Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Exuberant Abstraction

The great American expat painter John Singer Sargent officially closed his portrait studio in 1907. He'd worked hard to become the most sought-after portrait painter for the United States elite, and he was now a wealthy man who could do as he pleased.

A few months later, he was in paradise: living in warmth and leisure on the tiny unspoiled Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea.

His pent-up energy for the life and forms of nature expressed itself in rich, expressive studies of the life among the island's ancient terraced hills and sunny, spice-scented grottos.

The paintings work so well, I think, because of their underlying abstract designs. But the brushwork too veers toward abstraction. In his on-location plein-air studies, his brush was most vigorous and unguarded. His quickened sense of freedom and the brilliant, thriving pulse of natural life led to an expression of unfettered informality not present in his salon pictures or his formal portraits.

Pomegranates, Majorca (1908)

In Pomegranates, Majorca (1908), Sargent celebrates the explosion of gleaming leaves and ripe fruit glowing against the deeper shades of the tree limbs and moist sandy soil. I think he chose the palette for these studies to match at once the earthiness and the airy sea-light of the island.

The painting below, Valdemosa, Marjorca: Thistles and Herbage on a Hillside (c. 1908) hangs with masterpieces of American landscape painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In person, it struck me as possessing an ecstatic energy such as one finds in the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock.

John Singer Sargent, Veldemosa, Majorca: Thistles and Herbage on a Hillside (1908)

Here's what great painters do: Sargent doesn't just paint the sandy roots and loping branches - he paints an abstract design that expresses an abiding quality - the natural wildness and energy he sensed in it.

In this close-up you can see that the surface of the painting has more than just the "unfinished" sketch-like quality of an Impressionist painting. Rather, he uses every brushstroke expressively. Each stroke contributes a line or a mass that nominally delineates a branch, a leaf, or a root but primarily contributes to the overall feeling he wants to express.

Detail: John Singer Sargent, Veldemosa, Majorca: Thistles and Herbage on a Hillside (1908)

Nor is this just loose painting. These lines are intentionally energetic. Sargent becomes a conduit for the haphazard energy inherent in natural design. Jackson Pollock was the painter who took this method to its logical conclusion, thus contributing an entirely new page to the history of painting.

Here's a comparison. On the right is a detail from Sargent's Majorca painting. On the left is a detail from Pollock's Lavender Mist, also in the National Gallery.

Besides the density of the web of lines, the real main difference, as I see it, is that while Sargent used the forms and colors of nature as his springboard, Pollock just dispensed with the representational role of painting completely in order to maximize the expressive qualities of the medium itself. "I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them," he said in 1947.

Standing in front of either painting is an electrifying experience: both artists shock us with the sheer exuberance one can wring from paint on canvas.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What mad pursuit?

I stumbled upon this ancient marble relief while poking around in the online collection of the Museum of Fine Art (Boston). They've catalogued the
entire collection, near as I can tell. The only problem is that it's difficult to find and not easy to navigate. You can take your chances on it here.

I have yet to get the background on this Greco-Roman carving. It made me think immediately of Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats. I loved the poem as a teenager (he had me at "still unravished bride of quietness") mainly because I believed its message of the universal value of art that outlives our smallness and mortality to be "a friend to man."

I didn't realize that, as the poem moves around its subject (the carvings on the "Attic shape" of the Grecian urn), Keats is describing a fairly common subject of Greek vase relief-carving. The images that inspired Keats's musings about art come from a pagan celebration scene very much like this one, a haunting "leaf-fringed legend ... of deities or mortals, or of both" that leaves us asking, "What men or gods are these? What maidens loath? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"

Maybe we can never know the final "truth" about a work of art - or anything else, for that matter - but compelling creative works console us with their timeless presence, for we know they too arise from unknowing - and yet they're their own "answer," and at times may even persuade us of the beauty of our predicament.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"---that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats
from Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1820

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chauncy Ryder: "the poetic aspect of nature"

The Long Trail, Chauncy Foster Ryder, 1934

A largely forgotten master landscape painter created this large oil on display at the Currier Museum in Manchester, NH in 1934.

You won't find Chauncy Foster Ryder in any of the standard art history books. But thanks to the Web's incredible ability to share information, you can acquaint yourself completely with him here.

