Two Nude images by Carl Larsson

Carl Olof Larsson was a Swedish painter who has been featured in Pigtails here and here. Larsson was born in 1853, and had an unhappy childhood because of his irresponsible father. At age 13 he applied for the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, and was accepted. Larsson became a professional illustrator for two newspapers, as well as books and magazines. His income was sufficient to support his parents as well as himself.

Carl Larsson – Graziella Asking Whether She will do as a Model (1888)

In 1877 Carl Larsson moved to Paris and in 1882 moved to a Scandinavian artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing. There he met the Swedish artist Karin Bergöö, whom he married. They had eight children. In 1888 the Larsson family returned to Sweden. Larsson is most famous for his depictions of happy family life, often using his own family as models. Larsson wrote in his memoirs of the family paintings, “… these pictures are of course a very genuine expression of my personality, of my deepest feelings, of all my limitless love for my wife and children.”

Larsson is also famous for his frescos in public buildings. His nudes are not as well known, even though he won his first medal in art, while still a teenager, for drawing nudes. The two illustrations in this article are examples of his nude illustrations.

When Larsson was living in France, aspiring models frequented the artists’ colony looking for work. In 1888, before the Larsson family moved to Sweden, a young Italian girl came to Larsson’s studio and asked if she would do as a model. Larsson apparently thought that Graziella, the girl, would do as a model, for we have this drawing he made of her. She was more slender than was considered to be ideal at the time. Her expression is not one of confidence. Nevertheless, Larsson’s drawing of her is quite touching. Suzanne Larsson, Carl’s oldest child, would have been about four years old when Graziella modeled for this drawing. Perhaps the artist’s affection for his daughter, who was only a few years younger than Graziella, helped him to create a sympathetic image of Graziella. I found two examples of this drawing online, a scan of an etching and a scan of a postage stamp. The illustration on a 1982 Swedish postage stamp is sharper than a scan of the etching, so it is the one shown here.

Carl Larsson – Mammas och Småflickornas Rum (1897)

The second nude in this post is typical of Larsson’s paintings of family life. The painting shows the mother’s and little girls’ room. Since it was painted in 1897, the nude girl on the left must be the artist’s daughter Brita, who was born in 1893. The infant in the middle of the painting would be Kersti, born 1896, and the older girl on the right would be Lisbeth, born in 1891.

Girls, a Saint and a Norse Goddess: Carl Larsson’s Christmas Art

Despite having a pretty rough start (his parents were impoverished, his father reportedly hated him, and he had difficulty establishing himself in his early years as more modern styles were blossoming), Swedish artist Carl Larsson led something of a charmed life. As his family grew, so too did his popularity, and he became a regular contributor to many well-known magazines of the era, including Jugend.  His style is organic but clean; he even dabbled in sequential art, making him one of the the first Scandinavian comics creators.  Larsson and his stunningly attractive wife Karin, also an artist and designer, had eight children, whom Larsson adored profoundly (breaking the pattern of his cold and abusive father), making them the subject of much of his art. Holidays were a big deal at the Larsson household and there are several pieces by Larsson to attest to this.

Carl Larsson – Peasant Interior in Winter (1890)

Carl Larsson – Christmas Morning (1894)

Carl Larsson – Between Christmas and New Year (1896)

Iduna (alternately Idun or Idunn in anglicized form) is the Norse goddess of youth and the guardian of the golden apples which the gods consume to maintain their immortality.  Here Larsson’s daughter Brita portrays her for an image that was used for the 1901 Christmas issue of a magazine named for the goddess.

Carl Larsson – Brita as Iduna (1901)

Now this is a Christmas feast!

Carl Larsson – Christmas Eve Banquet (1905)

St. Lucy is one of the few saints celebrated in Scandinavia, and her day, December 13th, is associated with Christmas.  Traditionally, the eldest daughter in a family or an older girl in a village is selected to portray the saint, in which she is crowned with a headpiece bearing lights or candles, and then she leads a procession of younger sisters or other girls as they go about passing out candies or other treats to smaller children.  At least, that’s how I understand it. 🙂

Carl Larsson – St. Lucia Day – Christmas in Sweden (1908)

Carl Larsson – Christmas Break (1909)

Carl Larsson – Decorating the Tree

Carl Larsson – Greta Arnbom

Carl Larsson – Kersti’s Sleigh Ride

Carl Larsson – The Day Before Christmas

Wikipedia: Carl Larsson

Cherry Ripe!

