Last month we explored the history of the salon-hang style used in Gallery 10, which has been reopened as Mr. Layton’s Gallery. A glance around tells a lot about what kind of art was popular in the late 19th century in America: sculpture is clean, white marble; paintings by European and American artists fit into easily described categories (landscape, genre, still-life), or they are inspired by the classical past.
There is nothing truly avant-garde here. No Courbet, no Manet, no Monet, no Gauguin. Most of this artwork stands firmly in the tradition of art as it was understood for centuries. In fact, Homer and His Guide may even have been a direct rebuttal to the type of artwork shown at the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874. Bougereau’s powerful painting reflects the survival of the classical, in both poetry and art, while facing adversity.
Although most of the beautiful objects from the early history of the Layton Art Collection are not ground-breaking, they are important to the time. And many of them still show the influence of the artists leading the attack on the art establishment.
So let’s take a look at some of the paintings that have come “out of the vault!”
The Water Mill by Anton Mauve (Dutch, 1838-1888)
One of the small paintings on the east wall, right above The Woodgatherer, probably escapes your notice. This vertical landscape, which shows a water mill in a field, was painted around 1880 by the Dutch artist Anton Mauve. Never heard of him? Not surprising. Although popular in America during the third quarter of the 19th century, he is certainly not a household name today.
Mauve was one of the best Hague School painters, which was a group of 19th century Netherlandish artists who drew their subjects from 17th century Dutch masters, but their style from French Barbizon painters. This jewel of a painting takes a modest subject and makes it come alive with active brushwork and a warm depth of color.
But what if I told you that it was Mauve taught Vinent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) to paint? After various other careers, Van Gogh decided to become an artist and taught himself to draw. But he wanted to paint, too, and his cousin’s husband was an artist: that artist was Anton Mauve. For three weeks in the winter of 1881-82, Van Gogh worked in Mauve’s studio.
Although there was a break between the painters later in 1882–possibly because straight-laced Mauve found out Van Gogh was living with a woman to whom he wasn’t married–Van Gogh never forgot his first teacher’s influence. In 1888, he dedicated a painting to his now-deceased mentor, writing in a letter to his brother Theo:
“I have been working on a size 20 canvas in the open air in an orchard… Probably the best landscape I have done. I had just brought it home when I received our sister a Dutch notice in memory of Mauve… Something–I don’t know what–took hold of me and brought a lump to my throat, and I wrote on my picture ‘Souvenir de Mauve, Vincent Theo’ and if you agree we two will send it, such as it is, to Mrs. Mauve… it seemed to me that everything in memory of Mauve must be at once tender and very gay, and not a study in any graver key.”
The Forester’s Family by Thomas Faed (Scottish, 1826-1900)
On the same wall, in the lower right corner, is a lovely painting called The Forester’s Family by Thomas Faed. Faed was a star in the 19th century art scene–it has been said that he did for Scottish art what Robert Burns did for Scottish song. Faed shot to fame in 1855 when his painting The Mitherless Bairn was shown at the Royal Academy in London. A critical and popular success, this painting was praised for its meaningful narrative, artfully composed with touching details of the cottage interior and expressive faces drawn from Faed’s own childhood.
In the Museum’s painting, a girl dressed in country attire leans against a tree in a dense forest. Presumably, the forester referenced in the title is her father, who would have been in charge of maintaining the trees (from planting to felling) for a landowner, who would sell the wood as a source of income–an important industry in Scotland. Clearly, this is a nationalistic subject that Faed would have wanted to promote. An additional sentimental touch is the two devoted dogs that stand to either side of the girl, as well as the puppy she holds in her arms. The British loved their dogs, and in the 19th century it was common to show them with human-like personalities or record them with portraits of their own, such as our Portrait of a Terrier by Edwin Landseer. It is obvious that the title The Forester’s Family doesn’t just refer to the human in the painting!
The Pilot Boat (Trouville Fishing Boat in a Fresh Breeze) by Edward William Cooke (English, 1811-1880)
The Layton Collection has three fantastic paintings by Edward William Cooke, which are all on view on the east wall: Venice, Bonchurch, and The Pilot Boat, above. A maritime painter who looked to the 17th century Dutch artist Willem van de Velde for inspiration and traveled widely to look for subjects, Cooke was very popular in England and in America.
The Pilot Boat is the largest of these three paintings and the most dramatic. The pilot is the person at the seaport who assists the ship in navigating the shallow waters between sea and shore, and a pilot boat is a small boat that was used to transport that pilot from port to ship. You can see here the crew battling the wind and waves to get out to sea.
We recently discovered more information about this painting. Cooke’s diary is transcribed as an appendix to a 1996 monograph on Cooke by John Munday, the former curator of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. Like many artists of his time, Cooke kept detailed records of his work, and he notes a watercolor, left, that Cooke called Trouville fishing boat on larboard tack in rough seas and dated Oct 1839. According to the monograph, the watercolor was:
“Given to W. Baring Wall when staying at his country house. Diary notes, October 30, ‘Made drawing of French fishing board (same as large picture)’. The large picture then in progress has the same title in the ledger but was show at the British Institution in 1840 as Trouville fishing board in a fresh breeze.”
Dr. Munday then lists the entry for this painting, and that the location is unknown. But… the painting has the exact dimensions of our painting. So, the missing painting is ours!
