Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

William Sidney Mount

There is an old quotation to the effect: "I work hard as a farmer so my son can become a doctor, and his son, an artist." There was much the same development in art as in life during the early years of this country.  Some of the first artwork created on these shores had the utilitarian value of being either signs, or its sculptural equivalent, tombstones. The second generation were self-taught portrait artists.  The third generation journeyed to Europe and brought back the Grand Manner of painting from England and applied it to portraiture, landscapes, and to a lesser extent, history painting (which had little appeal in a country which, at the time, had very little history to paint).  A fourth generation, found both training and inspiration in this country, and so began the development of an American tradition in art which drew it apart from our European heritage. That "home grown" tradition first manifested itself in what we now call genre painting.

Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride, 1830,
William Sidney Mount
Typical of this type of painting is the work of William Sidney Mount. Mount was born in Stony Brook, New York, a small town on Long Island, in the year 1807. As a young man he journeyed to the big city (New York) where he, for a time, plied his trade as a sign painter. He also studied art at the newly minted National Academy of Design in the mid 1820s. At first his work was largely English in style, creating history paintings and Biblical works. After a few years though, he decided he didn't like the city, sign painting, or the difficult-to-tell history paintings he'd been doing either, so he returned to Stony Brook and a life where he found both inspiration and subject matter in the simple existence he'd missed in the city.   

Dancing on the Barn Floor, 1831,
William Sidney Mount
His first success was a painting in 1830 titled Rustic Dance after a Sleigh Ride (above), which received wide acclaim and found a ready market in the very city he'd fled. It was purchased by American art collector, Luman Reed, because it reminded him of the peasant country life from which he'd grown to be one of America's richest merchants. Mount's work quickly struck a similar chord with dozens of other New York businessmen wanting more than the empty wilderness paintings of the Hudson River School. And thus a market developed for works like Mount's 1831 Dancing on the Barn Floor (above right), and The Truant Gamblers (below), painted in 1835. Mount's success spawned others in the field and to varying degrees, their work could be characterized as unsophisticated, nostalgic, sentimental, illustrative, and stereotypical, yet they perfectly matched the times in which they were painted and the upward-striving businessmen who purchased them. They became, in effect, our first form of history painting.
The Truant Gamblers, 1835,
William Sidney Mount

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Willem de Kooning

No painting style has ever been the butt of more jokes than Abstract Expressionism. One might liken it to the Rodney Dangerfield of art history. It don't get no respect. Aging Abstract Expressionists of the time might today adjust Dangerfield's opening line, "I'm all right now but fifty years ago, man, I was in baaadd shape." While artists like Pollock, Kline, Hoffman, Baziotes, Gorky, Rothko, Tomlin, Motherwell, Reinhardt, and de Kooning struggled mightily to give birth to a form of painting that was distinctly American as opposed to the derivative styles that had been imported from Europe for over two hundred years, the rest of the country laughed at their work. Cartoons appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look deriding it. The conservative Readers' Digest continued to use figurative art on its cover, and to this day has never embraced abstraction.

Woman 1, 1950-52,
Willem de Kooning
But Abstraction Expressionism had a legitimate birth. It grew out of the Surrealist work of Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes, and others in the 1930s and came into full bloom after the Second World War as Gorky, de Kooning, Rothko and other European painters who had fled Europe before the war, decided to remain in this country and push the boundaries of Surrealism to new limits. In so doing, their work became far more gestural than anything ever seen before on either side of the Atlantic. And, somewhat to their surprise, this effort came to be labeled by critics as something altogether new--Abstract Expressionism. More than any other, the work of Willem de Kooning probably epitomizes how this movement came to be visualized by most Americans. His 1950-52 Woman, 1, with it's garish, horrifying face and massive breasts was just barely figurative enough for the public to grasp and yet ugly enough for them to hate.

De Kooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1904. It was there he attended crafts school and then a traditional art academy. He was influenced by artists such as Piet Mondrian and Theodore van Doesburg, as well as Picasso's Cubism. Woman, 1 looks like it was painted one night in a wild, drunken frenzy by a woman-hating, crazed madman. No doubt, many who saw it visualized just such a scenario. In fact, it was anything but spontaneous. Though he didn't work on it daily, it took two full years to complete, going through constant, one might say almost endless, revisions. Near the end, de Kooning even went so far as to discard it. Then, weeks later, he rescued it from the trash, reworked it some more, then sent it off to be exhibited. Giving birth, especially to a new way of seeing and creating art, is never an easy process. And for those who have been through it, Rodney Dangerfield aside, it's no laughing matter.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Antoine Watteau

Embarkation for the Island of Cythera, 1717,
Antoine Watteau
When the name Antoine Watteau is mentioned images of delicately blissful assemblages of playful, carefree, aristocratic nymphs and harlequins come to mind embodying the worst excesses of the Rococo period of art in the 1700s. His Embarkation for Cythera, for example, is loosely about a pilgrimage to a shrine of Venus on the island of Cythera where lies love without restraint. It is about the concept of profane love intertwined with ideas of freedom and human nature. It is an intricately peopled landscape with a lovely golden aura of eternal sweetness. A second version was painted in 1721 in which Watteau heightened the erotic frivolity. When you find a good thing, milk it for all it's worth. There's some debate among art historians whether the scenes depicted are, in fact, a departure for the island or a departure from it. Both paintings have sometimes been titled accordingly.

