Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Portrait Busts

Barney Fife, Edward Hlavka
The art world today is full of secrets. They range from technical shortcuts to some involving the peculiarities of economics. For instance, did you know that for about the same price you would pay a first quality portrait painter to render your glowing countenance in oils, you could also pay a first-quality sculptor to do the same in terracotta, bronze, even marble? Assuming top quality, the going rate seems to be around $3,000 to $5,000 depending upon geography, medium, and the name of the artist incised on the back. Although there's probably a thousand portrait painters today for every one portrait sculptor, I was a little surprised that such art hadn't actually long passed away. But if the Internet is any indication, at a time when painted portraits are still a very popular art commodity, you seldom see or hear much about their sculptural equivalent. Part of that, of course, can be chalked up to the fact that for every sculptor, in any style or medium, there are probably about 100 painters (maybe more). And portraiture being such a demanding art in any medium, there is probably only about one sculptor doing portrait busts for every 100 sculptors doing other types of three-dimensional art. So these artists are pretty rare birds.

Louis XIV, 1665, Gianlorenzo Bernini
One hundred years ago, and especially during the history of art before that, portrait busts were not at all uncommon. Although sculptors were not represented among artists by anywhere near the same ratio as today, portrait busts were, in fact, the most common stock in trade of any working sculptor. There was only one style, Realism, and comparatively speaking, not much demand for carved marble or cast bronze statues, so the head and shoulders portrait bust easily made up the bulk of a sculptor's output. And even then, the cost was quite comparable to a painted portrait. They were especially popular from around 1745 to as recently as 1942.

Charles James Fox, Joseph Knollekens
Even the experts aren't sure if the portrait bust simply declined in popularity during the first half of the twentieth century or if sculptors themselves chose to abandon its demanding exactitude in favor of simpler, much more expressive forms of three-dimensional work in line with what their counterparts were doing in painting and other areas of art. Perhaps it was some of both, although it's difficult to assign factors of cause and effect. Certainly, with the change came an increase in the number of sculptors, much greater than necessary to supply any demand for portrait busts. In any case, nowhere was such art more popular than in England. Art museums and manor houses alike are brimming with such works, underlining what amazing talent these once common "bust sculptors"  possessed. Regardless of medium, their work seems to "breathe."

John Galsworthy, Jo Davidson
Although in most cases the artists of these works are known, in a surprising number, the figures carved in stone or cast in bronze are not. I'm not sure why, but that's seldom the case with painted portraits. Maybe it's the little brass plates we tack on the frames. Or, perhaps it has to do with the fact that a bronze bust may be about the most indestructible pieces of art we know, far outliving those charged with remembering whose likeness they represent. Paintings do not survive well for generations in attics. A hundred-pound hunk of carved marble does. Among England's best portrait sculptors were artists such as Joseph Nollekens (above, right), New York-born Sir Jacob Epstien, and Edgar George Papworth. And not all the heads are unknown. Among the likenesses generated by artists from the halcyon days of portrait sculpture is that of John Galsworthy (right, author of The Forsyte Saga) as well as the Roman statesman, Cicero, and the British statesman, Charles James Fox. Not surprisingly, I came upon  no less than four works depicting the brothers George and Dr. Andrew Combe, early advocates of phrenology (the now discredited system of reading character by measuring the scull). Phrenologically speaking, theirs are no doubt highly accurate.
George Combe

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lelia Pissarro

Lelia Pissarro
We all have the dream of someday being "collectible." Actually, some of us may even have obtained some degree of collectibility already, while for others, it may be just around the corner...or around several corners. Now imagine, selling your first canvas--becoming a collectible artist--at the tender age of four. That's right; in 1967, Lelia Pissarro sold her first painting to Wally Findlay, a New York art dealer, when she was just four years old. Naturally, it helps when your father is French artist H. Claude Pissarro (yesterday's item, below), your mother is Katia Pissarro (an art dealer herself), your grandfather is Paul-Emile Pissarro, and your great grandfather is the famous French Impressionist, Camille Pissarro. Of course, with such an art pedigree, it also places you under quite a burden to uphold the family name.

