FEATURE image: Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893), READING ALOUD, 1884, oil on canvas, 42.24 x 81 in., Glasgow Art Gallery & Museum.
INTRO: Albert Joseph Moore was born in 1841 into a family of artists in North Yorkshire in England. Moore through his own advanced aesthetic experiments in the milieu of theoretical and practical advancements of mid-to-late 19th century modern art in England and France – such as a systematic analysis of nature, mathematical plotting, and principles for quintessential combinations of color, line and form – created art that was, in formal terms, in its conception and execution, on the cutting edge of abstraction that would continue to develop and blossom into early 20th century Cubism. Moore’s art gained the respect of other progressive artists (Moore was called “a painter’s painter”), patrons and collectors, if not always the critics and contemporaries who viewed Moore’s work as merely decorative. Moore was actively collected in his lifetime and exhibited regularly in major venues such as the Royal Academy. Unmarried and of a lifelong independent disposition, Moore died in 1893 at 52 years old, having just completed his last monumentally ambitious artwork (“The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons,” Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, posted below) a handful of days before. Several of Moore’s pictures are now in public collection throughout the UK, including the Tate and the British Museum in London.
Azaleas was a popular artwork by Albert Moore for its harmonies of color and the “Greek refinement” that the artist infused into his work. This bigger-than-life-size canvas called Azaleas was painted in 1867, exhibited in 1868 and demonstrates the artist’s ability to represent the human figure on a grand scale.
The 26-year-old artist had some architectural design experience in theory and practice and used this in his preparatory process. This artwork incorporated ideal geometry along with typical academic methods.
Moore’s process followed, first, making studies of the nude figure and draped figure. Moore next made a larger-than-life-sized full-scale nude figure cartoon which, at this stage, was informed by geometric abstraction of the figure in a setting guided by, or through, the milieu of the object in the artist’s hands.
The geometric quality guided the composition rather than was externally imposed by the artist. Moore’s “system of line arrangement” sought the directions of the prominent lines of the composition so to plot parallels of them throughout the drawing resulting in a statuesque yet corporeally vivacious figure.
Nature, specifically the landscape, ultimately served as the inspiration for the manifestation of line parallels and optical balance rather than the mathematically ideal. Moore’s geometric construct and its interplay determined every element of the composition – from the position and placement of the figure to the location of accessories, such as wall hangings, distribution of drapery folds, and architectural elements. The canvas’s shape and size also were ultimately determined by this idiosyncratic geometric arrangement.
Traces of Moore’s preparatory practice are in evidence in Azaleas’ full size nude cartoon with its vestiges of diagonal and horizontal lines through the midsection of the figure and near to her feet. Using these lines in the nude drawing it is apparent that Moore experimented with the placement of the figure’s head, the extended hand, and a raised heel which was ultimately hidden under opaque drapery. Moore used a live model for his figure.
The final nude cartoon was transferred to the canvas and this outline was built up with oil colors. A drapery cartoon was then transferred on top of the transferred, built-up nude figure cartoon. Using this method Moore rendered greater transparency of the fabric since the underlying nude cartoon showed through faintly. This painstaking preparation was masked by Moore’s fresh and free style of painting. For instance, the drape folds of the left shoulder are painted in long, fluent, and elegant strokes while the azaleas are rendered in energetic strokes. Moore’s objective was for the final painting to look like an impromptu and expressive sketch when, in fact, it was carefully planned and executed.
About painting Moore taught his students to think long about it but execute with quickness and determination. This technique aided in transforming oil painting into the manner of Graeco-Roman fresco in that Moore’s working method allowed for painting only what could be finished in a day.
Moore’s careful planning, rapid execution, and brush technique also suggested the influence of Japonisme. Asian influences in Azaleas included the carp bowl held in the women’s arm (an actual studio prop) and the geometric pattern in the azalea pot whose symmetry Moore saw as part of both Greek and Japanese art. To integrate and transition the predominantly yellow figure in the predominantly white background Moore used a device taken from Japanese art of painting flitting butterflies around the azalea bush. Moore also painted russet blossoms in the woman’s hair and bowl and on the floor that further unites the monumental composition.
Moore’s observation of Japanese prints also likely influenced the English artist’s color scheme in Azaleas. This is identifiable in its limited schematic of hues. The color placement, however, was also subject to the geometric practices in the whole composition.
When Azaleas was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1868 it was consigned to an out of the way place on the wall of its North Room. It was observed that Moore’s canvas looked more like a tapestry than an oil painting. In this way, Moore anticipated James McNeill Whistler’s comment about color in that it should appear “embroidered” on the canvas, in the same way a thread is embroidered on fabric. Whistler attributed this color quality to Japanese art in that those artists looked for repetition in color application and not contrast.