Embarkation for the Island of Cythera,
1721 version, Antoine Watteau
What Watteau wanted to do was explore images of love between two individuals, hoping to gain psychological and sociological insights into the male and female sides of all personalities. His paintings are rife with feelings of freedom and the electrical current that is desire, wresting art from the constraints of decorum, searching for what it means to be and feel human. Watteau's images sought to unleash some of Rousseau's noble savage in their intimate portrayal of love.

The most popular complaint regarding this and other Rococo paintings is that they are inherently "feminine", as the French critic Diderot lamented. An English critic, the third Earl of Shatesbury, claimed that looking at a Rococo painting was like looking at a woman's dress, making "effeminant our tastes" utterly setting wrong all judgements and knowledge of art. One can only surmise from this that high or "good" art is supposedly rational, sturdy, and virtuous (read masculine) like the academies and governments which supported such work. This male/female polemic would continue to taint art language for the next 200 years.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky, 1913
With the dawning of the twentieth century there also bloomed a new aesthetic in  painting.  Today we have come to know this as abstraction. Though art historians have given many different artists credit for having "invented" this type of art, a very strong case could be made for assigning this distinction to Wassily Kandinsky. The difficulty with making such assertions is that no artist in this formative first decade of this century boldly jumped head-first (or even feet-first) into this radical non-representational form of artistic expression.  Instead they bravely tiptoed in, getting use to the swirling creative currents and cold criticism of those use to the more conventional. Picasso was testing the waters, so was Miro, Braque, and others. But with his Sketch for Composition II dated 1909-10, Kandinsky seems to have been inadvertently leading the pack. And, the fact that he did so from Germany, instead of Paris, with a painting far less tied to any form of representational imagery than any of the others, is all the more remarkable.   
Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky's parents were divorced when he was five. He was raised by an aunt. He studied law and painted as a hobby. By 1896 he was a Doctor of Law, economist, and university lecturer. In that year he was deeply struck by two events, a traveling show of French Impressionist paintings, and an opera by the new German composer Richard Wagner. These influences, along with time spent earlier in a rural province studying peasant law, where he was strongly effected by the brightly colored houses, furniture, and costumes, combined to unleash within him an outburst of creative energy that forever shifted his focus from law to art. Though strongly expressive, his early work was quite representational though hardly conventional. Feeling limited by the bonds of subject matter, he began to move further and further from all but the most elemental symbolic references to any "real world" into the psychological and spiritual effects of pure color.   
Composition X, 1939, Vassily Kandinsky
In 1914, Kandinsky returned to Russia where he taught and wrote about abstract art. But the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 founded a government that disapproved of his art so he abandoned his country for Berlin and the Bauhaus, a new arts college that brought together architects, artists, and engineers to teach, learn, and exchange ideas. In 1930, he had to leave yet another country because of his work. Hitler was no more attuned to his artistic vision than had been the Communists. In Paris, he reduced his visual vocabulary to a few basic geometric elements: circles, semicircles, angles, straight, and curved lines. With these he composed a visual "music" that cemented his position as the foremost abstract painter of his time. He died in Paris in 1944.  He was 78.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Picasso and the War

The Second World War in Europe had a profound effect upon the artists living, or perhaps, to put it more accurately, "surviving" there during its reign of terror. Many artists of some renown, seeing the political handwriting on the wall, or the shadow of Hitler from Germany, simply fled. The U.S., and New York in particular, were the prime beneficiaries of this exodus, but South America, Mexico, and Canada also welcomed those fleeing the war. For those who remained, the times were unsettling.  Pablo Picasso chose to stay. So did Henri Mattise. Picasso is said to have met him on the street the day the Germans crossed from Belgium into France.  Matisse was on his way to his tailor's. When Picasso reminded him that the Nazi's might arrive in Paris any day, Matisse is said to have asked naively, "But what about our generals, what are they doing?"  Picasso responded, "Oh they're all from the College of Fine Arts."

Dora Maar Au Chat, 1941,
Pablo Picasso
Although Picasso seems to have continued his creative output pretty much uninterrupted by the war, the conflict nonetheless did present him with a number of growing inconveniences as it progressed.  He was forced to abandon his apartment at rue La Boetie for much smaller quarters at rue des Grands-Augustins, and even there, inspite of a big, brand-new stove, he had to spend much of his time in the neighborhood cafes just to keep warm. There was a severe shortage of fuel. He chose to stay in Paris to be with his mistress, Dora Maar leaving his other mistress, Maria-Therese and their daughter, Maia in Royan. Meanwhile, his wife, Olga remained in the south of France.

