Friday, December 9, 2011

How to Be Original

Aspiring artists often imitate an admired artist’s style. It's a great way to learn to paint and permanently  adds to one’s store of available techniques. 

Rembrandt. Self-portrait. 1666
Paradoxically, in most cases the admired work ultimately came to the admirer’s attention because it resonated with enough people as unique, deep, or original.... So not only the technique but the quality of originality itself can inspire emulation without one even realizing what one's actually responding to. And of course we prize originality in art over imitation. All artists probably have to some degree a desire to express their own unique vision of the world; presumably, over the course of artistic development, emulation ceases to be as powerful a force.

Robert Henri. Figure in Motion. 1913.
It’s like American culture - too often we emulate others who we imagine are enjoying “the good life” by wishing we were (or actually trying to become) as wealthy as we think those other people are. But it's really the wrong goal - that is,  it's a goal that isn’t really suited for what we want to achieve. 

Instead of focusing on becoming as wealthy or secure as we believe “the beautiful people” to be, we should try to focus on our ability to deeply enjoy our present life first. We will then have achieved the desired end without even trying. So with art. 

Would-be artists often begin by emulating the style of a particular artist or group of artists (plein-air painters who emulate aspects of the Rockport or the Impressionist style, say). Later, through the doing, comes one's own unique style. 

Says Robert Henri in the invaluable The Art Spirit: "Don't worry about your originality. You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick to you and show you up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do."

Monet. Water lilies. (detail)
I think one does best, in life as well as in art, to focus on one’s own likes and loves, enjoying the pursuit of idiosyncratic experimentation. My own new goal is to live as much as I can in the work I do when I’m in love with what I’m doing for its own sake.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Striking Couple

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Peasant Boy at a Market (l), Peasant Girl Catching a Flea (r). c. 1715.

These two caught my eye at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts the other day.

I love their simplicity. I think it's a large part of their power. 

The painter, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, is remembered as a successful artist of the late Baroque/Rococo period (c. 1680-1750). He studied with Crespi, one of the "Caravaggisti" (basically, hundreds of artists who painted in the Italian Baroque style of Caravaggio - i.e., darkish canvases in which piercing directional light dramatically pulls subjects out of the engulfing shadows).

Piazzetta here applies his own version of the style - but with his own sensibility. Where Caravaggio and most of his followers went for highly dramatic, often religious or mythological canvases, Piazzetta and to some extent Crespi sought a quiet serenity to be found in the unguarded moments of everyday lives.

Piazzetta, Peasant Boy at a Market
Perhaps the lack of pretense in Piazzetta is what makes him so different. Here, Piazzetta's, Peasant Boy at a Market appears simply at home in his own world, unconcerned by his own poverty as he is momentarily preoccupied with digging a presumably single, small coin from the folds of his little satchel. The same poise and unconcern radiates from the woman's face in the work's companion piece.

Piazzetta, Peasant Girl Catching a Flea.
In the painting of the woman, Piazzetta treats a theme that Crespi had also tackled - a woman removing a flea from her person. But whereas Crespi's painting candidly details the process with a rather harsh degree of realism only partly softened by the warm, womblike light pooling around his subject, Piazzetta's bolder, more stylized art fully and lovingly transforms the moment. It's Piazzetta's painting that more whole-heartedly redeems the common and sordid, the "all-too human."

The MFA suggests that as the son of a woodcarver, Piazetta brought a sculptural sensibility to the modeling of figures with light and shadow. Perhaps his humble origins informed his whole approach to painting, i.e. his "naturalistic images of ordinary life that are characterized by a dignified, sympathetic portrayal of his subject, often peasants," as the MFA says.The poetry in his work is wholly his own.

I think these paintings' lasting value springs not from anything innovative in Piazzetta's style but in his feeling for the world he knew, his sincerity. Sincerity in art is something one must feel or sense rather than see. La Farge defined it as the intention "to express what you care for most by the simplest means that will avail you... not your knowledge (of artistic representation) but your way of using it."

