Monday, August 16, 2010

William Holman Hunt - Il Dolce far Niente

Price Realized £666,650

signed with monogram, inscribed and dated '1866/London' (lower left) and signed and inscribed 'Il dolce far Niente/by W. Holman Hunt/...' (on an old label on the reverse)
oil on canvas
39¾ x 32 in. (101 x 81.2 cm.)

Bought from the artist by Thomas McLean, 3(?) March 1866, (£649.14s.6d).
Bought from him by Agnew's, 6 March 1866 (900 gns).
Bought from them by Samuel Mendel, 23 April 1866 (1,450 gns).
Bought from him by Agnew's, 16 August 1867 (1,450 gns).
Bought from them by Joseph Morby, 25 May 1869 (800 gns).

London, Royal Academy, 1867, no. 678.
London, Mr Morby's Gallery, 24 Cornhill, 1869.
Liverpool, Liverpool Museum, Exhibition of Modern Pictures, 1875, no. 311 (price £800).
Manchester, City Art Gallery, The Collected Works of W. Holman Hunt, O.M., D.C.L., 1906, no. 59.

Begun in 1859, put aside and taken up again in 1865, and finally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867, this picture marked a radical departure for Hunt, as the title alone - literally meaning 'The sweet doing nothing' - implies. No member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had been more single-minded than Hunt in his determination to paint serious subjects replete with meaning and moral significance. His early works, if they had not been based on the Bible or Shakespeare, had at least had this ethical dimension, and in 1854 he had taken his approach to its logical conclusion by going to the Holy Land to paint biblical events on the very spot where they had occurred. The results had been that tormented masterpiece The Scapegoat (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) and the obsessively detailed Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (Birmingham).

In stark contrast, Il Dolce far niente is essentially an essay in mood and formal values, lacking any ulterior motive and making no pretentions to preach. As Hunt himself put it many years later in his autobiography, 'having long been engaged on works of scale below life-size, it seemed wise now to take up the painting of figures of full proportions. Through the kindness of friends a young lady sat to me, and I commenced a picture which I afterwards called "Il dolce far niente". I made use of the Egyption chairs, which, having been borrowed and painted by other artists, were no longer attractive to me for Oriental sujbects. I was glad of the opportunity of exercising myself in work which had not any didactic purpose. The picture, however, had to be laid by for the time, and finished at a later period from another model.'

This account is somewhat disingenuous. The 'young lady' who sat to Hunt 'through the kindness of friends' was in fact Annie Miller, a professional model of easy virtue whom Hunt hoped to educate and marry. Their fraught relationship, described at length by Diana Holman-Hunt in her book My Grandfather: His Wives and Loves, ended acrimoniously at the end of 1859 because Annie refused to severe her connection with other artists. She caused a permanent rift between Hunt and Rossetti, who often used her as a model in the 1850s and early 1860s, notably in Helen of Troy, a painting of 1863 which perfectly captures what Ford Madox Brown described as her 'siren-like' quality.

As Hunt states so obliquely in his reminiscences, Il Dolce far niente was far from finished when the split with Annie occurred. In fact it was probably put aside for some years as a result of this crisis. When Hunt took the picture up again, his model was Fanny Waugh, the daughter of a prosperous London chemist whom he was to marry in December 1865 (for a straightforward portrait drawing). The result is not altogether felicitous. As Christopher Forbes himself has noted, while the hair is recognisably Annie's (compare Rossetti's Helen of Troy), the strong features and pronounced jaw are those of Fanny. In other words, it is a slightly disconcerting marriage which Hunt's unflinching realism does nothing to minimise.

Hunt also suggests in his account that the painting came about almost by accident, as if he was hust taking a break from more serious works. In fact it is a very deliberate essay in the Aesthetic style of the 1860s, which he must have undertaken as a conscious tribute to prevailing trends. As Robyn Asleson observes in her article in this catalogue, 'broadly stated, Aestheticism was the belief that beauty pursued for its own sake constituted the only appropriate aim of art, and that nature, morality, and all other external concerns were irrelevant to the true artist.' It was a revolutionary concept in its day, and nothing could have been further from Hunt's core beliefs and long-term aims, so it is perhaps not suprising that our picture has no real parallel in his oeuvre. By the time it was exhibited, he had attempted to return to the Holy Land, although this ambition had been temporarily thwarted by Fanny's death en route.