 Sandy en Vacances, Lelia Pissarro
Lelia Pissarro was born in Paris on July 27, 1963. Her ties to the past glories of her painting family came almost from birth. She was raised until age 11 by her grandparents, Paul-Emile and "Marnie Cherie" Pissarro. In his waning years, her grandfather took great delight in teaching her Impressionism, just as he'd taught her father. From the age of four, he taught her to paint, and so grounded her in figurative art, that even after his death in 1972 (she remained to help care for her grandmother until 1974), and then after years of schooling and indoctrination in conceptual art, she was unable to slip from its grip. Once she moved back with her jet-set parents, who had homes in both France and California, her art instruction centred upon her father's work. Her mother saw to it that she exhibited at the Salon de la Jeune Peinture, where she was the youngest exhibitor. At the age of fifteen, she participated in an exhibit at the Luxembourg Museum in Paris. A year later, she passed the entrance exams to enrol in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Tours. It was there that she was exposed to the then prevailing emphasis on conceptual art. But like her father, no amount of avant-garde influence could shake her family background in Impressionism.
Franck and Gonzague's Snow, 2004, Lelia Pissarro.
Some of her work could pass for her great grandfather's.
After graduation, Lelia once more returned to the "family style" while teaching at the Moria School and studying art restoration at the Louvre with Madame De Pangalleria. By the late 1980s, as conceptual art began to wane, Lelia suddenly found herself and her work in the forefront of resurgence in figurative art. She had solo exhibits at the Galerie du Marais, and in other shows in Lyon, Mulhouse, and Rennes. An exhibit in London not only gained her a wide acceptance among British collectors but also a husband--art dealer David Stern (whose family's art galleries now have an exclusive handle on all Pissarro family originals). Today, her work can be found in galleries in New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Dallas, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as well as around the world in countries such as Japan, South Africa, France, Switzerland, and Israel. This fourth generation Pissarro has also played an active role in a travelling series of exhibitions titled, "Pissarro--The 4 Generations." Moreover, this is one Pissarro artist you won't find eschewing the family name (as some of her relatives did). Her grandfather, on his death bed, made her promise not to.
Blindness, Lelia Pissarro, no longer bound by Impressionism

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

H. Claude Pissarro

H. Claude Pissarro
Isaac Pomie was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France on November 9, 1935. If ever there was a child predestined to become an artist, it was him. His father was an artist, as was his grandfather. And today, so is his daughter Lelia. His oldest son, Joachim, is an art historian, and his other son, Lionel, is an art dealer, as is Isaac's wife, Katia as well. And though they all live in France, Isaac Pomie's work can be found in galleries all over Europe and in New York. Though he came from an established art family, his resume includes the Ecole de Musee du Louvre and the highly exclusive Ecole Normale Superieure. At the surprisingly early age of 24, he was commissioned by the White House to paint then President Dwight D. Eisenhower. And if you're wondering why you've never heard of this artist, perhaps it's because Isaac Pomie is an assumed name - the one he signs at the bottom of his canvases. His real name is H. Claude Pissarro.

Portrait of Paul Emile Pissarro,
c. 1899, Camille Pissarro
H. Claude Pissarro is the son of Paul Emile Pissarro, the youngest son of Camille Pissarro. With a pedigree like that, it's hard imagining his not becoming an artist, though in fact, he has a younger brother and sister neither of whom are involved in the art world. Actually, he also has a whole host of second-generation cousins, only one of whom (Orovida) has become a professional. So, though the art genes run deep in the Pissarro family, (five out of seven of Camille's offspring became artists) they don't necessarily dominate the whole family tree. The trait seems to be thinning in the upper branches. Nonetheless, it seems quite strong in this branch.

Les Fiacres L'etoile, H. Claude Pissarro
Like his father and all his father's brothers before him, H. Claude learned his art at the side of his father, emulating the family's near lock on Impressionism. And though the lower branches of the family tree tended to veer away from Pissarroism toward any number of prevalent styles from the early decades of the twentieth century, the work of H. Claude Pissarro could easily be mistaken for that of either his father or grandfather. He tends to paint Paris (alas, not in plein aire) as well as the French countryside. Today, he has what might be called two modes - Petit Claude and Grand Claude. The only difference is in the size. Petit Claude paintings range in size up to about 24." Grand Claude paintings are measured in feet (most of his recent work).

Clocher d'Eragny, Isaac Pomie--the painting
 is the same, regardless of the name.
All this is not to say that the art lineage from grandfather to grandson is arrow straight. It's not. H. Claude had his radical obsessions. During the 1970s, he became involved with the new French Avant-garde, artists such as Vialla, Pineau, and Da Rocha. He worked within a movement known as "Support-Surface," an intellectualized painting fad involving the attachment of artistic significance to all elements of the painter's life, even his or her tools. He went so far as to establish a sort of artists' colony in an old manor house near Paris. It was a time of much experimentation and soul searching. Secretly, at night, he couldn't give up the traditional roots so deeply ingrained from his formative background. For almost twenty years, he painted abstractly during the day, traditionally at night. It was during this time his traditional work began to sell under the name Isaac Pomie.

Les Rhododendrons, 2003, H. Claude Pissarro--quite grandfatherly.
It was not an existence he could carry on forever. With the coming of Postmodernism to the fore, H. Claude Pissarro moved his studio and family (what was left of it by this time) back to his Pissarro roots in Normandy. There the workaholic traits, also prevalent in the family tree, have manifested themselves as he works tirelessly, often turning in 18-hour days, churning out at a frenetic pace the enormous Neo-impressionist canvases that have become the trademark of Isaac Pomie. His style today comes from applying colours straight from the tube with great speed to achieve a rich, thick texture. Once the paint has dried, he often scrapes some (or much) of it away, then adds yet another, more refined layer to create his own remarkable version of modern Impressionism. Of course, no one today is deceived by the name on his canvases. But like so many Pissarros in the past, he, almost by accident, made his own name in art apart from being a Pissarro.
Le Grau du Roi, Quai rouge, H. Claude Pissarro