By the 1940s, Picasso was something of an international celebrity, which may account for how he survived the war relatively unscathed. He was wealthy by this time too, which certainly was no liability in times of war. Still, the war was not without a great deal of emotional pain as he saw his Jewish friends either killed or hauled off to concentration camps where they more often died of malnutrition and disease than execution. Others were killed fighting in the French Resistance. And yet, his studio was something of a tourist attraction for occupying German soldiers. Picasso even handed out to them autographed postcards of Guernica as souvenirs. A German officer is said to have studied the image and asked, "Did you do this?"  Picasso replied, "No, YOU did."
Guernica, 1937, Pablo Picasso

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Most Successful Artist of All Time

If you were asked to name the most successful American artist of all time, who would it be. Forget about defining "success", he would undoubtedly lead by most every definition. Play a little guessing game here with me (no fair scrolling down to peek). He was born in 1901 in Chicago. His father was a not-very-successful Canadian-born building contractor. His mother sometimes went out and worked with her husband's employees. In 1906 they gave up the family business to try farming. It was there our young artist did his first paid work, a drawing in crayon of their doctor's horse for which he earned 5 cents. By 1910, they were forced to sell the farm and move to Kansas City where our budding young artist managed a newspaper route while studying at the Kansas City Art Institute. He was 14.   
In high school, he contributed cartoon drawings to the school newspaper before enlisting in the war effort as an ambulance driver, eventually being station in Paris and soaking up a bit of the French art scene. Back home after the war, he was determined to make a career in commercial art. In time, he found himself working for a small Kansas City film company where he pioneered many ground breaking animation techniques. In the early 1920's, he founded his own company. By 1923 the company was broke and our artist and would-be entrepreneur was on a train to California. There he founded a similar, somewhat more successful enterprise. Today that company is worth upwards to 100 billion dollars.  

The original theater release
poster from 1940
Well, if you haven't guessed by now, our artist-turned-film-maker-turned-entrepreneur was Walter Elias Disney. Though he never did much in the way of drawing after his friend, Mickey, made it big in 1928, his imagination, creative genius, leadership, and sheer will-power drove a team of artist, painters, musicians, cinematographers, actors, writers, and (his own word) "imagineers" to create an entertainment powerhouse with animated fingers in just about every leisure-time pursuit imaginable. His feature films represent a line of classics stretching from the ground-breaking Snow White to the latest Winnie the Pooh and Captain America (a cartoon character but not a cartoon). My own all-time favorite--the original Fantasia. While an artistic masterpiece it was a big-time loser at the box-office. It took some 35 years to show a profit, becoming successful only after Disney's death in 1966. Today, though the film is more than 70 years old, it continues to be an artistic high-water mark, marrying the best of painting, music, and film-making into a wondrously exciting work of art that stands alone in its genre.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Wallet Art

The fifty-dollar bill of the recent past, designed in 1929
It would seem that a vast majority of Americans find it pretty easy to simply ignore any impact art has upon them until it hits them in the wallet. Then they sit up and take notice, and become instant critics.  I'm not talking here about everyone suddenly going out and buying artwork. (Though that would be nice.) No, what I'm referring to is the works of art we put into our wallets; and try our best to collect so we may someday kick back and enjoy the comfort of knowing we have an outstanding portrait collection of distinguished Americans to admire as we grow old. Recently though, with the advent of ever more accurate photocopying technology, many of these fine examples of the etcher's art have become prone to forgery. Therefore, a new addition is now circulating to make this less of problem.

The current (new) fifty-dollar bill from 2004
The instant critics I mentioned before, however, seem not to care much for these new, rare, limited edition prints. I've got a fifty (seldom can I hold onto anything bigger). An even greater outcry was heard a some eighty years ago when the currency of the time was downsized slightly to what we have now.The most common comment I've heard about the new bills is that they tend to look like "play money". They've also been called everything from bland to "butt-ugly." (Oh, how some Americans hate change.) Personally, I like the new look. In fact, I tend to take offense at the "butt-ugly" description that's been bandied about. I've seen several butts that are a good deal uglier than our new currency (though in fairness, I've seen some that are cuter too, and of course, U.S. Grant is no raving beauty). I find the layout of the new bills clean, rational, and modern looking, yet with a certain traditional elegance as. They have a contemporary simplicity of design which, unfortunately I think, is what upsets people about them.

An earlier fifty-dollar bill dating from 1891.
That's the face of William H. Seward
(Lincoln's Secretary of State)
I would liken today's currency critics to those who think American automobile design reached its zenith with 1957 Chevrolet and has been going downhill ever since. A few years ago, I heard jokes about the "jelly bean" look of so many of today's cars. Initially, that is. But, in the last few years, as our eyes have become accustomed to such sweeping, streamlined works of art, and all but the most recalcitrant manufactures have adopted similar looks, the jokes have kind of petered out.  We've begun to look upon the boxy models of the 70's and 80's (Chrysler's "K" cars for instance) as hopelessly dull and clunky. I think the same will be the case with the new money once we become accustomed to these sweeping, streamlined works of art in our wallets. And, for those who prefer the old bills, they can always start a collection of them and wallow in their nostalgia for a good deal less than the cost of a fully-restored '57 Chevy.

A proposed fifty-dollar
bill as part of a totally
revamped 21st Century
US currency
Note: As photocopy technology continues to advance at a rapid clip, so must the designs for circulating currency so long as paper money remains in vogue.  At right is a proposed design for a future revamping of all US currency, this time with a vertical format (in that money is generally handled vertically).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Vitruvian Man

When most of us think of geometry we either get a headache or our eyes glaze over. It's right up there with reading Beowulf as the most exciting intellectual pursuit most artists could possibly look forward to. Well, I'm not sure if he ever read Beowulf, but Leonardo Da Vinci, among his many other artistic, scientific, engineering, and mathematical pursuits, certainly found geometry interesting. Being a painter, he explored ways in which he could utilize his interest in lines, angles, arcs and all the other esoteric details of the subject in planning and drawing his faces and figures. Not too many of us think of figures (human ones, that is) and geometry in the same context, but I guess that's what made Leonardo a legendary intellect in his own time.

