There is something to be said about the swiftness in which trends affect the culture of everything—political unrest, as we saw in the last art analyzation brought artists together in a common theme. The stylized commentary made upon the state of the world around us is not unique to art, it is especially not unique to art from the ages preceding us, but it is perhaps a little bit easier to find the common themes when it is something that we are not currently living through ourselves. Not to mention that modern art, while still subject to trends, such as digital art over traditional mediums, but the themes and trends are possibly more difficult to identify.
Impressionism began in the late 1800s and this art movement centered primarily around Parisian painters of the time; the rebellion against the classical subject matter resulted in an embrace of modernity, as well as a mutual desire to express, on canvas, the world that they saw around them.
Prisoners Exercising (1890)
Vincent Willem van Gogh
Influences upon Van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-Impressionist painter, born in Zundert, Netherlands on March 30, 1853; all of his work is notable for its beauty, emotion, and color—and yet, he remained poor and virtually unknown throughout his entire life while struggling with mental illness in a time when mental illness was considered a taboo.
Prisoners Exercising (1890), oil on canvas, was one of the later works of Van Gogh, painted in February almost a year after he had voluntarily entered Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence along with his caregiver. While his stay at the hospital wasn’t so awful, given that he had access to two cells, one of which he used as his studio, and that he was even allowed to paint during his stay as it was. The hospital’s garden became the main subject of his drawings and paintings at the time, with a record of several of his studies on the hospital’s interiors we have a collection of them which are lovingly referred to as the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy period.
Van Gogh’s life is something that people often look at with deep sorrow, his life was very rarely enjoyable for him, after all—but Van Gogh was hardly a stranger to severe depression and he knew his mind served to do him an injustice. He makes this clear through both the ecstatic nature of the bright colors, but also the cold, callous, and lonely nature that penetrated others—including the work that I have shared with you above. Within the span of his time at Saint-Paul, he came upon an engraving by Gustave Doré, at which time, Van Gogh was inspired to paint it in his own style.
It is to say that this painting clearly mirrored Van Gogh’s state of mind as he died only a few short months later after leaving the asylum.
The Element of Color
Van Gogh, as an impressionist constructed form completely out of color, by etching depth into the canvas, by building upon tones to allude to shadows or highlights. In Prisoners Exercising we can see how the architecture benefits from this technique, with the colors of the palette fade as the scene, as the courtyard stretches farther back.
Where Van Gogh accomplished form with color, Doré accomplished form with the element of the line—it is interesting to examine the creative differences between artists when they do variations on the same image.
Color, in Prisoners Exercising plays an incredibly important role in regards to mood, then again that is a common theme in all of Van Gogh’s work. As a result, just by analyzing the color palette of a painting by this artist, you can tell what kind of mood he himself was in when he painted it, or the mood of the scene that was set in front of him.
For this particular painting, the blues and browns, and greens give us the sensation of complete and utter sorrow, as the prisoners follow in rounds upon the courtyard as the only means to get any exercise at all.
As we can observe from the muddy tones that Van Gogh utilized in this painting, we can see that for him there was no “silver lining” to the clouds that engulfed him, there is no luminescence here to suggest anything bright or happy is on the horizon.
The grouping of darker colors on the ground creates the illusion of secondary shadow, as the main light source is represented by the lighter blues and tans to show the sun bouncing off of the roof surrounding the courtyard, then to darker blues as it bounces upon the prisoners and then finally finishes upon the ground in the darkest tones.
The Element of Line
This painting, like much of Van Gogh’s work, is expressive with the element of lines—in fact, Van Gogh’s work is almost entirely made of linework—this is not to create shapes so much as express the energy of a scene that he’s created.
Thick, straight, and short lines create the stone masonry of the courtyard’s ground angled in a fashion to create distance and length.
The style that Van Gogh used in all of his works was heavy and thick oil being built up upon the canvas. He achieved his unique look by painting almost exclusively in lines, which created not only a physical texture but in some cases a texture for the surface in the painting. As an example, the masonry upon the ground has the illusion of being ridged with lines turned in different directions to allude to patterned stonework.
Thoughts on Prisoners Exercising…
I must admit that Vincent van Gogh is my absolute favorite painter, but surprisingly even to myself, Impressionism isn’t exactly my favorite style of art. I can certainly appreciate work like Monet’s and of course, I love all of Van Gogh’s work, but Impressionism, in general, is not a style that I feel I can identify with on a personal level. I would, however, proudly display any of Van Gogh’s pieces in my home—his work is beyond unique and although there will be mimicry of his style, no one will ever be able to capture the same type of mood and emotion within the confines of a Van Gogh canvas.
