The art of John Duncan, 1866–1945


Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb (1909). Another of those paintings that provide a link between 19th-century art and 20th-century fantasy illustration.

Scotland isn’t a nation commonly associated with Symbolist painting, or with what The Studio magazine called “mystic subjects” when writing about John Duncan’s painting of Heptu on her hippogriff. There were a handful of Scottish artists in the late 1800s whose work suits the description, mostly the members of the Glasgow School, although some of these would be considered marginal cases compared to their Continental contemporaries. In the Anglophone countries Symbolist art is so thin on the ground that Michael Gibson in Symbolism (1995) puts Great Britain and the United States into a single chapter, and even there many of the artists he highlights—people such as Thomas Cole and the Pre-Raphaelites—are more like precursors, being too early to be considered an active part of a movement that only established itself in the 1880s.


The Legend of Orpheus (1895).

John Duncan does fit the bill, however, more so than I would have expected until I started looking at his paintings. Duncan’s career oscillated between Dundee and Edinburgh so he avoided the Arts and Crafts tendencies of the Glasgow School. His work is closer to French artists like Alexandre Séon, especially in the sculptural treatment of his figures. Familiar subjects and motifs abound: the riddle of the Sphinx, peacocks, Wagner, sorcery, and a variety of myths and legends, from Scotland to ancient Greece. The ink drawings here are from The Evergreen, A Northern Seasonal, a small art and literature magazine published in Edinburgh that managed four issues from 1895 to 1896. In Duncan’s later work he avoided the upheavals of Modernism by keeping to safe religious subjects. If the date is accurate for that Sphinx it must have seemed very old-fashioned in 1934.


Out-Faring (1895).


Anima Celtica (1895).


A Sorceress (1898).

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More chimeras


The Chimera (1867) by Gustave Moreau.

It’s no easy task to catalogue all the chimeras that proliferate between the numerous examples in the work of Gustave Moreau to those produced before the First World War. Consider this a sample, then, and a pointer to further research. Several of these artists—Malczewski, Ernst, Brauner—returned to theme many times.


The Sphinx: “My gaze, which nothing can deflect, passes through the things and remains fixed on an inaccessible horizon.” The Chimera: “I am weightless and joyful.” (1889) by Odilon Redon.


The Chimera’s Despair (1892) by Alexandre Séon.

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L’Androgyne by Alexandre Séon (1890).

Related to yesterday’s post, I’ve been re-reading various books this week for details of the most curious character associated with the French Symbolist movement, novelist and occultist Joséphin Péladan (1859–1918), also known as Sâr Peladan, a Babylonian title he bestowed upon himself as more befitting his adopted role as Rosicrucian mystic. Péladan’s writings and occult art theories spurred many of the painters who banded together as part of his Salon de la Rose+Croix, a kind of anti-salon intended to stand in opposition to what the Sâr saw as the drab realism of the Impressionists and the staid historicism of academic painters. One gets the impression reading about Péladan that he was probably a rather preposterous figure—his obsession with androgyny caused him to change his forename from Joseph to Joséphin yet he kept his length of bristling beard. But, like Oscar Wilde in London, his presence in the pool of fin de siècle art creates considerable ripples. Alexandre Séon, whose frontispiece above was created for Péladan’s semi-autobiographical essay, L’Androgyne, was particularly devoted to him, as was Carlos Schwabe. Séon’s picture depicts “the androgyne Samas, stupefied by the sexual enigma”, a character with whom Péladan fully identified as he describes his youth and its apparent state of androgynous grace.


One doesn’t need a Rosicrucian salon today for examples of creative androgyny, of course, all you have to do is go to Flickr where you’ll find creatures such as the boy above from Roman Mitchenko’s photostream. The photos there are at the fashion end of the spectrum; for more of an amateur or semi-professional perspective there are groups like the Androgyny pool, and the Mommy, I want to be androgynous! pool, the latter featuring many striking boyish girls and girlish boys.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Arthur Tress’s Hermaphrodite
Carlos Schwabe’s Fleurs du Mal
Czanara’s Hermaphrodite Angel