Aestheticism took many pictorial forms, but none was more pervasive in the early stages than a certain 'Venetian' idiom, whether this was represented by rather worldly, hedonistic images of beautiful women, usually seen half-length, which looked back to the prototypes established by Palma Vecchio and Titian, or, less often, by a Giorgionesque design (sometimes known at the time as a 'Boccaccio composition') of figures seated on the ground listening to music or someone reading from a book.

In terms of revivalism within the rapidly evolving field of ideal subject painting, the Venetian mode represents a sort of buffer zone between the medievalism of the mid-to-late 1850s and the classical revival of the mid-1860s. The origins of the phemonenon were complex. It owed much to G.F. Watts, who had interited a love of Titian as part of the legacy of the grand manner, and much to the atmosphere of opulent indolence cultivatd at Little Holland House, of which so many Pre-Raphaelites were habitué by the late 1850s. (The portrait Watts painted of Mrs Prinsep at this period was actually entitled In the Time of Giorgione.) Equally important were a dramatic shift in Ruskin's aethetic and moral values, and a series of foreign visits. Rossetti, on honeymoon in Paris in 1860, took the opportunity to study Veronese in the Louvre. Burne-Jones visited Venice in 1859 and 1862, his steps on each occasion being directed by Ruskin. No-one in the circle remained immune to the style. Although Rossetti was one of the leading exponents, it found rich expression in the work of Watts, Burne-Jones, Val Prinsep (Watts's pupil and Burne-Jones's travelling companion in 1859), Frederic Leighton, Simeon Solomon, and even Whistler. Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs provide some superb examples.
Il Dolce far Niente must be accounted Hunt's unique but important contribution to the Venetian mode. Everything about it points to this conclusion - the half-length female figure, her luxuriant tresses, opulent costume, and air of sensuous enjoyment of life. Hunt had not yet been to Venice in 1859, but in a sense this was irrelevant. Far more important was the fact that that year Rossetti had painted a seminal work, Bocca Baciata (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which not only marked the beginning of the artist's own later development but established a bench-mark for the Venetian style in general. A half-length female figure with all the appropriate attributes, the picture had, as Rossetti himself put it, 'a rather Venetian aspect'. Also influential, perhaps, was Leighton's painting A Roman Lady (La Nanna) (Philadelphia Museum of Art), exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year. Coming from a different direction than Bocca Baciata (the model was the beautiful Nana Risi, the mistress of the painter Anselm Feuerbach, whom Leighton had recently encountered in Rome) the picture was nonetheless surprisingly comparable in mood and approach, and equally indicative of artistic trends. Nor should we forget that Hunt frequented Little Holland House in the late 1850s, or underestimate the influence of Annie Miller. Rossetti's espousal of Venetian forms was intimately bound up with the advent of Fanny Cornforth, the handsome, golden-haired country girl who was probably his mistress before his marriage to Lizzie Siddal in June 1860, and certainly moved into 16 Cheyne Walk as his housekeeper after Lizzie's tragic death in February 1862. Fanny was the model for Bocca Baciata and became the muse of Rossetti's Venetian phase, just as the virginal Lizzie had been closely associated with his earlier Dantesque idiom. Annie, one suspects, played a similar role in Hunt's development, even though her influence was more short-lived. After all, she had many of Fanny's charactertistics, both physically and temperamentally. Indeed Annie herself moved between the two artists, with similar results. Rossetti's Helen of Troy (fig. 1), like Hunt's Il Dolce far Niente, is a very 'Venetian' picture.

Hunt was inclined to take a high moral line with regard to Bocca Baciata. He told his patron Thomas Combe that he found it 'remarkable for gross sensuality of a revolting kind peculiar to foreign prints...I see Rossetti is advocating as a principle mere gratification of the eye and if any passion at all - the animal passion to be the aim of art. For my part I disavow any sympathy with such (a) notion'. Yet this did not prevent him from painting a very comparable image in Il Dolce far Niente. Somehow it is all of a piece wtih his carefully edited account of the picture's evolution in his autobiography. He was a bit of a hypocrite.

