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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Trompe l'oeil

The newest thing in movies is 3-D, though actually it's been around for fifty years or more in one form or another. When I was a kid, it had to do with red and green cardboard glasses, starting with movies and creeping its way into comic books and trading cards. Today, it's all digitized, computerized, and the glasses ain't made of cardboard anymore.  They go for well over a hundred bucks.  Can 3-D TV be far off? All this, in the name of bringing still more realism to the art of storytelling--virtual reality.

Still-life Violin and Music
1888, William Harnett

Until the advent of photography at least, realism, or something closely related to it, seems to have been the ultimate measure of a painter's skill with a brush.  This striving for realism reach a pinnacle in the 1800's in the art of the still life. The French, as they did for so many things in art, had a word for it. They didn't call it virtual reality, they termed it Trompe l'oeil (fool the eye).  In the latter half of the century, the trend moved to America where it was even more vigorously embraced. The work of  William M. Harnett and John Frederick Peto seems almost a contest to see who could be most adept at fooling a willing public into believing, at least for a moment, that what they were seeing in their Victorian frames of the time was "real. 

Letter Rack, 1907, John Peto

Legend has it that a would-be philatelist once tried to peel from a Harnett painting a postage stamp painted by the artist on an envelop "attached" to the corner of  one of his  bulletin-board-like paintings. Speaking of stamps, the "contest" reached it's ultimate inanity near the turn of the century when Jefferson David Chalfant painted a postage stamp next to an identical "real" one and challenged the viewer to tell which was which. Of course today, the challenge is a no-brainer. The original postage stamp has faded to such a degree that there is no longer any doubt which is which. The painted version looks as fresh as the day it was printed...err...painted.

The Acceptible Female Nude

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the male of the species has always had a fondness for looking upon the nude bodies of outstanding specimens of the female of the species. This erotic attachment is, of course, a central element in the propagation of the species. And while firsthand experience has always been the preferred manner of such activity, in the absence of that, various two and three dimensional representations of such figures have had to stand in for the real thing. That is where ART has come into play.  But coupled with this has been a strong moralistic element that serves to restrain such tendencies except under rigidly circumscribed conditions. 

During Medieval times, the figures usually had to depict Adam and Eve, whom the Bible itself characterized as nude, or figures from Greek mythology, whom everyone knew cared little for anything more modest than a bit of gauze.  Bathers were acceptible. They had good reason to be nude. The same was true of those just having finished bathing, or those disrobing and about to bathe. Likewise, allegorical figures were okay since they had little or no fleshly being in the first place.

Michelangelo lived and worked within these constraints, as did artists of all nationalities for the next 300 years. By the mid 1800s however, artists, especially male French artists, whom we all know to be the most sensuous of  artists, were starting to chafe a bit under such constraints. It was, in fact, incredible to see the lengths to which the great academic painters, for whom the idealized nude figure was their stock-in-trade, would go to depict sanitized female nudity they knew and loved in new and unique ways. Well, actually, some of them weren't all that new and unique. The Paris Salon show of 1863, for example, had no less than five Birth of Venuses each strikingly different, each lusciously beautiful, each delicately idealized, but all not far removed from Sondro Botticelli's first attempt at the subject over 350 years before.
Birth of Venus, 1863, Cabanel
Birth of Venus, 1863, Bouguereau

Many artists of the time seemed to have plumbed the depths of the Bible or mythology for any indication that a possible story might have include some unclothed human body, preferably female, preferably young and beautiful.  Jean-Andre Rixens in 1874 decided that Cleopatra must have been nude when she invited her pet asp into her boudoir. Jean-Leon Gerome chose the myth of Phryne in the Areopagus for his 1861 unveiling of beauty trying to persuade justice before a crowd of Greek dirty-old men. Henri Gervex turned to science in his 1887 painting of a group of doctors gathered around a nude female figure as they saw demonstrated the invention of the hemostatic clamp. And if all else failed, one might do as Thomas Couture did in painting the Romans of the Decadence, simply show it all with a strongly negative moralistic title to deprecate the debauchery. Any length seemed acceptable so long as the figure was demurely nude rather than suggestively naked, as in Manet's Olympia which was rejected by that same 1863 Paris Salon with the five nude Birth of Venuses.

Olympia, 1863, Eduoard Manet

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Chain Reaction

We're all familiar with the concept of a chair reaction, a linear progression of events, each the direct cause of the one following it.  A chain reaction occured a hundred years ago in painting. It lasted some fifty years or more, and even today, we still see its results on the posh gallery walls of most big art market cities. 
The work of Paul Cezanne, and  his landscapes, was the spark that lit Picasso's match which ignited Cubism.  Though Cubism was never completely abstract in the non-representational sense, it, in turn, was the torch sitting off the Abstract Expressionist explosion marking the second third of the twentieth century.  When we think of Abstract Expressionism, typically we think in terms of the New York School of the forties and fifties, and certainly, this is there the movement matured and came into its own.  But it's seeds go back a generation before to the work of artists such as Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, and ultimately Kasimir Malevich.  These were the planters.  Hoffman, Jackson, and DeKooning were merely gardners, nurturing, and reaping the rewards of what were basically European seeds transplanted to America.
Munich-Schwabing with
the Church of St. Ursula, 1908,
Wassily Kandinsky
Each of the "planters" brought their own "DNA" to the movement.  Miro's genes were symbolic with a trace of surrealism.  Mondrian's roots were pure Cubism.  Kandinsky's contribution was quite literally an epiphany of color.  It is said that he discovered the "inherent expressive properties of color" divorced from the "real" world one evening after a long day of painting.  He was struck by an image of "extraordinary beauty, full of inner radiance" which had eluded him in his struggle to unleash it in his landscape painting.  This "vision" turned out to be one of his earlier paintings accidentally placed upside down, thus destroying it's originaly representational composition.  From that moment on, color began to take on an almost "religious" importance to Kandinsky.

