Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ralph Blakelock

At a time when nearly every American artist of any consequence was expected to study in Europe, one in particular did not.  In fact he didn't study anywhere in particular. He was primarily self-taught.  Instead of heading across the sea, Ralph Blakelock headed west. Already an accomplished landscape painter, exhibiting in the National Academy of Design, he set off in 1869 for the west, visiting what later became Nevada, California, Wyoming, and Colorado.  Long after he returned to New York, he continued to draw upon sketches and memories of this adventure for most of his subject matter.  His work is characterized by a moody, mysterious appearance, often depicting night scenes , such as his Moonlight, Indian Encampment of 1889.   
Moonlight, Indian Encampment, 1889, Ralph Blakelock
Born in 1849, the son of a New York physician, Blakelock's romantic landscapes, often featured a silhouetted foreground of various bitumen pigments (coal tar), which darkens with age. His work exhibited heavy impasto painting that was at the same time delicate and elegant against the strongly contrasting background of moonlight and water, reminiscent of the work of  the English pre-impressionist, J.M.W. Turner. With a large family to support, Blakelock's work did not find a ready market in the East, contributing to a series of endless financial woes that eventually led to a mental breakdown. He was institutionalized in 1891.   
Yet, like Van Gogh in France, at about the same time, Blakelock could not stop painting. And, even though supplies were scarce, his output did not diminish. Often reduced to painting on cardboard, fragments of window shades, or wallpaper, he continued to create his beloved landscapes. Strangely enough, after a time, his work began to attract critical attention and purchases. With this came an increase in prices and ironically, a virtual flood of forgeries. It has been documented that there are more Blakelock forgeries, than originals. He was released from the mental insitution in 1916. He died a year later.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

If ever there was a love/hate relationship in the fine arts it would have to be that with regard to nostalgia. The Avant-garde has always hated it with a passion usually reserved for serial killers and mosquitoes. The public, and artists catering to the those  having discretionary funds with which to purchase artwork, have a deep and abiding respect for "the good old days" right up there with baseball, football, and ball point pens. The interesting thing is that each generation keeps modernizing that which they consider nostalgia, in effect creating the oxymoron, "new nostalgia". But aside from that, there is nothing "new" about nostalgia. It has been around for generations and (love it or hate it) it is one of the most consistent elements in art. A hundred and fifty years ago it reached something of a zenith in England with the appearance of a group of seven artists who dubbed themselves the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood".

As the name suggests, when these guys waxed nostalgic, they didn't mess around. They went back another 250 years to the good old days of Raphael and those artist who preceded him in search of a didactic realism they felt their contemporaries had forsaken. Draftsmanship and literal color ruled!  And, sweet loveliness ruled supreme! It was almost as if they sat out to give nostalgia a bad name. Chief among these was William Morris, the founder of the movement, as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, John Everett Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones (these guys were rather fond of their middle names).  Some, like Brown, weren't quite as nostalgic as others. He longed for the good old days of Gothic art while others, such as Hunt viewed moral truth and visual accuracy as tantamount to a religion of sorts.

La Pia de' Tolomei, 1868-69, Dante Rossetti
(retouched periodically until about 1880)
Dante Rossetti was partial to the middle-ages, and his friend, William Morris' wife, Jane Burden, in whom he found the qualities of physical beauty and sad, melancholy that precisely suited his ideal of the medieval spiritual perfection he deemed lacking in that art which was being created during his own lifetime. His painting La Pia de' Tolomei, (more or less) completed in 1869, relies on a scene from Dante's Purgatory to probe his own romantic illusions with regard to his friend's wife. 

Queen Guinevere, 1858, William Morris
These guys gave perfection a bad name.
Jane Burden also appears in the only painting ever produced by her husband, William Morris, titled Queen Guinevere, dated 1858.  To an Englishman, nothing is more dear nor nostalgic than Camelot, yet Morris (despite the fact he was painting his lovely wife) was much more interested in depicting the handicrafts of the era than the tragic story of King Arthur. The entire focus of his nostalgia was against the advent of the "machine age" and the gaudy designs of manufactured household items Morris encountered at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Praying Hands

Some time ago I wrote on the subject of legendary artists, specifically the work of Francisco Goya and his Nude Maja. Another artist of legendary proportions is Albrecht Durer, the fifteenth-sixteenth century German painter and etcher who, though 19 years younger, was roughly the Northern Renaissance equivalent of Leonardo Da Vinci in terms of his paintings and etchings. Certainly there is very much a passing resemblance in their style, perhaps because Durer studied some in Italy and undoubtedly knew of Leonardo's work. The legend that has grown up around Durer relates to his most famous work of art, his so-called Praying Hands.

