April 19, 2012
In this installment of our continuing blog series examining key elements of the Aesthetic Movement through the lens of John Stanhope’s masterwork Love and the Maiden (typically on view in gallery 18 at the Legion of Honor and currently on view in The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900), curatorial assistant of European art Melissa Buron takes a closer look at color.
The beauty and necessity of harmonious color juxtapositions and surface patterns was one of the fundamental concerns voiced by artists and designers of the Aesthetic Movement. To achieve this goal, conscientious efforts were taken to realize compositions with tonal variations that heightened pleasant viewing experiences.
Love and the Maiden exhibits these characteristics, which lead Stanhope’s contemporary and friend, Edward Burne-Jones to declare, “[Stanhope’s] colour is beyond anything the finest in Europe.” Even toward the end of his life, Burne-Jones maintained that Stanhope was still “The greatest colourist of the century.” In addition to his peers, Victorian art critics also noted Stanhope’s skill, as stated by one reviewer in 1863: “Mr. Stanhope has an excellent perception of colour and a love of rich tone.”
Stanhope used tempera paints—which he mixed himself—and it is important to underscore how this attention to detail and process demonstrates Stanhope’s keen interest in perfecting the exact colors, which he transferred from palette to canvas. The end result—soft periwinkle blue and rosy pink fabrics that contrast with dense areas of green foliage—is a carefully orchestrated symphony of botanical elements and graceful human forms.
Another artist featured in the exhibition whose interest in color is worth discussing is the American expatriate, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whistler took particular interest in the relationship between music and pleasing color arrays. By giving his paintings titles such as “symphonies,” “nocturnes” and “arrangements,” he made direct allusions to the harmonious arrangement of colors with the harmonious arrangement of musical notes. The most famous of these is a painting commonly referred to as Whistler’s Mother, although its full title is Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (this painting was featured in Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay).
Another variant on the relationship between music and color can be found in San Francisco’s own The Pier: A Grey Note, painted by Whistler in 1884. This sensitive Aesthetic landscape is typically on view in gallery 18 at the Legion of Honor.
On your next visit to the Legion of Honor, take a moment to visit Love and the Maiden in The Cult of Beauty exhibition (on view through June 17) and compare Stanhope’s use of color harmonies with Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle, 1872–73, which hang near each other in the Grosvenor Gallery section of the exhibition.