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Archive for the ‘Regency Art’ Category

Inquiring Readers: Who knew? Jane Austen not only viewed works of art when visiting London, in one letter she spoke particularly well of a painting by Benjamin West, a successful American transplant in that city, whose major patron was King George III..

Austen’s Opinion About “Christ Rejected”

During a first visit to her Brother Henry’s new house in Hans Place, Austen wrote a letter to her dear friend Martha Lloyd. Whenever Jane visited London, she attended parties and balls, plays, and concerts. She also went shopping in a major way, and brought a list of items that friends and relatives wanted her to purchase for them. In this letter (109, as listed by Deirdre Le Faye in her Fourth Edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, and dated September 2, 1814) Jane mentions (among many other things) a painting she’d recently viewed.

Benjamin_West_-_Christ_rejected

Jane Austen was taken by the image of Christ in this painting. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

“I have seen West’s famous Painting, & prefer it to anything of the kind I ever saw before. I do not know that it is reckoned superior to his “Healing in the Temple”, but it has gratified me much more, & indeed is the first representation of our Savior which ever at all contented me. His “Rejection by the Elders”, is the subject.–I want to have You & Cassandra see it.”

Jane was writing about “Christ Rejected by the Jews”, now hanging at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1814, when this enormous and complicated painting was exhibited from June to late fall, and when Austen was visiting Henry, it hung in the “former” Royal Academy at 125 Pall Mall. Visitors were given a 3-page description of the work, which was filled with information about each of the characters in the painting. In the past, panoramas, dioramas, and tableaus, like those created by Emma Hamilton, were popular Georgian entertainment. 

Austen mentions that not only did this painting gratify her, but that this was the “first representation of our Savior which ever at all contented me.” She wanted her best friend, Martha, and her beloved sister, Cassandra, to view the painting in person. Ellen Moody in Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two mentions that this was: 

“A highly unusual passage for Jane Austen: she has been talking about what tastes she likes and by association (how the letters proceed) she moves to discourse about solemn religious painting done in the grand historical style. I suggest Martha liked these or mentioned them in her letter. For Jane’s part, in this sort of picture what she likes best is Christ Rejected. Martha seems to have wanted to know if Christ Healing the Sick is considered superior — hinting perhaps that she, Martha, preferred it.”

In fact, Moody states that this is the first time the reader reads explicitly religious language from Austen, when she mentions “Our savior.” Food for thought from a clergyman’s devoted & religious daughter.

Who Was Benjamin West?

Benjamin West hardly raised a blip in my Art History courses, although he was a prominent painter during his life and in Great Britain. His paintings have not stood the test of time, but during his heyday, he was King George III’s favorite historical painter. And, so, when he moved to London in 1763, he established his atelier and metier within 5 years of his move to that great city. King George’s patronage ensured West’s success. He became the second President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London from 1792 until his death in 1820 at 81. His enormous neoclassical paintings do not make my heart soar, although I find his portraits, especially his self-portraits, interesting and masterful. (Hover cursor over the portraits for details.)

Austen’s mention of “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple”

This painting was not Austen’s favorite of the two, however, its immense popularity drew crowds. It has an interesting and convoluted history. From Jane’s excerpt in her letter, she found the latter painting of ‘Christ Rejected” more meaningful. West, however, was so attached to this painting that he created a second version that he donated to a Pennsylvania Hospital.  Interestingly

christ healing

Christ Healing. Small image from Portraits in Revolution

“On its [first] completion in 1811 it was exhibited in London to immense crowds, and was subsequently purchased by the British Institution for 3,000 guineas — the largest sum ever paid for a modern work.”  

And so West painted another version, with an “improved composition”, which he sent to the Pennsylvania Hospital (where it still resides, with this partial  note:

“Mr. West bequeaths the said picture to the Hospital in the joint names of himself and his wife, the late Elizabeth West, as their gratuitous offering and as a humble record of their patriotic affection for the State of Pennsylvania, in which they first inhaled the vital air — thus to perpetuate in her native city of Philadelphia the sacred memory of that amiable lady who was his companion in life for fifty years and three months.

I could not find a public domain, copy right free  image of this painting. This link leads to a high quality image of “Christ Healing the Sick.” and information about the painting.

Conclusion:

Austen’s letters add so much flavor to our knowledge about her life, thoughts, and novels. I highly recommend that all Austen devotees read every letter that has been printed, starting with Deirdre Le Faye’s masterwork, the compilation of Jane Austen’s Letters.

