Elizabeth Báthory, the Blood Countess


The Story in a Nutshell

A 16th century middle aged and rich widow, Elizabeth Báthory, worried about her waning beauty, strikes her chamber maid on the face. A drip of blood accidentally lands on her skin and as she wipes it away, she notices that her skin looks younger and smoother on that spot.

She concludes that blood could be her rejuvenating beauty product. But from where to get fresh blood? Her own maids and servants, of course, young girls from the villages she owns.

She takes up the bad habit of bathing in blood, but not before torturing the victims first -solely for entertainment purposes. The more the better! 600 of them, no less.

Over time, rumours start circulating, eventually reaching the royal palace. The palatine orders an investigation. Elizabeth’s servants are tortured, and the extracted confessions serve as evidence of guilt against the countess.

The servants are quickly executed and Elizabeth is imprisoned in her own castle. She dies before getting a trial. Ashes to ashes, case closed. Or is it?

BathoryErzsebetThis painting is from 1656 but it is said to represent Elizabeth’s actual likeness

A Good Horror Story’s Effect on One’s Imagination

 The pop culture’s persisting fascination with the blood-thirsty Báthory Erzsébet, known in the English-speaking world as Elizabeth Bathory is a curious phenomenon for a fellow Hungarian like me, considering that there was never a huge interest or even awareness of this she-monster in my birth country. Her bad reputation was briefly mentioned in school, but nobody cared enough to read up on it. Thus, it was very surprising to me that here in the new world there was a large body of work dedicated to this woman, including literature, music, visual arts and film.  At the intersection of fact and fiction there is fertile ground for imagination and fantasy, especially when it comes to horror and dark passions. Along with the infamous Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Dracula, already associated with Transylvania (in spite of him  barely spending any time there), now I had to deal with the fact that the most infamous female serial killer that ever walked this earth, the so-called “Blood Countess”, was my compatriot too!

It was shocking at first to encounter this dark and seemingly collectively sick vision of Elizabeth, but as time went by I found myself looking at it from the flip side, as cheap and childish entertainment. After that phase wore off, I became interested in the real person. Was she really that cruel? Were the accusations of torture, murder and vampirism brought against her well-founded? As I got more and more entangled in the ever widening web of distortions, speculations fuelled by the scarcity of historical facts and evidence, it became clear to me that it was impossible to uncover the truth. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to share the STORY. Stories don’t care about the truth. They are born in some unknown recesses of the human brain. The horror variety seems to satisfy an essential need to marvel and fret simultaneously. Stories embody elements of fact and fiction, as experienced by our conscious and unconscious, and merge into a slurry of magic realism that thrills and scares, entertains and teaches at the same time. Regurgitated over and over, stories seem to be just as essential to the human psyche as food, water and shelter are to the body.

Elizabeth_Bathory_PortraitCopy of an original painting of Elizabeth from 1585

How to Create Your Own Monster

To illustrate the above point,  my own Bathory portrait can serve as an example. I took a known portrait of the countess, and after a basic rendering of her features, I let my imagination run with it. The face soon underwent a radical transformation and suddenly the Blood Countess stared back at me from her paper prison. The small white specks in her eyes even made me shiver a bit…

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Biography and facts

Elizabeth Báthory was born in 1560 into one of the richest, most powerful families in Hungary. Her uncle, István Báthory, was the prince of Transylvania and elected king of Poland. Elizabeth grew up in Ecsed and was well educated. She was able to read, write and speak fluently in four languages (Hungarian, Greek, Latin and German). This was very rare for a woman at the time. She was also considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. Betrothed to Ferenc Nádasdy at age eleven, she married him in 1575 at age fifteen. He was four years older. Elizabeth had six children but only three survived to adulthood. She received the now infamous Csejte castle, the place where the alleged killings took place, as a wedding gift from her husband.

Nádasdy was a very talented military man and was appointed Commander in Chief of the Hungarian army soon after getting married.  He was frequently away at war for long periods of time, battling the Ottoman Empire. The enemy was so terrified of him that dubbed him the Black Bey (Fekete Bég). It is worth noting here that some of the rumours incriminated Ferenc as well.

