Tuesday, 15 April 2008

COMMENTARY: 'Manfred on the Jungfrau' by Ford Maddox Brown (1840-61)

Published: STUDENT DIRECT, April 2008
Ford Maddox Brown was one the most important influences in the Pre Raphaelite movement. It was his accuracy in portraying the physical elements and subjects of his work, as well as the bold use of colour he employed, that captivated artists such as Rossetti, Hunt and Millais and that can be seen beautifully in ‘Manfred on The Jungfrau’.

The painting depicts the momentous scene of Byron’s poem Manfred, in which a hunter comes across the man in question, who tortured by his incestuous relationship with his sister, over education and explorations into dark magic, decides to throw himself off the mountain peak and end his life:

My bones had then been quiet in their depth;
They had not then been strewn upon the rocks

For the wind's pastime-- as thus-- thus they shall be--
In this one plunge.-- Farewell, ye opening heavens!
Look not upon me thus reproachfully--
Ye were not meant for me-- Earth! take these atoms!

Thus the painting depicts a terrifying moment of tension and fate, the conclusion of which we are unaware of unless we read the poem. Manfred stands on the very edge of the icy cliff, inches away from sure death. Brown's work captures this single moment beautifully, and thus hits the viewer with striking force. Far away on the horizon we see the outline of a Cathedral city, the location and source of all Manfred's troubles. It hovers in mist, indefinite and mystical. A large contrast to the desolate surroundings we see in the foreground, which are depicted by Brown in clearly defined colours and lines. It is here, in natures most harsh and unforgiving terrain, where the weight of Manfred's actions can utterly consume him.

The painting is said to be the first Brown did in the open air, a method he would use from then on. This results in the wonderful bright light the painting exudes. The paleness of the sky seems to soar above you, while the whiteness of the snowy summit emphasises the daunting height at which Manfred stands.

Brown’s contrasting portrayal of the two characters, Manfred and the Chamois Hunter, may also, as critic Kenneth Bendiner notes, suggest a ‘sympathetic attention to the lower classes’ (The Art of Ford Maddox Brown, 1998, p.99). The spatial, atmospheric and dramatic relations between the two characters are stunning in their explanation of the poem. Manfred, the aristocratic, is hysterical and at odds with his surroundings. The extreme red of his dress emphasising the passionate struggle and fear that surges within his mind. His knees bend at the sight receding below him, while he claws his hair like a madman. The hunter, whose
vermilion trousers balance the paintings composition, is on the other hand dressed in furs suitable for the wintry conditions. He appears calm and collected, not wanting to surprise the man before him and as a result watch him fall to his death. He is the heroic rescuer while Manfred is the ruined man. It shows the viewer the rational versus the chaotic and leaves us in no doubt of which is the better.

When you stand before the painting, you sense the vertigo Manfred must feel when he states: ‘I am giddy’. Your stomach surges with fear that he might fall, one moment of unbalance is all it would take. You yearn to know if the hunter will reach him in time. To go away reassured. Such is the skill with which Brown has interpreted Byron’s words and rendered the scene. The alarm it instills continues even once you have left the Manchester Art Gallery.

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