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pissarro's Birthplace

It may not be Impressionism, but it is Pissarro and it is St. Thomas, 1852.
It's funny how we sometimes get the wrong impression about Impressionism. All along I've always thought Impressionism was born on the banks of the Seine at the hands of Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. Turns out it actually started on the Virgin Island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. At least that what the natives claimed as they made ready to open an exhibition of impressionist works in Charlotte Amalie, the capital city of the island group. Despite what our art history books may tell us, it turns out the islands do have some claim to fame along this line in that St. Thomas was the birthplace of one of the renowned progenitors of Impressionism, Camille Pissarro. And, since Pissarro was born, grew up, lived, and painted on the tiny tropical island until the age of 23, by implication, they insist on bragging rights as having also been the birthplace of Pissarro's Impressionism. It's a stretch, but why not, Paris has more than its share of Impressionists anyway, they can easily spare one; although they might argue with Pissarro's having been an Impressionist at such an early juncture in his career.

 Fritz Melbye , 1852-54, Camille Pissarro
In 1853, Pissarro was sketching on the pier in the port of Charlotte Amalie while waiting for a shipment destined for his Jewish father's dry goods store. His work attracted the attention of Danish artist, Fritz Melbye, (the Virgin Islands were owned by Denmark at the time). They became friends as Melbye pursuaded Pissarro that he should become a full-time artists, and moreover, should pack his bags, take to the sea, to escape the bourgeois constraints placed upon him and his work by his family and the remote geography he'd known all his life. Together, they hopped a boat to Venezuela where they spent two years painting together before finally deciding the primitive South American country was really no better than St. Thomas. When Pissarro returned, he convinced his parents he was serious about becoming an artist. Melbye went on to New York while Pissarro departed for Paris. They never saw one another again.

Charlotte Amalie Harbor, 1852, Fritz Melbye,
clearly the better of the two artists at the time.
In New York, Fritz Melbye hooked up with the pre-eminent American landscape painter of the time, Frederick Church. Together they travelled the Caribbean and South America. Melbye eventually went to China, leaving all his sketches and paintings with Church. It was there that he died in 1896. When Church died, four years later, all of Melbye's papers and art were taken over by the Church Foundation. In 1970, Danish scholars studying Melbye's work, journeyed to Church's home, Olana, overlooking the Hudson River in New York, where they discovered, to their surprise, the name "Pissarro" on many drawings and watercolors among Melbye's papers. These newly discovered Pissarros, from the Venezuela days as well as scenes of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John; along with four Pissarro oil paintings borrowed from elsewhere on the islands, formed the bulk of the forty works in a show titled, "Camille Pissarro and the Caribbean: 1850-1855: Drawings from the Collection at Olana." The show was held in December of 2000 in Lilienfield House, just across the street from the synagogue where Pissarro was schooled in the Jewish faith, and just down the same street from where he was born. It was not the Louvre, but to Virgin Islanders, their most famous son had returned home.

Three Riders and Horses Galloping on a Plain, 1857-58, Camille Pissarro,
the Venezeula sojourn, clearly painted under the influence of Fritz Melbye.


Monday, November 26, 2012

The Petit Boulevard Artists

Self-portrait with a Pipe, Vincent van Gogh,
the Paris years,1886-88
Most of us think we know a good deal about Vincent van Gogh. We ought to, he's one of the most written-about artists to ever stand before an easel. Unfortunately, most of what we know about the man centres upon the last two years of his life in Arles. These are the years of myth and legend, also the years of his greatest proficiency and his most incredible output. Yet van Gogh had a life before Arles. For just over two years before that he lived with his brother, Theo, in Paris, and was an important figure in the newly evolving avant-garde during the period 1886-88. He was a catalyst for bringing together a number of artists, some of whom could barely stand the sight of one another, for art exhibits and discussions, influencing them and being influenced by them as they sought to make sense of Impressionism and at the same time move beyond it. These artists were, what we might call today, the cutting edge--or as van Gogh called them, the artists of the "Petit Boulevard."

Le Blute-Fin Mill, 1886, Van Gogh
Van Gogh came to Paris after the death of his father and a brief fling at studying art in Antwerp for some three months during which time he fought tooth and nail the academic principles being handed down by the instructors. He was not the academic type. And though he knew well the impressionists, he was not their type either. By this time, Impressionism had gradually become accepted, saleable, and even somewhat old fashioned, at least in Paris and especially among those younger artists such as Gauguin, Signac, Emile Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Louis Anquetin, Charles Angrand, and Georges Seurat. These were the core of the Petit Boulevard artists, who, thanks to van Gogh, also included older artists such as Pissarro, Sisley, and others seeking to build upon Impressionism something, as Cézanne put it, "solid and lasting" (as if Impressionism wasn't). This latter group had come to be known as Neo-Impressionists. They would have nothing to do with younger artists who only later came to be known as the Post-Impressionists. Yet van Gogh moved freely between these two groups, was accepted by both, and managed to organize art exhibits integrating their work.