Hands, 1508, Albrecht Durer
The facts of Durer's life are certainly as interesting as the Hands (the original title). He was born in 1471, one of 18 children of a Nuremberg goldsmith. The legend has it that Albrecht, and one of his brothers, Albert, both displayed considerable talent in the way of art, but that given the size of the family, there was no hope that both of them could go to the local art academy. So an agreement was reached between the two brothers that the one winning a coin toss would attend college while the other would work in the nearby coal minds to support him for four years, at which time the other brother would go to school supported by whatever means necessary by the first. Needless to say Albrecht won the toss and in less than four years had made something of a name for himself as an artists.

In returning home, legend has it Albrecht was prepared to uphold his end of the bargain, only to come to the realization that his younger brother Albert's hands, suffering the abuse of four years in the mines, could no longer hold the tools of the artist's trade. To make a long story short, in gratitude, Albrecht drew his brother's gnarled hands, thereby creating one of the most beloved and touching pieces of Christian art in the world today.  Is the story true?  I don't know, and given the almost 500 years that have passed since the work was done, it's unlikely anyone else does either.  But those of us who owe a debt of gratitude to others for our being the artists we are today, would like to think so.  In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter anyway. Art historians would point to the vast quantity of Durer's other work, most of it at least arguably better than the Hands (certainly less overexposed), and note the fact that it's a lovely story, perhaps a little too conveniently illustrating a moral that may or may not have been intended by the artist,  Durer was, in any case, a devoutly religious man. I guess we might all hope that someday, something we do with our talented hands might give rise to such a beautiful story.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Poussinistes Versus the Rubenistes

Rape of the Sabine Women, 1637-83, Nicholas Poussin,
is quite architectonic with a tendency toward
highly controlled, staged bedlam.
Artists have argued about art likely since the earliest prehistoric painters debated the advisability of including human figures among the animals on the walls of their caves. In matters of taste, there is always room for disagreement. Perhaps one of the longest, most divisive art controversies took place in France during the mid-1800s. The two camps were called the Poussinistes and the Rubenistes after their titular idols, Nicholas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens. The Poussinistes proclaimed the primacy of drawing and draftsmanship in painting while the Rubenistes argued that color should rule the day. The Poussinistes followed the well-worn path of classical art from Greek and Roman antiquities up through the Renaissance. The Rubenistes adored the vibrant colors and aggressive brushstrokes of the more recent Baroque artists.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1611 or 1612, Peter Paul Rubens,
displays subject matter similar to Poussins (above) but with 
 much more robust compositional masses and brushwork.
Actually, Poussin and Rubens themselves had little or nothing to do with the controversy.  The real protagonists were Jean-Aguste-Dominique Ingres (pronounced Ang) and Eugene Delacroix (pronounced Dela-kwa). Ingres had been a student of the outstanding classical master-painter Jacques Louis David (pronounced Da-veed) and was 18 years older than his rival. The competition between the two split the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture down the middle and continued largely unabated from the early 1820s until both men died in the mid-1860s.  Of course by that time, the young Turks of Impressionism were deciding the whole matter was something of a moot point anyway. And, while they might tend toward The Rubenistes color theories and painting techniques, they hated the academic arguments and classical subject matter of both camps.

Hippopotomus Hunt, 1616, Peter Paul Rubes, offers a
better example of the color and brushwork the Rubenistes
admired so much.
The fact is, neither side was entirely right or entirely wrong.  Given the state of art, and painting in particular, in the 1800s, both sides needed each other. Drawing offered form, while paint provided color.  Without both there would have been no painting at all. The theories of hemispheric domination were, of course, unknown at the time, but the matter essentially came down to a left-brain/right-brain approach to art. The left side of the brain, being the analytical side, demanded careful drawing, adherence to scientific rules, even in matters of aesthetics and color theory. Dozens of preliminary sketches were carefully condensed to a single, tightly drawn image on canvas to which carefully muted colors were delicately added over an extended period of time. The right side of the brain, being the visual and emotional hemisphere, tended toward an instinctive approach both in drawing, and especially in color use. Drawing was done with a brush with wet paint swishing sensuously over virgin canvas, evolving into emotionally charged patterns of light and dark then to powerful masses of vibrant color and texture. Works were often executed, start to finish, in only a few hours of ecstatic painting frenzy. Today, not all that much has changed. The only difference is the names--the Rockwellians and the Pollockers perhaps?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Piet Mondrian and De Stijl

Composition with Yellow, Red, and Blue,
1937-42, Piet Mondrian
No human event has a greater effect upon mankind than a war. During the war, of course, there is killing and bloodshed. There is destruction--physical, human, and emotional. Art and war are antithetical. Art is about creation. War is about destruction. War always wins. But wars, fortunately, end. Art does not. In fact, it is in the aftermath of war that art often flourishes like never before. But even after a war is all over, it's not all over. War influences art. The Civil War resulted in heroic, sculptural monuments springing up all across America like fresh grass on a battlefield.  he Second World War was largely responsible for the congregation in this country of American and European art genius that came to be known as the New York School. And the First World War brought such chaos to Europe that in its aftermath, artists like Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian searched only for order, harmony, and formalism.