There's a sort of archetypal, universal quality in these two works, born of rendering ordinary people's lives with almost religious dignity, much as Millet did in the 1800s. They work beautifully together too. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Glazing for Mood

Evening landscape by George Innes, 1890, produced by glazing.
In his biography of his father, American landscape painter George Inness, Jr., recounts the following anecdote concerning a demo his father performed for a student who'd come to call:

He squeezed a lot of raw umber on his palette, picked up the largest brush he could find, and with the aid of a medium that looked like Spaulding's glue he went at the canvas as though he were scrubbing the floor, smearing it over, sky and all, with a thin coat of brown. The young man looked aghast, and when Pop was through, he said:

"But, Mr. Inness, do you mean to tell me you resort to such methods as glazing to paint your pictures?"

Father rushed up to the young man, and, glowering at him over his glasses, as he held the big brush just under his visitor's nose, exclaimed:

"Young man, have you come here from the Art Students League to tell me how to paint? Then go back there and tell them that I'd paint with mud if it would give the effect I wanted."


Glazing - the technique of applying thin, translucent washes of oil color in layers - became a common technique for oil painters shortly after the Northern European artists of the 1400s re-introduced oil painting into general artistic practice.

Tonal painting by George Inness

Inness used it habitually, casting about his studio for a likely victim, selecting a finished painting, a hillside in morning light, perhaps, and proceeding to set the sun on it, "painting, glazing, and scumbling, scratching, and scrubbing" right over the already dry paint, until he was satisfied and the morning had turned to dusk. 

I'd had this overly cool-toned marsh in my studio for too long, so I decided to try the Inness-esque glazing technique as I'd watched Dennis Sheehan perform it in a workshop last week. 

Cloudswept Marsh (before)

Going at it with Winsor-Newton Drying Linseed Oil (Sheehan uses Grumbacher's pale drying oil, btw) I combined a transparent or semi-transparent yellow mixed with a little red (in my case Cadmium Yellow and Alizarin Crimson) for overall warmth, and then painted more darks into the wet layer of tinted oil (I used M. Graham's transparent Olive Green) - "painting into the soup," as Inness called it. Personally I like it a lot better now.

Late Evening Marsh (after)

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Western Maverick in a Vermont Yankee's Court

Albert Bierstadt's large (10 feet by 15 feet) landscape The Domes of Yosemite (1867) is permanently housed in a gallery that had to be built around it. The display includes a skylight (currently being rebuilt) and a special "viewing balcony" to recreate the original lighting and exact location from which Bierstadt painted his sketches of the scene.
Albert Bierstadt's Domes of the Yosemite is an important painting by one of the most important American artists of the 19th century, and it's "hidden in plain sight" in a small town in upstate Vermont. 

In his prime, Bierstadt won international acclaim and the equivalent of rock-star status for his outsized paintings of the American West. His giant oils were among the first images of the West's natural wonders that many Americans, in particular the large concentration of those on the East Coast, had ever seen. Some art historians consider him one of the greatest landscape painters who ever lived, and the 10 x 15 foot "Domes of the Yosemite," housed in the picturesque St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, is an excellent and representative example of his work.

St. Johnsbury Athenaeum
The painting's first owner, Legrand Lockwood, lost his fortune in the turbulent gold market that was part of the rush. He was a self-made financier who began as a clerk for a brokerage firm at 18, opened his own firm, and rose to become head of the NY stock exchange in pre-Civil War New York. Thanks to the gold rush, he became one of the country’s first millionaires and began buying up railroads and other hot properties. 

Lockwood bought the Bierstadt in 1867 for a Vanderbilt-style mansion he began building in 1864 (a 62-room turreted stone castle featured in the Stepford Wives). Five years later he was dead, having lost a good bit of his fortune following the devaluation of gold in 1869, and the contents of his estate hit the block.

The man who built the athenaeum in Vermont, Horace Fairbanks, was looking for a centerpiece for a world-class art collection he was building for the citizens of St. Johnsbury. He bought the Domes dirt cheap at auction in 1872.  The painting sold for a mere $5,100, a pittance compared to the astronomical $25,000 the previous owner paid Bierstadt just five years earlier. 

