Henrietta Rae (1859-1928)
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Henrietta Rae (1859-1928)

The Sirens

Henrietta Rae (1859-1928)
The Sirens
signed and dated 'H. Rae 1903' (lower right)
oil on canvas
45 x 100 in. (114.3 x 254 cm.)
Bought from the St. Louis Exhibition in 1904 by Mrs J.R. Cardeza of Philadelphia.
J. Howard Lennon.
Academy Notes 1903, London, 1903, p. 27.
M.H. Spielmann, 'The Royal Academy, 1903', Magazine of Art, 1903, pp. 373 (illustrated), 383.
Arthur Fish, Henrietta Rae, London, 1905, pp. 110-1, illustrated facing p. 106.
London, Royal Academy, 1903, no. 472.
St. Louis, The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904.
Special notice
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.

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Lot Essay

Born in London, Henrietta Rae grew up in a bohemian family. Her mother was a talented musician, and her own interest in art was encouraged by an artist uncle who had been a pupil of the caricaturist George Cruikshank. Having attended Heatherley's Art School in Bloomsbury, she entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1877. Among her fellow students was Ernest Normand, whom she married in 1884. The following year the couple took a studio in Holland Park Road, Kensington, thus joining the circle of artists who had gathered round the Academy's President, Sir Frederic Leighton, in this area of London. They had each exhibited at the RA since 1881, and for a time were happy to be protégés to Leighton, G.F. Watts, and other local luminaries.

The time came, however, when so much supervision proved irksome, and when their pictures were badly placed at the RA exhibition of 1890 they took themselves off to Paris, convinced that they needed wider horizons and further training. They spent several months at the Académie Julian, working under its two most celebrated teachers, Benjamin Constant and Jules Lefèbvre, before joining an international circle of young artists experimenting with degrees of impressionism at Grez, near Fontainebleu. Back in London, they decided to leave Holland Park, and in 1893 they moved to Upper Norwood, building themselves a glass-walled studio conducive to the plein-air effects they had sought to capture at Grez. However, they still regarded Leighton as their mentor, and each contributed a mural to the series in the Royal Exchange, in the City of London, that he inaugurated with one of his last works.

The Sirens was exhibited at the RA in 1903, seven years after Leighton's death. According to Homer, there were two sirens, but later authors made them three. Living on an island in the western sea between Aeaea, the home of Circe, and the rock of the monster Scylla, they lured sailors to destruction with their irresistible songs. Ulysses, returning from the Trojan War, only managed to evade them by having himself lashed to the mast of his ship and stopping the ears of his crew with wax.

Rae's picture is said to have been 'the outcome of a suggestion' made to her by the Marquess of Dufferin, whose portrait she exhibited at the RA in 1901, but she cannot have needed much prompting. After all, the subject lent itself to the 'power of flesh painting' for which, according to her biographer, she was admired; and she had already painted a female nude similar to the central figure in Summer, a canvas shown at the RA in 1896 (illustrated in Fish, op.cit., facing p. 80). Behind the figures, moreover, lay the whole weight of academic tradition, traceable back to the odalisques of Ingres via paintings such as Cabanel's Birth of Venus (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) or Leighton's Actaea, the Nymph of the Shore (Ottawa). Nymphs and sirens were often the vehicles for displays of academic prowess. Rae's picture is exactly contemporary with one of the most ambitious instances in British art, E.J. Poynter's Cave of the Storm Nymphs (Lloyd Webber Collection), which was also exhibited at the Academy in 1903. Another major example, H.J. Draper's Ulysses and the Sirens (Hull), would follow at the same venue in 1909.

But if Rae's figures are products of the adademic system, their setting has a naturalism that betrays her experience at Grez. M.H. Spielmann hinted at this synthesis when he reviewed the picture in the Magazine of Art and observed that while the canvas was 'gracefully composed' and 'modelled with unusual care', it had 'a colour-surface of broken tones'. Significantly, the background was painted at Dinard, the popular resort on the coast of Brittany that might well have been a stamping ground of the Impressionists, and where Picasso was certainly to work in the 1920s.

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