Red and Blue Chair, 1917, Gerrit Rietveld
Mondrian was born in 1872.  In his early years, he painted naturalistic landscapes bending toward a sort of restrained Fauvism until he stumbled upon Picasso in Paris. There he discovered Analytic Cubism. After 1911, and up until the war, he tended toward abstraction in his painting, a sort of elegant, cubist approach to his landscapes. During the war, in the Netherlands, he met another painter, Theo van Doesburg. Together they started De Stijl (pronounced De Still, meaning The Style in Dutch), a magazine designed to propagate their views on not just painting but art in general. It became a leading influence especially among sculptors, architects, and designers in the years after the war.

Shroder House, 1923-24, Gerrit Rietveld

De Stijl promoted the belief that there were two kinds of beauty, sensual (traditionally subjective) beauty and a higher rational, objective, universal beauty. It was this universal beauty that they sought to promote. Discarding representation subject matter and it's emotional baggage, they explored a dynamic symmetry as seen in Mondrian's Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, painted in 1930.  The architect Gerrit Rietveld applied Mondrian's squares and rectangles of these three primary colors along with black lines and white negative spaces in his Schroder house in Utrecht, the Netherlands.  De Stijl wished to redecorate the entire world.  Mondrian hoped to be the last artist.  Earlier art, he felt, provided man with something lacking in his life. He reasoned that if we all lived in a world designed in line with his principles of universal beauty there would be no further need for art.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


The Card Players, 1892-93, Paul Cezanne
Much has been written over the years from a parenting point of view about what we term the "generation gap."  Anyone who is now, or has ever grappled with the responsibility of raising a teenager is qualified to write a book on the subject, and from the number of them on bookstore shelves, probably has. The generation gap also raises it's troubled head in art as well. The mannerists were just one generation removed from the Renaissance. The same was the case with the Post-Impressionists.  Each generation of artists is raised by the previous generation, and perhaps because of that, there develops a love-hate relationship that is sure to penetrate the art of the second generation. The Post-Impressionists grew up with Impressionism; were not shocked by it as had been their parents; but neither were they awed by it. They recognized its beauty and appreciated the hard-won freedom of creative expression the Impressionist generation had wrestled from Academic tyranny.
Woman Holding Fruit, 1893, Paul Gauguin

But Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Paul Cezanne and all the others also recognized the weaknesses this art movement had encumbered within it. They rebelled against it's slavish devotion to the outdoors, to its wish-washy drawing, it's subservience to the visual world, to it's observed color theories, and most of all to the overwhelming dominance of the landscape as the lord god almighty of subject matter.  In some cases it was rebellion for the sake of rebellion as in the painting of Paul Gauguin.  It other cases, such as with van Gogh, it was a search for more emotional relevance as opposed to the intellectualism of Monet or Manet.  Sometimes it was an attempt to legitimize Impressionism and stabilize it as in the case of Cezanne. In other cases, the emphasis seems to have been or producing a sort of "super" Impressionism as with Toulouse-Lautrec.

The Roadworkers, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
What happened in the aftermath of Impressionism was a robust diversion, everyone going off in their own direction with only a very general artistic relationship to each others work or that of their Impressionist forebears. They had little in common stylistically (unlike the Impressionists). They were linked only by the thin, common thread of unfettered creative exploration of everything that was not Impressionism and a devotion to that which was "modern." If you give an artist total freedom of expression you do so at your own risk. He might decide to paint the inside of a brothel or the outside a nondescript town hall. He might decide to paint the outside of himself by depicting what's inside him. There was rebellion to be sure, but most of all there was exploration--a breaking down of subject matter and stylistic barriers even the upstart Impressionist hadn't dared touch.
The Clowness Cha-U-Kao
at the Moulin Rouge, 1895,
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Piet Mondrian

We are all aware of Picasso's "invention" of Cubism and how he and Georges Braque collaborated to explore it's new way of analyzing masses. And, we're mostly aware of where it led them, into a "constructive" reassembling of those masses into a flattened, collage-like Cubism since labeled "synthetic". After a time though, both men tired of this "novelty" and moved on. A number of lesser names in painting did not move on to other interests, but instead chose to explore analytical Cubism, taking it to it's ultimate end--pure abstraction--no recognizable subject matter. Proceeding as it were, from banana splits, to parfaits, to milk shakes.

The Red Tree, 1909, Piet Mondrian
Gray Tree, 1912, Piet Mondrian

Composition Trees II, 1912, Piet Mondrian

Probably the most thorough in pursuing the continued study of Cubism was Piet Mondrian. Of Dutch descent, born in 1872, he was no novice painter by the time he picked up on the Cubist line of inquiry. His goal was to study, explore, simplify, and distill a given subject to its most basic forms. His earliest work centered upon landscapes and particularly trees, which, in their infinite variety he found endlessly intriguing. A study of his work shows a clear line of progression from what could almost be called "realism" through the Cubist involvement to his now trademark canvases filled with solid, thick, straight, vertical, and horizontal lines and juxtaposed squares or rectangles of pure, flat, primary colors. Short of the white-on-white canvases of Russian-born Kazimir Malevich, Mondrian went further in simplification to the point that even the term abstraction fails to contain the essence of his work.

