Category Archives: cinema

Enjoying ‘Les Halles’

leshalles
[Léon Lhermitte ‘Les Halles’  1895 – my photograph]
Léon Lhermitte ‘Les Halles’ from 1895 is an example of a superbly cinematic painting. Painted well after the establishment of photography, it’s an astonishing accomplishment of realism and the drama of everyday life. You can really revel in Lhermitte’s ebullient depiction of the huge Paris fruit and vegetable market (this scene is in the section of  Le Carreau) – which is now replaced by a shopping centre that still bears the name Les Halles.
This painting – which is absolutely vast – 404 x 635 cm – scotches the idea that ‘photography replaced painting’ – because at the time there was no camera available that could replicate such a scene with so much depth and motion.

1895 is also as we all know, the ‘birthdate’ of cinema as we know it, the year the Lumieres made their first screening. yet it would take half a century for the movie camera to capture a scene like this.

What L’Hermitte teaches us, though, is how to to look at the scene. Not just to sieze the camera and film it, but to really look at what is going on, what is doing what and why. What does your eye ‘grab’ onto?
Les halles
[bigger version from Wikipedia]

This picture is at the Petit Palais in Paris, and you need at least 30 minutes just to look at it alone. In its vibrance, detail and combination of realism and imagination, it is really a movie!
petitpalais
[the glorious Petit Palais, where you can spend a wonderful day if you’re so inclined]

As well as Les Halles, L’Hermitte made a number of excellent paintings of working people. His Glaneuses, below, might not be as well known or as atmospheric as Millet’s depiction of the common activity of gleaning, but it has a strength and power of its own.
Lhermitte_-_Les_Glaneurs,_1887
[Glaneuses, Philadelpha Museum of Art, from Wikipedia]

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Raft of the Medusa – the exciting disaster movie we are all waiting for?

The Raft of the Medusa,  (1818–1819) by the French painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) is a massive painting, well over life size. The closest thing I can compare it to is literally the cinema screen.

It depicts a true story. On 2 July 1816 (that’s 201 years and 4 days ago) the French naval frigate Méduse ran aground off the African coast (what is now Mauritania). Three days later a group of  at least 147 people set out on a hurriedly constructed raft. IN the 13 days they drifted, all but 15 died.  Those who survived were starved and dehydrated, and finally some of them succumbed to cannibalism.

Then as now, the press went into paroxysms of titillation, and the story was widely reported. It was also a scandal because the ineptness of the ship’s captain (and implicitly, the French Navy) was blamed. Géricault was as interested as everyone else in this story and he decided that this would be the narrative that – on canvas – would really  launch his career. And so he began to produce on the of the largest scale uncommissioned works on a modern topic ever painted. Perhaps THE largest.

Géricault did a lot of research. He got body parts from the morgue and copied them, trying to get the right shade and pulpiness of a drowned human body. He interviewed survivors. He cleverly combined Classical compositions with the dynamism that came to be called “Romantic” (I hate these labels and try to avoid them, but that’s what they call Géricault when you look him up) – and manages to convey both the pathos of the situation and the moment of hope as the survivors at the front of the raft spot a tiny ship in the distance (they ship that did in the end rescue them).  By the way, unless you go to the Louvre and see the picture in real life you probably won’t see the tiny rescue ship.

The tonality is dark and Géricault uses the dramatic lighting style associated with Caravaggio – chiaroscuro – though it is probably fair to say that the original picture may have been somewhat brighter. The  paints used at that particular time never aged very well (see Philip Ball’s brilliant book Bright Earth, on colour) so you’re not seeing exactly what Géricault painted. But clearly he did mean to have strong contrasts and dark tonality as the sea is rough and the sky is louring, though there is brightness ahead.

