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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Leo's Ladies

L.H.O.Q. 1919,
Marcel DuChamp
It has been said that good things come in threes. That apparently holds true in everything from magi to stooges. It is certainly the case when it comes to Leonardo Da Vinci's three greatest portraits. Three? Yes. Even school children are aware of the Mona Lisa. Painted in 1503 (though tradition has it that Leonardo worked on it for a number of years after that), it is, without a doubt, the most famous painting, let alone portrait, in the world today. Unfortunately it also suffers greatly from overexposure, having become something of a lightning rod for anyone who wants to lampoon art, or deflate art history whenever it becomes too pompous for its own good. Poor Mona has taken hits from everyone from Salvadore Dali and Marcell Duchamp to Mad Magazine. And, while its an excellent piece of portraiture on a number of levels, of the three, I would count it as only his second best effort.

Cecillia Gallarani:
Lady with an Ermine,
1485-90, Leonardo da Vinci

An earlier portrait by Leonardo, dating from around 1485, is so much more beautiful, natural, and interesting, in looking at it, it's hard to see what all the fuss is over Mona. The paintings is titled Cecillia Gallarani. In it, a lovely young girl holds a white ferret in her arms while gazing off wistfully into the distance. She is fashionably dressed with black pearls looped around her neck and hanging down behind an elegant, perhaps slightly elongated hand. Unlike the Mona Lisa, she seems warm and approachable. In this, the second of the three paintings (the Mona Lisa being the third), there is no evidence that Leonardo is playing with geometry or experimenting with anything more mysterious than minimizing his subject's somewhat long nose to the point we are aware of it only after considerable study of her nonetheless attractive face.

Ginevra de 'Benci, 1474-78,
Leonardo da Vinci

The other Leonardo portrait is the first of the three, and, to my way of thinking, the least attractive of the trio. It was painted in 1474 and is said to depict Ginevra de' Benci. Of the three, it's the only one I've seen and the only Leonardo in the U.S. It's the proud possession of the National Gallery of Art in Washington (also probably it's most valuable possession). In the Mona Lisa, Leonardo seems to have been experimenting with circles and ovals but he at least kept his geometric interests subtle. In his portrait of Ginevra De' Benci, his fascination with the circle almost literally leaps off the canvas, the roundness of her head and hair perhaps the first thing that strikes you in seeing the work. So help me, the effect is uncomfortably close to a "smiley face" except, unfortunately, she's not smiling (perhaps with good reason). Her skin is ivory and cold, the face is colorless and bland, the mouth tight and too tiny, the curls in her hair, tight and labored. Added together, I find it stiff and unattractive. Of the three, it is the least successful portrait, though Vasari and a number of other experts disagree with me on this. But, it was an early effort (Leonardo would have been 22 at the time), and it appears that he learned from it.  Even of Leonardo, what more could you ask.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Leonardo's Genius

Virtruvian Man, 1485,
Leonardo da Vinci
If we were pressed to come up with a synonym for the word "artist" perhaps the best course would be personification and the first choice would be Leonardo da Vinci. It would be an almost universal choice. Of course the same name might be used as a synonym for "genius" and "draftsman" and "inventor" and "engineer." There is so much depth to this man that even though he's one of the most written-about artists ever, he's still manages to be something of an enigma. Actually, I think he intended it that way. I mean, anyone who writes backwards, in a script that's barely legible in the first place, and in Medieval Italian too, no less, has got to have a serious desire to be enigmatic. Add to this the fact that what he was writing was so far over the heads of most of his contemporaries, it's doubtful many would have known what he was talking about anyway.
Design for a Flying Maching, 1488,
Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of a Florentine notary. By the age of 18 he was working in the atelier of Verrocchio where his genius was evident in drawing, painting (which at that time meant fresco), sculpture, poetry, composing (music), philosophy, and athletics. An athlete? Yes, he specialized in the broad jump and the high jump. Later, he added architecture, engineering (civil, mechanical, aeronautical, and military) and readily adapted to the new art of oil painting as it became popular in Florence. In fact, of all his skills, many feel painting may have been his weakest. Whatever the case, he was a one-man band, what we might call today, a multimedia conglomerate. Had he perfected the science of cloning he would still have been a busy man. Which, of course, was one of his problems. A mind such as Leonardo's was never at rest. Even though he flourished on as little as four hours of sleep a night, according to those who knew him, he was infamous for starting projects, pursuing them until they no longer presented an intellectual challenge, then never finishing them.

Study of a Horse, 1490,
Leonardo da Vinci
According to Florentine art history, we are probably fortunate in at least one instance for this one distressing vice on Leonardo's part. Sometime around 1498, when he was at the height of his creative powers, the city fathers of Florence presented him with an enormous block of white marble which would be his to do with as he pleased with no restrictions other than those imposed by the stone itself which was some thirteen feet in length but less than 18 inches in depth and no more than 36 inches in width.  However the problem was not the limitations, but the fact that Leonardo had so many ideas as to how to utilize the block that he characteristically could not make up his mind. So, he let it slide, which was just as well. Three years later, Michelangelo made that block of marble his David.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The First Renaissance Man

Self-Portrait, Leonardo da Vinci,
With the possible exception of Michelangelo and Pablo Picasso, no artist has accumulated as much verbal baggage as Leonardo Da Vinci. All three could rightly be credited with being "legends in their own time", though in the race to be the most colorful, Leonardo finishes a poor third behind the other two. Of the three, Leonardo is by far the most intellectual. Michelangelo, though primarily a sculptor, dabbled in painting and architecture while jotting down a few mediocre sonnets. Picasso, while primarily a painter, has dabbled in sculpture and ceramics. Leonardo, (so far as we know) never tried sculpture insofar as stonecutting was concerned, though he did work for some time on an enormous bronze equestrian statue which was never completed,  However, he dabbled in just about everything else. Indications are that his first love was drawing from which sprang an interest in painting, engineering, anatomy, and writing.   

