That quivering expression

“Exquisite in every way; lovely in colour, most subtle the quivering expression of the lips, and sweetness of the tender face, shaken like a leaf by winds upon its dew, and hesitating back into peace.”–John Ruskin on Arthur Hughes’ painting April Love.
In several of Hughes’ works, it is the evocative shades he uses that captivate me.   The gown in April Love catches your eye with that brilliant purple that is set off so beautifully by the green ivy.  His Ophelia seems to be captured at twilight, making her seem a liminal figure who hovers not only in the moments between day and night but also in the breaths between life and death.  This Ophelia was Hughes’ first work that followed Pre-Raphaelite principles and we can see his attention to portraying natural elements such as the mushroom, detailed blades of grass, and even a layer of pond scum on the surface of the water.  In contrast with the verdant and lush green of the grass, Ophelia is deathly pale.  Hughes has depicted her as an elfin-like wraith tossing her flowers into the water in the moments before her death.
Ophelia, Arthur Hughes
Ophelia, Arthur Hughes
Stay strong, Sibyl!
Stay strong, Sibyl!

Returning back to April Love, I have always had an appreciation for the painting but I never paid much attention to Ruskin’s description before until it came to mind  while watching The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).  There’s a scene where Angela Lansbury, as Sibyl Vane, makes a choice that she knows will end her relationship with Dorian. Lansbury portrays Sibyl as both strong and vulnerable as she struggles to hold back her tears. Here’s a clip of the scene at The quiver around her mouth is unmistakable and I have renewed respect for Lansbury, who was able to strike such a perfect note as Sibyl so early in her career.  It jarred a memory and Ruskin’s quote came flooding back.  I rushed to look at reproductions in various Pre-Raphaelite books and I definitely see it now, a sort of pained expression that hovers beneath the surface.  She is, as Ruskin put it, shaken.  Eyes brimming with tears.  A smile that is not a smile.  Lansbury’s spotless performance helped me to see April Love with new eyes and realize that Hughes’ painting captures an ephemeral moment, a broken heart, in a way that is tender and not saccharine.  That can not be easy to do, so with much respect I say bravo Hughes… bravo.

April Love (detail)
April Love (detail)
Hughes exhibited April Love with the following lines from Tennyson’s The Miller’s Daughter:
Love is hurt with jar and fret,
Love is made a vague regret,
Eyes with idle tears are set,
Idle habit links us yet;
What is Love? For we forget.
Ah no, no.
By the way, William Morris owned this painting. It is now part of the Tate collection.
Hughes’ model was Miss Tryphena Foord and while this painting depicts the sad ending of an affair, Hughes married Foord in 1855 and it seems their marriage was a happy one.
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One Reply to “That quivering expression”

  1. I think Hughes is terribly underrated. Having seen April Love in the Tate where it now hangs, I have to agree about the colour. It never comes out as well in repeoductions as it does in real life. The skirt is so violet-blue that it glows, and the contrast to the ivy’s greenness is almost shocking.

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