Composition II in Red, Blue,
and Yellow, 1930,
 Piet Mondrian
His work became pure design, so far removed from the root of his original point of departure that it bore not the slightest trace of it's subjective ancestry. Mondrian moved far beyond Picasso's Synthetic Cubism as represented by the collage-like Three Musicians, which still clung to a very obvious subject matter, into patterns and designs that could hardly even be called non-representational. It was in-depth experimentation (almost to the point of being scientific) of pure line, shape, space, and color juxtaposition to such a cold, formal degree that his work could not even be called radical any more than stripes on the flag or a checkered tablecloth. Mondrian died in 1944, before he had a chance to see the influence he was to have upon the pop movement of the 60's or minimalism in the early 70's. Nonetheless, his legacy is still alive and well in much of what we take for granted in our commercial design and popular culture today.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Piero della Francesca.

One of the reasons we paint is the hope that we might in some way transcend our own mortality.  It's also why we have kids. But next to our own offspring, the literary, architectural, or artistic efforts we leave behind are  our best hope of outliving our mortal bodies--the equivalent of graffiti scrawled on the wall of history saying "I was here." Of course, given the fact that the offspring of most artists, architects, and writers have never amounted to much, the masterpieces we leave behind when we die may well be far more lasting, so long as they are treasured, preserved, and someone remembers who did them. Unfortunately, one of the hazards of depending upon artwork to compensate for our own mortality is the fact that we have little control over what succeeding generations will appreciate stylistically, and thus feel worthy of their preservation efforts. Sometimes, the subject matter alone will be enough to insure that great art work survives. That seems to have been the case with the work of the early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca.
Duke of Urbino, after 1474,
Piero della Francesca

The artist and his style of painting lost favor shortly after his death in 1492.  He was born around 1415 in the Umbrian region of Italy where his work still graces the walls of a number of churches. They have likely survived only because of their religious subject matter. Only in the last century or so has the art world rediscovered della Francesca's work and given it the acclaim it deserves. He painted a few portraits which have survived such as that of the Duke of Urbino, a profile portrait of a man in a red cap and cloak with one of the most distinctively "Roman" noses in the history of Roman noses (or else a considerable chunk of the bridge was excised by a sword in battle).  However, della Francesca's Baptism of Christ and his Resurrection of Christ, both painted in the 1450s, are indisputably his true masterpieces.

The Baptism of Christ, c. 1450,
Piero della Francesca

Ressurection of Christ, c. 1450,
Piero della Francesca

In addition to his interests in art, della Francesca also had an abiding interest in mathematics and the compositions of both of these paintings are highly structured geometrically. Art appreciation buffs delight in drawing radial diagrams using triangles, vertical and horizontal lines and other such diagramming figures to illustrate the underlying strengths that make these paintings such powerful visual presentations. Working at a time when one-point perspective was still something of a novelty and largely unfamiliar to many artists, Piero wrote at least two "how to" books on the subject. He also seems to have had a strong interest in painting landscapes as well, in that both backgrounds have a very natural quality. That of the baptism is identifiable today as it depicts, off in the distance, his home town of Borgo Sansepolcro. There is also a strong Flemish quality to his work which may account for why it lost favor in the years after his death when Italian Renaissance painting became more...well...Italian.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Picasso's Periods

The history of art is full of so many "periods" there is a real danger of our "drowning" in them, so to speak. Let me see, did the Mannerist period come before or after the Renaissance? I forget, what came after Baroque? Which came first the Rococo or the Barbizon--the chicken or the egg? To make matters worse, individual artists, especially those surviving well into old age have numerous "periods" through which their work passed as their careers passed. Some of them have dabbled in as many as half-a-dozen different styles over the course of their lives. The work of Salvadore Dali is an example.  Some of these artist were merely searching for themselves, probing various influences, while some could more accurately said to have been "evolving".   
One artist's life is so festooned with various "periods" that it reads almost like the history or twentieth-century painting. Coincidentally, his career started so near the start of that century the comparison is quite accurate. Although some may dispute it, the career of Pablo Picasso is very nearly Twentieth-Century painting in a nutshell. So pervasive was this man's influence that he could be said to have been a driving force in the progression of art in the twentieth century. Though trained in the academic tradition of Spanish art he arrived in Paris at the age of 19 around the turn of the century.