Architecture critics in 1868 noticed and especially admired Moore’s Azaleas. Its systematic repetitions and geometric construction were labeled the only “decorative” painting in the 1868 English exhibition. Art critics were less generous. Straining with opera glasses just to see the work they recognized its beauty and Moore’s talent but called its design and execution eccentric. Others turned up their critical nose to the new decorative work as “curious” and little more than a luxurious indulgence of art for art’s sake. Art critics were unhappy with the paintings’ colors as they found they lacked the requisite black that marked contemporary French art and, instead, opted for a quiet and delicate dreamscape.
English writer William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) declared Azaleas one of the most important English pictures of 1868 and decried those looking to judge it by way of actual historical pictures from Greek antiquity. With Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909), Rossetti compared Moore’s artwork to another painting in the 1868 exhibition: “The Wife of Pygmalion, A Translation from the Greek” by the older George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). In that work Watts sought to create a painterly equivalent of classical sculpture. William Gladstone (1809-1898) wanted to purchase Watts’ picture after seeing it at the Academy in 1868. In a letter to Gladstone in May 1868 Watts informed Gladstone that it had been “claimed” but invited Gladstone to visit him in his studio to see the cast of the fragmentary Greek original from which the painting was derived.
Swinburne saw the poetry and musicality of Moore’s artwork .While most art critics snubbed the painting (and by extension the painter) for its art for art’s sake qualities, Swinburne praised them. Of Azaleas, Swinburne wrote: “The melody of color, the symphony of form is complete: one more beautiful thing is achieved, one more delight is born into the world; and its meaning is beauty; and its reason for being is to be.”
Sea-gulls was accepted for the 1871 Royal Academy exhibition. It was the third painting for Albert Moore to exhibit at the Royal Academy. Moore was absorbed in painting Sea-gulls, a major work, for British shipping magnate Frederic Leyland (1831-1892) and this work occupied him up to the Royal Academy Exhibition that spring.
Its creation by the 36-year-old Moore was not without headaches owing to controversy. Moore’s friend and admirer, American ex-patriate artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), had learned of Moore’s preliminary work on the painting through Leyland, a major art collector and the artists’ mutual friend.
Whistler expressed concern that Moore’s work perhaps overlapped adversely with some of Whistler’s own preliminary sketches for a painting. Whistler saw a pair of sketches Moore had sent to Leyland as potential commissions. Whistler felt that Moore’s sketch may have been influenced by seeing one of Whistler’s sketches. Whistler feared that if Moore’s painting was exhibited first, it would reflect badly on Whistler as an imitator when in fact the artwork Whistler was working on ante-dated Moore’s conceptions. This was a mortifying prospect for Whistler who prided himself on originality.
Whistler’s anxiety may have also stemmed from the fact that with Sea-gulls, Moore would fulfill his second commission for Leyland, while Whistler who introduced them had yet to complete a picture for Leyland that had been commissioned in 1867.
To ease Whistler’s fears, the American artist proposed that Moore accompany another mutual friend, architect William Nesfield (1835-1888), to Whistler’s studio in Chelsea to inspect his older original sketch that Moore had seen.
Nesfield, acting as mediator, concluded in September 1870 that the recent work of the two artists shared themes, but each maintained their own artistic originality. The crisis was averted and led to Moore exhibiting Sea-gulls.
During this crisis and shortly thereafter, Moore did not finish to his satisfaction his painting when it was time for its exhibition in April 1871. A major effort required to complete Sea-gulls had deeply undermined Moore’s health. After the exhibition the painting was returned to the artist, but he could not yet immediately set to work on it to completion. Months later it was finished and sold to Leyland.
In Sea-gulls Moore introduced obvious analogies between the liquid patterns of the sea and the rippling and splashing motion of the figure’s hair and drapery. Moore’s intention was to discern patterns inherent in nature. The drawings also suggest that he exaggerated the effect of air currents by employing the revolving fans that were simultaneously in use for Sea-gulls and another painting titled Shells.
Much of Moore’s work to complete the painting after the exhibition revolved around redressing the picture surface. Moore had been experimenting for some time with the surface quality of his paintings. In the early 1870s, Moore’s technique had developed to combine transparent and opaque fabrics that created unusual layering effects. Following the 1871 exhibition, Moore seemed to apply this technique in Sea-gulls that involved unusually thick paint layers.
Much later, during the winter of 1880, Sir Coutts Lindsay (1824-1913) – the British artist and watercolorist founded Grosvenor Gallery on Bond Street as an alternative exhibition space to the Royal Academy which became a venue for avant-garde artists, particularly those associated with art for art’s sake – mounted a show on the subject of artists’ working sketches. Moore contributed the preparatory studies for Sea-gulls to the show that included his sketches of hands, heads, drapery, plants and flowers, as well as the painting’s cartoon.