Virgin of the Rocks
(first version), 1483-86,
Leonardo da Vinci

The Renaissance brought us a rebirth of learning in all the arts and sciences of the time, and in so doing, was responsible for the birth of the term "renaissance man". Though others down through the ages have had this honorary title bestowed upon them, Leonardo rightly deserves it first and foremost. The Mona Lisa and Last Supper aside, his painting, Virgin of the Rocks (c.1484) alone would put him first amongst the painters of his time. His design portfolio contains everything from military fortifications to stage sets and parade floats. His anatomical drawings done from cadavers were not only the first of their kind but rank as medical research of the first order. His mirror-image writings were both deeply analytical and profound.   
Born around 1452, Leonard showed signs of genius from childhood. He was also an opinionated man:  "That painting is the most praiseworthy which is most like the thing represented." We usually think of him as a modest, quiet man but:  "...I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also painting in which my work will stand comparison with that of anyone else, whoever he may be." Coming from a lesser man, both quotations might be easily dismissed or laughable, but from the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, we stop and read them twice, pondering what he might have known that we don't.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ledgendary Painters

Down through history, a few artists have become, what we call, "a legend in their own time."  Michelangelo undoubtedly fits this description, as does Leonardo, and in our own time, probably, Picasso and Dali. They are legends such that they are instantly recognizable by a single name alone. Another artist who could also be included in this class would be the Spanish painter, Francisco Goya. He was born in 1746 and his eighty-two years upon this earth gave him ample time to establish himself as a legend on a par with Renaissance counterparts. Temperamentally much like Michelangelo, Goya was a painter's painter; devoted to his art; reported to have died with a palette in his hand; admired by his contemporaries; but much more so by generations of etchers and portrait painters who have since come to worship his efforts.

Charles IV of Spain and his Family,
1800-01, Francisco Goya

Legend has it that this master painter worked with such effortless agility he could complete a painted likeness in as little as two or three hours. This no doubt was a quality much admired by the impatient, spoiled royalty of the Spanish court for whom he worked much of his life. His group portrait of the exceedingly homely family of King Charles IV probably did more to destroy any notion of nobility of this unnoteworthy ruling clan than all the exclamations of Spanish royal adversaries put together. Yet strangely enough, Goya managed to pull it off while maintaining himself in the good graces of his royal patron.

The Naked Maja, 1800, Francisco Goya
Along the same lines, one of Goya's most famous paintings, the Naked Maja, a nude portrait of the Duchess of Alva (who may or may not have been his mistress), was nonetheless much admired by those few close friends of the artist privileged to have seen it.  Her husband, the Duke, however, in hearing rumors of the artist's indiscretion in having painted his wife in the nude, (and perhaps suspecting Goya had more than an artistic interest in her portrayal) made known that he would visit the artist's studio to see for himself. 
The Clothed Maja, 1803, Francisco Goya

The next day, when he descended upon the Goya's humble abode, he found his wife's picture, rendered quite beautifully, but also quite tastefully dressed. In a single night, Goya was reported to have painted a second version, now known as The Clothed Maja, to avoid the wrath of her outraged husband. The legend, of course, is just that, a legend. Both paintings do exist, but the second was done several years later, after the duchess became a widow. Somehow, I like the legend better.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

les Fauves

With his suicide in July of 1890, Vincent Van Gogh cut short an explosive outburst of creative production that came little short of being artistically earth-shattering. Except for his brother, Theo, and perhaps Paul Gauguin, few knew at the time what a mad genius had passed on. It was some fifteen years before his work began to have an impact upon the work of others. In 1905, Maurice de Vlaminck, Andre Derain, and Henri Matisse were exposed to a retrospective of Van Gogh's work that had a profound impact upon them. That summer, they combined the dynamic brushwork of Van Gogh with their own love of pure, right-from-the-tube primary colors to produce, as Derain put it, "explosive sticks of dynamite". Their color influence came straight from Eugene Delacroix rather than Van Gogh, who was mostly a devotee of Impressionist color theory. With less concern about the appearance of the subjects they painted and primary emphasis on rhythmic brushstrokes and powerful color. They carried on Van Gogh as if he'd never traded his brushes for a revolver.   
Matisse was the oldest. He was born in 1869. Vlaminck (pronounced Vla-MANK) was born in 1876, while Derain, (pronounced Der-RAN) was the youngest, born in 1880. These three, painting together, evolving together, exhibiting together, were labeled by the French critic, Louis Vauxcelles, as "le Fauves" or Wild Beasts". The reference, of course, was primarily to their colors, and the label, like that of so many art movements, was intended to be derisive. But it was apt. By temperament, in appearance, and in artistic philosophy, these men all had a wild, "beastly" streak. Add to the list the work of Paul Gauguin, who was, of course, by this time quite dead, and you have a group ready to clobber the artistic sensitivities of every connoisseur and critic on the continent.  