Suprematist Composition:
White on White, 1918,
Kazimir Malevich

On the very opposite side of the coin, the Russian painter, Kasimir Malevich implanted the dada mentality of Eastern Europe within the Abstract Expressionist family tree.  In a carreer tragically at odds with the turbulent political upheavals of Mother Russia in the Post-World War One era, Malevich's work aspired to a visual and compositional purity eschewing very nearly every single element of design known to man.  In a 1918 painting entitled White on White, his basic off-white, off-balance square on a white square canvas contrived to stretch the very definition of painted art almost to the breaking point.  Yet, his "less is more" theories injected an element of subtlety into Abstract Expressionism that was to influence the American branch of this organic art from Frankenthaler, Rothko, and Pollock to the so called "Minimalist" movement in the 1960's.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Influential Women

It has only been in the last hundred years or so that women have had any degree of influence as artists.  However, we tend to forget that (with few exceptions) every male artist is influenced by women, either in what they paint (often nudes), why they paint (to escape their wives), or even how they paint (to sell work and support their wives).  Not that the wives of artists have it easy (or ever did have it easy, for that matter).  The personal lives of artists are replete with stories and anecdotes of the suffering, and often humiliation, these women endured for the men they loved.

Madame Cezanne, 1891-92,
Paul Cezanne

The Artist's Family, 1896,
Auguste Renoir
Hortense, the wife of Paul Cezanne, was originally his mother's maid.  She bore him a child and stood by him for 14 years before Cezanne dared marry her and risk the wrath of his father, who supported him financially.  When finally he dared present his wife and son to his family, he was chagrinned to find they'd known about Hortense and the boy all along.

Lise Trihot was originally a model for the impressionist artist, Auguste Renoir.  On one occassion, while walking two of their children along the river near their home, she came very close to throwing herself into it. During their lifetime together she bore Renoir no less than seven children, five of them boys, all of whom later became artists.  Perhaps that explains a lot about the walk along the river.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Whistler in the Dark

With so much about painting dependant upon lighting, it would seem strange today for an artist to paint in the dark.  However rare, such paintings have long been called "nocturnes," or more commonly, simply night scenes.  I've painted one or two, but for the most part, very few artists, even landscape painters, ever indulged in such work now days.  However, in the nineteenth century, as the impressionists enjoyed playing with light and paint during the day, more radical artists, tried doing the same, only at night.  One of the most notable, while not usually termed an impressionist, is, oddly enough, more famous for painting his mother than for his nocturnes.

Symphony in White
No. 1, The White Girl,
1862, Whistler

Although we like to think of James Abbot McNeill Whistler as an American artist, the truth is he lived in the U.S. for a grand total of only six years in his late teens.  Born in 1834, even in childhood he was something of an international figure, sometimes referred to as an expatriate.  His father was a railroad engineer and spent time working in Russia as well as a number of other European countries.  As a young man, James settled in Paris, took up a Bohemian lifestyle, and became a painter.  His early work was heavily influence by the French realists, Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet.

Whistler was not much interested in subject matter in his paintings. He considered it only a means to an end.  Instead, he explored the formal qualities of the painting itself--colors, composition, tonalities, values, textures, and the pigments themselves.  His 1862 painting of his mistress, titled The White Girl, a woman dressed in white on a white background, he subtitled Symphony in White.  His most famous work, the painting of his mother further illustrates this tendency.  It was titled Arrangement in Gray and Black. In later years he moved to London and became fascinated by the work of J.M.W. Turner and the abstract, painterly qualities of his work, which Whistler quickly integrated into his own.

Nocturne in Black and Gold:
the Falling Rocket, 1874,
James McNeill Whistler

In England, he painted the London "night life," though not quite  as Toulouse-Lautrec later did in Paris.  Whistler painted a number of nocturnes including Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.  This painting depicts a fireworks display over the Thames River and can only be termed an "adventurous use of pigment."  Never one to accept criticism easily or take rejection lightly, the artist was outraged when the English critic, John Ruskin, wrote that Whistler had "flung a pot of paint in the public's face."  Whistler sued for libel, and won the case after a much-publicized trial.  He was awarded one farthing in damages.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Of all the painters who ever lived, perhaps more has been written about Vincent Van Gogh than any other.  As a result of his voluminous letters to his brother Theo, there is little about this man's life that is not known.  His work, completely unsalable during his lifetime, now brings millions at auction. The legendary mutilation of his ear is known  even to elementary school children.  His lunacy and inept suicide in 1890 is one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall the art world.

Vincent Van Gogh,
Self-portrait, 1887

Van Gogh was a spirit starved for love.  He had a love to give to God and church, to his family, to a woman, yet none seemed able to receive it.  None, except for the stark whiteness of his canvases where his crazed and unrequited emotions exploded into the light in frenzied brushwork and volcanic eruptions of color.  Scientists now suspect that Van Gogh was afflicted by a chemical imbalance in his brain that has since been known to trigger uncontrollable surges in creative endeavors.  Similar instances have been seen among poets and other writers, as well as painters. Though rare, it is treatable today.  In Van Gogh's case, it was fatal.

