Thursday 7 June 2012

Sarah Biffen (1784 - 1850)

Sarah Biffen  Engraving of self portrait

Sarah Biffen was a Victorian Artist who Dickens included amongst the characters in Nicholas Nickleby, Little Dorrit and Martian Chuzzlewit. Sarah was born in the Somerset village of East Quantoxhead in 1784. She was a remarkable person who overcame enormous obstacles to become an artist. She was born without arms and only vestigial legs, so as an adult she was only 37 inches tall!
By the age of twelve she had learnt to read and use her mouth to hold a pen to write. She had also learnt to embroider using her teeth to work the needle.
By the age of 15 she was part of a traveling fair and it is said that the owner of the  sideshow in which she appeared Emmanuel Dukes taught her to paint. This was to enhance her as an attraction that people would pay to see at work.
1812 Broadside

Sarah later in her life insisted that she had been treated with kindness by the Dukes and certainly they provided her with a means of making her own living. During St. Bartholomew’s Fair in 1808, the Earl of Morton came to see the painting ‘Limbless Wonder’ and was genuinely surprised by how talented the girl was.
Sarah Biffen miniature self portrait 

The Earl was so impressed that he sponsored Sarah and paid for lessons from Royal Academy painter, William Craig. With support from the Earl Sarah became a painter of miniature portraits with a studio in London. During this time she was awarded a medal from the Royal Society of Arts and five of her paintings were accepted by the Royal Academy.
Portrait of a Lady

The Royal Family commissioned a series of miniatures from her including one of Edward, Duke of Kent, painted by Sarah in 1839 and purchased by the Duke's daughter, Queen Victoria. It is now part of the Royal Collection.
Miniature Watercolour  on Ivory

Queen Victoria awarded her a Civil List pension and she retired to Liverpool were she continued to paint, this is a portrait of James West captain of the “Atlantic” which carried mail between New York and Liverpool.
Captain James West 1844

Sarah Biffen died October 2, 1850 at the age of 66. She is buried in St James Cemetery in Liverpool.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Frank Duveneck (1848 – 1919)

Click on any of these images to see larger versions.
Frank Duveneck

Following on from Tai-Shan Schierenberg and his compelling brush work is another master and virtuoso with the brush Frank Duveneck who was a celebrated American artist in his day but has now dropped into obscurity.
Venetian Fruit Market

This study of heads and hands done in 1879 is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum the city were he taught.

The following details illustrates his brushwork well, we can see how he painted across the form rather than with it as I tend to do.

Also worth noting is his use of saturated and desaturated colours.

Most of his paintings tended to be low key with a close value range.

Keeping it simple and not fussing is one lesson from these paintings.

Although he could do the more refined painting popular during his time.
Girl with Rake

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Tai-Shan Schierenberg.

Another contemporary portrait painter I admire is Tai-Shan Schierenberg who’s work I first saw in the National Portrait Gallery London.

Seamus Heaney 2004

This Portrait of Seamus Heaney the poet gives the impression of being large, although it is only about three foot square, it’s absolutely stunning in life, something that really does not come over well in a photo. The brushwork is very bold and distinctive, using very large brushes. The smallest brush used is about a half inch wide and that is only used for painting in the eyes. The brush used on the jacket is an inch and a half wide, all the brushwork is very decisive using thick paint with a stroke layed and left alone. The shifts in colour and value are very subtle, see how he has indicated the glasses by painting the eyes below the glass with lighter and desaturated colour.

Here is closeups from a self portrait.
Self portrait detail 2003

The Emigre 2003

Tai-Shan Schierenberg went to art collage in the 1980's and found himself swimming against the prevailing current of the time, but soon established himself by wining first prize in the 1989 BP Portrait Award.
He has also won the 2011 Ondaatje Prize for Portraiture.
He is now an Hon Member of the Royal Society of Portrait painters.
Important Sitters include, Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, John Mortimer, Seamus Heaney, Lord Sainsbury, Lord Carrington, Duke of Devonshire, Duchess of Westminster and Professor Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking

Natalia Phillips Duchess of Westminster

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Another artists obsession?

Not sure what happened but I seem to have inadvertently deleted this post along with the comments before I could reply to them sorry for that.
At various times John Singer Sargent’s relationship with Madame Gautreau has been portrayed as an obsession but it can as easily be seen as an ambitious artist looking for a subject that would enhance his reputation.
Madame Virginie Amelie Gautreau was the toast of Paris at the time and other artists also wanted to paint this beautiful socialite. Originally from New Orleans she was from a wealthy French Creole family, her father Anatole Placide Avegno was an oficer in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War; he was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and later died of his wounds in 1862.
Her mother also Virginie brought Amelie to Paris in 1867 at the age of eight. By the time Amelie was 19 she had married the French banker Pierre Gautreau.

Like Mary Robinson and Emma Hamilton who I wrote about before she relied on her Beauty to boost her esteem in society. Unlike the previous two she had an ambitious mother who managed her campaign.
Sargent by 1882 was well established and accepted by the Salon with successful works such as El Jaleo.