Not surprisingly, the picture had a cool reception at the R.A.. People seldom like it when an artist changes his or her style, and in this case there was the added objection that Hunt had abandoned his earlier moral themes. No-one was to know in 1867 that this was a temporary aberration, not the start of a permanent trend. 'That (Mr Holman Hunt) should have sent such a picture as "Il Dolce far Niente",' wrote the critic on the Art Journal, 'is cause for regret. What good can such a picture do? what pleasure can it give? We have the greater right to put this question, because the works of Mr Holman Hunt have hitherto aimed at moral and religious teaching. That the painter of "The Light of the World", "Christ and the Doctors", "The Scape Goat", and "The Awakened Conscience", should thus descend to a picture of costume which cannot be commended even for its beauty, is, we repeat, cause for lamentation. An artist possessed of extraordinary powers is scarcely justified in choosing unworthy themes. When the work undertaken will necessarily occupy much time, when the picture itself bears proof of great technical and manipulative skill, it is all the more to be regretted that the subject and type belong to common nature. If the figure had to be painted at all, it would have been an act of mercy to have made it smaller. The colour is a mistake.'

The art critic on Blackwood's Magazine made much the same point. The Illustrated London News complained that 'the face of the lady is like a painted wooden mask; her hair resembles carved mahogany'. Sidney Colvin, reviewing the year's pictures in the Fortnightly Review, wrote that 'Mr Holman Hunt...seems to have relapsed into artistic incipience, and works painfully in the initiative stage on subjects as unbeautiful as..."Il Dolce far Niente".' Only F.G. Stephens in the Athenaeum was more upbeat. 'There is a great deal of the artist's masculine mode of painting in this work', he wrote, 'admirable modelling of forms and rendering of textures; in fact, it is a nearly perfect piece of cratsmanship.'

Two details in the picture call for particular comment. The circular mirror on the far wall looks back to the one that Hunt had introduced into his design of The Lady of Shalott, conceived about 1850 and developed for one of the illustrations that he contributed to the famous Moxon edition of Tennyson's poems, 1857. The idea seems to have been inspired originally by the comparable mirror in Van Eyck's Arnolfini marriage portrait in the National Gallery, although it had lost its characteristic surrounding disks, still present in The Lady of Shalott design, by the time it reached Il Dolce far Niente. Rossetti and Burne-Jones also loved to introduce circular mirrors into their paintings, and the motif enjoyed a sort of Pre-Raphaelite afterlife in the work of Charles Shannon.

The other notable feature is the chair, one of the 'Egyptian chairs' that Hunt mentions in his autobiography. It is one of a pair that he had designed in 1856, shortly after his return from his first visit to the East, basing the design on an Egyptian stool in the British Museum but adding a back. Now in the Birmingham Art Gallery, the chairs were made of mahogany and sycamore, inlaid with ivory and ebony, and were indeed, as Hunt said, 'borrowed and painted by other artists'. Millais painted them in his picture Jephthah (National Gallery of Wales, Cardiff), exhibited, as it happens, at the R.A. the same year as Il Dolce far Niente and bought by the same collector, Samuel Mendel (1814-1884), a Mancunian cotton and shipping magnate. A stool of the same design can also be seen in Simeon Solomon's pen-and-ink drawing The Anguish of Miriam, dated 1860 (with Durlacher Bros, New York, 1965). It was presumably based on the British Museum original rather than Hunt's derivations, but Solomon's use of the motif almost certainly betrays some knowledge of the latter. In fact, the enthusiasm seems to have been widely shared. Ford Madox Brown was so captivated by the chairs that he commissioned a carpenter to make him another pair, and he went on to design a simpler, cheaper version for the Morris firm when this was founded in 1861. Thus Hunt's essay in furniture design has come to be seen as pioneering the Arts and Crafts movement (see Richard Ormond, 'Holman Hunt's Egyptian Chairs', Apollo, July 1965, pp. 55-8).
The picture was re-touched by Hunt in 1874-5 at the request of its then owner, Lewis Pocock.

We are grateful to Dr Judith Bronkhurst for her help in preparing this entry. The picture will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Holman Hunt.


Wayward Disciple said...

Sorry to say it, but Holman Hunt always gives me a cramp. My least favorite P-R by far.

Hermes said...

Have to disagree there, the Scapegoat is wonderful, though all the religious symbolism is obcure today.

Hermes said...

Have to disagree there, the Scapegoat is wonderful, though all the religious symbolism is obcure today.