I think that to pay too close attention to how his life turned out, is to acknowledge too closely the menace of poor mental health. I myself have struggled with depression since I was a precocious eight-year-old, so I feel as if I can understand Van Gogh on such a level as to feel his own personal pain and incredibly loneliness throughout his life.
And with that I leave you with a quote from this tortured soul…
What am I in the eyes of most people—a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person—somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then—even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony, and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.Vincent Willem van Gogh in a letter to Theo van Gogh July 21, 1882
Evening Song (1893)
Sir George Clausen
The movement may have begun in France, Impressionism took root among a small group of creatives across the Channel—these creatives, however, never bonded together as one group, instead, they simply considered themselves as being artists who rebelled against the academic teaching of London’s Royal Academy. According to British Impressionism specialist Lindberg, these artists filled the gap between Victorian and Modernist styles within Britain—they were considered a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy Victorian-era drawing-room.
Clausen was born in London and was the son of a decorative artist—he worked under several successful artists and surely pulled much of his inspiration as an artist from his years observing the work of others. During the summer of 1893, Sir George Clausen painted Evening Song, just a year after moving from London to Essex countryside—oil on canvas, once it was exhibited in the Royal Academy many remarked upon the pastel palette and soft light that resembled the works of Monet and Renoir—the vibrant emotion that presents itself within Clausen’s work is the product of the elements of color.
As the girl lays upon the grass, we see evidence that she has rolled around, flattening the blades of grass and creating the illusion of having been there for a while—there is just such a simple message being conveyed with this painting
The Element of Color
The construction of the forms within Clausen’s Evening Song come together through flecks of color that flow seamlessly, so much so that they appear as unfaltering brush strokes.
The dark greens abut against the lighter yellowish greens which form the shadows within the grass. The peaches evolve into the vibrant and joyful pinks of the girl’s cheeks.
The main color of this piece is a soft pastel yellow, present in the haystacks in the distance, as well as the field in which the girl is laying. Yellow is representative of joy and friendship, which is something that comes across quite clearly within this artwork.
Greens appear abundantly within Evening Song, supporting the theme of nature, growth, safety, health, and tranquility.
The representation of innocence and purity comes through with the white and pink colors of the girl’s dress. As she holds a white and red-orange flower, which furthers the narrative of her youthful innocence and energetic demeanor.
She thrusts her arm into the air to display these flowers, as if in celebration and joyful expression for a day well spent.
Thoughts on Evening Song…
Just like Van Gogh’s work, Clausen’s Evening Song is a clear expression of human emotion—where Van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising displays the very lowest lows of depression and self-pity, Clausen’s piece displays a bright and joyful love for life through a child’s eyes. Impressionism has never been my utmost favorite style of art, however, so this isn’t exactly something I would seek to display in my home. I do think it’s a lovely expression of human emotion and it washed over me as a viewer, with a relaxing nostalgia of my own childhood.
While the Impressionist style certainly didn’t avoid the female form, there wasn’t quite as much regard for it as there was in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which was dedicated to representing it in such a way as to glorify it as if all subjects were goddesses in their own right. In fact, there was a specific look to the women depicted as a result; a typically tall, slender, and brunette lady with pale skin and rosy cheeks—with an ethereal glow to her skin and surrounded by a fairly natural element, in combination with some type of intricate details on fabrics or within the architecture. Despite sometimes being depicted as nude, these women were portrayed with an essence of innocence, purity, and elegance.
Lady Godiva (1897)
The Truth Behind the Legend of Lady Godiva
Lady Godiva is quite a large legend within the history of Coventry, England and has been since the early eleventh century—this story, now nearly a millennium since its origin, was first recorded in Latin by two monks of St. Albans Abbey. It’s believed that these monks heard this story while travelling to the capital, so not only did it travel wide throughout the land, it has also been a tale that has stood the test of time.
