Archive for John Ruskin

Eminent Victorian: William Morris and “The Beauty of Life”

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles, Wallpaper, XC with tags , , , , , on June 11, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

WilliamMorrisOn his first trip to France in 1855, the 21-year-old William Morris wrote to his mother: “I do not hope to be great at all in anything, but perhaps I may reasonably hope to be happy in my work.” This, for me, sums up Morris’ greatness: his prodigious energy, insatiable curiosity and passion had the underpinnings of a tremendous work ethic, moral integrity and true decency. When Morris died in 1896, at the age of 62, his doctor said the cause of death was simply “being William Morris.” And no wonder—Morris was a poet, novelist, bibliophile, translator, embroiderer, calligrapher, engraver, gardener, decorator, dyer, weaver, architectural preservationist and Socialist. He designed furniture, printed and woven textiles, stained glass, tiles, carpets, tapestry, murals, wallpaper, books and type. An early environmentalist, the floral designs for which he is famous were informed by his knowledge of horticulture and inspired in part by medieval tapestries and the many gardens he planted and tended.

WMIrisWilliam Morris, design for Iris, printed cotton, c.1876

WMJasmineWilliam Morris, Jasmine, wallpaper, 1872

In 1847, after an idyllic childhood, Morris was sent away to Marlborough College a few months after the death of his father. He hated the school but loved the surrounding landscape and spent as much time as possible roaming the countryside. While at Marlborough, Morris abandoned his family’s tame Protestantism and embraced the music, ritual and aesthetics of Anglo-Catholicism. When he went up to Oxford in 1853, he intended to devote his life to God, but he soon abandoned the church for art. He always had a taste for things medieval and Gothic—it is said that he read the novels of Walter Scott at age 4. While at Oxford, he was very influenced by the work of John Ruskin, especially his essay “The Nature of Gothic” in his book The Stones of Venice. Oxford was also where he met his life-long friend, the painter Edward Burne-Jones, the son of a gilder from Birmingham who educated Morris about the plight of working-class laborers.

WMEBJEdward Burne-Jones and William Morris, 1890
photo:William Morris Gallery, London

William Morris was a Renaissance man in Victorian times. He is considered to be the founder, along with John Ruskin, of the Arts & Crafts movement. In his lecture, The Beauty of Life, given in 1880, Morris said: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” He despised the aesthetic failings of the machine age and the division of labor that broke down production, from design to execution, into separate tasks. He extolled the joys of handwork and the integrity of creative labor. He wanted to unify art and craftsmanship. He wrote: “If I were to say what is at once the most important production of art and the thing most longed for, I should answer, a beautiful house.”

A William Morris interior was the antithesis of the Victorian aesthetic of overstuffed rooms, draped with endless yards of fabric, filled with memorabilia, potted plants and heaps of mass-produced decorative embellishments.

VictorianroomVictorian drawing Room, Wickham Hall, Kent, 1897

Even though Morris combined densely patterned carpets, upholstery and wallpaper, the designs, influenced by nature but with orderly, flat areas of color and a graceful linear quality, had a clean simplicity and elegance.

KelmscottDrawing Room, Kelmscott Manor

Earlier I mentioned Morris’ decency. He insisted on a pleasant environment for his workers and his workshops were filled with light and air.

MertonAbbeyMerton Abbey, hand-blocking chintz in the print shop

He also believed everyone should have access to beautiful things: “What business have we with art, unless we can all share it?” He was a man who embodied enormous contradictions: an environmentalist who derided industrialization and urbanization, yet spent much of his life working in London; a Socialist who designed luxury goods for the wealthy and predicted the demise of capitalism. This latter conflict, in part, led Morris away from design into activism and book publishing, but not before appointing his disciple, the extremely talented John Henry Dearle, as the chief designer at Morris & Co.

JHDArtichokeJohn Henry Dearle, Artichoke wallpaper, 1899

JHDcherwellJohn Henry Dearle, Cherwell, wall hanging, 1897
Block printed velveteen

Morris devoted the last 10 years of his life to book publishing. Dissatisfied with the state of British publishing, he founded the Kelmscott Press “with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty.” Not surprisingly, it was very important to Morris for his books to have a strong visual element and they were filled with exquisite detail, including illustrations, decorative motifs and printed cloth book covers.

WMbookcoverWilliam Morris, The Roots of the Mountains (London, Chiswick Press, 1890), bound in Honeysuckle printed cotton

WMBookWilliam Morris, for the Kelmscott Press
Proof, title-page, The History of Reynard the Fox, 1893

Even more significant than his own prodigious output is the role Morris played as a catalyst, leaving an enormous legacy to craftsmen, designers, writers, publishers and politicians. He also inspired the founding of many schools and guilds devoted to the Arts & Crafts aesthetic.

CraftsmanThe Craftsman, October 1901
(The first issue, dedicated to William Morris)

William Morris contributed to, and inspired, the renaissance of British craftsmanship which led to an exciting new generation of British textile designers—Dorothy Larcher, Phyllis Barron, Enid Marx among many others. These designers embraced many of Morris’ ideals, but were determined to develop a new, more international aesthetic—experimenting with vegetable dyes, block-printing and traditional hand weaving techniques and taking inspiration from Italian, Scandinavian and Eastern European folk art. Some, inspired by the Bauhaus in Weimar, moved into industrial production.