The French Impressionist, Camille Pissarro once said of him, "I thought when I first met Van Gogh, that he would either go mad, or surpass us all.  Little did I know he would do both."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Painted Portraits

Although photography has all but eliminated the painted portrait on the walls of the average American home, those who can afford them still find they add a touch of "class" and often at a price that is not too much more than a high-quality phtotographic portrait of similiar size.  Though classic painted portraits abound in the realm of "important" paintings from art of the past, right up there with old standards like the Mona Lisa and Gainsbourough's Blue Boy, there is another much older, and definitely more intriguing painted portrait, that being Jan Van Eyck's Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini
and His Wife, 1434, Jan van Eyck
 Painted in 1434 at the dawn of the Early Renaissance, just as secular painting was starting to share the spotlight with religious works, which had been the mainstay of painters for generations, the double portrait is rich with religious symbolism.  Painted in oil on wood in a Flemish Style, the exquisite detail bears much of the influence of the Northern Renaissance.  Considered by some to be a depiction of a wedding, other art experts believe the painting actually served as a marriage document.  The single candle in the chandelier is said to represent the presence of God while their shoeless feet indicate they are standing on holy ground.  Though the bride, in her medieval robes appears to some to be with child, this is said by art historians not to be the case.

On the back wall is a round, convex mirror reflecting the images of the two witnesses to the marriage ceremony, none other then the artist himself and his wife.  The elegant calligraphy on the wall over the mirror further documents this fact.  Translated it reads:  "Jan Van Eyck was here."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

War is hell!

William T. Sherman may have said it first, but every soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan would, no doubt, echo those sentiments.  Moreover, those not returning, don't have to.  One has to wonder how many artists these impetuous little wars have cost mankind.  One of the most disastrous wars, in terms of the painting at least, would have to have been the petulant little soiree that Louis Napoleon of France staged against the Prussians in 1870.  If the contest had been based upon fashion, the French army would have won, hands down.  But the bloated pretensions of the so-called Second Empire were no match for the hardened Prussian fighters who destroyed the French army at  Sedan, took Napoleon III prisoner, and besieged Paris.  Reduced to eating cats and dogs, the art community suffered along with the rest of the citizenry before Paris surrendered in 1871.

French Cavalry, 1870, Franco-Prussian War
  Impressionism was in its infancy at the time.  Among the Impressionists, Sisely, Monet, and Pissarro wisely sat out the war in England.  Auguste Renoir, who had never ridden a horse, joined the cavalry, and was saved for posterity by getting dysentery.  Cezanne hid in the South of France and painted. Berthe Morisot stayed in Paris, as did Eduoard Manet, who joined the artillery.  Only Frederick Bazille, who joined the colorful Zouave cavalry, was killed.  He was 29.

Although safe in England, Pissarro's home outside Paris was occupied by the Prussians who used it as an abattoir (a slaughterhouse).  They used the canvases they found there as doormats to protect their boots from the blood and the mud.  An uncounted number of Monets and over a thousand Pissarros were destroyed in this way.  War is hell on paintings too.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The First Professional Artist in America

Today, in most countries, professional artists abound.  Nearly every community of modest size has at least one individual who makes most if not all of his or her living as an artist, even if it means painting signs, commercial work, teaching, picture framing, and other art-related money-making activities.  This was not always the case, however.  We know that those who first came to the new world brought with them an artistic tradition dating back many centuries.  At the same time, survival being what it was on these foreign shores, only the strongest and most practical of these traditions survived.  Aside from a number of practical and decorative crafts having some artistic significance, the art of portrait painting was the one area that thrived above all others in Colonial America.

Self Portrait, 1739, John Smibert

Ever wonder who the first professional painter was on these shores?  His name was John Smibert.  Born in Scotland in 1688, he studied in Italy before establishing a portrait studio London.  Painting in a Baroque style, he was unhappy with the stiff competition there, so he moved to Boston hoping to become a drawing instructor at a college in Bermuda.  When the British Parliament failed to fund the venture however, he decided to remain in New England where he found patronage among the emerging affluence of the merchant society.

 In 1730, Smibert was the first to hold an art exhibition in the colonies and by the time he retired in 1746, he had painted over 250 portraits, indicating a level of production and patronage previously unknown in the American Colonies.  Even after his death, his art gallery in Boston was a cultural center, doing much to elevate the knowledge of art in the area.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Liberals Versus Conservatives

It still happens occassionally, but it's fairly rare.  Seldom is a painting in this day and age considered to be contoversial. Such works have, by now, moved into the realm of the more viable media of communication--usually the movies or television. When was the last time you recall a painting making the cover of Time or Newsweek?  Let me tell you, if you'd lived in Rome five hundred years ago you'd have been well aware of the controversy a painted work of art might generate.

Today, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling is almost universally beloved and admired, especially in the light of its restoration a few years ago.  Despite it's prodigious population of nude and semi-nude figures, even school children are aware of the story of Genesis told in such expressive splendor as to be "awesome" in the current adolescent vernacular.  At the time of its completion, school children weren't the only ones who found the work awe-inspiring.  Thanks to the restoration efforts, for the first time in hundreds of years, we can get a feeling for the truly awesome impact this massive spectacle must have had on clergy and laity alike.

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12, Michelangelo
Awesome or not, there was controversy. Even Michelangelo was not without his critics.  There were the "conservatives"--those who were shocked by the widespread nudity Michelangelo employed, and in a church at that. Then on the other side of the proverbial coin, were the "liberals"--those who were equally shocked and dismayed by the writhing, un-classical, almost painful contortions through which the sculptor-turned-painter put his nude figures. 

