Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Friedrich: The Tragedy of the Landscape

At the same time that Constable was painting the ever-changing skies over England (1820 or 1822 or so), German painter Casper David Friedrich was working on Moonrise Over the Sea (1822). It’s almost a “negative” of a Constable or Dutch coastal painting; it’s night, instead of day; it’s full of shadows, mystery, and gloom instead of clarity, light, and freshness; the figures aren’t minimal yardsticks for scale, they’re large, front and center, projecting well above the distant horizon, and therefore we understand that, instead of just being a “picturesque” window on the world, Moonrise Over the Sea is about the relationship of the figures to the landscape (and by analogy a comment on humanity’s place in existence).

In the terminology of the day, Constable is about the picturesque and Friedrich is about the sublime. These are the two sides of the coin of Romanticism, a word that describes the eruption into European art, literature, and music of emotion, imagination, spontaneity, psychology, madness, the supernatural - the subconscious, dreams, extreme states, altered states, the otherworldly, the unknown - everything, basically, that the tidy, Godly, rational, clockwork world of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment wanted to believe didn’t exist.

I’m reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a lecture I’ll be giving next month on Romantic art, and I keep seeing images from Friedrich’s work as I read. Compare the following passage with Friedrich’s stunning Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog (1818) (below).

"The abrupt sides of vast mountains were before me; the icy wall of the glacier overhung me…. a scene terrifically desolate…. rising like the waves of a troubled sea, descending low, and interspersed by rifts that sink deep. The field of ice is almost a league in width, but I spent nearly two hours in crossing it. The opposite mountain is a bare perpendicular rock…. and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds."

Full of “a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul,” reveling in the “solitary grandeur of the scene,” the haunted scientist utters a desperate (and mega-Romantic) creed, part death-wish, part prayer:

“Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life.”

In this painting, because the figure’s back is turned toward us, the viewer can occupy his place in the landscape. We understand that the scene we’re viewing is being filtered through human sensation.

But this is not the case in The Polar Sea, also known as The Wreck of Hope, (above). Here Friedrich omitted the figure and pushed the sublime indifference of nature about as far as the public could take at the time.

Look carefully: amidst the vast, forbidding desolation and merciless, impersonal natural forces of crushing glacial ice and stone, you can see the stern of a ship trapped in the ice being slowly crushed to pieces. A writer in Time Magazine in 1974 nailed exactly what’s going on in this painting: “"the image he produced, with its grinding slabs of travertine-colored floe ice chewing up a wooden ship, goes beyond documentary into allegory: the frail bark of human aspiration crushed by the world's immense and glacial indifference.” His work is still so powerful that many give him credit for inventing die romantische Stimmungslandschaf the landscape full of Romantic feeling and mysticism.

Friedrich’s paintings channel the same Romantic sublime - the presence of the awe-inspiring (“awful” = awe full) power and vastness of nature, in the face of which one feels “solemnized” as Shelley wrote, aware of one’s mortality jolted from one’s routine personal cares, which suddenly seem petty, insignificant, and small.

"Close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards." Friedrich in his collection of aphorisms (1830).

"Friedrich! … The only landscape painter so far to succeed in stirring up all the forces of my soul, the painter who has created a new genre: the tragedy of the landscape." - David d'Angers.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Constable's Clouds Redux & Big Dutch Skies

Here's an exciting Constable landscape that, if walked through carefully, will reveal a number of its secrets quite readily.

The name of this painting is Harwich Lighthouse, and Constable painted it around 1820 (same time as the cloud sketches in the previous post). It's from that Australian Web exhibit I told you about, and you can see their page on it here. See how he confines the sunlight to the middle ground? When you realize that the foreground shadow is from a passing cloud, you get that the lighthouse and the little fellow walking along the path are just there for scale, and this whole painting is really just an excuse to paint the sky!

The relatively few fans Constable garnered in his lifetime were blown away by the sense of place in this and other paintings, that is, by his fidelity to nature and the downright Englishness of his English countrysides. He's beloved by his nation today because ultimately his work woke up the English to the beauty and poetry of their own country.

