Monday, June 18, 2018

From the Archives: Intrepid Women: Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler: Painter of Battles & Soldiers

Monday, June 18, 2018

Since this week is marks the commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo (the battle was fought on June 18, 1815), this painting and its celebrated artist seem like the perfect subject to share again.

Susan reporting,

Being a professional painter in Victorian England was a difficult path for a woman, but for Elizabeth Southerden Thompson (1846-1933), left, success came swiftly, and with unexpected subjects.

Born in Switzerland to wealthy English parents who believed in travel as a form of education, Elizabeth began her art training in Italy and London as a teenager, concentrating on religious subjects. While studying in Paris, she first saw the work of French painters chronicling heroic battle scenes. Inspired, her first military history painting, Missing, earned her admission to the Royal Academy in 1873.

But it was Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea, or The Roll Call, right, (click on the images to enlarge) painted in 1874 when she was only 28, that made her a celebrity. Showing the haggard survivors of a battalion of Grenadiers answering the roll call after a battle, the painting was an enormous success, drawing such great crowds that a special policeman was hired to keep order. In an unprecedented move, the painting was even removed from the Academy wall and carried to Buckingham Palace so Queen Victoria could view it privately. Her Majesty was as impressed as everyone else, and bought the picture for the royal collection.

Miss Thompson next turned to Waterloo for inspiration, completing The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras, below left, in 1875, another popular success. Her large, detailed canvases were the equivalent of big-screen extravaganzas that fed the imagination and patriotism of the British Empire, then at its pinnacle. But she also focused on the suffering of the ordinary soldier, emphasising the cost of war as well as its glory. Her battle pictures are also unusual because they most often depict the scene from the (doubtless intimidated) enemy's point of view, who are seldom shown. She was fastidious in her research, having replica uniforms made for her models. More military-themed paintings followed, and she became one of the most acclaimed artists of her time.

The public was not only fascinated by the art, but Miss Thompson herself. How was it that a young and attractive English lady could paint such vivid scenes of heroism and suffering that Crimea veterans praised their accuracy? Even the influential art critic John Ruskin was impressed by Quatre Bras - in spite of his determined preconceptions:

"I never approached a picture with more iniquitous prejudice against it than I did Miss Thompson's; partly because I have always said that no woman could paint; and, secondly, because I thought that what the public made such a fuss about must be good for nothing. But it is...the first fine Pre-Raphaelite picture of battle we have had; profoundly interesting, and showing all manner of illustrative and realistic faculty. Of course, all that need be said of it...must have been said twenty times over in the journals; and it remains only for me to make my tardy genuflexion, on the trampled corn, before this Pallas of Pall Mall."

In 1877 she married Sir William Francis Butler, and her career fell behind not only that of her husband, an officer in the British Army, but her new role as a mother. She joined her husband on his posts around the world – Egypt, Zanzibar, South Africa, as well as his home in Ireland – and bore and raised their six children. While her artistic production diminished, she still continued to paint military scenes, including the heroic Scotland Forever!above, in 1881. Regarded as her finest painting, it's also undeniably her most dramatic, depicting the start of the charge of the Royal Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. (To show how cinematic this painting is - and the influence it had upon later movie-makers - see this clip of the same charge from the 1970 movie Waterloo.) She also painted and drew scenes from her travels.

But the most lasting blow to Lady Butler's career is one that many artists face. By the beginning of the twentieth century, tastes in painting had changed, and her meticulously detailed history paintings were seen as hopelessly old-fashioned in the face of new, more abstract movements like Cubism. Even more damning was the shifting perception of armies and battles after the modern horrors of World War One. The grand heroic warfare with patriotic gestures and splendid uniforms of the past no longer had a place in the public imagination, and in 1924, the last painting she submitted to the Royal Academy was rejected. She died in 1933.

In addition to her paintings, Lady Butler also wrote three books, including her autobiography. It's available to read or download for free here; her illustrations, like the one lower right, are included and are wonderful, full of excitement that matches the life she lived.

Top: Scotland Forever!, 1881, Leeds Art Gallery.
Upper right: Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea, (or The Roll Call), 1874, The Royal Collection Trust.
Upper left: The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras, 1875, National Gallery of Victoria.
Middle right: Self-Portrait by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler, 1869, National Portrait Gallery.
Lower right: "Got it, Bravo!" illustration from An Autobiography, 1922.

Being Elsewhere

Loretta reports:

I have no report. With apologies, there will be no Nerdy History Girl blog post from me today, because it's too late at night to pretend to be intelligent about history. This is because I didn't come back soon enough from where I was away to. Instead I offer all the preceding prepositions in places some people will say are wrong.