Of course, when it came to controversy, Michelangelo was hardly blameless.  He dared to depict the serpent in The Temptation of Eve as a female figure.  He blatantly portrayed an almost obscene nakedness in The Drunkeness of Noah.  And, in the panel depicting The Creation of the Sun and the Moon, he not only repeated earlier, ground-breaking depictions of God himself, but had the audacity to portray him from the rear, perhaps, even for God, not his most flattering angle.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rubens Inc.

The life of art experts and art accessors is not an easy one, what with forgeries, fraud, fakes, and fauxs abounding like snakes in the Garden of Eden.  It doesn't make matters any better, either, when famous artists down through the ages have not been very cooperative.  One of the least cooperative, in this area, was the Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens.  Born in 1577, this Flemish artist whose dynamic canvases were filled with, voluptuous female nudes and powerful, macho male figures, was also a respected diplomat, a dashing figure in the royal court, and perhaps most of all, a shrewd, efficient businessman.

Therein lies the problem for art experts today.  Rubens ran a veritable school for artists (some would say an art factory).  Whatever the case, he was, to say the least, prolific.  In his workshop, he not only trained painters, but also engravers to reproduce his paintings.  In addition, he made illustrations for title pages, designed tombs, altars, and architectural decorations, wrote voluminously on architecture, and in his spare time, painted Baroque masterpieces.  Well, actually, his assistants did much of the painting, with Rubens merely planning the work, supervising them as he deemed necessary, and applying finishing touches, corrections, etc. as the the paintings neared completion.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1611-12, Peter Paul Rubens
So, how much of Rubens is in a Rubens?  Well, in theory, quite a lot.  His assistants were intensely trained to follow the master's style in every respect, from compositional structure to simple brush gesture.  How much was by Rubens own hand?  It's almost impossible to tell what parts were painted by Rubens and what was done by a mere apprentice.  Moreover, just the thought of such distinctions drives art connoisseurs crazy!  Yet, in the final analysis, does it really matter?  Today, in our Post-Modern era, we give little thought to the fact that massive steel sculptures are merely designed by the artist, while being produced by some nameless steelworker in a foundry or welding shop.  Were he alive today, Rubens Inc. would probably be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.  I think I'd buy a share or two.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Most Embarrassing Moments

Everyone has a "most embarrassing moment".  Mine tend to revolve around food.  In recent years, whenever I go to a restaurant I try to order an entree to match my shirt.  And napkins are no help.  They always seem more intent on protecting the carpet than my lap.  I think there's a conspiracy between restaurateurs dry cleaners to only use napkins with a penchant for migrating south.

My own most "most embarrassing moment" would have to be my first day as a student-teacher some 38 years ago when I sat down at lunch in the school cafeteria for the first time with the faculty and staff of my former high school, no longer as a student, but as a very nervous "faculty" member.  I leaned forward to pull up my chair, and there in front of everyone, I promptly baptized my new crushed velvet necktie in my tomato soup.

American artist and illustrator, Norman Rockwell, told the story of attending a banquet with fellow artists and being seated next to a  young lady who recognized him and began to rattle on at length about how much she admired him, how much she loved his work, and how she would someday like to own one of his paintings.  It quickly became apparent she knew very little about art in general and even less about his work in particular.  Finally, over dessert, she managed to get up courage enough to ask for his autograph, which he proffered on a paper napkin. 

Monhegan, Maine, 1950, Rockwell Kent

Smiling she examined the signature whereupon her face fell.  She looked up and gasped an audible, "Who?"  She had mistaken Norman Rockwell for the American Impressionist landscape painter, Rockwell Kent, whose work and political activism were about as diametrically opposite that of the Saturday Evening Post illustrator as can be imagined.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Artistic Temperament

Are you easy going, laid back, congenial; or are you the type of artist whom people respect, but only from a safe distance? If an artist gets angry or behaves somewhat irrationally, we chalk it up to "artistic temperament".  Examples of such a phenomena among artists are almost more common than not.  Van Gogh was not the easiest person in the world to get along with; neither were Picasso, El Greco, or  Jackson Pollock.  But rightly or wrongly, when we think of artistic temperament, the personality of Michelangelo Buonarroti is often the first to come to mind.  He was independent, arrogant, aggressive, inconsiderate, obstinate, competitive, and indispensable.  He's also said to have had a nasty temper.

Ironically, living and working almost at his sharp elbow was another artist, somewhat younger, whose personality and demeanor were as nearly opposite  that of Michelangelo as could be imagined.  That artist was Raphael Sanzio.  Raphael was born in 1483 and died at the tender age of 37 in 1520, his lifetime almost perfectly coinciding with the High Renaissance in Italy.  He was debonair, handsome, pleasant, politically aware (to the point of fawning), and most of all talented--a proverbial "sponge" when it came to soaking up the styles and techniques of the old masters.

The School of Athens, 1509, Raphael Sanzio
Raphael also soaked up the style and working technique of his contemporaries as well, a fact that rankled Michelangelo to no end as he struggled with the overwhelming enormity of the Sistine Chapel ceiling commission.  At the same time, Raphael was working only a dozen or so yards away on a simpler, though nonetheless impressive, fresco mural--The School of Athens.  This 26 by18 foot painting is a veritable "who's who" of classical Greek philosophy.  Not immodestly, Raphael included a self-portrait among the Greek philosophical luminaries.  However, in a gesture of sincere respect for the man who's style he was copying even as it was being evolved, he also painted a brooding portrait of  Michelangelo placed prominently in the center foreground.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Horace Pippin

Most of us today are familiar with folk art.  Unfortunately, most of what people know about folk art begins and ends with the story of folk artist, Grandma Moses.  It is almost legendary, how Anna Mary Robertson Moses was "discovered" in the late years of her senior citizenship as well as her methodical work habits, and the  blatant nostalgia in her work.  Many are aware of the famous people who collected her farmscapes and family interiors, and the astronomical prices her work brought even before, but especially after her death at the age of 101.  But Grandma Moses didn't "invent" folk art.  So-called "untrained" and/or itinerant artist are sprinkled through many European cultures and were especially prevalent in America as far back as the Frontier days.

