Edwin Long and Edward Poynter – Orientalism, Neoclassicism and Biblical Art

The Babylonian Marriage Market, Edwin Long, 1879

In one of Stephen’s blog posts on the book of Esther, he chose a painting by Edwin Long entitled ‘Queen Esther’ which was painted in 1878 and it resides in the National Gallery of Victoria. Edwin Long also painted a picture of Vashti, entitled ‘Vashti’ in 1879. He also famously painted a work entitled ‘Babylonian Marriage Market’ in 1875 (above). Edwin Long was born on the 12th July 1829 in England and died on the 15th May 1891 in Hampstead in London. The art periods in which he painted were Academic art, Neoclassicism and Orientalism.

Edward Poynter, on the other hand, was born on the 20th March 1836 in Paris, France. He died on the 26th July 1919 in London. Edward John Poynter, 1st Baronet, was a painter, designer and draughtsman and also famously painted ‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to king Solomon’ in 1890 and this painting resides in the Art Gallery of NSW. He also painted in the Orientalist style and attended the Westminister School, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Heatherley School of Fine Art.

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, Edward Poynter, 1890, Art Gallery of New South Wales

It is to be noted that both artists were from Europe, namely England, and were English even though Poynter was born in Paris. They were swept up in the style of neoclassicism and orientalism. Neoclassicism is a painting style whereas orientalism has its roots in colonial empire building. In a previous blog post I have mentioned the male gaze which is a feminist concept that explains the almost pornographic images that can be found amongst traditional paintings which reflect the male attitude towards women (see also Stephen’s post about this here). Female artists tend to paint with an alternative lense. Orientalism focuses its gaze on the kingdoms of the east with an eye to dominance and derision of its peoples. During these artists’ lives, the Ottoman empire was failing and falling into ruin whereas “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Orientalism could be seen as an extension of the male gaze where the west looks upon the east with both scorn and perhaps a certain amount of covetousness regarding its social structures and customs involving women and men which were quite different in comparison with the stifling social expectations and mores of Europe.

In Long’s works, women are the subject but in the case of Esther and Vashti they are characters in a biblical story. The women are painted as beautiful and feminine with soft brush strokes emphasising their qualities. The light in the paintings is gentle. As is the case in eastern tradition, Vashti is part of a harem even though she is the queen and as such has little freedom. Her refusal of the king’s request to be seen and admired sees her replaced with Esther who also becomes part of the harem. Esther was chosen from all the eligible young women in the land to be the king’s new queen. The social structure of the day could be quite appealing to men who observe that the east does not necessarily see marriage as just between one man and one woman as Christians do. The painting of the Babylonian marriage market portrays women as almost having the status of slaves and yet in the painting they seem compliant or at least resigned to their fate. Neoclassicism focused on the appreciation and fascination with antiquity and certainly in Longs work he seems rather taken with the subservient nature of women in eastern society.

In Poynter’s famous painting of the Queen of Sheba we see a different painting style. It is grand in size (234.5 x 350.5 cm) and the frame is opulent with its gold gilt. The frame is a reflection of the artist’s intention to show in the painting all the splendour of Solomon’s court. The colours chosen are rich in their hue and the brush strokes are fine so as not to detract from the subject matter. Poynter cleverly brings to life the verse in 1 Kings 10:4-5 “…all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings…[ensured] there was no more spirit in her.” He paints the queen in an erotic costume and her skin tone is brown, a controversial move at the time. It took Poynter six years to complete. He was very proud of the work. Criticism of the work was that it was too dramatic, reverting back to Poynter’s earlier works. However, I feel that the artists captures the charisma of Solomon in that he virtually woos the queen with his wealth and style. Orientalism in this case, doesn’t so much deride the subject but seems to be in awe of it.

If you ever get the chance to see the painting in the Art Gallery of NSW you should see it. It is well worth it and it is an excellent example of orientalism at its best.

Eduard Bendemann – Jewish/German painter of the 19th century 

Jews Mourning in Babylonian Exile (based on Psalm 137), 1832, Eduard Bendemann. In the public domain.

