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'The Forerunner' (1920), by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1871-1945)


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About the artwork

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale was born in Norwood, Surrey in 1871. She is perhaps most famous for reviving the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting at the end of the 19th century through moral or medieval subjects and vibrant colours.

'The Forerunner' was Fortescue-Brickdale's most important oil painting and demonstrates her use of almost jewel like colours. It depicts the famous artist, theoretician, designer and scientist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), best known for the painting 'Mona Lisa', demonstrating his model flying machine to his patrons Ludovico Sforza and Beatrice d' Este, the Duke and Duchess of Milan.

In 'The Forerunner' Beatrice d' Este, seated on the left of the painting, remains indifferent to Leonardo's presentation while the Duke, Ludovico on the right (also known as Il Moro for his dark features) appears sceptical of the project. 'The Fore-runner' reflects the true difficulties of the relationship between Leonardo and Ludovico, the artist and his patron. Ludovico was known to have shrugged off many of Leonardo's ideas and projects. There were often quarrels to do with money that Ludovico owed to the artist or the cancellation of Leonardo's schemes. A

nother reason Beatrice d' Este did not like Leonardo was because he had completed a portrait of Ludovico's mistress, Cecilia Gallerani. Fortescue-Brickdale shows a woman standing to Beatrice's left who bears a resemblance to da Vinci's 'Lady with an Ermine' portrait, thought by many to be Cecilia Gallerani herself. The only person intrigued by Leonardo's machine was Ludovico's son, Cesare. Other figures in the painting include the Duchess of Albano in green and the monk Savonarola who became extremely powerful in Florence after the fall of the Medici family in 1494.

After a period in Florence Leonardo spent time in Milan between 1482 and 1499. He wrote a letter to the powerful Duke of Milan outlining his capabilities mainly as a military engineer. Only at the end of his letter did Leonardo refer to his skills in undertaking sculpture and painting. Leonardo's interests had already broadened during his stay in Florence and it is possible that he hoped the wealthy and powerful Duke of Milan would offer him more opportunities to realise his projects than his Florentine patrons.

In his first period in Milan Leonardo designed costumes and sets for festivals and plays, built forts and laid out new canals for the city. He also completed the famous painting 'The Last Supper' (of which only a shadow survives today) for Ludovico's favourite monastery of Dominican Santa Maria delle Grazie. The completion of the painting was marred by the death of Beatrice d' Este, a bad omen for Leonardo who was already suspected as a heretic in Milan. Another of Leonardo's projects in Milan was the design of an equestrian statue of Ludovico's father, Francesco Sforza. The monument, a study of which can be seen in the Leonardo drawings exhibition at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, was never to be executed in bronze. Ludovico, facing the threat of a French and Venetian alliance, had to use the money for the bronze for armoury. In 1499 the French troops of Louis XII invaded Milan and as a result Leonardo left the city and did not return until it was safe again in 1506.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale was the daughter of the successful barrister Matthew Inglett Fortescue-Brickdale. Her mother Sarah Anna was the daughter of a judge. As was typical for middle class girls at the time Eleanor was educated at home. She demonstrated a skill for drawing at an early age. She became an admirer and pupil of the famous art critic John Ruskin. At the age of seventeen Fortescue-Brickdale decided to become a professional artist and studied at the Crystal Palace School of Art. After three attempts to enter the Royal Academy of Art she finally succeeded in 1897 and won a prize for a mural design. Fortescue-Brickdale's success as both an oil painter of history themes and an illustrator of texts such as Tennyson's 'Poems' was more of an exception than the rule for women artists at this time.

Art education for women in the 19th century was still restricted. The Royal Academy, founded in 1768, refused access to women artists until 1860 when Laura Herford became the first woman artist to enter the Academy. Even when women were admitted they were treated unequally to men. It took another thirty years before women were allowed to attend life-drawing classes. Many of the women who succeed as artists were related to male artists. Christina Rossetti, for example, was the sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti while Henrietta Rae, Marianne Stokes, Sophie Anderson and Elizabeth Forbes were all wives of famous artists. In other cases the reason for women's success was the support and encouragement of male artists, for example Elizabeth Siddall by her lover Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Maria Spartali by Ford Madox Brown. Most of the women artists also came from wealthy and well-educated families.

The work of women artists was less favoured than that of men by art critics as well as collectors, with a few exceptions. Women artists were often expected to produce a certain type of work, for example still lifes or watercolours, while criticism of their work reflected stereotypes of women as being sentimental rather than intellectual beings. Despite this overall trend, Eleanor's work was highly praised at the time by both critics and fellow artists. The Victorian artist G. F. Watts admired her paintings so much that he was quoted as saying: "I feel inclined to throw away my palette and brushes. What are my things by the side of such stuff as hers?"

Brickdale's interest in the subject is a reflection of her enthusiasm for Renaissance art. The vision of the artist as a public figure with a moral and practical role in society was also a Pre-Raphaelite idea. Leonardo da Vinci was not simply an artist but a scientist and this was well demonstrated in his numerous projects as well as his determination to apply science to art. Leonardo worked for several years on treatises in an attempt to establish scientific rules about perspective and anatomy. A more intriguing explanation for the choice of the theme is perhaps Brickdale's personal connections with Charles Rolls the aviator and her interest in aeroplane technology.

Lord Leverhulme bought the painting from the artist in 1920. The Walker Art Gallery also has a watercolour study for 'The Forerunner' in its collection.