In the 1930's however, folk-art was rediscovered in this country.  It came to be cherished by the East-Coast "elite" including the Rockefellers and other monied families who relished the story-telling simplicity of its compositions, subject matter, style, and painting technique.  Among the most important artists working at that time in that manner was the African-American painter Horace Pippin.  Born in 1888, in West Chester Pennsylvania, the grandson of slaves, he grew up in upstate New York.

Interior, 1944, Horace Pippin
Though entirely self-taught, Pippen was familiar with modernism.  He found his own brand of abstraction in the stylization of natural froms into flat patterns and delicate linear rythmns.  His work centered on a number of themes including rural genre scenes, biblical pictures, and the history of his slave heritage.  As a boy, Horace got his earliest artistic encouragement when he won a mail-in art contest.  His prize--a set of watercolors and a box of crayons.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Les Demoisselles d'Avignon

Have you ever done a painting or other work of art that was so radical you were reluctant to show it to anyone?  Maybe you let the wife or a few good friends have a peek, but otherwise kept it under wraps. Don't feel bad, you aren't the first artist (nor likely the last) to endure such apprehension.

Even though art historians usually tag Cezanne as the "Father of Modern Art", they also seem to have reached a consenses that the first Modern Art painting was not by Cezanne, but Picasso, namely his Les  Demoisselles d'Avignon (The Ladies of Avignon) dating from 1907.  At 7' 8" x 8', it is monumental in size as well as importance.

Les Demoisselles d'Avignon, 1907,
Pablo Picasso
As the painting evolved in Picasso's mind and then on canvas, the artist seems to have been somewhat stunned by his own audacity in breaking new ground with every stroke of the brush.  After it was finished Picasso showed it to only a few of his closest friends who were likewise awed and dismayed by it's visual impact and power.  The story persists that he kept it under his bed for a period of  some nine years before displaying it publicly.  Given it's immense size, it must have been a BIG bed.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Invention of Photography

In an era when we take technical development almost for granted, when the useful lifespan of modern appliances such as the computer can be measured in months rather than years, it is hard to fathom a more epic technical development in the area of art than that which occurred during the middle of the nineteenth century with the invention of modern photography.  Although the camera itself dates back to the Renaissance and was in fact developed largely by and for artists, it was chemistry that made photography a real force to be reckoned with in the art world.  In a competition reminiscent of the twentieth century's space race, the effort to develop a practical mechanical method of exactly depicting real life on a two-dimensional surface was a competition between France and England that often had more the hallmarks of a war than a race.

A Manet painting from 1872 having a
photographic quality.
On the French side were inventors such as Joseph Niepce and Louis Daguerre while in England, William Talbot manned the trenches.  By and large, the French won the race (war) and the first losers were painters, particularly miniaturists, who were often reduced to "coloring" the crude early photographic images with their oils.  Eventually however, the effects of photography upon painters became more widespread, if somewhat more subtle as well.  The French artist Eduard Manet was known to have used photographic images in place of drawings to compose some of his paintings, and Edgar Degas was often fond of cropping his paintings in a photographic manner, in effect, giving them a sort of "snapshot" quality.
At the Races, 1877, Edgar Degas

By the early years of the Twentieth Century, as picture quality improved, and Alfred Stieglitz declared photography to be on a par with painting as an art form, painters could not compete either economically or aesthetically in the open market where "realism" was the standard of excellence.  Art historians still argue this point, but the long-term result of this new "art invention" was to free painting from the harsh yoke of realism, to allow it to soar to new heights of expression and creativity it might never have achieved had Daguerre, Stieglitz, and Kodak not shown it the light.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Peale Family

Whenever we talk about someone's art talent, very often the question arises, "Where did they get it?"  Although it sounds like they might have purchased it somewhere, we all realize we're speaking genetically.  Very often relatives cite uncles or great aunts or distant cousins.  Sometimes it comes from one or more parents (seldom both parents however).  And in some families, the so-called "art gene" may be present in several siblings and their offspring.

Thus, it's no secret that art talent tends to run in families. In this country during the colonial era, the first family of art would have to have been the Peale family. First there were the two brothers, James, and most importantly, Charles Wilson Peale. The latter was first a portrait painter, especially of miniatures, as well as a naturalist, who went so far as to establish the first museum in this country, kind of a showcase, not only for his bone collection, mounted animals, and other artifacts, but for his own art work, and that of his family as well.
The Artist in His Museum, 1822,
Charles Wilson Peale, self-portrait

And what a family it was. In addition to his brother, his niece, Sarah Miriam Peale, was represented as well as his sons, who, from birth, seem to have been destined (or pressured) also to become artists. His four sons took after their father to varying degrees, pursuing careers in painting portraits, miniatures, still life's, and illustrating nature. This is hardly surprising given that their father had named them, Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Nude Figure

As a high school art instructor, I found that one of the most interesting and "touchy" subjects to deal with in presenting art from the past is the inevitable presence of the nude figure. The reactions ranged from (often feigned) indifference, to deep embarrassment on the part of the wide cross-section of young adolescent artists I encountered. The kids, of both sexes, came equipped with a number of built-in defense mechanisms, but the most likely one seemed to be laughter in one form or another. There also seemed to be a direct correlation between the amount of laughter and the size of the group encountering the nude form (in pictures of course). Small groups tended to be the most open in their reactions although individual students seemed only fascinated, rather than embarrassed in seeing the nude figure in a book, for instance. In much larger groups, (as in a slide presentation or video) the reaction seems to be fairly subdued with the inevitable exception of some anonymous loudmouth in the back.