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I find this painting of Queen Hortense under a pergola in Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine-Jean Duclaux arresting on many levels. As a lover of the Regency era, the scene and its occupant are an embodiment of my romantic ideas about the era. I don’t care whether art critics regard the work as great or minor – there’s something about the quality of light (is it sunrise or is it the hour of the golden light – just before sunset?) … the solitary position of the sitter, whose back is turned to us … the beautiful clothes and scenery … the lively dog with a tail that bookends the feathers to the hat at right.

La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux

La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux. Credits © Napoleonmuseum, Thurgau, Switzerland

In 1813 the Napoleonic Wars were still raging on the Continent. British tourism to Europe had halted. Before the wars, the Grand Tour was a requirement for a young heir. Many rich girls and their chaperons also paid homage to France, Greece, and Italy, taking in the culture and fashions and bringing back objects d’art with Neoclassical influences. All of that had halted. Starved of Parisian influence, British fashions had begun to look to English history for influences and British and French fashions had begun to diverge.

This scene is quiet, almost elegiac. I wanted to write about my own response to the painting before looking up any information on it and am glad I did. It seems that just before she sat for this portrait, Queen Hortense, who is Josephine de Beauharnais’s daughter, had just lost her good friend, Adèle de Broc, who had drowned in front of her:

on 10 June, the two ladies went for a stroll near the Grésy waterfall. “I went first, the board was unsteady. I turned around: Good Lord! What a terrible sight! My friend, taken away by the current, had disappeared from view… Her lifeless body was retrieved […] She was no more! What despair! Once again I found myself more alone than ever, without my friend who had helped me through all my hardships!” – Napoleon.org

In an effort to assuage Hortense’s grief, the painter François Fleury Richard was summoned. He arrived with his pupil, Atoine-Jean Duclaux, and while the master sketched the young queen playing music, the student painted the lady from behind. Duclaux had just turned thirty when he painted Hortense. His family had been driven out of Lyonnais during the terror to Burgundy, where the family lived on charity. In his youth he knew terror and the harsh realities of the guillotine. The painter’s early background and his knowledge of Hortense’s grief add to my enjoyment of this painting.

Hortense sits in shadow under a dark and oppressive roof, but she is bathed in golden light – a sign of hope? The little dog is there to comfort her or to draw attention  away from her reverie and sad thoughts. “Here I am,” he seems to say, “notice me. ” Dogs  in art mean fidelity and loyalty. They have also been associated with death and as guardians of the Other World, assuring us safe passage to the other side. Ostrich feathers, while quite a fashionable adornment during this era, are also symbols of truth in Egyptian art. It is interesting to see how the feathers are given the same visual weight as the dog’s tail. reaction to it.

One more thing: Hortense’s pose reminds me of my favorite view of Jane Austen, painted by her sister, Cassandra. It, too, is taken from behind. I love the mystery of both positions.

Jane Austen by Cassandra

Jane Austen by Cassandra

I am curious to know your thoughts about this painting and its many layers of visual enjoyment and interpretation.

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I’ve often wondered what Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra would have looked like as young ladies. This lovely public domain image by Paul Sandby from the Yale Center for British art gives us an idea. In her teens, Jane’s dresses would still have had waists and her hair would have been worn relatively loose and long. I envision the teen on the left with the direct gaze to be Jane – a pretty girl with round cheeks and a twinkle in her eyes, open to life’s possibilities.

 Paul Sandby, 1731-1809, British, The Misses Sandby of Norwich, undated, Graphite and brown wash on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


Paul Sandby, 1731-1809, British, The Misses Sandby of Norwich, undated, Graphite and brown wash on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

About Paul Sandby

Paul Sandby was celebrated in his day. The innovations and subject-matter that he introduced into the practice of watercolour painting in Britain had a profound influence on artists of successive generations, including Thomas Girtin and J.M.W. Turner RA. However, from the mid-nineteenth century, Sandby’s work slipped into obscurity. – Paul Sandby, Picturing Britain

This former map-maker turned watercolor landscape painter became a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768.

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Since the 18th century, satirists have had a fun time mocking dandies. In Hogarth to Cruickshank: social change in graphic satire, 1967, (Walker Publishing)  Mary Dorothy George classified 3 different kinds of print-shop dandies: 1.) the notorious dandy, 2) the effeminate dandy, and 3) dandies who were slavish in their imitation of  Beau Brummel.

Buckskin breeches, clawhammer coat, and riding boots. This ensemble from the Kyoto Costume Institute could well have been worn by Mr. Darcy as he toured the grounds of Pemberley.

I would add to those categories two more distinctions: the powerful dandy and the ridiculous dandy, or one who, from behavior or social standing, is a wholly ridiculous and insignificant creature. The latter exquisites, along with the slavish imitators and effeminate dandies, were fodder for cartoonists, especially Robert and Isaac Cruikshank, who took great glee in lampooning them in a series of hand colored engravings.

