Tag Archives: 19th Century France

#Selfie – Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

In this new series I’m going to be taking a short sharp look at some of art history’s most famous selfies.  In the age of social media and the proliferation of digital cameras, it is easy for people to be scathing about the purpose and intent behind so-called ‘selfies’.  The shortening of ‘self-portrait’ is supposed to hint at a lightening of content.  Those who take selfies are deemed narcissistic, self-interested, and fake.  But are these images really being used that differently to how their art historical precedents were?  As I’ve explored before on this blog, there are numerous reasons why artists might choose themselves as subjects.  But undoubtedly one reason is the projection of self; they wanted to say something about themselves, regardless of whether or not it was true, to their audience.  This is not so different to our contemporary love of the front-facing camera (although there is clearly a disparity of skill).  So here I’ll be exploring what artists might have been trying to say, both in some very famous examples, and in some lesser-known ones.  To kick-off the series, let’s look at one of the most famous self-portraits, Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’.

While there has been some speculation as to the authenticity of this work, it is generally accepted to have been painted by Van Gogh shortly after his return from hospital, which he was taken to having severed an artery in his neck, and chopped off part of his ear (and here I am glad of a modern divergence from precedent).  We could talk for hours, and produce hundreds of thousands of words of speculation as to Van Gogh’s particular illness, and motivations for these actions.  He was clearly not a healthy man, but it is interesting to look beyond just this one aspect of the portrait.  He painted himself many times, and this is not the only portrait to feature the bandage.  Might one see this painting as a return to ‘business as usual’?

There are certainly many other aspects of the painting which seek to tell us something about Van Gogh as an artist, as well as a man.  This event occurred during a particularly fractious period in his life, when he was in Arles trying to establish an artistic community with that ever-controversial figure, Paul Gauguin.  It is easy to paint Gauguin as something of a villain (not just on this occasion, but throughout his life), and it is perhaps not always deserved, but it is safe to say that he and Van Gogh were of rather different and not necessarily compatible temperaments.  So, this was clearly a time when Van Gogh was more than usually concerned about this artistic identity.  His identity as a human, and his identity as an artist, here, as so often in his work, becomes intertwined.

In some ways the painting is quite a traditional one.  His pose is typical of portraits, the bust, three-quarter view passed down through centuries of portraiture.  It is also utterly traditional for artists’ self-portraits to feature an easel, or some other symbol of their profession.  Most usually they are shown in the process of painting.  This allows them to further demonstrate their skills, by painting some sort of miniature artwork within the artwork.  Van Gogh however has his back turned to the easel.  We don’t really get much from his canvas on the easel.  It is almost just a freshly prepared canvas, ready to be used to create a new piece.  What we do see prominently, perhaps in place of a work of his own, is the Japanese print.  Though his style is so different to these works, Van Gogh, like the Impressionists before him, was highly influenced by Japanese perspectives, compositions, and even subject matter, and his paintings owe much to these works.  The one we see here is a slightly altered copy of a print by Sato Torakiyo, which Van Gogh had pinned to his studio wall.

The brushwork is very much Van Gogh’s own.  At the time no-one else was working quite like this.  It demonstrates how different he was to Gauguin.  Though they share an interest in the use of non-naturalistic colours, where Van Gogh uses large, directional brushstrokes to depict what he was seeing, Gauguin uses large, smooth swathes of colour.  Their brushwork is not the only way they differ.  It was perhaps inevitable that the two would fail in their artistic friendship, as their aims were so different.  Van Gogh is close to the Impressionists in his interest in depicting nature, even if he goes about it in a more extreme fashion.  Gauguin, by contrast, is more akin to the Symbolists, who were interested in allegory, Symbolism, and meaning, and less concerned with nature and representation.  They sought a different purpose, and so it is predictable that their results would differ.

But for all the pain he suffered as a result of their project, Van Gogh presents himself here as confidently and clearly accepting of his style and influences.  He is not cowed into agreeing with Gauguin’s opinions.  So, while it is tempting to view his work entirely in relation to his emotional state, and instability, and there are of course obvious clues to this (the bandage, the overcoat, the hat), it would be a shame if the undeniably intriguing details of his personal life caused us to overlook the elements of his portrait which are more purely about his artistic endeavours.  We owe it to him to not be bogged-down in speculation, but to pay as much attention to his artistic as we do to his emotional state.

I hope you enjoyed reading the first in this series.  If you’d like me to look at a particular artist’s ‘selfie’ in a future post, let me know in the comments below, or head over to my Patreon!