There is a garden in her face
Where roses and white lilies grow;
A heav’nly paradise is that place
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.
There cherries grow which none may buy,
Till “Cherry-ripe” themselves do cry.

The above is the first stanza of Thomas Campion’s poem “There is a Garden in Her Face,” a paean to a beautiful virginal girl. How do we know this? We must first put it into historical context. Cherry vendors in England traditionally used the call “Cherry ripe!” to let people know that cherries were ready to buy. If we apply this fact to the poem, we see that the man is describing a girl that, while beautiful, is not yet ready to be “bought”—that is, she hasn’t quite reached sexual maturity. Campion admires this girl for her sexual purity, which he acquaints with spiritual purity. Here we have a basic explanation for the Victorian cult of the girl (which followed Campion by a couple hundred years): girls, because of their perceived innocence and sweetness, were considered above all other natural human groups to be the closest to God, so long as they maintained their virginity, hence British society’s horror of the underground culture of girls being kidnapped and deflowered—brought to light by W. T. Stead’s series The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon, and likely highly exaggerated therein—which compelled Britain’s Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16.

In terms of cherries being associated with young girls and virginity, many people seem to be under the impression that slang terms like cherry, in reference to the hymen, was invented by their generation, or at least the generation before theirs. In fact, this is not so:

cherry […] Meaning “maidenhead, virginity” is from 1889, U.S. slang, from supposed resemblance to the hymen, but perhaps also from the long-time use of cherries as a symbol of the fleeting quality of life’s pleasures.”

There we have it. The slang term dates at least to 1889, but I suspect the association of this particular fruit with virginity dates further back than even Campion’s poem, which was first published in 1617. And we are also given another, older, symbolism for cherries in the above etymology: they stand for the fleeting quality of physical pleasure. This too can be tied into sex, but also to childhood, which is itself fleeting. This symbolism is the Western tradition, but even in the East the cherry (and more specifically the cherry blossom) are also associated with maidenhood/virginity. We are more concerned with the Western mode here, but I do find it interesting that such disparate cultures can arrive at a similar symbolic representation, don’t you?

Back to the poem. We get the impression from the final stanza not of a full-grown woman—worldly and self-assured—but of a nervous girl being approached by potential mates, as if she is a wary doe being stalked by wolves on the hunt.

Why am I bringing all of this up? It is to lay the foundation of context for one very interesting painting, that painting being Sir John Everett Millais’s “Cherry Ripe”, a deceptively simple portrait of a little girl in a white dress with pink highlights sitting on a log in the forest . . .

John Everett Millais – Cherry Ripe (1879)

Wikipedia: John Everett Millais

Millais was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and like most of the Pre-Raphaelites, he loaded his art with symbolism. First, the semiotics of color. White was of course the color of purity. Children, particularly little girls, were often dressed in white for formal portraits. Moreover, the child is placed against a dark and shadowy forest from which any wild beast could emerge and snatch her from her perch; unlike most portraits, which are set safely indoors or illuminated spaces, this one is actually a bit edgy. More likely than not this was intentional on Millais’s part. I have mentioned before that semiotically a white figure against black backdrop stresses the figure’s vulnerability or purity—or, in this case, both—in a morally nebulous world. Pale pink, which is traditionally associated with young girls, is also the color of cherry blossoms, and the child’s flesh is also pinkish. Here we have a figure composed almost entirely of white and pink. The lone exceptions are her eyes and hair and the black gloves, but as they were a conscious choice, it is the gloves that draw our attention.

The gloves are black. The color black has many symbolic interpretations, but here it screams sexuality. Look closely at the girl’s hands: they are placed in her lap and closed together prayer-style, only inverted. The gloves are fingerless, V-shaped and adjacent to her hands, inevitably funneling one’s attention right to the girl’s fleshy, exposed fingers, and (as more than one art critic has pointed out) those fingers happen to resemble a vulva.

Now some questions arise. Was this accidental or deliberate on the part of Millais? I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. And what exactly is Millais saying with this painting? Perhaps he is wrestling with the Victorian notion of the asexual girl-child, and suggesting that it may be a tad more complicated than that. Maybe he’s being ironic. After all, despite the title of the piece, the little girl is clearly nowhere near being “ripe”, and indeed some of the cherries lying at her side belie the title as well. Then again, maybe it is entirely coincidental, but I doubt it.