Aside from its film screen size, the painting is highly cinematic: dramatic, realistic, with a sense of the epic-heroic tragedy and a dynamic composition with a strong diagonal pyramidal structure. When you go and see it, you’ll really look at it for ages

So where is the exciting Titanic-like feature film based on Raft of the Medusa? It’s a  great story with everything a filmmaker would want. It turns out that there IS one, a French film directed by Iradj Azimi (1998). But I can’t seem to find it. There’s a French graphic novel that looks good. But the film seems to have disappeared. Anyone up for doing another version? I’m available!

raft

However the Raft of the Medusa I like the most is this preliminary sketch that the artist made. It’s also in the Louvre and it’s much smaller. Here we relay get to see the brilliance of Géricault’s composition and his storytelling ability

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Visual Storytelling: the podcast

http://newbooksnetwork.com/gillian-mciver-art-history-for-filmmakers-the-art-of-visual-storytelling-bloomsbury-2016/

A while ago I was invited to do an interview for podcast with the Art Historian Kristin Ellsworth for the New Books Network. The NBW is a podcaster which seeks out new publications and does interviews with the authors – it’s not just about promoting books (it’s not run by a publisher) but about promoting new knowledge.

I was pretty flattered and keen to do this anyway, but when I met Kristen online I knew this was going to be really fun! She is a great interviewer and we chatted away long after the offical ‘podcasty’ bit was done.  She’s a Professor of Art History at Cal State, so it was great to have that ‘art history into film’ conversation.

Anyway, here’s the podcast (above) It’s 47 mins long, so I’d suggest you pace yourself and maybe have a cup of tea at hand 🙂

book01

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Looking at a painting through the eyes of a filmmaker

1024px-Antoine-Jean_Gros_-_Bataille_d'Aboukir,_25_juillet_1799_

A visual essay – click to read

podcast version – YouTube audio visual essay

or read the text here:

This painting by Antoine-Jean Gros is in the Palais de Versailles.

Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799
This is a good example of a ‘cinematic’ painting. Let’s consider the elements of what makes a painting ‘cinematic’
Let’s start with LIGHTING
Notice how the central part of the picture is much brighter and ‘lit’ even though this is supposed to be taking place outdoors in ‘natural’ light. The sense of brightness is created by the placement of white things in the centre of the picture, rather than then any suggestion of a change in the natural lighting. This is a good example of the painter Antoine-Jean Gros’s fidelity to realism, within the context of a highly dramatic setting and action. Gros’s main body of work depicts Napoleon, and he did a great job of it; I will be posting more essays about his paintings.

COLOUR
Gros uses three main colours in this picture; yellow, red and white. Yellow (shades from yellow to brown) is the colour of nature – the dust and earth of Egypt. White appears in the clothing of some of the figures, but in the main, it is the colour of Napoleon’s horse that stands out. Red is very dominant; redness forms a circle around all the centre whiteness. it’s a striking effect.

RED!!
MOVEMENT
Paintings can’t move, but the ‘cinematic’ painting very often gives the illusion of movement, usually through the gestures of the figures or through the use of dynamic composition such as strong diagonals horizontals and verticals that indicate that something is moving through space. Even though we don’t see it moving, we can easily understand that it is moving. When we look at paintings such as this one we really get to see the dynamism of movement as a painted illusion. Here movement is indicated in the centre of the painting by the diagonal positioning of the standard, which slices through this section of the painting in a very strong diagonal line. It is also red, which almost gives it a sense of being like a sword slash, through the painting. The gestures of the figures, with outreaching arms and the twist of the bodies, also indicates movement. The whole painting feels as though it is vibrating with movement, writhing and alive.

