Mary Moser, Spring and Summer, c. 1780. Royal Academy, London.
One of the artists I won’t be able to cover in my admittedly brief series Three Women in the 18th Century is Mary Moser, which is a great shame. Her fame is eclipsed by her contemporary Angelica Kauffman (who will, of course, be the subject of the third talk in the series, on Monday 10 May at 2pm and 6pm), even though they had so much in common. Both were trained by Swiss fathers, for one thing, but whereas Kauffman was born in Switzerland, Moser’s father had moved to London in the 1720s, and she was born there in 1744. George Michael Moser was the son of an engineer and metal worker, and it was as a metal worker that he too was most successful, designing and making candlesticks, watch cases and snuffboxes amongst other things. He also enamelled these objects, attracting the attention of Queen Charlotte, for whom he made a watch case enamelled with portraits of the Princes George and Frederick (who would grow up to be King George IV and the Grand Old Duke of York). But then, George Michael had already been drawing master to King George III when the latter was a boy: these connections would stand Mary in good stead. Dad was well-enough regarded to design and make the seal for the Society of Artists, even if that was destined to be a short-lived group. Its first exhibition was held in 1761, and, although it only lasted six years, its demise was rapidly followed by the foundation of the Royal Academy of Art in 1768. George Michael Moser was one of the founding members – but then, so too was his daughter Mary, and, at 24, she was the youngest. She was also one of only two women, the other, of course, being Angelica Kauffman – this is the other thing they have in common. So why is she not as well known? I suspect it is because, unlike Kauffman, who is well known for her portraits, her allegories, and her narratives, Moser was famed for her paintings of flowers.
These two are still owned by the Royal Academy, and are dedicated to Spring and Summer. The names are clearly derived from the flowers which are depicted. Spring includes a tulip (top right), two varieties of narcissus, and what I suspect is a hyacinth, before horticulturalists bred them to be more compact (I should really ask the Ecologist, but we’re in different towns right now). Many of you are probably gardeners, and will recognise most, if not all, of the species anyway. Chief among the Summer flowers are roses, at the heart of the composition, a poppy, slightly shaded to the right of centre, and a carnation, more shaded, at the top right.
It’s not just the flowers which give the paintings their titles. I think the compositions themselves also express the seasons. In Spring the blooms look relatively bright across most of the surface, and stand out against a dark background. For me, at least, it is the appearance of flowers and leaves, their brightness most evident when they are freshest, which is the surest sign that the darkness of winter is over, and in this painting they really do shine out against that darkness. In summer, though, there is perhaps even more of a contrast. The brighter, stronger sun creates deeper, darker shadows – which in all probability are lighter than those of spring, but, compared to the brilliant sun, they appear to be darker. In the painting of Summer this contrast is evident in the background – dark, even black, on the left, and far lighter on the right. A subtly sinuous vertical axis of light flowers, white, pale pink and cream, shines out in the dazzling light against the dark foliage, with some of the less illuminated blooms rendered visible by being set against the lighter ground.
The genre of floral still life painting was developed in the Dutch Republic in the 17th Century, but Mary Moser was no fijnschilder. The direct translation of this word would be ‘fine painter’ – someone whose work we might describe, rather inaccurately, as ‘photographic’ in its naturalism. The paintings of a fijnschilder are intricately detailed, with almost no clue that the image has been painted: there is not a brushstroke in sight. Not so with Moser: this is clearly a painting. Most obviously, the highlight on the vase, where light reflects from its lustrous surface, is built up of several separate strokes of cream-coloured paint. There is no attempt to blend these lines, but that does not stop us from seeing an area of light, nor does it make us think that something striped is being reflected: the human mind developed to fill in gaps. Once you have seen her technique, you can begin to see that Moser built up the petals in a similar way, with individual brushstrokes placed over a base colour to create the effect of petals, without their minute and subtle variations. The skill lies in knowing how little, or how much, to do. Mary Moser clearly knew exactly what was needed, and as a result she was enormously successful. So why is she so little known today? I suspect it is quite simply because, although she did paint portraits and history paintings from time to time, she was best known for her flowers.
In terms of Academic values, Still Life came some way down the hierarchy of genres. At the top were ‘History’ paintings, from which the part of the word we want is ‘story’ – narrative images drawn from classical mythology, the bible or the lives of the saints, images which would inspire us by the nobility of the human spirit, or instruct us about the folly of others. After History came Portraiture – paintings of the great and the good, those destined to lead the way and show an example to others – and then Landscape – God’s creation, all the wonders of the world, which mankind was destined to rule. Penultimate, just before Genre painting (normal people doing normal things), was Still Life. The skill is purely aesthetic, you might think, the ability to reproduce appearances, which is, in any case, inherent in all the other genres, and to arrange forms and colours in an agreeable composition.
One of the problems of holding someone’s attention with a floral still life is that there is no narrative to hold on to, and, potentially no greater meaning. Of course, this is by no means always the case. Objects can carry symbolic meaning, and so a Still Life could easily be more fully packed with hidden messages than any narrative – I should show you an example of this one day! Nevertheless, Still Life artists were not as highly celebrated as those who focused on the ‘nobler’ genres, and so their names are more likely to have dropped out of the public imagination. So, in order to make amends in some way, let’s give our artist a face.
On the left is George Romney’s portrait of Mary Moser, painted around 1770-71, which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2003. It is said to show Mary’s professional status – she stands at her easel working in oils, unlike other women who painted flowers, who used watercolour, not an unusual feminine accomplishment at the time. Despite doing what could be classified as ‘man’s work’ – i.e. painting in oils – she is still clearly entirely feminine. The fact that she is depicted at work, rather than as ‘just’ a decorative object (the fate of many women) is also important, particularly at a time when few women of her class worked. On the right is a detail from a group portrait, The Royal Academicians in General Assembly, painted in 1795 by Henry Singleton – like Spring and Summer it is in the collection of the Royal Academy. Angelica Kauffman stands on our left, looking directly at us, while Moser looks towards her more famous companion. Behind them is an equestrian statue. You might assume it is a reduction of the Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, judging by the other sculptures depicted in the painting, but it is actually a Study for an Equestrian Statue of George III by Academician Agostino Carlini. More importantly, hanging on the wall are Moser’s Summer and Spring – freely painted, which is hardly surprising given how small the detail must be, but recognisable nonetheless.
When you look at the painting as a whole it would be very easy to dismiss the appearance of these two women as ‘marginalised’ – they are, after all, pushed to the back of the gathering. However, they shouldn’t be there at all: Kauffman and Moser were not allowed to attend the General Assembly. So, despite this inexplicable bar, their inclusion in the painting is a sign of the great esteem in which they were held. They may be at the back, but they are more-or-less central, and just over the shoulder of the second President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, enthroned on his gold and red-upholstered chair. The women are perfectly placed to be seen. Not only that, but some of their paintings are also depicted – unlike the works of many of the Academicians who are present. We have seen the two by Moser hanging on the wall behind them: there are also two by Kauffman, Design and Composition, set into the coffering of the ceiling. If you want to know more about one of these – and another equivalent painting, Colour, then look back to Day 48 – Colour and Design. The fact is, the women are there, in the painting, their status acknowledged and their work on view: people could see them and know who they were. Next week we will look at a painting in which the situation is really rather different.