Convoy of Wounded (Franco-Prussian War 1870) by Edouard Castres (Swiss, 1838-1902)
In previous blog posts, I’ve been able to illustrate how having a museum’s collection on the web is so important to research. I had always thought of Convoy of the Wounded as a beautiful painting, but about a year ago I found out more information about it that makes it really special. It’s now on view on the south wall of Gallery 10, at the upper right corner of the doorway.
Last year, we were contacted by an art dealer in Switzerland who was selling an oil sketch of a painting that Castres had shown at the Salon of 1872, and which won a silver medal. By searching on the internet, he found the painting in our collection database and contacted us.
What is really fascinating about our painting is that it is the first representation of a Red Cross ambulance in history. The Red Cross was formed in 1863 in Geneva, Switzlerand, and was still developing its role when the Franco-Prussian War began. Castres, a trained artist, signed up with the Red Cross and continued to sketch during his service. He created many heartbreaking scenes of what he saw.
Castres, who witnessed the war first hand as part of the aid through the Red Cross, was asked in 1880 to construct a panorama to document the devastation. The panorama was on display in Geneva, Switzerland, until 1889, when it moved to the city of Lucerne and is still on view (although the top and bottom have been cropped). Here is a complete view of the panorama. You can read more about this time here.
Castres even seems to have included himself in the painting, as the bearded man at the far left.
Portrait of Mrs. Christian Wahl by Heinrich von Angeli (Austrian, 1840-1925)
On the east wall, just to the left of Homer and His Guide, is a striking portrait of Mrs. Christian Wahl. Antonia Wahl and her husband, Milwaukee businessman Christian Wahl, were German immigrants. His most important civic role was as the first president of the Milwaukee Park Commission, where he was instrumental in not only getting Frederick Law Olmstead to design Lake Park, but also ensured that Milwaukee would have many more parks throughout the city. Wahl Avenue, which runs along Lake Park, as well as Wahl Park, are named for him.
Not much in known about Antonia. She was born in 1835, the daughter of Dr. Johann George Guenther, a member of the Reichstag who was exiled after the Revolution in 1848. The Wahls had three daughters, one of whom married the editor of the Milwaukee Journal. Wisconsin: Its Story and Biography, 1848-1913 quotes from the newspaper at the time of Mrs. Wahl’s death:
“Mrs. Antonie Wahl, widow of Christian Wahl, died at her home in this city December 3, 1909, and her death is mourned by a large circle of friends. It is given to few persons to have so sweet a character as that of Mrs. Wahl. Gentle, considerate, and patient under all circumstances, she won the affection of all who came within the compass of her gracious influence. Her charity was widespread, and she was tireless in her efforts to make life pleasant for others.”
The artist who painted Mrs. Wahl as a pleasant and fashionably-dressed lady of Milwaukee was Heinrich von Angeli. An Austrian who specialized in portraits, Angeli was sought after by the courts of Europe. His patrons ranged from Queen Victoria to Kaiser Franz Joseph to Grand Duchess Alexandra of Russia.
A Darwinian Prehistoric Social Party (The Un-Evolved Club Man of the Period) by Paul Friedrich Meyerheim (German, 1842-1915)
This work is probably one of the most unusual paintings on view in the gallery is on the north wall! In a masterful composition, the German artist Paul Friedrich Meyerheim shows eight monkeys at a banquet. The monkeys wear fancy trappings—coats, cuffs, and hats with plumes—and sit at a majestic table set with wine on an expensive marble floor, reminiscent of paintings such as Frans Hals’s Officers of the St. George Civic Guard of Haarlem. It is clear, however, that the party has degenerated into a free-for-all. It doesn’t take much analysis to realize that Meyerheim has used monkeys to lampoon the actions of humans.
For centuries before this, monkeys and apes were symbols in art. Christian iconography saw them as evil and ugly, reminding humans to avoid appetite for material pleasures and sin. By the 17th and 18th centuries, monkeys had taken on a more playful, mischevious role. Many artists used them as a way to poke fun at people by putting them in human roles: Jan Breughel the Younger satirized the mania for tulips; Antonie Watteau depicted a “Monkey Sculptor”; and Jean-Siméon Chardin portrayed a “Monkey Painter”. Combine this with the elegant and exotic Chinoiserie style popular at the time, and you end up with a masterpiece such as Christophe Huet’s two rooms at the Château de Chantilly. This type of decorative painting was called singerie, derived from singe, which in French means “monkey.”
The title of Meyerheim’s painting, however, shows that there is more to the interpretation. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species was published. The painting is dated just six years later. The flurry of discussion on evolution–and the extrapolation that humans developed from apes, which Darwin wrote about in 1871’s The Decent of Man–led to various visual interpretations of the theory. Many of them were satirical cartoons, particularly of Darwin himself.
But other artists took the use of monkey in art one step further and make comments on the human actions of the day. In this painting, Meyerheim pokes fun at the gatherings of the 19th century, when things were not done until they were overdone. A “Club Man” refers to social clubs, where a man would go to socialize with other men with similar interests. These well-off men are obviously not the upstanding citizens they pretend to be!
I only had room here to talk about six of the paintings freshly out on view for Mr. Layton’s Gallery, but I think that you can see that there are many interesting stories to be told.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.