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Highlights of the National Gallery – Part One

It’s always immensely difficult to choose ‘favourite’ paintings (and one is often asked to do so when people discover you’re an art historian!), but it can’t be denied that there are some works that keep drawing you back.  One of my favourite galleries, not least because of the sheer variety of the collections, is the National Gallery, London.  So I’ve decided to do the unthinkable and attempt to select some of my ‘favourite’ works of art from its hallowed halls.  It can be quite overwhelming being faced by such a large and spectacular collection of art, so it’s sometimes nice to pick just one or two works, and devote your full attention to them.  In this spirit, read on for some of my personal recommendations for those most worthy of your attention.

Vincent van Gogh, Two Crabs, 1889

One of Van Goh’s most famous works, Sunflowers hangs in the National Gallery, but it also houses a number of less well-known, but nonetheless fascinating works by the Dutch artist.  Two Crabs one of these.  The work was painted shortly after van Gogh’s release from hospital in Arles, in January  1889.  It is probably one of the still lifes he told his brother Theo he was planning to paint to ‘get used to painting again’.  The thick brushwork creates a sense of realism we are perhaps unused to in his work, with carefully modelling really putting across the shape and texture of, for instance, the crab’s claws.  The use of tick, short brushstrokes on the legs again emphasises a sense of texture, and brings an almost animated feel to the image.  This is enhanced by the liveliness of the background, with the flatter, wider strokes lending turbulence, and recalling the rocky shallows of the crab’s marine home.  The current title is slightly confusing, as this is probably in fact a single crab, viewed from different angles.  Van Gogh keys into a long artistic tradition of artists practicing by drawing a single object from multiple viewpoints, to examine how surfaces and shapes respond to light, and how to represent this.  His choice of subject was likely inspired by a Hokusai woodcut, ‘Crabs’, which was reproduced in a magazine, ‘Le Japon Artistique’ which Theo had sent Van Gogh while he was in hospital.  It is quite a touching image in a way, as Van Gogh takes a traditionally quite clinical form and brings to it his usual sense of humanity and empathy, all in an attempt to reconnect with his own artistic skill and expression.

As this image is on loan to the National Gallery from a private collection, I have been unable to reproduce an image, but you can see one on the National Gallery’s website here.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23


Titian, active about 1506; died 1576 Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-3 Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 191 cm Bought, 1826 NG35 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG35

And now for something completely different…Titian brings an exuberance to this image of Greek mythology.  Ariadne, abandoned on an island by her ex-lover Theseus, is discovered by the god of wine, Bacchus, who immediately falls in love with her.  Bacchus has a somewhat jovial and jolly image in the pop-culture of the present day, but in Greek and Roman mythology he and his followers (the maenads and the satyrs) were associated with at times violent frenzies.  It is this aspect that Titian has chosen to emphasise, bringing a sense of drama to the image.  The followers are depicted as wild, with one holding a disembodied (and crucially un-butchered) calf’s leg, while the calf’s leg is dragged along at their feet.  It is thus understandable that Ariadne is turning tail to flee.  Theseus’ ship is visible on the horizon to her left, showing how hopeless her situation is.  Titian hides most of her fame from us, creating an image of a terrified young woman in fear for her life.  The painting really appeals to the senses, with the maenad’s clashing cymbals, and the stampede of frenzied figures, treading on the carefully realistic flowers.  This madness and business is contrasted compositionally with the stillness and grace of its opposing corner of the image, with its calm blue skies.  Bacchus acts as a link between these two elements, and the hyperactivity of his followers is juxtaposed by his single-minded gaze, which meets Ariadne’s.  His pose offers a dance-like retort to that of Ariadne, creating a harmonious visual link between them as he leaps energetically from his chariot.  Though it is hard to imagine quite what wind would result in the tight and intricate folds of his garments, it cannot be denied that they give an impression of the speed and suddenness of his movement.  The coy little satyr looks out at the viewer, pulling the calf’s head behind him on a rope, the flowers in his hair and his otherwise cherubic face perfectly putting across the intimidating unpredictability of a bacchant in full swing.  The snarling dog, looking up at him and backing away, perhaps reflects the viewer’s response to this unsettling display.  However, for all the darkness of his depiction, Titian gives us a hint at the story’s happy ending: Bacchus raised Ariadne to the heavens, making her into a constellation.  An alternative version (and perhaps one in which she gets a slightly better deal) is that on marrying her, Bacchus turns her wedding crown into the constellation.  The scale of the painting further emphasises the emotional weight of the image, and the viewer’s reaction to it.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnieres, 1884


Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 Bathers at Asnières 1884 Oil on canvas, 201 x 300 cm Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924 NG3908 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG3908

