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Monday, December 29, 2014

A Classic Sense of Humor

La sconfitta, William Hunt
 L'attacco, William Hunt 
Most people have a sense of humor. Extrapolating from that I think it would be safe to say most artists do too. Going a step further, I'll venture that the old masters knew how to tell a good joke...just not in their paintings Very rarely do we see any sense of humor creep into their work. Let me say first of all, in delving into this subject, I'm not talking about famous classic paintings which some idiot with a photo-editing program and way too much time on his or her hand (usually it's a guy) has taken and attempted to make funny by modifying, often desecrating, the image in some way. To my way of thinking that's not even remotely funny. No, I'm talking about paintings by artists from the past who have dared express their sense of humor in amongst their otherwise "serious" works. I stumbled upon a couple such pieces the other day in researching work in a different context, which set me looking to see how many more such examples I could find. Surprisingly, the answer seems to be, not many
The Jolly Postman, early 1950s, Norman Rockwell
The first two are apparently by an English artist, William Hunt (probably the Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt), titled L'attacco and La sconfitta (top, French for "the attack" and "the defeat") probably painted in the late 1800s. I thought them both hilarious and highly appropriate in these days following the feasting holidays. If they're by William Holman Hunt, they are typical of his dry sense of humor. He often garbed himself in Renaissance era attire and was a shrewd observer of the humorous foibles of British society during the Victorian Era. In a similar vein, slightly more than a half-century later, a similar observer of the American cultural milieu was Norman Rockwell. Few artists of his stature were ever so prone to exhibiting an innate, but always gentle sense of humor. As seen in his early 1950s painting The Jolly Postman (above), we also have a holiday theme that is seemingly more modern. In fact, however, the painting dates from more than a half-century ago when delivering Christmas was far less challenging than it is today.

A Grotesque Old Woman, 1513, Quentin Matsys
It's difficult to say if Quentin Matsys's A Grotesque Old Woman (above), dating from 1513, was intended by the artist to be intentionally funny or if it just turned out that way. The title would suggest a purposeful lampooning of the tendency portrait artists have always had in flattering their subjects. However the painting, down through the centuries, has also been known as Portrait of an Old Woman, and The Ugly Duchess, so A Grotesque Old Woman may not have been it's original title. If not, then that fact, in a sense, makes the painting all the more hilarious, perhaps the most unflattering portrait ever rendered. Even if the face were that of a man, it would still be pretty hideous. The strange hairpiece and the exceedingly tight corset also add an element of humor suggesting that the artist was intentionally trying to be funny.

Constantin Baumgartner-Stoiloff, 19th-century.
If not quite what we'd call Christmassy, the amusing plight of the Russian sleigh-master, painted by Constantin Baumgartner-Stoiloff (above), at least has a wintery theme. The artist was just one of several Russian painters who depicted seemingly wild horses giving their passengers a "thrilling" snowy ride. Judging by the number of similar images I found, sleigh racing must have been a major winter pastime with chasing dogs being one of the more common hazards. It's not your "one-horse open sleigh" and there's no sign of Jingle Bells. In fact, three horses pulling such a small sleigh would suggest that either the sleigh, or the artists' rendering of it, was grossly overpowered (given the road conditions).

Dessert Still-life, early 17th-century, Georg Flegel.
Even still-lifes can be funny.
Although they're relatively rare, sometimes even an occasional musty, dusty, rusty, old still-life can be given an amusing twist as seen in Georg Flegel's Dessert Still-life (above) from sometime in the early 1600s. Apparently, even a mouse can be a good model if well-fed. I wonder if it was caught in the act or just added by the artist for the sake of levity. And finally, inasmuch as I can't find anything by other artists I like better, I'll finish with one of my own paintings, dating from 1990 (that's twenty-four years ago...not ancient, but old). It's a genre scene on a humorous theme with which we can all identify--taxes. I call it April Fifteenth...Again. 

Copyright, Jim Lane
April Fifteenth...Again, 1990, Jim Lane--Misery loves company.


1 comment:

  1. The watercolors of The Attack and The Defeat are by the prominent English watercolor artist, William Henry Hunt (1790-1864). The artist painted two sets of these subjects. The first version of The Attack is dated 1833, while the companion, The Defeat, is dated 1834. Both were exhibited at the 1834 Spring Exhibition of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours under the titles "The Comencement" and "The Conclusion." The pair you have shown here are basically replicas, both dated 1834. Hunt himself was undoubtedly involved in changings the names, and by the time the images were engraved for the volume entitled "Hunt's Comic Sketches" (1844) the more humerous names, "The Attack" and "The Defeat" were used. The watercolorist went by the name "William Hunt" throughout his lifetime, but, after William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) gained fame, the art world started to use the earlier artist's full name, including his middle name - Henry - to help distinguish between the two. The artists were not related, although all the Pre-Raphaelites were influenced by William Henry Hunt's technical innovations.