Mountains of Collioure, 1906,  Andre Derain
Derain's (1905) Mountains of Collioure is typical. At first glance it appears not unlike a tempera painting done by a fairly talented 12-year-old. Its vivid blues, greens, and oranges on a manila-colored ground seem only incidentally to depict a French Riviera llandscape

The Chatou Bridge, 1906-07,
Maurice Vlaminck

Vlaminck's (1906) Landscape near Chatou, is most like the rhythmic brushwork of Van Gogh but with wilder color than even Derain. Merging a rawness of color with heaving, swirling strokes, Vlaminck's painting style is the most "beastly" of the three.

Woman with a Hat, 1905,
Henri Matisse
And from the same period, Matisse's The Woman with the Hat shows a similar disregard for observed color, though the painting style seems much more sympathetic to his subject than does any of Vlaminck's distant villages or Derain's turbulent seascapes. One of the most interesting unknowns in all of this is the hypothetical question of what Vincent Van Gogh would have thought of his stylistic descendants. Would he have been appreciative of their daring, color rebellion or as shocked as the rest of Paris at the length these "Wild Beasts" were willing to go to leave their mark on Modern Art?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lavinia Fontana

Today, there are thousands of artists who, through the luck of the draw, happen to be women. Their number may, in fact, be growing faster than that of their male counterparts. Actually, given that art, and painting in particular, have always been a "cottage industry", being an artist is a very convenient calling for women. Working out of the home, as artists often do, allows them to balance the sometimes conflicting roles of wife and mother. Likewise, it's not uncommon for these wives and mothers to be married to men who are also artists. What would be uncommon is for that wife/mother/artist to be so successful that her husband/artist gives up his own career to manage the household, children, and picture framing. But in the case of Lavinia Fontana, her husband, Gian Paolo Zappi, did just that. It sounds like a story from the glory days of the American women's movement of the 70's. Actually, that's the case, except it was the 1570s and the place was Bologna.

Noli Me Tangere, 1581, Lavinia Fontana
Lavinia Fontana was born in 1552, and, like most female artists of the time, learned to paint from her father, a follower of Raphael. By the time she was twenty, she was a well-respected painter of portraits and narratives. Her 1581 painting, Noli Me Tangere is typical of her work.  It depicts Christ revealing himself for the first time following his resurrection to Mary Magdalen.  Translated, the title means "Do not touch me." The lower two-thirds of the painting has Christ (whom Mary mistook for the gardener), carrying a spade, blessing her as she kneels before him. In the background is a vignette of Mary Magdalen and one of the apostles confronting the angel guarding the deserted tomb. The only discordant feature is the rather outlandish, over sized, wide-brimmed hat worn by her figure of Christ. It seems misplaced slightly to the right, giving the illusion of floating over his head like a halo. The device may have been added late in the painting process to correct what appears to be an anatomical defect in the upper body of her figure. He appears to be slouching.

Lavinia's career might seem extraordinary, but Bologna at the time had almost two dozen female artists. She seems to have been the best of the lot in that late in her career, she moved to Rome and became the official painter to the papal court. There she was discovered by the Hapsburgs of Austria, who paid  an exorbitant amount of money to lure her from Rome to Vienna. There, in 1611, she was honored with a commemorative medal. The engraved portrait is a double-sided depiction.  On the one side the artist is elegantly coiffed in the highest fashion of the day. On the other, she is depicted in a sort of working frenzy, sleeves rolled up, her hair wild and uncombed, an intensely determined look on her face.  Such a dichotomy women artists today might easily identify with.
commemorative medal, 1611,

commemorative medal, 1611,
(Reverse detail)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Last Judgment Judgments

The Last Judgment, 1541,

Some time ago I speculated as to whether Michelangelo, in painting his Last Judgement, fresco, located in the Sistine Chapel behind the altar, might have been influenced by the Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch. I suggested this because The last Judgement is a far cry from the classicism of Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling fresco. Painted some 29 years later and unvieled by Pope Paul III in 1541, the new work had taken some seven years to complete. It sparked another twenty years of controversy.       
Behind the debate was the question of "decorum" or whether or not the work was appropriate to the chapel. The controversy was all the more unusual coming in an age of unprecedented freedom in the area of intellectual and artistic pursuits. There was the nudity thing of course. Michealangelo was no stranger to this debate. It had dogged him all during the time he worked on the ceiling. This time however, he didn't have Jullius II to go to bat for him. As a result, while the bodies remained nude (for all intents and purposes), the genitals were thinly disguised by later artists.       
Beyond this though, there was other nit-picking. The figure of Christ was beardless and too young to portray the "majesty" some thought it should exude. The bodies are "heavy" as compared to the "grace" of the ceiling figures. And in the Last Judgement, unlike the ceiling, there was not the loving innocense, the optimism, or the Sunday School lesson qualities that had made his early work so beloved.  The Last Judgement is chaotic, hard-edged, frightening, and frankly, to paraphrase Oldsmobile, "Not your father's Michelangelo".  In short, the work was disturbing. A cold wind from the north was blowing into the Catholic Church and chilling it's art. His name was Martin Luther.       

