Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Laura reading

signed with monogram and dated '1885' (lower left) 
oil on canvas 
36 x 15 in. (91.5 x 38 cm.) 

W. Crane, An Artist's Reminiscences, London, 1907, illustrated opposite p. 274, showing the picture in Crane's studio at Beaumont Lodge, 1885. 

Laura was a young woman for whom the poet Petrarch (1304-1374) nursed an unrequited passion. Although born in Arezzo, he was brought up in Avignon, and it was there that he fell in love. When Laura showed no sign of returning his ardour, he retired to Vaucluse, a romantic spot near Avignon, where he poured out his amorous feelings into sonnets for which he is famed.

The story has obvious parallels with that of Dante and Beatrice, but it attracted far less attention from artists working in the romantic tradition. It is not easy to think of examples, apart, perhaps, from Petrarch's First Meeting with Laura by Ford Madox Brown's friend William Cave Thomas, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861 (see Heaven on Earth, exh. University of Nottingham, 1994, cat. no. 68, illustrated).

The origins of the present painting lie in a fancy-dress ball that was planned in 1884 to celebrate the re-organisation of the Institute of Painters in Watercolours and its move to new premises in Piccadilly. The Institute's Committee undertook to arrange a masque representing different epochs in the history of art from Pheidias to Romney.

As a member of the Committee, Crane was closely involved with the project, which he describes at length in his autobiography, An Artist's Reminiscences (1907). Charged with portraying the art and architecture of Italy, a task so perfectly tailored to his talents that he can have needed little persuading, he decided to visualise the figures in terms of a triptych. In the central section, figures emblematic of Florence were placed against a view dominated by the campanile of the Palazzo Vecchio, while similar groups symbolising Venice and Rome were seen to either side.

The masque was considered such a success that the Lord Mayor commanded a repeat performance at the Mansion House, and Henry Irving commissioned Crane to recast his tableau as an elaborate watercolour. Dated 1885-6 and exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in the latter year, this remained in Irving's possession until his death in 1905, when it was sold at Christie's. Crane reproduced it in his autobiography, and it is now in the City Art Gallery, Manchester.

In the central, Florentine, section of the triptych, Laura and Petrarch are seen in the middle distance, together with Dante, Beatrice and other figures, while Cimabue, the young Giotto (still as a shepherd boy) and Niccolo Pisano occupy the foreground. Many of these figures, as well as those in the flanking groups representing Venice and Rome, were modelled by Crane's family and friends. Crane portrayed himself as Cimabue, while his wife Mary posed for Laura, his son Lionel for Giotto, and his daughter Beatrice for an early Florentine angel.

Our picture is a version of the figure of Laura as she appears in the triptych. It not only shows the entire figure, which in the triptych is partly obscured by Dante, but is on a larger scale and in the more durable medium of oil. Crane does not tell us if Mary Crane played the part of Laura in the original pageant, but the mere fact that she modelled for her in the triptych is enough to explain why he decided to make an independent and more substantial record of her in this role. He was a devoted husband, and over the years had painted her in many guises.

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