Likewise, taking a cue from this, as the instructor, I usually found that student interest in such subject matter was best dealt with using humor as well. "Mr. Lane, did you ever paint people naked?" "Yes, but the brushes tend to tickle a lot and the paint is sometimes hard to get off." Or, "I've tried, but they always make me put my clothes back on." From that point on, the subject either gets dropped, or turns to a serious discussion of college figure drawing classes, whether or not the models get cold, how much they get paid, whether they are "completely" nude, etc,

Similarly, there arose from time to time the request on the part of a high school art student to want to "do" a nude figure (from a photo of course). Here I developed two standard responses. If the request was seriously made, I demanded the student bring a note signed by their mother granting them permission to portray a nude figure. That usually took care of "that". On rare occasions, the student called my "bluff" and actually complied in order to do a nude figure--a drawing of Michelangelo's David, for instance. If the request to draw a nude figure was not made seriously, I suggested the student go home, take pad and pencil, go into the bathroom, lock the door, stand naked in front of a full length mirror, and draw, draw, draw.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The New York School

When we speak of a certain school of art today, many people, even artists, may think in terms of a university campus with ivy covered buildings, or perhaps dazzlingly modern educational edifices replete with gallery space, sleek studios, and massive lecture halls.  However, those who study art of the past mean something quite different when they refer to a "school" of art.  They mean a group of like-minded artists moving together in a general direction toward a particular style of painting and sculpture.  Perhaps a better image would be more like that of a "school" of fish moving in unison.  The last great American "school" of art was the New York School which first began to develop in the 1940s.

It is hard to overstate the impact the Second World War had upon the arts. Even before the war, the rise of Nazism had spurred a gradual leaking of the art intelligentsia from northern Europe to the U.S. The war itself  BLASTED them out, so to speak, turning a dribbling of artistic migration into a FLOOD. Artists like Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger, Josef Albers, Hans Hofmann, and others shifted the artistic center of gravity from Europe to the United States virtually overnight. These European painters joined in New York an already established New York School populated by the likes of Willem de Kooning, Jack Tworkov, Stuart Davis, James Brooks, Philip Guston and Arshile Gorky. Even the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco lived and taught in the city for a time.

Near the end of the war, critic Robert M. Coates commented in The New Yorker: "A new school of painting is developing in this country. It is small as yet...but it is noticeable if you get around to the galleries much. It partakes a little of Surrealism, still more of Expressionism, and although its main current is still muddy and it's direction obscure, one can make out bits of Hans Arp, and Joan Miro floating in it, together with large chunks of Picasso and occasional fragments of Negro sculptors. It is more emotional than logical in expression and you may not like it (I don't either, entirely), but it can't escape attention."

It took a decade or so, but this combined, creative locomotive was to surge into a rush of painted art we know today as Abstract Expressionism, which was ground-breaking in its own right.  But beyond that, it would plant the seeds, in this broken ground, for the many art movements and styles that were to sprout up in New York for the next 25 years. Sadly however, it may have also been the last, great creative gasp of painting as an art form for all time.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Photography Versus Painting

In our media-driven cultural world, people pay big bucks to go to a theater and see a movie.  They pay somewhat smaller bucks to rent the same movie on DVD several months later. Never do you hear of people today paying money to see a new painting.  There is no competition. The very idea is laughable. However, during the nineteenth century, there was a very real rivalry between painting and photography. And, by and large, it was something of a dead heat most of the time with the gradual improvements in the art and science of photography being met more or less one to one with similar improvements in the art, if not the science, of painting.

However with the dawn of the twentieth century the Lumiere brothers, Edison, and others began to do something with cameras and film that no painter could ever hope to do. They began to make pictures move. Painters had long done "moving" pictures, emotionally speaking, of course. However photographers, now called "film makers," could create moving pictures both figuratively and literally. By projecting a series of slightly differing images at the astounding rate of 25 per second onto a bed sheet, the eye fed the brain images so fast as to create the illusion of a single "motion" picture.

The Derby of Epsom, 1821, Gericault
The Lumieres and Edison however owed their success to the more basic experiments in motion photography conducted by an American, Eadweard Muybridge, as far back as 1878. For years before this time, painters had often depicted running horses with both front and back legs fully extended, in effect, all four legs off the ground at one time. It seems two race horse owners, fell into an argument as to whether such depictions were, in fact, accurate. One argued that it was impossible for all four of a horse's feet to leave the ground at the same time else it would fall flat on its face. The other insisted to the contrary. Muybridge was engaged to settle a bet between the two men.

Muybridge met the challenge by rigging up a series of cameras around the outside perimeter of a track with a thin tripwire stretched from the camera's shutter across the track to posts on the opposite side. When the horse ran in front of the cameras, it in effect, took a series of pictures of itself recording it's every move.

Muybridge's series of photos indicated any
number of equine leg configurations
artists might use, but none of them were
like what had traditionally been used.
 Who won the bet? Why the first gentleman of course. The second gentleman apparently knew little about the laws of physics and even less about the principles of momentum. However the painters of the time lost as well. The painted images that had sparked the argument in the first place, were, in fact, wrong! Muybridge's studies demonstrated that the movement of a horse in running was much more complex than anything they'd ever depicted on canvas. Later, western painters like Frederick Remington were strongly influenced by Muybridge's ground-breaking work.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Monet and Manet

Several years ago, before I retired, I taught art to virtually all ages in grades one through twelve.  Naturally, this entailed a good deal of curriculum development and planning.  Actually, the content of my lessons  didn't vary as much as might be expected, only the manner it which it was taught.  That, of course, varied a great deal according to the age of the students involved.