This painting was one of the first that I ‘officially’ studied, as part of my A-level in Art History, and it seems that I have been studying it ever since but I still find so much of interest in it, and can’t say I’ve ever got bored of it.  I intend to write a longer post about this, so watch this space, but I couldn’t not mention it as one of my favourite works in the National Gallery.  Begun before he has developed his famous Pointillist technique, it does represent his engagement with what he called ‘chromoluminarism’ (also called Divisionism), the use of contrasting colours in an attempt to create optical mixing, the mixing of colours in the eye.  He hoped to mimic Nature, and to bring a brightness and vivacity to his works.  Thought it is debatable how effective this is, and how much he truly engaged with scientific theory, it represents a radical move and a desire to improve upon the Impressionist’s depiction of light.  But the painting is not merely interesting on a technical level, it also gives us an insight into Seurat’s political, specifically Socialist, leanings.  Asnieres was an industrial district, and Seurat depicts the factories in the distance, and their workers in the foreground.  It was a time of labour reforms that enabled factory workers to have time to engage in leisure in a new way, and have a greater degree of freedom.  The boating, bathing, and relaxing that was once the preserve of the middle classes (and was still undertaken by them in more fashionable areas along the River Seine), but was now opening up to the Parisian majority.  While some met these changes with distrust, Seurat and his friends welcomed them, and saw it as an important step towards a more egalitarian future.  He celebrates this by raising the workers to a level, and a physical scale more commonly associated with the grand subjects of history paintings, the highest genre in the official scale endorsed by the academy.  He thus combines his scientific experimentation with his interest in the politics of his time, and presents his own political optimism and hopes for the future.

Also of interest in the National Gallery are the preparatory drawings he produced for the painting, hung alongside it, which give a real sense of how it developed, and how he experimented with both the composition, and how to represent the light in the scene.


Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 The Rainbow: Study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’ 1883 Oil on wood, 15.5 x 24.5 cm Presented by Heinz Berggruen, 1995 NG6555 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6555

Three is clearly far too few to choose from such an extensive collection, so this will be part one of a series.  I would be fascinated to hear if you have any favourites in the National Gallery (or anywhere else for that matter!) which you just can’t stop yourself from going back to.

A Feminist Re-Interpretation of Renoir’s ‘La Loge’

Renoir La Loge

I have recently begun tutoring a student in A-level art history, which has had the happy side-effect of bringing me back in touch with many paintings I have not examined for a long time.  The syllabus is almost identical to that which I studied all those years ago, and it has been fun to look back at some of them.  (Perhaps the subject of a later post on the subject of the formation and reformation of canons!)  Renoir’s La Loge is one such painting that has been brought back into my life. Part of the collection of the Courtauld Gallery, the painting was the subject of a blog post I wrote five years ago, before I had even begun my undergraduate degree (find it here).  I am surprised to say that I still largely agree with what I wrote about it.  I still feel this is a painting all about the interplay of gazes, about looking and being looked at.  However, there is one aspect of the painting that is largely missing from my discussion: the female gaze.  I am not alone in this, much writing on the painting focuses exclusively on the male gaze, on the role of the man in the painting, and the male viewer.  While it is undoubtedly important to consider the role of gender in the creation and appreciation of this work, throughout much art historical analysis (not just that of this painting), this has led to a sort of game of ‘spot the male gaze’.  While the historical and continued oppression of women has overwhelmingly led to the prioritising of the male gaze in the creation of artworks, and the effects of this in the work’s interpretation, it is important that we do not erase instances of the appeal to the female gaze where they do occur.

The ‘female gaze’ is often taken to be a simple inversion of the male gaze, thus a painting appealing to it might involve the objectification of male figures.  The heteronormativity of such ideas aside, it is also important to recognize other, perhaps more subtle ways that an artist might engage with the idea of the female gaze (whether they would have used that terminology or not).  So we come back to La Loge itself.  The male figure’s roving gaze is often noted – pointing straight up, and, judging by the curve of the box itself, back into the theatre – he is clearly not watching the stage.  The opera glasses he holds become symbolic of his supposed appetite for women, passing an admiring gaze over the female members of the audience.  This is sometimes interpreted as a snub to the woman in the painting: not satisfied by her, he literally looks elsewhere.  Interpretation of the woman often focuses on her meek interaction with or submissive acceptance of this cultural phenomenon.  She is described as ‘meek’, or ‘passive’.  Alternatively she might, according to another brand of misogyny, be accused of ‘asking for it’, or looking for male attention: she leans forward, looking up towards us, also not engaging with the opera itself, a flower placed in her bodice drawing the eye.  She happily submits to the inquisitive male gaze, it might be said, and, by association, that of the viewer.