MOVEMENT – THE DIAGONAL!
This kind of highly dramatic realism is very common in cinema. In art history, painting something so that it looks as though it is really there or really happening, is often referred to as ‘naturalism’. The struggle and the figures look natural even though as a depiction of the actual battle of Aboukir, I’d seriously question how ‘realistic’ it actually is. I mean, why would the man at the feet of Napoleon’s horse be stark naked? It’s really unlikely the Ottoman troops would go into battle stark naked or wearing clothes that fall off really easily. However from a dramatic point of view, it allows the painter to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Ottoman soldiers (and the weakness of their position) overcome by the magnificent French troops under Napoleon. Additionally it allows Gros to show off his ability to paint the human figure. Of course if we were to try to re-create this battle for cinema we really couldn’t get away with showing this nudity, not for decency reasons but because it would actually be completely ridiculous. In fact even in this picture it’s completely ridiculous but somehow painting gets away with it.
The depiction of battles in cinema has a long history, and has produced some extremely interesting scenes in films but these scenes are difficult to shoot. Partly because unlike in painting, is difficult to get single compositions within the frame so that one can focus on specific incidents. However, painting is itself a guide for the filmmaker. Lighting, compositions use of colour and gesture in paintings can inspire the filmmaker because they demonstrate very clearly what is effective and engaging to the eye.
Some great battles in cinema history:
Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan
The Street Protest Turned Battle, The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Braveheart – The Battle Of Falkirk
Apocalypse Now, Helicopter Beach Assault
Waterloo (1970), The Charge Of The Cuirassiers
Gladiator, Battle In Germania
Glory (1989), The Storming of Fort Wagner
Zulu (1964), The Battle of Rourke’s Drift

WRITTEN BY GILLIAN MCIVER, 2017 CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International
SOME RIGHTS RESERVED YOU MAY SHARE, REPRODUCE, DISTRIBUTE, DISPLAY, AND MAKE ADAPTATIONS SO LONG AS YOU ATTRIBUTE IT TO GILLIAN MCIVER.
GILLIAN MCIVER IS THE AUTHOR OF ART HISTORY FOR FILMMAKERS (BLOOMSBURY PRESS) 2016 AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS INCLUDING AMAZON AND THE REST

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short film review: BBC ARABIC Film Festival 2017

Today I visited the BBC Arab film Festival 2017, which is a showcase of films from across the Arabic-speaking world, presented by the BBC with the support of the City of London and involving a wide variety of people from the BBC, the Guardian and independent film production. It’s a big deal and is probably the main showcase for films from the Arabic-speaking world in the UK. Unfortunately, films from the Arabic-speaking world rarely get screened in the UK, even in London.  I don’t know why, because as a general rule London has a broad taste for world cinema and I don’t doubt that there’s a big audience out there. Certainly the screening I went to was packed, and I would be surprised if the rest of the screenings are not similarly busy. However, I wish it was possible to see films from the region on a more regular basis, in cinemas, screening events and of course on DVD.

So what did I see today? It was a program of shorts, one documentary and four fiction films and I’m going to review four of them. I discuss them in the order that they were screened today

The first film I saw was called Aida, directed by Maysoon ElMassry, a student at Egypt’s National Film School. It’s not like any film school project I’ve seen; it’s a really strong and well realized piece of observational documentary. The subject is a very old woman called Aida, who was well known in the city of Alexandria as a flower seller. For over fifty years she has trudged the streets of Alexandria selling flowers; the film shows her in the twilight of her life when every movement is slow motion without a camera. We see her getting ready to go out, as she edges slowly and gingerly down a long staircase from her upper story flat to the street below, where she pushes an old wheelchair piled with flowers to sell on the street. Each day is a repetitive, Sisyphean event. It is pathetic. Yet she is not pathetic; she is strong and proud, dignified and, we suspect, stubborn. She never speaks, and the filmmaker never directly addresses her; it is truly fly-on-the wall cinema. The camera focuses all the time on Aida, but we get a strong sense of the chaos and cacophony of the modern city, as she trundles her way through heavy traffic stopping cars to sell them flowers and cadge a cigarette. As a portrait of old age, it is sad. Yet as a portrait of human dignity it is immensely beautiful and makes us understand just how valuable human dignity is.

