Category Archives: Artists

Some Danish Moms for Mother’s Day

It’s Mother’s Day in the USA, and I’m thinking of a portrait I admired last winter in Copenhagen’s National Gallery. It’s “At the French Windows, the Artist’s Wife.” Lauritz Anderson Ring painted it in 1897. This portrait must have given some people pause. Even in Denmark, this was the Victorian era.

Here’s the whole painting. Putting the belly of an obviously pregnant woman front and center was a bit daring. But the artist had just married Sigrid Kahler in 1896. He was in love! And he was a freethinker, moving away from sentimental and constraining views of women (paraphrasing the gallery’s caption, which, thankfully, is in English as well as Danish).

Even earlier, in 1884, Michael Ancher painted “Portrait of My Wife.” It’s just across the park in the small but perfect Hirschsprung Gallery.

His wife, Anna Ancher, was a renowned artist herself. She painted ordinary interior scenes with extraordinary subtle colors, like “The Girl in the Kitchen” above, 1881-1884. It’s also in the Hirschsprung Gallery. Anna refused to give up her painting after her marriage, but she clearly loved and valued the small humble tasks raising a family. I’m sure Anna spent plenty of time on housekeeping herself, but I’m glad she didn’t put away her paintbrush just because she had children.

And rounding out my Danish salute to motherhood, here’s “Mother and Child,” 1860, by the Danish painter Constantin Hansen, also in the Hirschsprung.

Here’s to mothers everywhere!

Monet’s Garden in Giverny

Claude Monet was not always the rich and famous inventor of “Impressionism.” In fact, “Impressionism” was not always a revered art movement, or a way to sell countless silk scarves and coffee mugs. In 1872, the 32-year-old artist exhibited a painting titled “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, rising sun”) which was ridiculed for being a mere Impression, not a real painting. But he persevered.

In 1876 Monet’s young wife Camille became ill with tuberculosis, common in those days. She was weakened further after giving birth to two children. She died at age 32 in 1879, apparently from uterine cancer on top of everything else. She never saw the gardens at Giverny; they did not exist in her lifetime.

In 1876, Monet and Camille had been invited to the chateau of businessman/collector Ernest Hoschedé, where they met Edouard Manet and other artists. His wife, Alice, became a good friend to the young couple. Then disaster struck. Hoschedé went bankrupt, abandoned his family, and fled to Belgium in 1877. Alice began caring for Monet’s two children, along with her own six children. She and Claude decided to join forces and bring up their children together. Neither of them had much money, and there were years of hardship.

They were finally able to marry in 1892, once Alice’s estranged husband died.

After all their troubles, it seems they happily raised their large family and grew old together. In their house, I loved this photo of the two of them feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

But during their years of poverty and somewhat scandalous living arrangements, the couple lived in rented houses which Monet hated. In 1883, he caught a glimpse of Giverny from a train window. He rented the existing house and began cultivating a garden.

His painting career was taking off during these years. Soon he was able to buy the house. He and Alice entertained all the important artists and writers of their time. Today, reproductions of the paintings of Monet and his friends are informally displayed on shelves, as the originals were in his lifetime.

Monet added various rooms to the house. His own sunny corner bedroom featured some of his favorite paintings, now replaced by reproductions.

He especially liked Renoir’s serenely sunbathing lady. So do I.

I imagine there must have been a kitchen garden in Monet’s time. The blue-and-white-tiled kitchen was large and equipped to serve a big family and plenty of guests.

If I could choose one time and place to time-travel to dinner, it might be to the cheerful yellow dining room at Giverny.

As in Monet’s time, the house is full of the Japanese prints that he and so many other artists had begun to collect. Japanese art, which had only recently become widely available outside Japan, strongly influenced all the artists of the time.

As his garden grew and thrived, Monet always had something beautiful to paint close at hand.

Above is a detail from “The Garden at Giverny,” 1900, now in the Orsay Museum in Paris.