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Whenever her husband was away, Elizabeth took care of his business affairs, the children and the household. Ferenc died in 1604  and the widow was left to fend for herself and the children. There were some predatory attempts from various noblemen trying to appropriate lands inherited from her husband. They simply occupied some of the neighboring Bathory-Nadasdy  lands, claiming them to be their own, but Elizabeth successfully drove them out of her properties.

The Rumours

 It is unclear how and when the rumours started but they seemed to worsen after her husband’s death, when she spent most of her time in isolation in Csejte castle. It appears as though she was an introvert,  preferring a quiet, withdrawn life. According to some sources a local Lutheran priest was one of the people spreading the rumours. He told palatine Thurzó that Elizabeth appeared in his dream as a black cat, which was considered a sign of witchcraft. It seems that the priest held some animosity towards Elizabeth. Perhaps he did not trust the converted protestant Elizabeth. A hundred years later the Jesuit Turoczi was still holding grudges against her abandoning her faith! – as we will see later.

Baron György Kereskényi, Elizabeth’s relative, who was castellan for many years at Csejte castle, also added to the supply of rumours, hoping that if she was convicted, he could lay his hands on some of her properties. Some suspect that palatine Thurzó himself had interest in taking Báthory properties. The joint Nádasdy and Báthory estates were larger than the king’s.

In 1610 Thurzó ordered an investigation against Elizabeth citing “serious complaints”.

The curious thing about Thurzó is that he was actually related to Elizabeth, and he was a close friend of Ferenc Nádasdy. So close that whenever Ferenc went to war, he entrusted Thurzó with taking care of his wife and family. There are a few letters in which Elizabeth asks for the palatine’s advice in her business dealings. The role of palatine Thurzó is very puzzling as it is not known what were his motives.

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Palatine György Thurzó

The Fall

Following up on complaints, Thurzó paid a visit to the countess in Csejte castle in December 1610. He found everything in order and left the castle. However, on December 29 he sent back some soldiers to the castle. According to the transcript Elizabeth was “caught in the act”. She was having dinner, while a girl locked in a cage was getting readied to be tortured later. The soldiers dug up the the castle yard and found one or more bodies that bore some wounds. Elizabeth was put in house arrest, and hearings of her chamber maids and a man servant started immediately. They were accused with complicity in murder. In a matter of days confessions were extracted by torture and the servants were executed in a hurry.

CsejteCsejte castle, the scene of the alleged murders

Elizabeth, as a noblewoman could not be tortured, as it would have been against the law. She was never questioned, no testimony was obtained from her. There was no evidence other than the transcript of the eyewitness accounts extracted through torture. Thurzó did not have a strong case, and he knew it, so he never held a trial, even though the king kept pressing him about it.  Without a conviction, Thurzó hastily ordered Elizabeth’s house arrest. She was locked-up in a room without a window (some say it was the actual torture chamber), only leaving a small opening for passing food and water. Thurzó’s sentence letter said that she should be left to “rot alive”.

hu_mnl_ol_e_0142_fasc_028_no_019_0068A page from the transcript of the witness testimonies

Elizabeth lived for four years in complete isolation, hoping to get a trial, but lost her mind at one point.  The guards would hear her sing and talk to herself. Apparently the day before she died she was singing hymns all day. The next morning the guards found her face down on the floor. They were surprised to see that she did not age at all during those four years. At 54 she still looked beautiful and younger than her age. They found her signed will in the room in which she left everything she owned to her children. Decades later her children fell from grace as well. Accused of treason, the king confiscated their properties and they were exiled. With this last blow the once powerful family had weakened beyond recovery and vanished from the records of history.

8fa3195d781c00b3e9adf7209c707797--the-inspiration-elizabeth-bathoryDetail from Elizabeth’s will

Experts suspect that perhaps there were political reasons behind Thurzó’s motives, such as to destroy the rival Báthory family’s good name. At this time another Báthory, Elizabeth’s cousin was the reining prince of Transylvania, so there were political implications involved.

