Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Still Life with Key

"The essence of art is sensitivity. How does one retain the freshness of sensitivity? Answer: By working without worry, freely. How does one work freely? By possessing a technique which permits one to work spontaneously: it is necessary, therefore, to possess the elements of this technique. Meditation in front of the works of the masters puts one in possession of the eternal rules of art. Once these rules are learned there is nothing left but to know how to apply them to one's own temperament."

-Andre Lhote 1923

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bruce Crane - Quiet Complex Simplicity

The Harvest Moon, by Bruce Crane, c. 1900

A student of mine sent in this autumnal landscape by Bruce Crane. As a prime example of 19th-early 20th century Tonalism, this lovely painting employs soft lines and a minimally limited palette in the service of delicate, subtlely modulated tones to produce an achingly lyrical, melancholy mood, an almost musical harmony of light, color, shape, and line.

The composition, as well as the atmospheric tonality, owes a rather large debt to George Inness.

George Inness, Moonlight, Tarpon Springs Florida, 1892

In both of the paintings above, the horizontal canvas is divided into four quadrants, three of which are blocked-in, atmospheric masses and the fourth of which is open sky crossed by two vertical trees (in both cases, one is dominant and one subordinate, one straight and one curvy). The foreground is in relative shadow and the middle ground gets a stripe of moonlight from one side of the canvas to the other.

Inness used some variation of this composition in many of his most evocative paintings (including one of my very favorites, Summer at Montclair, 1891). He placed spiritual significance on the geometrical arrangements of his landscapes and didn't hesitate to bring the four quadrants together in the exact center of the canvas, balancing out the resulting symmetry with the asymmetrical arrangement of masses and lines, as he did above in Tarpon Springs.

Crane uses some bared rocks and a patch of grass to mark the central dividing line of his landscape, but he raises the horizon line into golden mean/rule-of-thirds territory. Upping the contrast of the image shows that what seems at first to be a straightforward vertical arrangement contains significant "orthogonal dynamism" (High-Falutin for diagonals), achieved not with obvious lines nor color, but with subtle variations in the tonal values. (Hence, Tonalism)

Photoshop reveals the subtle diagonals that bring a sense of movement and life to an otherwise stripy composition. 
Note that, except for the moon, the brightest values appear on the two middle-to-background trees silhouetted against the background shrubbery. Inness placed most of the action in the middleground too, but here Crane, in the absence of figures, uses that technique to draw our eyes even deeper into the painting.

First, the eye strikes the main pair of trees in shadow at the center. It quickly glances along the exposed rock to the more brightly lit pair of trees in the back (which deliver a strong performance for supposedly supporting players). From there the gaze lands on the luminous disk of the rising moon, which Crane has floated quietly in a glowing web of pale violet and orange that's as true as any painting I've seen to the delicate atmospheric color tones of evening in New England.