One day I was exposing my third grade art class to the exquisite, impressionist waterlilies of Claude Monet's late work. They were enthralled. I even wore my Monet necktie with water lilies on it (which impressed them somewhat less than the slides). Afterwards, I mentioned that another artist from approximately the same era, who sometimes worked in an impressionistic style, was Eduoard Manet and that some people confused Monet's work with Manet's.

Nympheas, 1915, Claude Monet
I was somewhat startled when a little girl in the back of the room commented that she didn't think Monet's work looked anything like Manet's. She was quite right, of course, they are very different.  But I was curious about her seemingly astute observation, especially inasmuch as I'd not even shown them any paintings by Manet. I questioned her further, asking her where she'd ever seen any Manets. She replied, "In our refrigerator."

For those wondering, I did NOT make that up.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Thomas Moran

We often feel, in studying American art, that it developed in an American vacuum quite apart from anything happening anywhere else in the world. Of course 100 years ago there was not the instant, world-wide homogenization of art and cultural we know today. There was isolation, but it was not perfect. European artists came to this country, and often were seduced by it's beauty to the point they either could not leave, or they returned again and again. Of course, American artsits also studied in Europe. Typical of this is one of the premier American landscape artists, Thomas Moran.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,
1872, Thomas Moran
Born in England, raised in Philadelphia, Moran had no formal training in art until he went back to England where he studied, in fact copied, the work of J.M.W. Turner, who prefigured even the French Impressionists by almost a generation in his studies of light, weather, and nature. Back in the U.S., he began his carreer as a watercolorist, later carrying over the fresh, quick, bright, translucent color effects into his oil paintings. No longer hamstrung by the limiting size of paper, like Bierstadt and others, his canvases grew to immense proportions, up to 12 feet in length and 7 feet in height.

Eventually, he accompanied Ferdinand V. Hayden's U.S.Geological Expedition throughout the West where he gathered material for some of his most important works. In 1872 he painted the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. His work was undoubtedly a strong influence upon Congress in that during the same year, it established Yellowstone as America's first national park.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Mona Lisa

Have you ever considered, as you commence a new project, painting, sculpture, or now possibly a video, that what you are creating might be one of the most memorable works of art ever created?  Probably not.  Artists are known to have healthy egos, but it might be pushing even the artist's imagination to place ones work on such a pedestal.  Then again, maybe not.

If asked to name the most famous painting in the world, most people would tend to think of Leonardo DaVinci's Mona Lisa. Housed today in the Louvre in Paris, the painting has one of the longest, most illustrious, most well-documented histories imaginable. Stolen, ransomed, nearly destroyed, the Mona Lisa has almost taken on a life of its own. Yet, it all began quite simply. Commissioned about 1503, and worked upon by the master intermittently for nearly two years, the portrait was never delivered to its buyer. It was an unfulfilled commission for which Leonardo no doubt went unpaid. Such things happened then.  They happen now.  As a result, Leonardo is known to have kept the painting with him for the rest of his life. An interesting birth, but not all that exceptional at the time.

Mona Lisa, 1503,
Leonardo DaVinci
Much has been made of the subject's enigmatic smile. Recent computer analysis has suggested the entire painting may have been something of a self-portrait though the evidence to such a theory is rather convoluted at best. A more likely theory, given the nature of Leonardo's analytical mind, is that he relied on elements of geometry perhaps more than physical likeness (which might explain why the portrait was never delivered if doing so made for a poor likeness).

If one were to place a compass point precisely between the subjects eyes, then adjust the pencil point to her lip line, the resulting circle would precisely coincide with the outer edge of the model's cheek structure and hair on the left, the edge of her hair net near the top of her forehead, and the hairline itself on the right side of the face. Check it out. You'll never look upon this famous face again in the same light.

But, is this bit of simple plane geometry applied to the human face what has made the Mona Lisa the most unforgettable painting in the world today?  Leonardo was a master painter, no question about that.  Yet, is that fact sufficient to have elevated this inauspicious portrait with its questionable likeness to such a high plane?  The enigmatic smile?  The gentle, lovely face?  The mysterious, unearthly, mismatched backgrounds on either side of that face?  What is it about The Mona Lisa?  Perhaps it's all of the above.  Or maybe it's simply the lady herself.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The First "Beatnik"

I suppose we all have tucked somewhere in the back of our minds, the stereotypical "beatnik" figure, the black-clad, Bohemian, left-bank, Parisian artist of the early 1900s.  Even Americanized and transplanted to the 1950s art scene in New York, he's a sad, sensitive, figure, awash in poetry, off-beat music, cigarettes, wine, and art.  He's seen as incessantly depressed and moody.  Of course, such icons were an amalgamation of many figures who long ago gave way to the "hippie" artist of the 1960s and 70s.  I don't know if there is a correspondingly sad artist figure today.  But there was an original.

Seldom in the annuls of art has there lived a more tragic figure than Amedeo Modigliani. Born in 1884 in Livorno, Italy, Modigliani could well be considered a poster boy for over-indulgence. A contemporary of Picasso, Cezanne, and an aged Monet, around the turn of the century, this dashingly handsome teenager became a fixture (victim?) of the Paris nightlife that so fascinated and dominated the work of his friend and early mentor Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. From an early age Modigliani drank deeply of the spirit and spirits of everything Parisian. This model for Left-Bank counter culture artist-playboy, Modigliani dabbled in a number of painterly fads and styles before finding the linear, elegant simplicity of delicate, yet expressive female figures that became his artistic trademark.