Although biographers of Whistler and Moore have attached no importance to their friendship, particularly after the September 1870 controversy over Sea-gulls which they claim ended it, the artists in fact remained on intimate terms unbroken until Moore’s death in 1893. In the later 1870s they again were thrust together in a contentious situation but this time on the same side of sorts. When Whistler became involved in libel proceedings against Ruskin in later 1878 Albert Moore was the only artist who the American ex-patriate artist could rely on to both publicly attend the proceedings and actually give evidence on Whistler’s behalf.
Reading Aloud was one of three large-format paintings Albert Moore completed in the 1880s. Completed in 1884, Moore had been working on Reading Aloud for years – at least since 1881. Moore had drawn a chalk sketch of the geometrically designed composition over which the artist would lay a piece of translucent glass. By painting directly on the glass, he could experiment with colors without redrawing the picture. He then could transfer the trial color experiment on glass (as well as a final drawing) onto tracing paper by which the final artwork was then made by pinning the tracing paper to the canvas. The artist then painted the composition directly to the canvas, section by section, working as he painted to unify color scheme and, as figural poses and other details are different in the final artwork than surviving preparatory materials, drawing. It was meticulous organizing and harmonizing creative work that helps to explain why Moore labored for years on the almost 7×4 foot oil on canvas.
While these three reclining figures are static their contrasting drapery folds whether they are swirls, zigzags or sweeping diagonals – with the sofa’s swags to unite them – enliven the picture. As classicism revivalists are noted for their mere realism and moralistic anecdote, Moore’s evocation of classicism, though containing allegorical qualities, belies a modernity by way of its abstract combination of line and form in the depiction of languid female figures in a neutral setting. The black-and-white owl vase that Moore included in the lower right corner of the painting had been absent from previous studies (originally it was a seated cat) and provides a narrative sign. It connotes the quality of wisdom as well as perhaps the goddess Athena with which the owl is associated so to apply it to the various states of the readers though the overall picture with its fascination with repose is more subtly mysterious than anecdotal. Yet the classicism/modernity enigma continues as the honey bee which Moore paints on the face of the owl vase was the symbol used by the picture’s purchaser, pig iron industrialist William Connal (1819-1898), for himself.
After his wife of 25 years Emelia Jessie (Campbell) Connal died in 1877, 56-year-old industrialist William Connal faced life alone at Solsgirth, his Scottish country manor. Connal turned his attention to the arts and, in addition to Moore, became an avid collector of contemporary art by such painters as Edward Burne Jones (1833-1898), Edward Poynter (1836-1919), Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), Fernand Knopff (1858-1921) and Adolphe Monticelli (1824-1886) along with the Old Masters. Connal owned Symphony in Silver and Grey by American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) who greatly admired Moore. In 1883, Connal invited Moore to stay at Solsgirth House in Perthshire for a month allowing the artist to recuperate after a serious illness. It was during this stay that Connal commissioned Moore to paint his portrait that shows him wearing a honeybee brooch, the emblem that Connal used on his personal items (Connal’s portrait today is in York Art Gallery).
Moore’s pictorial methodology which he continued to develop over his artistic career is in evidence in Reading Aloud. Moore works out and unifies various and moving parts depicting a scene’s animating personality based in psychology with its physical forms that are mathematically contrived by way of lines and curves and, ultimately, color and texture, and whose impact on the viewer of the completed artwork is allowed to be emotional rather than cerebral. In Reading Aloud Moore constructed the image based on two pairs of diagonals that intersect into a pattern. Though the geometric system is visually subdued, it is evident in the figure on the right whose arms coincide with a set of diagonals. It is obvious also in the picture’s overall use of contrasting bold colors – the fabrics’ pinks and creams are integrated to, though angularly distinct from, the charcoal greys of the covered limbs and book cover. The edges of the book cover also coincide with some of the complex design of diagonal lines whose subliminal quality is an intrinsic expression of the psychic nature of the artwork. This angularity based on diagonals was a deliberate strategy for Moore when he painted the final artwork. There is also the horizontal lines component in the painting manifested in the outstretched arms of the crouching figure at left and the table and vase. Moore’s design strategies were innovative in 1884 startling contemporary viewers approaching to what Cubism would accomplish 25 years later. Critics when viewing Reading Aloud, being neither particularly understanding nor sympathetic to Moore’s methods or intentions, praised the picture’s overall gracefulness but impugned his drawing skills and identified the painting as mostly static decoration. Yet the static figures form part of a complex array of abstract and naturalistic patterns that fill every inch of canvas. Reading Aloud is a testament to the artist’s ability to translate such natural phenomena into a stylized form. Most prominent among them is a fabric effect found in other of Moore’s paintings of the period, in which white lace is layered over cloth of a darker color. Reading aloud was exhibited at the Royal Academy where, starting in 1883, Moore chose to exhibit annually.