Eventually Monet was able to buy adjoining property with a stream. He created his famous lily pond with its Japanese bridge.

Alice died in 1911. Monet lived and painted his beloved garden right up until his death in 1926, at the age of 86.

Is Monet’s home crowded and touristy? Oh, yes. I’ve seen it several times over the years, and the crowds get worse every year. The gardens are large enough to absorb quite a few people, but the house must get unbearably packed. I think the house should have timed entries.

On a weekday morning in late April, I arrived early and there were plenty of people. By the time I left at noon, the line to get in stretched at least a full city block. If I encountered a line like this, I would leave for awhile and come back in late afternoon. The light would be better anyway, and the tour buses would have left.

Still, there’s magic to be found in Monet’s gardens, in any season. I’d cheerfully go again tomorrow–but I’d arrive even earlier.

Easter in Copenhagen: Church-Lady Angels, A Sunburned Gardener, and Thermal Onesies

Last winter in Copenhagen, I admired a very unusual Easter-themed painting in the Hirschsprung Gallery. Joakim Skovgaard painted it as an altarpiece in 1890. The title is translated as “Christ Welcomes the Penitent Thief into Paradise.”

In the Biblical account, one of the thieves executed with Christ admitted his sins, repented, and begged desperately for help. Christ promised him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” I’ve never seen this event depicted anywhere else, maybe because I’m not Catholic. I understand the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of this man, now called St. Dimas, around Easter time. I think his feast day is March 25.

I admire the gentle realism of the painting, along with the liberal use of gold leaf. Three angels with gold haloes AND rose wreaths stand ready with new clothes and a pitcher of water. They look like very earthly angels, wearing pretty Scandinavian jackets and embroidered dresses. Their wings are barely visible; these angels could easily pass for kindly church ladies. (They’ve probably also made a nice casserole and some lemon bars for their newest guest).

Above are some actual church ladies, for comparison. They were helping people at the Christmas bazaar at the Swedish Church in Copenhagen this past November. I have a high opinion of angels as well as helpful church ladies in pretty Scandinavian outfits.

Paradise has a thick wall with guard towers and a narrow door.

An angel with a flaming sword guards the door. I especially like this angel’s gold armor and comfy gold sandals.

So which side of the wall is Paradise? At first I thought the angel with the flaming sword was “inside.” But that side of the wall drops off sharply into nothingness. The flaming-sword angel perches on some kind of pillar beside the door, looking off into the nothingness in case anyone else approaches. I think Christ has already ushered the thief through the door and on into Paradise, which looks a lot like rural Denmark in springtime. Or maybe it looks like the Garden of Eden. But I don’t want to overthink the theology here, not that I know enough theology to overthink it. I just like the painting.

Religiously themed art is not very common outside of churches in Scandinavia. And the churches tend to be austere. This altarpiece must have been a real center of attention and worship. I’d like to have seen it in the church it was painted for.

For those who celebrate Easter more as the beginning of spring, here’s another Hirschsprung Gallery painting from the same time period. Fritz Syberg painted “Spring” in 1891-93.

A sturdy fellow in wooden clogs cheerfully rakes the bare soil. It looks like he’s been at it long enough to get a bit of sunburn.

Neighbors stroll and gaze off into the distance under flowering fruit trees. They look glad to be outside. Winters are long and hard in Scandinavia. But spring finally comes.

In nearby Tivoli Park last December, thousands of hyacinths were featured in the Christmas flowerbeds–a real novelty in the long winter. (Temperatures were around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, almost the same day and night. I wondered if the plants were dug up and put to bed in a greenhouse while the park was closed at night).

It wasn’t cold enough to snow in early December. The dusting of pretend snow on the hyacinths must have been sprinkled by human hands.

We were lucky enough to also be in Copenhagen last April (we liked it so much we went back in December). Even in spring, we bundled up in layers of sweaters and raincoats.

Actually, I think it was colder in April than in December. I was wishing I had a parka, or better yet, a onesie snowsuit like the ones all the kids wear.