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Lascaux Paintings

Picture if you will, the South-central part of France, September, 1940, four teenaged boys running, playing ball, a sunny day, their dog chasing after them, trying to be a part of their noisy game. The landscape is green, the late summer sun brings the morning a sense of warmth, drying the dewy dampness of the grassy, rolling hills. A scene from a Monet landscape perhaps?  No, but these boys and their dog are about to make art history. One boy throws the ball to the other. The throw is wild.  The second boy misses it. The ball rolls along the ground and into a small hole, no more than a foot in diameter. Their dog chases the ball into the hole and disappears. The boys converge on the hole, hearing their dog barking from within. Frantically, they dig with their hands, widening the hole, opening it up until they can just barely squeeze their slender, adolescent bodies inside. It is dark, but even with no more illumination than that coming from their hand-crafted entrance, they realize they have not stumbled upon just another long-forgotten limestone cave for which the area near Lascaux, France, had long been known.    

Lascaux cave art, 15,000-2,0000 BC, Cro Magnon
Kneeling in wonder with their dog, they gaze up in awe at the incredible panoply of animal images, starkly arrayed before them like something out of their childhood storybooks. Even though, in the darkness, they can see only a fraction of the magnificent painted images decorating the walls of their new found "special place," as it came to be known, they instinctively understand its significance. Later that day, bringing shovels and lanterns, they widen their boy-size hole to nearly four feet in diameter. Now they can see more, bison, horses, cattle, all rendered in crisp, realistic detail. They have no inkling of how old the painted images are.The next day, when they allow the first adults to view their amazing discovery, the consensus of opinion is that the images were modern-day forgeries. The boys are even accused of having painted them themselves.   
Lascaux cave art, 15,000-20,000 BC,
Cro Magnon man
Later, as art and archeology experts are brought in to inspect the walls, the real importance of the boys' accidental discovery begins to dawn. The paintings are estimated to be 15,000 years old, at the time, by far the oldest artwork known to man. Further into the cave, the famous "Hall of Bulls" is discovered. Realistic images of horses, bulls, and reindeer are superimposed upon one another, apparently stampeding in all directions. For the most part, the images are fairly linear, but often their are colored masses, amazing, only slightly stylized details, and everywhere, a feeling of dynamic movement that could only have come from the memories of the primitive inhabitants of the region as they struggled to hunt and kill the very beasts they also immortalized with their crude tools and exquisite renderings. Yet, there is nothing crude about these figures. There is foreshortening, contrasts of light and dark, creating illusions of three-dimensional beings. It's little wonder, thousands of years later, France became an important center of art and culture for much of western Europe. Even 15,000 years ago, there was already an impressive tradition of painting and drawing.    
Lascaux cave art, 15,000-20,000 BC., Cro Magnon man

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Landscape

Taos Mountain Trail Home, 1915-20, Cordelia Wilson

There seems to be a direct correlation between the art of landscape painting and the degree to which a society in a given era lives "close to the land". This was true in the era of the Hudson River School just as it pervades the art today of the Taos community in New Mexico. The more the "land" dominates and determines man's daily existence, the more it dominates the arts. The more threatening the environment in which a given society exists, the more importance the weather plays into the art of landscape painting.   
The corollary to all this is that once people have begun to "conquor" a given geographical area and cope with its environment to the point that it is no longer a threat to their existence, then landscape painting becomes nostalgic, and/or declines noticably in importance. It gives way to other more important subjects such as expressionism, introspection, social commentary, art for art's sake (as in abstraction), or simply "pretty pictures"   
The Rocky Mountains, 1907,
Thomas Mower Martin (Canadian)
An interesting example of this can be seen in the fact that in areas such as Canada and Southwestern United States, where the land is still very much wild and the weather even wilder, there remains a strong, contemporary, affinity for landscape painting. Contrast this with the east coast of the U.S., where only the relentless (and often threatening) sea holds any interest for the landscape  artist. Or look at the work coming out of urban areas where the landscape as a subject for art is looked upon as being somehow "quaint"; where artists only paint to impress one another, their struggle being not with the landscape around them but with that landscape within themselves.   

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

La Ruche

As artists, it is only natural to sometimes sit and ponder art in general and painting in particular, to try to look upon what's happening today with a certain degree of perspective. With this new century well underway, we can only guess what frontiers we might now stand upon. Just over one hundred years ago, artists and thinkers must have had similar thoughts. Unlike today, when there is no geographic center in the art world, a century ago, the place to be was Paris. And why not, they were having a World's Fair. Even in Paris, the artistic center of gravity was changing. During the Impressionist era, the place to be was Montmartre, not too far from the center of the city. As the 20th century began, that had shifted toward the meadows of Montparnasse, on the proverbial left bank of the Seine, and near where the 1900 World's Fair was held.

LaRuche as seen today

During the fair, a revolutionary piece of architecture known as La Ruche (the beehive) was used as an exhibition hall for the wine industry. Afterwards, it was sold for a surprisingly modest sum to a sculptor named Alfred Boucher. He turned the round, three-story structure into a sort of artists' commune with twelve different studio apartments around a central stairway. The ceilings were high with sleeping lofts above the workspace which also doubled as living room and kitchen. The rents were very low and the renters congenial. The first to move in were Avant-garde painters Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Leger, both destined to make major names for themselves during the new century.