El Jaleo 1882
 Sargent never chose the traditional subjects of academic painting for example classical mythological nudes, biblical or historical epics. Nether did he chose the subjects from contemporary Parisian life that fascinated the Impressionist, he did not paint prostitutes, barmaids, ballet girls or the French bourgeoisie.
In these early days Sargent did not want to be known as a portraitist, however portraits paid and he had to make a living. He was determined to become a successful artist and be accepted by the same upperclass Paris society that Amelie moved in.

Dr Pozzi at Home 1881
 Dr Pozzi was a distinguished Paris Physician and the reputed lover of Madame Gautreau so Sargent probably first encountered her while painting the Pozzi portrait.
Having decided that Madame Gautreau would make a suitable subject he had to persuade her that he was the man for the job! Ben del Castillo and Madame Allouard-Jouan were both friends of Sargent and Amelie so were asked to be intermediaries and put in a good word for Sargent. Amelie had already turned down other artists who had approached her with the same proposal. Dr Pozzi had been pleased with his portrait and that probably helped, so in 1883 Amelie consented to Sargent’s request.
The rather long planing stages then began during which Sargent selected the gown he wished her to pose in, a dress by Felix Paussineau.

This was a very important painting for Sargent so the numerous quick studies were part of trying to get to know the model and work out what he was going to do with the final portrait.

Sargent was very frustrated by the laziness and willfulness of Amelie who he could never get to sit for him with all the distractions of Paris life.

Eventually he had to wait until she moved to Brittany for the summer to start further studies for the painting.

He eventually chose a standing pose which was finished during that summer in Brittany.
Back in Paris it would seem that Sargent was unsure of the painting and started a second version for the Salon that was never finished. Carolus Duran saw the original and assured Sargent that the first was fine and he should show it.

Unfinished copy

The painting as shown at the 1884 Salon with the fallen strap
 The intention had been to consolidate his position as a society painter, but the reality resulted in a serious scandal. The reason for the uproar was that it was to close to the truth and showed Madame Gautreau as the Professional Beauty who had used her wiles to cross the Class Boundaries of Paris society. Amelie never fully recovered from the clamour and Sargent left Paris for London under a cloud. The painting was kept by Sargent and displayed first in his Paris and then his London studio.

By the time Amelie died in 1915 Sargent was unassailably established as a eminent artist and the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York was pleased to buy the painting when he offered it to them in 1916.

Madam X

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Keeping oil paint usable for the Pochade Box.

This is an update on the Pochade Box I made last year and how I keep paint on the palette.

The box after six months use
So far I haven’t found any reason to make modifications to the box apart from drilling four small holes, one in each corner to let the rain out!

One thing I have made is a second palette. I can now have two palettes set with paint.

Usually one for landscapes and one for portraits I like to experiment with different colour palettes. I designed the box with a slide out palette, so as soon as I finish painting for the day I put the palette in the freezer.
That way the paint stays usable for days, and with some pigments for weeks. Oil paint dries by a chemical reaction, the oil oxidizes, that is it reacts with oxygen in the air which causes it to polymerise. This reaction can be slowed down by cooling the paint.

I’ve made a wooden block with two groves in it to keep the two palettes separated.

First palette set in the block

The two palettes showing the separation
They then get put into a plastic bag before going in the freezer.

Ready for the freezer

Getting ready for spring.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Artists Obsessions.

For this post I decided to explore artists obsessions with their muses starting with the eighteenth century portrait painter George Romney.

Self Portrait  painted in 1784 when Romney was fifty.
I thought this would be a short post but having done some reading it looks like being a long one. So first a bit of background on Romney who was born at Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire, in 1734.
He was one of eleven children, his father was a man of many occupations farmer, builder, cabinet-maker, and dealer and not very prosperous in any of them. By the time Romney was eleven years old he was helping his father in the workshop, during this time he drew portraits of the other workmen and people. He also became a skilled woodworker and was able to make violins (which he played throughout his life).  When he was twenty he made the acquaintance of a vagabond artist named Christopher Steele, who journeyed from place to place producing portraits, I wonder if there is still an opening for that sort of Itinerant!
In 1755 Romney became his pupil and was taken with him on his travels. In the following year Romney fell ill with a fever and was nursed by his landlady's daughter, a domestic servant named Mary Abbott, and being a romantic youth Romney married this girl in the first burst of his gratitude. Steele meanwhile had settled at York, and summoned Romney to join him there as soon as he was well enough, and since he was not earning enough to keep a wife, Mrs. Romney had to go back to service when her husband rejoined the man he was apprenticed to.
There was little that Steele, a mediocre artist and a loose liver, could teach Romney, and their association was more profitable to Steel than to him. After a year or two in bondage at York, Romney managed to purchase his freedom, and he then made a home for his wife at Kendal. With this town as his headquarters, he rambled about the Lake Country painting heads at two guineas each and small full-lengths at six guineas, till in 1762 he had at last managed to save a hundred pounds.
Romney was now twenty-eight, and he felt that if ever he was to make his fortune by his art he must seek it in London. So giving £70 to his wife, with the remaining £30 he came to the capital, where he at once competed for a prize offered by the Society of Arts for an historical picture on " The Death of Wolfe."