Chilly or not, I’m sure the Tivoli flower beds are overflowing again this spring with tulips and daffodils. I’d like to be there again.

Happy Easter and happy spring!

Kelmscott Manor: William Morris’s Dream House

In honor of the artist/writer/social activist/all-around creative genius William Morris’s birthday on March 24 of 1834, I’m remembering a visit to his home. He had a dream house: a house that actually appeared in his dreams. One day in 1871, he found the actual house, exactly as he had dreamed it, and immediately rented it for himself, his wife and two young children. The house, begun around 1594 and added to over the years, was Kelmscott Manor in farming country in Oxfordshire.

Morris was 37 years old, at the height of his very great powers. Frederick Hollyer photographed him later, in 1899, Public Domain.

He was not making a lot of money, though. So he shared the tenancy of Kelmscott with his close friend, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He’s above, painted by George Frederic Watts, 1871, Public Domain.

In 1861, Rossetti had become a founding partner in Morris’s design firm, along with Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Charles Faulkner, Peter Paul Marshall, and Edward Burne-Jones.

The house today is a picture of long-ago domestic bliss. Above is a wall hanging which Jane and William embroidered together, early in their marriage. In reaction to the beginning of the Industrial Age and the rise of capitalism, Morris and his friends looked back at an idealized Medieval Age, when life was simpler and beautiful things were hand-crafted. Morris adapted the design from one he found in a 14th-century French manuscript.

William’s overcoat hangs ready for a ramble on country lanes, soaking up the nature that inspired him.

It hangs next to a handpainted medieval-style settle, with a tall curved hood as a shelter from drafts. The settle was designed by Philip Webb, the architect and designer whose work included the country house Standen.

William Morris had met his future wife, 18-year-old Jane Burden, in Oxford. Her photo is by John Robert Parsons, 1865, Public Domain. Rossetti posed her for this photograph. Morris and his friends were mesmerized by Jane’s ethereal beauty and she immediately became their model and muse. Jane had grown up poor and uneducated. William Morris arranged a whirlwind education for her, which she thrived on. Before long, she could hold her own with the most sophisticated of Morris’s friends, and she was perfectly at home in society. They married in 1859.

Does this story sound familiar? Many people think Jane was the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.”

The playwright was a friend and frequent visitor to the Morris family.

The illustration above shows Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle, 1913, Public Domain. The play became the source for the Broadway musical and movie “My Fair Lady.” Six degrees of Victorian separation!

Later, Jane admitted that she always liked Morris, but never actually loved him. This spelled trouble. No sooner had Morris settled his family in the house than he set off on an extended trip to Iceland to study the hero sagas.

He wrote and illustrated several books about Icelandic folklore over a period of two years, during which Jane was involved with Rossetti in the home they all shared.

According to a Kelmscott guidebook, Morris was being a gentleman by going off to Iceland: making himself scarce so that the relationship between Jane and his friend could run its course (which it did). In “Water Willow,” 1871, Rossetti painted Jane with the nearby Thames tributary, the boathouse, Kelmscott Manor and the village church in the background. The painting still hangs in the house; it was Jane’s favorite.

Rossetti was a bit of a ladies’ man, and Jane was irresistible. He painted her many times, before, during, and even after their liaison. The portrait above is “The Blue Silk Dress,” 1868. It still hangs in the house.

“Proserpine,” 1874, hangs in the Tate Britain gallery in London, Public Domain.

In spite of the turmoil in their love lives, the Morris family had many happy years in the house, and eventually Morris’s daughter May was able to buy it.

The house had cozy rooms for entertaining friends.

Naturally, the house was decorated with the designs of Morris and his friends.

The early designs were actually printed by hand on fabrics. Above are some of the original blocks used for printing. Some designs took a dozen or more different blocks.

The attics of the house, once the sleeping quarters for farm servants, were left plain, whitewashed, the sturdy beams exposed, with minimal furniture.

