Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Arthur Hughes- That was a Piedmontese ... 1862

Oil on wood

This was the second of Hughes's paintings to be commissioned by Miss Ellen Heaton of Leeds (see also Aurora Leigh's Dismissal of Romney ('The Tryst'), 1860, Tate Gallery N05245). Miss Heaton and Hughes began discussing the commission in December 1860, but the work was not completed until 1862. The patron paid thirty-five guineas for the work.

The subject is from the poem 'A Court Lady' by Elizabeth Barret Browning, who was a friend of Miss Heaton. It appeared in Poems before Congress, published in 1860. The poem describes a beautiful young woman who puts on full court dress in order to visit hospitalised soldiers who fought in the Risorgimento. Her maids dress her in

Diamonds to fasten the hair, diamonds to fasten the sleeves
Laces to drop from their rays, like a powder of snow from the eves.
The woman goes from bed to bed and stops at last at the bedside of the Piedmontese who dies before her eyes:
Back he fell while she spoke. She rose to her feet with a spring -
'That was a Piedmontese! and this is the Court of the King'.
The last line is written in paint on the frame, which is the original.

Miss Heaton was disappointed with Hughes's failure to capture the drama of the last verse. In a letter to her of 7 July 1862, the artist explained, 'I don't know if I shall be able to satisfy you with my reason for painting the Court lady as I have done but it is simply this - that I don't like "fervid impassioned exclamation" and have an especial horror of all such pictures. I prefer the quieter moment that must have followed it and which I feel I can be more successful in' (Mander, p.223). The critic John Ruskin, who had originally introduced Miss Heaton to Hughes, thought the picture 'exquisitely beautiful in the face of the woman - a very perfect gem in this kind' but was critical of the artist's failure to faithfully depict the poem: 'the whole gist of the poem is that the woman puts on her richest Court dress - that which she would have worn to wait on the King - that she may wait on the dying men in that. Hughes has not in the least felt or understood this' (Mander, p.223).

Further reading:
Rosalie Mander, '"The Tryst" Unravelled', Apollo, vol.79, March 1964, p.223, reproduced
Virginia Surtees (ed.), Sublime & Instructive. Letters from John Ruskin to Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, Anna Blunden and Ellen Heaton, London 1972, pp.228-9, 244-5
Leonard Roberts, introduction by Stephen Wildman, Arthur Hughes: His Life and Works, a Catalogue Raisonné, Woodbridge, Suffolk [to be published 1997]

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