It was not just an abode for artists, however. Political refuges also called it home, among them, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Anatoli Lunacharsky. Also from Russia came Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Archipenko, Osip Zadkine, and Chaim Soutine. One of the last to take up residence was Moshe Zakharovich Shagal who arrived in 1910. He was Russian, like many of the others. He spoke no French, but communicated instead with his painting in a new, highly colorful and distinctive iconography that bridge the gap between the arty Paris of the first decade of this century and his Russian-Jewish 19th century heritage. He changed his name to the French sounding Marc Chagall, and made friends quickly. The contacts he made while living at La Ruche were to have a profound impact on his career as this peculiar structure became a "beehive" for the minds that would later direct one of the greatest, failed social experiments of this, or any other century.

Monday, March 21, 2011

La Grenouillere

Some time ago I wrote of a small, Paris bistro named the Cafe Guerbois where many of the future Impressionists hung out with Eduoard Manet. Actually, another French restaurant played a very important role in the development of Impressionism about this time. The Restaurant was a riverside establishment with gaily colored tables, bunting, awnings, and flowers next to the Seine a few miles outside Paris. The restaurant was Fournaise's and the world will forever be indebted to Moisseur Fournaise for literally keeping alive the struggling artist Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir during the seminal summer of 1869, by accepting some of their paintings in trade for food as the two men struggled to give birth to some of the first truly "impressionist" landscape paintings.         
La Grenouiliere, 1869, Claude Monet

The popular bathing and boating attraction was known as La Grenouillere, which literally translates to "frog pond". The name is something of a misnomer in that it was not a pond and there were no "frogs" there to speak of. But the term "frog" did not refer to the Kermit type or his warty little cousins. No, instead, "frog" was a slang used by young men of the time to refer to girls, much as girls today might be called "chicks" or in England, "birds." Though both men were married, they no doubt enjoyed the "view" in more ways than one. However it was the painting the two men did there that summer that marked a sort of congealing of Impressionism into something tangible and substantive. Monet's watery reflections in particular, as the two men painted the same boats and the same tiny island next to Fournaise's, make up what is perhaps one of the most beautiful Impressionist paintings ever done.   

La Grenouiliere, 1869, Auguste Renoir
Though both Renoir and Monet could barely afford paint that summer, the richness of color--stunning blues, deep, rich greens, and bright yellows--belied their poverty-stricken existence. Monet would literally painted until he ran out of color, then take up sketching in preparation for the next time he could pull together a few francs from his friends in order to continue. The two though, seem to have developed a camaraderie there on the banks of the Seine as they painted numerous versions of the same festive, adult playground that transcended art, hunger, or money troubles. You can see it in their work.  It is a sort of painted jubilation at having finally arrived at a mature style, something they could put their fingers on and say, this is who I am in paint.     

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Juan Gris

Each of us has an innate sense of fairness, and when we feel we've not been dealt with justly we cry, "That's not fair."  Of course it's commonly pointed out to us that "life" is not fair. The same could be said of history, and by implication, art history as well. When you think of Cubism, what artist comes to mind? Picasso, right? And if you're a particularly astute student of art history perhaps Georges Braque. Would you be surprised to find that there was a third cubist painter, Picasso's next door neighbor in fact. Though not entirely unknown, it seems he may have been dealt with somewhat unfairly by art history in that he's seldom associated with the other two in our pigeonhole minds as an early Cubist explorer. I guess this might not be surprising in that anyone working in the shadow of a man like Pablo Picasso, even Braque, would have a tendency to be obscured somewhat by the man's powerful personal and historic presence. Another reason might be that Juan Gris died at the young age of 39.

Gris (pronounced Greese) was born Jose Victoriano Gonzalez in Spain on March 13, 1887, making him a few years younger than Picasso, but like Picasso, a Spaniard, minus his fiery disposition. Whereas Picasso, and to a lesser extent, Braque, painted instinctively; Gris was known to work much more methodically, intellectually picking up where the other two left off, perhaps what we might call re-mining the mother lode. Art historians have forever had difficulty discerning between the work of Braque and Picasso, and not without good cause. The two for a time worked so closely Braque compared them to two mountain climbers roped together, pulling one another up. In comparing Gris' work with theirs, we could easily, at first glance, find his work also hard to differentiate. He used the same themes, the same wood grain effects, the same newsprint motif, even many of the same colors. But upon closer inspection, there are significant differences.

Portrait of Picasso,1912, Juan Gris
Gris is often, and I think unfairly, criticized as being a mere imitator of Cubism. Yet in many ways he could be considered the most dedicated Cubist of the three. Long after Picasso and Braque had moved on, Gris was still probing and developing the style, discovering new and unique ways to see in a Cubist manner. He watched Picasso, respected him deeply, and paid homage to him in one of his first Cubists works, Portrait of Picasso, painted in 1912 and exhibited along with Picasso's in the first major Cubist show that year. At the time, he was seen as Picasso's equal. Though by no means the leader of the movement, we are only now, in recent years, seeing Gris' deft, Cubist incarnations outside the shadow cast by his more flamboyant countryman. His work is more analytical than Picasso's, more experimental in terms of collage materials, and to some extent more abstract. The problem is, he was not Picasso, and died some fifty years before Picasso.  What could be more unfair?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Joshua Reynolds

One of the advantages of being an artist is that it allows you to rub shoulders with a better class of people. While one no longer has to be wealthy to afford good art, a certain amount of discretionary income seems to be a prerequisite for acquiring fine art, even today. And of course, the better artist one is, the better class of clients one attracts (read wealthier). This was certainly well-entrenched in the mind of an aspiring teenage artist named Joshua Reynolds as he completed a four-year apprenticeship in the London portrait factory of Thomas Hudson in only two years. Thereupon, he set himself up in Plympton, Devonshire, England near a royal naval base where he painted portraits of young officers while their ships were in port. He was at best, mediocre, his work ranging from poor to good though even his best work was unexceptional.

