Eye Candy for Today: Frederick Sandys’ Vivien

Vivien, Frederick Sandys

Link is to Wikimedia Commons, original is in the Manchester Art Gallery, which doesn’t seem to have an image online. The Study for Vivien at bottom is in the Norwich Castle collection.

In this striking portrait, Pre-Raphaelite painter Frederick Sandys portrays his companion, Koemi Gray, as the character Vivien from “Idylls of the King”, Tennyson’s series of poems that draw on the King Athur legend.

Vivien is one of the interpretations of “The Lady of the Lake”, who proffers Excalibur to Arthur, and is presented by Tennyson as the temptress who beguiles Merlin. The apple with which Sandys’ portrays her may be a symbol of temptation, carried froward from the story of Adam and Eve.

I admire the way Sandys has used the tilt of the head and the lowered eyelids to give suggestion of the nature of the character, and yet still retains his obvious affection for the beauty of his model. The sensitive depiction of the hands, particularly the delicate sweep of the left wrist, is just wonderful. You can see the attention he has given them in his study.

I also love the distinctive touches of red on the lips, earring, necklace and foreground rose, as well as the touch on the apple, balanced out by the complementary greens throughout.

4 Replies to “Eye Candy for Today: Frederick Sandys’ Vivien

  1. The portrait is beautifully painted, but to my eye, the hands are too small and improperly positioned for the lady behind them. If you disagree; try placing your hands in the same position in front of yourself, and you will notice that they will be centered or closer to the opposite side to rest comfortably in front of you. Her left hand being that far left would point more directly toward the viewer to be comfortable. Her shoulder position would be differ from her right to approximate this pose as well.

    I know this is nit-picking an otherwise nice painting, but thought that if things like this aren’t pointed out, how will any of us become better artists :-). I enjoy your blog. Thanks for all the work you put into it.

    1. Sheridan — Thanks for the observation (and the nice words about the blog). Yes, I believe you’re correct. I noticed it in the sketch, but didn’t see it in the finished painting until you pointed it out. I’m looking at a large version of the image, and I tend to focus on those parts of the image separately. I think that may be what occurred when Sandys was drawing and painting — that he focused on the face and hands separately, and possibly at different times.

      While I don’t think it’s the case here, I know that it was not uncommon for portrait painters to paint a sitter’s face from life and studies, and then to have a stand-in model for the clothing and hands, so the important person’s time was not taken up with such mundane matters.

  2. Carol Mcintyre wrote 4 years ago that historically, many artists have had difficulty painting and drawing hands. Edgar Degas often obscured the hands of his ballerinas or painted them incorrectly, whereas Mary Cassatt knew the hand well and never shied away from them.
    Degas is quoted saying: Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.
    There are two important influences on Cassatt’s compositions: photography, which led many painters to think in terms of cropped, close-up images, and Japanese wood-cuts with their avoidance of perspective in the treatment of space.

    The rise of Impressionism can be seen in part as a response by artists to the newly established medium of photography. In the same way that Japonisme focused on everyday life, photography also influenced the Impressionists’ interest in capturing a ‘snapshot’ of ordinary people doing everyday things.

    Not sorry to give away their secrets.

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