This exquisite was a wholly ridiculous creature, a true fashion victim.

According to Jane Rendell in a Pursuit of Pleasure, the word dandy may have originated from “jack-a-dandy”, a Scottish description of a person dressing up at a fair. The word dates back to the late 18th century/early 19th centuries. In the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788, Francis Grose describes the dandy:

Dandy.  That’s the dandy;  i.e. the ton, the clever thing

Dandy.  grey Russet. A dirty brown. His coat’s dandy grey russet the colour of the Devil’s nutting bag.

Dandy. Prat. An insignificant or trifling fellow.

An effeminate dandy required a great deal of care. Cruikshank.

Much later, the word “dandy” is used to describe “Satinist” – Obs. rare”1, [f. Satin sb. + -ist.] A wearer of satin, a dandy. A new English dictionary on historical principles: founded mainly on the materials collected by the Philological Society, Volume 8, Part 2, 1914.

Beau Brummel’s influence in modifying men’s behavior and dress ranged far and wide, influencing the Prince Regent and his set.

Prinny’s set, or the Prince Regent’s friends, consisted of the Earl of Sefton, the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Manners, “Poodle” Bing, and the Duke of Beaufort, serious dandies all. Somber and rich, these men epitomized the powerful, restrained dandy. Image @The Georgian Index

In Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England, Issue 33; Issue 61, Roger Sales identifies Henry Crawford and Tom Bertram of Mansfield Park as dandies: Tom because he is the quintessential Regency sports man, as well as rich and handsome; Henry, because of his mode of address, which shows a haughty attitude towards rural workers, and because he fashions his conversation “into exquisity little mirrors to reflect his own sense of superiority.” Henry makes elegant bows and frequently mocks others. His manners, like Beau Brummel’s, verge frequently on insolence – his stance is one of ennui and superiority at the same time. While Henry is not as handsome as Tom, he commands a room with his personality. I would classify Tom and Henry as notorious dandies, for both pushed the limits of what was considered proper behavior. The more modest Edmund Bertram would never behave like either man.

Hessian boots

John Thorpe of Northanger Abbey belongs in the category of the ridiculous dandy. He drives a gig, but imagines it to rival a phaeton, which is like comparing a toyota corrolla to a sleek jaguar. John uses cant, and one imagines that his clothes are too loud and his shirt points too high.

Great coat with numerous capes, a favorite menswear item described by romance writers.

As for Mr. Darcy, his looks and dress are effortlessly elegant. He doesn’t try to impress; he simply is a superior man. His arrogance, which Elizabeth Bennet found so off putting at first, comes naturally, for he is placed securely high in society. His inheritance and the cares, responsibilities and duties that great wealth bring exemplify the qualities of a gentleman who is a cut above the rest.  Beau Brummel, I imagine, would have found very little fault with Mr. Darcy.

Two dandies by Cruikshank dresssed to the nines. While exquisitely rigged out, they take tea in a mean hovel of a room. Note the ragged curtains and table cloth, the dishes on the floor and the wash hanging on the line overhead.

While the term dandy has come to mean many things, among my favorite cartoons of the Regency era are those that make sport of them. These caricatures must have been popular then, and are irresistible to view now.

A Dandy Fainting, or an Exquisite in Fits, Cruikshank. This scene at a private box at the opera gives one a sense of how similar it is to today’s private boxes at a stadium. Note the table with food and drink; the couch, and the curtain that allowed for privacy.

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I was at the private view of the “Diorama”; it is in part a transparency; the spectator is in a dark chamber, and it is very pleasing, and has great illusion. It is without the pale of art, because its object is deception. The art pleases by reminding, not deceiving. The place was filled with foreigners, and I seemed to be in a cage of magpies. – John Constable.

Ruins of Hollyrood Chapel, one of Daguerre's paintings for an 1824 Paris diorama

Imagine a world without films or television, computers or cell phones. Where transportation was slow and costly, and only the rich could afford to travel out of the country. Then imagine a new cutting edge technology in which lifesized illusions of ancient or distant lands were recreated on large transluscent screens and scenes of beauty or disaster were enhanced with lights that simulated scenes containing fire, the changing seasons, and sunrises and sunsets. Dioramas were a 19th century version of virtual reality – spectacles that both entertained and filled the viewer with wonder. Illusionary, seemingly 3D, and augmented by concealed lights in back of the stage, these entertainments were shown in buildings designed to display them.

Photo shows people watching Daguerre's diorama. Undated illustration. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

In 1822, a mere 5 years after Jane Austen’s death, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, introduced the first Diorama theater in Paris.