Bear Creek, Chauncy Foster Ryder, undated

Ryder's style corresponds to that of other pre-WWII, post-Impressionist landscape painters of New England who are better known, but still relatively obscure, such as John Enneking, Charles Hawthorne, and John F. Carlson. As one writer saw it in 1978, Ryder painted with intuitive feeling in pursuit of "the poetic aspect of nature."

A close look at the brushwork on The Long Trail reveals the semi-abstract, exaggerated impressionism of this style. Their paint handling brought a renewing approach to the landscape tradition t a time when modernist abstraction dominated painting, and representations of nature seemed predictable and passe.

Detail, The Long Trail

As the curator of one of his current fans, Child's Gallery points out, Chauncy drew favor for "the way his landscapes engaged the aesthetic of the abstract without presenting abstract subject matter, in a time when the general public was unsure about how to approach truly abstract art."

I'd call the paint handling gestural rather than impressionistic.

Chauncy himself seems to have lived a life devoted to his art, encouraged by a supportive wife who was willing to sell everything they owned and move to Europe so he could train in France. Below is his academy painting. Depicting wary onlookers eyeing the detritus of a shipwreck, it shows that he had no problem adapting his style and subject matter to the prevailing tastes of the day.

Chauncy F. Ryder, What the Sea Gives Up, Paris Salon of 1907

And here is a visual analysis of the composition of the Currier painting that reveals some of why it works so well. In addition to the careful design, which creates a vigorous rhythm of criss-crossing vertical and horizontal lines, the center of the painting draws attention as the warmest region (in terms of warm and cool color) within an interesting alteration of warm and cool colors.
Compositional geometry of The Long Trail

The status and interpretations of Ryder's work raises a couple questions for me. What does it mean that Ryder's work was forgotten (or almost) in favor of the more experimental, perhaps more adventurous and "progressive" of the modernists and abstract expressionists of his time? Is characterizing his approach as "poetic" an apology for his lack of innovation? Was he just not "going far enough" when he put one foot in the abstract expressionist camp but stuck to "safe" familiar and appealing subjects when the general public was "unsure about how to approach truly abstract art?" Can the "poetic" quality be separated from the quasi-abstraction to legitimate his paintings in their own right? Any thoughts?

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Shimmering Still Lifes of LaFarge

Flowers in A Persian Porcelain Water Bowl, 1861

John LaFarge had the kind of restless innovator's talent that drives someone from obsession to obsession.

LaFarge (1835-1910) broke ground in color theory, stained glass (he invented opalescent glass), illustration, printing (he pioneered the huge influence of Japanese silk screens on American artists), criticism, landscape painting (some of his near-abstract sky-scapes look downright postmodern to me - how radical they must have seemed in 1874)...

I don't think anyone has done the scholarship needed to catalogue and make available the extent of the work of this multi-talented and very influential figure. But it's clear that he surrendered to his own individualistic muse, seizing upon things he loved in various media and synthesizing them into new forms.

LaFarge's Flowers in Flowers in A Persian Porcelain Water Bowl is unusual for its delicate overall tonal color effect - it's like we're viewing the whole scene through an opalescent, diaphanous gauze.

Boston's Gardner Museum has a landscape (a snowy New England barn roof jutting up under a high, cerulean sky) by LaFarge but they don't allow photographs, and sadly the work isn't included in their "masterpieces of the collection" catalogue. So we'll have to content ourselves for now with this gorgeous still life and this part-random spray of petals, leaves, and blossoms that goes by the name Apple Blossoms.

Apple Blossoms, oil on wood, 1878

Apple Blossoms shows the synthesis of Japanese printmaking and North American subject matter. It lives by virtue of its shallow yet lively semi-abstraction.

This painting's flattened patterning of background petals, leaves, lights, and shadows, forms a variegated skein of color and texture over which LaFarge floats the pink and white flowers presumably still on the branch. Rather like Matisse (b. 1869) would later, LaFarge here successfully poises the painting halfway between naturalistic representation and decorative abstraction.

Hats off to an American innovator who rightly followed his muse across the boundary lines and who I'm sure one day will be far better known than he is now.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What To Do When There's Nothing To Do

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889

I once owned a children's book that turned any ordinary kitchen into a playground.

The unspoken premise was that boredom is learned; we get used to being involved in this or that pre-existing activity, so that, thrown back on our own resources, we miss the inborn creative ability to turn cooking utensils into airplanes, robot parts, and percussive musical instruments.

