Wednesday, 22 March 2017

I Muse... On a Piece of Art

Readers of this blog will, by now, know that the name Albert Decaris is synonymous with brilliantly engraved stamps. But what you may not know is this was merely the tip of his artist talent iceberg! 

In 1919, at only 18 years of age, he was being celebrated as an artist par excellence by taking home the coveted Prix de Rome for his etching entitled The Fall of Man. He even won a Gold Medal at the 1948 London Olympics for his incredible etching: The Swimming Pool. But that's not all. He was also an incredible painter. He painted wall frescoes for both the 1937 Paris Exhibition of Art and the New York Exhibition the year after in 1938. And in 1962 he was named official painter for the Marine Francaise (Navy).

Over time Decaris' amazing steel-plate etchings illustrated many books. Perhaps most notable were his engraved illustrations for the  three volume set of Plutarch's Lives. He engraved a colossal 58 illustrations for this set of books. He also did many large format engravings, capturing various scenes around the city in which he worked and lived - Paris. Decaris had an intimate love affair with the city of Paris through his beautiful artwork. Many of his artworks included mythological and fantastical scenes. Decaris also liked to portray religious allegories. He also produced many ink drawings utilizing these themes. 

So why all the biographical information? I thought this was a good lead-in to something unrelated to stamps that I wanted to share with you. A few weeks ago I was sent the most incredible gift by a friend in Belgium. An original piece of Albert Decaris art. How awesome is that! Wanna see...







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I have tried to do some online research on this particular piece, but I wasn't able to find anything. As I mentioned above, Decaris created many artworks with religious allegories and I believe this is yet another example. In my humble opinion, I think this piece depicts Eve in the Garden of Eden standing before the Tree of Life, gazing toward heaven, perhaps seeking forgiveness. If indeed it is Eve, she seems to be standing in a pseudo-crucified position, perhaps flagellating herself for picking an apple from the tree. Of course, I could be totally wrong as to the subject. After all, if it is Eve in the Garden, where is the serpent? Or perhaps the serpent has already fled the scene, having done its job....

I would like to offer my most sincere thanks to my friend, Lionel, for this most wonderful gift! Merci beaucoup, Lionel!

Until next time...


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

France 1951 - Vincent d'Indy

A dramatic symphony can arrest the senses and send one's spirit on a journey through many subtle levels of emotion. Our mind's eye travels across scenic vistas and plummets into dark, cavernous places. Our hearts race. We laugh. We cry. We transcend...

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Vincent d'Indy, born 27 March 1851, grew up with music filling his ears. As a young boy he began learning the piano. He showed great promise, and at 14 he began to study the art of harmony with Albert Lavignac, a French composer. Then in 1870 after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, he enlisted in the National Guard. He was 19.

At the end of the war, he returned to his passion - music. But it wasn't until his first work Symphonie italienne was performed by an orchestra as a part of their rehearsal routine that his career took off. This performance triggered a chain reaction of associations that led d'Indy to study at the Conservatoire de Paris under César Franck, a renowned music teacher. While studying with Franck, d'Indy came to admire the beauty of German symphonism.

His love of the German Symphony enticed d'Indy to visit Germany in the summer of 1873. There he was fortunate to meet Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. This trip must have been truly inspiring. One can only imagine the thrill of talking with the top minds in one's field. Then on 25 January 1874 he was given the great honour of having his overture Les Piccolomini performed at a Pasdeloup concert, between works by Bach and Beethoven.

Vincent d'Indy went on to compose many symphonies, but perhaps his most enduring work is Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français, Symphony on a French Mountain Air. Written in 1886, this symphony was conceived as a piano and orchestral piece, which was, I believe, unusual. 

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On 17 May 1951 France issued a stamp to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vincent d'Indy.  The stamp was designed and engraved by Albert Decaris.


To me this stamp is an excellent blend of portrait and landscape, a harmonious symphony of two styles. In the foreground we see d'Indy staring intently into the distance, perhaps envisaging how to render what he sees into the language of musical notes. The eye is then drawn into the background, along tree-lined streams, through rolling countryside, and ascending sheer cliff-faces. These are the unfolding scapes of the Cévennes mountain region, the region that inspired Symphony on a Fresh Mountain Air. Vraiment magnifique!

Until next time...





Wednesday, 8 March 2017

France 1951 - Palace of Fontainebleau

How can a Medieval Hunting Lodge for French Kings be transformed into a stunning Palace that spawned Renaissance Art in France? To answer this question we need to delve into the fascinating history of the Palace of Fountainbleau (in French: Château de Fontainebleau).