The second film, Jareedy, is also by an Egyptian filmmaker, Mohamed Hisham, and it is a drama set in Nubia in the far south of Egypt. A “jareedy” is a type of small boat used by the Nubians to cross the Nile, and it becomes the dream of a young boy who is haunted by the stories and cultural memory of the displacement of the Nubian people for the building of the High Dam. The most striking thing about the film is the cinematography, revealing the beauty of the landscape, the power of the river and the starkness of the sandy, sundrenched hills. The village, with its painted houses and exuberant children,  comes alive in this film, showing a world which few of the film’s audience will probably have seen (even among Egyptians, as the director pointed out during the Q&A). Again the theme of human dignity comes out, as both the young boy and the old man refuse to forget the Nubia that once was; they claim their rootedness in the land, and their insistence on memory and story is a stance of dignity.

Fate, Wherever It Takes Us is a different type of film, a personal autobiography by Kadar Fayyad. Fayyad works with NGOs on human rights issues, and issues around youth and conflict. However, she is also a refugee – a Syrian national who went to Jordan to do her master’s degree and found that her country had fallen apart when she was away. Now she lives under asylum in Amman, where she continues her work. She was invited to create an auto-portrait on film in a workshop organized by Danish film project. Fayyad use her phone camera, which leads to some very interesting experimental moments, as she muses on the concept of “fate.”  It is an immensely moving, touching portrait of an ordinary woman, little different to myself or any of my friends, who has found herself in this strange position. She speaks delicately about her state of existence at this fault line of human tragedy which is the Syrian conflict. Somehow she makes us feel as though it could happen to any of us, any time – and indeed this is true.

The final film of today’s screening was shocking and it made me cry. Yes, really. It is a drama called Mare Nostrum and was made by the Syrian filmmaking duo Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf. I really wish everybody with eyes should see this movie. It is set on an unnamed beach on the Mediterranean shore where a Syrian father rehearses over and over an agonizing ritual in the hope that it will lead to salvation. It is beautiful, with gorgeous painterly abstract moments, which are at the same time taut and terrible. The best and worst thing about the film is how recognizable it is, how much we are already aware of the story, and of the suffering and of the helplessness. Yet it is not a despairing film; it forces us to confront our own judgments and the judgments of others – particularly those voices in the media – and examine, and imagine what it takes to make such a decision. Shocking, yes; compelling, yes; essential, definitely.

 

Following the screening, there was a really interesting panel discussion featuring the filmmakers which (barring the usual complete idiot’s question – there’s always one) was enlightening and stimulating.

Out of today’s experience watching these films, it comes to me again, in a very immediate and urgent way, how important art is, and how important a tool like cinema can be to give voice and visual complexity to things which are talked about endlessly in the media.  But the nature of media discourse makes what we see/hear there almost impossible to feel. Art is not media discourse, it has much more potential to make us examine things in depth and to engage emotionally. All of the films presented today manage to do that very successfully, and this is what art is for.

IMG_20170325_173830886

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cinema of the Dutch Golden Age

512px-girl_with_a_pearl_earring

[Jan Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring,  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]

I’m writing a chapter on realism and Golden Age Dutch art, and the films Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber), Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) and Admiral (Roel Reiné). All 3 films are interesting represntations of the Dutch “Golden Age”, yet are totally different in subject and style. I recommend all of them! Girl with a Pearl Earring is about Jan Vermeer making the famous painting (above); Nightwatching is about Rembrandt making the eponymous painting and the consequences of that, and Admiral is about the life of Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter.

To my mind, the main thrust of Girl with a Pearl Earring is to achive heightened realism by the total recreation of 17thC Delft life; Nightwatching‘s thrust is to explore Rembrandt’s painterly techniques transposed onto film; Admiral uses tropes of Dutch painting (from Vermeer to van der Velde) to cement the story’s time and place, give it gravitas and affirm its significance. It’s interesting to see how each film does this and how the paintings they refer to resonate in different ways. Also the totality of Dutch painting as a precursor to cinema is always present in the back of the mind of any who sees these works.