The painting is large enough that the walls of the athenaeum’s gallery had to be built around it. A custom arched skylight and a special "viewing balcony" constructed at the opposite end of the gallery in 1882 completed the painting’s permanent housing. The skylight is intended to provide ambient natural light, while the balcony positions the viewer relative to where the artist was standing when he painted the scene, namely, midway up Yosemite Falls near Columbia Rock. 

All of these elements, including the painting's scale, the natural lighting, and the viewing balcony, were intended to accentuate the immersive "you are there" realism Bierstadt professed to offer his audience.  According to the Athenaeum's website, "visitors coming to see the painting when it toured to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston received a key identifying the sites visible in the landscape and a topographical map showing the vantage point." In fact, the Domes's realism is relative; Bierstadt skillfully compressed the vista and exaggerated various features for dramatic effect.

The library at the Stl Johnsbury Athenaeum
To my knowledge, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is unique in all the world in providing a permanent architectural setting that enhances the viewing of a single landscape painting by combining natural "outdoor" lighting and a special viewing area that recreates the location from which the artist painted it. It's a very Victorian American idea.

Bierstadt himself would end his life in bankruptcy. Another victim of fickle market forces, he saw his paintings selling for a fraction of their previous value as the post-Civil War public gradually lost its taste for grand, optimistic panoramas of pristine wilderness. Today, art historians consider him one of the greatest artists in the history of American art, and St. Johnsbury’s magnificent Domes of the Yosemite is worth untold millions. 

The athenaeum’s entire collection is a kind of time capsule of the kind of painters and paintings that the late 19th century prized most, painters like Bougereau, Corot, Kensett, Cropsey, and Cole, whose true worth is only now being recognized. Their reputations may have flagged during the 20th century as modern art stole the spotlight from traditional landscape and classical figure painting, but today the pendulum has swung back (probably permanently) in their favor, and the works of Bierstadt and others gathered in St. Johnsbury are destined to be recognized as the precious gems of an extraordinary and important collection.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hudson River Landscapes at Peabody-Essex

Twisted! Thomas Cole's painting (right) c. 1850, is very similar in composition to that of Claude's, c. 1650, (left). They're even the same size. 

The Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, MA, is hosting a traveling exhibition of nineteenth-century American landscapes on loan from the New York Historical Society. Salem is the only New England stop on the tour, and definitely worth a visit, if only to view the paintings by Thomas Cole (not to mention all the wonderful pagans in their witchy-warlocky-Octobery outfits). In a few days, I'll post a report on Cole's works, which includes a masterpiece series rarely shown to such advantage titled "The Course of Empire." Painting - The American Vision, closes on November 6.

But it so happened that just the day before my visit, I'd been studying the nineteenth-century English landscapists (Cole was born in England) and their relationship to the old masters, in particular their debt to Claude Lorrain.

Claude, as he's called, perfected a branch of northern European landscape painting in which the artist fashions "perfect" pastoral scenes more ideal than any in fact. As a young man, Claude led a footloose life in and around Rome, where "pure" landscapes, despite the popularity of those by Dutch masters, were frowned upon as unworthy of serious painting. Claude got around this by having small figures added to his paintings, sometimes even by other artists, thus providing a narrative pretext, often mythical, sometimes Biblical, for the imaginary scenery he loved to paint. Tastes change, and the world soon came to his doorstep, and Claude became one of the most celebrated - and imitated - landscape painters in all of history.

For proof, one need look no further than the Hudson River paintings being shown at the Peabody-Essex. Hudson River pioneer Thomas Cole is generally lauded as "the father of American landscape painting," and so he was, but in the zeal to establish the Hudson River School as the first native art movement in America, the debt to European models is often overlooked. And the more one looks, I'm afraid, the more deep that debt appears. 

Reduced to a formula, Claude's paintings (which are gorgeous masterpieces, don't get me wrong) consist of a broad, horizontal expanse of bucolic countryside pervaded by a warm, golden glow, as of evening, framed by foreground trees and tiny figures in the foreground, with the background receding dreamily into hills bathed in atmospheric violets and blues, often some water in the middle-to-foreground space.

Like his friend Nicolas Poussin, Claude's composites regularly included imaginary ruins suggestive of the pastoral tradition established by Roman writer Virgil. Not only did Thomas Cole do the same, but as shown by a comparison of the two paintings below, he adopted the whole raft of Claudian conventions, including composition, light, warm greens, and the handling of foliage.

