Ethel Sands (1873-1962) is one of those artists whose paintings have always impressed me as being very well executed (they should be; she studied in Paris with Eugene Carrere and was deeply imprinted by the early works of Edouard Vuillard) but rather too amiable, content to portray the interiors of comfortable homes with few overt signs of the world outside. The sort of paintings you might expect from one who took her position as a London society hostess as seriously as any of her other many interests. Sands was born into money in Newport, Rhode Island and moved easily between France and England, sharing multiple homes with another woman for most of her adult life.
In recent decades, critics have begun to detect the filaments of tension in Vuillard's domestic scenes, based on biographical material that had been revealed since the artist's death in 1940. No matter how guarded Vuillard and those around him were, his life was not "marked by not a single external incident." The romantic/erotic aspects of Vuillard's life may be encoded in his paintings, and who better to have recognized this than a woman who, by the standard of today, would be described as a lesbian? And who might prefer to present scenes from her own domestic life indirectly?
But then there is this anomalous Ethel Sands painting Still Life With a View of a Cemetery. It is painted in "early" Vuillard, that is the style he was painting in the 1890s when Vuillard was admired as the leader of the Nabis (or Prophets of a new art) and Pierre Bonnard was his sidekick. It is all pattern and flat surface, but Sands uses the primary colors (blue, red, and yellow), unlike the muted tones Vuillard favored or her own preferred pastels. The room that is the still life appears to be a bathroom and the cemetery outside, what we can see of it, seems that of a poor church yard, not the sort of place where the offspring of haute Newport would have been buried. Sands had nursed wounded soldiers in France during the war and this painting may allude to the intrusion of the outside world on her domestic life. And yet this interior, with its tactile curves in the blue and white bowl and pitcher counterpointed by the glass bottles filled with yellow and red liquids, sparkling in the sunlight, is a complete story in itself if we choose to spend time with it. Disparate shapes are organized around a shelf, with curves below and verticals (the bottles, the curtains, the crosses, above). Let your eyes move around the canvas, following the directional lines and colors embedded by the artist. A good still life, Sands shows us, can be more than an arrangement of objects, it can offer a story to the viewer who gives it enough time. On its own terms, this is quite brilliant I think.
Image: Ethel Sands - Still Life With a View Over a Cemetery, 1923, Fitzwilliam Museum, London.