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thinking about realism and the sublime

two paintings of similar (not the same) events: people fighting in the streets of Paris

The first painting is by Eugene Delacroix, LIBERTY LEADING THE PEOPLE, depicting the fighting in Paris during the 1830 revolution. Delacroix did not himself participate in the Street fighting but he knew plenty of people who did. Writing to his brother about the upheavals, he wrote if I cannot fight for the revolution at least I can painted. This is an example of a painting with sublime action. There’s a sense of rapid intense forward movement led by the symbolic figure of lady liberty and the surging crowd behind and around her which occupy the upper portion of the picture feel as if they’re about to hurtle out of the canvas. If you go and see the picture itself hung on the walls of the Louvre its immense size really does give a sense of everything about to fall on top the viewer.

liberty

[source: self]

There’s something definitely sublime about this, something overwhelming, dangerous, frightening – the kind of delicious terror that Burke wrote about. At the same time, because it’s an artwork we – like Delacroix, who’s painting it – don’t have to actually be there, risking being wounded and trampled on like the figures in the lower part of the picture. Off to the distance on the right-hand side,  we see the massing troops of the regime with their heavy weaponry,  which is also frightening.

Horace_Vernet-Barricade_rue_Soufflot

[source: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]

The second painting is much less well-known, it is Horace Vernet’s Street Fighting on the rue Soufflot 1848, a depiction of the June days of the 1848 uprising in Paris when the workers rose up against the regime to protest working conditions.
I don’t know much about this particular historical incident, nor why Vernet chose to painted except that Baudelaire refers quite disparagingly to Vernet  as a “journalist.”  And we can certainly see that what we’ve got in this painting is something much more documentary-like and concerned with actually showing us what it might’ve actually been like to witness the Street fighting. Vernet’s picture is not theatrical: there is no heroic Phantom of Liberty leading the charge; in fact the composition itself is not structured in the highly dramatic pyramid that we see with the Delacroix.  Instread,  it’s much more diffused;  although there is a big, dramatic diagonal in the running through the centre of the painting with a number of converging lines, there isn’t a single dramatic focus. The most eye-catching detail in the painting is the red flag of the workers juxtaposed against the white Sacre Coeur. Vernet’s intention here is much less clear; what is he trying to persuade us? He is not trying to involve us in some kind of heroic identification with the figures. Instead he shows us something quite dreadful: the  civil guard shooting the workers and the workers hurling huge stones of the guard.* Yet for all its lack of theatricality and emotion it’s a compassionate vision. We see the destruction of the city; we see the clear inequality between the shirt-sleeved, unarmed workers and the uniformed armed guard.

A film I’ve always admired that has a great street violence scene is The Baader-Meinhof Complex directed by  Uli Edel and shot by the great cinematographer Rainer Klausmann  (who shot one of my favourite German films Head-On). In an early scene, protesters get caught up in extreme violence when they are attacked by both police and militants. It’s terrifying.

All three works have something strong to tell us about street fighting – when violence engulfs the city’s streets and there is no where to go, nowhere safe to run. And all three are based on eyewitness accounts.

 

* According to Wikipedia “Things did not go peacefully and over 10,000 people were either killed or injured, while 4,000 insurgents were deported to Algeria.”

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head’s up

My head’s been full of the unwelcome “Brexit” debacle in Britain – the referendum where  a slight majority of folk decided to leave the European Union – bringing total instability ot the nation on every level. For a ton of reasons I do not agree with the result, but it’s out of my hands. Maybe more on that later…

Today I suddenly realised that I have to deliver my first ever paper at a proper academic conference – something I never expected to do, ever – next week, and so I’d better get cracking and let politics be politics …

It’s a paper on cinema and painting as an exchange of cultural value, and I’m going to be talking about how this exchange works in two films – Tarantino’s  Django Unchained, and one of my absolute favourite films of all time Meek’s Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt. I’ve written about this extensively in my book, so the paper is a kind of shorter version of that.

I really love Meek’s Cutoff for many reasons but one of them is that I’m transfixed by the “humans in landscape” visual that she achieves in many of her films, and the profundity that generates. Reichart is THE first real heir to the great Michelangelo Antonioni.

The composition, colour and tonality and lighting of Meek’s Cutoff owes much – whether deliberately or not – to the works of the French realist  Jean François Millet.

