Isabelle and Orleans 1938 signed and dated 'NORMAN LINDSAY / 38' lower centre oil on canvas 100 x 74cm (39 3/8 x 29 1/8in).
PROVENANCE: Hamer Matthews Gallery, Sydney Owston Collection
EXHIBITED: Hamer Matthews Galleries, Sydney 1989
LITERATURE: Lin Bloomfield, Norman Lindsay Oil Paintings 1889 - 1969, Odana Editions 2006. pp 48 - 49 (illus).
The romantic and tragic story of Isabella and her husband the Duke of Orléans appealed greatly to Norman Lindsay, an interest inspired by his close friendship with Hugh McCrae. During 1921-22 McRae wrote the verse-drama Orleans and Isabelle, A Tragedy in Three Scenes. It first appeared as part two of the unfinished verse play Joan of Arc in the December, through February and May 1921-22 issues of Art in Australia; and was subsequently published in Satyrs and Sunlight being the collected poetry of Hugh McCrae, by Fanfrolico Press, London, in 1928. Illustrated and decorated by Lindsay, his full-page plate to Orleans and Isabelle revealing them in amorous embrace. Lindsay and McCrae shared a lot in common, Lindsay writing that McCrae's 'personality and his poetry have both become interwoven through the years with my progression through art and life ... his imagery was so much in key with mine that the urge to illustrate his poetry was irresistible.'1 Sharing a Rabelaisian interest in things, they drew upon the Greek myths peopled with nymphs and centaurs, medieval history, and the eighteen century. Special among Lindsay's numerous illustrations of McCrae's work are five etchings for his 1922 limited edition publication of McCrae's Idyllia. H. F. Chaplin described it as 'one of the most beautiful books ever produced in Australia.'2
The special appeal of Isabella and Orléans to Lindsay is seen in three works the illustration to McCrae's poem, a watercolour of 1921, and our 1928 painting. In each, Isabella is shown naked, except for her superb headdress, in contrast with the richly attired Orléans. Of considerable physical, intellectual and creative endowment, they represent the Lindsay ideal in figure and character, the enthralling stories of their lives capturing his imagination. The French Princess Isabella of Valois (1387-1410) was the daughter of King Charles VI. Her childhood marriage at the age of eight to Richard II of England sought peace between the two counties. Following Richard's grisly murder, Henry IV tried to marry her off to his son, the future Henry V of Agincourt fame. Isabella refused and eventually returned to France, where she married Charles, Duke of Orléans at Compiègne in 1406. The marriage, however, was brief, Isabella dying in her early twenties giving birth to their daughter, Joan. Charles, Duke of Orléans (1394-1465) ascended the duchy in 1407 at the age of fourteen, following the assassination of his father. Among other things, he was Duke of Valois and inheritor of Asti in Italy through his mother Valentina, daughter of Gian GaleazzoVisconti, Duke of Milan. Wounded at the Battle of Agincourt in1415, he spent twenty-four years in England as a hostage. It was during this time that he wrote much of his poetry, becoming one of France's most famous poets. He was a celebrated patron of the arts, and appeared as the 'Duke of Orléans' in Shakespeare's Henry V.
From this panorama of epic adventure, Lindsay not unexpectedly chose to confine his interests to the first scene of McCrae's play, The Queen's Bed-chamber, where McCrae gives them debate of the cuckolds. The illustration to the text captures the line '... thy bosom curls/ Round to my fingers like a girl's'.3 The watercolour shows the lovers reclining on the bed, again facing each. This is changed in our painting where Isabella looks out at the viewer while Orléans only has eyes for his duchess, 'My dark-mouthed Isabelle... all mine!'4 The nakedness of her flesh expresses Lindsay's delight in the female form, 'the central motif of my work'.5 Lindsay, however, presents Orléans like a Titanesque figure, fascinatingly, quite like Titian's Portrait of Pietro Aretino 1545, in the Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence. Set within the historic context of the late middle ages in France, Lindsay places his figures before a richly coloured floral tapestry, almost abstract in its freedom of handling as a foil to the detailed realism of Isabella and Orléans. In consummation of scene one, McCrae gives the final words to Orléans 'Hadst thou been Eve below the tree/Adam had worked less maidenly.'6
David Thomas 1 Lindsay quoted in Cowper, N., & Rutledge, M., 'McRae, Hugh Raymond', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, 1986, ,vol.10, p. 241 2 Ibid. I am indebted to Copwer and Rutledge for the biographical information on McCrae 3 McCrae, H., Satyrs and Sunlight, Being the Collected Poetry of Hugh McCrae, Illustrated and Decorated by Norman Lindsay, Fanfrolico Press, London, 1923, p. 125 4 Ibid, p. 130 5 Lindsay, N., My Mask, An Autobiography, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1970, p. 176 6 McCrae, op. cit., p. 129