La Vie, 1903, Blue Period,
Pablo Picasso
Picasso's Blue Period encompasses works from 1901 to 1904 and beyond the obvious color reference there as a strong influence from El Greco and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Garcon a la Pipe, 1905, Rose Period,
Pablo Picasso

Picasso's Rose period follows from 1905 to 1908 in which his works were lighter in spirit as well as in color. Shortly thereafter his interests turned to African art, though art historians have stopped short of burdening us with an "African Period".  Les Demoiselles d' Avignon of 1907 was a merging of these two interests.

As a direct outgrowth of this groundbreaking painting, came Analytical Cubism, from which sprung Synthetic Cubism, and an almost endless array of other, lesser known "isms" used by art historians to try and further compartmentalize and analyze a career that, as it evolved, gradually came to defy analysis. The same could be said for the history of twentieth century art.
Le guitariste, 1910,
Analytical Cubism,
Pablo Picasso
Three Musicians, 1921, Synthetic Cubism,
Pablo Picasso 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Picasso's Ballet Foray

When we think of the career of Pablo Picasso, we think first of him as a painter; then his evocative line drawings come to mind; and finally his groundbreaking mixed media sculptural concoctions sometimes called "constructions". He also dabbled in ceramics and a number of other media. Seldom, though, do we associate the name of Picasso with the theater. But in 1917, he became involved in a rather strange, avant-garde ballet production that was really the first of several dalliances in the performing arts. Eventually, in the 1940s, he even went so far as to write a comedic farce which, though never performed, was not without a certain dry, ironic wit that at least made for amusing reading after the play was published.  
Parade, costumes by Pablo Picasso
(Donian Dance Company, Hamburg Germany)
The 1917 ballet was by a young poet and friend of Picasso named Jean Cocteau. It was titled Parade.  The ballet was set in front of a fair booth and featured as its main characters, a Chinese conjurer, an acrobat, and a young American girl, performing small routines from their acts in order to entice the public into paying to see their show inside. Picasso's cubist stage sets and costume designs create the effect of reducing the dancers to puppets. Among those involved in the production were Leonide Massine, Leon Bakst, Igor Stravinski, and a young ballerina named Olga Koklova.   
The opening performance of the ballet was on May 18, 1917. Picasso had spent almost nine months working on it.  As the curtain went up, the audience was greeted by the sounds of dynamos, express trains, typewriters, sirens, airplanes and a cacophony of rhythmic stomping. Some of the angular, Cubist costumes were ten feet tall and actually more part of the scenery than costumes.

One of Picasso's Cubist
costumes from the ballet Parade
Picasso melded together trees, skyscrapers and horses in such a way that the stage managers were both costumed performers and part of the set designs. It was so revolutionary some of the audience booed and shouted "Sales boches!" (Dirty Germans), viewing Cubism as somehow un-French. Others, such as Juan Gris praised the work as "unpretentious, gay, and distinctly comedic." The critic Appolinare used for the first time the term "surrealisme" (super realism) in describing it. The play was not a success and Picasso never earned a dime for his efforts, but he did meet, fall in love with, and later married the ballet's star, Olga Koklova.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Peter Paul Rubens

As any successful painter will tell you, it takes more than mere talent to be a successful painter.  Colleges and universities today turn out talented painters by the thousands but few ever go on to anything like the success of an enthusiastic, energetic, intelligent, and very personable young Flemish painter who decided in his late teens he wanted to be an artist, then moved the necessary mountains to do so. His name was Peter Paul Rubens. He was born in 1577 in Germany. His father, a Protestant, had fled Antwerp in Holland to escape religious persecution. The elder Rubens died when young Peter was a child of ten so his mother, a Catholic, moved her brood back to Holland and a life of the severest poverty imaginable. Little is known of the young man's early art education, but he must have been an apt pupil because at the tender age of 21, he was admitted to the Antwerp painters guild.   
Lacking funds to set up his own studio, Rubens worked as an artist in the studio of Otto van Veen until the year 1600 when he set out on his own for Italy. There he visited every major city on the peninsula in an effort to "soak up" the abundant culture of antiquities that was still the stock-in-trade of the venerable, old-world country. In the process his talent as a painter was quickly recognized and his statesmanlike charm allowed him to gather commissions for important works like some men today collect phone numbers. Eventually, his work came to the attention of the Duke of Mantua who employed him to design court entertainment and paint a few portraits. Although he never purchased any major work from the budding young artist, the duke, something of a pretentious cheapskate, did employ him to copy famous paintings from all over Italy for his own collection.
The Raising of the Cross, 1610, Peter Paul Rubens
With this valuable experience under his belt, Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608, married, and almost immediately picked up a commission from the Church of Saint Walpurga for a massive, canvas, triptych altarpiece entitled The Raising of the Cross, of which the center unit alone is some 15 feet high by 11 feet wide. As was customary, the side units were the same height but about half that width. Here, custom and tradition ended however, in that he painted a single, baroque, dramatically lit, split-scene among the three units; the left side depicting the horrified mourners, the central unit, a herculean effort on the part of several muscle-bound, semi-nude figures to erect the life-size cross with Christ already nailed to it, while the right unit features the two thieves being manhandled by Roman guards, one of which is mounted on a horse.