But his early admirers also recognized in his work a then-fashionable nod to Dutch Old Master landscape painting. The Dutch were the first to establish a tradition of "pure" landscape - depictions of natural scenery free from narrative content, often with little or no human presence.

Above is a painting by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1663) that to me feels similar to Constable's lighthouse painting. In both paintings, a few relatively small vertical shapes project above the horizon, which immediately gives way to the big sky and clouds. Both paintings show us objects getting smaller as they recede in space, drawing our eyes into the painting and toward that luminous line between earth (or water) and sky. Speaking of perspective, look back at the lighthouse at the top of the page. Note where your eye travels as you look at it. The coastal path takes us to the ostensible point of interest, the lighthouse, and then jags right and shoots our gaze along the line of light, right to the little ramp of land jutting up like a runway into the big wide sky, which is where Constable secretly wanted to launch our attention all along.

And this is another Dutch Old Master with a coastal (rather than marine) subject matter. As you can see, giving over two-thirds of the canvas to the sky is "very Dutch." It's clear that Constable wasn't the first to be fascinated by the dynamism of nature. Have a look at this Rembrandt, now.

Rembrandt uses what's today known as an "Old Master palette," which means it's limited to earth tones, black, and white. Though he learned a ton from the Dutch painters about painting landscapes, Constable discarded the Old Master palette, as did the Impressionists who admired Constable's work for its freshness.

Each of these paintings gives us a great sense of the vastness of sky and the beauty and volatility of the natural world we inhabit. We'll be revisiting the Old Masters many times in posts to come.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Constable: Head in the Clouds

Here is an oil sketch (painted as a study, thus not intended as a finished work) by the 18th/19th century English landscapist John Constable. It’s not a masterpiece of Western art, but it’s a lovely thing, and it’s a chance for us to consider what painting is all about in the first place.

Our last painter, Corot (“ka-ROH”), was among a group of artists who were the first to regularly go outside and pitch their easels in front of nature. Like Constable, they used the oil sketches they made outdoors to paint larger works in the studio, and it wasn’t until the impressionists who followed them a little later in the nineteenth century (just when an abundance of synthetic pre-mixed colors was becoming available in portable tubes) that oil paintings executed on the spot were valued and exhibited as finished paintings in their own right.

The earlier Old Master painters usually minimized their personal presence in the work by erasing their brushstrokes and finishing their paintings with a seamless, sometimes enamel-like surface. For these traditional landscape artists, it was important to be more classical and fanciful than realistic. They often incorporated highly structured compositions, clearly defined details, and “grand” and elevating subject matter referring to stories from Greek and Roman mythology or the Bible.

All that changed with the Barbizon painters and the Impressionists who followed them. Impressionists like Monet, Renoir, and Sisely applied to the festive, modern life of Paris Barbizon’s spontaneity and fidelity to nature, its rapid, rough-and-ready brushstrokes, and its embrace of "everyday” subject matter. But some definite first steps in this direction were taken by our Englishman.

At the same time that Corot was making oil sketches en plein air (in the outdoors) in the French Barbizon countryside, English painter John Constable (1776-1837) was doing the same thing in England, but it wasn’t only the momentary effects of light on water or wind in the trees he was after (though he loved everything rural, from weathered brickwork to old rotten posts). What really mattered to Constable was the clouds.

Constable so loved the clouds that he executed dozens (if not hundreds?) of these meticulously observed and accurately rendered cloud studies. The finished landscapes his clouds adorned forever changed the course of art, but because the sketches are so fresh, so full of varied light, texture, and motion, not to mention so freely painted, they hold for us moderns a special charm. Constable devoured the work of pioneering meteorologist Luke Howard, the first to classify the various types of clouds, and his cloud paintings today would sell for tens (and possibly hundreds) of thousands of dollars. Per the usual cliches, Constable's parents opposed his career choice, the public didn't buy his pictures, and the artist remained a pauper all his life, however professedly happily so (he turned down a chance to promote his work in France saying he’d rather remain “a poor man [in England] than a rich man abroad”).

But hey, who wouldn’t be happy spending a life painting clouds!?

Paintings, then, are supposed to “ennoble our sensibilities” (Old Master), quicken our sense of the true (Barbizon), ground us in the beauty of the simple (Constable), awaken us to the life and color of the ordinary (Impressionism) …. So what’s the purpose of painting? What a silly question!