Miss Price, 1769-70, Sir Joshua Reynolds
But the young man was nothing if not doggedly determined. Born of middle-classed parentage in 1723, Reynolds was the son of a clergyman who moonlighted as a school master. He painted his first portrait at the age of twelve on sailcloth using paint from the local shipyard. His formal education ended in his early teens when he left his father's tutelage for London. At the age of 23, he hitched a ride on a British naval vessel to Italy where he studied intently the work of Raphael and other Italian masters. In returning to England, he shrewdly began painting portraits of children of doting English aristocrats. Although he was a bachelor all his life, his work from this period indicates a certain "way with children." The mischief and merriment he captured in the faces seems to light up every one of his juvenile depictions.
Admiral Augustu Keppel,
1752-53, Sir Joshua Reynolds

But Reynolds longed for better things. In 1760, with the ascension of George III to the throne, some 69 London painters held a sort of English version of the Paris Salon in which Reynolds' portrait of a dashing young Admiral, Augustus, Viscount Keppel, striding along a stormy seashore stood out among the 130 other works exhibited. It served to topple Allan Ramsay as the leading painter of London society. The pose in the painting is based quite literally on the Roman statue known as the Apollo Belvedere which Reynolds had studied in Rome. With this success, he acquired a mansion in the fashionable London suburb of Leicester Fields and was soon turning out over 150 portraits a year, employing a staff of assistants to paint backgrounds and clothes in the portraits. It wasn't quite the Thomas Hudson portrait factory but it was close. Reynolds cultivated a number of literary friends who helped him acquire the classical education he'd missed as a child. They also powered a PR machine to augment Reynolds' already shameless knack for self-promotion. The stature he acquired later came in handy as he helped found the British Royal Academy of art which he personally ran for some twenty years until his death in 1788. Reynolds is credited with being most responsible for lifting the status of English art that his countrymen enjoy to this day.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Joseph Stella

If you think the painters and paintings of the Ashcan School, in depicting the urban landscape with their social realism was a bit grim, take heart. There is another side to the coin. There was also a school of artists (though it's an ism rather than a school this time) that looked upon the urban landscape not with foreboding but with an exciting, optimistic outlook, reveling in the soaring skyscrapers, the gaudy neon, the noise, the perpetual motion, and the gargantuan scale that was the American cityscape in the first half of the twentieth century. This movement included artists such as Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Stuart Davis, and Joseph Stella. This movement was called Futurism (sometimes Precisionism).

Coney Island, Battle of the Lights, 1913, Joseph Stella

The city might be New York, but the movement, as well as its most prominent practitioner, were both imported. Joseph Stella was one of the original signers of the Futurist Manifesto, which, like Stella, was born in Italy where he happened to be a student at the time; and where he was greatly influenced by Gino Severini, Carlo Carra, and Umberto Boccioni, the real founders and leaders of Futurism in Europe. However, even though he was born in Italy, Stella had been an American since the age of 19 and thus was able to endow the American brand of Futurism with a delightful, bustling vigor not seen in the work of his European counterparts. His painting, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, done in 1913, is a fantastic example of this. Though stylistically quite abstract, one can nevertheless make out a melange of roller coasters, sea gulls, Ferris wheels, and neon signs rising from a dark well-littered base to a towering pinnacle replete with searchlights and skyrockets. You can almost smell the popcorn and cotton candy!

Brooklyn Bridge: Variaton on an
Old Theme, 1939, Joseph Stella
However Stella's most famous work came some 26 years later and is, coloristically at least, more subdued, lofty, and grand. The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an old theme, came at the high point in his career (he died in 1946). Rising this time from a base depicting the city's skyline, steel cables sweep upward majestically to a pinnacle illuminated by the beam of a single searchlight, between the lofty, Gothic arches that are the trademark of this landmark. Through these arches are the stylized skyscrapers that symbolize his version of the urban landscape, soaring daily to new heights amidst the chattering of the jackhammers and the shrill sirens of emergency vehicles. Here it seems, Stella has replaced the delicious smells of the amusement park with the vibrant sounds of the big city.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

