Friday, December 6, 2013

Bubbles in Oil

Bubbles. When the thought first comes to mind, one remembers the joy of blowing bubbles as a child - the competition of, 'who could blow the bigger bubble'. Others may think of the swirl of colors of the sudsy spheres. Perhaps, a specific person comes to mind - someone with a 'bubbly' personality. But if one is thinking within the context of art history, the bubble brings to mind the idea of the transience of life.

Although it may not always be used as a symbol, the bubble has long been understood as a symbol of the brevity of life in the context of art. It floats carelessly through the air, but it is only a short time before it pops. So it is with life; we're here for only a short time and then we die. This depressing yet realistic analogy has been used in art for centuries.

This collection of objects is unified by several factors: medium - oil, and theme - soap bubbles representing the fleetingness of life. However the the dates of these works range from the beginning of the 17th century to the beginning of the late 19th century. The differences and similarities of these paintings exemplify how the theme of the soap bubble has been adapted by various artists over time yet there remains an interconnectedness between the works.

Thomas Couture, Soap Bubbles, 1859

Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 87.15.22

The title Soap Bubbles not only points to the subject matter of focus but also indicates the allegorical content of Couture's painting as a whole. This painting is heavy laden with symbolism. The bubbles of course represent the transience of life, while the wilting laurel symbolizes the fleeting nature of honors, and the word "immortalité" (immortality) is written on the paper tucked in the mirror (Couture). The background colors are limited to drab grays and browns, even the red embroidered chair is fading. The figure's face, still bright with youth, stands out against the faded background, but the sad fact is that this boy's life will eventually fade away just as the colors have faded.

Jean Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles, 1733-34

Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 49.24

Chardin's Soap Bubbles is thought to be the inspiration of Couture's Soap Bubbles - as seen above. Both are naturalistic oil paintings of similar subject matter. Chardin's Soap Bubbles is not rife with symbols as is Couture's. The figure is set off against a dark and un-characterized background. It is unclear if Chardin intended for his painting to have a message. At the time soap bubbles were assumed to be symbolic, so his painting is assumed to allude to the brevity of life (Chardin). The young boy and plant frame the figure, representing youth.

Édouard Manet, Boy Blowing Bubbles, 1867

Oil on canvas, Museu Calouste Gelbenkian, 2361

Just as Chardin's Soap Bubbles influenced Couture's painting, Couture's Soap Bubbles influenced this work by Manet. Manet, a student of Couture, offers his own adaptation of the symbol of the bubble. The artist uses a stark black background to set off the figure and subject matter, like Chardin. The brush stokes are much broader than that of Couture's or Chardin's, and Manet's painting does not employ many symbols, just the one. It is also speculated that this painting is Manet's reflection of the immortality of art (Manet).

Sir John Everett Millais, Bubbles, 1885-6

Oil on canvas, Lady Lever Art Gallery, n/a

This painting by Millais shares several elements with the previously mentioned paintings. Like Manet's and Chardin's works, the figure is emphasized by the lack of background material. The works only contains one figure - a young boy; the boy found in this work seems to be the youngest of the four. Like Couture, Millais incorporates other symbols to further his allegorical message. The figure coupled with the dark outline of a plant behind him symbolizes life, while the broken pot symbolizes death. The bubble, as in the other paintings, represents the fleetingness of life (Millais).

Gerrit Dou, Still Life with a Boy Blowing Soap-bubbles, 1635-6

Oil on panel, The National Museum of Western Art, 1981-0001

Dou combines still life and figure in his Still Life with a Boy Blowing Soap-bubbles. The bubbles along with the elements in the still life, the skull, the hourglass, feathered cap, etc., represent the transience of life as well as its emptiness - it's meaninglessness (Dou). The elements contained within the still life are not found in the previous paintings. The figure like in the previous paintings serves as a contrast - youth in contrast to the brevity of life. Dou also uses a dark background to set of the figure and the elements of his still life.

Jacques de Gheyn II, Vanitas Still Life, 1603

Oil on wood, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974.1

Unlike, the previous works, this painting by Gheyn II does not include a figure and is strictly a still life. But like Couture's painting, it is heavy with symbolism. "The skull, large bubble, cut flowers, and smoking urn refer to the brevity of life, while images floating in the bubble—such as a wheel of torture and a leper’s rattle—Spanish coins, and a Dutch medal refer to human folly" (Gheyn II). Rather than contrast the youthfulness of a figure to the transience of life, Gheyn II chooses to contrast human folly with the brevity of life; the things that we strive after are worthless in sight of the fact that life is short and we can't take those possessions with us.

Chardin, Jean Siméon. Soap Bubbles (gallery label). ca. 1733–34. New York, New York. The     Metropolitan Museum of Art <>

Couture, Thomas. Soap Bubbles (gallery label). ca. 1859. New York, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art <>

De Gheyn II, Jacques. Vanitas Still Life (gallery label). 1603. New York, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art <>

Dou, Gerrit. Still Life with a Boy Blowing Soap-bubbles (gallery label). 1635-6. Tokyo, Japan. The National Museum of Western Art <>

Manet, Édouard. Boy Blowing Bubbles (gallery label). 1867. Lisbon, Portugal. Museu Calouste Gulbenkian <>

Millais, Sir John Everett. Bubbles (gallery label). 1885-6. Port Sunlight Village, United Kingdom. Lady Lever Art Gallery <>

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