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Watermelon and wine

Chelsea Nichols takes a close look at Winifred Knights’ <EM>The Marriage at Cana</EM> (1923)


<P data-associrn="39515"></P> <P>Winifred Knights’ <EM>The Marriage at Cana</EM> (1923) is one of the treasures in Te Papa’s remarkable collection of early 20th-century British art.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> The painting is a modern interpretation of Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. Taking inspiration from both figurative modernism and quattrocento Italian art,<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> the painting is a complex composition of wedding guests in a sober outdoor garden, its muted palette punctuated by bold pops of pink watermelon. Knights meticulously planned every detail of the scene in dozens of preparatory drawings, many of which now also reside in Te Papa’s collection. Examining the painting alongside these pencil studies, this essay guides the viewer to look closely at 10 details in <EM>The Marriage at Cana</EM>, which reveal interesting insights into the meaning of the work and the life of the artist. </P> <P data-associrn="1437831"></P> <P><STRONG>1. Look closely at . . . a self-portrait of the artist</STRONG></P> <P>You can spot a self-portrait of Winifred Knights seated at the table, third from the left. This <A href="http://www.winifredknights.com/">accurate likeness</A> shows the striking good looks that made her a favourite model for artists <A href="http://www.lissfineart.com/109art0_Sir+Thomas+Monnington.htm/">Thomas Monnington</A>, <A href="http://www.lissfineart.com/102art0_Arnold+Mason.htm/">Arnold Mason</A> and <A href="http://www.lissfineart.com/58art0_Colin+Gill.htm/">Colin Gill</A>. But who was she?</P> <P>Although she has recently started to garner some well-deserved attention from art historians, Winifred Knights (1899&#8211;1947) is a somewhat forgotten figure in British art. However, in her relatively short life she produced several significant paintings that showed off her exceptional talent for drawing and her imaginative approach to composition. In 1920, Knights became the first female artist to win the prestigious Prix de Rome to study decorative painting at the British School at Rome, a renowned research institution that promotes scholarly engagement with Italian art, history and culture. During her time as a Rome Scholar she began working on <EM>The Marriage at Cana</EM>, which is now regarded as one of her principal works. </P> <P>In 1925, Knights returned to London with her new husband (later Sir) <A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Thomas_Monnington">Thomas Monnington</A>, where they both continued their art careers. However, her slow and exacting manner of working &#8211; coupled with the disruptions of World War II and the demands of family life &#8211; meant that she only produced a handful of major paintings before her death from a brain tumour in 1947. Knights’ early promise was further hindered by her refusal to show her work until she was completely satisfied with it, exhibiting only intermittently in the late 1920&#8211;30s.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> Nonetheless, a small number of exhibitions at venues like the Imperial Gallery and Duveen Gallery attracted high critical praise, and helped her earn an important mural commission for the Canterbury Cathedral in 1928. Had she managed to complete more, Knights may well have become one of the leading female artists in early twentieth-century Britain. </P> <P data-associrn="1437832"></P> <P><STRONG>2. Look closely at . . . the figure of Jesus</STRONG></P> <P>This painting depicts the biblical story of Jesus turning water to wine. According to the Gospel of John (John 2:1&#8211;12), Jesus attended a wedding feast in the Galilean town of Cana, along with his mother Mary and his disciples. When Mary told Jesus the wine had run out, he reluctantly performed his first miracle by instructing servants to fill six stone jugs to the brim with water, which he then turned into good wine. </P> <P>Jesus can be spotted in the light-coloured robes toward the right side of the canvas. Knights has portrayed Christ as a very human figure, without a divine glow or other marvellous qualities. A servant girl places a filled jug at his feet, blocking the viewer from really seeing the miracle taking place. However, most of the wedding guests see something that we don’t, and are watching Jesus intently. Because Knights has not completed the painting of Jesus’s hands or face (see below), the gesture of his miraculous act is left to the viewer’s imagination.</P> <P data-associrn="1437833"></P> <P><STRONG>3. Look closely at . . . the unfinished feet under the table</STRONG></P> <P>Despite working on it for over a year, Knights never considered this painting finished. And, indeed, there are a few areas where her pencil sketches show through thin patches of paint, and the fine details haven’t been completed. If you look closely, you can see unfinished areas on the face of the Jesus and his disciples, on the neck of the woman with the necklace, on the bushes in the background and on many of the background figures. </P> <P>By looking closely at the unfinished feet of the figures sitting at the table we get a glimpse into Knights’ methods and the meticulous work that went into her figures. Before attending the British School at Rome, Knights studied at the Slade School of Art from 1915, where she became a distinguished pupil of <A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Tonks">Henry Tonks</A>, an influential British figure painter and former surgeon. His insistence on detailed figure studies had a formative effect on the young artist, who would produce dozens of preparatory sketches for every painting she created. Her solid, precise figures are the product of many detailed studies of human anatomy, including extensive drawings of hands and feet.