Vitruvian Man, 1487, Leonarda da Vinci
Geometry is more readily associated with the art and science of architecture, and Leonardo certainly had a strong interest in that. In the sixteenth century, there wasn't much in the way of books to study on the subject, except for the writings of the Roman Architect, Vitruvius. Vitruvius lived and worked in the first century BC. But more important than his buildings were his writings. It was through these that one of Leonardo's most famous drawings came to be. It's a nude male figure, arms outstretched, with what appears to be four legs and four arms around which has been inscribed a perfect square and a slightly larger circle. Leonardo called it the Vitruvian Man.

As Vitruvius described the human figure in geometric terms, if one places a compass point at the navel (ouch) of the full-grown adult male (not sure if this holds true for females or not), then places the pencil at the feet of the figure, the circle created by this configuration will also touch the tips of the fingers of the outstretched arms when raised to the level of the top of the head. Similarly, he discovered that a square could be drawn using height of the figure as one axis and the horizontally outstretched arms as the other axis. Thus, ones height (you don't have to be nude but no fair wearing shoes) equals the distance between the two opposite middle fingers when the arms are fully extended. Try it sometime, it works (give or take an inch or so).

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Vincent's Ear

One of the most over-played stories in art revolves around Vincent van Gogh and his much-maligned ear. Mention van Gogh in any art class and you hear, "Oh, yeah, he's the one that cut off his ear." Never mind he was also one of the most brilliant expressionist artists who ever lived, or that his paintings now routinely sell for the tens of millions (on those rare occasions when one comes up for auction). Of course the ear story does open up the floor to a more detailed discussion of Vincent's mental problems and his lonely, tortured personal life, but when all is said and done, the sunflowers and the self-portraits have all been shown, then it always comes back down to that ear...that damnable ear!   

Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear,
1889, Vincent van Gogh
Well, just to set the story straight, on December 23, 1888, at the age of 35, Vincent cut off the lower half of his left ear. (Although a self-portrait done in 1889 shows a bandaged right ear.)  He took it to a brothel, to a prostitute named Rachel, and handed it to her, instructing her to take good care of it.  Merry Christmas. No, he didn't say that last part, I added that myself. One has to wonder though at his timing, just two days before Christmas; perhaps he did have in mind a very personal yuletide gift. Actually, art historians and psychologists of all kinds have pondered the "why" of this outrageous act of self-mutilation for years. In June of 1981, William McKinley Runyan published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology a rather lengthy list of possible reasons Vincent might have resorted to such an act. Here are just a few:   
1.  Frustration over his brother's engagement and his own dismal love life.   
2.  Self-punishment for his homosexual impulses toward Paul Gauguin.   
3.  A symbolic punishment for a father he hated.   
4.  He was influenced by the practice of presenting the bull's ear to the matador.   
5.  He was seeking his brother's attention.   
6.  He was seeking to end auditory hallucinations.   
That's only about half of them, and some of these are at least plausible.  If you think some of them seem far-fetched, the rest are really a stretch. 

Friday, July 22, 2011


I'm not sure where the term "artistic license" came from, or how to get one, or if I already have one, how to get it renewed, but it has come to stand for the freedom artist feel to create just about anything and call it art. We take it for granted and even go so far as to complain when it seems those among us go so far as to abuse it. During the late 1500s, one such artist seemed to do just that and got pulled over for it by no less authority than the Inquisition. His offense, it would seem, was painting what appeared to be a last supper set amidst such grandiose splendor as to offend the tastes of nearly everyone who beheld it. (Leonardo da Vinci he was not.)

Feast in the House of Levi, 1573, Paolo Veronese (Caliari)
The artist was Paolo Caliari. He was born in 1528 in Verona, Italy, from whence came his name, Veronese. Living and working during the Mannerist Era, his name has come to symbolize the splendorous pomp and wealth of his adopted city, Venice. The controversial effort that got him in trouble would, at first glance, appear to be designed to do just that. This was no modest little easel painting. It was 42 feet long and some 18 feet tall painted in oil on stretched canvas. (I didn't know they stretched'em that big.) There seems to be a rather boisterous dinner party going on. The painting is a fool-the-eye tour-de-force featuring three gigantic arches framing a hazy city in the background. Seated under the center of the center arch is undeniably a portrait of Jesus. But among his dinner companions is a man picking his teeth, foreign soldiers, merchants, tax collectors, mongrel dogs, a parrot, and quite a number of equally unsavory characters. The inquisition apparently felt Jesus should not be depicted among such riffraff.