Claude Lorrain,  Landscape with Merchants, 1635
Thomas Cole, Dream of Arcadia, 1838
Even the proportions of Cole's most Claude-like paintings shamelessly match those of Claude's. The following FOUR nineteenth-century American paintings from the Peabody Essex show follow basically the same horizontal, Claudian format of framing foreground trees, watery middle distance, and atmospheric mountains receding majestically in the background distance. They're by Asher B. Durand, Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Hill, and Albert Bierstadt respectively.

Even the one Inness on view (below) doesn't stray radically far from the same European motifs. 

Of course, none of these painters would be considered an "imitator" of Claude or Poussin or the Dutch old-master landscapists like Jacob van Ruisdael and his circle. They each updated the old models with North American scenery and their own 19th century sensibilities. That's what artists did for centuries, until the 20th century established the cult of originality, in which works of "striking originality" were supposed to spring like Athena, fully formed, from the intense brow of the maverick individual. And today, of course, it's all about "infringement."

I still believe that studying and copying the techniques of worthy masters is the best way to learn anything. It's just sort of striking to me, I guess, that a show titled "The American Vision"can actually on closer inspection be found to owe such a serious debt to the traditional European conventions of landscape art. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Vincent "The Man" van Gogh

Is it just me or do van Gogh's trees seem "haunted?" Maybe it's because of how the massive roots and trunks in this painting dwarf the parallel-leaning, doll-like figure!

Look how the trunks in this oddly aligned trio seem to want to lift themselves right out of the ground by their roots. To do what??

File these branches under "wildly gesticulating." One gets the impression of a clawing at the air, frantic branches twisting left, right, and above. These blossoming trees seem electric, too, full of the ungovernable energy of the universe. You can almost hear the synapses crackling in van Gogh's brain as he painted them ...

This, apparently, is the only painting he's believed to have sold in his lifetime.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mystery Painting - Maine Coast

Mystery painting, signed "JTW 1870" lr 
(sorry I don't have a higher res pic)

Here's a painting that's a bit of mystery. It came up for auction last year and sold for around $1500, a decent sum for a painting of unknown origin. It's signed "JTW" and dated 1870 by the artist. Period paintings by shadowy or forgotten artists abound in small auctions all over the country (this one was from Julia). Sometimes they can be had for a few hundred bucks. Because I love the tradition of 19th century American landscape painting, I find these auctions a great source for inspiration for my own work.

Maybe someone knows who "JTW" was, but the auction house couldn't pin him down and neither could the dealer who bought this and then sold it to a patron out of his gallery. 

In the absence of the "brand value" attached to a "name" artist (i.e., a "listed" artist, whatever that's supposed to mean), a painting has to stand on its own merits. I believe this "mystery" painting fetched such a tidy sum because of sheer quality alone - the artist could lay claim to no marketing cache whatsoever. So in what does that vague word "quality" consist? Let's look at the painting.

First of all, it's a timeless subject - waves crashing into a rocky shore (it's clearly Maine - there's a market for "Maine paintings," which is part of the reason this particular dealer purchased and successfully resold it). It's not just waves on a shore, though. Not only does the ocean's force careen compellingly across the picture plane, but the wave itself is huge - or, rather, long - and it occupies an unusual quantity of real estate (for a wave) in the center of the forward picture plane. "JTW" adds to the drama with strong, balanced contrasts between light and dark. 

Along with the dramatic (Baroque) lighting, I think the wave's sheer bulk and its upward thrust contribute the most to the "feeling" that's evident in this painting, which has something to do with a recognition of the power and beauty of raw nature (which would be the painting's "true" subject - i.e., that which it makes one feel). 

There's plenty of detail in this painting, all executed with obvious skill. That's key. But the other thing it's got is "atmosphere." Look how the entire right-hand triangle of the diagonal composition is a swirl of nebulous mist and light! It looks like the primal creation of the world out of chaos in there! I'm a big fan of atmosphere in painting. 

