Archive for Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A Whistler Caprice at the Freer

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on February 1, 2009 by Liz Hager


James McNeil Whistler, Caprice in Purple & Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, oil on panel. (Freer Gallery, Washington DC, photo ©Liz Hager)

For those with art on their minds, one of Washington’s most welcomed amenities is its many free museums.  And yet, despite the crowds in town for the Inauguration, the Freer Gallery was inexplicably empty during the morning after the big event.  Could everyone have bolted for home so quickly? Whatever the reason, it was a lucky break for this visitor, who had rooms of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Islamic and American art mostly to herself.  

The gallery was founded by Charles Lang Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit, who gave to the people of the United States his collections, as well as the funds for a building to house them.  When the gallery opened to the public in 1923, it was the first Smithsonian museum for fine arts. 

The museum houses a sturdy collection of unique Islamic ceramics and Buddhist sculptures from India and China. In addition, the Cizhou ware from the Song Dynasty period is absolutely exquisite. (Chinese ceramicists perfected the use of a deep black glaze that looks stunning on the pristine white-fired clay.) But the Freer is perhaps best known today for is its ample collection of Whistlers; at nearly 1300 pieces, it must be the most extensive in the world. Further, on permanent display at the Freer is what must surely be Whistler’s most opulent and controversial work—“Peacock Room.”  Originally commissioned  by shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland as his London dining room, the entire room was acquired by Freer in 1904 and installed in the Gallery after his death in 1919. (You cannot imagine how luscious that deep turquoise is.)

The juxtaposition of Asian and American art at the Freer is due largely to James McNeil Whistler (1834–1903). Freer began collecting art in the 1880s. He met Whistler in 1890 in London, and Whistler actually persuaded him to collect Asian art.  By the time they met, the influence of Japanese prints and Chinese ceramics was well-established in the artist’s work. Thus, many of the works here carry the telltale signs of Asian influences, either through inclusion of accessories from Whistler’s own extensive collection of Asian art or as compositional principles gleaned from the Ukiyo-e prints. By the late 1860s Japanese prints were well known in London, although by that time Whistler had already amassed a significant array of imported Japanese textiles, fans, lacquer, screens, and woodblock prints, all purchased from a Paris shop on the Rue de Rivoli.  

In Caprice in Purple and Gold, Whistler’s mistress, Jo Hifferman is seen surrounded by exotic and expensive things, all arranged artfully to show off their (and her) beauty.  It is even possible to recognize prints from Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodcut series Sixty-Odd Famous Places of Japan.

Whistler began to design the frames for his pictures around 1865, and he was influenced in this endeavor in part by his Chelsea neighbor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Some saw this as part of his eccentricity; others applauded him for retaining total artistic control. The frame here is of Whistler’s own design; it displays Japanese kimono motifs along its rails and stiles. In its corners are paulownia (princesstree) leaves.

After 1870 Whistler abandoned his ladies in kimonos. However, the  stylistic influences on these earlier experiments did not disappear; they became more thoroughly assimilated into his major preoccupation of this decade—the Nocturnes

Wider Connections

Freer House Detroit

Freer & Whistler

Whistler’s portrait of Freer

More on the Peacock Room

Alice of the Pure Unclouded Brow

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2008 by Liz Hager

Charles Dodgson, Alice Liddell

Charles Dodgson, Alice Lydell, 1859;

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898 ) was a prominent member of Victorian society, who possessed a ministry degree and a lectureship in mathematics at Oxford.  He was described by many as a natural storyteller; from a young age, he wrote poetry and short stories. Long before he published  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll, however, Dodgson had taken up photography as a serious hobby. From 1856 to 1880, he created something on the order of 3000 studio and landscape photographs (although less than a third have survived). In his 20s, Dodgson developed a close and lasting relationship with members of the pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Alice Liddell as AletheaJulia Morgan, Alice-as-Alethea, 1872

(Both above) Julia Margaret Cameron, Alice Liddell as Alethea, ca. 1872

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was born in India, educated in France and married to a jurist 20 years her senior. They lived in India until 1848, when Charles Hay Cameron retired, at which time they moved to London.  In 1863, when she was 40, Cameron’s daughter gave her a camera, thus facilitating the birth of her career as a photographer, predominantly of portraits (eminent and ordinary Victorians) and allegorical tableaux. She was greatly influenced by the pre-Raphaelites—the romanticized themes of her allegories are plucked pretty directly from Rossetti et al.’s playbook.   Many of their circle sat for her, including Dodgson. Cameron was more interested in evoking an emotional aura than in photographic accuracy, and this resulted in deliberately gauzy, out-of-focus images. Diaries record that Dodgson wasn’t so keen on her technique. He thought she was sloppy.

Alice Liddell (Lydell) brought them together, at least briefly, artistically. Alice Liddell was one of eight children of Dr. Henry Liddell and the middle of three daughters. In 1856 Liddell assumed his position as the new Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and it was soon after that the family became acquainted with Charles Dodgson. He began taking the older children on afternoon boating excursions, during which he’d relate fanciful stories to pass the time.  Alice joined the outings slightly later. It was on one such outing with Alice and her sisters in 1862 that Dodgson related the tale which would later become his most famous book.

About this time Dodgson began using Alice regularly as a portrait subject for his photographs. Dodgson made hundreds of works featuring young girls, a lot of them nude. There have been ample rumors and refutations that Dodgson was a pedophile and assertions that these portraits constitute pornography.  From the sweet fetching expression Dodgson coaxed out of little Alice, you can certainly imagine how fond he was of her; you might be inclined to believe he was in love with her.   (Was this the look that inspired the opening lines of poetry— “Child with a pure unclouded brow and dreaming eyes of wonder!”— in Through the Looking Glass?). That fetching look would make an older Alice the perfect pre-Raphaelite model for Cameron’s later photographic allegory of Alethea, Greek goddess of truth. It’s a beautiful, haunting picture.

Is there truth in the rumors? Go ask Alice.

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