Saturday, May 31, 2014

O Sorrow II

Posted by: Kate

I finally varnished and photographed "O Sorrow."

Let's talk about inspiration and influence!  Yeah yeah yeah?  The name for this painting comes from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.  Who, by the way, was very paintable:

Portrait by Sir John Everett Millais, above.  Below is a wicked photogravure of same portrait:

And below is a portrait by George Frederic Watts:

Another, by Julia Margaret Cameron.  I'm sure Dave would chew off his own right arm to be able to have Tennyson model for his crusty manly-man series:

Oh, and this steaming hot young man with a chiseled jaw and foppish hair is also Alfred Lord Tennyson, as painted by Samuel Laurence:

Tennyson was a prolific and famous poet in his day, being Poet Laureate for much of Queen Victoria's reign.  You can get all the goods on him on wikipedia if you want to know more.  "O Sorrow" comes from a line of his epic elegy, "In Memoriam," a meditation on grief and loss which took him seventeen years to write.  It was inspired by the sudden and devastating death of his closest friend to a brain aneurysm.  And once you learn that brain aneurysms exist, you will never think the same way about that mild prickly headache you sometimes get.

The Victorians were guilty of fetishizing melancholy, for sure, and a lot of Victorian poetry about death and loss can get kind of over the top, but Tennyson is different.  Seriously, read it some day.  There are so many lines I would love to paint from this poem.  Tennyson is one of the most quoted poets for a reason.  The verse that inspired the title of my painting is this:
O Sorrow, cruel fellowship,
O Priestess in the vaults of Death,
O sweet and bitter in a breath,
What whispers from thy lying lip?
'The stars,' she whispers, `blindly run;
A web is wov'n across the sky;
From out waste places comes a cry,
And murmurs from the dying sun:
'And all the phantom, Nature, stands—
With all the music in her tone,
A hollow echo of my own,—
A hollow form with empty hands.'
And shall I take a thing so blind,
Embrace her as my natural good;
Or crush her, like a vice of blood,
Upon the threshold of the mind?
Tennyson is wrestling with whether to allow himself to wallow in his feelings of sorrow or to try to resist them as a mortal vice; he's also dealing with some crisis of faith, which continues throughout the poem (the stars blindly running, instead of according to divine order).

My idea was to paint Sorrow, this "Priestess in the vaults of Death," garbed in widow's weeds, including a thick black veil like that which a mourning woman would have worn in the 19th century.  There was something about the phrase "O Sorrow," that just rang in my head for years after I first read it.  What actually surprised me when I went back to read the poem while writing this post, was realizing that there were a number of details in the verse that I kind of internalized and spat out in the painting without trying to.  Lying lips (her lips are parted as if in speech), blind eyes, empty hands, dying sun...

But we are all, always internalizing the things that draw us, and then regurgitating them back into our own art, usually unintentionally.  That's the fun thing about being an artist.  We get to go out into the world, sample and nibble at the choicest bits, and then create a painting that is basically glorified vomit.  As an artist, you are what you eat; your art is a product of the influences and inspiration you seek out.  If you want to make it sound fancier, Goethe said "We are shaped and fashioned by what we love."  I'd like to share some of the influences that went into this painting, although some of them I hadn't realized until others pointed them out to me.

Mystery drawing by Jean Delville.  If anyone knows the name it goes by, please share in the comments.  I saw this drawing (litho?) at a museum show seven years ago and it stuck in my head like flypaper.  It was a very conscious and intentional source of inspiration.

"La Bella Italiana" Pietro Annigoni.  I'm sure that's where the blue background came from.

Jules Bastien-Lepage
And that's why it's a bad idea to write posts when you're half asleep.  I even had Friant's book right in front of me.  Derp.  The painting above is by Emile Friant and is called "La Douleur".  Thanks Matt.


  1. Pssst... Kate - the last image is La Douleur by Friant

  2. Nice to know your influences - I'm often clueless until I've been looking at the inspiration and my piece just a few feet apart on my living room wall for several years ;)