Eduard Julius Friedrich Bendemann was born on 3rd December 1811 in Berlin and he died on 27th December 1889 in Düsseldorf at the age of 78. His father was Anton Heinrich Bendemann, a Jewish banker. His mother Fanny was the daughter of Joel Samuel von Halle who was also a Jewish banker. Eduard’s education was closely scrutinised but he was allowed to pursue an artistic career as he showed a talent for painting. He enrolled in an art school and painted a picture of his grandmother in 1828. This attracted some attention and as a consequence he went on a trip to Italy in 1830 for a year. 

On 28th October 1838 Eduard Bendemann married Lida Schadow who was the daughter of the famous sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow. They went on to have children and quite possibly immersed them in the Jewish faith and culture of their families. Stephen chose ‘Jews mourning in Babylonian Exile’, painted in 1832 by Eduard Bendemann and based on Psalm 37 for one of his posts on the suffering servant of Isaiah. This painting was featured in the Berlin art exhibition and was quite popular with the public. The piece is dignified and manages to convey the feeling of sadness of the figures in the painting. Bendemann also painted ‘The Two Girls at the Well’ in 1832, ‘Jeremiah amid the Ruins of Jerusalem’ in 1837 and ‘The Harvest’ which is his best known work. His paintings received accolades and awards and he was well received. He was promoted to professor of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in 1838 and eventually the director of the Düsseldorf Academy from 1859 to 1867. Eduard went on to create larger frescoes and painted for the royal family. He made a successful career of his chosen profession. 

In the painting ‘Jews Mourning in Exile’, the emotion of resignation, loss and sadness is conveyed by the muted brush strokes and soft light. The body language of the figures is one of hopelessness and the male figure, who has given up playing his harp, is shackled –  indicating that they are not there willingly. One can imagine a very mournful song being played and sung as the captives wonder just how this calamity happened. Where was God? The modern song ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ by Boney M comes to mind when viewing this image. The viewer can see the river behind the figures and the capital seems to dominate the far background. If the artist, Eduard, and his wife were Jewish, plus both sets of parents, then it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that the artist wanted to tell stories about his people and their history. Quite a few of his paintings have a similar theme. The Jewish community was well established in Germany or Prussia and it would have been beyond the artists imagination to comprehend what would happen in the future. At this time in Germany’s history there was not the rampant anti-semitism of the 20th century. One hundred years later Hitler would visit another terrible calamity upon the Jewish people. 

If we don’t learn from history then we are bound to repeat it and the Jewish people have good reason to remember the past and its’ atrocities. Certainly Jews, and the artist Eduard Bendemann in this case, have felt similar emotions to the suffering servant of Isaiah and they must wonder what is the cost of being chosen, or being a special people. 

Raphael – Renaissance Painter.


Raphael, The Prophet Isaiah

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was born on the 6th April 1483 in Urbino, Italy. He also died on the 6th April 1520 in Rome, Italy. He was known for painting and architecture and he wielded his craft in the Renaissance period of Italy. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for the concept of the Neoplatonic form of human grandeur. In the Renaissance many of the churches’ teachings were rejected, including that human nature is sinful. Raphael’s humans are beautiful, thus embodying the new philosophy of humanism, or the concept that humans are good.

He was born to Giovanni Santi, a painter, and Magia di Battista Ciarla, who both died when Raphael was a child. His father offered his son lessons and later he joined Perugino’s workshop either as a pupil or as an assistant. Raphael studied the works of his contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He earned the title of ‘master’ at just 17. Raphael was reputed to be engaged to the niece of a friend who was a cardinal but he continuously put off the wedding. Raphael was thought to love women and he was supposedly to die as the result of a night of passion which caused a fever at just the age of 37. This gave him the enduring reputation as a womaniser.

However, there is no doubting that Raphael was a genius at his chosen craft. The Prophet Isaiah, 1512 is just one of his works. His famous works include Transfiguration, 1520; The Sistine Madonna, 1512; The Marriage of the Virgin, 1504; Self-portrait, 1506 and The Triumph of Galatea amongst others. He also found time to work as an architect, building churches and beautiful buildings.