A Most Unusual Investigation

Over 300 witnesses were brought forward to testify from March 1610 to July 1611, some as far as Sárvár, the family’s main property. Interestingly, the most damaging accusations came from there, not Csejte where she lived. At first, the Csejte witnesses only mentioned the severity of the physical punishments, but only in a handful of cases. As the rumours from Sárvár spread all over the country, the hysteria grew, and the number of casualties  increased exponentially. The testimonies were based on word of mouth that could not be confirmed. The actual eyewitnesses could only give account of corporal punishments.

hu_mnl_ol_e_0142_fasc_028_no_019_0075Another page from the transcript of witness testimonies. I was able to read some of the text and noticed that this single page mentions at least 4 times what had been HEARD FROM OTHERS, not what had been witnessed!

Enlisted ways of of torture included poking the skin with pins, ripping out pieces of flesh, burning the flesh with hot iron, flogging the girls and pouring cold water on them and then making them stand outside for extended periods. Curiously, the last form of punishment, tossing cold water on servants, was routinely used as an effective “treatment” for laziness! Cleansing wounds with heated iron was a common medical treatment at the time and some of the medical tools used looked similar to torture devices. Historians think that Elizabeth established a hospital on the grounds, and some of the accusations depicted as torture were actually medical treatments, inflated and distorted to satisfy the expectations of the investigators who threatened and tortured the witnesses. Experts found evidence that medicine orders were placed by the castle, and that Elizabeth may have worked with doctors. It was the custom at the time that nobility took care of the health issues of their subjects. The presence of a hospital would also explain the dead bodies dug up by the soldiers.

There were disappearances reported as well, but no relatives ever came forward to confirm that. According to historians, there is some data suggesting that many girls from surrounding villages volunteered to go into Elizabeth’s service, with the approval of their parents. Would any mother send her daughter to such dangerous place?, we might ask.

Another damaging fact for the credibility of the accusors is that a girl that was found alive at the scene, a crown witness, was let go without a testimony!

The more infamous acts were first mentioned about a hundred years later. As the legend grew, so did the atrocities and the body count. The horror story first appeared in a book (“Tragica historia”) published in 1729 by a Jesuit monk, László Turóczi. The story starts with he aging countess ordering all her mirrors to be destroyed. She doesn’t want to see her wrinkles. One day a maid pulls Elizabeth’s hair by accident while combing  it. The angry countess strikes the girl on her face so violently that blood squirts from her mouth. A drop of blood lands on the countess’ hand and as she wipes it off, the skin seems to look younger on that spot.

After this incident she starts torturing and killing young girls, and bathes in their blood to rejuvenate her body. Turóczi is the first person to come up with the high number of victims, over 600!  Later stories mention drinking blood and homosexual acts as well.

6c33b72b42a8152452b61cce277d5630--elizabeth-bathory-serial-killersIstván Csók, Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed -detail

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What emerges from these accounts as probability is that perhaps even by XVIth century standards, Elizabeth was extremely strict with her maids and did not refrain from administering severe punishments such as lashes and pins under the nails. Was it a way of showing that she was tough as a man and in charge? Or she indeed possessed tyrannical tendencies? We don’t know.  What we do know is that records were found indicating that on two occasions she had offered help for pure altruistic reasons. In one instance she took care of an out-of-wedlock pregnant woman, and in another she helped the widow of a soldier. These facts are a clear indication that Elizabeth was not lacking empathy and compassion for those in need or distress.

Special interest has been paid to two surviving personal letters (1596) written to her husband in which she shares details about their children’s illnesses. Although they don’t reveal much about her personality, they have allowed for a handwriting analysis. Her will also survives. A graphologist analyzed the letters and found nothing indicating any abnormal tendencies. She appeared to be a rational and clear thinking person.

bathory (5)Elizabeth’s signature

A Hungarian legal expert examined the testimonies and circumstances of the accusations and concluded that they were fabrications. Someone wanted the downfall of the widow and perhaps the entire family, which indeed was destroyed decades later.