We'll surely revisit Constable's sketches and his famous finished paintings again. There's a great Web exhibit on the Australian National Gallery's Website, which is where I found the images and some of the information for this post.

Oh, and did you know there is an official "Cloud Appreciation Society" that you can join? Check out their fun (if you read it carefully) website for some really awesome images.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Grace of Line: Corot

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (July 17, 1796 – February 22, 1875) painted the rural French landscape in a direct, expressive way that constituted a total rebellion against his time’s definition of art.

But there’s a sweet emotional depth to his canvases that rings true to this day.

Corot’s paintings took a fresh approach to expressing the visual beauty of the rivers and woodlands of southern France. He painted boldly and directly, getting it in “one take” rather than laboring over layers and layers of semi-transparent paint. He painted what his sensitive eye found beautiful in what he saw before him (rather than rendering imaginary landscapes in the accepted and sentimental classical style, decorated with imaginary Greek and Roman ruins peopled with handsome Greek and Roman shepherds and nymphs).

But what endears him to those who love landscape painting are his graceful, flowing lines, his muted colors, and his exquisite tonal choices (the distance or proximity between his colors’ degrees of light and dark). Let’s look at what he’s doing with line in “The Bathers of the Borromean” (above) and “The Boatman of the Mortefontaine,” (below) both painted in the same five-year time-period (1865-70).

In both of these paintings, Corot’s trees are like lithe dancers, flowing in graceful rhythms in step with each other. Corot “rhymes” his trees with each other and with the figures he pairs them with by drawing their limbs and trunks parallel to each other, asymetrically balancing clusters on one side with single trees on the other, and coordinating their parallel shapes in a way that harmonizes within the design as a whole.

Just how distinctive this was becomes clear when we see another artist adopt the same method. Henry Ward Ranger (1858 - 1916) was an American painter, the founder of a renown artists’ colony in Lyme, Connecticut. In his Sunset on the Mystic River, Connecticut, (below) which is in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, Ranger rhymes the trees with each other and with the small female figure beneath one of them, just as did Corot. The contour of the small figure’s back matches the curvature of the tree beside her, and the other trees follow the same geometric arc. Even the tonality of the silhouetted scene and the color range point directly to Corot.

George Inness earlier adopted Corot’s strategy in many of his paintings, where the figures and the lone trees have a kind of visual dialogue with each other. Inness’s 1875 tour-de-force The Church Spire (below) shows a complete assimilation of this device. Here there’s a brilliant correspondence between both line and color. The bent posture of the solitary upright figure in white immediately resonates with the sharp, white church spire asserting itself vertically from amid a clustering wilderness of dense, shadowy foliage spilling horizontally across the canvas.

The curvature of the figure finds a visual echo in the closest tree to his left, while the larger graceful curve of the dominant tree to the far left reiterates the rhythm, completing the linear composition by curling back toward the center of the painting where, on the other side of the canvas, another tree gently turns the eye again, framing the center spire that funnels our gaze back to the paired tree and figure and off we go again.

These “secret” geometries amount to a sort of artistic poetry, a kind of visual rhyme between the human and the natural world that we rather feel than see, an otherworldly “spirit of beauty” that, behind the scenes as it were, brings “grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream,” if only for the brief intervals we find in art.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea, 1512

In 1512, Italian Renaissance painter Raphael created this masterpiece celebrating the European embrace of the classical Greek imagination for a wall in the villa owned by one of the richest men of the age. Its subject is the Nereid (ocean spirit) Galatea, a daughter of Poseidon. The beautiful nymph had the misfortune of being married to the ornery and jealous one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who threw a giant marble pillar on top of her illicit shepherd lover, Acis, when he caught them exchanging devotions.