John Singleton Copley

For a budding young artist in Colonial America the possibilities of making a living at his craft must have seemed rather daunting. There was basically only two types of painting provincial America was interested in--sign painting and portraiture  Later, as the American Revolution neared, there was a growing use of etchings and woodcuts but these were more in the area of illustrations or advertising/graphic design, and while they were good training for the would-be painter, they offered limited options in the area of creativity and, like sign painting, they were mostly utilitarian in nature. Portraiture of course was a high art and those few who were very good at it (sadly most were quite mediocre at best) could earn a respectable livelihood. However if one aspired to more, there was only one optionm go to Europe; and being English, that usually meant London.    
Paul Revere, 1770,
John Singleton Copley
This was the plight of John Singleton Copley. Born in 1738, he'd learned his craft from his stepfather who was an engraver. He'd paid his dues as a portrait painter, and a very good one at that. His portrait of Paul Revere, for instance, and several group portraits of his own and other colonial families before the war raised him to perhaps the preeminent portrait artist in the colonies. And, residing in Boston, he probably could have lived out his years quite comfortably as the New England equivalent of Philadelphia's Gilbert Stuart, or Charles Wilson Peale. Many would argue, in fact, that he was a better painter than either of these countrymen. Instead, he chose England, and later, at the behest of Benjamin West, studied in Italy.  He arrived in London in 1774. Later, seeing war on the horizon, his family joined him there.   
Watson and the Shark, 1778, John Singleton Copley
Probably Copley's greatest, non-portrait masterpiece is Watson and the Shark, painted in 1778. The work is considered history painting in the broad sense, because it depicts an actual incident, although it doesn't encompass an epic event such as a war or a coronation. In many respects however, it is one of the most dramatic and exciting paintings of its kind ever done. The scene is Havana harbor in Cuba where a nude boy of perhaps 18 (Brook Watson) with long, flowing, blond hair is about to be attacked by a sizable shark. The boy and the shark are arrayed in the watery foreground while in the middle-ground, in a longboat, a harpooner is about to plunge his weapon into the shark passing just in front of the boat.  Meanwhile seven other figures in the boat strain to rescue the hapless young man.  A misty Havana waterfront can be seen in the background.  The work, commissioned by the boy's father, is a masterpiece of planning, draftsmanship, and emotion-filled action. The painting served as a sort of "grand entrance" for Copley into London art circles. So successful was he in London that after the war, Copley and his family never returned to this country.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

John James Audubon

Not too far from where I live, in Marietta, Ohio, is published a monthly periodical, founded by a local couple, which is considered the premier source for the legions of amateur and professional ornithologist in this country. It's called The Bird Watcher's Digest. Today we take this rather refined, outdoorsy hobbyist for granted and sometimes even make jokes about them, but for those taken with the frolics and fortunes of our fine, feathered friends, the magazine is like their bible. They take their avocation very seriously.  Not surprisingly, their patron saint was an artist.      

The Ivcry-billed Woodpecker,
John James Audubon
I'm sure, when John James Audubon first undertook his groundbreaking travels trying to document visually in a bird encyclopedia, the fowl of his adopted fatherland, there must have been amateur bird watchers then as now. Without cameras and zoom lenses however, they were undoubtedly quite localized and disorganized. Audubon managed to remedy both these problems. What he brought to his effort was most of all patience, followed by intense curiosity, wanderlust, the ability to record acute observations, and a credible facility for handling watercolor. It was a rare mix, and generations of bird watchers for 150 years have been indebted to him.
Golden Eagle, 1833-34,
John James Audubon

Audubon was born in 1785 on the Caribbean Island of Haiti. As a teenager, he moved to Philadelphia to manage some family properties, which he was never very good at. He was 37 when he first decided to combine his two hobbies, birds and painting. For the next sixteen years he traveled from Florida to Labrador and west well into Texas waiting, watching, sketching, and ultimately painting. Fortunately, he'd had the foresight to solicit subscriptions amongst his bird-watching friends to support his ornithological vice.  He completed some 435 studies in detailed watercolors. His painted compositions were exciting and often lighthearted. Upon his return, he enlisted the help of London printmaker, Robert Havell, in using the aquatint process to reproduce his work. The larger areas of neutral colors were inked on the plates while the other colors were added by hand on the prints themselves. It was a costly process. In all, Audubon invested the then astronomical sum of $100,000 in the project. However, he was well rewarded for his work and financial risk. Between 1840 and 1844, 2000 sets of prints were sold at $1000 EACH.  Do the math.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

John Constable

If one were to take a census of painters today I think we'd find that there are more landscape painters (artists who primarily paint landscapes) than any other type. Of course in a country as broad and diverse geographically as ours, this is not altogether surprising. The tradition for landscape painting in this country is second only to portrait painting. I guess we could derive from this that we hold dear to us family first, and then the land. Yet in Europe, from whence we inherited most of our artistic antecedents, the art of painting the land is not all that ancient. Durer in the 1500s and Loraine and Poussin in the 1600s painted a few "scenes" as they were called then, as did Rubens. But it was left to the Dutch painters, Aelbert Cuyp, Jacob Van Ruisdael, and his pupil Meindert Hobbema to treat the landscape as anything much more than mere "backgrounds" and do any serious artistic study of the land around them.   
Although the French Rococo painters such as Watteau played with fantasy landscapes in the 1700s, in France, it took Barbizon painters until the 1850s to "discover" nature and real landscape painting. This discovery happened somewhat earlier in England as John Constable began a love affair with the English countryside in the early 1800s. Born in 1775, the son of an upper-middle-class miller, Constable drew on the landscape images of his youth in rural southern England. Although influenced by Van Ruisdael and Rubens, Constable undertook something approaching a scientific study of the sky, the land, the water, and the activities of his fellow countrymen he saw struggling to make the most of these natural elements.   
The White Horse, 1819, John Constable
One of Constable's most interesting works, bringing together all four of these interests, was his 1819 painting The White Horse. In the sky, we see his trademark clouds with a storm brewing in the distant far right side of the painting. The landscape is rural, but not wild, with numerous period structures giving evidence of man's long history of inhabiting the area. In the foreground is a pristine river upon which floats a barge with the white horse and it's attendants. It would appear to be the depiction of an actual location in that Constable seems to have struggled with the tendency of the scene to divide itself into three sections. Each third of the painting divided vertically works quite well as an independent composition. In fact, he seems to have had some success in solving this problem in that the left two-thirds also seems fairly satisfactory compositionally. However the right third, while pleasing enough in itself, has the most noticeable "divide" and seems not to contribute much to the rest of the painting. But then, who ever said landscapes were easy? No doubt, even Constable would agree.   