There is one other possibility I can think of. Millais was a friend of culture/art critic John Ruskin, who was married to Effie Gray at the time they met and became friends. But Ruskin had been married to Effie for several years and had yet to consummate the marriage, owing to, it was rumored, his mortal dread of pubic hair. Ruskin, like Lewis Carroll, had written a book for his beloved when she was still a child. The book was The King of the Golden River. Unlike Carroll, however, Ruskin was eventually able to marry the girl he had eyes for, although Ruskin and Effie were only nine years apart in age whereas Carroll and Alice Liddell were twenty years apart and of different social classes from one another. Anyway, Millais and Effie eventually fell in love, the marriage between Ruskin and Effie was annulled, and Effie remarried Millais, with whom she had eight children. (Side note: The oldest Millais daughter—also called Effie—was even one of Lewis Carroll’s photographic subjects.) Now, Ruskin was a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but given the embarrassing situation between Ruskin, Millais and Effie, it is little wonder that Ruskin began to condemn Millais’s post-marriage work, ostensibly because it was of lower quality according to Ruskin, but in reality it is more likely that Ruskin felt slighted and used his power as a critic to avenge the loss of his mate to Millais the best way he knew how. Is it possible, then, that Millais, with the painting “Cherry Ripe,” was publicly mocking Ruskin and his supposed pubic hair phobia? Probably not, but it is worth considering.

And speaking of Lewis Carroll, perhaps the next most famous artwork featuring little girls and cherries after the Millais piece is Carroll’s photo of the Liddell sisters (Edith, Lorina and Alice) in which the oldest girl, Lorina, is feeding Alice a cherry. Alice stands with her head cocked and mouth slightly agape, like a baby bird waiting to be fed by its mother. And, of course, Alice would be the one to be fed, given Carroll’s ongoing fascination with her.

Lewis Carroll – The Three Liddell Sisters (“Open Your Mouth”) (1860)

Wikipedia: Lewis Carroll

The above was one of several Carroll works that Polixeni Papapetrou created a tribute to.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Cherry Group

Polixeni Papapetrou (Official Site)

One step removed from this, cherries—really any fruit, but apples and cherries in particular—can represent transgression, as in the story of Adam and Eve, in which children stand in for the first humans and the crime that brings on their downfall is theft.

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The Cherry Thieves

Wikipedia: Fritz Zuber-Bühler

Carl Larsson – Forbidden Fruit

Wikipedia: Carl Larsson

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Pickers

Wikipedia: Frederick Morgan (painter)

Note the coy and mischievous expression on this girl’s face:

Charles Amable Lenoir – The Cherrypicker (1900)

Wikipedia: Charles Amable Lenoir

Cherries can also represent intimacy, both romantic and familial.

Paul Hermann Wagner – Idylle mit Atelier (1889)

Lord Frederick Leighton – Mother and Child (1865)

Lord Frederic Leighton: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton

Franz von Defregger – Kinder beim Kirschenessen (1869)

Wikipedia: Franz Defregger

Cherries can become an amusement for little girls playing at being women.

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (1)

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (2)

Frederick Morgan – The Cherry Gatherers

Georg Rössler – Mädchen mit Kirschen (1901)

But mostly cherries were just colorful eye-catchers that helped to emphasize the vibrancy and ruddy healthiness of youth . . .

Emile Vernon – The Cherry Bonnet (1919)

John Russell – Little Girl with Cherries (1780)

Wikipedia: John Russell (painter)

Friedrich von Kaulbach – Kirschen (Cherries)

Wikipedia: Friedrich Kaulbach

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The First Cherries

Finally, a couple of curious contemporary artworks in which girl meets fruit; to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what to make of these.

Rene Lynch – Wonderland: Cherry Picking (2005)

Rene Lynch (Official Site)

I will say one thing about this final piece: Pay attention to how the little nude girl unwittingly mimics the lithe erotically posed woman in the magazine her mother is holding.

Tatiana Deriy – Little Cherry

(Editor’s update, 2015/11/06: There is a larger image of Little Cherry on Tatiana Deriy’s website.)