Romance online exhibition
Oil on canvas, 1891
Accession number WAG 2928
Maurice Greiffenhagen was born in London of parents who had emigrated from Baltic shores. He spent the early years of his career in London until 1906 when he was offered the post of professor of painting at the Glasgow School of Art, where he remained until 1926. Like many of the artists of his era Greiffenhagen began his career by making drawings of antique sculpture in the British Museum. He was only sixteen years old when he was admitted to the Royal Academy School.
Although Greiffenhagen regularly exhibited in the Royal Academy, 'An Idyll' was the painting that established his reputation. The painting was an instant success and as a result was reproduced many times. It depicts a young man dressed as a shepherd embracing a yielding maid on a slope of pastureland. Despite the display of female nudity in many of the paintings surrounding it in the High Victorian gallery at the Walker Art Gallery, explicit embracing scenes are rare.
The shepherd is depicted grabbing the young woman with a sudden powerful movement. Her body falls powerless into his arms, the light colour of her skin contrasts with his. Her expression may have been characterised as ecstatic, but it is striking that she seems more to surrender to the young man's passion than to actively participate in the embrace. An active role on behalf of the woman in a scene of passionate embrace would have been unacceptable in the eyes of a Victorian audience. However, the woman's surrender and her gaze captures the passion and spontaneity of the moment.
Greiffenhagen relied on colour as the expressive medium of the painting. The vibrant warm red colour of the poppies at the feet of the lovers contrasts with the cool greens and blues of the background. The artist used loose and quick brushstrokes, building form through colour in the manner of his contemporary James Whistler and the French Impressionists.
There is evidence that the models for the painting may have been personal friends of the artist. At the beginning of their sitting for the artist they were simply engaged but they got married before the picture was finished. The artist had difficulty in getting them to pose after their marriage and had to substitute the models with new ones.
The author DH Lawrence refers to this painting in his novel 'The White Peacock'. Lawrence was a writer whose relationship with the visual arts was particularly strong. In 1929 he admitted
"all my life I have gone back to painting, because it gave me a form of delight that words can never give."
To Lawrence, 'An Idyll' visualised the word passion. Blanche Jennings, a suffragette post clerk in Liverpool with whom Lawrence corresponded, had sent him a reproduction of this popular painting. Lawrence was fascinated by the picture, confessing in a 1908 letter to Jennings:
"the painting moved me almost as much as if I had fallen in love myself."
Lawrence made three copies of 'An Idyll', one of which he started drawing the night his mother died in 1910.
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Signed and dated: MAURICE GREIFFENHAGEN 1891(bottom right).
Purchased by the Walker Art Gallery from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1891.
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