Another indication that she may have been framed was a similar case of another female relative of palatine Thurzó. She was also accused of extreme punishments of her servants, but was never imprisoned – although she ended up in exile and all her properties were confiscated.

Popular Culture Fame

 The story may yet change, as more research is done, but popular culture loves the horror story of the Blood Countess as it is. For those interested in such things, here are a few examples from literature, film and the visual arts. There is even a death metal band with the name Bathory!

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An Unusual Model and Three Sculptors


Her name was Caira and she was 82 years old. She had just been told she had cancer and she only had a few months to live. She wanted to see her son one last time, so she traveled to Paris from Italy. Her son was a model to sculptor Jules Desbois, who had expressed interest in modelling her. The model persuaded his mother to pose for Desbois.

This is all the information I could find on the elderly model. And her name, Caira. She must have been a very brave woman to pose in the nude at her advanced age – more than a century ago! Was it love for her child that made her take the clothes off her weathered body? We can only guess at her motivation,  but the fact is she inspired three wonderful sculptors to create work based on her:  Desbois, friend and assistant to Auguste Rodin, Rodin himself, and Camille Claudel, Rodin’s assistant, model and lover.

Desbois was the first sculptor to model her in terra cotta (Rodin had started working with her around the same time).  His work is titled “La Misere” (Misery).

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How could “Misery” leave anyone unmoved? One feels inclined to throw away those rags, cover her in a blanket and tell her she will be alright. Desbois’ approach provokes a strong emotional response.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rodin’s version, “She Who Was The Helmetmaker’s Once-Beautiful Wife” later became part of his monument, The Gates of Hell. His focus is on the physical appearance of the model. The work bluntly shows her exposed and aware of the ravages of time. And time is more cruel to women than men. “There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say, that which offers no outer or inner truth”, said Rodin.  He finds inner beauty in this woman – in her vulnerability and dignity even as she resigns herself to fate.

hb_11.173.3photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The most shocking, and the most original of the tree sculptures is Camille Claudel’s version of the model. Incredibly, in spite of the prevailing academic tastes in stylistic approaches of the era, this groundbreaking sculpture was well received at the Paris Salon.

Claudel envisions Caira as Clotho, one of the Fates, who spins the thread of destiny. Clotho is usually depicted as a young girl in the visual arts, but Camille chooses to show her as an old woman entangled in her thread. Her relationship with Rodin was falling apart around the same time she was working on Clotho, which explains her preoccupation with destiny.

The old woman resurfaced later as death in her most important work, The Age of Maturity.clotho

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Photo by Ch.Baraja

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a wonderful gesture from this old woman, Caira, to trigger such powerful response by not one, but three great sculptors!

 

“The Thinker”


Last weekend, while reading an art history book, I came across a familiar face dubbed “The Thinker”. No, it wasn’t Michelangelo’s Lorenzo de Medici lost in thought, and it wasn’t Rodin’s famous sculpture either. It was the original, Neolithic version of “The Thinker”. When was the last time I had seen it? It must have been in grade 5 history class that I became acquainted with it, and never thought about it ever since.  And now there he was, in all his glory, looking back at me in the company of another piece called “Seated Woman”.

“Is this couple so famous that it became part of  art history books?”I marveled. I was very impressed!

The "Thinker" & the "Seated Woman" - Masterpieces of Neolithic Art by londonconstant.

The two clay statuettes were found in Cernavoda, Romania, in 1956, in a tomb near the river Danube. They originate from the Hamangia culture, an early farming society emerging in the sixth millennium B.C. They were found among other similar but headless figurines. There is no unanimous agreement on the age of the artifacts, various sources dating them somewhere between 2500 B.C. and 6000 B.C.

There are plenty of other statuettes from the Neolithic, but none of what I’ve seen display the high degree of care for form, gesture and emotional involvement. These figurines are clearly the work of an artist.

The woman is depicted in a casual way, sitting with arms resting on one knee. Her robust thighs and hips follow the usual Neolithic approach to femininity (i.e. abundance and fertility), but the well defined hands are positioned softly and gently on the knee.  The portrayal of the woman is executed with sensibility and subtlety uncharacteristic to that age.

