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Midsummer Night or Iris

Midsummer Night or Iris
signed and dated 'Atkinson Grimshaw. 1876' (lower left)
oil on canvas
24 x 35 3/4 in. (61 x 91 cm.)
with Coulter Galleries, York.
Their sale; Christie's, London, 14 June 1963, lot 138, as Midsummer Night.
with Ferrers Gallery, London, acquired at the above sale, until at least 1964.
Nell Dunn (b. 1936), London.
Her sale; Christie's, London, 6 March 1981, lot 38, as Midsummer Night.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 6 November 1996, lot 308.
Acquired by Ann and Gordon Getty from the above.
D‌. Bromfield, Atkinson Grimshaw: 1836-1893, 1979 (?), p. 39, under no. 63, as Iris.
A. Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw, Oxford, 1988, p. 59, as Iris.
C. Wood, Fairies in Victorian Painting, Suffolk, 2000, p. 128.
J. Sellers, ed., Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight, London, 2011, p. 63.
J. Martineau, ed., Victorian Fairy Painting, London, 1997, p. 142, as Iris.
London, Ferrers Gallery, Grimshaw, November 1964, no. 5, illustrated, as Iris.
San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Legion of Honor Museum, on long-term loan.

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Joshua Glazer
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Lot Essay

Fairies and fairy tales presented Victorian artists with an accepted vehicle to explore taboo subjects such as sex, nudity, violence and even drug addiction, and in return the Victorian audience was a ready consumer of these fantastical images. This specific imagery provided the Victorian sensibility with an escape from the materialistic realities of the ever-growing industrialist society in which they lived. As Christopher Wood states, we ‘tend to think of the Victorians as stern and moralistic, staring grimly out at us from early photographs, in their black top hats and frock coats. But Dickens was right in his perception that underneath that deceptively utilitarian surface, the Victorians yearned for some ‘great romance.’ In their art, their literature and their architecture, they were arch romantics and dreamers, the true heirs to the Romantic Movement. In art they gave us Pre-Raphaelitism, the greatest and most long-lasting romantic movement in English art. They also gave us some of the most extraordinary fairy paintings ever produced in any country at any time’ (C. Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2000, p. 8).
Midsummer Night or Iris is a study in iridescence, the effect of light the artist loved best. He loved to experiment with prisms to catch the effect of seeing colored light, and used such effects in this series of pictures. His daughter, Elaine, wrote, ‘My father was always fascinated by colour-iridescence. He would study the prismatic range in the beveled mirrors of candelabra; and if we children found in the big garden a bit of old glass, oxidized by age and weather, we would proudly take it to him, to add to his collection a box which lay open on a table beside his easel (Quoted in J. Sellars, ed., Atkinson Grimshaw. Painter of Moonlight, exh. cat., Harrogate, Mercer Art Gallery, 2011, p. 64).
Grimshaw produced several versions of this subject, one of which is currently in the Leeds City Art Gallery. Iris was a messenger of the gods sent to wither flowers in the autumn but when she hesitated in her appointed duty to admire a pool of waterlilies, she was turned into a rainbow for her disobedience. Iris depicts the moment she pauses to hover over the flickering pool at dusk and is absorbed by the beauty of the flowers covering the shimmering water. She appears to be lit from within, with her body covered with a very thin veil emitting its own a silvery glow and her opalescent wings containing all the colors of the rainbow that she eventually becomes. Wood states that Grimshaw’s few fairy pictures are ‘remarkably effective and haunting…, and one can only wish Grimshaw had painted more of these, and fewer versions of the Liverpool docks’ (Wood, ibid., p. 129).
Grimshaw also loved to experiment with technique and in Midsummer Night or Iris the artist uses the opportunities presented by the subject matter to joyfully exhibit his mastery of new and innovative ways to apply paint to canvas. The cross-hatchings and use of the back of the brush to add texture and interest to the dead and dying marshy reeds in the foreground are in direct contrast to the misty, layered tones with hints of leafless trees and the surface of the pond itself. This layering of thin washes of color in the sky and middle distance resemble the effects achieved by Turner and the interaction of differing techniques of oil and watercolor with layers of pigment generalized and thinly applied in some areas and more precise in others, brings to mind the works of James Whistler.
The model for the fairy is Agnes Leefe, who was an actress at the Leeds Grand Theatre. She was the model for a significant number of paintings in the artist’s oeuvre, and the only model for his nudes, which were all painted at a time when Miss Leefe was living with and modeling for Grimshaw in London. The young woman seems to have been an accepted part of the Grimshaw household, more a ward, with the nickname ‘Little Orphan Annie’, and she died young of consumption in the care of Grimshaw’s wife at their home in Leeds.
The Victorian Leeds curator, George Birkett, eulogized the composition in 1899 thus: ‘Iris, though there is a suspicion of gauze about her, is practically nude, flits gracefully over the surface of a woodland pool. She bends towards some waterlilies, and seems to hesitate about destroying them. Round her head and in a less degree around her whole body is a bright golden halo, and her wings reflect all the gorgeous colors of the rainbow….The weeds, flowers and grasses on the inner pool are already dried up and dead. On the further bank is a wood, through the branches of which one gets glimpses of a sparkling sky of blue and green and gold, contrasted with burning specks of orange in the foliage. The picture is a characteristic specimen of the artist’s best work – strongly individual, and unlike that of any other artist…Iris is perhaps in every way his masterpiece’ (Leeds City Art Gallery Catalogue, 1899).

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