In their grilling of Veronese, the Inquisition's questions centered upon whether it was, in fact, a last supper.  Veronese insisted it wasn't.  Perhaps it had started out that way, but at some point he'd had the good sense to change the title to: Feast in the House of Simon, which was a small dinner just before Jesus entered Jerusalem. Veronese defended his work, "We painters take the same license poets and jesters take...I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits." Though not quite heresy perhaps, the statement was nonetheless quite shocking at the time and definitely offended those who took issue with his work. They demanded he change it. In the end, Veronese chose instead to merely change the title to Feast in the House of Levi. In a sense, the artist had a modest degree of revenge in that the Bible notes that Jesus himself was criticized for hobnobbing with such characters. His defense was more direct, "I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners."  (Luke 5:32)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Venetian Painting

When we think of Venice, Italy, we conjure up images of grand palaces on a Grand Canal with gondolas bobbing up and down in a romantic haze of watery loveliness. The second association with Venice however is painting, particularly from the sixteenth century from whence came what art historians have come to call the Venetian Style. Although four artist are closely associated with this school (Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese) the seeds for it's ascendancy were planted a generation before by the Bellini family, Jacopo, who painted from 1423 until his death in 1470, but most particularly through the work of his sons, Gentile and Giovanni.  Building on a family trait of placing a single perspective vanishing point in the lower third of a composition, they influenced the art of this prosperous mercantile city for the next hundred years.   
In the sixteenth century, as the Bellini seeds matured, two names in Venetian painting are so inextricably linked they must be discussed as if they were one--Giorgio da Castelfranco (known as Giorgione), and Tiziano Vecelli (known as Titian).  Both men were born within a year of each other around 1478.  Giorgione died from the black plague in 1510.  He was 32.  Titian, however, went on to a long and illustrious career, living to the ripe old age of 98.  Both had studied under Giovanni Bellini and by the time Giorgione died, their style was so identical Titian was able to complete one of his friend's commissions. So brief was Giorgione's life, only four or five paintings are attributed to him, while Titian's number in the hundreds.

Venus with a Mirror, 1555, Titian
One of Titian's most interesting works is Venus with a Mirror painted around 1555. The painting depicts a rather voluptuous semi-nude Venus attended by two cupids supporting a mirror in which is seen an oblique reflection of the goddess of love. Although the work is typical of the rich, glazing effects that make Venetian oil painting so distinctively beautiful, what's most interesting about this work is what you don't see.

The painting, rendered on a vertical plane, was originally a double portrait painted using a horizontal format. Apparently Titian was quite fond of a male hand and forearm grasping a velvet coat that swept up over the man's shoulder in the earlier work. He kept this section as the appendage of his Venus holding the same velvet garment used to cover her lower extremities while painting out the rest of the double portrait. This has been confirmed by x-rays which, in fact, show that an even older painting exists (perhaps a still earlier, unsatisfactory effort) beneath the partially obscured double portrait.
The similarities and differences
can easily be seen in this vertical
format of the x-ray.

This horizontal x-ray image of Venus with a Mirror,
demonstrates the radical restructuring Titian
imposed upon his composition in switching to a
vertical format and eliminating the male figure.
The horizontal 5:4 ratio canvas was cropped on
both the left and right (top and bottom above)
to create the vertical 2:3 ratio of the final painting.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Georgio Vasari

Self-Portrait, Giorgio Vasari
As a painter and devotee of art history, I've always had a strong kinship with the Mannerist painter Georgio Vasari. Vasari had the great good fortune to be born in 1511 at the height of the Italian Renaissance near its cradle, Florence, Italy. As a young man he was both an artist (primarily frescoes) and a scholar. For ten years he traveled the length and breadth of the Italian peninsula studying the art and artists of his time, talking with them, copying their work, and growing into a remarkably intuitive expert on art and architecture for the time. At the age of 31, he found himself in Rome and fell into the artistic circle of the wealthy Cardinal Farnese who obtained for him his first commission, a series of paintings for the Vatican Chancellery.

                                                                                         (Photo by Markus Bernet)
The Vasari Corridor as it crosses the Arno
River, the upper-most level of the Ponte
In his spare time, Vasari began organizing the notes from his travels into a manuscript which he had published in Florence in 1550. Bearing the auspicious title, Vite de piu eccelenti architetti, scultori e pittori, popularly known as The Lives of the Artists, his book was the first book even written solely devoted to art history. In it he drew heavily from his close encounters with the great Michelangelo Buonarroti whom he'd met as a young man and whose work (especially his painting) he'd studied intensely. Apparently Vasari had also studied Michelangelo the architect as well for it was about this time when he undertook a five-month construction project for the Grand Duke of Florence in which he designed and built a raised walkway called the Vasari Corridor, which connected the Pitti Palace with the Uffizi (offices). The remarkable link was almost a full kilometer long, zigzagging over and across the streets of Florence, through a church, across the Ponte Vecchio (a bridge already lined with numerous shops), then along the banks of the Arno River in what amounted to the first ever cross-town pedestrian walkway. Today, lined with some 700 paintings from the Medici collection, it is without doubt the longest art museum in the world.

Among his other firsts, in 1561, Vasari founded one of the earliest art schools, the Florence Academy of Drawing. But despite his remarkable contributions as a painter, educator, and architect, Vasari is primarily treasured today for his "Vite" now simply known as Vasari's Lives.  It is basic required reading for any would-be art historian. There is some disagreement among scholars as to who first coined the term "Renaissance" to describe the peak period of Italian art which Vasari illuminated in his book, a second edition of which he published in 1568. But there is little doubt it was Vasari who first recognized that this burst of creative artistic energy was a unique phenomenon, and that he was the world's first, true art historian.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

van Gogh's Dr. Gachet

In late July of 1890, in the south of France, in the little village of Arles, in his tiny bedroom situated over a small shop, Vincent van Gogh lies dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His brother, Theo, has rushed to his bedside from his home in Paris. Also present is Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. Vincent had very nearly botched the suicide. He lingered near death for more than 24 hours after he'd pulled the trigger of the small revolver that lodged a bullet in his brain. He'd hoped to die amidst the warm, swaying, wheat-field-yellows he loved so much. Dr. Gachet could do nothing for him.     