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Can it get any better than this?  It sure can! The maker shows even more concern for the male figure.

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He is seated on a meticulously modelled and realistic stool.  Lost in thought, his facial expression and suggestive gesture show anguish and worry. The artist made a conscious effort to articulate his subject’s state of mind. If the statuettes were to be used for nothing but religious ritualistic purposes, he would have not bothered with that. I suspect he made the figures for his own pleasure, like all artists do. The heavily stylized anatomy and facial expression look very contemporary to our eyes. The Thinker’s arresting presence conveys that perhaps what we are witnessing is one of the beginning moments of art where a personal aesthetic and independent thought take priority over the generalized tastes of the collective. And what a huge leap is that for humanity! Thousands of years of progress follow, a lengthy but steady evolution, until art arrives back to where it had started. I keep thinking that Brancusi himself could have carved these figures! Art has indeed come full circle…

This novelty is a Romanian coin dedicated to The Thinker:

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The picture below demonstrates the draw of these statuettes even in the present day. Artists and artisans are inspired by the mastery of these figures. These are contemporary copies of the sculptures.

The Thinker of Hamangia and his Woman

And lastly, this is my sculpture inspired by these two figurines, titled “Evolution”. For more pictures follow the link: https://erikatakacs.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/evolution-new-sculpture/

Inspired by the art of Csontváry


Today I’d like to write about one of my favourite painters. I must have been 12 when I first saw his large sized paintings.  They made quite an impact on me.

Csontváry (1853-1919), was born in Hungary the same year as Van Gogh, had a similar life, and as a painter was his equal (in my opinion). Unfortunately his contemporaries did not understand the symbolism of his vision. He was a loner and a schizophrenic.

Self-Portrait
c. 1900
Oil on canvas, 67 x 39,5 cm
Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

At the age of 27 Csontváry had a vision. A voice told him he was going to become the biggest sunway painter (in his words), bigger than Raffaello. Nobody knows what he meant by “sunway”. He worked for more than 10 years as a pharmacist to make enough money to support himself as a painter. He was 41 when he set out for Paris, but like Van Gogh, didn’t stay long at the Academy. Like Gauguin, he yearned for something pure and simple, but he found the exotic in the people and nature of  the Middle East.

Old Fisherman
1902
Oil on canvas, 59,5 x 45 cm
Herman Ottó Museum, Miskolc

 

 

Csontváry painted thousand year old cedars in Lebanon, this one here is one of the best, titled “The Solitary Cedar”. The tree personifies him, the lonely artist, misunderstood and ridiculed by many.  The sheer size of this canvas, and the incredibly vibrant colours left me breathless and speechless. I felt small and insignificant, overpowered by his art.

The Solitary Cedar
1907
Oil on canvas, 194 x 248 cm
Janus Pannonius Museum, Pécs

He held about three exhibits in his lifetime, largely ignored by the public and the press. He probably never sold a painting. Because of lack of success and loneliness he slowly descended into mental illness and was unable to paint another painting.

 

Baalbek
1906
Oil on canvas, 385 x 714,5 cm
Janus Pannonius Museum, Pécs (loan)

After his death he remained unknown for a very long time due to most of his work being owned by a private collector. Today his collection is exhibited in national galleries in Hungary.

Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon
1907
Oil on canvas, 200 x 205 cm
Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

Sofonisba Anguissola: Remarkable Woman Artist of the Renaissance


I was doing online research on self-portraits when I came across this image on a search page. There were about thirty pictures on the page, but this one was the most attention-grabbing.

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What was so special about this painting? I could not quite understand. It was an unassuming pose, the colours were muted, yet something was so alluring about her character. The earnestness of the gaze and the high skill level in creating atmosphere and presence kept my attention for a considerable time. Who was this intriguing painter? Why didn’t I know her work? I knew I had stumbled upon someone worthy of more attention.

