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Friday, October 31, 2014

Eugene de Blass

The Mussel Gatherers, 1930s, Eugene de Blass                          
Madchenbildnis, Eugene de Blass.
The date on this painting is listed as
1850, making it his earliest known work
...painted when he was seven.
One of the most distressing developments in our era of Postmodern art is how few artists today paint genre. Symptomatic of that fact is the fact that I need to stop at this point and explain what "genre" art is...or more accurately, has been. Genre painting is simply depictions of people doing what people commonly do. As simple as that sounds, it really needs no further explanation. Ever since the fading of what's been termed "the golden age of illustration" (roughly the seventy years leading up to the early 1960s) this type of art, in fact perhaps even the painting skills necessary to render it, have largely disappeared. Even though genre has had a long tradition, culminating in the work of Rockwell, Dohanos, Ben Stahl, and others, this type of art was never all that prestigious a pursuit, barely a notch or two above landscapes and still-lifes. Artists still paint landscapes, a few even still-lifes, but genre has all but disappeared. Why? Two simple letters--TV. Not only did television, and later the Internet, bring an end the large-format magazines, which were the life's blood of such work, but TV itself, in the form of the ever-present sitcom has come to occupying its place in our daily lives. They reflect humorously and intimately who we are culturally.
At the Well, 1872, Eugene de Blass, painted when he was twenty-nine.
(That I can believe.)
Eugene de Blass Self-portrait, 1898
The Italian painter, Eugene de Blass painted genre. Although technically, he was very good at it, the man was no Norman Rockwell...not even an Italian Norman Rockwell. Rockwell ranged all over the American landscape in search of a national cultural portrait. To look at de Blass's work, one might get the idea Italians did nothing but flirt, stand around looking sexy (the girls, that is, he seldom painted men), and that all Italian girls exuded homespun radiant beauty making them irresistible to his rather swarthy suitors. Although Rockwell may rightly be accused of seeing American genre through rose-colored glasses, de Blass seems downright near-sighted, even blind to everything except the aforementioned pretty girls and the occasional pretty boy (below, right). Nonetheless, de Blass' work does bear witness to the fact that Italian painting in the classical (or academic) style did not end with Giovanni Boldini and Silvestro Lega.

His New Hat, 1932, Eugene de Blass
Though born in Albano, near Rome, Eugene de Blass' parents were Austrian, his father, Karl, was a highly versatile artist, painting portraits, religious works, and scenes of Venice where he became a professor in the Academy of Art in 1850 (the portrait at top, right may be by the father, rather than the son, which would make the date quite reasonable). In any case, Karl von Blass (as he was known in Austria) was his son's one and only instructor. One of Eugene de Blass' earliest works (with a likely date, at least) can be see in his At the Well (above). Painted in 1872, it set the stage for any number of similar works all featuring several highly marriageable young ladies flirting outrageously with a single, presumably eligible bachelor (perhaps the only one in town in that he appears in several of de Blass's similar works). His Flirtation at the Well (below) from 1902 is quite similar. As mentioned above, flirtations and romantically aggressive young ladies seem to have been his favorite subject. He simply changed the location and circumstances each time.

Flirtation at the Well, 1902, Eugene de Blass
In the Water, 1914,
Eugene de Blass
It's always hard to tell in viewing an artist's work a century later how much of his or her content was dictated by the ever-present need to earn a living. Some artists, such as Claude Monet, seemed oblivious to this factor (and their financial straits reflected such resistance). If de Blass was not Rockwell, he seems not to have taken after Monet as well. I was rather startled to find two paintings of one of his attractive female models bearing exactly the same pose, clothes, and repose, his Fruit Vendor, and one he titled simply Daydreaming (below, left and right). There's an old saying in business which many have found also applies to art (or at least the art business), "If you stumble upon a good, thing, run with it." That was apparently the case with de Blass in more than one instance. He also painted lots of girls on balconies, which is probably another example applying this rule.

Eugene de Blass
The Fruit Vendor,
Eugene de Blass

Faraway Thoughts, Eugene de Blass
Although de Blass also painted wealthy Venetian society signorine, his stock in trade seems to favor a more earthy vision of female loveliness, while at the same time, gently poking fun at their silly subterfuges in seducing suitors. Around the turn of the century when de Blass painted, an unmarried Italian girl approaching the age of thirty was looked upon as shameful by her peers, even her family. He painted a few nuns (left), one or two nudes, and a few children alongside his "society" portraits, but young people enjoying lighthearted life, love, and laughter, in their endless pursuit of mates seem to have been a driving force in his genre depictions. Eugene de Blass died in Venice in 1932 at the age of eighty-nine.

The Friendly Gossips, 1901, Eugene de Blass


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