Morris loved the “medieval” look of the attics. He wrote, “I have spent, I know, a vast amount of time designing furniture and wallpaper, carpets and curtains…but I would prefer, for my part, to live with the plainest whitewashed walls and wooden chairs and tables.” (I’m not so sure I believe that, but it’s a nice thought, in keeping with Morris’s concern for working people and his longing for a simple life).

The garden was as important to Morris as the house.

It was never a manicured garden, but it was beautiful in all seasons. I saw it in spring, with tulips and bluebells.

William Morris lived in other houses during his lifetime, but Kelmscott was always his dream home.

The nearby village church, St. George’s, was begun in Norman times, in the eleventh century, with additions up to around 1430 but very minimal changes after that. When he lived at Kelmscott, William Morris founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to protect just such buildings from over-enthusiastic Victorian “restorations.” After his death in 1896, William Morris was buried in the peaceful churchyard near his beloved Kelmscott.

Happy Birthday, dear William!

Swan Maidens at Oslo City Hall

I was just planning on a quick walk-through of the building, which honestly is not to my taste. But the courtyard has sixteen large wood reliefs, each about eight feet tall, by Dagfinn Werenskiold. They portray Norse myths from the 13th century. He had me at the Swan Maidens. Legend has it that three Valkyries appeared on a beach one day in the form of swans. They turned into beautiful women, married three brothers who happened along and couldn’t believe their good fortune, and stayed fourteen years. Then they flew away. I don’t know the end of the story, but the Valkyries are beings that fly over battlefields, deciding who will live and who will die. Did the brothers later fight in battle and get saved? Or had they maybe left the toilet seat up one time too many? The answers are lost in the mists of time.

The Oslo City Hall replaced a slum in the middle of the city, directly on the Oslo Fjord. The exterior style is listed as “Functionalism,” which sums it up. The architects were Arnstein Arbeberg and Magnus Poulsson. It was partially built by 1939, but then World War II intervened and it was finally completed in 1950. The spectacular interior more than makes up for the so-so exterior.

Inside, the grand rooms were decorated by the finest Norwegian artists, chosen by competition. The details above are from Henrik Sorenson’s huge mural “The Nation at Work and Play.”

It dominates the Main Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year.

The rear wall features a mural by Alf Rolfson.

I like the “smaller” rooms even better. The Festival Gallery has windows looking out over the fjord, and a beamed and painted ceiling. Of course there are Viking motifs, like this creature inset in the marble floor.

Axel Revold covered the end wall with a mural depicting the long, narrow country of Norway from north to south.

Aage Storstein, a young up-and-coming artist, painted the West Gallery with images of freedom and democracy. I don’t really understand the history or the politics, but a captive princess and a bear depict the centuries that Norway was in union with Denmark (not exactly willingly, it seems).

My favorite room is a smallish one, the East Gallery. Per Krogh considered it his masterpiece.

The beehive represents city life and the rosebush country life.

He painted an uprooted tree as a rose window.

So much for a quick walk-by of a boring city building. I wandered in the Oslo City Hall for a long time. Outside, I admired Dagfinn Werenskiold’s wooden carvings again. How about Odin on his eight-legged horse Sleipner?

Or ponder “Embla,” an elm tree turned into the first human woman in a Nordic creation story.

Her partner was Ask, a man created from an ash tree.

I was so inspired by Norse mythology that when I recently had an art-class assignment to do a painting that tells a story, I tried my own Swan Maidens. They’re creepily faceless right now while I work out how to do noses and eyes and chins and mouths. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy my Nordic memories.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Happy and Hopeful 2018 to All

Carefree children dancing: a nice image for the New Year.

These large relief panels by Luca della Robbia were commissioned in 1431 for the organ loft in Florence’s Cathedral.

I’d never get near the organ loft, so I’m glad somebody made the decision to install them in the newly-renovated Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, just across the street.

There are ten of them, with the overall title “Cantoria.” They’re designed to reflect the joy of music, and they make me think of the joy of new beginnings.

In our world, of course, being a child is not all sweetness and light. It never was.