It turned out her name was Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532 – 1625) and she was a late Renaissance painter. I was surprised because her style was so different from the typical over-dignified, idealized and slightly stiff representation of the sitter’s personality. Where were the spectacular props, clothing, jewellery and hairstyle specific for that era? And what about the painting in the background, the one she is working on? It is affectionate and intimate, so unlike the usual Madonna and child paintings where the religious message takes precedence over the mother and child bond. The closeness is so natural that it is easy for us to overlook its novelty at the time it was painted. Unfortunately, the painting  in the background is lost, but even from the tiny image of it we can see Anguissola is recording that special moment when a mother is just about to kiss her precious child. How unusual is this depiction of mutual worship when we think of the slightly detached, more ethereal approach by other Renaissance painters! As I delved deeper into the life and art of Sofonisba, I was in for more surprises.

Her father, Amilcare, was a member of the new, ambitious nobility that embraced the emerging humanist ideas wholeheartedly. His family claimed a connection to Carthaginian roots; Sofonisba was named after a Carthaginian noblewoman. Amilcare had six daughters and one son. All the children were educated in the spirit of Castiglione’s ‘The Courtier’ which advocated a thorough education for both sexes in Latin, Greek, philosophy, music and painting. Sofonisba and three of her sisters showed promise in painting, but as noble women, they were not allowed to study in a painter’s workshop as apprentices. The only women able to do apprenticeship were the daughters of artists. Such was the case with Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi. Amilcare found an innovative solution to this problem, one that would later open the door for other women aspiring to choose painting as a profession. Amilcare paid the leading painter in Cremona a fee to teach his girls drawing and painting techniques. Bernardino Campi taught the girls for a while, and when he moved out of town, Bernardino Gatti took over thir education.

Amilcare showed great interest in the artistic development of his daughters, even going as far as assuming an agent’s role in aggressively marketing their work among the nobility. When Sofonisba finished her studies in Cremona,  she travelled to Rome where she was introduced to Michelangelo. The master recognized her talent and offered informal advice through correspondence. On one occasion Sofonisba copied a Michelangelo drawing of a smiling girl. He praised her skill but challenged the young girl to work harder, and try to draw a crying boy. Sofonisba took up the challenge and the result was this drawing that soon after made its way to the noble circles of Italy, at one point even ending up in the collection of the powerful Medici family. The subject of her drawing is her crying little brother, bitten by a crayfish, and impishly comforted by one of his sisters. The unusual step of turning to her immediate family and surroundings for inspiration was an innovative move.

Here is ‘Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish’ .

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The realistic informal approach to this little scene is very much in contrast with the formal, idealized lines and subjects of her age. To our eyes its realistic rendering seems familiar and contemporary. However, in the sixteenth century it was an original idea, or “invenzione”, a highly praised quality and requirement for any Renaissance artist aspiring mastery. This novel idea is a sign of growing confidence in the blossoming young artist. According to experts, it was very likely that Caravaggio saw this drawing, and later it served as inspiration for his ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’.

Caravaggio
The most famous painting by Anguissola is ‘The Chess Game’. It shows the painter’s younger sisters Lucia (on the left), Europa and Minerva enjoying a chess game in the company of a servant or chaperone that appears in other paintings as well.

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Here we see Sofonisba turning to portraiture, the only acceptable form of painting for women of the Renaissance, given the fact they were not permitted access to nude models, which was an absolute requirement for large religious and historical/mythological compositions. This societal restriction imposed upon her gender may very well have been one of the reasons she was forced to get around the constraints of her circumstances through the power of creativity – often one of the main factors behind fresh ideas. In her case the lack of models prompted her to turn to her immediate family members as sitters. This simple but unusual step brings much liveliness and charm to the atmosphere of the painting. Anyone who has a sibling surely recognizes the little mocking smile on Europa’s face for what it is. Nevertheless, she is an adorable little brat. Minerva, however, is losing one of her pieces and is not amused. She raises her hand in indignation. The old woman is leaning over with interest. The main character’s gaze is resting upon the viewer, who is drawn into the game as an observer. The eyes travel from face to face in a dynamic circular motion. Curiously, except for the raised hand of Minerva, all this spirited energy is achieved in spite of an otherwise motionless composition. The setting for the painting is placed outdoors, thus the illusion of fresh air offsets the stuffiness of the attires. Originality in concept, design and execution are remarkable here indeed. Having visited the Anguissola household at a time when Sofonisba was off to Spain, Vasari was very impressed with this painting and with the characters “done with such care and such spirit, that they have all the appearance of life, and are wanting in nothing save speech”.