Approached with a liberated imagination, a fully "engaged" painting of the simplest and blandest stretch of ho-hum scenery can reinvent and renew the world.

I saw this painting by Dennis Miller Bunker at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston this weekend. In person, it's stunning; its sheer sense of energy recalls something by Vincent van Gogh. And yet, who else out scouting for something to paint, would have seen exactly that potential in a boggy field of weeds and wildflowers?

Bunker's painting has none of the traditional hallmarks of "great" landscape art. Its lines lead the eye into the painting, where the hills create interesting interlocking shapes, but it ignores so many of the other guidelines (think high contrast, rhythmic line, the "rule of threes"). It has no hidden symbolic messages to impart. It makes no grandiose claims for the relationship between God, humanity, and the universe. It's not a painting "of" anything in particular (a noble stand of old-growth trees, say, or a still lake radiant with reflections).

I pass dozens of little parcels like the one in The Brook at Medfield on my way to and from the colleges and studios where I teach. Such "backlot" scenes don't present themselves as ideal subjects; they lack a dialectic of dominant and sub-dominant forms and a strong single point of interest.

Works like this one remind me that the purpose of painting isn't to create imitations of beautiful Nature, but rather to make beautiful things - to reinvent the world by reinventing the subject, whatever it is, no matter how unglamorous (and in some cases the more unglamorous and "ordinary" the better).

After being blown away by this painting of "nothing," I think I'm going to find it harder to come up with valid reasons not to go out and just paint whatever's there to meet the eye. It's another reminder to me that art really isn't about what you paint but how you see.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Coreggio: Head in the Clouds?

Antonio de Coreggio was by all accounts an introverted character prone to fits of melancholy. A post-High Renaissance artist, he was born into a large, poor family in rural Italy, and while he married a local girl, she died ten years after their union.

Specific origins for his enormous skills are hard to trace, and he's considered something of an enigma because there's not much of a thread to connect his productions.

In mid-career, he takes time off from Christian Madonnas and Adorations of the Magi's to paint a series of deeply sensual and daringly erotic paintings, including Jupiter and Io (left), 1531-32.

Originally intended for a wealthy patron's "private Ovid room" (just what I've always ... wanted?), these paintings illustrate the loves of Zeus/Jupiter.

As tallied by Ovid in Metamorphoses, the Olympian tries to stay under his wife Hera's radar by appearing to his paramours in various disguises including a swan, a stream of gold, and a cloud. Coreggio's interpretation of the latter manifestation, in which Jupiter nebulously envelopes a young woman named Io, is striking.

Look carefully at the area of cloud near Io's face. That's Jupiter peering out as he makes love to the maiden. the god's "arm" - really a giant thundercloud paw - rests on her hip.

In Leda and the Swan, painted the same year, it appears there's something of a cygnerian orgy going on - three young women in various stages of seduction by swans! Understanding what's going on with the woman who's being dressed by an attendant suggests a different interpretation - the idea that Leda is, as one encyclopedia puts it, "shy but satisfied,"suggests that we're meant to read the scene as a sequence.

To the far right then, Zeus approaches Leda via the stream to tempt her with his swanly wiles - she resists but she's clearly charmed. In the center of the painting, the main attraction: Coreggio paints Leda openly yielding to Zeus's lust. And in the final scene, the one with the attendant dressed in red (red=passion) about to cover Leda's body, we perceive the flushed gratitude of the "satisfied" maiden, and the god-in-the-form-of-a-swan flies off.

Coreggio, Leda and the Swan, 1532

Heady stuff for deeply Christian 16th century Italy! But interesting to look at, no?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Some Strangeness in the Proportion

Enigma, Gustave Dore

Edgar Allen Poe's works have inspired hundreds of artists - the images arise unbidden as we read the stories and poems. A random Web search turned up far too many to sort through, but the oil paintings of UK illustrator Brian Pedley jumped out for their unhinged sense of panic and vertigo and their atmospheric vibe.

The above is his interpretation of The Fall of the House of Usher, and below is "The Man of the Crowd."

I've always loved Gustave Dore's illustrations for Poe's immortal poem, The Raven - you can download them as an iPhone app now. But I will never forget discovering the yellowed, oversize edition - the size of an atlas! ("elephant folios" I think they used to call them) - in the crumbling library of a 100-year old grand dame, the kindly and very old-world Mrs. Gray, our minister's mother in fact, with whom I passed some autumn evenings as her caretaker during my 15th year.