And the pictures are from where I was late coming back from, on the Maine coast in paradise. So maybe you won't blame me for not hurrying back.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Breakfast Links: Week of June 11, 2018

Saturday, June 16, 2018
Breakfast Links are served! Our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• A cup of tea, made the 18thc way.
• The rebozo: fashion, feminism, and death.
• Lily of Liberty: Amelia Bloomer at 200.
• Thomas Bewick's cat.
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, 17thc poet - and perhaps a pre-Romantic?
• Face of a suffragette: previously unknown footage of Emily Wilding Davison discovered.
Faith Trumbull: the artist was a young girl.
Image: The Silver Streak Iron, c1946 may be the most beautiful iron ever made.
• Did 18thc heiress Mary Blandy poison her father's oatmeal?
• Rainbow-colored beasts from a 15thc Book of Hours.
• Murder on the Titanic: the nightmare one survivor from Rhode Island never forgot.
• Blue moons, honeymoons, and moons made of green cheese: lunar language.
• Early Modern memes: recycling and reusing 17thc woodcuts in popular print.
• Catching up on Beatnik fashion.
Image: "The latest style of ladies' muff is provided with a pocket for the owner's pet dog" 1895.
• When Connecticut led the nation in the production of pins.
• An x-ray of a Civil War wound? A hapless re-enactor accidentally shot himself with an 1860s gun.
• Might we interest you in a dog-powered velocipede?
• Quick quiz: can you match these archaic names for animals with their modern names?
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday Video: Wilma Rudolph, the Unstoppable

Friday, June 15, 2018
Wilma Rudolph wins in Rome 1960
Loretta reports:

My husband, who also is a Nerdy History Person (although suffering from a less virulent form of the disease), sent me this article: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman. Not being a Sports Person, I had only recognized her name—something to do with Olympics? That’s as far as it went. Then I read her story, and kept on looking for more and more. She survived and conquered ordeals that would have crushed many of us—well, me, definitely. How about polio and poverty, to start with?



Biography Channel Video: Mini Bio: Wilma Rudolph

You can find many bios online, including this one and this one.

Image: Image: Rudolph convincingly wins the women's 100 meter dash at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

Readers who receive our blog via email might see a rectangle, square, or nothing where the video ought to be. To watch the video, please click on the title to this post (which will take you to our blog) or the video title (which will take you to YouTube).

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Formal Ball Gown from the French Court, c1780

Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Susan reporting,

For fashion historians, there are some garments from the past that become celebrities in their own right, featured over and over in books, exhibitions, and on Pinterest. These garments have earned this status for a number of reasons: because of the fame of the original owner or maker, exceptional craftsmanship, rare textiles or embellishments, or simply because of their beauty.

(As always, please click on the images to enlarge them. I know these photos are a bit dark, but the galleries were low-lit to preserve the textiles - a fair trade-off.)

The dress shown here qualifies on every count. It's currently on display through July 29, 2018 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the Visitors to Versailles: 1682-1789 exhibition (see here, here, and here for my posts featuring other objects from the exhibition.) This exquisite ball gown, or robe parée, would have been worn at only the most formal occasions at the French court at Versailles in the late 18thc.. Once linked to Queen Marie-Antoinette herself, the gown is still attributed to the queen's dressmaker, Marie Jeanne "Rose" Bertin (1747-1813).

The gown definitely belonged to a woman of very high status at the court, and it's exactly the kind of luxurious and costly garment that would bring the ire of French revolutionaries a decade later. Not only is the surface design - featuring draped ribbons, flowers, and peacock feathers - sophisticated and elegant, but the execution of the embroidery on the cream-colored silk satin is extraordinary. The list of the elements on the exhibition placard shows the complexity of the the needlework: silk embroidery, appliques of satin, metallic threads, chenille, sequins, and applied glass paste. Everything was designed to sparkle by candlelight, and make the wearer the center of attention as she danced.

What to me is even more extraordinary is that the gown remains a showpiece even though it has been significantly altered. Originally worn over the wide hoops (pannier) required for 18thc court dress, a later owner had the petticoat (skirt) narrowed to a bell-shape and the bodice remade to conform to mid-19thc tastes, and likely to make it more wearable and lighter as well. The ruffles shown are also later additions. No matter: it's still breathtakingly beautiful.

Formal Ball Gown, attributed to Marie Jeanne "Rose" Bertin, c1780s, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. Photographs ©2018 Susan Holloway Scott.
 
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