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.