Virtually an unknown until recent times, except for a handful of art historians, Sofonisba is now considered a pioneer in portraiture and genre painting.

Another intriguing portrait is ‘Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba’, a picture she painted as a tribute to his teacher.

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The oversize painting the master is working on is quite unsettling as it towers over him. The master’s turned head, his x-ray gaze is resting upon us, the viewers, and so is the model’s, Sofonisba’s too.  It is a bit confusing:  Is it really a portrait? Or is it a self-portrait?  Or perhaps the invisible subject is us, the viewers,  that the painter and the model are scrutinizing?The modern viewer has even more questions to ask: Is it about ego? About self-identity? Is it a clever trick dragging one into some psycho-analytical jungle? Ah, but those classics, they had no Freud and no Jung to complicate things for them…Perhaps the picture is just a picture, but a smart one in its inconclusiveness.

Although Sofonisba never had  a child of her own,  she must have had a soft spot for children. Their fleeting, capricious moods are recorded with an honest exactitude. She captures the complexities of a budding character with unapologetic realism. Yet, it is never in question that a  sympathetic eye is guiding her brush. She possesses that special ability to touch audiences across time – the  sign of a true master.

‘Portrait of Marquess Massimiliano Stampa’ was commissioned to commemorate the young boy becoming the head of the family upon the death of his father. It is a great psychological study of the boy’s state of mind: the weight of undertaking responsibilities not meant for tiny shoulders, anxiety, loss of a loved one, but courage and determination at the same time as well, to meet what is expected of him. No doubt, this little boy will rise to the occasion – with help from a furry friend perhaps.

Portraitof MarquessMassimilianoStampa

‘Portrait of a Nun’ is a delicate picture of a charming, young innocent girl turning into a nun. There is much to ponder for our present day sensibilities. Sofonisba also has a chance to display her technical virtuosity in tackling the challenges of white.

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Sofonisba quickly gained recognition that extended well beyond her region. She received a commission from the Duke of Alba, who in turn referred her work to King Philip II of Spain. The King was so impressed with her work that she invited her to be a court painter and lady-in-waiting for his new bride, Elizabeth Valois, who was interested in portrait painting. Sofonisba started tutoring the Queen and the two became close friends. She painted many portraits at the Spanish court, but frankly, the court paintings are not as successful artistically. They cannot break the formality and stiffness characteristic of royal courts. She could only do real work on the faces, the rest of her paint and talent is consumed by the excessive details of décor, fabric and embellishment. The faces are lovely and real, but they don’t reveal much about character anymore. This portrait of Elizabeth Valois was the most copied painting by Anguissola, even Rubens made a copy of it.

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After the death of the Queen, and over a decade of success in Spain, the King arranged a marriage for Sofonisba with the son of the prince of Palermo, and paid her a generous dowry. Her husband was supporting of her art, so she was able to continue painting. She executed a number of religious paintings. Unfortunately, most of those have been lost in a fire at the Prado. After some eight years together, the couple decided to return to Italy and settle in Palermo. The King provided Sofonisba with a generous pension, enough for her to live a comfortable life even after her husband’s untimely death. Now in her forties and childless, Sofonisba embarked on a boat to travel to Genoa. On the trip she fell in love with the ship’s captain who was much younger than her. They married and lived in Genoa for forty years. Her fame spread across Europe and she became one of the most successful portraitists of her day. Her paintings were much sought after and admired. She continued working well into old age until her eyesight started to weaken – and then she turned herself into a patron of the arts. In her nineties she moved back to Sicily. The young Anthony Van Dyck visited her there. He made a sketch of her and recorded her words of wisdom and advice to him.