This historical event arose from what might have otherwise been a normal day, when Lady Godiva is reported to have ridden a horse, while completely naked, through the streets of Coventry on Market Day. Such a strange occurrence, especially for the time, but what really made it such a widely talked about event was truly why she did it at all. She was the wife of Lord Leofric, who ruled over the region and established an incredibly oppressive tax from the citizens of Coventry. Godiva pleaded for her husband to lift these taxes from the shoulders of their citizens, to which Leofric apparently responded, “You will have to ride naked through Coventry before I change my ways.”
Well that was truly not enough for Godiva to relent on her stance of helping the impoverished people o Coventry, so before Market Day, she requested that everyone stay inside of their homes in an effort to preserve her modesty—according to legend, her hair was long enough to cover nearly her entire body and she thusly began riding through Coventry upon her horse. One man of course, decided to disobey her instructions—a man historically known as Peeping Tom (fun fact, that’s the origin of using the term “Peeping Tom,” to indicate a voyeur)—who couldn’t help but spy upon Godiva as she made her way through the town. Legend has it, that was instantly blinded when he laid his eyes upon the nude Godiva.
Now, while that last part isn’t necessarily true, Lady Godiva was an actual figure within history, she’s said to have died somewhere between 1066 and 1086; although there is some doubt that the entire legend is true, considering the first written record of it came about one hundred years after her death and was recorded by a monk who was known to stretch the truth within his writings. The character of Peeping Tom was then added during the sixteenth century, and later a depiction of Lady Godiva riding her horse, as well as Peeping Tom were added to the town’s clock tower as a symbol of Coventry’s history.
Collier and other depictions of Godiva
Lady Godiva (1897) is possibly Collier’s most famous painting with the strange and bright quality of the subject matter—but he is somehow able to depict Godiva as a determined, innocent, but not humiliated form riding through the town with a purpose.
Collier certainly wasn’t the first, nor was he the last to depict Lady Godiva within the artwork—in fact, the first known piece that depicts Lady Godiva was painted in 1586 by Flemish painter Adam van Noort. Today, Godiva is even represented by the Godiva Chocolatier, which was originally founded in Brussels—an interesting turn from a commentary on social reform to a commentary on the culture of sugar, sweets, and chocolate.
by Alfred Lord Tennyson
I waited for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,
To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city’s ancient legend into this:
Not only we, the latest seed of Time,
New men, that in the flying of a wheel
Cry down the past, not only we, that prate
Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,
And loathed to see them overtax’d; but she
Did more, and underwent, and overcame,
The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled
In Coventry: for when he laid a tax
Upon his town, and all the mothers brought
Their children, clamoring, “If we pay, we starve!”
She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode
About the hall, among his dogs, alone,
His beard a foot before him and his hair
A yard behind. She told him of their tears,
And pray’d him, “If they pay this tax, they starve.”
Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,
“You would not let your little finger ache
For such as these?” — “But I would die,” said she.
He laugh’d, and swore by Peter and by Paul;
Then fillip’d at the diamond in her ear;
“Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!” — “Alas!” she said,
“But prove me what I would not do.”
And from a heart as rough as Esau’s hand,
He answer’d, “Ride you naked thro’ the town,
And I repeal it;” and nodding, as in scorn,
He parted, with great strides among his dogs.
So left alone, the passions of her mind,
As winds from all the compass shift and blow,
Made war upon each other for an hour,
Till pity won. She sent a herald forth,
And bade him cry, with sound of trumpet, all
The hard condition; but that she would loose
The people: therefore, as they loved her well,
From then till noon no foot should pace the street,
No eye look down, she passing; but that all
Should keep within, door shut, and window barr’d.
Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there
Unclasp’d the wedded eagles of her belt,
The grim Earl’s gift; but ever at a breath
She linger’d, looking like a summer moon
Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head,
And shower’d the rippled ringlets to her knee;
Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair
Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid
From pillar unto pillar, until she reach’d
The Gateway, there she found her palfrey trapt
In purple blazon’d with armorial gold.
Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:
The deep air listen’d round her as she rode,
And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear.
The little wide-mouth’d heads upon the spout
Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur
Made her cheek flame; her palfrey’s foot-fall shot
Light horrors thro’ her pulses; the blind walls
Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead
Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she
Not less thro’ all bore up, till, last, she saw
The white-flower’d elder-thicket from the field,
Gleam thro’ the Gothic archway in the wall.
