Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist art belonging to Isabel Goldsmith
In 1897, the French artist Lucien Levy-Dhurmer produces the seductive pastel the squall (below). Its title means “the gust” or “the sudden gust of wind”, and it duly captures a young woman’s red hair blowing in the wind all over her face and head.
This hair also merges with the semi-abstract crimson scene around it, as if being blown away into another playful world. It is not for nothing that Lévy-Dhurmer was described by the contemporary critic Gabriel Mourey as “the painter of dreams”.
the squall is one of the 87 works of The Isabel Goldsmith Collection: Selection of Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist Artonline sale organized by Christie’s until July 14.
Isabel Goldsmith’s collecting journey began decades ago, and what unites most of the images she has purchased is a set of central themes: beauty, loss, the mystery of hidden worlds and power. seduction of death and sleep. These are themes that had been adopted by some Pre-Raphaelite painters and many Symbolists at the turn of the 20th century.
Edward Lucie-Smith’s words in the introduction to his 1972 book, symbolist artcould apply to many proposed works: “Behind the shapes and colors found on the surface of the image, there is always something else, another domain, another order of meaning.”
What the viewer sees, in other words, are just symbols for something deeper.
Where Lévy-Dhurmer was a Symbolist, England Sidney Meteyard — the painter of the leading lot of the sale, The return of Orpheus (below) — worked in a style that one might call late Pre-Raphaelite (more on the connection between the two movements shortly). Like his mentor, Edward Burne-Jones, Meteyard worked as a stained glass designer in addition to painting.
Exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1907 (and probably painted earlier the same year), The return of Orpheus shows a force of color that rivals stained glass, especially in the striking blue tunic and sandals of his subject.
Orpheus sits on a rock at the entrance to the underworld, sporting a deep and complex expression. The wilted leaves on the vegetation around him reflect the fact that he has just failed in a quest to rescue his late wife Eurydice from the world of the dead.
Burne-Jones, who is represented in the sale by seven works, was in many ways the bridge between the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists. He was the key figure in the second generation of the old movement, making a name for himself in the 1870s, more than two decades after the likes of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.
Where its predecessors had, by and large, sought to imitate the art of medieval times — with its luminous color, careful attention to detail and moralizing or religious subject matter — Burne-Jones helped steer Pre-Raphaelite art in a more romantic direction.
As he said himself, “I mean, by a picture, a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, that never will be – in a better light than any light that has never shone, in a land no one can define or remember, only desire.’
Burne-Jones drew less from the Bible and more from Arthurian legend, classical myth and, above all, his own imagination. As would be the case with the symbolists who succeeded him, his scenes are more evocative than descriptive, favoring symbols rather than representation.
For example, in the Burne-Jones drawing of 1895 Moon (above), the eponymous Roman moon goddess is captured guarding the night sky. She soars above a mountain range, kneeling in a crescent moon whose light serves as a beacon of solace and hope in the darkness.
First in France before spreading to other European countries, the symbolist movement has many roots. These ranged from the poet Charles Baudelaire to the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Burne-Jones was another significant influence, particularly following a successful exhibition of his work at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889, where he won the exhibition prize. Legion of Honor award.
The Belgian symbolist Fernand Khnopff was a fan, and he and the Englishman ended up becoming close friends. Khnopff’s repeated engagement with the Greek myth of Medusa is thought to have been inspired by Burne-Jones’ own depiction, in his famous but never completed Perseus Cycle.
One of the Belgian works of Medusa, The Sleeping Medusa (above), circa 1896, is included in the current sale. He depicts her as a sleeping bird-like figure, an idiosyncratic composite of the winged Hypnos with the titular Gorgon. Since sleep is the doorway to dreams, for the Symbolists it pointed to another realm, where there is truer meaning.
Born and raised in Paris, Isabel Goldsmith moved to London as a young woman. Part of England’s appeal to her was the wealth of Pre-Raphaelite imagery she could see there. Goldsmith’s choice of images from both sides of the Channel was in keeping with his background.
It is sometimes said that the Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists ventured into other pictorial worlds because they disliked the increasingly capitalist and materialistic nature of the world they inhabited. (The third and final volume of Marx Das Capital was published in 1894, a few months before most of the images considered here were created.)
A discussion of the socio-economic context is perhaps one elsewhere. What can be said, however, from a purely artistic point of view, is that painters of both movements believed that art should reflect an idea, emotion or quality — rather than representing the world in a quasi-scientific way, as the realists, impressionists and others did.
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