The strongly diagonal composition of the central unit reflects the Italian influence of artists like Caravaggio and Carracci, but also evident is the careful attention to color, detail, and texture so typical of his native Flemish painting. In the years to follow, Rubens went on to capitalize upon these elements, organizing and overseeing a virtual art factory of apprentices and assistants, each with specialties such as costumes, still-lifes, landscapes, portraiture, and animal painting to name only a few.  Sounds almost like a modern-day movie studio!   

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pieter Brueghel

For the lover of realism in art, Flemish painting is like a four-course meal with dessert.  Whether you like landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, florals, or genre there is something here for everyone to look upon with awe. And, one of the most awe-inspiring artist of this tiny part of Europe was Pieter Brueghel (pronounced BROY-gle). He was born around 1525, barely thirty years after the voyages of Columbus, at a time when Europe was only starting to awaken from the long sleep of the Medieval period and while many vestiges of the Dark Ages still prevailed over much of the continent. The Spanish ruled his country and were trying to impose their language upon the populace. Great nations were only starting to evolve as modern civilization spread northward from the Mediterranean.  

The Peasant Wedding, 1567, Pieter Brueghel
Brueghel is a hard artist to categorize. At times, as in his Peasant Wedding of 1567, he seems to be the Northern Renaissance precursor to Norman Rockwell.

Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Pieter Brueghel
At other times, as in his best-loved painting, Hunters in the Snow of 1565, there is something of a Grandma Moses quality to his work. Some of his other paintings are steeped in religion, superstition, and fantasy. All of these were basic elements of daily life in the times in which he lived. And, while he is quite technically proficient in the handling of paint, perspective, and a multiplicity of details, there is also something of an awkward stiffness in some of his figures. But rather than detracting from his work, this peculiar element causes them to come across as rather charming instead.  

The Tower of Babel, 1563, Pieter Brueghel
Perhaps Brueghel's most famous painting is his masterful Tower of Babel painted in 1563, at the height of Spanish oppression in the region. It is a tour-de-force of subtle political, religious, and moral comment bound up in an exciting panorama of biblical storytelling. In the foreground is Nimrod, King of Babylon, (the king of Spain?) surrounded by his entourage, being worshipped by local peasants while nearby, masons cut blocks of stone for the wonderfully intricate fantasy structure rising like a man-made mountain in the center of the composition. Even though the painting is but a modest 44 by 61 inches, an incredible amount of detail is rendered of the ill-fated construction project. Scaffolding is depicted board by board. One can almost count the knots in the rigging of the ships bringing building supplies to the site. In this painting, if  "the devil is in the details", then the work of this remarkable draftsman/painter/ pictorial historian, marks the outer limits of sinful busy-work an artist can cram into a single square inch of painted canvas.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pet Portraits

One of the major developments in painting in the U.S., during the twentieth century especially, is that of animal portraits. Though artists in all cultures from all eras back even to cave painting have, from time to time, painted animals, the idea that a particular animal might be a worthy subject for a portrait is a relatively recent concept. Today, the canine population probably rates the major share of all "pet portraits", as we've come to call them, but cats run a close second in number followed closely by horses. Actually horse portraits have probably the oldest tradition of them all, their popularity going back well into the eighteenth century as owners sought to preserve the memories of their favorite racing equine. And, while not necessarily portraits, the horse, perhaps more than any other animal, has inspired painters' efforts going back hundreds of years before that.     

The Anatomy of a Horse,
by George Stubbs
(Probably not the original cover)
George Stubbs, an English artist born in 1724, was undoubtedly the first to make horses his primary art venue. Not only did he paint horse portraits (individually as well as in groups), presumably from life, but he dissected several cadavers in preparation for a book he published in 1766 titled Anatomy of a Horse.  Actually, he was considerably better at painting horses than he was their riders. Though few of his horse portraits survive today, one particular subject seems to have fascinated him.

A Lion Attacking a Horse, 1770,
George Stubbs

In 1762, Stubbs painted a dark, stormy, violent depiction of a white horse being attacked by a lion. Actually, fascination might be putting it mildly. It seems to have been more of an obsession. Or, perhaps he merely discovered a hot commodity. In any case, versions from 1770 also exist as well as a number of original prints either of a horse under attack, or being frightened by a lion.   

A Lion Attacking a Horse, George Stubbs,
(a later version 1772-76)
Inasmuch as these action paintings are so far removed from Stubbs other work, art historians have speculated that perhaps he might have witnessed such an attack on a trip to North Africa. Others have proposed that he may have made drawings of a lion killing a horse from Roman antiquities during his studies in Italy. More likely is the probability that he sketched the real thing, a lion kept as a curiosity by one of his patrons, Lord Shelburne. Whatever the case, his Lion Attacking a Horse with it's forbidding landscape and violent, stormy background is a powerful attempt to underscore nature's cruelty to man and beast alike. In many ways, his work anticipated the fascination with animals of the French Romantic painters half a century later.   

