What you see: Spirit of Night, an 1879 oil on canvas by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Christie’s estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.
The expert: Laura Mathis, specialist, 19th century European Art at Christie’s, and head of this European Art sale.
Do we know why Grimshaw might have painted Spirit of Night? Was this a book illustration? It’s not clear why Grimshaw picked up this subject matter, but it doesn’t seem to be a book illustration. This is more from his love of poetry. It inspired him to turn to this subject, that’s my feeling.
About that. The lot notes say the painting had a tablet with a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, To Night. Was the painting directly inspired by the Shelley poem? I think it’s all but certain he was. The words “Spirit of Night” appear as the second line of the Shelley poem. He was interested in Keats and Browning. Tennyson was a favorite. Five of his 16 kids got their names from Tennyson’s poetry.
How does the painting depict the poem? In Shelley’s poem, the poet describes the personification of night emerging from her cave, ushering the personification of day from the world, putting all the creatures to sleep. I think that’s what’s happening here.
Is the city below her identifiable as a specific place? I don’t think the city is meant to be identifiable. It’s probably meant to stand in for any town. It’s by the water, which is mentioned in the poem. He wanted to explore [the effects] of reflected light.
How many fairy pictures did Grimshaw make? It’s hard to give an exact number, but there were approximately seven or eight. They were quite popular in Victorian times but the subject was on the wane by the time Grimshaw turned to it.
Where does Spirit of Night rank among them? I would say definitely it has an interesting and important place in the corpus of fairy painting.
Grimshaw was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Where do we see that influence in Spirit of Night? Grimshaw starts painting in a lot of ways by looking at the Pre-Raphaelites. The use of color in the fairy wings speaks to the influence on his art and the level of detail as well, the lacy details of the fairy wings. If you get up close to the painting, the veining looks like dragonfly wings. The Pre-Raphaelites were almost fanatically interested in the most minute details of nature. That very close attention to nature is very Pre-Raphaelite.
How does the painting testify to his talent? To me, all of Grimshaw’s paintings testify to his talent. Not only was he self-taught, his family actively discouraged his painting. That he became an artist at all is a triumph. His mother would throw his paints on the fire and turn off the gas to his room, so he didn’t have heat. When he got married, he left home, and his wife, who was also his first cousin, was very instrumental in encouraging him to become a painter.
How does he achieve the luminescent effects? Because he didn’t have formal training, he taught himself. He would look at the beveled edges of mirrors to learn what the effect looks like, and his kids would bring home opalescent glass that he would keep by his easel as a reference.
Is the fairy outlined in white or silver? It’s a sort of silvery-white. It’s a very hard color to describe. The diaphanous cloth that covers her is a tour-de-force. The stars woven into the cloth is a direct reference to the poem. He doesn’t always have the easiest time painting the human form, but he really gets it spot on here.
Is that because he had a model for the Spirit of Night? Yes.
Let’s talk about that–his relationship with Agnes Leefe, and whether it was unusual or not. It sounds a bit sketchy to modern ears, but it seemed to be above board. Leefe was a ward who modeled for him and became a companion to his wife and children as well. It was like taking in a distant relative. The Grimshaws had a sad life. Of the 16 kids, six survived to adulthood. He would jokingly refer to Leefe as Little Orphan Annie.
How did they meet? I don’t know how they met, except it was in Leeds [where Leefe performed as an actress]. His daughter recalls her mom being not super thrilled when he brought her home, but she came around quick. There didn’t seem to be any impropriety. He and his wife were very happy, though Leefe’s death [from tuberculosis] was hard on them. It probably brought back memories of the losses of their other children.
How often do Grimshaw fairy paintings appear at auction? Fairly infrequently. There were two in the 1990s and two, including this one, in the 2000s. His landscapes appear more reliably.
When was the last time a Grimshaw fairy painting came up? The most recent one was in 2004, at Christie’s London. It went for just over $500,000. This one came up at Christie’s New York in 2002. It brought $537,500. The fairy pictures are tricky to price because they appear so infrequently. They’re atypical, compared to the landscapes. But 19th century European art is very image-driven. You have to take that into account when estimating.
What’s the record for a Grimshaw fairy painting? It’s this one, sold in 2002.
So there’s a chance it could reset the record? We’re keeping our fingers crossed.
What condition is the painting in? It’s in really nice condition. It does have an old lining on it but all the artist’s glazes are intact.
What is it like in person? The figure really does seem to be glowing. It pops and glows. The detail in the wings, too–you don’t pick up their lacy dragonfly quality until you get close to the painting.
Why will this painting stick in your memory? The fun of working in 19th century painting is covering so many schools and styles, and getting to see new things. I love to see an artist who’s so controlled and staid go completely outside the box. This definitely falls into that. The opalescent effect in the wings and the drapery–you don’t get that in Grimshaw’s moonlight scenes. Those are more about reflecting the light off of moss and brick. They’re beautiful, but this is in a class of its own.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.