</P> <P data-associrn="245696"></P> <P data-associrn="1438556"></P> <P><STRONG>4. Look closely at . . . the angle of the floor in the enclosed structure</STRONG></P> <P>If you look closely at the enclosed room in the upper right quadrant of the painting, you will notice that the floor seems to slope up more steeply than the rest of the scene. Although the angle seems slightly odd in comparison, it aligns mathematically with the lines created by the benches and table in the foreground. In this way, the perspective in the work is more about geometric perfection than absolute realism.</P> <P>This approach was inspired by Knights’ interest in <A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piero_della_Francesca">Piero della Francesca</A>, an early Renaissance painter. In addition to his art work, Piero was deeply interested in the theoretical study of perspective, and he wrote several treatises on mathematics over the course of his life. In 1922, Knights visited Arezzo to see Piero’s masterful 15th-century <A href="http://www.wga.hu/html_m/p/piero/2/">frescoes depicting the Legend of the True Cross</A> in the church of San Francesco, taking them as a point of inspiration for <EM>The Marriage at Cana</EM>.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> Knights’ imaginative composition draws on Piero’s methods, using a precise grid to create the strong horizontal and vertical forms in her painting. </P> <P><STRONG>5. Look closely at . . . the slices of watermelon</STRONG></P> <P>Among the most eye-catching details of this painting are the cheery slices of pink watermelon against the more sombre palette of browns and greens. Watermelon was commonly sold in Rome in the summer during Knights’ time there, often from large barrels filled with ice. But the artist was surely also aware of the most famous painting of this biblical scene, <A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paolo_Veronese">Paolo Veronese</A>’s massive <EM><A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Paolo_Veronese_008.jpg">The wedding feast at Cana</EM> (1563)</A>, which is the largest painting that hangs in the Louvre. As in Knights’ version, the guests in Veronese’s painting are eating dessert rather than a main course, including a selection of fruits.</P> <P>Another remarkable detail of Veronese’s painting is that despite a large number of figures not a single one appears to be speaking. Knights’ marriage feast is likewise mute, the guests’ attention trained on Jesus. However, this hasn’t stopped one hungry man from nibbling his watermelon as the miracle unfolds! </P> <P data-associrn="1437835"></P> <P><STRONG>6. Look closely at . . . the seated figures</STRONG></P> <P>The setting for the painting is based on the Borghese Gardens in Rome, which Knights liked to visit to sketch with her fellow scholars from the British School. Her colleagues and friends also posed as models for Knights, including artists Colin Gill, Job Nixon and her future husband, Tom Monnington, who is seated at the end of the table in the white shirt. </P> <P>Earlier cartoons (preparatory drawings) for the painting show another artist, Arnold Mason, seated alongside Knights’ self-portrait. Knights and Mason were engaged when she first arrived in Rome, but she broke it off with him to marry Monnington in 1924. Rather than have her love rivals in the same painting, Knights left Mason out of the final composition altogether. </P> <P><STRONG>7. Look closely at . . . how the figures are dressed</STRONG></P> <P>Taking a cue from late-medieval and Renaissance artists, Knights has placed this scene from the Bible in her own time. Although Jesus and the servant wear more traditional long robes, the wedding guests don a range of modern dress, including cardigans, turtleneck sweaters and waistcoats. </P> <P>The clothing seems more suited to a casual dinner party than a wedding celebration, but it also reflects the artist’s individual sense of style. Knights’ son, John Monnington, described her typical dress as a ‘stylish version of Italian peasant costume of the late 19th century’, with a long skirt, plain round-necked blouse, and open cardigan &#8211; quite a departure from the short skirts and tailored jackets of typical wartime fashion.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> Knights sometimes <A href="http://www.lissfineart.com/1039art2_Winifred+Knights.htm/">sketched her own clothing designs</A>, and took great care in describing her costumes and outfits in letters to her family during her time in Rome. In a letter to her sister from 28 February 1921, Knights described an outfit she had worn to a dance: </P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P><EM>…[I wore]a truly gigantic hat, a straw peasant’s one that I bought in Florence, my purple hankie tied around my head first, and blue flimsy bodice and Nixon’s black corduroy trousers pulled in at the ankles and cream silk stockings and black sandals. The hat was the best part though. It was ripping to dance in the hat but it was a bit of a job to manage, I couldn’t get through the door front ways in it.</EM><SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P data-associrn="1437836"></P> <P><STRONG>8. Look closely at . . . the red necklace</STRONG> </P> <P>Another feature of Knights’ signature style was that she often wore a red coral necklace,<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> which can be seen in <A href="http://www.lissfineart.com/103art0_Arnold+Mason.htm/">sketches of her by Arnold Mason</A>. Likewise, the female figure at the centre of the painting wears an eye-catching red necklace.