However, it is his painting, The Prophet Isaiah, that I would like to concentrate on in this piece. Stephen chose this painting to illustrate his blog post on understanding Isaiah (go there to see the full picture) and the painting has some interesting features. Note the bold use of colour, the brightness of the light and the fine brush strokes which are almost invisible and give the painting an unearthly quality. This quality is highlighted by the cherubs which adorn the ornate background. The bodies are muscular and beautiful, a feature of his work. However, it is the scroll and the authentic Hebrew writing which is a feature of note and tells us something of what is evolving in the society that Raphael painted in.

Before the birth of the Renaissance, many works that featured biblical themes had illegible scrawl substituted for Hebrew, as the language was considered the work of the devil because of its association with the Jews, the so-called “Christ killers”. However, intellectuals of Raphael’s time wanted to learn the ancient language as, rediscovering history, it came to be considered as one of the four classic ancient languages along with Greek, Latin and Arabic. Hebrew inscriptions could be found on tablets, scrolls, books, shields, framed wall panels and tombstones. Lettered ornaments on sleeves, collars and hems suggested sacred messages coming from the figure or addressed to the figure. Some intellectuals believed that Hebrew was the ‘divine’ language, the language of the angels and it is interesting to note that Raphael included cherubs in his painting with Hebrew clearly displayed on the scroll. Intellectuals even believed that if all societies and peoples learned to speak Hebrew there would be peace and the practice of war would be no more. Kabbalah studies became popular, Christians believing they could unlock the secrets of the Bible by studying ancient Jewish texts and beliefs and thus gaining greater understanding of life’s mysteries. Some Jews were very sceptical of the interest in their culture and others embraced it. However, treatment of the Jewish people did not necessarily improve and the Catholic church still considered them a hostile enemy. Therefore it could be speculated that Raphael was being rather modern and daring by using the original Hebrew script in his work.

Raphael was an artist who painted at the height of the Renaissance and he was a creature of his times. Those times began to loosen the hold of the Catholic church on western society and humanism began to take root. Modern western civilisation can see its beginnings in this era thus making his works very significant indeed.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – A Religious Painter

Sacrifice of Isaac (Sacrificio d’Isacco) by Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born to Lucia Aratori and Fermo Merisi on 29th September 1571 in Milan, Italy. He was a leading Italian painter who lived and worked for most of his adult life in Rome. Caravaggio became famous for the realism of his larger than life religious works which were in the Baroque style. He had a volatile character, was reputed to be homosexual in orientation and committed murder in his life. He was probably born in the small town of Caravaggio and would have spent his early life in both Caravaggio and the larger city of Milan, where his father had a workshop. He had a reputation for being a controversial painter with a flamboyant style and personality. He was only 39 when he died and he lived and played hard.

Caravaggio was probably the most revolutionary artist of his time, as he abandoned the idealised human and religious experience of earlier painters for realism and the Baroque style. In those times, aspiring painters were apprenticed to artists to learn the craft and Caravaggio was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano. He became familiar with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael and other High Renaissance masters. He moved to Rome in 1592 and began to work in an artists’ factory painting fruit. He made friendships and connections and to paint his first works. However, some of his paintings were considered vulgar as the themes were sexual by nature, common and depicted death. The church and general society were not amused and the paintings sold for a low price. He turned his talents to painting religious themes in his own unique style, that of naturalism, lack of preparation in the execution of the work and using oils with which to paint. Eventually he received commissions for his craft and he became well known in higher circles of society. Artists created schools and retained pupils who were educated in the distinctive style of the master and Caravaggio was no exception. His naturalistic style influenced artists who were to come later such as Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Velaquez. In 1606 he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni and was banished from Rome, making his way to Naples. He enjoyed the protection of the Colonna family and continued to paint in churches and on canvas. His early death could have been a result of his wild ways. 