Study for The Death of General Wolfe 1763
Romney was at first awarded a prize of fifty guineas for his version of this theme, but later the judges reversed their verdict and awarded the fifty guineas to John Hamilton Mortimer, a young friend of Joshua Reynolds, and gave Romney only a consolation prize of 25 guineas though the painting was immediately sold for a further twenty-five guineas to a banker who gave it to the governor of Bengal, the painting was sent out to India and is now lost. Romney, not unnaturally, believed this reversal of the first judgment to be the result of favouritism, and to the end of his life he thought that it had been brought about by Reynolds, who had been actuated by fear of a rival. In 1766 Romney again gained a premium for his " Death of King Edward " from the Society of Arts, to which he was now admitted a member, and from then on he exhibited regularly at the Society's exhibitions, but always held aloof from the Academy. In 1767 he paid a visit to his wife and two daughters at Kendal, and returning alone to London soon established himself in public favour, and in the early 'seventies he was making over a thousand a year by his profession. He thought the time had now come when he should visit Italy, and in March 1773 he set off for that country in the company of fellow artist, Ozias Humphrey (1742-1810), who afterwards became a famous miniature-painter. In Rome, Romney separated himself from his colleague and traveller and led a hermit's life, shunning the society of his compatriots, and giving his whole time to work and study. In 1775 he made his way back to England via Venice and Parma, studying with advantage the work of Correggio in the latter city, and reaching London in the month of July. Greatly improved now in his colouring and confident in his increased knowledge and power, Romney boldly took the house and studio of Francis Cotes, R.A., who had been one of the leaders of the older portrait painters, at 32 Cavendish Square, and there seriously entered into competition with Reynolds. Gainsborough, did not come to London till 1779, so that Romney, though younger was the first formidable rival that Reynolds had to endure. Charging fifteen guineas for a head life-size, Romney soon found himself surrounded by sitters, and Reynolds was alarmed at the way in which his practice for a time was diminished by the painter to whom he contemptuously referred as " the man in Cavendish Square." Later Romney had so many commissions that he was able to put up his prices to eighty guineas for the full-length portraits. When Reynolds died he left a fortune of £80,000 earned by his brush, and though Romney was not successful to this extent he made a good living, his income in the year 1785 being £3635.
But Romney was never a mere money-grubber, and when at the age of forty-eight he first met his most famous sitter, the dazzlingly beautiful Emma Lyon, who changed her name to Emma Hart. She is of cause better known to history as Lady Hamilton, he was so fascinated by her extraordinary personality, that time after time he refused all kinds of wealthy sitters in order that he might continue uninterruptedly to paint the lovely Emma. In 1782 the future Lady Hamilton was a mere girl of twenty or twenty-one, living under the protection of Charles Greville, who four years later—when he was in money difficulties—heartlessly handed her over to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who treated her more kindly and honourably. For five years Romney painted this fascinating Woman continually in a variety of characters.

Emma Hart as Ariadne 1785

Emma Hart as the Spinner

Emma Hamilton as the Magdalen.
 Though gossip soon busied itself making scandal out of their relations, there is no evidence that the painter's affection for her was anything but platonic. Of his many paintings of her one of the most charming is this one.

Lady Hamilton " in the National Portrait Gallery.
George Romney’s portraits have a very feminine quality which gives an extraordinary pathos, to his paintings of frail women. There is a paternal tenderness rather than the passion of a lover in his paintings of Emma Hamilton.

Emma Hamilton
 Emma Lyon at one time worked at the Drury Lane theatre in Covent Garden, as maid to various actresses, among them Mary Robinson  another famous beauty known as " Perdita."

“Perdita” Mary Robinson
 Romney's beautiful portrait of Mary Robinson was done while this gifted actress was under the protection of the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV. But that royal rascal soon tired of her, and at the age of twenty-four she had already been abandoned by " the first gentleman in Europe." When he sent her away the Prince gave her a bond for £20,000 ; but he never paid it, and " Perdita " Robinson died in 1800, poor and paralysed.

Nobody has yet discovered who was the original of Romney's characteristically charming " The Parson's Daughter," but we may imagine that this beautiful Woman, with a gentle melancholy behind her smile, was also one of the frail sisterhood to which both Lady Hamilton and Mrs. Robinson belonged.

The Parsons Daughter
 Though he never brought his wife and family to London  he supported them in comfort, and when after years of hard work in London his health broke down, he went back to his wife at Kendal. She received him without reproaches, and under her affectionate care the tired, worn-out genius " sank gently into second childhood and the grave." He died at Kendal on November 15, 1802.
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