Late in 2011, the Museum had the opportunity to purchase this watercolor of the Blind Man of Bethsaida by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederic Shields (1833–1911). Shields was born in Hartlepool, in northeastern England, but spent most of his working life in Manchester and London. The premature death of his father left him responsible for the support of his mother and siblings at a young age. His autobiography describes acute poverty and periods of semi-starvation—circumstances that deeply influenced his life-long religious piety. His artistic training was limited to apprenticeships in the commercial engraving industry and evening art classes in Manchester and London. Shields’ mature style came into being with his introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite circle, beginning with Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1864. He became close friends with Rossetti, and aided the painter by purchasing pigments, obtaining studio props, and advising him on servants. On occasion Shields produced detailed sketches to aid Rossetti in the completion of a particular pantings, such as the pain a a series studies of apple blossoms which Rossetti required for the completion of his now famous painting, A Vision of Fiametta (Andrew Lloyd Weber Collection). Two of these sketches were included in the Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection bequest, conveyed to the Delaware Art Museum in 1935. Shields drew Rossetti on his death bed (a Victorian custom), and this drawing is also part of the Museum’s permanent collection.
Shortly after Rossetti’s death in 1882, Shields was approached by the artist’s sister, Christina, with a request from her mother to design two stained glass windows for the church in Birchington, Kent, overlooking the graveyard where her son was buried. In addition to being Rossetti’s loyal friend, Shields was a deeply religious man, and it was for both these reasons that he was singled out for this particular commission. Christina explained, “Even your personal love of Gabriel weights less with [my mother] in this quest than your personal love of Christ.”
||Shields proposed two designs, one of his own, illustrating Christ’s healing of the blind man of Bethsaida, a miracle described in the Gospel of Mark (8:22–26), and the other, a recapturing of Rossetti’s own composition, Mary Magdalene. Shields was dismayed to learn that the Vicar of the church was not amenable to the inclusion of the Mary Magdalene subject, writing to the artist, “I do not think this picture is likely to inspire devotional thoughts and feelings, and fear that in some cases it might rather do the reverse.” An alternative Rossetti composition was proposed—the Passover in the Holy Family—and accepted.
This watercolor is Shields’ own window design and depicts a subject the artist addressed on more than one occasion. The composition is filled with historic and symbolic details, very much in keeping with the manner of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Bethsaida was one of the communities that were reluctant to accept Christ’s teachings. In the gospel story, when Christ first touches the eyes of the blind man, his healing powers only allow the afflicted man to “see men as trees walking.” The foreground scene depicted in this composition illustrates the moment when Christ, having led the blind man outside the gates of the city (and away from its doubting citizens), lays hands upon him a second time, resulting in his attainment of full sight. The growling dog in the foreground, with her new litter of “blind” pups (with eyes still closed) references the closed minds of the citizens within the city walls. In the background, a Pharisee and his young disciple look on, the older man laying his hand on the shoulder of the younger to restrain him from joining in the miraculous event. The seven doves in flight above Christ’s head are symbolic of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Just beyond the main scene, a shepherd leads his flock to the safety of their fold as the crescent moon rises over the lake of Galilee. All are depicted with painstaking detail and attention to historical accuracy. (For instance, the blind man carries an ancient three-stringed harp of primitive construction.)
The painting has been on view recently in the Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite galleries, and is now “resting,” as is dictated by current conservation standards for all works on paper. It will be back on view this summer.
Margaretta S. Frederick
Chief Curator/Curator, Bancroft Collection
Christ leads the Blind Man out of Bethsaida, after 1882
Frederic James Shields (1833-1911)
Pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour and with gum arabic,
33 3/8 x 16 1/8 inches
Museum purchase, 2011
This Curator Corner was posted on January 17, 2013.