I am always trying to improve my work and look to the masters for inspiration and ideas. To keep me cheerful in the face of this daunting and occasionally demoralising task, I have made a collection of some oddities by the greatest artists which shows them capable of “off days” like all of us. I call these paintings my “Stuffed Owls”, in honour of a similarly named anthology of bad verse by famous poets*. The theme of the book is bathos, absurdity or a complete lack of sense of humour on the part of the poet. So, too, is the theme of my collection, but instead of poets, I have artists. Below are a few of the works.
* The Stuffed Owl – an Anthology of Bad Verse by D. B. Wyndham Lewis
Here we have a portrait of the Venerable Mother Jeronima de la Fuente, by the Spanish Court painter, Velasquez. A saintly woman she was, who founded a convent and whose order required a vow of silence. Alas, how glum she seems to find her lot and how much the banderol and crucifix make her look like the grim reaper. The title admonishes: “It is Good to await the Salvation of the Lord in Silence”.
This is a portrait of an officer of the 4th Regiment of the Foot by Gainsborough. The fashion of the period was to show great sensibility, one quality this soldier seems to have in spades. If ever there were a man seemingly less suited to the disciplined and occasionally violent life of the military, here he is. Indeed, how grateful he must be to have such a devoted dog to look after him and make sure he does not forget to take his musket with him! With such effete soldiers, is it any wonder the British lost their American colonies?*
*Or so one might imagine. An Australian correspondent irritably pointed out to me that I could not have been “more off” in my assessment of the officer in question. The soldier, Colonel Richard St George Mansergh took part in the American War of Independence where, sadly, he not only fought on the losing side but also returned wounded. He then sold out and became a magistrate in County Cork in Ireland. Here he was unfortunate to become a widower, upon which occasion, showing even more sensibility, he commissioned another portrait of himself mourning at the tomb of his dead wife. Some time later, being a loyal subject of his Britannic Majesty and a vocal one, he fell foul of an angry mob of Irish rebels who dispatched him with a rusty scythe. The poor fellow’s luck never did turn in the end.
Next, Ingres’ Roger delivering Angelica from the sea monster. Note the strange shape of the
foam on the waves and how it splashes up, inexpertly hiding the maiden’s embarrassment. She seems to be both strangely bored and suffering from a severe case of stiff neck and a goitre as she ponders the alternatives of being eaten by her captor or mauled by her rescuer’s hippogriff. We could also ask why, with such elastic arms, has she not already managed to rid herself of her manacles and escaped.
The Swedish artist, Anders Zorn became famous for his portraits and his nudes. This is one where the model is about to tie her hair. Zorn was no flatterer. The ribbon hangs like a snake in her half open mouth, its colour highlighting the ruddiness of her cheeks. The sturdy wooden chair emphasises her stocky figure. We are left in no doubt that she has just come out of the sauna. The poor girl must have wondered what she had done to deserve such treatment.
This is a portrait of Homer Saint-Gaudens and his mother by the American artist, John Singer Sargent. Posing for a portrait is dull work and one of the tasks of the artist is to keep the model entertained but in this case Sargent seems to have spectacularly failed to banish the boredom. You could feel that
having Mother there hardly helped matters for poor Homer. Was she reading to him from an improving book?
This is a portrait of the author and scholar, Richard Payne Knight by Sir Thomas Lawrence. At its showing, the portrait was criticised as “…repulsive in the attitude. It fills me with the idea of an irascible pedagogue explaining Euclid to a dunce.” The painting does indeed bring to mind the look my chemistry teachers would give me whenever they asked me a question.
Sir Thomas Lawrence again with “Satan summoning his Legions”. I think this hardly needs a comment.