Only when comparing the work of van Gogh, Gauguin, and Signac painting similar
subjects can the similarities and differences be seen, leading to questions as to who
influenced whom.
Except for a 2001 show at the St. Louis Art Museum of some 70 paintings and drawings by van Gogh, along with dozens of other pieces by his contemporaries, seldom, if ever, have the painters of the Petit Boulevard been shown in the U.S. Taken as a whole, the Petite Boulevard artists influenced van Gogh as much as he influenced them. We see the tentative first steps of an avant-garde who had yet to recognize they were an avant-garde. These were artists outside the mainstream at the time. This mainstream van Gogh termed the "Grand Boulevard" painters (Monet, Renoir, Degas, and other headlining Impressionists). Van Gogh could not realistically be called the leader of the painters of the Petit Boulevard (they had none), but he was a cohesive factor in shaping the two generational factions into a credible movement, both in pulling together their work for exhibition and facilitating a flow of dialogue between them. An exhibition he organized in 1887 of Japanese prints had a tremendous influence on several of his friends on both sides. And even as van Gogh fled Paris to the South of France in hopes of sustaining his own mental health, his letters to them helped define what came after Impressionism--whatever its name.
Les bretonnes aux ombrelles, 1892, Emile Bernard,
no windmill but umbrellas can sometimes catch the wind.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rembrandt Peale

Rembrandt Peale Self-portrait, 1828
I once had a great uncle who was a commercial artist. I don't suppose I met him more than a half-dozen times before he died. I don't think I ever did see any of his work. At any rate, he had absolutely no influence on me. So, coming from a family with practically no artistic background, like most of us, I can only imagine what it must have been like to be the son of the most famous artist in the country, a man who so expected his sons and daughters to become artists that most of them were named for famous artists. Rembrandt Peale was the second son of Charles Willson Peale of Philadelphia. He was born in 1778. It's hard to say if he was the most talented of the Peales, but he certainly became the most famous. One would have to suspect he may have been the "favorite son" as well even though his brother, Raphaelle, was the oldest and about half his brothers and sisters were highly respected in the field.

Patriae Pater, 1850 version, Rembrandt Peale
Rembrandt painted his first portrait at the age of thirteen. After over a thousand paintings, he completed his last one just before his death nearly seventy years later. Though initially taught by his father, in terms of training, Rembrandt benefited from something his father had lacked--connections and money. During his early life he made three trips to Europe, studying for varying periods of time in England, France, and Italy. Each time he returned, his style had changed. His early work is done in the tight, controlled, eighteenth century manner of his father. After studying in England at the Royal Academy, he attempted (with only modest success) to adopt the style of the Grand Manner. Later, the influence of French Neoclassicism and Jacques-Louis David can be seen in his work, while several months of copying Renaissance masters in Italy lent his style a certain monumentality not seen in the work of most American painters at time. Interestingly enough, each time he returned from his foreign studies, he taught his father what he'd learned.

Thomas Jefferson, 1805,
Rembrandt Peale
Though the Peale name may have been a burden at times, it certainly didn't hurt his career any. He was something of a vagabond, living and working at various times in his life not only in Philadelphia, but Baltimore (where he managed one of his father's museums) Charleston, and New York City. In addition to painting nearly everyone in the country who was anyone, Peale also tried his hand at large-scale history painting as well, including an excellent portrait from life of George Washington entitled Patriae Pater (above, right, 1795-1850). In fact, during the 1840s, he very nearly made a career of just painting copies of this work, given that he was the only living painter at the time who had painted the "The Country's Father" from life. Known as "porthole portraits" (for their round shape), he did 79 of them. In promoting his work, he also laid claim to the fact that his father had painted the first portrait of Washington in 1772. And like his father, Rembrandt passed on his talent. His daughter, Rosalba Carriera Peale, (like her uncles, named after a famous artist) was a talented 19th century landscape and portrait painter responsible for perpetuating many of her father's works in lithographic form.

Rosalba Carriera Peale, c. 1820,
Rembrandt Peale

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Parthenon

The Parthenon, Athens, Greece (not to be confused with the Pantheon in Rome)
During the past few months I've written in some depth about American domestic architecture--the walls and halls wherein we hang our hats. And one of the most pervading influences in this area has been the classic precept of Greek temple architecture. I've taken for granted that everyone was basically familiar with such influences as seen in our national landmarks such as the Greek Revival White House and such later structures as the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court building (both twentieth century works). And while we might be visually familiar with such Greek influences, we probably know little of their antecedents. Let me, then, take you back to July 28, 447 Athens, the Panathenic a place atop a modestly prominent hill marking the centre of the growing, prosperous, city ruled by an elected, governing council dominated by one man, the famed Pericles.