Here is the sketch, followed by the painting by Anthony Van Dyck:

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After her death her adoring husband, who described her as tiny of stature “but great among mortals”, placed this inscription on her tomb: “To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man. Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman.”

Sofonisba Anguissola’s life was a success rarely seen in art history. It seems she had the ideal mixture of natural talent and character along with wit, attractive physical appearance, social intelligence and good fortune. But despite her extraordinary achievement, her name and work slowly slipped into obscurity, only to be rediscovered at the end of the twentieth century. Nobody can predict the fickle nature of remembrance in the flux of time but it is hard not to agree with Vasari’s summary of her legacy: “Anguissola has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavours at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, coloring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings.” A true Renaissance woman indeed…

 

 

 

An unusual model and three sculptors


Her name was Caira and she was 82 years old. She had just been told she had cancer and she only had a few months to live. She wanted to see her son one last time, so she traveled to Paris from Italy. Her son was a model to Jules Desbois, who took interest in modelling her. The son persuaded the mother to pose for the sculptor. That’s all the information I found on Caira. She must have been a very courageous woman to pose nude at that advanced age.  More than a century ago! Maybe it was her love for her child that made her take her clothes off her weathered body. Whatever the reason, she inspired three wonderful sculptors:  Desbois, a friend and assistant to Auguste Rodin, Rodin himself, and Camille Claudel, Rodin’s assistant, model and lover.

Desbois was first to model her in terra cotta (Rodin started working with her around the same time).  His work is titled “Misery”.

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How could Misery leave anyone unmoved? You almost feel inclined to throw away those rags, cover her in a blanket and tell her she’ll be alright. Desbois’ approach provokes a strong emotional response.

Rodin’s version, “The Helmetmaker’s Once Beautiful Wife” became part of his monument, The Gates of Hell.

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Rodin’s focus is on the physical appearance of the model. The work bluntly shows her exposed and aware of the ravages of time. And time is more cruel to women than men. “There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say, that which offers no outer or inner truth” – said Rodin.  He finds the inner beauty in this old woman in her vulnerability and dignity even as she resigns herself to fate.belle_heaulmiere_big1

Most shocking of the three sculptures, and the most original is Camille Claudel’s version of the aged model. She envisions her as Clotho, one of the Fates, who spins the thread of destiny. Clotho is usually depicted as a girl, but Camille chooses to show her as an old woman entangled in her thread.

Claudel’s relationship with Rodin was falling apart around the time she was working on Clotho, which explains her preoccupation with destiny.

The old woman resurfaced later as death in her most important work, The Age of Maturity.clotho

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Photo by Ch.Baraja

What a wonderful gesture from this old woman, Caira, to trigger such powerful response by not one, but three great sculptors!

Inspired by the art of Georges Jeanclos


When I first started taking pottery classes, and became interested in handbuilding, my teacher showed me a book about the art of Georges Jeanclos (1933-1997), a French ceramist. I still remember the moment I opened the book, his art was speaking to me. And we all know that although we admire some art more than other, art that moves us, shakes us, lifts us up is rare.

I am saddened by the fact there is no webpage dedicated to Jeanclos and there aren’t many images of his sculptures available on the net. He was one of France’s most respected artists in his lifetime afterall.

Jeanclos’ works consist mostly of unglazed grey terra cotta figures. He seems to be obsessed with death. His  “Kamakura” series is inspired by a shrine he visited in Kamakura, Japan, dedicated to stillborn/unborn children, commemorated by rows of grey statuettes. http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/jizo1.shtml (you need to scroll down a bit).
His “Kamakuras” are figurative sculptures with Buddha-like slip cast head, and are always wrapped in thin layers of peeling, cracked, clothlike clay.

The death of his father affected him deeply. He produced a number of urns, with even more tightly wrapped clothing around the figure. The figures appear peaceful, contemplative, accepting their fate.

Jenclos’ art is quiet but powerful.

Here you can see more of his works:
http://www.franklloyd.com/dynamic/artist.asp?ArtistID=10