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Stanhope Forbes, Irish Poet of the Brush

The Health of the Bride, 1889

Irish painter Stanhope Alexander Forbes was born in Dublin on November 18, 1857. He was a founding member of the Newlyn School, which was an art colony of British artists in southwestern England that became very popular in the 1880's. They painted primarily en plein air to capture the majestic light and interesting characters of this small, modest fishing community—a theme that would recur throughout Forbes' career. What distinguishes Forbes from the rest of his artist colleagues was his naturalism, and a strong sense of narrative reminiscent of Joaquín Sorolla in being able to understand people and body language with an innate sense of group composition.

I was fortunate enough to see The Health of the Bride above in Tate Britain in September and I was awed by its simple power and drama. Off to the right a sailor raises his glass to the bride and groom seated at the table while friends and family around the table are poised to sip from their glasses. Note how Forbes uses both white and the natural light coming through the window to indicate three focal points of the story: the sailor, the bride, and the wedding cake, all aligned diagonally from right to left:

Note also the figure silhouetted against the window in a dark suit contrasts with the sailor in white, in an almost mirror-like reflection in posing. Through perspective and the lower placement of his glass he is a less important figure, even though he is the only other man standing in the painting. Look at the grouping of the figures, how all the figures on the left seated at the table are foreshortened in perspective while those on the right spaced wide apart and grouped in two, except for the old woman seated alone, probably a widow. The grandfather is arranged in a triangle with the two young grandchildren, who we understand by two arm gestures: feeding water to the boy and his arm around the girl. The bride herself gazes into her bouquet timidly, in contrast to her confident husband beside her. Narrative is in the details, and Forbes knew exactly how to use them.

The Seine Boat, 1904

Forbes depiction of the working class—fishermen mainly, in Newlyn—has such presence that we feel we are on the boat with these men, swaying in the ocean on a windy summer afternoon. What is the man pointing at? Has he spotted fish in the distance? Someone they recognize? Forbes creates a slight mystery in this narrative with an important lesson in that a narrative doesn't necessarily need to be explained clearly, as in Health of the Bride above. The figures themselves are the story. Forbes once again arranges his figures in perspective while portraying multiple generations, side by side. What is particularly interesting is the warm blue palette of the water, how it contrasts with the warm, dark tones of the fishermen and the large net the boy is sitting on. Presence.

Safe Anchorage

I find this painting so relaxing to look at, like a meditation. Beneath this quiet composition is an astonishing mastery of color temperature and light that, despite a photographic-like appearance, has real depth and presence. Fishermen at the end of the day, the last of a group collecting their catch before the sun sets. Forbes uses quite a loose brush in this painting, ironically, and it works so well. Value and color is more important than detail. And that art is, fundamentally, a meditation for the eyes and spirit. Forbes may be an obscure Irish painter, but his eye was a true poet that made the ordinary truly inspiring.


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