Raphael chose the moment of Galatea's apotheosis, that is, her transformation upon death into one who shall dwell among the eternal gods as a reward for her patient suffering in life. With two conspicuous cupids (called by art historians putti) aiming "love darts" directly at her head, Galatea (the only one actually wearing clothes) rides upon a shell borne by two dolphins. To her left a lusty icthyocentaur (torso of a man, body of a horse, tail of a fish) abducts a choice sea nymph (the target of the third putti's arrow, so we know she'll soon give in, gladly, to his entreaties), while to Galatea's right a (winged?) centaur is overtaken by an amorous (and of course nude) nymph whose intense gaze freely confesses adoring love.

Amidst all this, Galatea's face is turned toward Heaven with a mild, innocent expression that suggests she's unconscious of all the lusty goings on about her. Attendant ocean spirits (sometimes referred to as "tritons") trumpet Galatea's transformation on their seashell horns. Galatea serenely rides the waves upon a seashell chariot drawn by paired dolphins in a perhaps deliberate echo of Botticelli's c. 1486 Birth of Venus, which would be sure to associate Galatea with the Goddess of Love. 

The painting celebrates love, but specifically it highlights the triumph of ideal or Platonic love, as described by Plato in his dialogue Symposium, the highest love, love of the spirit rather than the flesh. At the time, some thought Galatea was modeled on a famous courtesan (i.e. high-class prostitute) who called herself Imperia (and who just happened to be the lover of the rich guy who paid for the painting), but Vasari, an insider who wrote the lives of the Renaissance artists for posterity, decorously insists Raphael represented not any specific woman but "Beauty herself."

Raphael designed the image using a series of diagonals in the upper register that continue in corresponding lines in the lower half of the painting. The drawn arrows of the two putti on either side of Galatea form an "x" when the eye connects them with the dolphin reins she holds on one side and the axis of slanted bodies that her own torso completes on the other. In the center of this x, in the middle of the fresco, her fair face turns its eyes toward Heaven, forming the still center of a turning wheel of lusty figures very much in motion all the way 'round her. And while Raphael may have borrowed some of the muscularity for his figures' volume from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, which had just been unveiled to universal amazement, the softness, light, and beauty of that Madonna-like nymph in the center is all his own.

Indeed, Raphael painted dozens of  madonnas, depictions of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. In his day these were very much in demand for their happy marriage of classicism and realism (his models were Tuscan country girls) and their elegant chastity, all of which also radiate from Galatea. In another similarity between Galatea and Mother Mary, Raphael painted all his madonnas wearing red (albeit with a blue mantle). So we have a pagan playgirl (remember, Galatea's myth is about how she was caught cheating on her one-eyed hubby) depicted as a chaste Madonna amidst over-sexed sea  deities, being used to symbolize Love. Surely this points to an ironic joke that the artist and Farnesi shared? Or perhaps my boat wanders off course.

Lauding the human body and soul, this painting celebrates the kinds of spiritual and philosophical ideals that Renaissance thinkers discovered in the Greco-Roman classics of antiquity.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Andrew Wyeth, Spindrift, 1950

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), the painter of Christina’s World, drew inspiration from wells of emotion and abstraction.

Wyeth called this painting, titled Spindrift (1950) (and another gem from New Hampshire’s Currier Museum of Art) a “portrait” of his Maine neighbor’s boat. It’s done in tempera, not oil, so the colors are muted and the finish is matte.

Half in and half out of the water, housing a bucket of freshly harvested oysters, the boat has the feeling of being left only recently. Long hard use has battered the oars, the sea and weather have worn the boat’s paint off, and years of oarlock rust have stained the boards. Painted horizontally, without the linear interest an unusual perspective would provide, the boat seems at once stately and somehow naked. The painting gives one an odd eavesdropping feeling, like sneaking a look at somebody’s kitchen or bedroom when they aren’t there.

To the left of the hull we glimpse the silhouette of a swallow in flight, providing a counterpoint of motion to the stationery dory. This dynamic is played out in the entire work; the whole painting preserves a tidal balance between motion and tranquility apropos of an object whose owner is absent yet “present” in the object itself, and soon to return at that.

What makes it so strangely moving is the carefully controlled tonality of the work. The lack of intense color suggests a somber, possibly symbolic role for the open boat: poised between motion and immobility, the cold grays of the ocean and the warmer grays of the sand, life (the quick-passing swallow) and death (the dour wash of grays, the absence, the wear).

