An artist of great originality and independence, Albert Moore defied contemporary Victorian expectations that a painting should be 'read' as one would a book - that is, in terms of narrative, expressive, or moral content - and insisted instead upon the exclusively visual character of painting, which he likened to the exclusively auditory character of music. During the late 1860s, in partnership with his close friend the American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler, Moore developed provocative strategies for frustrating attempts to interpret his pictures in the conventional literary fashion. The title of Jasmine is a typical red herring, intended to draw attention away from the human figure toward a seemingly minor accessory, which in fact holds the key to the painting's colour scheme. Moore was equally provocative in his anachronistic combinations of stylistic influences and pictorial motifs. In Jasmine, the figure's ideal proportions and flowing drapery reflect the influence of fifth-century Greek sculpture, while the spatial flatness and all-over surface patterning attest to the impact of Japanese woodblock prints. These startling combinations signalled the painting's disjunction from any coherent reality, but also reflected Moore's belief that all instances of beauty were reducible to universal and timeless formal principles, and that therefore all beautiful things were in essential harmony with one another. In a review of 1867, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne paid tribute to Moore's art as 'the faultless and secure expression of an exclusive worship of things formally beautiful.' In Moore's art, he claimed, 'the melody of colour, the symphony of form, is complete: one more beautiful thing is achieved, one more delight is born into the world; and its meaning is beauty; and its reason for being is to be.'1
While mainstream critics complained of Moore's 'eccentricities', progressive commentators such as Swinburne recognized him as one of the principle architects of a progressive new phase of English art, which came to be associated with the phrase 'art for art's sake', or Aestheticism.2 In 1867 twenty-five-year-old Moore was linked with Whistler and Frederic Leighton as a painter of 'beauty without realism'. The critic Sidney Colvin articulated the painter's philosophical position through his assertion that 'the only perfection of which we can have distinct cognizance through the sense of sight is the perfection of forms and colours; therefore perfection of forms and colours - beauty, in a word - should be the prime object of pictorial art.'3 Moore would ultimately push the limits of this rigorous mode of Aestheticism further than any of his contemporaries. Indeed, his penetrating search for the underlying principles of ideal beauty led him to develop an abstract approach to composition that had no equivalent in painting until the advent of twentieth-century Modernism. Like most of Albert Moore's paintings, Jasmine bears a visible debt to the art of ancient Greece, but the resemblance goes far beyond the imitation of sculptural forms and classical drapery. The painting brings to fruition experiments Moore first undertook in the mid-1860s, when he began to employ the classically idealized female form to embody geometric principles that he had discerned in the finest examples of art and nature. While steadily eliminating narrative content, he began to systematize the organization of his pictures. Each of them evolved through a painstaking preparatory process in which figures, setting, colour scheme, canvas shape, and all other elements were gradually accommodated to an underlying pattern of orthogonal lines overlaid by a grid of intersecting diagonals. In each instance, this geometric armature was tailored to the unique requirements of the picture in hand. In Jasmine the vertical bands of the wallpaper and the horizontal lines of the sofa and floor most clearly articulate the orthogonal elements, while part of the system of diagonals can be traced from the upper left side of the vase through the left side of the black turban, and from the left edge of the red carpet through a prominent fold in the pink overdrapery. Intersecting these two lines are countering diagonals articulated, for example, by the figure's tilting shoulder blades and her left thigh. When additional parallel diagonals are added to extend the system across the entire picture, it becomes clear that the disposition of each element - from the hands, feet, and limbs to the pillows and suspended swags - conforms to the linear pattern.
Jasmine is one of numerous paintings in which Moore portrayed beautiful women in a state of languor or placid unconsciousness. He had first explored the theme of feminine repose in the late 1860s in works such as Lilies (1866; Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown). He revisited the theme throughout the 1870s and '80s in some of his most iconic paintings, including Beads (1875; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), Midsummer (1887; Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth), and Summer Night (1894-90; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). In the motionless, unconscious sleeping figure, Moore found an effective means of subverting attempts to read unintended narrative or expressive content into his works. In addition, the motif of the sleeping woman provided an apt embodiment of the ideal of beauty in repose that Moore discerned in classical art - not only as a literal motif in works such as the reclining goddesses of the Parthenon's west pediment, but also as a general formal principle, expressed through qualities such as parallelism, balance, and repetition. These were among the essential characteristics that Moore sought to convey through the geometric underpinnings of his paintings.
Exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1880, Jasmine originated as a study for the central figure in one of Moore's most ambitious and successful paintings, Dreamers, an arrangement of three languid female figures set against an elaborate background (fig. 1). Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1882, Dreamers occupied Moore for at least three years.4 In accordance with his standard practice, he made exhaustive oil studies of the nude model before undertaking still more painstaking studies of the draped figure. Moore's elaborate preparatory process was designed to ensure that every detail was thoroughly anticipated and rehearsed before his first brush stroke touched the final canvas. Time-consuming procedures and inherent perfectionism necessarily limited Moore's productivity, especially while he worked on large, multiple-figure compositions. The paintings he did produce were all the more valuable for being so rare, and were actively sought out by a select coterie of devoted patrons, who reportedly purchased pictures off Moore's easel.
In order to satisfy this demand and to finance his larger works, Moore habitually completed his preliminary oil studies as independent pictures, which he carried out on their own unique terms. Of the myriad differences that distinguish Jasmine from Dreamers, the most obvious is the entirely different colour scheme and distribution of tonal values. In Jasmine, Moore adopted a piquant combination of pale pinks, deep red, and charcoal grey, creating a fresh, vibrant effect that differs entirely from the shimmering golden sultriness of Dreamers. The drapery arrangements are also conceptualized very differently in accordance with the simplified format of Jasmine. The notable addition of the emphatic S-curve of pink drapery, which cascades in intricate ripples from the sofa and then snakes upward across the girl's knee, is echoed by the shortened swag of pink drapery suspended behind the girl's head. Moore made further experiments with alternative colour schemes, drapery patterns, and accessories in several other fully worked-up oil paintings that originated with Dreamers. Among these, A Workbasket , exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1879 (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide) and Yellow Marguerites, exhibited at the Academy in 1881 (private collection), are studies of the same figure represented in Jasmine, carried out with very different arrangements of colour, tonal values, systems of drapery folds, and elements of décor.5
The impression of serene calm conveyed by Jasmine owes as much to the painting's underlying geometric structure as it does to the literal representation of sleep. Yet because Moore fleshed out his geometric patterns in representational form, his dedication to abstract principles of formal composition has often been overlooked. Only with close analysis of surviving preparatory studies and underdrawing visible on his canvases has it been possible in recent years to reconstruct with some clarity Moore's pioneering compositional techniques. Elizabeth Prettejohn has argued recently that Moore's compositional use of a grid - the quintessential emblem of twentieth-century modernity, according to Rosalind Kraus - anticipates the practice of artists such as Piet Mondrian, and she has drawn convincing analogies between Moore's work and the cultivation of musical qualities in the paintings of Kandinsky.6 For his prescient exploration of these and many other issues, Moore is now gaining recognition as a significant figure in the transition from representation to abstraction in modern painting. Works such as Jasmine establish that he was also the author of some of the most geometrically sophisticated and visually satisfying paintings of the nineteenth century.
We are grateful to Robyn Asleson for writing this catalogue entry.
1 William Michael Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868 (London: John Camen Hotten, 1868), 31-2.
2 For recent discussions of Moore's crucial role in English Aestheticism, see Elizabeth Prettejohn, Art for Art's Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 101-27; David Peters Corbett, The World in Paint: Modern art and Visuality in England, 1848-1914 (University Park, Penn: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 83-90; Robyn Asleson, Albert Moore (London: Phaidon, 2000), 77-80 and passim.
3 Sidney Colvin, "English Painters and Painting in 1867", Fortnightly Review 2 (October 1867), 265, 473.
4 For the genesis of this painting, see Asleson, 155-58.
5 For a fuller discussion of these and other paintings related to Dreamers, see Asleson, 168, 225n131, 226n.173.
6 Prettejohn, 101, 104, 120, 125, 127.