To imagine the Parthenon in all its original Hellenic glory, you only have to travel as far as
Nashville, Tennessee, to find this full-scale polychromic reproduction.
As the sun rises, we find thousands of Athenians already milling about a large, flat, stone platform atop the Acropolis. They have gathered to see the laying of the cornerstone to a rebuilding of the temple to their warrior goddess, Athena, daughter of Zeus. Two groups seem to be the focus of attention. Much like today's political landscape, they represent on the one hand the conservative, aristocratic faction made up of old wealth, dedicated to the parsimonious use of public funds, and the construction of public buildings with private funds. On the other side, is a younger, more radical, intellectual group, which has grown in power to the point of eradicating private patronage from public works. Pericles is their leader. Between them stands Phidias, the most famous sculptor and architect in all Greece. And as he lodges into place the cornerstone to his massive new temple, he sets in motion the most ambitious, most remarkable public building project in the history of man to that point--what we now know as the Parthenon.

Despite its seemingly simple beauty and perfection, there was nothing simple about
the temple layout, design, or engineering.
Two years had already gone into its design and site preparation. Even though the new temple was built upon the reinforced foundation of the old, unfinished one destroyed by the Persians some forty years earlier, Phidias' new construction was much more than just a rebuilding of the old. Traditional proportions in Greek temple architecture called for a 6 : 6 X 2+1 formula. That is, a grid of six squares in width; times two, plus one, or thirteen squares in length. Given size and weight limitations of stone masonry at the time, that formula severely limited the scale of the original temple. Phidias solved this by encircling the inner temple on all four sides, with an outer row of slightly larger columns, thus making the structure 8 columns wide; and, to maintain the same visual effect, multiplying that times two, plus 1; or 17 columns long. Added to this, he counteracted the sagging visual effect of a long, horizontal line by bowing the base of his temple platform slightly upward in the centre. And to further heighten the majestic verticality of his design, he made the columns proportionally somewhat thinner than the norm, slightly narrower at the top, decreed that they be fluted, and canting them ever so slightly inward toward an imaginary vanishing point some one-and-a-half miles above the structure.

Nothing short of strolling amid the rubble can convey the massive sophistication of
the construction effort as seen in this cut-away illustration.
The first year of construction was spent hauling the massive quantities of pure white Pentelic marble from a quarry three thousand feet above the ten miles of flat plain separating it and the building project. Each block of marble took two days to make the trip at a cost of 300 drachmas (one drachma was the pay for a day's work by a common labourer). The carts carrying the stones had wheels of up to twelve feet in diameter and were pulled by teams of thirty oxen. Ropes and pulleys were then used to heave the stones, some weighing as much as 22 tons, to the top of Acropolis hill. Only then could the carvers dress the stones and hundreds of laborers begin erecting the 46 outer columns and twelve, slightly thinner inner columns. The main part of the temple was largely constructed between 444 and 441 BCE. Inside was Phidias' sculptural masterpiece, a forty-foot tall wooden statue of Athena clad in ivory with raiment, shield, and helmet of solid gold (over 2,500 pounds of it). Her eyes were precious sapphires. The cost was scandalous--some 3,500,000 drachmas for the gold alone, plus another 1,386,000 in ivory--far outstripping the cost of the entire temple. And, as might be expected today under such circumstances, there were political cries of wild extravagance, legislative investigations, criminal charges, and trials for fraud.

Despite the formal, stylistic perfection of the Parthenon, its environment atop Athens'
Acropolis mount was a jumble of what appears to be randomly place temples and
peripheral structures far removed from the symetrical order we usually associate
with Greek architecture.
By today's standards we would find the finished temple more than a little gaudy and quite over embellished. The pure white marble, which has since matured to a warm, honey colour due to trace amounts of iron in the stone; was painted with a myriad of different colours. Sculptural decorations bordered on the excessive. They and the frieze running around the entire structure were done in bright polychromatic hues to heighten their visual impact. The total cost of Pericles' cultural imperialism, including the Parthenon, the statue of Athena, and the Propylaea (the gateway approach to the hill), has been estimated at about 12,072,000 drachmas. All this, and the site served its original cult function for less than fifty years before the onslaught of the Peloponnesian Wars. Since then the Parthenon has been a church, a mosque, a citadel, an armoury, and a Nazi stronghold.

Despite the Greek economy, the Parthenon seems to be perpetually under reconstruction.
When I was there in 2010, the dominant architectural style seemed to be "scaffolding revival."
Today, the Parthenon is an outdoor museum, some eighty percent in ruins after centuries of earthquakes, armed conflicts, and the explosion of a cache of Turkish gunpowder stored there in 1687 (which did by far the greatest damage). The statue of Athena was removed to Constantinople in 400 CE. and subsequently disappeared. What we see today is nothing more than a skeleton, stripped bare by centuries of plunderous treasure hunters. (England's Lord Elgin carted off most of the exterior sculpture to the British Museum in the early 1800s.) Yet, so indelible was the spark of genius unleashed by Pericles, Phidias, and their engineers atop the Acropolis nearly 2,500 years ago, that the Parthenon continues to live and breathe today in the design of our homes, our banks, our libraries, museums, and halls of government. I've even seen a small Ionic temple not far from here housing an ATM.
This early "ATM" dating from 1922, took on the shape of a Greek Revival bank. (It was one-way.)