</P> <P>But this is more than a visual device or fashion statement: strings of coral beads can often be spotted in Renaissance paintings, where they typically represent droplets of Christ’s blood as a symbol of his divine sacrifice. Piero della Francesca, one of Knights’ key influences, includes a coral necklace around the neck of the infant Jesus in both <A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Madonna_di_Senigallia.jpg"><EM>The Madonna di Senigallia</EM> (1474)</A> and the <A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Madonna_di_Senigallia.jpg"><EM>Brera Madonna</EM> altarpiece (1472&#8211;74)</A> as a symbol of the Holy Eucharist. In Knights’ painting, the woman in the red necklace may therefore symbolise the Virgin Mary. </P> <P data-associrn="1437837"></P> <P><STRONG>9. Look closely at . . . the woman breastfeeding an infant</STRONG> </P> <P>Outside the enclosed structure, a woman in a brown shawl breastfeeds a swaddled infant. Like the coral necklace, this can be read as another layer of biblical symbolism: in this case, Knights makes reference to the iconography of the Virgin Mother nursing baby Jesus, or what is known as <EM>Madonna Lactans</EM>. This imagery appeared frequently in paintings from the late-Middle Ages and early-Renaissance, to express themes of devotion and spiritual nourishment. Like her image of Jesus, Knights depicts the breastfeeding mother as unspectacular, emphasising the human over the divine.</P> <P data-associrn="1437838"></P> <P data-associrn="1438557"></P> <P data-associrn="255336"></P> <P><STRONG>10. Look closely at . . . the people lounging in the grass</STRONG></P> <P>Although most of the wedding guests in the painting seem enraptured by the miracle being performed by Jesus, a number of people lie along the riverbank, oblivious to the events unfolding behind them. Two figures in particular stand out: the man lying down in the trilby hat, and the female artist sketching with her back to the tree. The man in the hat is likely a nod to Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting <EM> <A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Sunday_Afternoon_on_the_Island_of_La_Grande_Jatte">A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte</EM> (1884)</A>. Knights cleverly blends Renaissance influences with this reference to a modern masterpiece, using these as a way of re-imagining religious imagery for the modern world. </P> <P>Knights was the only female artist attending at the British School at Rome at the time, and she would often spend afternoons sketching in the nearby Borghese Gardens, where this painting is set. The lone woman sketching might therefore be a semi-autobiographical detail. As she sits drawing by the riverbank, perhaps the scene behind her is just the product of her artistic imagination? </P> <P data-associrn="1438213"></P> <P><BR><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></P> <OL> <LI>The <EM>Marriage at Cana</EM> was gifted to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand in 1958 by the British School at Rome. After being exhibited internationally in the 1920s and 1930s, the painting had been stored in the cellars of the Tate Gallery for a number of years, then hung in an inaccessible stairwell in the British School’s London office. It was offered to both the Tate and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, who were unable to accept it into their permanent collections due to its size. The National Art Gallery’s London representative, Mr E Heber Thomson, had seen the remarkable painting exhibited some years earlier and seized the opportunity to acquire it for New Zealand . <LI>The term ‘quattrocento’ refers to the collective cultural and artistic activities of 15th-century Italy, an important period which encompasses the artistic styles of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. <LI>Judith Collins, ‘Winifred Knights 1899&#8211;1947’, in <EM>Winifred Knights 1899&#8211;1947</EM>, exhibition catalogue, The Fine Art Society in association with Paul Liss, London, and the British School at Rome, 1995, pp. 11. <LI>Alan Powers, ‘The Rome Scholarship in ‘Decorative Painting’ 1912&#8211;1939’, in <EM>British Artists in Italy 1920&#8211;1980</EM>, exhibition catalogue, Canterbury College of Art, Kent, 1985, pp. 18-19. See also: Tony Mackle, ‘Winifred Knights’, in <EM>Modern Britain 1900&#8211;1960</EM>, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007, p. 177. <LI>John Monnington, ‘A childhood memory’, in <EM>Winifred Knights 1899&#8211;1947</EM> <LI>Winifred Knights, letter to her sister Joyce, 28 February 1921, quoted in Emily Rothschild, ‘A scholar abroad: The British School at Rome in Winifred Knights’ letters home’, in <EM>Winifred Knights 1899&#8211;1947</EM>, p. 19. A collection of Knights’ letters are now in the archive of the Strang Print Room of the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. <LI>Monnington, p. 23.<BR></LI></OL>
image

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana, 1923, oil on canvas,
Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Winifred Knights, &lt;EM&gt;The marriage at Cana&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, &lt;EM&gt;The marriage at Cana&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, &lt;EM&gt;The marriage at Cana&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana (detail), 1923

image

Winifred Knights, Untitled (composition study) - preparatory drawing for 'The marriage at Cana', circa 1922, wash, squared in pencil.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Winifred Knights, &lt;EM&gt;The marriage at Cana&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, &lt;EM&gt;The marriage at Cana&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, &lt;EM&gt;The marriage at Cana&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, &lt;EM&gt;The marriage at Cana&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, &lt;EM&gt;The marriage at Cana&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, &lt;EM&gt;The marriage at Cana&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 1923

Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana (detail), 1923

image

Winifred Knights, Untitled (study of reclining man) - preparatory drawing for 'The marriage at Cana', circa 1922
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

1997-0015-1/19; Untitled - preparatory drawing for &#39;The marriage at Cana&#39;; circa 1922; Knights, Winifred

1997-0015-1/19; Untitled - preparatory drawing for 'The marriage at Cana'; circa 1922; Knights, Winifred