In The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1602, once again we see the play of light and shade and the rich texture of the oil paint in the painting. The brush strokes are delicate and well hidden, giving the painting a photographic finish. The models for Abraham and Isaac seem familiar as if Caravaggio has used them before for other works. This is quite possible. The angel is intervening just in time to prevent Abraham from killing his son and the look of horror on the face of Isaac implies a struggle by the boy against his father’s will. This is the naturalism that Caravaggio brings to his craft by depicting humans as they are, not as creatures who blindly do the will of a heavenly being. Caravaggio does not seem too concerned to paint every detail as precisely detailed in Genesis 22. He captures human emotions and passions perhaps because the artist himself is at the mercy of his own personality in life.

Caravaggio was paid in four instalments by his agents for this painting and it remains one of his most famous works today.     

The art of vengeance: the biblical art of Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders, 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi. Public domain.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an artist of the Italian Baroque and she was quite unique for her times as she was a woman who learned the craft of painting. Born in July 1593, she was the eldest child of Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone. Artemisia’s mother died when she was twelve. Her father kept his children with him in his workshop while he painted and Artemisia showed great talent at fifteen, certainly more than her brothers who were also learning the craft. However, Artemisia was acutely aware of her limitations as a woman.

One of her first paintings at seventeen was Susanna and the Elders, a biblical story of a woman who is sexually harassed by two elders of her community.* There are echoes of the ‘Me Too’ movement in the painting as the advances from the old men are definitely not wanted. It would seem that such societal problems were nothing new as they were manifest in 1610. Such was Artemisia’s fate that she was raped as a teenager and the perpetrator, Agostino Tassi, promised to marry her. However, as is to be expected, he reneged on the deal and so Artemisia’s father decided to lay charges against the man. Rape was considered a blight against the family honour in that society and Artemisia was tortured with thumb screws before being believed. The sentence was banishment, however, there is no evidence that it was ever carried out. Artemisia is thought to have said of her torture that the thumb screws were the rings that her rapist gave her. This incident and its subsequent trauma was to shape her artistic work for the rest of her life.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612–1613, Artemisia Gentileschi. Public domain.

Artemisia painted in the style of Caravaggio. Artemisia’s father was a student of the artist. One of her best known paintings was Judith Slaying Holofernes. Once again, it is the story of a beautiful woman slaying the Jewish enemy by cutting off his head, similar to the themes of the book of Esther.** Holofernes was the Assyrian general who was commissioned to subdue the Jewish people and Judith saves her people by assassinating him when they were having dinner. It was painted in 1612-13 and it has been interpreted by feminists as a strong woman taking control and dominating a man. This theme is often seen in her works and she seems to be drawn to biblical stories with this theme of female strength. It would seem that Artemisia subconsciously wished that she had such strength to use against her attacker. As the artist is a woman, her gaze is not that of a man and so there is no male gaze here to interpret the female form. Instead of seeming weak and helpless against male passion, her women are heroic.

The painting is a play of light and shadow, with the shadow casting a sinister feel, especially as there is also copious amounts of blood contrasted against the white sheets as Judith is painted as plunging the sword into Holofernes’ neck. Holofernes certainly looks intoxicated as he lies on his bed and the two women, Judith and her maid, look at him with intensity as they go about their gruesome task. He almost looks surprised as they attack. This is the last thing he expected. It is interesting to note that the costumes of the two women seem to comply with the artist’s fashions of the day in Italy rather than ancient Persian societal fashions. As a student of Caravaggio, who was reputedly a homosexual, the male figure is muscular and well defined. The artist also uses chiaroscuro well (the use of strong contrasts between light and dark) in the painting, the play of light and dark creating the haunting atmosphere.

Artemisia Gentileschi had many wealthy and famous clients but she faded into obscurity until the 20th century when she was rediscovered. Artemisia was ahead of her times but receives many accolades today.

Editorial notes:

* Susanna and the Elders is a biblical story which appears in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles as an addition to the Book of Daniel, and in other Bibles as part of the Apocrypha.

** The Book of Judith is in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, and in other Bibles as part of the Apocrypha.