31 July 2010

Demimonde: The Courtesan and Kagema in Art

In the nineteenth century the term Demimonde referred to a group of women who were on the fringe of society. The word meaning half world described the courtesans of wealthy men. Tuscan Virginia Oldoini, Countess di Castiglione (1837-1899) was the mistress of Napoleon III. She is also remembered for her contribution to the early history of photography. French photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson (1822-1913) created 700 photos of the Countess at her direction including what were then risqué images of her naked legs and feet. Another Italian courtesan Veronica Franco (1546–1591), was a poet known for her artistic and intellectual abilities as well as the nature of her profession. She had many important consorts including Henry III of France. Franco is shown in a portrait by Venetian painter Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). Young men were also the subject of wealthy older men's attention. In Japan Kagema were passed off as Kabuki apprentices. They were often depicted in shunga art as in Kitagawa Utamaro's (1753-1806) polychrome print, A male escort charms a client with agreeable conversation.

24 July 2010

Jack and Jill: King Gylfi and King Charles

Dear fellow-artist, why so free

With every sort of company,

With every Jack and Jill?

Choose your companions from the best;

Who draws a bucket with the rest

Soon topples down the hill.

William Butler Yeats

The nursery rhyme Jack and Jill as depicted by American illustrator William Wallace Denslow (1856 -1915) may have its origins in Norse mythology. Hjúki and Bil are a brother and sister who fetch water from a well called Byrgir. The pair are taken from earth to the the moon by the lunar god, Máni where they can be seen as craters. This creation story was retold in Gylfaginning by Icelandic poet, mythologer and historian, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). In the illustration from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript, King Gylfi displays his knowledge of the legend to the three kings, High, Just-as-High, and Third. Another theory behind the nursery rhyme is that it referred to King Charles I of England's (1600-1649) taxation of liquids. A Jack being a 1/2 pint and a Gill signifying a 1/4 pint. This was one of the many occasions where the king tried to obtain royal revenue against the wishes of parliament. His portrait as Prince of Wales by English portrait miniature painter Isaac Oliver (1565 -1617) shows a young man unaware that he would one day lose both his crown and his head.

20 July 2010

Beauty and the Beast: The Art of Adrienne Ségur

Recently the enchanting blog, Babylon Baroque posted the author's favorite set of books from his childhood. He recalled how My Book House provided solace and that the illustrations by American Donn P. Crane still delight him. Like the mysterious Crane, little is known about French illustrator Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981). The daughter of French writer Nicolas Ségur and Greek mother Kakia Anastase Diomede Kyriakos, she married Egyptian poet and thinker, Munir Hafez (1911-1998). Despite this cosmopolitan background, the beautiful artist chose to surround herself with unpretentious animals as companions. These beasts inspired many of her illustrations of the 1950's and 60's. Ségur is especially remembered for her renderings of fairy tales including The Snow Queen and Other Stories, The Fairy Tale Book, Hans Christian Anderson the Red Shoes and My Big Book of Cat Stories. Like Crane her works continue to delight the eyes of the one time children who first viewed them.

15 July 2010

The Emperor's New Clothes: Courtiers, Favorites and Les Mignons

The fairy tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805 -1875) tells the story of a vain ruler. Two tailors promise him garments so rare and beautiful that only the enlightened can see them. The men are tricksters who manipulate the emperor’s vanity leaving him naked. He and his fawning court pretend to see the invisible robes rather than be viewed as obtuse. It is through the purity of a child’s vision that the truth is told. Opportunists seeking favors have long surrounded the powerful. Henry III of France (1551-1589), called chers yeux by his mother, insulated himself with a group of favorites known as Les Mignons. These young men received gifts by ingratiating themselves with the king; property, titles, jewels and the right to wear royal colors. Henry is shown wearing a Polish hat in a portrait painted in the manner of Etienne Dumonstier (1540-1603). Persian artist Mirza Abol-Hassan Khan (1814-1866) depicts the young Naser o-Din Shah being engulfed by his courtiers. The illustration from the Emperor’s New Clothes is by Irish artist Harry Clarke (1889–1931). Camel Productions' documentary on Clarke, Darkness in Light tells the story of a man who never compromised art or truth despite conflicts with a powerful State and Church.

03 July 2010

Happy Independence Day: Celebrating American Portraiture

With the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 came the necessity to create a visual history for the new country. John Singleton Copley (1738 -1815) was an Irish-American painter whose portraits of prominent members of Colonial America and an embryonic nation were done in the Grand Manner style of Britain. His painting of Bostonian Nicolas Boylston shows the wealthy merchant wearing a silk damask banyan or robe and negligé cap instead of a wig reflecting the taste in Orientalism. Ironically American painter John Singer Sargent (1856 -1925) was born in Florence, Italy to expatriate Americans and did not come to the United States until he was twenty. His work reflects his exposure to continental European art and his subjects were not only from society but also the art world and everyday life. His portrait of Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi portrays the French surgeon in a blood red dressing gown against a crimson background. Robert Henri (1865 -1929) was a member of New York's Ashcan School, a realistic art movement of the early twentieth century. His life size painting Ruth St. Denis in the Peacock Dance captures the American modern dance pioneer and her interest in exotic mysticism.