Friday, November 23, 2012

Paris, Autumn,1871

War paintings, no match for the photography documenting the carnage.
Like the future of the American republic prior to this year's presidential election, the future of the artists in Paris of 1871 was drastically "undecided." France was at war with Germany. And the results were far from "too close to call." Germany was winning by a landslide. The emperor, Napoleon III, was captured by Prussian forces at the battle of Sedan; and forced to surrender. Soon thereafter the French defiantly proclaimed what was known as the Third Republic, which promptly set as its first course of action, hightailing it out of Paris, leaving what passed for an army and the frightened populace to fend for themselves, as German forces encircled the city and began a siege.

Though fortunately outside the siege ring (blue), Pissarro's  hometown of Louveciennes
would have been an important staging area for Prussian troops during the war.
Manet, Monet, Durand-Ruel, Daubigny, Cézanne, and others fled the city for the countryside. Others, like Bazille and Degas enlisted. Still others, including the Morisot sisters, Corot, Courbet, and Renoir chose to remain in Paris, and were gradually reduced to eating donkeys, then horses, then dogs, cats, and finally rats as the food supply slowly dwindled to almost nothing. Difficult as it might be, as you contemplate this, try to put yourself in the position of Camille Pissarro. He wasn't wealthy by any means, but he did have a comfortable home in Louveciennes, today a western suburb of Paris but then some ten miles outside of town and not far from Versailles. As the Prussian army moved to encircle the city, Louveciennes was directly in their path. He and his family were awakened in the middle of the night and faced with the decision whether to remain and endure the invading forces or flee with little more than the clothes on their backs. They fled north to Le Havre and eventually, along with Monet, Daubigny, and Bonvin escaped to London.

Pissarro and his wife, Julie, around the time
of their return to Louveciennes.
What they left behind was tragic. Pissarro was forced to abandon virtually his entire life's work to that point, hundreds of canvases, thousands of drawings, and a sizeable number of Monets left with him for safe keeping by his friend. In his home, the Germans established a slaughterhouse to feed their army. His paintings were used as doormats, indeed used to line the path to the door through the mud so the German officers might not get their boots dirty. During the occupation, from London, Pissarro was quite understandably concerned as to the fate of his lovely home. A friend, the painter Beliard was not optimistic:

A Road in Louveciennes, 1872, Camille Pissarro,
the scene Pissarro returned home to.
"I have no news of your house in Louveciennes. Your blankets, suits, shoes, underwear, you may go into mourning for--believe me--and your sketches, since they are greatly admired, I like to think will be ornaments in Prussian Drawing rooms. The nearness of the forest will no doubt save your furniture." Beliard was right on all counts, and after the war, Pissarro was able to return to his beleaguered home, losing "only" several hundred of his paintings dating back as far as 1855, while Monet lost a lesser, uncounted number. And we today lost a huge chunk of the history of Impressionism.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Painting the Weather

The Tempest, 1507-08, Giorgione
There are probably more clichés regarding the weather than any other subject except maybe men, women, and sex. Around here, the favorite seems to be "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute." Several times a year we have days like that. And then there may be the all-time favorite, "Everyone talks a lot about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it." Actually, artists are the exception to that rule. Probably the first person to actually do something about the weather was the Italian artist, Giorgione in 1510. He painted it. His painting, The Tempest, has long been one of the most enigmatic works ever done. It depicts a soldier on the left observing a nude mother suckling a child, while in the background there is a violent thunderstorm brewing. It seems a strange mix with one thing having little to do with the others. Be that as it may, the one very obvious element in this work is Giorgione's fascination with the brittle, electrically charged atmosphere right before a storm as the fading sunlight vividly illuminates a city in his background. Incidentally, a 1521 inventory of the art collection of Cardinal Grimani (who first owned this painting), written by the Venetian art critic, Marcantonio Michiel, may have seen the first recorded use of a term meaning, "landscape."

Storm with a Shipwreck, 1754, Claude-Joseph Vernet
Landscape painting was one of the fruits of the Renaissance. Before that time, it was of little interest to artists except as a means of filling up negative space in the backgrounds of their works. In the years afterwards, however, artists such as Claude and Poussin became fascinated by the countryside, so long as they could paint it from the safety and comfort of their studios. Though they might sketch on location, for the most part they were "fair weather" painters in fact and in content. But Claude-Joseph Vernet's 1754 A Storm with a Shipwreck broke with that tradition. While undoubtedly painted in his studio, it gives us a vivid look at both fair and foul weather in the same painting as he depicts a small ship dashed against a rocky coastline while survivors of the wreck struggle to come ashore and a small fishing boat manages to rescue those who can't. The storm occupies the left side of the canvas while a crowd descends from a fortified tower on the right, which is blessed by a sunny, lightly clouded sky. The contrast in the weather above is as dramatic as the shipwreck below.