Dorothy Larcher, Small Feather, block printed linen, 1930sDorothy Larcher, Small Feather, block-printed linen, 1930s

Morris loved beauty and nature but especially delighted in the man made co-existing in harmony with nature—and every beautiful object he created in his intensely productive life was a tribute to that vision.

“My work is the embodiment of dreams in one form or another.” Letter to Cornell Price, Oxford, 1856.

WMsnakesheadWilliam Morris, Snakeshead, printed cotton, 1876

“The Melody of Ineffable Color”: “The Six Projects” of Whistler

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2009 by Liz Hager

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Above left— James McNeill Whistler, Variations in Blue & Green, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery); Above right—James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White & Red,  1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery)

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the personification of contradiction. Born an American, he straddled the French and English artistic traditions. Firmly planted in neither, the artist remained outside the European art scene for much of his lifetime. Although a dedicated and hard-working artist with extraordinarily high standards, Whistler’s reputation as an artistic genius wasn’t secured until the last decade of his life.  While interest in his career waned between the two World Wars, Whistler returned to favor beginning in 1960s. The reopening of the Freer Gallery in 1993 with its some 1700 works helped support new scholarship on the artist. As a result, Whistler’s oeuvre has come to be viewed as a unique bridge between the French stylistic focus on color and form and the English narrative and portrait traditions. For his pursuit of art for art’s sake (i.e. art having no meaning other than the beauty it creates), many consider him a precursor of abstract art. 

For many years the brilliance of Whistler’s work was eclipsed by the achievements of the twin French giants of his time, Manet and Monet, who also concerned themselves with the atmospheric effects created by light.  Additionally, Whistler’s notorious reputation as an egomaniac, dandy, Bohemian, provocateur and instigator of lawsuits interfered with more serious consideration of his work. Finally,  in the face of the pre-Rafaelite rage that swept England in the 1870s, many critics disdained the artist’s work for its lack of social commentary.  (John Ruskin famously pronounced Whistler’s art “unfinished,” “overpriced,” and a “wilfull imposture.” Whistler sued for libel and won.)  

Whistler left American to live in France in 1855 at the age of 21. He moved to London, where in 1863 he discovered the art of Japan, and began zealously collecting all sorts of objects. Within two years he had so integrated Japanese principles of composition—a preference for tonal harmonies and flatness of perspective—into his already delicate, ethereal style that the two were often indistinguishable in his work.

 

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Above left— James McNeill Whistler, The White Symphony, Three Girls, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery); Above right—James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Blue & Pink, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery)

In 1865, when the second Symphony in WhiteThe Little White Girl was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Whistler met Albert Moore, a minor English painter in the romantic pre-Rafaelite style with a preference for classical themes. (Whistler was already “thick as thieves” with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although it doesn’t seem that the latter influenced him stylistically.) Together they explored the ideals of “Art for Art’s sake;” that is to say, they immersed themselves in the decorative to the exclusion of overt narrative and moral content.  As a result, Whistler became one of the most visible members of the Aesthetic Movement

In 1865 Whistler embarked on a commission for his London patron F. R. Leyland. The resulting oil sketches, known as The Six Projects, featured classically-draped women and flowers. They were conceived as preliminary explorations of various color harmony, executed as studies for a series of larger paintings. The influence of Moore can be seen in the sketches; they display a fusion of Whistler’s particular hybrid japonisme style with an entirely different tradition: that of classical Greece.

The Elgin Marbles played a role in Whistler’s execution of the sketches, as did 3rd century BCE Tanagra figurines from Boetia, tombs containing the figures having been discovered in the mid-1860s.  We know from his sketchbooks that the artist preoccupied himself with both the linear and the textural quality of these statues.  Whistler’s handling of paint in The Six Projects references the English watercolorists of the 18th and early 19th centuries— Thomas GainsboroughJohn Robert CozensJohn Warwick Smith and William Blake. By thinning his paints with a mixture of turpentine, linseed oil and copal or mastic resin in the manner of Gainsborough, the artist achieved truly sublime suggestion of form using just the slenderest trace of a gesture with his brush. The thin ribbons of brushstrokes and glaze work brilliantly with the ground wash to create mood and mass. 

Poet Algernon Swinburne wrote this about The Six Projects in his Notes on Some Pictures of 1868

The great picture which Mr. Whistler has now in hand is not yet finished enough for any critical detail to be possible; it shows already promise of a more majestic and excellent beauty of form than his earlier studies, and of the old delicacy and melody of ineffable colour. . . In all of these the main strings touched are certain varying chords of blue and white, not without interludes of the bright and tender tones of floral purple or red. . . They all have immediate beauty, they all give the direct delight of natural things; they seem to have grown as a flower grows, not in any forcing-house of ingenious and laborious cunning. This indeed is in my eyes a special quality of Mr. Whistler’s genius; a freshness and fullness of the loveliest life of things, with a high clear power upon them which seems to educe a picture as the sun does a blossom or fruit. . . 


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Above left— James McNeill Whistler, Venue, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery); Above right—James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Green & Violet, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery)

After 1870, Whistler abandoned the The Six Projects (the commission was never completed) for portraits and night scenes. However, the wash and glazing techniques, as well as attention to decorative design, was to stay with him for the rest of his career. 

Wider Connections

Whistler’s Studio Methods

Soodie Beasley—Harmony in Blue & Gold

Artorg.com—the impact of Asian Art on American Artists (Guggenheim show)

Whistler images

The correspondence of James McNeill Whistler

James Whistler as the Invisible Man


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