I loved this very large painting by the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1880. He was not as well known as other French painters, but he was a leader in the developing Naturalist school, where the point was to see the world as it really was. He influenced later painters like Claude Monet. This painting is in the wonderful French collection in Copenhagen’s Glyptotec.

The title is “The Beggar.” In it, an elderly beggar dressed in rags turns away from a doorway. Did he receive something in his bag? Maybe, but nothing that would change his life. The woman in the background is already occupied with something else, finished with the encounter one way or the other. But the little girl in the blue dress would like to do more for him. Her face registers shock and profound sorrow and reluctance to see the old man leave. She hasn’t yet learned any of the rationalizations adults use when we turn away from someone else’s suffering.

I hang out with kids every chance I get. I love their energy and open minds. I don’t want them sitting quietly in rows–I want them up and moving and laughing.

I’m often “the teacher” and therefore the one presumably imparting wisdom. But children are the ones with wisdom. Kids are the true Superheroes who ALWAYS come out in favor of honesty, fairness, generosity, and including everybody. And they always manage to create their own fun, no matter how intent the adults are on a serious lesson. They’re our future.

I think a good beginning for 2018 would be to talk to our children about what they’d like for our world, and then follow their lead. What if we put them in charge for awhile? Happy and hopeful New Year!

Child Portraits in Copenhagen

I love portraits of children. One of my favorites was in an exhibit in Frederiksborg Castle outside Copenhagen. A child with a chicken: “Noa,” 2012. She’s the daughter of the Danish artist Dennis Mogelgaard. The chicken looks a lot more confident and happy about posing than the child does. I’m thinking that as far as the child was concerned, the chicken was a non-negotiable part of the deal with her dad.

C. W. Eckersberg painted his daughter, Emilie, shortly after the death of her mother. She’s in black, but there are no other reminders of grief. Her rosy cheeks and brave smile are an affirmation of ongoing life, but I wouldn’t know that without the museum’s commentary. In this portrait, I can see echoes of my Scandinavian ancestors who made their way to Minnesota: face adversity with a smile, and don’t let anyone know what is really going on inside you. (This is both the good part and the bad part of a Midwestern Scandinavian upbringing).

In Rosenborg Castle, I liked a series of portraits of the young prince who grew up to be King Frederik VII.

I privately liked him much better as a child than as an imposing king.

His famous ancestor, King Christian IV, is featured in a delightfully sober childhood portrait in the castle. (Christian deserves at least one post all his own).

This portrait, in Frederiksborg Castle, shows three royal children in exile in Germany, in 1526. They were the children of King Christian II, exiled mainly because their parents were followers of the upstart Martin Luther. Their mother died in exile. The artist, Jan Mabuse Gossaert, was probably commissioned to paint the children to show that they were still promising marriage material for European royal houses elsewhere. Aside from being royal pawns, these were real children with real names: Christine, Dorothea, and Hans.

Jens Juhl painted “A Running Boy” in 1802. He looks wistful, not really intent on getting anywhere. He’s caught in action at the Danish National Gallery, frozen in time.

Paul Gaugin, “Two Children, 1889, in the Glyptotek. (All of the photos in this post are mine, taken of the paintings in close-up. They don’t really do the paintings justice, but at least they remind me of what I found compelling).

This is an early portrait by Claude Monet, “The Artist’s Son,” 1868, in the Glyptotek.

Christen Dalsgaard, 1870, “A Convalescent,” in the Glyptotek. I think the blossoms she is holding have a sad connotation, especially the one that’s fallen from her hand. Children very often died from common childhood illnesses–and still do, when they live in poverty anywhere in the world.

A happier image is this painting by Peter Hansen, “Playing Children, Enghave Square,” 1908, in the National Gallery.

The joyful faces remind me that as much as I love art, it’s time to get outside into the streets and squares of beautiful Copenhagen.

Children are playing out there! And because they’re fortunate enough to live in beautiful Copenhagen, they’re surrounded by art.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!