The long history of Fontainebleau stretches back almost a millennia. In 1167 a fortified castle was built at Fontainebleau, about 50 km from Paris. Termed a castle, it seemed to be more of a glorified hunting lodge for the Kings of France to show off their prowess against the abundant game in the area. Then, when done hunting, they could luxuriate in one of the many springs scattered throughout the surrounding forest. Indeed, the name of the later Palace was derived from one of these springs, the fountain de Bliaud.

Over the course of the next three centuries more than one King Louis cavorted behind the castle's stout walls. King Louis VII invited Thomas Beckett to the castle and had him consecrate the chapel in 1169. And Louis IX had a hospital and a convent built next to the castle.

To witness the beginning of the large scale changes to the castle we need to skip forward to the 15th century to the reign of King Charles VI (1380-1422). It was actually Charles' wife Isabeau of Bavaria who began to shake the place up a bit with some modifications to the castle. 

Isabeau had definitively set the stage but it wasn't until 1515 when Francis I took the throne that the renovations truly got off to a start. Francis commissioned French architect, Gilles le Breton, to build him a grand palace in the new Renaissance style, a palace henceforth known as the Palace of Fountainbleau, Instead of demolishing everything, Giles le Breton built around portions of the original castle, incorporating them into the new palace. His architectural prowess can be seen in such areas of the Palace as the monumental Renaissance stairway, known as the portique de Serlio.

But perhaps the most significant period of the Palace's history, and indeed the history of art in France, was yet to come. Francis I had a grand gallery (long hallway) built, linking his apartments with the Palace's chapel. He wanted it elaborately decorated. To achieve this goal he hired Italian architect, Sebastiano Serlio, and Florentine painter, Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, better known as Rosso Fiorentino. For the next six years they worked tirelessly, adorning the gallery with sumptuous murals and stucco reliefs, all glorifying the King. A third painter, the Italian, Francesco Primaticcio, came over to add his own artistic flair. Together this team created a style now known as the first 'School of Fountainbleau'. This can be considered the beginning of Renaissance Art in France.

Over time more French kings added their own touches to the amazing Palace of Fountainbleau, either to the current structure or acquiring more surrounding lands to build more wings. To detail all of the building works would take me all day! Click HERE for a more detailed discussion on the Palace of Fountainbleau. Having said that, there were two later additions that I found interesting. The Theatre, built during the reign of Louis XV. And the Chinese Museum, added in 1867.

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On 22 January 1951, France issued another set in their Sites and Monuments series. This series comprised six stamps. The 12f Palace of Fountainbleau stamp was designed and engraved by Albert Decaris.


This gorgeous stamp features the East Wing of the Palace. Decaris has managed to capture the true essence of this incredible example of Renaissance architecture. The steep-pitched roofs. The elegant dormers. The tall, slender chimneys. It's all here. Decaris has even chosen a font for the titles that reflects the Renaissance era. But perhaps the most important aspect of this stamp design is the famous Horseshoe Staircase, dominating the foreground.


This striking architectural feature was originally constructed during the reign of King Henry II. Henry and his wife, Catherine de' Medici, extended the East Wing of the Palace and added this staircase to serve as a grand entrance. In 1640 the staircase was rebuilt for Louis XIII into what we can see today. The image below gives one the sense of the scale of this massive staircase.


Until next time...


Thursday, 2 March 2017

I Muse...on a Scandal in Saarland

Autumn has arrived Down Under. So what better way to welcome a new season than a bit of a scandal...

The year was 1948. French stamp engraver Albert Decaris had submitted several designs for a new Saarland definitive series. The designs were accepted, three of which featured the faces of Saarland workers. But little did the French Postal Authorities know, these designs were based on photographs Decaris had seen and used without gaining permission from the original photographer, Ilse Steinhoff. Apparently, a long legal battle ensued.

After the stamps had been issued, the people who had had their photos taken saw themselves on stamps, and naturally they were quite shocked! Subsequently, an article was published in ILLUS magazine  revealing the faces the stamp images belonged to. As a collector I found seeing the original photos quite cool.

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The 2f and 3f stamps depict a miner named Josef Holz from Hasborn at the harvest.






















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The 4f and 5f values depict Josef Holz's daughter, Alina. She is also busily harvesting.




















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The 6f and 9f values depict Josef Holz standing proudly at the entrance of a mine. Incidentally, this image was used on the cover of ILLUS magazine.




















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While searching for information on these stamps I also came across one of Decaris' sketch's for Holz standing before the mine.



In case you are interested this article can be found in ILLUS 1948 No.3 - "The Living Stamp". If anyone knows where a copy of this issue can be purchased, please let me know. I'd love to have a copy of it for my collection.

Until next time...