June 21, 2003

The Cat’s-Paw

The painter Richard Dadd (1817-1886) is chiefly remembered for the two extraordinarily-detailed masterpieces he painted during his incarceration in Bethlem Hospital: Contradiction. Oberon and Titania (1854-8), and The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke (ca. 1855-64). Besides these justly-celebrated works, he also produced dozens of watercolours, and a smaller number of singularly-fascinating oil-paintings, during his long confinement in ‘Bedlam’, and, later, in Broadmoor.

Sketch to Illustrate the Passions: Melancholy (1854).

Beginning in 1853, Dadd painted a series of about thirty watercolours under the collective title Sketches to Illustrate the Passions, each one focussing on a single virtue, vice, or state-of-mind. Subjects for the sketches included love, hatred, jealousy, treachery, idleness, brutality, raving madness, and melancholy (pictured above). The quality of these compositions varies widely: some seem weirdly stilted, others are straightforwardly naturalistic.

Mercy. David Spareth Saul's Life (1854).

Of the oil-paintings from this period, Mercy, David Spareth Saul’s Life (1854) offers ample evidence that Dadd’s compositional and colouristic skills were unaffected by his madness. And, if anything, his Potrait of a Man, from the previous year, is even more striking, with its unexpected juxtaposition of a sober-looking, black-suited gent (thought, perhaps, to be one of Bethlem’s doctors or stewards), and a beautifully-fanciful background, drawn from memory, imagination and sketchbook fragments.

Portrait of a Man (1853).

Among the independent watercolours Dadd executed during his Bethlem years, his Sketch of an idea for Crazy Jane (below) is one of the best known, and is perhaps the most poignantly lyrical, despite the bathetic edge introduced by the fact that the model for Jane is evidently a man in drag. Dadd’s watercolours could also conjure up much darker moods, as in, for example the baffling and deeply unnerving The Child’s Problem - a fancy sketch (1857).

Sketch of an idea for Crazy Jane (1855).

The year 1860 saw Dadd complete two more minor masterpieces in oils: Negation (for which, alas, I could not find a good-quality colour image), and Mother and Child, below. The latter work is a pure and delicate piece, with numerous striking details: the mother’s jewellery, the alignment of the sun behing her head (almost making a madonna of her), and the peculiar puffed-up bird to her left…

Mother and Child, 1860.

One painting which carries echoes of Dadd’s most famous canvases is his 1862 work Bacchanalian Scene. This could almost be a detail from The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, but is apparently complete. According to the commentary in Patricia Allderidge’s monograph on Dadd, there is a Latin verse inscribed on the reverse of the panel, which, translated, runs thus:

Each man then has his own unlucky fate both here and beyond - like must be added to like, and ones due paid to the appointed spirit.
Bacchanalian Scene (1862).

Allderidge’s commentary continues:

The first part at least is in keeping with Dadd’s fatalist philosophy as he had already explained it … saying that he could not separate himself from what appeared to be his fate, and also ‘Now the author of this act [the murder of his father] is unknown to me, although, as being the cat’s-paw, I am held responsible.’

Clicking on each of the images above will open larger, pop-up versions of the same.

Posted by misteraitch at June 21, 2003 09:34 PM | TrackBack

Interestingly, the sketch depicting "melancholy" features what is either St. James or a medieval pilgrim to his shrine at Compostela in Spain. The distinctly-shaped hat with its cockle-shell, and the pilgrim's staff, are iconographically associated with the apostle and his famous pilgrimage.

I'm interested in knowing what association of the artist's prompted this appearance, but perhaps the background of cliffs is the answer. Santiago de Compostela is located near what was in medieval times the western terminus of the mappamundi: a cliffside Galician village still bears the name of Finisterre as testimony. Perhaps a melancholy at pilgrimage's end, world's end... and a recognition of limits Dadd would have known all too well as an inmate of Bedlam.

Posted by: Carlos on June 22, 2003 08:40 PM
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