Maybe this isn't a "great" painting, deserving of a place in the pantheon of the highest human creations of all time (if it had been signed "Bierstadt," though, or "Church," would it be a different story?). But I wanted to share it because I just really like it and wanted to write about it to discover why. 

My rather fanciful theory, it turns out, is that it delivers a poetic response to nature's power and beauty, marrying the clarity one expects with the mystery one wants to believe in.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Maria J.C. a'Becket - Rediscovering an American Original

A wild, expressionistic seascape by 19th century Maine landscapist Maria a'Becket. In the 1890s, very few American artists (and even fewer "women painters") dared to wield such thick, gestural chunks of paint. 
On a breezy spring day in 2006, I was poking around among contemporary and 19th century landscape paintings at the Banks Gallery in Portsmouth, NH, when the above painting slapped me to attention.

Had to be contemporary, at least mid 20th century, with abstract-expressionist paint-handling like that, right? Stunned, I learned that not only was the painting created by a forgotten 19th century artist, but that the artist was a woman, someone born in Maine who called herself Maria J. C. a'Becket, a nom de plume absent from the recent scholarship on the history of women in the arts, and of course missing from standard art history textbooks, even those mentioning female contemporaries like Gertrude Fiske, Cecilia Beaux, or Maria Cassatt.

It turns out that, despite an apparently prolific output, a bit more than two dozen of a'Becket's paintings are accounted for. One is in the possession of the Portland Museum of Art, and two are held by the Maine Historical Society. Other than a few more in storage at a number of small museums, the rest reside in private collections, periodically popping up to change hands at auction. How could this be?
A river landscape with overhanging trees by Maria J. C. a'Becket, c. 1890
My encounter with the mystery of Maria a'Becket began a semi-obsessed four-year investigation to recover the life and work of an unjustly forgotten 19th century painter. The trail led from Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine to Boston, New York, and St. Augustine, Florida, where I dug through yellowed newspaper articles and exhibition catalogues, microfilmed letters, diaries, and periodicals, searched the correspondence of millionaire art collectors, and combed out-of-print memoirs, histories, and long-defunct art magazines. The existence, as I learned more, of a celebrated and spirited, female avant-garde artist contradicted a lot of what I'd been taught about the official "story" of American art history!

Every few months I'd uncover another long-buried reference to “Maria J.C. a’ Becket,” and it was often something larger than life: wild flights at the easel with a visionary’s fervor outside during a thunderstorm, shooting off hunting rifles or starting an artist's colony in the Wild West, sketching among moonlit pines in Florida or in fishing villages in Normandy and meeting millionaires in mountain crags in North Carolina, obtaining a private audience with the Pope in Rome, having solo shows in Boston and on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, holding forth with Vanderbilt and other financial barons, navigating rapids in a birchbark canoe. How could such an interesting, successful artist have completely vanished from history? I put together what pieces of the puzzle I could find in an article published in the current issue of the scholarly journal Maine History. At least a semblance of her remarkable life and work are back on record!

C. 1879, signed "M. Becket"
So who was Maria a'Becket?
A'Becket was the daughter of a Portland drug store owner and amateur landscapist Charles E. Beckett who died as a result of a fire that devastated the city in 1866. She was born Maria Graves Beckett in Portland, Maine, on July 7, 1839. A'Becket established a highly successful professional career painting landscapes in a Barbizon-Impressionist variant all her own. She died of heart disease in New York on September 7, 1904. Lacking any heirs or living relatives to champion her memory, her name dropped out of currency (but she was once so well-known that the New York Times included her in a special New Year’s Day feature on “Famous Women Whose Careers Ended in 1904”).

