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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Joseph Severn

The Deserted Village, 1857, Joseph Severn
Joseph Severn Self-portrait
As a teenager growing up I often had repeated to me the old adage, "A person is known by the company they keep." I think the implication was that my parents didn't much like some of my friends but lacked the courage, or had the wisdom (I'm not sure which), not to make their specific objections known. They probably realized doing so would make little difference, and probably be counterproductive. (Some of my friends smoked and drank beer when they could get it.) They were right, of course; eventually my friends and I got each other into trouble, but that's another story. I went off to college and the air force, then got married. They went off to the army and got married. We all changed as we grew older, I undoubtedly more than they. We still run into one another every few years, but now, my friends are such that my parents would heartily approve. The British painter Joseph Severn is, today, much better known by the company he kept than for his own work, mostly painting portraits. Specifically he was very good friends with the poets, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound,
(painted posthumously, 1845) Joseph Severn
John Keats,1819, Joseph Severn
I would like to think that even those with little love for poetry, specifically the Romantic odes of 19th-century English poetry, would at least recognize these two names, if not their works. In that I'm probably being overly optimistic in that regard, let me briefly outline their relationship. All three men were born within three years of one another, Shelley being the oldest, was born in 1792, Severn in 1793, and Keats in 1795. All three were second generation Romanticists. One of Severn's bigger and better works, The Deserted Village (top) is from 1857, well after the other two had died (Keats in 1821, and Shelley a year later). Severn lived to be eighty-five, dying in 1879. Keats was twenty-five when he died, Shelley was thirty. All three were laid to rest in the same Protestant cemetery in Rome just a few feet from one another. In life, Keats and Severn were close, especially as Keats health deteriorated during his final months in Rome. Shelley, who greatly admired Keats, wrote a poem about him after his death titled, Adonais. Severn, knew and admired Shelley but they were, at best merely acquaintances. Well after Shelley's death, Severn painted a posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound (above), dated 1845.

Ariel: Where the Bee Sucks, 1826-36, Joseph Severn
As one might notice from Severn's portraits, all three men appear rather effete, some might say effeminate looking, though there's no indication any of them were homosexual. Severn and Shelley were, in fact married (and not to each other), while Keats had at least two female romantic entanglements. Severn was the father of seven children, three of whom became artists (Joseph Arthur Palliser Severn, Walter Severn, and Ann Mary Newton). Upon the death of his children's mother, Severn went on to marry Joan Ruskin Agnew, a cousin of the famed English critic, John Ruskin. Shelley's wife, Mary, was a famous poet in her own right, surviving her husband by thirty years while going on to write Frankenstein. Percy Shelley is, perhaps, best remembered for his Ode to a Grecian Urn. Aside from his portraits of Keats, Severn is well-remembered for his Ariel: Where the Bee Sucks (above), from around 1826-36. All three men died virtually penniless.

John Keats, 1821-23, Joseph Severn
The greatest irony regarding Joseph Severn is that, despite being a reasonably adept painter, he has long been best remembered for his numerous paintings of his friend, John Keats. A pale, rather starry-eyed rendering (above, left) perhaps best captures the man's likeness, while Severn's posthumous portrait from 1821-23(left) best captures Keats' spirit, character, and personality. It's uncertain when and where Severn and Keats first met, perhaps as far back as childhood (Severn, Keats, and Shelley were all born in London). In any case, Severn and Keats had long been the closest of friends when the two of them boarded a ship sailing for Rome in mid-September of 1820. Keats hoped to improve his health there in a warmer climate. Though undiagnosed at the time, Keats was suffering from Tuberculosis. It was a long, torturous journey as they weathered first a monstrous storm, and then were becalmed, arriving in Naples in late-October. By the time they made it to Rome a month later, any thought of a warmer climate had become laughable. The two rented an apartment along side the Spanish steps overlooking Bernini's Barcaccia fountain.

John Keats in his Last Illness, Joseph Severn
While in Rome during the winter of 1820-21, Severn sent letters about Keats to their mutual friends in England, who then shared them with other members of the Keats circle, including the poet's fiancée, Fanny Brawne. These almost daily letters now represent the only surviving account of the poet's final months. Today, they are used as the primary historical source for biographers of Keats's dying days. Severn nursed Keats until his death in February 1821, three months after they had arrived in Rome. Following Keats' death, Severn remained in Rome where he was able to launch a successful artistic career, becoming a versatile painter there during the 1820s and 30s. His repertoire grew to include miniatures, altarpieces, landscapes, frescoes, historical and religious scenes, as well as subjects from the Bible, Greek mythology and Shakespeare. Severn's paintings of Italian genre scenes became very popular with British visitors generating numerous commissions for his work. Severn was instrumental in helping to establish the British Academy of the Fine Arts in Rome.

Ophelia, 1860, Joseph Severn
Upon returning to England in 1841, Severn found himself struggling desperately to earn enough money to support his growing family by painting portraits. Even though Severn exhibited some fifty-three paintings at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1857, he was never able to match his early artistic success in Rome. By 1853, he was forced to flee his creditors for the Isle of Jersey. Later, in 1861, Severn was appointed British Consul to Rome during the ferment over Italian unification at a time when Garibaldi seized the Kingdom of Naples, all of Southern Italy, and Sicily, annexing them to the new Kingdom of Italy. Although the official position of the British government regarding Italian unification was neutrality and nonintervention, Severn often took diplomatic actions his superiors saw as exceeding his mandate as Consul. On several occasions, he was rebuked by the Foreign Office eventually resulting in his forced retirement as Consul in 1872. Ironically, Severn's death a few years later went little noticed while the literary reputations of both Keats and Shelley had grown ever more prominent in the decades following their deaths.

Doge Antonio Grimani Kneeling before Faith, (after Titian), Joseph Severn.


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