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, June, 1890,
Vincent van Gogh
Actually the good doctor had done not much more for him in life than he had in death. He'd misdiagnosed his mental illness, prescribing quite a number of useless drugs that had adversely effected his physical health and vision, not to mention his mental state. The one thing he had been able to do for Vincent was advise him to enter a mental hospital, and then to care for him after he got out for the few days before his suicide (which he'd not sensed was imminent). He'd also served as a model for a portrait Vincent had earlier painted of him. (Perhaps in payment of his fees). It was a good likeness. It took the troubled artist three days to complete. The painting is brooding and somewhat sad, but unmistakably a labor of love. The doctor is posed, his head leaning against his hand, his elbow on a garden table. The usual rich yellows, blues, and greens of Van Gogh's palette are everywhere evident in the painting.   
After the doctor's death in 1897, a Danish art collector named Alice Ruben purchased the painting for the equivalent of $58. In 1890, coincidentally almost exactly 100 years after the artist's death, a Japanese businessman purchased the same painting for the astounding price of $82.5 million. Between these two events is a twisted trail of disreputable art dealers, museum politics, the Nazi war on "degenerate art", and refugees from the Holocaust trying to save both themselves and the painting. Add to this a more recent history of greedy buyers and sellers caring only to turn a fast buck on the painting as its value soared beyond all reason, and you have a case book study of everything wrong with the art market for the last hundred years. Sadly, today, this touching masterpiece resides, unseen, crated up, stored for safekeeping in a Japanese warehouse.      

Note: Van Gogh's Dr. Gachet  has now moved into second place as the most expensive painting in history.  Its place was taken by Gustave Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer which sold in 2006 for $135 million.
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907,
Gustave Klimt

Monday, July 18, 2011

Vincent the Loser

Vincent van Gogh at 18
One of the surest ways to start a conversation with an artist is to ask, "Who's your favorite artist." The reaction will vary from a quick response of a single individual to a deeply puzzled look, or perhaps two or three favorites. My own usual response is Salvadore Dali though I'm kind of partial to two or three others. Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo, in 1874 listed his favorites.  Man, did he ever!  He reeled off a grand total of fifty-six favorites, nearly every one of them what we would today count as being of the Realist School. He also included, painters of the Barbizon School as well as Millet, Troyon, Rousseau, Breton, and Anton Mauve (who just happened to be a distant relative and one of his early art instructors). Later however, as he developed as an artist himself, Vincent seems to have taken a special liking to Jean-Francois Millet, whose paintings he copied quite often.

Galarie Goupil, 2 place de l'Opéra, Paris
Vincent had plenty of opportunity to familiarize himself with the art and artists of his world. He was born into a family with two lines of endeavor--religion and art. Both his father and grandfather were Protestant ministers in a predominantly Catholic Holland. On his mother's side, he had three uncles who were art dealers working for the firm, Goupil and Company, which had offices in London, Brussels, and Paris. Vincent's, younger brother, Theo, eventually went to work for this company. Vincent, himself, started working for the company in Brussels, then was transferred to the London office, and finally to the Paris office where he showed more interest in studying the paintings in the company showrooms than selling them. Likewise, the time he spent at the Louvre began to cause him to neglect his duties. The company finally had to let him go.

No, it's not an anti-smoking
public service ad, it's van Gogh's
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning
Cigarette, dating from 1885-86,
perfectly capturing the artist's
frame of mind at that juncture
in his life.
A dismal failure in the art world at the age of 23, Vincent turned his attention to the other family trade, religion. It was during this time of personal and financial desperation he became even more deeply religious. He tried working as a teacher in London but within months, was forced to move back in with his parents. He found work briefly in a bookstore, but that too lasted only a few months before he decided to go to Amsterdam to study theology. That didn't work out but he was able to enroll in an evangelical training course in Brussels, where he proceeded to flunk all his courses. In spite of this he managed to wheedle a six-month trial period working and preaching to the poor and sick in the coal mining region of Southern Belgium. And even though he threw himself into his work with what could only be termed "religious abandon," eating, living, and sleeping in the same hovels as those he served, the evangelical board, disapproving of his extreme lifestyle, fired him. Despite this, and with a little financial help from Theo, he stayed on for over a year working on his own. However by 1880, this sad loser came up with another ambition. He decided to become an artist.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The van Gogh Phenomena

One of the most difficult phenomena to account for in art is that of Vincent van Gogh. Today, on those rare occasions when his work is even on the market, it brings prices in the tens of millions of dollars, yet the one painting he is reported to have ever sold during his lifetime fetched a mere twenty dollars--and that was from his brother, Theo. Now before we castigate Theo for having taken advantage of his brother's unfortunate financial situation, keep in mind that this good man supported his beloved brother both financially and emotionally through most of the last, desperate decade of Vincent's life. And also keep in mind, Vincent might gladly have sold any of his paintings for a mere twenty dollars.