It seems she blazed her own trail at a time when women who wanted to be artists faced a major uphill climb. From Who Was Who in American Art, I learned early on that A'Becket had studied with heavyweights Homer Dodge Martin, William Morris Hunt, and in France with pre-Impressionist innovator Charles Daubigny. From biographical clips in a Florida newspaper, I learned that during the 1880s she shared a small cabin in rural Virginia with a younger female athlete-turned-artist named Bertha Von Hillern, whom she'd met in Hunt's classes in Boston. The two lived and painted in this rural "American Barbizon" setting for nearly a decade, until a'Becket took a studio in the famous Tenth Street studio building in New York.
Landscape by Maria a'Becket in the collection of Maine's Portland Museum of Art.
The caliber of her growing exhibition opportunities and the positive news articles I was finding argued that by then she'd established herself as a successful landscape artist with a popular, distinctive style. Society writers noted her brilliant conversation, unusual independence, and quirky and original painting style. A new digitization that appeared on Google Books revealed that the avant-garde American art critic Sadikichi Hartmann had recognized A'Becket as “a peculiar phenomenon in our art” with a “frail build” and “the vigorous touch of a man." Hartmann wrote that she had “rendered some of the wildest and grandest scenes of the ocean," and described her thus:

"in moods of religious ecstasy, with so intense an energy as to raise blisters at her finger‑tips, [she] paints impressionistic sketches which would have gained her a reputation in Europe long ago.  After having associated with men like Homer Martin, W.M. Hunt, and Daubigny, she invented a pallet‑knife style of her own, in which she slaps on pure colours in a wild improvisatore fashion....She seldom exhibits, but various art lovers and critics have been attracted by her work." (A History of American Art, vol. 1, Boston, L.C. Page & Co., 1909, p. 105). 

A call to the Flagler Art Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, which holds one of her paintings in its collection, revealed that during the 1890s, A'Becket became a sought-after artist-in-residence at St. Augustine's Flagler Hotel (alongside Martin Johnson Heade) and summered in high-society resort spots in Bar Harbor and Newport, RI. Ship manifests prove that she revisited Europe. Her work is listed in exhibit catalogs for most of the major venues for professional American painters of the time, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the American Art Union, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the National Academy of Design. New York Times articles tracked her appearances in exhibitions that also included George Inness, Ralph Albert Blakelock, Homer Dodge Martin, Frederick William, Dwight Tryon, Alexander Wyant, Francis W. Kost, Abbot Thayer, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and John Francis Murphy at venues like the woman‑ and Tonalist‑friendly Lotos Club of New York.
It took me a while to pin down, but I think her mature work absorbs and personalizes the Barbizon style, infusing it with a rapid, sketch-like line, an exuberant individual sense of color, and vigorous paint-handling inspired by French Impressionism.  

A colorful marsh sunset by Maria a'Becket
A'Becket’s “shimmery” semi‑abstract marine works in particular prefigure abstract expressionism in their decentralized “all‑over” broken‑color composition, their engagement with the active gesture, and their foregrounding of the medium itself through unblended color and surface impasto.
A seascape by a'Becket employing impasto and broken color to achieve a scintillating, jewel-like surface. Few painters of the time so successfully set the surface of their works in motion.
But what now seems most “peculiar” in considering Beckett’s achievement is not so much her work but how early she created it, how successful she became, and against what odds. During the 1860s, '70s and '80s, few women ventured outside of the accepted genres and mainstream styles of the day. 
Gloucester marine by a'Becket
She was an original. Seeking out the most radical masters, living three‑quarters of the year for nearly a decade in nature, she rejected her peers’ prevalent aesthetic theories and artistic trends, and became one of the first American painters to wholeheartedly adopt the entire raft of what were then quite radical techniques associated with the European avant‑garde And for all this she was rewarded with fame during her lifetime and, unfortunately, obscurity after her death.  

Two great books that have done much to reconstruct the lives and careers of other nineteenth-century women who were artists are Kirstin Swinth's Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870-1930 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001) and Erica Hirschler's A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940 (MFA Publications, August 15, 2001).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Corot's palette revealed! & notes on the ethereal colors of spring

I’ve written before (and here too) about the shimmery grays in Corot’s landscapes, which I find so utterly charming and bewitching. His gauzy, atmospheric veils shimmer with pearlescent grays composed of carefully toned neutral blues, ochres, greens, and violets ... his foliage trails into sky-brightness like forgotten music …  

But it’s only recently that I came across a write-up by the National Gallery summarizing the results of an analysis of Corot’s pigments during what they term his most representative period (the 1860s and 1870s). 

It’s his most muted, pearlescent period as well, and the report is both revealing and surprising. 