Then she rode back, clothed on with chastity;
And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,
The fatal byword of all years to come,
Boring a little auger-hole in fear,
Peep’d — but his eyes, before they had their will,
Were shrivel’d into darkness in his head,
And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait
On noble deeds, cancell’d a sense misused;
And she, that knew not, pass’d: and all at once,
With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon
Was clash’d and hammer’d from a hundred towers,
One after one: but even then she gain’d
Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown’d,
To meet her lord, she took the tax away
And built herself an everlasting name.
The Element of Color
The darker and lighter colors present to give the painting depth and distance—as is evident with the lighter tones and colors of the buildings in the background on the right side of the painting. We see that the farther back the buildings are, the lighter they appear and yet, there is still incredible detail portrayed upon the architecture.
This painting has a complex mood at play, with the light tans that suggest an earthiness and humility in stark contrast to the bright reds of the horse’s blanket, saddle, and bridle. Historically, despite the more modern connotations of red symbolizing passion, red has actually been known to be associated with sacrifice, danger, and courage which is most certainly a narrative of this painting.
With the innocence and purity of a white horse, we can tell that Lady Godiva is not being lewd or lascivious. The courage presented by the heavy use of red, as well as her personal sacrifice for the townspeople of Coventry are conveyed through color alone, but Collier didn’t do a terrible job at showing that through her body language as well.
Thoughts on Lady Godiva…
In consideration of the style from which it evolved, as well as the time and content matter, I thoroughly appreciate this painting—especially knowing that it is depicting a female in history that stood up to an oppressive patriarchy that she herself benefitted from. Collier decided to use this beautiful and empowering story as inspiration in his painting—not to mention the fact that he along with John William Waterhouse pulled still more inspiration from the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson (see next painting analysis). I would simply love to have a work such as this on display within my home, as a constant reminder that women across history have stood up against oppressive governments and male figures within their lives and times—so too, can I.
The Soul of the Rose (1908)
John William Waterhouse R.A.*
* R.A. denotes Waterhouse as a Royal Academician
Waterhouse from the Beginning…
John William Waterhouse although British by birth, was born in Rome, Italy—he was the son of two artists, but truthfully Waterhouse had been a shy man, he left no journals, so little is known about him beyond the fact that he died at age 68 after battling cancer, in 1917. As is evident in the above painting, Waterhouse painted in the style of Pre-Raphaelite art with a nuance of Impressionist inflection through technique; his paintings have become icons of femininity across the globe and he is considered one of the most popular Victorian artists today. Like his predecessors, Waterhouse paid a special emphasis to fantastic scenes, that focus upon a beautiful and feminine image of a woman surrounded in large part, by nature.
The Soul of the Rose completed by Waterhouse in 1908 is an oil on canvas and is sometimes known as My Sweet Rose—this particular painting is said to have taken inspiration from the author Alfred Lord Tennyson. Great detail is paid to the face of the lady in the painting, her features re delicate, glowing, and overwhelmingly beautiful—and if you’ll notice the subject also has a long neck, reminiscent of Madonna with the Long Neck (1534–1535) by Parmigianino. The reason this is important, in my opinion, is that this nod to Mannerism adds that unnatural and otherworldly feeling to the painting in question, as it has the distinct ability to transport the audience to the romantic world of Arthurian myth and legend.
The sensual act of smelling a rose is something that any viewer could easily draw up within their own mind and it brings to mind a certain way of romanticizing how we might spend our time if we lived in a world like that. The act of taking time to smell the roses is something that we often believe is an unreachable luxury with how busy our lives quite often become.
“The Soul of the Rose,” is a phrase that was pulled from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem entitled Maud that was written in 1855 (you can read the poem that inspired this painting on the right here). This shows that not only did Waterhouse pull inspiration from the ancient cultures, but also painted with a commentary on art and literature that was modern to his era.
“And the soul of the rose went into my blood”
The depiction of females within the work of Waterhouse and other Pre-Raphaelite art during this era can be considered somewhat controversial though, due to the way the women are being portrayed—as an example, in The Soul of the Rose it is famously critiqued with an interpretation that the woman smelling the rose is smelling it with remembrance and adoration of a former lover, which makes her come across as a sensitive creature who looks up to her male counterpart.
Not to discount the ideals of feminism, but the movement wouldn’t be supportive of some of the paintings that came out of Pre-Raphaelite art; focusing on the concept of a woman who is incapable of living her life without wrapping herself up within the life of a man and complexity of relationships, as most of the paintings represent. It needs to be said, however, that Waterhouse as a painter afforded women greater independence and power within his paintings than many of his peers during the nineteenth century.
from Maud (Part I)
by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the rose is blown.