But setting aside prices and money, the bigger question looms, how did this troubled little Dutchman, heir to a painting tradition going back to Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and van Ruisdael have strayed so far from his roots? Or, given the fact that he spent much of his life in France, why is his work not more "French?"  There are a couple answers to this.  Perhaps first and foremost, Vincent was largely without much formal training in art. The fact is, had he shown even the slightest modicum of talent in his formative years he would have been shuttled off to the Ecole des Beaux-arts where any spark of creative genius would have been systematically doused forever.

1882, View of the Sea at Scheveningen,
(stolen in 2002, never recovered),
Vincent van Gogh
1883, Cottages, Vincent van Gogh

1884, Congregation Leaving the
Reform Church in Nuenen,
Vincent van Gogh

1885, The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh

In plain English (or French or Dutch), his early work is terrible. Even to our enlightened eyes today they are still terrible. His first work showing any promise at all was The Potato Eaters done in 1885, and were it not for the empathetic handling of such a seldom-seen subject matter, this work likewise would be unexceptional. Nowhere to be found is the brilliant use of color that was to later free painting and painters from the dictates of local color.

The second accounting for the Van Gogh phenomena has to be the man himself. The son of Dutch missionaries, in his early life he was drunk with religion. Often, the Dutch are blamed for this poor man's desperation, but in large part, this is patently unfair. Vincent himself has to be blamed for milking every situation he ever found himself of every last drop of unhappiness in his unending quest for self-torture. Had he not been exposed to the Impressionist artists in 1886 and studied briefly with them, his work today would warrant just the barest footnote of a troubled madman in painting history.  Instead, in four short years, there came a virtual explosion of work, a flood of color shored up with the bare minimum of drawing skills eked out in the few months he studied at the Belgian Academy. This is what accounts for the Van Gogh phenomena, unhappiness, madness, color, and freedom from academic suppression. It was a strange, powerful, yet wonderful brew, so unstable it couldn't help but boil over, one hot, sad day in the wheat fields of Arles.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Trompe l'oeil

Ever go to an art museum as a child and have your "adult supervision" patiently lecture you almost before you ever got in the door about "don't touch anything?" I once went to the rest room in once such hallowed hall and was afraid to wash my hands afterwards for fear of leaving fingerprints on the shiny silver faucets. The worst part of it all is that about ten percent of all the art one sees in just such an establishment simply screams out to be touched, whether it's the marvelously shiny surface of a piece of carved marble or rough, painterly texture of an Impressionist masterpiece that Monet or Renoir simply loaded with thick, seductive globs of sensuous, buttery oils that, even today, simply plead to be touched and fondled.   

After the Hunt, 1883,
William M. Harnett
But to me, shiny sculptural textures or impasto paintings were never the greatest temptations.  I was always a sucker for trompe l'oeil.  That's French.  It's one of the first French terms I ever learned.  It means "fool the eye". Actually it more accurately translates as:  "It's real and I dare you to reach out and touch it to prove otherwise." I must confess (first time I ever told anyone), I once reached out and touched a William Harnett. The painting part of a traveling exhibition and was called After the Hunt.  I remember, I felt sooo naughty afterward.  It wasn't real, and to this day I still have trouble believing that incredible powder horn in the upper left section of the picture was just an amazingly smooth layer of oil paint on paper-smooth canvas.   

Old Souvenirs,
John Frederick Peto

Harnett wasn't the only American painter of the late 1800s to tempt me into such antisocial behavior, just the only one I ever succumbed to. I was always especially fond of John Frederick Peto's many "rack paintings" as they are called, canvases painted to look like wooden bulletin boards. Did you ever wonder how they fastened things to bulletin boards before they invented thumbtacks? No, probably not. Well, anyway, according to Peto at least, they tacked a geometric pattern of tightly stretched ribbon behind which was slipped the various flotsam and jetsam of daily life like artwork on refrigerator doors today. It's all there for posterity in his painting Old Souvenirs painted between 1881 and 1900...geesh, no wonder it looks so real, took him nineteen years to complete!
With his Escaping Criticism, 1874, Pere Borrell del Caso,
"breaks the frame" as his trompe l'oeil image eschews the typical still-life
 with startling, somewhat post-modern affect.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Invention of Oil Painting

How would you like to begin your day as an artist by going out and searching the forest for roots of a certain color, or digging up dirt of a certain color, or visiting a local jeweler to select certain colored semi-precious stones so that you could return to your studio and commence grinding them with a mortar and pestle?  All this in the hope of acquiring just the right colored pigments to render just the right shade of pink for the Virgin Mary's soft countenance? How would you like, having done all this, to then go calling on the farmer down the road to gather a few eggs for the yolks into which to mix these hard-earned pigments? You'd probably eat a lot of egg whites for breakfast.

Portrait of a Man with a Turban,
1433, Jan van Eyck, possible
I don't know about you, but I'd be too tired by that time to paint. Then, on top of that, you'd spend hours and hours cross-hatching tiny linear strokes of paint in building up just the right tones and textures to color your carefully drawn images on wood panels you'd sawed, hewn, and planed the day before. And that doesn't count applying the layer upon layer of finely ground plaster mixed with rabbit skin glue (which your neighbors hate the smell of as you boil down all those rancid pelts). And of course, you could only paint during the daylight hours, not that you could stay awake very long into the night after all that anyway.