From the site:

The ground is composed of lead white, over which a brown translucent undercolour has been painted which can be seen through the top paint.. Corot has used cobalt blue in the sky and in the greyish mauve of the middle distance. The mid-green foreground is created from blue and yellow, made up of a transparent yellow (possibly chrome) and a fine blue (possibly Prussian blue) mixture with white, red and black in small amounts (my emphasis).
Much has been written, from Robaut onwards, on how Corot preferred to mix his greens, rather than use ready-made ones but in actual fact he used both, as is evidenced by other paintings in the collection. The very bright orange streaks in the boat and on the woman’s cap have been identified as cadmium orange, a pigment which came into use in the latter half of the 19th century. It has also been identified in Corot’s Les Evaux, near Ch√Ęteau Thierry, dated by Robaut to 1855 to 1865 (R1292, private collection).
Cadmiums? Corot? But it’s the admixture of white, red, and (shock! horror!) black to his green mixture that sent off the “ah-ha” moment for me. Between the complementary red and the black, that green is well on its way to a neutral hue, and the white just levels the value as well. 
Creating a similar mauve mixture for the background and taking these as the painting’s predominant tones, one can really control the painting's overall color and value, modulating these with just the slightest variations in the various proportions of light and dark paint.
I found this information while preparing to paint the old apple orchard across the street here in Hollis, New Hampshire. I wanted to do justice to the ethereal, tentative quality of the colors that emerge at the outset of these northern springs, so I decided to experiment a little with my own (cheerier and somewhat more saturated) version of Corot’s methods. 

Hollis Orchard, Early Spring 10 x 20

I completed the sketch for this painting on location in the orchard, staying until I thought I had most of the values right. I used burnt sienna thinned with mineral spirits. Then I took the canvas inside and mixed up a mess of murky, Corot-esque green-blue-gray using Prussian blue, gold ochre, alizarin crimson, ivory black, and Titanium white. It felt great breaking the rule against mixing colors with more than three hues, not to mention using the black! I recommend everybody try it asap.

I’ve generally mixed my own greens, detouring to try out tubes of sap green, permanent green, viridian (a staple anyway, for other reasons), terre vert (does anybody use this? If so, what for?), and olive green (the juicy one ground with walnut oil- can’t think of the brand). What are others doing?

Check out the National Gallery page on The Leaning Tree Trunk if you're as interested in Corot as I am - you can zoom in very close to the painting to check out Corot's every stroke. It was the first time I'd understood how he painted his tree branches and foliage, too (in darks first, then laying in sky over that, and then extending the branches out into the air using - yes, neutral gray, of course, in numerous little dabs of shimmering paint).

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What Is "Pure Painting?"

George Nick, Indian Memories

Part of what draws anyone to a fascination with painting is how artists can imbue their work with a powerful, expressive reality quite apart from the representation of subject matter. I'd like to think the essence of “pure painting” is the exuberant exploration of color and form.

Forget about how realistically someone can paint; pure painting involves giving form to an inner life and communicating emotion directly, as in music, with varying degrees - or without any - reference to an intermediary subject. To art lovers, paintings are magnifcent things, primarily, before they are representations of things. Who cares, at first, which objects occupy the amazingly complex yet harmonious space of George Nick's Indian Memories? The painting announces its own beautiful, stunning existence before we even begin to parse its content!

(Esoterica: While this has always been an aspect of painting,only the 20th century modernism of Kandinsky and the Fauvists, Futurists, Orphists, and others made it possible to understand this aspect of the past. Look closely at the details in Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, or Vermeer and you'll be amazed at how abstract and impressionistic the old masters could be. The paintings didn't change, but thanks to modernism and Impressionism, our actual perception has - think art doesn't change the world? Think again. It changes what humanity can see and understand).

According to independent curator Karin Wilkin, “On a visit to Venice, exasperated by the endless allegorical pictures and scenes from Gerusalemma Liberata and Orlando Furioso and “all that rubbish," Edouard Manet is supposed to have told an artist friend that “a painter can say all he wants to with fruit or flowers or even clouds.” That's perhaps the first verbal definition of "pure painting" on record.