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pietro Perugino

By all accounts, Pietro Perugino was an accomplished painter. Born around 1450, he distinguished himself in that most difficult of all painterly mediums, the wall-size fresco. Not only was he an outstanding painter but an excellent draftsman as well. In an era when the use of linear perspective was cutting edge visual technology, Perugino had a grasp of its demanding intricacies beyond that of most of his peers. Though he was limited to the traditional one-point perspective characteristic of Renaissance art, his work demonstrates a three-dimensional depth unusual even for this amazing era in art history.   
His most important work is a massive Fresco painted around 1482 titled The Delivery of the Keys, which depicts a standing Christ and his apostles delivering a massive key to a kneeling St. Peter.  The nearly two-dozen life-size figures in the painting are arrayed across the lower picture plane in the foreground while a second group of some 50 or more middle-ground figures mingle just over their heads deep within an open space, perfectly proportioned to those in the foreground.

Delivery of the Keys, 1481-82, Pietro Perugno
In the background, perfectly rendered in amazing detail is a domed, octagonal church flanked by two Roman arches of the triumphant variety, all drawn in perfect, one-point, linear perspective.  The painting is a tour-de-force of early Renaissance painting. In its time, it was heralded as a masterpiece. Yet, Perugino is today is largely forgotten, and the painting, though prominently displayed, is largely ignored. Why? Well, it has suffered the misfortune of having been upstaged by an even more important work of Renaissance art. Perugino's The Delivery of the Keys graces the left wall, some twenty feet above the floor and some fifty feet beneath the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Today we take linear perspective for granted.  I've taught it to children as young as 8 or 9 years old. Evidence suggests that painters of the Roman era had a working knowledge of perspective, but the skill seems to have been lost until the early Renaissance when Giotto di Bondone began using it, seemingly on an intuitive basis around 1300. Ambrogio Lorenzetti also seems to have had some more advanced knowledge in the use of perspective as well, but it remained for the Florentine painter-sculptor-architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, to formalize the rules and rediscover the use of the vanishing point, lost for perhaps 1000 years.

Brunelleschi's perspective demonstration
The art historian and critic Georgio Vasari claims that Brunelleschi went so far as to paint a perfect example of his discovery which he operated much like a public peep show. He painted a very realistic depiction of San Giovanni (the baptistery) in Florence with a peep hole in the middle. The viewer peeked in from the back, seeing the image by way of a mirror on the other side.  The effect upon the "peeker" was said to be astounding, though the work no longer survives. A whole new realm of realism had been imposed upon painting.

Brunelleschi's device
as seen by the viewer before
the actual structure.
The impact of the reintroduction of linear perspective into painting was similar to that of other visual inventions down through history. They have that effect upon people. When the Luminere brothers first displayed motion pictures in Paris, crowds were treated to the projected images of locomotives bearing down upon them, invoking screams and cringing, even though intellectually they knew it was just a "show", and a black and white one at that. Several years ago we saw the movie Titanic. Holding my wife's hand, she said I kept trying to "raise" it off the arm rest in response to certain heroic efforts on the part of those on the screen, unconsciously perhaps, trying to "raise" the ship. Reality is a strange phenomena. In art, then as now, it takes some getting use to.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Paul Klee

Seldom is an artist gifted in only one of the fine arts. Most of us have had to make choices to some degree in terms of which area of art we would like to concentrate upon. A few of us have tried to master more than one and some have even had some success at it.  In my own case, I like to write as much as to paint, though I find painting quite a great deal more profitable. This doesn't necessarily mean I like it more than writing or that I'm any better at it than writing. In one particular case, I knew a retired, architect who, in his 80s, became quite adept at watercolor. Several years ago I trained a woman in drawing portraits. She became quite good, but gave it up for creating gourmet foods. For others it's art and music. That was the choice which faced Swiss artist, Paul Klee.

Diana in the Autumn Wind, 1934,
Paul Klee
He chose painting over music. Born in 1879, he spent most of his life working in Germany. He taught for several years at Walter Gropius' Bauhaus until it was forced by Hitler to close in 1933. At that time, many of it's avant-garde staff fled to the West. Gropius came to this country, Kandinsky went to France, and Klee fled to his homeland, Switzerland. Klee's work is hard to categorize. As befits an artist working in a kind of interim period in the history of twentieth century painting, his work is never completely abstract, but by the same token, never very representational either. Even in one of his most abstract works, Diana in the Autumn Wind, painted in 1934, we see what is obviously a female figure, dominated by his very linear style and superb use of color, though in this case his palette is considerably lighter than usual.