Wyeth wrote of it: “Henry Teel would come in from hauling lobster pots about 10:30 in the morning, pull his dory up on the beach, stow his oars and tackle neatly, and go indoors to cook himself a meal. This is a portrait of Henry without showing the man himself: these are all the things he used, shaped by his life and by the sea.”

I think Wyeth painted primarily two things: light in the present that made his heart leap and objects whose glory lay in the past, things that told him about time, and loss, things that told about the people whose lives came close to his. He was more emotional than Hopper, investing rural American objects and architecture with the adagio of a minor-key sonata.

He’s a bit like Robert Frost in that many people love him because he’s accessible and so clearly steeped in unpretentious rural American iconography, but his work is actually darker and more disturbing than most people realize. He could choose the simplest, humblest objects for his paintings because his depth of feeling, his existential intuition of death and emptiness, and his sense of underlying geometric abstraction were so united and so complex.

Wyeth’s work urges us to reconsider the still unexplored possibilities for meaning of which representational painting is capable, despite the time's abstract and conceptual post-representational bias.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

George Inness: Hazy Morning, Montclair

When people talk about "poetry," "atmosphere" or "mood" in landscape painting, they usually mean an evocative quality that privileges indeterminacy, ambiguity, even mystery over precision and clarity. Such paintings imply more than they say, drawing the viewer through suggestion and imagination into the painting's "world apart."

Hazy Morning, Montclair, by American painter George Inness (May 1, 1825 -August 3, 1894), exemplifies qualities that would mark a whole new approach to landscape painting at the time, a manner that came to be known as Tonalism. Tonalism was everything that the still dominant (but getting tired) Hudson River style wasn't: smaller paintings executed within a restricted, harmonious tonal range, a more intimate scope, more twilights than daylights, and a Barbizon preference for small bits of ordinary shrubs and cultivated fields that, unlike the Hudson River artists' majestic views of an expansive, Edenic North America, could actually be seen just about anywhere.

I love how Inness violates the rules of "good" composition here. He divides the painting into even fourths, the vertical and horizontal axes crossing nearly at the exact center! He puts all the "action" in the middleground, even distorting the objects closest and supposedly clearest. Most artists would avoid placing an obtrusive solid object, like a lollipop-shaped tree, smack in front of the viewer's position, blocking the view! What are our eyes supposed to do here? Where is the "rule of thirds?" Yet somehow, it works.

Inness isn't painting pretty pictures; he's imaging a spiritual "truth." For Inness, the world was a projection of Spirit. He believed, following Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, that Nature contains the expression of spiritual laws which, if apprehended by the artistic intuition, could be rendered visible and made accessible to humanity.

In this work, painted the year before he died, Inness shrouds in mystery an ordinary domestic scene in Montclair, New Jersey.The scene is constructed according to Inness' theories about beauty, color, light, and spiritual geometry (for Inness, the poetic representation of reality consisted in the same facts of nature as reality itself: color, distance, air, space, and contrasts of light and dark), but what we see is a series of natural and manmade shapes in relation to each other. It's a wonderful example of the idea that strong landscape paintings are best designed around a small number of simple, ordered shapes.

Here, there's so much mysticism and atmosphere that we almost sense that the vertical shapes (especially the tree) conduct some kind of heavenly, incorporeal energy to the earth, perhaps what Inness called "a subtle essence which exists in all things of the material world." We can surmise that the "haze" is not entirely without some extra meaning because of how sharp the barn roof looks versus everything else, including the half-dissolved figure (who, intentionally, could be anyone, anywhere) to the right of the tree. Rather, it's a device, Inness's way of communicating ideas about humanity and God.

By using semi-abstract, indistinct forms over conventions of realism, Inness metaphorically destabilizes the physical world (which he, like Plato, believed to be merely an artificial projection of eternal truth). Matter and the immaterial oscillate; the image flickers between the earthly and the spiritual. Inness has given us the dawn not just of a new day but of a new world, and to our surprise it's the one we already know.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Butterfly Hunting for the Soul

Now, this is one proud monk! This miniature (the whole thing's maybe 8 inches tall) resides in the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH. It's one of my favorite paintings in the entire collection. A monk in vibrant red robes stands grinning at his catch - savoring the moment 0f triumph during the proud interval between removing the butterfly from his net and stashing it in the leather collecting kit slung over the armrest of the bench. Close inspection reveals a comical gap between two of the upper teeth in the monk's unguarded grin.