The Magpie, 1868, Claude Monet
The weather seems to have been only of passing interest, even to landscape artists, until they began to paint pictures in it as opposed to pictures of it. In 1868, a French journalist from Le Havre reported, in a mixture of awe, dismay, and amusement, having seen Claude Monet painting at his easel out in the snow. It was a cold but sunny day and even with layer upon layer of clothing and gloves, the news account reports that he was still half-frozen. But the painting, The Magpie, with its brilliant, sometimes yellowish, whites and cold, vibrant, blue-grey shadows would seem to have been well worth the effort. The title comes from the one sign of life in the painting, a magpie sitting on a snow-covered wooden gate.

Life-boat and Manby Apparatus, 1831, J.M.W. Turner
Monet was not alone among the impressionists in his fascination with the weather. Fifty years before, in England, J.M.W. Turner had made weather and atmospheric effects the hallmark of his entire career, leading the way for impressionist artists such as Alfred Sisley and his The Fog, Voisins, painted in 1874. We most commonly think of the Impressionists as having been enamoured with the purest light and color, but Sisley's tiny work, painted in the same fog he depicts, dissolves the form of a woman gathering flowers in a secluded garden into a silvery-blue greyness which diffuses the trees, flowers, fence, and a broad path to such a degree we have to struggle to define all but the simplest reading of its content. But then, I guess Sisley probably wasn't the first or last artist to be painting in a fog.

The Fog, Voisins, 1874, Alfred Sisley
Erich Heckel, one of the founders of the group of Dresden artists known as Die Brücke (The Bridge) in 1905, found the ephemeral period after a storm most interesting. His 1959 painting, Landscape in Thunderstorm seems to reflect a sort of revival of hope following the stormy post-war period in his country. There is a strong emphasis on pictorial structure in his raw, Expressionist lines, angular planes, and luminous colours. It is a deep, hilly landscape overhung with heavy clouds through which the sun is seen bursting free to suffuse a lush green valley with a vital, ecstatic energy. It's an extreme scene compared with the cliché, sunny blue skies so many of us seem to automatically favor without much (or any) thought in our own landscapes. Even those who like to paint out in the weather tend to shrink from painting it at its most fascinating and dramatic moments.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Painting Mythology

Anyone care to hazard a guess what this is all about. Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1787
Every so often I get to studying and thinking about artists of the past and the various trials and tribulations they had to go through in producing their art. Inevitably I end up thankful that I wasn't born in some past era hundreds of years ago with the same creative urges I possess today. I have the freedom to paint almost literally anything I want, limited only by my own technical inadequacies which, thanks to various photographic and digital working tools, are becoming less and less of a factor as the years go by. All I need is an idea, any idea, that fascinates me for a sufficiently long enough period to conceive and produce the work, and I'm off and running. I can employ virtually any medium I want, any material, and paint any size or shape, limited only by my physical surroundings. And, although I like to sell art as well as anyone, I'm also blessed by the fact that so long as I can store my work, I don't have to paint work guaranteed to sell. That is a tremendous dose of creative freedom. If it has any downside, it's that I sometimes feel guilty in not availing myself of this priceless freedom more than I do.

It must have been a wild party, Luca Giordano, c. 1680
Had I lived in the four hundred years following the Renaissance, while I might have had at my disposal the technical ability to produce much the same work I do today, conventions would have greatly limited my choices of subject matter. Portraits, of course, would have been okay, but landscapes would hardly have entered my mind unless I wanted to paint idealized Arcadian pleasantries or the bland Dutch countryside. The still life would have been considered little more than a painting exercise for students, far beneath my professional talents unless I were Dutch or Flemish and wanted to specialize in them to the exclusion of all else. The same goes for animals. And any form of art for art's sake would have been literally unthinkable. The one overriding rule imposed by convention and society upon all artists during this time was that art had to serve some higher purpose. It had to inspire, or glorify, or educate, or decorate, or illuminate, or illustrate (and preferably all these things at once). And if it didn't fulfil at least one of these purposes, not only was it not considered art, but the artist wouldn’t even have considered creating it.

Any ideas? It's Jason and Medea, 1865, 
Gustave Moreau. Who's Jason and Medea?

Aside from portraits and some of the minor exceptions I mentioned above, to have been a fine artist before the late 19th century (the Modern Art era), I would have been forced to have immersed myself in three major sources of art content--history, the Bible, and Greek mythology. It's startling to realize that today, not one artist in ten would be sufficiently conversant in any of these areas as to allow him or her to paint them intelligently. Most artists today wouldn't even have the technical skills to try. Granted, we all know something about history (that of recent and local vintage anyway) and most of us have a layman's knowledge of the Bible, but could we--or would we--paint anything more than trite iconography from either source? I don't think so. And as for Greek mythology...well, most of us today wouldn't know a Perseus from a Phineas.

