Category Archives: 19th century

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-93

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-93. The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection

By elevating the point of view and catching performer May Milton as she surges past, Toulouse-Lautrec captures the unsteady excitement of a late night at the Moulin Rouge.

And unlike the paparazzi shots which litter today’s gossip pages, looking at this work leads to a feeling of inclusion. Perhaps that’s also thanks to the intoxicating shades of green.

When an art scene becomes synoymous with a nightclub, it generally reminds you just how exclusive both worlds can be. But this painting is like slipping through a post and rope barrier.

The short figure right opposite is the artist himself. Maybe that’s the price of admission, to recognise that the post-impressionist is at the centre of this work, and the centre of the world.

Never mind his achievement in painting. Just consider the disabled artist’s achievement in gaining acceptance with the beautiful people of Paris 1892, despite his ailments and appearance.

But even an artist in the right place at the right time and in the right clothes must remain something of an outsider. Hence the painting’s newly arrived viewpoint.

His depiction at the centre of a world famous club is also self-conscious. Toulouse-Lautrec is watching himself on a night out: a modern malaise he might just have invented.

This work can be seen in the UK until September 18 2011 at the Courtauld Institute, London. See gallery website for more info on their fantastic show about Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril.

Thanks for @FisunGuner for recommending this show. Her brilliant review on the arts desk will tell you more, and my own review of the entire show can be found on Culture24.

Review: Christen Købke – Danish Master of Light

Christen Købke (1810–1848), View from Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake Looking towards Nørrebro, 1838, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen© SMK Foto

Exhibition: Christen Købke – Danish Master of Light, The National Gallery, London, until June 13 2010

This is an exhibition in which each painting’s title is as precise as the brushwork. View of a Street in Østerbro Outside Copenhagen, on the Right ‘Rosendal’, in the Background ‘Petersberg’ is a case in point.

The picture itself has the gloss and attention to detail of a still from a period drama. It is a leisurely street scene revealing Denmark to be a place of harmony and plenty. Yet the realities at time of painting, during the first half of the 19th century, were social unrest and economic collapse

As in much of the work of Christen Købke a soft light picks out detail which may or may not be authentic. In Frederiksborg Castle, View Near the Møntbro Bridge, he has no qualms about airbrushing a too-modern 18th century staircase out of the scene.

Elsewhere in Portrait of Naval Lieutenant D. Christian Schifter Feilberg he includes a small window, but the finicky touch appears reflected in the end of an epaulette.

There can be no doubt, Købke was an idealist. Recent history, such as the Napoleonic Wars, may have ravaged his homeland but he responds with landscapes and portraits of meticulous calm and a warm, often rosy light.

The only hint of trouble is found in his bold compositions. The Danish painter crops buildings and goes with unusual perspectives.

In Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle with a View of Lake, Town and Forest it is the sky which fills most of the canvas. But Købke’s skies, whether blank, white and eternal, or filled with solid, static clouds also belie the passing of time.

Meanwhile, he paints the national flag, in View from Dosseringen Near the Sortedam Lake Looking Towards Nørrebro, with too much slow care for it to flutter.

But this was in one sense Denmark’s Golden Age. The arts were thriving. Both Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen were then writing. These were the good times which Købke’s aspic-like pictures did so well to preserve.

Written for Culture24.

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters at the Royal Academy

Still-life around a Plate of Onions: Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

Self Portrait as an Artist by Van Gogh is a defining image of the modern artist. The blue smock and bright palette are shorthand for genius. The red beard hints at the wildness we expect from this self-destructive master.

But alongside this painting, the Royal Academy offers us Van Gogh in context as a hard-working technician, a deep thinker and a gifted writer, with a lot more to him than the stunt with the ear might suggest. 

This is thanks to more than 900 surviving letters, about 40 of which have made it into the brilliant show. Letter 400 contains another self-portrait of sorts. An ink sketch shows a dark figure straining at the horizon, dragging a gridded plough.

The artist must go about his work, he writes, “with a conviction that one is doing something reasonable, like the peasant guiding his plough or like our friend in the scratch who is doing his harrowing.” 

Throughout his life, Van Gogh used letters to plough ahead with his art. Struggles with perspective, ideas about colour and a love of Japanese art are all worked through in neat handwriting.

His methodical approach is not unlike the farmwork or weaving he observed during formative years in Etten in the Netherlands. He drew peasants for a while to the exclusion of all other subjects When friends criticized a major painting, he responded by stepping up his efforts to capture rural folk. 

At that time, drawing was not so far removed from the soil. Landscape Near Montmajour would have been made using pens cut from reeds. The range of strokes is breathtaking. No wonder he writes in praise of the reed quality near Arles in the South of France.

This is where he painted so many landscapes that would later dazzle the world. Yet Wheatfield With Reaper at Sunrise, Enclosed Field With Peasant and Wheatfields With Reaper all feature a lone, possibly self-referential worker out in the fields. 

Six volumes of published letters have inspired The Real Van Gogh and many different versions of the artist will emerge. Terminals in the reading room link to the excellent website, where you can harvest quotes on any theme you like.

“One must work as hard and with as few pretentions as a peasant if one wants to last,” contends Letter 823. With this book and show, Van Gogh’s popularity can only grow.

Written for Culture24.

Darwin at The Fitzwilliam Museum

Published on Culture 24

Endless Forms: Darwin – Natural Science and the Visual Arts, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until October 4 2009

An 1838 print from The Penny Magazine shows us Jenny, sitting on a chair, wearing children’s clothes, holding a ball. It’s remarkable, because this little lady was a captive Orangutan. Jenny was one of the first apes to appear in London, dead or alive.

It was the same year Charles Darwin first sketched his famous evolutionary tree in a notebook and added the words, “I think.” Apes weren’t only a bit like children – they were also our ancestors. It was an imaginative leap that would compound the public’s fascination for monkeykind.

There was, of course, some horror. Our new relatives were traditionally viewed as clever but sadistic animals. The Cat’s Paw, by Sir Edwin Landseer, depicts a monkey enlisting an unlucky cat to extract chestnuts from a fire.

But looking more closely, artists soon picked up on more innocent qualities. An 1852 watercolour by Joseph Wolf shows a young chimpanzee who could almost be one of the family. Darwin must have been impressed, since he later employed Wolf to help him prove that some simians actually smile.

This is just a fraction of what can be gathered at a brilliant exhibition to celebrate 200 years since the birth of Darwin. It clearly demonstrates that geology, paleontology, natural selection and anthropology have inspired a good share of 19th and early 20th century art, and it documents the crucial role illustrators and artists played in the development of evolutionary theory.

There are a smattering of masterpieces on display, including Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Degas. This bronze sculpture caused uproar at the time, when critics compared the subject to an animal. They may have been missing the point, because Darwin’s theories on our kinship with beasts were a direct influence.

Other big names include Turner, Cézanne and Monet, but of equal prominence here are some lesser-known figures who would barely register in a history of art. John Gould, who was both ornithologist and illustrator, accompanied Darwin on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands, and was the first to recognise the differing species of Finch and Mockingbird.

It was to prove a vital discovery to science and, ultimately, of no less importance to art.