Leo Hermann (French, 1853-1927) exhibited genre paintings (scenes from life) such as the above at the Paris Salon from 1875. He made a tidy living as a commcercial artist and became very well known for his portrayals of French Catholic clergy, often in gently humorous scenarios that charmingly reveal their protagonists' flawed humanity. One websource notes that "his work is as sought after today as it was in his own lifetime," and it's not too hard to see why.

We're struck by the sumptuous red of that robe! Web photos do NOT do ANY paintings justice, so you'll have to take my word about how brilliantly the crimson, set off by its surrounding pillow of complementary greens and green-grays, leaps from the frame.

How do we read the painting from there? First, let's deal with that ridiculous gaptooth grin. However holy the monk, the man is still human. Hermann used this device often in this series. Other gaptoothed monks in red can be found gossiping and playing cards. Paintings such as these don't make any huge claims, they just exists as delightful objects in themselves.

A lot of this painting's success involves the way the figure's big and unselfconscious, earthly joy eclipses the sly, symbolic, under-the-surface contradictions: the spiritual and the earthly, man, nature and God off their guard, the soul (symbolized by the butterfly) captured instead of released, the habitually serious caught in boyish play, the holy man of God ensnared in the net of humanity.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Velasquez: Water from the Source

Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velasquez's (1599-1660) Waterseller of Seville is what's known as a genre painting, a scene from everyday life, as opposed to a portrait or a scene from history, mythology, or the Bible, the primary subjects for European paintings of the post-Renaissance period. It's a virtuosos performance for the young Velazquez, who was only 20 when he painted it.

No one had ever treated the everyday life on the streets of Spain's cities with such depth and majesty, lavishing on the low-life the level of attention and dignity reserved for scenes from the life of Christ. This was a radical change in what could be done with art (even after Caravaggio); contemporaries called the paintings "bodegones," from bodegon, as in "bodega," basically a pub.

Jonathon Jones vividly describes the scene: "The vendor's face is downcast, expecting nothing, not looking at the boy to whom he gives water in a clean, fine glass with a black fig to freshen the taste. In the shadows another customer drinks. The water-seller seems unaware of either; as if in deference to his sorrow, the boy looks down. He respects the poverty and age of the street-seller, as does Velazquez, who gives the man an immense dignity.... This painting crackles with Seville's scorching heat. The water-seller's robe (torn like a saint's) has a flaky, crisp texture. His face, around his mouth, is marked by deep canyons like dried-up river beds. His beard is desert grass, his hair shaved short, in contrast to the boy's lively locks. He touches the water jar, on the surface of which three drops of water glisten, shining globules of life."

Velasquez leads us into the painting through a series of linked, rounded shapes. The large water jug, with its arresting range of wet and dry, smooth and rough textures, bulges toward us, its swelling form echoed by the seller's rotund body. Our gaze travels to the smaller clay jug, to the old man's hand above it, then to the glass and the two faces, the old man's and the boy's, downcast but radiant in light, and we notice a third face hovering between them.

Velasquez's followers painted bodegones, but never with such vision and compassion. Velasquez's ability to see profound human significance in the ordinary, and his poetic reverence for the real over the religious, prompted Ortega y Gasset to exclaim, “Velasquez is an atheist giant, a godless colossos. With his brush he sweeps away the gods as with a broom. He is our painter. He paved the way for our irreligious era, an administrative age in which, instead of talking about Dionysus, we speak of alcoholism.”

