dressed in simple robes of black, his slim (and probably underfed) figure upright on a kneeling bench, holy book before him.  He is probably praying on behalf of the canon before he starts his meal, or, also likely, detailing some important part of church doctrine to his superior. 

The differences between the two men could not be more startling: thick and thin, sensual and ascetic, gluttonous and abstemious, worldly and spiritual.  However, the canon, who is clearly more ‘human’ in his enjoyment of the pleasures of the world, is undoubtedly higher in the church hierarchy, a hierarchy that values chastity, poverty, simplicity and self-denial.  Like the canon’s dinner, Vibert’s joke is just too delicious.

One other point – the qualities of such a picture, and its degree of wit, would be lost without the artist’s extraordinary technical ability.  Painted by, say, a Manet or Renior, the picture would merely become a study in colors, or perhaps a look at contrasts.  But appreciating the extreme sensual pleasure and richness of the surroundings is essential to the joke, and that kind of delineation is only possible with an artist gifted at realistic detail.

More Vibert tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Preening Peacock by Jean Georges Vibert

The selection a new Pope is an occasion of great pomp and ceremony – which can also be seen with an awe-stricken eye not unmixed with amusement.  The great solemnity of the time seems to tweak the pawkish humor of many of us, as commentators, historians and artists seek to see the complete, fallible human being behind the exalted figurehead. 

One of the most amusing critics of the church was master painter Jean Georges Vibert (1840-1902), who used his genius to eviscerate church hypocrisy with wit and panache.  His meditations on churchmen demonstrate the growing democratization of Europe, and illustrate the start of a Continental movement away from superstition and servitude.

Like many of the artists we’ve covered in The Jade Sphinx, the young Vibert was a mediocre student.  He spent most of his school time drawing rather than studying; he did know that his ultimate goal was to be an artist, and he began training with his grandfather Jean-Pierre-Marie Jazet, a celebrated engraver.  Later on he would study with Felix Joseph Barrias, and would enter the Ecole des Beaux-Arts when he was 16.  He would study there for six years, working mostly with artist Franciois-Edouard Picot.

In the 1860s, Vibert traveled to Spain with his friend Eduardo Zamacois, a young Spanish artist.  Vibert collected Spanish clothing and objects, which he would later use to create scenery for many of his ecclesiastical paintings.  The two men would work together in 1866 on their Salon entry, Entrance of the Torenros, an unusual move, as most artists did not work collaboratively at that time.

Vibert made his solo debut three years earlier with two works, The Siesta and Repentance.  In 1864, he was awarded a medal for his Narcissus Transformed into a Flower.  It was also around this time that Vibert started painting the clergy in a manner both humorous and contemptuous.

Both the humor and contempt are on display with this wonderful picture, The Preening Peacock.  First, let’s look at all the aspects of the picture that immediately stamp it as a work of great technical skill.  Vibert highlights the figure of the priest by placing him against a neutral background, here muted trees and a nondescript classical stairway and railing.  The neutrality of the background brings to life the vivid hues of the reds and blues of priest and peacock, respectively.  It may also be significant that the trees are wintery and dead and the staircase slightly worn – a symbol, perhaps, of the internal decay of the priestly figure.

The priest is rendered in splendid detail, with each fold and drape of his robes depicted with precise technique.  His medals and ornamentations are richly painted, as are the gold embroidery of his hat band and the shine on his shoes.  Look, too, at the gold tassels dangling from his girdle and the red tassels at the knob of his cane.  Red socks are visible above his highly-polished patent leather pumps, and white ruffles are visible at his cuffs.

But best of all, look at how the priest stands: back up, chin up, chest puffed out.  He is not posing, he is preening.  Vibert then underscores this with the look of smug self-satisfaction on the priest’s face, as well as a certain … vacuity.  His religious fever seems to go no further than fashion.

To make the joke complete, Vibert places a strutting peacock behind the priest.  But who is following who…?  And to illustrate that the priest is not a unique case of silken soft-headedness, there is another peacock in the background.  This priest is one of a flock.

More Vibert tomorrow!