Dreams No Mortal Ever Dared To Dream Before
From Gustave Dore's illustrations for The Raven

In my own work (and life!), I've long held to Poe's prescription for beauty, as given in Ligeia:

There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion...

Graphic novelist Neil Gaiman has written a great little homage to Poe that draws upon that quote for its title. Worth a quick read for anyone who's ever gone off the deep end with Poe - if only for the span of a brief plunge into madness, death, and obsession - and loved it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Flemish Still Life: Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Still-life with Peeled Lemon, Jan Davidsz. de HEEM

What a harvest is here in this still-life painting by the Flemish Baroque-period painter Jan Davidsz. de HEEM (1606-1684): a wooden table draped with a gold-fringed green velvet cloth, a glass of white wine and a cluster of white grapes hanging from a vine branch with large, veined leaves, a pewter dish supporting a peeled lemon, a cooked shrimp and a scattering of hazelnuts, behind which is a bowl full of strawberries and, to the left, a shucked oyster, and behind that, the handle of a knife.

But the painting's real essence is none of those things. Rather, it is this canvas's sombre atmosphere with its evocation of silence, luxury, stillness, and sensuous delight. The objects don't so much sit or stand as emerge from the enveloping dark.

Another still-life by De Heem. Note the snail slithering past the foreground oyster. (Ew!)

To step up the pleasure even more, most still-life paintings of this time period and geography contain a marvelous overlay of symbolic meanings. Present for original viewers who wished to read into them, each of the objects carried well-known associations accrued from their use in popular religious and moralist writings and sermons (the butterfly perched on top might suggest the soul, the fancy glassware and knife-handle signified preoccupation with material wealth, while strawberries and oysters pointed toward lust). Often the imagery preached a mini-sermon on the inevitability of mortality and the importance of looking after the upkeep of one's soul in preparation for the afterlife. So often is this the case that art historians refer to this type of painting as "vanitas" still life (for the theme of earthly "vanity," as in the Ecclesiastical "vanity, vanity, vanity, sayeth the preacher, all is vanity - vanitas omni est).

In this case, tiny details you can't see in this jpeg - the presence of various parasitic insects, wilting leaves, overripe or subtly rotting grapes, a worm-hole in one of the hazelnuts - remind the viewer of the transience of even the ripest, most luxuriant life in the material world.

Detail from a different Dutch still life.

Even without the symbolism, Old Master still life paintings from the Dutch and Flemish Schools continue to delight viewers. My own theory about why is not that they're so photographic-realistic, but that they're both hyper-realistic and super-artificial all at once.

The shadows are voluptuously exaggerated, the textures chosen and explored for their own sake, the colors carefully keyed to each other, and the multiple levels of reference constitute an unapologetic artifice right from the start. Further, the combination of the rich yet muted colors and the sparkling realism of the lights and textures captivates modern viewers on two delightfully divergent fronts - on one hand, we read the classically balanced composition and the harmonious, tonal palette as the artist's inventions, evidence of the artificial nature of art-making. Simultaneously, on the other hand, we read the exquisite details as the opposite - as convincing evidence of art's ability to render the real with supreme truth, to give us the wetness of water and the woodness of wood - it's there in the sparkling water droplets, the luminosity of the fruit, the nubbly (impasto) texture of the orange peel and the seduction of the velvet. Here is the Louvre's commentary on Still-Life with Peeled Lemon, (which I find rather masterful in its own way):