However, there is one component of the painting that suggest that something more is going on in the painting.  She too holds opera glasses.  While these were of course a necessity amongst the fashionable elite, and she holds a smaller, more decorative pair than her male companion, in the context of the painting, the opera glass seems to have taken on a greater meaning than its mere practical function.  Highlighted in bright gold colours, her glasses suggest a more active engagement in the interplay of gazes that the painting depicts.  It is not only the male audience members who make visual enquiries across the room, the women too look for pleasure through viewing.  Women too might be in possession of a scopophilic gaze.  Renoir’s audience would predominantly have been male, and it is understandable that the painting has been interpreted both as a critique of the bourgeois male’s entitled attitude towards women, and as Renoir’s own possible participation in such attitudes.  However let us not forget that women too visited exhibitions, including the First Impressionist Exhibition, where this painting was exhibited in 1874.  Even if most of the critics were men, women did still see, appreciate, and engage with art (which seems a rather obvious thing to say).  In the period when characters such as Nana were being written by Zola, and Madeleine Forestier by Guy de Maupassant, it seems not unlikely that creators in the visual arts might also have wanted to represent a broadening range of female characterisations, and the wider possibilities that were opening up to women brave enough to pursue them in the face of a society ever-ready to shun.  Nana and Madeleine Forestier are both women who embrace their own sexual appetites and desires, and even the respectable Forestier is at ease with her appreciation of male beauty.  Renoir’s woman, scanning the crowd, might be a similar character.  Thus it seems quite plausible that this woman is not passively objectified, but actively engages in an exchange of gazes, thinking of her own pleasures and desires, not simply submitting to those of her viewers.

It would be just as bad however to assume that this painting is just about men and women.  The aforementioned heteronormativity of such an assumption is obvious, but this painting could as much be about female friendship, or kinship.  The gaze could be one of recognition, of one woman acknowledging another.  The women who visited the exhibition would likely have been familiar with the world depicted, and have experienced something similar themselves.  Past me only managed to acknowledge that the female interaction with this painting might be with a sense of jealously, an ‘eyeing up’ of potential competition (a notion I’m glad to say I can now see far beyond, and acknowledge the inherent misogyny of such an assumption), but I think this painting may as much be one of friendship, or at least acknowledgement of shared experience.  To the Parisian woman, this may have acted as an image of herself, and her friends.

There is so much more to this painting than men’s sexual interest in women, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to look back at it, with fresh eyes, greater experience, and a fuller sense of its representation of human experience.

Gustave Caillebotte: ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’, 1877

Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877

Perhaps one of the most recognisable paintings of 19th century France, Gustave Caillebote’s ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’ is an intriguing view of a less optimistic side of Paris often expressed in the paintings of the Impressionists.  It does not take long to realise that Caillebotte’s work is not typical of the overall Impressionist style.  The looseness of brushwork is replaced with smaller, more delicate work that seems to have more in common with Seurat’s Neo-Impressionism, and the emphasis on the speed and energy of the city is in turn substituted for an almost unsettling stillness.  This word, ‘unsettling’ is appropriate to the piece:  Caillebotte expresses the increasing social unease caused by the fast ‘Haussmannisation’ of Paris, which took place over his lifetime, and which resulted in a sense of social isolation and class divide.

Caillebotte was independently wealthy – he did not rely on painting for his income.  He played an important part in the Impressionist movement, partly because he was able to buy the works of his friends, particularly Monet and Renoir, thus sustaining them at times when they were financially unstable.  Although his style seems so different to these painters, he does in fact abide by many of the common characteristics of the Impressionist painters.  His interest in the representation and nature of light can be seen most clearly in the shadows, and the stones of the street itself.  Shadows are not black, as the Impressionists felt this created a dullness and flatness of space.  The stones are made up of several different colours, which unify to create the grey we see, again with the aim of representing the scene as it would have been seen by an observer, an attempt to gain greater realism.  It is oft forgotten that the Impressionist movement was strictly a move towards greater realism, as painters tried to paint what they saw, rather than simple what was there.  Caillebotte’s use of colour is also typical, he makes heavy use of different shades of yellow and blue.  This was common among the Impressionists as it was in this period that chemical pigments were being produced, with bright blues and yellows proving particularly effective (and far cheaper than their organic equivalents).  Alongside this was the development of lead tubes and lighter, more portable easels, all of which enabled the ‘en plein air’ technique for which the Impressionists became so famous (although, on a side note, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, over 20 years earlier, had done much of their work outdoors, and even earlier Constable had become famous for his six-foot sketch canvases, which he completed in the open air, and then worked up in his studio).  But it is in the tone of the painting that we see Caillebotte most clearly as an Impressionist.