Portrait of Dedie, 1917,
Amadeo Modigliani
Modigliani's figures are mostly drawn first in black paint, featuring elongated necks, noses and faces, then filled in with strong, expressive, flat colors. Absent was any effort to depict much modeling or the illusion of volume. He usually started with the eyes of his figures and could develop a finished painting within a couple hours. Living from hand-to-mouth during much of his life, his Bohemian lifestyle of heavy painting and drinking in cold, damp, Parisian cellars, or wherever he could find cheap lodging, inevitably took its toll on his health. He married one of his models at age 34 with whom he fathered two children. Setting up a household in a tiny Montmarte apartment, he finally found some semblence of a normal family life.

But sadly, it was too late. Dying of consumption (Tuberculosis) at the age of 36, he was joined a few days later by his wife who died bearing their second child. During his lifetime, his work seldom brought more than a few hundred Francs. Shortly after his death they sold for several thousand Francs. Ten-thousand friends from the Paris artistic community attended their funeral.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Plot

Michelangelo Buonarroti
Today, we gaze in awe and amazement at even photos of the restored Sistine Chapel ceiling, the tour-de-force that cemented Michelangelo Buonarroti's reputation as an artist and star performer of the High Renaissance. Yet, few are aware that this apex of Renaissance art was the result of a purported plot by the architect Donato Bramante and his protege, Raphael De Urbino, to precipitate the downfall of Pope Julius II's pet sculptor.

Pope Julius II

Though the relationship between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo was a stormy one at best, with Julius at times withholding payment for work done and tossing the Florentine sculptor out on his ear when he came to His Holiness in protest, there was, nonetheless, a rapport between the two fiery personalities.  It resulted in the on-again-off-again planning and sculpting of a gigantic, 40-sculpture, free-standing tomb for the middle-aged pontiff which the pope, in all due modesty, planned to install directly over the tomb of St. Peter, centered under the massive dome of the new cathedral Bramante was designing and had in the early stages of construction at the time.

Pretending to acquiesce, inwardly, Bramante seethed at the idea that his greatest edifice in all Christendom should be merely a shelter for this grandiloquent, wedding cake of a tomb. So, as a trusted papal advisor, he planted in the fruitful mind of the pope the idea of correcting the clumsy architectural proportions of Julius's uncle's Sistine Chapel by painting a fresco on the ceiling above the only Vatican chapel in operation at the time.  The idea was to divert Michelangelo and the pope from the tomb project.

Being "merely" a sculptor, Bramante reasoned that Michelangelo would either flee the task or fail miserably. Both predictions proved true, initially. But the moody genius was nothing if not persistent. Inspired by the challenge, Michelangelo rose to the occasion magnificently. During nearly four years of brutal effort, this "mere" sculptor lifted the art of fresco painting to a realm unmatched before or since. Bramante's plan backfired, except that the pope's tomb ended up in an obscure, out-of-the-way church in Rome, far from Bramante's St. Peter's Cathedral.
The Creation of Adam, 1508-12, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo
Incidentally, Charleton Heston, who played Michelangelo in the film The Agony and the Ecstasy, painted his ceiling in just under an hour and a half. Of course he was paid more for his high-speed rendering.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Fourth Dimension

Painters have always been mostly limited to depictions in two dimensions. Sculptors, by definition, deal mostly with three dimensions. But there is, of course, a fourth dimension, that being time. Only with the advent of motion pictures in the last hundred years have artists been able to adequately handle the element of time in their work. It has not been for a lack of trying though. From cave painting to comic strips, art has sought to encompass the passage of time.

As we saw yesterday, Duchamp, in Nude Descending a Staircase #2 tried to show an ongoing event involving several seconds in time. And, a work of art survives from the Italian Early Renaissance by the painting master Masaccio that makes a similar attempt. His painting, The Tribute Money, attempts to tell a story from the Bible in which Christ instructs one of his apostles to pay a tax collector with a coin obtained from the mouth of a fish. The central group involves the delivery of the instructions to the apostle. The left side of the mural depicts the man obtaining the coin while the right side of the fresco follows through with the rendering of the coin to the tax man.

The Tribute Money, 1424, Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel
Though strangely out of sync with the left-to-right comic strip scenario to which we are now accustomed, the painting is, nonetheless, effective given the fact that the worshipping masses of the time, who gazed up at it on the walls of Santa Maria Del Carmine in Florence, were largely illiterate.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Marcel Duchamp

Every artist dreams of creating a masterpiece that will go down in history as some kind of ground-breaking, earth-moving, watershed work of art. (Sounds downright geological, doesn't it?)  It happens every few years, though, sad to say, such a work today isn't likely to involve paint on canvas.  The medium is more likely to be film, television, or some computer game (like Pac-Man, perhaps).

Nude Descending a Staircase,
1912, Duchamp
If a single painting could be said to have brought Modern Art to American, it would have to be Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase #2. Painted in 1912, and first exhibited at the Armory Show in New York shortly thereafter, it sparked a firestorm of criticism and outrage. A critic referred to it as, " explosion in a shingle factory." President Teddy Roosevelt compared it unfavorably to a Navajo rug he owned, and a cartoonist mocked it with a similar rendering of New York commuters descending into a subway with: "The Rude Descending a Staircase."

Nonetheless, the painting sold. Today it can be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art