De Heem is a masterly painter of light and reflections, as seen here on the dish and glasses, or the droplets of water. Here, too, we see his virtuoso rendering of the fine, misty covering of bloom on the skin of the grapes, the veins of the vine leaves, and their infinite variations of color. The picture's thriving insect population, crawling around the fruit and other objects, creates a secondary world all of its own, waiting to be discovered upon close examination by the attentive viewer. A caterpillar climbs up the vine branch, which creates a striking diagonal across the upper part of the composition. A second butterfly has alighted at the end of the branch. A spider has made its home in one of the grapes and a hornet is making its way around the edge of the bowl of strawberries. These tiny living creatures may hold some residual symbolic significance – insects are traditionally associated with the concept of vanity (from the Latin vanitas), the transience and futility of earthly life. The same concept is expressed by the withered, diseased vine leaf, the rotten grape, or the small worm-hole in the hazelnut next to the lemon. Above all, these details testify to De Heem's supreme technique and visionary approach to still-life painting, his abilty to transform one corner of a dinner-table into a small, private universe.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem succeeds triumphantly in depicting the tactile values of his chosen objects, and their slow emergence from the penumbra of the picture's plain, dark green ground. An artist of remarkable distinction, he settled in the city of Antwerp, where the practice of still-life painting took a wide variety of forms – from the art of the greatest animal painters and masters of baroque still-life (such as Jan Fyt or Frans Snyders, who often collaborated with Rubens), to the more austere output of painters such as Jacob Fopsen van Es. Their diverse images depict a world of silence and apparent stillness, imbued with tiny signs of life, and touched by the immutable forces of time and decay.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Inness: The Mill Pond

George Inness, The Mill Pond, 1884

Though at a glance this painting may look like just another Barbizon-inspired landscape, The Mill-Pond by nineteenth-century American painter George Inness repays a closer look.

It's a painting of "ordinary" American scenery (little is overtly "majestic," sublime or Romantic about its subject). And yet, it works a subtle magic, quietly captivating the viewer through harmonious, saturated earth tones, a composition designed to instill a sense of life and movement, strong primary (and secondary) “points of interest,” and, most important of all, a kind of unifying indeterminacy that results from brushwork that’s loose, yet graceful and disciplined.

In such mid-career and later works, Inness backs away from meticulous detail to plant suggestions of his subject, and throughout this work, he rather magnificently suggests rather than tells. Inness doesn’t copy nature; he opens it up for us to re-imagine, become intuitively involved in completing his subjects out of the flickering stuff of memory and desire.

Inness is not being "Impressionistic," a style he could never embrace. Rather, by building indeterminacy into familiar, cultivated scenery, the effect is as if he is painting the here-and-not-here of two worlds, one of illusory reality and the other of mystical experience, both embodied in the everyday, and both beautiful. And yet, he fully articulates certain key objects. That fallen log, for example, he delineates through precise shape, value, and color.

The composition is stacked in thirds. Our eyes see the big tree first. If they wander into the sky, it is only to be guided back to the middle ground, the main site of the action. There we encounter the fallen log and are pointed back to ascend for another lush visitation through the passage of that tree. Following the cloud shapes again, we return down through the tree once more and back to the log, but this time we also see the figure in the rowboat parallel to it, and after that the suggestion of a human habitation on the opposite bank.

Should we be tempted to savor the deft suggestions of wildflowers and shadows in the foreground, our eyes will inevitably be led back by the log’s projecting limb to the mass of tree that first caught our attention. And from there, we can repeat the same visual circuit we have just enjoyed. This constant roaming of our eyes helps Inness convey the sense of animation that he perceived in nature and wished to express in paint.

For me, Inness is the Spirit Painter of nineteenth-century America. His trees are like spirit-fountains of intriguing color and mood mediating between earth and heaven. It's tempting to see in the composition's up-and-down tree-to-sky-to-earth-to-tree-to-sky-and-back-again circuit for the eyes a metaphor for the linking of earth to spirit through the objects of the world. For Inness, a Swedenborgian, the beautiful geometries of the world are "correspondences" that mediate between our blind mortal life and a vision of eternal Spirit.

With the molten rust-red of that oak erupting into a Prussian blue sky aswirl with warmth-tinted clouds, those mellow ochres set quietly into the background, and that sweeping gold-foil foliage glittering in the middle-ground, there’s more than enough for the eyes here, but there's a feast also for the imagination as well.

The artist’s son, George Inness, Jr., nailed this one pretty well in his biography, Life, Art, and Letters of George Inness:

“The Mill-Pond” is an upright, and depicts a tall, red oak, which fills most of the picture, and by the very redness catches the eye. It is necessary to sit before this canvas a while trying to grasp its full meaning.

"At first you are impressed only with this great mass of reddish gold, standing out in intense relief against a patch of blue sky. A pond fills the middle distance, across which are trees so indistinct and so clothed in mystery that at first glance you wonder what they are. They are painted in so broad and indefinite a way that they seem to lose all sense of individual forms, and in contrast to the “Catskill Mountains” become a mass of green, partly enveloped in the sky.