Jean-François_Millet Gleaners Wikimedia Commons

 

 

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seeking the sublime in Paris

“the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

OK so I’m going to go and do some research in Paris soon. Am going to bunk down in the Large Scale 19th Century Paintings room in the Louvre and analyse what’s ‘cinematic’ about them.

Théodore_Géricault.jpg

[Gericault, Raft of the Medusa, wikimedia commons]

However back in the day, these gigantic pictures  were often exhibited more like movies: in darkened rooms, covered by a velvet curtain, tickets and at timed entry points.

I’m researching the relationship between realism and the sublime in these pictures and how this relates to the relationship between realism and the sublime in cinema, in films that present historical subjects.

Gericault researched the subject of his great painting, Raft of the Medusa, very thoroughly. he ended up knowing more about the real life shipwreck and the resulting cannibalism than even those who had survived it. Yet when he came to painting it he didn’t try to just replicate the scene, he made it truly terrifying yet awe-fully riveting. Cinema (and present day high-quality TV) does the same thing.

I’m presently compelled by the dramatic fact-ion of Black Sails, for example – a heady mixture of realism and sublime, of historical and material research and high-drama fictive imagination.Many people have been similarly stirred by Gladiator, for instance – a film famously inspired by a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Jean-Leon_Gerome_Pollice_Verso

[Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso, wikimedia commons]

Ridley Scott therefore had Gérôme, uncredited, on boards as a kind of proto production designer.  It was Gérôme who imagined and worked out how the picture the roaring crowds at the Colosseum and the dire moment of imperial whim over life and death. He exhaustively researched Ancient Rome, but he also must have had a pretty sage understanding of how crowds operate.

Imagine how Gericault might have  production designed for a blockbuster film or series of the Raft of the Medusa story! The writer Jonathan Crary pointed out that about the only in depth research the painter didn’t conduct, was sampling a bite of human flesh from the cadavers he was studying to see what drowned flesh looked like.

“…whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling … ” Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Of course, Burke also noted that “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration and chiefly excites our passions.” And he is right: it is precisely our personal ignorance of what it would be like to experience being shipwrecked on a  raft and forced eat my colleague’s dead flesh (hint: awful) – or what it would be like to be a pirate in the early 18th century Caribbean (hint: horrible, by today’s luxe standards)  – that make these scenarios appealing through the medium of art.

So, let’s see what I find. Am not just going to look at Gericault and his friends in Denon 77- I’m also going to see the many dramatic murals that are spread around the city. Paris has many more interior murals than London.

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magic hour

Britain’s museums are full of art that offers endless inspiration to today’s film makers. From material history (what the past looked like) to appreciation of the power of colour and composition, art can inform moving image production in so many ways.
Tate Britain has many fascinating paintings maybe not all of them in the great ‘canon’ of world art, but inspirational nonetheless. I’ll be off to the Art and Empire show next week, can’t wait.
However this one here is one of the great masterpieces in the Tate, John Singer Sargent’s “Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose”. He painted it during magic hour one autumn, in the garden, only a few minutes per evening to catch the fleeting perfect pink light. ‘Magic Hour’ greatly inspires film makers too – Jack Cardiff called his (fascinating) autobiography Magic Hour, and Terence Malick famously shot most of Days of Heaven during Magic Hour, meaning that the film took ages to complete. Like Sargent, Malick had a very limited amount of time to catch the light.
I don’t think you can reproduce ‘magic hour’ with digital technology. I have never seen a decent reproduction of “Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose.” Nor have I seen anything quite as stunning as Days of Heaven done with digital. *
I’ve written more about ‘magic hour’ in art and film in Art History for Filmmakers.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01615

John Singer Sargent; Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose; © [Tate] Photographic Rights © Tate (2014), CCBYNCND 3.0 (Unported), a link back to the material
* (Lee Rose and John Toll’s work on Vanilla Sky (2001) – film –  comes pretty close to perfect.)

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