The Loves of the Winds and the Summer was English artist Albert Moore’s final and largest artwork of his career. It is 6 feet tall and 7 feet wide and is the jewel in the crown of the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery near Manchester, England. It is the result of Moore’s study of the psychology of his subject matter, that of love. Love begins to manifest formally for Moore by the expression of soft bodily postures, changing and harmonious curves, and piercing gazes expressed in deep coral colors. The male figure of the Wind is flanked by the spurned female figure of Summer to the left and the embraced female figure of Autumn to the right. Moore was so enveloped in his amorous themes that while working on this picture he was writing poetry about what the human face was like when in love – and it is found in his picture. The Love of the Winds and the Seasons is Moore’s fullest expression of animating personality united to depicted physical forms that are first lines, curves and color, with the result being an emotional impact on the viewer who encounters the artwork. This exquisite artistic sensitivity by Moore is made more remarkable since the artist was dying in 1893. In the company of his young and attractive live models in his new capacious art studio, Moore worked day after day on this work. Moore had cancer (a tumor on his thigh) and had submitted to three operations to keep ahead of it. When his doctors told him they could operate no more, and that the cancer continued to spread throughout his body, Moore was resigned to his situation. He is reported to have said: “Well, there’s an end of it.” In the limited time left to him Moore intended to finish his painting of love, The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons. The artist did not want to lose any time. His legs had swollen to twice their size and had to be drained. In acute pain he worked around the clock for the next six months. His friends thought the intense work as well as the cancer was killing Moore but as the painting progressed to completion, they observed that the artist’s personal tranquility and happiness became apparent. The project was monumental – numerous preparatory studies, drapery studies, full scale and life-sized cartoons (i.e., 4’ 9” tall by 1’4” wide for Autumn) , nude studies – all technically meticulous and versatile- and that underwent the artist’s elaborate and idiosyncratic geometric platting system that he began in the late 1870s. Moore was the consummate auteur that slightly older American ex-patriate painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1904) most admired in England. Moore conceived his paintings from start to finish – and The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons was at once its pinnacle and completion. Moore, as Whistler aspired to be, was sole master of his work. In 1893 Moore now expanded this mathematical process to amalgamate his diagonals with horizontals so that his creative process could not suffer the critique that Ruskin hurled at Whistler of “ask(ing) 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The painting was a commission for the Australian mine-owner George McCulloch (1848-1907). Moore’s calculations included various adjustments of the models’ natural poses to submit to the mathematical formulas on the canvas. This formal submission of subjects to linear construction extended to each detail in the entire composition, such as the flowers for which also study drawings were made. Within these design rigidities, the preparatory drawings of the live models and subjects were transferred to the artwork with little idealization though slight but important adjustments were made, such as to Summer’s hairstyle. Knowing his own time was short, Moore made his cartoons in color so that his transfer to the canvas was as efficient as possible as he painted the final artwork. Critics have observed that despite the intense planning and preparation, the final artwork is executed unevenly – parts are meticulous and vigorous, mostly in the foreground, while others in the background are loose and crude. To what degree this is the artist’s intention or the result of his declining health, is a matter for speculation. During the artistic process the terminally ill artist isolated himself mostly. His handful of visitors remarked that the artist was cheerful, cracked jokes, told funny stories, and smoked his pipe. These select parties knew, however, that their social calls were in the context of final good-byes. In those last days and months of Moore’s life, the artist’s mind, by evidence of the art from his past that he referenced in 1893, stretched back to an earlier career which shared long-held important aspects with The Loves of the Winds and the Summer. For his last artwork. Albert Moore glossed the picture’s narrative in verses he wrote to accompany it:
Lo! fickle Zephyr chaseth wayward Spring,
It is a merry race;
Flowers laugh to birds that sing,
Yet frequent tears shall cloud her comely face.
The South Wind shall with blushing Autumn mate,
Contented with her lot;
Summer sigheth – such her fate
She and her burning kisses are forgot.
Two lovers rough for shudd’ring Winter strive,
Beneath a shroud of snow;
Heaven haply shall contrive
Their violence she may not further know.
Through its figural and intellectual prism of ancient classical mythology, Moore worked in his career to update the complex equation of the natural world’s varying and transitory seasons to human life’s copious physical, emotional, and spiritual expressions and contradictions. With their immersion in Moore’s modern art, the painter achieved a graciously-contrived visual dramatic interplay of nature and humanity, ancient and present-day, whose quest is eternal in time and space.
Albert Joseph Moore passed away in the middle of the night on September 25, 1893. He died 9 days after finishing his last painting, The Loves of the Winds and the Summer. Moore was 52 years old.
SOURCES: ALBERT MOORE, Robyn Asleson, Phaidon, 2000, pgs. 70, 97-100, 104, 108. 164, 166-168, 177, 179, 185, 199-202; https://houseandheritage.org/2017/05/19/solsgirth-house/ – retrieved September 5, 2023.