The Golden Fish, 1926, Paul Klee
An earlier work titled, The Golden Fish, painted in 1926, is much more typical. His work is seldom very large, usually about three square feet. There is a childlike, crayon-resist appearance to this work with a predominantly black ground, decorated with aquatic elements in deep blues while his goldfish is an almost florescent yellow tinged with reds. Other fish are depicted in shades of violet and purples. It's a strikingly beautiful painting if for no other reason than it's exciting colors. But it's Klee's devotion to lines that give it a sort of delicate, exquisite elegance that's easy to love. Toward the end of his life, as he came down with a lengthy, painfully debilitating disease (probably some form of cancer), his work became much darker, more profound, more macabre, with his lines becoming heavier but softer, his colors deeper, warmer, and richer.  His Death and Fire, painted just before he died in 1940 mimics the slow dying of Europe he saw all around him. Its highly abstracted skull seems resigned to the horror and torture both he and the rest of the world knew all too well.

Death and Fire, 1940, Paul Klee

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Paul Cezanne

It's the dream of every weekend painter, struggling to find spare time to master his or her art, to suddenly come into great inherited wealth with the death of a rich relative. This history of art is indebted to one such rich relative for dying and leaving to his son a sizable fortune, permitting that struggling artist the freedom to forever thumb his nose at the rest of society and even his peers in order to pursue, single mindedly, artistic truths that have since afforded him the moniker, "The Father of Modern Art." In 1886, the father of Paul Cezanne died and in his will, left his wayward son money enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life. The son, something of an social oddball anyway, left the stress and strain of the Paris art scene and moved to the south of France to his hometown, Aix-en-Provence (pronounced Exxon Pro-Vonce) where he build himself a studio with a large window facing his favorite view, Mont Sainte-Victoire (pronounced MON Sain Vic-TWOIR).

A Modern Olympia, 1873-74, Paul Cezanne,
based on Manet's Olympia
Born in 1839, Cezanne was 47 when he cut the bonds between himself and the struggles of the past in order to devote himself completely to the study of the relationship between art and nature. Gone were his rapscallion days of shocking the snobbish jurors of the Salon with his brazenly crude paintings and equally crude appearance and manners. Many of his early works were frankly erotic and, except for their almost brutal brushwork might even seem shocking to us today.  In his mature years, with wife and son, he chose the heavily wooded environs near his hometown and especially the view out his studio window as the venues for, as he put it, "...the concrete study of nature."

Mont Sainte. Victoire, 1882-84, Paul Cezanne,
one of many versions
Though his early landscapes were heavily influenced by his mentor, Camille Pissaro, he always considered Impressionism to be somewhat lightheaded. His most famous quote, "I want to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art in museums," is evidence of the fact that to him the shapes and forms of nature could be rendered in paint without being imitative of nature. His emphasis was on the geometry, design, and color of nature juxtaposed with those same traits in paint on canvas. Like the Impressionists, he was strongly conscious of the painted surface, but refused to be bound by the demands of reality. While the Impressionists rendered reality to canvas filtered only through their eyes, Cezanne insisted it also pass through his brain before ending up as vehicle, binder, and pigment on canvas.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Painting Styles

When we speak of painting styles coming and going, we often think in terms of a decade or so of prominence as in the twentieth century, perhaps twice that length of time in the previous century, and a generation or two in the century before that. As painting has developed in the art of man, the lifespan of a given style of painting has decreased in duration geometrically. Broadly speaking, for instance, the Renaissance style of painting spans a hundred years or more. The mannerist style of painting that followed it somewhat less than that, perhaps 75 years, while the Baroque era lasted anywhere from 75 to 100 years depending upon which art historian you prefer.
Virgin et Nino, 4th Century CE,
Catacombs of Priscilla
Moving back a century or so, early Christian art, sometimes called Byzantine art was little changed for perhaps 1000 years. Talk about a style with legs! A Madonna and Child fresco painting from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome dates from the fourth century. It features a sitting Madonna holding a child-like Christ on her lap. Stylistically, it is little different from one painted in the 1300's by the Italian artist, Duccio. The Duccio panel is rich with heavy gold leaf and much more linear in design with the Madonna enthroned in a circular seat that would appear to have been modeled somewhat after the Coliseum.

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints,
c. 1300, Duccio
Madonna Enthroned,
1305-10, Giotto
Madonna and Child with Angels,
1426,  Massaccio
The third century fresco, in contrast, lacks a halo and actually seems more naturalistic than the Duccio figure. It seems possible, if not certain, that Duccio was familiar with the catacomb fresco. Whatever the case, though different, there is little doubt that stylistically, they are cut from the same cloth thousand-year-old cloth. Pursuing Madonna and child paintings down through Giotto, (a student of Duccio) to Massaccio (a student of Giotto) to his student, Piero della Francesca we can watch generation by generation as the Byzantine slowly gave birth to the Renaissance like a mother giving birth to a child.

Madonna and Child with Saints, 1472-73,
Piero della Francesca