Jean Auguste Ingres, c. 1820
Take a painting by Joshua Reynolds for instance, painted in 1787 (top). It depicts a baby in a cradle with a snake in each hand. Anyone have any idea what this might be? How about a painting by Luca Giordano (second image) from the 1680s depicting a female warrior amid a ferocious battle--or a party of some sort--sword drawn, fending off her enemies using a severed head? Or picture this, a pot-bellied man, mostly nude, appearing to be in his early 20s, club over his shoulder, sporting a lion skin while in the background lies another man he has obviously just slain. Haven't a clue, have you? How about a nearly nude, androgynous young couple (above, left), standing upon what appears to be some sort of birdlike creature (hint: really it's a dragon) which they have recently slain. The painting is by Gustave Moreau dating from 1865, if that helps any. Okay, here's an easy one, a cave, a stripling nude man bearing spears stands in deep conversation with a winged, bare-breasted creature, half woman, half lion. It's by Ingres, painted around 1820 (above, right). The point of all this is, had we, as artists, lived three or four hundred years ago, these questions would have seemed as silly as asking us to identify a certain round-headed kid trying to kick a football, or duelling with a tree over the possession of a kite. Aren't you glad you're a twenty-first century artist?

Top image: The Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents in his Cradle, Reynolds, 1787
Second image: Judith Displaying the Head of Holofernes, Luca Giordano, 1680
Third image: Jason and Medea, Gustave Moreau, 1865
Fourth image: Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jean Auguste, Ingres, c. 1820
Not Shown: David having slain Goliath (not enough information to locate image).

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Painting Vices

Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614-20, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Does humor make it more offensive, or less so?
In today's world, we don't often think of painting as having much to do with morals unless some religious group becomes offended by some high-profile exhibit usually having to do with sex. For the most part, painting in recent years has been so wrapped up in contemplating its own navel, that any immorality it might convey might best be described as the sin of self-indulgence. Whatever morality or immorality is depicted in the arts has, by now, moved on to more viable art forms such as movies or television, leaving painting largely amoral in context. However that has hardly been the case in the past. For centuries painters carried with them in their paint boxes a strong moral code when they were bought and paid for by the church. In later years there was a similar code as the content of artists' secular work tended to reflect Judeo-Christian ethics largely taken for granted (officially at least) by the upper classes in society who bought and paid for it.

Ill-Matched Lovers, c. 1522, Quentin Masseys
In the past, most painters taught morality by presenting positive role models, often straight from the Bible. Even when painting mythological subjects, no matter how erotic, there was always a story with an implied moral lesson. However, morality can also be taught using negative models. And though this method has not been nearly as common, many artist have seized upon it to entertain and enlighten the public as to the wages of sin and various social evils. They have often used satire, humor, proverbs, puns, signs, and symbols to illustrate the evils of various misdeeds such as drunkenness, loss of virtue, gambling, infidelity, vanity, profligacy, and foolishness. The Dutch artist, Quentin Massys in his The Ill-Matched Lovers (above, c. 1522) for example, paints a lecherous old man behaving foolishly with a young lady half his age who, as she toys with his affections, she also lifts his purse and passes it to a devilish looking cohort behind her. A fool and his money are soon parted.

The Effects of Intemperance, c. 1662, Jan Steen
Jan Steen, another Dutch painter some one-hundred years later, explored The Effects of Intemperance depicting a drunken mother, her children stealing from her purse and feeding dinner to the cat while a young maid servant tempts the family parrot with a glass of wine. Parrots symbolised the idea of learning by example. On the steps lies a half-eaten loaf of bread resembling a skull, adding a vanitas element to the list of other symbols suggesting the family's eventual fate. A century later, English artist William Hogarth did a whole series of amusing paintings, later reproduced in mass quantities as etchings, in which he explores the hypocrisy of an arranged marriage between two families feeding upon one another, willing to ignore all moral elements as they attempt to shore up their social and financial status without regard for the young couple.

Broken Eggs, 1756, Jean-Baptiste Greuze
The French artist, Jean-Baptiste Greuze used the symbol of broken eggs to suggest a loss of virtue as a young miss sits desolated while her suitor attempts to console her mother and reassure her of his ultimate good intentions. A young boy, perhaps the girl's brother, attempts to patch back together one of the broken eggs. In the nineteenth century, the egg involved is Augustus Leopold Egg, another English artist, who paints a husband, gazing down sadly at his wife, prostrate on the floor at his feet. Beneath his foot lies a love letter to his wife from another man. In the mirror over the fireplace, a door is seen standing open, indicating that he has the right to cast her out. On a chair in the background, their children build a house of cards suggesting the frailty of the family unit because of their mother's adultery. The work is titled Past and Present, No 1. The stakes have been raised. The immorality is adultery, prostitution, and gambling. No one is laughing. Today, when art deals with such themes, as in TV and the movies, in many cases the immorality is that there is seen no immorality--implied or otherwise. Perhaps it's just as well painters have long since been bypassed by the burden of any such moral judgements. Most of us wouldn't have the stomach for it.
Past and Present, No. 1, 1858, Augustus Leopold Egg