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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?

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