Prosperous Isolation: Atkinson Grimshaw’s Ladies

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Elation / Historical feature / John Atkinson Grimshaw / KatherineCaddy / Painting / Portraiture / Victorian Painting / Yorkshire Art Journal

Atkinson Grimshaw’s depictions of women are bound up with themes of isolation, prosperity, and privacy. Having discussed his fictitious fairies, we now move on to look at his depictions of real women. Like so many other painters, this artist relied upon commissions from moneyed members of society. In terms of portraiture, Atkinson Grimshaw often painted luxuriating ladies within decadent interiors. There is an uneasy tone to these works, as though the artist is so far distanced from these women that he merges them with the elaborate interiors that he is so intent on including in minute detail in his earlier portraiture, or, as in later works, ladies become part of the landscape, with little identity at all.

The 1870s marked the peak of his popularity as a portraitist; Atkinson Grimshaw was by this point commissioned to paint personal and fashionable works for wealthy ladies. In ‘Day Dreams’ the artist surrounds the lavishly dressed lady with her belongings, representing her cultured taste and prosperity. The vermilion room is filled with expensive objects such as large rugs, framed artworks, exotic fans, lace and fur throws, and pottery. She lays back on a chaise-longue, dressed in a white frilly dress, with a blunt blonde fringe; it is intended that she be seen as the height of sophistication; perhaps this is intended for the eyes of a potential suitor. The portrait hardly screams modesty, and is in fact the most ostentatious Atkinson Grimshaw work I have so far come across.

Portraitists were employed to create works that flattered and often idealised the sitter, just as today photographs are edited in magazines to airbrush any ‘imperfections.’ It is interesting that this lady chooses to be depicted from such a distance; perhaps this gestures towards her own insecurity. Wishing for her possessions and attire to speak for her, she stares at us with an austere and unwelcoming gaze; we suddenly become aware that we are standing in her private room. If this is intended to represent a daydream, it is perhaps in terms of material concerns; her face is hardly idealised; the artist does not attempt to present this woman as captivating in her beauty. Her hand gestures towards the chair and precious tactile fabrics, grounding her with these possessions as though she is part of an illustrious package.

‘The Cradle Song’ presents a lady sitting next to her baby within a daylight filled, slightly gloomy room. The lady appears pale and exhausted, as though about to yawn or sigh, perhaps exasperated by her sleepless baby. Again the interior gestures to the wealth of the person depicted; fans are lined up with pottery and two large portrait medallions, framed by a vast emerald curtain and an intricately decorative floor. Again there is a sense that we have stepped in during a private and personal moment, this time between mother and child. 

Sometimes the ladies are depicted within nature; on secluded walks or within flourishing gardens, as in ‘Queen of the Lillies‘.The artist ensures that these scenes include the ladies’ residence in the background, reminding the viewer of their link with the domestic, private space that was so often explored within French Impressionist paintings. Gardens had become increasingly popular during the eighteenth century, with polite society longing for exclusive places to entertain guests and relax in.

Atkinson Grimshaw regularly created female portraits that contained the name of a season within the title, as with ‘Autumn Regrets’. The fading of summer is emphasised by the rusty orange leaves scattered on the ground, and the facial expression and black dress of the seated lady implies anguish and sorrow. There is an overriding nostalgic atmosphere; the lady leans her face to her hand, appearing to be mulling over something that has happened in the past. Summer has gone and all that remains is a purple haze and waning leaves.

The artist sometimes illustrated ladies walking in remote locations. The yellow hue of the sky within ‘In the Golden Gloaming’ creates an eerie atmosphere, while the line of houses imply affluence. Late autumn is suggested. The pair of ladies walk together, we imagine slowly, across the narrow path. Youth is contrasted with old age; the sense of the summer’s fading is mirrored through this pairing. The lone figure or pair walking through a landscape was one of Atkinson Grimshaw’s most beloved themes, and one that he continued to explore until his death. ‘In the Winter’s Twilight Glow’ is thought to have been painted during the final year of the artist’s life, increasing its poignancy. The hush of winter fog and the solitary female make for a tentative and quiet moment.

Looking at Atkinson Grimshaw’s work chronologically, we see a pattern. During the 1870s, at the height of his popularity, the artist appears to have been commissioned to paint sumptuous, if overworked, portraits of sophisticated ladies. It then seems that public desire for his solitary walking figures increased; he retreated into painting these reticent and universally appealing works until his death in 1893.

Yorkshire Art Journal’s final feature on Atkinson Grimshaw’s work will focus on his depictions of The Lady of Shalott.

Noted Works
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Day Dreams. 1877. Oil on canvas. Dimensions unknown. Private collection. Source.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, The Cradle Song. 1878. Oil on canvas, 82.6 x 121.9 cm. Private collection. Source.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Queen of the Lillies. 1877. Oil on canvas, 122 x 82.8 cm. Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, Lancashire. Source.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Autumn Regrets. 1882. Oil on canvas, 1882. Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. Source.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, In the Golden Gloaming. 1881. Oil on canvas, 49 x 77 cm. Private collection. Source.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, In the Winter’s Twilight Glow. c. 1892. Oil on canvas, 31 x 45.5 cm. Private collection, U.S.A. Source.

Katherine April Caddy, 28th February 2014.



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