Monday, March 14, 2011

Joan Miro

If one wished to undertake a study of abstract art, I can think of no better place to start than with the work of the Spanish surrealist/abstractionist, Joan Miro. There is a historical perspective in terms of the development of abstraction but studying this difficult vein of art from that point of view is rather dry and academic, it offers little help in terms of understanding abstraction. Miro on the other hand is "lite" abstraction. He's a fun artist. Even in some of his "heavier" works, there is still a lighthearted, squiggly playfulness that makes his painting much easier to digest than a DeKooning or Franz Kline, for example. Somehow, we get the feeling Miro's work doesn't take itself too seriously.     
The Tilled Field, 1923-24, Joan Miro

 Born in 1893 in Barcelona, Spain, Miro was the sun of a successful goldsmith. Like many artists, he exhibited prodigious talent from childhood though with apparently little encouragement from his parents. Upon graduation from high school they forced him into an office job.  When he became ill, he was sent to the family farm to recover. There he found the freedom to pursue his first love--painting.  The First World War came and went. Realizing their son was serious about an art career, his parents allowed him to attend art school. In the 1920's, like so many other would-be artists, Joan Miro found his way to the capital of the art world at the time--Paris. There he started out painting quaint, story-book-like farm scenes from his childhood. But the avant-garde quickly invaded his psyche and his work began to become more and more symbolic. He flirted with Dali's surrealism, toyed with Picasso's cubism, and played endlessly with abstracted forms popular with any number of artists of the time, even going so far to paint abstractionist versions of famous Dutch masterpieces.   
La Lecon die Ski, 1966, Joan Miro
With the deja-vu of WWII tormenting him, he fled France for his homeland, the horrors of Nazism in France for the fascist "security" of Spain, only to find it necessary to flee again, this time into himself--into his deepest inner being where he explored the fantasy dreams and nightmares, drawing them out from his psyche, onto hundreds of canvases representing his mature style. Symbolic elements recurred, ladders, mobile-like figures, spidery figures, chirping figures, all floating about over visually textured surfaces of make-believe environments. Miro is a good primer in the study of abstraction. There is an easy progression from the representational, through the symbolic, to the non-representational with little side-trips to surrealism and cubism. Late in his life, Miro moved once more to the US, where he undertook a number of murals celebrating the delightful little world of his inner self. He died in 1984 at the age of 91.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jean-Simeon Chardin

Every era in art has those artists that seem to, march to the beat of a different drummer. Today that might be an artist painting wall-size landscapes on canvas, or painting grandiose history paintings, or perhaps genre, or surrealism. Such an artist would seem to be "out of touch," so to speak. Perhaps one of the best examples of just such an artist would be Jean-Simeon Chardin. Born in 1699, he came to bloom during what we call the Rococo period in French art, working opposite artist such as Francois Boucher, Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Honore Fragonard. His work, had it reflected the prevailing style, would have been light, frilly, pretty, sweet, decorative, and perhaps slightly erotic, all terms, both positive and negative, that we have come to associate with French Rococo painting.

Silver Cup, 1768, Jean-Simeon Chardin

Yet strangely, Chardin's work is none of these things. First of all, during much of his life, he painted only still-lifes and even then more in a Dutch style rather than any manner seeming the least bit French. In fact, one could almost say he brought still life painting to French art where there had been practically no tradition of it in the past. And unlike his contemporaries, he painted only on a small scale, meticulously, and slowly, just a few simple objects, exploring subtle differences in shape and texture, totally absent any moralizing or complex compositions. Though exquisitely done, his still-lifes of simple foods, fruits, kitchenware, etc., lacked anything one could in any way consider elegant, frilly, or frothy.  It was not Rococo.

Dressing Table, Jean-Simeon Chardin
In his forties, Chardin began applying his skills as a still-life painter to small domestic scenes, especially those exploring the quiet lives of everyday, middle-class families, predominantly women, domestic servants, and children. Again there was a Dutch quality to his work but with a distinctively French flavor. His paintings would seem almost to be miniatures of that which his fellow Parisian artist were doing at the time. Perhaps it was nostalgia, perhaps the novelty of them, whatever the case, his work had an appeal to the aristocracy of the time, and even to royalty. In fact, they bought so many of them it kept Chardin busy constantly painting copies or variations of his most popular works.

Soap Bubbles, 1754, Jean-Simeon Chardin
Probably the most popular subject was one of a teenage boy, at a window, quietly blowing soap bubbles. A 1745 version, now in the National Gallery in Washington, is typical. In it, Chardin has added a smaller boy peering up over the edge of the window trying to see what the older boy (his brother perhaps) is doing.  Even to this, simple scene, the French typically attached moral strings--the boy's wasting of precious time blowing bubbles which represent the fragile, fleeting nature of human life. Can't anyone have any fun anymore?