For a breeze of morning moves,
And the planet of Love is on high,
Beginning to faint in the light that she loves
In a bed of daffodil sky,
To faint in the light of the sun she loves,
To faint in his light, and to die.
All night have the roses heard
The flute, violin, bassoon;
All night has the casement jessamine stirr’d
To the dancers dancing in tune;
Till a silence fell with the waking bird,
And a hush with the setting moon.
I said to the lily, “There is but one
With whom she has heart to be gay.
When will the dancers leave her alone?
She is weary of dance and play.”
Now half to the setting moon are gone,
And half to the rising day;
Low on the sand and loud on the stone
The last wheel echoes away.
I said to the rose, “The brief night goes
In babble and revel and wine.
O young lord-lover, what sighs are those,
For one that will never be thine?
But mine, but mine,” so I sware to the rose,
“For ever and ever, mine.”
And the soul of the rose went into my blood,
As the music clash’d in the hall;
And long by the garden lake I stood,
For I heard your rivulet fall
From the lake to the meadow and on to the wood,
Our wood, that is dearer than all;
The slender acacia would not shake
One long milk-bloom on the tree;
The white lake-blossom fell into the lake
As the pimpernel dozed on the lea;
But the rose was awake all night for your sake,
Knowing your promise to me;
The lilies and roses were all awake,
They sigh’d for the dawn and thee.
Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
To the flowers, and be their sun.
There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”
And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”
The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”
And the lily whispers, “I wait.”
She is coming, my own, my sweet;
Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead,
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red.
The Element of Color
The Soul of the Rose has form expressed through color, we see this through the shadows and the highlights, especially with the woman’s clothing where there is even a shimmer on the details of her sleeve.
Color also lends to the development of the texture of this piece, this is evident by the coloration and texture in the fabric of the subject’s clothing.
The coloration of this piece lends it a somewhat lackadaisical mood, while it is colorful, it is not overly bright and enthusiastic.
The pale peaches that make up her skin and the mellow copper of her hair give her an otherworldly appearance. She is surrounded by the neutral and earthy colors of the architecture which give it a natural and serene feeling.
The greens and pinks of the rosebushes give The Soul of the Rose the tone of cheerful, innocence, and enthusiasm.
The pink roses symbolize a joyful grace which is certainly portrayed with the model in this painting.
The greens and blues subtly even out the enthusiasm with the calm, soothing emotion instilled by flowing water, of which the robe is reminiscent.
Thoughts on The Soul of the Rose…
Waterhouse, in my opinion, created quite a wonderful world within his paintings. I feel much admiration for his style and it is something that I myself wish to achieve within my own work. The sort of relaxed and illuminating feeling that I get from looking at his and similar Pre-Raphaelite art is what makes me admire this form of art so thoroughly. I definitely appreciate this style more than I do Impressionism, which I believe, is why I left Pre-Raphaelite art to finish this article off with. In regards to this particular painting, it is also a painting that I could see myself owning and displaying within my home, even though the subject matter is a bit milder than what I feel I would generally be drawn toward.
“John William Waterhouse – 180 Artworks.” 180 Artworks – Art Renewal Center, http://www.artrenewal.org/artists/john-william-waterhouse/79.
“Lady Godiva by John Collier: History, Analysis & Facts.” Arthive, arthive.com/artists/63873~John_Collier/works/336530~Lady_Godiva.
Simcox, Georgia. “The Truth Behind The Legend of Lady Godiva.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 21 Mar. 2018, theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/articles/the-truth-behind-the-legend-of-lady-godiva/.
Sir George Clausen (1852–1944), http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/clausen/index.html.
“The Soul of the Rose.” The Soul of the Rose by John William Waterhouse, http://www.john-william-waterhouse.com/soul-of-the-rose/.
“Vincent Van Gogh.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 4 Mar. 2020, http://www.biography.com/artist/vincent-van-gogh.
“Van Gogh Gallery – His Life and Works.” Vincent Van Gogh Gallery – His Life, Biography and Catalog of Art Works, http://www.vangoghgallery.com/.
Mary has been a writer and artist for over a decade. Her passions lie somewhere between the beautiful and the macabre, but she enjoys every aspect of life. She explores the mysteries of the Last Frontier and the written word but dabbles in her love of artwork through the digital medium.