This story starts out being about me. Facebook reminded me this morning that it had been five years since my brother, Clay, and I went to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. It was quite inspiring for me, and probably more so for Clay, an artist who paints with oils.
One of my favorite paintings was of a woman lying on a bed in a boat, her long blonde hair fanned out around her. She appeared to be asleep or dead. The caption accompanying the painting led me to believe she was being returned to her home by boat for her funeral. A man piloting the boat was dressed like the Grim Reaper. I remember the details of the painting were sort of romantic and haunting. I took a photo of the painting with my phone but failed to note the name of the work or the artist.
Which has bugged me ever since. So today when Facebook nudged me with the photo of the painting once more, I did an online search for the painting using words I would use to describe it such as funeral, boat, dead blonde. I have done this same search numerous times, and I have never found the painting.
I gave up on Bing and tried Google. Then a pop-up appeared suggesting I could upload an image to search. Would that work? I took my low-resolution image that Facebook saved and put it in the image search box. Voila! Immediately it found the artist and the name of the painting. It was called “The Beautiful Elaine.” Wouldn’t have gotten that in a million years.
It turns out I am not the only one who was haunted by “Elaine.” The artist, Toby Edward Rosenthal, was born in West Prussia in 1848, and his family moved to San Francisco when he was ten. His artistic talent became apparent early in his life, and he was sent to Munich at age sixteen to study at the Royal Academy. His artistic style was true to the realism of the nineteenth century, and his dramatic portrayals often hinted at stories of romance, danger, abandonment, and death. You can read more about the artist here: Tobias Edward Rosenthal | The Society of California Pioneers.
While Rosenthal studied in Germany, he sent some of his work back to his parents who exhibited them at art fairs in San Francisco. This led to a commission by a wealthy San Francisco banker, a Mr. Parrott. He wanted a portrait based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem, Idylls of the King. Tennyson was the British poet laureate during Queen Victoria’s reign. I remember Lord Tennyson’s distinctive mug from playing the card game “Authors” as a child.
Idylls of the King included a story about the legendary Elaine, who died from her unrequited love of Lancelot. Yes, that Lancelot, whose obsession with Queen Guinevere mucked up King Arthur’s Camelot and the Knights of the Roundtable.
I also ran across an earlier version of this Elaine, which I prefer. Her Daddy had his own castle, and Lancelot showed up to compete in a tournament, fighting against King Arthur’s men while in disguise. He wins but is wounded, and Elaine helps him get back on his feet. She is smitten, but his heart still belongs to Guinevere, so she tricks him with a magic potion or two, and he ends up marrying her and fathering her children. The eldest becomes a more successful knight than even Lancelot. Of course, this version doesn’t end with her floating on a barge down the Thames toward Camelot clutching a farewell letter and a lily.
This is not the only legend, poem, or painting dedicated to Elaine. She is sometimes called the Lady of Shallot.
I digress. Back to Toby Rosenthal’s painting. His benefactor, Mr. Parrott, grew tired of Toby’s delays and demands for more money, so he commissioned another artist to paint what he wanted. Rosenthal sold his finished painting to a Mrs. Johnson, who paid several times the original commissioned price. The painting was later exhibited in San Francisco, and large crowds lined up daily for twelve days to see the dramatic painting of the tragic Elaine. Rosenthal’s proud parents were in daily attendance at the public frenzy surrounding the exhibit. Then the painting was stolen! The crowds lined up to view the empty frame. You can’t make this stuff up.
The thief was caught, the painting returned, and over ten thousand people viewed it. The painting won a gold medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Eventually, it was purchased by Mrs. Maurice Rosenfeld, a Chicagoan, who donated it to the Art Institute in 1917 where I saw it one hundred years later.
If this doesn’t read like a Historical Romance novel, I don’t know what does. No wonder I couldn’t forget the image of Toby Rosenthal’s painting, and I didn’t know half of the story. Perhaps this is the reason I put a nineteenth-century painting in my latest novel in progress.
Claudia J. Severin