‘Haussmannisation’ was the remodelling of Paris undertaken by the so-called Baron Haussmann (he was not a real Baron, simple named himself as one), under the leadership of Napoleon III.  It aimed to clear the city, modernise it, making it’s spaces more useful for the increased use of carriages, and for the capitalism which was beginning to develop, with the rise of large department stores and ready-made clothing (evoked brilliantly in Emile Zola’s ‘The Ladies’ Delight).  From a more pragmatic point of view, the new cities wide boulevards were also intended to prevent further revolution: the streets of the medieval city were narrow, and easily blockaded, whereas the very wide new streets would require far greater resources, organisation, and man-power to block, whilst also allowing easier movement of government troops.  So Haussmannisation rid the city of the cramped medieval houses which inhabit the pages of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ and transforming it to the city of open boulevards and tall houses we see today.  This design created a new lightness in the city, which can be seen particularly Renoir’s cityscapes (Renoir was a Parisian, and thus perhaps most aware of the stark changes).  But it also lead to a new social segregation, as the working classes moved out into the growing suburbs, while the new bourgeoisies lived in the city houses, with only their servants.  Previously houses would have been split between families of different status and wealth, with poorer families often inhabiting the garret or basements of houses owned by wealthier citizens.  Altogether these factors, although creating the iconic city we know and love today, had almost strong social effects at the time, resulting in a new sense of isolation.  The city was bigger, the people emotionally further apart, and the mood captured by many of the Impressionists particularly – Monet’s ‘Plum Brandy’, Degas’ ‘L’Absinthe’ – is the loneliness of the crowd.  It is this which Caillebotte taps into in ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’.

Throughout the composition Caillebotte has arranged elements in order to emphasise social unease.  The area depicted is an intersection near the Gare St Lazare, in a wealthy district near Caillebotte’s own home.  Contrary to the depiction, it is not a particularly large space.  Caillebotte has exaggerated its size almost as a metaphor for the increasing social and emotional distance between the people.  This helps to strengthen the idea in the viewer’s mind that it is the new city which has created this effect.  This is also suggested by the scaffolding at the end of the street, which leads into the depth of the painting.  The scaffolding suggests that the city is continuing to change, and implies that these problems will not easily go away.  It is also important to bear in mind when viewing this painting that any awkwardness we feel would have been far worse for its original audience.  It was exhibited in the Third Impressionist Exhibition (which Caillebotte made a large contribution to the funding of), and the people attending would have been people living in Paris, who had witnessed these conditions all around them.  Having it spelt out so clearly must have made them somewhat self-conscious, particularly as they were largely the bourgeois middle classes.  The eye-lines of the figures do not meet, even the couple look away from each other: there is no sense of human connection.  Each of the figures seems lost, or trapped, in their own world.  Caillebotte seems to have captured a particular moment of impending social embarrassment:  as they walk along the pavement, the figures are oblivious to one another, but they are about to be brought sharply back to awareness, as if they proceed, their umbrellas will surely clash.  There is thus a sense of urgency and mild horror as we realise what is about to happen, where having captured the moment before allows the viewer all the quick thoughts and embarrassed realisation that precludes these minor, but off-putting events.  The painting as a whole is also imbued with a sense of awkwardness by Caillebotte’s positioning of perspective.  He shows his awareness of tradition through his deliberate breaking of the Golden Section.  This is achieved by placing the lamp-post directly in the centre of the painting.  This splits the painting evenly, leaving the viewer with an uncertainty as to how to view it, rather than the easy path through the paintings provided by the thirds of the Golden Section.  Awareness of Renaissance tradition is seen also in the way he models objects with light.  We can see some similarities, through this and the stillness of his figures, between Caillebotte and Piero della Francesca.  This can be seen particularly through comparison of the modelling of Caillebotte’s umbrella, and the octagonal fountainheads of the Ideal City, by the school of Piero della Francesca.

Now hung in the Art Institute of Chicago (Impressionist works proved highly popular with American patrons, within the lifetime of the artists), it is thus easy to see why ‘Paris Street; rainy Day’ has been called one of the most effective paintings of the modern urban landscape of 19th century Paris.  Caillebotte has used all his delicacy and subtly, combined with the social elegance of one accustomed to really seeing, and taking real thought for the people around him, to create a stunning depiction of human non-interaction, and which brilliantly captures the mood of its time.  It’s popularity is ensured by the fact that it is hard not to like some aspect, and though its message may be uncomfortable, it is one that has perhaps become even more relevant in the centuries since it was painted.