The Flemish artist, Jan Van Eyck, had those problems, at least up until about 1400. No doubt he wasn't the first artist to say to himself, "There's got to be an easier way to make a living."  Except that he did something about it. Egg tempera, while rich in color, was poor in subtlety, even in expert hands. So, he invented oil painting. Blending his laboriously acquired pigments into linseed oil allowed him hours, even days to work and rework a given area, instead of mere minutes. And oils were especially well-suited for painting on those new, light, sturdy, stretched, gessoed linen canvases, rather than heavy, awkward old boards. Moreover, they gave him a practically unlimited scope of space upon which to craft his masterpieces. Now if only he could round up a few more apprentices to scrounge and grind pigments, life would be a still-life bowl full of cherries.

(Note:  van Eyck wasn't the first to paint using oils, but, according to the 16th Century art historian, Giorgio Vasari, he was likely the first western artist to do so exclusively.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Trite Art

One of the pitfalls of becoming a legendary artist is that your best work may become so familiar to later generations as to breed contempt. Leonardo's Mona Lisa has suffered such a fate, as has Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, Gainsborough's  Blue Boy, Munch's The Scream, Wood's American Gothic, Rodin's Thinker, and Alessandro dei Filipepi's Birth of Venus. Who? Remember, Venus on the half-shell? Actually, it would seem one doesn't have to be a household name to suffer such an indignity. Sandro Botticelli's Venus would be a case in point.

La Primavera; the Allegory of Spring, 1482, Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli was born in Florence around 1445, the son of an elderly tanner. His name seems to have been derived from his older brother's nickname, Il Botticello, meaning little barrel. The name apparently stuck when the younger brother became an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi. Though his painting master was a devoutly religious man, Botticelli was best known as a painter of mythological works of which Birth of Venus is typical, along with a slightly less well known La Primavera; The Allegory of Spring. Both have a flowing, lyrical beauty that have since been held up as the epitome of grace and charm, and suffered ridicule when such traits are not always held in high esteem.

Adoration of the Magi, 1473-75,
Sandro Botticelli
Botticelli's life took a dramatic turn in the 1490s when he "found religion" under the influence of Florentine evangelist, Savanarola. The flamboyant Renaissance preacher incited riots in the streets as he went about denouncing greed, luxury, paganism, humanism, and tyranny in a city legendary for such human frailties. His preaching led to the infamous "bonfire of the vanities" in 1497.

Adoration of the Magi, 1490-1500, Sandro Botticelli
When Savanarola himself was consigned to a bonfire in 1500, the work of a disillusioned Botticelli took on a much more serious, even tragic note. His later works were all religious in nature, and included another Adoration of the Magi (his fourth) and his last painting, Mystic Nativity. It depicts a tight circle of angels seemingly suspended from a sort of merry-go-round canopy over a tightly rendered, very colorful creche in what may be the first nativity painting of the Italian Renaissance. The work has a strangely antique look to it, reminiscent of medieval painting. It is the only painting he ever did which he signed, perhaps indicating it was done for himself rather than others. It's a richly beautiful piece which, fortunately, has not suffered the fate of his earlier work in becoming a parody.
Mystic Nativity, 1500, Sandro Botticelli

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Count Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Count Henri de
Paris in the late 1800's was one of the most exciting places on earth.  Art and culture reigned supreme.  Painting was making daily breakthroughs. Household names today were still struggling, impressionable young art students, while many of the stereotypes we now associate with the city were original rather than tourist copies designed to recall this dynamic age. Perhaps the most popular of all these Parisian images was the nightlife, and the man most responsible for perpetuating it was something of a Paris original himself. He was young, aristocratic, wealthy, something of a playboy, frail of body, intelligent, and thoroughly enamored with the wild and crazy times he depicted and publicized. His name was Count Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.   

Toulouse-Lautrec with his mentor,
Jules Cheret, the famous lithographer

Born in the south of France on his father's estate in 1864, he was a member of one of the wealthiest families in France. Suffering from a genetic bone defect, he was unable to attend regular schools much of his life. At age thirteen he broke first one, then the other leg, stunting his growth for life. Turning to art to fill his time, he eventually ended up in Paris admid the likes of Degas and Van Gogh. But his first love was the Paris nightlife, though he combined this with his art, sketching nightly the performers at the famous Moulin Rouge. It was there he was commissioned to re-design a poster that would change his life. When Paris awoke one morning in the spring of 1891 to the presence of some 500 of his eye-catching, lithographic posters, the popularity of the club and the artist immediately soared. However, the posters quickly disappeared from the walls of the city, becoming instant collectors' items.   

Salon at the Rue des Moulins, 1894,
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The posters of Toulouse-Lautrec made equally famous perfomers such as Jane Avril, May Milton, Aristide Bruant, and a dancer known only as La Goulue. His posters even made patrons of the nightspot famous, such as a tall, thin, law clerk named Valentin, whoes antics on the dance floor made him know as "Valentin the boneless." Every element of his posters was carefully planned, based upon detailed color sketches made at the club each night. His colors were bright, flat and striking, stopping just short of being gaudy. Many of his poster sketches he later developed into canvas paintings capturing the decadent glamour of the night while at the same time balancing it against the sad superficiality of the people of the night whom he came to know and love. Unfortunately, this swinging nightlife was responsible for wrecking his life as well. Because of his handicaps, alcholism, and the debaucherous life he led (he actually took up residence in a high-class Paris bordello), he died in 1901. He was 36.