"But as you look more carefully you begin to make out certain undefinable forms, and little lights and shades that take on all sorts of shapes that you were not aware of at first. And now straight across the pond your eye catches the dam as it leads the water to the mill. The mill is not visible to the human eye, but your fancy tells you it is hidden snugly behind the trees.

"The charm of this picture is its color and mystery, and but for a boy and boat upon the lake it might seem monotonous; but this gives a spot of light and lends human interest to the scene.

"In a brilliant green foreground a gnarled and rotting stump, with whitened bark, stands out vividly, bringing to completion a beautiful composition.” (George Inness, Jr., Life, Art, and Letters of George Inness, pp. 256-259)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sargent: The Sumptuous Sublime

John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloire (Repose), 1911

What a symphony of gray and white! (Rendered, of course, in the iridescent hues of the full-color spectrum.)

In this portrait of the artist's niece, Sargent conspicuously displays his mastery of light, color, and texture. He appears to convey, in broad, seemingly offhanded brushstrokes, the precise quality of the most exotic and varied surfaces and fabrics.

Detail: John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloire (Repose), 1911

Sargent painted this purely for pleasure. He probably smirked mildly at the contrast between the resting girl and her elaborate, fluttering skirts which take up more of the couch than she does. Clearly, the various lights and shadows of the complex and contrasting silks, satins, linens, gilt marble, carpet, hair, flesh, and wall delighted him.

He nails the satin dress's opalescent sheen by painting the accents (where the light reflects most brightly) with a pairing of very light blue and pink (one cool color and one warm, that together suggest opalescence) in identical high-key values.

Detail: John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloire (Repose), 1911

The whole piece is like that - warm yellow-whites, transparent, zinging blue-greens (viridian? Prussian blue?) glancing off deeply cool lavenders, magentas and mauves. And yet the main colors read, for the most part, as various shades of white, gray, silver, and gold! The man was a magician, pure and simple.

One can see this "casual" maserpiece (approx. 25 x 30 inches) in the National Gallery in Washington D.C., which has this to say about it:

Exasperated by the demands of his sitters, Sargent proclaimed portraiture to be “a pimp’s profession” and by 1907 resolved never to accept another portrait commission. During his later years, the artist devoted himself to creating decorative murals for public buildings and to painting watercolors and small canvases purely for pleasure

In 1911 Sargent vacationed with his sister’s family in Switzerland, where he painted Nonchaloir (“nonchalance”). A casual character study instead of a formal portrait, it depicts Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond Michel, whom he nicknamed “Intertwingle” because of her agile, intertwined poses. Influenced by the “art for art’s sake” movement, the painter unified the color scheme with the amber light of a lazy afternoon. The straight lines of the posh furnishings in the Swiss hotel accentuate the swift brushstrokes used to delineate his niece’s fingers, hair, cashmere shawl, and satin skirt.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wyant: Romance of the Real

The landscapes of nineteenth-century American painter Alexander Helwig Wyant (1836-1892) are rich in an emotional response to otherwise "ordinary" natural phenomenon.

Wyant's career took off during the American Civil War, a traumatic period that, in terms of landscape painting, strained the Hudson River School's unquestioning faith in an orderly, harmonious universe built upon a divine First Cause.

Wyant was far from alone. As American ex-patriots returned from studies in France during the 1870s and '80s, they turned their backs on the conventions of the dominant Hudson River School and supplanted it with an entirely different take on nature and mankind's place in relation to it.

Although the approach owes a debt to French Barbizon painting, Wyant's take on it is typical of early American Modernism, I think, in his insistence on the beauty of the un-glamourous, common-place, and neglected. Wyant scholar Anthony E. Battelle finds direct evidence in Wyant's work for the impact of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species on nineteenth century art:

"His alignment with Darwinian concepts as applied to botany and geology, whether or not intentional, left him non-aligned with the conceptual underpinnings of transcendental artists of the Hudson River School. His canvases record the behavior of natural objects according to natural laws in unpicturesque locations where that behavior is most evident."

Batelle is building an online catalog of Wyant's work that you can access here and from which the above quote and these images of Wyant's paintings are taken.

Wyant's Moonlight and Frost

It's easy for practicing artists to get caught up in technical matters of composition, values, color, and light in historical paintings. Scholars such as Batelle remind us that great art reflects the emotions and ideas of its time, and that what paintings say is as important as how they say it.