However, the first to create purely abstract paintings, Russian modernist Wassily Kandinsky, coined the term. Pure painting, he said, is “ … a mingling of color and form each with its separate existence, but each blended into a common life which is called a picture by the force of inner necessity.” Kandinsky theorized about the psychological effects of color tones and their relationships and the expressive qualities of organic and geometric forms.

Improvisation 28, Wassily Kandinsky

But does it really matter how abstract the work is? You can see a painter's exuberance in the properties of color, abstract design, and the expressive qualities of paint in all kinds of paintings. Take the early 20th century landscapes of Aldro Hibbard - here's his 1943 Rushing Stream as a case in point:

Rushing Stream, Aldro Hibbard

Here's a closeup showing just how infectiously taken with the paint itself he is (and this is a huge part of what people love about Hibbard).

Rushing Stream, Aldro Hibbard (detail)

Yet, below is a far less impressionistic painting that I'd argue also has these qualities of "pure painting." The artist is clearly just in love with light and form and using paint to express his joy, which has led him to pursue a vision of correspondence between the scattered puffs of flowers on the ground and the exploding puffs of clouds in the sky above. The result is not primarily an "accurate" landscape - this is any location, and we don't care where - the point is the "pure" expression of joy in light, form, and color.

Field of Daisies, William Henry Holmes

This kind of joy and exuberance needs no apology. At any rate, I've been seeing "pure painting" all over the place, ever since reading John Updike's tribute to the work of plein-air painter George Nick, In Praise of George Nick.

Updike feels the need to buoy his critique with a moral subtext, extrapolated from a remark by Rilke, concerning the “good conscience” and “simple truthfulness” of color in Cezanne. Perhaps it's the word “pure” that misleads him into disparaging, on one hand mural paining, on the other photo-realism, with "theatricality" caught in the middle (Caravaggio anyone?) Still, I like his insight that, for some paintings (including "pure paintings"), “any subject will do" because they're built on “a faith that a painting does not have to be forced upon reality, through some trick or exaggeration or other, but can be drawn forth by a simple attentiveness, a patient scanning of what lies beyond the edge of the canvas.”

Schooner Bay, Desert Isle, George Nick

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Phenomenology of Twilight

A twilight landscape by 19th century Tonalist Alexander Wyant

Nebulous and uncharted, twilight is the interposition of the veil, a fluid borderland between light and darkness.

Twilight bears the same relation to daylight as poetry to prose. Its visual mode is indeterminacy, the elusive: objects softened to indistinct outlines, things half on their way to becoming thoughts.

Like all cosmic transitions, its realm is that of liminal experience, partaking of the timeless suspension between waking and sleep, the realm of daydream, reverie, and the lucid dreamer.

George Inness, Home of the Heron, 1890

Psychologically, the analogy is to the dissolution of concrete knowledge into emotion, but also speculation, uncertainty, intuition, the life of the unconscious. Twilight's ground isn't the "enlightenment" of rational, logical argument but the associative cognition of dreams.

I think that in historical Tonalism (American landscape painting from c. 1880 to c. 1920s) the twilight mood often corresponds (as in much of Innes's work) to a spiritual transformation of the visual world.

An Inness dusk, c. 1885

Certainly the attraction of these paintings has something to do with individuals' experience of these moods. The natural world found in Tonalist paintings exists within a settled and "cleared," fully "civilized" America such as we ourselves inhabit.

That is to say, the Tonalist twilight is a "mood" of the natural that remains available to us as direct experience-in-the-world, in contrast to the vanished views of unspoiled, majestic or pastoral wildernesses of the pre-Tonalist, pre-Inness, 19th century Hudson River School (c. 1830-1865).

Personally, I've spent uncounted hours since my teenage years gazing at the looming shadows of twilit trees and branches. I respond to these scenes on some kind of unconscious, symbolic/arhcetypal level charged with thought and emotion yet inaccessible to analysis.

Spring Dusk, Hollis, NH, 8 x 10, 2011

Even rural environments offer handholds for a similar psychological/emotional response. It isn't just vertical elements like buildings or trees, either, as proved out in contemporary painter Susan Holcomb's urban-cosmic "Nightscapes."

Astrum by Susan Holcomb