The Colour Collaborative: Dress

Should my companions ever lose me on a visit to the National Gallery in London they may well find me again in a corner of room 56, contemplating a painting - oil on oak panel, barely 2 ft by 3 ft - of a girl in a green dress, standing hand in hand with her husband ... the Arnolfini portrait*, by Jan van Eyck, dated 1434.

Art historians have long debated the significance of every detail of the work, and today even the identity of the subjects is no longer certain. The girl, initially thought to be Jeanne Cenami, wife of Bruges cloth merchant Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, may in fact be Costanza Trenta, wife of Bruges cloth merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, represented posthumously. Or she could be an undocumented wife of either of the two men.

And she's probably not pregnant, as has so often been claimed. Instead she's now understood to be dressed in the fashion of the day, a woollen gown so full that its folds of excess fabric must be clutched in the wearer's hand.
... a protruding stomach ... is a desirable feature, both socially and visually, and is enhanced by the stance that artists give women. Fertility is a vital quality in a wife and many are in a recurrent state of pregnancy. Those who are not are failures. So a posture which emphasises the stomach, stressed by a high waistline and the folds of a voluminous gown, is the height of elegance.
Carola Hicks, Girl in a Green Gown

But what of its colour?

Carola Hicks claims the green is 'outmoded' ...
While Arnolfini boasted the new black, his wife seemed to be locked in the previous century when bright colours like red, blue and green were the preferred options ... green dye was made from a combination of woad and the herb weld and was easier to brew than fashionable dark shades.
... although an historian of natural dyeing might beg to differ.

A smooth, saturated green is a fairly simple prospect for a painter employing ground malachite, as van Eyck did, but for a dyer it's another story. Where silk fabrics were invariably dyed in the yarn, i.e. before weaving, wool was generally dyed in the piece ... that's a 50 ell (or 38 yard) piece** in the case of the girl's green dress! Surely only an immensely skilled master dyer could have achieved such even, vibrant colour twice - first in a blue dye bath and then in a yellow - on so large a cloth.
... in my view, this portrait of the Arnolfinis, where each of the main textiles featured is a single solid colour, celebrates the art of the [Flanders] dyer.

Susan Kay-Williams, CE of the Royal School of Needlework

There is so much more that I could write about the girl's clothes - the maybe 2000 squirrel skins used to line the green gown and trim the blue underdress, the latter most probably minever, or white belly fur, deserve a post of their own - and about the painting as a whole, but I was wondering if instead you'd like to join me in a readalong of Girl in a Green Gown? A history book (it's far from just art history) about which Grayson Perry has said ...
Carola Hicks has reinvigorated my love for the Arnolfini portrait to the point where I want to make my own homage ... I now look at van Eyck's crystalline masterpiece with new wonder, not only at his illusionistic skill and formal rightness but also his social acuity.

Perhaps the most moving realisation has been how thin the thread is that has pulled this small glowing panel of wood through history. It has survived five and a half centuries of damp, parties, neglect, adulation and war, not to mention travel by sailing ship and baggage cart. Reading this book has turned every future visit to the National Gallery into a pilgrimage where I must each time if only for a few moments renew my acquaintance with ... the girl in the green gown.
What do you think?

* Click on the image and then click again for a much enlarged version.

** A replica made in 1997 by students at Wimbledon School of Art used 35 meters/38 yards of fabric.

Don't forget to visit the other Colour Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts, just click on the links below ...

CJ at Above the River

Sandra at Cherry Heart

Sarah at Mitenska

Gillian at Tales from a Happy House

Jennifer at Thistlebear

What is The Colour Collaborative?
All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a colour related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about colour in new ways.


Girls, spinning

I had no idea who these spinning girls were when I saved this intriguing old photograph, and I forgot to record where I'd found it. Unable to attribute it I kept it filed away, until today, when I finally had time to track it down.

Captioned 'Spinning wool in Aleppo', it's dated 1920. The photographer was Silas Hertzler, an American Mennonite relief worker at an orphanage in Syria for "refugee children of the Armenian genocide", where the photograph was taken. The girls were among the orphans*, survivors of forced marches from Turkey into the Syrian desert.

The story of the Armenian genocide is complicated, and not to be enquired into too deeply unless you have a pretty strong stomach (which warning I attach to that link). Man's inhumanity to man, it's as old as time and ever present. But I wanted to believe this was a hopeful image, the girls in their patched aprons, employed usefully. And then I read the following ...
The children looked well groomed, hair combed, dressed in sweaters, tunics, jackets. It could have been a class photo of kids from an American school of the World War 1 period, until you looked more closely. Until you made contact with their eyes ... until you gazed longer, and the bewilderment, sadness, and pain in their eyes, face by face, stared back at you. Who knew what their stories were and what they had witnessed, to be in Aleppo in 1920.
Peter Balakian, from Black Dog of Fate**

Perhaps they found solace in spinning and knitting and crochet, as countless others have and do. I sincerely hope they did.

I was wondering if I should apologise for the downbeat nature of this vintage photo post. But they can't all be about woolly underwear or sweetshops so I'm declaring it a corrective to all the froth and bubble that can wash across the blogosphere in summer. Some stories simply can't be told too often.

* Wikimedia Commons has another (1922) photograph of the older girls in the Aleppo orphanage. And Flickr Commons has this image of some of the girls sewing.

** Balakian's Pen/Albrand Award winning memoir - reviewed here - which I'm now reading.


Why we take photographs

A moment of insight ... becoming a blogger has changed my relationship with photography. Another ... it's not changed it for the better.

Why do you take photographs? Seriously, I'd like to know.

Why do I take photographs? Because it's in my blood. Because my semi-pro photographer father gave me my first proper camera when I was five and courtesy of its viewfinder I learnt to look and see, to be visually attentive to all that existed independently of me. Because magic happened in my dad's darkroom*, fact! Because when I headed off to uni to study art it was the quality of my photography portfolio that got me in and so I majored in photography and print**. Because photography is a kind of storytelling. Because ... memories, and the compression of time and space. Because photographs and poems are first cousins ... both (should?) make us think and feel.

For me taking photographs was first (and is always) a way to know the world and second a way to know myself, though art. But then I became a blogger and I wandered into the realms of illustrative and lifestyle shots and (photographically speaking) I fear I lost my way. And now I want to find it again, not least because photography of the kind I once enjoyed connects me to my father, a frail elderly man sliding slowly but inexorably into deafness and dementia.

Of course, saying it versus actually doing it, well we all know how that can go. But hey, watch this space.

* Actually the bathroom, with my grandmother's old black out curtains hung at the window and in front of the door.

** And minored in textiles and art history, two interests that later came to the fore.

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