Day 683: By a Woman’s Hand: Illustrators of the Golden Age

Cover for By a Woman's HandBy a Woman’s Hand is essentially a picture book for adults. It does not have much in the way of written content, but it has many lovely illustrations.

A short preface tells about the prevalence of woman illustrators toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Then the book provides a very brief, one paragraph or so, biography of about 20 illustrators, surrounded by several pages of their work.

Mother Goose by Clara Burd
Mother Goose by Clara Burd

Although there are lots of chubby children, the illustrations show influences from several different art movements—Art Nouveau, the Pre-Raphaelites, for example. Some of the illustrations are complex and others look almost like paintings. Clara Burd also trained at the Tiffany Studios and designed stained glass windows.

I have been interested in illustrations for children’s books for a long time, although I have not made a study of it. This book is a nice little addition to my collection of children’s books with nice illustrations.

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Day 497: The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination

Cover for The Last Pre-RaphaeliteYears ago in London I was wandering through the Tate with my friends, tired of seemingly endless rooms of Italian Renaissance paintings, when I walked into another room and was simply blown away. The room was full of life-size paintings of stunning beauty, with gemlike colors, exact details of greenery and complex woven fabrics, and narrative depictions from myth and legend. They were by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and they must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Ever since then I have been interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, so when I read a glowing review of The Last Pre-Raphaelite in the New York Times, I tracked it down.

Although all art movements go in and out of fashion, the Pre-Raphaelites seem to come in for more than their fair share of controversy. I have even now picked up art history books that don’t contain a single Pre-Raphaelite picture. Edward Burne-Jones was the youngest of this group of painters, although he was outlived by Holman Hunt. He was also a prolific designer of stained glass windows and even jewelry.

Portrait of Maria Zambaco
Burne-Jones Portrait of Maria Zambaco

MacCarthy’s biography is a fairly exhaustive study of Burne-Jones’ life and works, his marriage and family, life-long association and partnership with William Morris, his mentoring of younger painters and friendships with many important figures in art, literature, and politics and with a string of little girls, and his famous affair with Maria Zambaco. It discusses his association with the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the philosophy of Aesthetics.

Burne-Jones believed strongly that beauty should be available to everyone. Hence, his involvement with William Morris in producing items of home decor, in illustrating manuscripts, and in designing stained glass windows for public venues. In fact, he is closely associated with the revival of the stained glass industry in England.

One surprise of this biography was to find the personality of a puckish jokester underneath Byrne-Jones’ ascetic, attenuated appearance. He continued throughout his life a schoolboy habit of drawing little caricatures of himself and his friends, particularly teasing ones of his good friend Morris. Although generally a moral person, he was understanding of the foibles of others and supportive of his friends, even those of whose habits he did not approve. He was beloved by many.

picture of Burne-Jones The Golden Stairs
Burne-Jones The Golden Stairs

I was interested throughout this book, even though much of it had to do with Burne-Jones’ struggles to finish work. He apparently had far more ideas than he could ever accomplish and was always working on many projects at the same time. The book is full of beautiful photographs of his art—although unfortunately most of them are too small to see the details—as well as of himself, his family and friends, residences, etc. The interiors of rooms are stunning examples of the Arts and Crafts movement.

A small quibble is the epilogue, which is concerned with the revival of interest in Burne-Jones. It is interesting up to a point, where it seems to be attempting to trace of ownership of every single work. Still, this is a fascinating biography.

Day 222: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

Cover for The Hare with Amber EyesBest Book of the Week!

In 1994, the world-class ceramics artist Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 netsuke from his great uncle Ignace (Iggie). De Waal decided to trace the history of the netsuke from the time they came into his family, and in doing so, to trace the history of the family itself and the times they lived in. The result is a fascinating combination of memoir, history, art history, and collection of musings on related topics, The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Charles Ephrussi originally purchased the netsuke in Paris during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Ephrussis were at that time a wealthy family of bankers, originally from Odessa, who in previous generations had expanded their offices to Vienna and from there to Paris. Charles Ephrussi was not a banker but a noted art collector and critic, friend of Impressionists such as Degas and Manet, and one of the two models Proust used for his character Charles Swann.

De Waal attempts to understand Charles through an examination of his writings and possessions and through events in his time, particularly the effect of the Dreyfuss case on antisemitism in France. Charles’s work in art was an important part of his life, and in this section of the book I was struck by the connection de Waal makes between Japonisme–the interest in and collection of Japanese artifacts, with their focus on nature and everyday life–and the rise of Impressionism, which was considered revolutionary partly because of its focus on nature and everyday life instead of “noble” subject matter such as historical scenes or stories from the Bible or mythology.

In 1899, Charles sent the netsuke to Vienna as a wedding present for his younger cousin Viktor Ephrussi, de Waal’s great grandfather and eventual head of the Ephrussi bank in Vienna. De Waal traced what he could of the life of Viktor and his family, this story culminating shortly after the dual terrors of the Anschluss and Kristalnacht. During this time, everything that this branch of the family owned was confiscated by the Gestapo. In these pages of the book, de Waal does a better job of conveying the fears and anxieties of those times than any of the recent books I have read.

De Waal’s grandmother Elisabeth recovered the netsuke after the war. How they returned to the family is an incredible story that I will not reveal. Shortly after she returned to England with them, where some of the family had made their home, they traveled to post-war Japan with de Waal’s great uncle Iggie.

I have just supplied the barest outline of the fate of the netsuke, which provides a focus for de Waal’s investigations and musings, but the family’s story and the story of their times is fascinating and imaginatively reconstructed. The book is at once a meditation on and enthralling depiction of the life and times of an extraordinary family.

Day 123: The Judgment of Paris

Cover for The Judgment of ParisThe Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism is Ross King’s account of the art and politics of the decade beginning in 1863 and ending in 1874 with the first Impressionist show. The book follows the lives and careers of several significant French artists in the years leading up to the introduction of what was eventually called “Impressionism.”

At that time in France, artists were taught that the proper subjects for art were scenes from history, mythology, or the Bible. The “best” paintings observed the minutest of details, colors were muted, and the surface of the painting was smooth so that brush marks could not be distinguished.

Although the book touches upon the careers of many artists, in particular it follows the fortunes of two–Ernest Meissonier, who was considered one of the greatest artists of his time and was certainly the highest paid, and Edouard Manet, an unofficial representative for the younger painters. Meissonier progressed from painting small, very detailed scenes from the 17th or 18th Century of “goodfellows” in ordinary domestic scenes, such as playing chess or smoking, to huge  historical paintings, several of events in Napoleon’s career. The younger painters were more interested in depicting scenes from modern life. At that time they were called Realists, not for their painting style but for their subject matter.

The book begins with the preparations for the Paris Salon of 1863. The Salon was the most important art show of its time, almost essential to getting an artist’s work viewed. King explains how changes in the rules affecting how the jury was selected resulted in most of the landscape painters and those with less traditional approaches being shut out of the show. So many artists were excluded and the outcry was so great that Emperor Louis-Napoleon authorized a second exhibition called the Salon des Refusés to show the paintings refused by the jury. Ross continues on from there to show how the new art moved slowly from the scorn and derision of the artistic community to acceptance and admiration. I was particularly surprised to find that the first place this new way of looking at the world was accepted was not France, but the United States.

King’s explication of the prejudices and politics surrounding the evolution of new approaches to painting is extremely interesting, as is his corollary discussion of the reign of Napoleon III, the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, and the subsequent shifts in the government of France, and how all this had its effect on the acceptance of the new art.