Diorama in Paris. Image @Jack and Beverley's Optical Toys

“Daguerre made large paintings of scenes and displayed they in elaborate layered stage settings along with real objects. The theater was equipped with windows and louvers that could be opened and closed to front light and back light the images. This caused transparent areas of the scene to change and new images to appear. Most often these were day to night transformations.” – Jack and Beverley’s Optical Toys

Diorama, Regent's Park

One year after Daguerre’s introduction of this wondrous new entertainment, the first diorama opened up in London in Regent’s Park. (The building still stands, but the interior has been vastly transformed.) The subject matter included landscape scenes of the grand tour, religious stories, recreations of paintings and grand architecture, and historical themes well-known to the public. The images could be made more or less bright according to the mood or atmosphere required by the theme. Props were also added for realism:

Diorama theatre

The visitors, after passing through a gloomy anteroom, were ushered into a circular chamber, apparently quite dark. One or two small shrouded lamps placed on the floor served dimly to light the way to a few descending steps and the voice of an invisible guide gave directions to walk forward. The eye soon became sufficiently accustomed to the darkness to distinguish the objects around and to perceive that there were several persons seated on benches opposite an open space resembling a large window. Through the window was seen the interior of Canterbury Cathedral undergoing partial repair with the figures of two or three workmen resting from their labours. The pillars, the arches, the stone floor and steps, stained with damp, and the planks of wood strewn on the ground, all seemed to stand out in bold relief, so solidly as not to admit a doubt of their substantiality, whilst the floor extended to the distant pillars, temptingly inviting the tread of exploring footsteps. Few could be persuaded that what they saw was a mere painting on a flat surface. The impression was strengthened by perceiving the light and shadows change, as if clouds were passing over the sun, the rays of which occasionally shone through the painted windows, casting coloured shadows on the floor. Then shortly the lightness would disappear and the former gloom again obscure the objects that had been momentarily illumined. The illusion was rendered more perfect by the sensitive condition of the eye in the darkness of the surrounding chamber.” “- The History of the Discovery of Cinematography http://www.precinemahistory.net/1800.htm

Diorama

Dioramas were created for spectacle and entertainment, and one can readily imagine Georgette Heyer’s characters attending these events during the London Season.

The popularity of the dioramas generated a debate over whether their pictures were art. The press discussed them as ‘exhibitions of art.’ But if the dioramas were art, it was a mundane art, and it rarely elevated the viewer’s taste. Indeed, if contemporary reactions are to be believed, the highest artistic achievement the diorama could attain was providing an entertaining substitute for reality. These pleasant but uncomplicated images required little or no preparation for serious thought… – Robert W. Brown.

Diorama diagram. Image @Wikipedia

This first-hand account gives the modern reader a sense of how these 30 – 50 minute light shows seemed to the viewer:

Woodcut of a diorama, day and night scenes.

A bell now rings, we find ourselves in motion; the whole theatre in which we sit, moves round till its wall closes the aperture or stage, and we are in perfect darkness; the bell rings again, a curtain rises, and we are looking on the time-worn towers, transepts, and buttresses of Notre Dame, its rose window on the left, and the water around its base reflecting back the last beams of the setting sun. Gradually these reflections disappear, the warm tints fade from the sky, and arc succeeded by the cool grey hue of twilight, and that again by night—deepening by insensible m degrees till the quay and the surrounding buildings and the water are no longer distinguishable, and Notre Dame itself scarcely reveals to us its outlines against the sky. Before we have long gazed on this scene the moon brgins to emerge slowly—very slowly, from the opposite quarter of the heavens, its first faint rays tempering apparently rather than dispersing the gloom; presently a slight radiance touches the top of one of the pinnacles of the cathedral—and glances as it were athwart the dark breast of the stream; now growing more powerful, the projections of Notre Dame throw their light and fantastic shadows over the left side of the building, until at last, bursting forth in serene unclouded majesty, the whole scene is lit up, except where the vast Cathedral interrupts its beams, on the quay here to the left, and where through the darkness the lamps are now seen, each illumining its allotted space.” – London Volumes 5-6, Edited by Charles Knight, 1843, pp. 284 – 288

Diorama, Edinburgh

By the early half of the 19th century there were five diaromas open in London. They were also popular in other British cities, as well as Breslau, Berlin, Cologne, Stockholm, and the United states. It is interesting to note that the end of the diorama’s popularity coincided with the rise of photography.

The Annual Peeps Diorama competition grows bigger every year: Easter at the National Peeps-thedral

Dioramas have shrunk in size, and today’s viewers know them only as scenes in boxes or bottles, as museum displays, or for competitions, such as the science fair or annual peeps contest.

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