Unlike the cheerful Dutch peasant-life genre scenes from which Velasquez drew inspiration, this painting imparts a gritty realism and a sombre depth of humanity that Velasquez ratchets up to the level of parable or fable. Indeed, commentators have seen in it an allegory of the three stages in the life of man – the model for the old man was Velasquez’s master, who posed for it, the boy was the painter’s apprentice, and in the center is Velasquez, in a subtle self portrait – he occupies the middle ground in age, the observer hiding in the shadows, taking in the entire spectacle of life.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Vermeer: A Stillness in Mirrors

The Art of Painting (1665-1666; oil on canvas, 47x40) by Jan Vermeer

For a while, Dutch artist Jan Vermeer (1632-75) lived like a king, amassing an extraordinary collection of "curiosities" - exotic seashells, ancient sculpture, rich silks, books, tapestries, paintings, maps, historical weapons and armor ... but when he died, his wife had to forfeit the estate and sell off his paintings (which nobody wanted) just to keep herself and their 11 children out of debtor's prison.

Lyme Connecticut artist Jerry N. Weiss has published a wonderful interpretation of Jan Vermeer's The Art of Painting (1665-1666) in The Artist's Magazine this month. His article strikes a balance between explaining the painting's content and celebrating the artist's technical and aesthetic achievements.

Vermeer was supreme, Weiss writes, in his ability to use "the physical property of light to evoke a revelatory experience in everyday life." The light in Vermeer is bewitching; it's directional but never harsh, and the way it reveals form and color allows us to sense the very quality of the air it passes through.

Weiss nods briefly to the painting's typically Dutch allegorical symbolism before passing on to highlight the work's remarkable clarity, its precise, asymmetrical design, its "cool reserve and pitch-perfect tones." The stillness is almost like that of a reflection in a mirror. Vermeer suspends and plays his two figures off of each other by turning them gracefully in opposite directions, almost like dancers, balancing the model's left-pointing trumpet with the artist's right-pointing mahl stick and literally drawing lines (the map's border) between to connect them.

Vermeer's finesse is even more remarkable given the chaos of his life. He may have been a creative genius, but to his eventual downfall, he had only one main patron, a wealthy merchant in his hometown of Delft, who bought up Vermeer's painstakingly crafted paintings but thereby kept the artist's fame from spreading. When the French suddenly invaded the country, the Dutch economy collapsed, and disposable income for luxury items like paintings dried up. Jan was stuck, and not even his day job (art dealer=more luxury!) could save him.

How visionary then, the special stillness in Vermeer's "self portrait," partly the result, as Weiss's piece suggests, of its magical combination of cool light and complex pattern. Vermeer's poetic vignettes transcend the narrative, as his figures transcend their settings, interacting "as if in a dream suspended."

What really moves us in Vermeer's The Art of Painting, Weiss concludes, is how it imparts, even after 400 years, "the blessing of absolute stillness, the Zen of north light." Hear, hear.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Simple Gifts

Today I had the great pleasure of spending the day painting outside at Canterbury Shaker Village in central New Hampshire.

After chatting with Maine artist Hanna Phelps, one of about a dozen artists with the NHPleinAir group, I parked my easel nearby on the edge of an old apple orchard and painted to the sound of birdsong and devoted men and women singing Shaker hymns.

My guiding principle for this painting was to concentrate on getting the value relationships right, that is, the degrees of the lights and the shadows relative to each other. Once that was done, I could think about playing colors off of each other (in particular the violet shadows and the complementary yellow highlights in the grass).

I was reminded while talking to Mary Byrom later that it's a good idea to allow either cool or warm colors to predominate (2/3 cool and 1/3 warm or vice verse). I'm not sure whether that happened or not (I certainly wasn't thinking about it), but I do like the way the cool sky and warm ground and foliage are sort of interlocked by the cool lavenders of the little shed on one side and the warm yellow-greens of the tree foliage projecting into the sky on the other.

I really wanted the eye to be drawn in and held, so I composed the background, clouds, foliage, and even the leaning fenceposts in the right foreground (which "point" you back to the main subject) in such a way that the design continually leads the eye back toward the heart of the painting.

This was one of the most delightful paint-outs I've ever been part of. Just think: this quiet rural New Hampshire community has hardly changed at all since the Shakers began fashioning household furniture and utensils and making maple syrup here in 1783. The land is rich with contours, venerable old-world trees, stone walls, and historic buildings (about half a dozen dating from the late 1700s, the rest from the nineteenth century).

Canterbury is one of the oldest, most typical, and best preserved Shaker villages in the country. The orchard I was painting in was laid out in its present form just over 100 years ago.